Monday, September 23, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE BURNING RIVER” by Lawrence Patchett (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
Set in an alternative New Zealand, probably many centuries in the future, The Burning River is Lawrence’s Patchett’s first novel. As he says in his acknowledgements, it “has been many years in the writing”. He has been working on it since his short-story collection I Got His Blood on Me appeared in 2012. The novel shows once again his great skill in pure story-telling, but also his ability to create a believable world.
In this future New Zealand, both Maori and Pakeha exist, but urban life seems to have disappeared. At least it is not mentioned in the narrative and we understand that some great ecological disaster has happened. Society is divided into distinct bands, or tribes. Swamp people subsist by trading, and live in unsanitary wetlands where water is polluted and poisoned. The novel’s protagonist Van “mines” for plastic, which he turns into valuable and tradeable trinkets. This suggests a post-industrial world with a deteriorated environment which has been ravaged by industrial chemicals and the like. Most of the swamp people are apparently Maori, apart from the Pakeha protagonist, who has been raised by the wise old woman Matewai. Van is “the scared kid she’d taken in as a Wayside orphan and helped to set up in the mongrel trade of plastics, a stray Pakeha without known waters or a place to stand, sheltered by Matewai her only child had found him trapped in a pond of swamp-seep and pulled him free and brought him back to her hut.” (p.96)
The swamp people are dominated by the Whaea people who have built a closed, fence-surrounded community on higher ground, where there are springs of fresh and clean water, and therefore better health. These two discrete groups associate only in the complex protocols of “trade” and in a yearly summer festival, where even intimate relationships can be formed. But clearly the Whaea people, who seem to be exclusively Maori, are essentially the aristocracy looking down on the unhealthy artisans and peasants. Nevertheless, so long as the accepted rules are observed, healthy Whaea people and unhealthy swamp people coexist peacefully enough.
In this alternative New Zealand of the future, however, these are not the only groups. There are also Scarpers, who appear to be sheer bandits; and the Burners, who are destroying the forests by fire, and whose role in the story becomes clear only late in the piece. And far, far away are the Inlanders, whom rumour presents as very warlike and whose movements and migrations seem to be putting pressure on other groups and displacing them from their homelands. This may hint at satire of New Zealand’s real history of colonisation.
It is interesting that in this ravaged future New Zealand, there are no cattle, sheep, or horses. Indeed while there are forest birds and small animals, like possums, which are trapped for food, larger animals do not figure. We are made aware that a New Zealand in which travel is exclusively on foot suddenly becomes a huge country. It takes many days to walk though bush between places which we would consider to be close together. Part of the novel’s most bizarre effect is that it sets the reader off, trying to work out which specific part of New Zealand could possibly be its setting.
Patchett is very consistent with the world he has created and presents it in convincing detail, including such matters as burial customs, tribal diplomacy, and forms of belief.
His skill in story-telling is seen in his use of suspense – not the immediate cliff-edge variety of suspense, but the slow burn which makes us wait eagerly for the outcome of some situation he has set up. The novel opens with Van, the swampland plastic “miner”, being summoned to the fenced Whaea territory by the girl Kahurangi (generally called Kahu in the novel). Who is this girl? Why has she been sent to summon him rather than somebody older, and why is he being summoned anyway? Once we know this, and once we learn of Van’s relationship with the Whaea woman Hana, Van is then persuaded to go on a long and potentially dangerous mission with a group of Whaea companions. What exactly is the purpose of the mission? It is never my purpose to spike surprises in new novel, but I can say once these things are made clear, the novel conforms to the arc of a quest: a fraught journey towards a goal or a final ordeal. As this unfolds, a good part of the narrative’s focus is on the developing relationship between Van and Hana and the girl Kahu; and on Van’s anxiety about his future ordeal.
If The Burning River were a movie, you would say it was low tech – there is no magic and and there are no “special effects” in the sense that (apart from the mention of healing potions) there are no wizards or fantastic beasts. We are not in Lord of the Rings country. The quest takes us through credible dangers – the perils of ascending and descending rough hill paths, especially for a swamp man who is used only to water and level ground; encounters with hostile human beings of one sort and another, and therefore a number of fights; and what turns out to be an existential threat to the apparently-dominant fenced Whaea community.
It would be very easy to over-think this book and look for intended lessons or messages.
Much of the novel has an implicit ecological theme. There is a repeated focus on the purity or impurity of the water which different groups have to use. While emphasising that clean water is essential for life, and that it can easily be polluted by the industrial process, this also relates to current debates on the pollution of waterways in New Zealand by the run-off from farming.
Yet “waters” here also refer to the way people define themselves in their whakapapa (geneologies) by their “waters”, or the sources from which they came. Again, this suggests an image of all humanity as braided together, for sources ultimately run into one greater river.
Given that Maori characters dominate, some of the dialogue is in Maori (the Pakeha author acknowledges help that was given to him with te reo), though context makes most exchanges comprehensible to non-speakers of Maori. I might be mistaken in my reading, but there may be another implied theme here of the durability of indigenous culture; and the possibility that in a low-tech future, Maori might be better equipped than Pakeha to survive a subsistence way of life. Permit me to suggest that a future country, as ravaged as the one in this novel, might not hold out such a promise, and Maori too are now as much a part of an industrialised culture as anybody else.
The neatly-uplifting ending of The Burning River will not be to all tastes after we have been presented with such a bleak environment. But perhaps there could be an intended irony here. The apparent conclusion may be merely a hiatus in the midst of ongoing tribal and sectional conflicts.
I come away from The Burning River admiring what I began this review with – Patchett’s skill as a story-teller and the depth and credibility of the speculative world he has created. As for the major ideas he intended to convey – on these I admit to being a little confused.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
I GOT HIS BLOOD ON ME by Lawrence Patchett (First published 2012)
As I have just considered Lawrence Patchett’s debut novel The Burning River, I think it is the right time to recall I Got His Blood on Me, Patchett’s collection of short-stories published seven years ago. The following review I wrote for New Zealand Books (now called The New Zealand Review of Books), and it is here unaltered from its appearance in the issue of September 2012.
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Who has whose blood on him? The narrator of the title story I Got His Blood on Me is smeared with the blood of an injured man he has picked up on the motorway near Wellington. The man may or may not be a time-travelling Pakeha-Maori who has somehow butted into the present from the early 19th century. There’s much fruitful ambiguity about this. The narrator is an imaginative chap who used to have an imaginary pet dog, so he may be misinterpreting the whole situation. It’s also clear that the story can function symbolically. It could be a metaphor for changed male-female relations in the past two centuries, where the Pakeha-Maori and his wahine contrast with the narrator and his partner. Or it could be a commentary on the shallow roots of modern urban development.
But readers are not patronised or bamboozled in the postmodernist manner. “I Got His Blood on Me” reads perfectly well as a literal account of literal time-travel, and the prose is admirably uncluttered if you want to read it that way. Interpretation and ambiguity do not overwhelm the clarity of the premise. To put it another way, it has the virtues of a damned good yarn as much as of a sophisticated and finished work of literature. This first (and longest) of the 12 stories in this debut collection sounds a theme that Lawrence Patchett often revisits – the continuity of New Zealand’s past in New Zealand’s present. The collection is subtitled “Frontier Tales” but the frontier is as much our consciousness of the past as it is the raw state of an earlier New Zealand. Three times, Patchett’s titles include the word “blood”, emphasising that we are kin to our forebears.
One story, “The Snack Machine”, stands aside from Patchett’s typical concerns. It’s a strong contemporary realist take on the awkwardness of being a step-parent. Otherwise, the past preoccupies Patchett. He has the great virtue of knowing that foreign country well, and making it vivid for us in a plethora of specific details that are introduced unobtrusively. Much research evidently lies behind these tales, whether they are sketching Dick Seddon’s gold-mining days (the Kiplingesquely titled “The Man Who Would Be King”), recreating an “endurance swimming” competition in 1931 (“The Man Beside the Pool”) or – with book-ended and pitch-perfect pastiches of Zane Grey’s formula Westerns – using Zane Grey’s 1920s fishing expeditions in the Bay of islands as commentary on the Kiwi contempt for “skiting” (“The Knight of the Range”).
As a matter of personal taste, I wasn’t so keen on a couple of stories that introduce a sort of supernatural element. A narrator of “All Our Friends and Ghosts” is visited by the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves, and in “Claim of Blood” a modern man confronts the editor Oliver Duff back in the 1930s. Both strike me as a little arch and whimsical in the manner of Lord Dunsany. On the other hand, the fantasy has a very hard edge indeed in Patchett’s “alternative” version of early sealing days in New Zealand, “My Brother’s Blood”. A vegetarian cult opposed to seal-slaying may sound like the stuff of whimsy, but the tone is decidedly sinister and the action blood-stained.
In a way, all this is prologue to mentioning the collection’s three strongest stories: “The Pathway”, “A Hesitant Man” and ‘The Road to Tokomairiro”. All three begin with a traumatic physical event in old New Zealand (a drowning, a shipwreck, a fatal coaching accident). All three render this event with great clarity. But, without losing narrative momentum, all three switch focus to the psychological impact of the event. They become studies of guilt, conscience and that deep desire for some sort of forgiveness after mistakes have been made. At the risk of overstating this book’s merits, I’d compare Patchett’s technique here to that of a writer very much of an era that so interests Patchett ‒ Stephen Crane. Extreme physical event moving into close examination of a psychological state reminds me not only of the mental agonies of Crane’s fleeing soldier-boy in The Red Badge of Courage, but the trauma of Crane’s sea-tragedy short-story “The Open Boat”. Patchett does not suffer by this comparison. I Got His Blood on Me is a very accomplished debut.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THEY STILL MAKE ‘EM LIKE THEY USED TO
The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” became a cliché when nostalgic people talked about the films Hollywood used to make. The idea was that the old studios once turned out something enjoyable and entertaining, even if it presented an innocent or naïve view of the world.
But I assert that, in fact, “they still make’em like they used to”. I do not mean this as approbation. I am pointing to the reality that many of the clichés of old Hollywood still persist, no matter how much audiences might regard themselves as more sophisticated in their tastes than their grandparents.
We no longer believe in strong, silent heroes solving everyone’s problems, do we? We laugh at sanitised versions of the private lives of public people, don’t we? So we no longer believe in Hollywood fairy-tales, right?
Look a little more critically, and you will see that the film industry in general (but the American film industry in particular) still feeds wish-fulfliment fantasies.
Let me consider a few recent specimens that have passed under my upturned, discerning nose.
Drawn by favourable reviews, I went to see Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, set at the end of the 1960s. It was amusing and enjoyable for much of its length. I appreciated good acting from the two leads who are intelligently outgrowing their former pretty-boy status: Leonardo da Caprio as an egotistical, fading cowboy star and Brad Pitt as his unassuming stunt double. I took the hint from the title (“once upon a time”) that this was going to be a sort of fairy-tale, not to be taken too seriously. I understood that there was going to be something elegaic about the movie when the Manson “family” were introduced into the narrative – the murders they committed did, after all, put a full-stop to the era of “flower power”. One sequence I found touching and sad as hell - the sequence in which the actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) goes to the movies to see herself, and is clearly thrilled by the thought that she has now made it big. Clearly she hasn’t (her part is a silly supporting role in an indifferent film) and we know that, in real life, she would shortly be murdered by Manson’s mob. This is what gives the sequence some of its pathos.
BUT (and I make absolutely no apology for the spoilers here – the film has already been on release for months) the ending is ridiculous, whether or not we have been warned that it’s a fairy-tale. The Manson “family” never make it to their notorious murders. Instead, they raid the home of the stuntman who, with the faded cowboy star, fights them off and kills some of them. This sequence is filmed as joyful fun, including the cowboy star blasting one of the Manson group with a flame-thrower. The Manson murders never happen and there’s a sort of happy ending.
So in the end, what are we getting? Just another movie with catharsis by violence, like those old cowboy films that we are now too sophisticated to enjoy. John Wayne kills the bad guys and rides into the sunset. Brad Pitt and Leonardo da Caprio kill the Mansons. Happy ending and fadedout. To say that this is “ironic”, knowing and self-referencing is simply having ten bob each way. It’s the same scenario old studio-dominated Hollywood used to make.
Now for a switch of genres. If ever we get to see them on Youtude, DVD or another platform, Hollywood’s old “biopics” of musicians and composers are things that we now laugh at, apart from the moments when we are enjoying their musical interludes or production numbers. Cornel Wilde in A Song to Remember (1945) as Frederic Chopin; Katherine Hepburn and Paul Henreid pretending to be Clara and Robert Schumann in Song of Love (1947); and Dirk Bogarde pretending to be Franz Liszt in Song Without End (1960). All of them can now be seen as soap-operas, hilariously inaccurate as biography, sanitised, romanticised and Americanised. The same is true of those old movies about modern, popular composers. Robert Alda pretending to be George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue (1945); or Cary Grant gamely pretending to be Cole Porter (and gamely pretending that Cole Porter was heterosexual) in Night and Day (1946). And don’t get me started on sanitised biopics about singers, bandleaders and dancers that the studios used to grind out – movies purportedly about Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Glenn Miller etc. You have to groan your way through their contrived, fictitous soap-opera scenarios to enjoy the singing or dancing bits.
We are far too sceptical and worldly-wise to fall for this sort of thing now, aren’t we?
Okay then – compare them with the recently-released Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of the late Freddie Mercury of Queen. I went along and enjoyed much of the music. And smirked in disbelief at the intended drama. Fact - Brian May, lead guitarist of Queen, was one of the consultants and producers of the film. So guess who gets to be represented in the film as a paragon of hard work and decency when Freddie is in danger of going off the rails? Much of the film is complete fiction. There is a contrived ending where the band, which has broken up, reunites for the Live Aid concert. In reality, they hadn’t broken up at that time. The film makes them the great and outstanding hit of the concert (they weren’t) and it’s all so tragic and brave because, says the film, Freddie Mercury had been diagnosed with AIDS shortly before the concert took place (in reality, he wasn’t thus diagnosed until years later). And then there’s the sentimental stuff about Freddie’s One True Love and a quick glossing over of his sex-life and… oh fudge! You see that I can easily pull apart this film as being essentially the same sort of soap that the old musical biopics were. I was now going to dissect the same techniques in the new film Rocketman, purportedly giving the life of Elton John (who, unlike Freddie Mercury, is still alive, and therefore capable of protecting his image).
Maybe fifty years hence, through some media device as yet uninvented, a youngster will watch Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman and laugh at the gullibility of audiences way back in the 2010s. The film industry now, more than ever, plays to youthful tastes (action flicks, superhero blockbusters etc. based on comic-book assumptions) and produces fantasy worlds as its prime income–earners. Hence the persistence of old tropes. But don’t let it be assumed that its “serious” films are more rooted in the real world than films were in the past. Movie-making is still essentially a dream factory; “irony” is just a way of re-packaging old storylines while claiming to be hip; and biopics of showbiz figures are the same soaps they always were. Generations X,Y, Z, Milliennial, Inane, Whatever please be advised. They still make ‘em like they used to.
Monday, September 9, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“KARL WOLFSKEHL – A POET IN EXILE” by Friedrich Voit (Cold Hub Press, $NZ40); “A COMMUNIST IN THE FAMILY – Searching for Rewi Alley” by Elspeth Sandys (Otago University Press, $NZ40)
Reading Karl Wolfskehl – A Poet in Exile, I am like a blind man feeling his way around an unfamiliar room. This may be a rather coarse image to attach to the biography of a poet who went blind. But I want to emphasise that, having only a smattering of German, and being unfamiliar with the (mostly untranslated) poetry of Wolfskehl, I was in very alien territory reading this book.
Of course I knew part of the public reputation of Wolfskehl, that will be known to many literate New Zealanders. He was the eminent German-Jewish poet who, fleeing Nazi persecution, settled in New Zealand in 1938 and remained here until his death in 1948, not long before his 80th birthday. Like another exile, the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, he represented European high culture in a New Zealand that was starved of such influences; and he connected with many local literary figures of the time. When I was much younger, I knew two of these figures, as I will note later in this review.
Friedrich Voit, Associate-Professor of German at the University of Auckland, and co-translator (into English) of works by Wolfskehl, has written a biography which deliberately focuses on Wolfskehl’s years of exile from his native (south) Germany. Wolfskehl was born in 1869. His forebears had lived in Germany for centuries and, while they were proud of their Jewish heritage, they regarded themselves as completely assimilated. Wolfskehl had a respectful attitude to the Christian religion, but ultimately adhered to the Torah and regarded Jesus as a fellow Jew, not as a messiah. He was sympathetic to Zionism, but he never fully embraced it and, though ployglot, he did not know the Hebrew language. He did, however, take great interest in German-Jewish poets of earlier centuries, and was involved in translations of their work.
But the most important influence on him was the lyric poet Stefan George. In the 1890s and early 1900s he was a key member of George’s “circle”, embracing his symbolism (this was the era of Mallarme), his transcendentalism and his somewhat elitist ideas of national regeneration be means of poetically-inspired intellectuals. George’s ideas (at least as reflected in this book) could lead his followers to adopt a broad, literary humanism, or to adopt an exalted form of nationalism. Perhaps it is not surprising that, unlike Wolfskehl, at least some of George’s (German, non-Jewish) followers adopted an extreme form of nationalism that ultimately led them to accept Nazism. German transcendentalism could seduce well-meaning people away from hard social realities.
As for Wolfskehl himself, he remained a patriotic German right through the First World War, but then began to see things heading in a sinister direction in the 1920s. He fled Germany as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. It will surprise some readers (although not those who know their history) that for his first five years of exile, Wolfskehl, and many other German-Jewish refugees, lived happily and unmolested in Fascist Italy – a Mediterranean culture which he greatly enjoyed. For most of Mussolini’s dictatorship, anti-semitism was not part of Fascist ideology. It was only in 1938 that Il Duce, aping his new ally Der Fuhrer, adopted anti-Jewish laws – at which point Wolfskehl fled Italy and, after a brief sojourn in Australia, settled in New Zealand, which was not only as far as possible from troubled Europe, but which he had been told was a tolerant, non-racist society.
Understandably, Friedrich Voit devotes only his first two chapters to Wolfskehl’s life before 1938. The following five chapters are about his time in New Zealand. Wolfskehl had deserted his wife Hanna (from whom he was never divorced) and his two children in the 1920s when, already in his fifties, he took up with Margot Ruben, who was 30 years his junior. When he reached New Zealand he was nearly 70. Conforming to the propriety of the time, he had to pretend that Margot was his niece. Inevitably, Voit spends quite some time detailing Wolfskehl’s trials as he had to move from one Auckland address to another, either when he could no longer afford the rent, or when he found his rented quarters uncongenial. Having come from a wealthy family and having never had to pursue a paying career, Wolfskehl was dependent on remittances from friends overseas, or from whatever Margot Ruben could earn as a teacher. Gradually becoming completely blind, he was very dependent on Margot as amanuensis and secretary, so her necessary outside work caused some tension.
At first Wolfskehl found Auckland physically congenial, but was starved of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan literary society to which he was accustomed. On brief trips to Dunedin (where there were more German-speaking refugees) and Christchurch, he found more of the cultural life he craved. But gradually Auckland literati and artists gathered around him. His first real contacts were the Auckland craft printer Ronald Holloway and his formidable wife Kay (Kathleen). Ronald shared his interest in artistic typefaces and rare books; and Kay, though not speaking the German language, volunteered to turn literal translations if his poetry into acceptable English-language verse. Later he was befriended by Frank Sargeson, A.R.D. (Rex) Fairburn and R.A.K. Mason. All these people were attracted to Wolfkehl by his congeniality, his willingness to discuss literature, including the New Zealand literature he was just getting to know, and, of course, the fact that he was a fund of knowledge on Europe’s humanistic literary traditions. Remember, Wolfskehl was somebody who knew personally, or had known, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Buber, Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl – and Stefan George.
This is all the “external” story of Wolfskehl as told by Voit. But, being first and foremost a literary biographer, Voit is as much concerned with the poetry Wolfskehl was writing during his exile – and it his here that I admit to a difficulty in reading Karl Wolfskehl – A Poet in Exile, because I am not conversant with the poetry being discussed. Wolfskehl had apparently given up writing poetry before the end of the First World War, but exile and the rise of Nazism fired him to return to poetry. His poems were never, however, direct political commentary or satire. Following Stefan George’s symbolist example, and as far as I can make out from this book, Wolfskehl preferred to write in an allegorical form when he condemned the new barbarism. I have Voit’s word for it that it was in his New Zealand exile that he either produced, or gave final form to, some of his most enduring work – to give their English titles “The Voice Speaks”, “To the Germans” and “Job or the Four Mirrors”. Analysing these poems is as much Voit’s concern as chronicling the externals of Wolfskehl’s life.
I do find one interesting theme in this book. It is clear that Wolfskehl was an amiable man who loved conversing with fellow poets and artists. But while many New Zealand writers liked and admired him, in a way they also found his influence burdensome and a distraction from their own interests. For a couple of years, Frank Sargeson and A.R.D.Fairburn were his most constant visitors and supporters, avid for his conversation. But both abruptly deserted him. Voit comments “the weight of Wolfskehl’s literary background, his experience and erudition impressed, but it belonged to a Central European tradition and a past generation that had ceased to be a model for the younger New Zealand writers and intellectuals” (p.128)
One suspects that even Wolfskehl often had doubts about both his spiritual aestheticism and its relevance to the modern world for “no event made him more aware of the discrepancy between the early twentieth-century elitist Georgean [i.e. related to Stefan George] utopia of high culture and aesthetic spirituality, which he still upheld as an ultimate humanistic ideal, and the socio-political reality of the present than the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki…” (p144). And yet even after this he had “his continued devotion to the Georgean ethos and the circle’s utopia based on an idealised classical Mediterranean culture and pholosophy.” (p.153)
Reading Karl Wolfskehl – A Poet in Exile, I often felt that Wolfskehl was not only a man from another country and culture, but a man from another age, as if the likes of Joris-Karl Huysmans or Algernon Swinburne had somehow landed in 1940s Auckland. It is for specialists to assess how apt Friedrich Voit’s analyses of Wolfskehl’s poetry are.
Personal Note: As I said in the above review, at least two of Wolfskehl’s New Zealand supporters, both many years older than me, were personal friends of mine. These were Ron and Kay Holloway, my next-door neighbours for the first 22 years of my life, and people whom I thereafter visited frequently until their respective deaths. I am pleased that at pp.138-139, Friedrich Voit quotes from Kay Holloway’s memoirs (Volume 2 Meet Me at the Press) but, perhaps tactfully, he leaves out Kay’s characterisation of Margot Ruben as “very possessive and [resentful of] anyone else, especially anyone neither German nor Jewish, having any influence on [Wolfskehl].” He also omits Kay’s expressed annoyance with Margot for losing her (Kay’s) translations of some of Wolfkehr’s poems. Very occasionally I heard Ron speak affectionately of Wolfskehl, and he did tell one amusing story. Apparently the Holloways encouraged their eldest son Patrick, then a little boy, to make an illustrated calendar as a gift to Wolfskehl – but when the time came to give it to the great poet, the little boy burst into tears and couldn’t bring himself to hand over what he had spent so long making. Of course Wolfkehl accepted the situation with a good grace.
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Fourteeen years ago, in July 2005 to be precise, I had a very interesting experience which told me much about the mindset of people who admire totalitarian regimes. The biographer Jung Chang, former Communist and Red Guard during the “Cultural Revolution”, was in Auckland to promote her iconoclastic biography of Mao Zedong, Mao – The Unknown Story, which denounced Mao for his genocidal policies and hypocrisy. Her hefty and detailed book dispelled many of the heroic myths that well-meaning, but naïve, Westerners had about the birth and nature of China’s Communist regime. Mao – The Unknown Story was criticised in some quarters for elements of its historical research. If you have access to such things, you can read a particularly detailed take-down of the book by Andrew Nathan in the 17 November 2005 issue of The London Review of Books. Nevertheless, it was a necessary corrective to idealistic daydreams about the “People’s” Republic as a benign, progressive state, stamping out feudalism and the corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and bringing uplift to "the people".
I toddled along to the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna to hear Jung Chang speak. She was part of a panel discussing her book. Present was a journalist, a great admirer of Rewi Alley, who was clearly very discomforted by much that Jung Chang said. He wanted to cling to the idealistic daydream. The really telling moment came when Jung Chang spoke of the tens of thousands who were tortured and/or killed during the “Cultural Revolution”, and the millions – possibly as many as 55 million – who died of famine during the collectivisation of the “Great Leap Forward”. At which point the journalist blurted out in protest “But China’s a big country!” The implication was clear. Who cares if many millions died as a direct result of the regime’s policy? China had many more millions to spare. Besides, they were expendable so long as the journalist’s daydreams of a socialist utopia could be maintained. And, of course, the journalist could admire the totalitarian regime from the comfort of distant New Zealand, where he enjoyed all the liberal freedoms and didn’t have to endure the faraway regime’s rules.
I could go off at a tangent and note the implicit racism in much worship of distant oppressive regimes – in this case, the mindset which suggests that “liberal democracy doesn’t suit the Chinese” or “the Chinese aren’t ready for democracy”, masks for the fundamental racism which assumes that the Chinese do not have reasoning powers, do not have the ability to work as a democracy and are not aware of alternatives to the regime that has been imposed upon them.
However, my business is to review Elspeth Sandys’ (largely admiring) book about Rewi Alley, so I will break with further polemic.
Novelist, short-story writer and memoirist, Elspeth Sandys is also a cousin of Rewi Alley. A Communist in the Family (Searching for Rewi Alley) was written in part because, in 2017, she took a guided tour in China with a group celebrating the 90th anniversary of Rewi Alley’s arrival in China in 1927. Its chapters alternate between accounts of her trip and her reconstructions of Alley’s life in China.
When she writes of Rewi Alley, her focus is on the humanitarian that he appears to have been in his early years in China – the years of the Kuomintang (KMT = “Nationalist”) government, its fitful civil war with the Communists (CP), foreign “concessions” in seaports like Shanghai, and the Japanese invasion and Second World War. We hear of how, after coming to China in 1927 with no particular agenda, Alley became a fireman, then an important factory inspector in Shanghai at a time when most factories were dominated by foreign interests. He was appalled by child labour and the cruel exploitation of children. He came to sympathise with the Communists. Later, in the Second World War, he founded and in part organised the “Gung Ho” movement which moved China’s industries away from the cities and coasts where they were vulnerable to Japanese attack. Later still, he set up a school for Chinese boys in the north of the country. In all this, Sandys is very anxious to tell us that, despite rumours, Rewi Alley wasn’t gay (see p.46).
Sandys appears to accept, unquestioningly, heroic myths of the genesis of the Communist “People’s” Republic of China, as in her account of the “Long March” (in Chapter 27). Perhaps, to counter this idealised narrative, she should have read A Foreign Missionary on the Long March, memoirs edited and introduced by Anne-Marie Brady, which reveals that the CP forces of the “Long March” were as predatory upon peasants as any other army at the time, and were not embraced by “the people” any more than warlord or KMT forces were. But this book doesn’t appear in Sandys’ bibliography. Her comments on “Gung Ho” (Chapter 13) are equally uncritical, not noting the movement’s many and severe shortcomings. I make it clear that in saying all this, I am not whitewashing the regime that preceded the Communist takeover. I am fully aware that, under Chiang Kaishek (Sandys’ preferred spelling) the KMT had Fascistic tendencies (although Stalin supported it for many years), was very corrupt, had a bullying secret police and a reputation for cruelty. But writing negative comments should not be a matter of either/or. It should be a matter of both/and. To condemn the KMT and give an easier ride to the CP in the 1930s and 1940s is like condemning the Tsar and praising Stalin. For me, alarm bells ring when Sandys acknowledges Geoff Chapple as a major source (on p.31) and describes Chapple’s hagiographic 1980 biography Rewi Alley of China (personally approved by Alley) as “my bible” (on p. 383).
In her account of her 2017 guided tour of China, there are pages of what I can only call studied naïvete. We are told (pp.73 ff.) that the tour party’s amiable Chinese guide Ben tells stories of what the “Cultural Revolution” was to him – a rewarding experience. Sandys knows this cannot be the whole story, and says that the tourists tried to question Ben about thorny issues like free speech; but that he steered away from political questions. But in the end “I couldn’t help admiring Ben. He’d succeeded in declawing us. Nothing we asked seemed to faze him. He had an answer for everything.” (p.77) Is this statement to be taken at face value? Does she really believe Ben had a (legitimate) answer for everything? Or is she admitting that tour guides in the “People’s” Republic are well versed in presenting smooth versions of the official line? Elsewhere she says she asks a question on religious freedom and “…at least I know I can ask it. No one would deny that censorship exists in China, as it does in one form or another in every country, but I’ve been able to talk openly of the Cultural Revolution and even the Tienanmen Square protest, so perhaps the clampdown on freedom of speech is not as severe as I’d imagined.” (p.171) Reading this statement, I almost fell off my chair laughing. OF COURSE a tourist, separated from unsupervised Chinese listeners, can ask whatever he or she likes. I already knew this from my own incredibly brief (two nights stopover) visit to Shanghai, where I asked cheeky questions of the official guides (see my posting Confessions of a Heartless Capitalist Exploiter). But censorship in China means the Chinese masses are not allowed to know even the basics of their own history and current events, and are certainly not allowed to express dissenting opinions. And note how Sandys sneaks in the phrase that censorship exists in China “as it does in one form or another in every country”, as if the one-party regime’s censorship is little different from censorship in a pluralistic democracy, where dissent is free to flourish.
Without being accused of dismissiveness, I am allowed to note that much of this book is fiction. Sandys tells us so herself, for her Author’s Note says: “In the interests of creating a dramatic narrative I have taken some liberties in my depiction of Rewi’s relationships with friends and family. At times, based on what I know of the facts, I have imagined meetings and conversations, but I have been careful not to stray from the written record.… I hope readers will forgive any mistakes made in daring to imagine Rewi Alley’s life in a country so far from his birthplace, and mine.” (p.7) Often, in “reconstructing” scenes of Alley’s life and conversations he is supposed to have had, she will begin with a phrase like “I imagine…” and then produce pages that read like a simplistic didactic novel, with dialogue neatly explaining things.
I do note that Elspeth Sandys is aware both of Alley’s complicity in Maoist propaganda and in his eventual contempt for Mao – although he expressed that contempt very ambiguously: Rewi blamed the destructive upheaval of the “Cultural Revolution” on the “Gang of Four” rather than on Mao himself, but this pretext “failed to stem the slow drip of a much wider disillusionment. By the end of the 1970s Rewi’s faith in Mao has gone…”(p.118). Sandys also makes it clear that Alley wrote many of his encomia on the Communist regime under duress. (pp.148-49). Nevertheless, this should signal to us that, whether he wrote voluntarily or otherwise, most of what he wrote under CP rule was worthless as commentary or historical record. Relatively little of Sandys’ 350-page text deals with Alley’s years as propaganda “asset” – even though these 39 years (from the CP takeover in 1949 to Alley’s death in 1987) were far longer than his earlier 22 years in China. In fairness I note that Sandys herself does use the term “mouthpiece” when dealing with Alley’s reaction to the “Cultural Revolution” (p.273); and she is clearly very upset that Alley wrote two propaganda books in support of collectivisation during the mass famines triggered by the “Great Leap Forward” (p.148 and p.329). Speaking of the KMT era, and Japanese occupation, Sandys says that Alley was willing to look at, and condemn, the evils that were happening, because “Rewi, unlike most of his contemporaries, was constitutionally unable to look away.” (p.155) But “looking away” was exactly what Alley did between 1949 and 1987. Of his reticence, Sandys tactfully says “Rewi didn’t write lies during these dark years but he didn’t write the truth either.” (p.97).
I am amused that Sandys says, of New Zealand’s failure to honour Alley with his image on a banknote, that “The virus of anti-communism – and its country cousin, racism – still infects the land.” (p.190). I know that there are extreme right-wing racist nutters, but since when did being anti-communist of itself make one racist? And why should such a statement be provoked by such a trivial matter?
There is one big elephant in this room which A Communist in the Family largely bypasses. That is the fact that Alley’s reputation has – justifiably – been tarnished in recent years. Sandys never engages with the arguments in Anne-Marie Brady’s necessary debunking book Friend of China: the Myth of Rewi Alley (published in 2003). Sandys confines herself to a dismissive comment (p.47) and to quoting Tom Newnham’s overwrought statement that Anne-Marie Brady was intentionally “crucifying” Alley. (p.191) Brady’s major – and really irrefutable – argument was that Alley was used as other “friends of China” have always been used by the CP regime: as a “respectable” figure to present a positive image of the “People’s” Republic to other countries. A sort of diplomatic puppet. It is only because of his usefulness to the regime that his myth has been fostered, statues to him have been raised, and tour parties have been invited to celebrate his memory. If Alley is supposedly the reason why New Zealand has "favoured nation" status in China, it is simply because invoking his name can allow the Chinese government to trot out some cliches about him when it comes to striking trade deals.
I finished this very unsatisfactory book with two complex reactions.
First, I understand that Sandys deplores genocide practised by Mao’s regime, and is saddened that Rewi Alley was often a propagandist for that regime. But she also deplores the fact that China, while still officially Communist, is now running a competitive, market-driven entrepreneurial economy, with a widening gap between rich and poor. What she longs for are the simpler times when it could still be believed that, in supporting the Communists, Rewi Alley was supporting a movement that would create a fair and just society. This ignores the fact that the CP was never heading in that direction, was always totalitarian in intention, and was nothing like the glamourised myth of its rise. But it is the myth to which she clings.
Second, I can’t help noticing that this book appears at the very time when Anne-Marie Brady is being harrassed for her heretical views, and when the “People’s” Republic – the republic for which Rewi Alley was so often a cheerleader – is vigorously attempting to stamp out what remains of democracy in the autonomous territory of Hong Kong. The people who are trying to defend Hong Kong’s democracy are, of course, also Chinese. But I’ll probably be called a racist for pointing this out.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
OEDIPUS IN VARIOUS GUISES (Sophocles, Seneca, Jean Cocteau)
As you may or may not have noticed on this blog, I sometimes indulge in rather strange adventures in reading. Recently, I took it into my head to read the selection of four of Seneca’s tragedies (translated by E.F.Watling) that is given in the Penguin Classics. All of Seneca’s plays are Latin re-workings of Greek plays by Sophocles, Euripides and others. So after I had read Seneca’s version of The Trojan Women, I read a translation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. And after I read Seneca’s Oedipus, I read a translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (or Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex if you want to fight over the title). The main translation of Sophocles that I read was by Robert Fagles (in Penguin Classics), but I checked some passages against E.F.Watling’s translation (likewise in Penguin Classics – and note that Watling is a master of both the Greek and Latin languages). On my shelves I also have the translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King by Don Taylor, but I gave up on it after about ten pages as it modernised the text to the point of being slangy, and the slang was now dated.
The Oedipus plays of Sophocles and Seneca set me thinking about this whole Oedipus tale and how it has become such common currency in Western literature and thought. So I pressed on and looked for other versions of the tale, winding up reading Jean Cocteau’s Oedipus play The Infernal Machine (in the English translation by Carl Wildman). Of course I did not read every version of the story that has been dramatised. I understand that John Dryden wrote an Oedipus play, but I’ve never sighted it. I am surprised that France’s greatest tragedian Jean Racine never wrote an Oedipus play, given that most of his tragedies were – like Seneca’s – re-workings of Greek dramas and legends (Racine’s Phedre, Andromache etc.). At the same time, I’m convinced that William Shakespeare was aware of some version of Oedipus even if he never wrote a play on the subject. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Seneca, E.F.Watling points out how all of Seneca’s plays were translated into English in Elizabethan times, and many of them provided tropes found in Elizabethan tragedies. I look at King Lear and I find a sighted man, Lear, who is blind to the truth (as Oedipus is before he blinds himself) and a blind man who, like Tiresias, knows the truth (Gloucester, after he is blinded, knows the true character of his sons).
More to the point, though, Oedipus has become an archetype, in much the same way as Faust, Hamlet, Don Juan or Don Quixote. And ever since Sigmund Freud devised his theory of the “Oedipus Complex” (which very few psychiatrists and psychologists would now regard as a tenable hypothesis), the very name Oedipus has become a piece of pop coinage. Let me note some of the pop references to Oedipus which I have encountered over the years. In the 1953 musical film The Band Wagon, the manic impresario played by Jack Buchanan is seen starring in a production of Oedipus Rex, and later, in the ditty “That’s Entertainment”, he summarises the play’s plot as “a chap kills his father / And causes a lot of bother”. The American musical prankster who calls himself P.D.Q. Bach (America’s equivalent of England’s Gerard Hoffnung) once recorded a spoof Wild West oratorio called Oedipus Tex, in which cowpuncher Oedipus Tex falls in love with Bobby-Jo Caster, queen of the rodeo. As we listened to this a number of times, some of my children took to singing along with its opening chorus “Howdy, folks, I’m Oedipus Tex / Guess you’ve heard of my brother Rex. / Yep, Oedipus Tex - that’s what I said. / But my friends just call me Ed.” In 1976 Derek Jarman directed the film Sebastian, aimed at a homosexual audience and purportedly concerning Saint Sebastian, which, as part of its very camp aesthetic, had all its dialogue in Latin with English subtitles. Whenever its Roman soldiers swore, they said “Oedipus”, which the subtitles translated as “Motherf***er”. I’m sure you will be able to expand this list of pop-culture references, but I’ll add some personal notes. When he was in high school, one of my sons got the part of blind Tiresias in a school production of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. One member of the cast had to accuse Oedipus of being the “father-killer and father-usurper”. In all the weeks of rehearsal, other schoolboys would, at the crucial point, whisper the line as “father-killer and motherf***er” in the hope that the young actor would accidentally say it in a perfomance – but he never did. Coincidentally, one of my daughters had a minor role, as the mute character who leads Tiresias in, in a university production of another version of the play.
Okay, enough of all these modern tales – what about the three plays that I read?
I’ll deal with them in the order they were written, especially as Sophocles’ version (written in about 425 BC) is the canonical version. Scholars note that Aeschylus definitely, and Euripides probably, also wrote plays about Oedipus, but they are now lost, so Sophocles it is.
What I noticed most about Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is what a public play it is. It begins with a priest leading a delegation of citizens to beg King Oedipus to find a way of lifting the plague that is afflicting the city of Thebes. This is clearly a crowd scene and the fate of the city itself is a major concern. Something evil is affecting a whole people. Ultimately, parricide and incest are things that poison society and are regarded with complete abhorrence. The public nature of Oedipus’ tragedy is reinforced by the large cast of speaking characters, and the fact that political intrigue is a major part of the play - especially Oedipus’ suspicion that Jocasta’s brother Creon is just fabricating slanderous tales about him in order to usurp his throne.
Inasmuch as they involve a Chorus, nearly all ancient Greek plays have a “public” aspect, but in this play the Chorus not only makes general comments on fate and chance and the gods and how the story is progressing (although they certainly do that); but they also interact with Oedipus in what is obviously conversational dialogue which I cannot imagine passing between one character (Oedipus) and a whole univocal choric group. Clearly, individuals within the Chorus sometimes speak as single characters, again reinforcing the idea that this is a play about public concerns. Also, much of the action takes place in a public space, as in the episode where Jocasta tells Oedipus and Creon to stop quarrelling in front of the crowd, as it will create a scandal.
The other major point I noted is how skilfully and gradually Sophocles winds up the suspense and tension. Only bit by bit does Oedipus come to understand the truth about himself – that he has killed his father and married his mother. When Creon reports that the Delphic oracle made ominous statements about why the city suffers pestilence; when Oedipus first quizzes Jocasta about what sort of man her former husband King Laius was; when the Corinthian messenger comes with the news that Oedipus’ supposed father Polybus is dead, and then reveals that Oedipus was adopted by Polybus and Merope – in each of these cases Oedipus is still able to find credible reasons not to believe that he has killed Laius and married his own mother. Only when the ancient shepherd (who saved Oedipus as a baby) gives his testimony does Oedipus break down and realize he has violated two universal taboos. I assume an audience in ancient Athens would have already known the legend of Oedipus even before they saw this play. But if any of them didn’t, they could have been as absorbed in it as they would be by a complex mystery story.
Finally, of Sophocles’ play I note that there is little dwelling upon gore. Jocasta hangs herself offstage. Oedipus blinds himself offstage (though of course he does come back on stage blinded, with, I assume, bloody bandages or some such over his eyes to signal his blindness). The horror of both acts is conveyed, but the emphasis is on the moral horror that has been revealed, and the darkness Oedipus now experiences. As Oedipus gropes his way out of Thebes, the final Chorus tells us that no man can be considered fortunate until he is dead (or, depending on which translation you trust, no man can be properly judged until his whole life is known). Almost an existentialist statement – a man is the sum of his actions. As for the question that has caused endless arguments over the centuries – how guilty is Oedipus when he wasn’t aware of the sins he was committing? – that is never really examined in the play itself.
As it happens, I read Seneca’s Latin version of the story before I read Sophocles’, and my views on Sophocles’ play were sharpened by the comparison. Seneca’s Oedipus (written nearly 500 years after Sophocles, sometime in the 50s AD) follows the same general narrative arc as Sophocles’ play, and basically tells the same story. But it is a very, very different play. First, it is not as public a play as Sophocles’. If Sophocles commences with a crowd pleading with Oedipus, Seneca begins with Oedipus, at night and in private, delivering a long speech to Jocasta about the plague of Thebes and evil portents about his parentage and sins. Not only does this negate the type of suspense Sophocles was able to create, but it places us in a more private space where the suffering of Oedipus is much more important than the common good of the city. In this regard, be it noted that Seneca’s play has a much smaller cast. Seneca delivers information about Oedipus’ past quickly and without the gradual revelation Sophocles achieved.
Most egregiously, Seneca likes to dwell on gore and sensational verbal effects. When Tiresias arrives to tell of visions he has seen and oracles that have been divined, he gives a long speech on the eyes and guts of animals that have been torn out to read the auguries. Later, Creon reports the raising of the ghost of King Laius, with two-thirds of his long speech being scene-setting filled with the dark, daunting woods, the screeching of night-owls and so forth. Then there is the denouement. Offstage, Oedipus does not blind himself with the pins of Jocasta’s brooches (as happens in Sophocles’ play). Instead, he rips his eyeballs out with his bare hands, meaning that the Messenger who reports the tale to us dwells in detail, in his long speech, on blood, oozing empty eye-sockets, squelchy eyeballs falling on the ground and other things close to sheer Grand Guignol. Then Jocasta kills herself on stage, not by hanging, but by stabbing herself in the belly (womb) to atone for the incestuous children she has borne.
As for the Chorus, there is little of the conversational to-and-fro between Chorus and characters that there is in Sophocles. Like all the characters in the play, the Chorus speak in long, uninterrupted speeeches – orations in fact. There has been much discussion as to whether Seneca’s plays were ever intended for performance, because they all follow this pattern of long orations rather than dialogue. Therefore they are often dismissed as exercises in rhetoric, or closet dramas intended to be read to a private audience. I admit to enjoying some of Seneca’s oratorical bombast, and recently some of his plays have been performed successfully. But as far as ancient renderings of Oedipus’ story go, this is very inferior stuff to Sophocles.
And so, leaving the ancient versions of the tales, we come to Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine, written in 1932, first produced in Paris – by the able actor-director Louis Jouvet – in 1934. A decade earlier, Cocteau had adapted a version of Oedipus the King, but The Infernal Machine is his last, and best-known, word on the matter.
In four acts, the play covers the whole career of Oedipus in Thebes, from his defeat of the Sphinx through his marriage to Jocasta to (17 years later) his discovery of the truth about himself. Only the last act, much the shortest of the play, deals with the revelation of the truth and Oedipus’ downfall, so all of the dramatic matter of Sophocles and Seneca is squeezed into the final few pages.
As soon as this play begins, we know we are in the realm of game-playing as much as the realm of drama. Each act is introduced by a scene-setting “Voice” – that is, a narrator who directly addresses the audience. The play thus opens with a synopsis of Oedipus’ whole life, including his downfall, so there will be none of the suspense of general revelation. Instead, the play will be a commentary (or satire?) on a well-known story. The “Voice’s” opening oration ends with the words “Spectator, this machine you see here wound up to the full in such a way that the spring will slowly unwind the whole length of a human life, is one of the most perfect constructed by the infernal gods for the mathematical destruction of a mortal.” In other words, Cocteau’s view of Oedipus’ destruction is that it is a matter of sheer determinism or predestination.
Something funny is going on as soon as Act One proper gets going. It begins with two soldiers on night watch on the walls of Thebes, summoning their superior officer to confirm that the ghost of the recently-killed Laius has appeared. This is such an obvious crib of the opening of Hamlet that we are meant to congratulate ourselves on seeing the likeness. Much of the play incites such self-congratulation, including the way Tiresias (especially in Act Three) is presented as a foolish and garrulous court-councillor, very much in the mould of Polonius.
There is no accident in the pairing of Oedipus with Hamlet. Cocteau had read the influential essay published in 1923 by Sigmund Freud’s British colleague Ernest Jones, which argued that Claudius in Hamlet is really a substitute father-figure for Hamlet, and Hamlet’s battle to “save” his mother Gertrude is a manifestation of the Oedipus Complex. So The Infernal Machine is a piece of cultural feedback – the Oedipus Complex being imposed upon the original story of Oedipus. When Jocasta and Tiresias appear in Act One of The Infernal Machine, they are presented as twittering socialites. Jocasta at once gets a crush on one of the handsome young soldiers, showing she has a taste for younger men, and when the ghost of Laius appears, Jocasta can neither hear nor see it (like Gertrude in a crucial scene in Hamlet).
Act Two is taken up with Oedipus, who only now appears on stage, and his encounter with the Sphinx. Far from being a loathsome monster, the Sphinx is a beautiful young woman who converses with Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead, and who allows other travellers, such as a “Matron” and her child, to pass by unmolested. She is interested only in snaring handsome men and she is so eager to snare Oedipus that she gives him the answer to her riddle before she asks it. Oedipus, a naïve 19-year-old virgin, rejects her advances, perhaps showing that older women would be more to his taste. When the Sphinx allows herself to be “killed”, Oedipus spends some time considering how he could carry her body into Thebes in order to produce the greatest dramatic effect. He is concerned with play-acting and posing. He is not a tragic hero. (I at once think of Cocteau’s novella Thomas the Impostor, in which a young man becomes a hero simply by playacting as a hero.) This act, with its insistence on theatricality and elaborate stage effects, is typical of Cocteau’s arch and camp aesthetics.
But it is in Act Three that Cocteau shows his hand and reveals where his real interest in the play lies. Staged in their bed chamber, the whole act is taken up with Oedipus’ and Jocasta’s wedding night. An empty cradle is situated next to Jocasta’s bed, just in case we forget that they are mother and son. She is an ageing coquette. He is a gormless, muscular youth. In taking Jocasta, Oedipus says he has always craved “a motherly love” and he has been saving himself for such a love. He also says that he finds in Jocasta “a beauty that has weathered tempests”, and when he’s half asleep he addresses Jocasta as “mother”. As well as continuing to ogle the young soldier stationed outside their bedroom on guard duty, Jocasta momentarily recoils in horror when she sees for the first time Oedipus’ scarred feet. She intuits that he is her son; but she goes ahead with love-making anyway. Her incest is a conscious choice. And in the final act, Cocteau has her returning as a ghost and telling Oedipus “my child, my little boy… things which appear abominable to human beings, if you only knew, from the place where I live [the Underworld], if only you knew how unimportant they are.” Meaning, I assume, that aberrant sex is simply a trivial whim and no cause for worry.
The brief final act, compressing all the matter of the classical dramas, reminds me of the aphorism that tragedy played at high speed will always have the impact of farce. Ultimately, Cocteau’s play has been concerned with “taking down” the classics and turning high tragedy into domestic comedy. Typical is the running gag in the play whereby Jocasta keeps tripping over her long scarf, so that we can chuckle knowingly in the sour awareness that she will eventually hang herself on her scarf.
The Infernal Machine was a popular play in its day and was produced to acclaim in New York, London and other places as well as in Paris. Its set- and costume-designs were much of its appeal – especially in the effects which allow the Sphinx to transform from beautiful young woman to monster in Act Two. One can understand how modern and “daring” and avant-garde it might have seemed nearly ninety years ago. But its appeal has faded, it is rarely revived, and its text now reads like a combination of the haughty dismissiveness of Aldous Huxley and the brittle twitter of Noel Coward.
At this point I could launch into a tirade on Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) as the popinjay who dabbled in many art forms without becoming master of any, and whose chief appeal was his camp style, in which he had nothing of substance to say. But I’ll refrain from this. I have seen all the films which Cocteau directed and scripted, from Blood of a Poet to The Testament of Orpheus, and I have seen the film adaptations of his work that were directed by others, such as Les Enfants Terribles; and in them I have found much delightful visual style and much real wit – so I will not belittle their creator.
But I will say that an Oedipus play without a strong consideration of the moral issues is no Oedipus at all. I read Sophocles’ original rendering of the story much as I read the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his own son, but at the crucial moment stays his hand. The story (despite some twittering one now finds among neo-atheists) is a strong fable against human sacrifice, which was ever afterwards abhorrent to the Jewish people. In similar fashion, Oedipus the King is a strong moral fable against the taboos of incest and parricide. Without this moral underpinning, the story has no particular meaning.
New Zealand Footnote: I was aware that at various times some New Zealand writers have had a crack at versions of, or heavy allusions to, ancient Greek drama, myths and legends, but none so much as James K Baxter, whose work is awash with (and sometimes drowned in) classical references. At pp.167-170 of Volume 3 of the Complete Prose of James K Baxter (reviewed on this blog), you can find Baxter’s introduction to two of his Greek-derived plays, The Sore-Footed Man and The Temptations of Oedipus. But as it happens, the former does not refer to Oedipus at all, despite its title; while the latter deals with Oedipus’ later years and his relationship with his daughter Ismene, and not with the most familiar story about him.