Theatre Review

Analysing the subtext

The Country by Martin Crimp, Royal Court Theatre,
Fires Were Started directed by Humphrey Jennings and
Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. The Aldeburgh Festival.

Peter Hall argues in Exposed By The Mask that “without Beckett, the way would not have been clear for Pinter . . .” And it seemed to me whilst watching Martin Crimp’s The Country at the Royal Court, that without Harold Pinter there would have been no Martin Crimp.

We are in familiar country. It is a land rich in desire and despair. “Who is the comatosed woman Richard has found on the roadside? Why has he brought her into his house? Exactly who is telling the truth?” the dialogue is clipped and staccato, and filled with menacing silences. Clearly all is not as it seems, and we are challenged to see through and beneath the words. What is really going on? As with Pinter we are confronted by the neurotic and the psychotic. Alienation and malevolence abound. The one character who seems honest and straightforward is deceived, abused and finally disempowered. Welcome to the 21st century.

No doubt those who find such theatre valid and significant would argue that the drama of Crimp, like that of Pinter and Beckett, challenges “naturalism”, and in doing so “gives the stage back to our imagination”. But there is a difficulty. Pinter and Crimp whilst challenging “naturalism” nevertheless seem to suggest that their work is rooted, albeit metaphorically, in reality. And no doubt it is. the difficulty is that the reality of the world of Pinter and Crimp is robustly selective. It is populated by people who are consistently malevolent: where to show even a mite of concern for someone is to be seen as being weak, and to invite abuse. It is a world which is so unambiguously nasty, as to have little contact with everyday experience other than in some fevered nightmare.

The Country paints a picture of people and their behaviour which is light yeas away from the of Fires Were Started, the wonderful dramatised documentary made by Humphrey Jennings in 1941/42. The film records a day in the life of a National Fire Service unit involved in fighting the London Blitz. In it Jennings shows us a group of unique individuals—ordinary men and women—working together in a team “dedicated to public service, bravery and sacrifice”. It too is selective—necessarily so given that it was produced by the Crown Film Unit in the middle of the Second World War. It was made to boost morale, to offer role models, to aid the successful prosecution of the war. As such it makes no mention of desertion, the “black market”, the continuing disparities between the rich and the poor, etc. It’s selectivity makes it, knowingly and unashamedly, propaganda. But I wonder? Could we also see The Country in this way? Arguably it, too, could be seen as an exercise in persuasion, in deliberate distortion. And which class might benefit from the selectivities that are evident in the subtext? Isn’t a fraternal, co-operative, democratic and just society less likely if people can be persuaded that malevolence is the norm?

And selective responses abound in critical commentaries of Benjamin Britten’s great opera Peter Grimes. At Aldeburgh I noted the way in which Philip Reed’s introduction in the festival booklet and the commentary in the programme both maintain that Britten had a natural empathy with Peter Grimes, because like Grimes he was an outsider. And why was Britten an outsider? Because he was a homosexual. Oh, yes, he was also a pacifist, but the latter is added as a kind of afterthought. It is Britten’s homosexuality which is identified as the major determinant of his empathy with Grimes.

I’m not surprised that commentators want to see Britten in this light. It’s all very convenient. It allows people to see Peter Grimes and to tut tut about the way in which foolish people in the 1940s—when the opera was written—almost drove Britten to write about an outsider, because he was a homosexual. Now, of course we see homophobia as unacceptable. Now we are enlightened and imaginative, and we shake our heads both at the behaviour of the people who drove Grimes to commit suicide, and society’s attitude to Benjamin Britten. And we deceive ourselves.

Certainly people disapproved of Britten’s homosexuality, but they disapproved even more of his pacifism. This is what drove Britten to travel to the USA at the end of 1939, not his homosexuality. Britten was fleeing from the war and all that went with it. To pretend otherwise may be convenient, but it is also wrong. And most people probably still object to his pacifism. So we have commentators writing contemporary history so that it chimes with contemporary prejudices. As ever the subtext is fascinating.


Leave a Reply