The Provoked Wife by Sir John Vanbrugh (1697)

‘Lord, how like a Torrent Love flows into the Heart, when once the Sluice of Desire is open’d! Good Gods! What a Pleasure there is in doing what we should not do!’
(Lady Brute)

Cast

The cast list is clipped and to the point i.e. not as entertaining as some.

THE MEN
Constant
Heartfree
Sir John Brute
Treble, a Singing-Master
Rasor, Valet de Chambre to Sir John Brute
Justice of the Peace
Lord Rake, Companions to Sir John Brute
Colonel Bully
Constable and Watch

THE WOMEN
Lady Brute
Belinda, her Niece
Lady Fancyful
Madamoiselle
Cornet and Pipe, Servants to Lady Fancyful

Brief plot summary

Sir John Brute is tired of matrimony. He comes home drunk every night and is continually rude and insulting to his wife. She is meanwhile being tempted to embark upon an affair with the witty and faithful Constant. Divorce is not an option for either of the Brutes at this time, but forms of legal separation have recently come into existence, and would entail a separate maintenance to the wife. Such an arrangement would not allow remarriage. Still, muses Lady Brute, in one of many discussions with her niece Belinda, ‘These are good times. A woman may have a gallant and a separate maintenance too’.

Belinda is at the same time being grumpily courted by Constant’s friend Heartfree, who is surprised and dismayed to find himself in love with her. The bad example of the Brutes is a constant warning to Heartfree to not marry.

The Provoked Wife is a ‘talk play’, with the focus less on love scenes and more on discussions between female friends (Lady Brute and Belinda) and male friends (Constant and Heartfree). These exchanges are full of jokes, but are also thoughtful and often have an air of melancholy and frustration.

After complications caused by a forged-letter, the play ends with marriage between Heartfree and Belinda and stalemate between the Brutes. Constant continues to pay court to Lady Brute, and she continues to shilly-shally.

Extended plot summary

Lord Brute has a soliloquy about bored he is of being married – he encounters Lady Brute who asks an innocent question and sets off his surly angry replies – then Lady Brute has a soliloquy wondering what she did in her life to merit such treatment (although she admits 1. she married Brute for his money 2. everyone warned her about him, but she thought she could ‘change’ him.)

Enter Belinda, Lady Brute’s niece, and they have an extended dialogue about what a brute Lord Brute is. Belinda has spotted that her aunt is in love with Constant. Lady Brute gives a speech about how women ought to resist the temptation to flirt and coquette. Both then unite in critiquing the character of their neighbour, the exorbitant flirt and narcissistic Lady Fancyful.

Scene 2 Lady Fancyful’s dressing room Where we meet the lady herself and there is comic interaction between her English maid – who tells the truth about her appearance – and her super-flattering French fashion adviser, Mademoiselle, who tells her what she wants to hear. A letter arrives containing a song some admirer has composed for her. Lady Fancyful calls for Pipe her musician who comes and sings it.

Another letter arrives, Fie! she is so popular! It is more prosaic, from an admirer who says he will tell her all her Faults if she comes to the Walk in St James’s Park. There follows a comic dialogue between Lady Fancyful, who feigns to be shy and nervous of meeting an unknown man. Mademoiselle hands her all her accoutrements and virtually drags her out the door.

(It is a notable feature of this scene that entire sentences from Mademoiselle are in French, indicating that the audience was expected to understand it. Does this indicate the openly educated aristocratic audience which plays were still targeted at, at this late date?)

Act 2 Scene 1 St James’s Park Enter Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle. The letter writer turns out to be Heartfree, who they know already to be ‘a profess’d Woman-hater’. Heartfree proceeds to tell Lady Fancyful she’s a damn attractive woman but has made herself so prettified and pretentious that she has become a figure of fun. He says he will reform her. Lady Fancyful decries his awful manners, and they exit.

Heartfree is immediately greeted by Constant (who we know from Scene 1 that Lady Brute knows is paying court to her) and they have a dialogue which is, in effect, Cynicism (Heartfree) talking to True Love idealism (Constant). Heartfree provides one summary:

I persuade a Woman she’s an Angel, and she persuades you she’s one.

At greater length:

As for her Motion, her Mien, her Airs, and all those Tricks, I know they affect you mightily. If you should see your Mistress at a Coronation dragging her Peacock’s Train, with all her State and Insolence about her, ‘twou’d strike you with all the awful Thoughts that Heav’n itself could pretend to from you; whereas I turn the whole Matter into a Jest, and suppose her strutting in the self-same stately Manner, with nothing on her but her Stays and her under scanty quilted Petticoat.

Constant has loved Lady Brute since he first saw her at her wedding and wonders why she studiously avoids him. Heartfree says ‘Tis women for you’, but we know it’s actually because ‘Lady Brute’ does in fact love him but wants also to remain true to her principles.

Enter Lord Brute who is brutishly blunt about how he hates being married, though he concedes that Lady Brute is virtuous. He invites Constant and Heartfree to come out tonight, get drunk and bed some whores.

Scene 2 Lady Fancyful’s Lady Fancyful admits to Mademoiselle that Heartfree’s rudeness did in some manner affect her. Enter Mr Treble who has set a poem of Lady F’s to music. He sings it. She asks if there are any new songs in Town and Treble produces another one which they get Lady F’s singer, Pipe, to sing.

The chief characteristic of the poems in these plays is how utterly mechanical and unlyrical they are (like the plays themselves, like the taste of the times):

Not an Angel dwells above,
Half so fair as her I love.
Heaven knows, how she’ll receive me;
If she smiles, I’m blest indeed;
If she frowns, I’m quickly freed;
Heaven knows she ne’er can grieve me.

Lady Fancifull can’t get Heartfree out of her thoughts and agonises about writing a letter to him.

Act 3 Lord and Lady Brute and her niece Belinda are just finishing luncheon. He declares he will smoke and is anticipating being visited. The womenfolk wonder if the visitor is Constant and vow to stay in the room, despite his choking smoke. They deliberately prattle about their petticoats to wind up Sir John until he loses his temper, throws his pipe at them, and drives them out the room.

Heartfree and Constant arrive at this moment and ask Sir John what’s wrong and he curses all women. He invites them to sit and share a glass, he notices Constant is sad, because of a woman, is it? This is dramatic irony because it is, of course, because of Sir John’s own wife that Constant is sad. Sir John proposes a toast to Constant’s mistress, with the same ironic effect.

A servant announces some of his hearty friends (Lord Rake and Colonel Bully) are at the door calling him away to drink and make some kind of plan for the evening. He tells our two heroes to stay till he gets back. Heartfree realises this is an opportunity for Constant to forward his troth and agrees. Exit Lord Brute.

Enter Lady Brute and Belinda who good-humouredly spar with Constant (who feels faint with love for Lady B) and Heartfree, who allows himself to be taught how to be a Perfect Man by pert Belinda.

Enter Lady Fancyful (‘an Inundation of Impertinence’ as Lady Brute calls her) who lights up the stage very much as Lord Foppington lights up The Relapse. She proceeds to tell the ladies how rudely Heartfree addressed her and suggested she reform her entire appearance and manner and very amusingly to act out how clumsy and crude he would have her be.

Belinda realises that Lady Fancyful is in love with Heartfree, and decides to make her jealous by a little flirting with Heartfree. It works, as Lady Fancyful reveals in an aside to the audience: she does fancy Heartfree and Belinda flirting with him does make her jealous.

Heartfree grows bored, realises there’s no scope for Constant to advance his love suit to Lady Brute with the room full of women, and they leave. Lady Fancyful is very irked by the devout leave Heartfree takes of Belinda, while almost ignoring her. She vows to go home and study her revenge.

Re-enter Constant leading to a very elevated dialogue with Lady Brute, in which he declares his love and she replies with her Virtue.

LADY BRUTE: He who has Discretion enough to be tender of a Woman’s Reputation, carries a Virtue about him may atone for a great many Faults.
Const. If it has a Title to atone for any, its Pretensions must needs be strongest where the Crime is Love. I therefore hope I shall be forgiven the Attempt I have made upon your Heart, since my Enterprize has been a Secret to all the World but yourself.
LADY BRUTE. Secrecy, indeed, in Sins of this kind, is an Argument of weight to lessen the Punishment; but nothing’s a Plea for a Pardon entire, without a sincere Repentance.
CONSTANT: If Sincerity in Repentance consists in Sorrow for offending, no Cloyster ever inclos’d so true a Penitent as I should be.

You need your wits about you to really grasp the cut and thrust of these sharp remarks. There is something very intimate about such a deep and searching matching of wits, more so than in conventional love compliments. Constant and Lady Brute draw very close but at the end, when he asks for some token that he may have hopes his suit is heard, she tears his hand from hers and says that’s all she has time for and runs out.

When Heartfree re-enters Constant is in raptures that Lady Brute has at least given him Hope although, when Heartfree asks how she expressed it, it is comedy (and maybe an indication of how difficult it was even for contemporary audiences to follow such a cut-and-thrust dialogue) that Constant can’t remember the precise form of words she used. In fact, if you have to carefully reread the end of the dialogue to realise that she didn’t.

Scene 2 Sir John, Lord Rake, Colonel Bully in a pub, drinking and singing songs about going to the Devil. It is interesting that these songs are all cast in opposition to the government and the prevailing culture. They reference recent legislation about freedoms of speech and association, which they declare themselves against. It is the old aristocratic culture defying the new mercantile, legislative Whig culture of William III.

Scene 3 Lady Brute’s bedchamber Lady Brute and Belinda have a complex dialogue in which they first declare that women only behave the way they do (wear uncomfortable stays, go to plays, walk in the dusty park, even live in smoke-filled London) with the aim of attracting men, as if they were trivial frivolities they could throw off at any moment.

They then go on to describe in minute detail all the artifices they employ at the theatre to show themselves off to men, to smile to show off their teeth, show a variety of facial expressions, Yes it is a ridiculous world in which women so perform for men. And yet, Lady Brute finishes, Nature has given them One Thing which ensures they will always be top.

Yet our kind Mother Nature has given us something that makes amends for all. Let our Weakness be what it will, Mankind will still be weaker; and whilst there is a World, ’tis Woman that will govern it.

Then they talk about their loves. Lady Brute confesses she is weakening under Constant’s constant attack and pledges of love. But she wishes she had a partner in crime and asks if Belinda will not surrender to Heartfree. He isn’t that interested, Belinda replies. They agree to see the two young blades again, in Spring Garden, but will wear masks next time for greater amusement.

Act 4 Scene 1 Version 1 Lord Brute, Lord Rake and the Colonel refer to having stabbed someone i.e. in a drunken street brawl! They confirm their aristocratic, Royalist sympathies by accosting a passerby who turns out to be a dissenting i.e. non-confirmist tailor. They steal the vicar’s gown that the tailor was carrying, Lord Brute dresses up in it, and then they accost what the jovially refer to as ‘the enemy’ i.e. the constable and watch. Lord Brute attacks them with a club but the watch overcome him and arrest him (the others run off).

Version 2 In 1725 the play was revived and Vanbrugh, still living, rewrote this scene to make the poor tailor who the posh drunks (the ‘Courtiers’ as he calls them) attack, a woman’s tailor – and he is carrying not just any woman’s outfit, but a dress he has made for Lady Brute!

Sir John Brute immediately requisitions it and puts it on so that, when they are stopped by the constable and the watch, the latter joke about him being an Amazon, and Sir John drunkenly jests that he is Boudicca:

SIR JOHN: Sirrah, I am Bonduca, Queen of the Welchmen; and with a Leek as long as my Pedigree, I will destroy your Roman Legion in an Instant—Britons, strike home!

This makes the repartee with the constable, and then with the justice of the peace they bring him before, much funnier, in the broad pantomime tradition of men dressing up as women – if he is the queen then his accompaniers must be his maids of honour and so on – there is much more scope for banter, but it doesn’t stop there.

David Garrick in Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane painted by Johann Zoffany (1763)

Still drunk, Sir John tells the justice that he is none other than Lady Brute. This raises things to a new comic level, with Sir John giving an extended impression of a rebellious, drunken, lawless wife and the justice and officers sympathising with the poor – and they think, absent – Sir John.

But I am intrigued: did Vanbrugh revise this scene because it made the plot tighter, tying in his wife even to Sir John’s wild nights out, and shedding a drunken ironic light on the marriage which is the subject of the play?

Or because, by 1725, ridiculing the clergy had simply become untenable in what, over the 25 years to the revised version, had become a much more restrained and bourgeois society? That it had become too controversial and disrespectful to appear in a ‘comedy’? Whereas grown men dressing up as women is not only timelessly funny, but politically safe?

Scene 2 Heartfree can’t get the thought of Belinda out of his head and when Constant joins him he can’t help revealing that he, too, is one of the party of unhappy lovers. A servant brings a letter, pretending to be from anonymous admirers but infact from Lady B and Belinda, inviting them to a rendezvous in Spring Walk that evening at 8pm. Heartfree says he is too lovestricken to go, but Constant persuades him.

Version 1 Drunk Sir John Brute in the disguise of a cleric is brought by the constable to the house of the justice who politely tries to get to the bottom of it. When asked his name Sir John hiccups and says his name is Hiccup and the justice asks if he is one of the Hiccups of Norfolk. After more banter the justice lets him go. On the way out Sir John asks the constable if he wants to go pick up a whore, and when the latter says no, curses him and staggers off into the night.

Version 2 As explained above, in the 1725 revision of the play, Sir John is dressed in his wife’s dress, and this allows for the a joke whereby drunk Sir John accuses the arresting officer of trying to ravish him! It is literally knockabout stuff:

SIR JOHN Sir, there may have been Murder, for aught I know; and ’tis a great Mercy there has not been a Rape too—that Fellow wou’d have ravish’d me.
SECOND WATCH: Ravish! Ravish! O lud! O lud! O lud! Ravish her! Why, please your Worship, I heard Mr. Constable say he believed she was little better than a Maphrodite.
JUSTICE: Why, truly, she does seem a little masculine about the Mouth.
SECOND WATCH: Yes, and about the Hands too, an’t please your Worship; I did but offer in mere civility to help her up the Steps into our Apartment, and with her gripen Fist—ay, just so, Sir.
[Sir John knocks him down.]

Scene 3 the Spring Garden Heartfree and Constant meet with Lady Brute and Belinda wearing masks/disguises. All of them are shadowed and eavesdropped on by Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle, also in masks. Heartfree & Constant & Lady Brute and Belinda are just commencing some heavy bantering when Sir John enters the scene, still dressed as a doctor of divinity and roaring drunk. He hails Constant and Heartfree as friends and grabs both the women, assuming they are their whores. Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle retired in fear to a nearby arbour.

Heartfree, who never wanted to come anyway, leaves, Sir John starts insulting the ‘whores’, at which Lady Brute runs to Constant for protection and shows him her face. Heartfree re-enters, Belinda runs to him and shows him her face. Realising who the ladies are, Constant and Heartfree order Sir John to leave which, a little improbably, he does.

Belinda and Heartfree now have a fairly frank conversation in which he admits he loves her and might even go as far as marriage. It’s getting dark. She invites him to take a turn around the park and the exit. Meanwhile, Constant is chatting up Lady Brute and tells his friend not to hurry back.

Constant tells Lady Brute his love but she puts up objections; she is married and is not her virtue, her loyalty to her awful husband, part of what Constant likes about her? If she abandoned her virtue would it not destroy his love? And more of the same. Constant decides to storm the citadel and starts kissing her hand, her arm, her neck and pulls her towards a nearby arbour. Except this is the very arbour Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle are hiding in. As Constant and Lady Brute reach the entrance to it, Lady Fancyful and Mademoiselle come running out past them.

Because of this, Lady Brute is thrown into utter terror that they witnessed her kissing a strange man, her reputation will be shot, her virtue worthless, her life not living. Terribly upset, she grabs Belinda, who is now just returning from her stroll with Heartfree, and rushes her off home.

The last word goes to Lady Fancyful, who is herself upset at seeing Heartfree pay court to Belinda, and out of her upset emerges a determination to take revenge.

Act 5 Scene 1 Lady Fancyful’s house A brief recapitulation of Lady Fancyful’s determination to be revenged.

Scene 2 Sir John Brute’s house The men have come back to Lady Brute’s house i.e. there are Constant, Heartfree, Lady Brute and Belinda. The servant assures them Sir John was seen staggering blind drunk into a tavern and will be some while, so ladies invite the men to stay and play a round of cards. But they have barely settled before the servant reappears to announce Sir John was kicked out of the tavern and has unexpectedly arrived home!! Quick quick, a panic-stricken Lady Brute hides the men and Belinda in the closet!

Sir John staggers in, filthy and bloody, and is rude and insulting to his wife. He begs a kiss, and she is so disgusted he deliberately smothers her in kisses till she is as dirty as him, then ‘tumbles her’, presumably onto a couch or divan. First he wants a ‘cold tea’ and proceeds to kick open the door of the closet and discovers… Heartfree and Constant! Sir John is elaborately, drunkenly polite to them and Lady B begs them to leave which – after assuring Sir John of his wife’s virtue they do.

Sir John has a bit more rant, slumps into a high chair and falls asleep snoring. Lady Brute is thrown into a panic (again) about her reputation. Belinda comes up with A Cunning Plan. They’ll tell Lord Brute that Belinda and Heartfree are now a loving couple and that they hid in the closet to escape detection and rumour, Constant hid with them so as to protect her ladyship’s reputation. Belinda says she’ll even go so far in backing up the story as to marry Heartfree – which leads to more dialogue about suitable and unsuitable marriages.

Having arrived at this plan, they ironically curtsey to the stinking filthy slob in the chair and call a servant to clean him and put him to bed.

Rasor, the servant they give this task to, alone on stage, now reveals that he has overheard everything the women said and will use this information to tell the French maid he is in love with in order to win her favours!

Scene 3 Lady Fancyful’s house Mademoiselle has told Lady Fancyful that her own paramour is Rasor from Lord Brute’s household i.e. she is the paramour Rasor was talking about a a moment ago. Lady Fancyful tells Mademoiselle to tell Rasor to tell Lord Brute everything that happened in the Spring Garden, masks, making love, kissing and all i.e. to betray Lady Brute’s adultery to him.

Exit Lady Fancyful. Enter Rasor who rushes over and snogs Mademoiselle, and then dangles his news in front of her, demanding kisses before he tells her everything he overheard i.e. Lady Brute loves Constant, the trio hiding in the closet, Lady Brute conspiring to help Belinda marry Heartfree.

But then Mademoiselle, conversely, dangles her news in front of him, demanding kisses as she tells him about the couple meeting in Spring Walk. She gets Rasor quite worked up and, for more ‘favours’, demands that he goes back and tells his master (Sir John) all she has revealed. He exits.

However, only seconds later, Lady Fancyful enters and regrets her course of action. It will probably lead to Belinda and Heartfree getting married, which is the last thing she wants. She tells Mademoiselle to call Rasor back!

Scene 4 Constant’s lodgings It is, by now, the next morning. Heartfree and Constant are pondering how to talk Sir John out of his suspicions at finding the pair of them in his wife’s closet when a letter arrives. It’s from the ladies who say explain their Cunning Plan i.e. to tell Sir John the couple were hiding because of Heartfree and Belinda’s secret intention to get married, which they wished to keep hid.

Good plan, but Heartfree is reluctant and it leads to an extended dialogue about fidelity in marriage (that old, old, old chestnut).

Scene 5 Sir John Brute’s house Constant and Heartfree rendezvous with Lady Brute and Belinda. Belinda asks Heartfree how he fancies the idea of matrimony and he says it’s a leap in the dark but he’s prepared to risk it (hardly young love).

Enter Sir John who is not unnaturally quite rude about finding two strange men in his wife’s closet. But Constant quickly rises to defend Lady Brute’s virtue and discovers (as Heartfree had told him) that the coward Sir John quickly backs down.

Sir John soliloquises, declaring he’s never loved his wife and she’s never loved him, he doesn’t know why she married him, and lamenting that he is without doubt a cuckold to the young stallion in front of him, who has threatened to draw his sword. The choice comes down to dying a hero or living a rascal. Oh well…

And so he gives his hand to Constant and, when Heartfree asks for the hand of Belinda, willingly gives it – all the while cursing and damning them both as dogs!

Two Revelations Meanwhile, Lady Fancyful has crept in in disguise, takes Belinda aside and reveals – in disguise – that she is an anonymous woman who is already married to Heartfree who made her swear not to tell anyone or he’d murder her! With wild improbability, instead of spotting this as a scam, clever Belinda is depicted as believing it and herself betrayed by Heartfelt’s bigamy.

At the same time a servant hands Heartfree an anonymous letter, supposedly from ‘a friend’, claiming the author has slept with Belinda, had a child by her and another is on the way!

Thus when Constant turns to ask the happy couple if they want to send for a priest, they both burst out with bitter accusations of the other, insisting the wedding be delayed, and start to chase each other round the stage!

Rasor, the servant, watching this, laments his part in their downfall and decides to set all right. He exits and returns a) dressed in sackcloth as a repentant b) pulling in Lady Fancyful and Madamoiselle.

He undoes all the complications of the plot. he tells the cast that Lady Fancyful lied in the anonymous letter as from a woman who was married to Heartfree; that the letter claiming Belinda was ever made pregnant was also a lie; and he tells Sir John that no illicit activity took place before the closet scene i.e. he is not a cuckold.

Rasor sets all straight and miserably apologises to the whole cast.

Belinda and Sir John ask who made him do it? Rasor claims he did it, he fell like Adam, out of Lust. Who was his Eve? He pulls off the mask of Mademoiselle. The company gasp! But behind her was the snake, Satan. Rasor pulls off the mask of Lady Fancyful!! The company gasp again!!

ALL: Lady Fancyful!
BELINDA: Impertinent!
LADY BRUTE: Ridiculous!
ALL: Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!

Lady Fancyful tries to put a brave face on it till the end, claiming that Belinda and Heartfree will make such a wretched couple she was doing them a favour – then pompously exits, followed by Mademoiselle.

Heartree and Belinda promptly forgive each other and prepare to go to church. Constant interrupts to sing a love song which, inappropriately, describes the sad fate of an innocent maid in ancient Greece who lets herself be ravished then is abandoned by her lover. Hmmm. In the last six lines Belinda and Heartfree say, nonetheless, they’ll risk it, and:

HEARTFREE: Then let’s to Church: And if it be our Chance to disagree——
BELINDA: Take heed—the surly Husband’s Fate you see.

Constant and Lady Brute are, however, no further forward in their love affair. It is an oddly muted and almost sad finale.


Thoughts

This play isn’t as good as The Relapse because a) its central the monster figure, Lady Fancyful, isn’t as epically monstrous as Lord Foppington was in that play, and b) there is something frustrated and melancholy about the frustrated love of Constant and Lady Brute.

Unless I’m missing something, they don’t even speak in the finale, let alone get anywhere near marrying – for that would overthrow the premise of the play which is Lady Brute’s solid virtue.

Articles about The Provoked Wife describe it as ‘a talk play’ or even a ‘problem play’ i.e. one designed to prompt discussion of the ‘issues’ by the audience. I hazard the suggestion that this is to overcredit theatre audiences as moral philosophers rather than as, well, people out for a night’s entertainment.

If you went for dinner after seeing the play, in the middle class tradition. possibly one line of chat would be to discuss the rights and wrongs of Lady Brute’s behaviour – which is certainly complex. My opinion would be that she made the same mistake so many women do (I say this because I listened a few days ago to a radio news item about the new legislation being brought in to help battered wives in which the same way of thinking came up again and again) – that she could change a brute. She had an over-high opinion of her ability to change someone, and an under-real understanding of how difficult it is to change anybody. (I speak as the father of two teenagers who I have been trying to persuade to get up before noon and tidy their own rooms for what seems like several hundred years.) Changing people’s behaviour is hard; changing their character almost impossible.

So is she right to reject Constant and remain in her unhappy marriage? It certainly feels wrong to have played Constant along as far as she did, if she has no real intention of leaving her husband.

But in my opinion, the real talking point of the play is that it is marred. In a number of ways it doesn’t quite come off, it feels unfinished, it feels like it needed one more draft to make it mesh.

The most obvious aspect of this is the way the traditional ‘blocker’ of the happy marriage of the young couple doesn’t evolve organically from the setup but is introduced only at the end of the final act (Lady Fancyful’s scheme to discredit Heartfree and Belinda)… and then is promptly undone about two minutes later. These plays veer close to being farces, and this last minute complication and last second resolution feel stuck on with sellotape.

And the ad hoc, last-minute feel of the Complication goes some way to undermining the comic grandeur of Lady Fancyful. She has such epic comic promise in the first half, that we feel her determination to outdo Belinda and grab Heartfree for herself deserved some grander, wilder, more elaborate Scheme.

So maybe it is to some extent the ‘issues’ which it deals with which give The Provoked Wife its rather chewy, problematic flavour. But it is also the way the entire plot structure feels a little undercooked and leaves you feeling somehow cheated.

Vanbrugh’s style

That said, Vanbrugh’s prose style again shows itself much more clear, direct, comprehensible and therefore more obviously funny than many of the other comedies I’ve read. This quote isn’t particularly funny, I give it as an example of his clarity.

BELINDA: Sure it must feel very strange to go to Bed to a Man.
LADY BRUTE: Um – it does feel a little odd at first; but it will soon grow easy to you.

‘A little odd’, I was just struck by the perfect naturalness of a phrase which we still use 320 years later.

Here’s another example.

BELINDA: And some careful Thoughts on your own, I believe, have hindered you from sleeping. Pray how does this matrimonial Project relish with you?
HEARTFREE: Why, ‘faith, e’en as storming Towns does with Soldiers, where the Hope of delicious Plunder banishes the Fear of being knock’d on the Head.

Hmm. Maybe what I like about it is its lack of subtlety and sophistication. Possibly I am not sophisticated enough to appreciate the more recherché and long-winded texts. Whatever the reason, I think there’s no denying Vanbrugh’s style is pithier, his phrasing more direct and accessible than his contemporaries.

Sir John Brute has a handy quote which sums up the thing I’m talking about, the way many characters in other Restoration comedies express themselves in such lengthy and convoluted phraseology, sometimes mixed up with legal or specialised jargon, that you need notes to understand them – and that the characters sometimes don’t even understand each other!

SIR JOHN BRUTE: Your People of Wit have got such cramp ways of expressing themselves, they seldom comprehend one another.

In my view, Vanbrugh is never like that. He is always lucid and forceful in his expressions.

(After writing that, I read the Wikipedia article which explains that The Relapse was deliberately phrased simply and bluntly ‘to be suitable for amateurs and minor acting talent’, but that The Provoked Wife was written for more versatile professionals including leading actors of the day, and so is deliberately more emotionally subtle. That may be true, especially the scenes in which Lady Brute and Belinda, or Constant and Heartfree, discuss the emotional subtleties of their situations – but I don’t think it disproves my basic point that, even in those situations, Vanbrugh has a gift for clarity of expression unmatched by his rivals.)

Misandry

BELINDA: Well, you Men are unaccountable things, mad till you have your Mistresses, and then stark mad till you are rid of ’em again. Tell me honestly, Is not your Patience put to a much severer Trial after Possession than before?
HEARTFREE: With a great many I must confess it is, to our eternal Scandal;

Misogyny

LADY BRUTE: We are as wicked, Child, but our Vice lies another way: Men have more Courage than we, so they commit more bold, impudent Sins. They quarrel, fight, swear, drink, blaspheme, and the like: Whereas we, being Cowards, only backbite, tell Lyes, cheat at Cards, and so forth.

As I’ve mentioned, in my opinion these formulations aren’t intended to be the statement of some great philosophy or worldview, the reverse. They are the social clichés and stereotypes of their day, bromides and truisms which have little or no value as statements of fact, but are the oil which lubricates the complicated machinery of the comic plots.

HEARTFREE: I shou’d have, if I had a good Opinion enough of her’s, to believe she cou’d do as much by me. For to do ’em right, after all, the Wife seldom rambles, till the Husband shews her the way.
CONSTANT: ‘Tis true, a Man of real Worth scarce ever is a Cuckold, but by his own Fault. Women are not naturally lewd; there must be something to urge ’em to it. They’ll cuckold a Churl, out of Revenge; a Fool, because they despise him; a Beast, because they loath him. But when they make bold with a Man they once had a well-grounded Value for, ’tis because they first see themselves neglected by him.

You can choose to read this stuff as meaningful and so be upset by the way it transgresses our 21st century woke values. Or you can see it as the verbiage and small change of conversation which is required to make the plays go.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

The Relapse by John Vanbrugh (1696)

Sir John Vanbrugh wrote a handful of plays before going on to a complete change of career, and becoming one of England’s finest country house architects, whose masterpieces include palatial private homes such as Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.

The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger, the first of his plays, was in fact a sequel to someone else’s.

The original play was Love’s Last Shift, or, The Fool in Fashion written in 1695 by a young actor-dramatist, Colley Cibber. In Cibber’s play a free-living Restoration rake named Loveless is brought to repentance and reform by the ruses of his wife-to-be, Amanda. Supposedly, Vanbrugh saw the play and realised the ending didn’t really conclude the story. So he conceived The Relapse, in which the ‘reformed’ rake comes back up to London from his happy rural love nest, and succumbs all over again to the bright lights and pretty women.

The cast

THE MEN
Sir Novelty Fashion, newly created Lord Foppington
Young Fashion, his Brother
Loveless, Husband to Amanda
Worthy, a Gentleman of the Town
Sir Tunbelly Clumsey, a Country Gentleman
Sir John Friendly, his Neighbour
Coupler, a Matchmaker
Bull, Chaplain to Sir Tunbelly
Syringe, a Surgeon
Lory, Servant to Young Fashion
Shoemaker, Taylor, Perriwig-maker, &c.

THE WOMEN
Amanda, Wife to Loveless
Berinthia, her Cousin, a young Widow
Miss Hoyden, a great Fortune, Daughter to Sir Tunbelly
Nurse, her Governant,

The plot

Loveless is the reformed rake who has retired to the country with his pure and noble wife, Amanda.

Most of their dialogue consists of high-minded sentiments of fidelity and marital honesty cast in unrhymed verse or poetry. Being used to the oppressively consistent rhyming couplets of Alexander Pope and 18th century poets, and even the solidly iambic pentameters of Shakespeare’s plays, I was pleasantly surprised to find this verse more irregular and varied, with some lines having six beats, some only three.

Can you then doubt my Constancy, Amanda?
You’ll find ’tis built upon a steady Basis——
The Rock of Reason now supports my Love,
On which it stands so fix’d,
The rudest Hurricane of wild Desire
Wou’d, like the Breath of a soft slumbering Babe,
Pass by, and never shake it.

Fortunately, however, these insipid lovers are not the prominent figures. They decide – rashly – to come up to London on business, both swearing they won’t be tempted back to their wicked old ways – with inevitable results.

The play only really gets going with the introduction of Young Fashion and his servant Lory. Fashion is the second son and so has inherited a measly £200-a-year allowance and has managed to blow all of that so that, as the play opens, he is skint. His enterprising servant, Lory, makes the obvious suggestion that he apply to his elder brother, Sir Novelty Fashion, who inherited most of the family fortune.

Sir Novelty Fashion has only recently (within 48 hours) paid for and received the title of Lord i.e. he is now Lord Foppington. He is the most spectacularly grand and affectedly foppish fop I’ve encountered in any of these plays and he is a marvel, a cynosure of extravagant pretension, and he really lights up the play every time he appears.

Why the Ladies were ready to puke at me, whilst I had nothing but Sir Novelty to recommend me to ’em——Sure whilst I was but a Knight, I was a very nauseous Fellow… [but now I am a Lord] Well, ’tis an unspeakable Pleasure to be a Man of Quality —— Strike me dumb —— ‘My Lord’ —— ‘Your Lordship’ —— ‘My Lord Foppington’ Ah! c’est quelque chose de beau, que le Diable m’emporte ——

The only catch is that the honour cost him £10,000! leaving him short of ready cash. Thus, when his starveling kid brother turns up begging for his debts to be paid off, Lord Foppington dismisses him with an airy wave and says he has to go dine with important people. Young Fashion is mortified and aggrieved.

Just after he’s been humiliatingly dismissed, Young Fashion bumps into Old Coupler, a marriage arranger who’s known him since he was a boy. Coupler also dislikes Lord Foppington and so the two quickly cobble together A Plan.

Coupler had been hired to find a rich widow who Lord Foppington can marry in a hurry to pay off his debts, and has contracted with a nice plump partridge of a widow woman living fifty miles away in the country. Lord Fashion had promised to pay Coupler £1,000 once the marriage was secured. Coupler now says that for £5,000 (!) he will secure the rich widow for Young Fashion.

The Plan is simple: Lord Foppington wrote the widow’s family to expect him in two weeks’ time; Young Fashion should go straightaway and pretend to be his brother, sign the contract, bed the widow, and bob’s your uncle. Or as Coupler puts it:

Now you shall go away immediately; pretend you writ that letter only to have the romantick Pleasure of surprizing your Mistress; fall desperately in Love, as soon as you see her; make that your Plea for marrying her immediately; and when the fatigue of the Wedding-night’s over, you shall send me a swinging Purse of Gold, you Dog you.

‘A swinging purse of gold’. This is by far the most vividly and clearly written of the Restoration plays I’ve read recently – Vanbrugh has a lovely swinging style.

They shake on the deal. When Coupler has gone, Young Fashion has a sudden pang of conscience, and vows he will give his brother a second chance to take pity.

If you take a ‘moral’ or psychological view of literature or plays, this shows that Young Fashion has a conscience and ‘develops the play’s themes of responsibility’.

But I don’t take that kind of view. I tend to think of works of literature as language machines built to deliver a wide range of often complex and sophisticated pleasures, and I’m interested in analysing the mechanisms and linguistic tools they use to do so.

So on my reading – divested of its ‘moral’ content – this decision to give Lord Foppington a second chance is really just a pretext for another comic scene with the monstrous Lord Fashion.

Act 2 Amanda and Loveless arrive at their London lodgings and have a long poetic exchange in which both reveal, to each other and themselves, that they have been a little distracted by the pleasures of the Town i.e. the opposite sex. Loveless in particular reveals that he went to the play the night before and was struck by a stunning beauty. Amanda is understandably upset but Loveless insists he admired but didn’t speak.

At that moment the servant announces the visit of Amanda’s cousin, Berinthia, and damn me if she isn’t exactly the woman Loveless was struck with the night before! Barely has Loveless recovered from this surprise, when Lord Foppington pays a visit.

Foppington gives a comic account of a Day in The Life of a Fop, note the affected pronunciation whereby ‘o’ is pronounced ‘a’ in ‘nat’ and ‘bax’:

I rise, Madam, about ten o’clock. I don’t rise sooner, because ’tis the worst thing in the World for the Complection; nat that I pretend to be a Beau; but a Man must endeavour to look wholesome, lest he make to nauseous a Figure in the Side-bax, the Ladies shou’d be compell’d to turn their eyes upon the Play.

Foppington goes on to explain in the most cynical way possible one attends church solely for the Society one meets there and has nothing to do with religion. Having regarded Amanda for some time, he thinks he is in love with her and, with absurd miscalculation takes her hand, kisses it and declares his passion for her.

Foppington has heroically misjudged, for Amanda snatches back her hand and boxes him round the ears, then Loveless draws his sword, engages him in a duel and appears to run him through. In fact it is the barest of scratches but the women run screaming and return with a doctor, Syringe, an excellent comic turn who declares it is a wound large enough to drive a coach and horses through and extorts a fee of £500 from Foppington before he gets servants to carry the Lord to the doctor’s house.

Consistent with his pretentious style, Foppington grandly forgives Loveless as he is carried away, as if from his death bed, but once he’s gone, Loveless tells Amanda it was just a scratch.

Enter a citizen named Worthy, who performs a structural function, namely while Loveless returns to lusting after Berinthia, Worthy can start to have designs on Amanda, creating a neat parallelism.

The menfolk leave the stage to Amanda and Berinthia who have a long dialogue about Modern Man and love affairs.

Over the course of this long scene Berinthia creates a kind of atmosphere of urban naughtiness in which Amanda is encouraged to slowly reveal her secrets. Berinthia explains that Worthy is a kind of anti-fop or anti-beau; an outwardly sensible sober man – but in fact he is quietly having affairs with half the women of quality in the Town.

By encouraging Amanda to speculate what she would do if Loveless were to die (God forbid!), Berinthia encourages her to think about a successor and replacement for her husband, and thus slyly encourages her to start to harbour thoughts about ‘other men’. Corrupts her, in other words.

Act 3 Scene 1 Lord Foppington is recovered (from his scratch) and preparing to go out when he is visited for the second time by his brother, Young Fashion, who proceeds from politely asking his brother to help him out, to pleading consanguinity, to becoming more and more infuriated by his unprovocable nonchalance.

Young Fashion: Now, by all that’s great and powerful, thou art the Prince of Coxcombs.
Lord Foppington: Sir — I am praud of being at the Head of so prevailing a Party.

Fashion vows to tame maximum revenge on his brother.

Scene 2 Loveless, in heroic poetry, ponders his mixed feelings. He knows he owes his wife everything, and yet.. and while he’s hesitating, the beautiful Berinthia enters and, after some flirting, they catch hold of each other in a big snog! They have barely begun kissing before a servant enters to say Amanda has arrived home, Loveless exists, Berinthia has a paragraph sighing about him — which is overheard by Worthy who has just entered.

Worthy now tells Berinthia he saw everything and so has her in his power. He wants to use her to persuade Amanda to have an affair with him, Worthy. Worthy proposes a precise Scheme: Berinthia should persuade Amanda that Loveless is having an affair with someone else; then Berinthia can a) pose as her friend b) carry on her affair with Loveless unsuspected. Berinthia can confirm that, during her earlier conversation, Amanda had admitted that – her husband gone – she could be tempted to another man, and even that Worthy might be a candidate.

Exit Worthy. Berinthia now finds herself in the position of carrying Worthy’s cause forward for him, not quite pimping for him, but… Vanbrugh disappoints me a little by having her express some stock anti-women sentiments:

I begin to fancy there may be as much pleasure in carrying on another body’s Intrigue, as one’s own. This at least is certain, it exercises almost all the entertaining Faculties of a Woman: For there’s employment for Hypocrisy, Invention, Deceit, Flattery, Mischief, and Lying.

Mind you, this is immediately followed by the entrance of Amanda who is in a foul mood with her husband, suspecting him of infidelity, with many insults and aspersions. Berinthia follows Worthy’s Plan and encourages her doubts, indeed says she knows exactly who her husband is in love with, without naming names (and of course she does – it is herself!).

Scene 3 The country house Hilarious scene where Young Fashion and Lory arrive at the country house of the plump partridge widow who Coupler has recommended. It starts with the house being semi derelict and the door only reluctantly opened by suspicious yokels armed with a blunderbuss and scythes, led by the crude country squire, Mr Tunbelly Clumsy.

Cut to the country widow in question, Miss Hoyden who, in a bit of comic business, Sir Tunbelly orders to be locked up anytime anybody pays a visit. She appears to be quite a rude, rustic yokel of a young woman. Meanwhile Young Fashion impresses himself on Sir Tunbelly as a confident London fop and tries to hurry along the deal – can’t they get married that very night?

Act 4 Still at the country house In a brief scene Miss Hoyden tells her Nurse she is keen to be married simply in order to escape the country, get up to London and start flaunting like a Grand Lady. Enter Young Fashion and he and Miss Hoyden quickly reach agreement that they should be married immediately. They call in the Nurse so Young Fashion can flatter her, give her half a crown, and get her on their side. And then ask her to use her influence with the local chaplain to get them married in a hurry. Luckily, it turns out the Nurse has been flirting with the chaplain for these past seven years, so it should be a doddle.

Scene 2 Cut to Amanda and Berinthia praising Worthy as a most excellent lover, dwelling on how he spent a couple of hours praising every one of Amanda’s features. Then Worthy himself walks in, apologises for the lateness of the hour, says he’s been sent by Loveless to say that Loveless is out very late with friends and so the women invite Worthy to make up a hand of ombre (a card game).

Scene 3 Berinthia’s chamber Enter Loveless. He has completely ceased to be the ideal husband of act one and has reverted to being a scheming rake. He has gotten access to Berinthia’s bed chamber and now ponders where to hide. He has barely hidden in the closet before Berinthia enters, explaining that she left Worthy and Amanda to play cards, begging the excuse of having to write some letters. Loveless springs out of her closet and they embrace. After some flirting he carries her into the ‘closet’ (which is obviously more like an actual room) to ravish her!

Scene 4 Sir Tunbelly’s House Young Fashion and Miss Hoyden have just been married by the vicar, Bull, and are congratulating each other when Lory rushes in to tell them that his brother – the real Lord Foppington – has arrived at the gates with a coach and horses and 20 pages and the full panoply. Sir Tunbelly arrives to ask what the devil is gong on, and Fashion braves it out, telling him the man claiming to be Lord Foppington is an imposter and they’ll deal with him by inviting him in, raising the drawbridge, then firing a few shots which will make his people scatter.

Scene 5 At the gate They carry out this plan. Tunbelly admits Lord Foppington, and as soon as he’s inside the gates swings them shut, his servants fire a few shots in the air and all Lord Foppington’s servants scarper. When Lord Foppington declares who he is, Sir Tunbelly (who may be a country bumpkin but is also justice of the peace in these parts) calls him as a rascally imposter come to ravish his daughter and orders him to be tied down. The rest of the family come in to abuse him, Miss Hoyden as was, declaring he deserves to be dragged through the horse pond. Lord Foppington takes this all with tremendously aristocratic sang-froid.

The comedy heightens when Young Fashion enters and Foppington’s familiarity with him (calling him Tom since he is, after all, his younger brother) offends the other characters (the lady, Tunbelly, even Bull the chaplain). They all clamour for more punishment. Foppington is intelligent enough to realise all the people regard Tom as Lord Foppington and decides his best course is to play along, so he switches to calling him that, asking him for a close-up quiet parley in private. Tom comes close and Lord Foppington offers his brother £5,000 to be set free (!). Too late, says Tom.

His offer rejected, Foppington suddenly remembers there is a local gentleman who will vouch that he is Lord Foppington and Young Fashion a mere rascal. Who? asks Tunbelly sarcastically. Why Sir John Friendly. ‘Tis true he lives not a mile away and has just returned from London, admits Tunbelly – and sends a servant to fetch him.

But as chance would have it the servant comes straight back to tell Tunbelly that good Sir John has just alighted at the main gate and is entering the house. Young Fashion realises the game is up. He tells Lory to run and secure the first two horse he finds in the stables, Tom will slip out in a few minutes and they’ll leg it. Lory and Young Fashion slip out one door as Sir John enters by another.

There is a big Revelation Scene when Sir John finally gets to see Lord Foppington and confirms he is who he claims to be – the result is mortification and humiliation on the part of Sir Tunbelly who immediately swears fire and vengeance on Young Fashion, the imposter. But he’s long gone.

In a final short scene the Nurse, Miss Hoyden and Bull are in a conclave in the next room wondering how on earth to get out of the dilemma of Miss H being just married to Young Fashion when Lord Foppington and, more importantly, her father think she is still a maid. The solution they all innocently / cynically / comically decide on is: She shall simply marry again.

Act 5 scene 1 Back in London. Young Fashion and Lory meet with Coupler, tell him the whole story and he caps it with what he’s heard, which is that Lord Foppington did swiftly marry Miss Hoyden – who is therefore now Lady Foppington – as told in a letter from Foppington himself in which he a) swears revenge on Young Fashion b) says that, although they are legally married, he has not yet fulfilled the divine part i.e. physically consummated the marriage.

Tom Fashion’s vexed rage prompts some good comic lines.

Coupler: Nothing’s to be done till the Bride and Bridegroom come to Town.
Young Fashion: Bride and Bridegroom! Death and Furies! I can’t bear that thou shouldst call them so.
Coupler: Why, what shall I call them, Dog and Cat?

They’re not the funniest lines ever, just expressed in a surprisingly modern, direct and understandable way which makes them feel funnier.

Anyway, Coupler suggests that they seek some kind of solution by suborning the priest, Bull who, like most modern priests, ‘eats three pounds of beef to reading one chapter’ of his Bible.

Scene 2 Worthy tells Berinthia he has all but seduced Amanda but she is still holding out with a last scruple about ‘Virtue’. Berinthia comes up with A Plan. Lord Foppington is having a Grand Supper tonight with dancing and music to celebrate his marriage. Berinthia will arrange for Amanda to see Loveless at a tryst with his lover; Amanda will be so furious, she’ll come home filled with thoughts of revenge and a little lewdness, and Worthy can pay a polite visit to escort her to Foppington’s supper and – whoops – take advantage of Amanda’s taste for revenge!

There is then another of the many comic touches which really lift this play. Worthy is so awed by Berinthia’s Machiavellianism, that he gets down on his knees before her:

Worthy [Kneeling] Thou Angel of Light, let me fall down and adore thee.
Berinthia: Thou Minister of Darkness, get up again, for I hate to see the Devil at his Devotions.

Scene 3 Tom Fashion’s lodgings Coupler has a Plan: Some vicar has died leaving a £500-a-year living empty, and Tom has it in his gift if he can prove himself the lawful wife of Miss Hoyden.

To this end they have summoned the Nurse and the Priest to Tom’s lodgings. Initially scared at finding themselves confronted by the ‘Rogue’, Coupler sends the priest into another room with Lory, while he and Tom work on the Nurse. Tom tells her he would and will make a much better husband for Miss Hoyden than the Lord.

They go on to say that if the couple will vouch Tom is the legal husband, he will immediately present the priest with the £500 living. The Nurse is convinced. When the priest is brought back in, the three of them convince him to vouch for Tom and to win both her and the living. Coupler has some comic lines about the Nurse, comparing her to a rather rundown house:

Coupler: [Rising up.] .. The Living’s worth it: Therefore no more Words, good Doctor: but with the [Giving Nurse to him.] Parish — here — take the Parsonage-house. ‘Tis true, ’tis a little out of Repair; some Dilapidations there are to be made good; the Windows are broke, the Wainscot is warp’d, the Ceilings are peel’d, and the Walls are crack’d; but a little Glasing, Painting, White-wash, and Plaster, will make it last thy time.

You can imagine the gestures confident Coupler would make at the bewildered Nurse during this speech. Vanbrugh’s dialogue is vivid and dramatic.

Scene 4 Amanda gets home furious at having seen her husband meet with his sweetheart. Worthy is lying in wait for her and indulges in an extended seduction in high-flown rhetoric which involves forcing her onto a couch and kissing her hand. But, although torn, Amanda remains true to herself.

Amanda: Then, save me, Virtue, and the Glory’s thine.
Worthy: Nay, never strive.
Amanda: I will; and conquer too. My Forces rally bravely to my Aid, [Breaking from him.] and thus I gain the Day.

Not only this, but she preaches a sermon at Worthy, telling him to repent his fleshly urges and succeeds. He is given a speech saying he has seen the error of his ways.

Scene 5 The Nurse explains the situation to Miss Hoyden-Lady Foppinton, who in any case doesn’t like her pretentious new husband half so much as the first one.

Scene 6 Foppington’s supper Enter Foppington, Miss Hoyden, Loveless, Amanda, Worthy and Berinthia. Foppington apologises for wooing Loveless’s wife (the pretext, if you remember, for the sword fight in act 2). Loveless forgives him.

Enter Sir Tunbelly and musicians and dancers, as at the end of every Restoration comedy. Tunbelly is the master of ceremonies and is drunk. A lengthy masque in which Cupid and Hymen present versified forms of their characters and cases.

Enter Tom Fashion with the Priest and Nurse who he lines up to testify in front of everyone that he – Tom – married Miss Hoyden first, to which Miss Hoyden herself testifies. Astonished, Lord Foppington asks the priest if it’s true.

It’s very funny that Sir Tunbelly is raving drunk and has to be held back from attacking Tom with a horsewhip. He is particularly upset when he discover the Nurse he has employed all these years lied to him. Why did she do it? The Nurse replies, because Miss Hoyden so wanted to be married.

Tom asks ‘the court’ of all the characters for their judgment and they declare him the honest husband. Sir Tunbelly says they can all go to hell and reels out drunk. Beautifully, Lord Foppington rises above it all with effortless superiority.

The epilogue is spoken by Foppington and is the only one of the half dozen I’ve read which I either understood or enjoyed because it is a further hymn to the wonderful superiority of noble beaux such as himself and how they have never lowered themselves to plots or violence or treason or criminality – Good Lord, no, such things are only done by the badly dressed – and so continues the comic conceit of his character right to the end of the play.


Vanbrugh’s prose

Vanbrugh’s prose is immeasurably more lucid and easier to read than the other Restoration figures I’ve been reading.

Lory. Why then, Sir, your Fool advises you to lay aside all Animosity, and apply to Sir Novelty, your elder Brother.
Young Fashion: Damn my elder Brother.
Lory: With all my heart; but get him to redeem your Annuity, however.
Young Fashion: My Annuity! ‘Sdeath, he’s such a Dog, he would not give his Powder-Puff to redeem my Soul.

It’s still 17th century prose, obvz, but it seems to me beautifully clear and easy to follow, and the clarity makes the vigour of the simile all the more vivid. I’m not sure it’s the best, exactly, but it strikes me as being the clearest of the comedies I’ve read:

Berinthia: Pray which Church does your Lordship most oblige with your Presence?
Lord Foppington: Oh, St. James‘s, Madam – There’s much the best Company.
Amanda: Is there good Preaching too?
Lord Foppington: Why, faith, Madam, I can’t tell. A Man must have very little to do there, that can give an Account of the Sermon.

See how brisk the dialogue is – question, answer, question, answer, leading up to a comic punchline – the joke being (in case it’s not obvious in this quote taken out of context) that Foppington is such a very model of a Restoration aristocrat that religion is quite literally the last thing he goes to church for; in fact the blasted sermonising etc gets in the way of the socialising!

There’s something intrinsically comic about a character asking a question and the the second character repeating the substance of the question but with a comic reversal or alternative at the end:

Servant: Will your Lordship venture so soon to expose yourself to the Weather?
Lord Foppington: Sir, I will venture as soon as I can, to expose myself to the Ladies.

And the relationships in the play have just the same clarity and precision. I liked young Fashion, the poor younger brother from the moment he started talking, and really warmed to his long-suffering, inventice and sarcastic servant, Lory, and enjoyed their relationship immensely.

After young Fashion gives his older brother an opportunity to help him out financially, and he refuses to, Fashion declares his moral reservations at an end. It’s not the decision itself, it’s the alacrity with which Lory responds which makes it bracing and funny.

Young Fashion: Here’s rare News, Lory; his Lordship has given me a Pill has purg’d off all my Scruples.
Lory: Then my Heart’s at ease again: For I have been in a lamentable Fright, Sir, ever since your Conscience had the Impudence to intrude into your Company.
Young Fashion: Be at peace, it will come there no more: My Brother has given it a wring by the Nose, and I have kick’d it down Stairs.

Vanbrugh’s sentences are short and punchy. In his robust good humour, Lory reminds me a bit of Sam Weller in the Pickwick Papers.

The accent of a fop

Vanbrugh goes to pains to spell out Lord Foppington’s pronunciation. By the look of it, the kind of rarefied courtier he is aspiring to be had a particular accent or idiom, a distinctive way of pronouncing English. In particular, ‘o’ becomes ‘a’, so that ‘constitution’ and ‘horse’ become ‘canstitution’ and ‘harse’:

  • what between the Air that comes in at the Door on one side, and the intolerable Warmth of the Masks on t’other, a Man gets so many Heats and Colds, ‘twou’d destroy the Canstitution of a Harse.
  • Fore. My Lord, I have done. If you please to have more Hair in your Wig, I’ll put it in.
    Lord Foppington: Passitively, yes

‘Or’ becomes ‘ar’:

  • Lord Foppington: I have arder’d my Coach to the Door:

‘Ot’ becomes ‘at’:

  • Lord Foppington: … when I heard my Father was shat thro’ the Head

‘U’ becomes ‘e’, e.g. ‘judge’ becomes ‘jedge’.

  • Lord Foppington: As Gad shall jedge me, I can’t tell; for ’tis passible I may dine with some of aur Hause at Lacket‘s.

He calls his brother Tam instead of Tom:

  • Lord Foppington: Don’t be in a Passion, Tam; far Passion is the most unbecoming thing in the Warld

Misogyny and misandry

I was very struck when I read some of the feminist introductions to these plays to discover that feminist critics dismiss all Restoration comedies – and indeed all Restoration society – as misogynist.

I take the point that there is a lot of anti-women propaganda in the plays, and that, on a deeper level, you could say the women are treated like chattel. Except that when you actually read the plays, you discover that a lot of the women characters are tough, independent, free to come and go as they please, take lovers, attend the theatre, and that many of them have independent means and live very well. I’m not suggesting 17th century London was like 21st century New York in terms of women’s liberation and legal equality, but having been warned about the utter oppression of women, it is a surprise to then read how much freedom and independence they did have.

And as to statements or sentiments, for every specifically anti-woman generalisation, there is one attacking men. Thus Amanda and Berinthia in Act 5:

Berinthia: Ay, but there you thought wrong again, Amanda. You shou’d consider, that in Matters of Love Men’s Eyes are always bigger than their Bellies. They have violent Appetites, ’tis true, but they have soon din’d.
Amanda: Well; there’s nothing upon Earth astonishes me more than Men’s Inconstancy.

If you are a feminist and want to be offended by what characters say in a play, it’s easy to find hundreds of anti-women beliefs and sentiments. But it is just as easy to find groups of women expressing anti-men sentiments.

For my part, I see statements like this as the kind of glue which binds together the plot. The dialogues are composed of sententious clichés which fill the down-time between the more urgent comic events. Often the sentiments are tendentious, and characters are using these cliches and stereotypes to bend someone to their will (generally women being persuaded that all men are faithless so-and-sos or all men being persuaded that all women are, well, the same).

They are a kind of rhetorical lubrication which keeps the engine of the play – its comic plotline – ticking over. And the women give just as good as they get. Maybe better.

Good Gods—What slippery Stuff are Men compos’d of!
Sure the Account of their Creation’s false,
And ’twas the Woman’s Rib that they were form’d of.


Related links

Reviews of other Restoration plays

The Plain Dealer by William Wycherley (1676)

‘I’ll have no leading-strings; I can walk alone: I hate a harness’
(Manly in The Plain Dealer, Act One)

William Wycherley wrote four comedies during the Restoration era. The Plain Dealer is the fourth and final one and is generally thought to be the best. It is a free adaptation of The Misanthrope (1666), one of the best-known plays of the French dramatist Moliere (1622 – 1673).

The protagonist, Manly, is a sea captain now returned to shore. His ship sank (he is said to have scuttled it after being trapped by Dutch enemy ships) and now he is back on land in lodgings. In any case, he only went to sea to get away from people, who he loathes:

You must pardon me, I cannot wish well to pimps, flatterers, detractors, and cowards, stiff nodding knaves, and supple, pliant, kissing fools

Manly prides himself on his plain-speaking and plain-dealing – in stark contrast to the society around him which he thinks is made up of fawning, lying hypocrites.

What, thou art one of those who esteem men only by the marks and value fortune has set upon ’em, and never consider intrinsic worth! but counterfeit honour will not be current with me: I weigh the man, not his title

Inevitably, his boasted plain dealing strikes others as rudeness and cruelty.

Manly has a friend or confidante, Freeman, who is the auditor of his extended soliloquies about society’s hypocrisies. Freeman is ‘a gentleman well educated, but of a broken fortune, a complier with the age’. I like that description, a complier with the age. Am I a complier with my age, I wonder.

In fact, Manly brusquely tells Freeman that the latter is not his friend; he (Manly) has only one friend, one true deep friend (and even as he says this, the reader suspects that this ‘friend’ is fated to betray him).

Manly is in love with Olivia, a wealthy woman who is tough and misanthropic in her own right. He is so confident of her love he has deposited with her some £6,000 of his fortune including a pile of jewels.

Olivia, also, purports to hate ‘the filthy world’. She has a cousin, Eliza, who is her confidante i.e. who she can confide in, and who is a sarcastic, ironic foil to her, in their first scene together listening to Olivia’s long description of how she despises the world and then, when Novel visits, embarrassingly proving that she is in fact an expert at all the hypocritical practices she has just condemned (gossiping, criticising etc).

OLIVIA: Hold, cousin, hold; I hate detraction. But I must tell you, cousin, his civility is cowardice, his good-nature want of wit; and he has neither courage nor sense to rail: and for his being always in humour, ’tis because he is never dissatisfied with himself.

Manly is beloved by Fidelia, who dressed up as a man to serve aboard his ship, won his trust and now, back on land, continues to dress as a man, all the time professing her love for Manly, declaring in an aside to the audience that she owes him her:

 love, faith, and duty to you, the bravest, worthiest of mankind

Then there’s a flotilla of secondary, comic characters, including a couple of sailors who sailed with Manly and now do him the office of doormen or bouncers, tasked with keeping all his callers at bay, plus:

  • Novel – ‘a pert railing Coxcomb, and an admirer of novelties’ who tries to woo Olivia
  • Major Oldfox – ‘an old impertinent Fop, given to scribbling’, who is wooing Widow Blackacre
  • Lord Plausible – ‘a ceremonious, supple, commending Coxcomb, in love with Olivia’
  • Widow Blackacre – ‘a petulant, litigious Widow, always in law, and Mother of Squire Jerry’
  • Squite Jerry – feeble, hen-pecked son of the Widow Blackacre

The scenes with Novel and Plausible are particularly funny. As the play progresses, so do the complications.

Act 2 starts with Olivia explaining at length how she also despises society, and rejects company and visits, to her foil Eliza. Which makes it funny when she is promptly paid lots of visits – by the dandies and fops, Novel and Lord Plausible, and indulges in the very kind of catty gossip she has just criticised to Eliza.

Half-way through this scene Manly, Freeman and Fidelia arrive and, from a secret vantage point (one of the conventions of Restoration comedy) watch Olivia consorting with the fops. Manly overhears Olivia criticising him, a tone she continues once they’ve fully walked onstage and announced their presence. In fact Manly’s arrival prompts Olivia to make the shock declaration that she is married, a revelation which staggers all Manly’s hopes.

MANLY: I wish I never had seen you.

Olivia tells the assembled cast that she is married to an honourable gentleman and I, for one, immediately suspected this will be none other than ‘the one man’ Manly esteems as friend.

Manly and Olivia part with vehement curses of each other. But, during the visit, Olivia has taken a fancy to young Fidelia, dressed as a man, who was accompanying Manly.

When Lady Blackacre is announced, Freeman declares he will stay and woo her, impossible though she is, in order to inherit her money and to pay off his own debtors. Freeman’s bare-faced attempt to chat the Widow up turns into a comic scene as he competes with Lady Blackacre’s constant companion, a dried-up older man, Major Oldfox, who mostly exists to provide a comic foil to Freeman. The scene morphs into a parody of a courtroom confrontation, with either side flinging legalistic accusations at each other in order to prove their ’cause’, i.e. the widow’s hand and money.

The Widow is given a magnificent series of imaginative, long insults which match Falstaff at his finest:

WIDOW BLACKACRE: Thou withered, hobbling, distorted cripple; nay, thou art a cripple all over: wouldst thou make me the staff of thy age, the crutch of thy decrepidness?

Act III Westminster Hall Manly has been summonsed there to be a witness in Lady Blackacre’s law suit. There is a touch of Jarndyce and Jarndyce about a character entirely consumed by one never-ending law suit, and it gives Manly and Freeman the opportunity for conventional criticisms of the law and lawyers.

Enter Fidelia who says she’ll do anything for him, so Manly asks her to go and win back Olivia on his behalf. Obviously, Fidelia is appalled at being given a task which runs directly counter to her own wishes.

Enter Widow Blackacre surrounded by a flock of cavilling lawyers named Blunder, Quaint and Petulant, Buttongown and Splitcause, Quillit and Quirk. When the Widow exits, Freeman takes the opportunity to chat up her poor, put-upon son, Jerry, lending him money to buy a book, encouraging his hopes.

FREEMAN: Steal away the calf, and the cow will follow you.

To which the fabulous Widow replies:

WIDOW: What sir, d’ye think to get the mother by giving the child a rattle?

Anyway, Freeman arranges for one of Manly’s sailor-servants to pinch the Widow’s bags full of years of legal papers which she had left with Jerry to guard. When Jerry re-enter to say they’re all gone, the Widow is distraught, Jerry is mortified, and Freeman gets the sailor-servant to drag Jerry off to Manly’s apartments. I smell a scam!

Manly re-enters and tells Freeman that he has managed to get into three lawsuits already, just by candidly telling some lawyers and a poet what he thinks of them, before going on to dispense with a suite of other characters, Oldfox, various lawyers, an aldermen and a City merchant with withering humour, commented on by Freeman. You realise it is a deliberate gallery of London types, of men of the world – all of them fawning cheats, in Manly’s opinion.

Act IV Scene 1 Manly’s lodging: Dialogue between Manly and Fidelia (still dressed as a man). He hopes she has come back from Olivia’s to say she won her round to his cause. Instead Fidelia says the diametric opposite, that Olivia extravagantly insulted Manly and then took her (Fidelia) in her arms and showered her with kisses and would have done more but they were interrupted, and Olivia begged her to return for an assignation.

Manly leaps to the conclusion that Fidelia is in love with Olivia, and has made the story of her abusing him up and begins attacking her.

Freeman enters and joins in a philosophical trio about Love. Then the Widow Blackacre and Major Oldfox enter. Oldfox has penned some poetry to the Widow but she comically counters with her writs and lawyer’s letters, her preferred genre of writing.

Then Freeman enters with Jerry: he has successfully corrupted the boy, who now wants to escape his mother’s apron strings and live the London life of theatres, pubs and brothels. In a confrontation the boy demands his right to a life of his own (backed up by Freeman) – but the Widow reveals that Jerry was born out of wedlock, is a bastard and so shall not inherit her jointure

Jointures crop a lot. A jointure is: ‘an estate settled on a wife for the period during which she survives her husband, in lien of a dower.’

Act IV Scene 2 Olivia’s lodging: Novel and Lord Plausible compete with each other, claiming Olivia is vowed to them. Her servant gives them each identical letters, stating she despises their rival and loves only them… except that they swap and read them out loud and realise she is tricking both of them.They leave. Olivia enters, dispenses with her serving boy and prepares to meet Fidelia in the dark, as she had earlier arranged. Except that in the darkness a new character named Vernish arrives and embraces her, Olivia enthusiastically responding. He is, we discover, her husband!

After Olivia cleverly covers her initial mistake thinking of thinking Vernish was her secret lover, we learn that Vernish has been out of town five days; it is during that time that Manly rearrived in town i.e. after encountering the Dutch in the Channel, sinking his ship and making it back to shore; and that Olivia and Vernish have deliberately conned Manly out of his money, she persuading Manly to give her his £6,000 while he appears to have given Vernish some £1,000 guineas to be held at a goldsmith’s.

They now plan to be so cruel to Manly as to encourage him back to sea where, hopefully, he will drown. Vernish goes. Olivia soliloquises, making it clear she plans to swindle him, as well.

Enter Fidelia (still dressed as a man) trailed at a distance by Manly. Olivia instantly starts kissing her but when Fidelia asks about Manly, Olivia is crushingly honest, saying she never loved the brute, only wanted him for his money – which Manly, in hiding, hears.

Olivia says she’ll just pop into the other chamber and lock the doors. This gives Manly and Fidelia time to discuss Olivia’s treachery. Manly is initially for murdering her, which Fidelia talks him out of, but then comes round to a more savage revenge, and slips into the darkened room after Olivia, presumably to ravage her pretending to be Fidelia.

But just moments later he slips out of the room again and says his savage revenge would be pointless if no-one witnesses it. Therefore he tells Fidelia to tell Olivia that she (Fidelia) has to leave, but will return same time tomorrow night. By which time Manly will have set up his scam.

Olivia returns and Fidelia successfully feigns illness (‘the falling sickness’) and so says she must leave – but promises to return tomorrow night. But she has no sooner exited than she hurries back onstage saying a man is coming up the stairs with a candle. ‘Tis Vernish! Olivia disappears into the inner room – but Vernish catches Fidelia, thinking she is a male adulterer, draws his sword and threatens to stab her.

At which point Fidelia confesses she is a woman. Vernish pulls off her wig then squeezes her breasts. Yes, she is a woman! Still angry and puzzled, Vernish says he’ll have one final proof that Fidelia is a woman and drags her towards the bedroom, obviously to **** her. Fidelia starts screaming.

At which point a servant enters to tell Vernish that an alderman has sent his ‘cashier’ round with some money he had promised money, and the servant is is even now coming up the stairs. Forced to abandon his attempt at ravishment, Vernish gets the servant to help him push Fidelia into an adjoining room and lock the door.

Act V scene 1 Eliza’s lodgings Eliza is just telling Olivia off for the bad reputation she’s acquired when enter Vernish who promptly tells Olivia off for consorting with a woman dressed in men’s clothes.

Olivia is greatly confused, thinking Fidelia must have persuaded Vernish that ‘he’ is a woman. Then it begins to dawn on her that Vernish might be telling the truth, that Fidelia might be a woman in disguise!

Either way, Vernish lets slip that he terrified the girl by pretending he was going to ravish her – at which point Olivia finds an opportunity to accuse Vernish of being a heartless ravisher, and in the first month of their marriage, too!

So Vernish finds himself having to apologise and gives Olivia 200 of the guineas he has just received from the cashier. He then asks Eliza to accompany i.e. take Olivia home. Vernish leaves, at which point Eliza teases Olivia about this woman dressed as a man who was no doubt the lover and gallant Olivia was boasting about, and this turns into an almighty argument, with both women ending up damning each other.

Act V Scene 2 The Cock pub in Bow Street Fidelia is back in her costume as a man explaining to Manly how s/he managed to persuade Vernish that s/he was a woman. Manly is now desperate to know what Olivia’s husband looks like, but Fidelia didn’t get a clear view (the room was darkened). So in a bid to find out, Manly insists that Fidelia send a note telling Olivia she will visit again, tonight, at seven.

Enter Freeman who asks Manly why, now that he’s poor (he gave Olivia all his money), he doesn’t call on old friends and old obligations. This is a prompt for Manly to give an extended explanation of his misanthropy.

Disappointed in Manly, Freeman leaves to carry on his schemes re. the Widow Blackacre.

Enter Vernish to meet Manly amid a great display of enthusiasm and, sure enough, he does turn out to be the One Good Friend In The World Manly thinks he has while the audience, of course, knows Vernish is gulling and robbing him.

The conversation turns immediately to Olivia and Vernish joins in hypocritically damning her for a mercenary… Until Manly claims to have slept with her, at which point Vernish (who we know is Olivia’s ‘secret’ husband becomes genuinely angry. Manly sends him, as his best friend, to ask if Olivia will give him even a little of his money back.

The buzzing fops, Novel, Lord Plausible and Oldfox barge into Manly’s room, leading to comedy at their pretensions and foibles, namely stupid Novel insisting it is a sign of great wit to make loud noises and break windows.

This is just business to pass the time during which Vernish is supposed to have gone and asked Olivia for some of Manley’s money. Now he re-enters the room, and Manly kicks the fops out. Vernish tells Manly that Olivia told him to go to hell.

Vernish is still uncertain whether Olivia’s slept with Manly or not but, in any case, in an aside, confesses he would gladly slit Manly’s throat. Some friend!

In a scene drenched in dramatic irony, Manly laughs with Vernish about what a poor, wretched cuckold Olivia’s husband must be, about how he has been sending a go-between to Olivia who persuaded the fool he was a woman, and how he – Manly – now has an appointment with Olivia, as the time is coming up to 7.30 at night.

Vernish is confused and angry, he’s sure Fidelia was a woman, why is Manly describing him as a man? (Because Manly doesn’t yet realise that Fidelia is a woman, that’s why.) Manly goes to keep his appointment and Vernish shares his bewilderment with us, his plan to catch them at it (whatever it is) and his abiding hatred of Manly. He is a genuinely bad man.

Cut to Manly arranging with Freeman for the latter to scour all the drinkers in the pub and bring them all to Olivia’s place in half an hour precisely. Manly wants as many people as possible to witness his humiliation of her.

Scene 3 another room in the Cock pub Widow Blackacre suborns some professional perjurers and lying witnesses she will need in her next court case.

She has barely finished and dispatched them before Major Oldfox appears with a waiter who overcomes the widow and ties her to her chair and gags her! Is Oldfox going to rape her? No. Worse! He is going to read her his poetry!!

But he hasn’t even started before Freeman, Jerry, three bailiffs a constable and his assistants all burst into the room. They untie the Widow, Oldfox scarpers, but they haven’t come for him, they’ve come to serve an enormous suit on the Widow for ten thousand pounds!

This has all been cooked up by Freeman who now tells the Widow there’s only one way out of it which is to marry him. But the Widow is a legal expert, and suggests instead that she pays all his debts and settle an annuity on him. Hmmm, Freeman throws in £40 a year for Jerry (and free access to the Widow’s maid’s bedroom) and it’s a deal. He has lawyers at hand to draw up a contract.

Scene 4 Olivia’s lodging Olivia has barely welcomed Fidelia (followed silently by Manly) into her darkened chambers and is leading her to the bed, than there are sounds at the door, which is locked and starts to be forced.

Panicking that it is her husband, Olivia tells Fidelia they’ll climb out the window down a rope made of curtain.

In the dark Olivia just has time to give Manly – thinking he is Fidelia – her purse and cabinet (presumably containing all the money she took from Manly) and disappear out the window, before Vernish forces the door and charges at Manly with his sword out.

In the pitch black, Manly unswords Vernish and throws him to the floor, Olivia returns and embraces Manly thinking him Fidelia, at which point Freeman, Novel, Plausible, Jerry and Widow Blackacre all barge in carrying torches.

So it is finally revealed that Vernish, pinned to the floor – Manly’s best friend – is Olivia’s husband. Manly is appalled.

In the struggles Fidelia’s wig has fallen off and she is revealed as a woman! She makes a speech about how she has loyally loved and followed Manly everywhere. Realising the depth of her loyalty, Manly pledges his love to her, too, and gives her the cabinet and purse.

Olivia and Vernish exit after being admonished, and now condemned to live as faithless man and wife in poverty.

Fidelia announces her family name is Grey and her father left her £2,000 a year. Money money money is always the ultimate subject of Restoration comedy.

The philosophy of Love

For thousands of years writers have been anatomising, categorising and philosophising about Love. Huge swathes of these Restoration comedies are devoted to this subject of apparently endless fascination and are stuffed with sweeping generalisations about men, women and Love.

MANLY: Why, what did you hear me say?
FREEMAN: Something imperfectly of love, I think.
MANLY: I was only wondering why fools, rascals, and desertless wretches, should still have the better of men of merit with all women, as much as with their own common mistress, Fortune.
FREEMAN: Because most women, like Fortune, are blind, seem to do all things in jest, and take pleasure in extravagant actions. Their love deserves neither thanks, nor blame, for they cannot help it: ’tis all sympathy; therefore, the noisy, the finical, the talkative, the cowardly, and effeminate, have the better of the brave, the reasonable, and man of honour; for they have no more reason in their love, or kindness, than Fortune herself.
MANLY: Yes, they have their reason. First, honour in a man they fear too much to love; and sense in a lover upbraids their want of it; and they hate anything that disturbs their admiration of themselves; but they are of that vain number, who had rather show their false generosity, in giving away profusely to worthless flatterers, than in paying just debts. And, in short, all women, like fortune (as you say) and rewards, are lost by too much meriting.

I find this stuff quite exhausting to read. It is tempting to skim over this eternal opinionising about men and women and Love in order to get to the plot, where people discuss actual events and plans and schemes, and where there is a lot more comedy.

Anti-women propaganda

  • MANLY: Yes; for she is not (I tell you) like other women, but can keep her promise
  • MANLY: for women’s wants are generally the most importunate solicitors to love or marriage.
  • OLIVIA: Well, we women, like the rest of the cheats of the world, when our cullies or creditors have found us out, and will or can trust no longer, pay debts and satisfy obligations with a quarrel, the kindest present a man can make to his mistress, when he can make no more presents.
  • FREEMAN: Well, you see now, mistresses, like friends, are lost by letting ’em handle your money; and most women are such kind of witches, who can have no power over a man, unless you give ’em money: but when once they have got any from you, they never leave you till they have all. Therefore I never give a woman a farthing.

Insulting servants

Olivia calls her servant, Lettice, ‘you dowdy’, ‘insatiable creature’, you buffle-headed stupid creature you’, and the boy who serves her ‘you little unthinking fop’, ‘you heedless little animal’ and so on. Manly curses his sailor-doormen as rogues

The Widow Blackacre

Is a quite marvellous comic creation. All the scenes with her come vividly to life. Her language is supercharged with vitriol and imaginative insult. She is a kind of female Falstaff, and a magnificent invention. Voltaire, himself a playwright, considered her ‘the most comical character that was ever brought upon the stage’ (Letters Concerning The English Nation, 1733).


Related links

Other Restoration plays

Reviews of other plays

The Country Wife by William Wycherley (1675)

“It is a good representation of the age in which that Comedy was written, at which time love and wenching were the business of life, and the gallant manner of pursuing women was the best recommendation at Court.”
(Richard Steele commenting on a revival of The Country Wife in 1709)

Coming fresh from reading George Etherege’s The Man of Mode, The Country Wife immediately struck me as more wordy and less funny. I liked Dorimant and Medley in The Man of Mode, they had quick, funny repartee.  Horner, the lead character in The Country Wife, and his two aristocratic sidekicks, Harcourt and Dorilant, don’t have dialogue so much as speeches which try to outdo each other in their studied cynicism, which I found rather wearing:

HARCOURT: Mistresses are like books. If you pore upon them too much, they doze you, and make you unfit for company; but if used discreetly, you are the fitter for conversation by ’em.
DORILANT: A mistress should be like a little country retreat near the town; not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away, to taste the town the better when a man returns.

At moments like this the play feels almost like sitting through a corporate presentation where successive members of the Board line up to bombard you with repetitive endorsements of the company’s achievements, except in this case each character is trying to outdo the previous one’s cynicism about women or marriage.

Maybe each actor took it in turns to make his cynical speech, did a little bow to indicate when it ended then waited for the audience to applaud his breath-taking cynicism, before the next actor stepped forward to cap it.

HARCOURT: Most men are the contraries to that they would seem. Your bully, you see, is a coward with a long sword; the little humbly-fawning physician, with his ebony cane, is he that destroys men.
DORILANT: The usurer, a poor rogue, possessed of mouldy bonds and mortgages; and we they call spendthrifts, are only wealthy, who lay out his money upon daily new purchases of pleasure.
HORNER: Ay, your arrantest cheat is your trustee or executor; your jealous man, the greatest cuckold; your churchman the greatest atheist; and your noisy pert rogue of a wit, the greatest fop, dullest ass, and worst company.

Pause, applause.

The plot

Brief plot summary

Harry Horner pretends to be impotent so as to sleep with more women. His friends Harcourt and Dorilant ridicule the idiotic fop, Sparkish, and Harcourt falls in love with Sparkish‘s intelligent and honourable fiancée, Alithea. Meanwhile, quick-tempered, miserly Pinchwife has married a simple country woman and brings her up to London where he hopes to keep her away from all corrupting influences by locking her up in her bedroom whenever he goes out. But nonetheless she quickly catches the corrupt manners of the times, and also falls in love with Horner.

More detailed plot summary

Three plotlines are entwined. Libertine Harry Horner has paid a doctor to declare he’s had an operation which has made him impotent, a eunuch, and to publicise the fact. When respectable women visit he abuses them in a misanthropic way, indicating he is past ‘the chase’.

And so he uses the cover of impotence to chat up aristocratic women, well, one aristocratic woman, Lady Fidget, whose husband – Sir Jasper Fidget – is cheerfully convinced Horner presents no threat. Horner progresses from this first conquest, by steady steps, to being admitted into the personal chambers and changing rooms of a number of posh women. In Act 4 Sir Jasper even encourages his wife to go into a locked room with Horner – from which they emerge laden with double entendres about him taking her from behind – and thinks none the worse of it. Horner‘s doctor looks onto this scene from a hiding place in disbelief.

Horner has a gang of two libertine friends, Frank Harcourt and Dick Dorilant. They enjoy mocking a fourth man, a would-be libertine who is incredibly dim and slow, Sparkish. Sparkish is scheduled to marry his lady love, Alithea, the next day, but Harcourt falls in love with her and proceeds to woo her in a series of different contexts and scenes.

The running gag is that Sparkish is so convinced that his friends (Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant) love and respect him as ‘one of them’ that he lets Harcourt say all kinds of things to Alithea right in front of him, convinced it is all just harmless rakeish joshing – a level of idiocy which convinces Alithea that Sparkish is too stupid to marry.

In Act 3 Harcourt dresses up as a chaplain to perform the marriage of Alithea and Sparkish during which he plans to steal Alithea away. Alithea spots the deception but dim Sparkish believes Harcourt‘s absurd story that he is his own twin brother.

The third plotline concerns another semi-rake, Pinchwife (who is Sparkish‘s brother) who has been away to the country and there married a wonderfully beautiful wife – Margery – who is utterly ignorant of the cynical worldly ways of the big city. Pinchwife brings Margery up to London but makes a whole series of classic errors, for example introducing her to Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant, letting her go to the theatre and so on, so that she slowly catches on to Big City ways and, by Act 4, has fallen in love with Horner who saw her at the theatre (despite Pinchwife‘s best efforts to keep her hid, in fact despite the numerous times he locks her into her bedroom whenever he goes out).

In Act 5 there is quite a funny scene where three aristocratic ladies ask Horner to make up a four for cards, and proceed to reveal their feminine secrets, before it finally emerges that Horner is sleeping with all three of them! They vow to form a sisterhood to keep it secret, but then Mrs Pinchwife arrives and threatens to reveal everything.

At which point Sir Jasper arrives and there is a mini crisis. For the first time, Jasper dimly begins to suspect that Horner has been faking impotence all this time – before Alithea and Harcourt and Sparkish arrive and convince him that, yes, Horner really is incapable of love.

Eventually everything is sorted out. With the help of the doctor, Horner maintains his reputation for impotence – and his three noble lovers. Sparkish realises he has been done out of Alithea who, realising he is an imbecile, has married Harcourt. And Mrs Pinchwife is reluctantly persuaded to abandon her schoolgirl crush on Horner, go back to Pinchwife and both of them go and rusticate in the country.

That’s the end of the plot which is signalled by the arrival of the maskers and singing and dancing.

Abuse

There are some fine comic moments – the scenes where:

  • Harcourt woos Alithea right in front of Sparkish who insists it’s all just harmless joshing is so preposterous, it’s funny
  • So convinced is he of Horner’s impotence, that Lord Jasper virtually forces his wife to go into a locked chamber with Horner to ostensibly discuss ‘china’. It becomes clear from the context that they have made this not only an ad hoc code word for sex, but, apparently, for semen, for the ‘load’ which a woman receives during sex. They emerge from the locked room to find another of Horner’s mistresses has just arrived who, when she hears what has been going on, also demands to be taken into the locked room to discuss ‘china’, while Horner humorously pleads that he has used up his current supply but will be full again by the evening. I can’t see any way this refers to anything other than his semen, and this explains why the ‘china’ scene became the most notorious of any restoration comedy, and was seized on by religious critics of these plays as the ultimate in sordid smut.
  • It is a broad comic revelation moment when the three women playing cards – Lady Fidget, Mrs Fidget and Mrs Squeamish – all realise Horner has been sleeping with them. Even funnier when they go on, in a sisterly way, to say ‘Oh well, such is life, but we’d better make  pact to hide it from the world’. At moments like this you realise the plays revel in upturning all ‘moral standards’ about sex, and showing people as hypocrites who are only interested in keeping up appearances.

These are some of the more striking, extreme and funny situations. But nonetheless, I still felt the overall style was very wordy – that Wycherley’s characters made short speeches at each other rather than engaging in dialogue.

And, apart from feeling lectured and harangued throughout, I also felt the text sometimes descended into sheer abuse.

Bullying For a start when the three caballeros, Horner, Harcourt and Dorilant gang up on the idiot fop, Sparkish, it really does feel like ganging up. It reminds me of bullying at school. They insult him to his face, at length, and Harcourt makes a joke of making love (i.e. chatting up) Sparkish’s wife, Alithea, right in front of him, but which poor Sparkish insists is just ordinary banter between such such gallants, such beaux as him and his best friends – an attitude Alithea justly describes as ‘invincible stupidity’.

But my point is, the audience is encouraged to laugh at Sparkish’s stupidity and gullibility as much as the characters on stage. I found all the scenes with Sparkish in, too close to bullying and/or taking the mickey out of a rather slow person to be truly funny.

Woman-hating Loath though I am to admit it, this play began to make me see the point of the feminist critics who talk about the ‘misogyny’ of Restoration culture. You can argue a lot against it – that the characters’ attitude is often one of general misanthropy, that the women make as sweeping generalisations and criticism of men (‘Men in love be fools’) as the men do of women, that everyone takes the mickey out of the older generation (‘grave Matrons and old rigid Husbands’), of husbands (100% of husbands exist to be cuckolded and ridiculed) and wives (exist to be seduced), of their servants (exist to be insulted). Everyone despises and ridicules the country, and so on.

Nonetheless, by half-way through this play I began to feel a bit sick of the sweeping, insulting generalisations the men are continually making about women.

  • HORNER: Well, a Pox on love and wenching. Women serve but to keep a Man from better Company.
  • PINCHWIFE: Well, there is no being too hard for Women at their own weapon, lying,
  • HORNER: Indeed, Madam, the time was I only hated virtuous Women, but now I hate the other too.
  • HORNER: Ay, Women are as apt to tell before the intrigue as Men after it, and so show themselves the vainer Sex.
  • PINCHWIFE: Why should Women have more invention in love than men? It can only be because they have more desires, more soliciting passions, more lust, and more of the Devil.
  • PINCHWIFE: Come let me lock you up in your chamber till I come back. And be sure you come not within three strides of the window when I am gone. (Exit Mrs. Pinchwife. Pinchwife locks the door.) If we do not cheat women, they’ll cheat us.
  • PINCHWIFE: Our sisters and daughters, like usurers’ money, are safest when put out; but our wives, like their writings, never safe, but in our closets under lock and key.

Cutting and pasting them out like this does bring out the fact that the two most misogynist characters are singled out for that quality i.e. it is not universal across all the male characters. That Horner makes many speeches belittling women in his disguise as a eunuch, and Pinchwife is intended to be an extreme character, a miserly, paranoid fool (a ‘stingy country coxcomb’).

Whereas other characters, such as jovial Sir Jasper or affable Harcourt, have much more balanced and reasonable opinions about women, and quite a few of the female characters give as good as they get.

  • SQUEAMISH: That Men of parts should take up with and spend fortunes in keeping little Playhouse Creatures, foh!
  • LADY FIDGET: All Men of honour desire to come to the test. But indeed, generally you Men report such things of yourselves, one does not know how or whom to believe.

Still. I found the sustained atmosphere of women-denigrating negative and unpleasant.

SPARKISH: Come, she and you must go dine with me. Dinner’s ready, come. But where’s my Wife? Where is she?
PINCHWIFE: Making you a Cuckold, ’tis that they all do as soon as they can.

Threats Once or twice characters descend from insults into blunt threats of violence. These may come off onstage, they may have a kind of wild humour to them when acted – but reading them cold just felt horrible.

PINCHWIFE to his wife: Write as I bid you, or I will write “Whore” with this knife in your Face… I will stab out those eyes that cause my mischief. (Holds up the knife)

Now, Pinchwife is intended to be an angry, paranoid, foolish character in a play which is itself made out of exaggerations and stereotypes. Pinchwife’s ill-tempered threats to draw his sword at the drop of a hat, against men or women or anyone who asperses his honour are a conscious comic motif. But still…

Much more than in the Behn or the Etherege plays, I felt the characters were like robots going through cleverly constructed motions, like pieces of Swiss clockwork. Each scene is cleverly constructed, but the characters in it felt as if they had little or nothing to do with robots of the same name appearing in other scenes. There is little in the way of character no psychological depth, nothing resembling character development. Each avatar is more like a bundle of mechanical responses to mechanically assembled and highly contrived situations.

I vaguely thought I liked Restoration comedy till I came to reread these plays and realised how dry, how mechanical and contrived, how regularly unpleasant, and above all what very hard work they are to read.


Related links

Other Restoration plays

Reviews of other plays

The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter by George Etherege (1676)

‘Damn your authors, Courtage; women are the prettiest things we can fool away our time with.’
(Sir Fopling Flutter)

Sir George Etherege (1636-92) came from a middle-class family, may or may not have gone to Cambridge (the record is unclear), he definitely studied law at the Inns of Court then went to Paris with his Royalist father.

Etherege who wrote just three plays, but the first, The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub, holds the distinction of being the first new play performed in London’s theatres after they were re-opened at the restoration of Charles II in 1660. It was premiered in 1664 and although most of it consisted of old-style heroic verse, it contained comic scenes depicting sophisticated banter between men and women which were entirely new and caught the spirit of the new age.

Etherege holds a distinguished place in English literature as one of the ‘big five’ in Restoration comedy – George Etherege, William Congreve, William Wycherley, George Farquhar, and Sir John Vanbrugh. He is credited as the playwright who invented the comedy of manners and led the way to the achievements of Congreve and Sheridan.

The second of Etherege’s plays, She Would if She Could, was performed in 1668. It is ‘a comedy of action, wit and spirit, although censured by some as frivolous and immoral’. In it Etherege first showed at length the fantasy version of contemporary London in which flirtation is the only serious business in life.

The Man of Mode was the third of his plays and the most celebrated.

The Man of Mode

The protagonist of The Man of Mode is Dorimant, a notorious libertine and man-about-town. He is said to have been based on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the most notorious debaucher in Charles II’s court of noted debauchers and by far the most obscene poet in English literature (but then, as such a notorious figure, Rochester’s name was easily attached to any fictional libertine).

Brief plot summary

The libertine Dorimant tries to win over the young heiress Harriet, and at the same time disengage himself from his previous affair with Mrs. Loveit. Despite the subtitle, the ‘man of mode’, Sir Fopling Flutter, is only one of several marginal characters.

Extended plot summary

Act I Dorimant’s chambers – The story opens with Dorimant addressing a billet-doux to Mrs. Loveit, with whom he is having an affair, to lie about his whereabouts. A working class orange seller, Foggy Nan, is admitted to his rooms and informs him about the arrival in London of grand Lady Woodvil and her beautiful heiress daughter, Harriet, who’s been watching and asking about Dorimant.

Dorimant‘s closest friend and fellow rake Medley arrives and offers more information about Harriet ‘vastly rich’. Dorimant expresses his wish to break off his relationship with Mrs. Loveit, being already involved with her younger friend Bellinda. The two friends plot to encourage Mrs. Loveit‘s jealousy by getting a woman acquaintance to talk up Dorimant‘s new affair so that when Dorimant visits her, Mrs L will be furious and it will be she who ends the relationship. Comic interlude with the poor shoemaker.

Young Bellair, the handsome acquaintance of both men, enters and relates his infatuation with Emilia, a woman serving as companion to his aunt, Lady Townley. His relatively innocent devotion is ridiculed. Admiration of Dorimant in his fine suit leads into news that the noted fop Sir Fopling Flutter has newly arrived in London from Paris. Bellair reports that he’s been attending the theatre and visiting Mrs Loveit.

This is perfect for Dorimant‘s plan because he can accuse Mrs Loveit of intriguing with FoplingBellair exits and returns with the news that his father has arrived in town and is lodging in the same place as his Emilia – i.e. at Lady Townley‘s. (Lady Townley and Old Bellair are sister and brother i.e. Bellair is Old Bellair‘s son and Lady Townley‘s nephew). Old Bellair informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him and he must be obedient or be disinherited.

A letter arrives from a semi-literate whore Dorimant is ‘seeing’ begging for money, and Dorimant and Medley think it will be an excellent joke to give her some so she can go and lord it at the opera.

Act II Sc 1: At Lady Townley’sLady Townley and Emilia discuss the arrival of Bellair‘s father. Bellair pops by briefly to tell them his father insists he marries the rich heiress, Harriet. Old Bellair flirts with Emilia unaware his son is in love with her. (Young Bellair has acquiesced in his father’s wishes for the time being.) Medley arrives and entertains the ladies with the latest gossip from round town.

Scene 2: Mrs. Loveit and her servant Pert, who asks Mrs L why she likes Dorimant despite his ignoring her. Belinda arrives: if you remember, Dorimant‘s plan is to get Belinda to describe Dorimant paying excessive attention to a masked woman at the theatre, and so make Mrs Loveit mad with jealousy. The plan works perfectly and by the time Dorimant breezes in Mrs L is furious and accuses him of unfaithfulness.

In his defence, Dorimant a) accuses Belinda of libelling him (they both know this is play acting) and b) counter-attacks with the accusation that Mrs L is spending her time with Sir Fopling. She is scandalised at this lie but Dorimant storms out. Mrs L is livid and vows hellfire and revenge, that was part of the plan – not part of the plan is the way Belinda is unsettled at seeing how cynically Dorimant plays Mrs Loveit and, not unnaturally, wonders if he will behave the same when it comes to dumping her.

Act III Sc 1: At Lady Woodville’s – Harriet is stroppy and difficult with her servant, Busy. She is very similar to Hellena in The Rover i.e. she is a canny, scheming witty woman, as clever as any man, yet at the same time claims to know nothing of love, to be an innocent in the ways of love:

HELLENA: I wou’d fain know as much as you, which makes me so inquisitive; nor is’t enough to know you’re a Lover, unless you tell me too, who ’tis you sigh for.
FLORINDA: When you are a Lover, I’ll think you fit for a Secret of that nature.
HELLENA: ’Tis true, I was never a Lover yet…
(The Rover)

HARRIET: I know not what ’tis to love, but I have made pretty remarks by being now and then where lovers meet. Where did you leave their gravities?…
DORIMANT: Where had you all that scorn and coldness in your look?
HARRIET: From nature, sir; pardon my want of art: I have not learnt those softnesses and languishings which now in faces are so much in fashion
(The Man of Mode)

Harriet is the young woman Old Bellair wants his son to marry but a) Bellair is in love with Emilia b) Harriet has taken a fancy to Dorimant. Realising that they are mismatched, Bellair and Harriet make a comically cynical vow to be unfaithful and not in love with each other, and this leads into a comic sequence where they then play-act being bashful young lovers, wryly commenting on each other’s performance of the cliches of love as they do so, for the benefit of their parents, ‘their gravities’ as they call them, Lady Woodvil and Old Bellair.

Scene 2: At Lady Townley’s Lady T and Emilia and Medley are gossiping when Belinda arrives and tells them how upset Mrs Loveit is, and has barely finished explaining her fury at Dorimant before Dorimant himself arrives. Bellinda complains about his behaviour but lets herself be talked into a) persuading Mrs L to go to the Mall later so Dorimant can contrive a meeting between her and Fopling b) agreeing to a romantic rendezvous with Dorimant.

Enter Sir Fopling Flutter but Dorimant cautions Medley not to mock him – he needs him for his plan. So Dorimant and Medley slyly encourage Sir Fopling to play up, to exaggerate his knowledge of Paris, fashion, his fine clothes, and his ornate way of speaking. Mistaking their encouragement for genuine friendship, Fopling falls for the idea that Mrs Loveit fancies him.

Scene 3: The Mall A complex scene of multiple encounters and conversations, the chief of which are: Dorimant for the first time meets Harriet; her guardian Lady Woodvil is there, scared of this wicked devil Dorimant she’s heard so much about, but she is led by the other characters to mistake Fopling for Dorimant. Fopling turns out to be a genuine hit with Mrs Loveit, at least she pretends so, and as she and Fopling leave amid much laughter, Medley ribs Dorimant that seeing her laughing and happy has made him jealous. Dorimant tries to deny it, but it’s true.

Act IV Scene 1: at Lady Townley’s – A big dance. Old Bellair has asides to the audience in which he makes it plain he is in love with Emilia. Dorimant is there, masquerading as one ‘Mr Courtage’ because Harriet’s guardian, Lady Woodvil, has an exaggerated fear of ‘Dorimant’. In this guise of Courtage, Dorimant enjoys politely playing up to old Lady Woodvil‘s prejudices about the good old days and these horrible modern times.

DORIMANT: Forms and ceremonies, the only things that uphold quality and greatness, are now shamefully laid aside and neglected.
LADY WOODVIL: Well! this is not the women’s age, let ’em think what they will; lewdness is the business now, love was the business in my time.

It is a bravura display of disguise and play-acting, a core ingredient of Restoration comedy.

Dorimant engages in extended repartee with Harriet and, in an aside, tells the audience that he loves her. Sir Fopling turns up in masquerade, with a retinue of French musicians and nearly gives the game away by calling Dorimant by his name, till Dorimant tells him he is here under the pseudonym Mr Courtage.

All the characters encourage Sir Fopling to boast about his time in Paris and then encourage him to dance, not realising they are guying him. Dorimant becomes impatient because he had made an appointment with Belinda who – we have seen in some asides – didn’t like his way of putting off Mrs LoveitDorimant now scares Lady Woodvil by claiming that the wicked Dorimant is present in disguise, proceeds to see the ladies to their coaches, then heads off home, these latter (offstage) activities reported by young Bellair as he enters to see Old Bellair and Medley.

Scene 2: Dorimant’s lodgings Seems like Dorimant and Belinda have had sex. She is regretting it and begging Dorimant not to tell anyone, and never to see Mrs Loveit in private again. In the middle of this semi-argument, the servant announces the arrival of Bellair, Medley and Fopling. Mortified, Belinda exits down the backstairs.

Once the men have entered, Fopling makes a fool of himself, singing a new song he has written, and the others encourage his ‘love’ of Mrs Loveit, before departing. Dorimant confides to the others he’s quickly off to Mrs Loveit‘s.

Scene 3: The men carrying the chair Belinda is escaping from Dorimant‘s lodgings in take her to Pall Mall instead of home. As she gets out of the chair, she is spied by Mrs Loveit‘s footman who is nearby. Damn! The first night she’s spent with Dorimant and she bumps someone who’ll tell his former – and vengeful – lover.

Act V Scene 1: Mrs Loveit’s Belinda’s arrival is announced by the very same servant who saw her being set down in Pall Mall by ‘Ambling Harry’ who Mrs Loveit knows is the chairman who plies from Dorimant‘s house i.e. Mrs Loveit immediately guesses that Belinda is having an affair with Dorimant. In the same moment, she suspects the part Belinda played in making her angry with Dorimant in Act 1 i.e. that she conspired with Dorimant against her.

MRS LOVEIT: There is no truth in friendship neither. Women as well as men – all are false, or all are so to me at least.

But Belinda just about manages to save the day. She had threatened the chairman with the sack unless they lie and say they picked her up in the Strand. When Mrs Loveit sends her man to interrogate the chairmen, they duly tell this lie – that they picked Belinda in the Strand, not at Dorimant‘s – and as a result Mrs Loveit decides Belinda was telling the truth after all and feels guilty at suspecting her.

At that moment Dorimant is announced, as visiting Mrs Loveit and now Belinda is horrified to discover that the man she’s just slept with and swore faithfulness to her, is, within the hour, paying a visit to his old lover. As a result Belinda feels faint and Mrs Loveit‘s servant, Pert, takes her into the other room to lie down. Pert delivers some pretty ripe double entendres about something lying heavy on her stomach (i.e. she detects that Belinda has recently had sex).

Enter Dorimant and he and Mrs Loveit proceed to have a terrific quarrel circling round the idea that by being seen laughing with Fopling she has debased herself and humiliated him. He throws the love letters she sent him back in her face.

Dorimant is just telling Mrs Loveit that, if it’s true she has no feelings for Fopling, she should meet him one more time in Pall Mall and laugh him to scorn – when Belinda is brought back into the room.

Dorimant is thunderstruck to see her, realising she will realise he is there to pay court to LoveitBelinda joins Mrs Loveit in scorning Dorimant, through only he and the audience know that there is the real animus of a scorned lover behind her words. When even Pert joins in the chorus of women damning him, Dorimant knows it’s time to leave.

Mrs Loveit orders a servant to follow him and exits breathing fury and revenge. Leaving Belinda solo wondering why on earth she ever slept with Dorimant.

Scene 2: Lady Townley’s Things come to a head. Medley and Bellair and Mrs Townley have invited a chaplain who has  already married Bellair and Emilia – but they have barely kissed before Old Bellair arrives with Harriet and a chaplain who he has hired to marry Bellair to Harriet — so they bundle chaplain 1 into a hiding place!

While things are on hold, Emilia teases Harriet that she loves Dorimant, which Harriet denies. Dorimant promptly arrives and he and Harriet have an extended dialogue in which she matches him point for point, as he declares his true, unironical love and she refutes, rejects and disbelieves him.

Chaplain 1 is released from his hiding place as Old Bellair returns onstage and amazes the old man by announcing that his son is already married!

Enter Belinda and Mrs Loveit. Now the entire cast is onstage. Dorimant sort of makes it up to Mrs Loveit by explaining ‘the other woman’ is Harriet who he is motivated to marry because her fortune will patch up his ruined estate. Dorimant tries to make it up to Belinda i.e. sleeping with her and promptly marrying someone else…

Meanwhile, Harriet rebels against Lady Woodvil and announces that she loves Dorimant. Fopling turns up and Mrs Loveit rebuts him. He doesn’t care; he is writing a wonderful ballet which will entrance the entire sex!

Harriet is blunt to Mrs Loveit, saying Dorimant has been her god long enough. Mrs Loveit vows to go home and never go out again. Why not go to a nunnery? says Harriet rudely.

Lady Woodvil now discovers that the man she thought was named Mr Courtage is none other than the wicked Dorimant, but everyone speaks in his favour and he was so sweet to her earlier that her heart has softened and she almost approves of him marrying her (rich) niece. She doesn’t agree to their wedding straight away, but Dorimant breaks the habits of a lifetime and promises to come and visit Harriet in her big empty country house.

Harriet then has a speech making it sound empty and lonely, echoing to the sound of rooks. It’s an odd and powerful image in what is otherwise such an urban, London play.

The play ends with music and dancing and Old Bellair encourages the audience to congratulate his son and Emilia.


Cynical manipulation of others

The entire plot consists of the rake Dorimant’s attempts to juggle his various love affairs. There is genuinely heartless cynicism in the way he plans to simply dump Mrs Loveit simply because he’s bored of her. Dorimant’s entire life is devoted to toying with women:

‘Next to the coming to a good understanding with a new mistress, I love a quarrel with an old one; but the devil’s in’t, there has been such a calm in my affairs of late, I have not had the pleasure of making a woman so much as break her fan, to be sullen, or forswear herself these three days.’

Presumably these attitudes were deliberately exaggerated, their heartlessness and cynicism played up, to make them more ‘shocking and comic.

Cynicism about people’s behaviour, specially round sexual morality

‘I have known many women make a difficulty of losing a maidenhead who have afterwards made none of a cuckold.’

When you ponder statements like this you realise there is nothing funny about them except insofar as they are wilfully cynical, the humour derives from the conveying of an entire worldview about love and sex and men and women which is elaborately, exaggeratedly, cynical and superficial.

The cultivation of sin and immorality

The aristocratic figures seek to promote licentiousness and drunkenness at every available opportunity. Thus when Dorimant dismissively orders Medley to give the shoemaker half a crown, Medley insists it is only on condition that the shoemaker uses it to get ‘bloody drunk’.

Conservative moralists had, for centuries, thought a chief defence of having an aristocratic class was that they should provide models of morality for the masses to copy. Clearly, there is a cynical pleasure to be had in puffed-up aristocrats behaving in exactly the opposite manner, spitting in the faces of Puritans and other earnest social reformers, mocking any attempts to take more or less anything seriously.

The reversal of values

In this upside-down world it is virtuous to womanise, to drink to get drunk, to gamble away fortunes, to toy with women’s affections, to cynically manipulate all around you. Religion – real genuine religious faith – is ridiculed, and education is scorned as leading to the production of shallow fops.

‘[Fopling] is like many others, beholding to his education for making him so eminent a coxcomb; many a fool had been lost to the world had their indulgent parents wisely bestowed neither learning nor good breeding on ’em.’

Parents and the older generation are mocked for their seriousness. Harriet ironically refers to her and Bellair’s parents as ‘their gravities’. In fact, everything is mocked.

Wit and repartee

Shakespeare’s comedies are full of banter and word play, which can, admittedly, sometimes get knotted and dense. Sometimes the flow of puns and double meanings in Shakespeare confuses even the people exchanging them (which can then be another cause of humour).

Restoration comedy uses much plainer language in the sense that it is more purely factual. There is occasional wit and set pieces of repartee, particularly between the rake figure and the clever female lead, but even here the play is between ideas more than words, as such. Overall there is a greater focus on elegance of expression, on a kind of melliflousness. The kind of clever word play which clots Shakespearian comedy is largely absent.

Gamini Salgado in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the play says of Etherege’s prose style, compared to that of the first half of the century, that it has a more orderly and elegant rhythm, but is harder and less resonant. I would add that the language has lost almost all its poetic force. Metaphors of sin and redemption and love’s flames etc feel mechanical, have become an empty social conventional rhetoric.

Anyway, that’s how language was used between knowing aristocrats, at any rate. Regarding the rude mechanicals or working classes, there is a lot more of what you could call simple abuse. Dorimant casually insults all the lackeys, servants and tradespeople he comes into contact with, describing the orange woman and shoemaker as ‘vermin’, ‘double tripe’, ‘a cartload of scandal’ and other amusing insults. His footman he describes as ‘eternal blockhead and sot’.

The class-based nature of his arrogance is combined with ultra-cynicism when he tells the shoemaker:

‘Whoring and swearing are vices too genteel for a shoemaker’

Who in turn makes the comic point that the aristocracy will soon monopolise all the sins and vices so completely that there’ll be none left over for poor folk.

Fopling may be absurdly mannered but expresses the same upper-class prejudices as the other toffs. When a servant tells him his name is Trott, Fopling bursts out:

SIR FOPLING: Oh, unsufferable! Trott, Trott, Trott! there’s nothing so barbarous as the names of our English servants.

Insulting marriage

Salgado in his introduction makes the point that one of the clumsiest aspects of Restoration comedy is the way all the characters cynically abuse the institution of marriage for the first four acts, before suddenly converting to thinking it the most perfect state of being, in the fifth.

There are certainly some choice insults of marriage here:

‘’Zbud, there’s never a man i’ the town lives more like a gentleman with his wife than I do. I never mind her motions, she never inquires into mine; we speak to one another civilly, hate one another heartily, and because ’tis vulgar to lie and soak together, we have each of us our several settlebed.’

Old Bellair explains to his son:

OLD BELLAIR: You need not look so grum, sir; a wife is no curse when she brings the blessing of a good estate with her.

Elsewhere, Medley comments:

‘Your nephew ought to conceal it for a time, madam, since marriage has lost its good name.’

References to ‘this age’

It is part of the mystique or worldview of the plays that they are being staged in a specially depraved time:

  • DORIMANT: An antiquated beauty may be allowed to be out of humour at the freedoms of the present.
  • OLD BELLAIR: I like her countenance and her behaviour well, she has a modesty that is not common i’ this age.
  • LADY WOODVIL: The depraved appetite of this vicious age tastes nothing but green fruit, and loathes it when ’tis kindly ripened [i.e. prefers young girls to mature women]

1. There’s a kind of self-regarding, self-satisfaction with living in such a very depraved time. 2. Every age has considered itself especially fallen and corrupt – you can find the same kind of references in literature from the ancient Greeks, through Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Gender stereotypes

Feminist critics generally have it in for all these male Restoration writers. Jane Spenser in her introduction to The Rover repeatedly refers to the ‘misogyny’ of the Restoration literary world, and there is, without doubt, an enormous amount of anti-women rhetoric, and cynical manipulation of women characters.

But reading these plays without the blinkers of feminist ideology, it’s just as obvious that all the characters are stereotyped, manipulated and mocked. The most manipulated and mocked person in this play is a man, Sir Fopling Flutter, who exists solely to be laughed at. Other entire groups are mocked; for example the entire older generation are ridiculed, all servants and the entire working class are ridiculed.

And, in these plays, men are subject to just as much withering criticism and virulent stereotyping as women. In fact the plays work through the systematic stereotyping of both genders:

Stereotyping women

  • ‘Faith, women are i’ the right when they jealously examine our letters, for in them we always first discover our decay of passion’
  • MEDLEY: I wait upon you, and I hope (though women are commonly unreasonable)…
  • YOUNG BELLAIR: ’Tis not unnatural for you women to be a little angry if you miss a conquest, though you would slight the poor man were he in your power.
  • EMILIA: There are afflictions in love, Mr. Dorimant.
    DORIMANT: You women make ’em, who are commonly as unreasonable in that as you are at play…
  • MRS LOVEIT: Those noisy fools, however you despise ’em, have good qualities, which weigh more (or ought at least) with us women than all the pernicious wit you have to boast of…
  • DORIMANT: There is an inbred falsehood in women which inclines ’em still to them whom they may most easily deceive.
  • MEDLEY: Besides, ’tis a common error among women to believe too well of them they know and too ill of them they don’t.
  • MEDLEY: Like a woman, I find you must be struggled with before one brings you to what you desire…
  • HARRIET: Did you not tell me there was no credit to be given to faces? that women nowadays have their passions as much at will as they have their complexions, and put on joy and sadness, scorn and kindness, with the same ease they do their paint and patches—Are they the only counterfeits?

If you only quote these kinds of statements, then the plays can be made to look monstrously misogynist. But they need to be balanced with the scores of times when men are mocked, stereotyped and ridiculed.

Stereotyping men

  • MRS LOVEIT: There’s nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world; all men are villains or fools.
  • DORIMANT: Indeed, the little hope I found there was of her, in the state she was in, has made him by my advice contribute something towards the changing of her condition. [enter YOUNG BELLAIR] Dear Bellair, by heavens I thought we had lost thee; men in love are never to be reckoned on when we would form a company.
  • HARRIET: The sordidness of men’s natures, I know, makes ’em willing to flatter and comply with the rich, though they are sure never to be the better for ’em
  • HARRIET: Mr. Bellair! let us walk, ’tis time to leave him; men grow dull when they begin to be particular.
  • MEDLEY: But I have known men fall into dangerous relapses when they have found a woman inclining to another.
  • HARRIET: Men are seldom in the right when they guess at a woman’s mind; would she whom he loves loved him no better!
  • HARRIET: In men who have been long hardened in sin we have reason to mistrust the first signs of repentance
  • MRS LOVEIT: There’s nothing but falsehood and impertinence in this world; all men are villains or fools.

Mocking both sexes

And then there are plenty of places where characters mock both sexes equally, in effect ridiculing the human race.

  • HARRIET: That women should set up for beauty as much in spite of nature as some men have done for wit!
  • MRS LOVEIT: He bring her! His chair stands near Dorimant’s door, and always brings me from thence – Run and ask him where he took her up; go, there is no truth in friendship neither. Women as well as men – all are false, or all are so to me at least.
  • MRS LOVEIT: The man who loves above his quality does not suffer more from the insolent impertinence of his mistress than the woman who loves above her understanding does from the arrogant presumptions of her friend.

Stereotyping the old and their silly laments for the good old days

  • LADY WOODVIL: Well! this is not the women’s age, let ’em think what they will; lewdness is the business now, love was the business in my time.
  • LADY WOODVIL: Unsufferable at thirty! That they are in the wrong, Mr. Courtage, at five-and-thirty there are living proofs enough to convince ’em.
    DORIMANT: Ay, madam, there’s Mrs Setlooks, Mrs Droplip, and my Lady Lowd; show me among all our opening buds a face that promises so much beauty as the remains of theirs…

Stereotyping Jews

  • MEDLEY: Is it not great indiscretion for a man of credit, who may have money enough on his word, to go and deal with Jews who for little sums make men enter into bonds and give judgments?

Stereotyping the lower classes

  • HARRIET: She [Harriet’s servant, Busy] has a voice will grate your ears worse than a cat-call, and dresses so ill she’s scarce fit to trick up a yeoman’s daughter on a holiday.

Stereotyping the dullness of the countryside

YOUNG BELLAIR: Are you in love?
HARRIET: Yes, with this dear town, to that degree I can scarce endure the country in landscapes and in hangings.
YOUNG BELLAIR: What a dreadful thing ’twould be to be hurried back to Hampshire?
HARRIET: Ah! name it not!

Or:

BELINDA: Pity me rather, my dear, where I have been so tired with two or three country gentlewomen, whose conversation has been more insufferable than a country fiddle.

Or:

MRS LOVEIT: Where do these country gentlewomen lodge, I pray?
BELINDA: In the Strand, over against the Exchange.
PERT: That place is never without a nest of ’em; they are always as one goes by fleering in balconies or
staring out of windows.

HARRIET: This is more dismal than the country, Emilia; pity me who am going to that sad place.

In other words, the entire play is a tissue of stereotypes. The characters repeat almost nothing but stereotypes, cliches and truisms, which the audience are intended to recognise with a knowing smile, and applaud. Picking out only the anti-women sentiments seems to me to miss the bigger picture of the generally misanthropic cynicism of the total worldview.

P.S. A mirror up to society

The verse prologue, written by the improbably named Sir Car Scrope, contains a particularly clear expression of the age-old doctrine that the theatre holds up a mirror to society.

For, heaven be thank’d, ’tis not so wise an age
But your own follies may supply the stage.
Though often plough’d, there’s no great fear the soil
Should barren grow by the too frequent toil,
While at your doors are to be daily found
Such loads of dunghill to manure the ground.
’Tis by your follies that we players thrive,
As the physicians by diseases live;
And as each year some new distemper reigns,
Whose friendly poison helps t’increase their gains,
So among you there starts up every day
Some new unheard-of fool for us to play.


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The case against identity politics

Steve Bannon thinks identity politics are great for President Donald Trump. That’s what the president’s adviser told Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Anecdote

At the press launch of Masculinities at the Barbican I stood by the bar queuing for a free coffee. In front of me were two very posh art reviewers, laughing and joking about people they know in the art world. One was a man, one was a woman. They drank their coffee and set off into the exhibition where a massive introductory wall label asserts that GENDER is the decisive factor in power relations in Western society.

Is it, though? I was struck by the way both these posh people, man and woman, simply ignored the drone, the servant, the serf who poured them their coffees. When it was my turn, I asked him where he was from – Hungary, as it turned out – and tried out my one and only piece of Hungarian vocabulary on him: köszönöm.

There are well over a million East Europeans in the UK, performing all kinds of menial jobs, handing out coffee, working in warehouses, building, gardening, labouring. Bankers wives lunch together in the lovely restaurant at the Victoria and Albert Museum while foreign lackeys of both sexes serve and clean and wipe up after them.

So as you can tell, for me it’s not about gender; it’s about power and money and class, which can often be mixed up with gender, but just as often supersede and override it.

I’ve watched my friend Sarah, the banker’s wife, give her cleaner her tasks for the day and tell her au pair where to take the children, before going off to meet Gillian for coffee.

Maybe, as the feminists insist, all three of them are women and so share the same struggles and experience the same oppression, but it doesn’t look that way to me.

To me it looks as if one person in this situation has money, lots of money, and therefore lots of power over other people who have hardly any money and so have to obey the rich person. For me, in my opinion, money and power trump gender every time, and I am on the side of the people without money and without power.

Personal experience

I joined the Campaign For Homosexual Equality, although I am not myself gay, when I was 17 or 18 back in the late 1970s. I thought it was scandalous that gays and lesbians didn’t have the exact same rights as straight people, from the same age of consent to the same right to get married, have children etc. I used to like hanging round Windsor’s one gay pub where I was introduced by a gay activist to the colourful clientele and made a number of gay friends, far more fun and interesting than most of the boys and girls of my age.

At the same time, back in the late 70s, I attended Rock Against Racism marches and gigs, although I am not myself black. Again, I thought all kinds of legal and social discrimination against black people were disgusting and needed to be campaigned against, so I signed petitions and went on marches chanting lots of slogans.

Why identity politics is bad

1. Identity politics creates an equal and opposite reaction God knows how many articles I’ve read by ‘angry’ feminists, incensed by this, that or the other latest outrage against women.

And articles by angry Muslims, outraged by discrimination and Islamophobia, like Baroness Warsi.

And by angry black activists, outraged by racism and discrimination against persons of colour, like David Lammy.

And by angry Jews, outraged by anti-semitism, like Margaret Hodge.

But as they stoke a bottomless swamp of anger, none of these people seem to have considered two obvious points:

1. If you promote anger, permanent anger, about every single perceived insult and slight against every single section of society, you are, eventually, in effect, promoting an angry society. When I read puzzled articles in the liberal press wondering why society has suddenly become so angry, I reflect that at least part of the reason might be that you’ve been printing articles encouraging all women, all blacks, all Muslims, all gays and lesbians, and every other definable minority, to be as angry as possible.

2. What makes you think your anger is more righteous and holy than the anger of your opponents? The last decade or so has seen the new rise of ‘white anger’, in the States, in Australasia and across Europe. Why the surprise? If you demonise, mock, insult and abuse white people – and especially white men – as institutionally sexist, misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, pathetic losers nostalgic for the vanished days of empire, well, why on earth would you be surprised if eventually this long-suffering minority (white men are a minority of the population in all these countries) might themselves develop a sense of grievance and get fed up of being insulted, blamed and abused all the time.

Hence the right-wing, and sometimes very right-wing movements, which have sprung up in the last decade or so all around the developed world, and especially in Eastern Europe.

I’m not in favour of these groups and parties, far from it. I’m just surprised that the hordes of identity politicians railing endlessly against men and white people are surprised that eventually these much-vilified men (all those mansplaining, manspreading, misogynist bastards), and these much-abused white people (the white racist, imperialist, whitesplaining bastards), have kicked back, set up their own political parties, and refuse to take it any more.

Why does it come as a surprise that they will begin writing and talking about their identities and their traditions and their communities and how they feel increasingly under threat from a globalised, neo-liberal economic order and its handmaiden, the globalised rhetoric of identity politics. In fact many of these post-industrial communities have had the stuffing kicked out of them over the past 30 years and are right be angry.

The great irony of our times is that woke identity politicians have created their nemesis, their mirror image. Western societies are drenched in feminist and politically correct rhetoric to an unprecedented degree. Which newspaper today doesn’t have an article about the terrible misogyny that all women have to face and the racism that all blacks have to face and the Islamophobia that all Muslims have to face and the homophobia that all gay people have to face.

In fact, more women, blacks and Asians, gays and lesbians are in positions of power and influence than ever before in world history, and has the result been the birth of a new, peaceful, calm and content society?

No. The exact opposite. It has resulted in the flowering of the Far Right: Trump, Brexit, the AfD, Five Star, Vox, Viktor Orban, and so on. In the European Parliament, nine far-right parties have formed a new bloc, and its name is: Identity and Democracy.

It turns out that the Left, the woke, and the politically correct do not have a monopoly on the rhetoric and discourse of identity. Other people can be angry about their identities and their communities and their beliefs being mocked and vilified, too.

So now all those angry black people and feminists and Muslims and LGBT+ activists I’ve been reading about for decades haven been joined by loads of angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives.

As I’ve said, I have no truck with angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives. I’m just stepping back, surveying the scene and marvelling at what a wonderful world we have created.

2. Identity politics divides and polarises society For a preview of how this will pan out, look at America, home of the most advanced feminist and BAME civil rights movements in the world. Is it, as a result, the most peaceful, calm and relaxed society in the West? No. It is the most poisonously divided Western society, where political opponents can’t even speak to each other, where all sides devote their time to sniffing out each other’s politically incorrect texts or tweets or speeches or jokes, and where the complete inability top laugh or joke about any of these issues is contributing to a toxic cultural atmosphere in which identity-motivated violence is growing. America is without doubt the most violent and socially divided country in the OECD.

3. Identity politics consumes conventional politics Back in the United Kingdom, look at the trouble caused in the Labour Party by the accusations about its supposedly institutional anti-semitism and, right now, the trouble leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey has got herself into on the tricky issue of transgender rights.

It’s difficult to take a view on transgender rights which someone else can’t criticise as bigoted and transphobic, or bigoted and misogynist. If you support the right of transwomen to call themselves women you upset quite a few feminists who insist they aren’t and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed into women-only spaces like changing rooms. But if you back this point of view, you are instantly accused of transphobia.

Trans rights are, in a sense, a quintessence of politically correct, identity politics because a really pure, ‘correct’ view which pleases all sides, is actually impossible. It calls for a degree of ‘correctness’ which isn’t actually achievable by mere mortals. Thus it will continue to bedevil the Left for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, is the net effect of all these squabbles over race and gender the creation of a happier society more at peace with itself?

No. The most obvious result is to wound anyone who gets caught up in these kinds of arguments because they are so poisonous and, once you’re embroiled in these sorts of controversies, they are extremely difficult to wriggle out of.

Will the Labour Party ever, ever again, be free of the taint of anti-Semitism which has it has been so comprehensively accused of?

And this is how you end up with people like Steven Bannon quoted as saying how great it is for people like him (former White House Chief Strategist to President Trump) when the Left go on about race and identity and gender – because it means they’ve handed over the entire debate about how to run the economy, how to tax and spend, about business and transport, about resources and the environment, about social and foreign policy, in fact most of the business of actual government, over to their opponents.

Identity politics means the Left becomes evermore focused on a handful of extremely contentious issues, and loses sight of all the larger problems which affect most people most of the time and which they look (often pretty reluctantly) to politicians to fix.

Modern, urban, university-educated identity politics has helped to make the Left seem totally irrelevant to the lives of huge numbers of people.

4. Identity politics condemns you to political impotence Thus the Left loses at a high, political and governmental level, but it also loses demographically, in terms of simple arithmetic.

Everyone in the woke bubble agrees with everyone else in the bubble, as I realised when I watched the very woke curator of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican explaining the very woke attitude of all the artists represented to the very woke audience of art journalists and critics who went off and wrote their very woke reviews to be read by the very woke readers of The Guardian etc.

But it is a minority bubble. Utterly pure social justice warriors – those who have such impeccably correct views that they cannot be criticised for islamophobia, racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, sexism or transphobia – are in a small minority.

They may – like on-message art gallery curators – share their immaculately progressive views with all the other artists and gallery curators and lime-minded progressives in America and Canada, and across Latin America and Australasia and Europe and Africa. How wonderful that all these like-minded people share the same values and support the same important causes!

But hardly anyone else does.

Jo Swinson wouldn’t stop telling everyone how proud she was to be the first woman leader of the Liberal Party, and I listened to a radio 4 interview just three days before the 2019 General Election, in which she spoke for nearly ten minutes about the burning importance of trans rights.

The result? The Liberal Party was slaughtered in the last general election and Swinson lost her own seat. So much for holding immaculately progressive views. For sure that makes you an immaculately progressive person, and it’s always lovely to be an angel and on the side of the good and the pure and the true. But in a democratic system, insisting on views held by only a tiny minority, means you lose and lose badly.

Look at the contenders to be the Democratic Presidential candidate against Donald Trump and how they’re using race and gender to tear each other to pieces. Elizabeth Warren is going to lose but not before she accuses all the men around her of being sexist pigs, abusers, harassers and misogynists, and a lot of that mud will stick.

Or look at the contenders for the Labour Party leadership struggling to address the issues of anti-semitism, racism and sexism. Any policies about the economy or industry or healthcare or the NHS or crime or immigration are difficult to make out through the blizzard of accusations of sexism and racism and transphobia which they’re throwing at each other.

And meanwhile, watch the bankers and heads of multinational corporations carry on wrecking the environment, paying their immigrant staff a pittance, and awarding themselves multi-million pound pay rises, happy in the knowledge that the Left is tearing itself to pieces with needless and bitter recriminations about which of them is more sexist or more racist than the other.

Watch Donald Trump and Boris Johnson sit back, rubbing their hands and laughing their heads off.

Conclusion

So my position is not that I’m against equality for women, LGBTG+ people, blacks, Muslims and so on. I am in favour of all these causes, and continue to vote for left-of-centre parties. But I think the never-ending rise of identity politics will:

  • in the name of ‘progressive’ values, permanently weaken the Left as a viable political force
  • lead to the permanent entrenchment of the Right in power
  • continue to create a more fractious, fragmented, angry and violent society
  • leaving huge corporations and the banks completely free to carry on business as usual

So this is the context for my reaction to an art exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography at the Barbican, which I reviewed yesterday.

My reaction isn’t a knee-jerk negativity prompted because, as a white man, I feel somehow threatened by all these black artists or gay artists or feminist artists. I’m not threatened by them at all. I campaigned for black and gay causes when I was a teenager, and I really liked a lot of the black and gay and feminist art on display.

But taken as a political gesture, if the curators really take the word ‘politics’ in its simplest core sense, as ‘the activities associated with the governance of a country’, then I fear that exhibitions like this which are drenched in a rhetoric which attacks all men and all white people and all straight people, and blames them for all the injustices of the past – is in practice going to alienate the majority of the population, exacerbate social divisions, merely entrench the blinkered groupthink of a small minority of the hyper-woke metropolitan middle classes, and is part of the general cultural movement which is rendering progressive politics more and more irrelevant to most people’s day-to-day concerns.

The Barbican exhibition is drenched in the kind of righteous rhetoric which at best leaves most people cold, at worst actively insults some of the people we need on our side, and which paints the Left into an increasingly irrelevant corner and condemns it to perpetual powerlessness.

So it this analysis of the politics of the real, wider world, which lies behind my refusal simply to endorse all the anti-white, anti-male discourse enshrined in an exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography.

I broadly support the political aims of all the groups represented (women, blacks, LGBT+). But I fear that the self-congratulatory elitism and the aggressively anti-mainstream rhetoric of the commentary and discourse which saturate exhibitions like this is not part of the solution, but are contributing to a really serious, long-term social and political crisis.


Articles against identity politics

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The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

A short novella, 128 pages in the Gollancz paperback edition, this is a furious satire on the arrogance, ignorance and grotesque violence of colonialism, fired by Le Guin’s anger against American behaviour in the Vietnam War. It is cast in the shape of a science fiction story which slots into the ‘Hainish’ universe and so it set on a planet far away and in the future. But the despicable behaviour of the marauding human colonists clearly reflects media coverage of the American army in Vietnam.

Athshe

Le Guin invents a planet from her ever-expandable range of planets set in the so-called Hainish universe. This one is named Athshe and consists mostly of warm ocean, but has one archipelago of islands covered in rainforest. Hidden away in burrows and primitive villages in the forest live the metre-tall, furry Athsheans, who spend a lot of their lives in ‘dreamtime’.

[As with all the planets in the Hain cycle or universe, the idea is that the humanoid Hain achieved space travels hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years earlier – and colonised or populated a range of habitable planets across the galaxy. These varieties of human have evolved in sometimes striking different directions but are, genetically, all part of one genus. Thus, despite their physical differences, the Athsheans are, at bottom, human and, in their own language, refer to themselves as ‘men’ every bit as much as the humans who arrive on their planet.]

Men, yes, men, because, alas, four years before the story started, colonists from Earth arrived on Athshe (known to Terran explorers as Planet 41 and named by the settlers ‘New Tahiti’). They immediately set up logging camps in all the forests of all the main islands, and proceeded to chop down all the trees, strip & shape them and ship them back to Earth, which is a sterile world of concrete in this (characteristically) dystopian future.

The colonists call the natives ‘creechies’. The natives call the colonists ‘yumans’.

Le Guin makes these human invaders as blunt and gung-ho, Yankee, big-swinging-dick, macho shitheads as she can, led by one Captain Davidson, head of the ‘Smith’ logging camp.

We watch Donaldson beating and berating the little furry Athsheans, getting them to fetch and carry and slave for the white man. In case we don’t get that he’s a prime slab of toxic masculinity, Davidson is shown swaggering around the camp fnah-fnahing with his logger mates about the new consignment of womenfolk who’ve just arrived on a spaceship from earth, prime meat, get it while you can boys, yee hah! And all that’s before we learn that he raped and killed one of the Athshean females.

Attack on camp Smith

Captain Davidson flies to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, for a little R&R but, upon his return, is astonished to find Camp Smith a heap of smouldering ashes. The Athsheans have risen up and wiped out the 200 or so men there and burned everything to the ground.

A couple of them then jump Davidson, take his gun off him and let him loose to go and tell the other men that the Athsheans are having their revenge. Just to rub in what a toxic slab of male cowardice Davidson is, Le Guin has him whining and mewling that it’s not fair that he doesn’t have a gun anymore.

Sometime later he returns in a helicopter from the nearest surviving camp which is, characteristically, equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers, and ravages the entire area, in mad psychopathic anger – a sci-fi equivalent of the ship Marlow sees off the coast of Africa firing its canon into the forest out of blank, hopeless rage and frustration in Heart of Darkness.

Selver and Lyubov

Then the scene cuts to follow the Athshean who confronted Davidson, Selver, making his way through the vast tropical rainforests to the nearest native village. He jumped Davidson alright, but not before the big white man got off a shot on his blaster which badly burned his shoulder.

Selver comes to a native settlement which seems to be made of burrows in the ground. He is greeted by an old man of the dreamtime, who introduces himself as Coro Mena of the Whitethorn. Our guy replies that he is Selver of the Ash – for these people are organised into clans named after species of tree.

From that point we are taken deeper and deeper into Athshean society, culture and customs: the novel is, in other words, another of Le Guin’s anthropological exercises.

Something which is made unmistakable by the way that, as so often, the lead (human) character is an anthropologist – in this case described as a ‘hilfer’, a professional student of Highly Intelligent Life Forms, the only Terran who has made the effort to half-understand the Athsheans and their strange mystical relationship with a) the all-encompassing tropical rainforest and b) the dreamtime.

His name is Raj Lyubov. Before the narrative started he had befriended Selver and learned some of the natives’ language and beliefs from him.

But it’s very characteristic of Le Guin that this fragile understanding and cross-cultural friendship is doomed to be crushed under hard, not to say cruel, events. For now we learn that the trigger for all the events is that, before the story started, Davidson had plucked Selver’s furry little wife from the pen where the ‘yumans’ locked up the creechies every night, and he raped her, and she died during the experience.

At the first opportunity afterwards, Selver tried to kill Davidson by attacking him in the street of Camp Smith. Davidson, at twice Selver’s height, was defending himself, in the centre of a circle of cheering, jeering jock humans, when Lyubov pushed through and pulled Selver free, carrying him back to his house. Here Lyubov washed Selver’s wounds and tended him back to health, the other colonists too ashamed to intervene.

Selver and Lyubov form a friendship of sorts, Selver helping the hilfer understand native language and, above all, the central importance of dreaming, of being able to go off into dream states, to Athshean culture.

But Selver is still driven by bitter anger and it is this, compounded by other horrors which are casually mentioned (for example, we learn that one of the colonists, Benton, likes to castrate ‘uppity’ creechies in front of the others), which lies behind the creechies’ massacre of the settlers at Camp Smith.

The cycle of violence

Just when you thought Davidson couldn’t get any more loathsome, he leads a group of gung-ho soldiers on a retaliatory attack on a totally innocent Athshean village. They napalm the burrows and burn alive the furry little natives as they run out. They stamp on them to break their backs, they shoot them and burn them alive. In a bitterly satirical aside, Le Guin says they didn’t even reserve a few of them to gang rape, they were that consumed with blood lust.

There is a plot of sorts, but I found it hard to read because by this time I was feeling pretty sick. As I commented about City of Illusions, Le Guin can, when she wants, write extended descriptions of the natural world but…rarely a page goes by without it being ruined, spoilt, desecrated, by horror, terror, violence, beatings, killings, rapes and, as in this novel, castrations. The cumulative effect isn’t insightful or evocative, I just find it grim and depressing. Depressing because this is fiction. She could write about anything – but she chooses to write about burning people alive and raping and castrating.

The authorities intervene

Back in the plot, the spaceship from Terra which arrived with the women colonists also carried two humanoid aliens, a Cetian and a Hainish, and the unexpected massacre at Camp Smith compels them to jet down for a conference with the military leaders of the colony.

As it emerges out that the colonists are using the locals for slave labour and raping their women, the two officials are not impressed. The meeting/conference is described in some detail, and especially the role of Raj Lyubov who tries to respectfully disagree with his military masters and make the truth known to the ambassadors, painfully aware of how the soldiers look at him with growing hatred, Davidson in particular.

Now these ambassadors are carrying an example of a new invention, the ansible, which they had been tasked with taking on to another colonised planet. Now they decide to leave it here so that the colonists can be in instantaneous communication with the Administration back home. They point out that in the years since the colonists arrived, the Earth has joined the League of Worlds, and has moderated its rapacious demands on other planets. Now instructions start being conveyed from the home planet Administration via the ansible, live, in real time.

Of course the military, especially numb-nuts Captain Davidson, not only reject this but suspect it is a hoax, a con, the ansible is a fake and the strict new, native-friendly rules being sent through it and imposed on the military are some kind of alien coup cooked up by the pallid Hainish and the hairy little Cetian.

Davidson is painted as such a cowardly, murderous, psychopathic rapist – and the Athsheans such lovable tree-hugging, green furry dreamers – and Raj Lyubov so much the sensitive man-in-the-middle who ends up alienating both sides – that I couldn’t help have a sneaking liking for Davidson. In free indirect speech Le Guin lets us overhear his thoughts and share his worldview, and captures the big swinging dick, macho bullshit of testosterone-overdrive American culture so well. Monsters are often thrilling. That’s one of the most obvious findings or discoveries of literature.

That said, there is a running stream of feminist comments throughout the book, a counterblast to Davidson’s appalling macho mindset.

The Athshean communities are run by headwomen. Casually we are shown female Athsheans being messengers and doers. I was particularly struck by the idea attributed to the thoughtful Lyubov, that what the colonists really needed was not big-breasted dolly birds but more old women. Old women have a special wisdom. Old women speak their minds and (though it isn’t expressed) old women can shame full-grown men into half-decent behaviour.

Lyubov is spurned by the Athsheans

Once the ambassadors or administrators from Terra have moved on, leaving a chastened military leadership reluctantly following its new orders from the home Administration back on Earth via the ansible – Lyubov ventures out to the nearest Athshean village. Here he is shocked to find the headwoman and other elders no longer talk to him or even look at him. He is the most sympathetic and understanding of the yumans but the days of peace are gone. Lyubov encounters Selver, who is recovering from leading the attack on Camp Smith. The other Athsheans look on him now with awe, as a human who can wreak such devastation in the ‘real’ world.

From Lyubov’s memories of rescuing and helping Selver we gather a lot more information about a) the Athsheans’ culture and language and especially about their ability to dream with their eyes open and remember and in some sense live by their dreams, and also b) more of the backstory about how Lyubov rescued Selver from probably being beaten to death by Davidson, nursed him, and in doing so struck up an intense relationship in which they taught each other their languages. But the violence has severed that link. Now Selver can barely talk to him. Devastated, Lyubin returns to the main human settlement, which they call Centralville.

The cycle of violence continues

That night Lyubov wakes from ominous and fateful dreams to discover that Centralville is under ferocious attack from the Athsheans. Later we get the detail of how about 5,000 Athsheans, organised by Selver and others who had been slaves at Camp Smith, launched a carefully planned attack, cutting off the water supplies, surrounding the base, planting a huge pile of dynamite in the central HQ then waiting with flamethrowers (!), some guns and plenty of knives and laces for the terrified yumans to emerge into the night.

Later we learn that the Athsheans knew the human women had been sent for safety from all the remote colonists’ settlements to Centralville and took special care to target the women’s dormitories and – annihilate them – mostly by burning them to death inside their buildings, or as they tried to escape, or slitting their throats or stabbing them with knives or lances.

All this we discover later, but at the time the scene of carnage, explosions, burning and screaming is described through Lyubov’s terrified perceptions, right up to the moment he goes to the help of a screaming woman running out of a building, just as the building topples forward and crushes them both, smashing Lyubov into the mud.

Next day, amid the smouldering ruins, Selver wanders dazed at what they’ve done. All the women, some 500, were massacred, as planned, to prevent the colonists breeding like locusts. The surviving men have been rounded up and placed in a pen, a lager, a camp. Wandering the smouldering streets Selver is dismayed to come across Lyubov’s body, crushed under the beams of the fallen building. He cradles the hilfer’s head but Lyubov can’t move because his back is broken and after a few words he dies. Or, as Selver perceives it, passes into the dreamworld.

See what I mean by hard and unrelenting and callous and cruel? I found it a struggle to finish this short book, not because it reflects the brutality of Vietnam – it doesn’t particularly – for me it felt like a continuation of the callous, heartless violence I’ve experienced in all of Le Guin’s novels. Remember the helicopters hovering over the protest meeting in The Dispossessed and suddenly opening fire with machine guns and massacring hundreds. All seven of the novels I’ve read have been characterised by wilful, hard, unbending, unsentimental, bleak, cruel violence.

The colonists at bay

The surviving men colonists are rounded up and kept in a pen. I kept envisioning this as like the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai. Selver has by now established himself as leader of the Athsheans, who have no central organisation or government or leadership in our sense. We are shown younger creechies watching in awe as he passes by. He is regarded as a ‘god’ because he has brought something from the dreamworld into the real world – namely war and death.

Now he negotiates with the remaining leadership among the colonists.

Cut to Davidson who hadn’t been at Centralville when the big attack took place, he was at a different settlement called New Java. Now he gets radio messages from his superiors inside the camp, telling him they’ve made peace with the Athsheans and he must cease any engagement with them.

The novel really becomes about Davidson now: it emerges as the portrait of a military psychopath because Le Guin takes us inside his head, hearing all his rationalisations and justifications for disobeying military discipline, for ignoring direct instructions to ceasefire. He decides his superiors have gone soft, and leads the more gung-ho elements on a series of helicopter attacks on nearby villages, once again, carpeting them in napalm and bombs, watching entire settlements – of sweet organic burrows mostly buried in the ground amid the roots of the great rainforests – going up in flames and watching the little creechies run around on fire.

Another Athshean attack

As you might expect, after some days of this there is a massive Athshean attack on Davidson’s camp. Amid all the explosions and confusion, Davidson and a few others make it to a helicopter and take off. In the dark night Davidson orders the pilot to return and strafe their own camp.

What I haven’t really brought out is the extent to which Davidson has gone nuts. From a technical point of view, one obvious interest in the narrative is the way Le Guin plots Davidson’s progression from gung-ho soldier, to disobedient officer and then onto crazed killer.

Davidson argues with both the other colonists in the chopper, including the one flying it. He gun-punches one of them, knocking him out and then, in a mad moment, turns out the cabin lights in the chopper – the aim being to see the lights of the flames from the camp so they can return and strafe it.

It’s only for a moment but it’s long enough for the chopper to lose enough height to crash into tress and then topple down through the treecover crashing down to within a few feet of the ground, in a way we’ve all seen in umpteen action movies. Davidson comes round from concussion, falls the few feet to the ground, realises that he’s slithering around in the sticky remains of the pilot’s body (yuk), has all kinds of delusory thoughts about flying back and killing everyone but…

Instead he regains consciousness and is confronted with his nemesis, Selver. Selver says he is mad. (There is a lot of rhetoric about madness and sanity in the book.) And so they’re going to do what they do with natives who go insane – take him to a desert island, in this case, one of the ones the humans have utterly devastated. Dazed Davidson feels a rope noose being lowered over his neck and capitulates.

Coda

The spaceship which dropped off the women colonists at the start? It’s back from its mission to some other planet bringing with it the only two grown-ups in the story, the Hainish and the Cetian representatives of the League of All Worlds.

They apologise to Selver (who has emerged as the leader of the Athsheans) for the behaviour of the colonists, and explain that the entire colony is shutting down. All the humans and all the equipment will be removed. No more humans will arrive or disturb them. Athshe has been made subject of a League Ban, and will be protected.

The last thought is Selver explaining how his culture considers new inventions or discoveries to originate in the dream world and be brought from there into the real world, and how those who bring them about are considered ‘gods’ (in their local language; in fact different from what we consider gods).

Anyway, the last thought is that his people consider him a god because he has brought forth organised fighting on a scale his world has never known. Now, sadly, he thinks his discovery of killing will not go away…

In this excerpt of the novel’s last page, Lepennon is the name of the Hainishman, Lyubov – although dead – continues to haunt Selver’s consciousness and Davidson – as we’ve seen – is alive but isolated on an island for the mad (something Lepennon and all the other Terrans are [ironically] unaware of.)

‘Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’

Lepennon laid his long hand on Selver’s hand, so quickly and gently that Selver accepted the touch as if the hand were not a stranger’s. The green-gold shadows of the ash leaves flickered over them.

‘But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason,’ Lepennon said, his face as anxious and sad as Lyubov’s face. ‘We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever. Then the forests of Athshe will be as they were before.’

Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, ‘I shall be here.’

‘Lyubov will be here,’ Selver said. ‘And Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.’

Conclusion

This book should have thrilled me since a) I am interested in, and have read fairly extensively about, the Vietnam war:

and b) I like science fiction.

But, although it has some elements which showcase Le Guin’s characteristic Deep Thought (the sleep/dream culture which she invents and ascribes to the native species, as well as their cultural tradition of holding singing contests instead of fighting) – nonetheless, I was disgusted and repelled by the unrelenting, sickening violence of the story which simply, for me, had no redeeming feature.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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