Plays Pleasant by Bernard Shaw

This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell.  Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.

While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:

“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Some writers are their stories. They have witnessed remarkable things. They have overcome massive obstacles. Nevertheless, it is their personal literary style which separates them from ordinary survivors of trauma, poverty or discrimination. Maya Angelou is an inspirational author and teacher of this type.

Many readers will be familiar with her personal tale of suffering and abandonment. They will know her description of the terrifying American South during the Depression. However, they might not have read Mom & Me & Mom. This illuminating text revisits the complex dynamics of her tough family.

However, the later work does in part reveal that writers can find it hard to let go of their best material. Jeanette Winterson is another superb author who has kept raiding her early life for content when her most famous effort has been completed. However, Angelou developed a brilliant honesty which distinguished her from many of her contemporaries. Perhaps she inherited or copied this trait from her mother:

“Baby, now they are treating you as if you are a horse’s ass. Let me tell you something. All you have to do is get your work done. If these people live, they will come back to you. They may have forgotten how badly they treated you, or they may pretend that they have forgotten. But watch: They will come back to you.”

Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham

This colourful entertainment is based on concrete fact. However, it is completely preposterous. The contradiction between the historical and the absurd is one of several in the uneven text. For some readers, the self-conscious nature of the writer can be seen as a redeeming feature.

Certainly, Maugham sets out his anti-realist agenda clearly. He attacks the work of the imitators of Chekhov. For them, a story could be about a moment, an atmosphere or a character. Taking the reader towards truth or beauty was their objective. In contrast, Maugham worshipped plot. His Ashenden tales have obvious beginnings and middles, clear arcs and sharp climaxes. Style aside, the Maugham philosophy hit huge problems politically.

As a patriotic spy, Maugham lacked the empathy essential for the production of high art. His brutality, snobbishness, misogyny and nationalism undermined his real gifts. The basic things which saved him from simplistic cruelty were his sense of humour and his hard work:

“It was a fact that he could talk with interest to persons commonly thought so excruciatingly dull that their fellows fled from them as though they owed them money. It may be that here he was but indulging the professional instinct that was seldom dormant in him; they, his raw material, did not bore him any more than fossils bore the geologist.”

Mao in Manchester: inside the Whitworth Art Gallery.

An art exhibition in the Whitworth Gallery has underlined the way in which the towering figure of Mao Zedong continues to have a considerable impact on the artistic and philosophical world. For Chinese dissident artists, Mao was simply a tyrant, a key part of a state with totalitarian aspirations. They particularly deplored the cruelty associated with the Cultural Revolution.

One of their number was even directly inspired by the work of Andy Warhol. In 1971, the exponent of Pop Art had claimed that Chinese people: “don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong.” The complex irony of being inspired by an advocate of such a dubious position is self-evident. None of the artists in the show have chosen to present a nuanced picture of life and struggle in Mao’s China.

The philosopher Alain Badiou has articulated a different perspective on some of the worst excesses of Maoism, viewing the Cultural Revolution as an anti-bureaucratic move against corruption:

“So the Cultural Revolution was important because it was the last attempt within that history to modify that in a revolutionary manner. That’s to say they made an attack on the communist state itself to revolutionise communism. It was a failure but many interesting events are failures.”

Perhaps more time is required before artists and philosophers can come to terms with the triumphs and disasters connected with the political life of Mao.

Roger Fry at the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum: reviewed

Modernism and Birkenhead might seem an unlikely combination to some people. Nevertheless, when I was walking around a small gallery on Merseyside I noticed a delightful work produced by the influential art critic Roger Fry. The textile arrangement was quite an odd piece, and the key term post-Impressionist was present. On the wall, a reference was also made to the famous Omega Workshops.

For a few moments, I was transported back in time to ‘Roger Fry: a Biography’ by Virginia Woolf. Woolf had thought a lot about the nature of biography, and she had produced a text which allowed the voice of Fry to come alive to readers.

Uncertainty was expressed about the date of the art work in question. It was suggested in the gallery that 1912 was possible, but the London initiative called the Omega Workshops was apparently established in 1913. The Great War would then have a major impact on new art among regional stars, impacting on the poetry of May Sinclair, for example.