Page 13, 11th October 1935

11th October 1935
Page 13
Page 13, 11th October 1935 — THE PEOPLE AND THE

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Organisations: Red Army, Catholic Church
Locations: London


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PLAY /3) R.11 .S.


Not long ago I said in this column that the chief requisites for a good revue were moral conviction and intellectual clarity. The Dance of Death, by Mr. W. H. Auden, with which the Group Theatre has just opened their season at the Westminster, is not quite a revue—it describes itself as a political musical comedy—but it is rich in these two qualities. Indeed, it is the only musical comedy that I have ever found it possible to enjoy.

Mr. Auden is a communist, hut his play is seldom disfigured by the puerilities of Marxist propaganda. although his conclusion is for me, at least, spoiled by its naive pre-suppositions. He depicts, with the aid of music, masks, dancing, and mime, the death which is at the heart of modern society. But his satire, though it is always pointed and inventive, has not here the passion which could turn it into poetry; and he falls into the common error of his creed in seeing decadence in only one class of the community. A glance at the society journals and a visit to the more luxurious picture palaces in the poorer districts should convince him that the world we live in is everywhere rotten at the core.

Mr. Auden has written elsewhere that the purpose of art is " to make men unlearn hatred and learn love "; and, although this may be a questionable maxim of ;esthetics. it is a noble definition

of wisdom. It is a pity, therefore, that he should be so far the victim of political shibboleths as to imagine that charity is peculiar to the proletariat.

What Is Death?

In fact the greater part of the Dance of Death might have been conceived by anyone with an eye to spiritual decay, although few possess Mr. Auden's ability to present it. He not only has a greater virtuosity in words than any other of our younger poets, but his play has tremendous theatrical vitality.

Nor is it surprising that a writer. who so reacts against the excesses of individualism, should choose an organic and synthetic art as the best medium for his message. All Mr. Auden's work has a moral and revolutionary purpose and the theatre has always been a good platform for propaganda—as the Catholic Church and U.S.S.R. have realised, And my chief criticism of The Dame of Death is that, while he shows the results, he does not sufficiently explore the causes of spiritual death. Communist hoots from the back of the theatre, the tramp of the Red Army, and .the waving of the Red Flag arc an arbitrary and very unconvincing solution for a problem which he has nowhere deeply examined.

It is not to my purpose here to dispute Mr. Auden's philosophy except to say that the mere fact that anyone, except a starving man, can embrace a view of life and a way of living so contrary to reason and to nature is a shocking indictment of Christianity in action.

If so-called " Christian Europe " had half realised the ideals of private and international charity, which are explicit in the oCiospel, it would not now be confronted by a parody of what it has betrayed. For a parody it is, however different and diabolical.

Personality Restored The Dance of Death was very aptly preceded by Mr. T. S. Eliot's fragment Sweetley Agonistes.

I have been trying to explain to my satisfaction why this seemed to me -o much more profound that Mr. Auden satire. I do not think i is because Mr. Eliot has more subtly adapted the idioms of modern speech to poetic usage, or because the impact of the play is more tense and continuous, or even because Mr. Eliot's views are very largely my own. His play has no Christian bias, but he does illustrate one point in which his philosophy is so infinitely richer than Mr Auden's.

In brief, he is concerned with the salvation and not the suicide of personality. His people, prostitutes and pimps, though they wear masks and obey a formal rhythm of speech and movement, are capable of damnation or beatitude. Mr. Eliot has preached as strongly as Mr. Auden the gospel of organic as opposed to individusdistie life, but he has never denied the soul's essential isolation.

The characters in Sweeney Agonistes are made in many more dimensions than Mr. Auden's puppets, and they correapondingly move us more deeply.

The Production The production of both plays, by Mr. Tyrone Guthrie and Mr. Rupert Doane,

was brilliant, particularly the first. It is a long time since I have been so stimulated in the theatre as I was by Sweeney Agonistes.

This was partly due to the admirable performance of Miss Isobel Scaife and partly to the extreme subtlety of the direction. And if the future programme of the Group Theatre maintains its present standard London will be able to congratulate itself on an enterprise which is in vital touch with what is adventurous in modern art and important in contemporary life.

Mr. Doone's various statements of his policy have sometimes seemed to hint that progress in any direction is the perquisite of the political " left," but it would be difficult to imagine a more catholic programme than the one he has drawn up Every healthy theatre. like every healthy polity, must be organic but that theatre and polity are doomed which ignore the rights of personality.

For my part I would willingly exchange all the learn-work in the world for ten minutes of Sarah Bernhardt in Phedre.

There is no collective substitute for the thrill of a great individual performance but that performance is not diminished by discipline or by a proper relation to its environment.

The Group Theatre programme, its selection of producers, but above all the presentation of Sweeney Agoniste.s, lead us to hope that these harmonising truths will be kept in mind.

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