Saturday, October 29, 2011

Good is better than good

What would you expect if you went to see a play written by someone who died early of pneumonia, probably as a result of his habit of writing naked in a polystyrene lined garden shed? I hoped for something special and that's what I saw on Monday night. It was the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's fine production of C P Taylor's Good.

The play is thirty years old now, but is still fresh, entertaining too, even if it is about such uncompromising material as the Holocaust. On the surface, the device of rewriting Faust, with a literature professor as the main protagonist, and then charting his slow entrapment by the Nazis from opportunism to complicity could be banal. But not when it is written as a tragicomedy. Nor when it is also an examination of friendship, neuroses and a unique psychosis where, instead of hearing voices, the professor is haunted by snatches of popular tunes.

Of course that is just a device for telling the story. The real theme is the human complexity of what we call inhumanity. It is about how the good become evil whilst still remaining good, at least in their own minds, sustaining their self-image through sophistries. The central theme of the play is that there is an objective reality, one that is tangible, observable and knowable. Experience is not a fiction or a dream, let alone a discourse. The phenomenon that it explores is that when faced with clear and unambiguous evil, good people set out to deceive themselves.

The process starts with incomprehension; 'It isn't as bad as all that, they don't really mean it, it is only for show'. It is painfully hard for any sane human being to immediately grasp the nature of evil. But then, as reality becomes ever more unavoidable, people hide from the truth and with each twist and turn of the path leading to horror, evasion requires greater sophistication, convoluted argument and dense clouds of verbiage. More chillingly, self-deception can lead to complicity, drawing people in ever more deeply through both self-interest and moral cowardice until that instant when the real cannot be dodged and the truth becomes utterly, unavoidably clear. This is the moment of damnation.

At the heart of the play is a lecture delivered by the professor that is Taylor's statement of purpose, except that it is a negative image, a reversal of all he is writing about. It is a soliloquy on the need to remove 'Jewish humanism' from literature, to break with the idea of the novel as an exploration of individual experience, to replace it with a glorification of the collective – to subjugate a person's life to the margins, to render a person meaningless. Taylor is the 'Jewish humanist' par excellence, his drama explores and explains through the lives of ordinary people caught up in a demonic regime.

And he is so apposite about the sophistries, the apologetics and the evasions – how we drown in the stuff! Elaborately written shit. Elegant exhortations to murder – historical necessity, race survival, the will of god, eliminate this or that group of persons and we will have the perfect world. There is no objective truth, everything is relative. It wasn't my fault, they didn't suffer, there was no alternative, I was only obeying orders. And, above all, - it was all their fault, they brought it on themselves. And some of the most noisome ordure emanates from the phalanxes of tame academics, writing in impenetrable prose posing as profundity, making barbarity seem reasonable. How many graves have been filled by this stuff?

Good is a memorable play, a fine piece of drama, but when I got home there was a final piece of irony. I glanced at the programme where there was an interview with the director ending with a discussion of the play's contemporary relevance. She is quoted as saying,
"Someone once said that GOOD is a play about moral compromise in a political fog, which I think is a reasonably good description of the series of actions following 9/11 that led us to go to war in Iraq. And the fostering of a largely irrational fear targeted at lazily identified ethnic groups in the wake of that event goes to the heart of what the play is about." 
Actually, I think that is a lousy description of the play. It isn't about moral compromise, it is about the abandonment of morality, and the fog is not "political", it is one invented to conceal an only too clear political reality. But it is the rest that struck me. The sentiment is manifest; Muslims are the new Jews. Except they aren't.

The "War on Terror" is not an attack on all Muslims because they are brown-skinned or because of an abstract hatred derived from some seriously weird racist pathology. It isn't an attack on Muslims at all. Instead it is aimed at a particular theocratic political movement that sees mass murder as a religious duty, is violently misogynistic, calls for the execution of homosexuals, has embraced every genocidal anti-Semitic trope that the Nazis adopted (except, for obvious reasons, the myth of the Aryan race) and now denies the Holocaust, despite showing some apparent relish at the though of killing Jews.

I have no doubt she is a good person. I have seen concrete evidence that she is a damn fine theatrical director. It is just that she too has taken the Guardianista route of apologia, averting her eyes to the reality of evil – to the horrors of the decapitations, the stonings, the public hangings and of the suicide bombs – to the hatred and dehumanisation of Jews – just what Taylor was writing about. Yes indeed, the play is more than relevant to today.

Good is brilliant. Go and see it.

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