Mixed Media: ‘The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution’ & ‘Ice Age Art’

The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution by Caryl Churchill

Earlier this year the Finborough Theatre in London staged the world première of Caryl Churchill's 1972 play The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution.

Churchill's play is partly based on the chapter, Colonial War and Mental Disorders in Frantz Fanon's study of the Algerian war of independence, The Wretched of the Earth, described by Sartre as 'the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself' '. Fanon's title is taken from the opening lyrics of The Internationale. Fanon was a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, self-styled Marxist, revolutionary and writer who was head of the Psychiatric Department at Blida-Joinville Hospital, Algiers in French Algeria. He resigned to work with the FLN, Algerian National Liberation Front in their guerrilla war for independence.

Churchill's play portrays Fanon treating the schizophrenic teenage daughter of a French civil servant (involved in 'interrogations' of Algerian rebels), and a French police inspector hearing screams in his head who has been beating his wife and children as a result of his 'work' torturing captured Algerian rebels. We also see three Algerian 'patients' in the hospital who are paranoid, delusional, suicidal, or catatonic as a result of the colonial war in Algeria. The bloody conflict for Algerian independence claimed the lives of 100,000 French soldiers and 'colons' and probably 1 million Algerians. The war is vividly brought to life in the 1966 Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers.

Churchill uses ideas from RD Laing's Sanity, Madness and the Family in her portrayal of the French couple and the schizophrenic daughter where a child is subject to the 'double bind' of contradictory commands that places a child in an existential checkmate of an 'untenable position' in the closed family nexus thereby causing madness.

Churchill wrote this year about the play; 'unfortunately it feels more relevant now than for a long time' which is true considering the American use of 'extraordinary rendition' of 'terror suspects' to countries that use torture, not forgetting the torture of 'terror suspects' by the USA at Guantanamo Bay, torture and abuse of Iraqis by the US military at Abu Ghraib prison and the British Army torture and abuse of Iraqis in Basra.

Churchill has explored issues of power since Owners, her critique of capitalism through to the sexual politics and colonialism of Cloud Nine to her 1987 attack on financial capitalism in Serious Money. From The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution to her 2009 Seven Jewish Children, a charity piece for the Palestinian people of Gaza, Churchill is evidently sympathetic to the struggles of oppressed peoples under colonialism.


Ice Age Art

The recent exhibition Ice Age Art at the British Museum demonstrates what Marx called 'the vitality of primitive communities' in the Upper Palaeolithic era 12,000 to 50,000 years ago. It is widely believed that human beings in this period lived in 'primitive communism' where women were held in high esteem, sexual relationships were unregulated, and society was based on the maternal clan. Upper Palaeolithic Art includes carving, engraving, and sculpture in baked clay, bone, stone, reindeer antler, and mammoth ivory.

There are many depictions of the female form which as Evelyn Reed describes in Woman's Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family, in the matrilineal clan system of hunter gatherer communistic households there was a belief in women having superior magic, demonstrated by their ability to produce children, men were kept well away from child birth and may not even have known where babies came from. Bertell Ollman wrote 'for the greater part of human history the link between sexual intercourse and paternity was not even known'.

Woman of Willendorf is a 24,000 years old limestone statuette tinted with red ochre with large breasts and abdomen and a detailed vulva. Woman of Dolni Vestonice is a 30,000 years old baked clay (ceramic) statuette with large pendulous breasts, large abdomen and wide hips. Woman of Hohle Fels known as the 'Schwabian Eve' is made of mammoth tusk ivory and because of a perforated protrusion was probably an amulet. At 40,000 years old it is arguably the oldest discovered piece of figurative art.

Hohle Fels Flute is a 35,000 years old musical instrument perforated with five holes and made from the wing-bone of a griffon vulture. Lion Human of the Hohlenstein Stadel is a mammoth ivory lion-headed figurine 40,000 years old and in a modern experiment using the stone tools available then it took 400 hours to create this highly skilled carving. Swimming Reindeer, 13,000 years old, is carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and depicts two reindeer swimming nose to tail probably on their way to mating grounds or winter pastures. Head of a Musk Ox is a rare limestone three dimensional sculpture 18,000 years old. Hooked Spear Throwers are 13,000 years old hunting implements to increase speed and the force of the throw, carved from reindeer antler in the form of a mammoth.

Ice Age Art is a fascinating glimpse into a period of early human history which ended with what Engels called 'the overthrow of mother-right [and] the world historical defeat of the female sex' and the rise of the patriarchal family, private property and the state.

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