Two events from the past fortnight have stuck firm in my memory. A few Fridays ago I heard Rjurik Davidson talk about ‘Political writers in the Neoliberal Era’ at Historical Materialism Australasia, and then the next evening I saw Bell Shakespeare’s production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Sydney Opera House.
Rjurik’s presentation was a fascinating and wide-ranging connection of points around not only the place of writers now – and the history of the involvement of writers in anti-capitalist and progressive movements – but also the situation as it could be developed. He was speaking, amongst other things, in favour of Overland as a project as well as a literary journal – a ‘counter-hegemonic’ gathering of literary work looking to forge an audience and a purpose which is neither merely didactic nor irrelevantly aestheticist.
It was an ambitious, energetic proposal, and I’m not sure we’re near anything like achieving that kind of project anywhere in the English-speaking world. We need maps, though, and the explosions across the Middle East remind us – as Jadaliyya reveals so teasingly to the Anglophone – that what seems marginal in the cultural sphere can be transformed very rapidly indeed.
What of readers, critics, and teachers, though? How do our complementary yet quite different tasks fit in this program? Walking out of The Duchess of Malfi, I kept thinking about the talk of the day before – if producers face one set of problems, the question of ‘political consumers in the neoliberal era’ raises even more.
Bell Shakespeare’s version of The Duchess of Malfi (from a 2006 adaptation by Melbourne’s Red Stitch) is everything you’d expect from the company. Competent, clear, beautifully acted and carefully arranged, it made for an entertaining night of slightly dazzling, pop glossiness. Everything pointed to ‘relevance’, from the black austerity of stage and program to the pre-show music. (Tricky was playing this time; the last time I saw a Bell production – The Two Gentlemen of Verona in a spookily desolate after-hours Monash in 2006 – it was the Violent Femmes). Webster’s not common on the contemporary stage (and in New Zealand less common still) and this is a play I love, so I’m grateful to have got the chance to see it in Sydney.
But what was it I saw? Notes from adaptors Hugh Colman and Alisa Piper describe paring back ‘to the heart of the central story’, trying to ‘capture some essence that the piece held, so often obscured by its unwieldy plot and length and the array of less interesting characters’. No text is sacred, for sure, few less so than Jacobean dramas, and all productions involve cuts and alterations, but this confident sense of ‘essence’ at the expense of ‘unwieldy plot’ points at some real losses.
The play, certainly, has lines and whole scenes that are shockingly familiar. The Labor Right could well have organised group nights to this:
You have prevailed with me
Beyond my strongest thoughts:
I would not now
Find you inconstant
And many a member of either front bench could, as the explain away their party’s vile policy on refugees, recognise themselves in this description of the Duke:
Then the law to him
Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider,
He makes it his dwelling, and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him.
But what does it mean to reach for contemporary resonances like this? At worst a kind of false universalising creeps in (all those tedious classroom sessions on ‘themes’ in Shakespeare; all that grotesque talk of Othello as a play about jealousy instead of domestic violence), at best a flattening of the historical sense.
This points to a problem I’d been thinking over since Rjurik’s talk. One of neoliberalism’s great triumphs in the cultural sphere – as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello analyse so masterfully in The New Spirit of Capitalism – has been its appropriation and refashioning of certain vocabularies and program of the Left and the workers’ movement. In France this has gone as far as a ‘conservative Gramscianism’, while in the English-speaking world the language of left cultural projects is now absorbed into the pattern of managerialist attacks on education and arts funding.
Everyone wants a public, and everyone wants a public sphere and public intellectuals – but the universal currency of these terms may be contributing to their eventual worthlessness. So UK academics have their work measured according to its ‘impact’, the humanities are under threat for their limited ‘relevance’, public education faces cuts in the name of – to borrow phrase from the Melbourne model – a ‘publicly spirited’ outfit.
All of this Rjurik was talking against, of course, and he’s complicit in none of it. But isn’t it striking how difficult it is to talk about public work and cultural interventions without getting caught in this vocabulary of relevance, audience and impact?
This seems a problem that Bell Shakespeare half recognises and can’t, on its own, do more than gesture towards. It’s a social symptom, in other words. What if it was our loss to be deprived of ‘unwieldy plots’ and even ‘less interesting characters’? What if some of the play’s specificity and historical power lay in precisely those parts of it we find indigestible, strange and bewildering? Certainly in this production, immediacy came at the expense of a greater incoherence: poor Antonio (Matthew Moore) doesn’t seem so much tragic as wet and mopey, devoid as we are of any sense of the magnitude of his deviance in marrying his social superior. The Duchess’ companion sees a ‘fearful madness’ in her marriage to this commoner. In the age of the office romance it would take a sharper set of alienations than this smooth production was prepared to involve itself in to startle us into any real sense of that fear.
This isn’t a question of missed allusions or aged jokes (we’ve notes and new editions for those) but of the recovery of the historical sense itself. Brecht wrote of turning the ‘historical sense’ into a ‘real sensual delight’ – this will involve indirections through estrangement, and through realising the difference of the past, its pastness, more than any ‘updating.’
The potential for the ‘real sensual delight’ is again to do with audiences and their creation, and is another reason I found Rjurik’s talk so useful. We – readers, that is, and critics – can’t shape the present situation in the way writers can, but we’ve a companion role to play. There’s an essential negative task always before us (stressing, say, that a King Lear which isn’t in some fundamental sense ‘about’ patriarchy is no King Lear at all), and we can think of little more than maps for our positive tasks without a movement to interact with, but that thinking is useful still.
Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. This mystery can be reenacted only if the human adventure is one; only thus–and not through the hobbies of antiquarianism or the projections of the modernists–can we glimpse the vital claims upon us of such long-dead issues as the seasonal alternation of the economy of a primitive tribe, the passionate disputes about the nature of the Trinity, the conflicting models of the polis of the universal Empire, or, apparently closer to us in time, the dusty parliamentary and journalistic polemics of the nineteenth-century nation states. These matters can recover their original urgency for us only if they are retold within the unity of a single great collective story; only if, in however disguised and symbolic a form, they are seen as sharing a single fundamental theme–for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity; only if they are grasped as vital episodes in a single vast unfinished plot.
That single plot is the history of class struggle, something the marketers at the Sydney Opera House perhaps assume, no doubt wisely, that they will not fill the audience for Renaissance dramas. But what would it take to make that audience, and how could we make the ‘deep pit of darkness’ in Webster’s play usefully strange again?
That’s one of the jobs, in a modest way, I think we’re attempting here. How it is we proceed, though, is as caught up with the fortunes of other projects – writers for starters, movements beyond them still – as it ever was. It’s not for nothing Benjamin called for strategists in the literary battle.