Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: Daisy Pulls It Off: A Comedy

Daisy Pulls It Off: A Comedy Daisy Pulls It Off: A Comedy by Denise Deegan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saw this at South London Theatre and hated it. But six years later at Bromley Little Theatre it was a lot of fun. Usually comedies are funnier if you play them straight, but this one seems the other way round. Played straight, it's just an old-fashioned jolly-hockey-sticks story, where the lower-class girl proves herself, only to be revealed as a toff after all, validating the class prejudice of her erstwhile tormentors. Only by sending the whole thing up is the class order subverted. Maybe I'm still a socialist after all.

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Review: The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal

The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal by Axel Honneth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did a bit of research, so I can say with some certainty that this book isn't a satire or a parody. Axel Honneth is a senior philosophy professor and he is seriously trying to guide the theory of socialism out of the blind alley where it was led by the misguided assumptions of its 19th Century founders and their unquestioning 20th Century acolytes.

To put it in layman's terms, which Prof Honneth most certainly hasn't, the problem is that early socialists were fixated on the economic sphere and the proletariat's revolutionary reaction to it in the context of the nation state. Infuriatingly, the nation state has become diluted (Brexit notwithstanding), the proletariat has failed to adopt a revolutionary consciousness and become diluted as the economy becomes post-industrial, while capitalism has refused to collapse under its own contradictions. One of the best things about the book is how Honneth objectively picks apart the muddled and circular thinking of dogmatic socialists in a politically neutral way.

The solution, which Honneth finally gets round to after lengthy discussion of the philosophical roots of the the movement, is for society to be controlled democratically, with its various elements (not just the industrial proletariat) co-operating through ill-defined communication structures, based on the recognition of common needs rather than individual wants. For this to happen, the present power structures must be dismantled by means unspecified, while stronger personalities within the new order must restrain themselves from building a new power structure for their own selfish benefit.

As Honneth concludes, in the very last sentence of the book:
Only if all members of society can satisfy the needs they share with all others – physical and emotional intimacy, economic independence and political self-determination – by relying on the sympathy and support of their partners in interaction will our society have become social in the full sense of the term.
With such a naïve vision, it's little surprise that Honneth's book is a fundamental contradiction of itself. Socialism at its heart is a society run by the masses, for the masses. Yet Honneth's writing style shows that he is wedded to the idea of socialism as the preserve of an intellectual elite. The language of the book – and this cannot simply be the whim of his translator – makes every effort to be obscure and even intimidating.

For instance, on page 55 he states: "With a bit of goodwill, we could say that the first socialists understood…" Only he doesn't say that. He says: "With a bit of hermeneutic goodwill…" This isn't a one-off. At every opportunity, Honneth uses words designed to intimidate and exclude. The message is clear: his socialism is the preserve of an intellectual elite. You need a degree in politics. A degree in English won't do: I know because I've got one, and I can barely understand it.

Situations are frequently "immanent" (a word used almost exclusively by left-wing intellectuals). The word "normative" appears on almost every page (I'm not exaggerating). Social structure has to be "concretized". The existence of resistance movements is "apodictically presupposed". The operating segments of society make up not just a whole, but a "superordinate whole", while their interests are not just intertwined but "intersubjectively intertwined". If his argument is ever in danger of making its point clearly, Honneth invariably inserts a mysterious, convoluted, polysyllabic and usually unnecessary word or phrase to throw the reader off the scent.

As for the proletariat – y'know, the ones who are supposed to not only benefit but actually be in charge – the clear message is that socialism isn't for you. It's ours. Leave it to your betters. You could call Honneth's vision a kind of aristocratic socialism. He recognises that socialism has lost its way, but the destination remains the same: the movement must continue the long march up its own backside.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: Tom, Dick & Harry

Tom, Dick & Harry Tom, Dick & Harry by Ray Cooney
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As the lights went down for the interval, I turned to my companion and simply mouthed, "Wow." This play is simply awful. Of course, it didn't help that one of the actors was hopeless and the direction was a little pedestrian; a decent script could survive that. But farce only works with an element of plausibility, and this one depends on people making ludicrous, idiotic decisions that nobody with an IQ in double figures would make.

Tom and Linda are awaiting a visit from Mrs Potter to assess whether they are suitable to adopt a baby. Tom's brother Dick has borrowed Tom's van ostensibly to help a friend move house but has instead gone to Calais to load up with cigarettes, brandy and, unwittingly, two Albanian refugees. That's plausible enough and a good basis for a farce.

But Harry? He plans to help Tom and Linda buy their rented flat. He steals some body parts from the hospital so he can bury them in the garden, turning the flat into a murder scene and knocking £100,000 off the asking price. Easy enough: hospitals always leave dismembered cadavers in corridors for anyone to walk off with and would never notice if they sent a body for cremation minus its head and limbs. And why would an absentee landlord suddenly decide to sell at a loss when he has reliable, paying tenants? And why would Tom let Harry bring body parts into the flat on such an important day?

When Mrs Potter arrives to a house is full of dead bodies, and occasional policeman and live, drunk refugees (but not Tom's wife Linda, who has been tricked into going out), she offers to postpone their interview. To which any vaguely sane person would reply, "How about next Wednesday?" Instead, Tom insists the interview goes ahead and concocts the most idiotic story imaginable to explain the situation.

With farce, one has to sympathise with the main protagonist, but it's impossible to sympathise with Tom. He could have solved his problems at almost every turn: with a simple "Yes" to Mrs Potter and a simple "F*** off out of my flat" to Harry, Dick and the refugees. Every situation offers an easy escape that Tom refuses to take.

Like Alan Ayckbourn, Cooney is a staple of AmDram and his comedies have that cosy, 1970s feel (with social attitudes to match). Tom, Dick & Harry was written in 2005 and is a bit more modern, but there's still a whiff of the 70s about it. That's what will keep it running in Village Halls for decades, or at least till the Morecambe & Wise generation have shuffled off.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: Familiar

Familiar Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Robert Lennon looks more bald than in his earlier PR shots, it's probably through tearing his hair out reading reviews like many of those here, decrying that he has failed to create a linear narrative that comes to a clear conclusion. "But what happens in the end?" they fume. To ask the question is to miss the point. (Besides, Lennon does provide an ending – at least a possible one – on the penultimate page. But it's all in brackets and isn't the final word, so presumably that's not good enough. I'd question whether he even needs to give his readers that much.)

In Familiar, Elisa slips into an alternative reality where everything is the same but slightly different: her son Sam has failed to emerge from his brother's malignant shadow, she and husband Derek aren't having affairs (a creepy therapist is now the interloper), her job has changed and a woman she despised is now her best friend. Oh, and her son Silas hasn't spent the last ten years dead.

The title, of course, is a play on words, because the sci-fi plot is a device to tackle the real issue in Elisa's life: how to make sense of her spectacularly dysfunctional family. Her existential crisis exists in both universes, only in a different form. One is drawn to the conclusion that the answer to the question 'where did I go wrong?' is that it doesn't matter. What was wrong was always you. If you didn't make this cock-up you'd have made a different one. You might have taken a different route you took to your personal disaster and hurt different people along the way, but the result is the same. Silas's survives at the cost of Sam's psychological collapse.

Lennon could point his detractors to something Silas says in one of his posts to a gaming newsgroup, "Designers are stuck on the notion of story. Life is inherently nonsensical. Drawing strands of meaning together is for idiots."

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