Here and there – Some cold fish – and an angry ape

 

Part I

When Black Saturday came, I was living in a small town in the middle of the forest with only one way out.  I was scared stiff, and I went to the pub very relieved when the wind changed that evening.  We were horrified when we woke next day to find so many dead.  It could so easily have been us. We felt the guilt of the survivors.  We needed to reach out to other people to share our burden.  On the Monday, I was trying to explain this to a modish silk in a mediation I was chairing.  After a while, I realised I was going nowhere.  I may as well have been addressing the wall.  Nothing interested this silk unless it affected her personally.  You see just this with Donald Trump.  If the conversation does not concern him personally, he drops his head and his hands like a disconsolate ourangatang.

What was I trying to do?  Well, in some ways I was just trying to say what it is to be human.  You can’t really put it in words.  There are those beautiful lines of Virgil:

Sunt lachrymae rerum

Et mentem mortalia tangunt.

Nor is it easy to translate those lines. They mean something like: ‘Even things have tears, and we are touched by [intimations of] our own mortality.’  It is very sad if you seek to share your humanity and the other person cannot find within their self the humanity to respond.

If I told you I was going to introduce you to someone who was cold, you would not be happy with that news. Your day was not about to improve.   Nor would it be much better if the epithet were ‘precise’.  Such a person might share some humanity – but it may be measured or sterilised, or both.  ‘Sterile’ is never a happy epithet for one of us, but the three sorts of personality we are looking at are people who have problems relating to the rest of us.  They get called cold fish.

Two cold fish of Shakespeare are Angelo in Measure for Measure and Cassius in Julius Caesar.  Here is the kernel of the famous portrait of Cassius the smiling assassin.

He thinks too much; such men are dangerous….

………………He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous. (1.2. 195-209)

Here is a man who only has time for himself.  There is something missing from his makeup.  Manning Clark would have said that the hand of the potter had faltered.  In Merchant of Venice,5.1.83 ff, we get: ‘The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons…..Let no such man be trusted.’  You would not warm to a bloke who was said to have no music of any kind in his make-up.  He might be a walking metronome.   And we know that Cassius sees little goodness in others.  ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’ (1.2.312)

From Shakespeare’s source (Plutarch) we learn that Cassius has a personal grudge – Caesar became a consul before him – and that Caesar did not fear fat luxurious men, but asked: ‘What do you think Cassius is aiming at?  I don’t like him, he looks so pale.’

Lord Angelo is the ice man.

Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.4.50-54)

Later we get the earthier version from Lucio (who is a kind of comic Greek chorus): ‘But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.  And he is a motion generative; that’s infallible.’  (3.2.112 – 114)  (‘Motion generative’ is ‘masculine’ puppet’.)

Cassius had ambition and a grudge.  His coldness came from realising that if you want to be serious in politics, you have to put up with blood on your hands – and you must brace yourself accordingly.  The inability of Brutus to do just that brought them all undone; when Lady Macbeth sterilised herself to perfection, she went mad.  The coldness of Angelo was a front to hold down or at least hide the volcano raging under his belt – something that would certainly destroy him if it ever broke out.  But both Cassius and Angelo are what we call control freaks. They like playing the part of puppet-master.  And there is an awful lot about mortality in Measure for Measure – and, for that matter, Julius Caesar.  In the former we are told of one character who is ‘insensible of mortality and desperately mortal’ (4.2.148).  In both plays failures of humanity cross paths with visitations of mortality.  And if Angelo is the puritan and Cassius is the manipulator, they can each chill your blood when they turn really cold.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 5

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

COLLECTED PLAYS

Arthur Miller

Franklin Library, 1981.  Fully bound in embossed leather, with ridged spine; gold finish to pages and moiré endpapers with satin ribbon.  Introduction by the author.  Illustrated by Alan Mardon.  Limited edition.

Death of a Salesman is not an easy night out at the theatre.  Au contraire.  This play is wrenching, as wrenching for some as the tragedy of King Lear.  It is pervaded with a sense of doom – not just in the sense of that term in Lord of the Rings, as an end foretold, but in the darker sense of inevitable destruction or annihilation.  The battered, deluded Willy Loman is, like the crazy old king, bound upon a wheel of fire, and the fate of his whole family unfolds before eyes that you may wish to avert.  It is therefore as challenging as a Greek tragedy or one of Shakespeare, because it is a searing inquiry into the American Dream.  That is not something that many Americans have been all that happy to undertake.  (Indeed, the character of the White House as we speak shows a frightening capacity for delusion.)  But by the end of the play, you may be left with the impression that a champion of American business is less secure than a medieval serf.

This is Willy according to his wife:

I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willy Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.  So attention must be paid.  He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

When Willy’s boss wants to get rid of him, he responds: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’  He is, as his wife remarked, a human being.  But his delusion passes to his sons.  When reality catches up with his son Biff, he says: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’  In the Introduction, the author says:

The play was always heroic to me, and in later years the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the tragic hero seemed incredible to me.  I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabethan paragraphs which hold no mention of insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan belts, steering knuckles, Chevrolets, and visions seen not through the portals of Delphi, but in the blue flame of the hot-water theatre…..I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it.

The academy was dead wrong.  E pur si muove.

All My Sons is hardly any easier.  The American Dream here is punctured not by failure, but by betrayal, and a crime of the worst kind.  A businessman in a time of war betrays his nation by selling defective parts to the army.  This crime leads to the deaths of American servicemen including, it would appear, one of his own sons.  And the man says that he did it for his family.  But, as in Greek tragedy, his crime comes back on the whole family and ultimately it will only be answered by his death.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsen wrote a drama where one businessman was forced to accept moral and legal responsibility for the crime of his partner.  This affront to the American Dream would be one of the factors leading to Miller being confronted by the Houses Un-American Committee.

This is how the playwright introduces Joe Keller, the hero.

Keller is nearing sixty.  A heavy man of stolid mind and build, a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.  When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasantlike common sense.  A man among men.

There is no doubting that this is like a Greek tragedy.  The mother tells the son that the brother who was a pilot and has been missing for years is still alive.

Your brother’s alive darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him.  Do you understand me now?  As long as you live, that boy is alive.  God does not let a son be killed by his father.

This drama, like that of Ibsen, is both hair-raising and fundamental, and the end of this play is quite as shocking as the end of Hedda Gabler.

The Crucible grabs and distresses us for different reasons.  It is a fraught descant on the lynch mob, and it had and continues to have so much impact because it covers ground from the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century to the McCarthy pogroms of the twentieth century.  In the course of both, we get to see ourselves at our most fragile and lethal worst.  And this is ‘us’ – this is not an American problem any more than fascism was a German problem.

The children at Salem in 1692 suffered from hysteria in the medical sense.  The reaction of the community was hysterical in the popular sense.  If you believe in witchcraft, it works.  (Witness the effect of pointing the bone in our indigenous community.)  A ‘victim’ showing hysterical symptoms is a victim of a fear of witchcraft rather than of witchcraft itself, although the distinction may not matter.  John Hale showed a remarkable insight when he observed at Salem that the suspects showed fear not because they are guilty, but because they were suspected.  In 1841 a Boston legal commentator said that no one was safe and that the only way to avoid being accused was to become an accuser.  That script was re-written word for word during the Terror in France.

From 1950 to 1954 the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used The Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations as his version of The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to pursue people who had had any association with the Communist Party.  HUAC had previously been a dodgy little affair specialising in anti-Semitism, but when the Red scare came to prominence under the boozy mania of McCarthy, real people got badly hurt without anything resembling a trial, much less due process. The Americans had in truth unleashed a latterday pogrom, and it only ceased when McCarthy over-reached and went after the Army.

One of the writers forced to appear before the HUAC was Arthur Miller.  He correctly believed that he only got his subpoena because of the identity of his fiancée.  (In an amazing commentary on the difference between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power, the Chairman offered to cancel the session if he could be photographed with Marilyn Monroe.)

Miller adopted the position that had been taken before the committee by Lillian Hellman.  She said that she was willing to talk about her own political past but that she refused to testify against others.  She said:

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

Hellman did not have the advantage of a beautiful lover.  Not only was he not gorgeous, but he was avowedly left wing and he was gaoled for refusing to rat.  Partly for this reason, Hellman is not as fondly remembered in some quarters as Miller.

Hellman described her experiences in the book Scoundrel Time, published in 1976.  Miller described similar experiences in a play published in 1953.  That play was The Crucible.  It was based on the events in Salem in 1692, and is a searing testimony to the ghastly power of a mob that has lost its senses.  When Miller was called before the HUAC in 1956, it reminded him of The Crucible, as life followed art.

And if you have invented Satan, you have to give him some work to do.  The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

In the Introduction, Mr Miller wrote:

It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.  The wonder of it all struck me that so picayune a cause, carried forward by such manifestly ridiculous men, should be capable of paralyzing thought itself, and worse, causing to billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious’ feelings within people.  It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one could have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.

The relevance of all this to the mess that we see across the West today is obvious.  Indeed, if you read those words again you may be frightened by the references to ‘paralyzing truth’ and ‘elemental decencies.’  The lynch mob or pogrom is simply the ‘people’ at their worst.  We are now confronted everyday by affronts committed in the name of ‘populism’ as if being popular affords some evidence or warranty of worth.  (Was there ever a politician who was more popular than Adolf Hitler was in 1936?)  What we now see is our dark under-belly being flaunted before our eyes by people stunted by envy.

Arthur Miller went on to comment on what may be described as our ‘darker purpose’ in terms that Hanna Arendt would have recognised.  He referred to ‘the tranquility of the bad man’ just as Arendt referred to the ‘banality of evil’, and to ‘the failure of the present age to find a universal moral sanction.’

I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example, we should not know good…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal.  I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to our dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago.

Those propositions are hugely important.

A View from the Bridge might for some bear more of a resemblance to an Italian opera – say, Cavalleria Rusticana – than  a Greek tragedy, with a heavy sauce supplied by Doctor Freud, but for the sake of Sicilian honour, the hero continues the bad run of  this author’s heroes.  The same sense of inevitability – doom – is there again.  By contrast, the author says that A Memory of Two Mondays is a ‘pathetic comedy….a kind of letter to that subculture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or the stage.’  Each of these plays is pitched well below the middle class – and territory not covered by either Ibsen or Chekhov.

In commenting on King Lear, an English scholar said that we go to great writers for the truth.  The last word may make us wobble a little at the moment, but we look to great writers – and Arthur Miller was certainly a great writer – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are.  Arthur Miller says in the Introduction:

By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man.  Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.

We might then flinch at what is presented to us in the theatre, but Arthur Miller did not.  His memoire Timebends is a testament to his enduring moral and intellectual fibre – as of course are the five plays in this fine book.  This Franklin edition is lusciously presented and reminds us that if we want to try to understand the human condition, the place to go to is the theatre.  And whatever else may be said of Arthur Miller, he knew what it was to be dramatic.

MY TOP SHELF – 50 – Beowulf

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

BEOWULF

Seamus Heaney (translator)

Folio Society, 2010; bound in quarter burgundy buckram, with gold title and etching on cloth boards; gold trimmed pages; gold cloth slip case; illustrated by Becca Thorne.

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

There is something about this poem Beowulf, which begins with the lines just quoted, that is at once mystical and elemental, misty but somehow internal.  It is as if we see ourselves but darkly, in some other plane.  It was composed in what we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English toward the end of the first millennium.  It was written in England about events in what are now called Denmark and Sweden.

Beowulf is a champion of the Geats.  He crosses the sea to help the Danes deal with a monster called Grendel.  He prevails, and then dies.  Like The Iliad, Beowulf ends with the funeral pyre of a hero.  If you like that kind of thing, you might see Beowulf as the missing link between The Iliad and Paradise Lost.

Great were the dangers to be overcome by Beowulf.

All were endangered; young and old

Were hunted down by that dark death-shadow

Who lurked and swooped in the long nights

On the misty moors; nobody knows

Where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

So Grendel waged his lonely war,

Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,

Atrocious hurt.  He took over Heorot,

Haunted the glittering hall after dark

But the throne itself, the treasure seat,

He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast.

These were hard times, heart-breaking….

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed

Offerings to idols, swore oaths

That the killer of souls may come to their aid

And save the people.  That was their way,

Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts

They remembered hell.  (159-180)

It is hard to imagine someone better equipped to translate this great poem than the late Seamus Heaney, the distinguished Irish poet and scholar.

I came to translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery.  I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique.  What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood, in the presence of an understanding that assumes you share an awareness of the perilous nature of life and are yet capable of seeing it steadily, and, when necessary, sternly.  There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life which are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called ‘moralising.’  These so-called ‘gnomic’ parts of the poem have the cadence and force of earned wisdom, and their combination of cogency and verity was again something that I could remember about the speech I heard as a youngster in the Scullion kitchen….The style of the poem is hospitable to the kind of formulaic phrases which are the stock-in-trade of oral bards, and yet it is marked too by the self-consciousness of an artist convinced that ‘we must labour to be beautiful.’

Here is some more of the remarkable poetry.

That great heart rested.  The hall towered,

Until the black raven with raucous glee

Announced heaven’s joy, and a hurry of brightness

Overran the shadows.  Warriors rose quickly

Impatient to be off; their own country

Was beckoning the nobles; and the bold voyager

Longed to be aboard his distant boat.  (1799-1807)

This is how Heaney saw the epic.

Grendel comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark, a fear of collision with some hard-boned and immensely strong android frame, a mixture of Caliban and hoplite.  And while his mother, too, has a definite brute-bearing about her, a creature of slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water, she nevertheless retains a certain non-strangeness.  As antagonists of a hero being tested, Grendel and his mother possess an appropriate head-on strength.

The myth of the testing of the hero by a frightening instrument of evil is probably our favourite – right up to the movie Jaws.  But this epic is of interest to us also because it tells of the birth of our laws, in the replacement of the vendetta or blood-feud.

There was a feud one time, begun by your father.

With his own hands he had killed Heathaloaf

Who was a Wulfing; so war was looming

And his people in fear of it forced him to leave….

Finally I healed the feud by paying:

I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings

And Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.  (459-473)

We might call this settling out of court.  It is not surprising that the scholar who trumpeted the claim of Beowulf to be taken as literature was named J R R Tolkien.

We learn that the object of the hero – as for Achilles – was to ‘gain enduring glory in a combat’ (1535/6).  It is right, then, that the poem ends with these lines.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing

For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

And cherish his memory when that moment comes

When he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

So the Geat people, his hearth companions,

Sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.

They said that of all the kings upon the earth

He was the man most gracious and fair-minded,

Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.  (3173-3182)

You do not need to crave immortality to see how the poet there speaks to all of us.  Heaney speaks of his ‘fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterised the poetry.’   He said that this poem has a ‘mythic potency’ that ‘arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose…it passes once more into the beyond.’  Exactly – and is it not for this that we go to great writers?

 

 

Top Shelf – 49 – Gibbon

MEMOIRS OF MY LIFE

Edward Gibbon (1814)

Folio Society, 1991; bound in green cloth, gold embossed, in stone slip case.

I had now attained the solid comforts of life, a convenient well-furnished house, a domestic table, half a dozen chosen servants, my own carriage, and all those decent luxuries whose value is more sensibly felt the longer they are enjoyed…To a lover of books, the shops and sales in London present irresistible temptations…..

Before looking at what Gibbon said, you need either to recall or know that Gibbon was one of the most graceful writers of prose that England has produced.  He was also one of the most devastating hit-men that the world has seen.  Apart from the grace of his style, and the rhythm of his writing, he had a wickedly nice, dry irony.  Here is one short example:  ‘See the tragic and scandalous fate of an Archdeacon of royal birth, who was slain by the Turks as he reposed in an orchard, playing at dice with a Syrian concubine’.  Count the criminal libels or mere denigrations in that off-the-cuff remark about one dead man of God.

Here is my all-time favourite put-down by this author.  It is of the Emperor Gallienus.

In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.  He was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince.  When the great emergencies of state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.  His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace.  The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked whether Rome must be ruined unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and Arras cloth from Gaul.

There you have the style of Edward Gibbon, and the story of the decline and fall of Rome.

Gibbon came from a family of squires in the Weald of Kent.  He was not well enough to stay at Winchester.  His mother died from breeding six other children who also died.  His father retired from Parliament to return to live among the landed gentry.  He was a man of whim.  One such whim was to enrol Gibbon as a Gentleman Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.  In this autobiography Gibbon rained some venom on his old university.

The Fellows or monks of my time were decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder.  Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments:  the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber.  From the toil of reading or thinking or writing they had absolved their conscience, and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground without yielding any fruit to the owners or the public…..Their conversations stagnated in a round of college business, personal stories and private scandal; their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth; and their constitutional toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty for the House of Hanover. 

Gibbon was too young to enjoy ‘the taverns and bagnios of Convent Garden’.  Instead, he fell under the spell of the Church of Rome.  This was too much for his father, who banished him to Lausanne, where he stayed for five years to have that nonsense knocked out of him by Monsieur Pavilliard, a learned Calvinist minister.

Gibbon dropped a girlfriend when Dad took exception.  ‘I sighed as a lover.  I obeyed as a son.’  Both limbs of the equation were probably untrue, and we might hope that Gibbon later regretted that tart dismissal of his one and only love.  (Mademoiselle Churchod went on to other things.  She married Monsieur Necker, who became the Minister of Finance in France, and played a large part in the French Revolution, and she gave him a daughter, Mme de Staël.)

Gibbon served for a time in the militia, and remained in it for years, and we might imagine Captain Gibbon, the small man with the rather large and ridiculous head, jogging at the head of his bucolic Grenadiers.  He sought to get away from it all with nights of ‘bumperizing that left him in the morning where he could ‘do nothing … but spew’.

When looking back on his life, Gibbon had no doubt that it was formed by the nearly five years he had spent at Lausanne.  ‘Such as I am in genius or learning or in manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne ….  I had ceased to be an Englishman’.  But he had previously recorded that his taste for the French theatre had only ‘perhaps abated my idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’.

Gibbon embarked on the Grand Tour.  His lack of worldliness – he had been too young to visit the whores when he was at Oxford – may have left him even more at sea with the French ladies than David Hume had been.  He saw Voltaire perform in a play.  Then he came at last to Rome while he was still casting about for a subject for a history, for it was to writing a history that he would devote his life.  His mixed upbringing enabled him to give a more balanced view of the religious divide than others – ‘the Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste’.  The lines with which Gibbon celebrated his visit to Rome are still celebrated by his admirers.

My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned to affect.  But at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City.  After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present in my eye;…several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation…In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded;  the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccalanti of Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol.  But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the City, rather than the Empire; and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards the object, some years elapsed and several avocations intervened before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.

The six volume work of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was indeed to be his life’s work.  Gibbon greatly admired the History of Hume.  Gibbon’s first work had been written in French, but Hume persuaded him to write his History in English.  Hume thought, being an astute Scot, that the flowering of America would lead to English having the greater coverage.  Hume, and most of the rest of Britain, were generous in their praise of the History as it came out, volume by volume.  The Church was not.

Gibbon held court and would allow little chance of reply.  But this Georgian England had a vivacious conversational character.  He once unloaded one of his best foreign anecdotes and was waiting for his tribute of applause.  ‘When a deep-toned but clear voice was heard from the bottom of the table, very calmly and civilly impugning the correctness of the narrative, and the propriety of the doctrines of which it had been made the vehicle.’  This was no less than William Pitt the Younger (the youngest Prime Minister of England at the age of 24).  Gibbon was obliged to give ground and then excused himself and left the room.  He was apprehended looking for his hat, and when asked to return he said that the gentleman who had interrupted him was ‘extremely ingenious and agreeable, but I must acknowledge that his style of conversation is not exactly what I am accustomed to, so you must positively excuse me’.  Jane Austen could have written that.

He died on 16 January 1794 of an appalling illness that had long troubled him.  He was at peace and without fear, but it is a very fair guess that no other writer of history has been so read, so admired, and so loved.  It is certainly the case that this rather absurd Englishman still talks to us and enlightens us after we have gone more than two hundred years down the road.

The great historian looked for patterns in the past.  He was not to devote his life’s work to describing outlines of spent tea leaves.  ‘History to a philosopher’ he said, ‘is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau:  he saw a system, relations, consequences, where others saw only the caprice of fortune’.  Gibbon was describing the decline and fall of an empire.  He saw that decline occurred with the rise of religion; he asked why ancient civilisation failed and if it could happen again.

Perhaps it was because Georgian English gentlemen suspected that their England suffered from similar lesions on its society that they were content to allow Athens and Rome to be described as civilised.  But it is a little curious that educated Europeans should have sought to find how this mighty and civilised empire was brought low – was felled in truth – by a scrawny ragamuffin hasid whose teaching of the Sermon on the Mount underwrote all of what the English would come to call civilised about their empire.  And how could Rome have sought to hold an empire under arms if it subscribed to the view that it is the meek who inherit the earth?

It is not surprising that Gibbon followed what might be called the party line in describing Rome as civilised, but we might notice that he began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misere des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’

Sadly, space allows only a couple of quotations on the Crusades:

… the name and nature of a ‘holy war’ demands a more rigorous scrutiny;  nor can we hastily believe that the servants of the Prince of Peace would ensheath the sword of destruction unless the motive were pure, the quarrel legitimate, and the necessity inevitable. 

Gibbon attacks indulgences with savagery.  He then goes on to describe the beginning of the first Crusade.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil, but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit.  Of these, and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God.  In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich, and they enjoyed under the protection of the Emperor and the Bishops the free exercise of their religion.  At Verdun, Trèves, Metz, Spires, Worms many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian ….  The more obstinate Jews exposed their fanaticism to the fanaticism of the Christians, barricadoed their houses, and precipitating themselves, their families and their wealth into the rivers of the flames, disappointed the malice, or at least the avarice, of their implacable foes.

Gibbon next savages the institution of knighthood and then goes on to describe the taking of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries [Tancred’s] to the God of the Christians:  resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify their implacable rage: they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemical disease.  After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare.  ….  The Holy Sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow.  Bare-headed and bare foot, with contrite hearts and in a humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world;  and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.  This union of the fiercest and most tender passions has been variously considered by two philosophers: by the one, as easy and natural; by the other, as absurd and critical.

The first philosopher referred to is David Hume; the second was Voltaire.

Here is Gibbon on Israelite conquests.

When the posterity of Abraham had multiplied like the sands of the sea, the Deity, from whose mouth they received a system of laws and ceremonies, declared himself the proper and as it were the national God of Israel; and with the most jealous care separated his most favourite people from the rest of mankind.  The conquest of the land of Canaan with so many wonderful and so many bloody circumstances, that the victorious Jews were left in a state of irreconcilable hostility with all their neighbours.  They had been commanded to extirpate some of the most idolatrous tribes, and the execution of the Divine will had seldom been retarded by the weakness of humanity.

Here is Gibbon on the absolutism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favour of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the Gospel had arisen.  But it was unanimously affirmed that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity.  These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony.

Finally, this is Gibbon on celibacy.

Since desire was imputed as a crime, and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy as the nearest approach to Divine perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of six vestals [virgins] but the primitive church was filled with a great number of persons of either sex who had devoted themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity.

In the footnote, Gibbon records of the six Roman maids: ‘nor could the dread of the most horrible death always restrain their incontinence.’

How did our brothers and sisters of Asia fare? Gibbon said that for all his powers of eloquence, Mohammed was an illiterate barbarian, although he says that the ‘base and plebeian origin of Mohammed is an unskilful calumny of the Christians.’ (How did they class the origin of Jesus of Nazareth?)  Gibbon does of course praise Mohammed for dispensing with priests, sacrifices, and monks, but he rejects the doctrine of damnation by which ‘the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions.’ Gibbon was, like most people, fascinated by sex.  He had this comment on Paradise.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of the felicity ….This image of carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks…

But this Paradise was assured to those who died for the faith since the Prophet had said ‘The sword is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer…’ .

It is very hard now to imagine history in any language being written with such pitch and such intensity.  But he may have unsheathed a sword the consequences of which he never intended.

In Gibbon’s view, Greek philosophy had infected the teaching of those following Jesus of Nazareth.  It was notorious that many of the divisions of the early church were fed on thinking that came to its members from the Platonist school.  Gibbon thought that Platonism did not mix well with Christianity.

But theology, which it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious to doubt, and which it might be dangerous, even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic of private mediation and popular discourse.  The cold indifference of philosophy was inflamed by the fervent spirit of devotion.

It may have been like global warming disputants trying their hand with the theory of relativity or string theory.

The familiar study of the Platonic system, a vain and argumentative disposition, a copious and flexible idiom, supplied the clergy and the people of the east with an inexhaustible flow of words and distinctions; and, in the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission which is enjoined by religion.

It has to be said that these observations ring many bells, and not just in the context of the Christian church.

Baroque sentences flowed out Gibbon just like baroque music flowed out of Mozart.  His canvass blazes like that of El Greco.  He had a sense of grace and rhythm that would have appealed to the instincts of Errol Garner and which had a lasting effect on one of his greatest followers.

For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

May I conclude on a whim of my own fancy?  For me, Gibbon was and is the greatest writer in prose of them all.

 

Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.

Here and there – Emma Smith – This Is Shakespeare

 

Pelican is cool about its intellectual books, and it wants to be seen to be cool about This is Shakespeare.  Emma Smith, we are told, is a Yorkshire girl who is into silent films, birdwatching and fast cars.  She is also Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford.  But the target readers are not wowed by that honour, and the book does not read as one that could only have been written by a professor.  In and of itself, that is no bad thing, and those snooty enough to think that the author trails her gown too far might be reminded that Shakespeare was in the entertainment industry to make a living writing, producing and acting in plays.  In the immortal words of a mature American student of Chaucer at Oxford, Shakespeare ‘did it for the mortgage’.

The book consists of twenty short essays on the plays – about half the total.  The order looks to be broadly chronological.  The really boring or odd ones don’t make it.

We begin with Taming of the Shrew, in the Zeffirelli movie ‘a passionate relationship in which pots and pans, but also underwear, would fly.’  Goodnight Oxbridge – even if some of us have trouble seeing the knickers of Ms Taylor dangling from the ceiling fan.

The hero of Richard II ‘is a consummate actor, so much so that we wonder if there is anything underneath.’  (That savours a bit of R D Laing.  The lady does not mind citing Freud – which in this context can make me, and I think, her, a little nervous.)

There’s so much to dislike about Richard, and yet – or so – he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside… as we have entered into a masochistic compact with this alluring protagonist.

‘History is full of examples of tyrants who looked like liberators’.  (It’s just that Blair and Bush did not realise that they were trying to get into that club by the back door.)  That is a valuable insight.  But we don’t get much discussion of what a great night out this play, or many others, can offer.  The McKellen film showed just how gripping this show can be.  But for modern audiences, some pruning is required.  I sat through the whole slog at the Barbican once, and it felt almost Wagnerian (and I have no qualms at all about taking the shears to Waggers), but the problem is that one of the first parts cut is that of the ageing queenly victims, dissecting the villain like black crows descending on witchetty grubs from a barbed wire fence.  And the English stage cannot offer too much better than that, particularly if you have the growling, mordant Peggy Ashcroft version.  (It adds a whole new terror to the notion of ‘in-laws’.)  But the essay does contain the remark that being the last alive in one of the tragedies is ‘the hallmark of the nonentity.’

A Comedy of Errors gets a run, and I am glad. Well done, it is hilarious – Marx Brothers hilarious.  And two citations show that we can trip over gems in unlikely places that others would die for.

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.  (1.2)

For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.  (2.2)

For Richard II – which I often think should have been sung by Jussi Bjorling – we are helpfully reminded that an Elizabethan sermon (and Luther) inveighed against rebellion saying that Lucifer was the ‘founder of rebellion’.  And the author goes on to quote the old Hollywood saying that ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’  Spot on.  Asking what Hamlet means is as helpful as asking what the Pieta or Eroica means.  The trouble is that when you grasp that simple truth, there may not be all that much that is beyond disruption in the professor’s job description.  But she does offer the good advice that the role of Bolingbroke on stage is a master class of what is unspoken.  And that truth coincides with her insistence that Shakespeare was into questions, not answers.  Richard II may be my favourite.  Especially with Gielgud, it has an effortlessly silvery timbre that reminds us of Verdi.  The problem is that it has no hero.

‘Rediscovering an X-rated A Midsummer Night’s Dream means engaging with its dark, adult depictions of dangerous desire.’  Including, apparently, inviting ‘unseemly speculations about a lover hung like a donkey.’  Now that is a phrase that would have caught the eye of one of our Senators – a lady, ex-army – for which Ezekiel is cited as authority.  Freud again gets a run, and there is even a reference to a ‘vanilla framing device.’  Well, some might go to ground with an ‘Hmmm….’, but Shakespeare and the Old Testament can be as raunchy as they are violent.

The author appears to share at least part of my aversion to Portia – an iron-clad divorce lawyer in a power suit who could thread your jellies through a garlic crusher for the mildest faux pas – but her discussion of race is very sane.  The same goes for money.

The Merchant of Venice emerges as a strikingly contemporary play about commodified relationships, romantic and business entrepreneurialism, and the obscure transactional networks of credit finance.

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing new about Falstaff, but I cannot recall seeing before ‘the withering moral judgment’ of Dr Johnson that the ‘fat knight never uttered one sentiment of generosity.’  Falstaff is like those people who you talk to and who become a cold, brick, distracted wall if you are not talking about them – which may come to be called the Donald Trump Syndrome.

It is not surprising that the preoccupation with erotica continues with Measure for Measure, another close runner for my prize play.  Your attitude to Isabella might depend on your age as much as your sex.  To the extent that I can see her as real – as played by Kate Nelligan, the minds of very few blokes would turn to sex – I find her repellent.  Not so the author.

But Shakespeare has deliberately made Isabella into more than a woman of upright moral character; rather, she is one about to devote herself to strict religious principles (this slightly obscures the ethical point for modern viewers: whether she is a sex worker or a nun, Isabella surely has our support when she refuses unwanted sex?

Let us put to one side the uncharacteristic question mark, and abstain from Lenin’s question – ‘Who are we?’- the author does not here fairly state the question.  Isabella doesn’t want to be defiled.  Nor does Claudio want to be killed.  In the scheme of things, what is worth more – her hymen or his neck?  As I said, the answer may differ between boys and girls.  Boys would tend to refer to the relative convalescence times, and since Osama got lucky at the Twin Towers on 9 November 2001, fanatical subscription to alleged imperatives of dogma have lost a lot of their calling power.  The notion that a man should die for another person’s ideal is as repellent as you can get.

While discussing Isabella, the author says that ‘As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play where the largest role is female.’  She has said that ‘Antony out-talks Cleopatra’.  That is a curious notion.  She later says these two are ‘celebrities’, which is fair enough, but there is a preoccupation with the number of lines allotted, which may be less helpful than stats at footy.  Saying one bloke got forty kicks and another got six, means little if the bloke with six won the game with six goals.  (And we are later reminded that ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’)

And Cleopatra is the star turn of that play; Lady Macbeth might fall over before her husband, but it was her injection of steel that put him up to it – on her day, she could make witches blanch; and Queen Margaret rules over so much of the three parts of Henry VI.  More, she is one of the most captivating and sustained characters ever on our stages.  She is the nemesis of four plays.  I cannot forbear citing my favourite lines of this playwright.  They come in her appalling travesty of the Passion of Christ where she mocks Richard III:

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?  (1.4.70-77)

It’s like an Essendon supporter saying to a Collingwood supporter the day after the Grand Final: ‘I suppose your lot just folded their tents – as usual.’

About thirty years ago, I went to a pre-show talk about Othello at the Melbourne Theatre Company with my daughters.  The lead was played by a Maori.  A lady said she thought the hero was coloured.  The bemused actor said that his director obviously thought that he was coloured enough.  Race and colour are huge in this play.  The author tells us of an incident in South Africa in 1987 when the police said that the public ‘were disgusted by all the love and kissing scenes’ – in alleged breach of the Immorality Act.  (About twenty years later, I saw Hamlet in Chicago.  Gertrude was as white as snow.  There was a palpable frisson in the audience when the King came out – as black as the Ace of Spades.)  ‘…some critics have even wanted to wonder whether or not Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their relationship – perhaps with the underlying racist feeling that it would have been preferable if they hadn’t.’  To quote Jane Fonda, ‘you don’t want to go there’.  (Has she tried that line out yet on the arresting officer?)  Thankfully, the author does not go there.  C S Lewis nearly had kittens facing the same question with Adam and Eve.  (How else were we bloody-well supposed to get here – by the Stork?)  The short answer is that none of them existed.  They are creatures of the page.  You may as well ask whether Batman had it off with Robin – and if so, whether they took their masks off while they were at it.

When you are dealing with an expert, you may need to remember that they come from a different space.  There is a fascinating discussion of how the tragedy Othello is built on comic frameworks.  This is not to suggest that there is anything comic about the play, least of all about Iago.  He for me is evil made flesh.  He has none of the allure of either of the Bastards or Richard III.  The phrase ‘motiveless malignity’ has, in my view, been unfairly trashed.  Rather, we are I think looking at one aspect of the ‘banality of evil.’

Iago gives new meaning to the word ‘insinuate.’  Some of the plays bore me; some like Troilus and Cressida repel me; but after enduring Cyril Cusack’s ruthless whining insinuation so often, I could no more sit through Othello – either here or in Verdi – than endure half an hour of a shock jock like Andrew Bolt.  (Pray do not be dismayed.  I am the same about Tristan und Isolde, and the mere mention of Parsifal is enough to generate severe depression.)

In Antony and Cleopatra, we are reminded that ‘Women in tragedies tend to be ancillary victims of the male hero’s egotistic downfall.’  The primacy of Cleopatra is acknowledged, but the play presents at least two problems for some of us.  As in the French Revolution, it is hard to find a hero.  And the play is punishingly long – especially in a theatre that is not air conditioned in summer – even in England.  (The reference to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky is, I think, an error; and ‘Gender is, or at least contributes towards genre’ is a statement that at best goes nowhere.)

What we know about Shakespeare can be set out on a post card.  Some knowledge of his education may help understand the wordiness of some plays, but otherwise history tells us very little about them.  It is therefore best to just pass over stuff like:

Bond’s Shakespeare emerges from the archives as a capitalist more likely to be identified with the patrician grain hoarders in Coriolanus than with the hungry citizenry.

Lawyers are used to this kind of bull.  We don’t look for the actual intention of the legislator; we look for the inferred purpose of the legislation.  Biography may help to explain the conduct and pronouncements of Luther or Hitler; it is as good as useless with following the plays of Shakespeare, or trying to divine what they may reveal about what was going through his mind.  And it is an insult to his genius to pretend otherwise.  The bush lawyers should keep to the bush.

The book peters out.  From the peak of the Everest of King Lear, there had to be a form of descent, and for me at least plays like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are better heard and not seen.  Prospero is a bit of ‘a distinctly unlikeable, manipulative control freak,’ and but for the stuff that dreams are made of we may not hear that much about a play that does bear marks of condescension that could have put Mr Collins into quite a tizz.

But there is more than enough in this book to ensure that fans of our greatest playwright – our greatest author – will not put it down either unimpressed or unimproved.  It is an island of coral sense in a sea of colourless ink.

MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

Here and there – The Grace of Macaulay

 

Language didn’t just pour out of Gibbon or Macaulay like music did from Mozart or Schubert.  They worked on it, polished it, and read it loud.  They left us enduring works of art.

This simple proposition came back to me on re-reading the last volume of Macaulay’s History of England. The politics of England in the 18th century were deliciously corrupt, personal, and English.  They offer a glorious mine for Macaulay to exploit for seams of gold.

He did not think much of a courtier called Sunderland.

In truth, his countrymen were unjust to him. For they thought he was not only an unprincipled and faithless politician, which he was, but a deadly enemy of the liberties of the nation, which he was not.  What he wanted simply was to be safe, rich, and great.  To these objects he had been faithful through all the vicissitudes of his life. For these objects he had passed from Church to Church and from faction to faction, had joined the most turbulent of oppositions without any zeal for freedom, and had served the most arbitrary of monarchs without any zeal for monarchy; had voted for the Exclusion Bill without being a Protestant, and had adored the Host without being a Papist; had sold his country at once to both the great parties which divided the Continent, had taken money from France, and had sent intelligence to Holland.  As far however as he could be said to have any opinions, his opinions were Whiggish.

As with any of these great portraits by Gibbon or Macaulay, they immediately call to mind contemporary parallels.  Was the son of the Earl any better?

His knowledge of ancient literature, and his skill in imitating the styles of the masters of Roman eloquence, were applauded by veteran scholars.  The sedateness of his deportment and the apparent regularity of his life delighted austere moralists.  He was known indeed to have one expensive taste, but it was a taste of the most respectable kind.  He loved books and was bent on forming the most magnificent private library in England.  While other heirs of noble houses were inspecting patterns of steinkirks and sword knots, dangling after actresses, or betting on fighting cocks, he was in pursuit of the Mentz editions of Tully’s Offices, of the Parmesan Statius, and of the inestimable Virgil of Zarottus.

A footnote shows that his lordship paid the massive amount of £46 for the Virgil of Zarottus.  That sum could have got him a lot of attention from some unseemly houses in Covent Garden.

The ministers found that, on this occasion, neither their honest nor their dishonest supporters could be trusted.

The stiletto can go in fast.

Another was the late Speaker, Trevor, who had from the chair put the question whether he was or was not a rogue, and had been forced to pronounce that the Ayes had it.

Then back comes the Earl.

The whole enigma of his life, an enigma of which many unsatisfactory and some absurd explanations have been propounded, is at once solved if we consider him as a man insatiably greedy of wealth and power, and yet nervously apprehensive of danger.  He rushed with ravenous eagerness at every bait which was offered to his cupidity. But any ominous shadow, any threatening murmur, sufficed to stop him in his full career and to make him change his course or bury himself in a hiding place…But his ambition and avarice would not suffer him to rest till he held a high and lucrative office, till he was regent of the kingdom.  The consequence was, as might have been expected, a violent clamour; and that clamour he had not the spirit to face.

The gentry resented taxes.

Was it reasonable – such was the language of some scribblers – that an honest gentleman should pay a heavy land tax to support in idleness and luxury a set of fellows who requited him by seducing his dairy maids and shooting his partridges?

It’s hard to be more Tory than that.  At another point, our author speaks of someone trying to make ‘what is, in the jargon of our time, called political capital.’  Then there was a First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

With all his ability, he had not the wisdom to avert, by suavity and moderation, that curse, the inseparable concomitant of prosperity and glory, which the ancients personified under the name of Nemesis.  His head, strong for all the purposes of debate and arithmetical calculation, was weak against the intoxicating influence of success and fame.  He became proud, even to insolence…..Great wealth, suddenly acquired, is not often enjoyed with moderation, dignity and good taste…He contrived, it was said, to be at once as rich as Crassus and as riotous as Mark Antony.  His stud and his cellar were beyond all price.  His very lacqueys turned up their noses at claret.  He and his confederates were described as spending the immense sums of which they had plundered the public in banquets of four courses, such as Lucullus might have eaten in the hall of Apollo.  A supper for twelve Whigs, enriched by jobs, grants, bribes, lucky  purchases and lucky sales of stock, was cheap at eighty pounds.

Here is Paterson, a Scot who conned the Scots into investing in a hell hole at Panama called Darien.

To be seen walking with him in the High Street, to be honoured by him with a private interview of a quarter of an hour were enviable distinctions.  He, after the fashion of all of the false prophets who have deluded themselves and others, drew new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples.  His countenance, his voice, his gestures, indicated boundless self-importance.  When he appeared in public he looked…like Atlas conscious that a world was on his shoulders.  But the airs which he gave himself only heightened the respect and admiration which he inspired….In truth, of all the ten thousand bubbles of which history has preserved the memory, none was ever more skilfully puffed into existence; none ever soared higher, or glittered more brilliantly; and none ever burst with a more lamentable explosion.

And since we speak of Trump and Johnson, someone objected that Parliament was flying in the King’s face.

To fly in the King’s face!  Our business is to fly in the King’s face.  We were sent here to fly in the King’s face.

We know all about the kind of mountebank who draws ‘new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples’.

This is history as high theatre.  The French have Michelet and Taine.  The Germans have Ranke and Mommsen.  But history as theatre is to England what opera is to Italy.  They are all treasures of the world.

The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.

Here and there – Alan Bennett

A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE’S

Alan Bennett

Faber and Faber, 2009; bound in cloth, with dust jacket featuring photo of the author’s family; copy signed by the author; slip case added.

About thirty years ago, I went to the theatre in the West End to see two one act plays.  Each play featured just one actress.  The first had Margaret Tyzack, and the second featured Maggie Smith – the cream of the English stage.  I can recall standing in a queue to collect my tickets, and hearing the lady behind me say ‘I could listen all day to Maggie Smith reading the phone book.’  In my experience, the English do appreciate that they are fortunate to have the best actors in the world.

I cannot recall the name of the first play, but it was about a woman whose husband, I think a banker, had been convicted of embezzlement.  She had had to live with the degradation.  The mood varied from wistful to wrenching.  But at the end, Margaret Tyzack from a spotlight looked straight at us in the audience and said something like ‘But don’t you dare feel sorry for us – we are not that kind.’  This was the perfect way to evoke the very strong reaction of the audience that the play and performance warranted.  The whole thing was so very English.

The second play was Bed Among the Lentils.  We knew from the program notes that it was about the wife of a vicar who has it off with a Pakistani greengrocer.  Well, that should give a decent playwright something to work with.  As the curtain went up, Maggie Smith was standing centre stage under a narrow spot.  Dressed in grey, white and black, she was drabness and fatigue personified – ennui.  After a considered pause, she looked up at us and said words to the effect: ‘Being married to Geoffrey is bad enough, but I’m glad I’m not married to Jesus.’  Well, the whole theatre just erupted, and it remained cocked on Vesuvial for the rest of the play.  I feared that the lady beside me may not have survived the show – she would wail in anticipation in the same way that some American ladies did in the 60’s when listening to Shelley Berman.

This was a great night out at the theatre.  Great entertainment, and a lyrical reflection not just of the English, but of what is human in each of us.  The playwright was Alan Bennett.  The plays reminded me of David Williamson – with that gift of putting on the stage characters that immediately call to mind members of your family or friends or neighbours.  Some may wish to put the comparison at a higher level.  Ibsen and Chekhov were not minded to write for laughs like that, but the greatest playwright of the lot certainly was – just think of the hilarity with which we greet the outrages of Falstaff.

A Life Like Other People’s is a memoire of the early life of Alan Bennett.  It is obviously the work of a naturally gifted writer.  It comes to us clean and simple – pure, even.  You wonder if the writer ever bothered to change a word.  Partly for that reason, the book comes to us as being candid.  It reeks of truth.  (In this, it reminded me of the memoire of Joseph Heller – another natural.)  The book starts this way:

There is a wood, the canal, the river, and above the river the railway and the road.  It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds, and going home on the train I pass the place quite often.  Only these days I look.  I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me.  Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog.  I suppose it’s a beauty spot now.  It probably was then.

For some people – not many – it’s just like turning on a tap and watching the water flow out.

The photo on the front of the book is of an English family of the time – probably during the war.  Dad is in a suit with a shirt and tie, a buttoned up overcoat, a trilby, a cigarette and a deferential smile.  He looks very like Stan Laurel.  Mum has a buttoned up coat and a beret for a hat.  (Her struggle with mental health is a large part of the book.)  She has her hands on Alan who has a shirt and tie, a home knitted sleeveless jumper and school cap.  The daughter is much younger, but she too sports a hat.

Alan got a scholarship to Oxford and for some time thought of teaching history.  But his involvement with the Oxford Review and people like Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller led him to the stage, cinema and television.  He has been prolific and hugely popular in all fields, especially in his autobiographical writing.  His personal life looks to have had its Byzantine moments.  People like Groucho Marx, Spike Milligan and Alan Bennett, who offer slashing and potentially lethal insights, tip-toe closer to the volcano than the rest of us.  Patrick White conveys the same feeling for me.  (Ibsen and Joyce terrified people – but for different reasons.)

The book fairly ripples with anecdote.  The ultimate threat to his family was to be described as ‘common.’  His Mum and Dad were very shy.  They wanted a quiet wedding – before work.  Dad’s boss would not give him time off to get married.  The vicar agreed to start the ceremony before 8 am but finish it on the knocker so that Dad could be at work by 8.15.  In lieu of a honeymoon they got tickets for The Desert Song at the Theatre Royal.  He once asked Dad an awkward question about whether he ‘touched’ Mum enough.  Dad told him to mind his own business, but years later Mum made a surprising disclosure that ‘Dad does very well you know’ – at seventy-one.  Bennett talks about hugging ‘and that other loveless construct, caring.’  And the aunties were like my Mum – infatuated with Now Voyager.  The attraction of that film, and Bette Davis, to ladies of that generation was fabulous.  ‘Oh, Jerry.  Don’t let’s ask for the moon.  We have the stars.’

This is raw diamond of a book.  It is included here to celebrate the life and work of the author.  It ends this way.

Sometimes as I’m standing by their grave I try and get a picture of my parents, Dad in his waist coat and shirtsleeves, Mum in her blue coat and shiny straw hat.  I even try and say a word or two in prayer, though what and to what I’d find it hard to say.

‘Now then’ is about all it amounts to.  Or ‘Very good, very good’, which is what old men say when a transaction is completed.

Here, then, is someone who tells it as it is – and he didn’t learn how to write like that at Oxford.