The Aldwych theatre controversy has ftcused public attention on the situation of the popular arts in Britain. In this article, W. J. IGOE, one of the best known Christian critics, analyses the trends which have led to the current questionings. 1-'0 a traveller returning from
foreign parts, Britain seems obsessively motivated by sexual titilation. It has become the national sport and in the popular arts is a major industry which exploits the past, maintains present producers, and imports materials from abroad.
Parallel to, and interlocked with the "sport". one finds the kindred cults of mindlessness and rebellion. Mr. John Osborne, who succeeded by adapting the technique of the soap box to the stage. was the pioneer of the twin cults.
Mr. Osborne has a rare gift for rhetorical invective which would have made him star value at Hyde Park Corner. If he has a talent for reasoning he has disguised it effectively. On the strength of the invective and Mr. Kenneth Haigh's vocal chords he achieved prosperity with Look Back In Anger. and he has been looking backward ever since.
He set a fashion. A comparison of his "angry young man" with the metaphysical rebel of Albert C amus should inspire the British visitor to France, if he has decent humility, to walk on his knee-caps.
Bardot and Bergman
The rot in the popular arts in general, first became apparent, I suppose. after the establishment of the so-called "X" certificate category in movie censorship.
The British Board of Film Censors is an admirable institution. responsible, fair and openminded. The "X" category was created to enable film producers to cater to adult audiences. The certificate. it was thought, would open a way to more intelligent cinema.
And, in this respect. it has not failed. But it also opened the way to the .exploitation of Brigitte I3ardot, strip-tease, and the finely composed and utterly morbid non-sequiturs of Bergman. The erotic has become the main stock-in-trade of "X" merchandise and as such is displayed in the advertising columns of the newspapers.
Distributors are largely to blame for this, just as they were to blame for the moronic movies that inspired the creation of "X". Their advertising. on the whole, is worse than the films advertised. They are, it seems, out to•sell something, anything.
In popular literature the rot is more apparent. Seven years ago, Printing News published a series of articles on paperback books in which the writer was able to commend the standards displayed in the art work and general publicity of such books. The standard of craftsmanship was high; no concessions were made to pruriency.
Today "sex" runs irrelevantly, luridly wild on the covers of paperbacks, oddly and especially on those displayed in neighbourhood newsagents' shops— the shop to which one sends a nine-year-old to buy ice cream or cigarettes.
In the case of the paperbacks, the rot, I believe. was accelerated by the Lady Chatterley case. No doubt the persons who gave evidence in favour of publication were well-intentivned : I also have no doubt some were, as critics of the novel, illiterate. No discourtesy, I should add, is intended by the word: it is the mot juste.
Ludy chatterley's Lover is one of the most mindless and ill-organised books eve' written by a major novelist. Earlier in his career, Lawrence wrote of fecundity, allowing it. as he saw it, to contrast itself with excessive industrialism.
In "Lady Chatterley's Lover" he sneered at sterility: the sterile symbol he chose was a castrated soldier. Hemingway, in Fieseta, used such a man as material for tragedy, but Hemingway had been a soldier.
In Lawrence's book. Lady Chatterley liquidates her marriage. because her husband was maimed in battle and her coupling with Mellors. the gamekeeper, is the mating of strangers: so far had Lawrence departed from the theme of fecundity that MeIlors is, opposed to children being born from the union,
Had "the pill" been available he would have taken it into the woods.
The descriptions of sexual intercourse, which received most praise from "the experts" are at best "poetic" nonsense, and at worst ludicrous. The genitals and flowers sequence. for example, conjures up thoughts of Harpo Marx.
The atmosphere of prepuberal celibacy that emerged from certain sections of the record of "The Trial" would have been touching had it not been, in the context, irresponsible.
More than 2,000,000 copies of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" were sold in paperback and heaven knows how many. have had their evaluation of sexual relations distorted by the solemn recommendation it received. Lawrence despised "sex in the head": the publication of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover" may have put mindlessly romantic Nes in the heads of many readers.
Buchan and after
When the Printing News published • its series of articles the best-selling paperbacks were Reach for the Sky, The Wooden Horse and The White Rabbit (one or two of these broke the then sales record by selling more than a million copies).
They were accounts of the adventures of men who had fought in the Battle of Britain, been prisoners-of-war, and had worked with the French maquis. They had a Buchanlike flavour and an attitude of nonchalant bravery: the attitude indeed that carried their heroes through grinding adventures. They were stories of endeavour,
Come November. it will be four years since the Lawrence item was published. Since then bookshops have marketed Indian sex manuals, a swarm of native and American novels, each of which featured a suc cession of strip-tease a n d coupling acts. and Fanny Hill.
The sale of the latter was defended, by an "expert" on grounds of its "philological" value. The defendant was the Magic Shop, an emporium in the Tottenham Court Road which specialises in what the Americans call "Girlie magazine?' and moronic "parlour tricks".
The crowds of philologists one saw outside this establishment during the trial suggested that academic circles in England are now exclusively peopled by Mods, Rockers and furtive middle-aged men. The magistrate who judged the case had a balanced approach to the science of language. He stopped sales of the book,
But the rot continues and in the autumn one of the most notorious works of pornography ever written will be publised by a respectable company. The expense involved in publication, we are told, runs into many thousands of pounds. Wide distribution is essential to make profits.
The author was a talented man, a great editor and a crook who in his declining years pathetically wrote the book to make money. From beginning to end it is obviously false; it is known to be designedly pornographic. It will be interesting to learn what "the experts" think of it.
More than an asset
In the theatre the rot has been less obvious because. on the whole, the medium caters for more intelligent people and actors are more serious men and women than writers.
The nature of their work, ephemeral as a great performance must be, demands a more complete and dedicated type of artist.
Sir Laurence Olivier's year at the National Theatre has shown that he and his advisers are aware of the riches available for his players. They blend the classical with the contemporary adventurously: a company that has given us Hamlet, Max Frisch's Andorra. Othello, Hobson'.s Choice and ancient Greek and 19th century Russian classics in its first season, is more than a mere national asset.
The Royal Shakespeare Cornpony, on the other hand. within the past year has pursued a policy that is not entirely theatrical, apart from its productions of Shakespeare's histories. The policy is polemical in a way that should be recognised for what it is, For example, Rolf Hochuth's The Representative, which was reviewed in these columns last autumn, derived from a massive script which was a blanket indictment of Pope Pius XII and the part he played in World War II. Before it was staged more than half the text had to be cut : the script was edited.
Popes, as was noted in the CATHOLIC HFRALr) review, are not above criticism. But Popes, like all men, merit justice: a dramatist has a moral duty to be dispassionate, even about the massacre of European Jews, if he chooses to sit in judgment.
One recalls the fine balance of Shaw's St, Joan. To those of us who heard Mr. Clifford William, who directed and edited "The Representative", speak on radio, it seemed that far from being dispassionate he was quite fanatically playing the part of prosecuting counsel. His rhetoric had no relationship to the facts of the case.
He was ignorant of the history he was interpreting. He nagged and was out to prove a Pope. a man many. with sound reasons, revered, a criminal. He was set on destroying a repute
Like many dedicated prosecutors he was earnest to the point of being solemn.
A tendency became apparent in the production of "The
THE POPULAR ARTS
Representative" and it has developed within the past year. Mindlessness became the dominating trend in contemporary work produced by the company. It has reached its apogee, one hopes, with Mr. Peter Brooke's production of The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Perforated by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (Aldwych).
Mr. Peter Weiss, the author told Londoner of the Evening Standard. when interviewed on the play's meaning, "you could say it is a Marxist play". No doubt you could, if you are Mr. Weiss, but you won't if you have read Marx. Marx had quite enough to answer for without having Marat/Sade foisted upon him.
This play literally is a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying, we are advised by the chief character, anything or nothing.
The Aldwych set is enclosed in something like the interior of a gasometer, painted battleship grey. A similar "gasometer" enclosed the Europe of "The Representative"; something like it was used in the company's production of Beckett's "Endgame". Our existence, it implies. is claustrophobic. In Mr. Weiss's play it encloses a mad-house.
The director of Charenton Asylum permitted the Marquis de Sade to write and stage plays, performed by his fellow lunatics. Such productions he thought therapeotic. Mr. Weiss's work purports to be one of the plays as presented by Sade in 180g. it takes a retrospective look at the French revolution through Sade's vision and argues the case for violence from two opposing angles.
The three main characters are lunatics: one is Sade, two are other imbeciles. a man playing Jean Paul Marat, the French revolutionary, and a girl playing Charlotte Corday who assassinated Marat in 1793. The young girl 'playing Corday suffers from sleeping sickness. "Marat's" form of madness is unspecified.
The play is a debate between Sade and Marat, each esconced on different sides of the stage. Their arguments are illustrated by ritual movements, Brechtian song-commentaries. and scenes from the revolution re-enacted by inmates of the asylum.
Some are in strait-jackets, shaven-headed men, wild-eyed women; all have porridgecoloured faces, some are toothless. They lurch aimlessly about the stage until each is galvanised into frenetic life by his or her part: afterwards they relapse or are beaten. by guards, into moony somnolence.
One lunatic. elegantly garbed in white-a dandy with his hair in a pompadour-makes lewd advances to Corday, The lady walks through her part listlessly: the performances are true to their context.
Sade was one of the few men recorded in history who pursued evil as a thought-out way of life. He believed in nothing save the senses, and for him the world was inhabited solely by bodies which he sought to dominate with his physical senses. A fanatical exploiter of his sexual nature, in his writings, he preached his way of life.
Drama critics on other London newspapers have accurately diagnosed many influettces in this production. Mr. Weiss's Marat is a "souped-up" version of a character in lb.sen's The Wild Duck.
Marat, originally a doctor, was an intellectual of sorts who at one stage in his career believed he had divined that the soul exists, but it is a chemical substance and inseparable from the body. Opposition to his political activities compelled him to take refuge for a time in the Paris sewers from which he emerged with an itching skin disease and a further itch to demonstrate that he could do better than God by recreating the world along his own lines.
His system seems to have largely rested on his power to sever the heads of those who opposed him.
The human problem
He and Sack debate their respective cases in speeches of uncommon banality.
In effect, the play reduces discussion of the human problem to a debate between a dedicated imbecile evil-doer and a lunatic moralist. We live in a madhouse, it says; these are its in tellectual protagonists. The situation is resolved when the "moralist" is slain by Corday, the innocent.
Sade, played by Mr. Patrick Magee. strolls through the set with something of the demeanour of a 19th century archdeacon who having gone to the dogs and finding them (the dogs) unrewarding covers his chagrin with a veneer of supercilious courtesy, like a head waiter from Claridge's eating fish and chips wrapped in the Daily Worker.
Mr. Clive Revill has to scratch as well as act: one sympathised with him. Made-up to resemble the study of Marat by David. he recalled one of Rodin's more mindless figures re-cast in papier mache. Like a rabbit caught in the headlamps of a steamroller he stared. Miss Glenda Jackson, as Corday, sweet in (I think) a pink nighty, wistfully drooped.
Buckets of blood, for the proletarian red, for the aristocratic. wittily blue, are poured' about the stage by "maniacs" reenacting executions. They giggle and think it great fun. It looked like paint.
At the close of the business Sade told the audience that it could make what it wished of "his" play. Sade, I suppose, as he truly existed. might have enjoyed the evening had the blood been real.
Mr. Hall as oracle
Mr. Peter Hall, managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, when replying to criticism of the production, made. partly on the grounds of its mindless violence. by Mr. Emile Littler, a member of the Company's executive committee, offered the following published statements: "At Stratford we have a man tied up and beheaded. We have a man killed but first a handkerchief soaked in his son's blood is bound around his mouth. But this is Shakespeare and no one has any criticism of this."
Mr. Hall is either extremely naive or believes there is evidence in the handling of plays that this is the case-his audience is naive. The Shakespearian context, he should know, is big enough to humanely resolve all the violence Shakespeare contrived.
Mara, 'Sad(' is set in the claustrophobic context of a lunatic asylum; "the players" throughout the action have to be restrained from their own violence in the interests of "the play". It presents the universe as an extension of Bedlam.
Mr. Hall continued: "In Marat we have a smash hit . . . We have been taking 000 a night". Mr. Hall is to be congratulated.
But one wonders if the nonreligion emerging from the Royal Shakespeare Company is likely to remind, say, Mods and Rockers, that they have a responsible part to play in a society that must create its own future.
"Modern playwrights must mirror the times and in these times of concentration camps and gas chambers men arc
more violent than ever before in our history," says Mr. Hall,
Mr. Hall's view of our times is dangerously limited, no less, one suggests, to himself. than to those of us who look to the theatre he manages and directs. We have not forgotten Belsen: the gas was turned-off twenty years ago. We won't have it turned on again but the despair his company's production of Marat/Sade might foster could impel those too young to remember to nihilism. His reminder of gas chambers to the rest of us, is impertinent.
The cult of mindless now rules, it would seem, the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The audience It would be untrue to finally imply that Marat/Sade is wholly representative of the work of the company.
Mr. Brook's production of King Lear, two years ago, firmly placed responsibility for society where it should be, on the shoulders of men, It was intelligent and a great actor made the point that when authority crumbles, a witches' sabbath dawns; which may indicate the present trouble.
Mr. Brook. like, Mr. Williams with "The Representative", makes his personal point in Marat/Sade. The point is neither intelligent nor amusing: it is excessively personal. •
He uses lesser, while good, players as puppets. Hochuth and Weiss are purveyors of scripts which directors may chop into shapes that illustrate the director's own personal viewpoint, or pervasive mood.
Shakespeare (even when chopped) set his own frontiers as, indeed, did Durrenmatt whose The Physicists was beautifully presented by the company. Too much power may be in the hands of too few at the Royal Shakespeare Theatres.
In the last analysis, however, the audicke is responsible. And the audience, whether in the theatre. at the cinema or when reading, can stay the rot.