Forgetting the elephant

Actually, I failed completely to see it coming. Sigh … I love street theatre and I'd have loved this (London, last weekend) — as covered in today's Observer:

This fantastic spectacle, by the French company, Royal de Luxe, was covered by Lyn Gardner over a week ago in the Guardian:

By rights it shouldn't work because, at first sight, it really isn't very much if you think a vast mechanical elephant the size of a three-storey building trundling around the streets of central London and bringing the traffic to a standstill isn't very much. The elephant is a time-travelling beast that belongs to the sultan who - accompanied by his exotic retinue - has come to our world in search of a little girl. The little girl is a puppet the size of a house. She walks, she bats her eyelashes, she pisses in the street. About the only thing she doesn't do is talk. The elephant makes up for this reticence by trumpeting so noisily that on Friday afternoon sunbathers in St James' Park, oblivious to what was going on, enquired whether there might be a circus in town.

And that, folks, is about it. What narrative there is really doesn't matter a jot. But this is much more than some grand carnival-esque procession, although it has elements of carnival. This is about the giddy pleasure of interaction as girl and elephant communicate with each other and the audience, and the audience communicates with each other. What the Sultan's Elephant represents is nothing less than an artistic occupation of the city and a reclamation of the streets for the people.

And in today's Observer, Susannah Clapp:

It was the sightings that counted: the massive tusks jutting out round the corner of Trafalgar Square; the animal sinking to his knees for a snooze in front of the Wolseley; the close-up view of his amiable wrinkled face; and the Lilliputian crew - in frockcoats and knickerbockers - who hung on cables and pulled on levers.

Flickr comes up trumps again: Royal de Luxe, Sultan's Elephant (both links are for Flickr's 'most interesting').

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Culture catch-up

The last few days:

  • To the Oxford Playhouse to see the ETT in Hamlet. It left me unmoved — a decent, clean and clear production with Ed Stoppard in the lead. A BBC page says of the ETT and this production: 'ETT is renowned for the clarity and style of its work … This new production of Hamlet will stay true to the company’s ethos of producing raw, direct and passionate theatre'. I agree with the clarity bit, but no, there was little that was 'raw' or 'passionate'. I couldn't find any review of the production last week (when I went), but Michael Billington panned it on Friday in The Guardian:

the English Touring Theatre offer us a middle-of-the-road, Jacobean-costumed version that has nothing fresh to say about the play. I have no problem with the period setting; it is the failure to investigate either the human relationships or the political context that troubles me.this is set-text Shakespeare shrouded in decent dullness. When you recall that ETT began 12 years ago with Alan Cumming's capriciously eccentric Hamlet you feel that the company has dwindled into respectability.

There was an interview with Ed Stoppard in The Independent (conducted prior to the production).

  • I finally got around to watching the film of The Madness of George III, The Madness of King George. I always feel with Bennett that there are much greater dramatic depths to be plumbed than he permits himself to look into. I saw the original stage production and prefer that greatly for its tightness, focus and energy — the central performance of Nigel Hawthorne being allowed to occupy its proper place.
  • Robert Crawford came to read at school on Wednesday evening and stayed the night. It was a good reading to which some of those present responded warmly. Robert opened with 'Chaps', of which the Literary Encyclopedia says:

In the militaristic-toned poem “Chaps”, Crawford uses repetition and language reminiscent of the stiff-upper-lip Englishman to convey a sense of how maleness has historically been perceived as both macho and a necessary element in the constitution of the British imperialistic project:

With his Bible, his Burns, his brose and his baps,
Colonel John Buchan is one of the chaps,
With his mother, his mowser, his mauser, his maps,
Winston S. Churchill is one of the chaps.

Even the rhyme scheme and parallelism in this poem seems to play into the requirements of an essentialized British Empire. The regimentation of language is one of the dangerous consequences of imperialism and one that denies voices from breaking through and interacting with others. The refrain that Crawford employs has a similar effect: “Chaps chaps chaps chaps/ Chaps chaps chaps chaps”.

The marching regularity is emphasized but so too is the gender. A “chap” is not just any old male, it is a male who has been shaped by a past that requires that he behave in a particular way and communicate his gender in a fashion that must reflect the superiority and power of the state.

A concern with language, communication and identity marks much of Robert's work.

Later that evening, we joined up with Jamie McKendrick for supper. Conversation naturally focused on poets and poetry, but Jamie and Robert are both interested in the visual arts. Jamie spoke of his admiration for Plath's drawing of Ted Hughes, recently sold by Bonhams.

Copyright © 2002-2005 Bonhams 1793 Ltd

  • Friday saw some of us go to catch Seth Lakeman on tour (St Mary's Church, Marlborough). I'm not in to English folk music much, but Seth Lakeman came to prominence earlier this year when he was nominated for the Mercury Prize and we felt we should go and hear him. (He also hit the headlines last year when he launched his new album at Dartmoor Prison.) He is a fine musician, the solo pieces he played being exceptionally powerful. As a trio they worked very well together, with marked mutual understanding, and his drummer proved a great hit with our party — photos. If he's to gain more fame and following, his music will inevitably have to shift somewhat. Acoustic now, he is already being described on the web as 'folk-rock' and on his own website as 'indie-folk'. One to watch.

Godot ++

Guardian letters:

Indeed, directing so successfully the first performance in English of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre in 1955 put Peter Hall in a unique position to lead British theatre, as he has, for the next 50 years (Godot almighty, August 24). But he should have mentioned that his luck was really due to the brilliance of the young Sasha Moorsom (later Lady Young of Dartington), who brought him the play, in French, in 1954, having got it from her friend, the French actor Roger Blin. He was recovering in St Tropez from the stress of playing Lucky. And we were all young contemporaries of Peter's at Cambridge, holidaying there that summer. It's good to acknowledge these connections.

Margaret Owen (Salisbury, Wilts), 27 August

No wonder Roger Blin was "recovering" after En Attendant Godot (Letters, August 27). He not only played Pozzo (not Lucky, who was played by Jean Martin), but he also directed the play - and the first production at the Théâtre Babylone in Paris had more than 300 performances.

Apropos the name Godot: I listened to Peter Hall recently on Radio 4 and he made no mention of the fact that the two tramps originally wore bowler hats, and the clowning (donning/doffing/inspecting the hats) might connect Godot with Charlot (as the French affectionately call Charlie Chaplin). Among other stories of Godot's provenance is one that Beckett told Blin the name suggested itself from the slang godilot and godasse (boot). Another is that Beckett was inspired at a Tour de France by spectators who said they were still waiting for the final and eldest cyclist: "Nous attendons Godot." Beckett wrote in a letter "Je ne sais pas qui est Godot."

Diana Fernando (Wissett, Suffolk), 5 September

Diana Fernando (Letters, September 5) fails to cite the provenience that Godot is a corrupted Anglicised diminutive form of the word God.

Chris Bleakley (Prague), 6 September

Re Godot (Letters, September 6): Balzac's play Mercadet (Le Faiseur) has a potential saviour who fails to appear, and is called Godeau.

Ray Walsh (Liverpool), 7 September

Waiting for Godot

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more. (He jerks the rope.) On!

To Bath yesterday to see Peter Hall's fiftieth anniversary production of Waiting for Godot. In August 1955, he directed the English-language premiere; this production is his fourth.

Waiting for Godot hasn't dated at all. It remains a masterpiece transcending all barriers and all nationalities. And it could have been written today: there is nothing of the 50s about it. It is the start of modern drama and it gave the theatre back its metaphorical power. Godot challenged and then removed 100 years of literal naturalism where a room could only be considered a room if it was presented in full detail with the fourth wall removed. (Peter Hall, Guardian)

Peter Hall's 1997 (Old Vic) programme piece can be read here. Michael Billington's review of the current production is here:

Laurenson's Didi, with his soft Irish accent and battered topper, is a bit of a piss-elegant poseur. But there is something fiercely protective about his attitude to his lifelong partner: there is a revealing moment, at the start of the second act, when Laurenson picks up Gogo's stinking boot, sniffs it and cradles it lovingly in his arms. In sharp contrast, Dobie's white-bearded Gogo is tetchy, acerbic, scavenging and pragmatic. Yet he is unspeakably hurt at the idea that his partner survived the night without him. We all know Didi and Gogo are one of the most famous double acts in drama, but this production suggests Beckett's play is also about the asexual love that stems from shared endurance.

This was a wonderful production and Richard Dormer's Lucky was particularly outstanding: always affecting, his barely human presence was at times disturbingly raw — and a tribute, too, to the relationship he and Terence Rigby (Pozzo) created. When they reappeared in Act Two, Pozzo blind and Lucky mute, it was (again disturbingly) what Billington calls 'their fateful mutual dependence' that registered most.

John Naughton quotes Kenneth Tynan:

By all the known criteria, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum. Pity the critic who seeks a chink in its armour, for it is all chink. It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle, and no end. Unavoidably, it has a situation, and it might be accused of having suspense, since it deals with the impatience of two tramps, waiting beneath a tree for a cryptic Mr Godot to keep his appointment with them; but the situation is never developed, and a glance at the programme shows that Mr Godot is not going to arrive. Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport, and nothing to declare; yet it gets through, as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than anything in the books. A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.

Simon Callow has a piece (also in the Guardian) on the play and its influence:

After 1940, his work had undergone a radical change. If he was to write about impotence and ignorance, which he now conceived to be the essential experience of human life, he must, he said, abandon rhetoric and virtuosity. The English language having a natural propensity for both of these, he abandoned it, henceforward writing in clean and analytical French, swiftly writing three great novels, Molly, Malone Dies and The Unnameable in his adopted language, each of which is in the form of a soliloquy; none of them knew any immediate success and, indeed, it was almost impossible to find publishers for them. His decision to write for the theatre was, Lawrence Graver acutely notes, a part of this stripping away: in doing so, he eliminates the voice of the narrator. …

It took two years for Blin to raise the money and get a theatre; finally, when the play opened in January 1953 at the nearly defunct Théâtre de Babylone in Montparnasse, it was greeted with a mixture of critical bewilderment, a certain amount of active audience hostility, partisan enthusiasm from some highly influential quarters (Jean Anouilh, the most successful French dramatist of the day, called it the most important theatrical premiere in 40 years) and straightforward delight from the paying audience, who attended the show in ever-growing numbers. It was word of mouth that swung it. …

There is indeed a good case for thinking of the play as a dream play in its repetitiveness, its circularity, its sudden absurdities, its arbitrariness and savage eruptions. Estragon can barely keep awake, and sleep is a blessed state because the sleeper is oblivious of life's terrible reality: "He is sleeping. He knows nothing. Let him sleep on." The characters themselves seem to shift shape oneirically: out of the blue, Vladimir becomes an eloquent philosopher, quoting Latin tags; Estragon announces that "we are not caryatids"; for no known reason Pozzo is suddenly blind, Lucky suddenly dumb. An uneasy sense of unreality pervades everything: "You're sure you saw me?" Vladimir asks the boy. "You won't come back tomorrow and say you never saw me?" Just as in Strindberg's Dream Play, where Agnes's repeated cries of "Poor, suffering mankind!" pierce the action, Didi and Gogo constantly cry out, apropos of nothing in particular, "What'll we do?! What'll we do?!" …

"I know no more about this play than anyone who just reads it attentively," Beckett wrote. "I don't know what spirit I wrote it in. I know no more about the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them . . . everything I have been able to learn, I have shown. It's not a great deal. But it's enough for me, quite enough. I'd go so far as to say that I would have been content with less . . . Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, I have only been able to know them a little, from far off, out of a need to understand them. They owe you some explanations, perhaps. Let them unravel. Without me. Them and Me, we're quits."


We want the fine Arts, and their thriving use,
Should make us grac'd, or favour'd of the times:
We have no shift of Faces, no cleft Tongues,
No soft and glutinous Bodies, that can stick,
Like Snails, on painted Walls;

To Stratford last Thursday, to see the RSC's production of Ben Jonson's, Sejanus: His Fall (text here). It's the first time I've seen it, it's the first time the RSC has staged it and, according to Michael Billington, it's rarely been revived in the last 400 years. It held me — an excellent production of a play of considerable political cynicism and savagery that speaks readily to our time.

Sejanus seducing Livia, wife of Drusus

Michael Billington (Guardian):

What is startling about the play is how it straddles three time periods. It is a neo-classic tragedy about ancient Rome. It is also rooted in Jacobean power politics and, in its study of a master-servant relationship, anticipates Volpone. Yet it is easily applicable to modern times. When Sejanus announces that the way to advance Tiberius's rule is "to present the shapes of dangers greater than they are", he speaks like a devious CIA boss. But the book-burning evokes Hitler's Germany and when Sejanus's statue is torn down we are into Saddam Hussein's Iraq. All the play lacks, apart from good female roles, is any first-hand encounter with the people themselves.

But the mastery of Doran's production lies in its blend of psychology and politics. William Houston's superb Sejanus is a pony-tailed, bisexual adventurer for whom power is the ultimate aphrodisiac: I shall long remember his triumphant leap at the prospect of becoming Tiberius's heir. With equal skill, Barry Stanton plays the emperor as a consummate political actor; stepping round a trail of blood on the senate floor, he distances himself from the violence he sanctions.

Even if virtue is marginalised, Geoffrey Freshwater, James Hayes and Nigel Cooke are outstanding as a trio of troubled patricians recalling Rome in its heyday. And both Paul Englishby's brass-filled score and Robert Jones's pillared setting evoke a world of decadence. But what truly exhilarates is the rediscovery of a play that shows Jonson's understanding of both the practical mechanics and insane corruption of power.

Dominic Cavendish has a review in the Telegraph and there's a shorter piece by Benedict Nightingale in the Times.

The King's Men performed Sejanus in 1603, Shakespeare acting in it (probably taking the role of Tiberius). The text we now have may differ from that of 1603: Jonson said 'a second pen' co-wrote some sections that he removed subsequently. A disastrous reception at the Globe was followed by official censure, the playwright being called before the Privy Council to answer charges of treason and popery. (Did this charge lead to Jonson revising the play?)

Anne Barton says: 'Tragedy normally draws in towards a centre, vested either in an individual or a family. But Sejanus flies out in all directions, providing no clearly defined focal point. … Like the comical satires, and unlike Jonson's first three Jacobean comedies, Sejanus is a large-cast play. It crowds the stage with people, many of them glimpsed only fleetingly. Major characters spring up … without warning, or abruptly disappear from view … None of these people are, in any obvious sense, humour characters. Most of them will end up dead, as opposed to being merely humiliated and disillusioned. All the same, this is tragedy only in a very special sense.'

At times closer to satire, frequently fascinated by the grotesque and savage, the play ends on a note of terrible brutality, the instigator (Tiberius) safely absent and indulging himself in Capri — and with a further cycle of betrayal and violence to come since Macro, apparently loyal to Tiberius, has aligned himself with Caligula. The distance between us and Sejanus is so different from the bond we form with Volpone, yet both plays have at their heart a master-parasite relationship (as Billington notes). Volpone grows out of Sejanus, but also marks a most significant development in Jonson's art as he came to create a focus through our 'subversive sympathy with the clever rogue' (Martin Butler, programme note).

Scene V.iv is the encounter with Fortune, the one deity Sejanus has time for. Earlier (II.ii) he had said,

'Twas only fear first in the world made gods',

but in V.i he tells Terentius, 'Her (Fortune) I, indeed, adore; / And keep her grateful image in my house'. Brilliantly directed, V.iv might have brought us at last to something of that core experience of tragedy, where men and women come face to face with forces that rule their lives. (Auden: 'We are lived by powers we pretend to understand'.) However, confronted by unfavourable signs from the goddess, Sejanus now mocks Fortune and her rites as superstition — 'juggling mystery, religion', 'cozening ceremonies' — and it doesn't come across as hubris but precisely as impatience with superstition. I think Anne Barton is right to say that in Jonson, 'such things (as the ominous signs from Fortune) become not only suspect but incipiently comic'. She goes on: 'Jonson, in this play, makes trifles of terrors instead of ensconcing himself in an unknown fear. The result is to strip away a dimension upon which most classical, as well as Elizabethan and Jacobean, tragedy had depended. For him, the very considerable horrors of Tiberius' Rome derive entirely from the brutality of the way men behave to one another, not from any sense of the mysterious workings of Fate or divine will.'

The discontinuity between Sejanus' "atheism" and his downfall, the lack of interiority (Cavendish: 'failure to establish … characters whose fates you care about'), disappoints some. I wonder …  I remember that Mitterand was once asked what the most important political quality was. He replied, 'l'indifference'. Isn't part of the appeal of the play (I hope it prospers now) that it offers a view of the political world which is frightening precisely because it is presented as a world where interiority is not cultivated, where, beyond the short-term satisfaction of revenge, victims, opponents and compatriots are quickly forgotten? It's a world that's absurd, savage, repetitive, cyclical … and destined to self-consume. Unless Fortune, the one deity worth believing in (for a while), smiles on you: then, you're a successful snail, excelling at sticking on painted walls (for a while).

Layered, furcating stories in time and space

Kim posting Stories in Urban Spaces and my happening to be re-reading Borges (in the Andrew Hurley translation), made me go back to 'The Garden of Forking Paths' (1941).

Borges' narrator, Yu Tsun, is the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pen, a 'governor of Yunan province … who renounced all temporal power in order to write a novel containing more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and construct a labyrinth in which all men would lose their way'. Ts'ui Pen is murdered after 13 years of work on these labours, and what survived was a 'novel (that) made no sense' — and 'no one ever found the labyrinth'. Early in the story, Yu Tsun, on the run, reflects that 'all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.' Choosing a name from a phone book (the reason for which choice only becomes fully clear at the end of the story), he finds himself at the house of the famous Sinologist, Stephen Albert. Improbability is heaped on improbability (after all, this is anti-literature, no matter that it is also literature of exquisite skill, intelligence and inventiveness), and Stephen Albert is not only intimate with the life and work of Ts'ui Pen but has, he believes, cracked the secret of both novel and labyrinth: they are one and the same. Ts'ui Pen had left a fragment of a letter: 'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths'. Stephen Albert explains to Yu Tsun:

'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.' Almost instantly, I saw it — the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'several futures (not all)' suggest to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A full rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses — simultaneously — all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures', several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at the door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes — Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.

… 'The Garden of Forking Paths' is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.

Life as layered narrative, diachronically and synchronically; shared and individual, typical/general and unique — knowledge fundamental to our sense of being human. The advent of technologies which could allow us to interact with place and time raises questions that are profoundly old. (Kim's questions towards the end of her post made me think of urban plays, from medieval pageants to contemporary community projects — The Dillen, for example.) The extension of all this, in and through new technology, into new "theatres" of play, entertainment and education … The possibilities for grass-roots up development, for social and communal initiatives which bypass official or authorised pictures of the polis … 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' (Borges, 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', 1941).

But in Borges, 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' suggests a weariness and meaninglessness. (Ecclesiastes, 12.12: 'Of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh'.) This melancholy may even embrace the world. 'The Library of Babel', 1941, conceives of a universe, the Library, as 'unlimited but periodic': 'If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order: the Order'. In this story, the librarian finds this an 'elegant hope'; this reader finds the thought dispiriting.

Will a glut of gorgeous visualisations and interactive, highly social "games" deepen our melancholy — too much meaning to be finally meaningful? Or, instead, will the glamour of technology encourage us to forget and to take again the picture for the world? I doubt there will be anything new in the range of answers we come up with to either of these questions.

In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995). New ways of presenting layered narratives, as yet but 'tiny glimmers' (Kim's phrase), will acquire their maturity as art when they allow us to conceive a new plane of regard for ourselves as both unique and typical, simultaneously liberating us from the lonely egotism of Yu Tsun, where 'everything that truly happens, happens to me', and the merely 'unlimited but periodic'.

Oxyrhynchus: against divided art & audiences

The name of Oxyrhynchus meant little or nothing to most people (myself included) until 1990 and the production at London's National Theatre of Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. One of the best things I've ever seen in the theatre, I went with some students of mine — and then returned very quickly, with another group, for a second serving. Trackers_2Time Out described it as "total theatre" (see Faber's Trackers page — click on thumbnail) and the nearest I've come to experiencing anything as visceral since was in the (quite different) Tropicana production currently running in London (which my students also enjoyed …).

In the programme for the 1990 production, Professor Parsons (at the time, Regius Professor of Greek, Oxford) noted that 'the traditional classical world has left us no books: all the contents, say, of the great Library of Alexandria, or of the 28 public libraries of imperial Rome, have disappeared without trace — fire and damp disposed of them. What we possess of the literature of the Greeks and Romans we possess because a selection of works were copied and recopied, first on papyrus and later on parchment, through the Roman Empire and then through the Middle Ages — Latin in the West, Greek in the East. In the Renaissance, the surviving manuscripts were hunted out; and the invention of printing meant that works which had survived up to then would go on surviving. But it was a chancy business; for example, just one copy of the poems of Catullus survived to this point … (and) even surviving authors survived only in part. Sophocles wrote 123 plays; of these seven were transmitted through the Middle Ages, because in the late Empire they were chosen as set books, and all the rest disappeared. … These losses seemed to be final — until the Egyptian rubbish (at Oxyrhynchus) came to the rescue, for the dumps included, sporadically and in fragments, books which were circulating before the great massacre of the Middle Ages.'

Harrison's takes the 400 lines of Sophocles' satyr play, Ichneutae, discovered in 1907 at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt (Oxford University) — the pioneers of a new branch of Classics, papyrology — and around them and through them, with the aid of be-clogged satyrs, weaves a play for our own times. Harrison, steeped in classical literature, finds in Greek culture a wholeness of imagination, an 'essential catholicity', a 'unity of tragedy and satyr play', which was subsequently betrayed — divided into 'high' and 'low'. This division perpetuates 'divided audiences, divided societies' (introduction to the Faber edition of Trackers).


With the loss of these plays we are lacking important clues to the wholeness of the Greek imagination, and its ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic. In the satyr play, that spirit of celebration, held in the dark solution of tragedy, is precipitated into release, and a release into the worship of the Dionysus who presided over the whole dramatic festival. (ibidem)

Teachers and "guardians of culture", beware. In a Daily Telegraph interview (February, 1990), Harrison said to Trevor Bates:

The play is part of my slow burning revenge against the teacher who denied me an opportunity to read poetry and take part in plays because of my accent. We chose Salts Mill [where the production visited in April 1990] because we needed a venue where the ghost images of the past were strong. Clogs are one of the principal expressions of the rhythm of life and they gear the satyrs into action.


Barrie Rutter and Tony Harrison during rehearsals at Delphi. Photo Sandra Lousada


The Independent recently ran a story (purchase necessary) about the reserach being done on Oxyrhyncus material by contemporary Oxford academics working alongside specialists from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah. Hailed in The Independent as a collaboration 'likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth', there was then a strange silence, and, finally, a sceptical posting on Ars technica. Dirk Obbink, papyrologist at Oxford and the academic at the heart of the new work on the Oxyrhynchus material, has attempted to clarify the picture, e-mailing by proxy on the papyrologists' discussion group (registration required), and some of what he had to say can also be read here, at the Oxford Papyrology site (POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online):

We scanned portions of the unrolled Herculaneum papyrus in the Bodleian Library and experimented on problematic carbonised and non-carbonised samples in the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library (including documents), some of them for final checks in texts scheduled for publication in the next two volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The results … were of mixed success, revealing many new readings and confirmation of uncertain readings in some problem areas, none at all in others, depending on settings and surface type. In some ranges and surfaces even less writing could be read than with the eye or none at all. As usual with the Oxy. papyri a number of new identifications emerged of literary and documentary texts not previously made by the usual means, together with the isolation of four or five different types of surface and obscurity that respond well or not well to the BYU process. … The process seemed to work best on darkened, charred, or stained surfaces, and can image through some surface materials, but sees nothing through mud, clay, or silt. It produced excellent results on palimpsests, cancellations and damnationes memoriae, and on disintegrating surfaces where the ink has settled deep into the fibres. It was least successful on surfaces that were partially or entirely washed out. … Surprisingly, in one trial the process successfully imaged through painted gesso, revealing a previously unknown document … on the papyrus cartonage surface underneath. The London press got wind of this … and reported enthusiastically, if selectively.

More details about the processes involved and their results are available in Dirk Obbink's email and POxy posting, and also here.

Tally of extant & lost plays (using Professor Parsons' figures)

Aeschylus: 7 extant; 83 lost (including about 20 Satyr plays)

Sophocles: 7 extant; 116 lost (including about 30 Satyr plays)

Euripides: 19 extant (including 1 Satyr play, The Cyclops); 61 lost (including about 15 Satyr plays)

Contrary views

Two provocative pieces from the Telegraph this week: Rupert Christiansen explains why Allen Bennett's The History Boys is bunk and A N Wilson why Auden had no right to talk of suffering. Curiously, they form a linked pair:

"Maybe Auden has it right," says Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. "That's a change," replies Mrs Lintott, his sensible colleague. Hector: "Let each child that's in your care ..." Mrs Lintott: "I know, '... have as much neurosis as the child can bear'. And how many children had Auden, pray?"

Since I sat entranced through The History Boys, Mrs Lintott has been my heroine. She reminds me here of the many moments, when reading Auden, when I have been irritated. Take one of his most-quoted anthology pieces, the 'Musée des Beaux Arts', written in December 1938 of all dates ...

Meanwhile, Rupert Christiansen concludes:

It's meant to be a comedy, you might retort. But because I found it so implausible, I couldn't laugh. Although there are a few smart lines (Mrs Lintott's "history is women following behind, with a bucket" has undeniable force), I was dismayed at the frequency with which Bennett resorted to the crudest method of épatant les bourgeois - using respectable adults to explete the lower order of swear words. ... This isn't funny, it's just cheap, and all too typical of the opportunism with which Bennett has composed the play.

If you want to understand the impact of a charismatic teacher, read Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; if you want to contemplate the feverish intensity of male adolescents, there's Lindsay Anderson's If…; if you want to explore the problems of teaching and interpreting the past, turn to Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory. Just don't bother with The History Boys.

Pinter's Old Times (Donmar)

So many of Pinter's plays inhabit a predominantly masculine world, in which one chap is always trying to get one over another. The rooms in which his dramas are set become battlegrounds - for territory, possession and control. But in what for me are undoubtedly his greatest dramas, women emphatically make their presence felt, too. You only have to think of Betrayal, The Homecoming and, of course, this piece, Old Times (1971), to realise what a master Pinter is at conveying the thrill, the mystery and the destructive force of desire. ... This haunting, poetic and often blackly comic play has found the mesmerising production it so richly deserves. Daily Telegraph