Tag Archives: England


14 Jun


Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” opens on the heath with the three wicked sisters and the immortal line “something wicked this ways comes.” Stoker borrows the idea in his portrayal of the three voluptuous women at Castle Dracula and without direct allusion allows his readers to conclude the same. Arata suggests that something indeed is arriving and instead of a Scottish King with a crisis of ambition it’s the end of empire and the dilution of the British soul. This ignorant implication is not only one that was incorrectly applied to the Victorian period but is a contemporary fear attributed to British tabloid xenophobia as an alleged consequence of membership of the European Union: modern federalization which will enable a huge influx of Eastern Europeans into Britain. Scaremongering politicians allege – as Arata does – that open border policy – alluded to in Arata’s treatise on Dracula  – has created a contemporary Transylvanian exodus of alleged millions that mirrors to some degree Stoker’s one man on a boat scenario in Whitby Harbor, accompanied by several tons of earth. This is of course without merit.

     The idea that the British are a pure bred race has always been anathema and is generally a foreign misperception that although Britain is an island – a sceptered isle – it’s somehow the source of some original seed. One only has to look at the history of Britain to understand that the concept of a melting pot, which America so readily adopts for itself, applies equally to the British. After centuries of invasions by Saxons, Danes, Goths, Romans, Normans and not forgetting the Scots – Celts – who famously, unlike their Irish neighbors who prayed on their knees, preyed on their neighbors. Political and social turmoil throughout the centuries has seen countless inundations of refugees to its shores; in particular during the reformation of the Church in the sixteenth century with the usurpation of Protestantism over the hearts and minds of the islanders and the juxtaposition of Catholicism on the Continent. Britain has always been about place not race where within a generation those who have chosen to come to the country adopt its attitudes and language and as multicultural as the country is – even during the period Stoker was writing- there is a unity that tethers the country more efficiently than genetic glue. One only has to observe the names and faces of the England football squad to understand that Britain is not about being a white protestant born within the sound of Bow Bells. To make this analogy a Victorian one, Arata conveniently forgets that Victoria herself was born of Germans and therefore of German lineage who spoke German, who married a German and who was the head of the Saxy- Coburgs. What Arata also neglects is the link between the European Royal families and their lineage that descends from the Romanian. He, not unlike Professor Mellor, cherry picks his causation and wrongly applies his defense.

Britain was not a country filled with racial tensions as he suggests and fearful of alien exsanguination, as for century upon century and principally because of Empire, the nation had become adjusted to the idea of the foreign – other – and the benefits the Empire brought with it, rather than a fear of foreign inundation. There are countless examples of, rather than wishing to travel to England, those countries that fell under Empire wished to emulate the practices of the British and apply those in their own countries. The empire didn’t encourage immigration however, it did promote Britishness and all that it entailed

To suggest, “Stoker thus transforms the materials of the vampire myth, making them bear the weight of the culture’s fears over its declining status,” is asinine. Famously Daniel Defoe wrote ‘The True Born Englishman” in 1701 which completely mocks the notion of racial purity and therefore Arata’s misinformed contention. This satirical poem was written to defend the coronation of a Dutch King and to defend the House of Orange “against xenophobic attacks and to ridicule the notion of English racial purity.” Defoe writes:

“A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.

A banter made to be a test of fools,

Which those that use it justly ridicules.

A metaphor invented to express

A man a-kin to all the universe.”

     Arata claims that Stoker’s writing – especially Dracula – is central to the concept of reverse colonization and sites his various works to justify his argument. Is this really true or are we reading the novel with 21st century sensibilities and applying the principals of political correctness or rather social compartmentalization? How can one possibly decry the foreign entity of Dracula and yet accept the foreignness of Van Helsing a Dutchman and his extremely enunciated accent. Is this a case of Dutch good and Romanian bad; can we possibly distinguish between separate and distinct nationalities?  What of the American and his state of the art Winchester rifles and his indelicate slang? Again is would seem obtuse to welcome one without the other. What is more apparent throughout the novel is the difference in class as oppose to difference in race, a concept that Americans seem to find hard to understand. In a nut shell, if one is not born to a certain lineage then one will never belong. In Dracula the foreigner is exulted whilst the lower classes and indigenous populations are ridiculed.

     The great homogenizer in Britain is not money but blood. This given the Count’s penchant for that most sanguine of beverages would have been a better argument; that Dracula by drinking the blood of mortals is diluting class boundaries and destroying aristocratic hegemony. One only has to read the descriptions of the ordinary folk to understand how Stoker considers his few central characters to be of better breeding than the masses and therefore worthy of fawning respect. This is particularly apparent towards the end of the novel with the search for the coffins and the pursuit of Dracula back to Romania when we meet working class people who are continuously – to the point of overt repetition – derided for their physical status, the nature of their lowly employment and their barely comprehensible accents. According to Stoker, they’re always thirsty and in need of alcohol and easily won over with money; the commodity they the proletariat, despite the fact that they are the workers, don’t possess. Stoker stridently elevates the hegemonic principals of class distinction as even Dracula is praised as coming from an ancient family; a “distinguished” man who just happens to live in a castle. Despite his debauchery he is still one of them.  One could argue that revolution which once again was rearing its head – especially in the East – was a serious concern to the ancient dynastic families who because of their blood line alone held the delicate balance of power in Europe and therefore, the reason why sanctity of blood is so important to the central theme of “Dracula.”

     Money and race play no part in aristocracy nor do they affect ancient lineage. One must therefore conclude that “Dracula” isn’t about the destruction of empire and the influx of the foreign, but the dangers presented to the tenuous nature of centrally held power by dilution and the fear of the inevitable demise of false class consciousness.


5 Jun



Thunder cracked and lightning forked in the night sky as an incessant rain beat a diabolical tattoo off the leaded glass of Ye Olde Sheep Stealers Inn. Fog swirled among the gas lamps and, drifting slowly up from the river, muffled the cacophony and obscured the nocturnal iridescence of heavy industry; the occasional crash of the new iron-age, chorus to the rare abatements in the tempest raging overhead. The cobbles were awash and slick underfoot; the biting cold of December evident from the huddled, shrouded figures scurrying home to the warmth of hearth fires; the promise of brief respite from arduous factory shifts in decrepit tenements; the spasmodic covenant perhaps of pressed flesh.

            The Sheep Stealer was an ancient coaching inn that had stood sentinel since time immemorial. The auberge was replete with a rich and colorful history and the patrons that passed through its nail-studded doors never failed to be impressed by the tales of roundheads and cavaliers who’d plotted and planned around it wooden tables; of the highwaymen who’d escaped the hangman’s rope through its upstairs casements and of the great plot to kill King James when Guido Fawkes himself had spent a restless night underneath its dilapidated slate roof. Although a neighborhood landmark it wasn’t long for the modern world as with the new municipal transport system being ploughed through London there was little hope for its survival. In its place would come the necessary ephemera of tunnels and termini that would usher in the new age, transforming the ancient city of London into a Victorian Babylon. The modern era was expeditiously replacing all that had been familiar and in a world of a change, a beacon of nostalgia was a welcome sight to the weary traveler.

            The pot man looked up from his duties as the door swung upon. The candles guttered and the flames in the grate roared as the night air rushed into to fill the room. “Shut the bloody door before we all freeze damn you!” challenged the bar keep at the silhouette that had suddenly appeared from out of the night.

            A fire blazed in the hearth and the smell of roasting meat filled the ale house; spurious shadow creatures and shapes diabolical danced on the flaking plaster walls. The stranger rubbed his hands and gasped at the welcome warmth already beginning to drive out the aching cold that’d permeated his bones. Throwing the cloak from his shoulder and removing his hat he revealed the scarlet jacket of a soldier, the white piping that clutched at his collar and cuffs an odd contrast to the martial figure and saber slashed face that made its way to the bar.

            “A room and some food,” said the soldier throwing gold onto the counter, “and a pot of ale to wash it down with.” The innkeeper eyed the sovereign, nodded and, wiping his hands on his greasy apron, pulled a pewter mug from the rack above his head and proceeded to fill it. The soldier quickly drained it and it was immediately replaced with another.

             “Your food’ll be out in a little while Captain. Why don’t you take the weight off and go and sit by the fire and warm yourself? I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

            Two, worn high backed chairs stood in front of the hearth and as the soldier approached he noticed skeins of smoke rising above the leather head rest. As he came closer he saw that it was occupied by another man. Undaunted by the company he sat down.

            “Come far ‘ave you?” asked the stranger.

            “Far enough,” he replied noncommittally.

            The stranger stared at the soldier’s uniforms his eyes drinking in his insignia and the regimental crests on his silver buttons. “The 69th  Regiment of Foot. I was with them in Belgium at Quatre Bras back in ‘15. Bloody mess that was. Not many of us made it out of there.”

            The soldier looked up at his companion, disbelieving yet curious. “Who was your Colonel?” There were enough confidence men and tricksters on the streets and with a silver tongue and a few war stories it was easy to illicit money from drunken redcoats and so the pretense of having served the colors was an easy scam to pull.

             “McDonald . Colonel Jock McDonald. You ‘eard of him?”

            The soldier started. Who hadn’t?  Black Jock McDonald was a man of myth and legend and tales of the death-dealing mayhem he’d wrought on the Frogs that June afternoon were still told by the men of regiment. “Garn! Get out of it you old codger. You was with Black Jock?

             “Aye lad. Side by side in that field of burning corn outside of Waterloo. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, brothers to the end. Steeped in the blood of our comrades and the enemy alike we was.” The old man stared at nothing in particular and pulled on his clay pipe, the escaping smoke from his nostrils lending him an unearthly aspect as the light from the fire played upon his ancient face.

            The soldier put the tankard to his lips and drank in the rich warm taste of bitter beer, smacked his lips and contemplated the old man. Quatre Bras had been the most destructive day in the history of the regiment where nearly two hundred men had found their deaths in the space of an hour at the hands of the French. Despite the enormous body count the regimental colors had been saved and with the late arrival of the Prussians the French had eventually been repelled. June 17th 1815 was a symbol of regimental pride; a day of bloody infamy that lived on in the tales told by the new recruits and old sweats alike.

            “Quatre Bras,” mused the old man, “I remembers it like it was yesterday.” With that his eyes glazed over and he began to relate the events of that fateful summer day forty years ago.


            Bugles sounded and whistles shrilled as the sergeants berated the men into line abreast. The companies broke out of their columns and shook themselves into single file.

            “Move your arses.”

            “What you waiting for Jones, a bloody invitation?”

            “Look alive. The Frogs are over the hill.”

            Both the King’s and the Regimental silks whipped over their heads as the infantrymen efficiently came into line attack and proceeded to walk across the field. With bayonets fixed and muskets held at waist height they advanced to where they presumed the enemy was entrenched. Suddenly, out of nowhere, swarms of French cavalrymen appeared on their flanks. The leading scouts saw them immerge from the dead ground, screamed their alarm and, fearful of being caught in the open, sprinted back to the safety of the main body of soldiery. The French seizing the element of surprise spurred their horses, lowered their swords and, sensing victory, galloped towards the vulnerable open ranks of the British.



            “They was them armored Frogs with the blue uniforms and steel breast plates. Cuirassiers; heavy cavalry,” explained the old man. “Big men with faces full of moustache on monstrous ‘orses.” The old man became agitated, his face twitching, his hands shaking as he told his tale. “Evil bastards with long, wicked swords. Well, we was done for. Only defense against cavalry is square and we were stretched out from one ‘orizon to the next. We didn’t stand a bleeding chance.”


            The French crashed into the British line and turning like mackerel – their swords flashing and falling in air – swooped down on men who, although they didn’t know it yet, were already dead. Men screamed as blood drenched sabers thrust and plunged, the horses trampling the corpses and finishing the work of the men on their backs. The blood lusted cavalrymen yelled their challenges and stabbed and slashed as the madness of combat engulfed them rendering them automatons of death. The British could do nothing. Soldiers turned to face their enemy and holding up their arms in a pathetic attempt to ward of the attackers, fell to the ground; their life blood draining into a foreign soil that would be forever England.


            “Easy pickings we was for them Frogs. Riding field days ‘round us they were. Hundreds of the ‘orrible bastards grinning and screaming as they skewered man after man. It was McDonald who rallied us. Centre Company and the color platoon managed to square up we did, grounded our muskets and presented Sheffield‘s finest to the enemy. With our bayonets creating a steel hedge the nags wouldn’t come close and we began to fight back; shooting the riders down like ducks as they rode about us.”

             The soldier had heard the story a thousand times before but now, told by someone who’d actually fought the engagement, it took on a whole new life. He could hear the shouts and screams, taste the gun powder from the muskets and through the fog of war hear the cries and prayers of both the living and dying.

             The old man’s eyes clouded as he went on. “It was numbers game and seeings ‘ow there was more of them than there was of us we weren’t going to last long. Slowly but surely they wore us down till there were less than thirty men stood ‘round the colors. McDonald stood next to me in the front rank screaming like a bleeding banshee for the boys to hold, “Die hard 69th. Die hard.”

             The old man’s face grimaced as he remembered. “There was no chance for a man alone and the only ‘ope we had of getting off that field alive, at the rate Frogs was picking us off, was to stick together or stay until the last man fell. Any rate we was down to our last balls and if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Prussians and old Black Jock we’d still be on that field. Say what you want about the Teutonics but on that particular day I was never gladder to see anybody.” The old man grinned and nodded. The soldier smiled back recognizing a brother in arms, one who’d endured and who’d been a part of a thin red line of heroes protecting king and country.

            The soldier lifted his tankard in salute, “Die hard 69th! Beer?”

            The old man smiled, “Aye lad I will.”

            The soldier got up and went to the bar keep. “Two ales.”


            “Aye. One for me and the General over there,” he said pointing to his companion sitting by the fire.

            The bar keeper looked at him and then looked towards the fire. “You ‘aving a laugh soldier.”

            The soldier grimaced clenched his fist and brought it down hard on the wooden bar. It was bad enough that soldiering was a profession that commanded little respect, but to be disrespected to your face by some loathsome toad of a civilian went beyond the pale. “Two, he growled, “and shift your arse.”

            The man behind the counter stared at the soldier. “Think you’ve ‘ad enough lad. There aint nobody ‘ere but me an’ you, in fact there’s been nobody ‘ere all night what with this blasted weather.”

            The soldier looked back towards the two empty seats by the fire. Smoke curled in the air; the only indication that anyone, or anything, had ever been there at all.


10 Dec

Mother Courage and the Theatre of the Absurd


            In America in 1947 at the end of the Second World War, a committee was formed for the investigation into un-American activities. It was claimed that America and in particular the Hollywood movie industry, had been infiltrated by Communist sympathizers and with the fear of the spread of the Soviet idealism many celebrities where put on trial for their professional lives. One such figure who was interviewed by the committee was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a Bavarian and an immigrant playwright who’d fled the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Ironically he’d been persecuted in Europe for anti-fascist incitement which had led to his exile in Denmark, only later to be pursued in America for alleged Soviet affiliations.

             Neither a Communist nor a Fascist, Brecht was an absurdist; a playwright who’d invented a new genre of theater that did not follow the Aristotelean model as proscribed in the Poetics. (White. 6)  Subjected to the illogical scrutiny of ideological purity he eventually left America and settled in Berlin in the former D.D.R. where he continued to pursue his craft. Although subscribing to Marxist ideology he never joined the Communist party however, did declare his support for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. (7) Brecht in his politics as in his writing was himself absurd to the point of contradiction; a man who curiously welcomed the Socialist Ideal and the cache of the Workers’ Paradise whilst being personally sustained by the West thanks to the remunerations of his many plays. A man who claimed not to be a Communist and yet who willingly lived behind the Iron Curtain.

             The Theatre of the Absurd which is widely attributed to the modernist period was the progeny of Brecht and was much emulated during and after his lifetime.  Bertolt Brecht’s, “play style followed plots that were cyclical or absurdly expansive… [and consequently]either a parody or dismissive of realism… [as well as] the concept of the well-made play.” (White. 16)

            Mother Courage probably the most famous of Brecht’s plays is a depiction of a family struggling to survive the Thirty Years War (a conflict which initially pitted Catholics against Protestants during the seventeenth century; 1618-1648) Although historically relevant it is easy to understand how contemporary theatre has portrayed his work as analogous to the influx of Communism in Eastern Europe and the conflict of political conscience. Originally written to warn of the rise of fascism in Germany during the thirties, it has seen myriad performances globally to great acclaim. The play is said by some to be the greatest play of the twentieth century and also the greatest antiwar play of all time. Labeled as epic-theatre it includes all the absurdist’s devices that Brecht has become synonymous with. The play includes bright, garish white lighting rather than the subdued lighting contemporary audiences have become accustomed to, minimalist stage props to indicate location, live stage direction during the performance and hand held placards to insure that the audience is aware of the falling action. Mother Courage is an austere, scaffold of a play that operates in full view of the audience and juxtaposes the traditionally polished performances modern audiences have come to expect. Nothing is hidden from the audience and even the costume changes are performed on stage. Brecht was intent upon total immersion theatre where the audience was conscious the whole time that the play wasn’t just a work of entertainment or an exposition of art but a necessary, visceral interaction between the performers and the audience in order to evoke a reaction. By adding a nontraditional dimensionality to the performance Brecht expected that the audience would identify with the actors and not just their characters. Brecht wanted his audience to experience his plays rather than just observe them. By witnessing the construction of the play as well as the performance each participant i.e. member of the audience, would take away an individual experience of that which they’d seen. By purposeful construction Brecht created a very private performance in a very public space, where no two plays were exactly the same and where each performance allowed the audience to experience something fresh. This is not dissimilar to the sixteenth century street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte where, although the audience was familiar with the stock characters and their representative personality traits, each was a separate and distinct performance. This ensured that the characters and the production had longevity and the story remained vital and financially viable. Brecht borrowed heavily from a genre famous for sketch and improvisation; something he achieved with great success in the subsequent themes of his own productions.

            Mother Courage and her three children are tinkers who harness themselves to their own wagon and who drag it from battlefield to battlefield. Their poverty is abject and their only source of income is the chandlery they sell to the Protestant soldiers of the Thirty Years War. Conflict rages on all fronts and the corpses of the dead, whose only value in death is the clothing and equipment they still wear, are innumerable. Courage and her family strip the dead in order to resell it so that they, by means of war profiteering at its most meagre, may survive: albeit from hand to mouth.

            During a lull in the fighting Courage happens upon two recruiters who, looking for fresh cannon fodder to replace those already killed distract her with an offer of money in order to trick her youngest son Eilif – an anagram for life – into joining the Protestant Army. Unable to prevent what will almost certainly be the death of her son she prophetically lists the fates of all her three children. Eilif will die for his courage, her second son Swiss Cheese for his honesty and her daughter Kattrin for her kindness. The progress of the play, despite the obvious qualities that her children possess, will prove the validity of her predictions.

             The play advances by several years, as it does in each subsequent act, to another battlefield where in the pursuit of her livelihood she comes across her brave soldier son Eilif who is now a decorated hero. Reunited with her son Courage ponders the soldierly virtue of bravery and realizes that if commanders need brave men then trouble is surely on the wind. A minor character chatters about the righteousness of the campaign and how if their leaders hadn’t been ordained by a Protestant God to destroy the Catholics they would surely be accused of war profiteering. This is ironic in that everybody in the microcosm of the world of the camp followers is doing exactly that. Eilif is eventually caught by the Catholics doing that for which he has been decorated by his own side and is executed for his “courageous” deeds. Seen as an enemy by the Catholics and not as a hero, Brecht presents the paradox of one man’s freedom fighter being another man’s terrorist. Eilif is hanged in chains for his part in the war. Likewise his brother Swiss Cheese, also a member of the Protestant Army, is caught and executed whilst trying to protect the regiment’s payroll. In an act of honesty, as predicted by his mother, he too is hanged.

            Berieved of both her boys, Mother Courage finds herself alone with just her daughter in a burned out village where the wounded from the latest battle lay dying on the ground. In need of rags to stem their bleeding a commander begs Courage for some of her shirts to rip into rags to turn into bandages. Courage refuses saying that she will not part with her officers’ shirts, her most valuable merchandise, unless it is for money. Courage understands the suffering of the wounded and despite having lost her own children persists in the absurdity of survival that the shirts represent to her. Without the sale of the shirts she herself will die of starvation; an obvious paradox of who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

             In the midst of the carnage of war Courage finds love however, in order to be with a man who will save her from herself and the war, she must abandon her daughter Kattrin her only surviving child. Once again Courage is faced with the agony of decision and ultimately chooses to relinquish her love and remain with her daughter: an act of self-sacrifice in a world where nobody notices and nobody cares.

             The play ends several years after it has begun. Overrun by the Catholics whilst Courage goes to town for supplies, her daughter is witness to the advancing enemy. Climbing onto the tinker’s wagon, Kattrin sounds out a drum to warn the locals of imminent danger and for her kindness and bravery is shot and killed. Mother Courage returns to the wagon and the corpse of her dead daughter. Instead of burying the girl herself, she uses that which is most important to her and pays the local villages to do the job instead. With nobody left in the world, her children dead and her love lost, the only thing that survives is her diabolical occupation. Strapping herself into the harness of the wagon as though she were a horse, she moves forward to join up with the advancing Protestant Army. Her final words which strike deep into any audience with revulsion for war and an awareness of social subjugation are, “I must return to business.”  This is particularly pertinent and representative of indifferently turning the other cheek whilst living under intolerable, irrevocable strain. Brecht may have lived in East Germany but his message is very astute to anybody paying the least attention.

                        According to Blau, “Brecht is a polemicist… and his dialectic approach is rhetoric.”(4) This is conceivable when one considers that Brecht was the founder of the theatrical epic (Mother Courage is a performance that endures for a full three hours) and the avant-garde of modernist twentieth century political theatre. His play Mother Courage relates the story of those who participate in war, not for patriotic or selfless reasons, but for financial gain; those who paradoxically make their living from the carnage of which they themselves are victims. The symbolism is that of an ordinary woman trying to survive in an impossible situation. In order to preserve the lives of her children she must ultimately sacrifice them all to feed the war machine that sustains her own life. Rather than the epitome of conflict and courage she represents human absurdity. Brecht’s play is therefore, a polemic on war and an exposition of the tragedy of the human condition.

            Mother Courage has unusual facility in that it can be recast to suit any number of political topics. In the past the play has been used to highlight climate change, racial segregation, geo-politics and in particular anti-Soviet rhetoric. The story is a survival story that portrays the protagonist as a besieged, embattled figure. This of course can be representative of almost any conflict and accounts for both the longevity and brilliance of Brecht’s play writing. It is the method by which he portrays his subject that is the most enduring; a theatrical framework that espouses no particular ideology but which unapologetically renounces the subjugation of human freedoms.

             Mother Courage although first appearing in the first half of the twentieth Century is as relevant today as it was in 1939. Given Brecht’s own persecution at the hands of the Un-American committee in 1947, the play has come to be seen as a prophetic piece of writing similar to the dystopian novel 1984, that was published just a couple of years later in 1949 by George Orwell. Just like Orwell, Brecht realized the necessity of highlighting the dangers of totalitarianism and the ineffectuality of the individual when faced by the crushing power of overt political will. Whether an envisaged dystopia, or protracted warfare created by unseen forces in order to realize political goals beneficial to the few at the expense of the many, Brecht created an “every woman” in Mother just as Orwell created an “everyman” in Winston Smith. In Brecht’s own words, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” (White. 17) This reflects Orwell’s own treatise of, “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is truth.”(Rodden. 5)

             Brecht despite his socialist leanings realized that no matter the quotidian politic, whether it was Capitalist or Communist, the dangers to civil liberties where very real and that everything should be done to preserve those hard won freedoms and the sanctity of human life. It is this kind of theatrical discourse that makes Brecht such a political chameleon and could possibly explain his ability to live in affability whether in the West or behind the Iron Curtain. Although espousing socialist tendency it was the rights of man which were truly at the heart of his political genius rather than ideological dogma.

Works Cited.

Blau, Herbert. Mother Courage: The Rite of War and the Rhythm of Epic. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 1-10. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and her Children. Arcade Publishing. New York. 1994. Print

Rodden, John. George Orwell: the politics of literary reputation. New Brunswick,N.J. Transactions Publishers. 2002. Print.


White, John J. Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic theory. Camden House. Rochester, N.Y. 2004. Print.



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.




18 Dec

It being Christmas and the season of giving and all that, I’m currently running a 5 day free book promotion on Amazon.

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4 Nov


Miner holding We love Maggie placard



New Historical Criticism


History, as Winston Churchill told us despite authoring a massive work on World War II, is written by the victors, therefore historical criticism can be a subjective reflection on what might have occurred. Unless one is well acquainted with the time period in question then one is reliant on source material and contemporary literature to sustain an argument or support a theory. Unfortunately what is paraded in front of us through popular media is mostly embellished and nuanced for entertainment purposes and can barely be deemed history at all. Therefore if one wishes to become a proponent of this form of criticism then one must be extremely well read indeed. If this isn’t the case then the criticism itself becomes revisionist and unfortunately more myth than history.

The beauty of literature is that there’s always an element of truth and this is what the historical critic seeks, the proverbial strand of straw in the stack of needles. A healthy skepticism is required in order to assimilate bias from reality. What was on writer’s mind, what were their political leanings and what exposure did they have of daily life? In order to have a healthy view of history one must view it from many different aspects for,  If one only reads tales of Kings and Queens, then what does one know of the lives of the underclass? Likewise if one works from the viewpoint of the common man what possible understanding could one have of courtly affairs? Simply put, what’s been marginalized or gone undocumented within the pages of a work of literature so that other material and ideas, dare I say agendas, can be promoted?

It would be fair to say that a lot of literature isn’t in fact representative of its time period and that it merely represents an isolated, opinionated view and so must be read with a rather large barrel of salt. Examples of this might be the literature and poetry of the Romantics, wealthy opium-eaters who enjoyed life to the full and would only have experienced the under belly of society from a distinctly privileged vantage point. Coleridge and Wordsworth wanted to return to the esthetics of nature but what similarities can one find between a flock of daffodils in nineteenth century Britain and the urchins of Dickensian London? How does one compare and contrast the filth and grime of a London garret with the clean fresh moorland of the Lake District. Tricky to say the least!

Although an interesting and difficult premise, to view contemporary history through the misted lens of gleaned literary wisdom, there’s always a time-capsule element. The author was writing from a particular viewpoint, at a particular time and so by reading topical publications one should be able to assimilate and assess truths and notions. No matter how one views new historical criticism it’s worthwhile climbing into the mind of the author, if not the characters, and attempting to view the story from their point of view. The key word for the discernment of historical value is objectivity. Quite simply don’t believe the hype and definitely don’t believe everything you read.


3 Nov


To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. 

Blake within the lines of Auguries of Innocence insinuates the macro in the micro and offers a point of attention. Deconstruction suggests that we have to escape our own selves in order to understand and see the larger aspect, to tune our senses and to recognize the immediate so that we can appreciate life in a different manner from that which most of us experience on a quotidian rote. Creation, no matter its origin, is apparent in the smallest of objects and therefore instead of searching for whatever it is we seek, must understand and recognize, that which we desire most is inevitably right in front of us. We simply have to awaken from our comatose states and open our eyes as well as our minds. Time is ephemeral and the experience of existence subjective. When he talks about recognizing something other than the sand or the flower he’s alluding to the universe in all of its inconceivable vastness. If only we as a species could achieve full consciousness and comprehend that the only obstacle inhibiting us from breaking the bonds of mental incarceration is the application of the imagination of ourselves. The wonderment that we possessed as children is still within us, it’s simply a matter of reigniting it, sensing the field and once again treading the path less traveled

 From the socio-political point we have to understand that Blake was never recognized in his own life time and lived his life in London as a poet, painter and engraver where the whole world would have swept passed his shop front in a single afternoon. By symbolizing the London population as grains of sand then the sea of anonymous faces that he witnessed must have eventually bled into one, lending the crowds a distinct and proletarian look; anonymous passersby, individuals in their own right with dreams, goals, ambitions and troubles of their own. His allusions to restricted life, animal consciousness and down trodden entities are allegorical to eighteenth century society. Given that the whiff of gun smoke of 1789 was still pungent on the wind of change and wafting through Europe as Blake wrote, it’s not surprising he encompassed within his verse the truth that the world is other than it appears. Blake experienced a monumental period in history when the workers of the world dared to unite, cast of their chains and vanquished oppression.

Time, as we well know, is subjective. An hour with a beautiful woman can last mere moments whilst waiting five minutes for a bus can endure an eternity. Einstein said it best, “Reality is an illusion, all be it a persistent one.” I think Blake understood and expressed this innate truth within the verses of his poem. Life’s a journey and all troubles, no matter how great, can be regarded as objective issues or simply experience. Perhaps the poem is an allusion to his creative frustration and the lack of appreciation for his own writing. A failure perhaps of society to appreciate the quality and profundity of its obvious importance.

 An all pervasive mood of something greater than self, haunts the lines of the poem and given Blake’s affinity with religion, there’s undoubtedly a theological element. We may not perceive all we see, in fact there’s much “more between heaven and earth than exists in our philosophy” that we don’t understand. By illuminating the implicit, Blake holds up a mirror and insists that we look closer and try to recognise what’s important and what isn’t.

The vox populi speaks of awareness and consciousness as though they’re dimensions of ourselves and that if we follow the path to enlightenment we’ll discover that everything that ever was, has been and ever shall be, lies within us. We’re the masters of our own destiny, manifest gods in our own right. By comprehending that we shape our own lives, as Blake seems to be implying, then what we believe generally comes to pass. This being the case we’re awesome beings of amazing power and yet we don’t see ourselves thus, instead we think of ourselves as little-me, or mere extensions of our professions. How often do we ask people what they do rather than ask who they are? We’re names not numbers, personalities constricted by society and social doctrine. Is it money and career we should be pursuing or is it happiness and the experience of life? An economist might argue that one isn’t possible without the other, but if one believes that money is power and desirous of a money based society then one will never understand what Blake was trying to tell us. Be all you can be, but be it now, conscious of each and every moment.

Heaven as Blake so rightly maintains is here on earth and obvious in every piece of crafted nature hidden within the Fibonacci sequence of life and yet we’re so blinded by our own misguided ideal of self-worth and human arrogance that we fail to note the explicit.

 Blake by lifting stones and splitting wood reveals the complexity of conscious being.