Nov 15, 2007

Marxist, Sympathetic or Un-?

For subway reading I've printed out Jay Rayner's much-discussed, ultra-long Guardian essay about why "political theater" always means left-of-center theater, and though I haven't really read it yet, I'm already bored by it. Not fair, I know, but it's an old and tiresome topic. But a quick skim revealed this odd detail, an attribution to Guardian critic Michael Billington:

'There is one dramatist who is emotionally conservative and that's Tom Stoppard,' [Billington] says. He points to the unsympathetic portrayal of the Marxist academic in his most recent play, Rock 'n' Roll, and talks about the way Stoppard draws on his experiences as an emigre from eastern Europe and the part the failed Communist project played in the narrative of his life. 'Tom is an articulate, reasoned champion of small-c conservative values.'

Problem is, that doesn't quite square with Billington's review of the play:
Stoppard treats Max's convictions seriously and allows him to score strong debating-points: he is, in fact, the first sympathetic Marxist I can recall in all Stoppard's work.

I've added the emphasis here, obviously, but I'm wondering what accounts for this difference. Is Billington's baseline perception of Stoppard's conservatism already sufficiently far to the right that Max is, by that standard, relatively sympathetic, but that in the larger left/right context, outside Stoppard's ouevre, Max would be considerd unsympathetic? David Cote noticed something similar, though he curiously inverts the point of view, in his recent Time Out NY review:
Worst, [Stoppard] refuses to give Cox’s absurdly doctrinal Communist (an intellectual bully only this playwright could love) his proper comeuppance. Such absence of moral courage causes the work to conservatively fade away, not burn out in a blaze of rock glory.

My take is that Stoppard is wise enough to know that we bring plenty of anti-Soviet baggage to such a play (I mean, I know I do, at least), and that the far more interesting thing to do with an apologist for the Soviet experiment is not to demonize Max but to show his conflict with Jan as the sort Shavian struggle of right against right, or as someone recently put it to me, of justice vs. responsibility.

UPDATE: All right, Rayner's piece isn't that boring, but it certainly does natter on, don't it? If the G hadn't been running so (typically) poorly last night, I wouldn't have finished the piece.

For me the buried gem is David Hare's piss-take on Beckett:
'Of course there's very little theatre which openly argues a hard-right programme,' [Hare] says. 'But the dominant strain in most modern art theatre is fatalistic. The tone of a great deal of avant-garde work, in particular, is of prettified acceptance of life's seemingly inevitable hardships. Some of the most famous playwrights of the past 60 years have reacted to suffering by implying there's not much you can do about it. As Beckett said: "The tears of the world are a constant quantity." The number of playwrights who believe the opposite - that the quantity of the tears is adjustable - is interestingly small.'

I don't even know where to start with that--Peter Hall weakly counters that "you can still make a case for Sam Beckett being, if not of the left, then radical." I think this may be a job for Mr. Hunka.


David Cote said...

Yeah, that was a rather packed thought that I didn't have the space or time to unpack. I do think that Stoppard is conversative, in that he's rather horrified by the notion of progressive social change by intellectual design, and he's pessimistic about people. Like anyone, he knows about the horrors of Stalin and the excesses of 60s counterculture and so I think he has a cozy little center-right attitude toward change and the perfectability of society: It just might happen if we just don't bloody rush into it or overconceptualize it. At the very same time, Stoppard is incurably conceptual in the way he apprehends the world. He's the perpetual undergrad, arguing late into the night with fellow students about philosophy and literature, eying the cute co-ed in the corner he wants to bed. Practically all his characters sound like absurdly eloquent, overcaffeinated college students. SO, I think, in his portrayal of the intellectual bully Max, Stoppard's moral indignation at this Communist apologist is tempered by his inability to grasp the world in any other terms but academic/intellectual/rhetorical/bookish ones. He has a STAKE in Max's ridiculous ideological purity. It would take real courage, in my opinion, to write a tragedy in which Max finally sees the blood on his hands. Sure, maybe it would be obvious and politically unsurprising, but I'd prefer that to smug Stopppardian cleverness. OK, sorry to babble, but thanks for the excuse to articulate what I was trying to articulate.

George Hunka said...

Yeah, I had the same feelings about Jay Rayner's essay -- it's a pretty old and tiresome topic, as you said, and I don't think it's particularly interesting. Leftist -- better, oppositional -- writers (or all leftist and oppositional artists, really) have always had more of a tendency to perceive art as an instrument of social change at least since the days of Beaumarchais; defenders of the status quo really wouldn't; and why would they? I suppose we can argue about this all the way back to Plato and his consideration of the place in art in society to celebrate heroes and placate the polis. But I'm not going to.

I agree with most of David's thoughts on Stoppard; he's always seemed like an overly-clever undergrad prankster to me, all the way back to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. So far as Beckett goes, I think that Hare is eliding his preconception of theatre as largely naturalistic or realistic. Beckett's landscapes are psychic and metaphorical; Hare's (and those of most of the RC playwrights of his generation) are socioeconomic and political. Maybe what Hall was groping for was something like this, that Beckett's radicalism is in recognising, coming face to face, with the suffering of the world, both physical and spiritual. I mean, this is no less radical than Hare's stance, perhaps moreso. Hare's stance is also -- as I've said -- ameliorist in a peculiar way, and that's joined to his consideration of theatre as a tool for social change. But then, I just spent yesterday reading the Guardian -- reports on rape as a weapon in the Congo, prisons in Burma, the death of 59 children in an Afghan suicide attack -- and in none of these stories is there a concluding paragraph saying, "But of course, things could be better." And Hare's statement about avant-garde theatre is so broad and unsupported as to be meaningless.

All this right/left discussion just reminds me of an discussion during the Hacker ministry in Great Britain between Hacker and his cabinet secretary Humphrey Appleby. In a consideration of continuing arts subsidy for the theatre, there was this, noted by Hacker's principal private secretary Bernard Woolley:

APPLEBY: Plays criticising the government make up the second most boring evenings in the theatre.
HACKER: And the first?
APPLEBY: Plays praising the government.