Return of the English Absurd — Richard Woolley

Complicated historical moments provide fertile ground for rhetorical simplicity, a sellers’ market for the felicitous use of allegory or metaphor to pin down the zeitgeist and, on occasion, to similarly affix the name of the speaker in the popular consciousness. Churchill achieved this through the mobilisation (though not the origination) of the image of the ‘Iron Curtain’, which came to stand for the literal division of post-war Europe along Soviet lines, but also for the end of a vast stage drama (that of the European theatre) and provided a handily haunting subversion of a familiar symbol of Western domesticity — the plush, elegant curtains of catalogues and sewing patterns that tied together suburban living rooms and that could, when the occasion called for it, be twitched.

The enduring success of figurative language, in political terms at least, can be measured by the aptitude by which it collapses disparate worlds — international and local, political and personal — into a single focal point, in the process making complex issues appear more readily graspable. Another eminent Tory, John Arbuthnot, pulled off such a trick with his History of John Bull (1712), which framed the War of the Spanish Succession as a series of lawsuits between local tradesmen (dealers in ‘draperyware’ as it happens) and their dishonourable patron. In the process, Arbuthnot, in the character of Bull, gave birth to an archetype of the right-thinking English patriot who went on to adorn everything from anti-Bonapartist cartoons to pro-recruitment propaganda in the First World War, and in our own times seems to have emerged in flesh and blood, Union Jack waistcoat and ruddy jowls intact, sloganeering in Parliament Square.

The most popular analogy so far provided for our current crisis came from Times columnist Hugo Rifkind, who likened the government’s Quixotic campaign to extricate the UK from the European Union to a state-funded project to build a submarine out of cheese. How long this image endures will depend on market forces: it originally surfaced on twitter — the contemporary columnist’s medium of first resort — which opens it to a daily threat of new entrants and competitive rivalry. Yet here again is that necessary whiff of the world of quotidian, commodified objects that lends a weird permanence to the metaphors of Arbuthnot and Churchill, and latterly Borges — who is under-remembered as having coined the characterisation of the Falklands War as a fight between two bald men over a comb. Just as the supply chains by which these goods reach our homes connect us to a wider network of politics and trade, so this cheese, these curtains and combs, tether the vast and complex outside world to objects we can hold in our hands.

The breakdown of the supply chain between what is desired and what is deliverable used to be religion’s problem, albeit one conveniently deferrable to the afterlife. In a secular society, whose defining aesthetic is not deferral of desire but rather immediate acquisition, unfulfilled contracts are harder to understand and forgive

My own favourite allegory for our Brexit-scarred moment was in fact aired for the first time more than 60 years ago in English playwright N.F. Simpson’s debut stage work, A Resounding Tinkle, in N. F. Simpson: Collected Plays (Faber & Faber, 2013). We are shown a respectable suburban couple, the Paradocks, peering forlornly through their living room curtains; they have ordered an elephant for their prefab bungalow, but the zoo has delivered the ‘wrong’ one. Middie, the Paradock matriarch, at first suggests sending the animal back, much to the consternation of her husband Bro. ‘And be without an elephant at all?’ he splutters incredulously as his wife takes up the familiar refrain, worn smooth in our own era of disappointment; ‘I don’t know why they couldn’t send us what we asked for in the first place.’

 

The breakdown of the supply chain between what is desired and what is deliverable used to be religion’s problem, albeit one conveniently deferrable to the afterlife. In a secular society, whose defining aesthetic is not deferral of desire but rather immediate acquisition, unfulfilled contracts are harder to understand and forgive. Paradoxically, this is all the more true when the promised goods are impossible, or at best horribly damaging, to deliver. Thus, we see Middie questioning not the logic or practicality of the elephant but rather wondering at the disconnect between demand and supply. Likewise in our politics, we see the ire of voters and press directed not at the unwieldy project of Brexit itself, nor even the campaigners who promoted it as a viable option, but to the failure of Parliament to ‘deliver’ it.

Simpson, whose nickname ‘Wally’ reached back to a previous constitutional emergency (that of Edward VIII’s abdication) wrote Tinkle in the immediate aftermath of the Suez crisis, itself a pantomime of British hubris and humiliation that has provided our commentators with a touchstone for the present crisis. And the play —  which casts middle-England adrift in a sea of illogic and exhaustion — can be plotted onto the same continuum.

‘There’s somebody at the door wanting you to form a government’, Middie tells Bro at the beginning of Act One: ‘He says he’s working through the street directory.’ And after a brief discussion of what their caller is wearing and what kind of drink to offer him, Bro replies, defensively: ‘It’s the Prime Minister’s job.’ For a post-Suez audience, here was a takedown of the incremental failures of leadership that characterised the Eden administration from 1956 until its dissolution in January 1957, the same year a shortened version of Tinkle received its premiere. We meanwhile can read here our pick of the voids in authority and direction that have opened up in our politics since the 2016 referendum.

Simpson was no single entendre satirist, however, as the following exchange shows:

‘MRS PARADOCK: Oh yes. If you want to shelve your responsibilities I dare say it is the Prime Minister’s job.

MR PARADOCK: It’s no concern of mine at all.

MRS PARADOCK: There’s a man at the door waiting for your answer.’

All at once we are confronted with old Jeffersonian questions, equally germane to our own political climate as that of the late fifties, about the accountability of the electorate for the outcomes of the democratic processes in which they participate. With elections, as with elephants, the Paradocks are cast as consumers, and we come to ponder the wisdom with which they wield their political and commercial buying power. At least, that is, until Bro discovers that the man at the door is just ‘Uncle Ted having a joke’, and the couple successfully barter their elephant for a snake that can fit inside a pencil box.

This method of catch-and-release, of the suggestion of deeper meaning punctured by “intellectual slapstick” (in the words of the First Comedian, a major character in later scenes), lends credence to the arguments of critics who seek to link Simpson’s work to the European Absurdists, on one hand, and the Goons and Monty Python on another. But nothing by Ionesco — who Simpson is most frequently compared to, and claimed never to have heard of when he was first writing — nor the Knights who say ‘Ni!’ feel to me as usable, as uncannily appropriate to life in this country at the moment, as the Paradock’s living room does.

Here speech is not allowed unless it resigns any connection to reality — ‘what I can’t make up can go unsaid’ as Bro announces. Here are invisible board meetings for non-existent enterprises whose outcomes are endlessly postponed. Here Bro and Millie hire nameless comedians to perform meaningless dramas through their serving hatch to ‘prevent [them] from quarrelling all the time.’ And throughout it all the scene goes unchanged; Simpson’s stage direction, so minimal and eloquent, brings the play’s drama, its violence against reason, home. ‘A suburban living room.’

After all, it was in suburban living rooms that the country was so recently and permanently changed. Map the referendum result and you can see that our national reality largely redirected by the quiet, undocumented, often unvisited blanks between the major English cities. And the government’s major project since June 2016 has been to create a floating world, cut loose from burdensome fact, where the citizens of these places can feel like they had been sent what they asked for.

Suez too did not want for popular support, though it was never reduced to the harsh arithmetic of a referendum, and this clung on even after Eden’s climbdown and abdication: James Callaghan went so far as to blame Labour’s opposition to the conflict for the party’s collapse among its working class base in the 1959 election, where the Tories increased their majority to 101. Simpson, by this point, was a bankable name, taking part in TV debates with Harold Pinter and John Mortimer, and commanding sufficient clout to get the unexpurgated Tinkle performed, with Peter Cook as Bro. And it is only armed with the complete text of the play that we can codify its set pieces into anything like a coherent scheme; not just one that reminds us, if we needed reminding, of the slow-burning illogic of our times, but that begins to suggest something beyond it.

In language that is horribly familiar to us, the Author says: ‘For let us make no mistake about it, we are in this together …It is together that we must shape the experience which is the play we shall all of us have shared’

Because the fact of Uncle Ted having a joke does not do away with the issue of civic responsibility, rather it obliges Simpson to reframe it. At the beginning of both acts, which operate on fairly traditional theatrical terms, it is Bro and Middie who are the object of the play’s enquiries, occupying the aesthetically interchangeable positions of voters and purchasers. But first by the arrival of the Comedians, which recasts the Paradocks as audience members, on through increasingly overt metatheatrical techniques — culminating in whole monologues by characters named Author, Producer and Technician — the line between participant and observer, creator and consumer starts to erode. In language that is horribly familiar to us, the Author says: ‘For let us make no mistake about it, we are in this together …It is together that we must shape the experience which is the play we shall all of us have shared’. Of course, this too could be a joke, but it is one Simpson repeats often enough for it to stop being funny. The play ends with the whole cast drinking a toast to the audience: we are complicit, and we cannot laugh it off.

And what is the play we all of us have shared? How different is the absurdity on stage from the absurdity that plays out in our national conversation, which is to say, in our own living rooms tuned to 24-hour news? Are we just passive consumers in this process, off the hook as soon as our vote is cast or purchase made, or do we have further responsibilities? And are we in any way living up to them? There’s a man at the door waiting for our answer.


Richard Woolley is a journalist and writer. His fiction has appeared in The Nottingham Review and elsewhere. He lives in London.

Image: More CheeseSimon WillisonCreative Commons