Monday, August 25, 2014

The Visit; 1984 & Animal Farm; The Lesson & Rhinoceros

I was assigned "The Visit" by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt in college.  It was written in 1956, with the super-obvious themes of collective versus individual guilt, and the ability of regular folks to quickly find rationalisations for doing evil things.  FD was looking over his shoulder at the recent events in Germany and Austria, with hints of accusation at some Swiss sympathy and collaboration with Nazis.

At least, I thought it was super-obvious even as an 18-year-old in 1971 and my professors agreed.  There was a famous essay at the time which I have never since been able to track down, illustrating that French writers of the 50’s had strong themes of victimhood, German writers of guilt, Swiss writers of ambiguity, etc.  It was likely overdrawn, but examples were given and it was based on something.  Durrenmatt was also a member of Olten Gruppen, a pretty reliably anti-Nazi collection of writers, even if their opposition to communism was more spotty.

Apparently I missed the memo, as the wikipedia article and other current writing about the play and its adaptations don’t include reference to the first theme.  It has become more important to discuss the themes of money corrupting us all and justice for purchase – both legitimately present – plus women’s rights, prostitution as a metaphor, and dehumanisation, which are less prominent.  Note that the accusations which are commonly leveled against America are those which have remained.

Let me assure you that if one keeps listing the same dozen faults of societies as the ones we should be concerned about, neglecting to mention another dozen which apply to other societies, most of your better students will have the first set of faults become their mental furniture and be unable to think of the others unless someone mentions those to them.  And think it was their own conclusion.  Because…in a way it was, as some of the lesser students don’t pick this stuff up even when you tell them it will be on the exam.

Those will then go forward into the world knowing that they are smart and able to understand things that the proles don’t.

It reminded me of discussions as far back as my childhood years about how 1984 and Animal Farm were intended as cautionary tales about what could happen in America and the West under right-wing governments.  More than one person told me in meaningful tones in 1980 how significant and frighteningly ironic it was that we were in danger of electing Ronald Reagan to be president when 1984 rolled in. Heck, I may have residually thought so myself up until that time. Orwell, a disillusioned but continuing socialist, could not have been clearer that Ingsoc owed more to soviet socialism than national socialism. No matter. We know where the real dangers lie. McCarthy just has to be more dangerous than Hiss.

I have mentioned before that something similar is up in our current understanding of the plays of Ionesco. A director of “The Lesson” at William and Mary when I was there wanted the professor’s armband to be an American flag instead of a swastika, and in a 21st C production  “the homicidal professor dons a Republican National Committee armband”

A production of "Rhinoceros" in San Francisco - the straight characters were all reinterpreted as lesbians because...well, because SF is a very original place where they think of things like that.  "Phaedra" as a gay play, "Othello" as an African-American lesbian, "Hippolytus" as a play about forbidden love, or even the Bible redone as gay in Terrance McNally's "Corpus Christi," I'm sorry, I got distracted by the originality there.  Back to Rhinoceros in San Fran: "The rhinoceroses are dot-commers whose SUV's and cell phones signal the call of wild greed."

Pointing out the obvious is still useful, it seems


Texan99 said...

I think I always associated 1984 with the Iron Curtain. There wasn't much of a drumbeat in Houston in the 70s public schools against right-wingers.

terri said...

"four legs good, two legs better"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ terri. Yes, scary how fast they...we...could change.

james said...

Remember this one?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you James. I read it again, with some pain.

Sam L. said...

I remember reading that; perhaps last year. The susceptibility of man to ideology.