Archive for the 'drama' Category

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

The Taming of The Shrew at Stratford

May 23, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew is not a play I know particularly well – I’ve never taught it – and I’ve only ever seen one (school) production previously, so perhaps this was not an ideal version as my first professional performance. The Christopher Sly induction was cut completely, although I can’t say this affected the play for me; some think there was a counterbalancing section, now lost, that originally closed the play, in which case I might have seen the point.

It’s a very problematic play, in terms of attitudes to women, creating real issues for contemporary productions of the play, much as The Merchant of Venice does in terms of anti-Jewishness in the text. So there was a very real challenge to the audience at Stratford in the director’s decision to reverse the gender of all the characters… For me, this didn’t get the play off to a very good start as the (admittedly stunning) costumes of the now female main characters dropped everything into what felt like a Restoration Comedy setting, and Shrew isn’t a Restoration Comedy. Shaking this incongruousness off eventually, I concentrated on enjoying the play; it made me think a lot, but overall didn’t leave a very positive impression.

Here’s why: above all there was a real imbalance in the performances of Petruchia and Kate (yes, his name wasn’t changed to a masculine version, for there isn’t one). Hers was a virtuoso one, his just faded into the background, he was a man basically being tormented and abused, and he was unable to show any sense of love – or any real feeling – developing for his partner. The crucial speech in the final scene felt like concession only, without any of the edge a skilful performance is capable of giving it. And this is where I decided, after ruminating overnight, was the major flaw in the director’s conception: although we may not like it, there is a well-known model for a shrewish female which we will ‘accept’ for the purpose of performance; there is no available male counterpart for this, which leaves the gender-swapped role merely hollowed-out and empty; possibilities for comedy are removed, and there is only suffering. The main character became a non-character.

The other side of this, for which the conception deserves credit, is just how awkward the entire gender-role reversal made this male member of the audience feel, and that is important in itself: the outrageousness of some attitudes and behaviours towards women was powerfully brought home.

However, the performance lacked coherence for me, and I cannot in the end get away from the feeling that what was obviously intended as a challenge to the audience was more of a gimmick than anything else.

On Shakespeare’s birthday

April 23, 2019

I don’t recall meeting any of Shakespeare’s plays until I got to the fourth form and began my O Level Eng Lit course: we studied The Merchant of Venice, with an inspirational English teacher who wasn’t afraid back then to explain everything, including the bawdy bits. I was fascinated to finally be reading this writer whose fame and reputation I’d heard so much about, and I came to love the moral complexities in that play. I can still reel off vast sections which I must have learnt by heart as I revised. It wasn’t until years later that I actually got to see it onstage, and the most memorable performance was one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the 1990s, where Portia was played as a woman who was old enough to be worried about being left an old maid, and Bassanio was clearly also no longer in the prime of youth and an evident gold-digger… Sadly, I only had a couple of opportunities to teach the play in my entire career.

A Level brought two tragedies, King Lear and Othello. The former still moves me to tears when I read it and I look forward one day to seeing a decent performance onstage; the only one I’ve seen so far was truly abysmal and best forgotten. Othello I loved, too, and have taught more times than I care to remember; I’ve seen a number of memorable performances including a couple at Stratford with the RSC, though I still like Willard White paired with Ian McKellen best of all, a TV performance I’ve watched countless times with students. Iago’s cold, calculating and incomprehensible evil comes across so powerfully as he struts in his corporal’s uniform, and you have to be really quick in the closing moments to see the brief and sinister darkening of the moustache…

I was lucky enough, at school, to have been taken to see plays at what was then the revolutionary – in more ways than one – new Nottingham Playhouse, where I was fortunate to see one of Ian McKellen’s first, if not his first, performances as Hamlet. In the end, however, that was a play that I never really warmed to, just as I always found Macbeth somehow unsatisfactory, although if you look up my post on the performance I saw at Stratford last year, you will see that I finally got to see a performance that transformed my appreciation of that play.

Although I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare enormously, it was always against the backdrop of examinations, especially with younger students whose enjoyment I feel was sometimes marred by the need to ‘get it right’ for an examiner. I particularly hated having to teach plays for the SATs at age 14 (now long gone, thank God) and felt constrained when Romeo and Juliet was up for testing as it was rather a challenge explaining all the obscenities to students that young… it’s a play much more suited to GCSE. But grinding thorough Julius Caesar or Macbeth with a 75-minute examination in view also felt like a bit of a chore, and at times I wondered how much of a love for the bard the students would end up with.

Obviously when students have chosen to study Eng Lit in the sixth form, it’s all rather different: there’s more time to do justice to a play, and students are more thoughtful and mature in their approach, and we could enjoy the language and the jokes, the wit and the vulgarity to the full. We could explore alternative possibilities and interpretations and this was positively encouraged by the syllabus at times. This is where I came to love two plays above all: Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; ask me one day which is my ‘favourite’ Shakespeare play and it will be one of these two, depending on whether there is an ‘r’ in the month or which way the wind is blowing. Why? Othello for the evil of Iago, the innocence of Othello and the shock when everything that was perfect is turned to dust for him, and the feistiness of Desdemona, until she cannot understand what is happening to her and her husband any more… Antony and Cleopatra for the passion of age that is not youth, and the giving up of worlds for that passion… Both plays for the sublimity of the language.

Sometimes I engage briefly with the scholarly arguments about who wrote the plays; most of the time I do not care. Someone – William Shakespeare, most probably – wove and knitted words so magically some four centuries ago that they can take us to places, take us inside people, show us feelings that can take us far beyond ourselves, can entertain us, make us think, move us to tears. It’s all invention, and it’s all wonderful.

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

April 14, 2019

41hbjX8V5KL._AC_UL436_ I’ve always found Shakespeare’s comedies rather difficult. I know they’re not necessarily meant to be ha-ha funny – a comedy is a play with a happy ending rather than a humorous play, as we understand the word comedy nowadays – but I’ve usually found the subject-matter either challenging to get to grips with, or just boring. So, for example, I’ve never liked A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are rather too problematic to be labelled comedies. For me, the craziness of Twelfth Night is the best it gets. And now, I’m wrestling with The Taming of the Shrew, which is one of the two plays I’ll be seeing at my Shakespeare study week this year, when we go to the RSC at Stratford (the other is As You Like It).

I’ve only once seen a performance of the play before, and that was a school one, at the school where I used to work, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the RSC interprets it, although the reviews lead me to believe it will be one of their challenging performances, with gender role-swapping and so forth, which I’ve found bearable and sometimes mildly illuminating in previous years, although overall I tend to feel such changes are gratuitous.

The play itself is an oddity. It’s framed – or part-framed by an ‘induction’, with a drunken peasant tricked into believing he is in fact an aristocrat, to be entertained with the play itself – but either Shakespeare forgot about this element, as it disappears after the second act, or, more likely, via garbled transmission of the text, the rest of that framework has been lost. And then we have the marriages game: several suitors chasing the pleasant younger daughter who cannot be married until someone has taken the ‘shrewish’ elder daughter off her father’s back. How to marry off the right characters with each other is a staple of comedy of that time; the patriarchal structures of Shakespeare’s time, and the designation of a woman as a ‘shrew’ are rather more difficult for a twenty-first century audience to countenance. And everything comes down to the final, apparent ‘submission’ speech which Kate makes in the last scene: how are we to take this? At the moment I have the impression she has finally met a man who is as cracked or as awkward as she is: there is an equality to the pairing of Petrucchio and Kate which redeems the play somewhat. And setting their courtship against the scheming that those involved in the chasing of Bianca are involved in also makes them seem well-matched to each other.

Obviously the ending of the play can be seen as open, and this is what Shakespeare is wont to do very often: to leave his audience feeling somewhat uncomfortable, with the idea that there is no easy answer, no simple conclusion or interpretation of what he has presented onstage. Male and female roles and positions in society were very different then, at least from those available in much of the West nowadays. And so many of us today ease our consciences with the notion that Kate knows exactly what she is doing, that she is publicly appearing to submit to ease the minds of everyone watching, but that her love for and relations with Petrucchio will be rather more equal, more balanced, within the paradigms of the times.

What I like most about productions of plays is that I can dislike the interpretations offered by a director, and nevertheless come away with plenty of food for thought, and I’m hoping this is what I get next month…

James Shapiro: 1606 Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

February 28, 2019

51b-1ngINUL._AC_US218_This is obviously a follow-up to the author’s earlier 1599, which dealt with the context to another significant year in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. Here the focus is on a different reign – that of James 1 – and a different social context, with the background to three significant tragedies, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. There is also the fall-out from the Gunpowder Plot of the previous autumn, and James’ ongoing drive for the union of the crowns of Scotland and England.

The anxieties of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign may have passed, but life was no more settled, and events showed that James’ hold on the throne and his acceptance by the people was not completely secure. The status of the theatres was just as parlous, what with recurrent plague and the growing Puritan dislike of people enjoying themselves. I had been aware of the fact that a law was passed to eliminate profanity, which had eliminated most of the oaths and swearing from Shakespeare’s and other dramatists’ plays but hadn’t quite realised the implications of this, as, in the spirit of the law every existing text had to be amended, 1984-style, to remove all objectionable matter: the penalties were too severe for theatres and publishers not to do this. And of course this meant that the great First Folio of 1623 is in fact a bowdlerised edition of Shakespeare’s plays…

King Lear is set against the backdrop of Britishness which the new kind propounded: Englishness is out with the king imported from Scotland. We are shown the structural complexity of the play – it’s the only tragedy with a fully-developed subplot – and there is interesting exploration of the use of negative language in the play. Context in terms of equivocation, and references the the Gunpowder Plot are all fully detailed, too, as are the many significant differences between the Quarto and First Folio texts.

Similarly, James’ obsession with witches and witchcraft, and how this is explored in Macbeth, is very interesting, and again the phenomenon of equivocation is embedded. You will need to read the relevant chapters to get to the bottom of this Jesuitical device for justifying being economical with the truth and how outrageous everyone was supposed to find it at the time. And we realise just how Shakespeare was treading on eggshells writing the Scottish play, during the reign of a Scottish king, depicting two kings of Scotland being killed: both of those deaths take place off-stage, understandably, but not in the spirit of the onstage gore of the times. And this in the immediate aftermath of the plot to blow the king up with gunpowder.

There is good depth and detail in Shapiro’s exploration of all three plays he treats in this volume: the context is very enlightening, and surprising amounts of new insights and interpretations, even for me as a long-time student of Shakespeare. There was also a good deal of fairly tiresome and tedious stuff about court masques and entertainments, and despite the title, Shapiro actually spreads his net quite widely, going back at times to the 1580s as well as looking at Shakespeare’s final years. Overall, though, a book I’d very much recommend to any serious reader of Shakespeare.

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

James Shapiro: 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

November 19, 2018

51+KGzVMCUL._AC_US218_I’d been aware of Shapiro’s two books looking at particular year’s in Shakespeare’s life and creativity cycle and have finally got around to reading the first of them. Shapiro shows us just how much the dramatist was a creature of his time – which isn’t surprising at all – but does manage to marshal and present a wealth of contextual background evidence. Unfortunately the major events of 1599 centre around all the scheming of the Earl of Essex and his adventures in Ireland, and is a little dull when presented in minute detail…

But 1599 was a key year in Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist as he was beginning to move away from the histories and comedies upon which he had built his considerable reputation, looking for new areas to work in: it was the year of Hamlet, for instance. And there is much on the complexity of the development and versions of the text of that play, which will be of interest to more academic readers: how do we know what was the version actually played at the time? Answer, we don’t, but it wasn’t any of the currently popular textual editions which are all far too long for the duration of Elizabethan theatrical time-slots.

We learn a good deal about the Tudor police state (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) and the myriad dangers of the times, the closing years of Elizabeth I’s reign, with no clear successor in view and various parties jockeying for influence. This helps to reveal just how political some of Shakespeare’s plays were – and even more so to his contemporary audiences who would pick up on allusions that go by us – and how carefully he trod the minefield of the times. We may ask ourselves whether in the end he was just safely fence-sitting, or extremely aware of the complexities of all the issues in play? We just need to pay careful attention to all that goes on and is alluded to in Julius Caesar to be aware of this question.

An interesting idea that had never occurred to me was Shapiro’s suggestion that the enormous popularity of the theatre at the time was because it was filling a gap that had been left by the extirpation of all the Catholic religious ritual and pageantry by the savagery of the English Reformation.

Much of what Shapiro offers in relation to Shakespeare’s life and career is necessarily speculative, but it’s valuable nevertheless in the ways it fills out a picture of the man in his times and places; the focus on a single year, which Shapiro also does in his other volume 1606, is interesting because it does give the reader a sense of being a part of all the events and among all the personages of the year.

All-in-all a worthwhile read, and I will read 1606 at some point, too. Although so much of Shakespeare’s life and adventures are unknown and now unknowable, it’s nevertheless fascinating to imagine oneself a bit deeper into the man’s life and times.

Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

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