Friday, 25 May 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Vanilla by Jane Stanton Hitchcock (Lyric), Tribune, 25 May 1990

The thought of Harold Pinter directing a black comedy about the super-rich is rather appealing, but Vanilla doesn't work at all. Not that it's Pinter's fault: it's simply that Jane Stanton Hitchcock's play, although based on some quite good ideas, is third-rate.

Vanilla is essentially an attempt at setting Restoration comedy in contemporary New York. Clelia Climber, a whore who has married a billionaire, is throwing a megabuck party. The guests include Lucy Lucre (the world's richest woman), Amanda Tattle (a lesbian society gossip columnist), and Miralda Sumac (a sex symbol whose husband has just been overthrown as the dictator of Vanilla, a small third world country). As a novelty, Clelia has decided that the after-dinner entertainment at the party should consist of poor people - but the poor people riot, led by her servants Maria and Jesus, both Vanillans determined to avenge their families' treatment by the vicious Sumac regime.

This could have been the opportunity for some wicked satire, but Hitchcock's writing just isn't up to it. Her dialogue is at best pedestrian, the gags are lame, and there are no surprises. The star-studded cast struggles valiantly, particularly Joanna Lumley as Miralda and Sian Phillips as Lucy. But the best thing about Vanilla is the interval icecream.

Tuesday, 1 May 1990


Sanity, May 1990
British playwrights are still producing radical drama, writes Paul Anderson, but what they’re doing has changed

The other week, browsing in the bookshop at the National Theatre before going to a play, I came a across Catherine Itzin's study of political theatre in the seventies, Stages In the Revolution, first published in 1980 and now reprinted. Someone had 'borrowed' mine five or six years ago, and because it's a useful reference book for anyone writing about contemporary British drama, I'd been looking for a replacement for some time. So I bought it, without, however, much intention of reading it again.

Instead, after a week of increasingly serious flicking through its pages, I read it from cover to cover, drawn by Itzin's portrayal of a theatrical world that only a decade on seems strangely exotic.

It's not so much that the big names of seventies radical theatre writing have disappeared from view. Indeed, it's remarkable how many of the playwrights interviewed by Itzin still dominate the scene. David Hare (The Secret Rapture, Racing Demon) and Caryl Churchill (Serious Money) have had their greatest successes in the past couple of years. Howard Barker's critical reputation has never been higher, with productions of Seven Lears and Scenes from an Execution two of the highlights of the London fringe this year (if the Royal Court and the Almeida can properly be described as 'fringe' any more). There have been new plays staged in the past year by Howard Brenton (Hess is Dead), Edward Bond (Jackets II), John McGrath (Border Warfare, John Brown's Body) and Barrie Keeffe (My Girl, Not Fade Away).

Nor have all the institutions of British radical theatre gone. The spirit of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop is still very much alive, both at its home, the Theatre Royal Stratford East (at the time of writing showing Patrick Prior's madcap anti-poll tax farce, Revolting Peasants) and elsewhere - the Kilburn Tricycle, Hull Truck, and Cheek by Jowl spring immediately to mind. The Royal Court continues to stage provocative new work, much of it by Women writers. The Almeida in Islington, the Leicester Haymarket, the Glasgow Citizens' and a host of other theatres throughout the country, many of them small studios, remain committed to experiment. The Edinburgh fringe goes on, albeit somewhat shakily at times. The two big subsidised flagships, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, regularly put on radical interpretations of plays from the canon, revivals and translations of past radical drama, and contro­versial new work, particularly, but not only, on their smaller stages.

But the Thatcher decade has changed the sorts of plays that play­wrights are writing and theatres are staging, and it has killed off many of the smaller theatres and companies, particularly touring outfits and those most involved in radical politics. Edward Bond is still turning out dour far-left polemics (Jackets II is a hysterical sub-Brechtian tale of proletarian insurgency); John McGrath is as committed as ever to class politics.

But whereas in 1978 David Hare could almost seem shockingly iconoclastic when he complained of the 'demeaning repetition of slogans' favoured by the 'slaves of Marxist fashion' in the theatre, today simplistic didactic leftism is the exception rather than the rule. The theatrical generation of 1968 has abandoned its view of theatre as a tool of the class struggle in the face of declining public subsidy and other intractable realities – not least that the proletarians of Britain show no desire to be proselytised by them. 

Meanwhile, younger playwrights (all too few of them because of the tiny number of stages prepared to put on new writing) show no sign of being seduced by their elders' one­time stances. It's not that they're a bunch of reactionaries – no one who has seen anything by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Neil Bartlett or Clare Mclntyre would ever think that. It's just that agitprop, like all things Leninist, seems these days to be a fraudulent delusion.


Paul Anderson, Sanity, May 1990

Cornelius Castoriadis is a thinker who defies the categories – a leftist who has criticised the peace movement for pro-Soviet naïveté, yet insists he is not a cold warrior.

“Gorbachev is so preoccupied with his crisis domestically that he's incapable of acting on the international stage. He's lost the initiative...”

Cornelius Castoriadis is talking with some animation, with a strong French accent, jabbing the air with a cigarette for emphasis. It is the first time I have met him, and the circumstances, a coffee break in a noisy student canteen during an Essex University philosophy seminar, are not ideal for serious discussion with one of the most highly regarded of contemporary French intellectuals, a man whose writings I've admired for years and years.

But Castoriadis seems quite at home. He is refreshingly candid, with a mischievous sense of humour, very rude about academic seminars (“They always turn into a series of monologues”) and the intellectual star system. He is never patronising. The incisive thinker, it seems, is also an engaging human being.

This surprised me only because Castoriadis has something of a reputation as an awkward character. By all accounts, his enthusiasm for accuracy in translations of his work is boundless: he broke off relations with the American journal Telos, which published much of his political writing of the late seventies and early eighties, after a series of rows over the way it had rendered his key concepts into English.

But perhaps such apparent awkwardness is to be expected from someone who has spent his adult life writing against the intellectual fashion of the times. Now 67, Castoriadis left his native Greece for France in the mid-forties, a convert to Trotskyism from Stalinism, on the run from civil war. He rapidly became disillusioned with Trotskyism, and in 1948, together with Claude Lefort, then a young student of the existential philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, founded the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.

S ou B ceased publication in 1965, was plagued by schism, and never sold more than a few hundred copies each issue. But the anti-Leninist, post-Marxist libertarian revolutionary politics it developed, largely through Castoriadis' essays under the pen-names Paul Cardan and Pierre Chaulieu, were enormously influential on the post-1968 new left in continental Europe, which was characterised by a commitment to non-bureaucratic, self-managed political activities. In Britain, Paul Cardan's essays were published as pamphlets by the libertarian socialist group Solidarity.

Castoriadis today is unrepentant about his advocacy of revolutionary seizure of power by self-managed workers' councils. “In broad outline, I'm still committed to the emancipatory project which I outlined in the fifties. I still stand by the principle of the self-management of production and the maximum possible decentralisation of decision-making. Autonomous society is about self-management, and we need to start with the places people gather – the firm, the school, the university, the hospital,” he says, although he'd drop the idea of the “centrality of the industrial proletariat” if he were sketching a possible future society today.

Castoriadis's commitment to autonomous “self-activity” as the means and end of fundamental social change, which he developed in his magnum opus, The Imaginary Institution of Society, published in 1975, was equally at odds with both major seventies Parisian intellectual crazes-the Stalinist structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and others, and the 'god-that-failed' polemics of the ex-Stalinist nouveaux philosophes. But the furore created by his attacks on these shooting stars was as nothing to the impact of his assault on the western peace movement in his 1981 book Devant la guerre (Facing War).

The core of the book was an argument that the Soviet Union was becoming a “stratocracy”, a society ruled by the military. This was a matter not of generals taking over in a coup, but of something much more profound. The only efficient economic sector in the Soviet Union was military; the only effective state ideology was military. And the Soviet Union was multiplying its military capacities at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, the west gave every impression of caving in to the first sign of Soviet pressure. The peace movements of western Europe, with their concentration solely on western nuclear arms, were a symptom of the West's loss of nerve.

Unsurprisingly, the ferocity of this polemic lost Castoriadis many friends, particularly in Britain and West Germany. But he dismisses accusations that he adopted a cold war position, and feels that his analysis of Soviet militarism has been to a large extent vindicated. “What has been revealed in the past couple of years show that I underestimated the extent of military domination of the Soviet economy,” he says.

Which is not to say that he's not been forced to adapt his opinions by developments since Gorbachev came to power, particularly since the revolutions last year in eastern Europe. His most recent essay on the Soviet Union, "The Gorbachev Interlude”, marks a significant softening of his opinions on the role of the Soviet military, even if it is extremely pessimistic about the likely success of Gorbachev's reforms. As for eastern Europe: ”I was taken by surprise, as was everybody else.”

But what of the future? He shrugs. “The recent events in eastern Europe show that people can be extremely active in overthrowing a tyrannical regime but are not necessarily so active in creating their own order. There's a general misconception that what we have in the west is the best of all possible worlds – which I'm sure will remain dominant in eastern Europe for a few years. But a democratic society requires active participation, a degree of passion for common affairs. Today in the west, that is absent.”