Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review




Cultural currents

Memories as long as their class

Mike Gonzalez looks at the vision of the future expressed in song
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
That was the song over the credits of the Coen brothers' wonderful new film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? a Depression-era version of Homer's Odyssey. Music sharpens and defines each episode of the film in a long journey home that takes the three convict heroes across Depression America.

The songs of the American depression looked back to another great tradition--the songbook of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, or 'Wobblies', organised among migrant workers. Excluded from many of the existing trade unions, they joined an IWW that welcomed in every language and colour. Many of them spoke English imperfectly--and they were often itinerant workers, travelling the freight trains looking for work.

They developed a system of communication and agitation that could move as fast as the great marching army of labour. Music and posters were the bearers of the news, the propaganda, the protests--and the promise that 'when the workers of the world organise as a class they will take possession of the earth'.

It was Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant, who found the voice of the Wobblies. There's a scene in Bo Widerberg's 1971 film Joe Hill where Joe stands on a street corner listening to a Salvation Army band playing to a group of unemployed workers. Their message, of course, is that this earth is a valley of tears and that all rewards come in the hereafter--you had to listen if you wanted the bowl of soup at the end of the service. Joe begins to sing his own version on the opposite corner:

Joe's answer came in another song based on an old hymn:

He turned music hall songs into songs of protest--'The White Slave' exposes the exploitation of women to the tune of 'Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland'. These were agitational ballads that told the story of those great labour struggles as they happened. They could be carried from town to town by men and women without paper or pen or the ability to read, but with memories as long as their class. And they worked. When there were strikes in distant places people would travel in the freight cars to join their brothers and sisters. But the songs were not only about the exploitation and misery of the here and now, they were also about the dreams of utopia that carried workers through those hard, hard days. Every revolutionary movement, after all, must have a vision of the future as well as its critique of the past. But utopias change according to the times. For the worker surviving the world Depression, that future was one where 'the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs'. Revolutionary songs take many forms, of course, but they are always in some way or another visions as well as protests. Or in the words of a great feminist anthem: 'It is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.'



Goya in Bordeaux
Dir: Carlos Saura

The director of this film, Carlos Saura, admits he thinks of the painter Goya as a great enigma--and indeed Goya's life and work are notoriously full of paradoxes. He was a careerist with passionate ideals, a radical who at times showed contempt for his own Spanish people, and a rationalist who appeared to lose faith in human nature. Saura has miraculously made a beautiful and moving film that helps us makes sense of this complex figure, and he can do it because he has a deep sense of Spanish history.
Goya was born into a Spanish artisan family and grew up in the 1760s when Enlightenment ideas were beginning to stir hopes of social change across Europe. As a young impoverished artist, Goya linked himself to the Illustrados, a group of liberal nobles around King Charles III. Because he was a social outsider his career prospects were bound up with the fortunes of the progressives. At the same time Goya's fierce ambition led him to compromises. He needed patrons wherever he could get them, and the radicalism of his allies was fragile--they depended on the favour of the king rather than a mass movement.
Nevertheless Goya broke the mould of European painting. This film shows how his early mythological scenes give prominence to the ordinary people in the background going about their business. The portraits of the Spanish elite have an unfinished, spontaneous feel, suggesting that whatever the great may think, reality is contingent, changing. Goya's unease with convention, even with his own position, worked its way on to canvas and meant that after him painting would never be the same.
About the turn of the 19th century, with the the liberals more and more on the defensive, Goya developed a new private and savage style alongside his official portraiture. The Caprichos were extreme satires on reaction, privilege, stupidity and exploitation. As he got older Goya's vision became more and more intense and desperate. The overwhelmingly bleak Disparates and the series called Disasters of War are denunciations not just of cruelty and militarism, but one suspects of human nature itself.
The film hangs Goya's life around two central tragedies. First, his love affair with the Duchess of Alba, an unconventional, sexually liberated woman locked into a feud with the queen and resented by many in the court. Their passionate affair was cut short by the duchess's early death, apparently poisoned by her enemies.
Second was the disaster of the Peninsular Wars--the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Goya and his liberal friends expected the French invasion to spearhead a movement that would destroy absolutist rule in Spain. In fact the Spanish peasantry rallied around the king and fought a popular war against the invaders. No significant section of the population supported the so called liberators. Worse still, the French acted more like colonisers than an army of liberation. Spanish progressives like Goya were isolated in a war that seemed a mockery of progress.
Goya in Bordeaux would be worth seeing just for the performance of Paca Rabal, who plays the ageing and exiled painter looking back over his turbulent life. In turn nostalgic, petulant and thoughtful, Rabal has Goya fitfully reliving intense moments of his life. The film's dreamlike quality is appropriate for an artist whose vision became progresssively more personal and apocalyptic as he got older. But it is saved from pessimism by the fact that even at 82, the old man is still struggling with his memories, regretting his compromises and trying to make sense of the experiences.
Chris Nineham


The House of Mirth
Dir: Terence Davies

Cold calculations in House of Mirth
Cold calculations in House of Mirth

Set in New York in the early 1900s, House of Mirth depicts the rapid downward social mobility of Lily Bart, a young woman whose life is destroyed by the New York high society into which she was groomed to marry. The film is an adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel and deals with the social environment in which Wharton herself grew up. It's an inside job; a frank revelation of backstabbing and manipulation among America's aristocratic families, from one who grew up among them.
What distinguishes this film from many period dramas is its lack of sentimentality. While settings are softly lit and costumes lavish, there is nothing soft or romantic about this storyline. Love, marriage or friendship are not the central themes. Instead the film revolves around money, how to get it, how to keep it, and the fate of those who lose it.
The emotional bleakness of the film is one of the trademarks of its director, Terence Davies, whose best-known film Distant Voices, Still Lives was based on his life growing up poor in Liverpool, suffering at the hands of his abusive father.
The charming and beautiful Lily (superbly acted by Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame) is a New York socialite with no money of her own. She has maintained her position in society through an allowance from a wealthy aunt, but must marry for future financial security. Her background is enough to attract plenty of Wall Street bachelors. However, through a combination of misfortune, missed opportunities, and the malevolence of her peers, Lily's reputation is destroyed and she fails to marry for love or money, triggering a hasty climb down a very steep social ladder.
The film offers some interesting insights into the relationship between old money and new, how social reputation is traded for wealth as power shifts from one group of elites to another. When Lily's social status is high, she declines to marry for love explaining to Mr Selden (Eric Stolz at his best) that he can't afford her. When her social status is lowered, she is willing to marry Mr Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) for money, but her diminished reputation is a liability her newly-rich potential husband can't afford. These cold calculations give the story its critical edge.
Having lost her social exchange value, Lily is eventually forced to 'join the working classes' where she realises that her pampered upbringing has deprived her of any useful skills. She is fired from her job as a hatmaker due to incompetence and she has nowhere to turn. 'Life is hard. I have tried but I am a useless person,' she says. As a member of the ruling class, she realises she has no social use value at all. The vivid way this truth is revealed is one of the most rewarding moments of the film.
In the end, however, the weaknesses of this film outweigh the strengths. Trivial transgressions of word and deed are the sole driving force of the narrative through a rather long and convoluted plot. The story is made more confusing by the fact that aspects of the novel have been cut from the film or have been altered, so that motivations which were murky to start with are even less clear. But perhaps the real problem is just that as socialists, we're not surprised or scandalised by the bedhopping and backstabbing of the ruling classes which take up most of the two and a half hour storyline.
Emma Bircham



The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time
Barbican Art Gallery until 14 January

What can you say about Oscar Wilde? Well, judging by this exhibition, not a lot. Wilde was an art critic, journalist, dandy, playwright, novelist, poet, campaigner on women's rights, aesthetic, satirist of high Victorian values, and, of course, gay martyr. With such a list (and you could easily double it), it is perhaps not surprising that this exhibition has no depth or focus, concentrating not so much on Oscar Wilde and his ideas, but on illustrations, comments via hostile cartoons, and pictures from a number of movements that Wilde was associated with.
To be fair, the exhibition is just part of a series of events held in London to coincide with the centenary of his death, but even so the exhibition is a lazy glide over Wilde's artistic activities and associations from the 1870s to 1900. And it does cost £7 (£5 concessions), though some other events in this series are free.
It is, of course, nice to see pieces by Epstein, Sickert, Beardsley and others, but the period and the movements covered are done so in a superficial way. Given the subject matter, the Barbican gallery perhaps ought to have concentrated on just one or two topics, whether it was his development of the farce, his campaigns on women's dress, his views of socialism, or whatever.
But the exhibition does look good--lots of green, which has a certain significance: Wilde's young male fans used to wear green carnations as a sign, like a badge. But this exhibition is an opportunity lost. Wilde was a fascinating, if at times irritating, thinker. He was brave, more than a Boy George with a brain, taking issue with respectable society on its own patch. But also irritating because he always wanted to have his cake and eat it, with wonderfully witty attacks on Victorian morals and high society, yet at the same time wishing to be popular with them.
It isn't even that Wilde as an art critic is developed. It is difficult to explain via a largely visual show the ideas of a critic, but no attempt is made here. What we have are Oscar Wilde and his pals, who happened to be leading artists so you get lovely pictures, but no social or critical context.
Noel Halifax



The Cherry Orchard
by Antov Chekhov
Cottelsoe Theatre, London

It is often said that Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is one of the great plays of the 20th century. After seeing Trevor Nunn's magnificent production, it is difficult to disagree.
First performed in 1904, the play is about the bankrupt Gaev family whose landed estate with its cherry orchard is in danger of being sold at an auction to pay off debtors. Leonid Gaev, the landowner, is a snob repeatedly admonished by his family for chattering with infantile lack of purpose. Corin Redgrave's portrait brilliantly evokes a talentless man unable to face the prospect of losing his estate, yet who is lost for ways of saving it.
When his sister, Ranevskaya (played by Corin's own sister, Vanessa), sweeps in from Paris after squandering her life and her fortune on a string of hapless affairs, the momentary elation at their reunion rapidly gives way to the realisation that she too is lost for ways of saving the estate. When she kisses the furniture on her return and Gaev delivers a passionate but pathetic soliloquy about a family bookcase, we sense that they are too mired in the past to save themselves in the present.
This is not so for Lopakhin, a socially awkward but practical businessman whose father was a Gaev serf. He is a friend of the family who issues increasingly shrill warnings that, unless they act urgently, the estate is certain to be sold to the highest bidder at the forthcoming auction. Lopakhin proposes that the estate's cherry orchard is cut down and the land leased to build summer villas for the industrial middle class of the local town. Although his proposal is greeted with torrents of astonished laughter, we know only too well that fearful disquiet lies beneath the guffaws. Throughout the play a wonderfully lit image of the cherry orchard, which changes with the day, is projected onto the upper gallery of the set.
When auction day arrives, Chekhov shows us the Gaev household partying the night away with breathtaking disregard for what lies in store for them. Suddenly, a jubilant Lopakhin bursts in to tell the stunned partygoers the dramatic tale of how he, the son of a serf, has bought the estate by outbidding the local worthies. Overcome with triumph, his tasteless celebration brings the party to an abrupt end as a crestfallen Gaev saunters in from the auction.
Chekhov avoids the cliched compromise which love and marriage between the classes often brings in more conventional drama. Although Lopakhin is obviously in love with Ranevskaya, who once soothed his wounds after a beating when he was a boy, she is oblivious to his feelings. Her adopted daughter, Varya, loves Lopakhin deeply but in a final tortuous scene he is quite unable to propose to her. The mutual misunderstanding that typified political relations between the Russian aristocracy and bourgeoisie has surely never been dramatised with such stunning and prophetic accuracy.
Checkhov's chattering classes
Checkhov's chattering classes
But Chekhov also hints at still graver dangers to come. Firs, the loyal old servant of the Gaev household, is treated with contempt by the brash young servant, Yasha, who scorns his unquestioning loyalty to the family. In the very sad final scene it is the infirm Firs who finds himself locked inside the empty house, forgotten by the departed Gaevs and the busy Lopakhin, a fate we know Yasha would never have tolerated.
In one brief scene Chekhov goes even further. A destitute traveller abruptly appears claiming to be 'one of those who suffer' and demands money. Gaev, the witless aristocrat, appears helpless while Lopakhin, the newly enriched bourgeois, moves aggressively towards the traveller demanding that he show courtesy. It is Ranevskaya, penniless herself, who manages to find some money for him. The threat of revolution from below and the differing reactions of the privileged to it are here dramatised with exceptional perception and power. The Russian revolution of 1905 was only a year away.
This is indeed a great play. It has found the director and the actors it richly deserves.
Dragan Plavsic


Further than the Furthest Thing
by Zinnie Harris
National Theatre, London

Further than the Furthest Thing is a wonderful play based on the true story of the people of Tristan da Cunha, a remote colony in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, who were forced to evacuate the island when a volcano erupted in 1961.
The plight of the islanders was front page news in 1962 when they were welcomed to Britain by Prince Philip, who had previously visited the island on a royal tour. 'For 150 years the people of Tristan have kept the British flag flying in one of the world's loneliest, most desolate islands,' said one newspaper. This play by Zinnie Harris, whose grandfather spent several years as an Anglican priest on the island after the Second World War, mixes fact and fiction. But even though she said she gorged her imagination to 'write into existence a host of characters and events that never happened', you feel the play more honestly captures the experience of the islanders.
The first half of the play is set on the island and shows all the tensions of an isolated community, where the only contact with the 'H'outside warld' is the ship that visits once every six months. Yet even this scant contact with the rest of the world has an impact on the islanders and their way of life.
As the play opens the ship has brought Francis, the nephew of Mill and Bill Lavarello, back to the island. Francis had followed his dream of escape to Cape Town in South Africa. But he found hostility instead of welcome. 'They hated me, everywhere I went,' he says. The ship also brings more unwelcome visitors in the shape of South African factory owner Mr Hanson, who sees profit in building a factory on the island and who, as Mill puts it, is 'thinking only of money'.
This is no idyllic paradise. There is warmth and humanity, but life is also tough and brutal, and the play shows all the tensions of a community where food is scarce and where nothing happens except marriage between seven extended families. It is the eruption of the island's volcano that finally shatters the beleaguered community and forces them to leave. The 170 islanders are shipped to Southampton in 'H'England', where Mill imagines 'tea with the queen'.
The second half of the play movingly captures what it must be like to struggle to cope in a strange and often hostile environment. They slave in Mr Hanson's Southampton factory, are housed in damp insanitary housing, and suffer the big and petty humiliations of being refugees and told to 'act like Britons'.
The islanders have to do battle with the authorities who are refusing to let them return. Have their homes really been destroyed, as Mr Hanson tells them, or have they been the victims of a cruel fraud?
The islanders harbour a terrible secret which will shock the 'civilised world', yet at the end of the play you are left with a sense of the islanders dignity, humanity and resilience against the patronising, colonial arrogance of the British authorities. Writer Zinnie Harris has said that in the real story of Tristan da Cunha, British and US governments wanted to use the remote island for nuclear testing. It was only the guts and determination of the islanders themselves which eventually forced the British authorities to allow them to return.
The acting is brilliant, especially the performance of Paola Dionisotti, who plays islander Mill Laveretto. She encapsulates the mix of naivety and sharp observation, deference and defiance of the islanders in the face of authority. I found the play captivating and moving, as well as being a timely comment on what it means to be 'British'.
Hazel Croft

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