Thursday, July 16, 2020

Individualism - a discussion of my lockdown delights

The Favourite
I finally managed to watch The Favourite as part of my lockdown cultural binge.  It's very entertaining, of course, and contains an appropriate dose of lèse-majesté - but I found myself disturbed by the way it viewed politics, which brought it far closer to more conventional costume dramas than it was perhaps intended to be. The underlying premise of the film was that whoever happened to be Queen Anne's current "favourite" (for which read female lover), held the reins of power and determined policy.  Wars, it appeared, could be started or ended in the Queen's bed.  I don't doubt that this may have been literally true, or that similar individual quirks and choices continue to influence us today. It does make a difference that Trump watches TV all day and Johnson has a very brief concentration span. But to think of politics solely in personal terms is to buy into the myth of the individual "great man" (or woman) at the expense of the more complex social, economic, technological and cultural forces which mould all of us, the "great" included. Perhaps the "great" more than anyone.

Another lockdown delight has been The Mirror and the Light - the last part of Hilary Mantel's trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell. Here again, I found that the concentration on the minutiae of the political process, the workings of faction in the Tudor court, placed an undue and artificial emphasis on the role of the individual in the shaping of history. It would be very easy to read the book, indeed the whole trilogy, with a sense of Cromwell as an entirely pragmatic figure, driven solely by the workings of realpolitik, caught up in the minutiae of family feuds and dynastic faction. But Cromwell surely had his ideological side. He was clearly sympathetic to Lutheranism at a time when that was a dangerous doctrine in England, and his adherence to Protestant thought was not only an opportunity to his enemies: it was also one of the things that made them his enemies in  the first place. Hilary Mantel certainly acknowledges Cromwell's Protestant leanings, though she demonstrates them largely through his concern for the fate of William Tyndale - an individual again, rather than the doctrine he proclaimed. There is a certain irony in this, given that Luther's emphasis on the individual, on personal salvation and a one-to-one relationship with God, is at the root of our culture's obsession with individual personality, status and achievement. Without Luther, I suspect our writers, film-makers and dramatists would be placing far less emphasis on the "great man" theory of history.

What hardly features at all in the Mantel book, but which could be regarded as Cromwell's greatest achievement, is his use of Parliament, and statute, to enact what G.R. Elton called his "Revolution in Government". It was Cromwell who established that statute was the supreme form of law, and so conceived the unique and bizarre notion of a shared form of sovereignty, that of "the King in Parliament". There is a tension at the heart of this idea - a tension between the role of the individual monarch, the "great man", and the wider social and political landscape represented by Parliament. That tension remains unresolved in our constitution, and it accounts for the chaos of the Brexit process, which was above all a prolonged clash between the quasi-monarchical Executive, exercising the Royal prerogative through the Prime Minister, and the elected representatives of the people. Lockdown joy number three was John Bercow's frank autobiography Unspeakable, in which he manages to combine an account of his passionate defence of Parliament as an institution with a totally personality-focussed view of the political process. Bercow's position is paradoxical, but then so is the central tenet of the British constitution.

Milo Rau's Lenin: Ursina Lardi in the title role
There was a brilliant counterpoint to the individualist, "great man" approach to history in Milo Rau's Lenin, which was streamed by the Berlin Schaubühne a few weeks ago. This series of streamed productions has been the greatest lockdown delight for me: a truly great theatre, rooted in ensemble practice, sharing some of its treasures, with Rau's productions a particular revelation. In Lenin, he explores the last days of the revolutionary leader, in a production that slowly creates the image of that leader as we know him. The fact that it is an image is crucial - "Lenin" (which wasn't even the man's name) is a constructed cultural figure, an artificial creation which was required by the political process, just as all "great men", even communists, are not actually themselves, and are not actually individuals but an amalgam of historical influences. By casting a woman (the remarkable Ursina Lardi) as Lenin, Rau places the character as far as possible from the known construction.  In the early scenes, Lardi is overtly herself, blonde-haired and naked. Only slowly, and in full view, is she moved  through costume, make-up and performance towards the expected image of Lenin, which is finally realised in the form of a black and white film, shot live in front of us and projected above the stage, spoken in Russian with subtitles in the audience's own language. So "Lenin" comes to be seen as a cultural construction, as the play enacts the process of his making. This way of understanding history as performance, shaped like and by theatre, made perfect sense to me.
Lenin at the Schaubühne - the film and the stage
These different ways of understanding history, politics and society have been playing out in front of us during the Covid-19 crisis. On one side, we have seen individualist, populist leaders like Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro putting their faith in the potential of ventilators, vaccine researchers, phone apps and ingested disinfectant to deal with the virus: on the other side, we have seen more community-oriented approaches that prioritise preventative measures like early lockdowns and widespread testing. As James Meek wrote in the London Review of Books:
The divide between communal health advocates and tech fixers represents a deeper choice: between actions that aim to help an individual, so may indirectly help everyone, and actions that aim to help everyone, so may indirectly help the individual. Lockdown requires each individual to accept personal constraints for the sake of the community, even when they are not themselves ill. In theory, the tech fix can be for everyone, too, but because it is a thing to be obtained, rather than a constraint to abide by, it comes trailing issues of priority, price, privilege, exclusivity: what device, what pill, what treatment, what test can I get for myself, my family, my friends, to protect them?
This is not a simple left-right division: community health approaches can be imposed by totalitarian regimes like China as well as more benign states like Aotearoa / New Zealand. But the stark contrast between these approaches, both in terms of the ideology behind them and the numbers of deaths resulting, suggests that this is going to be an ever more important way of viewing political conflicts and decisions.

Culture it seems, far from leading the way, needs to catch up.  It may well be that one reason why countries like the US and the UK have handled Covid so shockingly badly is their ongoing culture of individualism, their "great man" approach to history and politics, their sense of an elective dictatorship somehow being a democracy. The countries that have avoided our horrific death tolls have been less fixated on success, technology and "greatness", more interested in mutuality, participation and community. Aotearoa / New Zealand has even dared to suggest that wellbeing, rather than growth, should be the driving force in its economy. So, as we absorb the shock of the pandemic and move forward, spending the Chancellor's "rescue package" and rebuilding theatre both as an economic sector and as an art form; my hope is for a new approach to cultural work that is not centred on success, stardom and leadership but on the ensemble, on the drama of difference, on equality and on productive exchange. There have been many calls for a more diverse and inclusive theatre recently, and of course that's important, but it will only be genuinely beneficial if it goes beyond replacing white faces with black ones in exactly the same jobs. The culture we must strive for has to be institutionally different, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian and communitarian, not individualistic. We need to recognise that theatre, like society, is something that is communally created.

I know this sounds like an odd thing for an Artistic Director to say. But, as Ariane Mnouchkine has frequently pointed out, in collective work the director's distinction is not one of status but of function. That's a better way to understand Thomas Cromwell, Lenin and the essential changes we have to make for a better future.

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