In the realm of the senses

Holding up a Mirror

September 6, 1996

The purpose of playing ... is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show I the very age and body of the time I" Anne Glyn-Jones seeks to follow Hamlet's advice in this blockbusting survey of the moral history of western civilisation. The story of the theatre, as a mirror of its times, is a continuing thread. The main fabric is provided by a little-known emigre Russian, Pitirim Sorokin, sometime professor of sociology at Harvard, whose massively researched and mind-numbingly jargon-ridden 3,000-page masterwork, Social and Cultural Dynamics, ceased to command any attention after the outbreak of the second world war when the focus of attention shifted to Marxism.

Sorokin believed that sociology cannot afford to exclude value judgements if it is to demonstrate what makes societies tick. The key factor in his analysis is the extent to which the material world is regarded as the only reality within a particular culture, and he saw this as ultimately determining its moral and aesthetic climate. An "ideational" society, in his terminology, gives priority to the immaterial and the transcendent. An "idealist" society takes the material world seriously, but does not regard it as having any authority in the realm of values. A "sensate" society locates all value in what can be observed and enjoyed by the senses. In moving from the first to the third type, societies lose "all moral restraint to the point at which crime and lawlessness make the pursuit of happiness a hollow goal. Competition for goods becomes increasingly vicious as greed, untrammelled by other values, outstrips the speed at which resources can be induced to match demand. The resulting loss of cohesion leaves the community defenceless; revulsion against moral anarchy and the sordidness of sensate arts invites belief in a new and more challenging philosophy of life, thus further disrupting traditional loyalties. In the end the sensate society commits suicide."

In building her work on this structure Glyn-Jones is intelligently aware of the danger of all such sweeping generalisations, and avoids the pitfalls of historical determinism. Her aim is to point out resemblances between different societies, not to claim knowledge of ineluctable trends. She is clearly a remarkable woman, with a career in the World Health Organisation, the National Film Board of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the theatre, as research assistant to Harold Macmillan, and research fellow at Exeter University. At the age of 73, and in what appears to be her first book, she has condensed a lifetime's reading into 650 mostly entertaining pages, carrying a serious health warning about the state of our increasingly sensate society. She is not the first to do so, but her focus on the theatre, neglected by Sorokin, gives her book an interest and a solid core that lend credibility to the main thesis.

The decline of the classical Greek theatre from tragedy to pornography, matched a growing preoccupation with cash, comfort and material consumption. In a sensate society with no values beyond immediate self-fulfilment, boredom is the enemy, and drives the theatre towards more and more extravagant spectacle, greater violence, and less serious content.

The pattern repeated itself in Rome, culminating in the barbarities of the arena. After an ideational phase in the early Middle Ages, the mystery plays marked the same transition from liturgy to theatre as had occurred in Greece, and were then themselves propelled in a more materially orientated direction. On the stage Heaven and Hell became places rather than states of the soul. Details from everyday life were graphically represented. "Turds drop from the rear of the hobby-donkey bearing Christ into Jerusalem, to the great delight of the audience." Spectacle, involving huge numbers of stunningly arrayed "extras", became more important than the story, and the chief attraction was scenes of torture. "Not even a situation of the sublimest nature, such as the crucifixion of our Lord, escapes the general desire for vulgar realism." And as in Greece and Rome, this representation of horrors and indecencies on the stage belonged within a culture of conspicuous but unsustainable consumption among the wealthy.

The extravagant corruptions of the Restoration theatre were justified by its protagonists with arguments repeated almost word for word in the late 20th century. It was I "merely reflecting society, and if what society delights in is immorality, then it is the clergy who have failed I ."

The rapid change of temper in our own day is nicely illustrated by two sets of reviews of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party. The climax of the play is when the husband's mistress saves his marriage and finds fulfilment by leaving him, becoming a medical missionary, and eventually being crucified on an antheap. In 1950 the reviews were ecstatic: "A masterpiece I deeply moving I first nighters were dazzled and enthusiastic." But when the play was revived in 1986 it was execrated: "Preposterous I a vulgar play I the Christian symbolism, intruding like a vegetarian at a barbecue, casts a lugubrious damper over the affair." Glyn-Jones comments, "An ethic that rejected the pursuit of immediate worldly self-fulfilment for the sake of a transcendental goal had by the late 20th century become simply incomprehensible." Peter Brook had already showed the way in the mid-1960s with his Theatre of Cruelty. "Violence," he claimed, "is the natural artistic language of the times ..."

It is hard to refute the conclusion that the mirror showing us "the very age and body" of our own times reflects an unflattering and disturbing image. Sex, violence and spectacle are as dominant as they were in the declining days of Greece and Rome and medieval Christendom. If there are any parallels to be drawn from history we have reason to be worried.

Had the author left it there, she would in my view have produced a better, and certainly a much shorter book. Unfortunately she has felt it necessary to fit her history of the theatre into a potted history of everything else - philosophy, theology, science, technology, economics, in fact endless snippets of information stored in her word processor's memory, and not to be wasted, even if they add little or nothing to the main thesis. With a little more discipline readers might have been spared the relentless catalogue of 20th-century ills, mostly culled from newspapers, which occupy the final third of the book, and read like an immensely long letter from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

There are difficulties, of course, about how to gauge and express the character of contemporary society. Given that the media are more interested in the exceptional and the bizarre than in the commonplace and the dull, there are dangers in relying on them for a balanced assessment. The picture built up from endless press cuttings is likely to be skewed in the direction of moral breakdown and lawlessness. Furthermore, as anyone who has been the subject of media interviews knows to his or her cost, what is reported seldom matches the reality as experienced. An accumulation of media reports, therefore, unrelieved by statistical analysis or direct testimony, is likely to suffer from exaggeration and to create undue alarm. Its effect on me was counter-productive in that it strengthened my feeling that perhaps our present culture is not quite so bad as it has been presented. There has been a shift of values, certainly, and there are ugly symptoms, not least the evidence of growing callousness among some of the young. But what is one to make of those thousands of young people who today travel the world and staff the aid agencies? There is still a great deal of fundamental decency. Parts of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe may indeed be outrageous. But how many people watch it?

Glyn-Jones has too much common sense simply to play Cassandra or to advocate the return to an ideational society, despite the increasing vogue for authoritarian religion. Our culture may have "run its course" and be "morally, aesthetically and spiritually bankrupt", but if the alternative is ideological oppression, that might not be much of an improvement. In Sorokin's words, "If a person has no strong convictions as to what is right and what is wrong, if he does not believe in any God or absolute moral values, if he no longer respects contractual obligations, and finally, if his hunger for pleasures and sensory values is paramount, what can guide and control his conduct towards other men? Nothing but his desires and lusts. Under these conditions he loses all rational and moral control, even plain common sense. What can deter him from violating the rights, interests, and well-being of other men? Nothing but physical force. How far will he go in his insatiable quest for sensory happiness? He will go as far as brute force, opposed by that of others, permits. His whole problem of behaviour is determined by the ratio between his force and that wielded by others."

The return to an ideational culture would simply set force against force. Curiously at this point in the argument there is no mention of Sorokin's halfway house, idealistic culture, in which transcendent values are preserved within a context which takes material reality and the hopes of human happiness seriously. But perhaps that is implied in a final reference to the need for self-restraint. Let Burke have the last word. "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites."

The Rt Rev Lord Habgood was formerly Archbishop of York.

Holding up a Mirror: How Civilisations Decline

Author - Anne Glyn-Jones
ISBN - 0 7126 7633 3
Publisher - Century
Price - £20.00
Pages - 652

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