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06/12/2011

My Brush with Radical Chic

John Spurling

In the late Fifties and early Sixties most of the territories in the British Empire became independent, while Britain itself took a kind of Dominion status in the burgeoning but more surreptitiously controlled empire of the United States. This new subordinate role – often sweetly called ‘the special relationship’ – was necessary economically, because of our enormous financial debt to the United States after the Second World War; militarily and politically, because of the constant threat from the expanding communist empires of Russia and China; and technologically and culturally, because in the post-war world most things new and dynamic tended to come from across the Atlantic. Nearly all the European countries, after all, had either been crushed by Hitler or crushed with him.

For young people in Britain – those who had experienced the war, but played no active part in it – the psychological effect of dwindling from one of the masters of the world to the new master’s dependant was complex and confused. Enjoying our new freedom from responsibility, we became almost hysterically frivolous; resenting our loss of status, we became angry – chiefly with our own political leaders and the whole traditional ‘Establishment’ of our society; and, combining both frivolity and anger, looking about for some more attractive alternative to unlovely American commercialism, we lurched politically leftwards and tried to believe, many of us, in the Marxist utopia.

It is easy to forget now and hard for later generations to imagine how seriously intelligent people then took this delusory and destructive ideology. I remember being bewildered when a fellow student at Oxford in 1959 asked whether I was ‘committed’. Committed to what? But that was my own naivety and ignorance. Of course, he meant committed to radical socialism. A decade later that meant virtually to revolution, by violence if necessary. Like so much in Sixties Britain – the new sexual candour, the women’s miniskirts, the men’s long hair and flared trousers, the ubiquitous mockery and satire, the explosion of noise in popular music – this political extremism, publicly displayed in marches and demonstrations and clashes with the police, was a form of dandyism, a way of showing-off and trying-it-on and frightening the older generation.

In other Western-bloc countries more severely damaged by the war – France, West Germany, Italy and Japan – political extremism did seem for a time to have roots in reality and in the late Sixties and Seventies sprouted into various terrorist organisations, whose heroes were Marxistmen of violence like Trotsky, Guevara and Mao and whose members were often middle-class intellectuals and students. In this country only Northern Ireland provided the genuine inequality and oppression to match the talk.

But although there was no serious danger of revolution here, it often felt as if there were, and the atmosphere was so charged that for any youngish person working in the arts, literature, the media or the universities to admit to being at all right wing was an act of rare courage or folly. It might gain you a few assignments as a controversialist in the media, but it would almost certainly spell creative unemployment and an indelible reputation as a ‘fascist’. Of course, this cultural dictatorship of the radical Left was nothing like as rigorous as that of the Artists’ and Writers’ Unions in communist countries. There was no question here of imprisonment, exile to a Russian gulag or a Chinese rural work camp, confinement in a psychiatric ward or execution. But it was potent nonetheless, because the comrades or their fellow-travellers were highly active in all the cultural organisations, and if you were not judged to be one of them you missed out on grants, subsidies and commissions, as well as the best opportunities for your work to be seen or read at all. Some of these ‘committed’ people were sincere believers, others – this being showbiz – were only timeservers, ‘champagne socialists’, subscribers to ‘radical chic’.

My first play to be professionally produced, MacRune’s Guevara (as realised by Edward Hotel), satirised ‘radical chic’ and, in the immediate aftermath of ‘Che’ Guevara’s death in South America and the student riots in Paris in 1968, confronted the whole question of violent revolution. I began writing it while Guevara was still alive and reported to be leading a revolution in the Bolivian jungle, but by the time it was performed, in February 1969, he was known to be dead. It was produced in an experimental season at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre by the still newish National Theatre, with a starry cast, including Robert Stephens (MacRune), Jeremy Brett (CheGuevara), Derek Jacobi (Edward Hotel), Jane Lapotaire, Ronald Pickup and Charles Kay. It was directed mainly by Frank Dunlop, with some help from Robert Stephens.

The play was summarised by the Financial Times’s theatre critic B. A. Young as

a piece of satirical ‘theatre of fact’ as trenchant as it is comic. MacRune is an unsuccessful painter; in his dying days, he scrawled on the walls of his bedroom a life of CheGuevara in graffiti. The play is a dramatised version of this life, but filtered through the mind of the dramatist, a self-satisfied young man named Edward Hotel, whose ideas are as un Marxist as MacRune’s were Marxian, and who keeps popping up to explain what’s going on. Mr Spurling has arranged his piece as a series of episodes parodying established forms – the musical, the drawing-room comedy, the television melodrama, and so on. It uses lots of straight quotations from Che, often so manipulated as to seem inhuman or silly. Two morals emerge cogently: one, a hero is no more than you make of him, and two, principles are less important than men. The play is funny and wise.

Most of the reviews were equally encouraging. John Barber, the Daily Telegraph’s critic wrote:

The technique of this witty play recalled to me one of Che’s own maxims: ‘Constant movement, absolute mistrust, eternal vigilance.’ The author does not commit himself: the airport to the theatre’s green room. The whole theatre company was assembled there, together with a German-speaking serviceman from the nearby American airbase as interpreter, and it turned out that they had decided not to perform the play after all.

Palitzsch, who had very little English, had been seduced by the play’s title and the fact that the British National Theatre had performed it, but had not understood the subversive contents until his dramaturge translated the text into German. In Germany, however, theatre companies were better unionised and more democratic than in Britain and could not be ridden over roughshod by their directors. Indeed, I think that unsatisfactory directors were easier to get rid of than unsatisfactory actors. So I was to be given the opportunity of explaining my play before it was dumped. I argued for some three hours that it was by no means anti-Guevara, even if critical of some of his methods and supporters, that plays were not improved by being hagiography or propaganda, and that I hadn’t forced the play on them, it had been bought by their director.

‘Taken as a whole,’ wrote Irving Wardle in The Times, ‘the play offers a cunning answer to the question of how the theatre can treat subjects whose vitality lies less in recorded fact than in popular myth.’ Sheridan Morley in the Tatler called the play ‘a complex, elaborate and ambitious kaleidoscopic portrait of an unknown but famous man’, and remarked that ‘if the National do not soon put MacRune’s Guevara into their repertoire at the Old Vic they will be cheating themselves of the best new play to have come their way since [Tom Stoppard’s] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The play did go into the repertoire at the Old Vic (the National’s own theatre was not yet built), but in a truncated form, so as to occupy only half an evening, in tandem with Maureen Duffy’s one-act play Rites, and for only seven performances. The reason for this was that the National Theatre’s artistic director Laurence Olivier was baffled by its unconventional structure (‘Cut it to the bone!’ he told me in an uncomfortable interview in his office, and could not understand that the ‘bone’ of the play was precisely the number and variety of its viewpoints). For anything new or out of the ordinary Olivier relied on the judgement of the National’s dramaturge, the critic Kenneth Tynan, who, as the doyen of ‘champagne socialists’, had naturally disliked it from the beginning. One of the rebellious actors inside the play complains to the supposed author, Edward Hotel: ‘This play is in terribly bad taste. Putting on stage a man who is a hero to millions, only just dead. And you make him out to be some sort of mad gangster.’ Most of those words came out of Tynan’s own mouth, when he tried to stop the play’s director Frank Dunlop from performing it in the first place.

The irony was that Tynan himself was at that very time himself involved in the production of a play in the West End, the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s Soldiers, whose thesis (for which there is no historical evidence) was that Winston Churchill had conspired during the Second World War to murder the Polish leader General Władysław Sikorski. So Dunlop observed that Tynan didn’t seem to mind travestying ‘a hero to millions’, so long as he was right wing. Tynan replied that Hochhuth’s play was ‘serious’, whereas mine was mocking and laughing. He was either unable to see or more likely saw only too clearly that MacRune’s Guevara was aimed less at ‘Che’ Guevara than at people like himself.

Soon after its British premiere, MacRune’s Guevara was due to be performed in Stuttgart, West Germany, and again ran into a confrontation with ‘radical chic’. It had been bought by the director of the Württembergische Staatstheater, a pupil of Bertolt Brecht called Peter Palitzsch, who had left East Germany and taken refuge in the West, where he retained his socialist principles but drove a Porsche, wore expensive suits and spent his weekends in a charming hunting-lodge in the Black Forest.

In the autumn of 1969 I flew to Stuttgart for rehearsals and was whisked straight from the airport to the theatre’s green room. The whole theatre company was assembled there, together with a German-speaking serviceman from the nearby American airbase as interpreter, and it turned out that they had decided not to perform the play after all. Palitzsch, who had very little English, had been seduced by the play’s title and the fact that the British National Theatre had performed it, but had not understood the subversive contents until his dramaturge translated the text into German. In Germany, however, theatre companies were better unionised and more democratic than in Britain and could not be ridden over roughshod by their directors. Indeed, I think that unsatisfactory directors were easier to get rid of than unsatisfactory actors. So I was to be given the opportunity of explaining my play before it was dumped. I argued for some three hours that it was by no means anti-Guevara, even if critical of some of his methods and supporters, that plays were not improved by being hagiography or propaganda, and that I hadn’t forced the play on them, it had been bought by their director.

The upshot was that I won over the actors, though not Palitzsch himself, and that the dramaturge, Jörg Wehmeier, who very much liked the play, would direct it. But no one in the company was willing to play the supposed author, Edward Hotel, whose views seemed altogether too right wing. So they hired an actor from the commercial theatre in Berlin, whom they virtually ostracised throughout the production – he did have rightish opinions – making the reality behind scenes extraordinarily close to the fiction of the arguments between the author/director and his cast on stage.

Rehearsals began and went well, Palitzsch was distant but friendly, and even got me to write an essay for the programme of his next production, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But meanwhile he had slipped copies of my play to the students of Stuttgart University and notices had appeared on their boards warning of this right-wing infiltration of a good socialist-orientated theatre; and on the first night several rows of seats in the stalls were filled with students knowing the text and primed to barrack. The actors responded with courage, humour and steady nerves. They were completely loyal to the play, which they had grown to like, and they fought the claque in the audience from start to finish. The scenes in which the actors inside the play rebel against the supposed author/director, Edward Hotel, allowed them from time to time to appear to be taking sides with the students’ claque.

It wasn’t quite a riot, but nearly so, and the stolid German bourgeoisie of Stuttgart in the front stalls were completely bewildered. The actors won through to the end, when I had to appear with them on stage, as was the custom in German theatres for authors at premieres, and although the boos perhaps outweighed the applause, it was an exhilarating experience. The critics, writing at much greater length than their English counterparts, hated it, and it was not kept on for more than a few performances.

MacRune’s Guevara was later produced in many other countries and did not, so far as I know, meet the same hostility anywhere else. In 2006 I attended its most recent performance off-Broadway in New York, by the small, extremely energetic Mirror Theatre Company – young actors to whom ‘Che’ Guevara meant little more than a face on a Tshirt. Nearly forty years after its first performance, the play’s ‘boneless’, kaleidoscopic structure, its odd combination of romanticism with satire, of charismatic hero with self deceiving worshippers, still worked and had not dated. But it has never been revived by the National Theatre or any other state-subsidised theatre in Britain. Tynan’s writ, it seems, still runs.

 

Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).

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