Poems with stage directions

Samuel Beckett’s plays are not often performed. Waiting for Godot comes along every now and then, but the others, especially the short ones, are as rare as one of those migratory birds of which a reported sighting is enough to set off a mass migration of bird-watchers. Having booked a ticket for a recent performance of three of Beckett’s short plays which at the last moment I was unable to attend, I felt like a ‘twitcher’ who arrives just after the bird has flown and can do nothing but get back in the car, throw the binoculars on the back seat and drive sadly home. But there the similarity ends, because although I was unable to watch the performance, I could at least read the plays.

Reading plays is an under-rated activity. My own reading of a play has often given me greater pleasure and taken me closer to the real thing than watching someone else’s production. Directors and designers seem increasingly to take the view that their task is not to give as faithful an account as possible of the author’s work, but to improve on it. Beckett himself made sure not only that this didn’t happen in his lifetime, but that it wouldn’t happen after it, by insisting and going on insisting in death that his plays should be performed his way and nobody else’s. The price of authenticity is scarcity, but only if you can’t read.

Each of the three short plays that I missed (so short that the whole performance lasted less than an hour and came with a warning that late-comers would not be admitted between plays) begins with a page or two of very precise stage directions. ‘Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow,’ is the first thing you read when you open your copy of Not I. On the first page of Footfall there is a diagram to illustrate precisely how M, the only visible character, paces to and fro along the front of the stage. In Rockaby Beckett gives instructions for W’s costume, eyes and attitude, the appearance of the rocking chair she sits in and its speed of rocking, the way the lighting should catch her as she rocks and the quality and volume of her recorded voice.

A reader should not be tempted to skim or skip the stage directions. It is as important to read them before you start and to understand them before you read on as it is to read the instructions that come with an item of self-assembly furniture. That was why Beckett put them all at the beginning, so that the lines could be read without interruption and everything put together in the right way. The lines properly assembled make a poem. To call these plays dramatic monologues would be to miss the point. They are plays in which dramatic action is kept to an absolute minimum, its place taken by words. Poems with stage directions.

The same is true of the longer plays, from which action, and sometimes movement, is also missing. Beckett’s stage is always as empty as he can make it. Waiting for Godot. Act One. A country road. A tree. Evening. Act Two. Next day. Same time. Same place. Endgame. Bare interior. Grey light. The aim is to to create a space in which only words matter.

In the short plays, perhaps more clearly than in the long ones, the essential characteristics of Beckett’s drama are revealed: one or two individuals, their histories partially revealed, not through action but through words, in particular by the repetition of certain words and phrases. Each play is a sifting of memory.

By the end of Not I we have pieced together some facts about the woman speaking, of whom all we can see is her mouth. She was born a month premature, she never knew her father, she was brought up in an institution of some kind, she is an elective mute, once or twice a year she breaks her silence in an involuntary and unintelligible outpouring of words, she suffers from tinnitus, she has experienced some kind of quasi-mystical revelation, she talks about herself in the third person, refusing vehemently (Beckett’s word) to accept that the person she is talking about is herself. Hence the title.

In Footfall what we hear is a dialogue between mother and daughter. We learn that the mother is about ninety, the daughter about forty, that in her adolescence the daughter began what has become a lifetime of obsessive pacing, that she is an insomniac, that the church is a favourite place for her to pace at night and that she has been known to do so during vespers. The picture that emerges is of someone who suffers from what would now be called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The recorded voice we hear in Rockaby describes a lonely woman looking out of her window at other windows, imagining but not believing in the possibility of there being someone like her behind one of them, until at the end she dies.

One of the characteristics of Beckett’s language in these plays is wordplay. In Rockaby for example:

till in the end
the day came
in the end came
close of a long day

And a few lines later:

till the day came
in the end came
close of a long day
sitting at her window
quiet at her window

Throughout the piece slight variations on these phrases recur, creating in the end a pattern from which a recognisable story gradually takes shape.

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
in the end went down
down the deep stair
let down the blind and down
right down

The effect is like that of a piece for piano in which the composer takes a simple phrase and develops it through repetition and variation. Each play has a structure which is as much poetic as dramatic, perhaps more. Rockaby is divided into four sections or movements, each ending with a line spoken first by the recorded voice, then by the recorded voice and the woman in the rocking chair together, followed by a long pause. In Footfall mother and daughter make parallel speeches in which a conversation between them is reported in the form of dramatic dialogue. The monologue which is the whole of Not I is divided into four more or less equal parts by a gesture made, each time less noticeably, by the silent and only half-seen Auditor.

The tension between words and action is inherent in all drama. The moments of despair which come when action runs out and which, in Shakespeare’s world, find expression in the repetition of one word, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing’, are, in Beckett’s world, the whole play.

Poems are meant to be read, whether aloud or in silence, but these poetic plays are meant to be performed. They should be performed more often. Performance rights, now that they are held by Beckett’s estate, are given sparingly and with as much insistence on the observation of his stage directions as Beckett himself demanded when he was alive. The plays won’t be out of copyright until 2060. Another forty-five years of reading poems with stage directions instead of seeing plays performed on stage. Another forty-five years of disappointment for Beckett watchers who don’t make it in time.

Lelia Goldoni in Rockaby

Lelia Goldoni in Rockaby

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 5 November.

On 12 November I will be writing about Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters.

Looking for Christmas presents for book lovers? Vive le Mole! is the grown-up sequel to The Wind in the Willows and might be just what you’re looking for.

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A Reader’s Diary, 22 October 2014

The Nobel Prize for Literature caused less of a stir in England this year, when it was awarded to French novelist, Patrick Modiano, than it did last year, when it went to Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro. Last year, bookshops stood to benefit from additional sales of books that were already on their shelves. This year, with hardly any of the Frenchman’s books available in translation, the award was only of passing interest to the British book trade. After the initial announcement, the media lost interest too.

I have read only one of Modiano’s novels, but that’s one more than most people outside France. I have read only one of Munro’s books, which is less than most people but enough for me. My evidence base might be limited but I stand by what I wrote in my diary on 23 October last year. A review in the New Statesman which claimed that ‘these melancholy, autumnal tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best’ was right about Munro but wrong about the short story, which ‘at its best’ can do much more than Munro has ever done. Her Nobel Prize citation described her as ‘a master of the contemporary short story’, which says more about the contemporary short story than it does about her.

Modiano’s Nobel Prize citation is ‘for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’. (Perhaps some of these curious phrases work better in Swedish. What exactly is a life-world?) The only novel of his that I have read so far, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, lives up to the citation, though the memories it evokes in the mind of the narrator are of Paris in the years after the occupation, the years of his youth. The first sentence prepares the reader for the confusion and ambiguity that follow when the narrator begins his search for Louki, a girl he used to see sometimes in a café. ‘Des deux entrées du café, elle empruntait toujours la plus étroite, celle qu’on appelait la porte de l’ombre.’ Memory puts its own interpretation on events, gives meaning to things that in themselves are meaningless. What are we to make of the fact that the café had two entrances, of which she (whoever she is) always chose the narrow one, the one that was known as the door of shadow? What does the narrator make of it? He doesn’t say.

Most of what I have read about Modiano since the award was announced refers to him as a modern-day Proust, but that seems to me to be not quite right. In A la recherche du temps perdu Proust remembers everything perfectly, in Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue Modiano remembers everything imperfectly. After Proust there was Robbe-Grillet and Queneau. I was reminded, reading Modiano’s novel, more of L’année dernière à Marienbad and Zazie dans le métro than of Du côté de chez Swann. Proust’s art of memory is to awaken the past in the present, Modiano’s is to take the reader down the familiar and unfamiliar, confused and confusing by-ways that connect and disconnect us from the past.

There is actually very little of Proust in Modiano and a great deal of other European (but not English) post-war literature, which is where ‘ungraspable human destinies’ and ‘the life-world of the occupation’ come in. In the countries of Europe that were either occupied during the war or did the occupying, where resistance or collaboration were moral and practical choices, where after the war it was better to forget than to remember, the art of memory has a meaning which is lost on other countries and which has as little to do with Proust as with melancholy, autumnal tales that demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best.

Not long after I had finished reading Modiano’s novel, I discovered that he had written the screenplay for a film by one of France’s great film makers, Louis Malle. It was a film I had watched not long before, when I was revisiting my own cinema-going youth, a film set in Paris during the occupation, one of the most haunting and disturbing films I have ever seen, Lacombe Lucien. The purpose of tragedy, as the Greeks knew, is to confront horror. Malle’s 1974 film works like that and Modiano’s 2007 novel ends with such a moment, a sudden death, which he describes as an absence, a blank, which didn’t just cause him a feeling of emptiness, but which he was unable to look at, because it was like a dazzling light. ‘Et cela sera comme ça, jusqu’á la fin.’ And that’s how it will be until the end.

Most of the commentary on the Nobel Prize this year has, however, been concerned not with who got it, but who didn’t. Philip Roth missed out again and year by year the Swedish conspiracy theory gains in credibility. Perhaps Roth minded less this year than last.

patrick modiano 01

The next post on 29 October will be about three short plays by Samuel Beckett.

That will be followed by my Reader’s Diary for 5 November.

My new novel Vive le Mole! is out now in paperback and on Kindle – for more information visit my online Bookshop.

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Singing in chains

‘In spite of the danger of becoming the centre of a cult, Mr. Thomas has developed in his own way, exploring with vigour and originality his elemental, almost racial, emotions and mental experiences; a poetic process that has made him the English Rimbaud.’

This is how Dylan Thomas was described on the dust jacket of Deaths and Entrances, a collection of twenty-four new poems published just after the Second World War in the year of his thirty-third birthday. These poems amount to about a quarter of his entire poetic output and, with Under Milk Wood, represent the work of his mature years, mature in his case meaning his thirties, which turned out to be his final decade. They include nearly all the poems for which he is best known, with the exception of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which was written later and published first in an Italian literary journal and then in Collected Poems, 1934-1952.

‘In this new collection,’ the dust jacket note goes on, ‘the poet’s difficult idiom has become more familiar and authoritative. Without losing any of its pronounced personal qualities, it has gained in coherence of imagery, and a clearer traffic between reason and imagination. The result is a body of verse that should interest a wider audience.’

There is no point in speculating what difference another decade might have made. Deaths and Entrances is as good as it was going to get and gave us a handful of poems that could not anyway have been bettered. Dylan Thomas found his voice before he knew what to do with it and it was a singing voice. He denied having been influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps because what he heard in Hopkins was something he knew already: that words have a tune independent of their meaning.

All of Dylan Thomas’s poems sound the same. When the sound drowns out the sense they are not good. When sound and sense go together they are unforgettable. In that respect, they are like hymns. The verses of his poems, like the verses of a hymn, all have the same tune and it is the tune that we recognise first. The syntax is so stretched and disjointed that, at first hearing, it is impossible to make sense of it. Take for example the first of the three verses of the poem from which the book takes its title.

On almost the incendiary eve
  Of several near deaths,
When one at the great least of your best loved
  And always known must leave
Lions and fires of his flying breath,
  Of your immortal friends
Who’d raise the organs of the counted dust
  To shoot and sing your praise,
One who called deepest down shall hold his peace
  That cannot sink or cease
  Endlessly to his wound
In many married London’s estranging grief.

To deconstruct that sentence in a search for meaning would be not just a hopeless task but hopelessly misguided. Better to read it as if you were in chapel or morning assembly, singing for example ‘Fondly my foolish heart essays’.

Fondly my foolish heart essays
To augment the source of perfect bliss,
Love’s all-sufficient sea to raise
With drops of creature happiness.

The tune stays in your head and with repetition, over the months and the years, the meaning, to which you have paid little attention in chapel or assembly, begins to emerge. Take any line out of the first verse of Thomas’s poem and ask whether it would be out of place in one of Wesley’s hymns: ‘And always known must leave… Of your immortal friends… One who called deepest down must hold his peace… Endlessly to his wound…’

Dylan Thomas tried hard not to be Welsh. He went to London, he worked for the BBC, he met Louis MacNeice, he assumed the voice of an English actor with which to read his poems. But his way of writing was bardic. His poems are sometimes like hymns, sometimes like spells, as in the sequence of emblem poems called Vision and Prayer (‘I / Must lie / Still as stone / By the wren bone / Wall hearing the moan / Of the mother hidden / And the shadowed head of pain / Casting tomorrow like a thorn’) or the children’s rhyme called Paper and Sticks (‘Paper and sticks and shovel and match / Why won’t the news of the old world catch / And the fire in a temper start’) or the spell to ward off death in the poem that came too late for Deaths and Entrances.

He used words to turn reality into myth. Sometimes myth and reality are at odds, as in A Refusal to Mourn, in which the reality of a child’s death in the blitz is made to serve the poet’s bardic purpose and lines like ‘I shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth’ seem merely pompous. His poem about being a poet, In My Craft or Sullen Art, lovely though its phrases are, teeters too on the brink of pomposity. (‘I labour by singing light / Not for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages…’ etc etc.)

But where the myth grows naturally out of the reality, where the Hunchback in the Park is also a hunchback in a park, we begin to see what the publisher meant by ‘a clearer traffic between reason and imagination’. In these poems too we begin to see a different Dylan Thomas from the one ‘exploring with vigour and originality his elemental, almost racial, emotions and mental experiences’. The tortured syntax of the English Rimbaud begins at last to say what it means. Love in the Asylum surprises with the almost prosaic quality of its beginning.

A stranger has come
To share my room in the house not right in the head,
A girl mad as birds

An image sets the scene in the plainest of terms for On a Wedding Anniversary.

The sky is torn across
This ragged anniversary

A poem about waking up starts simply (‘When I woke, the town spoke’) then line by line builds up a nightmarish vision (‘a man outside with a billhook / Up to his head in his blood’) until the moment of waking returns with an image of death that speaks for itself (‘And the coins on my eyelids sang like shells’).

The last poem in the collection is Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas’s hymn to childhood. Here the exuberance of his word-play is a part of what the poem is about: ‘the lilting house… honoured among wagons… once below a time… the rivers of the windfall light…’ The six verses, like a hymn, sing the same tune. Each line of each verse echoes its equivalent in the verse before. Line 3 for example: ‘The night above the dingle starry… In the sun that is young once only… And playing, lovely and watery… Shining, it was Adam and maiden… In the sun born over and over… In the moon that is always rising.’ The real farm and the mythical farm of the poem are never far apart.

It was in these poems, where he was able to distance himself from his experience enough to see it plainly, that sound and sense came together. The sweep of a long sentence, the relationship of its parts often ambiguous, their ordering idiosyncratic (if not perverse), which is so characteristic of his poetry and could seem at times like showing off (which it probably was sometimes) is, in these poems, the thing that makes Dylan Thomas seem more like a composer than a writer. Fern Hill and Poem in October are tone poems. Under Milk Wood is a comic opera.

He might have wanted to be an English poet, but that was because Wales was a pigeon hole he had no wish to be trapped in. His best work was, in one way or another, whether he liked it or not, Welsh. Swansea, Llareggub, his father, his wife, his friends.

… though I loved them for their faults
As much as for their good,
My friends were enemies on stilts
With their heads in a cunning cloud.

They were the chains he sang in.

dylan thomas 03

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 22 October.

The subject of my post on 29 October will be Samuel Beckett.

My new novel Vive le Mole! is out now in paperback and on Kindle – for more information visit my online Bookshop.

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A Reader’s Diary, 8 October 2014

Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Rep is credited with staging the first modern dress production of Shakespeare with Cymbeline in 1923. Others followed, including Hamlet in 1925, and now a production of, say, Julius Caesar, set in Rome in 44BC, is the exception rather than the rule. In Barry Jackson’s day, the trend which he initiated became known as ‘Shakespeare in plus-fours’.

There needs to be a good reason not to perform a play as the writer intended. The audience should feel that what they have lost (and there are always losses) is outweighed by what they have gained (and that should be more than discovering that human nature is the same now as it was then, which they might have been able to work out for themselves, whatever kind of trousers the actors were wearing).

The losses in A Streetcar Named Desire, as directed by Benedict Andrews for The Young Vic, include New Orleans, the blues, social divisions in the Deep South, brothels and a sense of history. I can’t think of any gains.

Tennessee Williams set his play in a very precise location, a street in New Orleans called Elysian Fields. ‘The section,’ he writes in his opening stage direction, ‘is poor but, unlike corresponding sections in other American cities, it has a raffish charm.’ He goes on to describe the houses in the street (‘mostly white frame, weathered grey, with rickety outside stairs and galleries and quaintly ornamented gables’) and the atmosphere that surrounds them (‘you can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee’).

The director and his designer replace this with a cheap, modern apartment block.

What Tennessee Williams calls in his stage directions the ‘blue piano’ is meant to be a constant reminder of where the play is set. Its importance is made clear in the same opening stage direction. ‘In this part of New Orleans you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This blue piano expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here.’

The director replaces the ‘blue piano’ with other kinds of music that express the spirit of the 21st century, a different kind of music each time, depending on what is happening on stage when the stage direction asks for ‘blue piano’. So instead of reminding the audience where they are (in a street in New Orleans) and instead of giving a feeling of continuity, of things happening in real time, the music has the very different function of background music in a movie. It is used to enhance the atmosphere of the scene that is being played out on stage, rather than, as Tennessee Williams intended, to remind the audience of other scenes being played out ‘just around the corner’.

The significance of social divisions in the American South in the 1940s is made clear in the stage direction for Stella’s first entrance: ‘Stella comes out on the first-floor landing, a gentle young woman, about twenty-five and of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s.’ The feeling of being somehow out of place among these people in this part of New Orleans is emphasised again in the stage direction for Blanche’s first entrance: ‘Blanche comes around the corner, carrying a valise. She looks at a slip of paper, then at the building, then again at the slip and again at the building. Her expression is one of shocked disbelief. Her appearance is incongruous to this setting.’ The action of the play follows directly from this. Neither Blanche nor Stella belong here. The neighbours, mostly good-natured and easy-going, accept them on their own terms, but Stanley will only accept them on his. The tragic inevitability of Stanley’s victory is clear from the outset in every manifestation of social difference between the principal characters.

Having chosen to set the play in the 21st century when everyone dresses alike, instead of the middle of the 20th century when clothes were an infallible guide to class, the director is unable to interpret the stage directions as the playwright intended. More importantly, the attitudes that prevailed when Tennessee Williams wrote his play are part of history. The victory of a 21st century Stanley who feels threatened by two 21st century women has not the same inevitability. Other social pressures are at work. Then they were all on Stanley’s side, now they are not.

A hotel called The Flamingo in a small town called Laurel has an important place in the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley finds out from one of his many acquaintances that Blanche was asked to leave. ‘The Flamingo is used to all kinds of goings-on. But even the management of the Flamingo was impressed by Dame Blanche! In fact they were so impressed by Dame Blanche that they requested her to turn in her room-key – for permanently!’

Blanche herself, when accused by Stanley’s friend, Mitch, gives it another name. ‘Flamingo? No! Tarantula was the name of it! I stayed at a hotel called The Tarantula Arms!’ It was, she says, the place where she brought her victims. ‘Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with.’ With Blanche, the distinction between deception and self-deception is so fine as really to make no difference. By the time we come to the last scene, there can be little doubt left that Blanche’s fall from grace, forced by the sale of the plantation by her improvident family, led her one way or another to the brothel.

The brothel, like the plantation, was part of America’s inheritance, one of the last vestiges of French influence in the New World. At the time when Tennessee Williams wrote the play it was already a hang-over from the past and that was the point. There were no more slaves to work the plantations, the old way of life was over, the owners were selling up and, for someone like Blanche, all that was left was the brothel. ‘I think it was just panic,’ she says to Mitch, though perhaps she is really talking to herself, ‘just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection – here and there, in the most – unlikely places…’

The director’s decision to set the play in the 21st century puts all the blame on Blanche. Without the sense of history with which the play, as Tennessee Williams wrote it, is imbued, the production is unable to show the consequences for Blanche of the way the world has changed around her. The incongruity to which Tennessee Williams draws our attention on her first appearance is by definition something that depends not just on Blanche, but on the changed circumstances in which she finds herself. The director is unable, without the historical context on which it depends, to present Blanche as anything other than a woman afraid of losing her youth, a victim of her own delusions.

Gillian Anderson, in this production, made everything she could of that and as much as possible, in her gestures, of the stage direction in which Tennessee Williams writes, ‘There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.’ Ben Foster, however, playing Stanley as a young American of the 21st century, could not possibly live up to his stage direction: ‘Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens.’ The world this Stanley inhabits is the 21st century world of violence and porn. The first indication we get of his sexuality, when he pulls Stella’s legs apart and pushes his face between them, is not, I think, what Tennessee Williams meant by ‘animal joy’.

tennessee williams 01

The subject of my next post on 15 October, a few days before his birthday, will be Dylan Thomas – Singing in chains.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 22 October.

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John Donne’s cancer diary

Jenni Diski, a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Her latest piece for the LRB (Vol 36, No 17) describes her reaction to being given the diagnosis and her decision to write about her experience as the illness proceeds to its inevitable conclusion. In her words, ‘another fucking cancer diary’. She recalls some she has read by others: Ruth Picardie, John Diamond, Ivan Noble, Tom Lubbock, Susan Sontag. She has no choice but to write about her illness, she says, because writing is what she does. ‘So I’ve got cancer,’ she concludes. ‘I’m writing.’

She might have included in her list another writer, better known even than Susan Sontag and probably the first ever to keep a cancer diary. His illness may or may not have been cancer but this was four hundred years ago and his doctors had no more idea than he did what was wrong with him. The record he kept of his illness, from the day he started to feel ill to the day he was declared well again, contains some of the most beautiful and widely quoted lines in the English language, but few people know the work they come from.

‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’

‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’

‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

The work is John Donne’s Meditations, which forms part of a larger work known as the Devotions and which consists of twenty-three short chapters, each recording a stage in Donne’s undiagnosed illness. The lines that everybody knows come from one that takes its inspiration from the bells that the sick man hears continually ringing in the church next door. The sickness is at its worst and death seems imminent.

It starts, as diseases generally do, with a vague intimation that all is not well. ‘Variable and therefore miserable condition of Man,’ Donne begins. ‘This minute I was well, and am ill this minute.’ He goes on, as he does in his poetry, to find a metaphorical equivalent for his personal response that makes it our response as well as his. ‘We study health and we deliberate upon our meats and drink and air and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and regular work. But in a minute a canon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all.’

As in his poetry, Donne’s personal experience is analysed in the interests of universal truth.

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in Love’s philosophy.

The condition of man is not as God intended, we brought it on ourselves. God put ‘a coal, a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin.’ And so we go on, he says, making things worse for ourselves than they need be by our own fevered imaginations. It is not just ‘the torment of sickness’ that afflicts us, but what we imagine might be its cause and its end. We are ‘pre-afflicted, super-afflicted with these jealousies and suspicions and apprehensions of sickness before we can call it a sickness; we are not sure we are ill; one hand asks the other by the pulse, and our eye asks our urine how we do.’

Characteristic of the whole work is this interplay between his present state of mind and his understanding of the human condition. In the second chapter, he describes his symptoms: ‘In the twinkling of an eye, I can scarce see; instantly the taste is insipid and fatuous; instantly the appetite is dull and desireless; instantly the knees are sinking and strengthless.’ Adam’s punishment, to eat bread in the sweat of his brow, he says, ‘is multiplied to me, I have earned bread in the sweat of my brow’ and now ‘I sweat again and again, from the brow to the sole of the foot, but I eat no bread, I taste no sustenance. Miserable distribution of mankind,’ he concludes, ‘where one half lacks meat and the other stomach.’ The absence of rhyme, not reason, is what distinguishes Donne’s irony here from the couplet that ends Twicknam Garden.

O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who’s therefore true, because her truth kills me.

In chapter three, where ‘the patient takes his bed’, Donne’s theme is lying down. ‘When God came to breathe into Man the breath of life, he found him flat upon the ground; when he comes to withdraw that breath from him again, he prepares him to it by lying him flat upon his bed.’ Donne, like his friend and fellow poet George Herbert, combines praise with protest when he writes about God. ‘Miserable and (though common to all) inhuman posture, where I must practise my lying in the grave by lying still, and not practise my resurrection by rising any more.’

Chapter headings, following the course of the illness, introduce further observations on the human condition: The physician comes (‘As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.’) The physician is afraid (‘I observe the physician with the same diligence as he the disease; I see he fears and I fear with him.’) The physician desires to have others joined with him (‘Death is in an old man’s door, he appears and tells him so, and death is at a young man’s back and says nothing.’) I sleep not day nor night (‘And why, since I have lost my delight in all objects, cannot I discontinue the faculty of seeing them by closing mine eyes in sleep?’)

This is the stage his illness has reached when we come to chapter sixteen: From the bells of the church adjoining, I am daily remembered of my burial in the funerals of others. (‘Here the bells can scarce solemnise the funeral of any person but that I knew him or knew that he was my neighbour; we dwelt in houses near to one another before, but now he is gone into that house into which I must follow him.’)

It is in this frame of mind that Donne writes, in chapter seventeen, his famous lines about the inevitability of death and its place at the heart of our common humanity. The chapter that follows is an imaginative exploration of death itself and what comes after: The bell rings out, and tells me in him, that I am dead (‘His soul is gone; whither? Who saw it come in, or who saw it go out? Nobody; yet everybody is sure he had one and hath none.’)

Considering the answers given by various philosophers and finding none of them convincing, he finds a better one closer to home, in his own charity. ‘I ask that, and that tells me, he is gone to everlasting rest and joy and glory; I owe him a good opinion; it is but thankful charity in me, because I received benefit and instruction from him when his bell told.’

He ends this chapter, not with the soul, but with the body, in a passage which places birth and death, the womb and the grave, in close proximity. ‘In the womb of the earth we diminish, and when she is delivered of us, our grave opened for another, we are not transplanted but transported, our dust blown away with profane dust, with every wind.’

During the course of the remaining five chapters, Donne begins to recover and by the end he is well again, though warned by his physicians of ‘the fearful danger of relapsing’. The tolling of the bell recedes and with it the intensity of Donne’s response. He is left with the fear of relapse, less immediate but real enough for ‘fear’ to be the last word of his Meditations. Six years later he died of what might or might not have been stomach cancer.

The words that end chapter eighteen, like the famous lines from the chapter that precedes it, are the words that linger in the mind. They recall a line spoken by Pozzo in Waiting for Godot: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ It is a line that, in its structure, its cadence and its meaning, puts Beckett in direct line of descent from the Elizabethans.

‘Isn’t the cliché of writing a cancer diary,’ Jenny Diski asks, ‘going to be compounded by the impossibility of writing in it anything other than what has already been written, over and over? Same story, same ending.’ Another fucking cancer diary, another fucking meditation on life and death.

john donne 01  jenny diski 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 8 October.

My subject on 15 October, a few days before his birthday, will be Dylan Thomas – Singing in chains.

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A Reader’s Diary, 24 September 2014

R.C.Sherriff’s First World War play, Journey’s End, was one of five chosen to represent the best of early 20th century English drama in Modern Plays, published in the Everyman’s Library series in 1937. The other four, in chronological order of production, were Milestones by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock (1912), The Dover Road by A.A.Milne (1922), Hay Fever by Noel Coward (1925) and For Services Rendered by W.Somerset Maugham (1932). Journey’s End had its first performance at the Apollo Theatre in 1928, with a twenty-one year old Laurence Olivier playing the charismatic, troubled, alcoholic officer, Captain Stanhope.

First-hand accounts of Olivier’s performance must be as rare now as first-hand accounts of life in the trenches. You would have to have been a fourteen year old then, perhaps enjoying your first West End show as a birthday treat, to be able to remember it now in your hundredth year. A reunion of surviving members of the audience for the play’s first run would have made an interesting addition to this year’s WW1 centenary. Small, but interesting.

Most of the playwrights in the anthology are familiar names, though not all of them are remembered now for their plays. We know Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham as novelists and A.A.Milne as the author of Winnie the Pooh. If it were not for Journey’s End, R.C.Sherriff would mean as little to most of us as Edward Knoblock. The only one to have held onto his reputation as a dramatist is Noel Coward. As for the plays themselves, only Hay Fever and Journey’s End are still performed.

Modern drama in England ninety years ago was the well-made play, its subject the manners and morals of the middle and upper classes of English society. Journey’s End is about the officer class, Hay Fever is about an eccentric family and their conventional house guests, Dover Road is about marital infidelity among the upper classes, Milestones is about arranged marriages in a patriarchal society, For Services Rendered is about middle class complacency. All five dramatists use the familiar ingredients of the well-made play (individuals thrown together in a situation which exposes strengths and weaknesses of character, classical unities more or less observed) to explore a common theme: the pressure on individuals to conform to social expectations.

The plays were written for a West End audience which, until Barry Jackson founded the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, paving the way for other regional reps and ultimately for the National Theatre, was the only audience there was. That is why Journey’s End, whose subject is the relationship between two young officers who went to the same public school, was the only play about the First World War to be written by an English dramatist until Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop came up with Oh What A Lovely War! in 1963. Journey’s End belongs to the Rupert Brooke end of the literary spectrum, not the Wilfred Owen end. The ‘other ranks’ are represented by the officers’ cook, Mason, and the Company Sergeant-Major, who doesn’t have a name, both parts, especially Mason, gifts to a comic actor. Stanhope, a tragic hero whose tragic flaw is the whisky it takes to get him through the day, a gift to a tragic actor like Olivier, lives up to the ideals of his class, unlike Hibbert who, had it not been for Stanhope, would have betrayed them. Young Raleigh dies for them, inspired by his hero, Stanhope. The ideals themselves, Owen’s ‘old lie’, are never questioned. Ten years after the end of the war, Journey’s End made fine propaganda, as the stage directions which end the play make perfectly clear.

Stanhope pauses for a moment by Osborne’s bed and lightly runs his fingers over Raleigh’s tousled hair. He goes stiffly up the steps, his tall figure black against the dawn sky. The shelling has risen to a great fury. The solitary candle burns with a steady flame, and Raleigh lies in the shadows. The whine of a shell rises to a shriek and bursts on the dug-out roof. The shock stabs out the candle-flame; the timber props of the door cave slowly in, sandbags fall and block the passage to the open air. There is darkness in the dug-out. Here and there the red dawn glows through the jagged holes of the broken doorway. Very faintly there comes the dull rattle of machine-guns and the fevered spatter of rifle fire.

The choreography of the collapsing set (a gift to an imaginative stage manager) does nothing to diminish, everything to enhance, the nobility of the cause and the heroism of those who died for it. The last scene of Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered stands in sharp contrast. The action of the play turns on the failure of a war-time hero to make a success of his peacetime career. The comfortable post-war lives of the other characters – a well-to-do solicitor and his family – are gradually revealed as complacent and selfish. His three daughters are unhappily married, happily unmarried and unhappily unmarried. The last of these is the worm that turns, violently rejecting her life of subservient service to her war-wounded brother when the war-hero she might have married commits suicide. The family is startled when she turns on them.

‘Why should I be sacrificed all the time? Why should I be at everyone’s beck and call? Why should I have to do everything? I’m sick of being put upon. I’m sick of you, I’m sick of Sydney, I’m sick of Lois. I’m sick of you all.’

She throws over a table, then ‘she throws herself down and hysterically beats upon the floor with her fists’. Her brother-in-law ‘picks her up and carries her out of the room’. The scene could be played straight or played for laughs or, perhaps best, for both. The play ends on a subversive note which looks forward to the next war, then only seven years off. The patriarch addresses his family: ‘Well, I must say it’s very nice to have a cup of tea by one’s own fireside and surrounded by one’s family. If you come to think of it we none of us have anything very much to worry about. Of course we none of us have more money than we know what to do with, but we have our health and we have our happiness. I don’t think we’ve got very much to complain of. Things haven’t been going too well lately, but I think the world is turning the corner and we can all look forward to better times in future. This old England of ours isn’t done yet, and I for one believe in it and all it stands for.’

The unhappily unmarried daughter, the one who had to be carried out, then ‘begins to sing in a thin cracked voice’ the national anthem: ‘God save our gracious King! Long live our noble King! God save our King!’ The curtain comes down on the family looking at her ‘petrified, in horror-struck surprise’.

The editor of Modern Drama observed in his introduction that For Services Rendered ‘was not Mr Somerset Maugham’s most successful play; but it is probably his greatest’. I don’t suppose I will live to see it revived on stage, but it has aroused my interest in Somerset Maugham the dramatist (a Somerset Maugham, I confess, that I did not know existed).

r.c.sherriff 02

My subject on 1 October will be John Donne’s cancer diary.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 8 October.

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A poem by Charles Causley

Why do you turn your head, Susanna,
And why do you swim your eye?
It’s only the children on Bellman Street
Calling, ‘A penny for the guy!’

The underlying theme of nearly all of Charles Causley’s poems is war. World War II in particular, because that was the one that he fought in and the one that left its mark on the 20th century in a way that hardly anybody except Causley seems to have noticed. Charles Causley, like William Blake, wrote about innocence and experience and, like Blake, he used a deceptively simple form of lyric poetry in which to express thoughts which would otherwise have seemed like those of a mad prophet and been ignored. Both poets, to some degree, have been ignored anyway.

Why do you look away, Susanna,
As the children wheel him by?
It’s only a dummy in an old top-hat
And a fancy jacket and tie.

It is impossible not to be reminded, in this late poem by Causley, of the first of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in which the piper pipes ‘with merry cheer’ and the child listening ‘wept to hear’. Impossible, hearing the irony in Blake’s voice when he tells us that his ‘happy songs’ are songs that ‘every child may joy to hear’, not to think of Causley.

Why do you take my hand, Susanna,
As the pointing flames jump high?
It’s only a bundle of sacking and straw.
Nobody’s going to die.

Halfway through the poem, Causley uses for the first time the line that will end the poem and that now pulls us up with a jerk. If we had not realised already that this is about something more than bonfire night, ‘Nobody’s going to die’ makes us stop and think. What Susanna sees, Susanna the innocent child, is not what the grown-up sees. It is the reverse of Blake’s Nurse’s Song in which the nurse tells the children that their days ‘are wasted in play’ and their ‘winter and night in disguise’. But the meaning is the same. It’s just that Susanna has guessed it already.

Why is your cheek so pale, Susanna,
As the whizzbangs flash and fly?
It’s nothing but a rummage of paper and rag
Strapped to a stick you spy.

By now, if we are alert to the poet’s voice, we see what Susanna sees. We see through the grown-up’s pretence and recognise his reassuring phrases, it’s only this, it’s only that, for what they are. Perhaps we stop and glance back at the first three verses, wondering who the children on Bellman Street really are, why Susanna can’t bear to look at the dummy in the old top-hat, what causes her to be afraid when she sees the flames. Perhaps we notice how Causley, choosing his words carefully, makes Susanna’s reaction each time more disturbing, less easy to ignore. She turns her head, she looks away, she takes his hand and now he sees that her cheek is pale. He goes on trying to reassure her, but the mere fact that he has looked at her and seen how pale she is suggests that he is finding it harder to do so. Pale is a particularly evocative word, especially when applied to a child. From now on, the poet takes her fear more seriously.

Why do you say you hear, Susanna,
The sound of a last, long sigh?
And why do you say it won’t leave your head
No matter how hard you try?

For the first time, in the last verse but one, Susanna speaks. Or rather, the poet speaks for her. What she says transforms her from a child into a memory, a memory of war or, more particularly, what the survivors of war remember but can’t tell. In this poem, as in many others, Causley writes as a survivor. He has heard the ‘last, long sigh’ of dying men and it won’t leave his head no matter how hard he tries. (The slowing down of the line with its three last, long syllables adds to the effect.) There are things that the survivors of war find it difficult to talk about and impossible to forget.

Best let me take you home, Susanna.
Best on your bed to lie.
It’s only a dummy in an old top-hat.
Nobody’s going to die.

Finally, he is left talking to himself. In contrast with the previous verse which, with its run-on lines, is itself a contrast to the others, each line of this verse stands alone. The last two echo earlier lines, the last in particular now achieving its full force. This is a different kind of lie from the one that Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’. His was the lie about dying for your country. Of the two, Causley’s is worse. It is a lie of denial. Holocaust denial, Hiroshima denial, Dresden denial, Warsaw denial and all the other denials that came after and are still coming.

Charles Causley stands almost alone among British writers of the second half of the 20th century in not mentioning the war. William Golding, another navy man, tried hard to find his own way of dealing with the things that wouldn’t leave his head but that nobody wanted to talk about. He did it in the fable of Lord of the Flies, in the untold story of Pincher Martin, in the image of the child emerging from the flames that begins Darkness Visible. Otherwise, you might think the war had never happened, which is what Charles Causley’s poetry was all about.

charles causley 02

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 24 September.

My subject on 1 October will be John Donne’s cancer diary.

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