Sunday, 6 April 2008

Shakespeare and Shaw, blood and thunder

There was less blood for the Battle of Shrewsbury the other night than there was for the murder of Richard II a couple of days earlier at the first in the RSC’s cycle of Shakespeare’s eight histories at the Roundhouse, Camden. But the sword-crashing battle scene that pitted Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy against Prince Hal seemed to show some of poor Percy’s (stage) teeth sent flying from his mouth – to the audible shock of the audience around me.

I do like a touch of blood and thunder to keep me from dozing at the theatre – and I like to see the actors sweating for the cause. Lex Shrapnel, playing a hyper-manic Hotspur, was so out of breath from his exertions in his fight with Hal that his chest kept rising and falling for many minutes after his half-spoken final exhalation about being ‘food for worms’. At this rate, Prince Hal (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is going to be exhausted before he gets to play Henry V at Agincourt.

A different sort of blood and thunder was on offer in the National’s current production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, which fills the stage with shells for the third and final act set in Andrew Undershaft’s munitions factory. The Times reviewer describes this as ‘at root a pernicious play, the one that in 1905 gave a first warning of its author’s eventual mutation into the armchair revolutionary and anti-democrat who praised Stalin and Mussolini and excused Hitler’.

I can see what he means. This is a disquieting piece of work. Undershaft (played to understated, gravelly effect by Simon Russell Beale) is too sympathetic, too likeable, too polemically-convincing an arms dealer to let you sink into comfortable liberal certainties about the morality of his trade. ‘It is cheap work converting starving men with a bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other,’ he says to his daughter, Major Barbara, of her work with the Salvation Army. ‘I will undertake to convert West Ham to Islam on the same terms. Try your hand on my men: their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.’

A century ago, Shaw expressed through Undercraft’s ‘hideous gospel’, as Robert Blatchford described it in the socialist Clarion, the same emotional underpinnings that were to give rise to in later times to the Thatcherite working class. ‘I was an east ender,’ Undercraft declares. ‘I moralised and starved until one day I swore that I would be a full-fed free man at all costs – that nothing should stop me except a bullet, neither reason nor morals nor the lives of other men. I said “Thou shalt starve ere I starve”; and with that word I became free and great. I was a dangerous man until I had my will: now I am a useful, beneficent, kindly person. That is the history of most self-made millionaires, I fancy. When it is the history of every Englishman we shall have an England worth living in.’

Undercraft’s predecessor at his weapons factory wrote up on the wall: ‘Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done.’ (‘After that, there was nothing left for the seventh [Undercraft himself] to say. So he wrote up, simply, “Unashamed.”’)

In this, we see the dark side of Shaw, the one that raised the power of the intellect (principally his own) above all else, believed in eugenics and ‘creative evolution’, and was drawn to the power of a breed of ‘supermen’ who could transform the world through the effort of their own mental abilities and will. This was the Shaw who could visit the Soviet Union in the midst of Stalin’s repression and devastating famine and return only with ‘unbounded enthusiasm’, and who, as late as 1940, could declare Hitler ‘nine-tenths right’ (the ‘one hitch in his statesmanship’ being the ‘bee in his bonnet’ about the Jews).

Shaw’s controversialism and his willingness to deal with the big or difficult moral issues of his (and many another) day overturned theatrical conventions and transformed British theatre at the end of the Victorian era. And, as in the National’s production of Major Barbara, there is always more than enough wit – and a large enough proportion of wisdom – to temper his polemical and other excesses.

In any case, we sometimes need the untempered opinions of the professional controversialist to help us to form our own. And as Shaw himself argued, ‘A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.’

'Hatred is the coward's revenge for being intimidated. Dare you make war on war?'

I could spend an aeon quoting Shaw, so indulge me with one (longish) extract from Major Barbara. It's between the arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft, his estranged wife Lady Britomart, daughter Barbara and her fiancee Charles 'Cholly' Cusins.

LADY BRITOMART: Your ideas are nonsense. You got on because you were selfish and unscrupulous.

UNDERSHAFT: Not at all. I had the strongest scruples about poverty and starvation. Your moralists are quite unscrupulous about both: they make virtues of them. I had rather be a thief than a pauper. I had rather be a murderer than a slave. I dont want to be either; but if you force the alternative on me, then, by Heaven, I'll choose the braver and more moral one. I hate poverty and slavery worse than any other crimes whatsoever. And let me tell you this. Poverty and slavery have stood up for centuries to your sermons and leading articles: they will not stand up to my machine guns. Don’t preach at them: don’t reason with them. Kill them.

BARBARA: Killing. Is that your remedy for everything?

UNDERSHAFT: It is the final test of conviction, the only lever strong enough to overturn a social system, the only way of saying Must. Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government. Your pious mob fills up ballot papers and imagines it is governing its masters; but the ballot paper that really governs is the paper that has a bullet wrapped up in it.

CUSINS: That is perhaps why, like most intelligent people, I never vote.

UNDERSHAFT: Vote! Bah! When you vote, you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new. Is that historically true, Mr. Learned Man, or is it not?

CUSINS: It is historically true. I loathe having to admit it. I repudiate your sentiments. I abhor your nature. I defy you in every possible way. Still, it is true. But it ought not to be true.

UNDERSHAFT: Ought, ought, ought, ought, ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man. Come and make explosives with me. Whatever can blow men up can blow society up. The history of the world is the history of those who had courage enough to embrace this truth. Have you the courage to embrace it, Barbara?

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