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
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
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
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
'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
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
'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
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
'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