Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Theatre of the Absurd (1997)

Theatre Review from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

Regular readers of this column may remember a less than enthusiastic review of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman last summer. Now we have more nonsense about nineteenth-century capitalism from the same author: a view of the world so patently absurd that it is surprising that the audience are prepared to take it seriously. But then most people who attend the National Theatre know that Ibsen has a serious reputation, and they react with reverence rather than disbelief.

I find Ibsen enigmatic. Plays like Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and, perhaps especially, A Doll's House are full of insights about the unresolved tensions of family life, the oppression of women, and the hypocrisies which abound in bourgeois life. As credible representations of life in the nineteenth century they seem both psychologically astute and dramatically persuasive. And their resonance are such that it is easy to see their relevance for contemporary audiences.

But on a bigger scale, when Ibsen writes more directly about the impact of the wider society on people, he seems to get it spectacularly wrong. In An Enemy of the People we follow the fate of Dr Tomas Stockman, the medical officer of the spa baths in a small Norweigan town. The town's well-being is much dependent on the appeal of the baths to wealthy tourists, but Stockman has made an unfortunate discovery. The spa waters are polluted by a dangerous effluent from a nearby factory. Stockman sees this as an opportunity to upstage his brother, the town's mayor, and to increase his own reputation in the town by publishing a series of articles in the supposedly radical town paper. Predictably, mayor, factory owner and newspaper proprietor conspire to challenge Stockman's  evidence, and the mass meeting of tradesmen and shopkeepers which Stockman subsequently addresses is similarly more interested in tourism than the "truth". Isolated and enraged, Stockman turns and delivers a devastating critique not of the pernicious evils of a social system which puts profits and people's livelihoods before public health, but of the intelligence of the town's people.

The play is not, as the programme infers, a clash between "The Individual and Society". Rights and wrongs, in a moral sense, must always be informed by the facts of the case and by reasoned argument, and on the basis of the evidence presented in the play it isn't that Stockman is "right" and the townspeople "wrong". As far as we can see Stockman is clearly right about the spa being polluted, but grotesquely wrong in attributing the behaviour of the townspeople to a lack of intelligence. What they do is entirely consistent with, as they see it, their interests. They react, as people will and must do in a capitalist society, precisely in their own interests. Were Stockman the intelligent and principled man that he claims to be, he would have understood the townspeople's motives, and offered them a critique of their situation under capitalism rather than an absurd attack on their intelligence. His position seems to imply the existence of a superior intellectual elite, whose freedoms are being denied by the intellectually challenged. It is, in essence, a fascist, non-democratic position.

An Enemy of the People was first performed in 1882, more than 30 years after Marx and Engels had published The Communist Manifesto. And it prompts the question, "How can a playwright who is so astute about the motivations of people when they are locked in intimate family relations, be so ignorant of the larger world of which families are a part?" Ibsen's position is so extraordinary as to feel contrived. It is almost as thought he deliberately set himself up as an apologist of the capitalist class, intent on deception based on elitism.

On this evidence a plausible case might be made out that it is Ibsen who is "an enemy of the people". And yet I remember a stunning production at the Young Vic ten years ago in which Arthur Miller managed to suggest that it was capitalism rather than the stupidity of people which was at the heart of Stockman's dilemma. But then Miller described his work as an adaptation of Ibsen's text not a translation of it.

Not only is the play misconceived. In Trevor Nunn's production text has been sacrificed to movement. The sophisticated technology of the Olivier Theatre is very much to the fore. The stage revolves interminably, with actors still delivering their lines as they are whisked out of our view. At the slightest pretext the stage is filled with people, a brass band appears regardless of its spurious relevance, only to march off again. It's horribly reminiscent of another production — Nunn's dreadful Les Miserables.
Michael Gill

Election race issue (1978)

From the March 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a spectre haunting the politicians—the spectre of elections. And when that ghost walks, the politicians suddenly remember that there are votes to be won and lost. They then recall that their future jobs depend on workers' votes. So as the doubtful day gets nearer, the politicians scurry about looking for vote-catchers. One such vote-catcher could be the immigration issue; which is why Mrs. Thatcher has recently tripped over it.

Race and immigration serve a double purpose for capitalism. First, they can be used as straight-forward vote winners for the politicians. By trading on the prejudices that capitalism and its politicians have themselves instilled into the working class the politician hopes to suck in the votes of irrationality. Second, the race issue has at least one important function — it provides a "easy answer" to the difficulties of capitalism and so turns attention away from the problem. The result is that instead of the real issue, Socialism or capitalism, confronting the electorate at election time, the issue of race is thrown up. While the workers are busy blaming each other for their problems (the whites blame the blacks, the blacks the jews, the hews the Irish, the Irish the protestants etc, etc.) instead of seeking the real causes, capitalism continues in safety.

Crude Attempt
Mrs. Thatcher in her speech on Granada TV (30/1/78) has made a crude attempt to steal the National Front's clothes in a search for votes. Her remarks caused a political storm;—so what did she say? She began with a suggestion that by the end of the century there would be 4 million people of the "new Commonwealth and Pakistan" in this country. Note the double talk from the start. She is supposed to be discussing immigration—she is actually discussing coloured immigration. But she knows that of she said there will be 4 million blacks or coloureds here, that would lose her votes. So she disguises the prejudice with the words "new commonwealth." Who is deceived?

Mrs. Thatcher continued in her best stockbroker voice: "Now that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture . . . (Transcript in The Times 31/1/78). It is worth stopping on this passage for a minute. Note that Mrs. Thatcher says that people are afraid. Later in the interview she said: "We (presumably the Royal "we" means she is aiming for the crown as well as the PM?) are not in politics to ignore people's worries: we are in politics to deal with them." What Mrs. Thatcher is saying is that she accepts the prejudices that capitalism creates, and far from pointing out their causes, she is going to do her best to trade on them. This is emphasised by her ridiculous phrase about being "swamped" by different cultures. First, how 4 million could "swamp" some 55 million is quite baffling. Second, note again the double talk of "different cultures." What different culture there is, soon vanishes : coloured children are growing up on baked beans, Coronation Street and skate boards just like their white brethren.

Cultural Relations
The ultimate reason why immigration must cease, claims Mrs. Vote-catcher, is "that if we get them coming in at that rate people will turn round and we shall not have good race relations with those who are here." This is of course the ultimate sick-joke. People are afraid says Mrs. Thatcher, (something which The Times editorial of the next day ignorantly echoes). Of what are they afraid? That we are not directly told—presumably by inference it is of this culture that is going to swamp them. But the one way this fear (if it is the fear) would be broken down is just the opposite of Mrs. Thatcher's panacea. If there is fear, it is of the unknown; of the different life-styles so called. If there were more immigration, not less, people would mix more with those different cultures and by force of assimilation those fears could vanish. Besides, coloured immigrants are soon absorbed into the "culture" of the council estate, the production line, the office routine, the dole queue, the worker's daily drudgery that Mrs. Thatcher is so anxious to preserve intact for the true blue British working class.

One thing Mrs. Thatcher has done, is to bring the immigration issue squarely onto the election platform. So the Labour Party, equally desperate for the votes of both the immigrants and the racially prejudiced, rush in trying to ride both horses at once, and fail to stay in the saddle of either. The Labour Party's racialist credentials are of course well known. Mr. Callaghan was the Home Secretary at the time the previous Labour Government passed the notorious Act preventing British passport holders from East Africa entering the country—the first time a British government had passed legislation openly discriminating on the grounds of colour. No sooner had the last echo of Mrs. Thatcher's speech died away when the current Home Secretary hurries out figures to reassure the racialist Labour voters. "Immigration into the United Kingdom fell sharply last year according to provisional figures released yesterday by Mr. Rees." (The Times 4/2/78) Mr. Rees went on to say that in 1977 an estimate 70,000 immigrants were accepted in this country compared with over 80,000 in 1976 and over 82,000 in 1975. The implication is that the reduction will continue under a Labour government. Still reaching for the other horse, however, some government ministers and Labour Party members rant about "commitments" and "humanitarian grounds" etc. The implication intended here is that they are in favour of immigration and are "entitled" to the immigrant vote. In the same Times report Mr. Healey accuses Mrs. Thatcher of trying yo grab the Alf Garnett vote. Funny that though—it was Mr. Healey's party which quietly accepted the support of Alf Garnett's political incarnation—Enoch Powell—at the first 1974 election.

Ultimately immigration is not about race, colour, culture, or swamps; it is about economics. How many workers do the capitalists need? If there is a shortage, as there was in the 1950s and to an extent in the 1960s, capitalist politicians (Powell included) will tell the world about the delights of British wage-slavery to workers of all colours. If there is a surplus working population, with unemployment, as at present, capitalists will seek ways to halt immigration and even talk about "repatriation" of its surplus workers. The former Prime Minister, Mr. Heath, understands all this and is quite open in his hypocrisy. In a report of a radio interview he gave he says of the previous Conservative government: "We saw no reason why we should allow in a large number of immigrants unless we NEEDED THEM FOR A SPECIFIC PURPOSE and, at the moment, we do not." (The Times 1/2/78—emphasis added). Very true—capitalism doesn't really care about colour—it cares about profitability. For that it needs workers of any colour. When it has too many of these expendable creatures, it puts some on the waste tip (the unemployed) and to try to ensure those tips don't get too unsightly and spoil the landscape unduly, it shuts the door on others.

A cynical business yes—but the politics of capitalism cannot work in any other way.
Ronnie Warrington