Do you ever get the feeling you want to kick over the traces and run away? I’m really fed up with my job and while I daydream about jacking it all in through some dramatic gesture before setting off to backpack round the Greek islands, it’s not going to happen. Not if I want a home to return to – the pesky mortgage will insist on being paid.
Fundamentally I’m not an anarchist, however much I might like to think I’m a free-wheeling, free-thinking rebel.
So I’ll just have to compensate by watching Marlon Brando films (any excuse) and reading about anarchy. The novel and play I’ve chosen suggest anarchy may not be the best way to go anyway.
Firstly, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). I studied this for ‘A’ level and it’s no exaggeration to say it was the bane of my life. I hated it. I found it so unbearable I never actually finished reading it and wrote my exam essay based on the chapter summary at the back of the edition we used (not an exam technique I recommend, kids). Events conspired against me and about ten years later I had to read it again for a course I was doing. Much to my surprise, I didn’t mind it so much this time and found it quite readable. A lesson there that I should return things I’ve previously written off – at the very least I can confirm my prejudices, which is always fun.
The Secret Agent was inspired by an actual event in 1894, where a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, accidently blew himself up in Greenwich Park. Conrad sets his story two years later, and the opening of the novels sets everything up expertly:
Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening. Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.
The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.
The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The Torch, The Gong—rousing titles. And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.
This basically tells you all you need to know: the grimy sordidness of Verloc’s existence, the fact that he is involved in some sort of subterfuge, and the involvement of his family at the edges, with his wife, Winnie, devoted to her brother Stevie.
Verloc is utterly unlikeable – lazy and self-serving, he is not an anarchist dedicated to a higher cause. His ‘comrades’ are equally despicable and pathetic, except for The Professor, who is altogether more sinister:
“The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition. To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct. He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind. By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.”
Conrad is highly sceptical of the motivation of those proclaiming themselves agents of societal change. The group of would-be anarchists plot a violent act, and unfortunately, skirting around them is Verloc’s brother-in-law:
“There was no young man of his age in London more willing and docile than Stephen, she affirmed; none more affectionate and ready to please, and even useful, as long as people did not upset his poor head.”
Stevie is an obvious choice, for those who would not want to risk their own lives in carrying out terrorist acts, to manipulate and control. The Secret Agent is fairly predictable, but the flash-forward/flash-back structure works well at sustaining plot tension, and its utter bleakness, while unrelenting, is effectively ironic in evoking politics where the principle is self-preservation above all else.
The Secret Agent was made into a film in 1996 starring Bob Hoskins as Verloc ,Patricia Arquette as Winnie, and Batman Christian Bale as Stevie:
Secondly, Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Italian theatre legend Dario Fo (1970), which you can read here. Like The Secret Agent, it is based on actual events. Giuseppe Pinelli was an anarchist accused of bombing a bank who fell (?) to his death from a police station window in Milan in 1969. In Fo’s play version, events become farcical, beginning with the Maniac being interrogated at the police station by Inspector Bertozzo. The Maniac denies being a con artist and impersonator, insisting he is mentally ill:
“I have a thing about dreaming up characters and then acting them out. It’s called ‘histrionomania’ – comes from the Latin histriones, meaning ‘actor’. I’m a sort of amateur performance artist. With the difference that I go for ‘Théatre Verité’ – my fellow performers need to be real people, but people who don’t realise that they’re in my plays. Which is just as well, ‘cos I’ve got no money and couldn’t pay them anyway…”
This metatheatrical theme runs throughout the play, with Fo using the dramatic form to demonstrate how public life can often involve playing a role. The Maniac poses as a judge to interrogate the officials on the fourth floor and explore the events that led to the fall of the anarchist:
“MANIAC: We’ll stick with the ‘right at the start’ for the moment… One step at a time. So, at about midnight, the anarchist was ‘seized by a raptus’ – these are still your words – he was seized by a ‘raptus’ and went and threw himself to his death from the window. Now, what is a ‘raptus’? Bandieu says that a ‘raptus’ is a heightened form of suicidal anxiety which can seize even people who are psychologically perfectly normal, if something provokes them to extremes of angst, in other words, to utter desperation. Correct?
SUPERINTENDENT AND SPORTS JACKET: Correct.
MANIAC: So we need to find out who or what it was provoked this anxiety, this desperation. I suspect that the best way would be if we do a reconstruction. Superintendent, the stage is yours.
MANIAC: Yes, go ahead: would you mind re-enacting your famous entrance?
SUPERINTENDENT: I’m sorry, what famous…?
MANIAC: The one that brought about the ‘raptus’.
SUPERINTENDENT: Your honour, there must be a misunderstanding here. It wasn’t me who did the entrance, it was one of my officers…”
As the role playing intensifies, so does the satire:
MANIAC: It’s true, I’m afraid: your careers are in tatters! Blame it on politics, friends! At the start you served a useful function: something had to be done to stop all the strikes… So they decided to start a witch-hunt against the Left. But now things have gone a bit too far… People have got very upset about the death of our defenestrated anarchist… they want someone’s head on the block, and the government’s going to give them – yours!
SUPERINTENDENT: Your Honour, you’re going to have to advise us. What do we do now?
MANIAC: How should I know?
SPORTS JACKET: Yes – what would you advise?
MANIAC: If I were in your shoes…
MANIAC: I’d throw myself out of the window!
In the second act a journalist turns up, the physical comedy intensifies and it all degenerates into total…well, you know. Accidental Death of an Anarchist is very silly, but don’t let that fool you. The satire is sharp and the theatricality informed and accomplished. It’s a play with plenty to say and it does it with great energy and verve.
There’s really only one way to finish this post: