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A dramatic loss of faith

David Edgar's latest play, Pentecost, opens in London in June. He explained to Richard Woolfenden how changing political realities have transformed his artistic vision

David Edgar is one of Britain's foremost left-wing playwrights. Through works like the anti-fascist Destiny (1976), his first major success, and Maydays, his 1983 exploration of Thatcherism, Edgar has earned a reputation for trenchant, highly political drama. Together with Howard Brenton and David Hare, he has helped to shape the nature of post-1968 radical British theatre.

Edgar's latest play, Pentecost, is set in a ruined Byzantine church somewhere in Eastern Europe. The building has been a torture chamber, a Muslim mosque, a Catholic church and an Orthodox church. A local museum curator, Gabriella Pecs, has discovered a medieval fresco behind a Stalinist mural. As the action of the play proceeds, the peeling of the layers continues until we see Giotto's famous 'Lamentation' - but not by Giotto! The implication is that the origins of Western art and culture do not neces-sarily lie in the West itself.

The fresco becomes the shadow of history in which all the characters are caught. Every character arrives on stage with their historical and ideological baggage and makes a claim to having the fresco's best interests at heart. Pecs wants to preserve it, believing that it will help launch her country into the new world. The British art historian wants to put it into a museum. Both the Orthodox and Catholic churches claim it for themselves. Then a disparate group of asylum-seekers, from all parts of the globe, invade the church and decide to use the fresco as a bargaining chip to buy their freedom. Edgar's cultural dialogue explodes.

Pentecost is a delight to watch, an intellectual challenge full of wit, intrigue, innuendo, debate and tension. Edgar's characters, like those in most of his plays, may seem too emblematic, too much like mouthpieces for ideas. Yet the debate is so engaging that the play's dramatic weaknesses rarely interfere with your enjoyment. At the same time, Pentecost's cultural, as opposed to political, themes represent a major departure from much of Edgar's previous work. What made him write it?

'When the great crisis of 1989 occurred I thought it was a very important subject to address, "Actually Existing Socialism" and its fate. I felt that socialists had to face up to the fall of the Berlin Wall - revolutionary socialists and social democrats alike. Socialists couldn't get out of addressing this change. They couldn't say, as a lot of Trotskyists do, "Oh great, the Soviet Union has collapsed, wonderful, now the decks are clear of this great deviation".'

Unfortunately, addressing the failures of 'Actually Existing Socialism' is what Pentecost singularly fails to do. At the heart of the play is a complex debate about cultural ownership and language. But the play's complexity often masks its regurgitation of common Western prejudices about Eastern Europe - in particular the idea that Eastern Europe is a prisoner of its past. Edgar seems to believe that the problem with the old Stalinist regimes was that they underestimated people's attachment to older, more parochial loyalties of race, religion and nation.

Pentecost sets up a tension between universal values and particularist identities - between the idea that 'Western' art is not the possession of the West and the belief that the rag-taggle of characters can only relate to the fresco, and hence the world, through their own particular identities and histories. And the play resolves this tension in favour of the latter. Edgar seems to challenge the limitations of nationalism only to replace it by a communion of difference. As he puts it 'What Pentecost is trying very hard not to say is that we all share a common culture'. But is there anything in common that we share?

'I still believe in emancipation, by which I mean there are a number of circumstances - political, economic and cultural - which stop people living lives they are capable of living. In other words, people's potential is greater than their achievement. I believe that society should be about realising that potential.'

Yet Pentecost seems to question the possibility of that potential ever being realised. One of the play's main themes is that of the difficulties of establishing a common language. The contrast between the English art historian's cool command of the language, the American professor's brash and direct words, Gabriella Pecs' misuse of English idioms ('hunkily dory') and the many tongues of the refugees suggest a world where communication between people is increasingly frustrated. While Edgar's discussion about the nature of language is fascinating, it also appears to be a metaphor for his current pessimistic political outlook. Edgar seems to agree:

'Pentecost is attempting to say that both extremes - the modernist dream that there is a solution to everything and the postmodernist idea that there is a solution to nothing - are wrong. I think it is very difficult not to see that we are living in a backlash period, in a period where the gains of the modernist period are being unwrapped. There is no bit of the world where you can look to and say, "Here are progressive ideas".'

Perhaps that is because of what Edgar sees as 'progressive' and from whom he seeks political leadership. He talks about Francois Mitterrand as 'the last bastion of socialism in Europe' and bemoans the failure of Bill Clinton to introduce radical policies. Edgar seems to be as much a prisoner of his past as Pentecost seeks to make East Europeans prisoners of their history. He was a fellow traveller of the British Trotskyist movement in the late sixties and seventies, and has been a member of the Labour Party since 1981. Even now he retains a romantic attachment to Eastern European countries that he once saw as 'economically and culturally workers' states'. It is not hard to see why Edgar might be disillusioned. Edgar himself admits that the political changes of the past 20 years have disoriented his dramatic vision:

'In the seventies, myself, David Hare, Barry Kief, Howard Brenton, Howard Barker, Trevor Griffiths and other playwrights wrote a series of plays about the state of the postwar world. Those plays had a common model which was, very crudely, that Britain fought on the right side in the war and that moral capital was squandered afterwards with the failure to build a genuine socialist society by the postwar Labour government. Then, Britain had a party in the fifties and sixties with its post-imperial riches and in the seventies it went into freefall decline. The idea we held to was that at the end of the seventies collapse would occur and true socialism would emerge. As this didn't happen, it became quite confusing. By the end of the eighties I didn't quite know which direction I was going.'

Edgar insists that he was 'determined to carry on and not fall by the wayside in the way many of the generation before me - Osborne, Wesker, Bond, Arden - had done'. So he made a 'conscious decision to write about the failure and collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe', beginning with The Shape of the Table in 1990. Yet Edgar's move to explore cultural rather than political issues, most noticeably inPentecost, seems to suggest that he too is flying the white flag that many former radicals have waved vigorously since 1989. He may not have 'fallen by the wayside', but he certainly seems to have given up on the possibility of political drama and embraced instead the cultural. This might explain why Pentecost has been fêted by reviewers as representing Edgar's entry into what the Observer's Michael Convey calls 'a new phase of post-ideological creativity'.

Ironically Pentecost is probably Edgar's best work to date, and is certainly superior to works such as Destiny or Maydays. But where the earlier works were infused with a sense of political possibilities, Pentecost is deeply pessimistic. It is a play that above all seems to symbolise Edgar's dramatic loss of faith.

Pentecost opens at the Young Vic in London on 3 June

White on black

If you thought that recent Benetton adverts provoked a lot of fuss, imagine the outcry if the ad in the bottom right hand of this page appeared on the nation's billboards. The white child is holding a packet of soap towards the black child and saying: 'If only you too had washed with Dobbelman's Buttermilk Soap'.

This is in fact a real ad, for a Dutch soap company, which appeared in the early years of this century. It provides a salutary reminder of how deep-seated - and until recently how open - are racial themes in Western culture.

The Dobbelman's Soap ad is one of the displays in 'White on Black', an exhibition of images of Africa and blacks in Western popular culture. The exhibition is drawn from the ironically named 'Negrophilia' collection of prints, drawings, illustrated magazines, books, comics, posters, advertising material, decorative objects, toys - in fact every form of popular cultural artefact from both sides of the Atlantic. Originally exhibited in Amsterdam in 1989, 'White on Black' now appears in Britain for the first time.

What makes 'White on Black' different from previous attempts to portray popular racism is the sheer scope of the exhaustive, detailed exhibition. It is also distinguished by the accompanying book, written by Dutch scholar Jan Nederveen Pieterse. Rather than simply catalogue the material in the collection, Pieterse has placed the images in the context of the changing face of racism in the West.

Pieterse shows how racist images have little to do with black people but reflect internal Western concerns. What underlies racism, Pieterse argues is not simply a denigration of black people, but what he calls a 'pathos of inequality', a defence of hierarchy: 'The concept of race grew up as an extension of thinking in terms of class and status, as an alternative and additional mode of hierarchical ordering applied, initially, outside the social boundaries of region and country.' What gives rise to racial thinking is the 'anxiety that comes with power and privilege': 'Existing differences and inequalities are magnified for fear they will diminish. Stereotypes are reconstructed and reasserted precisely when existing hierarchies are being challenged.' Viewed in this fashion, 'White on Black' can provide insights not simply into the racism of the past, but also the racism of the present.

Kenan Malik

'White on Black' is showing at Birmingham's Angle Gallery until 31 May; it will then be touring the country.

White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture by Jan Nederveen Pieterse is published by Yale University Press, £12.95 pbk.

Breaking out in cliches

Michael Fitzpatrick on Outbreak, a film that reflects the mood of the times

In one of the few memorable scenes in Outbreak, we suddenly see microscopic particles being exhaled from the lungs of an infected hospital worker into the confined atmosphere of a small town cinema whose unsuspecting audience briskly inhales the deadly contagion. In a parallel scene, we tumble through the ducts of a hospital air conditioning system, evoking both the internal human airways and the external networks on which modern society depends, and share in the recognition that the viral menace threatening America is airborne.

'Everyone is at risk' is a familiar theme of the Aids era. Outbreak features a virus that is much more infectious than HIV, with an incubation period of less than 24 hours, leading to a fulminating illness which results in death in 100 per cent of cases within two to three days. The Outbreak virus originates in Zaire and is carried to America by a monkey transported on a Korean ship. This lethal virus provides a convenient symbolic enemy for a society deprived of the 'evil empire' of the Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War, and the perfect vehicle for the anxieties of a society obsessed by disease and gloomily anticipating the end of a millennium.

Within hours of the epidemic exploding in the movie theatre of Cedar Creek, California, the small town which has become the apparently random target of the killer virus becomes a war zone. Troops quarantine the town, impose martial law, commandeer the high school for a field hospital and erect tents on the baseball diamond. While transports round up the infected, a convenient barn is used to incinerate corpses. For the town's '2618 souls', the situation is, according to an overheard radio broadcast, 'in a word, frightening'.

What is even more frightening is Operation Clean Sweep. The plan, drawn up by top level military and security officials and approved by the White House, is to bomb the town with fuel-air explosives in the hope of eradicating the virus and its carriers. 'We are at war' insists the sinister military supremo (Donald Sutherland), repudiating liberal criticisms of US intervention in Vietnam and its atom-bombing of Japan. Although they have developed an anti-serum, as a result of an earlier encounter with the virus, the authorities would rather not use this and hold on to the virus as a potential biological weapon. In this game plan, the decent citizens of Cedar Creek are expendable.

But, enter Dustin Hoffman in a space suit and it's apocalypse not quite yet. Hoffman is a military medic, awkward but brilliant, insubordinate but indefatigable in the pursuit of righteousness. As the film opens he breaks up with his wife (Rene Russo), though she immediately assumes the leading public health role at Cedar Creek. Will their heroic struggle against the virus bring them back together? Despite early hiccups, Hoffman's rookie deputy becomes a regular buddy. His line manager is caught in a conflict of loyalties between Hoffman (shaggy hair, space suit) and Sutherland (crew cut, military uniform). Will virtue triumph?

Before too long people in Cedar Creek are dying like flies, all the doctors, soldiers and politicians are shouting hysterically at one another and the monkey is roaming the woods. As Operation Clean Sweep goes into effect, Hoffman gets airborne in a helicopter...

Ever since The Invasion of the Body-snatchers the invasion of the body has always acted as a metaphor for an external menace, classically, of course, the 'evil empire'. What is different about today's body-invasion films is that they relate not so much to the fear of a social threat as to the sense of personal insecurity and paranoia that is so prevalent in society, and so clearly seen in the panics which have followed the gas attacks on the Tokyo underground and the Oklahoma bombing.

Outbreak, however, is simply too bad a film to make you paranoid about anything. The menace of the killer virus is crushed by the sheer weight of Hollywood clichs. In the end the disease looks like severe cases of chickenpox and the helicopter action sequences recall the Whirlybirds. The fact that this film has created quite a stir in America suggests that fin de siècle anxieties are eroding people's critical faculties as well as their morale.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 80, June 1995
 
 

 

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