Issue 262 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mike Gonzalez on why the work of Studs Terkel lets ordinary Americans speak for themselves
|Blacks in Alabama supporting the Selma civil rights march in 1954|
The working class has its historians too. Sometimes in the great debates about historical changes you miss the voices of people describing ordinary lives. After all, the sweep of history is as much about experience, about living through things, as it is about forces and events that shape us. In his great study The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson's preface was far reaching in its modest comment that 'I do not see class as a "structure", not even as a "category", but as something which in fact happens in human relationships... The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in real contexts.' The great American commentator Studs Terkel was probably born around the same time as Thompson and, from a very different background, he's spent a lifetime exploring those relationships.
The 1990s have been an era of autobiography. Only very rarely do writers of their own stories tell them as typical, as representative. Mostly, in a postmodern individualistic age, the anxiety is to make yourself unique and separate. At best you can have a group of individuals, like the cast of Friends, huddled against the world. Studs Terkel's ten books of interviews and conversations with 'ordinary', mostly working class, Americans gather together narratives that are both deeply personal, special and particular, and typical of many lives.
What's important is that the great recognisable truths are not limited to a very few experts professionally trained to discover the laws of the universe. They're to be found just as much in the insights of people who have discovered them through the business of living, working, struggling and dying.
In the early 1950s Studs started his own television chat show--Studs' Place--but he was a man of the left, and was quickly driven off the small screen by the witch-hunters of Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. He moved to radio, and started the weekly interview and music show that was eventually beamed from Chicago throughout the US. Out of those interviews came his wonderful oral histories--Hard Times, for instance, narrated the history of the Depression years. Its impact wasn't demoralising, though, as you might have expected. On the contrary, this chorus of voices produced a story of struggle, resistance and all kinds of heroism--not the sort that's marked by garden parties at the palace, of course, or Purple Hearts on the White House lawn. These were the exploits of people who refused to be reduced to human debris, to sacrifice themselves, their loved ones or their comrades on the altar of capital.
Together these many stories make up the portrait of a class--and a rich, diverse and inspiring image it is. American Dreams looked at the myth of the American way of life, or rather at its lived reality. There are dozens of speakers--some famous, others unknown. Each contribution has the same weight. And they are all beautifully summed up by one of his informants, a working class mother of nine: 'I don't like the word "dream"--I don't even want to specify it as American. I'm beginning to understand that there's a human possibility. That's where all the excitement is. If you can be part of that you're aware and alive. It's not a dream, it's possible'.
Of course the rulers of the US simplify and reduce that rich and complex possibility to the formulas of good and evil, them and us. Interviewed shortly after 11 September, Studs Terkel, at the age of 89, responded on behalf of the hundreds, thousands perhaps, who have shared their lives and thoughts with him over the years: 'Peace is indivisible, the world is one, and we are not the invincible guardians of the world we once were. For the first time we have been touched, and other people have been touched in different ways. Unless we learn what it is to be that bombed child, wherever that place is--whether it be Vietnam or Iraq or wherever--we have learned nothing.'
It might seem strange that a man who has traced the shared map of the 20th century should begin the 21st with a book about death--Will the Circle be Unbroken? Yet it is anything but a morbid book. It's a celebration of 63 people--many of whom he's accompanied through the years--a retelling of their lives out of respect for their strength and pride. It's a million miles away from the so called 'reality' shows that induce the most vulnerable people to speak about their lives as a kind of freakshow where they can be demeaned and treated with contempt. Studs Terkel enables others to speak, and in doing so reminds us that, as Marx said, 'although not in circumstances of their own choosing...it is human beings who make history.'
Dir: Werner Herzog
|Jouka Ahola in The Invincible|
Werner Herzog's The Invincible is set in 1932 in a Polish stetl (Jewish village), and Berlin just before Hitler's victory. It tells the story of Zishe Breitbart (Jouka Ahola), the son of a Jewish blacksmith with phenomenal physical strength, who is lured to Berlin with the promise of fame and fortune. There he meets Hanussen (Tim Roth), 'king of the occult', who runs a cabaret specialising in the supernatural that is popular with Nazis and wealthy Berliners, at a time when the Nazi movement is on the edge of power. Hanussen curries favour with the Nazis by making pro-Hitler speeches from the stage. He dreams of setting up a powerful Ministry of the Occult under a Nazi government. Zishe's act, based on his Samson-like prowess, makes him a great hit, with Hanussen presenting him as a modern German hero in the Siegfried tradition. Zishe also meets Marta (Anna Gourari), a talented pianist who is Hanussen's virtual prisoner. But Zishe suffers from nightmares, no doubt brought on by guilt at his feeling that he has deserted his people. His inner conflict intensifies, taking the form of an identity crisis--is he Siegfried or is he Samson? Increasingly he becomes aware of the catastrophe that awaits his people.What is he to do? The film thus poses the dilemma faced by anyone suffering racial oppression--does one try to save one's skin by collaboration with the enemy, or does one fight?
The cabaret scenes vividly conjure up the decadent atmosphere of pre-Nazi Berlin, capturing the ability of Nazism to project itself as the saviour of Germany through its promise of a return to a mythical past.
Although the film displays Herzog's characteristic visual inventiveness it is not flawless. He does not offer us any insights into the historical and psychological reasons for the rise of Nazism. He provides, in fact, a disturbing suggestion that the root of Nazism is simply human irrationality, with no allusion to the particular appeal that Nazi ideology had for the German petty bourgeoisie. There is, moreover, a stylistic conflict between, on the one hand, the realistic portrayal of Zishe and, on the other, the largely symbolic representation of Hanussen as the embodiment of Nazi irrationalism. Nevertheless Herzog's work is always of an unusually imaginative and compelling nature.
Sidewalks of New York
Dir: Edward Burns
New York is the setting for this exploration of love, deceit, and the neuroses of six people in and out of various relationships. Sidewalks of New York is an attempt to understand the interaction of the city with its inhabitants, and the impact of this on their lives and their relationships.
The film is an exploration of alienation. We meet Griffin, who was introduced to sex when his dad took him to a prostitute at the age of 16. He is having an affair with a young woman who is trying to make sense of sex and her own oppression. Griffin's wife is a well bred Upper Eastsider, whose idealistic notions of fidelity and marriage lead her to intense navel-gazing until Griffin's behaviour provides her with a rude awakening.
The two younger women in the film show us the difficulties of developing self confidence when dealing with the impact of women's oppression. Maria, a Puerto Rican teacher, has married at an early age and is divorced by her early twenties. Ashley, who is having an affair with Griffin, treats other women with complete contempt, and is also being wooed by Benjamin, Maria's ex-husband, who has his own issues to deal with.
The theme of the film is the interaction that can occur between people who are connected in various different ways, but at the same time are completely atomised from each other in a large city.
Burns tries to put the dilemma of relationships in the context of the balance between sex and love and attempts to say that each individual will assess this balance according to the 'baggage' they bring with them from one relationship to another. He displays the motion of the city well, with the coming and going of the different characters. You will laugh while watching this, and you will be pleased at the changes that happen to the characters throughout the film, but if you want to come out feeling wiser and more able to understand your own neuroses, I'm not sure Sidewalks of New York will do the job.
The York Realist
by Peter Gill
Strand Theatre, London
|Class and sexuality in 1960s Britain|
The York Realist is a touching play which reveals much about class and sexuality in the early 1960s.
It is set in a farm labourer's cottage in Yorkshire and centres on the relationship between its tenant, George, and John, a theatre director. John is from cosmopolitan London, George from working class Yorkshire. But from the opening scene it is clear that it is George who is more confident. He is at ease with his sexuality. That is despite the fact that at the time, gay sex was still illegal. John is more hesitant, even though there were in the 1960s, as today, greater opportunities for people to be openly gay in London than in small towns.
George is appearing in the amateur production which John is directing. They fall for each other. The rest of the play turns on whether they will decide to live together, in Yorkshire or London. It is about whether the two different worlds can come together. George's mother, who lives with him, seems blissfully unaware of his relationship with John, who stays over because 'the last bus has gone'. But how unaware is she as she introduces her son's 'friend' to visitors? She never questions why her son, in his thirties, does not even have a steady girlfriend, let alone a wife.
Doreen, who fancies George, has a clear idea of what is going on. She feels threatened by the relationship between him and John. The other three characters are George's friend Arthur, Barbara, and their son Jack. In one scene, after everyone has been to the opening night, the family and friends are gathered round the kitchen table. The interaction between them betrays what no one says, that John is more than a 'friend' and is effectively part of the family.
All of this rings true. There have been a number of studies over the last decade of working class attitudes to sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. They reveal a more complex picture than the stereotype of isolated gay men and lesbians facing unremitting hostility. That did happen. But in close knit communities there were forms of acceptance of people who had 'special friends' or who for some reason 'felt that they weren't cut out for marriage'. There was also sexual experimentation. At one point George tells a shocked John that as a teenager he slept with Arthur. They had gone out for a drink looking for girls, hadn't found any, and made do with each other instead.
So it is not sexual repression which threatens to keep them apart as they are confronted with the death of George's mother and questions about their future. It is how class shapes their expectations. Moving to London for George means facing a threat--not over his sexuality, which would be tolerated in middle class theatre circles, but over his class.
For John to move to Yorkshire would mean turning his back on the developing radical movement in theatre which erupted a few years later. This is a real dilemma. Who will turn out to be the 'realist' of the play's title? Get along to this play, which will be touring later in the year, and find out for yourself.
A Russian in the Woods
by Peter Whelan
Peter Whelan's play deals with the human wreckage of war and imperialistic rivalry. Set in a devastated Berlin in 1949, this production focuses on Pat Harford, a young British soldier. He arrives in Germany shortly after superpower politics have changed direction. Stalin has metamorphosed into a totalitarian dictator intent on conquest, and the storm clouds of a new conflict gather.
Divided between Russia, America, Britain and France, Berlin now lies on the faultline of this emerging Cold War in Europe. But to Harford his national service in Germany merely represents an opportunity to see the world. A lover of Russian literature, he is unable to feel any hostility towards Britain's new enemy. Instead he merely sees their humanity as he takes a curious peep at Soviet troops while travelling across Russian-occupied territory.
When he arrives in Berlin he is left in charge of an elegant but ransacked old house which serves as a dilapidated army education centre. He is unsettled by his mentally scarred colleagues and disturbed by reports of two German corpses in the garden. But his problems really begin when he befriends a GI at a dancehall. Innocently he invites his new American buddy back to the army base, only to discover that he has been lured into the murky Cold War world of espionage. As he is forced to question his sexuality and choose between friendship and nation, the play accelerates towards an absorbing climax.
Although Whelan's thoughtful play is at times politically ambiguous it offers a fascinating insight into the fear and paranoia that gripped Europe for more than 40 years. Thirteen years on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall it provides a valuable reminder of the pain inflicted on a generation of Europeans by imperialist rivalry.
Sorrows and Rejoicings
by Athol Fugard
Tricycle Theatre, London
|Looking for hope in the new South Africa|
Athol Fugard's Sorrows and Rejoicings is an exploration of the life of a dissident poet.
Dawid, an anti-apartheid Afrikaaner intellectual, has died. His widow, Allison, and his black house servant, Marta, begin a compelling retrospective of his life. Allison, who returns to Karoo village for the funeral, may own the house, but she is unmistakably a stranger in what is Marta's home.
Flashbacks show how Dawid's poetry was banned for its subversiveness, leading him to leave for London to voice his opposition to the South African regime. Inspired by Roman exile Ovid's Sorrows, he plans to write a companion piece of inspirational Rejoicings. However, wrenched from home, he loses his muse--who we discover was not Allison, who was won to his politics, rather it was Marta, with whom he had a taboo relationship. His dying trek home leads to a last few weeks of hermitic vigil, representing his political impotence as a lone poet with writers' block. He implores Marta to describe life in the village in the most trivial detail in a futile attempt to relive the years he lost in London. He is too ashamed to face the people he failed to speak for so he remains a passive observer.
Although Dawid, obviously a semi-autobiographical character, is portrayed with charismatic aplomb by Marius Weyers, Sorrows and Rejoicings is also about the subtle tragedy afflicting those who his life touched--Allison, who he vented his frustration on whilst in drunken exile, Marta, who kept the house 'just the same' in expectation of his return.
Despite this, Sorrows and Rejoicings is not a play about despair, but about overcoming it. Dawid fails in his ambition to live to see 2000, but Allison has a millenarian vision of reconciliation--for the family, and allegorically for the country as a whole. How viable is the latter without a transformation to remove the economic apartheid that has outlived the political? This is a question raised, if not answered, by Marta's scepticism that the local school will ever get the money for improvements. Therein lies the contradictions facing post-apartheid South Africa--freedom of expression without the material means to develop and use it is a shallow phrase, and even the most potent voices of hope can be muted if isolated from a collective alternative.
A Masked Ball
by Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera, London
The new production of Verdi's A Masked Ball (1859) by Spanish director Calixto Bieito has unleashed a wave of media hysteria. Not only has Bieito transferred the setting from 18th century Sweden to post-Franco Spain, but he seems almost to have invited controversy--the opera opens with a row of 14 conspirators sitting on the toilet.
Early on King Gustavus III's closest adviser Anckarstroem joins two conspirators on discovering that his wife Amelia and the king are in love. Both Gustavus and Amelia are torn between their love and their sense of duty. Gustavus decides to resolve his inner conflict by sending Anckarstroem and Amelia away. Despite a warning about an assassination plot, Gustavus attends the ball. Anckarstroem commits the murder, but with his dying words the king declares Amelia to be innocent and pardons his former friend. The people are in despair.
In the 1850s Verdi approached political questions as interwoven with personal conflicts. Italian nationalism was approaching its moment of fruition, and Verdi sought to deal with the new problems it faced. An important issue that runs through the works of this period is the kind of government that is desirable for modern nation-states. King Gustavus is portrayed as a fallible human being, someone the people can identify with. At the same time his sense of public duty triumphs over his private passions. Verdi was clearly hoping that the future unified kingdom of Italy would overcome the vestiges of feudal barbarism and usher in a new era of civilised democracy.
Bieito has attempted to draw a parallel between Gustavus and King Juan Carlos struggling to secure Spanish democracy against the forces of right wing militarism after Franco's death in 1975. While one can see a certain parallel between Italy before national unification and post-Franco Spain (in both cases there is a struggle between despotism and democracy), any other comparison seems arbitrary and heavy handed. No similarity between the characters of Juan Carlos and Gustavus is revealed in the production. Nor is the conflict at the heart of the opera, between private passion and public morality, shown to be relevant to the Spanish king.
There is something abstract and artificial about historical transpositions of this kind. A past work of art does not need to have a contemporary setting to be able to speak to a contemporary audience. Certain moral and political dilemmas have a universal applicability in the modern era. Conversely, an opera about post-Franco Spain would be far more interesting if it came from the pen of a contemporary Spanish composer. Despite this, Verdi's music resonates as melodiously and lyrically as ever in a work that is one of his dramatic masterpieces.