Hurrah for Masquerade’s production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys! Evidently, director Andy Smith runs a tight ship for here was a case of teamwork with none of your usual amateur individual attempts to outshine at the expense of others and of the integrity of the whole. What performances stood out, they did so because the structure of the play required it. This is professional competence, not amateur bravura.
Hurrah for Malcolm Galea! An impressive craftsman, he constructed a convincing Irwin, the teacher for whom history (mediaeval or of his own) is a mere store of elements for the construction of spin. “Convincing” may be a paradoxical term of praise for a character whose principal characteristic is an utter lack of conviction in anything. His surgical incisions across Irwin’s mask gave us a glimpse of the terrifying emptiness beneath it.
Hurrah for Nanette Brimmer. Her Mrs Lintott brimmed with irrepressible energy erupting to the surface defeating the author’s own attempt to repress it. The only female character visible in a misogynist space, the others are kept away from the stage, as if they were obscene (ob scena, “that which should be hidden”). Mrs Lintott could arguably be dismissed as a token co-opted by an author with a keen eye to an educated gender-sensitive market. But then one would have to agree that not even the author – god of his own creation – could hide the more than half of humanity she represents.
Hurrah for Francesco Catania, David Chircop, Paul Cuschieri, Alexander Gatesy Lewis, James Muscat, Collin Willis and Joseph Zammit for their practically seamless jeu d’ensemble. And for Jon Rosser’s Hector, a veteran’s performance whose strength lies in its rigorous understatement, and for Luke Farrugia, a promising beginner who gave his Posner a courageous but measured disinhibition uncommon in our homophobic culture.
Hurrah for Andrè Agius (Daikin), whose intuitive command of the stage and whose talent will take him places if he can resist the usual temptation of goldfish confined in jam jars, namely of mistaking themselves for whales. Good to know that he and others in the cast are venturing out into the wider world, the only way of establishing one’s true value.
The staging just over a week ago of Bennett’s now four-year-old and still unrepentantly ungenteel tragicomedy, at the Manoel, a rococo theatre built for the “honest entertainment” of our then genteel but firmly absolutist rulers and now, 270 years later, still a favourite salon of the island’s genteel classes, calls for reflection.
Now, the adjective “genteel” has a variety of meanings. It may mean “having an aristocratic quality or flavour” or “free from vulgarity or rudeness” or “conventionally or insipidly pretty”. It may mean “of or relating to the gentry or upper class” or “maintaining or striving to maintain the appearance of superior or middle-class social status or respectability”. It may also be used to refer to a manner of behaviour “marked by false delicacy, prudery, or affectation” (Webster).
The History Boys is “ungenteel” principally because it is not “marked by false delicacy, prudery, or affectation”. The same cannot be said of all those who make up this country’s Establishment. This term includes, but is not restricted to, those wielding decisive political and economic power and those who justify, administer and ensure the continuity of this power in exchange for what is often an illusion of participating in the privileges it bestows. Not all those who recognise themselves in it are genteel holier-than-thou hypocrites but many are.
I wonder how many in the audience asked themselves if the recent controversial amendment to article 208 of the Criminal Code could have been invoked to censor those passages in the play graphically describing how Hector played with his students and what Daikin proposed to do to Irwin. And what about seeking Bennett’s extradition and throwing him in jail with all the cast? And the Manoel Theatre management committee? Isn’t it as responsible as the student editor who was charged for publishing a graphic story earlier this year?
I wonder how many considered the moral incongruity of a government that, to quote this paper’s editorial last Thursday, “would seem (to have) lost the plot in the issue over the investigation of the tender for the extension of the power station at Delimara” and its posing, with a great show of “false delicacy, prudery or affectation”, as the judge of what we may or may not read, watch and listen to, and do in our private lives.
This production of The History Boys highlights some of the cracks in the Establishment. I have been saying all along in this column that the ground beneath the feet of the governing elite is increasingly shaky. Stability is not only a matter of enough numbers in Parliament but a question of credibility throughout civil society. Faced with these players’ courage and intelligence, any Establishment is naked. If it censors them, it will alienate many of those that have so far recognised themselves in it. If it doesn’t, it will appear weak.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on October 25, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101025/opinion/the-government-vs-bennett
I am not sure what Alfred Nobel really meant when in 1895 he made provisions in his will for one of the Nobel Prizes to go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. What is “an ideal direction”?
If Kjell Espmark, chairman of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee and author of a “study of the criteria behind the choices”, characterises “the history of the Literature Prize (…) as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will”, then we can certainly be forgiven for not being any wiser.
What I do know, however, is that I was elated to learn last Thursday that the 2010 prize went to Mario Vargas Llosa. Readers may recall another piece in this column about seven months ago, featuring Vargas Llosa, (Any Given Monday, March 1, www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100301/opinion/any-given-monday).
In that article, I reflected on a passage from an early novel by this Peruvian author, Conversación En La Catedral (Conversation In The Cathedral, 1969). In that passage, the politically disenchanted journalist Santiago Zavala (Zavalita to his friends) asks “En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?” (‘When precisely did Peru get screwed?’).
Zavalita’s question is often repeated by Peruvians who despair of their country’s future as well as by Latin Americans sceptical about the future of their Pátria Grande, as my good friend Fr Ġwann Xerri OP, a former assistant for Latin America to the Master of the Dominican Order, following Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, lovingly refers to the Latin American continent.
Unable to satisfactorily explain what entrapped his homeland in this labyrinth of extreme social injustice where great poverty, underdevelopment and economic dependence co-exist with immense wealth and, in some parts of the continent, with extraordinary economic growth, Zavalita and all those who share his romantic idealist approach to reality are unable to see a way out. Zavalita, to some extent a portrait of the artist (his creator) as a young man, cannot think out of the box of individualist resistance and revolt.
Vargas Llosa’s failure as a politician can also be explained in terms of the limits of his social and political vision. His defeat by Alberto Fujimori at the 1990 Peruvian presidential election, when he presented himself as the candidate of the centre-right Fredemo, was mainly due to his inability to establish contact with the popular masses. Fujimori, ultimately more to the right of him, wooed greater popular support through his populism.
Having traversed the political spectrum from leftist radicalism to neo-liberalism – at one point exposing himself to the accusation of ignorance of the Andean world and of seeing indigenous communities as obstacles in the way of Eurocentric modernisation – Vargas Llosa practically left Peru. He acquired Spanish citizenship and now lives mainly in London. What has not changed throughout this political voyage, at least as indicated by his literary work, is his vision of the ultimately solitary individual – the resisting, revolting and finally defeated individual – as the alpha and the omega of history.
Looked at from this point of view, the Swedish Academy motivation of their award of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 is appropriate: “For his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”
I do not buy Vargas Llosa’s politics but I love his work and can empathise with him. There is a core element in his view that one cannot but embrace. That any social order that sacrifices individual dignity in the name of whatever social ideal is intolerable. What I fail to see is how his practical political choices can take any concrete society closer to his core ideal. Individualism may well be the worst route to a society that holds individual dignity sacred.
Vargas Llosa’s ability to convey this paradoxical experience is what makes his a great literature. To use Nobel’s words, it places his novels among “the most outstanding work”. As regards it being “in an ideal direction”, I continue not to understand what this means. After all, as Kjell Espmark writes: “The (Nobel) Prize is in the end not given to an attitude towards life, to a set of cultural roots, or to the substance of a commitment; the Prize has been rewarded so as to honour the unique artistic power by which this human experience has been shaped into literature.”
Although his universal appeal reflects the universality of his “paradoxical experience”, his novels are best appreciated if one appreciates the historical circumstances of Latin America.
We are accustomed to think of Latin America as a backward continent that needs our charity and of its inhabitants as infidels that need to be converted and educated.
Let’s end with the words of Fr Xerri: “In 1974, I arrived in Latin America, in Brazil, as did the majority of the missionaries who come from the first world, with the illusion of converting all the people, of ‘evangelising’… but the poor, those who have no value, have taken us by the hand and taught us new ways: As did the shepherds of Bethlehem, they led us to encounter Emanuel, God with us.” (Testimonio, Santiago, 2007).
What does Fr Xerri mean? Ask him yourself. He is speaking at the University chapel, Msida, at 6 p.m. today. I am assured everybody is more than welcome.
The original of this article appeared in Dr. Vella’s regular coloumn in The Times of Malta on October 11, 2010, and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101011/opinion/zavalita-and-bethlehem-shepherds
philosophy, sociology, anthropology and environs
Gwann Xerri OP
Is Liberation Theology dead?
Monday, October 11 at 6.00 pm, the Chapel, University of Malta, Msida
Gwann Xerri is a Dominican friar. He served in Brazil for about 30 years. He was then appointed to the General Council of the Dominican Order as its ‘Promoter for Justice and Peace’ and, later, as the Master of the Order’s Assistant (Socius) for Latin America. He lived and witnessed the Liberation Theology experience.
The Ariadne Workshops are organised by an independent collective. They evolved from an informal seminar held through 2009. For further information contact Michael Grech firstname.lastname@example.org