Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Routine Myth Maintenance: Tarantino and American Exceptionalism

(Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a 2019 comedy-drama set in 1969 Los Angeles and features a large ensemble cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The story centres around veteran actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), star of the 1950s Western television series Bounty Law, and and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is worried that his career is in decline and is reticent to take advice to travel to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns. Cliff Booth also struggles to get work in Hollywood due to rumors that he murdered his wife on a boating trip.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino re-emphasizes many of the bugbears, cliches and and myths of US elites with his checklist portrayal of misogynist violence against women, negative depictions of Chinese, Mexicans and Europeans, and the negative association of cult-following hippies with youth opposition to the Vietnam war. And all this happens during a period of much political activity and public demonstrations against the Vietnam war which is barely noticeable during the length of this film.


 
1937 Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret Bourke-White. There’s no way like the American Way


Doppelganger
Dalton gets a big opportunity when he is cast to play the villain in the pilot of Lancer, a new American Western series broadcast from 1968 to 1970. He tries hard to toughen up for his new cowboy role yet fluffs his lines and has a minor breakdown in his trailer. The softer side of Dalton is also still visible when he shows concern for a child actress he has thrown on the floor in a ‘tough’ acting scene. Following in an old cinematic tradition Cliff appears to be Dalton’s doppelganger or alter ego as he represents the tough side of Dalton off screen. Within the film they merge on screen as they play one character when Cliff plays Dalton’s body double. The reality of Dalton is that off screen he is shown to be a sensitive and anxious person, particularly about his declining fame.

Dalton’s new role also shows that the cowboy as a symbol of the tough American individualist undergoes changes from old style hero to gritty realism, while also being caricatured in Spaghetti Westerns.

The fact that Dalton plays a famous hero cowboy role during the 1950s but becomes a tougher character in Lancer in the 1960s mirrors the changing perception and role of the USA, which changes from a simple positive force post WW2, to a more complex position during and after the Vietnam war.

Because many of the veterans and demonstrators against the Vietnam war became hippies and were fundamentally opposed to state warmongering, Cliff dislikes all hippies. Tarantino then portrays the hippies in the film as cultists who blindly follow their violent leaders.

Cliff discovers that hippies have taken over the farm where earlier cowboy movies where filmed during Dalton’s heyday, and they seem to do nothing but laze around all day watching TV. This ruination of such an important site of American cowboy symbolism only confirms Cliff’s negative attitude towards them.


 
Bruce Lee, portrayed in the film by Mike Moh


Mexicans and Chinese
The negative portrayal of Mexicans and Chinese as somehow ‘lesser’ beings is stoked up in two other scenes from the film. In Hollywood, Cliff gets thrown off a set after a scene when he provokes Bruce Lee into a fight. Lee is depicted making ridiculous cat wailing noises as he enters into a fight with Cliff, reminiscent of the worst Kung Fu movie cliches and turns the scene into a comedic parody of Bruce Lee’s own films. Cliff smashes Lee into the side of a car leaving a huge dent as if it was a superhero movie without superheros, symbolically demonstrating the ‘natural’ strength and power of the Westerner without the tutoring of Eastern martial arts. The unspoken supremacy of the white male is also depicted as Cliff shields Dalton from Mexican workers who might see him crying. The tough male hero cannot be seen to be upset before lesser mortals.

Women and Europeans
The final scenes of absolute brutality and misogyny depict Cliff slamming a can of dog meat into a female hippie’s face, then slams her face into the mantelpiece and then onto the marble floor are only equaled by the scene of Dalton roasting her alive in the swimming pool with a flame thrower from an earlier film set. Clearly Dalton has got his ‘toughness’ back after being ‘impoverished’ by his European wife and sacking his alter ego Cliff.

The effete men of Europe are represented in his depiction of Roman Polanski and the European distortions of the cowboy genre which Dalton eventually agrees to act in. Following the Italian director Sergio Leone’s success, many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed at Cinecittà studios and various locations around southern Italy and Spain between 1964 and 1978.

Like in Inglourious Basterds (where Tarantino has Americans assassinate Nazi Germany’s leadership), Tarantino gives an alternate history of the Manson Family murders when the members decide to instead kill Dalton as a representative of Hollywood which had ‘taught them to murder’ according to the ‘hippie’ logic of one of the Family members, Sadie. This symbolically turns the anti-Vietnam peace-loving hippies into the perpetrators of violence, creating more right-wing prejudice against them.

Classical Hollywood
The greatest irony of Tarantino’s nostalgic view of Classical Hollywood is that Hollywood of the time followed a code of ethics agreed by the filmmakers themselves (which would have rejected Tarantino’s movies outright). During the Classical Hollywood period American toughness was tempered with respect for women, the body, foreign nationals and countries. This code of ethics, called the Motion Picture Production Code, was applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1934 to 1968. It had a quite comprehensive set of guidelines, a selected few of which are described here:
"Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
– The illegal traffic in drugs;
– Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;[…]
That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
– International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
– Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
– Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
– Third-degree [torture] methods; […]."
Thus we can see that one of the reasons why the Classical period was so successful is because of its upstanding and humanistic approach to the narratives of the time. People (and their political, cultural and ethnic backgrounds) were treated more respectfully within the films and the audiences were spared the gross bone-breaking, blood spurting violence of many films made since the relaxation of the code. Directors like Tarantino have turned cinema into a modern gladiators’ ring where the audience catharsis of thumbs up or thumbs down prevails.


 
Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name in a publicity image of A Fistful of Dollars, a film by Sergio Leone.


Tartantino’s modus operandi is to play up successful features of American culture while at the same time re-writing aspects of American history that ’embarrasses’ the political right or doesn’t fit into its over-embellished image of itself. Also in its negative depictions of other nations, women and ethnic groups (the negative portrayal of Native Americans is implicit in the cowboy genre), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood props up  the ideology of American exceptionalism.

Tarantino has produced and directed a classic of Trumpean cinema in that it reasserts the primacy of the American way of life married to conservative Republican values.


 --------


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at http://gaelart.blogspot.ie/.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Visions: Children and the Importance of Redemption

 The Factory

“And such should childhood ever be,
The fairy well; to bring
To life’s worn, weary memory
The freshness of its spring.
But here the order is reversed,
And infancy, like age,
Knows of existence but its worst,
One dull and darkened page;—”

by Letitia Elizabeth Landon – The Vow of the Peacock and Other Poems  (1835)  


(A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life)


 




Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.




Introduction

The idea of a child-centred Christmas is taken for granted now but in Dickens’ time it was not so assured. A high child mortality rate, child labour, poverty and, a colder, more utilitarian attitude towards children prevailed.  Dickens’ own childhood experiences were bad as he was set to work long hours in  Warren’s Blacking Factory while his father and family languished in a debtors prison. Dickens wanted to write a pamphlet about children but decided a dramatic story would be more effective. His book, A Christmas Carol, while sales were slow initially, went on to become hugely successful and influential, and has never been out of print since.






Dickens at the blacking warehouse, as envisioned by Fred Barnard



In the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra), children are associated with family scenes around the hearth but are shielded from potential financial disaster. It’s a Wonderful Life also performed poorly at first, yet has also become a Christmas staple.
The theme of redemption is important to both narratives and both stories turn on the idea of a change of heart for the better by the adults. This change affected the lives of the children in each story yet the children were not aware of the dangers they were in. Thus the concept of childhood as ‘the fairy well’ was well developed, and the ‘freshness of its spring’ being considered a jewel that only grows more beautiful with age.

In this essay I will look at some similarities between the two stories and at what has made for their enduring appeal.

A Christmas Carol

While many differing ideas seem have fortuitously come together for Dickens during the writing of A Christmas Carol the focus on children seems to have been the  most important. Literary influences are given as The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving and a Douglas Jerrold essay from an 1841 issue of Punch, ‘How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas’.
In The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon Irving writes:
“It was the policy of the good old gentleman to make his children feel that home was the happiest place in the world; and I value this delicious home-feeling as one of the choicest gifts a parent could bestow.”



Child labourers, Macon, Georgia, 1909



Dickens was very aware of the tragedy of child workers and legislation being introduce to improve their conditions at the time. The idea of social unity that Dickens utilises at the end of A Christmas Carol is expressed in another passage by Irving in The Sketch-Book, as we hear echoes of the medieval hall resounding to the sounds of the fun organised in the ancient midwinter tradition of the Lord of Misrule, with children once again to the fore:
“After the dinner-table was removed the hall was given up to the younger members of the family, who, prompted to all kind of noisy mirth by the Oxonian and Master Simon, made its old walls ring with their merriment as they played at romping games. I delight in witnessing the gambols of children, and particularly at this happy holiday season, and could not help stealing out of the drawing-room on hearing one of their peals of laughter. I found them at the game of blindman’s-buff. Master Simon, who was the leader of their revels, and seemed on all occasions to fulfill the office of that ancient potentate, the Lord of Misrule, was blinded in the midst of the hall. The little beings were as busy about him as the mock fairies about Falstaff, pinching him, plucking at the skirts of his coat, and tickling him with straws.”
Once again the innocent fun of the children is emphasised.  However, in Jerrold’s essay ‘How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas’, a different kind of father is described, one for whom image is more important than feeling. Mr Chokepear is described as “he himself declares, he is ‘the best of fathers’ — the most indulgent of men”, yet he receives the wishes of a happy Christmas “from lips of ice.” He is the best citizen and best Christian but for one thing:
“We have said all CHOKEPEAR’S daughters dined with him. We forgot: one was absent. Some seven years ago she married a poorer husband, and poverty was his only, but certainly his sufficient fault; and her father vowed that she should never again cross his threshold. The Christian keeps his word. He has been to church to celebrate the event which preached to all men mutual love and mutual forgiveness, and he comes home, and with rancour in his heart—keeps a merry Christmas! […] Gentle reader, we wish you a merry Christmas; but to be truly, wisely merry, it must not be the Christmas of the CHOKEPEARS. That is the Christmas of the belly: keep you the Christmas of the heart. Give—give.”
Dickens is concerned with genuine Christian ideas of Christmas in A Christmas Carol and not hypocritical ones for show only. Therefore, Scrooge is given the opportunity to redeem himself in a genuine way and this genuine transformation means he will be welcomed into the Cratchit’s house and the house of of his nephew for Christmas celebrations.
Thus Dickens was interested in the idea that the bosses should have a genuine change of heart and not a false annual display of good cheer for their friends. Dickens himself was interested in giving practical help to poor children as well.



Coal tub – “A succession of laws on child labour, the so-called Factory Acts, were passed in the UK in the 19th century. Children younger than nine were not allowed to work, those aged 9–16 could work 16 hours per day per the Cotton Mills Act. In 1856, the law permitted child labour past age 9, for 60 hours per week, night or day. In 1901, the permissible child labour age was raised to 12.”



In 1843 Charles Dickens became involved with  with the London Ragged Schools Union and donated funds for their upkeep. They were established to provide free education, food, clothing, lodging and other home missionary services for poor children.
As Claire Tomalin writes:
“From his own deep self he drew the understanding that a grown man may pity the child he had been, and learn from that pity, as Scrooge does. It was also his response to the Ragged School he had visited, and the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission he had read a little earlier, which showed that children under seven were put to work, unprotected by any legal constraints, sometimes for ten to twelve hours a day, inspiring the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two stunted and wolfish children, calling them Ignorance and Want.” [1]
Of course, while the children may be the focus of Dickens’ Christmas main story, they must not be aware that they are, thus retaining the sacred concept of childhood. Therefore in the narrative the children are affected only indirectly through the changed habits of the adults. This was Dickens’ strategy – to show that the cruelty of the world and the preciousness of childhood could exist side by side. Thus the adults could change their realm, positively affecting the children’s realm, without the two realms interacting with each other, as happened in Dickens’ own childhood. Dickens’ story also added to the growing belief in the importance of childhood not only for children but also for stable adults as Scrooge was shown to have had a lonely childhood himself.



Ignorance and Want from the original edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843



Many film versions have been made of A Christmas Carol from Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901) to A Christmas Carol (2018), a contemporary retelling of the story set in Scotland.


It’s a Wonderful Life

Another popular film with Christmas visions is Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost one hundred years after Dickens’ novel was published, Capra’s film shows a very different kind of vision of society. Rather than the atomised society of the poor in Dickens’ London, Capra shows a community being pulled and pushed in different directions by individuals with very different objectives. George Bailey faces off Henry F. Potter who is trying to take over the town with cheap, exploitative housing schemes and by buying up everything of value in the town.

As Bailey faces bankruptcy of the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan through the forgetfulness of his uncle (mislaying a lot of money), Potter seizes the opportunity to destroy Bailey’s bank and take over the town completely. When Bailey arrives home distraught he has angry words with all of his children. They become very upset and burst into tears as they have no idea what has come over their normally loving father.

As a result of this disaster, Bailey wishes he had never been born and is shown a vision of what the town would have become had Bailey’s community spirit and camaraderie with his clients not existed: a mean place, decadent and aggressive with no community feeling or community spirit (like Scrooge, mean, aggressive with no community feeling or community spirit). After the negative scenario he experiences, Bailey rushes home to his wife and apologises to each of his children in turn for his earlier outburst thus keeping the adult and child domains separated, while the adults sort out adult problems.

Unlike Scrooge, in It’s a Wonderful Life the individualist money-pincher Potter is not considered important enough to go through the process of redemption (while he is portrayed as a Scrooge type figure), because  the poor are now portrayed as existing in a community which can ultimately defend itself from Potter’s attacks: by coming together and using collective action to help Bailey. They look to each other for help and not to the rich bankers.

Although both Scrooge and Bailey lend money, Scrooge gives out money to benefit himself while Bailey gives out money to benefit the community. In the earlier ideology of A Christmas Carol, the wealthy must look after or take pity on the helpless poor. However, while Scrooge must save himself, the community saves Bailey.




George Bailey (James Stewart), Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), and their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) in It’s a Wonderful Life.



In A Christmas Carol the poor are everywhere but have no real consciousness of their poverty and struggle against poverty despite the odds. In It’s a Wonderful Life the poor are depicted as belonging to a community but gradually grow more conscious of their weak position and unite to defend themselves.

They develop a growing consciousness of the power of the community to use collective action to fight back against those who would keep them poor. As a result, rather than being solely concerned with their own money and future as was shown earlier in the film, they see the importance of community for their own self-protection just in time, and turn up at Bailey’s house to lend, give, donate any money they have to save the bank and their own future. Thus in It’s a Wonderful Life, its the community that redeems itself.

Both Dickens’ book and Capra’s film carried radical messages for their time. Only two years after A Christmas Carol, German philosopher Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, a book written during Engels’ 1842–44 stay in Manchester, important as the city at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Engels believed that Carlyle was the only British writer who had taken account of the poor and so was not yet familiar with A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile Marx saw Dickens as one of a few ‘splendid’ fiction writers in England, “whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

While It’s a Wonderful Life depicts the benefits of a community uniting, it was declared suspect by an unnamed FBI agent who watched the film as part of a larger FBI program aimed at detecting and neutralizing Communist influences in Hollywood. The agent believed that ‘communists’ used two common tricks to ‘inject propaganda into the film’, as Kat Eschner writes:
“These two common “devices” or tricks, as applied by the Los Angeles branch of the Bureau, were smearing ‘values or institutions judged to be particularly American’ – in this case, the capitalist banker, Mr. Potter, is portrayed as a Scroogey misanthrope – and glorifying ‘values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist’ – in this case, depression and existential crisis, an issue that the FBI report characterized as a ‘subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.'”
The organization handed over these incredibly vague results of its investigation to HUAC (House of UnAmerican Activities) which could have led to McCarthyist Hollywood witch hunts. However, the HUAC decided not to follow up on the smears.


Conclusion

In both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful life, a common theme is the idea that people can change for the better and have a happier life by questioning their own selfish values and motives and by realising that there are greater forces at work which must be reckoned with for survival. Scrooge’s isolation from friends, family and employees led him to fear a lonely death and Marley’s fate. Bailey’s customers also realise that looking after number one might allow them to get by on the level of their own petty concerns, but when something seriously threatening to their homes and families appears on the horizon they are able to club together to prevent the worst. Ultimately it is the children who benefit as the adults unite and solve problems rather than sharing the burden with their children, and in the long term that also makes for a more stable community.

The idea of sheltering children from the cruel world, rather than throwing them head first into it, is still an important issue in the world’s poorest countries today where around one in four children are believed to be engaged in child labour.

On an individual level and on a community level these two stories have everlasting appeal because they are still relevant today. The continuing political, financial, and climate crises of the 21st century mean that the need for individual self-questioning and/or community action will never cease to be important, and maybe even be life-saving as the new century wears on.


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

Note
[1] Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking: London, 2011) p149







Thursday, December 19, 2019

Popular Theatre as Cultural Resistance: Engaging Audiences Worldwide

 
Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Mosaic, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE. Capitoline Museums, Rome


When the play ends, what begins?
Seeking conscientization: awareness leading to action.
— Sarah Thornton


Introduction

The importance of theatre is demonstrated by the prevalence and variety of forms it takes both locally and globally in society today.  Indeed, over the centuries theatre has played an important sociological and ideological role. It has been used both by communities and elites to propagate and spread ideas for the consolidation of society (Morality plays), for social improvement (Neo-Classical plays) as well as instigating and promoting revolutionary ideas (Brechtian theatre).

In many places theatre is funded by states through state theatres — playing national repertoires as well as showing international plays translated and/or modernised.  However, it will be argued that as political and economic crises grow, so does the widening gap between two forms: community and state theatre. The global economic crisis has seen theatre once more developing into a useful community tool for highlighting important local issues (e.g. policing) and global issues (e.g. climate change) in many different ways (such as mass demonstrations and public squares). It will also be argued that, in general, the state deals with any upsurge in popular resistance by attempting to appropriate radical working class culture into preexisting structures to neutralise opposition. As with other art-forms, the influence of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas can still be felt today.



Village feast with theatre performance, artist from the circle of Pieter Bruegel the younger – central part of painting by unknown Flemish master



I will look at the development of general movements in theatre from the seventeenth century: beginning with neoclassical theatre as an Enlightenment reaction to Restoration bawdiness, the influence of Romanticism, the rise of Realism, political theatre of the 1930s leading to the Documentary theatre of recent decades, and the contrasting ideology of state and community theatres of contemporary society.


15-18th Centuries – Neo-Classicism v Medievalism

Medieval theatre was mainly religious and moral in its themes, staging and traditions, emerging around 1400 and developing until 1550. Theatre was an ideal way to solve the difficulties of spreading the faith to a largely illiterate population. Certain biblical events were dramatised for feast days and performed by priests. In England there were many mystery plays such as the York Mystery Plays, the Chester Mystery Plays and the Wakefield Mystery Plays.

Around the middle of the sixteenth century began English Renaissance theatre which was based on the rediscovery and imitation of classical works. Playhouses were established and became the sites for the production of plays by playwrights such as William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) and Ben Jonson (1572–1637). Genres of the period included the history play, tragedy and comedy, including satirical comedies. All a far cry from biblical stories and Christian morality: the classical influence bringing the subject matter down to earth.



Reconstruction of the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, in Roman times.



This period lasted until the ban on theatrical plays enacted by the English Parliament in 1642.
This ban, effected by the Puritans, lasted 18 years and ended in 1660 and the theatres were reopened. The strict moral codes of the Puritans were upended and comedies became the predominant mark of Restoration plays. These plays were a form of social commentary — recurring themes were cuckolding, shaming, seduction and the inversion of wealth, class and property. However, these themes also represented the upper class who tended to make up the typical audience (unlike the Morality plays) especially as most ordinary people could not afford the price of admission.

Restoration comedies were seen by many as bawdy, and neoclassical theatre was a reaction to the decadence of these Charles II era productions. Neoclassical writers advocated a return to the values and conventions of classical Greek drama. They believed that previous styles put far too much emphasis on emotions and the individual and looked to the classical style for inspiration on how to get people to see society in a more positive, collective manner by encouraging virtuous behavior. The Neo-Classical attitude could be seen in the humanism of the plot lines which encouraged the audience to empathise with the characters rather than laugh at them. The rise of sentimental comedy reflected the Enlightenment idea that without emotion, imagination and sympathy people would not be able to have the moral feelings that lead to our general ideas of justice and virtue.

The Neo-Classicists developed a set of guidelines for the theatre, for example, they:
included five basic rules: purity of form, five acts, verisimilitude or realism, decorum and purpose. Play houses generally rejected scripts or productions that did not meet these requirements. Playwrights and actors in the Neoclassical period officially recognized just two types of plays: comedy and tragedy. They never mixed these together, and the restriction led to use of the now well-known pair of happy and sad masks that symbolize the theatrical arts. […] Comedies, which were either satires or comedies of manners, tended to focus on the lower ranks of society, while tragedies portrayed the complex and fateful lives of the upper classes and royals.

19th Century – Romantic reaction and the rise of Realism

The growth of Romanticism in Germany and France eventually affected writing for the theatre as romantic nationalism and a growing interest in a return to medievalist faith in feeling and instinct as a guide to moral behavior. These two opposing philosophies of Neo-Classicism (Enlightenment ideas rooted in science and reason) and Romanticism (based on feeling and faith) eventually clashed in France where the Comédie Française maintained a strong Neo-classical hold over the repertory.
The tensions between the two opposing outlooks eventually resulted in conflict. On the night of the premiere of the drama Hernani by Victor Hugo (1802–1885) in 1830, riots erupted. They became known as the “battle of Hernani“, whereby:
The large crowd that attended the premiere was full of conservatives and censors who booed the show for disobeying the classical norms and who wanted to stop the performance from going forward. But Hugo organized a Romantic Army of bohemian and radical writers to ensure that the opening would have to go ahead. The resulting riot represented the rejection in France of the classical traditions and the triumph of Romanticism.
Hugo’s Romantic army of writers and artists attacked Classicist positions and called for “Down with theories and systems! Let us tear away the old lath-and-plaster hiding the face of art! There are neither rules nor models; or, rather, no rules but the general laws of Nature!”


 
Premiere of the drama Hernani by Victor Hugo in 1830



This triumph of Romanticism meant a move away from structure and realism and the rise of a more personalised, individualistic philosophy looking inwards to the self, not to mention an irrational rejection of progress and a return to medieval ideas of faith and hierarchy.

By the 1870s political events and social reforms led to the popularity of the Realist movement and a rejection of Romantic idealism. The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century as a reaction to the irrationalism of Romanticism. However, it was also a reaction to neoclassicism which had become elitist and aristocratic in its assumption of knowledge of Greek and Roman history and myth. The Realists returned to basic ideas of equality, influenced by the French revolution and the Utopian Socialists. Realist ideas had a profound affect on both the theatre and its audiences:
The achievement of realism in the theatre was to direct attention to the social and psychological problems of ordinary life. In its dramas, people emerge as victims of forces larger than themselves, as individuals confronted with a rapidly accelerating world.
Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), the Norwegian playwright, is known as the “Father of Realism” and he wanted a theatre that was closer in style to real life on the stage. Ibsen attacked middle class society’s values and his plays were based on unconventional subjects, e.g., euthanasia, the role of women, war and business, and syphilis In A Doll’s House, Ibsen questions the roles of men (main provider of the family, public image) and women (limited education) in marriage and society, as well as showing poverty and failed relationships. Realism offered a new type of drama, one in which the public and society could relate to. Ibsen developed the form of the Well-Made play:
1. Soliloquies and asides were discarded
2. Exposition in the plays was motivated
3. Causally related scenes
4. Inner psychological motivation was emphasized
5. Recognition of environmental influences
6. Acknowledgement of socio-economic milieu
He encouraged a style of dialogue which would be more realistic and easier to understand. However, what Realism did have in common with Neo-Classicism was the desire to make theatre more useful in the progressive development of society:
The mainstream theatre from 1859 to 1900 was still bound up in melodramas, spectacle plays (disasters, etc.), comic operas, and vaudevilles.[…] Technological advances were also encouraged by industry and trade, leading to an increased belief that science could solve human problems. But the working classes still had to fight for every increase in rights: unionization and strikes became the principal weapons workers would use after the 1860s—but success came only from costly work stoppages and violence. In other words there seems to be rejection of Romantic idealism; pragmatism reigned instead. The common man seemed to feel that he needed to be recognized, and people asserted themselves through action.
Other writers in the Realistic form include George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in England and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) in Russia. Shaw made fun of society’s norms for the purpose of educating and changing society. He used witty humor to present contemporary views and then showed their consequences putting forward his own ideas. Chekhov’s plays concentrated on psychological reality showing people trapped in social situations and having hope in hopeless situations.


20th Century and Modernism

The influence of Realism continued into the twentieth century where it morphed into different forms such as Naturalism and Socialist realism. Meanwhile the Romantic influence on Modernism could be seen in the characteristic emphasis on an internal life of dreams and fantasies in Symbolist theatre and in the subjective perceptions of reality in Expressionist theatre in Germany.

Realism, on the other hand, flourished in Russia where Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943) founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897. Both were committed to the idea of a popular theatre. Stanislavski developed “psychological realism” which differed from his own Naturalistic early stagings:
Naturalism, for him, implied the indiscriminate reproduction of the surface of life. Realism, on the other hand, while taking its material from the real world and from direct observation, selected only those elements which revealed the relationships and tendencies under the surface. The rest was discarded.


Stanislavski
and Olga Knipper as Rakitin and Natalya in Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1909).



The revolt against theatrical artifice with Realism and later Naturalism produced a new type of theatre which made Stanislavski famous and his theatre very successful. Later in the 1930s Stanislavski’s method would become an important element in the Socialist Realist ideology introduced by the USSR Union of Writers in the mid 1930s. The aim of Stanislavski’s method was ultimately to absorb the audience completely in the fictional world of the play.

The contemporary playwright, Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) in Germany, reacted to this method which he believed was ‘escapist’ as he felt that any radical content would be blunted, that catharsis would leave the audience complacent. However, Stanislavski believed the audience would observe and learn from the action on stage (using the dialectics of thesis/antithesis/synthesis) in an updated politicised Neo-Classicism. If action proceeded from awareness, then the audience would not be complacent but would achieve catharsis through political action instead.

Brecht, in the Modernist fashion, developed what he called Epic theatre which sought to historicize and address social and political issues. He used innovative techniques, one of which he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as ‘defamiliarization effect’, ‘distancing effect’, or ‘estrangement effect’). To do this, “Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense in rehearsals, and speaking the stage directions out loud.”

The contrast between the Stanislaviski’s and Brecht’s methods show very differing attitudes to the audience capacity for understanding and assimilating the content of a play. Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) used one of these  ‘distancing effects’ when speaking directly to the audience at the end of his film The Great Dictator, which some believe led to a decrease in his popularity. The audience may feel that the actors are speaking down to them, or insisting on radical action without first knowing and understanding all aspects of the issue being presented. It has to be questioned whether it is necessary to ‘knock people out of their complacency’ and to give an audience credit for their ability to understand the message solely from the action on stage. The Modernist experimentation with forms also led to elite forms of culture such as James Joyce’s (1882–1941) Finnegans Wake as the ultimate indigestible example.


 
Photograph of Mother Courage and the dead Kattrin (Internationalist Theatre)



As the century wore on other types of political theatre emerged such as the differing forms of Documentary theatre of the 1960s and 1970s. This style of theatre “uses pre-existing documentary material (such as newspapers, government reports, interviews, journals, and correspondences) as source material for stories about real events and people, frequently without altering the text in performance. The genre typically includes or is referred to as verbatim theatre, investigative theatre, theatre of fact, theatre of witness, autobiographical theatre, and ethnodrama.”

While the presentation of pre-existing material may seem dry and undramatic, it was the partisan interpretation and presentation of the material which gives it its artistic power. In other words, its Realist, rather than Naturalist, interpretation made all the difference to what may appear to be a Naturalist form (i.e. using material verbatim).

Another type of alternative theatre which emerged in the late twentieth century (though in some countries it has been around a lot longer) is Community theatre. It refers to a style of theatre which exists in the community itself and can be created entirely by the community, as a collaboration between the community and professionals or put on by professionals especially for that community. Ideologically it can have a very wide outreach and can be seen:
to contribute to the social capital of a community, insofar as it develops the skills, community spirit, and artistic sensibilities of those who participate, whether as producers or audience-members. It is used as a tool for social development, promoting ideas like gender equality, human rights, environment and democracy. Most of the community theatre practices have been developed based on the philosophy of education theorist Paulo Freire’s approach of critical pedagogy in theatre and implementation techniques built by Augusto Boal, known as Theatre of the Oppressed.
Paulo Freire’s (1921–1997) method was to promote social change by getting the audience to participate in critical thinking through dialogue, identifying concerns, solutions and examining different perspectives. The plays would be performed “on streets, public places, in traditional meeting spaces, schools, prisons, or other institutions, inviting an alternative and often spontaneous audience to watch.”

Augusto Boal’s (1931–2009) approach also breaks down the ‘invisible wall’ between actors and audience but the difference being that the audience determines the action on stage not the playwright. For example, Boal writes:
The spectators feel that they can intervene in the action. The action ceases to be presented in a deterministic manner, as something inevitable, as Fate. Man is Man’s fate. Thus Man-the-spectator is the creater of Man-the-character. Everything is subject to criticism, to rectification. All can be changed, and at a moment’s notice: the actors must always be ready to accept, without protest, any proposed action; they must simply act it out, to give a live view of its consequences and drawbacks. 1



Augusto Boal presenting his workshop on the Theatre of the Oppressed. Riverside Church, May 13, 2008.



21st Century – State Theatre v Community Theatre

In the twenty-first century State Theatre and Community Theatre exist side by side but as the global economic crisis deepens the traditional repertoire of the State theatre may seem to become out-dated and distant from social issues.

Community theatre is a form which, like the ballad form in music, is capable of tackling and analysing contemporary issues in a very short period of time.  However, the tendency of the state is to try to absorb all opposition into its own conservative narrative and ‘de-fang’ it. This tendency is discussed by the poet Fran Lock in detail:
This matters, because the people traditionally holding the purse strings, controlling the presses; the people responsible for funding us and publishing us, are the same power elites who decide what constitutes a valid working-class voice, and an acceptable working-class identity. Arts Council England, for example, has nothing to gain from supporting people and projects who challenge or threaten their traditional business model, and most major publishers are wary of a working-class poetics that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. To have your work “out there” in any meaningful sense, to secure the invaluable financial assistance by which a creative project lives or dies, is to accept that your work, and that you, as a person, will be mediated, filtered and enmeshed, by and in the machinery of a grossly unequal hierarchy. By this method we are compromised. We tailor and shape our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us, and our working-classness is depoliticised and de-fanged through an act of caricature. By this mechanism is the triumph of working-class representation transformed into the tool by which working-class participation in the arts is edited, eroded and policed.



A street play (nukkad natak) in Dharavi slums in Mumbai.



Another important aspect which she alludes to is the problem of monolithism (‘shape[ing] our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us’) which is the way dissent can be silenced by portraying minority groups as being made up of similar people all sharing similar views. As Kenan Malik writes:
Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, they all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. All the dissent and diversity gets washed out. As a result, the most progressive voices often gets silenced as not being truly of that community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups.
These are the kinds of difficulties community theatre faces, in particular, problems which are more accentuated where access is provided by a State theatre. However, in the streets, manipulation or outright censorship/rejection is much more difficult. And like the original Morality plays, the community theatre may have an ideological aspect which is equally difficult to moderate.
The Romantic/Modernist influence can still be seen in ‘mainstream’ [non-community theatre] in the emphasis on (formal) experimentation over (sociopolitical) content in projections of the future of theatre, for example, one critic writes:
We can see the seeds of theatre’s future coming from three directions. Firstly, in the experimental works in the new theatre groups and companies, which may we call; off the existing established theatres. Secondly, in the rise of theatrical movements originated from the experimental works were done in the last century. Thirdly, in the works of few established theatres – and here we stress the word ’few’ – these works mainly done by some daring directors.
However, not all writers are blind to the growing sociopolitical and economic crises developing globally, as another writer notes:
The future predictions of trends in theatres. Well, it is true that technology has really affected theatres in terms of audience attendance and also changes in the overall appearance of the live performances in order to attract more audiences but will there be changes in the 21st-century trends in the cinema industry? Well, experts project the following changes in future: Need for community and people interactions will lead more people to the theatres. The increase in smaller theatres located in all parts of the country to attract more people to the theatres. Younger directors and actors will ensure more performances in the smaller theatres and the main focus will be on issues, news, and concerns of the immediate community.
Thus, it can be seen there are mixed opinions on the future of ‘official’ theatre based in large and small theatres. It could be speculated that the ‘small theatre’ end and community-based theatre would be set for conflict as the professional and the amateur clash over what is to be portrayed and how, particularly if the issues raised and their resolution are perceived from widely differing ideological perspectives.


Conclusion

Throughout the last four centuries theatre has been pushed and pulled in many directions. It has been used by cliques for their own class entertainment. It has been forced many times in the direction of benefiting the greater good and dragged back again to serve elite agendas. However, the importance of theatre for examining social, political and more recently animal and climate issues, in an immediate and negotiable way, will ensure that theatre as a mirror of society will be a difficult form for the state to control.


  1. Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal (Pluto Press: London, 1998), p.134. 
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at http://gaelart.blogspot.ie/.

Poetry and Political Struggle: The Dialectics of Rhyme

 
Fist with pen illustration by CHema Skandal!


When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
— John F. Kennedy, Remarks at Amherst College on the Arts, October 26, 1963

Introduction

Poetry is often associated with genteel people and laid-back lifestyles, yet over the decades since the Enlightenment many poets have been actively involved in the most radical of political and art movements. Setting up a solid foundation for such attitudes was the poet extraordinaire, Alexander Pope. In this essay I shall look at the connection between poetry and socio-political struggles over the centuries. From Pope to the Chartists, and from the Irish revolutionary poets to the postcolonial writers of Africa, poetry has played an important part in social change. The recent explosion of global demonstrations and rallies has also been connected with radical poetry as will be seen in Chile, for example.


The New Augustans v Medievalism – ‘shall not Britain now reward his toils?’

Imagine being one of the generation of poets to follow Shakespeare. The Enlightenment poets response to Shakespeare was that they believed that Shakespeare was good but not perfect and so looked back to Roman times, to that of Augustus for a more political and satirical model for their poetry. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was highly influenced by the poet Horace (65 BC–8 BC) whose work was created during a momentous time when Rome changed from a republic to an empire. Pope’s poem Epistle to Augustus (addressed to George II of Great Britain) initiated The New Augustans, as they were known, and they created new and bold political work in all genres as well as sharp and critical satires of contemporary events and people. Pope’s best known works The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism made him famous in his own time for their biting criticism and wit. Equally satirical but with more emphasis on prose than poetry was his contemporary, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, pamphleteer, poet and cleric whose A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729) led to the creation of the term ‘Swiftian’ for such sharp satire.

The Augustan era was also known by other names such as the age of neoclassicism and the Age of Reason. It was a time of increased availability of books and a dramatic decrease in their cost. This in turn meant that education was less confined to the upper classes and that writers could hope to make more money through the sale of their works and therefore be less dependent on patrons.
The greatest patron of the arts throughout the Middle Ages was the Church. Patronage was also used by nobles, rulers, and very wealthy people to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all looked for and received the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.


 
Alexander Pope, painting attributed to English painter Jonathan Richardson, c.?1736, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



The sales from Pope’s works allowed him to live a life less determined by other people’s wealth, and this independence is reflected in his lines from Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot:
Oh let me live my own! and die so too!
(‘To live and die is all I have to do:’)
Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,
And see what friends, and read what books, I please.
While Pope read a lot of philosophy, his concerns were mainly poetic. As David Cody writes:
Like many of his contemporaries, Pope believed in the existence of a God who had created, and who presided over, a physical Universe which functioned like a vast clockwork mechanism. Important scientific discoveries by men like Sir Isaac Newton, who explained, in his Principia, the nature of the laws of gravitation which helped to govern that universe, were seen as corroborating that view. “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night,” Pope wrote, in a famous couplet intended as Newton’s epitaph, but “God said, Let Newton be ! and All was Light.” This view of the universe as an ordered, structured place was an aspect of the Neoclassical emphasis on order and structure which also manifested itself in the arts, including poetry.
Pope was famous for his biting criticism which spoofed the mores of society or mocked his literary rivals. His critical political savvy was also on show in lines like:
T is George and Liberty that crowns the cup,
And zeal for that great House which eats him up.
The woods recede around the naked seat,
The sylvans groan—no matter—for the fleet;
Next goes his wool—to clothe our valiant bands;
Last, for his country’s love, he sells his lands.
To town he comes, completes the nation’s hope,
And heads the bold train-bands, and burns a pope.
And shall not Britain now reward his toils,
Britain, that pays her patriots with her spoils?
In vain at court the bankrupt pleads his cause;
His thankless country leaves him to her laws.
Pope’s poetry reflected the Enlightenment popularisation of science through scientific and literary journals, the development of the book industry, the promulgation of encyclopedias and dictionaries, and new ideas spread like wildfire through learned academies, universities, salons and coffeehouses. The Enlightenment period can be dated from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV (1715 ) until the turn of the 19th century but was soon followed by the Romantic period from about 1800 to 1860.


Chartism v Romanticism – ‘How comes it that ye toil and sweat?’

The Romantics preferred intuition and emotion to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and placed a high value on the achievements of “heroic” individualists and artists. They turned inwards, seeing art as an individual experience and emphasising such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. Romanticism looked backwards to folk art, ancient customs and medievalism. As the bourgeoisie achieved their main aims of wresting control of land and power from the aristocracy, the responsibility for continuing the struggle for the principles of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ fell upon the organisations of the working classes.
In England, Chartism was a major working class movement called after the People’s Charter of 1838 and was a movement for political reform in Britain until 1857. The movement’s strategies were constitutional and they used petitions and mass meetings to put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. The Charter demanded: a vote for every man twenty-one years of age, secret ballots, payment of Members (so working people could attend without loss of income), equal constituencies, and annual Parliamentary elections. The Chartist movement was a reaction to the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property. The political leaders of the working class felt that the middle class had betrayed them.
In conjunction with Chartist demonstrations and strikes, the Chartist press as the voice of radicalism existed in the form of The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s and was succeeded by the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser between 1837 and 1852. The press covered news, editorials, and reports on international developments while becoming the best-selling provincial newspaper in Britain with a circulation of 50,000 copies. It also became an organ for the publication of working class poets and poems.


 
Front page of The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 1837



With such a wide circulation, it was no wonder that so many sent their poems in for consideration. According to Mike Sanders:
The Northern Star’s poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear.
It is believed that up to 1,000 poems by up to 400 Chartist and working-class poets were published in the Northern Star between 1838 and 1852. Michael Sanders notes that:
Most have names, but a high percentage are published either under initials, under a pseudonym or anonymously, presumably by writers who would fear reprisals, such as dismissal or blacklisting, if they were known to be writing for the Northern Star. By and large, we know nothing of these people. They are permanently lost to history. But these poems show us that poetry was once central to the way working-class communities expressed themselves both politically and otherwise.
Ordinary people used poetry as a way of demonstrating their humanity in the face of grinding poverty and dehumanising industrial capitalism. By composing poetry they showed they could produce ‘beauty’ as well as surplus value.
An example of an anonymous poet’s endeavour is AW’s poem To The Sons Of Toil published in 1841:
How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor’s rod
For cruel man who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress and, leech-like, suck
The life’s blood of a brother?
We still don’t know anything about AW but he or she is an example of many men and women who turned to poetry to express their desires for social justice. However, several important poets did arise out of the Chartist movement such as Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869) novelist and Chartist. In 1845, Jones ‘joined the Chartist agitation, quickly becoming its most prominent figure, and vigorously carrying on the party’s campaign on the platform and in the press. His speeches, in which he openly advocated physical force, led to his prosecution, and he was sentenced in 1848 to two years’ imprisonment for seditious speeches. While in prison he wrote, it is said in his own blood on leaves torn from a prayer-book, The Revolt of Hindostan, an epic poem.’; Thomas Cooper (1805–1892) poet, leading Chartist and known for his prison rhyme the Purgatory of Suicides (1845); Gerald Massey (1828–1907) was an English poet and only twenty-two when he published his first volume of poems, Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love (1850); George Binns (1815–1847) was a New Zealand Chartist leader and poet.


 
 Photo of Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869)



There was Ebenezer Elliott (1781–1849) who was an English poet, known as the Corn Law rhymer for his leading the fight to repeal the Corn Laws which were causing hardship and starvation among the poor. Though a factory owner himself, his single-minded devotion to the welfare of the labouring classes won him a sympathetic reputation long after his poetry ceased to be read; and John Bedford Leno (1826–1894) was a Chartist, radical, poet, and printer who acted as a “bridge” between Chartism and early Labour movements, he was called the “Burns of Labour” and “the poet of the poor” for his political songs and poems, which were sold widely in penny publications, and recited and sung by workers in Britain, Europe and America.


The Poets’ Revolution v Modernism – ‘Viewing human conflict from a social perspective’

The connection between the radical poets and the working class continued into the twentieth century even as Romanticist modernism took hold. Modernism rejected the ideology of realism, while promoting a break with the immediate past, technical innovation, and a philosophy of ‘making it new’. As such:
Modernist poetry in English is generally considered to have emerged in the early years of the 20th century with the appearance of the Imagist poets. In common with many other modernists, these poets were writing in reaction to what they saw as the excesses of Victorian poetry, with its emphasis on traditional formalism and overly flowery poetic diction. […] Additionally, Modernist poetry disavowed the traditional aesthetic claims of Romantic poetry’s later phase and no longer sought “beauty” as the highest achievement of verse. With this abandonment of the sublime came a turn away from pastoral poetry and an attempt to focus poetry on urban, mechanical, and industrial settings.
Despite the modern context and simpler language, Modernist poets moved further away from Realism as they developed literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, as well as the use of multiple points-of-view, undermining what is meant by realism. Thereby moving further away from the kind of narrative and descriptions of external reality that seekers of political change and social justice use as an art form to create and propagate awareness of their social conditions.

The Chartist tradition of radical politics associated with radical content in poetry was continued in Ireland whose revolutionary radicals perceived in the First World War an opportunity encapsulated in the slogan, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. The culmination of nationalist and radical politics of the previous centuries was demonstrated in the Easter Rising of 1916. Indeed it is often described as the The Poets’ Revolution as three of the men who signed the Proclamation in 1916, Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett, were published poets, while many other participants were also writers of plays, songs and ballads. The leader of the Irish Citizens Army, James Connolly wrote:
Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls! But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.
The leaders of the Irish revolution were generally a young, artistic group of revolutionaries and their executions by the British colonists sent shock waves throughout Ireland leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Civil War (1922–1923).


 
Photo of James Connolly, c. 1900



Later in the 1920s and 1930s a more politically conscious working class poetry developed. In the United States the combination of influences from the Soviet Union and the Great Depression led to the growth of many new leftist political and social discourses. Milton Cohen summarised the aesthetic, stylistic, and political concerns being debated at the time. He noted that poets were expected to:
(1) View human conflict from a social perspective (as opposed to personal, psychological, or universal) and see society in terms of economic classes.
(2) Portray these classes in conflict (as Marx described them): workers versus bosses, sharecroppers versus landowners, tenants versus landlords, have-nots versus haves.
(3) Develop a “working-class consciousness,” that is, identify with the oppressed class in these conflicts, rather than maintaining objective detachment.
(4) Present a hopeful outcome to encourage working-class readers. Other outcomes are defeatist, pessimistic, or “confused.”
(5) Write simply and straightforwardly, without the aesthetic complexities of formalism.
(6) Above all, politicize the reader. Revolutionary literature is a weapon in the class struggle and should consciously incite its readers if not to direct action then to a new attitude toward life, ‘to recognize his role in the class struggle.’
These ‘proscriptions’ ran straight in the face of every tenet of Modernist poetry which emphasised the personal imagination, culture, emotions, and memories of the poet. Major poets of the radical movement in the United States include Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Kenneth Fearing (1902–1961), Edwin Rolfe (1925-1954), Horace Gregory (1898–1982), and Mike Gold (1894–1967).


Post colonial poetry v postmodernism – ‘The bitter taste of liberty’

As the United States suffered under the heightened political repression of McCarthyism in the 1950s the mantle of radical culture moved to the countries who wrestled themselves out of British colonial stranglehold in the form of postcolonial literature. The English language was imposed in many colonised countries yet came to be the language of radical anti-colonial poets during the liberation struggles and afterwards in the independence era. African poets, for example, were able to use poetry to communicate to the world not only their “despairs and hopes, the enthusiasm and empathy, the thrill of joy and the stab of pain … but also a nation’s history as it moved from ‘freedom to slavery, from slavery to revolution, from revolution to independence and from independence to tasks of reconstruction which further involve situations of failure and disillusion’.”
David Diop’s poem Africa weighs up past and present political complexities:
Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs ….
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun…..
That is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.
The development of the postcolonial in the South paralleled the development of the postmodern in the West. However, the philosophical bases of postmodernism would not sit easily with the practical contingencies of newly achieved nationhood. Postmodernism rejected the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, and like modernism, called into question Enlightenment rationality itself.

The tendencies of postmodernism towards self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence would make it an uncomfortable bedfellow with the socialist and revolutionary nationalist exigencies of the newly decolonised. As the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o notes:
Literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum; it is given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a particular society. The relationship between creative literature and other forces cannot be ignored especially in Africa, where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Our culture over the last hundred years has developed against the same stunting, dwarfing background.
In a way the radical political changes wrought by anti-colonial struggles kept the culture tied down and anchored to the values and aspirations of the masses. Postcolonial ideology was relevant to society in a way that postmodernism was not. It could be argued that postmodernism actively sought to remove itself from political relevance by decrying grand narratives and elevating relativism.


Radical poetry today? – ‘only injustice and no resistance?’

Until relatively recently it seemed that the sentiments of Bertolt Brecht’s (1898-1956) poem To Posterity had become almost universally true in the 21st century:
For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.
However, there has been a sea change in attitude with people demonstrating on the streets in many cities globally in only one year: the Yellow Vests in France (October/November, 2018), Sudanese Revolution (19 December, 2018), Haiti Mass Protests (7 February, 2018), Algeria: Revolution of Smiles (6 February, 2019),  Gaza economic protests (since Mar, 2019), Iraq: Tishreen Revolution (1 October, 2019), Puerto Rico: Telegramgate (8 July 2019), Ecuador Protests (3 October, 2019), Bolivian protests (since Oct, 2019), Chile Protests (14 October, 2019), Lebanon Protests (7-18 October, 2019).


 
Protests in Plaza Baquedano, downtown Santiago



The eruption of protest and violence in Chile started with students demonstrating against the proposal to raise the subway fares. This was unexpected as Sofía del Valle noted:
Economists have long called Chile’s economy “the miracle” of Latin America, where GDP per capita has noticeably grown from $2,500 in 1990 to $15,346 in 2017. However, these numbers hide a fundamental problem: they do not account for inequality. Chile’s late poet Nicanor Parra said it best: “There are two pieces of bread. You eat two. I eat none. Average consumption: one bread per person.
She also states that the people themselves are starting to participate in political activity with the “proliferation of “cabildos ciudadanos,” or self-organized participatory meetings of citizens that have gathered to discuss problems and solutions for the country we dream to be.”

This has led to the connection between the masses and poetry, similar to Chartist times, being restored to Chile. According to Vera Polycarpou, the people on the streets are “singing the songs of Victor Jara, listening to symphonic music in the squares, making street theatre and reciting the poems of Pablo Neruda, declaring that it will not tolerate military rule, repression and injustice again.”

Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) was a Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet-diplomat who wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems from a very young age. Neruda was living in Madrid at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) and with some friends had formed the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals bringing popular theater to the people, plays from Cervantes to Lorca. The assassination of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), a friend of his, a month into the war had a profound affect on Neruda. According to Mark Eisner:
Beyond the horror of a friend’s assassination, Lorca’s death represented something more: Lorca was the embodiment of poetry; it was as if the Fascists had assassinated poetry itself. Neruda had reached a moment from which there was no turning back. His poetry had to shift outwardly; it had to act. No more melancholic verse, love poems dotted with red poppies, or metaphysical writing, all of which ignored the realities of rising Fascism. Bold, repeated words and clear, vivid images now served his purpose: to convey his pounding heart and to communicate the realities he was experiencing in a way that could be understood immediately by a wide audience.
This shift away from Romanticism can be seen clearly in Neruda’s poem I Explain Some Things:
You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
The demonstrations in Chile have also seen the return of the ‘cacerolazo’ or ‘casserole’ a form of popular protest used globally consisting of people making noise by banging pots, pans, and other utensils at demonstrations. The Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux brought out a song about this form of protest, called ‘Cacerolazo’ (on YouTube) where she raps about cacerolazos as a form of massive protest in defiance of police and military violence describing them as “[w]ooden spoons against your shooting”:
Vivita, guachita, Chile despierta
Cuchara de palo frente a tus balazos
Y al toque de queda, ¡cacerolazo!
No somos alienígenas ni extraterrestres
No cachai na’, es el pueblo rebelde
Sacamos las ollas y nos mataron
A los asesinos ¡cacerolazo!
(Vivita, guachita, Chile wake up
Wooden spoon in front of your bullets
And at the curfew, cacerolazo!
We are not aliens or extraterrestrials
Don’t shit, it’s the rebel people
We took out the pots and they killed us
To the killers cacerolazo!)

Conclusion 

The Chartists may not have had the access to the internet or video production of Ana Tijoux but their newspapers achieved large distributions and sales, spreading a similar culture of revolt and opposition. Since the time of Alexander Pope, poetry has played an important part in the struggle for change and social justice and the potential for poetry to consolidate people’s feelings, aspirations and desires has remained strong. The decision by poets, themselves, to participate and apply their art to the issues at hand has reinforced and inspired people the world over.

• All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at http://gaelart.blogspot.ie/.