“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)

“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:

“I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.” (Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride)

I have an enduring weakness for swashbucklers, which I think is due to watching Errol Flynn at an impressionable age.

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So of course I have been watching the BBC series The Musketeers, which ended a few weeks ago.  I was very put-out that [SPOILER ALERT] Marc Warren’s dastardly Comte de Rochefort died in the final episode. There wasn’t really any other option for his character, but Marc Warren always creates great baddies and I was sad to see him go (also he looked awesome– I think eyepatches should come back as a thing):

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I thought I’d console myself by looking this week at literary villains.  There are so many great ones to choose from, and villains are often so much more compelling than the heroes.  Of course some of them are just downright despicable:

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But generally the story is a sorrier place when they’re not in it (and therefore usually ends at that point).

Firstly, for obsessive, depraved stab-happy villains, you need never look further than Jacobean tragedy.  I’ve chosen Ferdinand from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1612). Ferdinand is the twin brother of the titular character and he is barking mad (quite literally, as he thinks he is a werewolf and goes round digging up graves after dark).  He doesn’t want the sister he characterises as a ‘lusty widow’ remarrying.  To this end he employs melancholic henchman Bosola:

‘Your inclination to shed blood rides post

 Before my occasion to use you.  I give you that

 To live i’ the court here, and observe the duchess;

 To note all the particulars of her haviour,

 What suitors do solicit her for marriage,

 And whom she best affects.  She’s a young widow:

 I would not have her marry again.’

The poor Duchess, being female, is entirely disempowered against Ferdinand and her other brother, a corrupt Cardinal.  She only wants love:

“Why should only I,

Of all the other princes of the world,

Be cas’d up, like a holy relic?  I have youth

 And a little beauty.”

She finds affection with the pretty steward Antonio, but normal family life never stands a chance in the depraved court where your own brother is sexually obsessed with you “my imagination will carry me/ To see her in the shameful act of sin”  and spends his time, when he’s not pretending to be a wolf, imagining you in flagrante:

Happily with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar; or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.

Yep, Ferdinand is insane.  Yet he’s part and parcel of a society that is utterly degraded and false.  In the hands of a good actor, he isn’t cartoony evil, twirling his moustache, but almost as much as a victim as the Duchess.  There have been two productions in London in recent years which have seen excellent performances by Harry Lloyd (Old Vic, 2012) and David Dawson (Globe, 2014) as Ferdinand, both of which captured his cruel depravity, and his tragedy.

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This being a Jacobean tragedy, I don’t think it’s a SPOILER to say that everyone dies, yet Webster gives Ferdinand a moment of clarity, and some of the most beautiful lines in drama, as his dying words:

Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Amazing. Those final lines make Ferdinand complex and insightful, and a truly great villain.

Secondly, another sure-fire source of colourful villains: Charles Dickens.  I’m not the biggest Dickens fan, but actually the things I don’t like about him (clearly delineated binaries like good/bad and one-dimensional stereotypes instead of fully realised characters) do make for opportunities to enjoy all-out villainy.  You can usually tell the villains in Dickens because he helpfully signposts them through names like Ezekiel Slime or similar.  In this instance, I’m going to look at David Copperfield’s (1849) Uriah Heep (see what I mean?) the obsequious clerk to David’s landlord Mr Wickfield. I chose him over a more obvious villain like Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, because he’s more insidious (although Bill Sykes outdoes every villain in the millinery stakes):

 

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Bill Sykes never tries to present himself as anything other than downright terrifying, whereas Uriah Heep is always trying to convince everyone of his humility:

“”I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite. I stopped at the umble point of my learning […] I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!'”

Of course, he is far from humble.  Instead his fawning manner disguises a vicious class jealousy and powerful ambition to take over the Wickfield business through blackmail, before marrying the virtuous Agnes (as someone who can’t stand Dickens’ pious virgins I think it’s not a bad match, but I realise I may be alone in this). With Victorian beliefs that appearance demonstrated character, it seems improbable that anyone would ever trust the unattractive Heep:

“a youth of fifteen …whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand…”

Yet he still manages to ingratiate himself quite successfully and defraud the Wickfields amongst others.  Of course, this being Dickens, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, so his comeuppance is inevitable.  Heep is a highly effective villain, wholly unlikeable and so oily he just seeps across the page. Uriah Heep : a villain so villainous they named a rock band after him (really).

To end, probably the most single-minded, seductive villain of all time (George Sanders’ voice is a joy):

“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…

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain” (Richard III)

Richard III is being buried today in Leicester Cathedral after his remains were discovered in the rather unlikely surroundings of a car park in the county in August 2012.  Controversial to the end, the reinternment of his remains has been delayed by legal wrangling between Leicester and York as to who should have the bones.  Richard III is one of history’s villains, often believed to have killed the sons of Edward IV to secure his own claim on the throne of England (significant crowds attended his funeral procession on Sunday, so maybe he’s been given the benefit of the doubt). This image is due in no small part to the enduring influence of Shakespeare’s portrayal in The Life and Death of Richard III (1591ish), helped along by Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film.

In the interests of balance I thought I would look at this play alongside a novel that seeks to rescue Richard’s reputation.

Richard is an unusual villain in Shakespeare, in that he is the only eponymous character to start his own play (I think…feel free to correct me in the comments!) as he comes on stage to proclaim:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

He is also unusual in that he starts with a trochee – bear with me, I’m not going to get too technical & give you flashbacks to the horrors of Shakespeare at school. But I think this is worth pointing out; most characters speak in iambic pentameter (dee-DUM, dee-DUM etc). Richard comes out and seizes the stage with “NOW is…” (DUM-dee): he is in charge from the off.

What follows is the story of a consummate politician doing whatever he deems necessary to seize the crown.  Although he tries to persuade us that his disability (a curved spine, possibly a slightly weaker arm one side) means that through medieval ableism he is marked for villainy (the title quote I’ve used is a pun – he is determined in will and determined by fate) really no-one is less disabled that Richard, as the powerful opening shows us.  He manages to bend everyone to his will; he seduces Lady Anne within one scene, despite the fact that he killed her husband:

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.”

This is the bleak humour of Richard III – he plots to kill his fiancée even as he seduces her.  Often the play is described as a tragedy, but it’s really one of Shakespeare’s history plays and the tone is ambiguous: the last production I saw, with Mark Rylance in the lead, played it as a comedy as far as possible.

Richard’s machinations eventually catch up with him and he is defeated by Richmond (Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth, desperately crying out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” A villain indeed, but the audience, like Lady Anne, is seduced by him against our will and the stage is a poorer space when he’s not in it.

Secondly, Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951).  It was Emmie’s review of another Josephine Tey novel that introduced to me to this author, and although I don’t normally read series’ out of order, I made an exception for Daughter of Time, as the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the greatest mystery novel of all time.

Inspector Alan Grant has broken his leg and is bored to abstraction away from his job at Scotland Yard.  His glamorous friend Marta suggests he try and solve a historical mystery to keep from going stir crazy. Captivated by a portrait of Richard III, he decides to investigate the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

King_Richard_III

(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_III_of_England)

Grant’s team is not comprised of his usual fellow policeman, and they all have varying theories:

“Nurse Ingham thinks he’s a dreary. Nurse Darroll thinks he’s a horror.  My surgeon thinks he’s a polio victim. Sergeant Williams thinks he’s a born judge.  Matron thinks he’s a soul in torment.”

As he becomes more involved in the mystery, Grant repeatedly finds himself in opposition to the legend of Richard III:

“’Always a snake in the grass, if you ask me. Smooth, that’s what he was: smooth.  Biding his time.’

Biding his time for what? He wondered… He could not have known his brother Edward would die unexpectedly at the age of forty […]It was surely unlikely that a man busy with the administration of the North of England, or campaigning (with dazzling success) against the Scots, would have much interest in being ‘smooth’.  What then had changed him so fundamentally in so short a time?”

Grant needs an ally, and it arrives in the form of American academic Brent Carradine:

“He was a tall boy, hatless, with soft fair curls crowning a high forehead and a much too big tweed coat hanging round him in negligent folds…He brought over the chair, planted himself on it with the coat spread around him like some royal robe and looked at Grant with kind brown eyes whose luminous charm not even the horn-rims could dim”

Between the two of them, they start to piece together what they think happened as various powerful medieval families jostled for the crown. The more research they do, the less likely Richard-as-murderer seems to be:

“One could go through the catalogue of his acknowledged virtues, and find each of them, individually, made his part in the murder unlikely in the extreme. Taken together they amounted to a wall of impossibility that towered into fantasy.”

Tey does an excellent job of balancing academic arguments and historical fact with keeping the plot moving (the novel is only 222 pages).  Grant concludes his investigation on the day of his discharge home from hospital, convinced he has his man.  Let’s just say Shakespeare could never have dramatised the conclusion he comes to.

To end, I can’t help thinking that if Richard III had a chance to set the record straight, he’d choose to do so through the medium of song:

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: