Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

And did those feet in ancient times

The art and poetry of William Blake belongs to the revolution, argues Mike Gonzalez
'Newton' by William Blake
'Newton' by William Blake

Every few years, it seems, there is a fight for the legacy of William Blake. As a new exhibition of his work opens at Tate Britain in London, he is claimed--again--as the author of that most English of works, 'Jerusalem'. It must be a jingoistic piece, after all, when it is sung with such obvious passion by the assembled young Tory flagwavers gathered at the Last Night of the Proms, or at the national conference of the Women's Institute. A recent television documentary to mark the opening of the exhibition presented him as an anxious patriot, yearning to protect a 'dream of Albion' against the encroachments of the modern world. Poor Blake! With friends like these, enemies are superfluous.

William Blake was an engraver, a craftsman. His understanding of what role an artist should play always harked back to that beginning. Words and pictures were not separate--the idea that some people should be specialised painters irritated him, especially when they took the form of arrogant authoritarians like Joshua Reynolds, head of the Royal Academy, whom he hated: 'We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations.' Blake had all the fierce independence of the artisan, whose labour was self directed and creative--the opposite of that alienated labour capitalism creates. But he also saw that this marriage of head and heart, of vision and craft, of innocence and experience perhaps, was the very mark of the human.

There's not much doubt that he was ambivalent about a rationalist view of human progress. His famous picture of Newton manipulating his dividers was an ironic comment on the belief that human freedom was just a matter of calculation. That's why Blake was suspicious of the materialist philosophers--not because he was some kind of backward looking old reactionary. Blake had a deeper understanding of what liberation meant--a vision of the potential of human beings to be fulfilled, complex and fully imaginative. At such a moment poetry's function--which he saw from the earliest moment as 'akin to prophecy'--becomes clear.

His wonderful poem 'London' is both a vision and a denunciation of the horrors of a capital city that bears not such a remote resemblance to the contemporary place:

What were these 'mind forg'd manacles'? More than just the external conditions of the 'midnight streets, the chimney sweepers and hapless soldiers' he described later in the poem, they were also the product of the destruction of imagination. What he set against that destruction was a redemption, a vision of not one but many other possibilities. They were couched in a language of religion--and especially in his later life a language that was sometimes almost impossible to understand.

Perhaps he grew more obscure, more inward, more wild as the great hopes of 1789, of the revolutionary era, began to fade in a country which by 1799 had made combinations (working class organisation) illegal and which in 1803 put Blake himself on trial for some mumbled treasonous remark (he was acquitted). But his religious symbolism was the sign of a radical imagination, not a conservative one: 'Christ comes to deliver those who were bound under the knave, not to deliver the knave.'

The Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell address the contest between great historical forces that he was witness to. The conflict was inevitable--but the outcome was less certain. It was 1789 and it was possible to imagine a world turned upside down--as so many of the millenarian religious groups of Blake's time did:

So back to the the Last Night of the Proms. The 'Satanic mills' were perhaps those that turned the craftsman into the wage labourer. The 'sword that shall not sleep in my hand' would not have marched to war behind a general carrying the symbols of a nation-state but fought to 'build Jerusalem'--that state of liberty when 'Empire is no more! And now the lion and the wolf shall cease.'

This was not a pastoral dream of lost worlds but a vision of a future in which the whole person is restored. Nothing could be further from the cricket pitch dreams of the English patriots or the ordered countryside of millionaire farmers and rural poverty.

Blake belongs to the revolution!


Film

MISERY ON THE MERSEY

Liam
Dir: Stephen Frears

Liam is a dark and bleak tale about a working class family trying desperately to survive in Depression-hit Liverpool during the 1930s.
At the beginning of the film the Sullivan family are doing reasonably well. Liam's father (played by Ian Hart from Land and Freedom) works as a skilled man in ship repairs. He is approached to make a donation to the unemployed, but he makes it clear that he has no time for such foolhardy people. The film then cuts to the shipyard and the pay queue. As the first in the line opens his pay cheque he pulls out a redundancy notice--the shipyard is closing. Fear and panic grip the queue.
Hart's character is then forced to compete as a casual dock labourer. He buys the all-powerful labour master a drink in his local. Yet when all the men shape up on the call the next morning, he is ignored in preference for an Irishman. In frustration he spits in the labour master's eye and turns on the Irishman furiously shouting, 'Get out of my country.'
As well as racism the film deals with anti-Semitism. The boss, landlord and pawnbroker are all Jewish, and through them the film explores the relationship between the insecurity and poverty experienced by the working class and how blame is deflected away from class demands.
The story is told through Liam, who is a young kid afflicted with a terrible stutter. The film explores the way in which the Catholic church fashions the minds of Liam and his classmates. We see repeated scenes where Father Ryan and his enforcer, a sour faced woman teacher, relentlessly employ methods of mental and physical torture. They try and instil into the children the notion of original sin, the power of the devil and god's vengeance on those who fail to seek his protection through prayer, confession and holy communion. Their cowardly actions only worsen Liam's sense of guilt, and increase his debilitating speech impediment.
All of these issues--the poverty and corruption of 1930s Liverpool, and the degradation of the church and state--combine to conjure an image of how difficult it was for people to get by and how rotten the capitalist system is. Unfortunately we witness no collective fightback by the workers in an attempt to retain some of their dignity. And gradually Liam's father descends into the abyss of supporting Mosley's Blackshirts.
Stephen Frears says his reason for making the film is because he admires the work of writer Jimmy McGovern. McGovern says, 'The moral of the film is when you attack people for what they are, rather than for what they do, you destroy everything of beauty in your world.' He then says, 'I've written bigger things than Liam, more important things too. But I've not written anything so deeply felt and personal.'
I do, however, have a number of reservations about the film. Although working class families do undergo tremendous pressures, particularly during a depression, they also on occasions fight back collectively. This feeds into my second criticism, because there is one scene in the film where Liam's brother clashes with his bigoted father's views and explains the values of socialism to his fellow workers. Yet we get no idea of where his views came from or what influenced him. If this relationship had been explored further the tensions between these two characters could have been illuminated in a positive way, and it could have pointed a way out of the misery that the people felt.
As someone born in a working class family in the 1930s I found myself identifying completely with the dilemmas and turmoil faced by the Sullivan family. I was also transported back in time through the film's flawless authenticity. Meticulous care was taken over every detail of costumes, decor and location. And the actors portrayed the characters with consummate skill and sympathy. This is no Hollywood movie, decimated by corporate demands for commercial success. There is no happy ending, although I don't want to spoil it for you. Acclaimed at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, this a film that you should go and see.
Eddie Prevost


Theatre

DIVIDED LOYALTY

The Force of Change
by Gary Mitchell
Royal Court, London

Pointing the finger of blame
Pointing the finger of blame

This latest play by Gary Mitchell first appeared in April 2000, when it was received with critical acclaim and earned him the George Devine award. Mitchell, that dourly persuasive voice of Northern Ireland Protestantism, turns his attention here towards the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the eponymous 'Force'. The play boasts a small cast, four RUC officers and two Loyalist prisoners, and is set in the Antrim Road Police Station on 5 May 2000. The contemporary time frame allows Mitchell to explore the response of RUC officers to the current peace process and the implications of the Patten commission into RUC reform.
The play covers the events in two interview rooms leading up to the deadline for levelling charges against a known UDA man, Stanley Brown. The officer leading the interrogation is a female, DS Caroline Paterson, who is portrayed as a high flyer on the fast track to promotion. Her reluctant partner is DC Bill Byrne, a man with 30 years service and unconcealed contempt for his female superior. Time is running out for the pair as they seek to elicit a confession of racketeering and extortion from the mute Stanley Brown. The way the pair interact serves to set the scene for the rest of the play.
The play really takes off when Byrne is caught passing information to Brown. Under interrogation Brown readily admits to a long history of passing information over to the UDA. His reasons for doing so are not overtly sectarian as he claims the UDA paid off his debts in return for cooperation.
Paterson assumes her male colleagues will agree to report the matter to a higher authority. Here Mitchell is using Paterson as a means to explore the difficulties faced by 'fresh faced' believers in the peace process and reform of entrenched attitudes. Up to this point the audience would be forgiven for believing that Mitchell is attributing RUC collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries to the personal weakness of individual officers as opposed to a more sinister and deeply held institutionalised sectarianism. This would indeed be erroneous given the documentary record. This impression is, however, shattered as DC Davis, in stark and uncompromising language, explains to Paterson why Byrne will not be reported, and why men like him are destined to rise to the top of the RUC.
Davis, through conversations with Paterson and then Brown, hints at the true extent of RUC involvement with the Loyalist paramilitaries. Davis views Brown and men like him as scum, the flotsam and jetsam of a once proud organisation reduced to gangsterism in the current political climate. Likewise Paterson is seen through the eyes of Davis as being symptomatic of the impending organisational changes facing the RUC. She is innocent, naive and strives to perform her duty by the book. For Davis and men like him the 'book' exists only to cover up the genuine modus operandi of the RUC.
Mitchell succeeds in portraying the prospects for genuine RUC reform as slim given the nature of the organisation's institutionalised sectarianism. He also explores the working class background of the typical UDA recruit and shows, through Davis, the perception that the internecine warfare between rival Loyalist groups and the descent into gangsterism are symptomatic of damaging political change and accommodation. This play is well worth watching to glean an insight into the mindset of the besieged Unionist, wary and frightened of change.
Andy McConnell


WHEN REVENGE IS SWEET

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare
Barbican Pit, London, then touring

The Tempest is a fascinating play, and the touring production which has started off at the Barbican does it full justice.
Written around 1610, it is Shakespeare's last complete play. It tells you a lot about the period he was living through, especially the turbulent early years of colonial expansion into the New World.
The storyline is simple. We are told that ten years previously Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was overthrown by his brother Antonio with the help of Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero was expelled, set adrift in a ship with his daughter Miranda and marooned on an island. He uses his magician's powers to make a servant of the spirit Ariel and to put down the original inhabitant, the man-monster Caliban.
A decade on, when the action in the play starts, Prospero whips up a supernatural storm which shipwrecks the passing king of Naples, his son, conspirators and drunken crew. They are all at Prospero's mercy and, using Ariel, he has his bittersweet revenge. That's about it, action-wise.
Yet The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most performed plays and rightly so. The language, expertly delivered by the RSC actors in this production, is breathtaking. But The Tempest is much more. It has always been an ideological battleground, especially in the last 100 years.
Critics first insisted it was a pure island fantasy with no wider political context. Then it was seen as a justification of colonialism--Prospero giving morality and reason to the ape-like and childish world of Caliban. Then, from the 1950s onwards, black intellectuals rightly hit back and interpreted the play as being about the evils of colonialism. They embraced Caliban as their own. The 'monster' became a representative of the oppressed peoples under the British Empire. After all, Prospero had invaded the island and enslaved the rebellious Caliban--or Cannibal.
Looking at it in this way does give a powerful kick to the text, for example when Caliban declares that he uses the 'civilising' gift of language to curse the man who gave it to him. But, helped by this inspired production, I can see the play as being a reflection of a more contradictory state of affairs.
The Tempest was first performed by the King's Players of James I during the fluid, uncertain period of early British colonial expansion. We know that Shakespeare drew on material from two sources. The first was the Virginia Company's inquiry into a 1609 shipwreck of one of their ships on the Bermudas. It was carrying an important official to Jamestown, Virginia, the first area in America to be settled by the British. The other was an influential essay, 'Of the Caniballes', which portrayed the indigenous peoples of Brazil as leading a utopian, simple life. So The Tempest was written before the colonies really took hold, and certainly before their massive expansion on the back of enslaved Africans.
In 1609 it was not even certain that Jamestown--named after the king, would survive. In the winter of that year the cannibals were not the Indians who periodically attacked Jamestown, they were white settlers who, running out of food, ate each other. The ruling class couldn't make up its mind whether to admire the Native Americans or despise them, whether to co-exist with them or, as they eventually did, to wipe them out. The newly discovered territories were seen as exotic and uncomplicated, and represented to Shakespeare a simple existence that had been lost in England since the 17th century in the rush for prestige, power and profits. So when Shakespeare wrote the play his world was full of jostling uncertainties--tempestuous, even.
All these aspects are touched on in this RSC production. The actors are brilliant and the school students I saw in the audience were clearly captivated by it all. The scenery, the music and special effects are great. This production is touring from St Austell to Telford and Barrhead. Book now.
Hassan Mahamdallie


A LETHAL COCKTAIL

The Duchess of Malfi
by John Webster
Barbican, London

Richard Attenborough complained recently that only films containing the 'pornography of violence or sex' today stood a chance of appearing in cinemas in the US. The Duchess of Malfi was first performed in 1614, and it has quite enough sex and savagery to satisfy the demands of Hollywood. This production plays up the modern angle with some echoes of Pulp Fiction, and there were genuine gasps of horror from the audience at the bloody climax.
Webster's cocktail of intrigue, corruption, murder and madness is in fact a recognisably more 'modern' play than Shakespeare's tragedies. In particular the language is more accessible. The tragedy is based on actual events that took place in Italy a century earlier, and centres on the young widowed Duchess--we never learn her name--who falls in love and secretly marries her steward, Antonio, against the wishes of her twin brother, Duke Ferdinand, and her elder brother, the Cardinal (again no name). Eventually she is betrayed by a spy, Bosola, and is tortured and then murdered by her brothers, along with two of her children and her lady in waiting. Mayhem ensues, Bosola repents and eventually kills the two brothers, but only after mistakenly killing Antonio and being fatally wounded himself.
Corpses litter the stage, but it is the powerful sexual, religious and class themes that strike home. The Duchess is not just a strong and noble woman, she is confident and happy in her sexuality. She marries her 'middle class' servant out of desire and in a marriage which is by mutual consent. The 16th century versions of the story condemned the real life Duchess (Giovanna d'Aragona) for her 'lust', and also for her 'unsuitable' marriage. Webster by contrast portrays her as a heroic but also human figure. Her marriage conforms to the new Protestant ideal, both in its form and in class terms. But of course it is also precarious not because the 'gods' are against it, but because it provokes a violent reaction.
The reaction is unmistakeably Catholic, and this is a virulently anti-Catholic play. Ferdinand's opposition to his sister remarrying comes from his own barely disguised sexual desire for her. The Cardinal is portrayed as the quintessence of evil--this is a man who murders his mistress by persuading her to kiss a Bible which has poison on the binding and then proclaims, 'How tedious is conscience.' But while the decadence and corruption reflect the contemporary fascination with Catholic Italy, it also alludes to the darker side of the English court under James I--riddled with corruption, intrigue and spying, and also notorious for its depravity.
Aisling O'Sullivan gives a powerful and convincing performance in the title role, and this is an imaginative production. Unfortunately it lacks some of the passion and terror that ought to be there, almost as if the male characters were not sufficiently convinced of their own evil and duplicity.
David Shonfield


WHEN LIFE BEGINS ANEW

Light
by Theatre de Complicité
Almeida Theatre, London, then touring

Excellent acting in Theatre de Complicité's new production
Excellent acting in Theatre de Complicité's new production

Light is a strange play. As with all Theatre de Compicité productions, the scenic effects and acting are spellbinding. But the narrative, on which a strong play usually hinges its conceptual resolution, is thin and unconvincing. Instead the concept itself, looked at from different angles, becomes the play.
Set in a 14th century Swedish village, and adapted from a novel of the same name by the Swede Torgny Lindgren, the play depicts a man in search for love instead bringing back a plague-infested rabbit which causes a social catastrophe by killing off all the village population except for a handful of survivors. Moral turmoil follows as they face the task of rebuilding their society after their social and moral fabric has been ripped away from beneath them.
Without boundaries, and unable to distinguish right from wrong, they flounder, and behaviour is reduced to incest, bestiality, adultery, theft, fratricide and infanticide. One couple, Konik and Eira, does not descend to these depths. They endeavour to live decent lives and long for some just order. This seems to arrive in the form of the king's emissary, epitomising the state, which also proves unsatisfactory and corrupt. I kept waiting for some sort of socialist solution to the problem, but set as it is in the 14th century, with Christianity as the only prevalent ideology (and even then not that prominent), this was not to be.
The play's relevance today could be imagined as a metaphor for the almost total devastation of a nuclear war and the problems of reconstruction afterwards if there were survivors. But though the ideas are brilliantly portrayed and hold one's attention throughout, they overwork the brain, although they do engage the heart. The play is much superior to most of what is portrayed in the West End in being thought-provoking and dealing with issues of universal relevance.
Chanie Rosenberg


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