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Not a happy superman

14 May

man and superman

I love Bernard Shaw’s plays, mainly for their wordiness and their single-minded focus on ideas. The wordiness in particular means that these days they are not performed very often; but last week I saw the outstanding production of ‘Man and Superman’ at the National Theatre, with Ralph Fiennes playing the part of the anti-hero Jack Tanner.

The desirability of the pursuit of happiness is one of the many themes of the play. Shaw expresses a mistrust of the concept that is similar to Chekhov’s, but with a far more cynical edge to it. When Jack Tanner tells his friend Tavy that he is trying to save him from the clutches of the woman he wants to marry, Tavy says that in that case he’ll be saving him from his highest happiness. ‘Yes, a lifetime of happiness,’ Tanner responds. ‘If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.’

Like Camus and Ionesco, Shaw also questions the value of hope. Tanner dreams that he has gone to Hell in the guise of Don Juan, and there he meets the Statue of the irate father whom he killed during his life on earth. The Statue has grown tired of Heaven, and is on a visit to Hell. ‘Written over the gate here,’ he tells Tanner/Juan, ‘are the words “Leave every hope behind, ye who enter.” Only think what a relief that is! For what is hope? A form of moral responsibility. Here there is no hope, and consequently no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to be lost by doing what you like. Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.’

Camus and Ionesco identify hope with an absurd insistence on meaning and purpose in life. Shaw seems to agree , but for him the quest for meaning is not absurd.  Tanner/Juan chooses the moral responsibility which is abjured by the Statue: when he gets the opportunity, he decides to abandon Hell, where he is free to practise ‘the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness’, and to exchange it for an eternity of contemplation in Heaven.

This is the dream. Back in his dramatic real life, conventional romance wins out, and Tanner finally agrees to marry the woman he loves. But he rejects the idea that the object of marriage is  happiness. ‘I solemnly say that I am not a happy man. Ann looks happy; but she is only triumphant, successful, victorious. That is not happiness, but the price for which the strong sell their happiness. What we have both done this afternoon is to renounce tranquillity, above all renounce the romantic possibilities of an unknown future, for the cares of a household and a family.’ The lifetime of happiness Tanner warned Tavy about is not to be his. The visit to Hell has shown him that moral responsibility is far more important. So the convoluted outcome of the play is that Tanner embraces marriage because it will save him from happiness, and position him firmly in the arena of work and commitment.

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Hope springs eternal – how absurd is that?

10 Dec

exit the king

      Since I find Camus’ absurdist approach to the subject of happiness very compelling   (this blog, 17 and 29 May 2014), it’s not at all surprising that I  should  have really enjoyed a play by one of   the great exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. The weekend before last we saw his Exit the King, first produced in 1962, at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Broadly, the play deals with the themes of mortality and impending death, both for the individual and for human civilisation. Berenger, the king of a nameless country, is now 400 years old. At an early stage in the action his two wives, Marguerite, the elder of the two, and the younger, more fun-loving Marie, learn that the King has got to die by the end of the play.

 MARGUERITE:         It’s the normal course of events, isn’t it?  You were expecting it. Or had you stopped expecting it?

MARIE:                        You’ve been waiting for it.

MARGUERITE:         That way everything’s in order.

MARIE:                        I was still hoping …

MARGUERITE:         You’re wasting your time … Nothing but hope on their lips and tears in their eyes. What a way  to behave…. It’s your fault if he’s not prepared. It’s your fault if it takes him by surprise. … Life was very sweet, with your fun and games, your dances, your processions … ‘We’ve got to live,’ you used to say. But one must never forget …

MARIE:                        He’s so fond of parties …

MARGUERITE:         People know, and carry on as if they didn’t. They know, and they forget …

 When Marguerite volunteers to tell the King that his death is imminent, Marie warns her, ‘Tell him gently… take your time,’ but Marguerite responds, ‘We haven’t the time to take our time… This is the end of your happy days, your high jinks, your bean-feasts … We’ve got a few moments left to do all the things we ought to have done years ago.’

Berenger soon learns the truth, and is distraught. Marie wants him to be allowed more time, but the king’s doctor tells her that an hour will give him all the time he needs. In what I see as a kind of preview of Daniel Kahneman’s views on the value of an ending (this blog, 11 December 2013), he continues:

DOCTOR:               A well-spent hour is better than whole centuries of neglect and failure. Five minutes are enough … ten fully conscious seconds. We’re giving him an hour, three thousand and six hundred seconds. He’s in luck.

 ‘So live for the moment,’ Marie advises her unhappy husband:

MARIE:                   My darling King, there is no past, there is no future.  Remember, there’s only a present that goes   right on to the end, everything is present ..

KING:                    Alas, I’m only present in the past.

Mindfulness is not much help to Berenger, it seems, when he is on the verge of death. He is so attached to the idea of life that when for the first time he begins to question Juliette, the palace’s downtrodden factotum, about the kind of  existence she leads, envy of her ability to carry on living prompts him to play the cock-eyed optimist and  find every dreary aspect of it enchanting. When she tells him about the toothache and the shopping and the endless washing-up, he says, ‘All this is magical, like some celebration …’.  

This kind of senseless mindfulness is the equivalent of telling the poor and oppressed to count their blessings, they’re lucky to be alive. The opium of the masses, in other words. 

Berenger, I think, resembles Admetus, the king in Euripides’  tragedy Alcestis who is told that he can be saved from death if he finds someone to take his place on the journey to Hades. (His young wife Alcestis volunteers, and Admetus allows this to happen). Leaning from the window of his room, Berenger shouts to anyone who can hear him, ‘Who will give me his life? Who will give his life for the King’s? His life for the good old King’s?’

All the other characters gradually leave the stage, and it is Marguerite who finally steers the King towards his end, persuading him to give up all the things that tie him to his existence and make his load a heavy one. ‘It was a lot of fuss about nothing, wasn’t it?’ she says to him when he finally relaxes his grip on life.

In Ionesco’s play, as in Camus’ Sisyphus, the dismissal of the idea of hope represents a refusal to cling on to a sense of purpose and meaning in our absurd lives. Neither author sees this rejection of hope as a counsel of despair. We can still live our lives to the full – in fact the notion that emerges very strongly from Exit the King  is that  we are much more likely to lead fulfilling and useful lives if we accept the inevitability of death at an early stage. Hope is seen by both Camus and Ionesco as a ridiculous and fruitless ploy to evade the all-encompassing Absurd.