Diary

Frank Kermode

There occurred recently the first successful prosecution of videotapes under the Obscene Publications Act. As far as one can tell, the offending material had more to do with violence and cruelty than with simple sex, an interest they appear to be superseding. Around the same time we read of allegations that the Greek police had been inflicting some form of bastinado on a British woman prisoner. They were said to use this means of persuasion as a matter of course.

I suppose that we must remind ourselves of the fact that we live in an age of torture, and can look back at the crude technology and limited aims of Medieval and Renaissance hangmen as if to the good old days. Much that was inconceivable has become conceivable. How naive nowadays must seem Bertrand Russell’s First War pacifist arguments for non-resistance. He thought it could make the whole country unworkable: for instance, if the Post Office as a whole declined to work for the occupying force, the PMG would be shot, and perhaps his deputy, and – but it was inconceivable that everybody, down to the last postman, would be shot. Weariness or disgust would intervene; and thus the evil would be limited, even defeated. But we now know that there is an endless supply of people who are perfectly willing to kill or to torture all day long. There is no limit, not even the limit that might be suggested by utility. The hired hands will, it seems, carry on long after there is no more to be discovered, no spirit left to be broken.

All this we should have known long ago. Think of the career of the great Richard Topcliffe, chief ‘poursuivant’ or persecutor of Jesuit missionaries in the reign of Elizabeth I. Topcliffe is perhaps not much spoken of except by historians of the Catholic martyrs or close students of Donne, who mentioned him in passing but deleted the allusion. He wasn’t one of your bully-boys or guttersnipes, but the son of a Lincolnshire gentleman – in fact, after Tennyson he must be Somersby’s most distinguished son. He was educated at Magdalene and Lincoln’s Inn, and became MP for Beverley. He was so good at hounding Catholics that the lawyers invented the verb topcliffizare to describe that activity. He was allowed to keep a rack in his own house, and according to the DNB he boasted that it was a very special one, compared with which the ordinary models were mere child’s play. The poet-priest Southwell felt its powers, but so did other kinds of people; Topcliffe had a down on gypsies. Even his bosses thought he sometimes went too far. He was tireless because he enjoyed his labour. Thirty years ago, a friend of mine picked up at a bookstall in the Cambridge market a Catholic work, the name of which I have forgotten, but which gave an account of the careers of the recusant priests. It was the copy Topcliffe himself had owned, and his annotations were full of pleasure. He drew little gallows against the names of men he had helped to bring to their deaths; or wrote, ‘I racked him,’ and other memoranda I have forgotten. He seems to have done quite well for himself, but there is no mistaking the fact that he tortured for love rather than the rewards that came his way from England’s Eliza and her ministers.

Six or seven years ago, Brian Phelan wrote a television play called Article Five, which was founded on data collected by Amnesty concerning the trade in instruments of torture and their use by governments pretty well everywhere. The BBC filmed the play but suppressed it at the last moment, whereupon it was staged as a lunchtime piece at the ICA. It was a somewhat unnerving occasion, and when the play ended the audience sat in silence for a while and then escaped into the reassuring daylight and the moderately ceremonial calm of the Mall. I doubt if many of them experienced even the most covert desire to get their hands on the ingenious devices they had seen demonstrated. The sample was perhaps too small to contain a Topcliffe. I stayed behind to wait for my daughter, who was working on the production as an ASM. Eventually she strolled onto the stage, gathered up the appalling machines as if they were garden tools or golf clubs, and wandered off. I’m not sure why, but this struck me as more horrible than anything in the play itself. So might an inquisitor, after a hard day, stow his equipment before going home to his dear ones. (But in that fantasy the person is always male.)

Phelan’s play named a long list of countries known to use these interrogative or persuasive devices, and the list included the UK; it was suggested at the time that this had something to do with the decision not to show it on BBC Television. But it seems possible that whoever gave the order to suppress it was moved by considerations more general though more obscure. And perhaps it is particularly disgusting to be faced with the fact that the person inflicting unimaginable pain on another, and sometimes doing so without or beyond any conceivable necessity, is any kind of relative, or even a fellow citizen. We don’t wish to be told that these abominable fellows, so easily recruited and so well endowed with job-satisfaction, are our own kith and kin. Phelan’s play, though it presented an imaginary situation, had a sort of documentary purity which made the experience of watching it quite unlike that of classic tragedy, though there, too, we may encounter torture. King Lear works with some paradigm of suffering far below the level of the daily newspaper; so, for that matter, does Beckett’s Not I. At Article Five we were too close to what was going on, as if we were spectators at the real thing, our susceptibilities to the facts of the matter, the naked humiliations and genital shocks, protected by no illusion and no poetry. It was, in fact, a truly modern theatrical experience.

As spectators we seem to have changed quite a bit in recent times. At the opera or in the concert-hall there is nowadays, as never before so generally, an obligatory baying as the last note sounds; it is indeed becoming a competition, the first yell winning, as in Bingo. The winner is displaying the intensity of his appreciation but also as nearly as makes little difference taking part in the performance. (‘His’ because the cry is always male, like priority at the wheel of the family car.) At modern cricket matches continuous audience participation is the rule. Doubtless the cognoscenti continue their civil between-balls conversations, but the crowd beats its beer-cans, roars and sings football hymns. Finally, like the brayers at the opera, they get into the act, storming the field and touching or slapping the players as they run for cover. At the end of the last Test the English wicket-keeper seized a stump as souvenir, and a supporter of the losing side tried vigorously to wrest it from his hands: he had been part of the show, and had as much right to the trophy as Taylor, who had just made the winning hit.

Possibly this new relationship between performers and audiences at public games (Botham Agonistes) has emerged rather belatedly from the theatre proper, which has for years encouraged such a revision. There was the Brechtian fracture of the old contract between players and audience; there was the Sixties revival of the old Dada happenings, the street theatres, the peculiar goings-on in parks that the late Michael Astor and I used to attend in the days of the Arts Council’s Experimental Projects Committee. More sedately, there was the change in theatrical structures themselves, the loss of confidence in the proscenium arch. The transparent wall is gone, and not only in avant-garde theatre, but also at Lords. The crowd ‘invades’ the pitch, recognising the artificiality of the conventional boundary rope.

In the early days of the cinema it was usual to complain of its non-participatory character; Lawrence often sounded off about it, and had a well-known preference for tribal dances and the like. About the same time Artaud was promoting a theatre that would avoid complicity with the passive consumer. His ‘essential theatre’ was to be ‘the revelation, the bringing forth’ of the repressed, a means to absolute freedom. ‘It releases conflicts, disengages powers, liberates possibilities, and if these possibilities and these powers are dark, it is not the fault of the... theatre, but of life.’ Such a theatre would induce trance, like the dance of the Dervishes. There is admittedly some risk in such operations, but Artaud was sure it should be taken: anything is better than the prevailing ennui. But of course ‘everything depends upon the manner and the purity with which the thing is done... let it not be forgotten that though a theatrical gesture is violent, it is disinterested.’

Well, we had our theatre of violence, from Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus to his Marat/Sade and great King Lear. There was undoubtedly a nouveau frisson, but those who experienced it, at Stratford or the Aldwych, were hardly to be thought of as good subjects for the kinds of trance and catharsis Artaud was proposing. If we want to mix some horror and glory in with our boredom we shall not go to the theatre, where cruelty is playful, the shadow of a shadow. Perhaps the nearest we shall get to the orgiastic is by participation in operas and games. When Aby Warburg wanted to show the continuity of symbols, he brought together photographs of modern athletes with more ancient images, and even bracketed a woman golfer with a headhunter; the image of the golfer may be examined in E.H. Gombrich’s fascinating biography of Warburg, though we learn little there of her ancestry, which could very well go back to Maenads or Bacchantes. But most people do not actually play: they simply follow the golfers around, sighing and ululating in a manner that might also have interested Warburg.

Artaud might have thought it a good thing that cricketers should be cathartically pummelled, and argued that even if the violence got out of hand – out of the space reserved for it, whether theatre or stadium – the consequences were preferable to mere tedium. In that respect, the window-smashing football crowds are his kindred. Most of us prefer to keep violence off the streets. Whether sadistic home videotapes help or hinder, purge or stimulate, may be a question. It used to be argued that people were rarely more innocently employed than when sitting at home with a dirty book, and the same sort of thing might be said of the now banned videotapes. All the same, I confess – a gut reaction, as they say – that I was glad rather than otherwise to hear that they had been looked on with active disfavour.