Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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


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

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

Published in Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Catholic and a communist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The living language of the dispossessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sympathy with those who suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Banshees of Inisherin

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Robert Marquez

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

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

Published in Theatre

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

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

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

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


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

 womens suffrage

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

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

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

Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle 1914

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

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

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

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

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

george bernard shaw pygmalion drama sng v ljubljani a70dad 1024

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

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

Women's rights and class relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cock-a-doodle Dandy, by Sean O'Casey
Wednesday, 28 September 2022 08:11

Cock-a-doodle Dandy, by Sean O'Casey

Published in Theatre

Seán O’Casey’s best known and arguably most controversial plays are his early Dublin plays about Ireland’s revolutionary years between 1916 and 1923. Less known and performed are his superb later plays. One of these, the dark comedy Cock-a-doodle Dandy, written in 1949, was O’Casey’s own favourite play. It is set in Ireland around 1940 and was long considered anti-Catholic, and so not performed in Britain, Ireland or the USA.

Witchcraft seems to be haunting the fictional village of Nyadnanave, ever since Marthraun’s daughter by his first wife, Loreleen, arrived from London. A rooster causes untold commotion and embodies indomitable joie de vivre, and an accompanying rebelliousness against the diktat of church and state. The setting of the dramatic action in the backwoods suggests a provincial and stagnant Irish state. A theocracy overlays and dominates all action, preventing possible change.
The play takes place outside Michael Marthraun’s house – eerie whispers are abroad, holy pictures are inverted. This is what Marthraun, small farmer, local politician, and owner of a lucrative bog, tells Mahan, the owner of a fleet of lorries carrying turf from bog to town:

there’s always a stern commotion among th’ holy objects of th’ house, when that one, Loreleen, goes sailin’ by; an invisible wind blows th’ pictures out, an’ turns their frenzied faces to th’ wall; once I seen the statue of St. Crankarius standin’ on his head to circumvent th’ lurin’ quality of her presence; an’ another time, I seen th’ image of our own St. Pathrick makin’ a skelp at her with his crozier; fallin’ flat on his face, stunned, when he missed!

Loreleen is a well-read young woman who, it later transpires, has brought with her books that have been banned by the state. She, like other life-affirming characters in this play, is colourfully dressed like a rooster. Loreleen has a disquieting effect on the other women in the house; Marthraun’s young wife begins to adorn herself and look in the mirror. Slowly but surely, they begin to reject their assigned place in the home and the church.

An’ me own wife, Lorna Marthraun, is mixin’ herself with th’ disordher, fondlin’ herself with all sorts o’ dismayin’ decorations. Th’ other day, I caught her gapin’ into a lookin’-glass, an’ when I looked meself, I seen gay-coloured horns branchin’ from her head!

A love of life and an advocacy of a better life go together. Two young workers, appearing together (almost as a class) and wearing colourful scarves, demand more pay and threaten to strike. At the same time, they also show themselves open to Loreleen’s charms. Here, as in the women’s behaviour, again the link between joie de vivre and revolutionary power becomes apparent.

1ST ROUGH FELLOW [laying a hand sternly on the shoulder of MAHAN]. Looka, you; you give us th’ exthra shillin’, or we leave your lorries standin’, helpless an’ naked on th’ roads!
2ND ROUGH FELLOW [laying a hand sternly on MICHAEL’s shoulder]. Looka, you; looka that! D’ye think a good week’s wages is in a cheque for tuppence?

Mahan and Marthraun are, on the other hand, closely connected to the state and the church. Both belong to the (Catholic Masonic) Knights of the Order of Columbanus, are friends with the old arch-Catholic Shanaar (Irish: ‘old man’), Father Domineer and the Sergeant, all of whom still believe in witches in a very medieval way. In the constellation of characters, Catholicism, the state and business all belong together.
When a rooster gets lost in the house, great chaos ensues, birdcalls are heard, dishes fly around, Marthraun’s (stately) top hat is damaged, which he hoped to wear when he meets the president. The men hide, terrified by their own superstitions, and send the household help Marion for Father Domineer to exorcise the evil.

The rooster after which the play is titled is highly symbolic and combines two things. First, something menacingly supernatural. Much like Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, only the superstitious backwoodsmen ‘see’ the cockerel and the other ‘sinister’ omens as threatening witchcraft.

Loreleen and Robin are the only two who from the start don’t believe in this hocus-pocus. Gradually, the other women join these life-loving characters and also begin to see only a common fowl, later an ordinary top hat, unremarkable whiskey. But like Shakespeare, O’Casey brings the superstition on to the stage.

Secondly, however, the rooster also symbolises positive vitality and sensuality, courage and rebelliousness. Some of the characters are adorned in his colours, some more, some less. Loreleen most resembles the colourful rooster. It is even conceivable that Loreleen and the rooster transform into one another – they never appear together on stage. In this symbolic function, the rooster is most important.

The messenger Robin Adair, also colourfully dressed like a rooster, fearlessly enters the house and laughingly brings out the rooster. Robin (in reference to the legendary Robin Hood and his girlfriend Maid Marion), along with Loreleen, are the antagonists. Just as laid back as she, he is completely realistic and immune to superstition. Marion also loses her fear through Robin’s common sense. Slowly, the characters group around the poles of the humane and life-affirming and the inhumane and life-denying. But things are not black and white.

Through O’Casey’s portrayal of contradictory characters, this drama is not simply a satire, but brings to the stage a dramatic conflict between love of life and hostility to life, which is also played out in individual characters themselves. For example, Mahan and Marthraun talk about Marion’s charms, acting contrary to their own indoctrination. Women are both attractive and a source of ‘evil’ to them.

MICHAEL [doubtfully]. Maybe he’s too down on th’ women, though you have to allow women is temptin’.
MAHAN. They wouldn’t tempt man if they didn’t damn well know he wanted to be tempted!

As a commentary on fatal superstition, Lorna’s sick sister Julia is sent to Lourdes for a miracle cure.

Act 2 opens with a conversation between Marion and Lorna, laughing at Mahan and Marthraun, and becoming increasingly realistic, less superstitious. When Robin reappears and wants to kiss Marion, the audience learns that he has already been in prison once for publicly kissing Marion, while Marion was fined. In 1935 Éamon de Valera had passed a ‘Vice Act’, which criminalised kissing in public. Robin says he would be happy to go to jail for a kiss.

O’Casey lampoons the ignorance and complacency of the two older men, as well as their ‘allies’. These backwoodsmen contrast to varying degrees with the far cleverer women and working men around them. Mahan and Marthraun do not, however, completely double each other – the haulier (and former sailor) Mahan is just a little more mobile and receptive to women and sensuality.

A delivery man appears with a new top hat for Marthraun to replace the one damaged in the cock hunt, but it has already been shot through in transit by the sergeant – the sergeant, like the local politician, is part of the establishment. This is not only indicated by his bizarre behaviour – he also speaks as pompously and wrongly as Mahan and Marthraun. They all use words that sound ‘educated’ to them, but they use them incorrectly due to their lack of book reading.

MICHAEL. Yes, yes; but we must suffer th’ temptation accordin’ to the cognisances of th’ canon law. But let’s have a dhrink, for I’m near dead with th’ drouth, an’ we can sensify our discussion about th’ increased price you’re demandin’ for carryin’ th’ turf;

Old Shanaar speaks of “th’ circumnambulatory nature of woman’s form,” etc., etc. The sergeant tells us that when he shot at the cock, it turned into a top hat. Mahan and Marthraun, as well as the sergeant, are beside themselves with fear and blame the unmanageable women. The sergeant declares that women must be chained to the house and that books are forbidden, which is precisely the policy of the state and the church in Ireland and is repeatedly stated emphatically by various representatives of this unholy alliance.

The whiskey Mahan and Marthraun brought to seal their business negotiations turns into a fiery monster whenever they approach. When other male, church-going visitors show interest in the liquor, this eerie metamorphosis also frightens them off.

Soon the bellman appears and warns of a rooster, which now supposedly even transforms into a woman. The allusion to witches is abundantly clear again and again. Fearfully, Mahan, Marthraun and the sergeant wait outside the house and to combat their fear, they begin to sing. Loreleen appears announcing a carnival that evening. She calls Marion and Lorna out of the house, and encourages them to sing along. Marion and Lorna appear in colourful costumes, dressed as gypsies, completely undermining the Catholic notion of proper women’s dress, and being ‘rebellious’. At this moment a golden light appears which has a strange effect, dazing the men. Marion removes the sergeant’s rifle and rebukes him for his superstition:

MARION. Aw, let’s be sensible. What’s th’ gundoin’? Who owns th’ gun?
SERGEANT. It’s mine. I’m on pathrollookin’ to shoot down th’ demon bird loose among innocent people.
MARION. Demon bird loose among innocent people! Yous must be mad.

Lorna is also dismayed. As a retarding moment, Marthraun verbally attacks his wife for daring to defy Christian men, orders her to change her clothes and reprimands his daughter Loreleen for bringing this calamity upon her from the city of sin, London. Again he is ridiculed as he shrinks fearfully from the new top hat. The women have changed so much by now that they can see nothing unusual in either feathered fowl, top hat or whiskey.

Lorna pours herself, Marion and Loreleen a glass of whiskey. The women ask the men to dance and also offer whiskey to the men, who can now finally take the coveted water of life unharmed under the protection of the beautiful women. Robin appears and plays music on the accordion.

At this wonderful moment, the men forget their haggling and their fear of witchcraft. Women are understood by them as the most important thing in life. Mahan and Marthraun are able to reach a business agreement and even the top hat loses its menace. Only the demands of the workers are not considered in all this brotherhood. Still, it is a moment that illustrates the power of sensuality, a new lust for life that has the potential to include the workers.

MICHAEL [to MARION]. In our heart of hearts, maid Marion, – we care nothin’ about th’ world of men. Do we now, Sailor Mahan?
MAHAN [cautiously – though a reckless gleam is appearing in his eyes too]. We all have to think about th’ world o’ men at times.
MICHAEL. Not with our hearts, Sailor Mahan; oh, not with our hearts. You’re thinkin’ now of th’ exthra money you want off me, Sailor Mahan. Take it, man, an’ welcome! [Enthusiastically] An’ more! You can have double what you’re askin’, without a whimper, without a grudge!
MAHAN [enthusiastically]. No, damnit, Michael, not a penny from you! We’re as good as bein’ brothers! Looka th’ lilies of th’ field, an’ ask yourself what th’ hell’s money!
MICHAEL [excitedly]. Dhross, be God! Dhross, an’ nothin’ else! [To MARION] Gimme that hat there!

The men and women dance – horns appear on the women’s heads. The dance becomes more ecstatic until suddenly, with a clap of thunder, Father Domineer appears and all but Loreleen and Robin fall to their knees.

Robin continues to play music, unfazed. Domineer threatens the group gathered before him for dancing and rages that pagan poison is coming into the country through films, books and plays that weaken the priests’ power over souls.

Stop that devil’s dance! How often have yous been warned that th’ avowed enemies of Christianity are on th’ march everywhere! An’ I find yous dancin’! How often have yous been told that pagan poison is floodin’ th’ world, an’ that Ireland is dhrinkin’ in generous doses through films, plays, an’ books! An’ yet I come here to find yous dancin’! Dancin’, an’ with th’ Kyleloch, Le Coq, Gallus, th’ Cock rampant in th’ disthrict, desthroyin’ desire for prayer, desire for work, an’ weakenin’ th’ authority of th’ pastors an’ masters of your souls! Th’ empire of Satan’s pushin’ out its foundations everywhere, an’ I find yous dancin’, ubique ululanti cockalorum ochone, ululo!

Again, O’Casey refers to existing laws. In 1935, the draconian Public Dance Halls Act was passed, making it virtually impossible to hold dances without the approval of the trinity of clergy, police and judiciary. Also in place since 1929 was the law banning books, films and plays deemed unsuitable by the clergy and establishment. This did not apply to O’Casey and O’Flaherty alone, but to a long list of national and international literature from past centuries as well.

Robin and Loreleen, on the other hand, rebel against the priestly diktat and refuse obedience. Domineer rebukes the women for their misbehaviour and the men submit to him. Mahan, however, is not quite so submissive and refuses to obey Domineer’s order to dismiss his best driver Jack because he living with a woman outside of marriage. Domineer kills Jack. The sergeant immediately exonerates the killer. No one stands up for Jack; he is isolated in the community. Robin ‘comments’ on the murder like a chorus:

FATHER DOMINEER [to the others]. Yous all saw what happened. I just touched him, an’ he fell. I’d no intention of hurting him – only to administer a rebuke.
SERGEANT [consolingly]. Sure, we know that, Father – t was a pure accident.
FATHER DOMINEER. I murmured an act of contrition into th’ poor man’s ear.
MESSENGER [playing very softly]. It would have been far fitter, Father, if you’d murmured one into your own.

In the last act, Marion and Lorna first talk about the hunt for the rooster. Since the rooster is on the loose, the workers refuse to work, and the women think only of dancing and beauty, according to Mahan:

MAHAN [hardly noticing]. Is it? I didn’t notice. I’m busy. Everything thrust through everything else, since that damned Cock got loose. Th’ drouth now dhryin’ everything to dust; the turf-workers refusin’ to work, th’ women thinkin’ only of dancin’ an’ dhress. But we’ll lay him low, an’ bury him deep enough to forget he ever came here!

Lorna’s emancipation allows her to support the workers’ demands.

Domineer, Marthraun as well as one-eyed Larry appear and enter the house to drive away the cock and its evil magic. Loreleen comes running out of the village – men and women have been chasing her, throwing things at her. The pursuit of Loreleen and the rooster, as well as the attempted intimidation of all the women here, allows for parallels not only to the Middle Ages, but also to McCarthyism, which was emerging in the late 1940s. Lorna and Marion defend Loreleen.

LORELEEN [out of breath]. God damn th’ dastards of this vile disthrict! They pelted me with whatever they could lay hands on – th’ women because they couldn’t stand beside me; th’ men because there was ne’er a hope of usin’ me as they’d like to! Is it any wondher that th’ girls are fleein’ in their tens of thousands from this bewildhered land? Blast them! I’ll still be gay an’ good-lookin’. Let them draw me as I am not, an’ sketch in a devil where a maiden stands!
LORNA [soothingly]. Be calm, child! We can’t go in, for Father Domineer’s inside puttin’ things in ordher. [Releasing LORELEEN] I’ll run along th’ road to them disturbers, an’ give them a bit o’ me mind! [She catches hold of MARION’s arm] Come on, MARION!

All the establishment characters want rid of Loreleen, but her father won’t return her money to allow her to leave. Mahan hopes to seduce Loreleen. The house is shaken by thunder and lightning and all but Loreleen run for safety. Domineer emerges. He orders the women into the house and to serve their master. Domineer demands Loreleen’s books and he removes them to destroy them. In O’Casey’s later play The Bonfire for the Bishop (1955) book burning was to become a central theme.

MICHAEL. That one’s mind is always mustherin’ dangerous thoughts plundered outa evil books!
FATHER DOMINEER [startled]. Books? What kinda books? Where are they?
MICHAEL. She has some o’ them in th’ house this minute.
FATHER DOMINEER [roaring]. Bring them out, bring them out! How often have I to warn you against books! Hell’s bells tolling people away from th’ thruth!
FATHER DOMINEER [explosively]. A book about Voltaire! [To LORELEEN]. This book has been banned, woman.
LORELEEN [innocently]. Has it now? If so, I must read it over again. FATHER DOMINEER [to ONE-EYED LARRY]. What’s th’ name ofthat one? ONE-EYED LARRY [squinting at the title]. Ullisississies, – or something. FATHER DOMINEER. Worse than th’ other one. [He hands his to
ONE-EYED LARRY] Bring th’ two o’ them down to th’ Presbytery, an’ we’ll desthroy them.

The cock dances during this confrontation between all the protagonists, and accordion music is heard. Mahan and Marthraun resume their endless haggling, Marthraun’s attitude towards his wife reverts to what it was. Lorna, however, is no longer the same. Common sense and a new self-confidence have taken hold of her. Superstition among the church-going men continues, this time triggered by a goose.

Shanaar and the two workers bring Loreleen, who was attacked by an incited mob when she went with Mahan, believing he would give her the money for a ticket. Her clothes are torn. There is nothing to indicate that these workers defended Loreleen, to whose sensuality and beauty they had earlier been attracted. They have regressed, failed to realise their potential; they even robbed her of her money.

Very different behaviour might have been expected from Jack, the driver who was killed, the more conscious proletarian over whom Domineer had no control. Robin now carries the accordion on his back and no longer plays. All hope seems lost at this moment. Superstition and misanthropy have prevailed for the time being. But the rooster, despite every effort, is neither caught nor killed. Although the forces of humanity leave the stage, he remains, part of eternally renewing nature, expecting to cause turmoil again in future. Robin alone defends Loreleen and takes control of the moment.

MESSENGER [coming over to the ROUGH FELLOW on LORELEEN’s right – calmly]. Let that fair arm go, me man, for, if you don’t, there’s a live arm here’ll twist your neck instead. [With a shout] Let it go! [After a nod from the priest, the 1ST ROUGH FELLOW lets LORELEEN’s arm go. The MESSENGER goes quietly round to the 2ND ROUGH FELLOW.) Let that fair arm go, me man, or another arm may twist your own neck! Let it go! [The 2ND ROUGH FELLOW sullenly does so.] Now stand a little away, an’ give th’ girl room to breathe. [The TWO ROUGH FELLOWS move a little away from LORELEEN.] Thank you. [To the priest] Now, Father, so full of pity an’ loving-kindness, jet out your bitther blessin’, an’ let th’ girl go. An’ thry to mingle undherstandin’ with your pride, so as to ease th’ tangle God has suffered to be flung around us all.

Much like the youth of Ireland, young people now flee the village that embodies Ireland. Loreleen leaves and Lorna goes with her. Marion also departs. Robin plays another tune. Julia is brought back and only Robin speaks to her kindly, giving her encouragement. Then Robin also leaves “To a place where life resembles life more than it does here.” However, he and the women, like Loreleen, may return and cause upheaval once more.

The working class liberates itself: Review of 'Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution', by Charles Andrews.
Wednesday, 29 June 2022 16:24

The working class liberates itself: Review of 'Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution', by Charles Andrews.

Published in Fiction

When is the last time you read an exciting story about the working class engaged in determined and successful struggle? This is just what Charles Andrews sets out to do in his newly published novelette Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution.

Not only is the working class largely excluded from mainstream cultural consumption for financial reasons, but it is also even more radically excluded from producing its own cultural expressions by the establishment cultural industry. Working-class writers are told that no-one wants to read about their lives, that their stories wouldn’t sell for that reason.

The reason many working-class authors take up the pen is because in the books they read they cannot find characters who share their life experience. Middle-class life dominates all the arts – people in well-paid jobs, who live in beautiful houses, are well-educated and whose children’s future is set to emulate their lifestyle. Where working-class people appear, they are drawn from a perspective that reveals prejudice and unfamiliarity with the strengths of the working class, at times with sugary sentimentality and a vague suggestion that they might escape from the working-class condition by becoming middle-class.

Working-class lives are shown as deprived, lacking refinement, with alcoholism, crime and drug abuse featuring largely. Working-class characters are hardly ever depicted in the context of their work on the shopfloor, or in situations where their strengths, creativity, skills, and intelligence might be highlighted, never in ways where it may become clear that without them, everything could come to a standstill, or that they are the preservers of humanity in a barbaric world, that they will change society for a better future. Working-class heroes are very rare indeed.

Along with the historical emergence of the working class, however, there evolved a working-class culture and artistic tradition that gave expression to the lives of the dispossessed and that has become part of the struggle for a just world. This second culture exists alongside the mainstream, yet it is rarely commented on, let alone supported or promoted. Only with the rise of the socialist countries did working-class literature, the portrayal of this class as dignified, capable of and destined to take power, become fully developed and mainstream.

Gorky was among the first who highlighted the role of growing working-class awareness and potential for revolutionary change. Many outstanding writers around the world followed in his footsteps. In the arts of the socialist world, the working class become the engineers of their present and future, they are shown in the workplace and as the shapers of their own society. These writers remain largely unknown among mainstream western readers.

Against this background, Charles Andrews’ novelette Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution must be welcomed. Andrews’ deep interest in social justice and the need for social change are at the heart of his two previous non-fiction works, No Rich, No Poor (2009) and The Hollow Colossus (2015). Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution transports the author’s insights and convictions into a fictional world, which is informed by Andrews’ own experience of trade union work. He sets his story firmly in the working-class environment – on the shopfloor, at meetings, during industrial action, at demonstrations.

Andrews commands a range of characters who reflect the diversity of the class and include communist leaders – indeed, communists are at the heart of the action, but other characters are drawn into the struggle through personal crisis. Readers witness Marxist education classes and hear about Richard Sorge and Kim Philby. Lenin is quoted for moral support, and an east German grandfather, “when there was an east Germany, you know, the socialist country”, helps out.

Perhaps at times these characters are larger than life. But why not imagine a world like this, where the working class is ready to take power? This is unheard of, indeed taboo, in mainstream literature. With a good sense for the dramatic and well-written dialogue, the working class is drawn as a dignified class, made up of class-conscious, intelligent people who are acutely aware of injustice and confront racism and exploitation. Above all, and arising from this, they are capable of liberating themselves:

But it looks like your party is getting ready to run society. You are the only ones who say workers can do it, all workers, not only the best educated.

That this doesn’t happen without resistance from and deceit by the enemy class goes without saying and is in keeping with the real world. But with undaunted optimism, Andrews’ heroes conquer their enemy. We need such optimism in these bleak times.

Shelley's poetry: an integral part of the culture of the labour movement
Sunday, 26 June 2022 08:53

Shelley's poetry: an integral part of the culture of the labour movement

Published in Poetry

Shelley was born shortly after the French Revolution, heir to a substantial estate and also to a seat in Parliament, on 4 August 1792 in Sussex, England. As a son of the upper classes, he attended Eton College and was subsequently enrolled at Oxford University. Britain was in political turmoil in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with food riots, Luddite rebellion, unrest in Ireland, the threat of Napoleon’s armies and a growing bourgeois reform movement.

The ruling class feared the example set by the French might infect their own working class and reacted with repression. The young Shelley took part in campaigns for the release of imprisoned democrats and worked to create an association of radical democratic people. At Eton he began to write and also to express atheist views. Atheism was deemed infinitely more dangerous in repressive Britain than the suspect Dissenters and Catholics. In 1811 Shelley was expelled from Oxford University and disowned by his family for publishing The Necessity of Atheism.

The Necessity of Atheism is one of the earliest treatises in England on atheism and argues that since faith is not governed by reason, there is no evidence for the existence of a God. The universe could always have existed and if there had been an initial impetus, it need not have been a God.

This text led to his exclusion from the circles of power to which he was entitled by birth. In the same year, Shelley also eloped at the age of 19 with Harriet Westbrook, three years his junior, and married her in Scotland. This led to further estrangement from his family, as well as from the Westbrook family.

Shelley and women's issues

Shelley was a follower of the radical publicist William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), who argued among other things, for gender equality and against the marital morality of the time. Both Godwin and Shelley respected the views of the women around them, which included unmarried couples, as well as independent women who worked and raised their ‘illegitimate’ children. Shelley rejected marriage as deeply misogynistic and was one of the early advocates of women’s emancipation.

In February 1812, Shelley and Harriet sailed to Dublin. Here they campaigned vigorously for the emancipation of Catholics and the abolition of the Union. As early as 1811 Shelley had written a “poetical essay” in support of the imprisoned Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, a former editor of the United Irishmen’s journal, The Press. In preparation for his campaign in Ireland, Shelley had penned An Address to the Irish People. His second pamphlet, Proposals for an Association, even appealed to the remaining United Irishmen to give Irish politics a more radical direction by peaceful means. Shelley was a great admirer of Robert Emmet and the United Irishmen and wanted to form an association that openly worked towards an egalitarian republic, supported legal equality and freedom of the press.

He also had a Declaration of Rights printed in Dublin in the tradition of the American Revolution, distributed it and appeared at various events. Together with John Lawless, an associate of Daniel O’Connell, he planned to found a radical newspaper and publish a new history of Ireland. Shelley advocated peaceful means throughout his life, despite Godwin’s disapproval that he was planning “bloody scenes”. Nevertheless, he realised that he had to go beyond Godwin and Paine.

The Shelleys moved to Wales to agitate for better conditions among the agricultural workers. This even led to an assassination attempt on Shelley in early 1813, probably instigated by the landowner Robert Leeson, son of one of the wealthiest Ascendancy families in Ireland, whereupon Shelley fled from Wales back to Ireland.

There, in the seclusion of Ross Island in Killarney, he completed his first major verse narrative, Queen Mab, and returned to London shortly afterwards. Here he met with Godwin, whose An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice alongside Rights of Man, by Godwin’s friend Thomas Paine, had become one of the best-known political pamphlets in England. Godwin’s wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth, had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a foundational document of the early women’s movement, following Paine’s Rights of Man.

Shelley’s relationship with Harriet had become difficult. In 1814 he fell in love with Godwin’s daughter Mary and fled with her to war-torn France and Switzerland at the end of July; they returned in mid-September. In November 1814 Harriet gave birth to a son, and in February 1815 Mary Godwin delivered a premature daughter who died days later; the following January Mary had a son. Byron left England at the end of April 1816. Shelley and Mary followed him to Switzerland in May.

In December 1816, Harriet Shelley committed suicide by drowning, pregnant again by another brief relationship. Shelley, who had continued to care for Harriet, then married Mary Godwin. He lost custody of his two children when Harriet’s family cited Queen Mab as evidence of his atheism and rejection of marriage. The children were placed in the care of a clergyman. The deaths of two more children left deep scars and as late as June 1822, a few weeks before Shelley’s death, Mary miscarried and nearly died herself.

In March 1818, the Shelleys emigrated to Italy. In the remaining four years of his life in exile, Shelley wrote his major works. Two hundred years ago, on 8 July 1822, Shelley drowned in a sailing accident. Condemned by conservative critics as an immoral outsider, he did not live to see the bourgeois-democratic and burgeoning proletarian movements take possession of his work.

Shelley's socialism

Eleanor Marx continued Marx and Engels’ Shelley enthusiasm. In her Shelley lecture, she answered the question of Shelley’s socialism as follows:

Shelley was on the side of the bourgeoisie when struggling for freedom, but ranged against them when in their turn they became the oppressors of the working-class. He saw more clearly than Byron, who seems scarcely to have seen it at all, that the epic of the nineteenth century was to be the contest between the possessing and the producing classes. 

Moreover, Eleanor Marx underlines the influence on him of Mary Shelley and her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft:

All through his work this oneness with his wife shines out (...) The woman is to the man as the producing class is to the possessing. Her “inferiority,” in its actuality and in its assumed existence, is the outcome of the holding of economic power by man to her exclusion. And this Shelley understood not only in its application to the most unfortunate of women, but in its application to every woman.

Love was a central category in Shelley’s thinking. In open rebellion to the norms of bourgeois aristocratic society and the Church of his time, love is the capacity for true humanity and the purpose of human life. With this core category, his poetry expresses a concrete utopia: what is conceivable becomes a possibility and inspires action to bring about this vision. Love requires solidarity and action against the enemies of humanity. In this sense, Shelley’s utopia was perceived as anti-religious and subversive.

Completed in 1813, Queen Mab, a blank verse narrative, has the character of a poetic credo and a political poem. In a cosmic dream journey, the fairy queen reveals to young Ianthe the misery of humanity in history and the present. Shelley emphatically rejects religious arguments of something intrinsically ‘sinful’ in humankind and cites the real culprits:

Man’s evil nature, that apology
Which kings who rule, and cowards who crouch, set up
For their unnumbered crimes, sheds not the blood
Which desolates the discord-wasted land.
From kings, and priests, and statesmen, war arose,
Whose safety is man’s deep unbettered woe,
Whose grandeur his debasement. Let the axe
Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall;
And where its venomed exhalations spread
Ruin, and death, and woe, where millions lay
Quenching the serpent’s famine, and their bones
Bleaching unburied in the putrid blast,
A garden shall arise, in loveliness
Surpassing fabled Eden.

Shelley becomes even more specific, naming “the poor man” as his own liberator: “And unrestrained but by the arm of power,/ That knows and dreads his enmity.” Only people committed to reason and to love are able to realise a humane future, which includes the free association of women and men. In his notes on Queen Mab, he further underlines the insights quoted here:

Kings, and ministers of state, the real authors of the calamity, sit unmolested in their cabinet, while those against whom the fury of the storm is directed are, for the most part, persons who have been trepanned into the service, or who are dragged unwillingly from their peaceful homes into the field of battle. A soldier is a man whose business it is to kill those who never offended him (…)

The poor are set to labour, – for what? Not the food for which they famish: not the blankets for want of which their babes are frozen by the cold of their miserable hovels (...) “no; for the (…) false pleasures of the hundredth part of society.

This poem was so enthusiastically circulated among radicals and the rising working class that it became known as the “Bible of the Chartists”.

After the war with Napoleon ended, Britain was hit by a new wave of mass unemployment, food riots and new state reprisals. The Holy Alliance’s struggle against all emancipation efforts on the continent led to a desperate search among radicals for new means of resistance. When Mary and Shelley met Byron in Switzerland in the summer of 1816, a new phase in Shelley’s work began.

In Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, beauty has left this “dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate” and “No voice from some sublimer world hath ever/ To sage or poet these responses given”. Only when “musing deeply on the lot/ Of life (...)/ Sudden, thy shadow fell on me”. No religion can bind beauty as a vision of a humane society to the ‘vale of tears’; only one’s own thinking can evoke it. Beauty is as anti-religious and deeply connected to a humane society for Shelley as it was for his contemporary and friend John Keats, also one of the revolutionary Romantics.

Revolution and counter-revolution

The theme of Shelley’s longest verse narrative, Laon and Cyntha (The Revolt of Islam), is the French Revolution. Building on visions from Queen Mab, it develops its great historical subject through the plot. Two lovers inspire a revolution against the Turkish Sultan. The course of the French Revolution is symbolically represented in the action of the lovers: Laon and Cythna are revolutionaries. Laon inspires resistance against the soldiers who capture Cythna. Sailors rescue her and she persuades the sailors to release their cargo of female slaves, which becomes an act of self-liberation. Cythna is celebrated as a folk heroine.

Together with Laon, she plays a leading role in the revolution that overthrows Othman. The revolutionaries spare Othman, who then instigates a counter-revolution and massacres the people; famine and epidemics follow. The Christian priest, in league with Othman, persuades the people to sacrifice Laon and Cythna. Laon asks for Cythna to be spared, Othman breaks his word and Cythna is burnt at the stake along with Laon. Although Laon tells the story, Cythna makes the most impassioned speeches, arguing that the revolution will one day succeed.

Shelley portrays the revolution as little bloody, but the counter-revolution as brutal.  In the preface, Shelley refers to the emancipatory aim of poetry. In his effort to combat the disappointment following the hopes of the French Revolution, and through his explanation of the historical as well as social causes of its bloody character, he reaffirms its ideals.

Thus he also justifies the bloodshed of the insurgents as forced by their oppressors. Despite intensified repression, Shelley not only defends the French Revolution, but also addresses issues regarding the role of the artist in struggle. He highlights the sensual, concrete equality of women and men by emphasising their common struggle, which is part of their love. In his preface, Shelley writes: “There is no quarter given to revenge, or envy, or prejudice. Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law which should govern the moral world.”

In the poetry and prose written in Italy from 1819 onwards, Shelley reached the peak of his achievement. He produced his best-known poem, Ode to the West Wind, the lyric drama Prometheus Unbound, Song to the Men of England, and The Mask of Anarchy, one of the greatest political protest poems in the English language.

The Peterloo Massacre (August 1819) aroused in Shelley the hope of resistance and he wrote with renewed vigour. With the Prometheus drama he hoped to kindle revolutionary fire and continued to insist on his revolutionary core, the need for a humane society. In this drama, he shapes a complex reality, a condensation of everything written so far, and it takes familiarity with Shelley’s world and language to fully unlock the meaning of this work.

Shelley expanded the immediate classical-mythological reference from Greek mythology and its later interpretations through to Milton, as well as elements of his own. Added to this is the Christian world of ideas, whereby Shelley, through his radical humanisation, undertakes an inversion of the biblical story. Thus there is a consistent reference to the present. Prometheus, representative and protector of humanity, is directly connected to nature as a child of Mother Earth; he is her consciousness taken shape. As the epitome of humanity, he has foresight.

Prometheus is bound, powerless and suffering because he is separated from Asia, who represents Love; he needs her as she needs him. His revolutionary revolt against violent oppression is doomed to fail without love. Jupiter, through Mercury, tool of the rulers, can expose Prometheus to the Furies. Prometheus knows when Jupiter’s hour has come; he can endure his sufferings until then. But Prometheus must become active himself, which only becomes possible after the union with Asia, which in turn releases a force immanent in nature and society in the figure of Demogorgon. This triggers Jupiter’s fall from hell and, in a reversal of the Christian legends, Prometheus, bound to the rock, is redeemed by Herculean power. Paradisiacal beauty can now blossom on earth. Prometheus and Asia wed and unite.

Nevertheless, the force of nature, Demorgogon, warns at the end of humanity’s capacity for despotism: “Man, who wert once a despot and a slave,/ A dupe and a deceiver!” He then names love as the healing force:

This is the day which down the void abysm
At the Earth-born’s spell yawns for Heaven’s despotism,
And Conquest is dragged captive through the deep;
Love, from its awful throne of patient power
In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour
Of dread endurance, from the slippery, steep,
And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs  
And folds over the world its healing wings.

In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley writes about the power of poetry, its social role and the responsibility of poets. This power of poetry is expressed in the great Ode to the West Wind, Shelley’s metaphor for the advance of historical movement:

... Be thou, Spirit fierce, 
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe 
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth! 
And, by the incantation of this verse, 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth 
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! 
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, 
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Poems such as The Mask of Anarchy and Song to the Men of England speak directly to the struggling workers and became an integral part of the culture of the labour movement. Although Shelley did not advocate armed struggle, he also knew that at times it was unavoidable:


The seed ye sow, another reaps; 
The wealth ye find, another keeps; 
The robes ye weave, another wears; 
The arms ye forge, another bears. 

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap: 
Find wealth—let no imposter heap: 
Weave robes—let not the idle wear: 
Forge arms—in your defence to bear. 

Next to Burns, Shelley had the greatest influence on 19th century working-class literature in England. His vision applies undiminished today.

Marlene Dietrich: anti-fascist and a role model for women's emancipation
Sunday, 01 May 2022 09:28

Marlene Dietrich: anti-fascist and a role model for women's emancipation

Published in Films

Marlene Dietrich, who died 30 years ago, on 6 May 1992, should be remembered not only for her importance as role model for emancipation, but also for her outspoken and active stand against her Nazi homeland.

Born in Berlin on 27 December 1901, she became one of the most famous actors of all time. Her breakthrough came with the 1929 film The Blue Angel. She left Germany for

Hollywood in 1930. When the Nazis were stripping other artists’ German citizenship, she renounced hers. Throughout the second world war, Dietrich actively engaged in the anti-fascist struggle. When she visited Germany after the war, she was deemed a traitor in West Germany, with relatively small numbers attending her funeral as late as 1992.

Dietrich’s father, Louis Otto Dietrich, an officer, died when Dietrich and her sister were very young. A few years later, Dietrich’s mother married Eduard von Losch, who was killed in World War I. As a child, Marlene loved music and intended to become a concert violinist, but a wrist injury in her teens made this impossible. After that, she turned her interest to the stage. She auditioned unsuccessfully at Berlin’s famous Max Reinhardt Drama School, but  pursued acting and obtained a number of minor parts. All this changed when she was discovered by Josef von Sternberg for his new film project.

The Blue Angel

This film, directed by Sternberg and co-starring the famous Emil Jannings, was shot largely in 1929 and premiered in 1930. Germany, like the US and other countries, was badly affected by the Wall Street crash that year. To make matters worse, if not catastrophic, the loans Germany had been given to help boost its economy and it pay its war reparations over time – the US Dawes and Young Plans – suddenly dried up. Germany crashed badly – it had been in a ruinous state after WWI and had experienced a boom from the mid-1920s thanks to these loans and a false sense of security. It is important to bear this background in mind when thinking about The Blue Angel. As we now know, the severe economic crisis that ensued was a fertile ground for the rise of German fascism, which until then had not attracted much interest or support. This is an important backdrop to understanding the film.

The Blue Angel is a tragedy, with the pompous, but by no means malevolent teacher Emmanuel Rath as its tragic hero. Professor Rath corresponds entirely to Aristotle’s definition of tragic hero: “an intermediate kind of personage, not pre-eminently virtuous and just” whose destruction is attributed, not to vice or depravity, but an error of judgment. The hero is a basically decent and inoffensive person. He must induce a sense of pity and fear within the audience, with pity arising when the character is utterly destroyed, while fear is aroused when the audience realise that such fate could befall them too. Shakespeare adds to this definition with his tragedies, that the character’s “frailty” is one provoked by the times s/he lives in, by an inability to cope with these times. In this sense, it is the new times that are instrumental in bringing down the tragic hero.

This is what happens in the case of professor Rath. He represents the older generation and is made a fool of by the younger generation, his students, whom he cannot control, only make empty threats to. Instead, the boys control him. Rath is, however, coldly destroyed by the young cabaret dancer Lola.

Cabaret had become very popular in the Weimar Republic and represented something very new, modern – and decadent. Film buffs might like to watch Act V of Symphony of a Great City, where a (falsely) prosperous Berlin is shown at its most modern in 1927, with electricity, cinemas, and cabarets. Cabaret is very much associated with the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic. The Blue Angel reveals this world to be a struggle for survival, where money, the show, takes precedence over human decency and dignity. A sad, silent clown wanders about backstage, foreshadowing Rath’s fate. The club where Lola performs is covered in nets and ropes, which frequently entangle Rath.

Rath is not a bad person. However, he is unfit for modern times. Pompous, ineffective and naïve, he is unable to see these times for what they are. Rath’s dignity, his inner core and identity, is destroyed, and this causes his descent into madness. First he loses all confidence and sense of himself as a teacher, reduced to selling ‘sexy’ cards advertising Lola. His marriage is unconsummated and his wife takes lovers. The ultimate blow comes when the company returns to his hometown and past colleagues witness the extent of his destruction, and, as the company director insists on a final humiliation, madness and death.

In this sense, Rath is a true tragic hero, destroyed by the new times that have dawned. His frailty is that he cannot understand the nature of the times, nor can he find a way to save himself. Ultimately, the new times destroy him. In this reading The Blue Angel foreshadows aspects of Nazi Germany, a ruthlessness that will not shrink from destroying people, and that was set to rise to power meteorically.

Both Sternberg and Dietrich left Germany for Hollywood in 1930. In the 1930s and 1940s, Dietrich starred in many famous films including Shanghai Express (1932), I Love a Soldier (1936), Manpower (1941), and The Lady is Willing (1942). She was among the first to embody the emancipated woman onscreen, and became a style icon with her characteristic trouser suits, hats and challenge to other ‘male’ domains. She had relationships with both men and women and is celebrated to this day by the LGBT community.

The Blue Angel was banned in Germany in 1933. Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, the company director and magician in the film, was murdered by the Nazis, after suffering terrible humiliation. The Inn Keeper, the Hungarian Jewish actor Charles Puffy, died while fleeing Hungary from the Nazis. Hans Albers, Lola’s young lover, on the other hand, stayed in Germany during the Nazi regime and became a star actor, although he never endorsed the fascists. Carl Balhaus, the boy in Rath’s class who feels for him and is bullied by the others, is the only actor in the film who lived in the GDR after the defeat of fascism and worked for DEFA, the state film production company.

When Nazi Germany was revoking the citizenships of many German artists, leaving them stateless, Dietrich refused any overtures by the Hitler regime and renounced her German citizenship, when WWII broke out, and took out US nationality. Dietrich, together with Billy Wilder among others, set up a fund to help persecuted people flee Germany. In 1937, she donated her entire income from Knight Without Armour to helping the refugees.

After Pearl Harbour was attacked on December 7, 1941, Americans were called on to support the US war effort by volunteering, joining the military, or selling war bonds. Dietrich helped sell war bonds. In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) approached Dietrich to assist in their propaganda efforts. She recorded American songs in German, including “Time On My Hands,” “Mean to Me,” and “Taking a Chance on Love”, but also German songs like “Lili Marlene”.  

When the United Service Organizations (USO), founded in 1941, sought to entertain troops in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Dietrich was among those who volunteered in 1944 and 1945 and sang to the troops, often under dangerous conditions close to the frontline.

After the war, in 1948, she returned to acting, taking on the part – most reluctantly – of  a Nazi singer in Billy Wilder’s comedy, “A Foreign Affair”, set on location in in the ruins of Berlin. In 1952, Dietrich decided to return to the theatre. She made exceptions for films such as Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. In 1962, she narrated the US documentary The Black Fox, which links the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler to Goethe’s story of Reynard the Fox. She also toured the world giving concerts, and included in her repertoire new anti-war songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”. In 1975, Dietrich retired from public life.

When Dietrich died at the age of 90, her funeral service in Paris was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself with thousands more outside. Three medals were displayed at the foot of the coffin recognising Dietrich’s fight against Nazism.

Dietrich had requested to be buried in her birthplace Berlin, so her body was flown there on 16 May 1992. Her coffin was draped in an American flag and the cortege travelled through Berlin. However, there was little public acknowledgement of this event and comparatively few people attended the burial. On her last visit to (West) Berlin in 1960, she had been threatened and harassed, telling her to “go home”, and the police had feared disruptions of the funeral by neo-Nazi groups.

Berlin’s Mayor, the conservative Eberhard Diepgen, was jeered over the city’s failure to afford Dietrich a formal tribute, bowing to right-wing pressure. A wave of hate mail and insults such as “traitor” to a Berlin newspaper and the Senate administration had caused the Berlin Senate to cancel the planned transfer in a Bundeswehr jet and a memorial service in the Deutsches Theater in her honour.

Almost 8 months later, 1 December 1992, the Berlin Senate decided on an honorary grave, which was desecrated a year later, and it was not until her 100th birthday on 27 December 2001, that the city apologised for the hostility she had faced in Germany after the war. There was no mention of the controversies over naming a street after her, and nothing about the cancellation of the official commemoration. On 16 May 2002, Marlene Dietrich was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Berlin.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022 10:00


Published in Visual Arts

On 26 April 1937, eighty-five years ago, the Basque town of Gernika was devastated by German Nazi bombers. This event gave impetus to Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica. The painting has become one of the most famous artistic anti-war statements of all time.

Gernika, Leningrad, Hiroshima, My Lai - places that associate horrendous war crimes - have come to symbolise the horrors of war, endured by many peoples. They stand out in our collective memory as grave warnings to do our outmost to oppose war. Yet time and again, governments manage to manipulate their populace into believing that they ought to support the latest war efforts, mostly by fake news and outright lies. Voices against war are silenced.

As Rosa Luxemburg stated, following her arrest for speaking at an anti-war rally in Berlin in 1913, in her defence in the courtroom:

"When the majority of working people realise ... that wars are barbaric, deeply immoral, reactionary, and anti-people, then wars will have become impossible."

Culture Matters published an article on Picasso's painting five years ago, on the eightieth anniversary of the slaughter. It can be accessed HERE.

Leonardo da Vinci
Wednesday, 13 April 2022 08:20

Leonardo da Vinci

Published in Visual Arts

Leonardo da Vinci, the great Italian painter, engineer, inventor, and scientist was born 570 years ago, on 15 April 1452. He embodied in many ways the High Renaissance, one of the most progressive periods in history, of which Engels said, "it was the greatest progressive revolution that humanity has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants—giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning."

To commemorate the half millennium since his death, in 2019, Culture Matters published an article looking at aspects of Leonardo's work, focusing on his painting and the Mona Lisa in particular, and how Leonardo's universality fed into this most famous of all images in art. In Leonardo's honour, in celebration of his achievement and legacy, we republish this article today. Ben Jonson's tribute to Shakespeare applies equally to Leonardo: "He was not of an age but for all time!"

Read the article here.

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