Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Modernity Britain: Opening the Box 1957–59 by David Kynaston (2014)

Opening the Box is the first book in volume three of David Kynaston’s epic social history of post-war Britain.

It opens on 10 January 1957 as Harold Macmillan drops by Buckingham Palace to be made Prime Minister, and ends on Friday 9 October 1959 as the final results show that the Conservatives have won a staggering majority of 100 in the General Election: so the book covers about two years and nine months of British domestic history.

I say ‘domestic’ because there is no, absolutely no, mention of the British Empire, the independence struggles / small wars the British Army was fighting, or the impact of foreign affairs on Britain. The Suez Crisis was dealt with briskly and briefly at the very end of the previous volume: this book is utterly focused on the domestic scene.

In its end points Kynaston provides the usual bombardment of quotations from hundreds of diverse sources, from housewives and soldiers, social planners and architects, young and thrusting writers and crusty old critics, politicians idealistic and cynical, commentators on rugby, cricket, soccer and horse-racing – alongside summaries of scores of numerous sociological reports and surveys carried out during these years into all aspects of social life, and social policy – on housing and new towns and flats, consumer behaviour, ideas of class, the family, and so on.

Unlike a traditional historian Kynaston skips quickly past even quite major political events from the period (and even these tend to be viewed through the prism of his diarists and journal keepers) in order to measure their impact on the ordinary men and women caught up in them.

This is his strength, his forte, the inclusion of so many contemporary voices – experts and ordinary, powerful and powerless – that immersing yourself in the vast tissue of quotes and voices, speeches and reports, diaries and newspaper articles, builds up a cumulative effect of making you feel you really know this period and have lived through these events. It is a powerful ‘immersive’ experience.

But in this, the fifth book in the series, I became increasingly conscious of a pronounced downside to this approach – which is that it lacks really deep analysis.

The experience of reading the book is to be continually skipping on from the FA Cup Final to the Epsom Derby to the domestic worries of Nella Last or Madge Martin to a snide note on the latest political developments by a well-placed observer like Anthony Crossland or Chips Channon, to a report by the town planners of Coventry or Plymouth alongside letters to the local press, to the notes of Anthony Heap, an inveterate attender of West End first nights, or the thoughts about the new consumer society of Michael Young, to the constant refrain of excerpts from the diaries of Kenneth Williams, Philip Larkin and even Macmillan himself.

This all undeniably gives you a panoramic overview of what was happening and, like the reader of any modern newspaper or consumer of a news feed, to some extent it’s up to you, the reader, to sift through the blizzard of voices and information and opinions and decide what is interesting or important to you.

The downside is that you never feel you’ve really got to the bottom of any of the issues. Even the big issues, the ones Kynaston treats at some length (20, 30, 40 pages) never really arrive at a conclusion.

The housing crisis

The housing crisis existed before the war, as social reformers became increasingly aware of just how many millions of British citizens were living in squalid, damp, unlit, unventilated Victorian slums with no running water, baths and only outside toilets – the kind of conditions reported on by George Orwell among others. But the situation was, of course, greatly exacerbated by the German blitz on most of Britain’s major cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow. By 1957 it was estimated there were some 850,000 dwellings unfit for human habitation in the UK.

The result was city councils who were well aware of the need to modernise their cities, to get rid of the old slums and rebuild not only houses but, potentially, the entire layout of the cities. Arguably this was the key issue for a generation after the war and Kynaston reverts to it repeatedly. He quotes town planners and architects as they engaged in fundamental debates about how to go about this task, the most obvious division being between ‘urbanists’, who thought working class communities should be rehoused within the city boundaries, if possible close to or on the same location as the existing slums, once they’d been demolished and new houses built – and ‘dispersionists’, who thought a large percentage of big city populations should be moved right out of the inner cities to a) brand new model estates built on the outskirts of the city, like Pollok outside Glasgow or b) to new towns, overspill towns built 20, 30 or 40 miles away, which could be planned and designed rationally from scratch (places like Stevenage or Harlow).

This debate overlapped with another binary set of alternatives: whether to re-accommodate people in houses or in blocks of flats, with barrages of argument on both sides.

Proponents of flats made the simple case that building vertically was the only way to accommodate such large populations a) quickly b) within the limited space within city borders. They were backed up by zealously modernist architects who had an ideological attachment to the teachings of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus and thought, at their most extreme, that the new designs for living would change human nature and bring about a new, more egalitarian society. So aesthetics and radical politics were poisonously intertwined in the strong push towards flats.

Ranged against them were a) the tenants, who didn’t want to move into flats, pointing out that flats:

  • are noisy and poorly sound-proofed
  • have no privacy
  • have no gardens
  • so that the kids have to be penned up inside them (‘awful places for families to live in’ – diarist Marian Raynham)
  • the rents are higher

And b) the more conservative or sensitive architects and planners who recognised the simple fact – which comes over in survey after survey after survey that Kynaston quotes – that people wanted a house of their own. Interestingly, this wish turns out to itself be based on an even simpler idea – that almost everyone interviewed in numerous surveys, by writers and newspaper journalists – wanted privacy.

  • ‘I think that the natural way for people to live is in houses,’ Mrs E. Denington, vice-chair of the London County Council’s Housing Committee.
  • ‘Houses are preferred because they are more suitable for family life,’ Hilary Clark, deputy housing manager Wolverhampton

Kynaston emphasises that the years covered in his book were the tipping point.

1958 was the year when modernism indisputably entered the mainstream. (p.129)

During 1958 it became almost a cliché that London’s skyline was changing dramatically. (p.132)

Through the four books so far, and in this one as well, Kynaston gives extensive quotes from slum-dwellers, flat occupiers, new home owners, planners, designers, architects and the sociologists who produced report after report trying to clarify what people wanted and so help shape decisions on the issue.

But – and here’s my point – we never really get to the bottom of the problem. Kynaston quotes extensively and then… moves on to talk about Tommy Steele or the new Carry On film. But I wanted answers. I wanted to hear his opinion. I wanted a systematic exposition of the issues, history and debate which would lead up to conclusions about how we now see it, looking back 65 years.

But there is nothing like that. Kynaston just describes the debate as it unfolded, through the words of reports and surveys and sociologists and architects. But his debate never reaches a conclusion. And after a while that gets a bit frustrating.

Industrial relations

The 1945 Labour government famously nationalised a range of major industries and then, just as famously, ran out of ideas and lost the snap 1951 election.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s industrial relations remained poor, with Kynaston repeatedly mentioning outbreaks of strikes, sometimes on a big enough scale (like the London dockers strike of 1949) to affect food supplies and spark a range of outraged opinions in the housewife diarists who are among his core contributors.

As the 1950s progress we get snippets of middle class people taking student or holiday jobs down among the working classes and being shocked by the widespread slackness and the culture of skiving which they discover. To balance the picture out, he also gives us, from time to time, vivid portraits of some of the ‘captains of industry’, heads of large companies who turn out to be eccentrics or egomaniacs.

Altogether, as usual, the reader has a vivid sense of the feel of the times and the experiences of a wide range of people living through them. But there are no ideas about industrial policy, trade union legislation, its impact on industry, the economy and the Labour Party which was often seen as being in thrall to stroppy and irresponsibly organisations.

In fact I did glean one idea from reading well over 1,500 pages of Kynaston’s history: this is that around about 1950, the British government and British industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the industrial and commercial advantage across a wide range of industrial and consumer goods. German and Japanese industry still lay prostrate after the war and the Americans were focusing on their home markets. If the right investment had been channelled by a capitalist-minded government into the right industries, and if Britain had adopted German-style industrial relations (e.g. having worker representatives on the boards of companies) to ensure unified focus on rebuilding, then Britain might have anticipated what became known as ‘the German economic miracle’.

But it didn’t. The trade unions preferred the freedom of collective bargaining (i.e. found it more convenient to be outside management structure so that they could blame the management for everything and go on strike whenever it suited them), the Labour government was more concerned about a Socialist-inspired programme of nationalising industries in the hope of creating ‘the New Jerusalem’, and many managements found selling the same old products to the captive markets of the Empire and Commonwealth far easier than trying to create new products to market in Europe or America.

At all levels there was a failure of nerve and imagination, which condemned Britain to decades of industrial decline.

The catch is: this isn’t Kynaston’s idea – he quotes it from Correlli Barnett’s searing history of post-war failure, The Audit of War. In a nutshell, Kyanston’s wonderful books present the reader with a Christmas pudding stuffed with a vast multitude of factoids and snippets and post-war trivia and gossip and impressions deriving from an incredibly wide array of eye witnesses. But it is precious thin on ideas and analysis, and at the end of the day, it’s the big idea, the thesis, the interpretation which we tend to remember from history books.

The consumer society

This volume definitely depicts the arrival and triumph of ‘the consumer society’. I had thought it was a later phenomenon, of the 1960s, but no. By 1957 56% of adults owned a TV set, 26% a washing machine, 21% a telephone, only 12% a dishwasher, and 24% of the population owned a car. Aggressive new advertising campaigns promoted Fry’s Turkish Delight, Ready Brek, Gibbs SR, Old Spice, the Hoovermatic twin tub, Camay soap and Blue Band margarine.

People faced with ever-widening products to choose from need advice: hence the Egon Ronay Guide to restaurants, launched in 1957, followed in October by Which? magazine.

Even Mass-Observation, which started with such socialist ambitions in 1937, and has provided Kynaston with such a wealth of sociological material for the previous four books, had, by now, become ‘an organisation devoted to market research rather than sociological enquiry.’

Topics

1957

  • January – Bolton Wanderers beat Leeds United 5-3, the third series of Dixon of Dock Green kicks off, the Cavern nightclub opens in Liverpool, Manchester United beat Bilbao 3-0 to go into the semi-finals of the European Cup, Lawrence Durrell publishes Justine, Flanders and Swann open a musical review at the Fortune theatre, strike at the Briggs motor plant, 20-year-old Tommy Steele continues to be a showbiz sensation, end of the Toddlers’ Truce the government-enforced ban on children’s TV programmes between 6 and 7pm,
  • February – launch of BBC’s weekday new programme Tonight, publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, publication of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (‘urbanists’ arguing that extended kinship networks in Bethnal Green provide emotional and practical support which Bethnal Greenites who’d moved out to new estates in Debden missed),
  • March – the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, a Gallup survey showed 48% wanted to emigrate, start of big shipbuilding and engineering union strikes,
  • April – opening night of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer
  • May – Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final 2-1 to Aston Villa, petrol comes off the ration after five months
  • June – British Medical Council report linking smoking to lung cancer (reinforcing Richard Doll’s groundbreaking 1950 report) the government refuses to intervene; ERNIE makes the first Premium Bonds random draw, brainchild of Harold Macmillan; end of the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post founded in 1938, whose star photographer was Bert Hardy;
  • 20 July Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaks at a Tory rally in Bedford to mark 25 years’ service by Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, as MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and claims that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’; national busman’s strike; publication of Room at the Top by John Braine.
  • September – the Wolfenden Report recommends the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private; Ted Hughes’ first volume of poetry, The Hawk In The Rain, published; film version of Lucky Jim released, criticised for watering down the book’s realism
  • October – at Labour Party conference Nye Bevan comes out against nuclear disarmament, disillusioning his followers and creating a rift between the party and much of the left-leaning intelligentsia; 4 October Sputnik launched into orbit by the Russians; fire at the Windscale nuclear power plant; publication of Declaration, an anthology of essays by Angry Young Men (and one woman): Doris Lessing, Colin Wilson, John Osborne, John Wain, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Hopkins, Lindsay Anderson and Stuart Holroyd.
  • November – top of the charts is That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; the Russians launch a second satellite, this one with a dog, Laika, aboard; the General Post Office introduces postal codes; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set up in response to Britain’s detonation of a H-bomb;
  • December – the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast, from Sandringham;

1958

  • resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft after his insistence that government spending should be cut was rejected; launch if Bunty comic for girls
  • February – launch of Woman’s Realm magazine; 6 February the Munich Air Disaster in which a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, support staff and eight journalists crashed on take-off, killing 23;
  • March 1 BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop opens;
  • April – publication of Parkinson’s Law and Dr No; first CND march to Aldermaston; Balthazar, second volume in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Raymond’s Revuebar opens in Soho; London bus strike;
  • May first performance of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker;
  • July The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates; introduction of Green Shield Stamps; the first Little Chef; the Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff;
  • August – release of the first single by Cliff Richard; Kenton and Shula Archer born; the Empire theatre in Portsmouth closes down, replaced by a supermarket; Notting Hill Riots, the most serious public disorder of the decade, petrol bombs, knives, razors, huge mobs chanting ‘Kill the niggers’ – the race problem Winston Churchill had fretted about in 1951 had arrive with a vengeance with about 165,000 non-white immigrants living in the UK; coincidentally, the launch of The Black and White Minstrel Show; Christopher Mayhew presents a TV series titled Does Class Matter?
  • September – Carry On, Sergeant, first of the Carry On films, released; publication of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, which more or less founded ‘cultural studies’;
  • October – first editions of Grandstand and Blue Peter;
  • November – publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young;
  • December 3 National Coal Board announces the closure of 36 coal mines, as a result of falling demand due to coal being ‘brutally undercut’ by oil (p.236); 5 December Macmillan opens the 8.5-mile-long Preston bypass, first stretch of motorway in England, which will become part of the M6; John Betjeman’s Collected Poems published, representing one strand of middle class culture, while A Bear Called Paddington is published, first in a series of books, plays and films which continues to this day; 30 the government announces the full convertibility of the pound, meaning it won’t have to run down gold stocks defending it, but at the same time becomes vulnerable to speculation;

1959

  • January Henry Cooper becomes British and British Empire heavyweight champion;
  • February 3 Buddy Holly dies aged 22; film version of Room at the Top released marking ‘the start of the British new Wave in the cinema’; debut of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East; March To Aldermaston a documentary about the 1958 march, edited by Lindsay Anderson with Richard Burton reading Christopher Logue’s script;
  • March release of Carlton-Brown of the Foreign Office starring Terry-Thomas; the year’s most popular film, Carry On Nurse; Goldfinger published, the seventh James Bond novel; march from Aldermaston to London; expansionary Budget;
  • May: C.P. Snow gives his lecture about the two cultures (ie most people who run things knowing masses about the arts and nothing about science); Sapphire directed by Basil Dearden is a whodunnit with strong racial overtones; 17th a black student Kelso Cochrane is stabbed to death in Notting Hill leading to raised tensions in West London and ‘Keep Britain White’ rallies and worried reports about the lack of ‘racial integration’ in Birmingham;
  • June
  • July: The Teenage Consumer, a pamphlet by Mark Abrams defining them as aged 15-24 and unmarried;
  • August: Cliff Richard number 1 with Livin’ Doll; President Eisenhower makes a state visit and is on TV chatting with Harold Macmillan;
  • September: City of Spades by Colin McInnes and Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse published;
  • October: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Noggin the Nog created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; and the General Election: Conservatives win 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats, Labour 43.8% and 258, the Liberals 6, giving the Conservatives an overall majority of 100.

Studies and surveys

Being a list of the studies and surveys carried out during the period by sociologists, universities, newspapers and polling organisations:

  • 1954 Early Leaving a study of who left state school early, and why (children of the unskilled working class made up 20% of grammar school intake but only 7% of sixth forms)
  • 1957 Abrams study of 200 working class married couples (they lacked the ambition required to push their children on to further education)
  • 1958 Edward Blishen survey of TV’s impact on families (too much violence; difficult to get the kids to go to bed afterwards)
  • 1958 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed 250 families who’d moved to an overspill estate in Worsley from Salford
  • 1959 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed families who’d moved to Swindon
  • Floud et al study of grammar schools in Hertfordshire and Middlesborough (over half of working class parents wanted no further education for their children after school)
  • Margot Jeffreys interviewed housewives in an out-county LCC estate in Hertfordshire (1954-5)
  • 1957 Maurice Broady conducted interviews on the huge Pollok estate outside Glasgow
  • Eve Bene survey of 361 London grammar school boys on attitudes and expectations (45% of working class kids wanted to stay on past 16, compared with 65% of middle class pupils)
  • 1958 Ruth Glass investigation of racial prejudice
  • 1958 Geoffrey Gorer study of television viewing habits (families don’t talk as much)
  • 1958 Television and the Child by Hilde Himmelweit (kids routinely watch TV till it stops, TV is a great stimulator but fleetingly, shallowly)
  • 1962 Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class a study of 88 working class kids in Huddersfield who went to grammar school (charts the parents’ progressive incomprehension of what their children are studying)
  • 1958 The Boss by Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart, about the social background of captains of industry e.g. family connections and public school still paramount
  • 1959 The Crowther Report, 15 to 18 (children of unskilled working class over-represented, the kids of non-manual workers under-represented: i.e. they were a sink of the poorest)
  • 1959 Ferdynand Zweig survey of working class men and their attitudes to washing machines
  • 1960 Michael Carter survey of 200 secondary modern schoolchildren as they left school
  • 1961 William Liversidge survey of grammar school and secondary modern school leavers

Patronising and condescending

Although Kynaston several times harps on the fact that Macmillan (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) was an Old Etonian, that his first Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, was another old Etonian and when he was sacked he was replaced by Derick Heathcoat Amory, another old Etonian, that in fact nearly half of the Macmillan cabinet went to Eton – there turns out to be surprisingly less condescension and patronage from these phenomenally upper-class toffs as you’d imagine. In fact the reverse: Macmillan’s diaries worry about all aspects of the political and international scene but when he tours the country and meets people, I was rather touched by his genuine concern.

No, the really condescending and patronising comments come, as so often, not from the politicians (who, after all, had to be careful what they said) but from the intellectual ‘elite’, from the writers and cultural commentators and architects who all too often looked right down their noses at the ghastly taste and appalling interests of the proles.

Housing

Throughout the book, most of the modern architects regard themselves as experts on human nature, experts on what people want, and are bravely, boldly undeterred by the actually expressed opinions of real people in places like public meetings, letters to newspapers and suchlike bourgeois distractions. Alison and Peter Smithson were among the leaders of the British school of Brutalism. For them architecture was an ethic and an art. As Alison wrote: ‘My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use.’ They helped to develop the notion of ‘streets in the sky’, that ‘communities’ could be recreated on concrete walkways suspended between blocks of flats, a form of ‘urbanism that abandoned the primacy of the ground plane in favour of a rich spatial interplay of different layers of activity’.

No matter that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people opposed these plans. The architect knows best. And the planners. Kynaston lists scores of chief architects and planners in cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, London, who oversaw a quickening pace of mass demolitions, of slums, of old buildings of all kinds, in order to widen roads, create urban dual carriageways, build new blocks of flats, taller, more gleaming, more visionary, streets in the sky! And if the poor proles who would then be shepherded into these badly built, dark, leaky, anti-social blocks murmured their reluctance, they were ignored, and patronised. Kynaston quotes an article written by Raphael Samuel on the Labour council of Aberdare in South Wales who devised a plan to demolish a third of the town’s houses despite vehement opposition from the inhabitants.

The Glamorgan planners did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums and give to the people of Aberdare the best of the open space and the amenities which modern lay-out can provide. It did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions; and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’. (quoted page 320)

My point is – neither the planners nor architects who refused to listen to ordinary people were Old Etonians; the opposite; they tended to be locally-born, Labour-voting architects and administrators which made their frustration with their own people’s obstinacy all the more pointed.

Culture

The situation was different in the humanities where the most vociferous Marxists tended to have had staggeringly privileged upbringings. Take the Marxists historians E.P. Thompson (educated at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford, Kingswood private School in Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and Christopher Hill (St Peter’s Private School, York and Balliol College, Oxford), they took it on themselves and their tiny cohort of like-minded communists and academics, to define what the working classes really wanted, and it turned out it wasn’t clean accommodation with hot and cold running water, a washing machine and a nippy new car out the front – Thompson and Hill knew that the working classes really wanted to create a new kind of man for the modern age!

Thus Kynaston ironically quotes E.P. Thompson ticking off Labour politician Anthony Crosland for the crime of suggesting, in his pamphlet The Future of Socialism, that after a decade of austerity and rationing what the people wanted was cafés, bright lights and fun. No no no, lectures Thompson:

Men do not only want the list of things which Mr Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men.

Says who? Says Edward Thompson, Kingswood School Corpus Christi College.

However fitfully and ineffectually, they want other and greater things; they want to stop killing one another; they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as rivers carried their sewage and refuse throughout nineteenth-century industrial towns.

‘This pollution of their spiritual life’ – Thompson is talking about television, specifically ITV, which was polluting the working class with poisons like Gunsmoke and Opportunity Knocks. The actual working class has always been a terrible disappointment to men like Thompson and Hill. Kynaston details at length their agonising about whether to leave the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then how they go on to set up independent Marxist magazines and write articles for other like-minded over-educated academics who fondly thought their little articles made a bit of difference to anything.

But it wasn’t just the privately educated Marxists, genuine men of the people like playwright Arnold Wesker, son of a cook and a tailor’s machinist, who had a really tough upbringing and meagre education in  Stepney and Hackney. He is quoted as attending a left-wing meeting addressed by Raymond Williams (grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge), author of the pioneering book Culture and Society and then Labour front-bencher Richard Crossman (Winchester and new College), who wrote a column in the Daily Mirror. This is Wesker describing the meeting in a letter to his wife:

How could he, as a Socialist, support a paper [the Mirror], which, for its vulgarity, was an insult to the mind of the working class; a paper which painted a glossy, film-star world. (quoted p.143)

The point is that, at this distance, I admire Crossman for writing a column in the Mirror, the bestselling newspaper of its day i.e. the most-read by the ‘working classes’ – for addressing the world as it is, for making the most of it, and find it hard not to dislike Wesker for his arrogance: ‘the mind of the working class’ – where is that exactly? how does he, Wesker, know what ‘the mind of the working class’ is thinking, or wants?

A little later Kynaston quotes the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge) who wrote a series of articles about television in which ‘he came down hard on working class viewers’:

Not only did they eschew ‘topical programmes, discussions and brains trusts, serious music and ballet,’ instead obstinately preferring ‘films and serials, variety and quizzes’, but almost half of them were ‘addicts’ (defined as watching at least four hours a night), with as a result ‘all sense of proportion lost in their gross indulgence, and their family life, if not wrecked, at least emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth.’ (p.152)

My point being that is it not Macmillan and his Old Etonian chums saying this; it was left wing architects, planners, historians, intellectuals, writers, anthropologists and sociologists who were most critical and patronising of the actual working class as it actually existed (despairing that ‘the workers’ were not the idealised heroes of communist propaganda, but lazy blokes who liked to drink beer from cans in front of the Benny Hill show).

Race

There is a similar sense of disconnect on the issue of race and immigration, which Kynaston explores in some detail à propos the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958.

He shows how almost all the reporters, journalists, sociologists and so on who visited Notting Hill and other areas with high immigrant populations (the West Midlands was the other hotspot) discovered, not the virulent hatred of the American South, but nonetheless consistent opinions that immigrants got unfair advance on the housing waiting lists, exploited the benefits system, lived in overcrowded houses and made a lot of noise – all leading to a strong groundswell of popular opinion that immigration needed to be controlled. (There were 2,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries in 1953, 11,000 in 1954, 40,000 by 1957).

But all the leading politicians, and most MPs, stood firmly against introducing immigration restrictions and were careful not to blame or stigmatise the coloured communities, even when there were gross incidents of racially aggravated riots, like at Notting Hill. The politicians realised it would be very difficult to devise any form of immigration control which wasn’t, on some level, based on the fact that you were trying to stop people with black skins entering the country i.e. naked racism, tantamount to apartheid in Wedgwood Benn’s opinion.

The handful of Tory MPs who did call for restrictions accompanied were shouted down. At one parliamentary meeting, one Tory MP, Cyril Osborne, accompanied his calls with accusations that blacks were lazy, sick or criminal, and drew down such a tsunami of criticism that he was reduced to tears. All MPs observing this realised that immigration was not a topic to speak out on. If any mention was made of it, it must be in the most positive and emollient terms. Thus the political class, the men who ruled the country, painted themselves into a position where free and frank debate of the issue was impossible.

But the actual population of the country, ‘the people’ which all parties claimed to speak for, disagreed. There is a surprising paucity of sociological research, field studies and surveys on the subject (compared with the welter of research done into the endlessly fascinating subject of ‘class’). But Kynaston quotes a Gallup poll taken at the time of the riots, in August 1958, which revealed that:

  • 71% disapproved of mixed marriages
  • 61% would consider moving if significant numbers of coloured people moved into their neighbourhood
  • 55% wanted restrictions on non-white immigration
  • 54% didn’t want people from the Commonwealth put on housing waiting lists on the same level with locals

People’s opinions were simply ignored. The rulers of the country knew best. No attempt was made to limit immigration which continued to grow throughout the 1960s and indeed up to the present day, which has resulted in our present blissful political situation.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Theatre by Somerset Maugham (1937)

Her dressing-room was like the cabin of a ship. The world seemed a long way off, and she relished her seclusion. She felt an enchanting freedom. She dozed a little, she read a little, or lying on the comfortable sofa she let her thoughts wander. She reflected on the part she was playing and the favourite parts she had played in the past. (Chapter 13)

My view of the world, art and literature rests on history and biology. There were some 3 billion humans alive when I was born in the 1960s, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999 and we reached seven billion in March 2012. By the time I die 20 years hence there will be around 9 billion. The shortage of resources (starting with land and water) the environmental degradation (deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification) and global warming (if it is indeed true) mean that my children will grow up in a world of weeds, dead seas and vast multicultural slums.

Reading Somerset Maugham is to be transported far, far away from this pressing reality, to a world populated by only a few thousand people, the people who count – upper-class, white, English people who’ve been to the right schools and are members of the cabinet, the civil service, the colonial service, along with, maybe, a handful of writers and artists thrown in.

It is a small, cosy world of gentleman’s clubs in Pall Mall, replicated in miniature throughout Britain’s colonies in the East where pukka chaps administer provinces the size of Wales equipped only with a walking stick and a stiff upper lip. Beyond it lie the entire working class of Great Britain – useful as occasional Cockney walk-on parts – and beyond them the vast teeming populations of India, Malaya or any other colonial country where the author sets his scene, ‘natives’ who provide anonymous and exotic backdrops, with the exception of a handful of loyal and dutiful servants.

Even within this very circumscribed circle of jolly decent chaps and chapesses, Maugham rarely loiters for long. His métier is the penetrating snapshot. He establishes a setting – the club, the dinner party – with deceptive simplicity, then one or other of the guests produces an anecdote of astonishing brutality or immorality, before everything winds up with reassuring brandy and cigars.

Even his two most famous novels, The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, are really built up from much shorter, potentially discrete stories. The most powerful thing in Moon, Strickland’s affair with his best friend’s wife, could quite easily stand alone as a 30-page story. Similarly, the narrator’s central love affair with Rosie in Cakes and Ale could exist without any of the apparatus of her being married to a famous old writer, let alone the further paraphernalia of Alroy Kear writing his biography of the writer which ostensibly gives the novel its structure.

Theatre

Theatre shares many of these characteristics:

  1. It is a description of the English theatre in Edwardian and then post-Great War days, the theatre being (in my own experience of it and everything I’ve read and seen about it) itself a small and ‘precious’ world which the actors and everyone involved in likes to think of as an exclusive coterie.
  2. Despite quite a few walk-on parts, it is really only concerned with three characters – the middle-aged actress Julia Lambert, her charming and devoted husband Michael, and her careless young lover, Tom.
  3. It is very artfully constructed from individual scenes. It has a very consciously built flavour. Instead of the flowing narrative which the novel is capable of, it is divided into discrete and precise scenes. Maybe it started life as a play. On the surface it is a social comedy with some raw passions occasionally thrown in; but not very far beneath the surface you can see the joins and the framework of its artful assembly, and that, too, is part of the pleasure.

And it is a funny book. Very funny. You can almost hear Maugham chuckling as he produces scene after amusing scene, spins out his comic dialogues and devises his ironic climaxes.

The blurb

The blurb describes the plot thus:

Julia Lambert is in her prime, the greatest actress in England. Off stage, however, she is bored with her handsome husband, coquettish and undisciplined. She is at first flattered and amused by the attentions of a shy and eager young fan, but before long Julia is amazed to find herself falling wildly, dangerously, in love.

Which gives you the names of the characters and the bare bones of the plot, but doesn’t even hint at the sophisticated pleasures on offer.

The plot

The book opens with the middle-aged and very successful married couple – superstar actress Julia Lambert and handsome actor-manager Michael Gosselyn – chatting in the comfort of the their swanky West End house. A non-descript young accountant is in the living room where he has been tasked with going over the books of the couple’s successful London-based theatre company.

Part one – A long flashback

Julia wanders up to Michael’s bedroom and idly opens the old boxes of mementos which are stored there. As in a movie, the screen ripples and we are transported back to the earliest days of their careers, meeting as budding actors still in their teens in the provincial theatre of ‘Middlepool’. Here we learn that Michael is stunningly beautiful, Greek god-like beautiful, but has no passion; he looks great in costume drama but can’t produce much variety of feeling; whereas Julia has tremendous command of herself and the ability to project a wide range of feeling without, in fact, feeling very much herself.

They fall in love, mostly meaning that Julia is besotted with Michael and he acquiesces in her adoration. We follow in detail their fates in various productions, and the dawning realisation that Julia is the real acting star. Michael’s good-humouredly accepts the fact and begins to develop the idea that the couple should go into business together and buy their own theatre.

Michael is picked for a part which involves going to the States for a year. Here his lack of real talent becomes clear, with terrible reviews, but he makes a packet of money. Julia, still in England, develops a growing band of fans including a patient old man, Charles Tamerley, and an ageing lesbian, Dolly de Vries. All these developments occur under the sharp-tongued but benign gaze of the manager of the ‘Middlepool’ theatre company, the lovable Jimmie Langton.

It also happens on the verge of the Great War. Michael’s father is a pukka military man and so when the First World War breaks out, strings are pulled to get Michael made an officer, and he is soon attached to the general staff. He has a cracking war, brisk and efficient for a succession of generals at Staff HQ, while never being in any danger himself. He regularly returns to London to pep up Julia, who continues to perform in the many plays staged during the war to keep up spirits. It was boom years for the theatre, apparently.

They have a baby, Roger, and wait awhile to have sex again. One day, in Michael’s embraces, Julia realises that she is no longer in love with him. He no longer smells young. She is repulsed. Marital relations are not resumed, but  this turns out to suit Michael. He is an incredibly posh and proper, polite and decent gentleman, and never liked all that messy business anyway.

So now they are actively looking for backers to help them buy a theatre and set up their own company. There is some comedy about the way that decent, dim Michael doesn’t realise that the rich widow, Dolly de Vries, has a lesbian crush on Julia. Once Julia has carefully explained it, they both realise they can exploit the situation to get the additional funding out of her. Dolly is taken into partnership and they buy, refurbish, and rename a theatre, the Siddons Theatre, after the famous 18th century actress.

Many years pass in which Michael handles the financing and management of the theatre perfectly, and Julia becomes the most famous and accomplished actress in England.

This long flashback, in many of its details quite a lot too good, too simple and too fortunate to be true, is nonetheless very entertaining. The character of the old manager Jimmie Langton is particularly enjoyable, as are the many occasions on which Michael demonstrates that he is a jolly decent, ambitious but scrupulously fair and honest chap. Mention should go to Evie, Julia’s long-suffering and all-seeing dresser, a typical walk-on Cockney part.

Part two – Back to the present: the Tom Fennell plotline

Julia stops reminiscing and returns to the present. End of scene.

In what is effectively Act Two of the book she is rung up the next day by the accountant who was working on the books in scene one. He invites her for tea at his flat in Tavistock Square. On a whim she goes. It is dingy and squalid. To her amazement he ravishes her. Before she knows it she is on the sofa being made love to. Half an hour later, dressed again, bright-eyed and flushed, she stumbles out into the square and catches a taxi back to her swanky West End home.

There then commences the long and, eventually, tiresome story of Julia’s helpless besotted love for young Tom Fennell, the articled clerk with a firm of accountants who we met doing their accounts on the opening page. Tom is slight and nowhere near as handsome as Michael, but young and bright-eyed. Before long Julia suspects his motivation is not love for her but ambition to meet the swanky people she knows, to move in High Society, to ‘get on’. And also because he likes sex.

Julia was shrewd, and she knew very well that Tom was not in love with her. To have an affair with her flattered his vanity. He was a highly-sexed young man and enjoyed sexual exercise. From hints, from stories that she had dragged out of him, she discovered that since he was seventeen he had had a great many women. He loved the act rather than the person. He looked upon it as the greatest lark in the world. (Chapter 14)

Julia buys him lavish presents and begins to accompany him to night clubs where they dance. Michael knows they are friends and, in his innocence, is happy to see a young man get a boost from his lovely wife. In fact Tom has saved Michael quite a bit of money by being sharp with his accounts, which is what matters to a businessman like Michael, and so he’s happy to acquiesce in Julia’s suggestion that they rent out to Tom a spare apartment in a block they’ve recently bought and refurbished.

The next scene is set at the house in Taplow which Michael and Julia rent for the summer. Julia invites Tom to stay for a fortnight, hoping to catch some private time with him lazing on the river or in their bedroom.

But the couple had also invited their rather distant son, Roger, now aged 17 and in his last year at Eton (natch). To Julia’s chagrin, and then anger, young Tom sheds his adult pretensions, reverts to behaving like a teenage boy, and quickly becomes firm friends with Roger. Every day they are off punting or playing tennis or gadding round the countryside in the nippy little roadster which Julia bought Roger for his birthday.

At several points the pair of young lads come home very late and Julia hears them tramping around the landing and bathrooms of the house. Given the track record of surprises in Maugham’s short stories, I was fully expecting Julia to overhear them having sex – which would have produced the most almighty scene between Julia and Tom.

In fact I’ve been reading Selina Hastings’ brilliant biography of Maugham and have been astonished at the sexual promiscuity of Maugham and others in his homosexual circle. In particular, the biography describes in great detail the dependent relationship between Maugham and his gay partner-cum-secretary, Gerald Haxton, a wild roaring boy, a compulsive gambler and charming alcoholic, who not only had sex with Maugham whenever required but pimped for him, bringing back handsome sailors from Marseilles when they were on the Riviera or willing boys on their journeys to exotic places. In return Maugham lavished affection and luxury presents on him, his heart in thrall to the handsome young man whose bad behaviour, tantrums and resentment at being a ‘kept man’ he had to routinely endure.

Which is why, when Julia’s relationship with Tom begins to turn sour, it is hard not to catch echoes of the Maugham-Haxton relationship, and to wonder whether Julia’s feelings can plausibly be attributed to a a woman who has kept herself chaste and faithful through a twenty year-long marriage – or are really the very plausible mixed feelings of an older homosexual for his dashing but hurtful and unfaithful young lover.

Anyway, Tom behaves badly in all kinds of ways and every few pages we have passages of Julia alone, in tears, struggling to control her hurt feelings and wondering why she still loves him.

Tom more or less ignores her during the Taplow weekend. At its conclusion she, with deliberate scorn, gets the butler to give him an envelope containing the money he’ll need to tip the house’s servants. Back in London a letter is delivered by hand containing the money, and also a package containing all the gifts she has lavished on him (cuff links, gold cigarette case etc). He is rejecting her. It is over. But she rings Tom up and, during a tearful phone call, he says how much he hates being ‘a kept boy’. Julia hates him right up to the minute he speaks and then her heart melts. This kind of break-up and tearful reconciliation happens numerous times.

Roger has come to London and spends more time with Tom. One night he comes home and matter-of-factly tells Julia that Tom has just helped him lose his virginity, arranging a night out with two chorus girls, then back to Tom’s where he said ‘Take your pick’.

Julia doesn’t know which to be more upset by, her beloved baby becoming a man, and in such a sordid manner, or the realisation that Tom had slept with both these chorus girls, and in all likelihood many others too.

To add insult to injury, Tom then arranges an introduction for Roger’s seducer, Joan Denver, to visit Julia at the theatre and ask if she can be an understudy in a play. She is stumpy, snub-nosed and ungainly. Not bloody likely, thinks Julia.

Tom tries to persuade her to take on another young aspiring actress he knows (which Julia realises by now is code for ‘has slept with’), a certain Avice Crichton. Julia goes see her perform and is appalled by her bad acting and brassy manner. Angry at Tom (as usual) she agrees to give her Avice a small part, with the sole intention of having her publicly fail and so humiliate her ‘lover’.

Stung to new heights of tearful, heart-wrung fury, Julia puts all her feelings about the wretched affair into her latest performance. This leads to a funny scene. Julia is under the impression she is giving the performance of a lifetime. However, Michael comes backstage to break the news that she was awful. In fact has been awful for the past four days (ever since she was upset by the Crichton incident).

This gives Julia a flash of insight. She realises that she is a great artist and realises that letting her feelings pour out, unimpeded and undisciplined, via the impassioned character in the play is ruinous. She is at her best when she is controlled and calculating in her effects. Great acting isn’t about self-expression, but about the disciplined deployment of effects.

On the back of all this, Michael suggests to Julia that she is run-down and she acquiesces in his suggestion that she go and stay with her ageing mother and aunt (French, as it happens) in St Malo in Brittany.

This episode makes a very pleasant eight or so page interlude in the main plot, with Maugham giving us travel writer type descriptions of the grey stone villages of Brittany. We are by now on about page 185 of the 230-page-long book – but I for one was impatient for the narrative to hurry on to its climax – be it delightfully comic or devastatingly bleak (as his short stories so often are).

In the calm of Brittany she reflects on her life and in particular how unfair she has been to people, especially her long-suffering and wealthy devotee, Charles Tamerley. She returns to London determined to give him what he wants i.e. sex with her. Her elaborate preparations for this grand self-sacrifice, and then her performance of A Lady Waiting To Be Plucked when he arrives to take her to dinner, are hilarious.

Except that Charles doesn’t want to do any Plucking. He freezes as she is in the middle of her seductive best – Julia realises she has made a dreadful mistake – and is hard pressed to escape with her dignity just about intact. It is a very comic scene.

Part three – Avice Crichton

Julia returns home from the Brittany holiday, just as Michael begins rehearsals for the new play which will open the season this coming September. Avice, as she had promised Tom, has a minor part in it, but with an important ten-minute scene. During rehearsals it quickly becomes clear that Avice is wooden and lumpy. Michael wants to sack her, but Julia insists Avice remains a) because if she were fired, then Avice would tell Tom it was Julia’s fault, jealousy etc; b) Julia wants Avice to fail as publicly and embarrassingly as possible, in order to punish Tom.

Cannily, she suggests to Michael that Avice is in awe of him, as director, and that he take her to dinner and try to coax her into a better performance.

My mind was agog with possibilities: will Michael fall in love with Avice, reducing Julia to genuine despair? Will Avice’s acting be transformed by Michael’s guidance so that she acts Julia off the stage and the older woman realises her time is up? What will happen?

Before we can find out, there’s a puzzling chapter where Julia has dinner with her son, Roger, now 18 and back from his summer in Austria before he goes on to Cambridge.

Julia is disconcerted when Roger launches a sustained attack of her character, saying there is nothing whatsoever real about her, she is a tissue of quotations and mannerisms, he dreams of opening the door of a room she’s just gone into and finding it empty.

Roger was brought up in a fantasy land of endless performance, so now he wants Reality, though God knows where he’ll find it… Julia isn’t upset by this so much as puzzled, as she always has been, by a son who lacks her husband’s good looks or her own vitality. Oh well…

Maugham spends so much time and effort on this chapter I wondered whether, right at the end, something melodramatic and soap opera-ish would happen, like Roger killing himself or running off to Africa. But nothing whatever happens with him. He goes off to university to find himself as promised…

And in the event, the first night of the new season is a triumph. Julia acts everyone off the stage. Maugham gives a highly entertaining and instructive explanation of the full panoply of tricks Julia uses to crush and destroy Avice, stealing every scene from her with canny stage ‘business’, by adopting better positioning on stage, by using every trick in the book to upstage her.

The play receives nine curtain calls, after which Michael sweeps into Julia’s dressing room to congratulate her and to scold her for upstaging Avice who, he admits, they’ll have to get rid of.

Tom pops up briefly to admit that, well, yes, actually Avice is rubbish, sorry about that but thank you so much for letting her be in the play and all the help and support you gave her. Julia purrs and smiles but she realises she now couldn’t care less about Tom or Avice. She has completely got over her little ‘adventure’. Then a throng of well-wishers burst in with champagne.

When things have finally quietened down Julia decides she’ll skip the Grand Party being hosted for her by the eternally faithful Dolly the lesbian. Instead, she gets Evie, her long-suffering cockney dresser, to help her slip out the side door, avoid the fans, dressed down in a dull brown coat, grab a taxi and head off to a quiet little side-table at the Berkeley Hotel. Here she a) treats herself to a celebration dinner of steak with fried onions and potatoes, and a tankard of beer – something she has denied herself for the past ten years in the name of keeping slim, and b) stares out over the crowds of young and old, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, drinking, smoking, eating and dancing in the restaurant’s main area, as she ponders on ‘the theatre’.

Real life is the fake, she thinks, real life with its messiness and ugliness. How silly of her son to seek it out. Acting takes the sordid mess of ‘life’ and transforms it into art and symbol, into rounded narratives with depth and meaning. She is free of her passion for that wretched little man. She has an elegant and successful husband who adores her. She has just had one of the great professional triumphs of her life. She has crushed a pathetic little rival like a beetle under her shoe. She has never been so happy. She has never felt so free!

Entertainment

The book is very entertaining on numerous levels, but I found it marvellous and relaxing as a window into a world of genteel manners and decorum which is now utterly lost. We are not only introduced into the circles of the rich and the very rich, via Julia and Michael’s parties, but amusingly watch Julia learn to mimic and play them to perfection.

In fact Julia is not only a ‘character’ in the story, she is a wonderful comic device, in at least two obvious ways:

1. Throughout the book we are given her real thoughts in brackets, placed next to her actual words and deeds, so that we can enjoy the ironic juxtaposition of her harsh inner criticisms of people even as she acts gracefully and politely to them. This reaches a peak of perfection in her later encounters with Dolly de Vries who, alarmed by reports that Julia is gadding round town with a young lover, first of all tells Michael – who promptly tells Julia, in his innocent way believing there is no harm in it. Or in her polite reception of the ambitious little chorus girls Tom pushes her way who, in her heart of hearts, she loathes:

‘You won’t forget me, Miss Lambert?’ said Joan.
‘No, dear, I promise you I won’t. It’s been so nice to see you. You have a very sweet personality. You’ll find your way out, won’t you? Good-bye.’
‘A fat chance she’s got of ever setting foot in this theatre,’ said Julia to herself when she was gone. ‘Dirty little bitch to seduce my son.’ (Chapter 20)

2. And secondly, Julia is almost always acting, performing whatever is appropriate to the scene and setting and people she finds herself with, even her own husband. It is richly comic the way the narrator describes her putting on performances throughout so-called ‘normal’ life, even her performance of a grand lady of the theatre not putting on a performance.

This sense of continual artificiality is not far removed from the world of camp. What I mean is that the story, taken at face value, is a ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’ tale of a middle-aged lady’s passionate love affair for an ‘impetuous young man’. But Maugham deliberately undermines the seriousness of his own narrative with ironic reminders that almost the entire thing is rich in histrionic performance by the main characters. Even when she’s at her most distraught, a part of Julia’s mind is noting her own mannerisms and tucking them away for possible use in a performance some day.

Here she is inwardly seething at Tom for ignoring her in favour of her son, Roger.

Tom and Roger came back to eat an enormous tea and then played tennis till the light failed. After dinner they played dominoes. Julia gave a beautiful performance of a still-young mother fondly watching her son and his boy friend. (Chapter 14)

When she first meets Michael’s stuffy old parents:

She felt instinctively that she must conceal the actress, and without effort, without deliberation, merely because she felt it would please, she played the part of the simple, modest, ingenuous girl who had lived a quiet country life. (Chapter 4)

When she attends a party filled with silly chorus girls, Julia knows just the right note to strike:

The Dexters’ party was theatrical. Grace Hardwill, Archie’s wife, played in musical comedy, and there was a bevy of pretty girls who danced in the piece in which she was then appearing. Julia acted
with great naturalness the part of a leading lady who put on no frills. She was charming to the young ladies, with their waved platinum hair, who earned three pounds a week in the chorus. A good many
of the guests had brought Kodaks and she submitted with affability to being photographed. She applauded enthusiastically when Grace Hardwill sang her famous song to the accompaniment of the composer. She laughed as heartily as anyone when the comic woman did an imitation of her in one of her best-known parts… (Chapter 14)

This is the dominant impression of the book – Maugham guying his own character and milking for comic entertainment the grande dame of the theatre is almost never, actually, ‘herself’.

Another comic running thread running throughout the book is the way Julia strings along her aged, wealthy devotee, Charles Tamerley, by staging a variety of ‘scenes’ for him, including the Distraught But Faithful Woman or The Woman Shaken By Emotion for her Lover. All this leads up to the climactic comedic scene where Julia offers him her Virginal Body, and is comically disconcerted to discover that he is not only not interested, but appalled.

This arch self-consciousness is the book’s most distinguishing feature and every scene which features it is deliciously entertaining.

Historical notes

When Charles doesn’t respond to Julia making herself abundantly available to him, she wonders whether he is a) impotent or b) homosexual.

Julia reflectively lit a cigarette. She asked herself if Charles had used his devotion to her as a cover to distract attention from his real inclinations. But she shook her head. If he had been homosexual she would surely have had some hint of it; after all, in society since the war they talked of practically nothing else.

Was homosexuality really that much of a common topic of discussion in the Twenties and Thirties? Is Maugham being satirical? Or was it very much the topic of discussion in his own, very much homosexual circles?

‘Getting off’ This is the expression we used as teenagers in the 1970s to describe have a fumble with a member of the opposite sex. I was surprised to see it being used by posh people in the 1930s.

Julia: ‘What I want to say is, if I really set my mind on getting off with a man, d’you think I could?’
Evie: ‘Knowing what men are, I wouldn’t be surprised. Who d’you want to get off with now?

Sex appeal Also a surprisingly common phrase by the mid-1930s.

‘Sex appeal,’ Julia murmured to herself… ‘It’s not as if I had no sex appeal… It’s ridiculous to suppose that I could have got to my position if I hadn’t got sex appeal. What do people come to see an actress for? Because they want to go to bed with her. Do you mean to tell me that I could fill a theatre for three months with a rotten play if I hadn’t got sex appeal? What is sex appeal anyway?’

Adaptations

Unsurprisingly, this novel about the stage was itself adapted for the stage, and has been made into no fewer than three movie adaptations, the latest as recent as 2004.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently? (Act V)

This is by far the longest of the four plays in the Vintage collection of Sartre’s plays – Huis Clos is one continuous act of forty pages; The Respectful Prostitute is even shorter at 30 pages – whereas Les Mains Sales has seven acts and is 120 pages long! And I think it’s also the most enjoyable because the characters have time to breathe and expand and become believable.

The plot

It is 1944 in the fictional East European country of Illyria and the Russian Army is coming closer. Olga is in a flat used by the Illyrian communist party. Hugo arrives. He has just been released from prison. He is young, handsome, talkative. He has just served two years for the murder of the communist leader, Hoederer. A knock at the door and he hides. Olga opens the door to representatives of the Party, tough guys with guns. They’ve come to kill Hugo, they’ve trailed him here, he’s a liability, a loose cannon, he must be liquidated. Olga pleads for his life and says, ‘Give me till midnight to find out what really happened.’ The tough guys grudgingly relent and leave.

Hugo comes out the bedroom where he’d been hiding. Olga explains he must tell her everything; maybe she can protect him, persuade the others he is trustworthy after all. ‘Tell me everything, right from the start.’ The stage darkens and now begins the majority of the play, which is told as a long flashback detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Hoederer.

(Setting up the threat of Hugo’s ‘liquidation’ in the present is a Hitchcock-like trick, like seeing the bomb being placed on the bus: everything that happens subsequently is charged with menace and suspense. Simple but effective.)

So the rest of the play shows in detail the build-up to the assassination and explores the very mixed motives of young Hugo the assassin.

Act II

It is 1942, Hugo has broken with his rich bourgeois family to join the People’s Party. As a callow young intellectual, he has been given the task of editing the party paper and is horribly intimidated by the ‘real men’ of action who surround him.

After a turbulent meeting of the party heads Louis explains to him and Olga that the party’s general secretary, Hoederer, is planning to sell the party out. He is persuading the central committee to go into an alliance with the Fascists and the bourgeois party after the war to create a government of national unity.

Olga and Hugo can’t believe he is a sell-out. Louis hesitates then lets them in on a plan to assassinate Hoederer. Hugo will get a job as Hoederer’s personal secretary. On a night to be arranged he will open the door to the assassins. Hugo bridles: he wants to be a man of action. Let him assassinate Hoederer. Louis hesitates but Olga speaks up for Hugo: let him. OK, says Louis. Pack your bags and take your new young wife, Jessica, with you (oh, he’s married, we realise). Move into Hoederer’s house. Become his secretary. Await orders.

The next few acts introduce us to the shrewd watchful Hoederer, surrounded by tough guy bodyguards (George, Slick and Leon). But by far the most interesting character is Jessica, Hugo’s attractive flighty nineteen-year-old wife. She and Hugo play baby games, play act, role play and neither are sure when the game is over or when they’re playing. This could have been a tiresome embodiment of Sartre’s ideas about people playing roles for others’ consumption, but in fact their young married flirting and flyting is done with a surprisingly light touch and I found very believable. It is Huis Clos but in a comic mode. When Hugo swears Jessica to secrecy then whispers that he’s here to assassinate Hoederer, Jessica bursts out laughing. Hugo’s plight is that no-one will take him seriously. He can’t even take himself seriously.

HUGO: Tell it to me now.
JESSICA: What?
HUGO: That you love me.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But mean it.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But you don’t really mean it.
JESSICA: What’s got into you? Are you playing?
HUGO: No, I’m not playing.
JESSICA: Then why did you ask me that? That’s not like you.
HUGO: I don’t know. I need to think that you love me. I have a right to that. Come on, say it.
Say it as if you meant it.
JESSICA: I love you. I love you. No: I love you. Oh, go to the devil! Let’s hear you say it.
HUGO: I love you.
JESSICA: You see, you don’t say it any better than I do. (Act III, p.156)

The next scene is set in Hoederer’s office, the representatives of the two other parties arrive, the Fascists and the Liberals. There is some interesting political analysis as Hoederer points out to the other two that, with the USSR on the horizon, the Proletariat Party, though numerically in a minority, will soon be supported by the conquering Reds: so they’d better do a deal now. At which point Hugo jumps to his feet, outraged that Hoederer is prepared to do a deal with the bourgeois he so despises, with the bourgeois party leader (Karsky) who actually knows Hugo’s own father and made a point of mentioning it to Hugo on the way in.

The bomb

Hugo is on the verge of pulling out his revolver and shooting Hoederer then and there, when a bomb goes off in the garden, shattering the window, throwing the characters to the floor. The political leaders are ushered into a safe room, leaving Hugo, the bodyguards and a terrified Jessica. There is now some dramatic irony because Hugo had blurted out ‘the dirty bastards’ just as the bomb went off. He was describing the cynical politicians making this stitch-up, as he worked himself up to shooting, but now has to pretend to Hoederer’s suspicious bodyguards that he was referring to the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb. In fact Hoederer had already (unwisely) given Hugo a few drinks before the politicians arrived, and now he has a few more to recover from the shock with the result that he gets hammered and starts drunkenly skirting round the fact that it is he who has been sent as an assassin.

They’re not particularly subtle, but these scenes where the callow Hugo teeters on the brink of giving himself away, unhappily revealing himself to be precisely the over-talkative intellectual he’s trying to stop being, while his quick-witted wife covers for him, are more dramatically complex and satisfying than anything in Sartre’s previous plays, whose characters have tended to be schematic and one-dimensional.

In particular, Jessica’s innocent quick-wittedness is a joy to behold. In an earlier scene, when Hoederer’s goons had insisted on searching the new arrivals’ room, Jessica had quick-wittedly hidden Hugo’s revolver in her dress and brazenly invited one of the bodyguards to search her who was, as a result, so red-faced that he only did a cursory job, not finding the gun.

Now Jessica quickly interprets Hugo’s drunken babblings as anger against the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb and devises other ways of masking what Hugo’s saying. In fact she encourages him to drink more, lots more, until he passes out and Slick and George just laugh at him, thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have a rich privileged upbringing.

Olga in the summerhouse

Cut to the summerhouse which is Jessica and Hugo’s quarters, and Olga is tending the unconscious Hugo, when Jessica returns to the room with a cold compress for his head. The two women confront each other over Hugo’s unconscious body – the scheming, hard, political woman versus the politically naive but sensuous and sharp woman. They wake a groggy Hugo and Olga tells him it was she who threw the bomb. The party’s getting impatient. It’s been ten days and Hoederer’s still alive. She came to finish the job off but botched it. Hugo’s got till tomorrow, then they’ll come en masse. Anyway, whatever happens, the party thinks Hugo’s sold out – he is in big trouble. Being blown up by the bomb would have done him a favour. Olga leaves, climbing over the wall and escaping.

Jessica confronts Hugo with the reality of what he’s promised. For the first time they’re not playing. Hugo admits he can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s a killer, can’t believe that Hoederer’s bright quick eyes will go dull, that blood will seep into his suit, all because he, Hugo, has pulled a trigger. He is over-thinking and over-imagining the deed. But Jessica is no Lady MacBeth; the opposite, she begs Hugo to reconsider and, instead of just murdering Hoederer, discuss the issues, arguing him out of whatever it is that Hugo so vehemently opposes.

At which moment there’s a knock on the door and Hoederer himself enters, to check up on his secretary. The goons told him he’s drunk himself unconscious: is he alright? Having made certain, Hoederer makes as if to leave but Jessica jumps up before him. Now, now is the time for Hugo to do it? For a moment we the audience and Hugo are flabbergasted: what? shoot Hoederer now? No, Jessica means now is the time for the two men to talk, to thrash out their differences, for Hugo to find out if it’s really necessary to kill Hoederer (Jessica obviously doesn’t say this out loud, but we know from the previous dialogue with Hugo that’s this is what she means).

Hoederer explains Realpolitik to Hugo

And this is the lead-in to a very enjoyable scene where Hoederer a) explains the political situation in Illyria b) explains why a political deal with the other parties is necessary c) taunts Hugo with his naive intellectual purity. He’s more interested in principles than men, Hoederer taunts. He doesn’t want to get his pretty little bourgeois hands dirty. Well, Hoederer’s hands are dirty all right, covered in blood and filth.

This works very well as drama; it is written really effectively with Hoederer’s arguments battering Hugo’s feeble denials. When Hoederer has left, even Jessica can see that his arguments were right and, worse, that Hugo knows it, despite all his denials, despite his intention to stay true to his original mission, Hoederer converted him.

But I was also fascinated by Hoederer’s analysis of the situation in this fictional East European country because it closely parallels the analyses of the post-war communist takeover of Europe I have just read in Anne Applebaum’s brilliant history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. Hoederer argues that:

  • The Proletariat Party cannot take power by itself; the proletariat only make up 20% of the population and not even all of them support the party. Hugo naively says, ‘Let’s seize power’. Hoederer replies that if they seized power, they would quickly be suppressed by the Peasants Party which represents 55% of the population, in alliance with the Fascists who control the army and police.
  • Hence the need to enter power peaceably in a national coalition.
  • Hoederer has suggested to the leaders of the Fascists and Bourgeois parties that they set up a national government with six on the fulling council and the Proletariat Party will have three of those delegates. He even – and this chimes exactly with Applebaum’s description – wouldn’t want most of the ministries, just two: the interior and defence, because those are the only two that matter.
  • But, Hugo says, the Red Army will be across our borders in weeks: why don’t we ride their coat-tails to power? Because, my naive friend, replies Hoederer, they will still have to fight their way across the country and many will be killed; the Soviets will be blamed. Because they Party will forever after be thought to have been imposed by a foreign power rather than rising up to represent the people. Because, even for the national unity government, the country will be a wasteland when peace finally comes, difficult decisions about law and order will have to be taken; the Party can represent itself as a natural outgrowth of the nation and people, and can present itself as opposing these unpopular policies from within government. With control of key industries it can slowly isolate the leaders of the other parties and wait till the time is right to stage a coup.

Hugo hates all this because it is messy and unprincipled and yuk. Hoederer laughs at his naivety and bourgeois prissiness.

Act VI

Next day, the day of the deadline Olga told Hugo he must act or else. Before the working day begins Jessica comes into Hoederer’s office and after a little flirting reveals that Hugo has a gun, and has been tasked with assassinating him. Hoederer knew it all along. Hugo knocks at the door, Jessica exits through the window (reminding me of all the ins and outs through windows in The Respectful Prostitute).

Now Hoederer toys with Hugo, continuing the discussion over whether Hugo has it in him to be an assassin or whether he is too much of an intellectual. Because assassins don’t think at all, have no imagination, just kill. Whereas Hugo has too much imagination, can not only picture the dead body and the blood, but has grasped the political consequences, the cause of the Party set back, no single leader to greet the Red Army, its chance for power maybe irrevocably lost. He deliberately turns his back and fixes a cup of coffee, while Hugo gets the gun out his pocket and holds it trembling, very obviously struggling with himself. Hoederer turns, faces him, says ‘Give me the gun’ and takes it. Hugo collapses, virtually in tears, and says, ‘You despise me.’

Hoederer says he remembers being a naive principled young man. He can help Hugo to maturity, guide him, mentor him. Hugo is almost in tears. But he won’t give up his opposition to the political pact. Don’t worry, says Hoederer: he’ll go to town tomorrow and square it all with Louis (the guy who sent Hugo in the first place). Go back to writing, it’s what you do best; and he dismisses Hugo.

Re-enter Jessica who’s been perched on the window ledge all this time (!) She heard everything. She thinks Hoederer is noble. In fact, she’s realised she’s not in love with her silly immature husband, she realises she wants a ‘real man’ (p.232). Oh dear. The 21st century reader’s heart sinks a little. They look at each other in silence. She’s never thrilled to a man’s touch, sex with her husband makes her giggle. ‘Are you frigid?’ Hoederer asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Jessica replies. ‘Let’s find out,’ says Hoederer and embraces and kisses her.

At just this moment Hugo re-enters the office. Oops. Incensed, he accuses Hoederer of lying to him and stringing him along and sparing him and promising to make him a man because all along he’s just wanted his wife. Hugo springs for the desk where the revolver was left, seizes it, Jessica screams, Hugo fires three shots at Hoederer who crumples in his chair. Enter the bodyguards, George and Slick with guns aimed at Hugo but Hoederer with his dying breath tells them to spare him, it was a crime of passion, that he – Hoederer – was sleeping with Hugo’s wife. And dies.

Act VII

Lights go up on the setting of the first act, as Hugo finishes pouring his heart out to Olga. She keeps asking, ‘So did you assassinate him because of our orders,’ and Hugo honestly doesn’t know. In a typically Sartrean way, Hugo isn’t even sure that he did it: or was Chance the key agent? If he’d opened the door two minutes later or earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. In fact, he was coming back to ask for Hoederer’s help.

It was an assassination without an assassin. (p.234)

Hugo is crushed by a characteristically Sartrean sense of his own unreality. But Olga is pleased. She thinks she can fend off the men who want to kill him. And here comes the punchline, the cynical climax of the play. For Olga explains:

The party line has changed. When they despatched Hugo to murder Hoederer communications with Moscow were poor. Later they discovered that Moscow did, in fact, want the party to go into a government of national unity with the Fascists and bourgeois parties. It would mean saving many lives among the Illyrian army (which would immediately lay down its arms). It would save Moscow embarrassment with the Allies (Britain and the US). The new plan is for the party to join a 6-man government, and the party to have 3 delegates. Hugo is amazed and then bursts out laughing. This is exactly what Hoederer intended, what we saw him proposing to Hugo just a few moment (two years) ago down to the last detail.

Yes, Olga explains, but Hoederer was ‘premature’ in his policy. Meanwhile, another man, now dead, has been officially blamed for Hoederer’s assassination. Now Hoederer has been rehabilitated and… Hugo joins in, ‘You’re going to put up statues to him after the war. You’re going to make him a hero of the party?’ Hugo collapses into helpless tear-filled laughter of despair.

Olga tells him to snap out of it, the Party killers are about to arrive. She is ready to tell them he is a new man, rehabilitated, he will go along with the party line, he will lie about Hoederer’s assassination, he will forget all about and never mention to anyone that he did it. He will live a life of deceit and lies for the greater good.

But Hugo refuses. The only thing that kept him going in prison was that he fired – maybe for personal reasons – but in accordance with the party line. To learn that the line has changed and the act become completely meaningless is too much to bear. He thought that killing someone would make him feel real, give him weight and substance – but he carried on feeling horribly unreal and contingent. Now, now he has the chance to stand up, to act for himself, to make himself real. Olga begs him to stop but as the killer’s car draws up outside, Hugo stands up and walks to the door. He will proclaim his guilt and force them to kill him. It will be his final, defining acte.


Reactions

Apparently the big and powerful Communist Party of France disliked the play. You can see why.

In purely political terms, this was the decade when Moscow’s concept of Socialist Realism came to be enforced all across the Eastern Bloc. Art, music, literature, all had to be high-minded and inspiring, showing happy workers exceeding their quotas and merrily bringing in the harvest. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic, defeatist, cynical and plain anti-communist narrative than Les Mains Sales, hard to imagine anything more completely contrary to the spirit of Socialist Realism, focusing as it does on the amoral political manoeuvring, the lying to its membership, the cynical alliances with its class enemies, and the pointless infighting and murders of the communist party.

Politics aside, the communist party of Illyria comes over as a mob of gangsters, little different in terms of threat and violence from Al Capone and Chicago gangsters of Prohibition. Time and again I am reminded that Sartre and Camus were writing their intense, man-holding-gun fictions during not only the rather obvious violence of the Second World War, but also during the heyday of Hollywood films noirs which they both hugely enjoyed. Camus cultivated a Humphrey Bogart look with his collar turned up and a Gitanes cigarette permanently smouldering in his mouth. The romance, the glamour of being the dude with the shooter, calling the shots. Specially if you yourself are mostly the chap in the library with the pipe and the thick glasses.

As a specimen of intellectual French film noir, as a dissection of the worldview of communist politics in 1947 and 1948, and as pure entertainment, I think les Mains Sales is by far the best of these four plays.

Jessica and sexism

All the male characters utter contemptuously sexist comments either about Jessica in her absence, or to her face, which would get you locked up nowadays. They casually refer to her political naivety, her inability to do anything significant for the Revolution and her liability as distracting ‘bait’ for all the male characters. This was, after all, 25 years or so before the birth of Women’s Lib.

It is, for example, offensive to modern readers when the bodyguards make remarks about Jessica’s attractiveness in the first scene in the big house, and Hoederer is no better, dismissing her as a distraction, saying why doesn’t she ‘scratch her itch’ with Slick or George.

More to the point, there is something sexist about the entire conception of the play which sets the world of passive sensuality (Jessica) against the ‘active’ network of male politics and action (Hugo and Hoederer). With crashing stereotyping the main woman character represents Sex, anti-Politics (although, to be fair, she is balanced by clever calculating Olga, who is smart enough to try and save Hugo, and who, after all, throws a bomb in the middle of the play.)

But despite what we nowadays would describe as the #everydaysexism of the text, Jessica is, by and large, the most attractive character in the play. She is the least hoodwinked, the least deceived. She knows nothing about politics but she knows more about life than her over-intellectual husband, tricks the bodyguards with her nimble-wittedness, and is quite a match for Hoederer. She is the only one who sees through the men with all their high-handed rhetoric to ask the real questions, specifically; why does Hugo want to murder a man he respects and, by the end of the play, has come to love? Why? Fool!

Although it’s ostensibly a play about tough guy men politicking and conspiring, Jessica is – for me – the star of the show.

The movie

Despite being ‘the philosopher of the century’ it’s damn difficult to get hold of the movie versions of Sartre’s plays. The Respectful Prostitute seems impossible to track down in any shape or form. Here’s a print of the film version of Les Mains Sales, made in France in 1951. There are no sub-titles and the sound is out of synch for a lot of it, but it gives a stark sense of how stagey the story is. And how French.

Apparently, the French Communist Party were so angry about the play that they tried to organise a boycott of cinemas where the film was showing.


Credit

Les Main Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre was first performed in Paris in April 1948. This English translation – Dirty Hands by Lionel Abel – was published in the United States in 1949. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Respectful Prostitute by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)

A slender play which is hard to take seriously and more a testament to the chronic anti-Americanism of 1950s French intellectuals than any kind of ‘analysis’ of the race issue in America. Like many of Sartre’s plays it presents a plight, a fraught and melodramatic situation, designed to bring out his eternal themes of freedom and responsibility.

The plot

Scene one

It’s a short piece, one act comprising two scenes set in the same rundown front room. Lizzie is a prostitute. There’s a ring at the doorbell. It’s a big black guy in a panic. The lynch mob is coming for him. They’re saying he raped her on the train. ‘Please promise to tell them it ain’t true.’ She promises. He runs off.

Last night’s ‘client’ comes out of the bathroom where he’s been freshening up during all this. He’s a repellently arrogant young white man named ‘Fred’ who treats Lizzie roughly, at one point nearly strangling her, telling her she’s a sinner and the Devil and their bed smells of ‘sin’. That kind of self-hating sex addict. She reminds him that he was kind and loving last night. He violently denies it and contemptuously gives her just ten dollars for her night’s work.

Anyway, this hard-edged conversation reaches a revelation when Fred asks Lizzie if she was raped by the black man on the train last night. His pal, Webster, told him (Fred) that she (Lizzie) was raped. To be precise, Webster told Fred that two black men were raping a white woman when a bunch of white men went to her help, one of the blacks flashed a razor and a white man shot him dead, the other black escaping and jumping off the train. They’ve been chasing him ever since.

Ah. Now we know why the black guy turned up in such a panic at her door just a few minutes ago.

Except that – startled – Lizzie denies this entire story and describes what really happened. Four white guys got on the train pissed as farts, began touching her up, two black guys intervened to protect her, and a drunk white man shot one, the other escaped i.e. the one we just saw knocking on her door.

Fred now asks if that’s the story she’s going to tell (blacks intervening against whites) when she’s brought before the judge tomorrow? Because he – Fred – comes from a famous family, the Clarkes, his Dad is a senator, and he knows the white man accused of the shooting, Thomas, and ‘let me tell you, he is a fahn upstanding member of the community’, and he doesn’t deserve to go to gaol.

Fred offers Lizzie $500 if she’ll tell the judge his version of the story, i.e. lie to incriminate the black man. In fact, he now reveals that he has her testimony to this version of the story already printed out and ready for her to sign. In fact – it now emerges – that’s the main reason he came to visit her last night, to get her to make a false statement. The rest (having sex) was just a, er, distraction.

Lizzie for her part is no angel and fairly racist. She says (in the extremely blunt language of the play) that she doesn’t like blacks (‘I don’t like n******’ p.269) and wouldn’t sleep with no black man. But she insists she can’t lie, she won’t lie, so Fred threatens her some more.

At which point the police knock and enter. They accuse Lizzie of being a prostitute, which is illegal. When she denies it, Fred points to the money on the table which he says he has just paid her i.e. far from meaning all his sweet words of love last night he has utterly used and compromised her in order to blackmail her, and force her to sign the false testimony. And now, we realise, the racist police are in cahoots with him.

Thus the cops swing in behind Fred’s demand that she lie to the judge: they tell her she’ll go to prison for 18 months unless she incriminates the black man before the judge at today’s hearing.

Lizzie still refuses to sign and Fred gives a vile speech asking what value the life of a two-bit whore has in comparison with a ‘fahn upstanding gennelman’ like Thomas? He grabs her and is physically forcing her to her knees to reverence a photograph of fine young Thomas, when his father, Senator Clarke, walks through the door. Intimidated, the cops step aside and Fred lets Lizzie go.

The handsome, soft-voiced Senator then does his spiel, gently reassuring Lizzie that it’s fine, just fine, to tell the truth about what really happened on the train, he admires her, he really does… but maybe she should stop and think, just for a minute, about fine old Mary, his dear old sister, a fine old grey-haired lady, mother of this poor unfortunate boy, Thomas, and how – if Lizzie goes ahead and incriminates him and he gets sent to gaol – well, it’s going to break fine old Mary’s heart.

Furthermore – and at this point the play begins to move from the realm of the extreme into the realms of fantasy – the Senator then does an impersonation of Uncle Sam, speaking kindly to little ole Lizzie and asking her, as with the voice of America itself:

“Here are two men I have raised in my bosom, young Lizzie – a fine upstanding white boy who comes from one of our oldest families, went to Harvard and owns a factory which employs 2,000 workers, ‘a leader, a firm bulwark against the Communists, labour unions and the Jews’ (p.264).

And on the other hand, here is a black man who chisels and dawdles, sings and ‘wears pink and green suits’. Now, which of these should we save, which one is the better American?”

Bamboozled and confused by the Senator’s gentle but grand and domineering manner, by his fine noble appearance and his stirrin’ patriotic tones, Lizzie finds herself in a daze signing the fake testimony — at which point the Senator, Fred and the cops drop all pretense of kindness and concern and simply sweep out. At the last moment Lizzie repents and runs to the door… but it’s too cotton-picking late!

Scene two

The much shorter second scene is set in the same dingy living room, 12 hours later, the evening of the same day.

The Senator returns to say that Thomas was let off and has been reunited with his dear old mother who has kindly sent her a letter. Lizzie opens the ‘letter’ to find a hundred dollar bill enclosed – not even the $500 which Fred had at one stage promised her – and not even a note of thanks. She is crushed by the contempt, the ingratitude.

The Senator is not fazed by her visible scorn and marches respectably out. Next moment the desperate black guy from scene one climbs in through the window. (I know it’s meant to be dead serious, but all these panic-stricken entrances and exits kept reminding me of the Keystone Kops.) A lynch mob is closing in on him. Just in case we don’t know what that means Sartre spells it out. the lynch mob will tie him up, whip him across the eyes to blind him, then pour gasoline over him and set him on fire (p.269). Maybe castrate him first, you can never be sure.

Lizzie gingerly admits to the black guy that she did reluctantly sign the false testimony confirming that he raped her — but she bitterly regrets it now and she promises to hide him from the mob. She offers him a revolver so he can shoot his way out, but he repeatedly refuses to take it. ‘Ah can’t shoot white folks,’ he repeats, piteously. ‘Hide in the bathroom,’ she tells him.

A couple of lynchers knock on the door and demand to search the place, until Lizzie reveals, to their surprise, that she is the woman who was raped and is the pretext for the hue and cry.

Sartre twists the knife by giving stage instructions that the lynchers are not only shocked, but look at her with fascination and desire, too. Filthy white American hypocrites! Daunted by her claim, they run off to search the rest of the building but kindly promise to come fetch her when they catch the varmint so she can watch them torture him to death.

The black guy comes out of hiding in the bathroom and there’s a brief dialogue. Lizzie is overwhelmed: the whole town, all the men she’s met, the police, the senator and Uncle Sam, the entire country is saying he’s guilty and that she was raped, so insistently that she’s beginning to doubt her own experience. And the black guy, too, admits that he’s feeling guilty, despite having done nothing. Why? Because, as he puts it, ‘they’re white folks’. Thus he is shown as being not just a physical victim, but – worse – a psychological victim of white racism, which uses every institution and implement in its power to convince him he is inferior and guilty.

There’s another knock on the door and the terrified black guy runs back into the bathroom. Enter Fred who excitedly tells Lizzie that they’ve caught and lynched and burned to death a black guy. Admittedly, it was the wrong guy, but hell, all black people are guilty of something, right? Anyway, the point is that watching a black guy being burned alive has made Fred feel horny as hell. He’s run all the way over here not knowing whether he’s going to murder Lizzie or rape her, but now he’s here he’s got a good idea which, and he grabs her and she starts to scream.

In response the black guy comes running out the bathroom. Fred draws a revolver but the black guy pushes him out the way and runs out of the door. Fred runs after him and we hear two gunshots. Lizzie takes the revolver she tried to give to the black guy earlier on, and hides it behind her back as Fred re-enters. She points the gun at him, threatening him. Convinced she’ll do it, the cowardly Fred starts begging for his life.

There then happens a frankly astonishing thing. You might expect a man faced with a gun held by an angry woman to beg for his life or try to coax her round. Instead, Fred gives a long speech pointing out that she can’t shoot him because the Clarke family he comes from are the embodiment of American history and American values!

The first Clarke cleared the forest hereabouts and killed all the Indians. His son was friends with George Washington and built this town and died fighting for American Independence. His great-grandfather saved a bunch of people during the great fire of San Francisco. His granddaddy came back to town and built the Mississippi Canal and was elected Governor. His daddy is Senator and Fred aims to become Senator, too.

In other words, Sartre makes this vile, hypocritical, bullying, psychopathic racist into a proud epitome of American history and culture, placing his disgusting personality at the centre of the American narrative.

You can’t do it, Fred says. ‘A girl like you can’t shoot a man like me’ (p.275) and, in fact… she can’t.

Fred walks up to Lizzie and takes the gun out of her hands. He tells her that in fact he missed the black guy with those two gunshots she heard, but, what the hell, here’s what he’s going to do for her. He’s going to set her up in a nice place of her own, with plenty of black servants and more money than she ever dreamed of and he’ll come and ‘visit’ her three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Will she be happy with that? A happy little ole girl?

And, come on now baby, tell papa the truth – Did he really give her a thrill last night when they were making love? ‘Yes,’ she meekly replies. ‘That’s my girl,’ he says patting her cheek.

And that’s the end.

The Wikipedia article says this play ‘explores the theme of racism in the American South in the 1940s’. I’d suggest it doesn’t ‘explore’ anything, it hits you over the head with the crudest characters and bluntest plotline Sartre can conceive in order to ram home the shockingly corrupt, hateful and racist situation in the American Deep South of the 1940s. All it lacks is actually burning a black man to death onstage – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if modern, digitally-enhanced productions didn’t include old footage of lynchings, where they exist – to ram the point home.

The ‘n’ word

Putting aside the Keystone Kops entrances and exits, and the cartoon racism of all the white characters, in a way the most shocking thing about the play for a modern reader is the extremely frequent use of the ‘n’ word. This makes it problematic to quote and I wonder how it is handled in modern stagings.

If you search the online text you find the ‘n’ word is used 39 times in the text (somehow it seems like much, much more, maybe because of the word’s poisonous power) – but what really comes over is the hatred and contempt the white characters pour into their use of it.

More than the hokey plotline, it’s the virulence of the racist attitudes displayed by absolutely all the white characters which is so hard to take, to read, to cope with.

Anti-American

Apparently, when staged in the States the play produced a backlash among critics and audiences claiming it was anti-American. Well, it is. Massively, deliberately, contemptuously, calculatingly. It chimes with what I’ve been reading in Andy Martin about Sartre’s time in New York i.e he hated America, really profoundly hated everything about it.

And it gives substance to something else I’ve read about Sartre. Although he never actually joined the Communist Party, Sartre became steadily more of a Marxist as the Cold War progressed, supporting revolutionary communist aims and devoting his later writings to trying to integrate orthodox Marxist beliefs with his theory of existentialism.

So the way America treated its black population gave him a permanent argument against any claims for the moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis the communist bloc.

Whenever he was quizzed about the horrifying repressiveness of the communist regime in Russia which it was imposing during this period on all the countries of Eastern Europe – namely Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Yugoslavia – Sartre and his fellow Marxists were always able to respond with examples of the appalling racism, the Jim Crow laws, the discrimination and racist violence in America.

Twenty years later, they would be able to throw in the Vietnam War for good measure.

Intuitively, you’re inclined to think that there’s no comparison between, on the one hand, the communists systematically imposing totalitarian rule over an entire society, giving no-one any freedom of speech, assembly or publication, systematically clamping down on any dissent, sending people to labour camps for speaking out of turn, and so on – and the state of contemporary America where most people were free to assemble, speak, write, sing, publish and perform how they wanted to. During this period plenty of black entertainers got very rich – from jazz performers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie through singers like Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jnr. I.e there was a perfectly liberal, anti-racist cosmopolitan white America which was as appalled by the Deep South as any person of colour, and which campaigned and lobbied against racism.

But then again, maybe this is a hopelessly white point of view. Maybe – although I’ve read about it, seen art exhibitions and documentaries and movies about it – maybe I still can’t properly imagine how appalling it must have been to be a black man or woman, particularly in the systematically racist South, but even in many other places in the States, and subject to almost universal derision, discrimination, humiliation and violence, for most of the twentieth century.

A theatrical production

This trailer to what I think is a modern live stage production gives a sense of how scary and intense a really well-staged production of the play might be – though surely some of the hammy plot devices would have to be eliminated to bring out a real sense of terror.

The clip also gives a sense of the how much better the French language is suited to tragedy, to intense emotion and fear, than English, which is an intrinsically farcical language.

The movie

There’s also a French movie version of the play dating from the 1950s, which looks like it substantially expands the action, starting as it does in a nightclub. Alas, it seems this movie is not available on YouTube or via Amazon and so has, effectively, vanished from the face of the earth. Quel dommage.


Credit

The Respectful Prostitute was first performed in Paris in November 1946. This English translation by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1948. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

There’s a whole nest of pitfalls that we can’t see. Everything here’s a booby-trap… (p.30)

Sartre’s most famous play is just one act and forty pages long. A man is ushered by a perfunctory ‘valet’ into a closed room, tastefully decorated with Second Empire furnishings. Shortly afterwards the valet ushers two more guests in, both women. The door is locked behind them. Polite and embarrassed, slowly the trio realise that they have died and are in hell.

Hesitantly, they reveal their stories.

The characters

Joseph Garcin is a man’s man, big and burly, a journalist in Brazil, who wrote for a pacifist newspaper. He was a brute to his wife, reeling home smelling of wine and women. One time he brought home a girlfriend and made love to her deliberately loudly so that his wife (in the spare bedroom) could hear them. Next morning he had his wife bring them coffee in bed. When war came and he was called up, Garcin fled to Mexico to evade conscription but was caught, brought back, and shot by firing squad for cowardice.

Inèz Serrano is a lesbian. She is arch and manipulative. She admits she seduced a woman (Florence) away from her husband, turning her against him. He was killed in a tram accident and the wife felt so guilty she gassed herself and Inèz in their sleep. ‘I can’t get on without making people suffer’ (p.26).

Estelle Rigault is posh and dim. She married a man three times her age for his money, but then had an affair with a man her own age, Roger. He got her pregnant and she could afford to go on an extended holiday to a hotel in Switzerland to sit out the pregnancy and birth. After she’d borne the child, with her lover watching, she attached the baby to a stone in a pillow and threw it into the lake to drown. Appalled, her lover committed suicide.

The play

So the fun, the entertainment, the interest of the play is how these three characters set about torturing each other, slowly, one by one, forced to relinquish any hopes that their time together might be bearable or redeemable, slowly coming to the awful conclusion that l’enfer, c’est les autres = hell, it’s other people.

Having just read Andy Martins’ book about Sartre. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, I now know that Sartre thought there were only two ways for humans to relate to each other, as sadists or masochists; and that he confessed to having a sadistic attitude towards his fictional creations. It shows. Over the hour and a bit of the play they combine every possible way of irritating, upsetting and flaying each other, emotionally.

The play can very easily, then, be seen as an example of the Theatre of Cruelty which was popular after the war.

For example, towards the end shallow Estelle offers herself sexually to Garcin: she is only real when she has ensnared a man. This plays to Garcin’s sense of himself as a manly man but he discovers he can’t do it, get it up, unless Estelle really genuinely tells him that she respects him. He needs this because he has become – over the course of the hour – increasingly filled with self-loathing and self-doubt caused by reflecting on his cowardice. But neither of them can really rise to the occasion because it is taking place in front of Inèz, with her sharp tongue and cutting comments. Inèz, by virtue of her lesbianism, is revolted by big hairy Garcin – but can’t have Estelle, who she is strongly attracted to, because she is a dippy dolly bird who only fancies rough tough men.

Ensnared in a cobweb. Caught in a net. If any of them moves the other two are yanked along into further depths of mutual contempt and hatred. It is a terrifying triangle of eternal frustration and torment.

Thoughts

Or at least, it is if you’re French. From Racine in the 1660s, to Les Liaison Dangereuses in the 1780s, to Zola in the 1890s, the French take love, love affairs, affairs of the heart, with a staggering, baroque and ornate seriousness. Setting his play with rather dull modern-day characters is a Sartrean joke on this Grand Tradition but the seriousness with which they take their silly emotions is unmistakably French.

No longer a troubled teenager, and cursed by being English, I wasn’t remotely moved by Huis Clos, I was interested in details and themes.

Catholicism For example, it tends to confirm what I’d observed from Sartre’s novels, that his entire worldview only makes sense against the enormous backdrop of Roman Catholicism. You can only feel abandoned in a godless universe, if you at any time felt at home in a god-filled universe i.e. if you were a believer. Both Camus and Sartre only make sense as rebels against a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. But we Protestant English lack that intense religious background and so miss the intensity of the rebellion against it.

The gaze A more specifically Sartrean trope is the important of ‘the gaze’ and ‘the look’. Again, from the Martin book I know that Sartre was hyper-self-conscious from an early age of his appalling ugliness. Thus the act of looking is central in his fiction and his philosophy. People are engaged in an endless warfare of looking. To some extent people behave as they do because other people are watching: they want to conform to the watchers’ expectations or defy them but they can’t ignore them.

In another way, people watch and observe themselves acting and behaving, especially if there are mirrors around. So, in Huis Clos Estelle needs mirrors to reassure herself that she exists: she has six big mirrors in her house. But here, in the well-furnished room, there are no mirrors at all, not even hand mirrors. In a particular sequence she goes to put her lipstick on but has no way to see her reflection and so has to trust Inèz to tell her she’s doing it correctly. Except that half way through Inèz cruelly asks, what if I’m deceiving you? What if I’m deliberately making you look stupid? Which makes Estelle distraught but also clarifies how horrible life is going to be in hell where she will never be able to see herself. Already she feels herself, somehow, fading away…

[Estelle] When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself to make sure, but it doesn’t help much… When I talked to people I always made sure there was [a mirror] nearby in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me… (p.19)

And then again, people control and intimidate others through their gaze, as Inèz spitefully promises to watch Garcin wherever he goes, whatever he does:

[Inèz] Very well, have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two. But don’t forget I’m here, and watching. I shan’t take my eyes off you, Garcin; when you’re kissing her, you’ll feel them boring into you…

In an interesting twist, that isn’t much reported in the summaries of the play I’ve read, all three characters can continue, for a while at least, to see how their partners and colleagues are continuing to live back on earth. Thus Estelle sees the mourners walking away from her funeral, while Garcin has a particularly vivid vision of all his colleagues at the newspaper lolling around and discussing what a coward he was. This makes him all the more want Estelle to SEE him, to bring him to the present with her gaze, to rescue from his inner consciousness with the power of her look.

[Garcin] Come here, Estelle. Look at me. I want to feel someone looking at me while they’re talking about me on earth… (p.38)

Women as slimy It’s a small detail, really, but having read the four novels of The Roads to Freedom involved reading lots of descriptions of slime and mucus and vomit. Sartre wants to debunk the smoothness of the traditional ‘bourgeois’ novel by including lots of bodily functions, but also just likes being revolting. So it’s a small but telltale moment when Garcin, in despair, makes for the bell by the door (which doesn’t work), Estelle goes to hug him and tell him everything’s OK, and Garcin pushes her away with:

[Garcin] Go away. You’re even fouler than she. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire. (p.41)

Andy Martin, in his book on Camus and Sartre, says the threatening symbol of the octopus appears in a number of Sartre’s writings as the terrifying threat of being sucked in, absorbed and digested by other life forms, part of Sartre’s ‘biophobic tendency’. Like the tree whose boley roots almost give Roquentin a nervous breakdown in Nausea. Like women who threaten to drown and swallow men in their gloop.

The BBC TV adaptation

In which the staggering thing, almost impossible to overcome, is the breath-taking poshness of the actors, in particular the ludicrously upper-class voice of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, here playing Garcin. To some extent many of the moments, the phrasing, the thoughts and the similes only really make sense when voiced by essentially very restrained middle-class characters. My kids watch Breaking Bad and The Wire. I showed them a snippet of this and they fell about laughing.

Academics have to continue solemnly judging that this kind of thing is ‘a searing tragedy of the human condition’ and so on – while the rest of us, who live in normal-people-land, can actually relax and admit that the whole thing is pompously ridiculous.


Credit

Huis Clos was first performed in Paris in May 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Just by Albert Camus (1949)

It is 1949. War-torn Europe lies in ruins. Across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe communist regimes are intimidating and executing their way to power. The Cold War between America and Russia is well-entrenched, epitomised by the Berlin Airlift, which began in June 1948.

Which side should you choose to be on? American capitalism exploiting its workers, repressing its Black population at home and spreading its neo-imperialism abroad? Or the worldwide communist movement which, despite much evidence to the contrary, at least holds out the possibility of a fairer world, where workers are liberated from an exploitative system and the vast populations of the imperial colonies are freed?

But joining the communist movement means accepting the need to get your hands dirty, to join in with its culture of conspiracy, revolution and political murder. Is this acceptable?

In the late 1940s Camus was working through these issues in the long philosophical essay which would be published as L’Homme révolté in 1951. This book addresses head-on what Camus regarded as the big issue of the day, namely — Is it morally justifiable to commit political murder for what you regard as a just cause? Does the hope of achieving freedom for an entire society in some hypothetical future justify killing a handful of actual people in the here-and-now? To use the phrase so many intellectuals used throughout the communist period – Do the ends (the workers’ state, complete human freedom, utopia) justify the means (conspiracy, terror, murder)?

Alongside the politico-philosophical approach of L’Homme révolté, Camus set out to dramatise these questions in this five-act play. Its title can be translated as The Just, The Just Assassins or, maybe, The Righteous.

The play follows the activities and impassioned arguments of a small group of revolutionary socialists in Russia, in 1905, who are planning to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. All but one of the characters are real historical personages and the events really took place as described. Camus based the play on Memoirs of a Terrorist by one of the group, Boris Savinkov. (In fact, Camus devotes several pages of L’Homme révolté to Savinkov’s book, giving thumbnail portraits of the group and quoting their reported conversations – a passage which sheds light on the play, and certainly on Camus’s fascination with this brand of ‘fastidious assassins’, as he calls them.)

Plot & characters

At the first attempt to throw a bomb in the Grand Duke’s carriage the would-be assassin Kaliayev at the last minute backs down, because he sees that there are children in the carriage (this is historical fact). On returning to the group and making the excuse that he wants to kill the ‘guilty’, but not the ‘innocent’, Kaliayev is rebuked by the unflinching revolutionary Stepan:

Not until the day comes when we stop being sentimental about children, will the revolution triumph and we be masters of the world. (p.136)

The only woman in the group is Dora who is as unbendingly revolutionary as the rest of them. In the middle of the play her role changes, though, as we see her developing ‘feelings’ for Kaliayev, until, in a central scene, she surprised me by suddenly dropping the revolutionary jargon and turning into a fully-fledged ‘love interest’, telling Kaliayev that she wants to be loved as a woman, asking whether he loves her, and asking why all of the group can’t they choose human happiness over murder? Possibly we are meant to be moved by this, although I saw it as just part of Camus’s programme of wringing every possible permutation of argument, moral, political and psychological, from his situation.

But Kaliayev ignores her please and summons up the determination, two days later, to be back in the street when the Arch Duke is on another carriage drive, and to throw a bomb which blows the old man to smithereens. (All this happens off stage; we only hear the sound effects and see the excited faces of the characters looking out a window onto the scene of the murder in the street below.)

In the final acts the play becomes increasingly schematic. Kaliayev was captured by the police after he threw the bomb and is now in prison. He has a brief, ironic dialogue with a fellow prisoner, who, it turns out, is actually the prison hangman and will be killing him.

And then in a long, excruciatingly pretentious scene, Kaliayev is confronted by the Grand Duchess, the wife of the man he blew to smithereens. She is, with heavy predictability, a devout Christian and she wants, of course, to forgive him, and for him to join her in prayer to the Lord of All.

This meeting of murderer and victim’s wife allows Camus to write a long Dostoyevskian dialogue contrasting divine love and earthly love, divine justice and human justice, sin and forgiveness, and so on.

KALIAYEV: When they’ve pronounced the sentence, and they’re all ready for the execution… then… at the foot of the scaffold… I shall turn away from you and this vile world… And at last my heart will be filled with love!… Can you understand?
GRAND DUCHESS: There is no love except with God.
KALIAYEV: Yes, there is… Love for people… Love for mankind! (p.161)

With every fresh text of Camus’s that I read I become more convinced that Christian theology was central to his worldview, in particular the Christian dichotomy of crime and punishment, sin and salvation, damnation and salvation, repentance and forgiveness. Although the play contains much rhetoric about revolutionary ‘freedom’, it is the fundamentally Christian dynamic of sin and forgiveness which underpins the text.

After Kaliayev has spurned the Grand Duchess’s offer of praying for forgiveness and she has left, the sleek Chief of Police Skouratov tries to blackmail Kaliayev. Skouratov says he will put it about that Kaliayev begged to see the Grand Duchess, begged for her forgiveness and renounced his revolutionary views – i.e. he will discredit him, unless Kaliayev admits the whereabouts of his fellow conspirators. End of act four.

In the last act we are back with the conspirators in their shabby apartment, setting of the first three acts. As in a Greek tragedy, a messenger/eye-witness arrives to describe Kaliayev’s last moments as he stepped up to the scaffold to be hanged. This is  how we learn that he rejected Skouratov’s offer to betray his comrades, he didn’t flicker in the face of death, and so on. A stern Roman virtue.

Then follows the climax of the play as Dora, Kaliayev’s lover, half-weeping, half-shrieking, announces that she wants to be reunited in sacrifice with her man and insists – against the group’s sexist code that no woman can actually take part in an act of terrorism – that she will be the one to throw the next bomb. Shamed by her ‘revolutionary’ intensity and ideological fervour, her colleagues acquiesce.

And so the torch is handed on. There will be more assassinations, more murders. The cycle will never end.

Schematic

What is most striking about the play is the starkly simplistic attitudes of the characters. They are like diagrams or caricatures. One is a poet who hates lies but is forced to lie in order to be a conspirator, and justifies it because once he has thrown his bomb ‘all lies will end’. One thinks they are ‘killing to build a world where there will be no more killing’. One thinks you can’t just talk about the revolution, you must be part of it. One thinks no individual can be free until all people in the world are free.

The turns of event mainly exist not to provide drama in the broad sense, but to introduce new topics of debate. Thus Kaliayev’s refusal to throw a bomb into a carriage containing the Arch Duke’s children introduces the issue: ‘Should you – are you permitted – to murder a few young innocents in order to bring about a Just Society in which all innocents will be protected?’

The trouble with such a schematic approach is that it sacrifices psychological depth or emotional plausibility. Thus Kaliayev’s ‘temptation’ by the head of the police to betray his comrades is a) very brief, amounting to a page or less of dialogue b) doesn’t lead anywhere at all – I was expecting it to have some kind of dramatic consequence in the final act but it is forgotten, eclipsed by the eye witness account of Kaliayev’s execution.

Compare and contrast its throwaway brevity with the searing psychological intensity of the interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four or the prolonged breaking down of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon. Camus isn’t in the same league.

The heavy-handedness of the ‘debate’ with the Grand Duchess about God in Act Four alienated me from the play by its predictability and its superficiality; and when Dora, in Act Five, becomes the focus of the action with her distraught alternation between tearful love for her man and steely determination to strike the next blow for ‘freedom’, I had switched off.

If you had never thought about these issues before, the play might just about be a good 6th form or maybe undergraduate resource with which to prompt discussions about the morality of revolutionary violence – in the same way that Frankenstein might, at a pinch, be used to trigger discussion about the ethics of genetic engineering or Heart of Darkness about imperialism. But it’s neither a serious in-depth analysis, nor an emotionally believable one.

Terrorists may be at work all over Europe as I write, but I don’t think the guys we have to worry about think or talk like this nowadays.

The uselessness of morality

My son the Philosophy A-Level student tells me that, in terms of moral philosophy, I am a ‘consequentialist’. I had to look it up to find out what he meant. It means I don’t believe in grand moral or ethical principles (a position I sometimes provocatively express as, ‘I don’t believe in morality’). I don’t invoke general moral axioms or principles to help me decide whether to act this or that way. I judge by outcomes. I am interested in what works.

For me, there is no particular ‘moral’ principle involved in the question ‘Is political murder ever justified?’ The only criterion is, ‘Does it work?’ And all the historical evidence we have is that almost all political assassinations a) don’t change anything or b) make repression worse.

It doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Holding this position explains why I found almost everything the characters say in this play superfluous and irrelevant. Their interminable debates over their conflicting moral codes, worrying about their sensitive scruples, their agonised discussion of ethical principles and so on seem to me either adolescent navel-gazing or windy metaphysics. They kill the Duke. They are arrested. There is no revolution. Tyranny is not overthrown. Freedom does not come for every person in Russia. They resolve to carry out another terrorist atrocity. And so on. And they will continue to carry out individualistic assassinations until their entire ‘revolutionary’ ideology is swept away by the grand state terrorism of the Bolsheviks.

In other words – Fail. It is a failed way of thinking.

Only in a declared state of war can killing a clearly-identified enemy be justified, because it stands some chance of success i.e. of winning the war. In all other circumstances, killing is just killing. The Baader-Meinhof group shooting German bankers and industrialists. The IRA blowing up pubs in England or murdering Protestant workers. ETA assassinating Spanish officials. ISIS machine gunning people at a rock concert. Did they achieve their stated aims of overthrowing the system, country or values they detest? No. They failed. In the end they were just killers.

And more often than not they found themselves trapped in the role of terrorists. Committed to a ’cause’ they couldn’t quit because they had already burned their bridges, psychologically and legally. Hard to return from the excitement of clandestine meetings, smuggling arms, and planning atrocities to working 9 to 5 in an office.

Moreover there is an unavoidable inflationary logic to terrorism. As small terrorist acts fail to achieve their ends, many terrorist groups find themselves forced to stage bigger and more destructive ‘spectaculars’ in order a) to get some kind of reaction and b) to justify their ’cause’, their existence, to themselves and their supporters and c) to justify their life decisions to themselves.

And all, in the end, for nothing.

The best explanation I’ve read of the grim logic of modern terrorism is the relevant sections of Gerard DeGroot’s popular history, The Seventies Unplugged.

Historical innocence

Back to the play – by setting it in 1905 Camus’s makes sure Les Justes is largely innocent of the history of bloodshed which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. The characters exist in a kind of pre-lapsarian phase of political terrorism. Although Russia had had a healthy track record of terrorism for at least a generation previously – the Grand Duke’s father, Tsar Alexander II, survived no fewer than five assassination attempts before himself being blown up in 1881 by terrorists (like father, like son) – the grotesque, continent-wide super-violence of the Great War and its aftermath had not yet occurred. The thirty years of bloodshed, terror and state terrorism sprawling from 1917 to 1947 was undreamed of.

(It is, for example, interesting to learn that the real-life Grand Duchess was murdered in 1918 by revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War – but by that time we were used to mass murders and killing on an industrial scale: she was just one among millions who met a violent end. The play is set in an essentially bourgeois world where individual lives – where the complex moral dilemmas of individuals – still matter.)

Thus, by choosing 1905 Camus has stripped away the contemporary and complex historical context of his own time (1949) and returned to a much simpler, more innocent age, in order to bring out the ‘issues’ with greater clarity.

Maybe this is why Les Justes sometimes feels more like an excerpt from BBC Bitesize or an over-the-top school play than a drama for modern grown-ups. It is full of cardboard characters adopting histrionic and above all, very simple-minded poses. Take a characteristic outburst from the most unflinchingly revolutionary character, Stepan:

For us who don’t believe in God, there is nothing between total justice and utter despair. (p.148)

This is not only childishly, petulantly melodramatic, it is also plain wrong. There is no such thing as total justice or utter despair, these are tiresomely writerly abstractions. In fact there is a whole world of life and love for everyone to enjoy, whether they believe in God or not. Watch The Great British Bake-Off: are these people fussing about their soggy bottoms trapped between total justice and utter despair?

There is absolutely no need to live in this hysterical, Dostoyevskian state of mind unless you want to.

It’s their unrelentingly histrionic simple-mindedness and their wilful neglect of the real, actual world of happy people, which makes the characters in this taut little melodrama difficult to care for and a lot of Camus’s political writings so difficult to read.

Ivan Kalyayev, assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia

Ivan Kalyayev, real life assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and lead figure in Les Justes

But judging a play from just reading it is a dicey thing to do. Plays are not meant to be read cold on the page, but animated by flesh and blood actors, in real productions in front of live audiences in particular times and places.

All of these factors came together favourably in the first production of Les Justes, which opened in Paris in December 1949, was well received by the critics, and ran for over 400 performances. In that time and place this drama of ideas obviously spoke to a large audience who presumably a) enjoyed the moral debates b) found it dramatically satisfying.


Credit

Les Justes by Albert Camus was published in France in 1950. This translation by Henry Jones was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1965. The Just was brought together with the other plays, Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Possessed, in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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