The Spike or Victoria College Review 1941
Auden in the Theatre
Auden in the Theatre
We present to you this evening a picture of the decline of a class, of how its members dream of a new life, but secretly desire the old, for there is death inside them.
W. H. Auden—The Dance of Death.
Wystan Hugh Auden, in his own words, 'an intellectual of the middle classes.' Like so many of his kin, he approached politics through psychology, a dangerous method which has led to many curious and diverting interpretations of society. These are the only personal facts concerning Auden which we need to know before we can adequately evaluate his work; and, indeed, both facts are reasonably obvious in his every poem and play.
There are two ways in which one can befully aware of the ideology of 'an intellectual of the middle classes' —either to be one or to fall in love with one. The sincere and sensitive among them are openly shocked at our ridiculous society; a few are even vouchsafed a fairly accurate vision of the future world. But it remains a vision, something pleasant to think about, like a good book or a seasoned pipe. They understand that the literal fulfilment of their vision would mean an abrupt end to those institutions which have made them what they are; they know, however, that this end is desirable and inevitable, and logic compels them to realise that the 'lower classes' are the only instrument which can bring about that end. Thus, secretly dreading the impending change, they either clothe the 'lower classes' in helmet and breastplate and idolise their muscles, or else submerge them in a mass of dull statistics.
And their views as to the method of transition are correspondingly tainted. Most are led into the bog of gradualism; others, like Auden, seek to find in middle-class society itself the seeds of its own decay. Capitalist society will not fail because of the strivings of a militant proletariat, as Karl Marx and his Comrades believed; no, by some obscure psychological mechanism, probably associated with the Oedipus Complex, bourgeois society subconsciously desires its own destruction; the bourgeoisie will fall because 'there is death inside them.'
A comforting creed, indeed!—for those who cannot speak with a worker without experiencing a spiritual shudder. Come, then, Comrades-let us rest beneath the Bo-tree, and write verses, and drink good wine, and wait for the Revolution to come.
But all this is merely malicious, and hardly lair. 'The category "bourgeois", 'a penetrating Marxist has said,' is not necessarily a crematory. 'The Catholic Church can claim to have produced perhaps the two greatest modern poets; the liberal bour page 45 geoisie has produced Auden, and for all this we should be grateful.
Auden's first published work in dramatic form—it can hardly be called a play—is Paid on Both Sides, euphemistically called A Charade. It is brilliant but obscure, studded with private jokes, and probably worthless. It takes some discernment to see behind the allegory a picture of the anarchic struggle of rival capitalist enterprises in modern society, and to translate the younger son's departure for the colonies into imperialist expansion. There are to be found germs of the clowning and choruses which enliven The Dog Beneath the Skin; there are lines and, occasionally, whole passages proclaiming that this poet is no ordinary innovator.
The Dance of Death, a slender play, is Auden's first work designed for actual production. The allegory is thin: Karl Marx is introduced long before he actually appears in the last moments of the piece. The dancer—death—capitalism. The atmosphere throughout is that of the extravaganza and the musical comedy; the parodies of fascism and intellectual mysticism, by which means the dancer seeks to escape death, are real and grim enough. The song to the tune of 'Casey Jones' near the end is a fine lyrical exposition of the Marxist theory of historical materialism, minutely accurate:
.... The feudal barons they did their part,
Their virtues were not of the head but the heart,
Their ways were suited to an agricultural land
But lending on interest they did not understand.
Luther and Calvin put in a word
The god of your priests, they said, is absurd,
His laws are inscrutable and depend on grace,
So laissez-faire please for the chosen race. . . . .
But the dancer is sick; he desires death; he sinks to the stage and expires. There is a noise without. Enter Karl Marx, accompanied by the 'Wedding March' and two Communists: Says Marx:
The instruments of production have been too much for him.
He is liquidated.
And all 'exeunt to a Dead March.'
That is Auden's position in a nut-shell. The task of the working class is merely to inspect the body, pronounce life extinct, and get on with creating the New Order.
The Dog Beneath the Skin, the first fruits of the now famous collaboration between Auden and Christopher Isherwood, is good fun, and a little more than that. Auden has written no finer verse than the Choruses opening each scene, and his satire is nowhere more bitter (except perhaps in The Orators) than in the Paradise Park, Lunatic Asylum, and Ostnian Palace scenes. The story, like that of The Ascent of F6, is that of a search—a search through diverse Freudian and political realms to find the lost heir of the manor. The finale is particularly effective, and the final chorus, ending on a frankly Marxist note, very moving. But the medley of doggerel, beautiful verse, clowning, and satire, has no obvious cohesion: the 'message' is there all right, but it does not obtrude sufficiently for all the episodes to hang neatly together upon it.page 46
It is in The Ascent of F6 that the collaborators have achieved their greatest success. We may grant that Ransom is a prig, that the mother-complex intrudes unwarrantably, that the moral is fundamentally reactionary, that the political satire is crude and inaccurate, that it is a play for intellectuals and no others—we may grant all this, and yet recognise that there is a residuum of great beauty and truth in the play.
Virtue and knowledge are the prerogatives of the 'nursery luncheon,' the 'prize-giving afternoon,' the 'quack advertisement,' and there is but one alternative, 'to make the complete abnegation of the will. 'All right—we agree that such a creed means the negation of all collective action, but surely we recognise its partial truth, and treat it as a warning rather than a dogma? There is no need for us to follow Auden all the way.
Nothing more tragic has been written than the Mr and Mrs A scenes; nowhere has the futility of such existence as theirs been more powerfully stated. Yet it is not all sordid: Auden is fair—
Straying from the charabanc, under tremendous beeches,
We were amazed at the profusion of bluebells and the nameless birds,
And the Ghost Train and the switchback did not always disappoint.
This is the audience which follows Ransom and his friends as they make the ascent of the great mountain. Mr and Mrs A do not see what we see, however; they do not see the political contrivances which inspire the expedition, and the subtle mental conflicts which Ransom undergoes, bowed down all the way by his mother-complex. They do not see the strange scene at the summit of the mountain, where Auden uses with great effect the technique employed by James Joyce in the brothel scene in Ulysses. They see none of this; they merely recognise that these climbers are doing something for them, something for which they ask no return:
But these are prepared to risk their lives in action
In which the peril is their only satisfaction.
They have not asked us to alter our lives,
Or to eat less meat, or to be more kind to our wives.
The prose astonishes us with its catholicity; the parodies of the statesmen, the press, and the blue-blooded Englishwoman are delicious; and there are many lovely passages such as that in which Ransom apostrophises the skull found on the slopes of F6:
Well, Master; the novices are here. Have your dry bones no rustle of advice to give them? Or are you done with climbing. But that's improbable. Imagination sees the ranges in the country of the dead, where those to whom the mountain is a mother find an eternal playground ....
After The Ascent of F6, On the Frontier is an anti-climax. It is a more 'popular 'play, more dramatically cohesive and openly political than any of its predecessors, but it states nothing new, nothing that we do not already know. It was a product of the emotions aroused by the sharpening political conflicts of the late thirties, and though the problems are correctly, though crudely, stated, no solution is offered. The revolution is still proceeding when the curtain falls, and the pacifist-become-revolutionary does not survive.page 47
Auden is an 'intellectual of the middle classes' and has approached, and still approaches, politics through psychology. He is divorced and isolated from society, and is only subconsciously aware of the fact. It is pleasant to dwell in Auden's land, stripping the individual bare and assessing his good and bad points like a horse-dealer—but the pleasure is ephemoral, and the assessment only relative. The indivi-dual is more than a bundle of seething complexes, and it needs more than sensitiveness and psychology to integrate him with society.