Tag Archives: ARIZONA

DRACULA – Modernism and “New Woman”

12 Jun


The “Norton” edition fails to address the plight of working class women for whom the transition to an industrialized – instead of an agrarian – economy was singularly the greatest impetus towards women’s rights. Women were very often employed in the new factories in preference to men as they were cheaper, compliant and easier to control with the economically beneficial addition of their children who were considered free labor. For the first time in the modern era, women had become principal earners and seen to be able to work alongside men or even in place of them. The so called “New Woman”in the earlier part of the century would have been a rarity indeed, given her societal subjugation and lack of access to higher education however, with the advent of the new century things were changing rapidly; women were schooled, allowed to divorce and in many cases granted the right to own property and were no longer considered the chattel of their husbands. To white-wash the entire Victorian period as a repressive society towards the feminine would therefore be disingenuous. The eighteen hundreds were a march of progression not only in industrialization and Capitalist economics but also in sexual parity.

Stoker’s women – in particular Mina and Lucy – have been androgenized and one has to question the author’s motivation? Why it is that Mina’s is the principal diary; why are we allowed to see into the minds of Stoker’s women and why are they given such broad sexual license? The principal action through much of the novel is either conducted by or associated with Mina. Why does Stoker personify a principal character as a woman when the Norton edition would have us believe they were so downtrodden and that Victorian Patriarchy was allegedly so afraid of the rise of woman? Given the period that “Dracula” was written Britain stood at the dawn of a new century with the rejection of Romanticism and the advent of Modernism. Clearly new cultural perceptions were beginning to appear – as is evident both in the poetry and literature of the later nineteenth century – and rather than viewing the suppression of women we should perhaps be receptive to their awakening during a century where women began to achieve their first vestiges of equality. Stoker from his descriptions and subjugation of the expected feminine stereotype is clearly demonstrating an enlightenment and broadness of mind that obviously wasn’t his alone. Given that “Dracula” is a novel of its period, we are perhaps misreading an enlightenment novel that had already made the switch from sexual division to the incorporation of the female and its reclassification as equal. We have to also consider the men in the novel and see how ridiculous they become when they interact with women. In all things they are committed to action and honor and societal obligation and yet when a woman is suddenly in the picture they are emasculated and revert to becoming children, blubbering simpletons or love struck buffoons. Stoker is demonstrating extremes of character, where we can clearly see that the sexes are able to perform a duality of roles and that the masculine and feminine are interchangeable. Clearly, as “Dracula” demonstrates, those traits traditionally associated with one sex no longer, at the dawn of the twentieth century, hold true.

The three vampires adopt male roles and rather than supplicant actively seek what can only be described as sexual congress with Harker. This is a no holds barred description of women as sexual aggressors. We also see the awakening of the dominant in Mina as well, who decides, despite the fact that she is “merely a woman,” to visit her sick husband and take control of his affairs. It’s thanks to her foresight and ability to work with the latest technology – the typewriter – that she is able to order man’s affairs and throw light on what had been a confusion of facts. Lucy who holds the fate of men in her hands with her several proposals is even able to dazzle and distract her suitors in death! Not only that but she also destroys that most sacred sacrament of the feminine – motherhood – when she feeds off children in her undead state. Rather than a giver of life the feminine is cast in the masculine role as a taker of life. Throughout the novel it is either the women who hold the reigns or who are given license to do so by the men who, in their company, are mere walking shadows – poor players perhaps – of what society expects them to be. This transition within sexual power play politics is undoubtedly reflective of the period in which it was written and self evident of the onset of Modernism.


26 May


An argument against feminist criticism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

               Frankenstein is a novel of parallels and although Professor Mellor makes a convincing argument that the novel is an allusion to the repression of female sexuality and the negation and usurpation of nature, it is the anthropomorphism of nature as female that weakens her argument. One could with equal authority claim that it was God in his heaven who was the creator of all and that nature is simply and extension of himself if one chose to sexualize creation. It’s true that throughout classical literature, nature has consistently been characterized as female; obvious given the parallels between the mysteries of child birth and the seasonal earth processes attributed to Mother Nature: it’s Mother Earth after all who is credited with the bounty of the harvest and the caprice of the seasons.  One only has to consider the abduction of Persephone to understand the relationship between natural processes and the female. Given her authority in the field of feminine criticism and her declared position as a feminist it’s forgivable that she underwrites her own argument with cherry-picked inferences and lobbies the importance of what was almost certainly the emergence of a proto-feminist voice and the hypothesis that “Frankenstein” is representative of female equality and suffrage. By her own admission and the evidences of further reading, it was Mary’s mother –Wollstonecraft – who was the feminist and not she herself. Consequently, parallels between Shelly’s life and the novel are much easier to accept than imputations to gender rhetoric. Evidently there were larger social issues at hand – during the period that Frankenstein was written – than just the awakening of female equality.

                The novel was written in 1816; the year after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. For the entirety of Mary’s life England had been at war with France and consequently the subject of revolution and the divine right of kings would never have been far from public discourse. Rather than the emancipation of women as the burgeoning topic of the day it would have been the emancipation of the proletariat as evidenced by the Slave Trade acts of 1807 and the French Revolution of 1789. To give the professor credit she does touch on this at the end of the lecture, comparing Napoleon to Prometheus which I believe is the true nature of the novel. Personal inference of the author’s own life experience within the novel aside, the creation of the creature and the application of a Marxist theory reveal the clash of political ideology and the turmoil in which Europe found itself during and after the revolution. If one where to characterize the Revolution as “the creature” then the creation of both can be seen as world changing events. Frankenstein is a novel of public awakening and social realization; the creation of a “brave new world” by the common man contrary to the hegemony of the old world order. The creature personifies both the aspirations and fears of revolutionary change

               From the very beginning Frankenstein is enamored with the ancient order and determined to follow the path of alchemy. It isn’t until he goes to the university to receive enlightenment that he’s confronted with a new way of thinking and comes to understand that there is an alternative approach to the scientific model. By utilizing both theoretical and practical methodology he quickly surpasses his peers and arrives at the idea of creating life itself. An aberration perhaps of the nature of man but an exciting prospect that something else is achievable; that the old ways don’t necessarily have to be adhered to following the axiom that age is no guarantee of wisdom. Coming from a wealthy, ranking family as he does, his perspective is bourgeois and therefore his creation is more of a challenge than it is a correction to accepted nature. Frankenstein symbolizes those ancient European hierarchies who – rather like the gods – toy with their subjects knowing that no matter the outcome of their social experiments and repressive politics they can always revert to the old customs; or, as in Shelley’s book, simply kill the creature. What is not understood by those institutions, portrayed by the character of Frankenstein, is that given the tools of life the creature, or the proletariat, comes to realize that “they” too are relative beings and, just as the feminists proclaim their own equality, so they proclaim the “Rights of Man.”

               It’s interesting that just as we read in chapter one the view point of Frankenstein and the bourgeoisie we are allowed to hear the common voice of the “prols” via the creature in chapter two. Having been endowed with the spark of life – or societal recognition depending how one wishes to view Shelley’s analogy – the creature wishes nothing more than to emulate those who created him. Similarly the books read by the creature to educate himself describe both the fall of man – Milton – and failed empires –Plutarch – and that this literature is pertinent to recent historical events and isn’t coincidental. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” was famously used for rhetorical purposes to support and decry both states of being both pre and post revolution. Having been given life the creature wants nothing more to share in the most basic of human values. He doesn’t seek wealth or prestige, despite the fact that given his physical attributes he could probably achieve both, but instead craves the most basic of human traits, that of inclusion. Therefore, the creature doesn’t threaten the status quo but simply asks to be recognized by it.

               In later chapters we see the entire Histrionic of the French Revolution from the Terror – the stalking of Frankenstein’s family – to the ultimate failure and the death of revolution – the killing of the second creature and ultimate suicide of the first – and the return to accepted normality. Just as the creature was a well-intentioned experiment that got out of hand, so too the Revolution came to personify the worst rather than the best in humanity. With direct allusion to social indifference and the inequality of 19th century society, Shelley has penned a political novel that – although shrouded in Gothic tropes – attempts to trace the rise and fall of revolutionary France and in doing so recognized the necessity for change whilst advising caution.

Medieval Revolt and the Dialectic of the Icon

5 Dec

Instruments of Devotion and the

 Demise of the Icon with the Advent of Lollardry



            The idea that an image can convey a message is nothing new; in fact, the genre that society has become so familiar with through the medium of film and graphic novel can probably trace its roots back to the cave paintings in Lascaux in France. Although early man was illiterate, he was able to convey that which was important to him through imagery. In Lascaux we see images of what appear to be hunters chasing wild animals, many of which are now extinct. The only surviving record of them apart from their inanimate presence in the fossil records is the extraordinary animation they retain, despite the millennia they have endured, on the lime stone walls of the French caves. Just as primitive man wished to convey a message, so did those living in the Church-centric world of the Middle Ages. Despite the fact that literacy as a medium was not as prominent in the laity of the period, there existed a strong alternative through which “necessary” information could be conveyed. In exploring the significance of the medieval icon one can begin to understand the willingness with which it was accepted and the utility it supplied in supporting the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Not only did icons help to maintain the defacto power of the institution through their spiritual and financial exploitation, they also gave rise to a Reformist voice in the form of Lollardry. By comparing and contrasting both the importance and the controversy that surrounded reliquary and iconography and the reformist teachings and movements of the period, it is possible to identify some of the many reasons that led to the eventual collapse of the spiritual monopoly enjoyed by the Catholic Church.

            The medieval period bore witness to the sacerdotium, the earthly priestly hierarchy responsible for the salvation of souls. This meant that not only was the heavenly salvation of the public, via their earthly wealth, up for grabs, but so was their usefulness via their tacit acquiescence. In order to achieve these ends there had to be a means by which the people of the period, either through cognitive dissonance or religious indoctrination, would allow themselves to be manipulated. Through the coercion of Biblical readings, textual exploitation and most importantly iconography, the church was able to maintain its position of dominance and remain at the center of medieval life for many centuries. It’s the importance of iconography both literal and physical that is significant.

            According to Yale professor Keith Wrightson, who lectures on early medieval Catholicism in England, there were “myriad examples of functional iconography to be found within the churches and cathedrals of the period, where beautiful examples of medieval art were available to a God fearing public.” (115)  In particular the cathedrals of Ely, York and Durham offered the illiterate laity a visually rich religion. Access to God for the common man was through the Church and its sacraments and in particular through partionary prayer. By offering gifts or by venerating icons the supplicant was able to ask the painted, plaster saints to intercede with God on their behalf. Given that there was widespread illiteracy amongst the contemporary public and that the Bible was only available in Latin, the conveyance of the Biblical narrative was most successfully achieved through visual representation. “Rood screens, paintings, statues and religious relics were all stock-in-trade pedagogic ephemera to the Catholic Church.” (122)  The Stained glass windows, for example, in Exeter Cathedral depict in seven glass panels the wounds of Christ interconnected to images of the seven sacraments and served as a focus for congregational education and veneration. “The contrived link,” writes Wrightson, “between Christ and the Church precipitated community participation and a general understanding of what it was the Catholic Church was trying to convey.”(137) Similarly the devotion to the shrines of particular saints is well documented and those of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral and the great shrine of Saint Cuthbert in Durham were both important destinations of medieval pilgrimage. “Pilgrims would decorate icons with rosary beads and offer gifts for the dressing of statues… in the account books of contemporary church wardens the wills and generous donations of prominent parishioners can be found for the beautification and restoration of alters and chapels dedicated to favorite saints.” (136) The Christian religion of the medieval period lent itself to the aphorism that an image was representative of a thousand words and therefore, was nothing if not opulent.

            Although the word of God in the form of the Bible was of primary importance in proliferating Christianity, it was the instruments of devotion that helped to spread and sustain the faith. Concrete, albeit painted, evidence of a divinity that existed beyond the constraints of an earthly realm was necessary in order to excite the imaginations of the faithful and ensure sustained obedience to the teachings of the Church. This was demonstrated in ways which are still accessible to contemporary scholars. The iconography of the period hangs in museums and galleries, the tales of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury can be found in our libraries and the objects of medieval adoration can still be seen to this day in many European cathedrals.  Instruments of Devotion deals with the subject of iconography, its effect and its social, religious and political importance. The book edited by Henning Laugerud and Laura Katrine Skinnebach delves into the practices and objects of religious piety from the period of the Late Middle Ages onwards. This collection of lectures and essays, through which the editors offer well-researched historicism, documents the importance of religious imagery to both the Church and those who viewed it. The book describes in detail, what to contemporary society may appear as simply pictographs, the complex, instructional medium that helped to bind the common man to the Church and helped maintain it in its position of preeminence during a historical period when Christianity was at the center of public life. People lived in a God-centric universe defined by preordained estates and owed their allegiance and prayers to those who existed beyond the mortal plain. According to Laugerud, “… life on earth was simply the interim of hardship before the reward of eternal bliss.” (6) This being so, it was the duty of the Church to inform those of their congregation who were inevitably destined for heaven or hell of their options and what could be done on earth to assuage the demons of mortality and insure the angels of grace. By means of “visual theory,” (7) pictographs and artistic impression developed into a viable means of medieval pictorial technology. Successful information dissemination was therefore established via the medium of art.

            The chapter  Piety, Practice and Process which references an excerpt written by Henrik Von Achen, deals with the phenomenon of a rewarded life, where Henrik proposes that human redemption is not encapsulated within the limits of the soul but rather, that salvation was accessible through “books, pictures, music, and liturgical practices.” (24) Von Achen suggests that piety can be studied through the instruments of devotion that were utilized during the period. This being “true,” the religious ephemera which we still see in our modern society takes on a whole new meaning. Rather than gaudy, expensive and over expressive, the icons that have survived can be seen at their most basic as instructional and at their most sinister as religious propaganda. The traditions of “spiritual deference” (13) embodied within medieval art are an “important ingredient” (13) in understanding the medieval psyche. Von Achen suggests that “the instrument, or image, played a constitutional role in creating that special, intense, and existential meeting between God and the individual believer,”(14) and so rather than just color on canvas or paint on brick, iconography was fundamental  in what we today recognize as faith. Modern Christians may also speak of faith whereas the medieval characterization of the same religious emotion would be devotion or objectified fetishism; something which is still very apparent in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

            Given the position of the Church and its rivalry with monarchy in the temporal hierarchy of the estates, their ability to communicate and show the message of God would have been akin to being the owner of the only newspaper in town. Equally able to repress and promote the pertinent message of the hour, the Church was the sole source of doctrinal dissemination and the Rupert Murdoch of its day. In order to popularize their ideas, themes were a very important part of illumination. Recognizable Biblical characters and religious tracts were incorporated into art with the addition of recognizable human emotion. For instance, the image of the heart which we see time and again in clerical imagery is one that has been coopted to represent so many different things. In particular, in the iconography of the period, man’s immediate access to God through means of either Grace or heartfelt prayer. In ancient cultures the heart had consistently been seen as the source of reason but instead rose to prominence in the late medieval period as the center of human emotion, something with which our own society is still familiar.  Iconography created a common ground that reflected on the relationship between the art and the supplicant instead of the dogmatic teachings that had been common in earlier religious education. (27)

            The Medieval citizen, according to the essays edited by Flemming in the work Medieval Iconography and Narrative, “had a more inclusive concept of reality [and] … saw much more than we do.”(187) Knud Banning, one of the collected essayists, proposes that a modern day visionary is understood to see beyond what is the norm and in this sense can be applied to medieval supplicants of religious art. His essay, The Book and Church Wall, goes even further and boldly states that during the period, visions defined reality and that religious art was a means of “giving their own mysticism [substance and even] credibility. (187) Banning points out that although the experience of God is not within the art, it is the art that provoked the sense of Christ that was used as an aid to visualization during private moments of devotion and prayer. The evocation of Christ through familiar religious symbolism would probably have stayed with the devotee for the rest of their life. Hence, the importance of icons in rural churches, as well as those to be found in major centers of population. No matter the location and despite the fact that most congregations wouldn’t have been able understand the Latin used during the sermon, there would have existed a religious affinity, albeit with an individual image emblazoned upon their memory.

            “The importance of images had to do with the importance of sight and vision and their connection with knowledge and understanding.” (173) Fleming focuses particular attention in several of the collected essays to impress the idea of a story-board iconography that could impart this idea. The concept, for instance, of the painted Triptych which can be found in so many of our Cathedrals and galleries today is not an artefact of artistic whim, but rather a means of apportioned learning. The book delves into the process of conquering souls through intense focus, where the Triptych could be separated and used, much as a teacher uses a black-board, to educate congregations. Not only was it utilitarian in its pedagogical sense, but it was also a point of focus for prayer and supplication. Rather than an ephemeral, stylistic image of God in his heaven, a universal icon was available that could create a sense of unity and community. It wasn’t for nothing that pilgrims would progress to distant destinations to view a remarkable mural or observe a particular relic. It was precisely the visual that was their reward for their ardors and a moral boost to their already keen sense of what they believed: the imagery confirming their own “true” paths and ultimate destinations. According to the essay The Role of the Frontispiece or Prefatory Picture by Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, medieval scholars understood that “the theory of visual cognition became the common ground for all theories of vision in the Middle Ages.”(175) Saint Augustine writes in The Confessions, as they remark, “that sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge and is… the divine language”(175) and the modern aphorism of “a lust for the eyes” can be found in Augustine’s fifth century writings, although this was first emphasized in the Gospel of Saint John, which helped develop Augustine’s later comments on the importance of sight, when John writes, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” “The act of seeing was both a sacramental aspect and an aspect of identification.”(180) By persevering with the idea that religious devotion as well as religious hegemony  were of major importance to the Church, the book continues to define the icon as not simply  a work of art but as an “instrument of piety”(180) utilized as a medium for the “transference of grace.”(180) But this is perhaps a one sided view.

            The medieval period is renowned for the ecclesiastical iconography that framed both the ambition of the Catholic Church and its ability to maintain control over a servile population. Given that the tools of the trade were in the hands of Mother Church, one can easily envision how the ignorant masses were psychologically coerced: a classic example of knowledge being the key to power and the mysterious revelations of all things Biblical existing as the only moral route to heaven. In a society that was both controlled and ruled by the Church, an illiterate lay population would have been relatively easy to manipulate through the power of iconography and strict adherence to Church doctrine. The perception that clerical truth was the only tolerated truth was implemented via the teachings of the Church and through the iconic representation of religious lore. Professor Wrightson describes the resentment felt by those eager for the reform of an institution “that failed to castigate pride and worldliness, especially within its own organization.” (142) The use of religious icons to generate clerical wealth went far beyond scripture and consequently was unrepresentative of the teachings of God.

             One such dissenter to these contrived teachings, writes Christ Von-Wedel, was Erasmus of Rotterdam, “a seminal figure in the proto-protestant movement, whose ideas and dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church gave rise to the advent of other dissidents such as John Wycliffe and the Lollard movement.”(64) Erasmus, she states, was hostile to the privileges extolled by the Church and recognized the reverence to guilded saints as fraudulent and idolatrous, purgatory as a false doctrine and sermons for souls as a racket based on a misappropriation of  Biblical authority. As Erasmus was keenly aware, the worship of imagery was bound to induce clerical corruption given the esteem with which they were held by a supplicant laity. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a man more interested in a Bible centered faith than religious fetishism and famously remarked “that with all the true splinters of the cross to be found in the churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, there were probably enough to rebuild Noah’s Ark.” (66)

            This search for true faith, writes Dean, is evident in the anticlerical literature of the period and the denouncement of religious orders, such as the friars, in their ability to adhere to the pious lifestyles they proposed for others. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman is vociferous on this issue and can be read as a polemic in its clerical views and recognized as a piece of “early” propaganda for a religious alternative to the Catholic Church. “Langland’s narrator,” writes Dean, “consults friars – a Franciscan, a Dominican, an Augustinian and a Carmelite, respectively – hoping to learn what he calls the “graith,” the plain truth, but is dismayed that the friars instead denounce the rival fraternal orders or try to dun him for money.” (15) Langland writes of the familiarity the laity has with the clerical devices and the icons of the church, but of the inability of the individual to delve deeper into the true theology of the Bible.(15)  Langland’s dreamer remonstrates that many people know their prayers, their specific saints and canonical responses but little else. Dean points out that, “The implication is that the friars do not know the Creed, which was a charge often leveled against the fraternal orders.” (16) Awakening from the cognitive malaise in the belief of the power of the Church, Langland’s protagonist recognizes in himself that there is more to scripture than is being represented by the clergy and that the way to God is not through the veneration of reliquary and pilgrimage but through truth and personal spiritual supplication as witnessed by his quest for the characters of Lady Study, Clergy and Scripture.(90) The engagement with something deeper mirrors the concerns voiced by Erasmus and later by John Wycliffe and Martin Luther. There is an awareness, writes Langland, of  kynd  – “the father and maker of everything ever made” (87) – of something else, of an existential preexisting relationship between man and God that transcends parables, decorated alters and pilgrimages.

             The later emphasis given by the Church to the Ten Commandments instead of the Seven Deadly Sins, to the eventual detriment of the Church’s own hegemony, also reflected a conscious movement towards a tangible God, as evidenced by the first three of the commandments in the Decalogue that are all concerned with disavowing idolatry: a misstep perhaps of naïve, pious intent on the part of the Church? The earlier teachings of the Church, Bossy writes, as proposed by Augustine, were later accepted, along with the new moral code represented by the Ten Commandments, by both the Catholics and Lutherans, which included the prohibition of graven images (217) “As well as being a ritual and moral code … against the worshipping of strange gods… the rationale of the Decalogue was the prohibition of idolatry.”(217) It was thought that the movement away from the teachings of the Seven Deadly Sins in favor of the Decalogue presented a moral code that was more focused on one’s own obligations to God than it was to painted imagery and reliquary. Naturally this radical change in teaching met with opposition and support from both sides of the aisle and in particular Saint Antonio of Florence who decreed that equal time should be given to both the Sins and the Decalogue.(226)  Bossy suggests (226) that this schism was caused by business morality and not spirituality and may account for the climax of religious art in the mid sixteenth century by “artists who depicted the Seven Sins with more vigor than ever before” and who had never found true inspiration in the Ten Commandments. This historical switch between fundamental moral teachings can be seen in particular with the Church reformists such as the Lollards who in “an iconoclastic passion…destroyed a whole epoch of European visual culture.” (229) Thanks to the ethics of the newly revived Decalogue and the advent of religious reformism, idol worship became the fundamental enemy of all Christians.

            The Lollards, according to Rex were “a decentralized religious movement with no core belief system or doctrine…their ambition to remove the obstacle of the Church from a personal relationship with God was paramount in their aspirations.” (24) Rather than follow the obviously corrupt Catholic Church the Lollards used original scripture to further their religious goals. Recognizing, just as the dreamer had in Langland’s poem, that the Church had been corrupted by pride and self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of temporal wealth, it had metamorphosed into a misrepresentation of its own Christian heredity and therefore, Christianity as a whole. (27)  The Lollards insisted that chantries, dispensations and the idea of purgatory was anathema to the “true faith” and were merely instruments of clerical coercion in the control of the populous and the accumulation of wealth. The Lollards also expressed iconoclasm. The excesses of the Catholic faith were seen as wasteful and the money used to adorn churches and the like could better go to help the poor and the needy. The worship of idols and painted saints was perceived as derogatory to true faith, as it took away from that which was truly owed to God.

             This iconoclastic belief was inherent, according to Hudson, in what can be regarded as their spiritual manifesto, known as The Twelve Conclusions, which they posted in 1395 as testimony to their own beliefs.(71) Understanding the business like nature of the Catholic Church and its accumulation of wealth through reliquary and iconic representation as well as other insidious means, their first conclusion stated “forbid the acquisition of temporal wealth by any means as this was detriment to Christian values and led to greed.”(72) The eighth conclusion also attacked idolatry and directly referenced the worship of saints, the adoration of the image and the homage of the pilgrimage, all of which were central to the spiritual lives of medieval Christians. (72) The Conclusion points out the farcicality of reverence towards images and statues, “If the cross of Christ, the nails, the spear and crown and thorns are to be honored, then why not honor Judas’s lips, if only they could be found?”(59) This veniality towards idolatry and therefore by extension the religious icon  can be seen in later years with the advent of Protestantism and to a larger degree in Puritanism where everything representative of God and the scriptures was completely removed from the Church to the extreme that medieval images painted on church walls were white-washed over.

            Having compared and contrasted both the importance and controversy that surrounded reliquary, iconography and reformist teachings it is possible to identify some of the events and attitudes that led to the eventual collapse of the spiritual monopoly enjoyed by the Church. Although the Lollards were suppressed and some of their number burned at the stake, writes Rex, their ideas eventually succeeded to the point that the hegemony of the Catholic Church and the importance of iconology within the Christian tradition, especially in England, was eviscerated. (65) The relationship with God would become a personal one communicated by prayer and contrition rather than the adoration of ephemera. The relevance of iconography was that it established an important instrument of power wielded by the Church over its followers and the very real danger to the status quo of organized, centralized religion that the advent of the Lollards and their translation of the Bible as well as other reformists represented. Rome’s hegemonic power was experiencing a momentous destabilization that would eventually manifest itself as Protestantism, the rise of the Iconoclasts and eventual schism. The word would take the place of the symbolic which ironically, as we recognize from our own modern culture which thrives on advertising and product placement, would lead to the negation and demise of religion in Western society. No longer being able to experience theistic imagery would take away the personal experience of a painted God and instead resign human salvation to the black and white of Caxton’s press. The eventual preeminence, Bossy writes, of the Ten Commandments and the success of reformists such as the Lollards  meant that churches were stripped of their icons and religious murals and in their place, “above the denuded altars of English churches” (228) textual representations of the Decalogue were painted, replacing the Host, Lights, images and sacramental paraphernalia of the old regime (228) Illustrating this point, Thomas Hardy wrote in Jude the Obscure, “ The tables of Jewish Law towered sternly over the utensils of Christian grace.”(229) Therefore, the demise of reliquary and iconography was the consequence of the prohibition of worshipping false gods and a shift in religious teaching and reformist attitudes.




Ed. Flemming G. Andersen. Medieval Iconography and Narrative. Odense University Press.Odense.1980. Print.

Banning, Knud. The Book and the Church Wall. Ed. Flemming G. Andersen. Medieval Iconography and Narrative. Odense University Press.Odense.1980. Print. Ch 10.

Bossy, John. Moral Arithmetic: Seven Sins into Ten Commandments. In Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Ed.Edmund Leites.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Paris: Editions de la maison de sciences del’homme,1988. Pp 214-34

Christ Von-Wedel, Christine. Erasmus of Rotterdam. University of Toronto Press.Toronto, ON. 2013. Print.

Dean, James, M. Six Ecclesiastical Satires. Medieval Institute Publications. Kalamazoo, Michigan.1991. Print. 

Hudson Anne. Selections from English Wycliffite Writings. University of Toronto Press. Toronto.1997.Print.

Trans. A.V.C. Schmidt. Langland, William. Piers Ploughman. Oxford University Press. New York. 1992

Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print.

Von Achen, Henrik. Piety, Practise and Process. Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print. Ch 4.

Laugerud, Henning. Visuality and Devotion in the Middle Ages. Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print.Ch 10.

Rex, Richard. The Lollards. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave 2002.Print

Ed. Keith, Wrightson and David, Levine. Poverty and Piety in an English Village.Terling. Oxford University Press, U.S.A. 1997.Print.


27 Nov




“Saying “wow” doesn’t do this piece justice. Very well written, but more to the point, it moved me greatly. Not easily forgotten — I’ve been carrying it around in my mind for several days now. Thanks.” Gale Leach. Phoenix, Arizona.




4 Jun


O’er hill and dale, past moss covered dry stone walls and creeper-caught bridges. Following the ancient roads hacked by Caesar’s legions through soft English chalk and the coastal trails blazed by retreating Saxons. Twixt green bowers of gnarled spreading forests and across the wastes of stark deserted moorland – the grind of iron shod wheels squawked on greased axle trees.

Undeterred by wind and weather, the same ancient routes crossed and re-crossed in order to reach the forgotten familiarity of distant villages and time-worn market towns. The clip-clop of plodding diligence to fresh faces and familiar vistas.

A whale-oil lamp swung above his hooded head, tapping its wooden tattoo on the side of the hooped caravan. The familiar clink of glass with every hoof fall; the slosh of liquids medicinal and the clatter of necessary instruments. Smell of horse was strong in his nostrils, the tang of pestled powder bitter on his tongue, the stain of dark paste upon his fingers.

He always broke camp at night, stealing away from candle-lit curiosity and the press of eager crowds. There was no point prolonging contact, garnering associations or establishing friendships. The exchange of hard won silver for bottled miracles and manufactured tablets was oft regretted the morning of the night before. Dubious cures for infestations and arthritis; promised miracles to ease the burden of daily life only a palm-pressed sixpence away.

His time-keeping was meticulous. Never out stay a welcome and never frequent a settlement more than once every few years. Acquaintances were soon kindled and soon burnt; it was best to stay one step ahead. Familiarity bred contempt as did the fact that his potions were worthless. Snake oil and powdered Egyptian mummy, dried toad and unicorn horn infused the heady concoctions and broken promises that persuaded village folk to dig eagerly into leather purses.

Of an evening when the crowds were gone and the camp fire blazed he would sit quietly, his hand coursing over velum – ink splashing in the fire light . The only sounds were of curb chained horses cropping grass – the gleam of flame lit brass. Recording the events of the day; penning for posterity the stories learned and experiences shared. New tales to relate to future customers – to expound upon, to embellish.

The art of potions wasn’t the mixture nor was it the voluminous recipes laid down by generations past. Secrets divulged by father to son, mother to daughter. Forgotten knowledge retained by travelling folk and distributed frugally among those outside the inner circle. Although an initiate of the ancient rite of healers, he knew that it took more than colored glass and powdered opiate to heal the body and excite the imagination.

His audience sought beyond the physical plane, thronging to his caravan in eager anticipation for both cure and enlightenment.

Stories of adventure – tales of distant lands, dragon slaying knights, daring deeds done by daring men. Engaged in enigmatic conversation it wasn’t long before his product was crossing the counter to be scooped up by needy souls, weak in body and bereft of worldly contact.

Although tutored in the ways of healing, it was a story-teller’s heart that he possessed.




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.