Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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


A monument to Lenin
Monday, 08 January 2024 16:36

A monument to Lenin

Published in Cultural Commentary

On Wednesday, 30 October 1929, the following article was published in the German Frankfurter Zeitung, translated into German by M. Schillskaya from a Soviet newspaper. The original Russian article had appeared following the 5th anniversary of Lenin's death in that year. It inspired Bertolt Brecht's poem 'The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak honour Lenin'. To mark the 100th anniversary of Lenin's death, I have translated the article here into English for the first time since it appeared 95 years ago. Brecht's poem follows the article.

Just as Brecht let the newspaper report speak for itself, we will do the same, in memory of Lenin's power.

A monument to Lenin

There were once many fertile steppes in Fergana.
Around Syr-Darya, rich fields spread out.
Wheat, barley, oats and rice flourished there.

Even now, the skies around Fergana are bright and the gardens there are shady and cool. Gardens and steppes fall like blue waterfalls into the sandy desert, the desolate solitude and the poisonous swamps. This region was once the scene of great migrations of peoples, giant cities surged here, merchants, cobblers and kings lived in large dwellings. Young men made love tempestuously, Khans fought each other, and old men died peacefully. Now sand swirls and trickles here, blowing away the traces of the peoples and the last sad remnants of the hearths. Winds come from the Caspian Sea, hares are sucked in by the swamp, and the mosquitoes swarm over these marshes, more powerful than birds of prey. Once a fortnight the train comes through the Kuyan-Bulak railway station.

It whistles in the distance, emits hoarse cries at the sharp bends behind the sand drifts, or trills young and adventurously. The stationmaster then puts on his new cap and goes out to set the signal for entry. If the locomotive shouts young and shrill, it means that it will speed past the small Kuyan-Bulak station, leaving only a little smoke and a whiff of long distances on the platform. But if she screams hoarsely and with the last of her strength, you know that the train will stop in Kuyan-Bulak. It will bring water, hope and news. Then the whole of Kuyan-Bulak gathers on the platform. The cobbler Vasily Solntse and the community leader’s wife in an antediluvian smock, Semen Nikitish Trobka and the Red Army soldiers, white-blonde, light-coloured northerners. Two cisterns form the tail of the hoarse train, they bump against each other with their buffers, carefully painted with red oil paint, they bear the inscription “For petroleum”, but underneath it is written in chalk “For drinking water”. This water is intended for Kuyan-Bulak and should last for a fortnight. It always smells of petroleum, but everyone has got used to it and no longer notices it. Water without this odour would seem strange and unclean to the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak. They think that all water on earth tastes of petroleum and iron rust. The stokers and labourers of this slow train adjust the buffers for a long time, rattle chains, swear, smoke machorka and for some reason crawl under the train. The inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak watch them with glee and never-ending curiosity.

Then the train moves on. The other train with the young, fresh voice races past, behind its windows lie strange, distant worlds as though in a fog. You only catch glimpses of blurred faces, suitcases and teapots. Sometimes you are lucky and catch a phrase of a song, but everything immediately scatters in the wind. The cobbler Vasily Solntse gazes after the train for a long, long time, his eyes glued to the railway tracks, to the steel lines of human migration. The stationmaster and the cobbler Vasily, the stationmaster’s wife in her antediluvian smock, Semyon Trobka and the Red Army guards, they all go home again. The station is quiet once more, there are few people here, the sky is bright and the swarms of mosquitoes are very large. Solntse the cobbler goes into his house, where behind the smoke-engulfed geraniums in the window, there are lots of pickled cucumbers, mandolin leaves and, for some reason, a mass of empty ammonia bottles.

Semyon Trobka has left the platform and sees Agripina Ivovna, the stationmaster’s wife, in the window. She is staring at the tracks and has wrapped herself in her dressing gown, decorated with birds, clouds, horsemen and flowers. She is freezing, shaken by fever as if she were sitting in a farmer’s cart. The white-blonde, fair-skinned Red Army soldiers are lying on their plank beds and chattering teeth can be heard from all the plank beds. They came here a year ago to protect the station from raids. They are all strong, giant Russian blokes, but they all suffer from the same illness - homesickness. When they have their attacks, they hunch over and all dream of the large, pale green meadows around Sudali (there may be a print error here, or else the town no longer exists) or Kaluga. They are also suffering from malaria, common in such places.

As soon as evening falls, all the inhabitants start shivering from the cold. From the highest authority, the stationmaster, to the half-wild Sarts living in their yurts, they all suffer from the terrible swamp disease, malaria. It is a gruesome hour when the sun disappears behind the sand drifts. Behind the railway station, white mountains of camel bones shimmer, and behind this ancient camel graveyard, a dense cloud of mosquitoes rises, humming and singing. The bite of the malaria mosquito is sharp and its hum is piercing. The whole railway station is filled with the song of mosquitoes, the swarms of mosquitoes enter the houses through the closed shutters and crawl under people’s clothes. Then the poor, orphaned Sarts, descendants of the Kokand Khans whom Peter the Great colonised, squat in their yurts, shaken by fever, dreaming of the distant, wondrous gardens in Namanhan, where it is cool and shady and a mild, yellow sun shines through wild apple trees and maples. Meanwhile, the Red Army soldiers whisper with hot lips on their beds. “At this time of year, the forests of the Kaluga region are in full bloom and the cows are calving.”

To suppress malaria, the swamp has to be doused with a layer of petroleum, but there is no petroleum at the Kuyan-Bulak station, it’s a long way to the town, and to get there is a lot of bother.
This is how many small railway stations in Soviet Russia lived and still live today. Apart from his wife and the few people at the station, the stationmaster never spoke to anyone for more than five minutes, because the trains never stop for more than five minutes. Last year, however, this withered and lonely station became the scene of a major event.

At the end of December, Stepa Gamalev, the Red Army man, with the agreement and co-operation of the stationmaster, the only administrative representative, and with the help of Vasily Solntse, the only representative of the proletariat, arranged a meeting of all the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak, Hare Spring in the local language. Vasily Solntse walked along the only street in the village and asked everyone to turn up at the Hare Spring tomorrow at sunrise. The inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak tore themselves away from their looms and gazed after the man for some time. The next morning, the whole of Kuyan-Bulak had turned up at the Hare Spring. Stepa Gamalev took the floor and addressed the humble citizens of the U.S.S.R, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He said that the day on which Lenin was to be commemorated was approaching. He said that on that day the life and deeds of this man would be spoken of in Moscow and in all the Soviet states of the republic, and that in his native village, in the Kaluga region, all the peasants would gather in the reading hall. He said that even the small, forgotten Kuyan-Bulak would have to acquire a plaster Lenin.

The orphaned, poor descendants of the Kokand Khans no longer dreamed of the wondrous gardens of Namanhan, they listened attentively to the strange man and remained silent. When Stepa Gamalev switched to commercial prose and explained to them that they would need money to buy such a Lenin, they nodded their heads understandingly in their high, pointed caps. After a week had passed, they brought the products of their labour, which had cost them many a sleepless night, into town on the clattering railway. With much haggling and bargaining, they sold their carpets to the merchants, and when they returned home, they gave the fourth part of their earnings to the Russian man, for Lenin.

There is no twilight in Kuyan-Bulak. Night here immediately turns into bright day, as if an electric light switch had been turned on, and just as quickly the bright day turns into a dark night. The fever shook the inhabitants of this small station more and more violently. Malaria brooded over the station like a smouldering, poisonous fire, and it was barely possible to catch one’s breath. In January, before Stepa and Vasily left for the town to do the shopping they had arranged, a second meeting of all the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak was held at the Hare Spring.

This time everyone came without hesitation, and Stepa Gamalev again spoke good words that penetrated deep into the hearts of the Sarts. He said that Kuyan-Bulak was one big fever. To suppress it, it would be necessary to pour a thin layer of petroleum from Semipalatinsk over the swamp behind the ancient camel graveyard; the mosquito swarms would die from it. It would be better to buy petroleum for the joint money instead of the plaster bust, because then the Sarts and Russians would no longer be shaken by fever at night. And it would also be a much better monument to Lenin, because he always looked after the Sarts and Turkmen and other tribes. The Sarts understood him immediately and nodded their heads vigorously in their high, pointed caps.

Two weeks later, on 21 January, the train to Kuyan-Bulak arrived as usual and, as usual, it shouted from afar in a hoarse voice at the sharp bends. The station master put on his new cap and went out to set the signal for entry. And as always, the whole of Kuyan-Bulak left the looms and came to the station. This time the train brought three cisterns. The third contained petroleum. The train was greeted with shouts of joy and the earlier sleepiness was blown away. The engineers, who had been travelling this route for a lifetime, were amazed. Clamour in Kuyan-Bulak? And when the train left the station five minutes later, leaving behind only a little smoke and the whiff of long distances, the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak, led by Stepa Gamalev, set to work.

The poor, orphaned descendants of the Kokand Khans took filled buckets in their hands and all went to the swamp, all of one mind. On that day meetings and assemblies were held all over the republic, enthusiastic speeches were made in towns and villages and good deeds were performed in Lenin’s memory. The requiem roared over hamlets, villages and large cities. Streams of black petroleum flowed over the swamp behind the Hare Spring.

If you ever use the Central Asian railway line and pass the small Kuyan-Bulak station, remember that this name means Hare Spring. The train only stops there for five minutes and, if you have time, you will see a red rag on the station building with the inscription:

This is where Lenin’s monument was to stand, but instead of the monument, petroleum was bought and poured over the swamp. This is how Kuyan-Bulak extinguished malaria in Lenin’s name and memory.

You will hardly have time to finish reading this inscription, because the train will only stop for five minutes, the locomotive will scream with its hoarse voice and rush off into the yellow sandy desert. You will speed past a few houses with smoke-covered geraniums in their windows, and grey hares will leap away across the sand drifts, scared to death.

Carpet weaving 1901

The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak honour Lenin

by Bertolt Brecht

Often and copiously honour has been done
To Comrade Lenin. There are busts and statues.
Cities are called after him, and children.
Speeches are made in many languages
There are meetings and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago in Lenin’s honour.
But this is how he was honoured by
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A little township in southern Turkestan.

Every evening there twenty carpet weavers
Shaking with fever rise from their primitive looms.
Fever is rife: the railway station
Is full of the hum of mosquitoes, a thick cloud
That rises from the swamp behind the old camels’ graveyard.
But the railway train which
Every two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
The news also one day
That the day approaches for honouring Comrade Lenin.
And the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor people
Decide that in their township too Comrade Lenin’s
Plaster bust shall be put up.
Then, as the collection is made for the bust
They all stand
Shaking with fever and offer
Their hard-earned kopeks with trembling hands.
And the Red Army man Stepa Gamalev, who
Carefully counts and minutely watches
Sees how ready they are to honour Lenin, and he is glad
But he also sees their unsteady hands
And he suddenly proposes
That the money for the bust be used to buy petroleum
To be poured on the swamp behind the camels’ graveyard
Where the mosquitoes breed that carry
The fever germ.
And so to fight the fever at Kuyan-Bulak, thus
Honouring the dead but
Never to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

They resolved to do this. On the day of the ceremony they carried
Their dented buckets filled with black petroleum
One after the other
And poured it over the swamp.

So they helped themselves by honouring Lenin, and
Honoured him by helping themselves, and thus
Had understood him well.

We have heard how the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Honoured Lenin. When in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and poured on the swamp
A man rose at the meeting, demanding
That a plaque be affixed on the railway station
Recording these events and containing
Precise details too of their altered plan, the exchange of
The bust for Lenin for a barrel of fever-destroying oil.
And all this in honour of Lenin.
And they did this as well
And put up the plaque.

This translation is taken from: Bertolt Brecht. Poems 1913-1956. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (eds.) with the co-operation of Erich Fried, London, Eyre Methuen, 1976.

Prophet Song: A wake-up call for the middle classes?
Wednesday, 13 December 2023 13:46

Prophet Song: A wake-up call for the middle classes?

Published in Fiction

Oh, oh, people of the earth
Listen to the warning the seer he said
“Beware the storm that gathers here”
Listen to the wise man.

- The Prophet’s Song, Queen, 1975

That Paul Lynch’s novel Prophet Song has won the 2023 Booker Prize signifies a notable awareness regarding the dismantling of democracy in the Western world. It underscores the realization that the erosion of democratic principles is a pressing concern that transcends borders and could impact any country.

While dystopias are not a new concept, Lynch distinguishes himself by projecting this descent into darkness onto contemporary Ireland. Rather than imagining a distant time or place, the narrative unfolds in the present – right here, right now.

It all begins with a sudden clampdown on the Teachers Union of Ireland. Their officials have planned a protest march, and the government will not have it. Swiftly, the leaders disappear, never to be seen again. From here, matters rapidly go from bad to worse, to disastrous. And just when readers think things cannot deteriorate any further, more catastrophes strike. Through the eyes of Eilish Stack, the author shows a world of one-time perceived security unravelling and finally disintegrating completely.

Microbiologist Eilish Stack is married to the full-time union official Larry, both are employed, have four children and command a middle income. It is from Eilish’s perspective that the story is told, and this vista does not expand. What happens outside of Eilish’s world is too vague to form an important part of the narrative. Working-class people who touch on the narrative are described entirely as she perceives them: odd-jobs man from the flats nearby, an ex-junkie with hardly a tooth in his mouth, she cannot recall his name, last year Larry gave him twenty quid to clean the gutters” or a child with “the quick eyes and feral manner of a youngster from the flats.

No suggestion that these people may well have experienced the heavy hand of the law long before this. However, Eilish is experiencing the arbitrary nature of the state for the first time. It makes her and Larry question their belief in democracy.

Look at you lot, she says, the unions bowed and silent, and at least half the country in support of this carry-on and casting the teachers as villains – Something inchoate within her knowledge has spoken and she feels afraid, she can hear it now and speaks it silently to herself. All your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping and now the great waking begins.

Eilish joins protests, approaches lawyers but above all tries to keep up a semblance of normality for her children and fearing for their safety, she discourages active resistance. The rapid deterioration of order is mirrored formally by the absence of paragraphs and a clear delineation of often extensive dialogue, placing the responsibility on readers to impose structure on a narrative that appears to lack order.

From other characters around Eilish, readers gain some indication of how the country has found itself in its current state. Two years ago, the electorate had voted in the National Alliance Party (NAP). They established a new branch of the secret police, the Garda National Services Bureau (GNSB) and introduced emergency legislation only two months ahead of the novel’s action. Among the more astute political observations are those from Eilish’s father, Simon, who otherwise suffers from dementia. For example, he comments about his newspaper: “I don’t know why I still read this thing, he says, there is nothing in it but the big lie.” Simon also comments on how the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class:

if you change ownership of the institutions then you can change ownership of the facts, you can alter the structure of belief, what is agreed upon, that is what they are doing, Eilish, it is really quite simple, the NAP is trying to change what you and I call reality, they want to muddy it like water, if you say one thing is another thing and you say it enough times, then it must be so, and if you keep saying it over and over people accept it as true – this is an old idea, of course, it really is nothing new, but you’re watching it happen in your own time and not in a book.

However, Simon is not heard. Politically aware readers search in vain for any kind of clues regarding the exact nature of this party or more to the point, who stands behind it.

One ominous clue is that an NAP member parachuted to top management at Eilish’s workplace is Paul Felsner – a German name, connoting rock. The Nazi allusion is further contained in the Party’s name which is remarkably like the NSDAP. However, unlike for example the dystopian novels of Margaret Atwood, no link is made between the regime and powerful corporations, no link between money and power, no link between money and wars. Readers are asked simply to accept that a police state has sprung up for no apparent reason, which now controls the population through a political party, its Gestapo-like secret police, and the ever-obliging and increasingly gagged media. The judiciary too is Government-controlled. Anne Devlin, whose name brings to mind the United Irishmen, is a pro bono solicitor for the imprisoned: “she says the government has taken control of the judiciary by putting their own people in”. It would have been interesting to develop this line of rebel tradition in the novel.

Pastor Martin Niemöller famously stated “When the Nazis came for the communists,/ I remained silent;/ I was not a communist” – going on in this vein through social democrats, trade unionists, Jews, and then ends: “When they came for me,/ there was no one left to speak out.” Prophet Song opens with the targeting of trade unionists and although there is a clandestine and growing resistance movement, we hear little of its character. In fact, as the novel’s events descend into chaos, it is suggested, that the resistance movement is “making up the rules as they go along, they’re just as bad as the regime”.

Indeed, developments towards the end of the novel bear this out. The civilian population in Lynch’s novel are the victims in a scenario that is informed by the lives of refugees. There is no real indication that these things can be understood – people are simply presented as powerless victims of unfathomable forces.

That such wars, such regimes arise from quite specific, mostly Western-created circumstances, is not Lynch’s subject. He possibly creates more empathy for the afflicted by suggesting what is happening to them could happen in Ireland, but redress is to be found exclusively in the West – people who can afford to, flee to Canada, Northern Ireland (!), England, the US, Australia.

How credible is the Irish setting? Ireland has had associations with fascism in its history, censorship, emergency legislation and the banning of political parties from the media with Section 31. Today, there is great unease about increasingly authoritarian developments around the world, and Europe is no exception. In Germany, for example, the defence minister recently stated “We must become fit for war”, while the state is becoming more and more restrictive towards its own people.

Ireland, too, has had instances of harassing and threatening employees in the university sector, for example, who opposed EU treaties. Then there is the blanket censorship of any voices that dare to question NATO’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict, the imposition of new intrusive “hate crime” laws to police all of this, and similar contentious issues.

Towards the novel’s end, Eilish realizes: “I can see now that what I thought of as freedom was really just struggle and that there was no freedom all along”. The civic space is narrowing here as elsewhere in Europe, and a work like Prophet Song underlines how this trajectory might unfold. Referring to the novel’s title, Lynch writes in its concluding section:

The prophet sings not of the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not others, that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore.

In contrast, Queen’s “The Prophet’s Song” anticipates a global apocalypse:

The earth will shake, in two will break
And death all round will be your dowry
Ah, ah, people of the earth
Listen to the warning, the seer he said.

Paul Lynch’s Cassandra Call has touched a nerve among the middle classes. May it be a wake-up call!

Art enters the age of imperialism: The Scream, by Edvard Munch
Wednesday, 06 December 2023 10:58

Art enters the age of imperialism: The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Published in Visual Arts

It’s the 160th anniversary of Edvard Munch’s birth on 12 December, and the 80th anniversary of his death in January. Munch’s The Scream (1893) speaks to us again today with great intensity. How did this painting come about? In September 1892, in Kristiana (Oslo), Munch recorded a harrowing experience in his diary:

One evening I was walking out on a hilly path near Kristiania —with two comrades. It was a time when life had ripped my soul open. The sun was going down — had dipped in flames below the horizon. It was like a flaming sword of blood slicing through the concave of heaven. The sky was like blood — sliced with strips of fire — the hills turned deep blue the fjord—cut in cold blue, yellow, and red colors — The exploding bloody red — on the path and hand railing —my friends turned glaring yellow white — I felt a great scream — and I heard, yes, a great scream — the colors in nature — broke the lines of nature — the lines and colors vibrated with motion —these oscillations of life brought not only my eye into oscillations, it brought also my ears into oscillations — so I actually heard a scream — I painted the picture The Scream then.

Munch’s world-famous painting is based on this experience. His iconic figure hears a searing scream. But why has this painting become so indelibly engraved in the collective memory of the human community? How exactly is the horror captured in the painting?

It is unclear whether the figure only hears the scream or is also screaming in despair, but this seems likely. The hands cover the ears to protect them from the scream, but this gesture also manifests his own horror. As the artist states, this scream originates in nature; it is therefore something profoundly elemental.

The description in Munch’s diary is vivid and already contains aspects of the painting. Red and blood are mentioned several times – there are also references to flames, fire, even the fjord and the mountains are bathed in “the exploding bloody red”. The sky, dripping with blood, fire and violence, takes up a third of the picture and radiates onto the dark mountains and the fjord, which primarily reflects the yellow colour of the flaming sky and is framed by the mountains and the town of Kristiana in reddish brown and blue tones. The city itself is only hinted at.

The clearly recognisable, curved lines of the brushstrokes in oil and tempera as well as highlights in pastel chalk, applied directly to the brown, unprimed cardboard, capture the movement and sound waves of the scream. This effect is reinforced by the contrasts of glaring yellow with crimson and dark. This clash of bright with broken colours infuses nature with a simultaneously horrific and ominous, impenetrable character.

The painful nature of the scream is emphasised by colliding forms: vibrations, curves and abysses dominate two thirds of the picture; one third is filled by the dead straight lines of the bridge and the horizontal struts of the railing. The picture is thus divided into two large, contrasting triangles: one belongs to the outcry of nature, which still also harbours people with its soft, flowing lines. The smaller triangle to the left of the horizontal struts of the bridge railing is characterized by taut, hard diagonals that run through the picture like an arrow. This collision between the softly curved waves and the hard diagonals makes the vibrations that the painter talks about in his diary almost audible.

A funnel shape of dark blue, within nature, whose tip runs towards the head of the screaming character, creates the sense of inescapable suction, like a black hole, of which only the horror-struck person is aware. The movement of the suction towards the skull suggests that the catastrophe is perceived by his consciousness alone, not by the other people in the picture, although the city of Kristiana is also caught up in the all-engulfing maelstrom. The barrier between the bridge and the abyss is quite open and offers no fall protection.

The skeletal head is in the centre of the picture. Munch barely uses any colour to create this face, leaving a large part of it simply on the unpainted brown ground. The mouth, wide open in horror, dominates the face, the nose and eyes are only indicated, white pastel chalk strokes trace the contours of the skull, the eye sockets, the jaws, and deepen the impression of a skeleton. The hands are also reminiscent of bones.

The rest of the body is sketchy – the figure’s jacket reflects the colours of the devouring funnel and becomes shapeless, disembodied from the chest down. The skull seems a little too large for the body, almost too heavy. While the head protrudes into the dark triangle above the railing, the body is located under the bridge railing with its straight lines into the upper third of the left edge of the picture.

The triple struts of the railing thus connect the figure in the foreground directly with the two dark, walking figures a short distance away. Top hats point to two conventionally dressed, faceless men. It is unclear whether they are walking away from the viewers or one of them is coming towards them. These two men, towards whom the diagonal is pointing, are thus given an impulse to help the martyred person and are thereby included in the action. They, however, do not hear the scream - neither the despair of nature nor the shriek of their fellow human being. No help or empathy is forthcoming.

Another doubling, contrasting with the screaming individual, are the two boats seen on the fjord:  seemingly peaceful enjoyment of the evening, perhaps late fishing. Nature is not deserted, but includes human activity.  Only the person screaming in deepest distress senses the impending apocalypse. So while fellow human beings are quite immune to the blood-soaked sky, for the tormented creature the world is in flames. Horror reigns beneath the surface of a peaceful world.

Familiar signs can no longer be relied on: red, the colour of love and warmth, now transports fire and blood. The sky is not a comforting sight, but deeply threatening. But only the artist realises this. Munch wrote in pencil in a red stripe in the sky: “kan kun være malet af en gal mand” (“can only have been painted by a madman”). The painter worried all his life about losing his mind and also spent time undergoing psychiatric treatment. But the horror to which he sensitizes the eyes and ears of the viewer with this picture reflects the fears of the individual and at the same time captures the madness of an era that was heading for the abyss.

The Scream and the onset of imperialism

In his diary, Edvard Munch records a personal experience that deeply disturbed him. The painting has appealed to viewers on this private level also ever since. However, from our historical vantage point, a further dimension emerges that Munch and his contemporaries certainly did not realise and could only guess at. The Scream was created at the onset of the imperialist era, with its accompanying profound social and political upheavals. This is another reason why this work of art speaks to us with such poignancy today.

In the late nineteenth century, a new, more international, more aggressive stage of capitalism emerged. The world was being redivided, with rapidly growing technological progress and simultaneously increasing urban impoverishment, the First World War cast its shadow long before. Munch lived in Berlin between 1892 and 1894. It is conceivable that his stay in this metropolis not long after the formation of the Reich under Bismarck, when German imperialism was also rapidly gaining strength, intensified the painter’s perception of a disquieting time.

Everything seemed to be spiralling out of control. Nihilism, which also affected Munch, gained new fertile ground with its anti-humanist idea of the meaninglessness of life. It suited the ruling class of the era that the world no longer seemed comprehensible. As Yeats reflected in 1919:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats wrote these lines, imperialism had already wreaked the first great world war. Munch experienced the emergence of this new, imperialist stage of capitalism as a young adult. Simplified, Lenin wrote that imperialism could be defined as follows:

Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

Lenin defines imperialism emerged as a specific phase of capitalism between 1873 (not yet established) and 1900 (established):

After the crisis of 1873, a lengthy period of development of cartels; but they are still the exception. They are not yet durable. They are still a transitory phenomenon. The boom at the end of the nineteenth century and the crisis of 1900-03. Cartels become one of the foundations of the whole of economic life. Capitalism has been transformed into imperialism.

Based on these corner dates, it can be assumed that Munch’s world-famous painting from 1893 artistically captures this transition to imperialism. This is not to claim that the painter himself was aware of such a thing, but rather that Munch’s great sensitivity achieved what Shakespeare expected of true art, and Hamlet tells the players in Act II, scene 2 : “to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Naturally, personal sensibilities inform a work of art, but its paramount importance lies in the fact that Munch – by facing his own fears, his own pain – was able to express this scream of the tortured creature as a defining moment of the age in such a way that people all over the world are still moved today.

So while the subject matter of the painting depicts exactly what most establishment art critics describe, namely a person standing on a bridge near Oslo and hearing a scream that affects him existentially (and shrieking himself), the time of the painting’s creation contributes decisively to its significance. The scream as an essential part of the subject therefore logically shapes the colours, the composition, the structure, the tensions, which heighten it and move it towards horror and despair. In the form of his painting, Munch breaks away from Impressionism and describes a world torn apart, from the perspective of personal perception. Art enters the age of imperialism.

The artist created four further versions of the painting, as well as a lithograph. Since its creation 130 years ago, Munch’s picture, like the Mona Lisa or Guernica, has been engraved in the visual memory of humankind. Munch’s painting vividly evokes in us an empathy that defines our humanity, which we feel when we hear about natural disasters and personal tragedies, but above all about the immense suffering and terror of martyred people in war zones.

Munch’s desperate, screaming face is captured three times in Picasso’s Guernica (1937) – in the mother with the dead baby, the person in flames, the tortured horse, scenes that continue to be caused by imperialist violence and wars today. Munch gave artistic expression to this horror. We see ourselves in this picture and at the same time recognise the humanist feeling that unites us all in humanity – solidarity and compassion. The Scream expresses deep emotionality and humanity that define its greatness.

I would like to thank Friederike Riese and Erwin Ritzer for their valuable advice in the preparation of this article.

Hans Holbein the Younger
Tuesday, 14 November 2023 13:01

Hans Holbein the Younger

Published in Visual Arts

Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg in the winter of 1497/98 and died 480 years ago, in October or November 1543. He was one of the most important German painters of Renaissance humanism. He grew up in the free imperial city of Augsburg, a northern gateway to the Italian Renaissance, and learned the painter’s craft in his father’s workshop.

It was a golden age of art – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Riemenschneider, Cranach, Grünewald, Dürer, Paracelsus and Hans Sachs were all contemporaries, as were Erasmus, Thomas More, Machiavelli and Henry VIII. Holbein became personally acquainted with some of these personalities, and painted portraits of a few of them.

As a young man, Holbein lived through the time that led to the Reformation and the Peasant War; Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the East Indies via South Africa; Magallan’s circumnavigation of the globe provided definitive proof that the earth is round; Spain bloodily destroyed the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Switzerland broke away from the German Empire. The New Testament was published in Luther’s translation and the chapbook Till Eulenspiegel was printed in Strasbourg.

Augsburg was the seat of the Fugger family, trading magnates and bankers who amassed enormous wealth. The Fuggers held a near-monopoly on the European copper market. Jakob Fugger “the Rich” was elevated into the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire in 1511 and is still considered one of the richest people who ever lived.

In 1514/15 Holbein migrated to Basel with his brother Ambrosius, joined a renowned workshop, and settled here. Basel was a flourishing city of book printers. During this period of revolutionary change in book design, Holbein created illustrations for the leading Basel publisher Johann Froben, the editor of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s writings. As early as 1516, Holbein produced marginal drawings for Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, a sharp critique of scholasticism. In the same year, More’s seminal work Utopia was published, which Holbein also illustrated. In 1517, Luther initiated the Reformation. The first building of the German Renaissance, the Fugger Chapel, was erected in Augsburg.

In 1519 Holbein married Elsbeth Binsenstock, widow of a Basel tanner, which allowed him to become a citizen of Basel and a member of the city’s painters’ guild. He created portraits, religious paintings and book illustrations. In 1523 Holbein painted his first portraits of Erasmus, then a resident of Basel, who needed these illustrations for his friends and admirers throughout Europe. These works made Holbein internationally known.

Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants

In the early 1520s, Zwingli initiated the Reformation in Switzerland. In 1524, Holbein began working on the The Dance of Death images and fundamentally redesigned an old theme in 40 variations. During this time, the Peasants' War broke out, led by Florian Geyer in Franconia, Thomas Müntzer in Thuringia, and Michael Gaismair in Tyrol. Luther betrayed the peasants ( eg see Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants), and the peasants, demanding relief from their servitude in twelve articles, were devastatingly defeated by the princes at Frankenhausen, strengthening the nobility’s power.

In 1526, through Erasmus’ mediation, Holbein traveled to England and spent nearly two years in the home of Thomas More and his humanist circles, where he gained a reputation. Numerous portraits of English personalities of the time were created, including More himself and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At the same time, Dürer sided with the revolutionary peasants and embraced the Reformation. Paracelsus burned books of scholastic medicine at the University of Basel and proclaimed his new curriculum. In 1528, Holbein returned to a turbulent Basel, engulfed by the Reformation, where many old patricians left the city, churches were left to the Protestants, and there was a fierce wave of iconoclasm. As one of the first representations of an artist’s own household, Holbein painted in 1528 The Artist’s Family. In 1529, Erasmus moved from Basel to Freiburg. In 1532, Holbein left Basel for good and settled in London, where in 1536, he became the court painter to Henry VIII and passed away in 1543 at the age of 45.

Holbein’s early work shows a strong anti-Roman tendency. Like other humanists in Basel, he felt ambivalent towards the Reformation. While they desired church reform, they hesitated to fully break away from the traditional faith because they feared the Reformation could promote popular opposition. However, until the Peasant War, Holbein can be seen as supportive of the reformist movement. He created woodcuts that denounced the papacy and the sale of indulgences and depicted fighting peasants. Most notably, his cycle The Dance of Death, created during the Peasant War, contains profoundly anti-clerical and democratic statements. The Dance of Death genre of images had been passed down since the 14th century, but Holbein infused his depictions with the spirit of the Reformation. His drawings designed for woodcuts were executed by Hans Lützelburger.

It is striking how many clergy – from pope to nun – and secular authorities – from emperor to judge to merchant – are claimed by Death here. They are typically portrayed as well-fed and indifferent to the suffering of the people. The impoverished common people are visited by Death while working. The Duke is captured by Death at the moment he rejects a starving woman with her child; the Senator pays no attention to the beggar; the devil of pride sits on his shoulder. The Judge is bribed by the rich, while a poor man stands helplessly at the edge of the image. The judge’s staff is in the hand of Death. The Lawyer too is bribed by a wealthy citizen, while the poor man watches powerlessly with his hat in hand. The Rich Man, with the features of Jakob Fugger, sits over his treasures in the cellar with heavily barred windows, where Death finds him.

On another sheet, the Merchant’s splendid trading ships lie in the harbour, their flags flying in the wind, favouring trade. Goods from all over the world are unloaded, securely packed, soon to be turned into profit. But here too, Death pulls at the merchant’s coat while he vainly clings to the packaging ropes. Death takes the Nun in her cell in front of the altar as she looks around at her lover, seated on her bed. Did this young woman enter the convent voluntarily? In the image The Young Child a woman with children in a miserable hut prepares soup over an open fire – Death takes her youngest.

Der Ackermann resized

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Plowman from Dance of Death, c.1524-1526

The Ploughman, barefoot and ragged behind the plough, is too weak to dig deep furrows. Death drives the horses, and the peasant works until his end. For him, a peaceful, sunny landscape with a village on the horizon appears, quite unlike any seen in the other sheets of The Dance of Death. At this time, landscape painting was gaining new significance with the work of Albrecht Altdorfer. In Holbein’s painting, paradise is perhaps joined with Thomas More’s earthly utopia – the island where there is no place for the wealthy, and private property is abolished.

The expressive and realistic style of Holbein’s early work reflects the spirit of the early bourgeois revolution. His portraits also demonstrate tremendous characterisation. Holbein painted his models in a cool and objective manner, emphasising the essence of the depicted person. Significant examples include the portraits of Erasmus and The Artist’s Family.

Screenshot 2023 09 20 at 20.39.43 1

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of the Artist's Family, c. 1528

In his final years in London, Holbein, as a court painter, became a celebrated artist who portrayed the rich and powerful, designed decorations for court festivities, and created jewellery, plates, and other valuable objects. His paintings of the royal family and the nobility testify to the royal court during the time when Henry solidified his control over the Church of England, separating it from the Roman Church and the papacy. The political and religious climate in England had drastically changed. In 1532, Henry VIII challenged the authority of the Pope when he annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. More opposed this move and resigned from his office as Lord Chancellor (supreme judge and adviser to the monarch) in May 1532. In 1535, More was beheaded.

To Erasmus' great disappointment, Holbein distanced himself from More's humanist circles and found patrons among the new circles of political power. He betrayed his erstwhile ideals about reform of Church and society, ended his close association with Renaissance humanists, and drew back from critical depiction of the wealthy and powerful. He thus became an ironic comment on his own 'The Dance of Death' sequence, and passed away in 1543 at the age of 45.

Sean O'Casey, Ireland's greatest working-class playwright
Monday, 30 October 2023 10:45

Sean O'Casey, Ireland's greatest working-class playwright

Published in Theatre

Paul O'Brien, the first Irish critic to publish a full-length political biography of Sean O’Casey from a left-wing perspective, talks to Jenny Farrell about some largely unknown aspects of the first proletarian dramatist of international significance writing in English.

Despite four major biographies in existence, O’Brien felt that “they offered no real examination explaining O’Casey’s development in terms of his political route from a young man involved with the Gaelic League and the IRB, and later the ICA, the socialist and then the communist movement. This background made O’Casey one of the most political writers of his generation.”

However, as O’Brien insists, while politics were central to O’Casey’s life, equally important was the artistic craft of writing drama. As a young man, he absorbed the works of Shakespeare and Boucicault. Alongside such significant influences as Jim Larkin and Charles Darwin, his fellow Dubliner Bernard Shaw made a lifelong impact: “Shaw transformed his view of drama and politics.”

Initially, it was Shaw’s extensive prefaces that interested O’Casey, and later the plays themselves. While O’Casey’s first unproduced dramas were Shaw-inspired discussion plays, it is only in his later work that he achieves the Shavian fusion of forceful intelligence and comic invention that was to become a hallmark of his own writing.

The Plough and the Stars is indebted to Shaw’s Saint Joan in the way it artistically fuses the drama and the politics. Shaw had stood with the locked-out workers in 1913, and underwent a significant change in 1916, overcoming his reservations about republicanism and demanding that Britain end the executions of the leaders of the rebellion. O’Casey later remarked “that it was Shaw and Larkin who swung him to the left more than any other single influence.”

Exploring why O’Casey, despite his prolific output, is almost exclusively known for his Dublin trilogy, O’Brien points first to the hostile reception in Dublin of The Plough and the Stars, and in particular to the rejection by Yeats in 1928 of The Silver Tassie, although O’Casey’s plays had saved The Abbey from financial ruin earlier in the decade.

However, “the Establishment resented the themes of O’Casey’s post-Dublin plays, their open and satirical representation of the Church-state relationship in the Irish Free State in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy or The Bishop’s Bonfire, the expressionist treatment of the 1929 economic crisis in The Gates Flew Open, his support for the Spanish Republic in The Star Turns Red, with its exploration of the relationship between the Church and fascism — all of which were an anathema to the Irish Establishment.

“They turned their back on O’Casey and despite the occasional staging of plays other than the Dublin trilogy, such as the celebrated production of The Drums of Father Ned, at the Gaiety Theatre (1955), these later plays are rarely produced.”

This was in stark contrast to the socialist countries. “The USSR published the first bibliography of his work (1964) and his plays were widely performed there. O’Casey was in contact with the Soviet cultural establishment as early as 1925, through the Soviet emissary Raissa Lomonovska; he also met and admired the Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein. His support for the Soviet Union strengthened during and after World War II. His plays were staged there not only in mainstream theatres but also by working-class theatre groups across the country.”

The roots of his popularity in East Germany in particular go back to the 1920s, to the influence of the communist dramatists and innovators such as Brecht, Toller and Piscator.

“Toller’s Transformations influenced The Silver Tassie, and generally these playwrights inspired O’Casey’s own experimentation with dramatic form.” After 1945, this radical theatre tradition was one of the reasons why O’Casey was performed in both German states. In West Germany, despite being championed by the acclaimed director Peter Zadek, disturbances took place during the performance of The Silver Tassie in 1953 and in 1968, when the audiences rioted and walked out of The Star Turns Red.

In the GDR, on the other hand, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble or Langhoff’s Deutsches Theater, but also many theatres throughout the Republic were receptive to his work. “Purple Dust ran in repertoire for 12 years,” and is still available on film from the Berliner Ensemble production.

O’Casey was one of the most widely performed Western dramatists in the GDR. “His work enjoyed similar popularity across the Soviet Bloc, while Dublin, London and New York stages turned their backs on him.” Partly, O’Brien explains, this was “due to the challenges of integrating the tragic and comic expressionist techniques, as envisioned by O’Casey. But also, his critics felt that O’Casey had ‘lost his way,’ was no longer in touch with mainstream theatre.”

On the other hand, the working-class theatre companies were much more open to O’Casey’s plays. Nevertheless, “their own tradition of and focus on agit-prop theatre and the realist tradition did not lend itself very well to O’Casey’s lyrical, imaginative and non-realist style.”

When the Abbey turned down The Star Turns Red in 1939, and the play was banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Unity Theatre put on a production that ran for 12 weeks.” O’Brien explains, “O’Casey enjoyed a good relationship with Unity Theatre in their common pursuit to bring drama to the working class. The example of Unity Theatre inspired the foundation of The New Theatre Group in Dublin and the Left Book Club Dramatic Group Belfast in 1937. They were also influenced by the New York Group Theatre, perhaps the most innovative ensemble in the Western world at that time.”

However, “the repertoire of these working-class-based companies were largely directly political in their purpose, favouring the Living Newspaper style of theatre, chants, loudhailers and other forms associated with agitprop.”

Asked about O’Casey and the working-class cultural tradition today, O’Brien says “O’Casey’s shorter one and two-act plays, such as Hall of Healing would be highly suited to amateur working-class theatre groups who are in a unique position to highlight the contemporary relevance of O’Casey’s work. Some attempts have been made in Dublin by the ÁNU Theatre Group, and the East Wall History Group in conjunction with the Seán O’Casey Centre.”

But we await a full retrospective of his entire work, “O’Casey was the Abbey’s most successful playwright — they owe him that.”

Sean O'Casey: Political Activist and Writer
Monday, 09 October 2023 12:23

Sean O'Casey: Political Activist and Writer

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell reviews Sean O’Casey: Political Activist and Writer by Paul O’Brien 

Anybody who has come across the work of independent scholar and critic Paul O’Brien knows that his interest lies in the radical tradition of literature and history. He came to my attention with his book Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland (2002). Now, O’Brien has published an impressive volume on Sean O’Casey.

He is perhaps the first Irish author to look comprehensively at the dramatist in political and historical terms, firmly setting the plays into this context from a left-wing perspective. An extensive bibliography reveals the formidable amount of specialist reading that informs this study.

It is accessibly written and sheds light on details of working-class Dublin and international history. An interest in one of Ireland’s great playwrights, a keenness in discovering more about his plays and times is all that is needed to enjoy the book.

While the study is an important one for O’Casey scholars to be aware of, it is refreshingly equally directed at readers beyond academia. O’Brien’s book is not a biography, nor is the book, as its author puts it, “an exclusive critical or literary analysis of his work, but an exploration of the interplay between the political and historical context of O’Casey’s life and its representation in his drama and prose and the way O’Casey negotiated the interplay between politics and aesthetics.”

O’Brien’s interest in Irish labour history is evident in his informative account of late 19th and early 20th century Dublin working-class life and events, following O’Casey’s development and the context from which his plays arose. Into this fall the writer’s involvement with the Irish language and nationalist movement.

National liberation and the class struggle

O’Casey joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1905 and was later instrumental in the establishment of the Irish Citizen Army, which he left before the 1916 Rising. As O’Brien points out, O’Casey’s defining experience had been the Great Lockout of 1913, and much space is rightly devoted to his trade union activism and to Jim Larkin, the organiser of the 1913 Great Lockout.

Less space is spared for the fellow leader of the lockout, the Marxist James Connolly, with whom O’Casey broke. O’Brien sheds some light on this disagreement, focusing on O’Casey’s position which prioritised the class struggle, above the struggle for national liberation, which required an alliance with the class enemy.

Here, it could have been useful to outline Connolly’s stance of an anti-imperialist alliance in a little more detail for balance. Where O’Casey shows part of the truth as he sees it, the reader would benefit from understanding the full picture from a left-wing point of view.

This breach was significant in terms of the position O’Casey took in relation to the Easter Rising and subsequently, informing his three early Dublin plays, which each examine momentous events concerned with the struggle for Irish independence. It might have been helpful for readers not especially conversant with the specific details of the rising, if O’Brien had made clearer that O’Casey did not accurately reflect the degree of working-class involvement in 1916.

A significant proportion of the forces of both the Irish Citizens Army and the Volunteers were working-class people, who identified with and fought for the vision of the Easter Proclamation of a Democratic Republic: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

The development of working-class drama

O’Brien’s extensive reading and knowledge of drama and the arts is reflected throughout the book and kindles reader interest in the development of working-class drama. This information is very welcome and enriching in a book about O’Casey, an aspect that is rarely included in O’Casey criticism, and essential to illuminating the context from which grew the first working-class dramatist of international standing, writing in English.

The chapter entitled The New Drama provides much detail and a sense of the times which produced this drama as well as the importance attached to cultural expression and playwriting by the revolutionary working class.

The author’s refreshingly wide awareness of European theatre is evident in his presentation of O’Casey in the context of the left-wing European playwrights of the 1920s and ’30s — Brecht, and Toller, but also Denis Johnston in Britain and the wave of expressionism that characterised the era.

O’Brien is similarly well versed in the history of the Abbey and O’Casey’s struggle for his plays to be performed there, his relationship with Yeats and Augusta Gregory as well as his final resignation and departure for England when The Silver Tassie was rejected.

While O’Brien devotes most space to discussions of the Dublin tragedies, he is aware of O’Casey’s later plays and brings them into the study, setting each in its time, introducing and discussing them in terms of the writer’s outlook. This is significant: O’Casey’s canon beyond the Dublin trilogy is little known in Ireland and the Anglophone world and his fantastic mature plays have rarely if ever been performed here.

The situation was different in the socialist countries, where O’Casey was a standard part of the repertoire and known mainly for his later work. In the GDR, O’Casey was one of the most frequently staged Western dramatists.

O’Brien creates an interest in these later plays and presents their artistic as well as political merit. O’Casey himself, writing at almost 80 years old, affirmed: “I am still a republican, a communist and, in a way, a member of the Gaelic League.”

O’Brien relates that O’Casey had been approached by the Irish Workers League to support the future general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O’Riordan, in the May 1951 elections. Although O’Casey replied saying his endorsement would damage O’Riordan’s chances, and that he would instead donate towards the fund, his affirmation of O’Riordan in the same letter was used in the election leaflet.

Robert Lowery states: “His ardent enthusiasm and lifelong adulation for the USSR, which he considered one of the world’s greatest human experiments in creating a society of a new type, deserves primacy in evaluating his socialist legacy.”

O’Brien states his purpose is to concentrate “on a political reading of O’Casey on his terms,” and he does this for large sections of the book. He departs from this approach when discussing the dramatist’s position as a lifelong supporter of the communist movement and the Soviet Union, where his own position takes precedence over O’Casey’s.

When this context arises, O’Casey is associated exclusively with the term Stalinism and any differences with the CPGB are highlighted and praised. Sean O’Casey: Political Activist and Writer is an interesting, informative and enjoyable read and a valuable addition to the canon of O’Casey commentary. Although it is a book of academic criticism, it surpasses the narrow reach of the genre and deserves a wide readership.

Peace for all those alive: Pablo Neruda on the 50th anniversary of his death
Monday, 25 September 2023 20:46

Peace for all those alive: Pablo Neruda on the 50th anniversary of his death

Published in Poetry

Peace for all those alive: peace 

for all lands and all waters.


In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pablo Neruda describes his escape from the Chilean government of President Videla across the Andes to Argentina:

On either side of the trail I could observe in the wild desolation something which betrayed human activity. There were piled up branches which had lasted out many winters, offerings made by hundreds who had journeyed there, crude burial mounds in memory of the fallen, so that the passer should think of those who had not been able to struggle on but had remained there under the snow forever. My comrades, too, hacked off with their machetes branches which brushed our heads and bent down over us from the colossal trees, from oaks whose last leaves were scattering before the winter storms. And I too left a tribute at every mound, a visiting card of wood, a branch from the forest to deck one or other of the graves of these unknown travelers.

Neruda’s arduous and dangerous track through this primeval world becomes a parable of humanity’s path through its own history and present, a world which, despite the greatest dangers, is also always determined by the solidarity of the common people:

The cowherds dismounted from their horses. In the midst of the space, set up as if in a rite, was the skull of an ox. In silence the men approached it one after the other and put coins and food in the eyesockets of the skull. I joined them in this sacrifice intended for stray travellers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succour in the dead oxs eye sockets.

His guides guard Neruda like their greatest treasure. In this solitude, they also encounter other people who offer them shelter and food, even nature herself cares for their well-being:

at this fire we sang and we ate, and then in the darkness we went into some primitive rooms. Through them flowed a warm stream, volcanic water in which we bathed, warmth which welled out from the mountain chain and received us in its bosom.

This inherent connection between nature, history and working people is the paramount theme of Neruda’s poetry.

Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto on 12 July 1904 in Parral, central Chile. His mother died shortly after his birth, but he had a very good relationship with his stepmother. His father, a driver of a ballast train on the emerging railway, often took him as a child on journeys through the countryside of his region and so he witnessed the hard physical labour of the railwaymen, who moved stones and sand between the sleepers so that the heavy rain would not shift the tracks. This experience of primeval nature shaped Neruda’s poetry and later became the essence of the nature poems of Canto General.

Neruda grows up an atheist. Also at his school is Gerardo Seguel, later one of Chile’s first communists; the headmistress of the local girls’ school was the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy), whom he meets in 1919, aged fifteen. In 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She lends the avid reader Russian novels. At this time, Neruda begins to publish his first poems as Neftali Reyes. His father, however, is unhappy with Neftali’s literary interest and tensions ultimately lead to the young poet changing his name to Pablo Neruda at the age of sixteen.

At this time, labour struggles in Chile increase significantly with strikes, demonstrations as well as clashes with the police. The Communist Party, first founded in 1911, could build on the vibrant FOC (Chilean Workers’ Federation) and the communist movement in Chile was to become one of the most active in Latin America thanks to the long tradition of trade union struggle in the copper and nitrate mines.

In 1921, Neruda starts a French course at Santiago university, but soon abandons this. Living in poverty, he slowly becomes politicised. Among his books are works by Pushkin and the French communist Paul Éluard. In 1923, he publishes a first collection, Book of Twilights, which indicates: “he will be counted among the very best, and not only of this country and of his era”. This is followed in 1924 by the poetry collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, marking his breakthrough.

The army’s man Carlos Ibanez del Campo takes over the presidency from Emiliano Figueroa Larrain on 7 April 1927. Two months earlier, as dictatorial Minister of the Interior, Ibanez had commanded mass arrests and declared his aim to purge the country of “anarchists and communists”. Neruda considers emigration, and inquires about posts in a diplomatic career. In 1927, he is posted to Rangoon, Burma, followed soon afterwards by a new post in Colombo, Ceylon. In his memoirs, Neruda comments on the bigotry of British colonialists towards native culture: “This terrible gap between the British masters and the vast world of the Asians was never closed. And it ensured an inhuman isolation, a total ignorance of the values and the life of the Asians.”

From here, he continues on diplomatic missions to Singapore and Java, where in 1930 he meets his first wife Maria Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang (Maruca), with whom he returns to Chile in 1932. Santiago is now ruled by the new dictator Carlos Davila. Ibanez had been overthrown by a “general strike of intellectuals” on 25 July 1931 and fled into exile in Argentina. After a socialist republic that lasted only twelve days, Davila, previously Chilean ambassador in Washington, takes over the presidency. Neruda is appointed vice-consul in Buenos Aires in 1933.

Here, he meets Frederico García Lorca, who becomes a close friend. At this time Neruda writes to a friend: “It seems that a wave of Marxism is criss-crossing the world. Letters I receive [from] Chilean friends are pushing me towards that position. In reality, politically speaking, you cannot be anything but a Communist or an anti-Communist today.” But, he continues, “What is true is that I hate proletarian, proletarianising art.”  He was soon to move away from this position. In 1933, Residence on Earth appears, where he finds his own voice.

In the early summer of 1934, Neruda goes to Spain as consul, first to Barcelona - the consul in Madrid is Gabriela Mistral. In Madrid, Neruda renews his friendship with Lorca. The political situation in Spain deteriorates seriously. In October, a seriously ill daughter is born to Neruda. He translates William Blake’s “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” and “The Mental Traveller” into Spanish. In addition to Lorca, Neruda is acquainted in Spain with other leading poets of the time: the Spaniards Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández as well as the Cuban Nicolás Guillén. In June 1935, Neruda takes part in the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris.

In Madrid, Neruda meets his second wife, Delia del Carril, a communist twenty years his senior (marriage 1943). Under her influence, as well as witnessing events in Spain, Neruda increasingly moves towards a communist position and begins to better understand the role of art in the political struggle:

I began to become a Communist in Spain, during the civil war . . . That was where the most important period of my political life took place - as was the case for many writers throughout the world. We felt attracted by that enormous resistance to fascism which was the Spanish war. But the experience meant something else for me. Before the war in Spain, I knew writers who were all Republicans, except for one or two. And the Republic, for me, was the rebirth of culture, literature, the arts, in Spain. Federico Garcia Lorca is the expression of this poetic generation, the most explosive in the history of Spain in many centuries. So the physical destruction of all these men was a drama for me. A whole part of my life ended in Madrid.

Franco’s military coup in July 1936 is followed by repression and executions, and in August Frederico García Lorca is murdered. Lorca’s murder has a lasting effect on Neruda. The Spanish Civil War begins. In his volume Spain in Our Hearts (1937), Neruda memorialises Lorca and eloquently and unequivocally sides with the Spanish Republic - adopting a standpoint that he will never leave for the rest of his life. His poetry reaches a new quality.

His poem “I Shall Explain a Few Things” ends:

Come and see the blood on the streets,

Come and see

The blood on the streets,

Come and see the blood

On the streets.

In 1936, Neruda leaves Spain, separates from his wife and daughter and goes to Paris with Delia del Carril, where he meets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, among others. In July 1937, Neruda is involved in organising the Second International Writers’ Congress in Defence of Culture in Valencia and Madrid. After the congress, Neruda and Delia travel to Chile. On the crossing, Neruda completes Spain in Our Hearts and in November 1937 he is involved in the founding of an Alliance of Chilean Intellectuals for the Defence of Culture. The aims of which are: the fight against fascism and solidarity with Republican Spain.

In Chile, Neruda gives readings for ordinary workers. One such reading from his volume Spain in Our Hearts for the porters’ union becomes a key experience in 1937: “‘Comrade Pablo, we are a totally forgotten people. And I can tell you that we have never been so greatly moved. We would like to say to you . . .’ And he broke down in tears, sobbing, his body trembling. Many of those around him were also crying.” Spain’s blood, the terrible suffering of its people triggers the memory of the tortured people in the history of South America - memory emerges as a central function of poetry with the poet as witness. Memory becomes the constituent principle of the Canto General, completed underground ten years later.

The overarching theme of Canto General is history - nature becoming human, the history of South America to the present, the liberation movements and the anti-imperialist struggle. The people become the protagonists of the historical process, beginning with the working people of Machu Picchu, descendants of the Incas.

In early 1939, the democratic president Pedro Aguirre Cerda, elected in December 1938, appoints Neruda special consul in Spain and entrusts him with the task of facilitating the immigration of Spanish refugees. Neruda ensures the flight of about two thousand Spanish to Chile. At the end of the year, Neruda and Delia return to Chile. The next consular post is in Mexico, a country that remains important for Neruda. After the German invasion of the USSR, Neruda actively supports the Soviet Union and writes the “Song for Stalingrad”, which deals with the common experience of the besieged, their resistance:

And the Spaniard remembers Madrid and says: sister,

resist, capital of glory, resist:

from the soil rises all the spilt blood

of Spain, and throughout Spain it is rising again,

and the Spaniard asks, next to the

firing-squad wall, if Stalingrad lives:

and there is in prison a chain of black eyes

that riddle the walls with your name,

and Spain shakes herself with your blood and your dead,

because you, Stalingrad, held out to her your heart

when Spain was giving birth to heroes like yours.

On his return from Mexico, the poet visits the Peruvian Inca site of Machu Picchu, which has a lasting impact on him. In 1945, he receives the Chilean National Prize for Literature, joins the Communist Party and supports the centre-left coalition presidential candidate Videla in 1946, who betrays his promises just one year later, persecutes progressive forces, brutally suppresses trade union struggles. Neruda advocates workers’ rights. Through his encounters with the struggling miners, Neruda increasingly realises that art must be understood by the masses.

He writes in the poem “Margarita Naranjo” about the workers in the saltpetre mine, Antofagasta:

I am dead. Im from the María Elena”.

My whole life I spent on the pampas.

We gave our blood for the North American

Company, my parents before us, then my brothers.

Without a strike, without anything, they surrounded us,

It was night, the whole army moved in,

they went from house to house, waking people

taking them to the concentration camp.

Later he reflects:

I have changed my style. Im writing more simply. Little by little, I have shed complicated forms so that everyone understands my poetry. With the publication of my books in the Soviet Union, and China, in almost every country and language, I see that we must write so that everyone understands us.

Political persecution forces him underground for about a year in 1948, where he finishes Canto General. In late February 1949, he flees across the Andes to Argentina, as described in his Nobel Prize speech. From there, he is able to escape to Europe. During this period underground, Picasso, champions him at the first World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw in July 1948: “He is (...) one of the greatest poets in the world.”

Neruda, newly arrived in Europe, participates in the First World Congress of Partisans for Peace on 20 April 1949, alongside Picasso, Robeson and many others. Neruda remains in Europe until 1952 and journeys to many socialist countries. He begins a relationship with Matilde Urrutia, who becomes his third wife in 1966. In the 1950s and 1960s he travels widely, always on a political mission. He also returns to Chile on a regular basis. During these years, the XXth Party Congress of the CPSU and the Cultural Revolution in China cast a shadow over Neruda’s unconditional support for all aspects of existing socialism, but it never affected his full commitment as a communist to a humane future. The 1950s also witness the Cuban Revolution, and Neruda hails it with his book of verse Song of Protest.

From: “To Fidel Castro”

And Cuba is seen by the southern miners,

the lonely sons of la pampa,

the shepherds of cold in Patagonia,

the fathers of tin and silver,

the ones who marry cordilleras

extract the copper from Chuquicamata,

men hidden in buses

in populations of pure nostalgia,

women of the fields and workshops,

children who cried away their childhoods:

this is the cup, take it, Fidel.

It is full of so much hope

that upon drinking you will know your victory

is like the aged wine of my country

made not by one man but by many men

and not by one grape but many plants:

it is not one drop but many rivers:

not one captain but many battles.

When Neruda goes to New York in 1966 to attend a meeting of the PEN Club as guest of honour, Cuban writers attack him as a traitor in an open letter. However, this never affected Neruda’s solidarity with Cuba.

Salvador Allende enters Chile’s political stage as a socialist presidential candidate in 1952. Opposed to the reactionary Vidales regime, his programme calls for the nationalisation of Chile’s mineral resources. Neruda again supports Allende’s in the 1958 election campaign.

In early 1969, the poet again supports the election campaign of the Chilean Communist Party and becomes its presidential candidate in September - a candidacy he relinquishes in January 1970 in favour of Salvador Allende who would then be sole left-wing candidate. From mid-July he is actively involved in the election campaign for Allende, who wins the election on 4 September 1970. As ambassador in Paris, Neruda receives the news in October 1971 that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Swedish Academy’s award ceremony speech says:

[In Spain he] found the fellowship of the oppressed and persecuted. He found it when he returned from the Spain of the Civil War to his own country, the battleground for conquistadors over the centuries. But out of the fellowship with this territory of terror there grew, too, awareness of its riches, pride over its past, and hope for its future, for that which he saw shimmering like a mirage far to the East. With this, Nerudas work was transformed into the poetry of political and social preparedness under the banner of redress and visions of the future – not least so in Canto general, partly written while in exile in his own country for no other offence than an opinion. The opinion was that his country belonged to him and his compatriots and that no mans dignity should be insulted. (…) In his work a continent awakens to consciousness.

In 1970, Mikis Theodorakis asks Neruda for permission to set Canto General to music. Neruda and Allende advise him on the selection of poems. The first six parts of the oratorio are performed in Argentina and Mexico in 1973, but the coup in Chile prevents the planned performance in the National Stadium. The six-movement version does not see its European premiere until 1974, at the L’Humanité festival in Paris, after Neruda’s death, and in 1975 in Athens after the end of the fascist junta there. The complete work, comprising thirteen movements, is premiered in 1981 in Berlin, the capital of the GDR. In Chile, the oratorio was not premiered until 1993, after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

In November 1972, Neruda returns to Chile seriously ill. Nevertheless, he works on some poetry books and completes his memoirs. On 11 September 1973, he hears news of the putsch, the bombing of La Moneda Palace, and the death of President Allende.

Pablo Neruda dies on 23 September. The vigil takes place in his ransacked house La Chascona. Neruda’s funeral on 25 September at the Cementerio General in Santiago becomes the first manifestation of popular revolt, despite an intimidating military presence.

When someone in a loud voice began to shout: Comrade Pablo Neruda!we all answered Present!The cry was repeated two or three times, and the responses grew in strength. Then suddenly, the cry was Comrade Victor Jara!All at once, our voices cracked: this was the first time that Victor had been named in public to denounce his vile murder. Present!Then the voice shouted: Comrade Salvador Allende!The response was a hoarse, broken howl distorted by emotion and terror and the desire to shout it out so that the whole world could hear: Present!I believe that was when we lost our fear, because they couldnt do anything to us there: it was better to die with our fists in the air and singing the Internationale. And singing at the top of our voices, all of us crying, we entered the General Cemetery. Perhaps the presence of so many foreign journalists saved our lives . . .  

In February 2023, an international team of forensic experts found that Neruda had been poisoned on the orders of the junta. Neruda was to have been flown out of Chile to Mexico but fearing any statements by this great poet he was murdered.

Much of the biographical information is based on Feinstein, Adam. (2005), Pablo Neruda: A passion for life, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, as well as on Neruda, Pablo (2021): The Complete Memoirs. The Expanded Edition, New York.

Dramatising Revolution: Review of a trilogy of Sean O'Casey's plays
Saturday, 16 September 2023 14:46

Dramatising Revolution: Review of a trilogy of Sean O'Casey's plays

Published in Theatre

Seán O’Casey – the first proletarian dramatist writing in English – made his theme  the struggle for the emancipation of the Irish people, and by extension of all working people. In Ireland, O’Casey is (unfairly) best known for his first three plays, examining the Irish working class at key moments of Irish history. The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) is set during the War of Independence, Juno and the Paycock (1924) at the time of the Civil War, and The Plough and the Stars (1926) takes place in the months leading up to and during the Easter Rising.

To coincide with Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries, Galway’s acclaimed Druid Theatre company is staging these O’Casey plays this summer and autumn in Ireland and the US. The plays are being performed both individually and in an unusual single day theatre marathon.

When determining in which order to perform the plays in the Trilogy performances, Garry Hynes, artistic director, decided to show them in historical chronology, not in the order of writing. While the reasoning is understandable, the disadvantage is that the audience do not see the marked development of O’Casey’s thinking and artistic skill. A further, significant, drawback is starting off the day with the play that caused the greatest political outcry by the revolutionaries involved in the 1916 Rising, and still outrages people today who support the vision of the Easter Proclamation. This overshadows the reception of the other two plays.


Sophie Lenglinger as Nora, with Liam Heslin as Jack, in The Plough and the Stars. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

The Proclamations’s historic declaration of an independent democratic Republic receives a passing, dismissive mention by the ineffectual socialist in the play, the Young Covey. Otherwise, the cast is made up of Dublin tenement dwellers of various levels of insight and involvement in the events gripping Dublin. Those on the fringe of the revolutionary movement, it is suggested, are unprincipled with only their personal promotion and glory in mind. This is untrue to history and justifiably caused much uproar and serious criticism of O’Casey at the time.

The playwright’s political standpoint which informs the play stems from his disagreement with Connolly, specifically his strategy of a broad anti-imperialist alliance. While Connolly’s analysis was that national and social liberation were the condition of one another, O’Casey differed, seeing only one part, not the whole. 

As a result, the dramatist in all three plays presents us with an isolated, leaderless working class that was unable to rise to the challenge of the times. We meet working-class Dubliners living in tenements, in the most deprived of circumstances. Their class consciousness is not highly developed. The absence of leadership, organization and an embracing working-class philosophy is evident as they reach various levels of understanding, but little will to act against their dire circumstances. While in each of the plays, upheavals outside the slums impact on their lives, the movement at the heart of the struggles outside seems to have little connection with them and their needs and acts independently of them.


Caitríona Ennis as Minnie Powell, Marty Rea As Donal Davoren, and Rory Nolan as Seumas Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh.

In Shadow, the real gunman passes through this community unrecognized and indirectly causes the death of Minnie Powell. In Paycock, this movement claims the lives of two young men, one of whom had already withdrawn. In Plough, the movement is portrayed as a disembodied voice calling for blood sacrifice. No truly positive representatives of this movement appear on stage. While Jack Clitheroe (Plough) is a member of the Citizen Army, he is not depicted as a person who will move the class forward. One of the most class-conscious characters in the trilogy, Fluther Good, is not a member of the organized movement and represents a pragmatic and grounded perspective. While he supports the nationalist movement, he is critical of the leaders and of what O’Casey sees as the romanticized ideals of the Rebellion.

The slum dwellers are presented as people who thrive on illusions and myths about the heroic past. We find this in Minnie Powell (Shadow), or Boyle (Paycock) or those wishing to escape the greater world around them, such as Nora Clitheroe (Plough). On the other hand, it is among this very community that all the ingredients necessary for a conscious working class movement are found: despite their weaknesses, they are resourceful, creative and realist, such as Shields and Davoren (Shadow), Juno (Paycock) and Fluther Good (Plough), people who under the right circumstances could combine all that is necessary, appreciate the needs of the people and act in their interests.

Indeed, at the end of Paycock, Juno leaves together with Mary, to start a new life. So despite these illusions and weaknesses, the proletarian O’Casey presents the Irish working class as ultimately able to revolutionize reality. Any production of the trilogy must accentuate this potential. While Druid’s production allows the audience to see such potential in the characters in Shadow and Paycock, this is not the case in Plough, which fails to show the tragedy inherent in the play, linked to this unrecognized and unrealized potential, and all but reduces the tragedy to comedy, even at times farce. The notable exception here is Sophie Lenglinger’s portrayal of Nora Clitheroe. The farcical is particularly evident in the representation of Fluther Good (Aaron Monaghan), who in the Druid production is cast as a buffoon.


Hilda Fay as Juno Boyle and Zara Devlin as Mary Boyle in Juno and the Paycock. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

O’Casey sheds light on the lives of ordinary people during this revolutionary period in Irish history. He invites a critical examination of the impact of deprivation and ignorance on a revolutionary situation. The characters and their vivid, creative and powerful language express their potential for creating a better world for the working people. In their dramatic skill, they set the stage for O’Casey’s future work, which brilliantly critiques the Irish Free State and has the emancipation of the working class at its core, beginning with his superb anti-war play The Silver Tassie (1927).

Staging the tragedies today allows audiences to familiarize themselves with O’Casey’s views of this revolutionary epoch, and appreciate the dramatic and literary qualities of his work. Druid’s decision to depart from an all-white cast (Gabriel Adewusi and Sophie Lenglinger) helps to emphasize that issues of social inequality, political disillusionment, and the struggle for social justice continue to resonate with audiences worldwide.

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett
Monday, 14 August 2023 12:53

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett

Published in Fiction

The Dublin lockout of 1913 was one of the greatest industrial disputes in Irish history. The conflict between some 20,000 workers and 300 employers lasted from 26 August 1913 to 18 January 1914. Its core demand was the right to organise.

Dublin’s tenements were among the most squalid in Europe. People lived crammed together, infant mortality was enormous, tuberculosis was rampant. Unskilled workers competed daily for poorly paid jobs and were at the mercy of employers.

James Larkin, Liverpool dockworker, was sent to Belfast in 1907 as a trade unionist with the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), where he organised a dock and transport workers’ strike. Considered militant and controversial by the union leadership, Larkin was transferred to Dublin, where he set about organising the unskilled labourers. This led to his suspension from the British NUDL in 1908, who feared an all-out industrial dispute with the powerful Dublin employers.

Larkin left the NUDL and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), which for the first time represented the unskilled as well as skilled workforce. Employers who suspected their workers of wanting to organise could blacklist them, thereby destroying any chance of future employment. The ITGWU spread to other cities in Ireland with growing success in industrial action, and between 1911 and 1913 its membership increased to 10,000.

Alongside Larkin, the Marxist James Connolly was instrumental in the rise of an organised labour movement in Ireland, focusing his attention also on socialist liberation from the British colonial yoke. In 1896, Connolly founded the Marxist-oriented Irish Socialist Republican Party and Ireland’s first regular socialist newspaper, The Workers Republic. In 1911, Connolly became organiser of the ITGWU in Belfast, and in 1912 he co-founded the Irish Labour Party with Larkin.

When the mass lockout in Dublin threatened, Larkin sent for Connolly, who was in Belfast at the time, to help him organise large meetings of the ITGWU. When the lockout began, Connolly led the dispute along with Larkin. As well as writing articles about the lockout for various workers’ newspapers, he addressed mass gatherings in Dublin. After both were arrested following one such event, Connolly was released following his hunger strike, and later led the strike during Larkin’s three week imprisonment. He also organised the support campaign for the Dublin workers in Britain.

Among their opponents was William Martin Murphy, big businessman and most prominent representative of the Irish bourgeoisie, who declared: “Either Larkin rules Dublin or we do”. Murphy understood the threat posed by the new trade unionism developed by Larkin and Connolly and did everything in his power to end their influence.

In August 1913, Murphy sacked hundreds of workers he suspected of ITGWU membership and gave the workers an ultimatum between union membership and their jobs. Members of 37 unions refused to sign the document. And so began the lockout in Dublin. All efforts by British unions to negotiate a settlement were sabotaged by the employers. A police raid on 31 August 1913 left two dead and hundreds injured. It was largely at Connolly’s instigation that the Irish Citizen Army was formed to protect the striking workers and continued to play an important role in 1916.

Connolly and Larkin appealed unsuccessfully in England for solidarity strikes by the British working class, as the only way to bring about a victory for the Irish workers. Without this support from the British workers, Dublin had to admit defeat after five months of heroic struggle. Most of the workers, many on the verge of starvation, returned to their jobs and pledged not to join the ITGWU. Larkin left for the US in 1914 and Connolly was executed in 1916 as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Many workers who were irrevocably blacklisted joined the British Army and became cannon fodder in the First World War.

The years from 1907 to 1914 are the subject of James Plunkett's book Strumpet City. The novel traces the life of the working class in Dublin at that time, and brings this historical moment vividly and impressively to life.

Strumpet City

Set in the period before Irish independence, the collective hero of the novel is the Irish working class as it enters a new phase of its class struggle. The bourgeoisie at that time was also directly dependent on Britain, before the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Both the bourgeoisie and the clergy, who are represented in a variety of characters, take different positions on this independence, although this was in their interest.

William Martin Murphy “owner of Independent Newspapers, a large drapery business and a hotel, controlling director of the Dublin Tramway Company and several other large-scale ventures, had refused a knighthood at the opening of the exhibition.” Regardless, they broadly agree that they are in a class struggle against the workers and are themselves profiting from their misery.

Following the outcome of the War of Independence, this class, now in power, would confront the working class in a civil war. When it came to defeating the working class, the national question was of secondary importance to the bourgeoisie.

One important representative of the bourgeoisie in this novel is Mr Bradshaw, who owns some of the tenements and treats tenants and employees mercilessly. The police and the clergy support him in this.

Although there are some elements within the bourgeoisie who understand the absolute misery of the working class, they do not openly side with the workers, or question property relations. These characters include, above all, alongside the Protestant company director Yearling, Mrs. Bradshaw, who, plagued by a guilty conscience, is unable to stand up to her husband. Her compassion for the poor is very limited. The clergy hand out alms, unless the poor are in revolt:

“The children are hungry,’ Yearling said.

‘They are hungry because they are on strike,’ Bradshaw insisted.

‘The children are not on strike,’ Yearling challenged.

‘Their fathers are,’ Bradshaw said.

Yearling in turn looked enquiringly at Father O’Connor.

‘What has religion to say to that?’ he asked. He was smiling and conversational in manner, but his eyes were cold. Father O’Connor became uncomfortable.

‘We must all have compassion for those who are hungry,’ he said at last, ‘but this is not by any means a simple matter. It is the duty of the parents to feed their children. If through misfortune they are unable to do so, then it is our obligation in charity to help them. But in the present instance their hunger is not due to misfortune. It is the result of a deliberate decision not to work. If we help them we are doing at least two things that are unjust; we are encouraging them to defy their employers and we are prolonging a most distressing situation.

Yearling and the Reverend Giffley, can only endure the conflict between their compassion for the workers’ misery and their social position through excessive alcohol consumption.

On the side of the working class are Bob and Mary Fitzpatrick, Bernard Mulhall, the Hennessys, the Farrells, and Rashers Tierney, who vividly and authentically embody a comprehensive panorama of different stages of consciousness, ages and circumstances. During the months of lockout, a new class solidarity develops among them. Their determined resistance against the employers brings them unimaginable destitution.

In the novel, the history and aftermath of the events are presented from the point of view of representatives of these different social classes. Although no individual ‘heroes’ dominate, the characters are treated in a differentiated and sensitive manner. Each individual character reveals their class affiliation in their individual circumstances and viewpoints. The majority of workers arrive at a class standpoint through the strike. Pat Bannister expresses a broader socialist point of view. James Connolly, however, is mentioned only once in the whole novel, in passing by Bannister:

‘The expropriators are to be expropriated. Did you ever listen to that Connolly chap?’

‘Who’s he?’

‘Come to think of it,’ Pat said, ‘I haven’t seen him around this past couple of years. He wanted votes for women. That’s something should interest you.’

‘What would I do with a vote?’ Lily asked.

‘Vote for the socialists. I’m a radical socialist. I believe we should hold everything in common, even our women.'

It is even suggested here, incorrectly, that Connolly was not in Ireland at the time of the lockout (“not seen in the last two years”). His Marxism is also reduced to the rather stereotypical notion that “we should hold everything in common, even our women”.

The lumpenproletariat includes Rashers Tierney, street musician and beggar, who occasionally finds work as an unskilled labourer. The Hennessys represent those who, concerned for their children, cannot withstand the pressure. But the majority of the the dispossessed demonstrate a humanity and solidarity diametrically opposed to the values of the bourgeoisie.

When the ITGWU accepts the offer of solidarity from English workers to send Dublin children to England for the duration of the strike, the conflict in the clergy between Giffley and O'Connor comes to a head. O'Connor wants to stop this action at all costs, while Giffley sides with the workers’ families, understanding fully the relief this would bring. In 1913, this very plan was indeed prevented by the Catholic Church on the pretext that Catholic children in Britain would be exposed to Protestant or atheist influences.

Plunkett creates crowd scenes in which readers experience the mood among the Dublin workers. An example of this is the scene in which the workers, led by Larkin, shut down Dublin Port in protest against the more than 160 strikebreakers brought in by a steamer from Liverpool:

A rowing boat was moving downriver, manned by four oarsmen. Standing in the centre and waving to the men on shore was Larkin. The boat drew level with the police cordon, passed it and went on towards the unloading docks. A detachment of police left the main body and moved down the quayside, keeping pace with it.


But Larkin’s intention came suddenly to Fitz. He gripped Mulhall’s arm tightly and shouted:

‘He won’t land. He’ll speak to them from the boat.’

A hush fell on the crowd and they heard, after what seemed an age, the distant but still recognisable tones. What he was saying was lost, but the effect soon became clear. The nearest crane arm completed its semicircle and remained still. So did the next. Then, at intervals that grew shorter as the word spread from gang to gang, crane after crane became immobilised. They watched in silence as the paralysis spread. Yard by yard and ship by ship, the port was closing down. The cordon of police opened to form a narrow laneway, and through this the first contingent of striking dockers filed to join “the demonstrators. Their arrival started a movement in the crowd which spread through it rapidly.


The cheering had grown wilder and the movement, reaching the rear, stopped for a moment and then began to surge forward. The front lines moved nearer to the police, hesitated, then surged forward once again. The police, deciding the moment of initiative, drew their batons and charged.

Here, the Dublin proletariat is depicted at a crucial moment, where their leader Larkin emerges. The power of the class is beautifully captured in the image of the stationary cranes and the boat bringing Larkin. Plunkett shows the masses in a moment of strength and confidence. This awareness and determination, despite all the setbacks, despite hunger and hardship, permeates the whole novel.

Readers get to know the Fitzpatrick family best of all. Bob was promoted to foreman through the influence of Mrs Bradschaw at his workplace. Yet, like Mary, he remains unwavering in his solidarity with the strikers. He says to Mary:

“You’ve never asked why I wouldn’t leave the union,’ he said.

She surprised him by saying: ‘It’s because of Bernard Mulhall. I didn’t have to ask.’

Her voice was gentle and sympathetic and he knew she was thinking not of the accident only but of what the Mulhalls were left to face.

‘Mulhall was a tower of strength,’ he said.

He would never betray Mulhall’s trust. But it was not altogether that. There were Pat and Joe and the men who worked with them. There were Farrell and the dockers and thousands of others throughout the city, some long resigned to perpetual squalor as to the Will of God, others rebelling with recurring desperation whenever there was a leader to lead them. Never before had they stood so solidly together. He said to Mary:

‘The men in the despatch department of the Tram Company were dismissed simply for belonging to Larkin’s union. There was no other reason. The tram men had to support them. Then this form was issued to everyone all over the city. The rest of us had to take our stand with the tram men.’

‘I thought you wouldn’t be asked to sign it?’ she said.

“I wasn’t,’ he admitted, ‘but I couldn’t stay in when the others were locked out. I couldn’t do that.’

‘I know you couldn’t,’ she said.

Because Plunkett is unequivocally on the side of the working class in this novel, it is surprising that the conscious trade unionists at the centre of the plot have no connection with the Marxist Connolly, his political as well as his trade union work. Connolly is almost entirely left out. And although Larkin and some of the working-class characters are clearly socialists, there is also no mention of the Irish Socialist Republican Party founded by Connolly. The focus is on unionised struggle without a theory that encompasses and goes beyond it. The only mention of Connolly by Pat Bannister betrays a passing acquaintance.

In this way, the novel obscures the fact that there were also political struggles for national independence and socialist liberation going on at that time. Thus, apart from the old housekeeper Miss Gilchrist, there are no other nationalist voices among the workers. Plunkett’s workers show no obvious interest in national self-determination. And so the lockout appears to be purely a trade union struggle at the expense of its role in the development of Irish revolutionary consciousness.

Also, while the founding of the Irish Citizen Army is mentioned, its further development and important role in the Easter Rising that followed only three years later is unclear. For Connolly and his comrades, however, it was plain that there could be no social liberation without national liberation and no national liberation without social liberation:

The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil.

Nevertheless, the book bears eloquent and inspiring witness to the strength of the Irish proletariat in one of their first great class struggles. It reveals to readers a class consciousness that still had to prove itself in the political liberation struggles that were then imminent, in the Easter Rising, in the War of Independence as well as in the Civil War, and which is still crucial today. Even in the present day, many Irish people, especially workers and trade unionists, count Strumpet City among the most important and best books in Irish literature.

To conclude, I’d like to present a poem by Francis Devine, taken from the anthology The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, Culture Matters, 2021.

The Steamship Hare

For Pádraig Yeates

by Francis Devine

Since first light
we were there,
cramped close against the Manchester
Shed at the South Wall,
a clawing dampness
enveloping the quays,
all eyes sifting the fog,
watching the bar for the first
sign of a heralded deliverance.

The cold slow bore –
worms in a stair skirting –
mother's thin shawleen
insufficient to lag the bones,
the fevered excitement of daybreak
waning, belief in Jim
challenged by rumour, begrudgery
and the citing of false gods.

Then at a quarter to one,
a Port & Docks Board man
high on a steam shovel, glass to eye,
spotted the streaming bunting,
the flutter of the National Transport
Workers' Federation flag,
the steamship Hare butting
into Liffey mouth, entering history,
bearing Larkin deep
inside our souls.

There was no disorder
but disciplined attendance,
a silent respect for Brothers
Seddon and Gosling –
important, bowler-hatted Englishmen
from the Trades Union Congress -
a patient vigil rewarded
by ticketed parcels containing
ten pounds of potatoes
and a further ten pounds of bread,
butter, sugar and tea, jam and fish –
all in boxes and bags with the letters
‘CWS’ printed boldly on the side.
Our mother shared out our ration
with other unfortunates in the building,
something that seemed
unquestionably natural.
There were biscuits for the childer
which we sat on a plate
and would not eat
lest we had nothing
left to admire.

Jim had delivered us from hunger,
now we had to press forward to seize
the Promised Land,
knowing that our army
could henceforth march
on heart and belly.
A half century on,
I saw an old, wizeny man
stood outside the GPO on May Day
with the other dribble-drabble few,
cheering Paddy Donegan and Seán Dunne,
a gold, Shilling
Co-operative Society medal
swinging on his grease-shine lapel.
When he told me he got this
for crewing the Hare,
I instantly saw his image
in those digital photographs
thousands unconsciously took
on that dank, drear day
in September Nineteen and Thirteen
as evidence that Hope
did once actually walk
amongst us.

The strength, courage and creativity of women: the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi
Sunday, 18 June 2023 08:45

The strength, courage and creativity of women: the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell writes about Artemisia Gentileschi (8 July 1593-1656)

One of the great weaknesses of bourgeois establishment art analysis is that the artist and their work are usually seen in isolation, like an accident that occurred for no apparent reason. As though Shakespeare or Beethoven could have created the same works in the third century BCE, for example. An understanding that a particular artist lived in a specific time in history, that needed just this voice, is absent in most cases. Such lack of historical understanding suggests that people live outside history, that they were always the same, and robs art of its revolutionary potential as well as its power to help us understand history as change.

It is for this reason that in presenting the outstanding 17th century realist artist Artemisia Gentileschi on her 430th birthday, it is useful to provide some background to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque period.

The bourgeoisie and religious emancipation

The emergence of the bourgeoisie between the 13th and 16th centuries from traders, merchants, and artisans, marked the beginning of the modern, capitalist era, starting in Italy. This new social class, seeking political power to underpin and expand its growing economic might, found expression in the Renaissance, which showcased its confidence and philosophic, artistic as well as scientific achievements.

With the advances in science and navigation, sails were set, new countries and continents discovered, their people colonised and enslaved. Gripped by a fever for gold and silver, and finding highly profitable luxury items such as tea, sugar, cocoa and tobacco, indigenous resources and populations were exploited and markets expanded. All these stolen goods helped create the wealth of the European bourgeoisie.

The rising bourgeoisie’s need to legitimise their political aspirations at all levels was reflected in the attack on the supremely hierarchical feudal Church, and its replacement with a more egalitarian Protestant structure that aimed to eliminate intermediaries. This new ideology aspired, in theory, to political power for all.

The Reformation, originating in Germany in 1517, represented religious emancipation from strict feudal hierarchies. The German peasantry took the Reformation to its ultimate secular conclusion and bravely undertook the great peasant war that Engels termed an early attempt at bourgeois revolution, ultimately defeated by the aristocracy in liaison with the Church and the emerging new monied class. The Diggers inherited this legacy when the time came for their participation in the English Revolution. 

The Reformation weakened Catholicism across Europe. With the exception of Britain, there were no successful bourgeois revolutions that abolished feudalism and consolidated the growing economic influence of the middle class at that time. Instead, feudal absolutism emerged, with the nobility retaining their position as the ruling class, albeit with increasing capitalist influences shaping the economy.

During the period from 1555 to 1648, the Counter-Reformation took place, characterised by Catholicism’s political and military actions to thwart the effects of the Reformation not only in central Europe. The Counter-Reformation resulted in the resurgence of Catholicism, significant shifts in political power in Europe, and the restoration of Austria, Bohemia, and Poland to Catholicism. Catholic powers such as Spain and Portugal played a dominant role in establishing colonies in the Americas, imposing Catholicism on the indigenous populations. The Jesuits played a prominent role in this movement. If the Renaissance was a turbulent time, the Counter-Reformation was even more tempestuous.

Visual art and social class

In Europe, the Baroque style of art developed in tandem with the Counter-Reformation. The arts of the Baroque era reflected the spirit of this period, aiming to glorify the absolute power and outward splendour of the ruling class. The elite deluded themselves into believing they possessed total power, although this had diminished. However, this era also witnessed an unprecedented differentiation of art across social classes: alongside the cultural expressions of the nobility, bourgeois-democratic and upper middle class art forms emerged.

Among the most famous patrons of the arts at the time were the Spanish Borgias of aristocratic stock and the Italian Medici whose wealth came from banking originally and who later merged with the aristocracy. The Baroque style represented the interests of the upper middle class aligned with the nobility, while realist artworks reflected democratic tendencies. Caravaggio was a giant among these and had a great influence not only on Italian art, but soon on art across Europe. To follow the Caravaggesque, realist style was deemed subversive and touched the nerve of the time.

Among these followers was Artemesia’s father Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), a highly regarded painter in his own right. He was acquainted with significant intellectual figures and scientists of his time, a time when scientific and artistic spheres were not mutually exclusive. He moved in circles which founded the Accademia den Lincei (founded 1603) with Galileo at its centre. This must be seen in the context of an ongoing witch-hunt against scientist such as Giordano Bruno, whose ideas contradicted the prevailing religious doctrines of the Catholic Church. These included Bruno’s understanding that the Earth orbited the sun, an observation shared by Galileo.

The Roman Inquisition found Bruno guilty of heresy, emphasizing its determination to suppress dissenting ideas and enforce its authority. Bruno refused to recant his beliefs and was burnt alive at the stake. The execution of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition in 1600 intensified the climate of caution and fear among scholars and scientists and had a significant impact on Galileo.

Despite this, Galileo continued his scientific observations and research, and developed his own evidence in support of the heliocentric model. He published his findings in 1610, challenging the prevailing geocentric model supported by the Catholic Church. In 1616, he was summoned by the Inquisition and ordered not to teach or defend heliocentrism. The publication of Galileo’s most famous work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” in 1632, presenting his arguments for heliocentrism, led to Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633. Found guilty of heresy, he was forced to recant his views and sentenced to house arrest until his death in 1642.

In art, the towering figure of Caravaggio had blazed the trail of realism. He painted from live models even for religious and history themed works, challenging authority on every level. His realism, transporting a scientific and democratic element into the art of the time, greatly influenced Gentileschi and other painters. As one of the proponents of the Caravaggesque style, Orazio was sought after in Genoa, Paris, and eventually London. Genoa (a republic since 1528) attracted many artists; it was a leading European banking and commercial centre.

Orazio left for Paris to work for Marie de’ Medici and his Caravaggesque realism was sought after by painters there. Two years later, he moved to London probably due to the marriage of Marie de’ Medici’s daughter to Charles I. During his twelve years in London (1626-39) in the wider circle of Charles I’s court, Orazio lost this realism and his paintings began to suit ideals of courtly beauty. His figures now had porcelain skins, wore rich draperies, and lacked psychological depth.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Of Orazio’s four children, the eldest was his only daughter, Artemisia (8 July 1593-1653). Their mother Prudenzia died in childbirth when Artemisia was twelve. Orazio trained all four children in his workshop, but Artemisia was the one about whom he wrote, she had “in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer; indeed she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained.”

Aged seventeen, Artemisia was raped by Tassi, a painter colleague of her father’s. At the trial, instigated by her father, some months later, Artemisia (a painter!) was tortured by means of a sibille (torture instrument made of metal and rope, that tightened round the base of her fingers) in order to establish whether she was telling the truth. The records of this trial document her experience in her own words. At that time, Artemisia ascertained that she could not write and barely read. Her experience is reflected in her work in many ways – in her strong and realistic female characters and the specifically feminine viewpoint that she brings to familiar topics on her canvases. And of course, she also knew the female nude anatomy better than her male colleagues. Artemisia too stood firmly in the realistic tradition of Caravaggio.

Immediately after the trial, Artemisia was married to the brother of the man who had provided legal aid to her father during the trial, and moved from Rome to Florence. Here, Artemisia spent eight years. She learned to read and write, and she was friendly with Galileo. She also became the first woman member of the official art establishment, the Accademia del Disegno. However, Florence was not open to Caravaggesque realism. Artemisia returned to Rome for six years, before moving on from there to Venice (1627) for at least two years and finally, following another sojourn in Rome, settling in Naples (1630), the second largest metropolis in Europe at the time.

Artemesia’s first masterpiece was Susanna and the Elders (1610, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany), was painted in Rome when she was only seventeen, and which preceded her rape.

AG Susanna and the Elders 1610 Artemisia Gentileschi

The story of Susanna, from the Book of Daniel, tells the story of the young wife Susanna in Babylon. While bathing in her garden, two prominent elders of the community secretly watched Susanna and conspired to blackmail her, threatening to accuse her of adultery unless she yielded to them. When Susanna refused, they claimed to have witnessed Susanna committing adultery, swearing this under oath. However, Daniel, known for his wisdom, exposed their conflicting testimonies. The people turned against the elders, who were then sentenced to death by stoning.

Artemisia’s Susanna and the Elders is a powerful, dramatic depiction of the biblical story. The painting presents the viewer with a close-up composition, focusing on the figure of Susanna. She is seated on a stone bench, vulnerable, all but nude. Her whiteness, her innocence, is emphasised and contrasts sharply with the fully clothed, leering men, who have crept up behind her. Susanna’s upper body is twisted away from them in shock, her fearful face turned as far away from them as possible. Her distress is accentuated by the desperate yearning of her hands to push the men away, as their hands perilously encroach upon her.

While Susanna is alone, the men form a treacherous unit, one man’s arm around the other, whispering, the second man holding his index finger vertically to his lips to seal the pact of silence. Artemisia uses chiaroscuro to deepen the dramatic effect of her narrative. Natural light shines on Susanna’s torso and the sheet, which are the men’s central interest. This colouring, along with the massive weight pushing down from the sinister predators, intensifies the emotional atmosphere and highlights Susanna’s isolation and vulnerability.

Another popular Biblical subject Artemisia turned to was that of Judith slaying Holofernes, a theme also tackled by Caravaggio and Orazio, two painters in Artemisia’s immediate circle. 

AG Judit decapitando a Holofernes por Artemisia Gentileschi

The story of Judith slaying Holofernes is found in the Book of Judith and is set during the siege of Bethulia by the Assyrians, under the command of the general Holofernes. The wise widow Judith devises a plan to save her city. Dressed in her finest garments and accompanied by her maid, she goes to the camp of Holofernes under a false guise. Holofernes invites her to a banquet in his tent. When Holofernes becomes drunk and falls into a deep sleep, Judith decapitates Holofernes with his own sword. Judith and her maid flee from the camp, taking the severed head of Holofernes with them. When they return to Bethulia, the inhabitants are filled with renewed hope. The Assyrians retreat, and the Israelites are delivered from their enemies.

Artemisia painted Judith and her maidservant several time in her career, twice Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612/13 and ca. 1620, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Itlay). We will look at the second painting here, painted in Florence, as it has gained in realism compared to the first. However, the basic composition remains the same. While Caravaggio in his painting of the scene had already brought the maid into the room with Judith and made her complicit in the beheading (in the Bible, she waits outside the bedroom), Artemisia assigns both women an active role: the maid holds down the powerful man while Judith performs the actual killing. Both women are needed to accomplish this, one cannot do without the other.

Unlike Caravaggio’s depiction of a very elderly maid observing the action, Artemisia presents a young woman, whose full bodily weight and strength is required to pin down Holofernes. Again, compared to Caravaggio, Judith herself is also a more convincing executor, an incredible force emanates from her. The power, energy and sheer strength of these two women in action is almost peerless in the history of art. They have come to do a job, we witness them doing it, at the height of the action. Their fully extended arms push down on the general with great force.

Compared even to her own earlier painting of the same scene, Artemisia’s detail has become more realistic. True to the Bible, Judith is dressed in her finest clothes (she needed to impress Holofernes), down to the bracelet, which according so some experts depicts Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and chastity. A close look at the bracelet reveals a figure dressed in a hunting costume, with a bow and quiver of arrows.

The women are splattered with blood (a realism absent in Caravaggio’s interpretation and Artemisia’s first version of the scene), Holofernes’ blood spurts from his neck onto the bed and the women. Their faces capture the intensity of the moment. The composition, with the sword at its centre, creates a sense of immediacy and emphasizes Judith’s determination. The figures are dramatically illuminated, heightening the tension and drama of the scene and deepening its emotional impact.

The final picture I would like to look at is Artemisia’s self-portrait as The Allegory of Painting (La Pittura, 1638-1639, Royal Collection, England), painted in London while she stayed with her father for a few years, when she was in her mid-forties.

ROY_260216_ 007

The Allegory of Painting was a common subject particularly in Renaissance and Baroque art, with Painting personified as a woman. In her depiction, Artemisia follows the description by her contemporary Cesare Ripa in his book on art iconography. However, unlike her male colleagues, she could depict herself as the Allegory. And so this picture The Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) is both allegory and self-portrait. Unusually for a self-portrait, this artist does not look at the viewer. She is completely focused on her creative activity.

The artist is also shown from a most unusual perspective – one that required two angled mirrors to allow observation of this posture. The painter is positioned to the side of the canvas, with a diagonal running top left to bottom right of the picture along her painting right arm and her chest. This off-centred positioning creates a singularly dynamic and unconventional composition. The sleeve on the right arm is rolled up, she is wearing a brown apron over her dress – she is working. In her right hand she holds the brush that is about to touch the canvas.

Over a decade before, on New Year’s Eve of 1625, the French artist Pierre Dumonstier had drawn The Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush (British Museum, London, England) in Rome. It is interesting to compare them.

AG Hand of Artemisia

In her left hand, the artist subject holds the rectangular palette, resting on a simple support. In keeping with the intense concentration on her work, the painting is bare of any detail. Artemisia is both the subject and the object of the picture. In so deliberately sparse a picture, every little detail counts. Here, gravity causes a pendant to hang away from the angled body, thereby attracting attention. The pendant represents a mask, as required in Ripa’s description of the Allegory. It signifies that what we are shown in art is only the image of something, not the actual thing. We see the image of Artemisia, not Artemisia. Rene Magritte in 1964 would say about his picture of an apple: This is Not an Apple. Ripa had stipulated in his description that it should read on the mask: “imitation”. Artemisia sees no need to say this; she believes in the viewers’ intelligence to work this one out for themselves.

The entire focus is on the person of Artemisia. In the background there is a vertical line, separating two brown tones. The lighter shade probably signifies the grounding of the canvas before the imminent application of other paints by the artist. As we witness the artist touching the canvas, we behold the moment of creation. Both canvas and wall are bare, suggesting that the painting is not finished, but in the process of creation. This is the allegory of painting at work. It is an amazing work of art.

As one of the great disciples of Caravaggio, although well-known, Artemisia received no public commissions while resident in Rome, Florence or Venice, as her realism must have been seen in conflict the Baroque ideals. Naples was more open to it, and it was here that she spent the last twenty years of her life and died, possibly during the plague of 1656. All but forgotten for centuries, her realist art was rediscovered and celebrated in the twentieth century.

As one of the great disciples of Caravaggio, although well-known, Artemisia received no public commissions while resident in Rome, Florence or Venice, as her realism was seen to conflict with Baroque ideals. Naples was more open to it, and it was here that she spent the last twenty years of her life and died, possibly during the plague of 1656. All but forgotten for centuries, her realist art was rediscovered and celebrated in the twentieth century. She transports the women of her time into ours like no other artist, and her convincing depiction of their strength, courage and creativity in the early days of the capitalist era, confirms her viewers' conviction that change can be wrought. 

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