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Letters

Vol. 27 No. 1 · 6 January 2005

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Pursued by Bearists

In so far as real bears were available in Henslowe’s bear-garden, live bears could have appeared in The Winter’s Tale and Mucedorus, as Anne Barton (LRB, 2 December 2004) and other bearists have argued: it does not follow that they did. Teresa Grant, who uncovered the origin of the polar bears that Henslowe curated for King James from 1611 onwards, claimed that her discovery did indeed ‘prove’ that live bears were used in the theatre. The polar bears (captured as small cubs by a Muscovy Company expedition early in 1609) were, she argued, appropriate for use on stage since they were tame, and they must have been tame since they were used at court in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon.

Oberon, performed in 1611, calls for two white bears to pull a chariot, ‘guarded’ by sylvans. It is conceivable that these were the king’s own bears, though there is no supporting evidence. Two-year-old polar bears still qualify as cubs, and in the wild are only just being weaned. Letting rapidly growing cubs loose on a public stage is a very different matter, especially as late as 1613, which Anne Barton suggests is possible. By that time they would have been sub-adult, going on sexually mature, and have weighed in at several hundred pounds, with claws. We know little about Henslowe’s bear-garden, but polar bears, even those reared in captivity, react particularly aggressively to confinement. They are the only bears that are purely carnivorous. Even captive brown bears, less aggressive as a species, sometimes killed spectators.

Mucedorus was first performed in the 1590s, when it already had a white bear chase two of the characters – white bears having a long history in romance, from the early 13th century onwards. The bearists argue that extra stage business added after 1610, in which the bear indulges in horseplay with the clown, was included to make full use of the real polar bear now at the actors’ disposal (though as Nevill Coghill long ago pointed out, bears lack a sense of comic timing). The stage bears of the 1610s, whether brown or white, are specifically free-range, unaccompanied and unshackled, in pursuit of characters who are running away from them, and who therefore might appear tempting as prey. In a modern theatre it might be possible for the bear to run straight across the stage, encouraged perhaps by a man in the wings waving a fish or a honeycomb (but would you want to volunteer?). In the Globe, the pursuing bear would have had to enter through one of the rear doors in pursuit of its prey, do a U-turn (after bumping into the clown in Mucedorus), and exit through the same or another rear door, to the confined backstage area crowded with actors. It would have had to relearn its movements for performances at the Blackfriars, at court or in private houses. Dancing and tumbling bears – brown bears – will have gone through a lengthy training: but polar bears are notoriously difficult to train, even when small. The complexity of the movements, not to mention the risk incurred in loosing an unfettered bear in pursuit of a fleeing man within reach of several hundred spectators with nowhere to run, would make the use of real bears problematic, no matter how many Henslowe had on offer.

No contemporary ever commented, in relation to Oberon or Mucedorus or The Winter’s Tale, that real bears took the place of the usual bear-suited actors. The only record we have of Henslowe’s polar bears being put to any use is that one of them was baited with dogs while swimming in the Thames, for the amusement of the Spanish ambassador. The sudden increase in stage-bear activity after their arrival in London may well have been a response to the interest they had created, but to extrapolate from the availability of the bears to their appearance on stage is dangerous, not because of the nature of the scholarship, but because of the nature of bears. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but the evidence still seems to me to be tenuous. I thought of giving the whole question an appendix to itself, but, as Anne Barton also noted, my book was long enough already.

Helen Cooper
Cambridge

Bombers not Martyrs

In the piece she wrote about suicide bombers (LRB, 4 November 2004) Jacqueline Rose applied one standard to all terrorists, Arab and Jewish. Avril Mailer challenges Rose’s facts about Shlomo Ben Yosef, the right-wing Jewish militant who was sentenced to death by the British in Palestine in 1938 (Letters, 16 December 2004). Mailer’s overall agenda is to suggest that the Jews wanted peace and did not condone the killing of Arab civilians. She also claims that Rose’s paragraph about Ben Yosef migrated to websites with an anti-Jewish agenda. ‘In the age of the internet,’ she writes, ‘there is a particular responsibility to set the record straight.’ The purpose of this letter is precisely that – to set the record straight.

Mailer tells us that no one was injured or killed in the incident in question: ‘Guns were fired in the air, and if there was a grenade, it was not detonated.’ The facts are as follows. Shlomo Ben Yosef was a member of Betar, the ultra-nationalist youth movement whose goal was a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan river. On 21 April 1938, after several weeks of planning, he and two of his colleagues from the Irgun (Etzel) ambushed an Arab bus at a bend on a mountain road near Safad. They had a hand-grenade, a gun and a pistol. Their plan was to destroy the engine so that the bus would fall off the side of the road and all the passengers would be killed. When the bus approached, they fired at it (not in the air, as Mailer has it) but the grenade lobbed by Ben Yosef did not detonate. The bus with its screaming and terrified passengers drove on. The three attackers were put on trial and convicted on three main charges. One of them was consigned to a lunatic asylum. Ben Yosef and the other attacker were sentenced to death by hanging. As the verdict was announced, the two men stood up and shouted at the top of their voices: ‘Long live the Kingdom of Israel on both banks of the Jordan!’ In right-wing circles in which the killing of Arabs was glorified, Ben Yosef became a cult figure.

Mailer is right to point out that the context for this incident was the 1936-38 Arab revolt in which a large number of Jews were ambushed and murdered. But the Arab revolt itself was a desperate response to the Zionist takeover of Palestine with British support. In every other respect, her account is selective or wrong. That the operation was botched does not make it any less reprehensible. It is the intention that counts and the intention was to murder a busload of innocent Arab civilians. And this was only one in a long series of terrorist attacks mounted by the Irgun and the Stern Gang on Arab buses and marketplaces.

Avi Shlaim
St Antony’s College, Oxford

Avril Mailer refers to an interview with Ariella Atzmon from my film Galoot quoted by Jacqueline Rose. Mailer disputes Atzmon’s account of Ben Yosef. ‘Guns were fired in the air,’ she writes, ‘and if there was a grenade, it was not detonated.’ In my view, the question of whether or not a grenade was detonated is not what matters: the important thing is that Ben Yosef was turned into one of our heroes and as teenagers we sang his songs and admired him. Mailer’s aim is to contest Rose’s point that in certain difficult circumstances Jews also had sympathy for suicide killers, or at least for those carrying out indiscriminate attacks on Arabs. But were we not educated to glorify Samson, the first biblical suicide killer, as the Gibor (‘hero’)? Did we not admire the Shuhalei Shimshon (‘Samson’s Foxes’), the first commando unit of the Israeli army in 1948 (Uri Avnery was an enthusiastic member, but as a result of the cruelty he witnessed during the Israeli War of Independence became one of Israel’s most outspoken critics)?

Like Mailer, I grew up with a close knowledge of Betar, having been a member and even a madrich (‘young leader’). I am surprised that she questions Atzmon’s statement, ‘We did not want peace.’ We were educated to see the Arab problem only down the barrel of a gun. My teacher rabbi in primary school explained to us every week that peace with the Arabs would have catastrophic consequences: we would mingle with the Arabs and perhaps even marry Arab women (we were 12 years old).

Mailer’s final remark that within days of its publication, Rose’s article had migrated to websites with dangerous agendas reminded me of the reaction of some Jewish viewers to screenings of my films in different parts of the world: ‘Why do we have to show this to others?’ ‘Why show our dirty laundry to the gentiles?’ Mailer does not mention any websites in particular. I spent hours surfing Arab and Palestinian sites and did not find a single quote from Rose’s article.

Asher de Bentolila Tlalim
London WC1

Ben Yosef did not kill Arabs when he shot at their bus with the intent to do so. Although the account of what happened is contested, the statement that he did kill people, which I cited in my review, does appear to be incorrect, as Avril Mailer points out. However, other attacks by Etzel or Irgun were more successful. The mythology surrounding Ben Yosef arose from his dedication to his violent cause, at least as much as to his being executed having failed to fulfil it.

The point that Ariella Atzmon makes in Asher Tlalim’s film Galoot is a simple one, and still stands: that the Arab people do not have a monopoly on violence. Mailer’s letter endorses the myth that Jewish people only resort to violence in legitimate self-defence. In fact, Jewish groups engaged in acts of terrorism when their desire for statehood was being thwarted, as that of the Palestinians is today. It does nobody – no people – any favours, either politically or psychologically, to deny what, under certain conditions, humans are capable of.

Jacqueline Rose
London NW6

What killed Trotsky?

FBI files, now released under the Freedom of Information Act, show that Trotsky was killed ‘through the use of an Alpine climber’s axe’ (Letters, 16 December 2004). Mercader was an expert alpinist. He shortened the handle to smuggle the axe in, asked Trotsky to look at some writing, and struck the back of his head in the approved NKVD manner.

The term ‘ice-pick’ is currently used to mean both the mountaineer’s axe or piolet and a kind of awl for chipping off bits of ice for drinking purposes. The domestic use is from 1877, the alpinistic from 1937, just in time for Trotsky; one of the citations in the OED is a News Chronicle reference to the ‘ice-pick assassin of Leon Trotsky’.

Incidentally, the campaign to have Egas Moniz, the enthusiast of pre-frontal lobotomy, posthumously stripped of his 1949 Nobel Prize, has turned up the detail that for these delicate operations he used a commercially available drinker’s ice-pick.

John Birtwhistle
Sheffield

The ‘King of Kurdistan’

In my Diary from Mosul, I said that Sheikh Mahmoud became president of the Mahabad Republic (LRB, 16 December 2004). In fact, Qazi Mohammed was president of that short-lived Kurdish republic in 1946. Sheikh Mahmoud called himself the king of Kurdistan when he rebelled against the British occupation. The British expelled him to India as part of their repression of the Kurds who fought against being included in Iraq. Qazi Mohammed was executed by the shah in 1946, and Sheikh Mahmoud died of natural causes in the 1950s.

Charles Glass
London W11

Why We Do What We’re Told

Jenny Diski dwells, appropriately, on the darker implications of Stanley Milgram’s notorious experiments (LRB, 18 November 2004). But it’s worth remembering how much the effectiveness of any organisation, whether it builds bridges, feeds multitudes or destroys cities, depends on human willingness to obey authority without question. The point is not to excuse the monstrosities this willingness has produced, but rather to avoid viewing with complacency ‘the achievements of civilisation’.

James Tiles
Honolulu, Hawaii

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