Review by: Penelope J. Corfield after viewing with Tony Belton

On Wednesday 10 April 2013

At: Theatre 503 at the Latchmere, 503 Latchmere Road SW11 3BW

Directed by: Paul Robinson

Cast: Ben Adams; Claire Dargo; Pamela Dwyer; Gregory Finnegan; Cameron Jack; Paula Masterton; Rhys Owen; Owen Whitelaw

Pretty amazing stuff – with a live snake. Brilliantly acted by eight unknown actors. If you want to see impressive impersonations of drunken, drug-driven, crazed, baffled, lascivious, Glaswegian underworld figures, changing from swagger to menace to terror, then view this production. The snake also does its part very well. Launching the opening scene, it writhes and flickers its tongue – without killing anyone in cast or audience. (It seemed to be a handsome but harmless grass-snake). No doubt it represents the wicked but attractive power of Temptation and Forbidden Knowledge, as in the Garden of Eden.
review003In this case, the scenes are all set in one Glasgow tenement. And the cast speak throughout in a no-holds-barred plebeian Glaswegian accent, which adds verisimilitude but which completely baffled an American sitting close to us in the audience. All well and good. Much of the action was symbolic and it was possible to trace the fast-shifting patterns of power and submission from the actors’ magnificently visceral body-language.

So what was the message from this portentous, weird, alarming, depressing, macabre, and intermittently very funny drama? Here it’s much more difficult to respond. All the characters are either loathsomely weak or incoherently dopey or manipulative or manic or violently unpleasant or combining elements of all these traits. The drama offers no false hopes. It ends with universal destruction. The message is unrelentingly downbeat, negative, even nihilistic. So we can conclude: don’t get high on drink and drugs, especially in the company of Glaswegian criminals; don’t double-cross your pals; and remember that the ultimate recourse to violence means that ultimately the most violent will win – before losing in the general holocaust.

These negative messages, however, seem a bit trite and obvious, at the end of an intensive, absorbing two-hour performance. Is there more to it? Does the element of comedy alleviate the gloom? Some does. One put-upon character, who has been deprived of most of his clothes, remarks that it’s difficult to act the hard guy when only scantily dressed: ‘You can’t batter somebody in your underpants’. The audience laughs but also understands the truth of this axiom. People deprived of their socially acceptable carapace are rendered powerless through their own awareness of their self-erosion.

Another funny moment comes when a bottle of scotch is adulterated with human piss. We get a flash of the actor’s willy to understand that this manoeuvre is ‘for real’. A detained innocent, wearing only his underpants, has few options. But he can at least cock a snook, rather literally, at his tormentor. Some comedy then follows, as different characters pick up the bottle and almost drink the piss, before finally the baddie does so. The joke then becomes slightly lost as the violence escalates. But another moral would be: don’t drink from a proffered bottle of scotch unless you are sure of its provenance.

Is that it then? So what? The message still seems a bit too elusive and negative for such impassioned acting. There is also more than a touch of cliché in setting this drama in the badlands of Glasgow. Is the distinctive Glaswegian accent in itself supposed to signal a menacing sub-culture, with its own rules?

Perhaps there is a further clue in the play’s title? It’s called The Life of Stuff. That phrase obviously plays on the reversal of ‘The Stuff of Life’. By looking at the downside of ‘normality’, the playwright Simon Donald promises to probe more deeply. We are to be offered a glimpse of ‘real life’, with a truth-telling message. People who are high on drinks or drugs or violence are deluding themselves. Life’s ‘stuff’ without a valid meaning constitutes betrayal. It leads to delusion, derangement, futility, serious crime and the incrimination of others, culminating only in destruction and death.

Consequently, worthwhile ‘stuff’ needs a serious purpose. There’s a sort of innocent puritanism (albeit without any trace of religious theology) emerging from this play. The Biblical connotations of the snake may suggest some sort of moral message. Nonetheless – aspiring playwrights please note – plays that are unremittingly bleak, no matter how brilliantly acted, can be so negative that the audience are left with blank depression rather than enlightenment.

Ok, so how about, among sad playwrights, Samuel Beckett? Harold Pinter? Even, amidst the scintillating laughter, Chekhov? They all demonstrate that it’s a hard art to present despair as a form of enlightenment. This play doesn’t surmount the difficulty. The audience admired but boggled. At the end, the Glasgow tenement is blown up and the audience is too. But go and see the play for yourself. It’s not often that you get to view a live snake, a trouser snake (in Private Eye parlance) and a dazzling set of performances conveying the apparent exuberance but, in reality, the utter stupidity of getting high on drinks, drugs, sexual opportunism, gangland drug-dealing, and violence. ‘Stuff’, to make a life worthwhile, needs clear minds, independent moral judgement, and fair dealing between fellow humans. Amen to that.

Illustration: Grass snake closeup, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 2010, from M.D. Parr’s photostream, www.flickr.com, downloaded 29/4/2013.

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

The answer is unequivocally No. (Obvious really but worth saying still?)

History as a subject is far, far too important to become a political football. It teaches about conflict as well as compromise; but that’s not the same as being turned into a source of conflict in its own right. Direct intervention by individual politicians in framing the History syllabus is actively dangerous.

2013-4 Cavaliers and Roundheads

Rival supporters of King and Parliament in the 1640s civil wars, berating their opponents as ‘Roundhead curs’ and ‘Cavalier dogs’: the civil wars should certainly appear in the Schools History syllabus but they don’t provide a model for how the syllabus should be devised.

There are several different issues at stake. For a start, many people believe that the Schools curriculum, or prescriptive framework, currently allots too little time to the study of History. There should be more classes per week. And the subject should be compulsory to the age of sixteen.1  Those changes would in themselves greatly enhance children’s historical knowledge, reducing their recourse to a mixture of prevalent myths and cheerful ignorance.

A second issue relates to the balance of topics within the current History syllabus, which specifies the course contents. I personally do favour some constructive changes. There is a good case for greater attention to long-term narrative frameworks,2  alongside high-quality in-depth studies.

But the point here is: who should actually write the detailed syllabus? Not individual historians and, above all, not individual politicians. However well-intentioned such power-brokers may or may not be, writing the Schools History syllabus should be ultra-vires: beyond their legal and political competence.

The need for wide consultation would seem obvious; and such a process was indeed launched. However, things have just moved into new territory. It is reported that Education Secretary has unilaterally aborted the public discussions. Instead, the final version of the Schools History syllabus, revealed on 7 February 2013, bears little relation to previous drafts and discussions.3 It has appeared out of the (political) blue.

Either the current Education Secretary acted alone, or perhaps had some unnamed advisers, working behind the scenes. Where is the accountability in this mode of procedure? Even some initial supporters of syllabus revision have expressed their dismay and alarm.

Imagine what Conservative MPs would have said in 2002 if David Blunkett (to take the best known of Blair’s over-many Education Ministers) had not only inserted the teaching of Civics into the Schools curriculum as a separate subject;4 but had written the Civics syllabus as well. Or if Blunkett had chosen to rewrite the History syllabus at the same time?

Or imagine what Edmund Burke, the apostle of moderate Toryism, would have said. This eighteenth-century politician-cum-political theorist, who was reportedly identified in 2008 as ‘the greatest conservative ever’ by the current Education Secretary,5 was happy to accept the positive role of the state. Yet he consistently warned of the dangers of high-handed executive power. The authority of central government should not be untrammelled. It should not be used to smash through policies in an arbitrary manner. Instead Burke specifically praised the art of compromise or – a better word – of mutuality:

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.6

An arbitrary determination of the Schools History syllabus further seems to imply that the subject not only can but ought to be moulded by political fiat. Such an approach puts knowledge itself onto a slippery slope. ‘Fixing’ subjects by political will (plus the backing of the state) leads to intellectual atrophy.

To take a notoriously extreme example, Soviet biology was frozen for at least two generations by Stalin’s doctrinaire endorsement of Lysenko’s environmental genetics.7 A dramatic rise in agrarian productivity was promised, without the need for fertilisers (or more scientific research). Stalin was delighted. Down with the egg-heads and their slow research. Lysenko’s critics were dismissed or imprisoned. But Lysenkoism did not work. And, after unduly long delays, his pseudo-science was finally discredited.
2013-4 Lysenko_with_Stalin - Copy

A rare photo of Stalin (back R) gazing approvingly at Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976)
speaking from the rostrum in the Kremlin, 1935

In this case, the Education Secretary is seeking to improve schoolchildren’s minds rather than to improve crop yields. But declaring the ‘right’ answer from the centre is no way to achieve enlightenment. Without the support of the ‘little platoons’ (to borrow another key phrase from Burke), the proposed changes may well prove counter-productive in the class-room. Many teachers, who have to teach the syllabus, are already alienated. And, given that History as a subject lends itself to debate and disagreement, pupils will often learn different lessons from those intended.

Intellectual interests in an Education Secretary are admirable. The anti-intellectualism of numerous past ministers (including too many Labour ones) has been horribly depressing. But intellectual confidence, tipped into arrogance, can be taken too far. Another quotation to that effect is often web-attributed to Edmund Burke, though it seems to come from Albert Einstein. He warned that powerful people should wisely appreciate the limits of their power:

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.8

1 That viewpoint was supported in my monthly BLOG no.23 ‘Why do Politicians Undervalue History in Schools’ (Oct. 2012): see www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

2 I proposed a long-span course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’ in History Today, 62/11 (Nov. 2012), pp. 52-3.

3 See D. Cannadine, ‘Making History: Opportunities Missed in Reforming the National Curriculum’, Times Literary Supplement, 15 March 2013, pp. 14-15; plus further responses and a link to the original proposals in www.historyworks.tv

4 For the relationships of History and Civics, see my monthly BLOG no.24 ‘History as the Staple of a Civic Education’, www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

5 Michael Gove speech to 2008 Conservative Party Annual Conference, as reported in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Gove, consulted 3 April 2013.

6 Quotation from Edmund Burke (1729-97), Second Speech on Conciliation with America (1775). For further context, see D. O’Keeffe, Edmund Burke (2010); I. Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York, 1977); and F. O’Gorman (ed.), British Conservatism: Conservative Thought from Burke to Thatcher (1986).

7 Z. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko (New York, 1969).

8 Albert Einstein (1879-1955), in Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday (1954), p. 26. The quotation is sometimes (but wrongly) web-attributed to Edmund Burke’s critique of Jacobin arrogance in his Preface to Brissot’s Address to his Constituents (1794).

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