Archive | April, 2014


25 Apr


   Martial conflict is an anachronism, or rather it should be, and yet proof of humanitie’s inability to coexist is evident in the untold wars currently being fought around the globe. If ever there was an example of man’s abject failure to communicate or to engage in diplomatic discourse then it’s his chronic penchant for war. Eric Maria Remarque was a German soldier during the First World War of ‘14-‘18 and the acclaimed author of the universally- acknowledged, greatest war novel of all time. Having seen brief service but enough horror to last him a lifetime Remarque penned his novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1928.

               How does one describe death and destruction to those who’ve never experienced it, and more importantly how does one market a war novel that fails to glorify war? By stark contrast the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes a mad dash by British soldiers in 1854 against unbelievable Russian odds and is filled with patriotic fervor and that most quintessential aspect of flag-waving British imperialism, military ineptitude. Not so Remarque’s story. There are no allusions to vain glory but instead a cold, clinical look at a group of ordinary men who in order to survive the horrors of the trenches, are turned into killing machines. His is a satirical, historical perspective that enforces a savage anti-war message. In a book filled with cutting commentary, he subtly and effectively ridicules the nature of warfare offering a convincing treatise on the foolishness of war. Using irony, hubris, stock figures and stereotypical nationalism Remarque created a satire of epic proportion.

               The genus of Remarque’s satire can be found in the work of more arcane authors proving that the genre is a contemporary medium and that only the targets of satire change. By comparing the works of various seventeenth century satirists to Remarque, it’s possible to identify the method and compare and contrast satirical literary devices and prove their effectiveness, both historically and in their more recent application.

               The stock figure is an omniscient traditional satirical creation, an entity who personifies that which is right or wrong with a situation or system, be it social or political, who invariably acts as a stereotypical identifier to the reader. The characters, whose names are often symbolic of vice or weakness, are invariably the antithesis of the writer’s considered position and thus eligible for ridicule and mockery. In William Congreve’s play “The Way of the World”(1700) stock figures proliferate the dramatis personae and either mimic their master’s traits or prove that they’re of no better character than those over whom they claim to be superior. Congreve describes a Jacobean world of intrigue and personal gain with fops, dandys, fallen women, and the politically astute who through their connivance, personal associations and collective acumen articulately express that which is wrong with contemporary society. Lady Wishforth for instance, is a rich dowager with an appetite for younger men, whereas Sir Witwould is as sharp as his name implies. Remarque employs similar satirical representations. In a strict Prussian Germany where rank is determined by the position one holds in society, virtue of character is supposedly justified by profession.

               The “Herr Professor” Kantoreck, the German school master who encourages his “Iron Youth” to enlist, is the model of imperious perversity. Although recognized as a man of unquestionable intellect and of great standing within the small community, he misguidedly incites the class through the glorification of war, the necessity of sacrifice, and the honor of fighting and falling for the Fatherland. As impressionable young men Paul Baumer and his classmates throw down their books and run to the recruiting station, placing their trust and ultimately their lives in the hands of their infallible sage. Remarque paints an indelible image of the war fever to which many nations succumbed prior to the start of hostilities. Young men with no knowledge of why, what, or for whom they were fighting, rushed to offer themselves as though it were a game or holiday jaunt. By utilizing the grotesque of a believable, upstanding, professional Remarque throws into doubt the veracity and integrity of those who wield power and questions public faith in assumed authority figures. Baumer goes to war at the behest of his master not because of patriotic fervor or the hatred of an enemy, but because of misguided ineptitude.

               The stock figure can also be used to show the elevation of a character to a position of power. By utilizing a lowly figure both the virtues and vices of the inherited position can be analyzed and the perception of high born integrity challenged. Himmelstoss, a former postman and renowned buffoon whom the school boys have teased in the past is elevated beyond his capability. Now Corporal Himmelstoss , the boys’ nemesis and their boot camp instructor, he literally holds their lives in the palm of his hand. A sadist and a man drunk on power, he makes their lives hell. The satirical allusion here is to “lions led by lambs,” where soldiers of all nations where led by men with just enough plum in their voices to put pips on their shoulders. A university or grammar school education was sufficient to garner a commission in the British and German Armies of the early twentieth century; connection and family name all that were required to send men to their deaths. We see this in Samuel Butler’s “Hudibras” (1662) where “Hudibras” enjoys “Colonelling.” Hudibras is a man who’s achieved rank by affiliation rather than merit and who loves to ride out among the community flaunting his position and exercising his authority for personal gain. An abject coward who’d rather that others pay for his mediocrity, he fulfills the same satirical caricature as the Corporal. Himmelstoss, safe in the knowledge that he’ll never be sent to the front, and reassured in the unlikelihood of ever meeting his recruits again, enjoys the power of his position to the full. Elevated beyond ability and education he humiliates and crushes the will of his recruits, and even manages to kill some of them in the process. Remarque demonstrates his disdain for officialdom and highlights the useless, wastage of life by embodying presumed authority in the unlikely personage of an ex-postman.

               Irony is one of the significant hallmarks of satire and can be found throughout the genre. By inverting accepted norms and contrasting the juxtapositions of the sublime with the ridiculous an argument can be made that strengthens an author’s viewpoint. Authors, by suggesting that which is patently wrong as being obviously correct, can argue their thesis more effectively by offering an alternative position. By confronting a reader with a well-defined argument, and then offering solid reasons for holding that particular view, it’s possible to strongly influence a reader’s impression. This is why satire is such a strong literary tool, and why one could easily confuse the methodology with its more recent applications in propaganda, advertising and even political discourse.

               Swift uses the methodology to great success in “A Modest Proposal” (1729) when he argues for the cannibalization of Irish children in order to help relieve the social problems of the age. His arguments are well thought out, his conclusions logical, and yet his thesis untenable. According to Swift, in order to help the poor and impoverished, it’s necessary to fatten their children and sell them to the rich for food. With one stroke of his pen he relieves the poor of their poverty, establishes a sustainable income, creates a renewable food source and rids the Irish of hunger forever. So long as the Irish continue to bare children then they’ll never starve. The issue of morality has also been addressed as now a child born out of wed-lock is no longer a cause of shame but rather a shrewd investment. What could make more sense than assuaging the poor of their unwanted children, diminishing the burgeoning population, putting an end to hunger and relieving poverty? All fabulous and welcome ideas that would ease the burdens of the poor, except the solution to the problem, the consumption of human children, is morally reprehensible and therefore untenable. Swift is of course being obtuse. By utilizing rhetoric he argues convincingly his hopeless case by dismissing the sensible solutions already ignored by the establishment of the day, and then arguing convincingly for his proposal. If the product of their relief was anything but human flesh his suggestions would’ve been welcomed.

               Such is Irony and Remarque uses this to equal success within his own novel. His twist is to offer the manifestation of total war as normality. A dystopian world in which common men who’ve never met outside of the theatre of war murder one another for reasons they don’t understand, having been ordered to do so by men they’ve never met. An absurd war created in the minds of a handful of individuals for which millions must pay for with their lives under the guise of nationalism and patriotism.

               Paul Baumer caught between the lines after becoming separated from his comrades on a night patrol is unable to find his way back to his own trench and so must stay put. At the moment he decides to try to find his way back, an attack is initiated by the French who, after a short bombardment, race across no-man’s land and across the shell hole in which he cowers. Burying himself face deep in the mud he pretends to be dead in the hope that once the attack is over he can return to his comrades. Suddenly, a French soldier drops into the crater, and seeing only a uniform and an enemy Paul falls upon him with a knife and stabs him repeatedly in the chest. Dismissing the dying, choking man Paul once again tries to escape his predicament but due to prolific machine gun fire is unable and so must stay where he is, a frightened German soldier forced to remain in close proximity to an expiring Frenchman.

               Remarque fills the crater with irony. The Frenchman is no longer the enemy but a man by the name of Claude Duval, a printer with a wife and a child. For the first time Baumer realizes that rather than having killed a monster he’s killed a fellow man who, for the same reasons as himself, was conscripted to fight, having probably never met a foreigner in his life and until the arrival of call-up papers content to continue his own way of life. Remarque insists that had the two men met in peacetime they would’ve bought each other drinks. The war despite the shells flying overhead no longer exists inside of the shell hole, instead there are just two ordinary men who’ve been brought together by circumstances beyond their control. Baumer argues both sides of the war, justifies his actions in killing the Frenchman and yet repudiates what he’s done to Duval. In a pathetic attempt of guilt and self-realization he tries to save the man he tried to kill. Duval ultimately dies and Paul is able to escape back to his trench. The discussion of the rights and wrongs of conflict are left in the crater as Paul finally makes it back to his own lines. Remarque’s portrayal of both murderer and savior embodied by the same soldier are deeply disturbing. How can a man who knew nothing but his studies prior to the war suddenly become capable of such an act? Both dressed in the uniforms of their country they were identifiable as enemies. Once the badges and colors had been stripped away the reality was of two men confronting one another, not two nations. The ridiculousness of strangers hating and killing is as preposterous as Swift’s solution to hunger. Remarque identifies the reasons for the action and then demonstrates the madness of the outcome. The irony is as thick on the page as the mud was deep, in the crater in which the soldiers fought.

               The irony continues to flow when the soldiers are removed to safe quarters behind the lines where they are deloused, fed and given clean uniforms in expectation of a visit from the Kaiser. The men are drilled and paraded in order to receive the supreme being with the pomp and ceremony his rank demands. When the great man finally arrives they are less than impressed. The Emperor is short in statue and unsurprisingly a man just like themselves. Remarque compounds his ante-war rhetoric in the persona of the Kaiser and ends the chapter with the soldier’s realization. Nothing more is said. Nothing else is necessary.

               National hubris as described by Daniel Defoe in “True Born Englishman” (1701) demolishes the idea of racial purity by comparing and contrasting stereotypes and then applying them to the English. A catalogue of disparaging qualities are used to describe foreign nationals and then argued in order to cement the idea of their inferiority to the pure bred English. As with all satire the reverse proves to be true and Defoe then proceeds to apply the same methodology to the English with acerbic clarity. Through his argument one is initially led into a false sense of superiority only to be dragged back into reality when the irrefutable evidence of the counter argument is presented. With mixed blood, diluted race, assimilated language, and of suspect origin, the English are as foreign and quirky as their European neighbors. Defoe demolishes racial purity, not for the sake of disparagement, but to alleviate xenophobic tendency in an attempt to alter a cultural misconception. In this particular case it was the nationality of the new king, William of Orange, who perceived as a Dutch foreigner, was was opposed by some in his claim to the English throne.

               According to “Kantoreck” the school master his “Iron Youth” were exactly what Germany required in its hour of need. The master builds his class of school boys into invincible Wagnerian supermen. Faced only by the “filthy, lazy French” and the “cowardly British Tommies” victory would be swift and the war over by Christmas. The boys believing their master hasten into the ranks, only to discover that the opposite is true. The men in the opposing trenches are in fact themselves, men who’re fighting for survival rather than principal, and who hail from homes and families not dissimilar to their own. The war of course isn’t over by Christmas and the recruits who joined together as a class of thirty students are slowly whittled down to one. Baumer, is the last man standing. With the armistice bells about to ring Baumer foolishly peers above the trench at the site of a butterfly flitting between the rusted wire barricades. Blinded by the beauty of the insect he momentarily forgets the survival instincts honed from years of trench fighting and is shot dead by a French sniper. As Baumer slides dead into the bottom of the trench the bells ring out and the war is over.

               Remarque proves that satire is evergreen and can be used in any age and applied to most subjects. By offering a story of conflict he colors his characters and their experiences with the satirical method, demonstrating that satire is not an outdated concept. Irony, stock characters, national hubris and stereo typical nationalism are as useful to Remarque as they were to the likes of Swift, Wilmot and Congreve. Although the subjects may change, satire is as applicable to a twentieth century war as they are to a sixteenth century Dutch king mounting an English throne, or a Whig official “Colonelling” on his estates. Although Remarque’s raw satire is based on his own experiences of the trenches and the indescribable horror he saw, rather than linger on the brutality of warfare he chooses to highlight the humanity of the protagonists and the obscenity of a generation of young men wasted. What greater satire could there be than men fighting and dying in an ocean of mud when if left to their own devices they would have chosen to live?

               During the Christmas armistice of 1914 soldiers of all nations climbed out of their trenches, exchanged gifts and played a game of football in no-man’s land. They were told by their officers that should they repeat what they termed fraternization they’d be shot. Remarque didn’t experience the common soldier’s desire for yuletide peace though undoubtedly the irony of the occasion would not have been wasted upon him.   


10 Apr



           The seemingly random historical revelations that occur within Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys” are nothing of the kind and are in fact waypoints intended to reveal future events. Simple asides and seemingly innocuous, disconnected historical trivia are the milestones with which the plays main protagonists are fleshed and developed. What may appear to be trivial, interesting, historical minutia or rather “gobbits” crafted to fill the play and amuse potential audiences, are crucial in developing falling action. The characters’ literary lives and futures have been pre-determined by that which has gone before, their futures encapsulated in the history that Bennett chooses to reveal. The present and future of all the characters has already been divulged and revealed through historical precedence, their subsequent fates a simple reflection of the past. Theirs is a circuitous journey of events that have already occurred, a historical “deja vu.” Just as in history, their lives are nothing more than “one [bloody] thing after another.”(p.106) There is nothing original neither in their choices nor in their achievements, as the representation of Bennett’s past preemptively foreshadows their futures. Bennett very cleverly reveals the play before the final curtain but it isn’t until the end of the play that the audience is made aware that they’ve been cheated of an original climax. Bennett previews his ending to his audience without their willing participation, allowing for a cognitive dissonance to mask that which has already been exposed. The audience is unwittingly privy to future events through the revelation of the past and so the subsequent ending shouldn’t be a surprise, although of course it is.

               By analyzing Bennett’s selective history and cultural trivia we can plumb the depths of its meaning and equate it to events within the play to achieve an understanding of parallelism; a pre-determined synchronistic mish-mash of a play within a play. (The plays in question, of course, are the drama of history itself and Bennett’s own “History Boys.”)

               The historical points are all meaningful, from the discussion of past world conflicts to the performance of 1940’s black-and-white movie scenes, none of which are thematically random and all serve a purpose. Bennett has chosen carefully and each historical caveat is a magnification of character destiny. Nothing is random, everything is etched in stone, and each vignette is reviewed through the myopic lens of historical contemplation. The play seems to evolve in front of the audience and yet there is a sense of having seen it somewhere before. This is the duality with which Bennett experiments, the assumed juxtaposition of history with contemporary issues. Time it would seem is nothing but an accumulation of past experience and a compaction of future events. A human stratum of sedimentary remembrances and occurrences that serve to create a foundation for all that ever was, is, or can be.

“The History Boys” is a play with a parallel narrative encompassing human emotion and ambition with both historical and cultural retrospective. By analyzing Bennett’s proscribed history, it’s possible to decipher and understand the prospects of his characters. In particular, historical warfare is used to determine the destinies of the play’s protagonists. By utilizing the First World War, with allusions to the monumental waste of human life, and the Boer War, where soldiers far from home were lost forever on distant horizons, he reasons the hopelessness of his own characters through historical reference.

               Bennett beguiles his audience with a projected dissonance, a pretense that the play’s obsession is with university placement and that the plot of his production is to see young men triumph where others have failed. Not for the headmaster the red brick of York and Manchester, but rather the cold stone and musty libraries of more illustrious temples of learning, namely Oxford and Cambridge. In the grand scheme of Sixth Form College statics, their personal achievements will be an escutcheon on his shield of personal, professional pride; a vanity, for the one man who has the most to gain from his boys’ achievements. Their exertions are for a disparate figure in a room where one must knock before one is permitted to enter the rarified atmosphere of the headmaster’s office. The symbolism of one man gaining from the letting of scholarly blood is picked up later in the play by the new man Irwin, the master engaged to inspire. Irwin is charged with the final push which will have the boys in Berlin, or rather Oxford, before Christmas.

               Irwin is tasked to shrive the school of past failure, to erase the memory of those who’ve gone before by sacrificing the new youth under his charge. Bennett engages his audience in a subliminal comparison to the First World War and how it was fought for all the wrong reasons. The Great War, the war to end all wars with its Glorious Dead and universal sacrifice for King and country, or rather those who are remembered in epitaph alone. Simple stone cenotaphs with the names of lost boys carved in granite. Bennett links the boys with the volunteers of 1914. It’s the students who must go over the top and suffer the rake of enemy fire in order to satisfy the will of their betters. Lions lead by lambs, for which “Dulce et Decorum Est” isn’t just a nod to a long dead poet but also to an ageing geographer.

               It would be all too easy for the boys, as “Totty” so eloquently describes, to attend other schools where along with pizza and other firsts they could be so much happier. Durham instead of Oxford, or perhaps the allusion is to Oxford rather than the Somme? Bennett hasn’t given us a classroom of boys but rather a platoon of “pals.” Britain’s best who must go forth and carve honor for themselves in order to achieve a greater glory for their headmaster. All nonsense of course, but by instilling in his audience the idea of conflict we understand what it is the boys have to endure: the study sessions, the long hours, the extra classes and above all the pressure. By alluding to Belgian battlefields and contrasting that with a nineteen eighties classroom the reader should be left with little uncertainty. The war as history records didn’t end well, with a forgotten generation of boys doing their post-mortem best to enrich foreign fields! Some of the pupils may return, but there will be casualties, and there will be lads left hung out to dry on the barbed wire of further education.

               Bennett constructs a predictable future, one which won’t be a happy in the majority of cases. Yet the reader is left with an ambiguous optimism that the boys may still succeed when they charge the enemy trenches, or rather sit the exams and attend the university interviews of Oxbridge. The college exams are the barrage before the frontal assault, hence the attention paid to so carefully to the vignette of the First World War. Bennett could have picked any war, the second which was closer chronologically perhaps, but instead chose the cauldron of Flanders to frame the boys’ futures. The lads are doomed youth, their futures uncertain and with their happiness very much in the balance.

               This is reiterated during the beatification of Hector, aptly the greatest of the Trojan warriors, at the end of the play where in a third person setting the boys are individually addressed to measure their personal success. None of them appear to be happy or fulfilled, their earlier aspirations having crumbled into the consolations of weekend drugs, emotionless sex, and the soulless pursuit of money. There should have been more. We the reader expected more. The brave new world the pupils thought would welcome them after college never materialized and now, just as the fallen are immortalized on the stone crosses of a thousand church yards, their names are mere murmurs, faint remembrances, in the halls of Sheffield schools. They strove, sought, didn’t yield and yet, the question remains, why? Bennett told us it was going to happen, we just weren’t paying attention when he did.

               Bennett uses war throughout the play to polarize the destinies of his protagonists and to camouflage events from the reader in the hope that, beguiled by the propaganda of theatrical illusion, they’ll happily accept that the boys will, by curtain close, achieve their goals. There are however many miles to tread before the reveal but once again Bennett signposts his destinations meticulously. From a French dressing station to a kopje crest on the South African Veld, fortunes are divulged as cryptically as gypsy-read tea leaves.

               Hector, a teacher with a penchant for younger boys, is determined to keep the real world firmly shut outside the locked door of his classroom. In an impromptu exercise the boys are asked to practice their French language skills in a “maison de passé,” a brothel, where with the help of the subjunctive the lads are free to allow their imaginations to run wild. The scene is developed with an overt sexuality until unexpectedly there’s a knock at the door. In an instant the brothel transforms into a battlefield dressing station where wounded soldiers lay screaming and dying tended by an army of orderlies, doctors, and nurses. Once again Bennett plunges his audience into war.

               Drawn into formation the antagonists stand ready to do battle. All will engage but few will survive and even fewer will succeed. The troops in the form of the boys are assembled, their captain Hector at the front. The confrontation is obvious. The solders “blesse” are at the mercy of the headmaster. Irwin is introduced and the two sides face off in a war of words, furtive eye movement and double entendre. All those present in the scene will be wounded, the symbolism of World War One once again suggesting body counts and unknown soldiers mulched into Flanders mud. The battle lines are clearly drawn with the headmaster holding supreme command. Irwin is the unknown quantity, the new man fresh from Blighty bursting with spit-and-polish who must somehow mold his indefatigables into a cohesive, driven unit capable of anything. Doomed youth isn’t yet aware of what is about to happen. Only Bennett is aware of his own master plan. The teachers will go head to head, the boys will follow orders, the headmaster will attempt to achieve total victory whilst crushing dissension in the ranks and poor “Posner” will suffer a life of post traumatic college stress from which he’ll never recover.

              The classroom, or rather the dressing station, is roll call and casualty list rolled into one. Every one present will be detrimentally affected by the continuance of the play. Whether in unrequited love, lost career, or missed opportunity, all stand to lose. The campaign which the headmaster insists must be victorious has already been lost. The dressing station far from the halcyon days of pre 1914 is a wasteland filled with straw men and damned humanity. The audience sees a classroom whilst Bennett alludes to trench warfare and a tent filled with wounded men.

               Thomas Hardy’s poem “Drummer Hodge” is used to great effect to illustrate the play’s underlying tensions regarding the boys and their masters in their Oxbridge quest. The poem tells of a dead drummer who’s been buried, albeit “uncoffined,” on the far side of the world. A lad who’ll never see home again and for whom southern stars and strange constellations will in perpetuity “West” across his grave. Of all Hardy’s poetry, why does Bennett choose this one? What possible connection could there be to a mass grave in what today is South Africa with a secondary modern in Britain? Bennett once again utilizes a martial device to illustrate his point.

               The forsaken boy buried in the Veld although named but only recollected through Hardy’s poetry, died in a forgotten war that was fought for reasons nobody can recall. Just as the boys who’re about to embark on their own journeys to distant colleges whose names only ring true thanks to common utterance, they may as well be going to the far side of the moon. Theirs is a journey of necessity, for reasons that have been made quite clear to them. “It’s the hottest ticket in town … other boys want to go …, standing room only,”(p.6) and of paramount importance, because the headmaster demands it. Although a communal effort to get them there, the last steps of the journey must be taken alone. A successful interview with college Dons will allow them to further their education, or should they fail, guarantee one way tickets back to Yorkshire. The play poses a paradox that the likelihood of provincial boys achieving intellectual status is as ridiculous as the British defeating the Boers. As Bennett recollects he too was “…up against boys who’d been better educated and at a higher price.” The boys from the school are armed only with a comprehensive education which in the 1960’s probably sounded like a good idea. Hodge had only his drum.

               Drummer boys were usually the youngest soldiers and were enlisted in regiments to act as orderlies and to acquiesce to commissioned whim. “Posner,” the youngest of the Oxbridge candidates, is directly associated with the poem. In what is a homoerotic theme that runs throughout the play “Posner” is in love with a fellow boy who in turn is loved by other masters. Just as Drummer Hodge is alone Posner, foreshadowed by a casualty of war, will end up alone. Rather than the romance of “his brain and breast growing to some southern tree” he instead will grow old and bitter living vicariously through the middling achievements of his former classmates.

               Bennett through historical conflict reveals to his audience not only the result of martial futility but also his own premature dénouement. “Posner” will be forgotten and alone with his recollections in the same manner that the memory of the Oxbridge campaign will fade with the passing of time. Although General Kitchener marched his men across Africa for increased British influence there’s nothing left in that country today except perhaps the bad taste of post colonialism that alludes to the armies ever having been there. Likewise in France, there are only ploughed acres and poppy fields where the greatest nations on earth once tried to destroy one another. The audience is gifted by the author with precognition and the outcome of the play should be self-evident. “Wish me luck as you kiss me goodbye,” is sung by the departing boys as they head south, just as “Union Jacks” were waived to the sounds of bands playing the same tune in the final years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The History Boys” maps the fortunes of Bennett’s characters through historical reference; a play that mirrors the past in all aspects and reflects on the improbability of the future.