“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

‘Tis the season of the works Christmas do, and this week I’ll be stuffing my face at not one but two dinners, as I’m going to both my old job and new job’s yuletide outing. I hate works outings, so I’d be tempted to proclaim that there is no God, but that’s not really in keeping with the season. So I’ll just say I’m not happy about the week’s forthcoming events.

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This week I’m looking at two stories that will help me stop being so ungrateful, as they feature horrific dinners with despicable people. Buon Natale!

Firstly, The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009, tr. 2012 Sam Garrett) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his wife Babette at a swish Amsterdam restaurant. Fairly quickly, it is apparent that Paul harbours a great deal of resentment towards his brother:

“Through and through, Serge remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting”

The dinner begins to unravel from the beginning. Babette arrives visibly upset:

 “Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

As they work their way through the dinner (the different sections of the book are split into the consecutive sections of a menu), Paul reflects on why they are actually all meeting – to discuss a horrific crime which has taken place – and recent events in his life. The further we get into the novel, the more of Paul’s personality begins to emerge, from a slightly controversial take on memorial stones…

 “The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiselled onto the war memorials.”

…escalating to an increasingly apparent violent nature and fascistic attitude to people.  A worrying combination:

“The little hairs on the back of my neck and my tingling fingers had not betrayed me: when the lower intelligences are about to lose an argument, they grasp at other straws in order to justify themselves.”

I won’t say too much more for fear spoilers, but The Dinner is a quick read, its light touch belying its serious concerns: should personal interest ever outweigh societal responsibility and what are the ramifications if it does?

Safe to say you’ll finish the novel mightily relieved that you never have to sit down to a meal with a single character portrayed within. And this is Koch’s master stroke. I desperately wanted the whole family to implode, for justice to be done. In doing so, I realised I wasn’t so very different to these repugnant people and their feeling of moral superiority towards others. It was not a comfortable place to be. The Dinner leaves a bad taste in the mouth, exactly as its creator intended.

Secondly, Festen (2004), the stage play by David Eldridge of the 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg (trigger warning: mentions incest). I was a huge fan of the Dogme 95 films and I saw the play in 2004 where it translated well to the stage. It’s a simple plot but powerful: Christian’s twin sister Linda has killed herself and as the family meet to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday, Christian makes a speech about why Linda would do such thing – the sexual abuse she and Christian endured as children at the hands of their father.

“Christian: I apologise for interrupting again.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’re here today because it is my father’s birthday. We’re not here for any other reason.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry if I led you all up the garden path before. I am sorry. I’d like to make it all up to you all now by asking you to charge your glasses. To my father.

Helmut: Well done Christian.

Poul: Yes, well done.

Christian: If you would all like to stand with me. And raise your glasses.

Everyone stands.

To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Unlike The Dinner, there are people to care about and root for. Despite the horrific subject matter, there are moments of levity and the play is warm towards the majority of the characters.  Reading plays can be an odd business, because it’s not the primary form for the story. I found the playtext of Festen very readable and affecting, but if you don’t fancy it, do give the film a go, as the story is a moving one and brilliantly directed (contains swearing):

What a depressing post this has turned into! ‘Tis the season of being grumpy about enforced joviality 😉 I promise I’ve a much lighter-hearted Crimbo post planned for next week. For this week, I wish you all a lovely load of Christmas parties, may they be as adorable as this dinner:

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“Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?” (Chris Rock)

This post is part of #DiverseDecember, which was brought about due to there being no books by BAME authors on the World Book Night list. Please head over to Naomi’s blog for an excellent, thorough discussion about this.

I thought I would start by looking at BAME writing that has emerged from that bastion of white, male middle-class privilege: just about everything the theatre. Firstly, Chewing Gum Dreams by Michaela Coel. This one-woman play (performed by the writer) was a huge success, winning awards and transferring from the fringe to the National.

Tracey Gordon, schoolgirl, tells us about her friends, family, and where she lives in Hackney, East London. She’s a bully and a victim of bullying, she’s sweet and vindictive, she’s loyal and she’s betrayed by people. She’s young and she’s trying to understand everything that’s happening to her:

“Candice Ellis is the buffest girl I’ve ever seen in the whole’a Hackney and also my best friend, from primary school – so the love is strong. She’s mixed race with perfect curly ringlets and light brown eyes. Her hair is PERFECT. She should be on an advert. She said she puts some Garner Fructis shit in it every morning, I tried, it didn’t work for me. And it smells like Kiwi; my hair smells like beef soup.”

Tracey gets a boyfriend, someone far removed from the casual sexual assaults she has experienced with other men:

“He’s a writer, he writes books, he wanted me to read some but – . He’s got really big ambitions, wants to go to Uni and that, he says there’s cracks in the floor ‘n I should aim higher before I find myself stuck in dem.

Cracks in the floor.

I tell him those cracks were made for me, they were made for my mum, and her mum and relaxin’ into them is what we do best. I ain’t smart enough to be someone I’m just smart enough to know I’m no-one. I’ve got nothing, so I can’t get nothing. I don’t even think I want anything apart from what, new trainers and longer hair.”

Of course Tracey wants more but as she says, she’s not sure what it is.  Chewing Gum Dreams captures a lot in a short space, about expectations and limitations, those we place on ourselves and those society places on us according to race, social class, gender…serious issues but also delivered with a good deal of humour and lightness of touch which makes it all the more devastating:

“ ‘Erm…No matter what happens, everything’s gonna be alright, yeah?’

She don’t believe me either. She gimme a face full of ashes and questions.”

Secondly, Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, also set in Hackney, and which also played at the National to great acclaim.

Deli is trying to run a West Indian restaurant in Hackney’s ‘murder mile’ while avoiding the crime that surrounds him:

Deli. You can’t run a business on lies.

Digger. You think a Indian man would do that? That’s why the black man will always be down, He don’t know how to analyse his environment.

Deli’s son Ashley idolises Digger, a man with a gun and an income of uncertain provenance:

Digger. And you wanna be a bad man? Go back to school, youth, and learn. You can’t just walk into dis bad man t’ing, you gotta learn the whole science of it. You step into that arena and you better be able to dance wid death til it mek you dizzy. You need to have thought about, have played wid and have learnt all of the possible terrible and torturous ways that death could arrive. And then ask yourself are you ready to do that and more to someone that you know. Have you done that, youth?

Kwei-Armah does a great job in showing the pressures that surround a group of men (and one woman) trying to make their way in the world. The restaurant is a microcosm, demonstrating how self-respect becomes bound up in wider issues of societal identity. Not all of us will worry about paying protection money to the Yardies, but the struggle to find a life that nourishes rather than degrades is a broad one.

“Deli. You know what I read in one of those ‘white’ books the other day? The true sign of intelligence is how man deals with the problems of his environment….(Shouts) …I don’t want to live like this Ashley, it ain’t fun….

Ashley. Get offfffff, you’re hurting me….

Deli. (from the heart)…. I’m trying, I’m trying to change shit around here, but you ain’t on line, bra! Where you are trying to head, it’s a dead ting, a dark place, it don’t go nowhere.”

Elmina’s Kitchen is a modern day tragedy, powerfully affecting, questioning and angry.

If you’d like to see Elmina’s Kitchen performed by the original cast, some kind person has uploaded the TV production onto YouTube so do take a look.

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(Image from here)

“I wanna be anarchy” (The Sex Pistols)

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.

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Fundamentally I’m not an anarchist, however much I might like to think I’m a free-wheeling, free-thinking rebel.

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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 TorchThe 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.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Me?

 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…

 SUPERINTENDENT: Yes?

 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:

“What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993)

Trigger warning: this post contains strong language and discussion of gruesome violence. Enjoy!

For almost two weeks (count ‘em: TWO WEEKS) I’ve had no computer.  It died 4 days before I had 12,000 words due for my Masters course so stress does not even begin to cover it, dear reader.  Once I’d got my essays done on my mother’s computer (which seems to view formatting as an opportunity to express a whimsical avant-garde approach to functionality  – don’t tell me they’re not sentient) I felt like I was back in the nineties.  Admittedly I had my phone made by a popular fruit-branded organisation so I wasn’t entirely offline, but it severely impacted my digital activity.  Now I have my preferred method of interweb access back, I thought I’d embrace twenty years ago:

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Now, for some people, their memories of the 90s are that it was like this:

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But let me tell you, people were angry in the 90s. My proof for this is the wave of new writing that emerged in British theatre at the time.  Sometime referred to as ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, writers like Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber wrote dark, challenging plays that usually involved protagonists waging psychological warfare on one another. So to start I thought I would look at one of the plays written by this new generation of dramatists; Jez Butterworth would go on to a work of genius in Jerusalem, but back in 1995 he had just written his first solo play, Mojo.

Mojo is set in a Soho nightclub, the Atlantic, in 1958 (unusually, as most new dramatic writing was resolutely contemporary. I remember seeing an interview with Butterworth at the time, where he said he did it to avoid being labelled ‘the voice of the generation’ which I thought staggeringly confident).  The owner of the Atlantic, Ezra, is locked in a power struggle with a fellow gangster, Sam Ross (neither of whom we ever see), over management of a pop ingénue (can you have a male ingénue? There are resolutely no women in this play) Silver Johnny.  Ezra’s employees Sweets, Potts and Skinny, his damaged son Baby, and the older lieutenant Mickey are stuck in the club, antsy with drugs and fear:

MICKEY. He’s out there. (Pause.)

POTTS. Out where? Out the back?

SKINNY. Fucking hell. Now?

SWEETS. Fucking hell.

POTTS. It’s a joke.  It’s Mickey’s joke.  It’s Mickey’s morning joke.

SWEETS. Out where?

SKINNY. Don’t you listen?  By the bins. That’s what they said. ‘You’re finished’ and ‘Look by the bins’.

SWEETS. You said ‘By the bins’. Mickey said ‘In the bins’.

POTTS. By the bins in the bins. Is that the issue here? If it’s ‘by’ are we safe?  If it’s ‘by’ is there a deal?

SKINNY. Mickey. Okay, okay. Indulge me. Please. Are you sure? Are you ten times out of ten sure that he’s passed away?

MICKEY. He’s fucking cut in half. He’s in two bins. (Pause.)

With their leader definitively dealt with, the boys are afraid to leave and stay sweating in the increasingly oppressive environment of the club, trying to hold things together while Baby, the deranged son of Ezra, completely unravels:

MICKEY. They’re going to come here…

BABY (overlapping) I wish I was more like you Mickey. I wish I was less like me, and more like you.

Pause.

MICKEY. Listen to me. They’re going to come here.

BABY. They’re going to come here.

MICKEY. Yes, I think they are.

BABY. Yes, I think they are.

MICKEY. If…Listen.

BABY. If…Listen.

MICKEY. Baby –

BABY. Baby –

Pause.

MICKEY. You think you’re in a book.

BABY. I am. I’m Spiderman.

Needless to say, it all falls spectacularly apart as power struggles intensify, betrayals are realised, and weaknesses exposed.  The feel of it is very reminiscent of Butterworth’s mentor, Harold Pinter’s, ‘comedies of menace’. The fast pace and punchy dialogue sweep the audience along to the violent end, as helpless witnesses to the carnage as the characters themselves.

I saw the revival of Mojo in 2013 (at the Harold Pinter theatre), and while the total absence of women in the play felt even more apparent, generally I felt it had stood the test of time (the 1997 film I found less successful, but it’s still worth a look for some wonderful performances). Butterworth’s avoidance of being the ‘voice of a generation’ seems to have paid off with longevity.

Secondly, another debut, which I chose because it won a prize that began in the 1990s, the IMPAC.  Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain follows James Dyer as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is incapable of feeling any pain.  Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, James is an “unnatural child”, one who never cries, even at the moment of his birth. He disconcerts those around him even if they’re not entirely sure why. While James’ state may seem enviable, while he cannot feel pain he also cannot feel its opposite:

“Pain, pleasure. He has glimpsed their coast, their high cliffs; smelt in dreams the loaded offshore breezes. But still he is surrounded by a calm insensate sea; his ship high-sided, inviolable, its great grey pennants streaming. How could it be otherwise?”

James is oddly remote, unable to relate to his fellow beings, a detached observer that suits the present tense narrative. He is an unlikeable yet tragic figure:  used by conmen and collectors who are interested only in his freakishness. He knows something is missing but he is unsure as to what.

“She sobs, cannot stop herself from asking if he loves her, truly, as she loves him, utterly, for ever, ever and ever.

[…] Agnes is on her knees beside him.  He does not know what she is saying.  Is she happy, afraid?  Frankly she seems drunk.”

He joins the navy where he kills without feeling, and becomes a highly accomplished surgeon, servicing the friends of Lord Byron.  What is said about James could almost definitely have been said about the mad, bad peer himself:

“He appears to have been born without a soul.  What, then, has he to lose?”

Ingenious Pain is clearly based on meticulous research but the novel never falters under the weight of it all.  It is beautifully written, tightly plotted with a strange, compelling anti-hero at its heart.

To end, something that for me just is the 90s:

“There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” (Jeanette Winterson) or “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Recently I fell subject to one of those viruses that seems never ending.  Basically for about two and half weeks I was behaving like this:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). I wouldn’t bother mentioning it, stoic that I am, except it meant I had to turn down a last-minute ticket to see Zoe Wanamaker in Stevie, Hugh Whitemore’s play about the life of the poet Stevie Smith.  I love Zoe Wanamaker and I’m sure she’d be great as the idiosyncratic Smith, so I did not take this in my stride:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). So to compensate for my loss, I’m going to look at two other instances where the lives of poets have been imagined, in a novel and in a play.

Firstly, John Clare (and to a lesser extend Alfred Lord Tennyson) as imagined by Adam Foulds in The Quickening Maze (Vintage, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton  300_tennyson

John Clare suffered with poor mental health for most of his adult life, and for a time was an inpatient at High Beach Asylum in Essex.  The Tennyson brothers move nearby as Septimus is being treated for depression, but thankfully this isn’t an excuse for Foulds to create conversations on the nature of poetry between the two versifiers (can you imagine? ‘What think you Clare, of this long poem of mine?’ ‘Will you permit me Alfred, to suggest In Memoriam is better name than My Friend Hallam What Died?’ Ugh.  OK, so Foulds would never be that bad, but sometimes these things can be so clumsy as to become comical).

Instead Foulds looks at the lives contained within and without the asylum, and the nature of their various freedoms and restraints.  Alongside the patients live the profligate Dr Allen, who has progressive ideas on treatment but lacks the focus to truly push things forward; his daughter Hannah, desperate for freedom but unsure how to get it other than by marrying; the grieving Tennyson yearning for his dead friend and for critical approval; and of course Clare, the ‘peasant poet’, determined to leave the built environment of the asylum for the forest beyond:

“As he worked in the admiral’s garden…being there, given time, the world revealed itself again in silence, coming to him. Gently it breathed around him its atmosphere: vulnerable, benign, full of secrets, his.  A lost thing returning. How it waited for him in eternity and almost knew him. He’d known and sung it all his life.”

Things begin to unravel: Clare becomes progressively more deluded, the doctor veers towards bankruptcy again, Hannah harbours fantasies regarding Tennyson which amount to nothing. But The Quickening Maze is a novel of quiet, closely observed drama of domestic life (despite the asylum and famous poets), rather than enormous, declamatory moments:

“From her window, Hannah could see Charles Seymour prowling outside the grounds, swishing his stick from side to side. Boredom, a sane frustration, a continuous mild anger: Hannah thought he looked like a friend, someone whose life was as empty and miserable as her own…he raised a hand to lift his hat and found he wasn’t wearing one.  He smiled and mimed instead. Hannah gazed for a moment down at his shoes and smiled also.”

Foulds is an accomplished poet himself, and this shows itself in tightly constructed prose full of startling images:

“She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence. She wanted to stay out there, to hang on her branch in the world until the cold had burned down to her bones. She could leave her scattered bones on the snow and depart like light.”

The result is a tightly plotted novel that maintains a contemplative, elegiac quality: perfect for the poets it captures.

Secondly, Oscar Wilde, as imagined by David Hare in The Judas Kiss, which premiered at the Almeida in 1998.

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The story of Oscar Wilde is so well-known, it can be difficult to imagine what more there is to be said on it.  What Hare gives his audience is an Oscar past his prime, bruised and sad, the architect of his own downfall.  The first act sees Wilde staying in London to face the court over allegations he is gay (which was illegal at the time) while his friends urge him to leave:

“Ross. Oscar, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. You simply do not have time.

Wilde. Do I not?

Ross. You are here to say your goodbyes to Bosie.

Wilde. Yes of course.  But a small drink, please, Robbie, you must not deny me.

Ross. Why, no.

Wilde. And then, of course I shall get going. I shall go on the instant.

Arthur. Do you want to taste, sir?

Wilde. Pour away. Hock tastes like hock, and seltzer like seltzer. Taste is not in the bottle. It resides in one’s mood. So today no doubt hock will taste like burnt ashes. Today I will drink to my own death.”

The knowledge we have of the outcome, rather than resigning us to Wilde’s fate, actually adds to the dramatic urgency.  I found myself desperately rooting for Ross, wishing Oscar would listen, that somehow the outcome would be different and he wouldn’t stay long enough to allow the courts to give him a two year sentence. But Wilde is stubborn, proud, defiant, and wonderful, as his selfish, weak lover Bosie testifies:

“You have wanted this thing. In some awful part your being, you love the idea of surrender.  You think there’s some hideous glamour in letting Fate propel you down from the heights!”

But Bosie doesn’t want Wilde to leave, rather stay and fight his battles for him with his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, who is  challenging Wide in court.  Between his own wilfulness and Bosie’s self-interest, Wilde agrees to stay…

In the second act we are in Italy with a Wilde after he has left prison and moved abroad “grown slack and fat and his face is ravaged by deprivation and alcohol”.  Bosie is enjoying himself with the local beauties, while Wilde is isolated and contemplative:

“I am shunned by you all, and my work goes unperformed, not because  of the sin – never because of the sin – but because I refuse to accept the lesson of the sin.”

The Judas Kiss is a tragic play, but not in the usual sense.  No-one dies, there is no physical violence, and yet we witness betrayal, destruction and loss.  It’s heart-breaking, and at the centre of it all is the great genius of Oscar Wilde, who we witness fading away.

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To end, the words of a poet rather than words written about them. Wilde responded to this trauma through his art, and created The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“My brother Bob doesn’t want to be in government – he promised Dad he’d go straight.” (John F. Kennedy)

Have sympathy for me reader, for it’s started and it won’t stop until 7 May. We are having a national election, which means turning on the news is to hear about how the various parties interpret the same statistics entirely differently, each claiming a victory for themselves; incessant party political broadcasts with production values only slightly above a year seven video project; smug campaigning by politicians desperately trying to disguise their smugness in a series of cringey set pieces to convince us they are in touch with something called ‘the ordinary man’…it goes on, and on, and on…

I’m going to cheer myself up with a picture of Rik Mayall (works every time)as Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, a brilliant piece of satire about Thatcher’s government:

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“We hear an awful lot of leftie whingeing about NHS waiting lists. Well the answer’s simple. Shut down the health service. Result? No more waiting lists. You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill and you died. And yet these days people seem to think they’ve got some sort of God-given right to be cured. And what is the result of this sloppy socialist thinking? More poor people. In contrast, my policies would eradicate poor people, thereby eliminating poverty. And they say that we Conservatives have no heart.”

Resistance is futile, so I’m embracing it this week by looking at writing about politics. Drama seemed to be the way to go, as there is much discussion at the moment about political theatre. James Graham’s play The Vote, is being broadcast live on election night, a real time drama about a polling station, making the link between theatre and politics explicit. It also means there’ll be something to watch other than endless exit poll speculation, for which I am truly grateful (I will be voting by the way, I just hate all the politicking).

Firstly, Stuff Happens by David Hare, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2004.  A ‘recent history’ play, the title comes from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction on being told that there was looting in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s deposition.  Watching a recent history play is a strange business, presenting events that will have had an immediate impact on our lives.  The play considers the run-up to the Iraq War, and Hare does a great job of balancing factual information and dramatic action; public speeches and imagined private conversations.  He looks at the main government players in the US and UK, exploring the political manoeuvring that occurs when no-one’s too sure exactly what the fight is:

“Rumsfeld.  I liked what you said earlier, sir. A war on terror. That’s good. That’s vague.

Cheney.  It’s good.

Rumsfeld. That way we can do anything.”

This obfuscation through meaningless rhetoric seems to be part of the politics of our age.  In this instance, we know what it led to, and Stuff Happens could be a very bleak and cynical play.  However, I think Hare encourages scepticism rather than cynicism when it comes to politics, using our knowledge of how events played out to deepen our understanding of why stuff happens, presenting the person behind the politician. There is heightened dramatic irony running through imagined private dialogue like this:

“Blair. I’ve been thinking. I’ve had this idea. I need…I think it might help if we had some sort of dossier. A kind of dossier.”

The knowledge that this ‘sexed-up’ ‘dodgy dossier’ would haunt Blair’s remaining time in office means the audience/reader witnesses this tentative suggestion with a sense of dread.  It’s a tough job to make politics entertaining when you have a duty to those who have lived it to keep to the facts, but Hare balances it all beautifully, and creates an entertaining and thought-provoking piece that is responsible but not dogmatic.  There are even opportunities for some wry humour, in this instance from the mouth of Secretary of State Colin Powell:

“There’s an element of hypocrisy, George. We were trading with the guy!  Not long ago. People keep asking, how do we know he’s got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? Because we’ve still got the receipts.”

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Secondly, another (less) recent history play, Democracy by Michael Frayn, which also premiered at the National, in 2003.  Set in West Berlin in 1969, it tells the story of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the first liberal-leaning Chancellor elected in Germany since before World War II, and his personal assistant Gunter Guillaume, who had begun life in East Germany, and was spying on the Chancellor for the Stasi.  The playtext describes the setting as:

“a complex of levels an spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work”

This captures the bureaucracy and paranoia of Cold War government, the environment in which Willy Brandt tried to effect change whilst being a bit…ineffectual.

“Brandt. Let’s talk about it. See if we can’t find a solution that keeps everyone happy.

Schmidt. You can’t keep everyone happy, Willy! Not if you’re running a government!  We’ve got come to a decision!

Brandt. Thank you, Helmut.  What do the rest of us feel…?”

These days Germany is such a powerful world leader, it can be easy to forget the fragility of its post-war state.  Even in 1969 Brandt was faced with:

“Two Germanies, broken apart like the old shattered masonry. This is the material out of which we have to build the world we’re going to be living in tomorrow. This is the only material we possess – the two Germanies as they actually are. Riddled with doubts and suspicions on both sides.”

As the government tries to navigate a way forward, Brandt and Guillaume’s relationship adds to the complexity of the situation, as Guillaume’s Stasi handler observes:

“You and Willy. You’re like some old couple who’ve been married for forty years.  He goes down so you go down.  He comes up again and….”

Democracy is a subtle, intelligent study of people and politics in a time where nothing is straightforward.  Brandt and Willy distrust each other and rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that defies easy definition.  It’s a play about politics but Democracy also succeeds on a very human level.

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If the electioneering has left you feeling somewhat jaded about politics, let’s end by looking back to the politics of the past, noble statesmen concerning themselves with issues of great import…

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon: