Monday, 13 May 2013

Week Two – Wallenstein, The Sun Also Rises, Playboy and another novel

8th May – Wallenstein, at Sidney Harman Hall (The Shakespeare Theatre Company)
The play was mostly excellent, though it was a little jarring to hear something described to me as Shakespearean spoken by Americans and with an American translation (the phrase 'what the hell?' cropped up twice, which I suspect wasn't there in the original German). There were also a few too many comedy elements for a tragedy, even right up to a couple of minutes before the ending. And the main character gave a sort of commentary on proceedings from the present (where he's in purgatory), which mentioned the American constitution, a board game named after him and the fact that some of the characters didn't exist historically - which occasionally made it difficult to feel involved in the story itself.

But it was a great story, and it had some excellent acting (apart from the American playing an Irishman, whose accent was mostly American but then occasionally slipped into very bad Irish). Had a fantastic seat at the front (so at least I could see the actors' faces) and also got a free glass of wine because I still count as a 'young person', so the $20 ticket was a bargain.

Before I bought the ticket I was reading Phillip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. In one of those odd and slightly eerie coincidences, one of the characters was working on research based on Schiller’s Wallenstein, which added another layer of interest to proceedings. The Shakespeare Company have paired the play with Coriolanus, emphasising a hero/traitor theme which has some resonance. Wallenstein and Coriolanus were both great military heroes who ultimately turned against their homelands. Wallenstein is a little more complicated than Coriolanus though. Coriolanus has greater modern reverberations because he stands for the conflict between aristocratic military individuality and democratic political egalitarianism. Useful in war, he is a liability in peace and his betrayal of Rome stems from the betrayal he himself has received from the people and their politicians. But Wallenstein’s motives are less clear-cut. We are never sure if he is betraying his emperor because he thinks it is the only way to ensure peace in Europe (a justifiable motive to modern ears) or because he is simply an ambitious schemer who wants to make himself the king of Bohemia. In Dick’s novel, Wallenstein is compared with Hitler rather than Coriolanus. Both are again depicted as great military leaders (though I’m dubious about Hitler’s real abilities as a commander), both were led astray and ultimately destroyed by their blind faith in astrology and superstition, and both wrecked Europe with their crimes (or possibly failure in Wallenstein's case).

But how about throwing my hat in the ring with a historical comparison of my own? The Athenian general Nicias was also a great military leader and like Wallenstein he yearned for peace in the midst of a long war (the Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC). Both tried to broker peace in the midst of their wars – Wallenstein secretly, Nicias openly. Where Wallenstein failed, Nicias initially succeeded. The Peace of Nicias interrupted the Peloponnesian War – but the treaty was wrecked by his countrymen a few years later when they launched a long distance attack on Syracuse (in Sicily). Nicias argued in the assembly against this invasion, but was outvoted and then sent on the mission anyway as a general. When forced to lead an expedition he thought was madness he made mistakes; exacerbated by his superstition (just like Wallenstein). The poor omens made him stay at Syracuse even when it was obvious the situation was hopeless and that escape was the only option. Ultimately the entire army was destroyed and Nicias, a ‘man who, of all the Hellenes in my time, least deserved such a fate’ perished alongside them.

So, in similar circumstances and with similar aims, the traitor Wallenstein and the loyal Nicias took different courses of action when they disagreed with their leaders. Both ended badly, so perhaps the rather banal moral here is not whether or not to disobey a foolish leader – but to avoid putting too much trust in superstition.

10th May – Playboys from 1964
A bit of a cheat – during my day at work I started reading an old 1960s issue of Playboy (for work reasons, honest). In a single 1964 issue, there were articles by Vladimir Nabokov, Bertrand Russell and Ernest Hemingway, an interview with Pablo Picasso and a short Bond story by Ian Fleming. The old joke about subscribing to Playboy ‘for the articles’ seems to have had some basis in fact. I say ‘had’ but, for all I know, modern Playboys are just as intellectually highbrow. Though I doubt it.

In any case, it would be interesting to compare the cultural high-mindedness of those old Playboys with the output of modern literary or current affairs magazines. Progress or decline? They also had some fascinating advertisements too (in an un-PC, Mad-Menish sort of way)…

‘7-Up: The Man’s mixer’

‘As long as you’re up get me a Grants… Thanks darling’

‘Aristocrat is one of the world’s great smokes’ (remember adverts for smoking?)

‘If it’s the lean, strong look of you that attracts the lady, give credit to your Saxon Maincoat… quiet, knowing, unpretentiously male’

And my personal favourite. ‘This is a man’s world. Heady aroma of sizzling steak. An eye for beauties. It’s the world in which you belong… in your ruggedly handsome club shoes’

So, the big question of the day: where can I buy a Saxon Maincoat and a pair of club shoes in 2013?

9th – 12th May – Robert Rankin’s MechanicalMessiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age

Robert Rankin was one of the living writers I loved most as a teenager, along with David Gemmell and Hugh Cook (especially his Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, of which I’ve read every novel at least three times). As soon as I discovered them I devoured their previous work in a few weeks and then waited impatiently for whatever was next off the presses. Although my tastes have changed over the years, these three will always retain my loyalty and affection for providing at least some of the education which I was supposed to be getting at school. Sadly, both Cook and Gemmell have now passed away, but Rankin is still soldiering away and I’m still almost up to date with his output. I’m allowed to take books out of the Library of Congress, so decided to make getting up to date on Rankin my first priority before moving on to the heavy stuff. And this was an enjoyable read, if not as much so as those I read as a teenager. Partly that is because my tastes are different now (hopefully better) and partly that is because Rankin is quite a formulaic writer. But it’s also because his work can be grouped into four categories: the Hugo Rune books (initially excellent), the Brentford books (best of all), the steampunk books (like the one currently under discussion) and the other stuff (the not-quite-there stuff when Rankin had seemingly grown bored of Rune and Brentford, but before he discovered steampunk).

Rankin didn’t invent steampunk, but it is an inspired choice of vehicle for his ideas; perfectly fitting his eccentric Britishness (his American characters, including the Marlowesque Lazlo Woodbine, never really work). But at the same time it is more recognisable to an international audience than his Brentford books and has the added benefit that people seem to enjoy the genre enough to form steampunk dressing-up clubs (and I’ve noticed there is one in Washington DC). Still, as an Englishman I can relate even more easily to the characters sitting in the pub or nipping into Norman’s corner shop in Brentford. Partly this is pure nostalgia for the novels I was reading as a teenager, but it goes a little deeper than this. One reason those in-betweeny novels of the late 1990s and early 2000s didn’t work was because the settings were so strange to begin with (for example, Toy Town). Wacky plots and characters just merged into the scenery and those novels ended up as adventure stories with a few running gags. But in Brentford, the ordinariness of the stage contrasts with the bizarrity (new word?) of the actors, and that’s when things get funny. So whilst the steampunk settings worked for a while, and probably garnered Rankin a much bigger audience, it’s time to introduce that new audience to Jim Pooley and John O’Malley.

12th May – The Sun Also Rises
I suppose I ought to make a confession at the outset. Despite what you might infer from my own grace and panache on the dance-floor, I am not actually a classically trained dancer. Or a connoisseur of dance in my capacity as a spectator. In fact, to my eternal shame, this is my first visit to the ballet. This does create a few problems of analysis. In thinking critically about any subject, the first step is to compare the subject with others of its type. Sometimes we can be more specific still, going beyond considerations of medium and genre to comparisons between this work and other examples of the creator’s handiwork. So writing about my first trip to the ballet creates problems. Was that use of giant puppets original or clichéd? Was the lead character’s disrobing into only his underpants (twice!) daringly transgressive, or do all ballets contain similar scenes to titillate the female-majority audience (which would make his frolic in the bathtub a sort of male wet t-shirt contest for posh ladies)? The boxing scenes were beautiful, but then I suppose lots of ballets contain fight scenes. Are there many other ballets set in 1920s Paris and do they all utilise popular French songs and the can-can? That last seems obvious enough to be banal, but if Parisian ballets are a rarity, perhaps I have witnessed something special today? I suppose one answer would be to read the ballet reviews of more experienced hands, to get a better idea of context, but that sounds like too much hard work (and too close to my day job to be enjoyable). So instead let me present my novice impressions, which perhaps I’ll revisit when I’ve seen a few more ballets.

The first point to make is that ballet audience like to give the performers lots of encouragement. If I hadn’t already been to a couple of plays in America, I might have thought this was an example of American exuberance, but since Wallenstein wasn’t constantly interrupted by rounds of applause after every scene and soliloquy, we’ll have to put it down as a ballet thing. Before the performance even started, we had Septime Webre appear on stage to give an introduction (which isn’t something you tend to get with plays), which involved taking part in four separate rounds of applause (though one of those was for Mothers’ Day). We also applauded at the end of each scene, at the end of each dance sequence, whenever somebody, somewhere mistakenly thought it was the end of a dance sequence, and whenever a dancer did something especially difficult (it’s lucky that it wasn’t me initiating the applause, because all the dance moves looked difficult). My curmudgeonly distaste for over-applauding aside, this did contribute to a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Briefly, the story centres on an American war veteran in 1920s Paris, living in the shadow of World War One. He was injured in the war and is now impotent, but is in love with an English double divorcee who is herself engaged to a Scotsman and flitting between a couple of other lovers during the story. The story works well and is told with precision and insight, but one niggling complaint is the depiction of those 1920s Americans as the ‘Lost Generation’. Surely the ‘Lost Generation’ refers to those who actually died in the war, and especially the dead of those countries which suffered much higher rates of mortality than America did, not a handful of intellectuals living it up in Paris sometime later? Is there currently a ‘lost generation’ of Australians working in London’s pubs?

The score was highly evocative of jazz age Paris, and the move to Spain in the second Act was accompanied by a musical adjustment to a Latin tempo which worked fantastically. The scenery was mostly quite drab, except in Spain, which was disappointing. However; the idea of having the surtitles appear in the title card silent film style was inspired, the costumes were stunning, and the dancing itself was dazzling. Everything had the appearance of effortlessness, until I pictured myself on stage and realised the sheerest unlikelihood of ever attaining such summits. I struggle to make picking up my four year daughter look effortless, so perhaps I was never cut out to be a ballet dancer.

Whenever a novel is adapted for film you can count on one of your friends pointing out that the film wasn’t as good (only second-rate novels make really great films). And no doubt a mostly wordless dance version of a profound novel will inevitably be lacking some of that novel’s depth. But as I haven’t read the novel, I could enjoy the story I was given in blissful ignorance.  Still, it does suggest a wider question: is ballet high-art because it is inherently ‘high’, or because it is watched by rich people? Plato criticised tragedy because it irrationally aroused emotions – whether or not that is a fair criticism of tragedy, does it apply better to ballet? Ballet can’t really get across deep philosophical insights. What it can do is evoke emotion and awe, but is that enough? Perhaps ballet is the theatre’s equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster: a superficial but emotion tugging experience, but with grace and beauty instead of explosions and pithy one-liners.

There is a wider question of cultural relativism nagging at the back of mind: why do governments subsidise the high arts? I’m talking of the UK here, because I don’t know the situation in America. The audiences for ballet and opera are well-heeled, so they probably would still survive, to some extent, without subsidies. Do we value them more highly than other, less subsidised art forms? It seems that there is a special place for arts like ballet and opera, but why do we consider them so valuable? Surely our governing ideology is cultural neutrality? If all cultures are equal, why not simply let the free-market decide which arts get the money. If the market wishes to support reality TV shows and talent shows, then so be it. But if we accept that some cultural practices (ballet, opera) are more worthy of government support than others (lap-dancing), then does that imply that similar judgements could be made of other cultures? One suspects that some hypocrisy is at work: lip service is paid to the equality of all cultures but at the same time our politicians selfishly give money to support the interests that they themselves deem worthy. Or do the government support these arts because they used to be important? In other words, is the government essentially the curator of a cultural museum, keeping ballet and opera alive out of antiquarian interest?

Next week, Coriolanus, a visit to the National Art Gallery, the new Star Trek film and The Three Musketeers at the Synetic Theater

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