Archive for December, 2011

Poem: The Old Bush School

This poem is by John O’Brien, the pen-name of Fr. Patrick Hartigan (1878-1952), a Catholic priest who wrote about bush life in New South Wales last century.   His ADB entry is here, and he is commemorated with an annual festival at Narrendera.  This poem is memorable for the line:  “And a nickname fitting better than the name their mothers gave”.

 

The Old Bush School

‘Tis a queer, old battered landmark that belongs to other years;
With the dog-leg fence around it, and its hat about its ears,
And the cow-bell in the gum-tree, and the bucket on the stool,
There’s a motley host of memories round that old bush school –

With its seedy desks and benches, where at least I left a name
Carved in agricultural letters – ’twas my only bid for fame;
And the spider-haunted ceilings, and the rafters, firmly set,
Lined with darts of nibs and paper (doubtless sticking in them yet),
And the greasy slates and blackboards, where I oft was proved a fool
And a blur upon the scutcheon of the old bush school.

There I see the boots in order – “‘lastic-sides” we used to wear –
With a pair of “everlastin’s” cracked and dustry here and there;
And we marched with great “high action” – hands behind and eyes before –
While we murdered “Swanee River” as we tramped around the floor.

Still the scholars pass before me with their freckled features grave,
And a nickname fitting better than the name their mothers gave;
Tousled hair and vacant faces, and their garments every one
Shabby heirlooms in the family, handed down from sire to son.
Ay, and mine were patched in places, and half-masted, as a rule –
They were fashionable trousers at the old bush school.

There I trudged it from the Three-mile, like a patient, toiling brute,
With a stocking round my ankle, and my heart within my boot,
Morgan, Nell and Michael Joseph, Jim and Mary, Kate and Mart
Tramping down the sheep-track with me, little rebels at the heart;
Shivery grasses round about us nodding bonnets in the breeze,
Happy Jacks and Twelve Apostles hurdle-racing up the trees,
Peewees calling from the gullies, living wonders in the pool –
Hard bare seats and drab gray humdrum at the old bush school.

Early rising in the half-light, when the morn came, bleak and chill;
For the little mother roused us ere the sun had topped the hill,
“Up, you children, late ’tis gettin’.” Shook the house beneath her knock,
And she wasn’t always truthful, and she tampered with the clock.

Keen she was about “the learnin’,” and she told us o’er and o’er
Of our luck to have “the schoolin”‘ right against our very door.
And the lectures – Oh, those lectures to our stony hearts addressed!
“Don’t he mixin’ with the Regans and the Ryans and the rest” –
“Don’t be pickin’ up with Carey’s little talkative kanats” –
Well, she had us almost thinking we were born aristocrats.
But we found our level early – in disaster, as a rule –
For they knocked “the notions” sideways at the old bush school.

Down the road came Laughing Mary, and the beast that she bestrode
Was Maloney’s sorry piebald she had found beside the road;
Straight we scrambled up behind her, and as many as could fit
Clung like circus riders bare-back without bridle-rein or bit,
On that corrugated backbone in a merry row we sat –
We propelled him with our school-bags; Mary steered him with her hat –
And we rolled the road behind us like a ribbon from the spool,
“Making butter,” so we called it, to the old bush school.

What a girl was Mary Casey in the days of long ago!
She was queen among the scholars, or at least we thought her so;
She was first in every mischief and, when overwhelmed by fate,
She could make delightful drawings of the teacher on her slate.
There was rhythm in every movement, as she gaily passed along
With a rippling laugh that lilted like the music of a song;
So we called her “Laughing Mary,” and a fitful fancy blessed
E’en the bashful little daisies that her dainty feet caressed.

She had cheeks like native roses in the fullness of their bloom,
And she used to sing the sweetest as we marched around the room;
In her eyes there lurked the magic, maiden freshness of the morn,
In her hair the haunting colour I had seen upon the corn;
Round her danced the happy sunshine when she smiled upon the stool –
And I used to swap her dinners at the old bush school.

Hard the cobbled road of knowledge to the feet of him who plods
After fragile fragments fallen from the workshop of the gods;
Long the quest, and ever thieving pass the pedlars o’er the hill
With the treasures in their bundles, but to leave us questing still.
Mystic fires horizons redden, but each crimson flash in turn
Only lights the empty places in the bracken and the fern;
So in after years I’ve proved it, spite of pedant, crank, and fool,
Very much the way I found it at the old bush school.




Michael Dummett RIP

The death has just occurred of the philosopher Michael Dummett (1925-2011), formerly Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford.    His writings on the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mathematics have influenced me, particularly his thorough book on intuitionism.   Having been educated by pure mathematicians who actively disparaged intuitionist and constructivist ideas, I found it liberating to see these ideas taken seriously and considered carefully.  The precision of Dummett’s writing and thought clearly marked him out as a member of the Matherati, as also his other formal work, such as that on voting procedures.

POSTSCRIPT (2012-01-21):  The logician Graham Priest remembers Dummett as follows:

It is clear that Dummett was one of the most important — perhaps the most important — British philosopher of the last half century. His work on the philosophy of language and metaphysics, inspired by themes in intuitionist logic, was truly groundbreaking. He took intuitionism from a somewhat esoteric doctrine in the philosophy of mathematics to a mainstream philosophical position.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, as far as I am concerned, was to demonstrate beyond doubt the intellectual respectability of a fully-fledged philosophical position based on a contemporary heterodox logic. Philosophers in the United Kingdom, even if they do not subscribe to Dummett’s views, no longer doubt the possibility of this. Dummett had an influence in Australia, too. It was quieter there than in the U.K., but the relevant philosophical lesson was amplified by logicians who endorsed heterodox logics of a different stripe (for which, I think, Dummett had little sympathy). The result has been much the same.

In the United States, though, Dummett had virtually no significant impact. Indeed, I am continually surprised how conservative philosophy in the United States is with regard to heterodox logics. It is still awaiting a Dummett to awaken it from its dogmatic logical slumbers.

Graham Priest, City University of New York Graduate Center, and the University of Melbourne (Australia)

References:

His Guardian obituary is here.  An index to posts about members of the Matherati can be found here.

M. Dummett [1977/2000]: Elements of Intuitionism. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1st edition 1977; 2nd edition 2000).




Poem: Up-Hill

Posting The Lost Man by Judith Wright yesterday reminded me of another poem about the journey of life:   Up-Hill, by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), sister of the pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  This poem was first published in 1861.

Up-Hill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yes, beds for all who come.




The Matherati: Matthew Piers Watt Boulton

Portrait_Of_Matthew_Piers_Watt_Boulton_by_Sir_Francis_Grant

Matthew Piers Watt Boulton (1820-1894, pictured in portrait by Sir Francis Grant, ca. 1840) was the eldest grandson of the great engineer Matthew Boulton, and was named for James Watt, his grandfather’s partner-in-steam.   He inherited significant wealth and attended Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where his first tutor was the mathematician George Peacock (1791-1858), undergraduate friend of Charles Babbage and Alexander d’Arblay.    At Cambridge, Boulton studied mathematics, logic, and classics. He declined to apply for scholarships, despite his evident ability and in the face of entreaties from his tutor and his father, on the grounds that they bred unpleasant competitiveness – perhaps he was someone after my own heart.  It is likely that, for the same reason, he did not sit the Tripos examinations.

 

He was however of strong mathematical bent.  In 1868, he patented a method for lateral control of aircraft in flight, inventing what are now called ailerons.  Being a gentleman of wealth and leisure, he was able to read and write at will, and published translations of classic literature, some poetry, and pamphlets on solar energy, in addition to a work on aircraft stability.   Kinzer (2009) makes a compelling case for him also being the author of several works of philosophy published by someone calling himself “M. P. W. Bolton,” mostly in the 1860s.

Kinzer quotes the following words from Boulton’s paper,  “Has a Metaphysical Society any raison d’etre?”, read to a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, held at the Grosvenor Hotel on 9 April 1874 and chaired by William Gladstone:

There is no question, however apparently non-metaphysical, which may not be pursued till we come to the Metaphysical.  The question of whether Tarquin lived, and whether Lucretia committed suicide, is about as non-metaphysical as any question can be: yet disputants engaged in its discussion may persist till they open up the general question of the credibility of testimony; and this may open that of the credibility of memory, the nature of belief, what grounds we have for believing the existence of other persons, and an external world . . .  Whenever we try to bottom a question or subject, to use Locke’s word (the French word would be “approfondir”) then Metaphysics come in sight  . . . Every sentence involves, in some shape or other, the verb “to be”, and this, if pursued long enough, leads to the heart of Metaphysics  . . . Scientific persons often speak of Metaphysics  with scorn, calling them an Asylum Ignorantiae, useful enough to the vulgar, but in no way needed by themselves.  They imagine their science to be perfectly luminous, far above the lower regions where Metaphysical mists prevail.  But in reality they share the common lot:  the ideas of Force, Law, Cause, Substance, Causal or Active Matter, all dwell in the region of metaphysical twilight, not in the luminous ether. “

 

References:

For some reason, reading the quoted passage brought to mind Richard Dawkins and memes.

I am grateful to Bruce Kinzer for some information here.

There is an index here to posts about members of the Matherati.

Billie Andrew Inman [1991]:  Pater’s Letters at the Pierpont Morgan Library.  English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 34 (4):401-417.

Bruce Kinzer [1979]: In search of M.P.W. Bolton. Notes and Queries, n.s., 26 (August 1979): 310-313.

Bruce Kinzer [2009]:  Flying under the radar:  The strange case of Matthew Piers Watt Boulton. Times Literary Supplement, 1 May 2009, pp. 14-15.




Christopher Hitchens RIP

I have long been annoyed by the abuse of power that media organizations – even noble and high-minded ones – are prone to engage in.  Newspapers, for example, often run obituaries of people who work for them in support roles, such as their administrative and printing staff.  However virtuous or locally-influential such lives may have been, these people were not public figures, and it strikes me as a mis-use of media power for them to be given prominent public obituaries merely because they happened to have worked for an organization that prints such obituaries.  Until it introduced a section of its obits page for readers’ own accounts of the lives of recently-departed ordinary people, The Guardian, for example, was a key offender in this, with all manner of obscure back-office staff being given national obituaries.   Is this newspaper just an in-house magazine for its employees?

The death of Christopher Hitchens has allowed The Grauniad to fall back on its old ways, with pages and pages devoted to Hitchens and all his works – a seeming HitchFest – as if his death were a major world event.  Vaclav Havel,  who died shortly afterwards, received fewer column inches, yet demonstrably had a greater impact on the world.    I expect that The Guardian has given so many pages to Hitch because he seems to have been known to and had great influence on other journalists, and because it can.  That latter reason, it seems to me, is a mis-use of their power;  it is also something Hitchens himself would have objected to.

Bloggers have also devoted much attention to his passing on.   I have no problem with this, as blogging does not pretend to be a public service activity.   Although I have tried over the years to read most everything Hitchens ever published, usually with great enjoyment, I have hesitated at his passing on to write about my reactions to his work and life.     I never knew him (although I know people who did) so I will not comment on his personality or his personal life.    As a writer, he was an extremely elegant and well-turned stylist, and always provocative to thinking.   His invective, even when I disagreed with it or its targets, was always finely-honed and often very amusing.  I will miss reading him immensely.

I had several major disagreements with his views (at least as far I knew them from his writings).  Firstly,  someone who could join a Trotskyist political groupoid had to have very poor political judgement. (The same could be said for that other early-Trotskyist, late-onset neocon, Norman Geras.). The people in these groups in the 1960s and 1970s were in general in my experience not pleasant, not rational, not open to reason, and not realistic about what works in the world.  And  each group was not unlike a cult.   They were often very elitist, believing they could see the future which the rest of us dummies could not;  and few of the Trotskyists I have encountered in my life had any empathy for working people.   I can only see membership of such a groupoid as evidence of gross mis-understanding about the world, of how it is, and of what it may become.  Of course, we all lack understanding of the world when we are young, and some of us gain our wisdom faster than others.

Secondly, for all his internationalism, Hitch never “got” Barack Obama.  I read his writings in the US Presidential campaign of 2007-2008, and subsequently, and mis-understanding and mis-construals were evident throughout.  Sometimes I thought his mis-readings were deliberate and wilful (as in his accusation that Obama was  not a sincere religious believer), while at other times he was simply mistaken.   From the very first time I heard Obama speak (in 2004), I knew him immediately.  He reminded me of scores of dedicated foreign aid workers I know from Africa and Asia:  “We are the ones we have been waiting for“, “Yes, we can“, etc.  This is the language of community empowerment, of working-with not working-through people, of helping the poor and downtrodden through empathy from a position at their level, not condescending to them from a position at some level above or outside them.    Tim Geithner, with his superb social-parsing skills,  is, it seems, another  person in the same mould.

Hitchens apparently thought such statements by Obama vacuous.  Why would Hitchens – an internationalist – not also understand this about Obama, I wondered?  Hitchens had traveled a great deal, and often to nasty places, but as far as I know he never lived in any such place for any time.   He had not ever had to negotiate a foreign culture over the long term, except that of the USA, which is certainly different to Britain, but not so different as Indonesia, say, or Kenya.   And perhaps Marxism, with its impersonal theory of history across all time, and Trotskyism, with its belief in global revolution across all space, together make it hard to see the impacts of specific cultures, histories and societies – in the here and in the now – on the lives of people, and on their political possibilities, and on what actions are needed to change these lives and possibilities.  And, for the same reason, perhaps a person focused on dialectical analysis of grand theories of global history simply cannot easily understand someone seeking to improve the lot of a single group of people in one housing estate in Chicago, a community organizer say.  This far from the Bolshevik Revolution, it is easy to forget that many on the left (and particularly Trotskyists) disparaged acting locally, to the point where small-scale actions even received their own term of socialist invective: ameliorism.

And, finally, Hitchens seemed to not fully understand religion.  I was with him all the way in his criticism of the evils and sins committed by organized religion, and  in its name.   I was also with him in his refusal to bow down:  Any God that required our worship is not worthy of it.  Certainly no believer in the universal rights of man would countenance such feudal fealty.   Too, I was with him in his courageous refusal to run scared, to adopt religion as a crutch or consolation, as a candle for the dark nights of life.   But, even after all these aspects are considered, there remain other reasons for human religious or spiritual impulses, reasons which are good and valid and true.   Despite what Norm thinks, one may be drawn to sights unseen without any prior beliefs and without any desire to worship deities, but merely with a desire – often unexpressed or even unexpressable – to experience contact with elements of the non-material.   Such a desire motivates many mathematicians and musicians and artists, in addition to explaining the mystic strain evident in most religions.    Is there a non-material realm, outside the world of our five senses?  An entire branch of contemporary physics – String theory and M-theory – is posited on there being such a realm, comprising further dimensions of space-time inaccessible to us, despite the absence yet of any inter-subjective and replicable scientific evidence for it.    Do non-material or spiritual entities exist?   To me, that question is the same as:  Do mathematical objects exist?   On this aspect of religion, Hitchens (from his writings) seemed completely tone-deaf, just as if he lacked  the sense of hearing, or sight.

But, as I said, I will miss reading him immensely.

 

POSTSCRIPT (2012-01-14):  The Times Literary Supplement of 6 January 2012 publishes a letter by Mary Kenny which criticizes Hitchen’s simple-minded, black-and-white approach to religion, in regard in particular to his reporting on the Irish divorce referendum of 1995.    As she says,   “Yet a good journalist, let alone a great journalist –  as Michael Dirda (also December 23 & 30, 2011) claims Hitchens to have been  – would not  have scribbled off such a slapdash and superficial polemic:  a journalist in the tradition of Geroge Orwell would have examined such a social juncture in all its many nuances.”  The polemic by Hitchens that Kenny refers to is in his book, God is Not Great.

 

Footnote:

Andrew Sullivan’s tributes here, and links to Normblog’s and other tributes here.




Poem: The Lost Man

Judith Wright’s poem, The Lost Man, was written about James Guthrie Westray, a survivor of the crash of the Stinson in the McPherson ranges of SE Queensland in 1937, who died after falling over a waterfall when hacking through the jungle to seek help.   The “gold bird dancing” refers to the aircraft, although the poem may also be read as a description of our journey through life.  This poem has been set to music by Ross Edwards.

The Lost Man

To reach the pool you must go through the rain-forest –
through the bewildering midsummer of darkness
lit with ancient fern,
laced with poison and thorn.
You must go by the way he went – the way of the bleeding
hands and feet, the blood on the stones like flowers,
under the hooded flowers
that fall on the stones like blood.

To reach the pool you must go by the black valley
among the crowded columns made of silence,
under the hanging clouds
of leaves and voiceless birds.
To go by the way he went to the voice of the water,
where the priest stinging-tree waits with his whips and fevers
under the hooded flowers
that fall from the trees like blood,

you must forget the song of the gold bird dancing
over tossed light; you must remember nothing
except the drag of darkness
that draws your weakness under.
To go by the way he went, you must find beneath you
that last and faceless pool, and fall.  And falling
find between breath and death
the sun by which you live.

 

Photo:   A pool on the Stinson Walk, Lamington Ranges National Park, Queensland.  Credit:  Life Cycle.




Vale Cesaria Evora

Another sad loss this week:  Cesaria Evora, sultry-voiced singer of morna, the fado of Cape Verde.  May she rest in peace.

Her Guardian obit is here, and The Economist has a nice belated tribute here.




Havel na Hrad!

A memorial salute to Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who died yesterday.  I first read his Letters to Olga in the 1980s, and have found this and his other writings inspiring.  Havel’s life, too, reads like one of his own plays, and I long admired his courage, his profound self-awareness, and his integrity-of-purpose.

In one of his memoirs, Havel mentions the trepidation which Mikhail Gorbachev apparently felt prior to their first meeting, a meeting that took place in Moscow in 1990 shortly after Havel’s assumption of the Presidency of Czechoslovakia in December 1989, and immediately following Havel’s first official trip to the USA.  Gorbachev, a victim like any other citizen of Soviet misinformation and propaganda, it seems had never met a genuine dissident before and feared what Havel would say or do in the meeting, perhaps even fearing that Havel would attack him physically.

This anecdote came to mind today while reading a surreal account (Chodakiewicz 2011) of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, which claims the entire process of political transformation 20 years ago there was engineered by the Russian Communist nomenklatura as a grand, multi-national, multi-party, multi-year, multi-political-party conspiracy to remain in power.   Among Chodakiewicz’s offensive absurdities is to claim that the leadership of the Polish United Workers Party (the Polish communist party) was second only to that of Bulgaria in its servility to Moscow in the post-war period.   One wonders just why, then, did Poland experience no Stalinist show-trials in the early 1950s?  Why then was Wladyslaw Gomulka arrested, stripped of his posts and detained for several years in the same period, without being interrogated or tried or punished or executed (as were, say, his equivalent colleagues in Hungary and Czechoslovakia) and then later restored to a leadership position?  Was this, too, a charade that was part of the grand conspiracy?    How could such evident nonsense be published in a reputable refereed journal?

Footnote (2011-12-26):

In an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker (2003), Havel says regarding his first meeting with Gorbachev (in which the two negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces from Czechoslovakia):

I met Gorbachev about two months after I was elected President.  We went to Moscow, for my first visit to the Kremlin, and we met for eight or nine hours.  At first, Gorbachev looked at me as if I was some kind of exotic creature – the first living dissident he ever saw, who was coming to him as the head of a state that had been part of his realm.  But, gradually, we developed a kind of friendship, which had even begun to develop at the end of that first long visit to the Kremlin.”   

References:

Guardian obituary here, and Economist tribute here.  The Economist claims that Charter 77 was the “first open manifestation of dissent inside the Soviet empire”.  That claim rather ignores the various uprisings going back at least to 1953 (in the DDR), in Hungary in 1956, in Poland on numerous occasions, and even in Moscow – the public protest by the Moscow Seven in August 1968 against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was indeed, one of several protests in the USSR and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc.

A salute to another Czech hero here, along with a note on the leninist nature of Gorbachev’s reforms.   And here a tribute to the Moscow Seven.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz [2011]: Active measures gone awry:  Transformation in Central and Eastern Europe, 1989-1992.  International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, 24 (3): 467-493.

David Remnick [2003]:  Exit Havel.  The New Yorker, 17 February 2003.




Moscow Soloists in London

This past week I attended a concert in the Cadogan Hall by the Moscow Soloists String Chamber Ensemble, led by violist Yuri Bashmet.  The concert seems to have attracted many in London’s large Russian-speaking community, and there were idling limousines outside the Hall.

Although technically the playing was very proficient, the concert and the performance left me disappointed.  First, everyone on stage was dressed entirely in black, even the soloists.   Was this a convention of undertakers, I wondered?  Second, almost nobody smiled, again not even many of the soloists.   Why so glum?  Third, a grand Steinway was used for the first concerto, and then remained stuck there on stage, like some silent, brooding animal.   All the movements of furniture between pieces was done by several of the ensemble members, rather than by the Hall staff, and it is true that the piano was moved a few inches.  But not out of the way, nor offstage.   It therefore blocked the sound (and the view) of the ensemble, and meant that the sound we in the audience heard was not projected uniformly to us.   Where I was sitting on the right-hand side of the hall I heard the two cellos and the lone double bass well, but not the violins, who were hidden by the piano.    I regard this failure to move the piano out of the way as unprofessional, although who was to blame for it is not clear.  Surely, the Hall staff should have moved it aside.

And the glumness!  The first item played was Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052) with soloist Ksenia Bashmet.  Her playing was technically excellent, although not from memory.   But the music was played with such po-faced seriousness, and without any apparent emotion.   This concerto is one of the great humorous compositions of all time, perhaps the greatest before Shostakovich’s Piano and Trumpet Concerto.  A few minutes with the score would tell you the composer was having fun as he wrote it, since it is filled with adornments and flourishes, completely unnecessary and joyful in the extreme, which feel exactly right under the fingers.   This is music written by someone who really liked playing a keyboard.   Moreover, the first movement has a rondo form, with the first theme returning and returning and returning, as if without end.   There is even a solo cadenza, which would traditionally be placed near the end of the movement, which here comes in the middle;  so even after we hear the cadenza, the movement still does not end.   This is Bach having fun.   But where was the fun or the joy from these performers?   Perhaps the fact that Ms Bashmet was not playing the music from memory meant she had had not yet internalized the score sufficiently to allow herself to have free reign with its interpretation.  This performance was not a patch on the last time I heard this concerto played – by Joanna MacGregor in Cottonopolis, a few years ago, whose physical joy at the music was evident from from the get-go.

Similarly, for Mendelssohn’s D Minor Violin Concerto, played by Alena Baeva.   Again the playing here was technically excellent, although also not from memory.   However, only in the third movement did we hear some emotion – at last, some passion and joy from the soloist in what is a very joyful movement.   The earlier movements were played, in contrast, without great passion, although very well.

The two middle soloists in the first half, Dinara Alieva (soprano) and Alexander Buzlov (cello), did smile at us after their performances, but their chosen music was less intellectually enriching.  Buzlov played a theme and variations by Rossini, something the audience seemed to like more than anything else they heard, but which I found superficial in comparison with the Bach or Mendelssohn.  I did  not stay for the second half, the concert already running too long.

Overall, I believe these performers were technically very proficient as musical performers, but not superb as communicators of musical ideas;  sadly, they did not achieve their potential on this occasion, and seemed to lack any group spark or chemistry.  Perhaps this was due to the presence of the brooding piano, obstructing complete interaction with the audience, or perhaps there were other reasons.  Oddly, the ensemble did not tune up on stage at the start of the concert:  I wonder if this explained the lack of social chemistry evident.

References:

Here is a review of the concert by Hugo Shirley of The Telegraph, who likewise noticed an absence of passion.

The photo shows the Christmas Lights in Sloane Square, near to Cadogan Hall.  Photographer:  Javier Lopez Pena (a member of the Matherati).




Ein Deutsche Hamlet

Earlier this month, I caught Schaubuhne Berlin’s Hamlet at the Barbican London.  What an amazing ride!  This was Hamlet as a comedy – contemporary, knowing, witty, and alive.   I imagine the experience is the closest we could come to a modern version of the experience that Shakespeare’s own audience would have had.  The play was presented in German (mostly), with English surtitles.

The performance began with the words from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, ending with “and perchance to dream”.  Was all that followed, then, a dream?   We were confronted with grainy, silent black and white images of people in dark formal dress, like newsreels of pre-war Eastern Europeans.  Again, was this a deliberate allusion, perhaps a reminder of the last time we all were happy innocents prior to a great crime.   Only after some time did we realize that the film we were seeing was not some collection of past newsreels, but live shots of the actors at the back of the stage, taken by young Hamlet wielding a hand-held video camera.

The first scene of the play then was the burial of old Hamlet, with lots of theatrical dirt and hose-pipe rain.    The dirt and often the rain were present throughout the performance, like some muck that stuck to everyone regardless of how often they cleaned it off.  The funeral degenerated into farce, and then the real fun began: the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude was presented as a typical Balkan wedding, with kitschy music, belly dancing, drunken announcers, and even  –  a very funny touch of realism here – someone firing off a machine gun.  We learn this was Laertes!

Much of the humour, in the German theatrical tradition perhaps, was slapstick and not to my taste.  Why did Hamlet have to wear a fatsuit, for example?   Some of the humour, however, was witty and clever.  Three times the actors turned to the audience, the house lights going up, and we then became part of the action.  The best of these times was during the late soliloquy of Claudius (Act 3, scene 3) – when he seems to confess:  “O my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven.”  Claudius played this scene as an episode of a Jerry Springer show, coming down as the compere into the audience to ask our opinions of the offence.

Several times, too, the actors pretended to lose their place or forget their words (in German), so looked up to the English surtitles to see what they should be saying next.  Similarly, great fun was had when the court was informed that Hamlet intended to stage a play.  Well, Claudius was informed, not so much a play as a theatre-piece (“theaterstuck”); Claudius repeated this word with all the disdain one can imagine a man of his age and class having for avant-garde theatre.  This was very funny.   Even the final death scene, although mostly serious, was played for laughs, with all us knowing that it was an act and not for real.

Because the cast was small (six actors), there was much doubling.   A different coloured wig transformed Gertrude to Ophelia, and the transformation of the actress, Judith Rosmair, from a middle-aged, Jacqueline Kennedy-lookalike  to teenage girl was immensely convincing.  Her voice, her words, her stance, her mannerisms, her movements – all changed, and instantly.  And how clever to allude to Mrs Kennedy-Onassis when portraying Gertrude!  Hamlet was played by Lars Eidinger.

This was “Hamlet” done brilliantly, original and thought-provoking.   And immensely funny.   Superb!

Any earlier review of the Berlin production is here.  And a Liverpudlian blog devoted to Hamlet is here.

(HT: Benjamin Leitch.)