Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


Love, mutual trust and solidarity: Chingiz Aitmatov, the Kyrgyzstan national writer
Sunday, 28 May 2023 09:24

Love, mutual trust and solidarity: Chingiz Aitmatov, the Kyrgyzstan national writer

Published in Fiction

One of the lasting effects of the continuing cultural Cold War against all socialist thought and culture is the West’s denial of the art of socialist countries. This affects all genres in all the socialist countries. The work of these artists is rarely easily available to the general public, and it’s sidelined in university courses, dismissed highhandedly as “Soviet Era” and therefore by definition deplorable.

This article is about the amazing Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, who died fifteen years ago, on 10 June 2008. Aitmatov was very well-known throughout the socialist world and was the principal reason for my recent visit to his homeland, Kyrgyzstan. The Lonely Planet guidebook I had brought with me unsurprisingly made no mention of the country’s national writer.

Over eighty per cent of Aitmatov’s Central Asian homeland lies in the high Tian Shan mountains (Chinese for “Celestial Mountains.”). Kyrgystan’s landscape consists for the most part of mountain steppes, valleys at an altitude of 1500 to 2000 metres, populated into the 20th century by mountain nomads with an extraordinarily vital oral tradition. Until the establishment of Soviet power, the language had no alphabet and illiteracy prevailed. Consequently, the oral tradition epics of this people survived into recent times and remain significant for the historical consciousness of the nation. The written language was only introduced in the early 1920s, a few short years before Chingiz Aitmatov’s birth. The first great flowering of Kyrgyz literature began with this author. His work made his homeland, its people and its nature known and loved far beyond its borders.

Born in 1928 in the village of Sheker in Kyrgyzstan, Chingiz Aitmatov came into contact with the nomads of his homeland at an early age through his grandmother and so became acquainted with their myths and legends. In 1935, the family moved to Moscow, where his father was one of the first Kyrgyz communists to study as a party functionary at the CPSU’s social science cadre university, the Institute of Red Professors. Chingiz thus grew up bilingual. Both parents awakened in him an interest in and enjoyment of Russian and Kyrgyz literature and art. However, in 1937, his father became a victim of Stalin’s terror. He was arrested, executed by a firing squad in 1938 along with 137 other Kyrgyz intellectuals and buried in a mass grave in Chong-Tash village, 25 kilometres south of the capital Bishkek. Aitmatov, who named this graveyard Ata Beyit (Grave of Our Fathers), chose to be buried in this same location.

Following her husband’s arrest, Chingiz’s mother, a Tatar, returned with the children to their native village, where despite being the family of an alleged “traitor”, she was supported by the village community. After the war began, young Chingiz was given a position in the district administration in 1942 and, like other young people, had to leave school at the age of fourteen. He went back to school after the war, studied at the veterinary college and began to write. His veterinary training was followed by five years of study at the agricultural college and work as an animal breeder.

In 1956, he went to the Maxim Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow and attended a two-year course for young authors. His first stories appeared and in 1958 he wrote his world-famous novella Jamila for his graduation submission. Many more stories and novellas followed, written both in Kyrgyz and Russian.

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Kyrgyz epics and legends repeatedly play a major role in his work. In 1980, Aitmatov’s great novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years was published. Due to its at times controversial subject-matter and also the inclusion of tragic elements, Aitmatov’s work often came under criticism. However, his outstanding literary achievement was also honoured with several high awards.

Aside from writing fiction, Aitmatov was actively involved in politics and worked as editor-in-chief of the newspaper Literaturnaja Kirgizija (Literary Kyrgyzstan) and for Pravda as correspondent for Kazakhstan and Central Asia. At the end of 1989, he became one of Gorbachev’s advisors, in 1990 the USSR’s ambassador to Luxembourg and from 1995 the Kyrgyz Republic’s ambassador to the European Union. Further stories were published, as well as his memoirs “Childhood in Kyrgyzstan”, in 1998. In his last novel, When Mountains Fall (2006, not translated into English), Aitmatov again combines an old Kyrgyz legend with the reality of the post-socialist 21st century.

When Aitmatov was awarded the Aleksandr Men Prize in 1998, he declared:

Humanity has no more comprehensive and no more complicated task than that of bringing forth a culture of love for peace as a contrast to the cult of violence and war. There is no area of human existence - from politics to ethics, from primary school to high science, from art to religion - where the human spirit is not confronted with the universal idea of the renunciation of violence.

Chingiz Aitmatov died in Nuremberg on 10 June 2008 at the age of 79.

The solidarity of ordinary people

Aitmatov’s novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is set in the Kazakh steppe at an inhospitable eight dwelling railway junction not far from the Cosmodrome. The junction’s name, Boranly-Burannyi (snowstorm), refers to the rough life and weather that the small village community face, and confront together. However remote, it is spared neither national nor international upheavals. The inhabitants come to this wasteland for different reasons, and not everyone is cut out for the hardships of life there. The death of one of the two people who have spent their adult lives here, Kazangap, prompts his closest friend, Burannyi Yedigei (Snowstorm Yedigei), to honour ancient tradition and bury him in the ancestral graveyard. To do so, he saddles and decorates his legendary camel and sets off with Kazangap’s closest relatives and the digger Belarus.

The novel describes Yedigei’s memories and experiences on his way to the cemetery. It is the day that transcends Kazangap's life and reflects on the times. Thinking as a specifically human ability is reflected upon at all plot levels: “Yes, the Sarozek [the steppe] was vast, but the living thoughts of a person could contain even this.”

Aitmatov condenses the action by linking two storylines – one set in the immediate present as well as one set in the early 1950s – with various references to the life stories of the novel’s main characters. To this are added Kazakh myths as well as a USSR-US space cooperation programme that has a utopian dimension, but also takes place in the present of the novel. A fabric emerges in which the past and the future intertwine, in which the best and the most horrendous things that human beings are capable of emerges, as well as the possibility of intergalactic cooperation with a civilisation that is more advanced and peaceful than Earth’s inhabitants.

The theme of peaceful community, human strength and the solidarity of ordinary people runs through all plot levels, as does the potential to destroy other humans. The legends are about power and abuse of power, violence and resistance. The legend of the Mankurt is centred on the erasure of memory and the subduing of those who survive cruel torture. But it is also about a mother’s fight for her son. Parallels are drawn with Stalinism, which is depicted here in the fate of the family of Abutalip and Zaripa Kuttybayev, and in which Aitmatov undoubtedly creates a monument to his own father.

Nevertheless, manifestations of goodness are also found again and again. Aitmatov’s positive characters are characterised above all by their love for other people, for children, for animals and for nature. Violations of this elementary love are, as it were, offences against humanity. At the same time and closely connected to this is their sense of responsibility for the important work that defines their lives. People of different origins and fates have ended up at this remote railway junction in the middle of the steppe, people for whom work and life here offered a new beginning despite all the hardships. Here, they harness all their strength to ensure that the trains can travel from West to East and back. They celebrate the New Year together in this scene:

Yedigei honestly believed that he was surrounded by inseparably close friends. Why should he have believed otherwise?

For a moment, in the middle of a song, he felt he had to close his eyes. He saw in his minds eye the vast, snow-covered Sarozek and the people in his house, all come together like one family. But most of all he was glad for Abutalip and Zaripa. (...) Zaripa sang and played on the mandolin, quickly taking up the tunes of the songs, one after the other. Her voice was ringing and pure. Abutalip led with a deep-chested, muffled, drawn out voice. They sang together with spirit, especially the Tartar songs. These they sang in the almak-calmak style, one singer answering the other. As they sang, the other people joined in. They had already sung many old and new songs (...) Sitting opposite Zaripa and Abutalip, Yedigei looked at them the whole time and was moved. They would always have been like this, were it not for that bitter fate which gave them no peace of mind.

And further blows of fate await them, which Aitmatov deepens by weaving in three legends, each with special relevance to the main characters: the power of love and its tragic failure. This failure is repeatedly rooted in the power of inhuman opponents, the absence of solidarity and weakness of fellow human beings. Therein lies the tragedy.

The space travellers represent the two great powers, here cooperating in a unique joint project to explore a newly discovered planet with inestimable mineral deposits for the purpose of energy production. With the great self-sacrifice of Aitmatov’s heroes, they try to persuade their governments to be open to the new civilisation:

At present they still have several million years yet to live on their parent planet, and we found it remarkable that they have already been thinking about a time so far ahead in the future and are filled with the same fire and energy about it as if the problem affected the present generation. Surely the thought has arisen in many minds, ‘Will the grass not grow when we are gone?’ (...) But the remarkable thing is that they do not know of states as such; they know nothing of weapons; they do not even know what war is. We do not know; perhaps in the distant past they had wars and separate states and money and all the social factors of a similar character; but at the present time they have no conception of such institutions of force as the state and such forms of struggle as war. If we have to explain the fact of our continuous wars on earth, will it not seem inconceivable to them? Will it not also seem a barbaric way of solving problems?

Their life is organized on quite a different basis, not completely comprehensible to us, and quite unachieved by us in our stereotyped earth-bound way of thinking.They have achieved a level of collective planetary consciousness that categorically excludes war as a means of struggle, and in all probability theirs is the most advanced form of civilization among rational beings in the universe.

Understanding our common humanity

The perversion of mutual support and the dissolution of social cohesion in the interest of money thematically determine Aitmatov’s last novel When Mountains Fall. Cash nexus now rules where trust, mutual respect and help used to be. The snow leopard, a protected species, a symbol of the high mountain regions of Central Asia and revered there since time immemorial, is sacrificed to Mammon, even if this means the destruction of the region’s soul in the immediate future. The old values of a symbiosis between humankind and nature are sacrificed.

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Some previous collective farmers are now calculating businessmen, a former gifted soprano has become a pop star, the erstwhile veterinary surgeon has switched to dog breeding, exporting the wolf dogs that are in demand in Europe, mainly to Germany. The majority of the population is struggling to survive: a past teacher is now a horse herder, a librarian is a flying trader, the protagonist, the journalist Arsen, is self-employed and is threatened right at the beginning of the novel. Driven into a corner and, unlike the leopard, informed about a society now hostile to him, he seeks revenge. But when he is actually able to take revenge, his humanity wins out, even if it costs him his life.

Once again, Aitmatov interweaves an old legend – that of the Eternal Bride – with contemporary events. On the significance of this myth, Aitmatov said the following in an interview about his novel:

This is a great, tragic material. The forces of evil have destroyed the great love that was between two young people. Shortly before the wedding, guileful villagers kidnapped the bride to thwart their happiness. They told the groom that the girl had run away with a rival. In despair, he disappeared into the mountains. Afterwards, the people realised their mistake and regretted it. Too late. The fact that this myth is still alive today, that our people still believe that the Eternal Bride wanders around looking for her groom, that people light fires for her on certain nights, even prepare horses for her, shows how great this remorse and grief are.

In this novel, too, three plot levels are linked. Alongside the present-day level of human experience at a turning point in time, there is secondly the myth, and thirdly, the author writes from the perspective of the snow leopard itself. All three levels enrich each other. As Aitmatov frequently does in his writing, he describes this animal species sensitively and from its own point of view.

Aitmatov’s view of humanity is marked by tragic features. Nevertheless, it is not dystopian. With his work, he sharpens readers’ awareness of the strengths of humanity: love, mutual trust and solidarity. And he describes how these are mercilessly destroyed by inhuman enemies. By putting us in the shoes of the ordinary people of Central Asia, we understand even more deeply our common humanity, which we must defend and protect in common cause. It will not be easy.

Horror beneath the surface: a warning for our time
Monday, 01 May 2023 13:21

Horror beneath the surface: a warning for our time

Published in Visual Arts

How can memorials powerfully remind us of past horrors? How can they keep the atrocities of the past alive and relevant? Micha Ullmann's Berlin memorial (above, by day) fulfils those requirements. It commemorates the fascist blaze, when ninety years ago, on 10 May 1933, 20,000 works by a great number of German and international authors were devoured by the flames before an ecstatic crowd.

Ullmann's memorial is located on Berlin's Bebelplatz – underneath it, to be precise. It is not visible from the street by day –- but at night, an eternal light illuminates it (below, by night). The memorial is a seven-square-metre space, a good five metres high, plastered white, with empty white wooden shelves lining its sides. They could accommodate 20,000 books. Ullmann demonstrates loss – loss of knowledge, experience, art, pleasure. The emptiness reflects a cultural void.


The space can be viewed through a square pane, set into the paving of the square. During the day, the sun, clouds and people are all reflected in the pane and it takes a certain effort and concentration to perceive the empty shelves through it. This is part of the artistic concept. To approach history, to fully grasp it, takes effort. The pane becomes an intersection of the present and the past – the Now is reflected in this glass plate, which at the same time becomes a transparent grave slab, allowing access to the past. The viewer almost feels dizzy/faint, as the window appears fragile – could one fall into the past here?

Insight and resistance

This interface between history and the present also represents an interplay between the private sphere of a library and the public sphere of Berlin's historic centre, between inside and outside, between reality and the imagined, evoked by the memorial. Along with a grave, the empty library also evokes a protected space. Apart from the obvious loss, the imagination refills the shelves with the burnt books and keeps them in a safe place, like a bunker, in the exact place where the inconceivable happened. The eternal light functions both as the eternal light of remembrance and as a source of energy, where shock can turn into insight and resistance.

Micha Ullmann's family fled from Dorndorf in Thuringia to Palestine in 1933, where he was born in Tel Aviv in 1939. His basic idea for the Berlin memorial is grounded in a symbolism that is a leitmotif in the artist’s work. Another memorial based on the excavation of a pit is his first important work "Messer/Metzer" from 1972. Together with young Palestinians and Israelis, Ullmann symbolically exchanged soil between the Arab village of Messer and the Jewish kibbutz of Metzer, neighbouring villages whose names both mean the same thing in Arabic and Hebrew: Border. In both locations, pits of the same size were dug and filled with the soil of the other village. Here, too, there was hardly anything visible on the surface. Here, too, the viewers are challenged to to approach, see and understand what is being presented and referenced.

The Berlin memorial emphases the beginnings of fascism. The torching of books heralded the unimaginable. Very close to the memorial is a plaque, also set on the square’s plaster stones, with Heine’s prophetic words from his tragedy “Almansor”: “This was a prelude only, where you burn books, you will, in the end, burn people. (Heinrich Heine 1820)”.

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It should not be forgotten that it was the so-called intelligentsia that carried out the book burning – students and their professors, also librarians and the book trade. This act of book burning contributed significantly to preparing the intellectual ground for fascism. How quickly supposedly cultured and educated people lose their facade and reveal their true stripes! This phenomenon is very evident again today. The fascist concept of Gleichschaltung (enforced conformity) may well be underway, where thinking independent of the establishment is suppressed and made punishable by law.

As fascism grew, almost all German writers left their home country – a step not taken lightly by those whose art lies in their native language. Very few authors stayed. The vast majority continued writing in exile, and German literature during the Nazi regime is a literature of exile.

Erich Kästner was one of the few who remained in Germany, and Hans Fallada was another. Kästner was also the only author who witnessed his own books burning in Berlin, including his novel Fabian (1931, The Story of a Moralist, in English translation). Kästner's Fabian is not actively involved in the political struggle. Written before the Nazis seized power, the novel is set during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Although Fabian distances himself from the rising German fascists and sees himself as a friend of the communists, he counts on “decency” prevailing.

In his 1950 preface to a new edition of the novel, Kästner described his aim as pointing to the abyss towards which Germany was moving. The novel criticises above all the passivity of those who recognise the dangerous deterioration in society but do nothing about it. This theme is of the greatest relevance today.

Katja Oskamp
Thursday, 13 April 2023 10:03

Katja Oskamp: Marzahn Mon Amour

Published in Fiction

The shortlist for the annual International Dublin Literary Award for 2023 was published in late March. Among the six books on the list is a book by the East German writer Katja Oskamp, Marzahn, Mon Amour. The title stands out for East Berliners in particular, who immediately recognise Marzahn as the GDR’s once most ambitious and largest social housing programme, providing homes for over 270, 000 people.

The Dublin award is an unusually democratic, grassroots prize, as nominations for it are submitted by over 400 public libraries in 177 countries. A worldwide, changing panel of judges draws up a shortlist and selects the winning novel from this. Libraries anywhere can apply to take part in the nominations.

Participating libraries come from around the world, including Africa and Asia. They submit their nominations, based on their readers’ reception of books, to Dublin City Public Libraries. The award is designated for a book either written in English, or one that has been translated into English. In the latter case, one quarter of the 100,000 EUR prize money goes to the translator, the remaining 75, 000 to the author.

Valuing the ordinary, everyday lives and work of ordinary people

Marzahn, Mon Amour was nominated by Stadtbüchereien Düsseldorf, Germany. It is the kind of book that surprisingly made it past the establishment publishers who generally discourage voices from ordinary people about ordinary lives, and especially if they write about not so cool places. In addition, Oskamp’s book is about ordinary East Berliners, most of them pensioners, most of them ageing women. In all these respects, Oskamp’s book had the cards stacked against it. And yet, not only was it published, and nominated for the Dublin Literary Award by a West German library, it incredibly made it on to the shortlist.

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The book is firmly rooted in a GDR literary tradition – that of truly valuing the ordinary, everyday lives of people, inseparably linked to the world of work. Perhaps the most famous example in GDR literature is Maxi Wander’s Guten Morgen du Schöne (1977, Good Morning, Beautiful). It presents interviews with nineteen women aged between sixteen and ninety-two, talking about their lives. A similarly themed book of interviews with men by Christine Müller, nner-Protokolle (1985), was later followed by Christa Wolf’s diary-style publication Ein Tag im Jahr (2003, One Day a Year), where she records her own reflections on the same date every year, 27 September, 1960-2000.

The same interest in the everyday lives of ordinary people is reflected in the documentary by GDR filmmakers Winfried and Barbara Junge, whose epic series Die Kinder von Golzow (The Children of Golzow) began in 1961 and continued until 2007. It follows the lives of eighteen people born between 1953 and 1955. This grassroots emphasis was directly linked to the GDR’s state cultural policy of making the arts directly relevant to the vast majority of the working population, and to encourage them to participate in the arts.

The preservation of memory, as a fightback to the complete rewriting of history that took place after the annexation of the GDR by West Germany, became more important than ever. In contrast to some novels that bowed to the diktat of this New Order post 1990, the documentary style recording of ordinary people’s ordinary lives that has claimed its own space. A splendid example of this is Katrin Rohnstock’s interview-based book Mein letzter Arbeitstag: Abgewickelt nach 89/90. Ostdeutsche Lebensläufe (2014, My last day at work: wound up after 89/90. East German life stories).

Community, culture and work in the GDR

This book presents the memories of GDR working people and their lives. A younger generation is currently scrutinising the actual life experience in the GDR, into which they were born, where childhood memories dominate, but they are old enough to rely on the truth of their memories and at the same time to reflect on post-unification life. Among these authors are Andreas Ulrich, author of Die Kinder von der Fischerinsel (2021, The Kids from the Fischerinsel) and Grit Lemke Kinder von Hoy (2021, Kids of Hoy) are firmly grounded in this tradition. Lemke’s book captures beautifully the atmosphere of growing up in the new town of Hoyerswerda, built to house the workers in the lignite industry. It expresses their sense of community and deep understanding of culture and follows these young people’s lives as they free-fall into the New Germany.

Katja Oskamp’s novel Marzahn, mon Amour opens with the author reflecting on her own story:

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming.  You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.

I was forty-four years old when I reached the middle of the big lake. My life had grown stale: my offspring had flown the nest, my other half was ill and my writing, which had kept me busy until then, was more than a little iffy. I was carrying something bitter within me, completing the invisibility that befalls women over forty. I didn’t want to be seen, but nor did I want to see. I’d had it with people, the looks on their faces and their well-meant advice. I sank to the bottom.

This is a book about ageing, among other things, the search to give meaning to life at its every stage, and some new beginnings. Aged forty-four, the author-narrator retrains as a chiropodist. She finds a job in a friend’s salon in Marzahn. This book is about her customers and her colleagues. Due to the area’s demographics, and the chiropodist service, most (but not all) of her customers are elderly. Work is an important theme in the book, not only the narrator’s own working life, but also the past jobs of her clients:

I look after the feet of some former bricklayers, butchers, and nurses. There’s also a woman who worked in electronics, one who bred cattle and another who was a petrol pump attendant.

And so the reader encounters these people and their stories. Oskamp also tells of her non-hierarchical relationships at work, both with her colleague and the salon owner, and their day out together. The salon owner too shared the naive expectation of an East German that her earlier hard work in a supermarket chain would be valued:

When, haggard from work and two slipped discs later, Tiffy handed in her notice and asked for compensation, her naive request was turned down with derision. Maybe her conviction that life is a losing game stems from that time. (…) Tiffy’s new, even mightier, enemy is the tax office, demanding extortionate amounts every quarter. She hangs in there, grits her teeth and lives so frugally that it pains Flocke and me sometimes.

To some these stories may not seem very spectacular, others will recognise in them the reflection of the minutiae of everyday existence, including tragedy, the stuff of life. This becomes all the more authentic as she relates some conversations in the Berlin dialect. The use of the Berlin dialect is in itself a hallmark of East Berlin, where it is still more widespread and used more generally across different social strata. East Germans frequently observe that it is frowned upon to speak the way the ordinary people speak, the higher up the social ladder one ascends in the New Germany. And yet many persist – a small gesture of protest.

Oskamp writes with understanding and compassion, preserving and enacting the sense of solidarity and community that was a feature of GDR society. The characters in the book all support each other through life and through the difficulties of growing older and old. Their recognition of commonality supersedes any sense of superiority of status or money. Partly memoir and partly collective history, each person’s story, beginning with their feet, is individual and related with respect, frequently communicating the client’s sense of humour. Taken as a whole, the individual portraits depict a community of equals. Herein lies a specifically East German collective memory.

So perhaps it should not be so surprising at all that a German public library, catering as such libraries frequently do, for the not so well-to-do readers, has chosen Marzahn Mon Amour as their nomination for the International Dublin Literary Award. The prize for this, or one of the other five books on the shortlist, will be announced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Caroline Conroy, on Thursday 25th May, as part of the city’s International Literature Festival.

Note: the book has won the Dublin Literary Award, see here.

Wax statue of Sean O'Casey, Dublin Wax Museum Plus
Saturday, 01 April 2023 10:43

Sean O’Casey: The Shadow of a Gunman

Published in Theatre

Sean O’Casey’s play The Shadow of a Gunman premiered 100 years ago, on April 12, 1923, at Dublin’s national Irish theatre, the Abbey Theatre. The theatre, which grew out of the Irish Renaissance movement for the renewal of Irish literature in 1904, encouraged new Irish writers and provided a platform for the exploration of progressive ideas on stage. The Shadow of a Gunman is the first of O’Casey’s three Dublin plays, which examine the maturity and fortunes of the people at three important moments in Irish history – the Easter Rising (1916), the War of Independence (1918-21), and the Civil War (1922-23) – all of which O’Casey experienced.

O’Casey did not turn to playwriting until he was nearly 40 years old, around 1920. Prior to that, he had participated in national and class struggles for two decades as a champion of Irish-language culture, a militant trade unionist, and a socialist activist. Then, from the early twenties until his death in 1964, he devoted himself to writing drama.

He was the first English-speaking playwright of proletarian origin to enter the stage of the world theatre. His plays are about the struggle for the emancipation of the Irish people, and thus implicitly of all working people, from poverty, ignorance and exploitation, for the creation of a new, humane society.

Born in Dublin in 1880, O’Casey came under the influence of Jim Larkin, the legendary trade unionist, and with James Connolly, the driving force in this class struggle, even before the great lockout of 1913. From then on, O’Casey’s maturation as a class-conscious socialist and communist internationalist can be traced. At the same time, he remained true to the best traditions of Irish republican nationalism.

In the years leading up to the 1916 Rising, disagreements arose between O’Casey and Connolly, who had taken over leadership of the left wing of the movement from Larkin, over Connolly’s effort to ally militant workers with the patriotic bourgeois nationalists who had been their class enemies in the 1913 struggle. For this reason, O’Casey did not take part in the Easter Rising and no longer found a place in that organised movement. Increasingly, he became a commentator on contemporary developments from a revolutionary-proletarian perspective, while continuing to earn his living as a worker and educated himself as an autodidact.

Between 1920 and 1922, he decided to turn to drama as a way for revolutionary action. At this point he saw his growing fears for the fate of the Irish Revolution tragically confirmed. Ireland had been one of the storm centres of the revolution in the decade from 1911 to 1921. But that revolution was betrayed and the people defeated for the time being. The situation needed to be analysed.

1913 was the decisive experience in which the Irish workers became conscious of themselves as a class, something O’Casey had understood. But by 1922, the Irish bourgeoisie had betrayed the people and, along with the British government, established the Irish Free State – a fatal development that led to a tragic and bloody civil war.

In his Dublin plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Peacock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), O’Casey sets out to show the Irish working class with all its weaknesses, illusions, and self-deceptions what he believed had contributed to this defeat. It is a critique set against the backdrop of the victorious Russian Revolution, which also allows him to create a tension between the actual and the possible. There emerges a deep conviction of the people’s ability to revolutionise reality.

The Shadow of a Gunman

The play is set in the midst of the War of Independence, in May 1920, in Seumas Shields’ room in a Dublin tenement. Thirty-year-old Donal Davoren, writer of romantic verse, shares a room in this Dublin slum with Seumas, a 35-year-old pedlar and onetime patriot who has now retreated into religion, superstition and bed. The slum dwellers are convinced Davoren is an armed IRA man on the run and assure him of their support. Flattered, he does not contradict them, especially when the ardent young patriot Minnie Powell falls in love with him.

The slum dwellers further include Mr. Grigson, an alcoholic loyalist (to England) who is adored by his wife Mrs. Grigson; Mrs. Henderson, admirer of the small clerk Mr. Gallogher and his imagined literary skills; and, in addition to Minnie Powell, Tommy Owens, who repeatedly declares he is willing to die for Ireland. They all crave some glamour from the supposed gunman Davoren.

A friend of Seumas, Maguire, arrives and leaves a bag apparently containing pedlar’s goods. When news arrives that Maguire has been killed in a robbery, it becomes clear that he was a genuine IRA gunman. British troops storm the tenement. Seumas and Davoren discover to their horror that the bag contains bombs. The men are now desperate to get rid of the bag, and Minnie bravely hides it in her room without the men stopping her. The soldiers terrorise the tenants and discover the bombs. Minnie is arrested and accidentally shot when the IRA ambushes the British while they are taking Minnie away. The women, especially Mrs. Henderson, stand up to the invaders while the men grovel before them. After the disaster, Davoren mocks his own and Seumas’s spinelessness. Seumas insisted that the ominous tapping he had heard on the wall previously was an ill omen.

O’Casey portrays life in the Dublin slums as characterised by poverty and lack of prospects, war, terror, and violent death. Their inhabitants do not seem to offer much resistance. The actual freedom fighter Maguire passes unrecognised through their midst, touching them only briefly, in contrast to the mechanisms of oppression that are massively present, especially the British army.

O’Casey, in contrast to the romantic image of a united, heroic people, draws disunity, escapism, disillusionment on the one hand, and illusions on the other, lack of leadership, and the inability to realistically confront one’s own situation. How is this expressed artistically?

One scene at the beginning of the play involves a written complaint by Mr. Gallogher to the IRA about some neighbours, people of his own class, in which he asks that the IRA intervene against them with force. Mr. Gallogher’s rebellion takes the form of an awkwardly worded letter in which he cannot even clearly articulate his request. Nevertheless, he earns the admiration of other neighbours. This fascination with the supposed power of the word, of form, of ritual, of hocus-pocus, is reinforced by a lack of real education and religion. Minnie also believes in the power of the word, that her love for Davoren is magically secured by typing both their names together on a piece of paper. The patriotic songs that echo throughout the play and substitute for action also fall into this category.

But the characters in this play resist realistic engagement with the reality of their situation in other ways, too. For example, Mrs. Grigson submits to the biblical dogma, “The woman shall be subject to her husband”, even though Mr. Grigson spends a lot of time at the pub and she perceives him more realistically in his absence.

Minnie Powell also defies her own common sense: she falls in love with the romantic myth of the freedom fighter and his devoted lover, who is willing to sacrifice her life for him – an image she has absorbed from an early age in songs and stories. She, too, does not realise that Maguire is the real gunman. She herself creates the shadow of a gunman that destroys her: her heroism becomes an empty heroism, as she too becomes the shadow of a heroine. Minnie’s subservience to Davoren finds its parallel in Mrs. Grigson. Courage and devotion, which ought to serve people in their liberation, here turn into the opposite and contribute to their destruction.

O’Casey creates multiple parallels in this play, which on the one hand serve to generalise the action, but also contribute to a comic-grotesque aspect to the tragedy. This helps create a distance from the action and the characters, which allows the audience to see more clearly what the playwright is saying, ultimately helping them in confronting these weaknesses.

The belief in the power of the word, of the sign, is put to the test in the second act and proves useless. Neither the holy statues and images in Seumas’ room nor their ‘loyalist’ counterparts protect the tenants from the arbitrariness of the British soldiers, who throw the Bible on the floor and force Grigson to pray and sing for their amusement – now the Word is controlled by the enemy. Even Davoren’s name on Minnie’s chest does not protect her from the fatal bullet.

Donal Davoren and Seumas Shields are people of intellectual and cultural ambition and insight who could be leaders in the eyes of the community from which they came – they share certain qualities with the people. Seumas Shields was once an active and cultured, well-read patriot who “taught Irish six nights a week.” He asks Davoren to clarify a question about Orpheus, but the latter does not know the answer. He also knows Shakespeare and is capable of deep insight:

Davoren: I remember the time when you yourself believed in nothing but the gun.

Seumas: Ay, when there wasn’t a gun in the country; Ive a different opinion now when theres nothinbut guns in the country. . . . Anyou daren't open your mouth, for Kathleen ni Houlihan is very different now to the woman who used to play the harp an' sing 'Weep on, weep on, your hour is past, for shes a ragindivil now, an' if you only look crooked at her youre sure o fa punch in theye. But this is the way I look at it- I look at it this way: You're not goin' -you're not goin' to beat the British Empire- the British Empire, by shootinan occasional Tommy at the corner of an occasional street. Besides, when the Tommies have the wind up- when the Tommies have the wind up they let bang at everything they see- they dont give a Gods curse who they plug.

Its the civilians that suffer; when theres an ambush they dont know where to run. Shot in the back to save the British Empire, an' shot in the breast to save the soul of Ireland. Im a Nationalist meself, right enough- a Nationalist right enough, but all the same - I'm a Nationalist right enough; I believe in the freedom of Ireland, anthat England has no right to be here, but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowinabout* dyinfor the people, when it's the people that are dyinfor the gunmen! With all due respect to the gunmen, I dont want them to die for me.

Yet there is a contradiction between insight and action. Seumas’ insights degenerate into unproductive rituals that replace action. Seumas has withdrawn from life and responsibility, he has no real loyalties or relationships with others. His education has dwindled to pedantic knowledge.

Religion is no help either – British soldiers mock him and his holy statues. He also fails to recognise Maguire’s true character, although there are signs of his membership in the IRA – Seumas can no longer match form with content. Had he recognised Maguire as a gunman, Minnie’s death might have been avoided. Seumas, too, is a shadow of what he might have been.

The national liberation movement fails to reach the broad masses of the people: Maguire moves through them fleetingly and unrecognised. The separation of the liberation movement from the mass of the people, its tendency to put all its faith into the ritual of the gun, is evident in Seumas’s statement about the all-powerful gun:

I wish to God it was all over. The country is gone mad. Instead of counting their beads now they’re countin’ bullets; their Hail Marys and Paternosters are burstin’ bombs- burstin’ bombs, an’ the rattle of machine-guns; petrol is their holy water; their Mass is a burnin’ buildin’; their De Profundis is ‘The Soldiers' Song’, an' their creed is, I believe in the gun almighty, maker of heaven an’ earth- an’ it’s all for ‘the glory o' God an’ the honour o’ Ireland’.

Davoren initially appears as the antithesis of his roommate – an aspiring poet, free of religion and superstition. And yet there are parallels. For example, both are capable of important insights, and both flee from the consequence – action consistent with those insights. Davoren recognises Mini’s willingness to act. Unlike the others, he is able to see beyond the surface. He has the will and the ability to free others from their ignorance.

But Davoren does not live up to his responsibility. He flees from life and never leaves his room, even when Minnie is arrested. He uses the poetry of the revolutionary Shelley mainly to take refuge in self-pity. Shelley was a highly political poet, but Davoren, wanting to emulate him, says, “I know nothing about the Republic; I have no connection with the politics of the day, and I don’t want to have any connection.”

The traditional rebel songs offer no poetic response to the exigencies of the times, and he dismisses all attempts to grapple with Ireland through poetry: “Oh, we’ve had enough of poems, Minnie, about ’98, and of Ireland, too.” He fails to see a heritage with which he could connect. (In fact, several of the leaders of the 1916 uprising were poets.) And he takes refuge in art for art’s sake, in the ivory tower idea: “Damn the people! They live in the abyss, the poet lives on the mountain-top”.

But Davoren will not help the people to escape from this abyss. Instead of arriving at realism, he too develops a deadly fascination with ‘form’, a confusion of shadow and substance. And although he is more linguistically aware, his poems are as conventional in their phrasing as Gallogher’s letter, “Or when sweet Summer’s ardent arms outspread,/ Entwined with flowers,/ Enfold us, like two lovers newly wed, …” What is true of the pedlar is also true of the poet. What is true of the Catholic republican is also true of the Protestant loyalist.

When Davoren shows off to Minnie about his supposed battles, he is as self-important and self-absorbed as Grigson or Tommy, though he is more aware of the danger of this illusion – hence, his responsibility for the tragedy is all the greater. Davoren realises this to some degree when Minnie is killed: “It’s terrible to think that little Minnie is dead, but it’s still more terrible to think that Davoren and Shields are alive!”

Maguire, however, is not an alternative either. He makes only a fleeting appearance and leaves the impression of thoughtlessness and irresponsibility more than anything else. He is as responsible for Minnie’s death as Davoren is. The threatening shadow of the real and the fake gunman lies over the whole scene. It confirms Seumas’ assertion that the gunmen do not die for the people, but the other way around. Minnie is shot not by the British but by the ‘real’ gunmen.

The tragedy is not that potential leaders are ahead of the times, but that the people have no leaders who are in tune with the people and the times. Their best leaders were executed in 1916. There is no sign that the masses can produce adequate leaders in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, all the human qualities necessary for liberation are there and embodied in the people, in their contradictions, even if they manifest themselves at the moment only as potential.

These include the qualities of women, their lack of self-absorption, their capacity for loyalty, responsibility and self-sacrifice, their courage, their undamaged interest in poetry. Minnie is the most concentrated expression of this, but it is not about women versus men. Important qualities are common to both genders. A spontaneous solidarity, for example, prevents all the slum dwellers from betraying Davoren. Minnie and Maguire sacrifice their lives for something beyond themselves that they believe will bring liberation. Davoren learns painfully from his experiences, even reaching a certain self-knowledge. And potential is perhaps also to be found in the play’s language, with its irrepressible power and inventiveness.

In his creation of contradictory, realistic characters, O’Casey creates a growing awareness of a possible alternative inherent in things as they are. He exposes productive potential and makes clear that destinies could be steered in a different, better direction. This is best expressed in Davoren, of whom the audience is not sure which way he will go, until the very end.

'Siblings': the search for a new humanity through socialism in the GDR
Friday, 24 February 2023 19:56

'Siblings': the search for a new humanity through socialism in the GDR

Published in Fiction

“Siblings” by German Democratic Republic writer Brigitte Reiman has just been published in English translation by Penguin, in its series of classic international literature. It comes sixty years after the original German novella appeared. Why is a text like this of interest to the modern Western reading public? Its primary interest lies in the fact that here we have an authentic female voice communicating to us from the early 1960s about what it felt like to live in the German Democratic Republic just before the border between the two German states, the Berlin Wall, was finally sealed in 1961. What kind of society and what kind of people were developing in the twelve years since the foundation of the two German states in in 1949?

The Cold War had begun even before the defeat of fascism in Germany in 1945. It had escalated to such an extent that the Western allies introduced a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, in the Western zones in 1948, establishing an exclusive economic area, followed in consequence by the establishment of the West German state (The Federal Republic of Germany) in May 1949. A few months later, in October 1949, the Soviet authorities had no choice but to follow suit, with the founding of the East German state, the German Democratic Republic. Soviet plans right up to 1952 to form a united demilitarised Germany in central Europe as a neutral buffer between the Cold War powers (four Stalin Notes) were rejected by the West and such a stabilising solution became improbable.

From 1949 to 1961, hopes to reunite Germany remained in the East. The GDR national anthem illustrates this, as it contained the lines “Deutschland, einig Vaterland” (Germany, our united Fatherland). The West German anthem continued to be that used under the Nazis, “Deutschland über alles in der Welt”, Germany above all in the World, the anthem which continues in use today.

However, as the Cold War accelerated, the Marshall Plan boosted the West German economy, while East Germany alone paid reparations to the USSR. A devastating brain drain took place and the sabotage of East German production sites, with tens of thousands of people working in the West while shopping and living in the subsidised East. Military espionage contributed to making the open border increasingly unsustainable. This led to the gradual closing of the inner-German border to stem the defection of the GDR-trained workforce. For a few short years, people could leave illegally via West Berlin – until 13 August 1961, when all borders were sealed and any transit of German nationals between the two German states was stopped.

Famous Western Cold War espionage novels are set at this time. Western history books spin their own version of events as historical fact. Other than speaking to witnesses, the art of an epoch can give a sense of what it felt like to be alive at a particular time. “Siblings” does this for the fifties and early sixties in the GDR.

The author of this novella is Brigitte Reimann, a well-known writer in the GDR, who died of cancer at the young age of 41 in 1973. Born in 1933, she knew the times she wrote about intimately. “Siblings” had been preceded by other texts, which had alerted the GDR reading public to her – “Frau am Pranger” (1956, Woman in the Pillory) and “Das Geständnis” (1960, The Confession). These trace recent German history from the Nazi dictatorship; the full acceptance of the guilt of the past; and finally, members of an East German family deciding in which of the two German states they would live (1963, “Siblings”).

In each one of these novellas, a young woman needs to make hard decisions. All of them are working women, protagonists that became Reimann’s signal subject. The theme appears again in “Ankunft im Alltag” (1961, Arrival in Everyday Normality) and finally in her unfinished novel Franziska Linkerhand (1974, which became known to English-speaking film buffs through the subtitled GDR drama based on the book, “Our Short Life”, 1981). An entire GDR literary movement was named after “Ankunft im Alltag”, the arrival of society and its people in a new normality, the building of socialism and the world of work.

In 1959 a significant cultural political conference took place in Bitterfeld. The ruling party’s (SED) recent congress had directed that the working class should be enabled to conquer the heights of art, that any divisions between social strata be overcome, and there be no gulf between art and life. Based on this, an event organised by the Writers’ Union in the petrochemical plant of Bitterfeld had determined the policy that GDR artists should spend time in production, run creative workshops in factories for aspiring working-class writers, from which some well-known authors later emanated.

Also, the artists themselves were encouraged to write about the lives of ordinary working-class people. Brigitte Reimann wholeheartedly supported this movement. She set her texts in working people’s contexts and also ran a writers’ workshop in a lignite plant in Hoyerswerder. Incidentally, the GDR had very few natural resources and large-scale lignite production often involved the removal of village communities from the lignite areas, creating a serious social problem that was not Reimann’s theme, but which continues to this day across Germany.

Aspects of Reimann’s own biography are frequently reflected in her work. In “Siblings”, Elisabeth is a painter who is deeply involved with life in a lignite plant, as are other characters around her. The novella revolves around this industrial core; it is what forges the lives of the characters. There, she runs a workshop for worker painters, some of whom show real talent. And it is in this setting that a variety of conflicts arise.

In addition and importantly, Reimann’s favourite brother Lutz defected with his wife and child to the West in 1960. She notes in her diary: “Lutz went to the West with Gretchen and Krümel (he is now – perhaps only two or three kilometres away and yet unreachable – in the refugee camp at Marienfelde). For the first time I have a painful sense – not simply a rational one – of the tragedy of our two Germanies. Torn families, opposition of brother and sister – what a literary subject! Why is nobody taking this up, why is no-one writing a definitive book?” And so Reimann herself writes “Siblings”.

Christa Wolf, Reimann’s contemporary, addressed the same subject of a young working woman having to decide between her fulfilling working life in the GDR or following her lover to the West, in her novella “Der geteilte Himmel” (1963, first translation into English by Joan Becker [1965] as “Divided Heaven”, and more recently by Luise von Flotow [2013] as “They Divided the Sky”, and film based on it was released in 1964, available with English subtitles).

Both novellas evoke a sense of the complexities of social reality in the early sixties in the GDR, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected. The authors write in very different voices, both identify with the GDR as do their protagonists, and both continued to grapple with life in the GDR in their work to follow. Reimann in particular made the world of work the core sphere of her texts, into which her characters and their conflicts are fully integrated. The most famous of these is arguably Franziska Linkerhand, where Reimann explores the difficulties presented by unimaginative bureaucrats to the young architect who strives to create homely accommodation and towns where people will live happily and in cultural fulfilment. Much later this same theme appears in Peter Kahane’s film “The Architects” (1990), which was the last film to be made in the GDR.

Epic stories arising from women at work, their growing social equality stemming from economic independence and early, far-reaching pro-women legislation, including abortion rights, became a hallmark of GDR literature and give a more profound insight into what this society had to offer than any Western commentary will ever do. This is not to say that GDR art was uncritical of society – indeed, frequently, this was the sphere where the most open criticism was voiced, and therefore the arts became critically important for GDR citizens.

“Siblings” too contains criticism of party apparatchiks with tunnel vision. However, the family which loses one son to the West, and almost another one, has a father who confronts his sons with the money their education cost society and what their defection means financially to the state. Daughter Elisabeth fully identifies with the aspirations of the socialist state and fights for her rights and her dignity within this new society, when the situation arises. Reimann draws rounded, authentic characters who give complex expression to a spectrum of at times conflicting and contradictory political views both in the workplace and in the family. A sense of recent history is added through flashbacks to characters’ pasts.

The novella is of interest to the modern reader for a variety of reasons. For one, its sense of a dramatic change in the times, experienced again in 1989/90, captures some of the current political mood, where we are forced to face realities in a new way, to take a stand and act.

Secondly, this novella, like most of GDR literature expresses women’s confidence in their social equality to an extent that is unparalleled in Western literature and society at that time. Closely linked to this is Reimann’s search for and tracing of a new humanity emerging with the development of socialism. She asks in her work, and attempts to answer, how people change when living in a society that puts their interests before profits. She examines the extent to which they identify with this state. She looks at how this affects their daily lives, their relationships with one another. And in the case of Reimann’s characters, there is the added consideration of how they overcome the conditioning of the Nazi past. Central to Reimann’s attempts to imaginatively address these questions is the role work plays in the development of a new type of person. Readers are not presented with a uniformly grey image of the socialist German state; there is colour, initiative and energy.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant, is the parallel to the situation in so many countries today, that suffer a brain and skills drain of young people trained by them to the wealthier countries who pay nothing for fully qualified workers. This is true not only within the EU, but worldwide.

Reimann does not shut her eyes to the difficulties posed by bureaucrats, nor does she paint a black-and-white picture. But on the whole she is hopeful that socialism has a future in Germany. GDR literature and art has been widely suppressed as part of the blanket re-writing of its history by the West. Nothing of the country’s culture in the broadest sense – as minutely reflected in its arts – was deemed tolerable, and needed to be all but eliminated. Even today, there are few who defy this imposition and turn to GDR art to remember what had once been possible in Germany.


Brendan Behan: playwright, poet, novelist, socialist and republican
Monday, 06 February 2023 10:03

Brendan Behan: playwright, poet, novelist, socialist and republican

Published in Theatre

On the 100th anniversary of Behan's birth in 1923, Jenny Farrell celebrates his life and work. Photo above by William Murphy

Brendan Behan was arguably one of the last writers to emerge from the of the Irish literary revival movement. This originated in the 1880s within the Protestant Ascendency class, led by Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory, and J.M. Synge. It then spread out into the Irish working class through such literary giants as Sean O’Casey, Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Liam O’Flaherty. A great many writers in both English and Irish became part of it, and it is linked to the growth of Irish nationalism in the 19th century, which developed into the socialism of James Connolly.

Behan was born after the foundation of the Irish Free State, on 9 February 1923, into a self-educated, working-class family of house painters. The Irish Civil War was raging and Behan’s people sided with the Republicans. They were deeply imbued with culture and the arts, and Behan was plunged into this literary tradition. One of Behan’s uncles, his mother’s brother Peadar Kearney, wrote “A soldiers song” in 1910, which was fast adopted by the liberation movement and which in 1926 became the national anthem of Ireland. This shows not only the powerful political grounding Behan and his brothers received but also how they grew up in the popular ballad tradition. In Borstal Boy, he recalls his father’s songs and that he…

…….was a great fiddler and so was my uncle, my mothers brother, who had a fiddle presented to him by the prisoners in Ballykinlar Internment Camp for writing the National Anthem. My mother was a good singer, and my stepbrothers aunts were pianists, and great nights we had in their big house on the North Circular Road.

Another uncle, P.J. Bourke was involved in the Irish theatre movement. The Behan family exemplifies just how interwoven the national liberation movement was with the literary revival. Like the majority of his generation before free secondary education came into force, Behan left national school aged thirteen and he became apprenticed to a house painter, his father’s and grandfather’s trade.

A significant factor in Behan’s life was his close friendship with his cousin Cathal Goulding, who was the same age and who shared in much the same biography – house painter, Fianna, IRA, and prison.

A Catholic and a communist

Behan’s father Stephen had fought in the Irish War of Independence and passed on his love for literature and reading to his children. His mother Kathleen (a member of Cumann na mBan) was equally well read and cultured, with a great store of songs, and remained politically active all her life.

She had two sons by her first marriage (her husband Jack Furlong died of the influenza epidemic in 1918) and then four more and a daughter with Stephen. They stayed in contact with Granny Furlong who easily blended her Catholic beliefs with her communist sympathies, and Behan engaged with Marxist thinking from an early age, as did his brothers Dominic and Brian. His mother and brother Dominic were enrolled as members of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1956. Although never a Party member himself, Behan claimed to be both a Catholic and a communist, jokingly observing: “Im a communist by day and a Catholic as soon as it gets dark!”

The Catholic church, however, did not accept him happily, as they found it less palatable to find common ground between communism and religion. In one of Behan’s famous anecdotes, he relates being beaten by a Christian Brother as a schoolboy, when he replied “yes” to the question: “Can Ireland become a communist country?” This resulted his letter to the editor of the left-wing Irish Democrat newspaper in November 1937, where the fourteen-year-old Behan relates the incident.

Behan joined the Republican youth movement, Na Fianna Éireann, in 1932. He took an active interest in writing, which soon became an integral part of his political struggle. He started to contribute to the youth organisation’s journal ‘Fianna’ from the age of twelve. Aged sixteen, he joined the IRA in 1939, like so many in his family before him. Here, Behan advanced to messenger for the Chief-of-Staff, Sean Russell.

A significant left grouping existed in the IRA, reflecting the inherent connection between the fight for national liberation and the working-class struggle. When the IRA decided to launch a military campaign in Britain, in 1939, Behan became part of this. The IRA’s objective was to attack military and strategic targets, later expanding to civilian ones. Those who became involved, like Behan, acted in the conviction that they were Irish patriots fighting against British imperialism in Ireland.

We get a good idea of this from Behan’s autobiographical novel Borstal Boy, in which he describes how he travelled to Liverpool in late 1939 carrying explosives, and his subsequent capture.  He was treated violently in Liverpool jail, and British prosecutors tried to convince him to testify against the IRA. He refused, and was sentenced, due to his youth, to three years in a Borstal. When he returned to Ireland in 1941, he was classified as a communist suspect.

In 1942, Behan was arrested and put on trial for conspiracy to murder two Garda detectives, an attempted assassination which the IRA had planned to coincide with a Wolfe Tone commemoration ceremony. Behan was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for his role, served first in Mountjoy Gaol, Arbour Hill, and then in the Curragh Camp, where other IRA men were also in captivity.  These experiences are recorded in his memoir Confessions of an Irish Rebel.

Behan was released in 1945, under a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees. In 1947 he participated in an attempt to aid the escape of prisoners in the North of England, was captured, and imprisoned for another three months. Following his return to Ireland, he worked as a housepainter for some time, before taking up writing for a living.

The living language of the dispossessed

While in captivity in Irish prisons, Behan began to study Irish, a pursuit he kept up also after his release, in the Gaeltacht areas of Kerry and Galway in the late 1940s. He had a musical ear and the determination to master the language. He did so with great success, becoming so fluent that he wrote poetry in Irish as well as his play, An Giall (The Hostage), which he went on to translate into English.

His passion for the language is reflected in the fact that he spent a great deal of time on the Great Blasket Island (An Bhlascaod Mhór) off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry. Here, until their evacuation from the island in 1953, native speakers were steeped in the wealth of Irish poetry and song. Behan took to this like a natural cultural habitat and his best poetry is in Irish. One example is Jackeen ag caoineadh na mBlascaod (‘A Jackeen Keens for the Blasket Island).

In his Irish language writing Behan targets the conservatism of the middle-class bureaucrats in constraining the living language of the dispossessed of the Gaeltacht areas by assuming an artificial ‘superiority’. Other Irish Language writers such as his contemporary Máirtín Ó Cadhain, or later Tomás Mac Síomóin, also highlight this administrative stranglehold on the language. While Behan did not articulate this in as many words, he expresses in his writing a vision of an Irish language revival that was opposite to the hijacking of the language by middle-class officialdom. A part of this struggle to repossess the language was the movement to take the Irish cultural festival, Oireachtas na Gaeilge, out of Dublin and to hold it instead in the living Irish-speaking areas of the Gaeltachtaí. Although the establishment of the first Irish language pirate radio station was to come later, Behan was very much part of this movement.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Behan also spent time in Paris, he took up writing full-time. His 1954 breakthrough play, The Quare Fellow, is set in Mountjoy Gaol. The play’s title hero never appears – his death sentence for fratricide is to be executed the next day, and there are certain echoes of Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. The condemned man’s plight is shown from a variety of perspectives – those of the prisoners digging the grave, as well as that of prison warders. The cast also includes a gay man, at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Like The Hostage later, The Quare Fellow comments on the gulf between the existing Irish Republic and the aspirations the Republicans had fought for. What emerges here and in The Hostage is a society where the flag has changed colour but the same kind of people remain in charge.

The Quare Fellow was written in two nights, for a memorial concert for Barnes and McCormack on 23 February 1947. These two IRA men had also been part of the 1939 campaign; they had been arrested and subsequently sentenced to death. The effect of these men’s execution on Behan when he was in prison in Liverpool is memorably described in Borstal Boy. Behan knew they were innocent and that those responsible for the bombing were back in Ireland. What first emerges in Borstal Boy is Behan’s characteristic integration of dark comedy and songs with the action.

Behan’s friendship with Cathal Goulding continued throughout this time, and always had a political dimension to it. By the mid-1950s, it had become clear that the campaign simply to remove the inner-Irish border was not succeeding. Between then and the early sixties, Goulding, who was a leading activist and member of the IRA leadership in the 1950s, and chief of staff throughout the 1960s, had re-thought the political assessment and policy. He saw that unification of the country was only one objective, but there was another developing dimension to Irish independence – dealing with the different neocolonial occupiers coming into the South of Ireland.

The concept of an Irish Republic needed to be newly defined in terms of the people who live in it. Foreign investment was entering the country and emigration was phenomenally high. Thomas Whitaker, Head of Irelands Department of Finance (1956 to1969), later Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland (1969 to 1976), abandoned any concept of independence by inviting foreign direct investment. This ultimately led to Ireland joining the EEC. So, discussions were taking place within the Republican movement regarding the kind of republic they envisaged for Ireland - one that would benefit the people, where common interests would take precedence over individual interests. Behan’s work shows that he fully agreed with this concept of an Irish republic.

Borstal Boy fictionalises Behan's time spent in prisons. The book opens with his arrest and soon moves on to Hollesley Bay Borstal, a reformatory for juveniles, a progressive, open institution in rural Suffolk. Behan describes the countryside and agricultural work, in addition to some sensitive portrayals of prisoners and warders. Charlie, a Royal Navy sailor and petty Cockney thief becomes a close friend. An Irish warder on the other hand is quite hostile towards him. And a Catholic priest encourages Protestant warders to beat up Behan, betraying his alliance with the enemy against the inmates.

Through this plot but also, interestingly through his language, Behan shows how much common ground exists between Catholic-Irish and Protestant-English workers, making extensive use of numerous dialects of English as spoken by the British working classes in different regions. In addition, he uses song and poetry, but also references the Irish language. The book, published in 1958 it describes Behan's distancing from violence, while remaining a principled Irish patriot.

Sympathy with those who suffer

Behan’s famous play The Hostage is set in a shabby Dublin tenement, which has become a refuge for sailors, whores, hustlers and all kinds of obscure characters and is a bizarre reflection of Irish society in 1960. Pat, a veteran of the Irish liberation struggle, has lost not only a leg but also all his illusions. He is resigned and passes the day unsuccessfully trying to avoid any political involvement. An IRA officer brings Leslie Williams into his house, a kidnapped young English conscript who is held hostage for an 18-year-old IRA prisoner sentenced to death in Belfast. As in Borstal Boy, the audience is shown a likeable working-class English soldier, who gets shot accidentally in senseless crossfire, underlining Behan’s non-sectarian attitude to working-class English people. His overriding sympathy lies with the people who suffer, never with the beneficiaries of history, and he always examines closely the political purpose of actions in this light.

Apart from identifying as a republican, Behan also saw himself all his life as a socialist, as his writing makes clear. His relationship with the Communist Party was a friendly one. For example, he painted the Party premises free of charge, and in 1954 Behan signed the nomination papers of Michael ORiordan, a Spanish Civil War veteran and founding member of the Irish Communist Party, who stood in the General Election that year. Clerics around Ireland denounced the candidate and threatened anyone who voted for ORiordan with committing a mortal sin. With his inimitable humour, Behan cheered up ORiordan when he received just short of 300 votes, saying: well done on the 295 mortal sinners!”

Above all, Behan’s goal was a united Irish Republic, which would serve the interests of the many, not the few. This opinion of course did nothing for his popularity with the Irish literary and political establishment.

When Behan had become an internationally famous author by the early 1960s, he spent much time in the USA. Here, he met with Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Jackie Gleason, Norman Mailer, Harpo Marx, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and others. However, his fame exacerbated his alcoholism, and this, along with diabetes and jaundice, impacted disastrously on his health. He died on the 20th March 1964, aged 41.

As Brendan Behan is very famous for his sharp wit, let us close with one of his succinct observations: "It's easy to spot the terrorist. He's the one with the small bomb".

The Banshees of Inisherin
Sunday, 15 January 2023 17:26

The Banshees of Inisherin

Published in Films

International film awards are by no means a good film guide, and this applies as much to The Banshees of Inisherin as to other films.

The story is set in 1923 on an offshore island in the West of Ireland – it was filmed in fact on Achill island and Inis Mór (Inishmore), the largest of the three Aran islands in Galway Bay. Non-Irish speaking readers should know that “Inisherin” (Inis Éireann) means the island Ireland. This setting during the Irish Civil War is made clear early on – throughout the film occasional bombs go off on the mainland, and the local policeman is chuffed to have been asked to participate in some executions – he knows not for which side, nor does he care. In fact, no one on the island seems to be in the slightest bit interested in the war. Amazingly, it is not a topic of conversation, nobody is touched by it, no-one is involved, and there are no discussions about the Treaty terms, which had such a momentous impact on post-Independence Irish history. And all this on Island Ireland, or Inisherin.

One can only wonder why? Did Martin McDonagh not wish to offend any side? Might any partisanship have affected awards and gross profits? Might the film even have caused controversy in Ireland itself? We will never know, because it manages to steer clear of causing any possible offence by reflecting actual sensibilities during this time. Anybody who wishes to know what these sensibilities were needs to read Liam O’Flaherty, not watch Martin McDonagh. Liam O’Flaherty, native of Inis Mór, not only wrote about the Civil War on the mainland ( in The Sniper and The Martyr) but also refers to the way it affected people on the Aran islands in terms of their class position. And O’Flaherty took part in the Civil War himself, on the Republican side. Ironically, the cottage in which Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his sister Siobhán (the absence of Ó and Ní in their surname would trouble an Irish speaker), is set in Gort na gCapall, O’Flaherty’s home place.

But McDonagh clearly does not wish to go there. His reluctance to engage with this very obvious  Irish issue is reflected, too, in the musical score. McDonagh’s instructions to Carter Burwell for the score was not to use Irish music, as McDonagh “hated that ‘diddle-de-dee’ music”. So instead, bewilderingly and jarringly out of place, the atmosphere is underscored musically by a mixture of Brahms’ Lieder, a Bulgarian piece at the start of the film, and Indonesian gamelan music. As Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), one of the two main characters, is a fiddler, and this is central to the plot, there is also some Irish music. This features as part of the story – not the musical score which supports the atmosphere and emotional reinforcement of the film.

Apparently, the thinking was that these musical pieces from around the world and different cultures would increase the appeal to an international audience. The opposite is in fact the case. The more specific a story is, the greater its universal appeal. A story that tries to please everybody, simply rings hollow, and although Brahms’ Lieder are hauntingly beautiful, they don’t fit the atmosphere on Inisherin. An a capella sean nós (Irish old style) solo voice would simply have been more fitting. In addition and in parallel to this there is the unhappy absence of any kind of Irish language speech, song, signage indeed anything in the native language. Again, this is profoundly out of joint with the time, and the place, shown on screen.

What is the film about? It’s about a falling out between two island men – due to one of them panicking about ageing and therefore ostracising the other. The older man has decided overnight he wants to immortalise something of himself in Irish traditional music. In order for this proposition to work, McDonagh makes the younger man out to be somewhat infantile. Burwell sees him as a Disney character (!) and gives him a matching musical theme. Doherty is simply suddenly bored with Pádraic Súilleabháin. (Is there any significance in the fact that the ‘simpleton’ has an Irish name, while Doherty uses the English spelling?)

Even Pádraic’s sister Siobhán Súilleabháin - the strongest character outside of the two protagonists - finds island life tedious. Few people in the film do any actual work. The height of it is walking some cattle down the Bohereen or caressing the pet donkey or dog. There is no field work or other rural labour to be seen. People just somehow get along without it, like going to the pub in the middle of the day, and yet they have the money to do so and clearly have enough to eat, dress and furnish their houses.

O’Flaherty’s short stories about island life, in contrast, are defined by people working. He does this easily and naturally, as he grew up among this community – which McDonagh did not. Where ‘despair’ appears as a theme in O’Flaherty, as it does in the expressionist novel The Black Soul, or his play Darkness, this is rooted in recent events, namely in the experience of World War One, another recent event with which the islanders on McDonagh’s island have no connection.

And so the film ends up feeding the usual stereotypes about Ireland. This ignorance of people’s daily working lives affects the film badly and is the reason why McDonagh can suggest that their lives (not to mention their music) is dull.

Set at a momentous time in Irish history the film could have had a great deal to say to people in similar situations then and now. McDonagh instead chooses to ignore this history, and people’s working lives. Instead, possibly for box office returns, the film feeds modern sensibilities about ageing – and does not even do this credibly.

'I’m a Marxist who believes in God': Ernesto Cardenal, 1925-2020
Tuesday, 27 December 2022 15:00

'I’m a Marxist who believes in God': Ernesto Cardenal, 1925-2020

Published in Religion

Since the rise of early capitalism, the quest of working people for liberation, equality and peace for all – not only for the evolving bourgeois class – has been frequently been framed in religious terms. Translations of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular languages certainly played a role in the understanding that the earth was made ‘a common treasury for all’, as Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) of the Diggers proclaimed following the early bourgeois revolution in England.

This thinking had been well prepared by English clergyman and leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, John Ball (1338-1381), Jan Hus in Bohemia (c. 1369-1414), and Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489-1525) fearless leader of the peasant war in Germany, to name just three of the early theologians.

In England, the Ranters and Seekers articulated their revolutionary objectives in religious terms – as did the poet and engraver William Blake a century and a half later. And of course this hasn’t stopped. The Churches have often been the defenders of the rich against the poor, they have taken sides even for war; they have often interpreted the Bible to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. But there have also often been the courageous exceptions – sometimes movements – for a complete democratisation of the Christian Churches and an understanding of the Bible that emphasises the equality of all humankind, a desire to create a Jerusalem for all on Earth and not merely as a promise in Heaven.

The twentieth century also brought forth such theologians, especially liberation theologians and priests in Latin America who highlighted and struggled against “sinful” capitalist exploitation, frequently setting up communities not unlike those of the Diggers.

Famous among these revolutionary priests is Ernesto Cardenal (1925-2020), Nicaraguan Catholic priest and poet, lifelong left-wing activist, Marxist and active supporter of the Sandinista revolution. He was suspended by the pope, Saint John Paul II, in 1984 for breaking canon law by taking a public office as Minister of Culture, the day the Sandinistas triumphed on 19 July 1979, an office he held until 1987. Pope Francis restored priestly faculties to him in 2019, shortly before Cardenal’s death.

Ernesto Cardenal made his close relationship with Marxism clear on many occasions throughout his life. In 1984, for example, he stated:

Christ led me to Karl Marx, I don’t think the Pope [John Paul II] understands Marxism. For me, the four Gospels are all equally Communist. I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ, and is a revolutionary for the sake of his kingdom.

And in 2015, aged 90, nothing had changed as far as he was concerned. In an interview with the New York Times, he declared:

I am a revolutionary. Revolutionary means that I want to change the world.......The Bible is full of revolutions. The prophets are people with a message of revolution. Jesus of Nazareth takes the revolutionary message of the prophets. And we also will continue trying to change the world and make revolution. Those revolutions failed, but others will come.

At the start of 2023, we honour Ernesto Cardenal and the revolutionary movement he stood for, his pledge for peace, by reading his Psalm 5:

Give ear to my words, O Lord
Hearken unto my moaning
Pay heed to my protest
For you are not a God friendly to dictators
neither are you a partisan of their politics
Nor are you influenced by their propaganda
Neither are you in league with the gangster

There is no sincerity in their speeches
nor in their press releases

They speak of peace in their speeches
while they increase their war production
They speak of peace at Peace Conferences
and secretly prepare for war
Their lying radios roar into the night
Their desks are strewn with criminal intentions and sinister reports
But you will deliver me from their plans
They speak through the mouth of the submachine gun
Their flashing tongues are bayonets…

Punish them, O Lord,
thwart them in their policies
confuse their memorandums
obstruct their programs

At the hour of Alarm
you shall be with me
you shall be my refuge on the day of the Bomb
To them who believe not in the lies of their commercial messages
nor in their publicity campaigns nor in their political campaigns
you will give your blessing
With love do you encompass them
As with armour-plated tanks.

Translated by Robert Marquez

Modern McCarthyism and anti-Palestinian racism: condemnation of the withdrawal of the European Drama Prize from Caryl Churchill
Tuesday, 29 November 2022 09:42

Modern McCarthyism and anti-Palestinian racism: condemnation of the withdrawal of the European Drama Prize from Caryl Churchill

Published in Theatre

Image above: portrait sketch of Caryl Churchill by Petticonifer, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In an open letter, 170 British artists have reacted angrily to the withdrawal of the European Drama Prize from Caryl Churchill:

We are appalled that the Lifetime Achievement Prize awarded to playwright Caryl Churchill for the European Drama Prize 2022 has been rescinded by the jury of the Schauspiel Stuttgart, on the grounds that Churchill supports the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israels system of apartheid. (…)

This attack on freedom of conscience is nothing less than modern-day McCarthyism, and raises urgent questions about a pattern of intimidation and silencing in Germany, and beyond. (…)

The repression and silencing we are witnessing suggest deep seated anti-Palestinian racism, and call into question the integrity and independence of cultural institutions. (…)

If the only forms of art deemed safefor institutions are those that have nothing to say to the dispossessed and oppressed of this earth and that are silent in the face of state-sanctioned repression, then art and culture are emptied of meaning and value.

In its statement, the jury had justified the withdrawal of the award not only because of Churchill's support for BDS, but also with her play "Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza"(attached). The playwright wrote this short text in 2009 after Israel's attack on Gaza, in which, according to Amnesty:

1,400 Palestinians had been killed, including some 300 children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians, and large areas of Gaza had been razed to the ground.

What is this formally unconventional play about, which reads like a poem in free verse? In seven sections of various length, one hears voices of adults advising what may and may not be said to a young daughter.

These answers to a child’s unheard questions are reminiscent of the question-and-answer ritual of the Passover ritual, in which the founding myth of the Jews is passed on to new generations. An ironic arc is created here between this, the persecution of the Jews during the Shoah and the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland. An additional founding myth is written.

Almost all sentences of the play begin with "Tell her" or "Don't tell her". Seven sections illuminate the period from the Shoah to the present. The audience quickly grasps which historical situation is referred to. The first section begins: “Tell her it’s a game/ Tell her it’s serious/ But don’t frighten her/ Don’t tell her they’ll kill her.” These lines speak of the utmost tender concern for the child's psychological as well as physical well-being during fascism.

After the Shoah, the concern moves to how to tell the child what happened: "Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and me/ Tell her her uncles died/ Don’t tell her they were killed/ Tell her they were killed/ Don’t frighten her." The third section focuses on moving to (unnamed) pre-state Israel: "Tell her it’s sunny there/ Tell her we’re going home/ Tell her it’s the land God gave us." The fourth section moves on to the expulsion of the (unnamed) Palestinians: "Don’t tell her home, not home, tell her they’re going away/ Don’t tell her they don’t like her/ Tell her to be careful./ Don’t tell her who used to live in this house".

While an uncertain tone prevailed in these first four sections, in the very short fifth section there is a new tone, a change in attitude even to the story being told (or not told): the invasion of Gaza: "Tell her we won/ Tell her her brother’s a hero/ Tell her how big their armies are/ Tell her we turned them back/ Tell her we’re fighters/ Tell her we’ve got new land." Greater awareness of an injustice returns in section six. Here, initially, the “Don’t tell her" sentences about water, bulldozers (destruction), olive trees, a boy shot dead, which also express increasing violence against the Palestinians, dominate. The "Tell her" sentences of the second half of the sixth section deepen the lies the child is served as her identity: "Tell her we’re stronger/ Tell her we’re entitled/ Tell her they don’t understand anything except violence/ Tell her we want peace/ Tell her we’re going swimming."

The seventh and final section is the longest and surprises with its transition from free verse to prose, after the expression of doubts as well as fears, for the first time even of passive resistance, to militant Zionist positions: "Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army./ Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed." (...) "Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out". Here, the dehumanisation of the adult voices and the destruction of the child's innocence reaches its climax.

This is somewhat relativised in the last three lines of the play, "Don’t tell her that./ Tell her we love her./ Don’t frighten her." Frightened of the adults? The very fact that the girl is asking these questions - and that she has a cousin whose doubts have survived into adulthood - is encouraging. There is hope.

This play, written by Churchill on the occasion of one of the most notorious Israeli attacks on Gaza, is of course not limited to Israel, but can be applied to all situations in which parents (or the state, or the state media), aggressors, warmongers, colonisers, enslavers, create a narrative for their children or their people, conceal and transfigure, invent a new story. What is reported? What are you allowed to think, to say? How is history, how is a legend written? Why is the truth so unbearable? Even for the oppressors, who know the truth?

By concealing realities, by not learning from history, oppression and cruelty are born again and again. In the middle of the sixth section, a voice says, "Don't tell her anything." The withdrawal of the European Drama Prize to Caryl Churchill is one such effort.

Caryl Churchill released "Seven Jewish Children" for free download and performance rights, with the request that collections be made for the people of Gaza and that the proceeds go to Medical Aid for Palestine. 

Women's rights and class relations: George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion'
Monday, 31 October 2022 11:32

Women's rights and class relations: George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion'

Published in Theatre

George Bernard Shaw (26th July 1856 to 2nd November 1950) was the second Irish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him two years after William Butler Yeats, in 1925. At the award ceremony his work was described as “marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty”.

Shaw was about as enthusiastic about the award as Beckett was over forty years later. “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize”. He did not attend the award ceremony or other celebrations, nor did he accept the money.

When Shaw received the award, he was almost seventy years old. It was his play about Joan of Arc, Saint Joan (1923), written in the year of her canonisation, that had swayed the Nobel committee, as they managed to look past Shaw as the author of Pygmalion, Man and the Superman and Major Barbara.

Shaw had declared at the founding of the Shelley Society on 10 March 1886, “I am, like Shelley, a Socialist, an Atheist, and a Vegetarian”. In 1882 he read Das Kapital in French translation, as no English version was yet available, and this was a turning point in his life. In 1884 he joined the socialist-oriented Fabians, a political society founded by intellectuals, which had its heyday in the period from 1887 to 1918. Shaw soon played a leading role here, writing some radical liberal pamphlets for them with demands for land reform, abolition of indirect taxes and women’s suffrage.


Shaw’s perhaps most famous comedy is Pygmalion (1912). The immediate social background is the swelling British women’s suffrage movement, which was increasing in strength at this time, culminating, among other things, in the proclamation of International Women’s Day. The main themes of the play are women and class.

 womens suffrage

Pymalion was a mythological Greek artist who had become a misogynist. However, when he created a female figure from ivory in accordance with his own fantasy, he fell in love with her and implored Aphrodite to bring her to life. Then he married her. In the play, Professor Henry Higgins, international luminary in the field of phonetics, meets the flower-seller Liza Doolittle and boasts to his colleague Pickering that he can pass the working-class woman off as a duchess within a short time. They wager money on it. So like Pygmalion the misogynist, Higgins plans to create a character demonstrating his skill.

Shaw’s Pygmalion is about practical, intelligent women from different social classes. In addition to Liza Dolittle, two other women are significant: Mrs. Pearce, Henry Higgins’ Scottish housekeeper, and his mother, Mrs Higgins. Mrs Pearce, whose name could equally be of Irish origin, asks practical questions after Liza arrives and protects Liza: “Will you please keep to the point, Mr. Higgins. I want to know on what terms the girl is to be here. Is she to have any wages? And what is to become of her when you’ve finished your teaching? You must look ahead a little.”

Quite unimpressed by her employer, this woman speaks in very practical terms about economic and social aspects concerning the young woman’s position in the household, as well as her income, and she realistically foresees difficulties after the wager is won or lost. Undaunted, Mrs Pearce also watches over Liza’s dignity. She corrects Higgins’ behaviour and his crude expression (the man who plans to teach Liza ‘refined’ manners and speech), demanding some control over these in Liza’s presence. In this respect, Mrs. Pearce, who comes from the same class as Liza, assumes the role of her defender almost from the beginning.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle 1914

As the audience hears from Liza later, she completely sees through Higgins’ class prejudice and his related contempt for humanity: “Mrs. Pearce warned me. Time and again she has wanted to leave you (…). And you don’t care a bit for her. And you don’t care a bit for me”. Liza has also brought about a change in Mrs Pearce, as Henry Higgins tells his mother: “before Eliza came, she used to have to find things and remind me of my appointments. But she’s got some silly bee in her bonnet about Eliza. She keeps saying ‘You don’t think, sir’: doesn’t she, Pick?” and Pickering confirms, “Yes: that‘s the formula. ‘You don’t think, sir.’ Thats the end of every conversation about Eliza.”

Interestingly, Mrs Higgins expresses a similar insight. Like Mrs Pearce, she raises “the problem of what is to be done with her afterwards.”. So too within the bourgeoisie there is a practical woman who sees the situation and the dangers clearly, with readers being alerted to her unconventional past in a stage direction. Like Mrs. Pearce, she recognises that switching Liza to the bourgeoisie’s way of life would result in her no longer being able to support herself: “The manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady’s income! Is that what you mean?”. Ultimately, however, despite everything, there is a clear class difference between the two older women. Mrs Higgins clearly articulates a reservation about the young working-class woman when she says at the end, in the face of Liza's rebellion against her son, “I’m afraid you’ve spoiled that girl, Henry”.

Liza herself confidently insists on her human equality from the beginning: “I’m a respectable girl”and “I got my feelings same as anyone else”. At the start she insists on her right not to be watched by any police and wants to pay for Higgins’ language lessons because he holds out the prospect of better employment in a florist’s shop if she can ‘improve’ – that is, change – her pronunciation to copy that of the bourgeoisie.

She also prefers Pickering to the cynical Higgins because he calls her ‘Miss Doolittle’ and treats her kindly and courteously. She is clear that Higgins does not do this. Despite Higgins’ sarcasm and his indifference towards her further career, Liza asserts her dignity and ultimately emerges as the strongest person in the play. Especially after Higgins has actually been able to pass her off as a duchess in society, the latter now smugly celebrating his victory with Pickering and conceding no part in it to Liza, she rebels.

There is no bourgeois male figure of comparable stature. The gentlemen are not aware of this, of course. Shaw does not make it easy for his mainly middle-class audience to grasp his intention either. We are presented with highly educated men, erudite linguists, as well as a representative of the working class, Liza’s father Alfred Doolittle, who is in no way inferior to the academics in intellect.

george bernard shaw pygmalion drama sng v ljubljani a70dad 1024

Higgins is deeply contemptuous of Liza, whom he thinks, as he repeatedly points out, he has taken “out of the gutter”, to which she can return when he has won his bet: “when I’ve done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter”. He calls her a “baggage” and “dirty”. Higgins is misanthropic and views women as mindless beings who expect from life chocolate, clothes, taxis as well as a ‘good’ marriage, as he expresses several times: “Think of chocolates, and taxis, and gold, and diamonds. (…) And you shall marry an officer in the Guards, with a beautiful moustache” . A woman’s self-realisation through her own work does not occur to him. In this context, it is all the more understandable that his greatest crisis arises when Liza tells him that from now on she will make her living by teaching. That this will involve phonetics is his greatest threat, for Liza has a more musical ear than he and can go far.

Pickering has a somewhat gentler nature than Higgins. He treats Liza with more respect. But despite better manners, like Higgins he thinks the wager is won when Liza performs the great miracle and is able to pass herself off as a duchess. Together with Higgins, he enjoys the moment of this triumph without admitting that it is actually Liza’s achievement. Nor does he ever ask the question that was uppermost in the minds of the women – what is to become of Liza now?

Women's rights and class relations

The play is as much about class relations as it is about women’s rights. For Shaw, the two are inseparable. Liza Doolittle has a strong sense of her own worth from the very beginning. Several times she she insists on her equality with others. In the first scene she insists on her rights: “He's no right to take away my character. My character is the same to me as any lady’s”, and “I’ve a right to be here if I like, same as you.” She doesn’t expect any alms either, but wants to sell flowers or pay for her lessons: “Well, here I am ready to pay him — not asking any favour — and he treats me as if I was dirt.”

Liza’s father Alfred Doolittle comes across to a bourgeois audience as uneducated and unsophisticated, almost comical, yet he has enormous self-confidence and belongs unmistakably to the working class. Like Liza, he demonstrates class consciousness and the potential of this class:

“I’m one of the undeserving poor: thats what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. (…) I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. (…) I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving.”

This tremendous statement of humanity, is reminiscent of Shylock's speech in The Merchant of Venice, when he holds up a mirror to the complacent Christians, denouncing their hypocrisy and forcefully and simply demonstrating his equal humanity:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?” (Act 3, Scene 1)

Again and again Doolittle emphasises that he does not want to be ‘improved’. That is why he does not take the 10 pounds offered to him, but only five. He wants to enjoy himself for one night.

Shaw’s insistence on the human superiority of the working class is also reflected on a linguistic level. For months, Higgins drills Liza in bourgeois ‘small talk’. She learns completely meaningless phrases by heart, which she is to offer up at Mrs. Higgins’ tea party, thus deceiving the other visitors about her true social class. In a splendidly comic scene, Liza sticks to the topic of weather and illness, but her need for meaningful conversation overwhelms her and she falls back into her own speech. While this delights Freddy, it somewhat disturbs his mother and proves, for the time being, that Liza has failed this test. Liza, who is used to saying things of substance, is quickly ordered to leave by Higgins as everything threatens to get out of hand.

The evening after Liza has actually persuaded society she is a duchess, Higgins treats her like his servant. This enrages her as the consequences hit her: “What’s to become of me?”. Now she realises with full force what had been troubling the older women from the beginning: “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What‘s to become of me?” When Higgins suggests she could marry, she responds with great insight:

“We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. (…) I didnt sell myself. Now youve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish youd left me where you found me.”

For Higgins, Liza is property. She now realises: “Aha! Now I know how to deal with you”, she says and regrets not having realised before how she could defend herself (by teaching phonetics).

Liza displays in this play a profound humanity, which arises from her working-class background and her experience as a woman. Towards the end of the comedy, when Higgins asks her about her suitor Freddy, who writes to Liza several times a day: “Can he make anything of you?”, Liza counters this insult with an answer that Higgins couldn’t even conceive of: “Perhaps I could make something of him. But I never thought of us making anything of one another; and you never think of anything else.” Liza has a far greater degree of humanity and insight than any middle-class character in the play, and added to this is her sense of equality.

Another example of Liza’s generosity towards others: Her father discovers that Liza is in Higgins’ house: because she “took a boy in the taxi to give him a jaunt. Son of her landlady, he is.” Mrs Pearce also displays dignity, a sense of responsibility and humanity. She too acts class-consciously and keeps Higgins in check, to a certain extent.

For all these reasons, we must agree with Shaw when the false happy ending of conventional comedy, a marriage between Higgins and Liza, is out of the question for him. It is precisely his understanding of class and the class conflict that do not permit such an ending. Shaw thus breaks with the convention of comedy. That which the audience is conditioned to expect does not occur. Shaw subverts this expectation and holds up a mirror to the mainly bourgeois English audience to raise their doubts and shake their complacent sense of superiority. The play ends with Liza’s departure and Higgins’ unreformability. It is abundantly clear in this context why any suggestion of a happy ending in the later Pygmalion-based musical My Fair Lady is such a betrayal of Shaw, while Willy Russell’s drama Educating Rita is more in his spirit.

What does the play have to do with Ireland? When I asked my students this question, they answered that the Irishman Shaw clearly comments on the situation of the Irish in two respects. Their pronunciation marks them as colonised and second-class citizens – with an Irish pronunciation one could not get anywhere in the England of his time, perhaps not even today. Although himself a member of the ruling Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, Shaw clearly identifies with the class to which his heroines here belong and makes clear the strength of that class. He does so as a socialist, yet as an outsider. He can only grasp working-class representatives, their dignity and strength from the outside.

At the same time, his fellow Irishman, the painter and decorator Robert Noone (Tressell), also born in Dublin, wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the first working-class novel in English-language literature.

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