This vivid drama, inspired by Shakespeare, has a claustrophobic quality. It explores the complexities of identity and concealment. At the same time, it questions the social role of money and debt. Whilst the action takes place centuries ago within the Venice ghetto, the themes of persecution and assimilation remain relevant. Naomi Alderman has constructed something which might last.
It was Prime Minister Theresa May who aimed to charm the Conservative Party Conference of 2016 with her troubling assertion that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It is one thing to question the logic of economic globalization, it is another to define cosmopolitanism out of existence.
In the modern world, identities may be multiple and fluid. This does not mean that we are unaffected by identity-related awkwardness. But it does mean that there is an escape from the manipulative control of those who want to put us in a box. As individuals we might not manage to get out from the prison of debt, but we can help others to discover that other worlds are possible.
Paul Mason argues that the idealism of Shakespeare should be used to dilute the materialism of Marx. As a post-Marxist, Mason wants to distance himself from economic determinism. In The Guardian, Mason paid tribute to both thinkers:
“Another 150 years would pass until merchant capitalism, based on trade, conquest and slavery, would give birth to industrial capitalism. For this reason, whenever I want to stop myself being too Marxist, I think about Shakespeare. Armed with a few history books and a profound humanism, he described the society around him with peerless insight, and tried to explain to his audience how they’d got there.”
However, Karl Marx was an admirer of Shakespeare himself. His daughter revealed how often the dramatist was mentioned in the household. The writings of Marx were brightened by literature. In his letters, Marx paid attention to the role of accidents in history. In 1874, he also discussed the importance of the ideas to which socialist leaders adhered:
“The progress of the German labour movement (ditto in Austria) is wholly satisfactory. In France the absence of a theoretical foundation and of practical common sense is very evident. In England at the moment only the rural labour movement shows any advance; the industrial workers have first of all to get rid of their present leaders. When I denounced them at the Hague Congress I knew that I was letting myself in for unpopularity, slander, etc, but such consequences have always been a matter of indifference to me. Here and there people are beginning to see that in making that denunciation I was only doing my duty.”
The point of this argument is not to maintain that Marx was right about x or y. However, it is to suggest that Mason has not read Marx properly. If post-Marxists have not analysed Marx with sufficient care, their own general theories may be flimsy. Marx was not the kind of thinker to promote simplistic determinism and it is a comedy if people maintain that he was. Close reading is always necessary, even if the relevance of a philosopher to contemporary capitalism is contestable.
“Working women and men, rise again
And take inspiration from Bob Tressell’s pen.”
This play is based on a classic novel. The socialist canon is certainly richer for the poignant contribution of Robert Tressell. However, converting the lengthy narrative into a script is a difficult task. An essential feature of poverty is monotony and boredom is not necessarily what a typical theatre audience wants.
The truncation of the story changes the text into a simple melodrama. Nevertheless, Costal Productions worked hard to manufacture something worth watching. The colourful spectacle was received well in Merseyside yesterday.
Ultimately, the play raises as many questions as answers. Tony Benn wrote about the meaning of the book, but the brevity of his analysis was really disappointing. As a result, an interpretation of the work is dependent on context and personal perspective. While there is some resonance between the fictional past and the political present, there remains a gap. The complexity of the history of the British working class cannot be ignored and the prospects for democratic change are still uncertain.
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.”
The Norwegian relationship with the European Union was discussed during the UK referendum campaign. Norway has positive economic links with the supranational organisation, but has little political influence over its direction. Nevertheless, this model could have been appropriate for the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
The Prime Minister has instead chosen to interpret the referendum result in a more radical manner. Her aspiration for a patriotic Brexit puts her political concerns ahead of national economic considerations. However, it is her quixotic threat to the European Union in advance of the negotiations which makes the observer think of a famous Ibsen character.
The idea that the UK should invent itself as a tax haven if it does not secure a decent deal from the European Union would not be problematic if it did not have negative implications for the bulk of the British population. David Cameron will be remembered by historians as the Prime Minister who was destroyed by hubris over Europe. It could well be that the administration of Theresa May is recalled in a similar way. As Tesman said in Hedda Gabler:
“Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Fancy that!”
This play was set in a dark moment of Irish history. British imperialism had suffered a major setback, but there was trouble among the working class of Dublin. There was no agreement about what should happen next. And in the political gap there was space for tragedy to happen.
However, the playwright took his time to build his tragedy. The characters were introduced with broad humour. The women were stronger than the men, but all were struggling to deal with the circumstances in which they found themselves. Poverty, alcoholism and violence were a constant threat, while a legacy proved to be a dream. The characters were not depicted in realistic terms: the playwright knowingly mentioned Ibsen in a cheeky reference.
There was talk, song, and melodrama in abundance, but at the heart of the play was raw internecine violence. Two futile Irish deaths caused two Irish mothers heartache, while inebriated folk failed to keep their heads amid the chaos. In some sense, this was a cruel work; there was little sympathy for human failings. Composed by 1924, it arguably lacked a proper sense of historical perspective. But for all its flaws, it made a compelling spectacle.