Monday, May 10, 2010

Auden's England

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave…
- W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

It’s been almost exactly a year since Richard and I were last in London, and once again I must begin with politics. Whereas last year the global financial crisis and the just emerging expenses scandal were sending polling numbers for Gordon Brown’s Labour government to new lows, this year the electorate has finally had a chance to pronounce on that government. Yet the election results are decidedly ambiguous, throwing the country into further uncertainty. David Cameron’s Conservative Party won the most seats in last Thursday’s election, but fell shy of a majority. This has thrust Liberal Democratic leader Neil Clegg, whose party machinery somehow failed to translate his surging popularity in the wake of the first ever televised leaders’ debates into an increase in seats, into the role of kingmaker.

Still, as of this writing to my knowledge no deal has yet emerged about a possible power-sharing coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, and various constituencies on both sides are nervous about the so-called compromises to their parties’ “core values” that might result. Which means, according to local media pundits, that there is still a slim possibility of a Labour/Lib Dem coalition being struck from this mire—especially if, as is widely expected, Gordon Brown announces his imminent resignation as Labour leader. However, as the Conservatives won the most seats and the popular vote, this would be a very risky move on the part of Clegg (and Labour, for that matter), risking voters’ wrath the next time the country goes to the polls.

Strange, though, that unlike in Canada all of these details seem to be thrashed through in advance by the various leaders/parties, presenting the Queen with what amounts to a “gentlemen’s agreement” to work together for the good of the country rather than all the ideological jockeying and abuse of parliamentary procedure that is par for the course with our minority Conservative government.

As for the performances, so far there has been an Auden theme: a wonderful revival of Hans Werner Henze’s 1961 opera Elegy for Young Lovers, with libretto by Auden and Chester Kallman, at the Young Vic, in a co-production with the ENO, and magnificently directed by Fiona Shaw; and Alan Bennett’s latest play, The Habit of Art, which reunites the playwright with director Nicholas Hyntner and actors Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour (both so wonderful in The History Boys), and which imagines a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten while both were at Oxford towards the end of their lives and Britten was struggling with the music for his last opera, Death in Venice.

Auden apparently based the egotistical and cannibalistic poet, Mittenhofer, in Elegy on W.B. Yeats, and it really is a most unflattering portrait of the artist who is willing to do anything—including, it is suggested, abetting the deaths of those closest to him—for the sake of art. Bennett’s play suggests that in Elegy’s Mittenhofer Auden was also composing a composite self-portrait, as he has his Auden claim at one point that “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” And, indeed, what Auden (despite his moving poetic elegy for Yeats, recited in the Bennett play at one point) found most unforgivable about Yeats—that his poetic talent had diminished towards the end of his life—he also feared about himself.

Apparently writerly self-doubt is something Bennett also has in common with Auden, as the rather clunky play-within-a-play scaffolding he has erected around his imagined meeting between Britten and Auden (we are watching members of an acting company rehearse a play—Caliban’s Day—about the two artists) allows him the opportunity not just to reflect post hoc on differences in the two men’s sexual self-presentation, but also to conduct a debate with himself about the merits of his own play (mostly via the Griffiths’ character’s merciless questioning of the fictional playwright’s motives at various points in the play-within-a-play).

One final note on the Henze opera: the whole experience was made all the more memorable by the presence of the 84 year-old composer himself in the audience—and me witnessing the great Fiona Shaw giving him a hug.

Tonight we’re off to the Almeida to see the London premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, about rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a play I taught this year in my Introduction to Drama course. It’s gotten rave reviews here, and I’m anxious to see a live production. I shall report on its merits when I can—likely from Spain, where we’re off to next, Icelandic volcanic ash permitting.


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