Poetry and other arts. For some general reflections on the underlying aesthetic, see my first post, ‘Eleutheria: art as liberation’.

A reading at Waterloo on the 15th of June

I have, for some years, been a member of the Southwark Poetry Stanza, one of a network of local groups under the general umbrella of the Poetry Society. We have run a number of events in the last few years, many of which straddle the arts of poetry and theatre; not always easy, since the voice of many poems is not itself theatrical, but interesting in what it teaches one about the relation between the two arts.

Our current venture is a third successive appearance at the Waterloo festival based at St John’s Church Waterloo. The theme for this year’s festival is Transforming Minds, and we have decided to shape our reading around the theme of music and its relation with poetry. We have, in particular, taken the figure of Ethel Smyth, composer, writer and feminist, and are interspersing a narrative of her life and words with our own poems (and a couple of musical performances). The framework is designed to provide narrative momentum while allowing a very disparate set of poems space to be themselves. One advantage is that the peculiar intensity needed for listening to verse is only demanded of the audience intermittently; I think many people find it very hard to retain concentration when listening to a long uninterrupted stream of poems written for the page, because of the particular density of this kind of writing. In our reading the poems become like arias surrounded by recitative, and I hope emerge stronger for this.

I knew very little about Ethel Smyth until recently and have still heard rather little of her music (though a splendid performance of a piano prelude can be found here), but found myself absorbed by her prose. She didn’t start publishing prose until deafness had made composition difficult for her, and she was a less conscious artist as a prose writer than as a composer, but one of her early teachers thought her literary gifts were greater than her musical ones. Her story takes us through the highbrow intensity of nineteenth-century musical Leipzig (via the most splendidly malicious portrait of Brahms, whom she admired as an artist but not as a man), through an intense involvement with the suffragettes and a connection with the refinement of expatriate Florence, to a very intense late friendship with Virgina Woolf. Ethel was born in 1858, a contemporary of Elgar, and her trajectory is among other things the encounter of a late Victorian with modernism. She was also, despite her Leipziger training, a writer of operas, and hence an appropriate figure to use to think about the relation between poetry, music and theatre.

The event takes place at St John’s Church Waterloo at 7 pm on June 15th and is part of an evening where our performance is followed by a buffet supper and then by a performance of Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil by the excellent Gary Crosby quintet. Tickets are available for the evening as a whole here; we are hoping they will also be available for the reading on its own. The Waterloo festival website is here.

More information about poetry stanzas can be found at the Poetry Society website here; Southwark is listed under London south of the river.

Mayakosky at Calder’s

The hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution has been marked by a wave of exhibitions and plays. Last Sunday I went along to a small production of Mayakovsky’s Bathhouse at the Calder bookshop-cum-theatre, famous as the location of Samuel Beckett’s publisher and now much involved in participatory theatre. Mayakovsky’s gifts as a poet were generally admired but his very close involvement with the revolutionary government, and a suspected descent into revolutionary propaganda, has somewhat deterred readers in recent years, compared with the large following of a number of his contemporaries (the celebrated quartet of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova and Pasternak, already identified as a quartet by Akhmatova herself in a late poem). I had never read much of his work and was intrigued to see and read the play (to be found in the twelfth volume of the Moscow 1958 Collected Works, not borrowed in the London Library since 1979), this week.

Mayakovsky wrote Bathhouse in 1929; he died the next year, possibly at his own hand, possibly feeling exposed and compromised by his political involvement. But Bathhouse is not a despairing work but a vividly engaged and comic one that has some of the gaiety of the contemporary French music of Poulenc and Milhaud. The inventor Chudakov (meaning ‘eccentric’) has come up with a time machine but faces bureaucratic obstruction from the vain and pretentious Pobedonosikov (whose name means something like ‘the one with a nose for victory’) and his obsequious secretary Optimistenko. After the first two acts Pobedonosikov tries to have the play altered and there is a vivid aesthetic discussion with the director, in which the actors are required to adopt poses in an absurd revolutionary tableau. When the action resumes Chudakov succeeds in hosting the visit of the Phosphorescent Woman from 2030, who is offering trips to the communist future. All the sympathetic characters join the voyage; Pobedonosikov and Optimistenko find themselves thrown out of the spacecraft and wondering what they did wrong.

Luis Gayol’s production is high-spirited and lucid, with a colourful design that uses the very small space superbly. The text and cast are somewhat reduced; some minor characters disappear (including, rather sadly, Fraternity from the tableau’s trio of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality). The translation delivers clarity, perhaps at the expense of some of the density and wordplay of the original (which is rather challenging in places). The actors, mostly English, play the whole thing adroitly if a touch on the cool side, though the strangled fake Russian accent of Maria Estevez-Serrano’s Underton, Pobedonosikov’s long-suffering secretary, offers a welcome touch of hysteria.

Susan Buck Morss suggests that the Bolsheviks thought in terms of conquering time rather than space, and the idea of a time machine – sponsored by Einstein’s ‘futuristic brain’ – stands for the modernist wing of the Bolshevik project. Mayakovsky’s play suggests that the dead hand of bureaucracy is a threat to technology as well as art; Chudakov and his sidekick Velocipedkin are advised by Optimistenko that enthusiasm isn’t needed now they have scientific materialism. David Graeber has recently suggested that bureaucracy is as problematic for innovation within capitalist enterprises as elsewhere, something also of concern to some fashionable management specialists. But it is more than bureaucracy that is at stake. If 1930 now seems like the end of modernism, this is, I think, because the political landscape of the 1930s presented starker and narrower choices than the 1920s; the space of infinite possibilities was shrunk to a few dramatic alternatives between which one had to choose. In retrospect, Mayakovsky’s piece becomes an elegy for modernism.

For all its gaiety, the play touches on terror, and our laughter cannot be altogether comfortable. Optimistenko asks Chudakov and Velocipedkin ‘how can there be bureaucratism in the face of a purge ?’, and while the attack on bureaucracy may be closer in 1929 to Trotsky than to Stalin, in the context of terror the same epithets can occur, with lethal effect, on either side. Later, after switching sides, Optimistenko says the same thing in slightly softer language to the bureaucrat Pobedonosikov, who is now protesting against bureaucracy. Pobedonosikov is left at home to write his memoirs; after 1929 the Soviet Union would have to wait till Khrushchev to see an opposition so gently treated. Only a saint could play on this field and keep themselves clean.

Dostoevsky’s Demons: a new transposition

Theatre, film and the novel are somewhat quarrelsome housemates constantly negotiating with each other for space and control. I sometimes think that a great film can be made only from a mediocre novel; a great novel has too much material, and does its job too completely, for film to operate freely. I’ve never read the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche (whose acute accent transcends the capacities of my keyboard) that served as source for Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim”, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a fairly slender work. Theatre and film is a different matter: the Burton/Taylor “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf ?” carries such authority that it is hard to imagine the play without it. Theatre and the novel raise different questions again.

I am a trustee of a small theatre company, Splitmoon, which is currently staging a transposition of Dostoevsky’s Demons, written and directed by our artistic director, and my friend, Peter Stuerm, using the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. A couple of years ago, I sank two whole weeks in reading this extraordinary novel in Russian. Dostoevsky’s novel is distinguished among the great nineteenth-century novels by its exceptionally broad range of viewpoint – there are about ten characters who each serve as a pivot around which events move: by the extreme seriousness with which ideas, sometimes but not always of intellectual merit, are taken by the characters: and by the feral-diabolic quality of the explosions in its great scenes. To write this novel in English one would need a committee of Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot and Christina Rossetti (now that might be an idea for a play…). That such a work is unstageable might seem axiomatic; Peter’s endeavour is not so much, I think, to refute this axiom as to use the work to explode, locally, our sense of what theatre can be. It is therefore appropriate that the work is presented not in a theatre but in the body and guts of St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch and its attached hall, an Enlightenment building transformed at night into Foscolo-Dickensian liminality.

Dostoevsky’s time is alternately undulant and explosive. His novels are built on the same grand, slow scale as Tolstoy’s, but a slow buildup is often followed by scenes of extreme violence and speed. Peter’s approach has been to strip away much of the buildup, thrusting the audience directly into the presence of the ferocity inherent in the novel, while framing the tempest by the device of a trial of the character Nikolai Stavrogin (ostensibly, I suppose, the ‘main’ character, though the novel works against as much as with such a designation). What we get is a vast nineteenth century realist narrative subjected to a compressed modernist-expressionist presentation. Everything is motivated within the novel; everything is locally intelligible and physically realised; but the links between events may stretch the comprehension of those who have not read the novel. This form of difficulty shares much with the operations of modernist poetry; arguably, in a more latent way, with all poetry. The idea that one ‘understands’ a poem is always partly an illusion, since there is no final answer in a good poem why one thing, however clear in itself, should follow another. How an audience at St Leonard’s should cope with this challenge – how far the attempt to understand is to be persisted with or renounced – becomes a question posed, to each viewer, by the work itself (as it is also posed by Bishop Tikhon’s engaged scrutiny of Stavrogin’s confession).

A large cast and an episodic narrative challenge the actors to carve out a significance very quickly without the usual prop of narrative continuity. Some of the actors at St Leonard’s have been working on this material with Peter for several years, and I have been impressed this week by how deeply they have absorbed it. I don’t feel it’s appropriate as a trustee to single anyone out; simply to say that in every case the actors (and indeed the production team led by Splitmoon’s manager Caroline Staunton and generously assisted by St Leonard’s) have laid themselves open to the demands of the work; demands that seem to involve not simply technical mastery (though the technical level, albeit occasionally challenged by the resonant acoustic, is very high) but the novel’s great theme of possession. As a result, each scene seems not so much the presentation of characters as the embodied exposure of souls.

Dostoevsky’s novel represents revolutionary politics as a wave of collective possession or madness. This madness provides the events of the novel; it is lit, not by sunlight, but by the flames of the characters’ delusion. The madness comes very close to engulfing the state; in the novel the revolutionary activist Piotr Verkhovensky wins the confidence of the provincial governor’s wife, and one of the great scenes is a bizarre fete organised under her auspices. It is a shock, at the very end, to hear the findings of a routine and impersonal police report: there turns out to be a dull and ostensibly sane set of authorities who have been waiting in the wings all along.

The metaphor of possession is, of course, religious and specifically Christian. But it seems more broadly useful than that. One need not be a theist to think (as Buddhism tends to) that we would treat other and ourselves both more kindly and more effectively if we thought of much of what we call evil not as a matter of the depravity of the will but as the possession of the person by bad ideas. And the collectivity of mental dysfunction can be witnessed every time a cricket or football team publicly falls apart.

But to speak this way begs the question of valuation. Dostoevsky is certainly, at the time of writing Devils, opposed to the revolutionary politics he formerly supported, and his portrayal intimates some of the worst forms that the revolutionary tradition would later take. One can take the work as a defence of a conservative or reactionary Slavophile politics. But this is too easy. The underlying bad faith of Shatov’s Slavophilia (formerly formulated and espoused by Stavrogin himself), based on a Duginite blend of cultural relativism and faithless voluntarist theism, is exposed by Stavrogin’s interrogation. An exchange between Stavrogin and Kirillov refers to a doctrine held within the orthodox Christian tradition and unforgettably presented by the figure of Christ in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: everyone, or everything, should be seen as good. Such an idea suggests an apophatic approach to religious practice, and the name of the ostensibly saintly Bishop Tikhon, while not Dostoevsky’s own coinage and probably a transliteration from Greek, embeds the Russian word for silence. Tikhon is not speaking in bad faith when he suggests he may be a greater sinner than Stavrogin and while this production gives Tikhon some of the trappings of a judge what he issues is counsel, not sentence. (Rowan Williams’ book explores some of the links with the orthodox tradition and the theologian Sergei Bulgakov more fully; I cannot now remember whether I came across some of these ideas there first).

There is, however, something less Christian embodied by this whole enterprise, something shared by a work like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The characters may be going to hell, but they have, or give us, a whale of a time on the way. Dostoevsky would have found Nietzsche problematic, but ‘Demons’ may be the most Dionysiac nineteenth-century novel. If the characters ultimately inspire not only horror but also affection and even forgiveness, this is because their tragic aspirations collapse into satyr in the Greek sense (this production carries the oxymoronic subtitle ‘a tragic satire’) or outright comedy. Tikhon tells Stavrogin that his confession’s reception will undo him, not by pity, but by laughter. At one point in the dark stairwell at St Leonard’s, a bunch of conspirators gather round a barrel. One bangs their fist. The reverberation makes the whole group jump like kittens. This is slapstick; it is diabolically funny; but Peter tells me I was the only person who laughed.

The production is on for the current two weeks. Details at:

 http://www.splitmoontheatre.org/repertory/demons/