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Kind Hearts and Coronets, the post-war middle class, and the massacre of the nobility

The English aristocracy have always been a crisis-prone sort. When not nearly rendering themselves extinct in the Wars of the Roses or hand-wringing over a bunch of 18th century peasants rioting across their estates (see my previous post), they were busy envisioning their doom at the hands of the inter-war proletariat. In the end, it wasn’t so much a menacingly Bolshevik working class or any Europe-haunting spectres standing nonchalantly beside a dripping guillotine; it was the war itself and the rise of that ceaselessly aggressive social phenomenon, the middle class.

Having just bankrupted itself by participation in the Second World War, the social winds of Britain changed course irrevocably. A beleagured population, emerging from six years of war and the dawning realisation that Britain was no longer as important, or as rich, as it once was was, was not the same docile beast that faced the aristocratic classes in the inter-war and Edwardian period. For the great mass of the population who had to struggle through the war years, the idea of hereditary wealth no longer fit the national mood, and the long march of decline for the English nobility began at the hands of the middle-classes.

When faced with the grimly determined, Protestant work ethic-fuelled assault of the professional classes, typified by the pre-war, suburban, Orwell character of George Bowling, they stood no chance. George Bowling appears in Orwell’s underrated 1939 book Coming Up For Air, the melancholy story of a middle-class man whose life is defined by mediocrity. He inhabits one of thousands of suburban homes, he thinks little of his family and his job, but merely carries on with his life regardless, escaping for relief into the ecstatic, high jinks memories of his Edwardian youth.  George Bowling, or more dynamic versions of him, were precisely the kind of people who, in the post-war atmosphere of shared sacrifice were storming the (faux-Tudor) ramparts of the stately homes of nobility, their entitled and hereditary wealth now an aberration in the national narrative of hard work and sacrifice.

And while George Bowling himself, given over to fatalism as his character is, lacks the capacity to improve his own life any more than he already has, this new middle class, and their ghettos of strip suburban development, had always in reserve a thousand more George Bowlings to take his place. This is the same middle-class that, two months after VE Day, dispensed with the conservative Churchill government and flocked en masse to Labour, awarding them a landslide victory on the promise of full employment and the welfare state. A general levelling took place, not in favour of any idea of working class emancipation, but on the vaguely general principles of ‘the people’, the middle classes and workers, as opposed to the nobility. The times of the idle gentry quietly surveying their lands, or knocking croquet balls on the lawns of Mandalay were over, and their Late Victorian and Edwardian heyday must have seemed a distant memory.

It is this insurgent middle-class that manifests itself in the character of Louis Mazzini in the Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Although set in the Edwardian era, the film was made in 1949, the highpoint of post-war Labour government, and so displays a contradictory setting of being set during the last hurrahs of the English nobility, while displaying fully the politics and sensibilities of the post-war, post-aristocratic era. The politics of 1949 are being played out in 1910.

The film begins with the protagonist’s mother exiled from her inimitably aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. Having married beneath her station, she finds herself living in a cramped house in Clapham with her young son, her husband having since died. Demeaned and humiliated by her family, she teaches Louis the injustice of their situation, constantly drumming into him the fact that, no matter where he lives or what job he is doing, and despite his mother’s exile, remains a distant heir to the Dukedom of Chalfont.

Despite his heirdom, Louis’ situation is resoundingly middle-class. Having finished school, he further demeans his true station by taking a job as a draper’s assistant, eventually working his way to one promotion after another, thus proving that enduring piece of middle-class folklore that nobody chooses poverty. He becomes the archetypal professional man, all the while becoming more embittered over the injustice of his situation.

After being publicly humiliated in the shop by a distant relative of his and being sacked for his angry response, Louis resolves to murder all the members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and the dukedom, or his birthright, as he puts it.

After doing away with the young playboy who cost him his job, suitably by drowning him and his mistress at the fashionable weekend resort of Maidenhead, he moves on to the others.

He ingratiates himself with his next victim, and proceeds to blow him up while he is developing photographs in his garden shed. Through the course of the film, he goes on to poison a priest, shoot down a hot air balloon, blow someone else up, lure an elderly man into a bear trap and shoot him in the face, rejoice at the news of a relative dying of a stroke and celebrate a pair of infant twins dying of diphtheria. And still, at every point, the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with Louis and cheers him along his rampage through the aristocracy.

The aristocrats he kills off are painted in an entirely unflattering light. The best of them are shown to be nice-but-dim types, while the worst are dinosaurs; callous, lazy, rude,  uncaring, dishonest, mean-spirited and completely lacking in feelings or tact. Louis, on the other hand, is hardworking, witty, urbane, displays honour and dignity, and expresses himself in ways that only a modern man would. For instance, when invited to go hunting with the clownish elderly gentleman, Ethelred D’Ascoyne, he refuses to take part in any shooting, claiming that it would contravene his principles. We are clearly supposed to be rooting for the protagonist, even as he takes part in what is, to all purposes, an incredibly brutal, comedic killing spree that resembles something like a comedy of manners version of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.

Needless to say, Louis avoids any inconvenient investigations into his spree and becomes the 10th Duke of Chalfont, bagging the charming wife of one of his victims along the way. Displaying his modern (read, post-war, 1949) levelling sensibilities, he tells the servants at the D’Ascoyne family home that his first priority will be to ensure them a good life. He is then promptly arrested for a murder he did not commit, and finds his hard-won dukedom, and his life, hanging in the balance.

Louis aspires to become a member of the aristocracy, but once he is there he behaves nothing like them; he is enlightened, and cares for his servants. He perfectly embodies the post-war, ceaseless aspiration of the professional middle-classes, importantly, through hard work and not entitlement, to occupy the position of power previously held by the dying nobility. Many merely yearned for power and wealth, but for every George Bowling, there was always a hundred of his neighbours willing to take his place. But instead of occupying the now unaffordable landed estates of this beaten nobility, now resentfully left open to the public as museums of another age, they moved up the professional ladder, bought homes, and built conservatories. Kind Hearts and Coronets, like the bankrupted post-war nation, is the literal massacre of the nobility.

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Summer With Monika: Pre-sixties youth revolt in a changing Europe

Summer With Monika, directed by Ingmar Bergman, tells the story of two Stockholm teenagers, Harry and Monika, who fall in love and agree to escape from the drudgery of their lives by running away from home and living a nomadic existence sailing around a series of deserted islands. It takes the form of a classic runaway film, with a pair of young lovers fleeing from the responsibilities of adulthood, but also reveals a truth about life in post-war Europe, and the prospect of changes to come.

Monika ostensibly runs away from home to escape the oppression of her family life. She lives with her violent and alcoholic father, her mother, and her loud and mischievous younger brothers. Their apartment is cramped, the children all sleep in cots in the kitchen, and their poverty is emphasised by the excitement generated when the father can afford to bring home ‘a bottle’ one evening.

When Monika first meets Harry, it is in the setting of a workman’s cafe near to their respective workplaces. Later, see see Monika sexually harrassed by her workmates; she is the subject of lewd jokes, and several times she is touched inappropriately, leading her to break down in tears. Harry, working nearby, also has a hard time at work, and seems to despise his boss and the general drudgery of his life. He is also subjected to bullying at the hands of a cruel foreman. When Monika and Harry first meet, they both fantasise about escaping from the drudgery of their lives, signified in their boredom and harrassment at work, and the oppressive nature of Monika’s family life.

Later, after her father hits her, Monika runs away from home and arrives at Harry’s apartment, suitcase in hand. Fearing the watchful gaze of his visiting aunt, Harry sets them both up in the cabin of his father’s boat. Monika quits her job, and the next day Harry does the same after an arguement with the bullying foreman. They both meet back at the boat, and Harry says,

‘Remember what you said about travel? Well, to hell with the others now. Let them slave away, what do we care.’ To which Monika answers, ‘I’d like to kill all those who want to hold us back and make us crawl.’

They agree to leave, and sail away on the boat to begin a summer of roaming adventures, sailing to and living on various deserted islands in the seas around Stockholm. They have run away from the world of work, obligations, and have chosen to disengage with society. It is here that we see Summer With Monika in its curious historical epoch. Made in 1953, and, strangely for a country that remained neutral during the war, Summer With Monika presents an almost perfect vision of the post-war melancholy and malaise of Europe, personified in its two main protagonists. Stuck between the old world of war and ideology of the first half of the 20th century, and the ‘new world’ of individualism, consumerism and uprooted social attitudes of the 1960s, we see both the history of the old world and the future of the new.

Their decision to flee the world is a basically individualist one; they are alienated from society (work, family, their own poverty) but instead of attempting to change these conditions, they merely commit themselves to voluntary exile to live a life of blissful isolation. They invert their alienation from the world and completely disengage from it. This attitude shows us the future; that it has been a hallmark of alienated Western youths in the latter half of the 20th century to form subcultures to try to create a world separate from society itself. Harry and Monika’s breaking away to live their own nomadic existence resembles most easily one of the central concepts of the hippie movement, which would have been in full flow only fifteen years later. But while hippies disengaged from society and travelled, or founded rural communes, it was usually framed in the language of a vague spirituality. Their reasons were given as esoteric or metaphysical, as manifested in the slogans to ‘find yourself, and ‘return to the Earth’. An interesting, if unintended indication of the new freedoms and changing social mores of the 60s can be seen in the controversy surrounding Summer With Monika on its release, namely its frank depictions of sexuality and nudity. Controversial at the time, the depictions of nudity would probably not have raised an eyebrow a decade later.

Harry and Monika’s motivations are different, and strikingly materialist; they have left their lives in Stockholm because they experienced poverty, the daily drudgery of their lives at work, and the fraught problems of family life. Here we see the past; the base problems that the ideological battles that pre-war Europe sought to resolve. In 1953, most of Europe was still rebuilding and coming to terms with the legacy of the war, and being pulled East or West in defense of opposing geo-political interests in the burgeoning Cold War. Whatever idealism had existed in the socialist movement of the first half of the century was gone, buried by the Stalin years and the transformation of European Communist parties into mere proxies for the Soviet state. It is easy to see, in a hypothetical Summer With Monika made twenty years earlier, Harry and Monika’s complaints against society and their own poverty being absorbed by the socialist and trade union movement, which formed a strong Europe-wide opposition for working-class people throughout the first decades of the century. Or for the more dramatically inclined, an action film where our protagonists join cells of a leftist terrorist group, a Swedish Narodnaya Volya.

Like many who now look back on Europe in the 1950s, Summer With Monika, feels like a film trapped in the remains of the past and the seeds of the future. Harry and Monika’s alienation from society is purely material, but lacking the ideology of the pre-war era, they cannot confront them, but instead choose the path of escape to lead a nomadic existence, something more suited to the esoteric motivations of post-war youth subcultures. These subcultures, whose opposition to society was clear (and remains to be), saw that attempts to change society were useless, and, lacking the language in a post-ideological world to express this frustration, merely formed their own socieities outside of it, often based around things like music or fashion, with corresponding values.

Harry and Monika’s response is individualist and non-political, and if the film were made in later decades we could imagine them becoming hippies, or punks, or a member of any other pyriad of subcultures in Western Europe. As it is, Harry and Monika exist in a kind of time warp that reveals the changing world of Europe in the 20th century, one that could never return to the past, and had only a bright, brave future to march towards, leaving Monika to wander somewhere between a picket line and a muddy field of bongo enthusiasts.

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Shakespeare and conspiracy: the prospect of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love,  a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.

The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.

As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.

Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest:  the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.

While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.

By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.

In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter,  is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.

It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.

In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.

Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,

‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘

Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists,  but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.

A shortened version of this post appears at blogcritics.org – http://blogcritics.org/video/article/shakespeare-and-conspiracy-the-prospect-of/

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