Ascending an Empty Mountain
The Ascent of F.6
0 NE may disagree and find fault with most of what is said ane done in Auden and Isherwood's " The Ascent of F.6." (revived by the Group Theatre), and yet admit that there is something of the quality of greatness in the play. It is not easy to put one's fingers exactly on the qualities that make a work of real art, but the real thing can generally be recognised when it is seen. Whether on the large or small scale one is made aware that the work stands, as it were, four-square. It possesses a life of its own. It is, within its limits, a creation, not a mere imitation, reflection, critique. You cannot, for example, see this play without realising that you have had an experience, shared a judgment that is ultimately worth bothering about.
But the more one realises this the more one has to despair of the best experiences and judgments of our
times. The reality in this play is never an achievement; indeed it is worse, the play scarcely seems to accept a positive standard by which to measure the shortcomings of human nature and our own times. Complaint without a suggestion of satisfaction, defeat without any clear idea of what is victory, mockery without any sustainable ideal—these constitute nine-tenths of its theme. And the authors, aware perhaps of their loss, pathetically attempt to remedy it by dragging in a little supernegation in the shape of Buddhist philosophy.
THE play tells the story of how Michael Ransom (Alec Guinness) tries to achieve self-fulfilment in the face of a hostile world. From birth he has appeared a second-best, in relation especially to his showy and successful brother (all shell and no inside), Sir James Ransom (Gyles Isham). His mother alone realised that the outwardly second-best was real while the first-rater was a sham. James Ransom, as a politician, needs to work up a ramp in order to save British money in a threatened part of the 'empire. The unclimbed. ghost-haunted mountain, F.8, stands on the territory. The first white man to climb it will obtain the respect of the natives. Already Britain's rival is preparing an expedition. Politicians, newspaper magnates, suburban man and
wife, radio listeners work themselves up into a frenzy of excitement over the adventure which James, with their mother's help, has entrusted to his brother Michael, the best mountaineer in the country.
Thus, against the background of satire about the contemporary world, the little expedition, each member of which represents some particle of reality and sincerity left in that world, sets out under Michael, torn between his own ideal of complete purity of soul, formed of knowledge and virtue, and the temptation of self-will or power.
At the foot of the mountain we meet the Buddhist Abbot (Francis James), who somewhat depressingly confesses, after having expounded the philosophy of Nirvana, that he himself is already among the lost, Michael carries through, losing one companion after another, until in delirium at the summit he sees revealed the emptiness and falsity of all the people and motives that have gone to make the achievement.
His body is later found by the leader of the rival expedition.
TRY as one may, there is no clue 1 to worth-while achievement to be found in the play, except, perhaps, the spontaneous naturalness of two of the mountaineers. Everything is shoivn up hollow or futile—not excepting the progress which Socialism apparently works for—and the only hope lies in that form of detachment which kills the frail human in man, and blasphemes against the Creator who made us what we are, born to make the best of such social order as we can achieve and through which we can rise to occasional insight into a higher order.
The production at the Old Vic is very fine, and each of the actors does full justice to the authors' intentions in the lines, whether they be lines of great poetic beauty or of withering scorn. If Alec Guinness makes Michael Ransom seem at times well on his way to the lunatic asylum, I for one shall not quarrel with the interpretation.
WAS it by design that this play was given its first night on the anniversary of the two greatest tragedies in recent Austrian history—the twentyfifth anniversary of the assassination at Sarajevo and the twentieth of Versailles?
For all the author's disclaimer, Juggernaut is a piece of blatant antiNazi propaganda. Not that I think any the worse of it for that. The picture painted of Nazi Austria is scrupulously fair; there is not a word of exaggeration, and any Nazi seeing the play should be wholeheartedly in favour of it.
MY chief grouse against Juggernaut is that it simply isn't Austria. Dirndl and Lederho.sen won't turn a conventional English family into Austrians. There was quite enough local colour, but no atmosphere.
The von Allmens are devout Catholics. All Austrians are devout Catholics, even though many of them never darken the porch of a church. Yet there was not a single external emblem of the faith they so fervently practised. True, they talked of their religion, but in that same impersonal way that English Protestants talk of the theirs.
THE Jewish question was well treated. We had the contrast of the two Jewish types. Paul Nathan, the hero, the great Viennese specialist whose whole life was devoted to the cause of suffering humanity and who was driven to suicide by the diabolical doctrines of Nazi racialism. And we saw Otto Zimmerman, the Jew who crawled to Nathan for a pill to cure his overfed stomach pains, while thousands were dying daily of starvation all around; the Jew, as Nathan remarked, who had caused Nazi racialism.
I felt—I may be wrong—that the author's point of view was enshrined in the remark of Helen Steele, of the Hoover Soup-kitchen Mission, who disliked the word "charity" being applied to her work, but approved of the description " humanitarian."
Ot`'NF the actors, Leo Genn as Paul Nathan deserves special mention. Anthony Shaw and Helen Haye, as Alberich and Karoline von Allmen, did well, indeed brilliantly, in Act III, when they were in their old age. But perhaps the best piece of acting was that of Harold Warrender (Christoph -Muller). who in Act I was a jolly Austrian boy with a leaning towards mysticism and philosophy. and progressed gradually to a perfect American of the better type at the end of the play.
Saville TONY SHELDON.