Friday, 10 June 2016

Meanwhile, back in Stuckeyville

Actually, Stuckeyville wasn't so bad. It had a bowling alley and warm quirky people with good teeth who helped you re-evaluate your priorities after the world kicked you in the face. But it has been an interesting, nay exhausting, week here in Stuckeyville's dentally-challenged twin city. 

Last Saturday we took a school trip to see The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre. It was definitely the biggest trip the English department has ever done - there were even several generations of ex-students as well as colleagues, ex-colleagues and a passel of our current undergraduates. Some had never been to London before, let alone the Globe.

This was a very odd staging of Taming. It's a difficult play anyway: a comedy (with lots of good gags and some technically-good-but-now-rather-uncomfortable ones) about how sarcastic/independent/disobedient women should be beaten into acquiescence by starvation, cruelty and the like. The usual way to get round the happy ending (Kate admits that she needs to do what she's told) rather than look like a bunch of misogynistic bigots is to play it like she's only kidding and she'll get her own back in some unspecified extra-textual future.

This production didn't really do that. It did something very odd indeed. It removed the Sly framing which makes the action a play-within-a-play, replacing it with an Ireland 1916 setting, complete with tuneless 'Irish' music and hammer-heavy didactic lyrics. The intention was to imagine that Shrew was being put on in Ireland on or around the time of the Rising to make us understand that just as the play is misogynistic, so was the Ireland that resulted from the Rising.

OK. But there are some historical and dramatic problems with this. Dramatically, it just didn't work: the only people who knew about this Irish framing were those who'd bought the programme like me – everybody else just liked the Irish music and thought it was nice to have an Irish cast. Historically: well, the Rising itself wasn't a misogynistic enterprise. There were radical feminists, socialists, communists, Catholic reactionaries and all sorts involved, and the Proclamation of the Republic, though expressed in the masculinist terms of the period and signed only by men, was pretty progressive, especially in comparison with the Constitution and state that eventually appeared:
The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past. 
Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.
British women didn't get the vote until 1928 of course. The problem with the Rising is that the British shot everyone they could find, including the progressive men. By the time Independence came round, previously minor and very reactionary types like Eamon de Valera had seized the reins (and handed them back to the Church): a Republic didn't exist until 1949 legally and one could easily argue that the ideals embodied in classical republicanism (let's leave Irish Republicanism to one side today) haven never been instituted. Ireland's women were betrayed, but not by the Rising.

Also: yes this is the centenary of the Rising, but I'm not sure why a British Shakespearean Theatre with a British and tourist audience felt the need to tell everyone that Ireland was a sexist hellhole. It's not as if the UK to date or colonial Ireland were ever paragons of liberation. I'm just not sure, in the end, what light the Rising throws upon Shrew, or what the Shrew throws upon Irish history. The acting was superb, the set design excellent, but it felt like such a half-baked idea, and I was actually quite glad that lots of people around me could enjoy the performance without sitting there fretting – as I did – about what it all meant. I believe this is what Caroline Magennis meant when she remarked 'this is why academics can't have nice things'. Still, at least lightning wasn't hitting the building next door this time, as it did when we saw Antony and Cleopatra.

The rest of the week descended into the banal hell of the post-teaching academic: endless piles of marking and moderation, putting together module packs for the external examiners, all interrupted at the most crucial moments by interminable meetings: negotiating committee, estates committee, board of governors and casework. Also – because I'm a complete idiot – I agreed to give a conference paper yesterday and was therefore trying to write that while juggling all the other things.

It was a lovely conference, on Communism and Commitment, basically talking about the emotional and quotidian lives of British communist members, activists, officers and apostates, and what happened at times of stress. Jane Bernal, daughter of Margot Heinemann and JD Bernal talked about her parents on a panel that looked at devoted activists who eventually left the Party, such as Douglas Hyde, who was converted from Methodism to Communism by his time as a preacher in North Wales and his experience in the South Wales valleys, particularly meeting Lewis Jones. After years as a journalist and energetic activist, reading the Catholic Weekly Review caused him to have Doubts, and he eventually became a deeply Catholic Cold Warrior: his confession I Believed was an enormous hit. I learned that the Daily Worker was basically like a Communist Tindr and that the Most Dangerous Man In Britain, Harry Pollitt, would give child visitors to CP HQ jars of his home-made fudge (hopefully called Moscow Gold).

I was on a panel talking about writers and the CP: the others were Glyn Salter-Cox whose paper was a tender, funny and revelatory examination of novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland's open, proud blend of Communist lesbianism at a time when the party was very conservative socially, and Matthew Taunton from UEA who used the recently available letters between Doris Lessing and her novels to explore the dialogic nature of her political beliefs and her literary work. My paper was on Lewis Jones, the communist hero and novels: I argued that far from being the propagandist his allies, publishers and enemies believed, he wrote Cwmardy and We Live as attacks on authoritarianism whether in the state or the party. It's all in there: even the hero's death in the Spanish Civil War is a form of suicide occasioned by his coldly ambitious wife, rather than the sacrifice of a true comrade. I think I got away with it: one Japanese scholar said he'd come specifically for my paper which was a bit scary, and another said that I'd 'set the tone for the conference'. At the time I took that as a compliment but now I'm wondering whether the subtext was 'you bastard' or if it was meant to be the equivalent of what actors say to friends in terrible productions ('well, you've done it again').

What I loved about this conference was that it wasn't just academics: a lot of people there were independent researchers, old comrades, trades' unionists and enthusiasts for Britain's radical past. While there were some recriminations about where it went wrong and how we should understand it (David Aaronovitch and Alexei Sayle got some stick for their accounts of growing up Communist) the wide spread of people and perspective meant that there was an awful lot to learn. Oh, and I met a Japanese PhD student who has translated CLR James's work, inventing an awful lot of Japanese cricket terms along the way. How do you translate 'googly' and 'chinaman'?

If you don't know the People's History Museum, it's a wonderful, welcoming place with an awful lot of material that British kids don't get told about in school. The first time I went there it was so interesting that I lost track of time and got locked in…

1 comment:

Phil said...

I thought that sounded like an interesting conference; it's the kind of thing I would have gone to - or even thrown together a paper for - when I was doing my doctorate, despite my research having nothing to do with British Communism. Glad it went well (and I'm sure your paranoid over-interpretations are just that).

That TotS sounds like a shocker. And speaking of shocks, J. W. Campbell is the spitting image of my Dad as a younger man - he went for black D-frame glasses and his hair hadn't receded that much, but otherwise that could be him (some time in the 50s, before I was around). Hi Dad, miss you.