1990s >> 1996 >> no-1097-january-1996

Theatre Review: The Material and the Tangible

The Park by Botho Strauss. The Pit Theatre, Barbican Complex.

The engine of modern capitalism is commodity production. Goods are produced and services made available because it is profitable to do so. “Things” are a potential source of profit with the result that capitalism elevates the material and the tangible to positions of exclusive supremacy. That which is measurable and which has currency in dollars, marks and pounds, etc. is—by definition—more important than attributes and experiences which are not so quantifiable.

Capitalism is disconcerted by beauty, truth, dignity, generosity of spirit and so on, because these are intangible and elusive. You may have to pay ten pounds to buy a record of a Mozart symphony and perhaps a million times that amount for a landscape paining by Renoir, but in neither case does the cost reflect the beauty sublimed in the experience of listening to the music or looking at the painting. On the contrary it is the scarcity of the two artefacts which is crucial. If only one record of a Mozart symphony was available but several million paintings by Renoir existed, we would expect the prices of the record and the paintings to reflect these facts. Capitalist economics might now make the record a million times more expensive than any one of the paintings. To paraphrase Marx: in capitalist society their price is related to scarcity and not to intrinsic value.


What value can be attached to a Mozart symphony, a Renoir painting, the exhilaration of a sunny day in May, a mother’s love, a teacher’s power to enthuse, the integrity and conviction of a stunning piece of acting, the sense of being a respected member of a team, congeniality, generosity and fraternity? Capitalist economics has nothing to say about such matters. It is as though they were part of another world—a nether world remote from the “real” world of buying and selling and the market. Because they are not the subject of commodity exchange they are—in capitalism’s terms— capricious and unimportant, insubstantial and trivial. Yet for most people they are the essence of what makes life worthwhile.


I was reminded of such matters by Botho Strauss’s play The Park, which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Park is an enigmatic, often confusing, play. It is made the more inscrutable because Strauss also makes reference to a Greek mythology and the story of Pasephae who, like Titania in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, falls in love with an animal, and then (unlike Titania) she and her half-man/ half-bull offspring, the Minotaur, are hidden by her enraged husband in the Labyrinth. Perhaps Strauss is drawing deliberate parallels and for this reason the story is also labyrinthine? But whatever, it would certainly help people who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s play if they read a digest of the story before viewing Strauss’s play.


Oberon and Titania appear in The Park as flashers: Shakespeare’s lovers are a pair of ill-matched, mean-minded bourgeois couple; Puck is a latter-day artist intent on making a killing: the fairies are homeless punks, and the mechanicals rapacious businessmen. But if the story line is enigmatic, it is very clear what Strauss is saying. A society obsessed with markets, with buying and selling, with profits before all else, transforms humankind, and in doing turns potentially creative, altruistic and sociable people into materialistic monsters.


C. Wright Mills, the American sociologist, suggested that a key question to ask about any society is: “What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and this period? . . .  In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted?” (C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination). In this dense, complex, often funny and always interesting play it is very clear what kind of people Strauss sees as being “formed” in western capitalist society and. by implication, the revolutionary potential that exists for a different kind of society people by different kinds of human beings. The Park is exhilaratingly staged in the enveloping intimacy of The Pit. If the last few minutes are especially inscrutable the play is presented with such great skill and panache that these last moments did not spoil what for me was a splendidly iconoclastic evening.


Michael Gill