Monday, 3 May 2010

The Artist as Monster Times Two

Twice in the space of seven days I've encountered dramas revolving around the idea of the artist as monster. As an artist, this is bound to be of interest to me (I hope I am not too much of a monster); I do wonder whether this is a subject which is that close to the concerns of many people, except that it does raise questions about the way that any self relates to others in order to get things done, and getting things done is the primary concern of Protestant Man. The artists – both poets - in both Elegy for Young Lovers (an opera by Hans Werner Henze with libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, performed by ENO at the Young Vic) and Hurts Given and Received (a play by Howard Barker, performed by The Wrestling School at Riverside Studios) play merry hell with the lives of those they come into contact with, but the pieces have divergent attitudes towards this wreaking of havoc.

Elegy for Young Lovers concerns a middle-aged and highly respected poet named Mittenhofer, who spends months of each year at a hotel in the Austrian Alps in order to take inspiration from the ravings of a demented woman, Hilda Mack, who has been living in the hotel for forty years since the disappearance of her husband whilst he was climbing a local peak. Mittenhofer is waited on hand and foot by his patroness/private secretary the Countess Carolina and his personal physician, Dr Reischmann, fawners both. Mittenhofer has a young mistress, Elizabeth, and the crux of the story is that she falls in love with the doctor's son, Toni, much to Mittenhofer's chagrin. We witness Mittenhofer's infantile demands and ritualistically adhered to obsessive compulsive routine and soon get the idea that this is not a very pleasant human being to be around at all; yet Mittenhofer is worse than a pain – he is actively evil, as he compels the young lovers to gather him edelweiss on the mountainside and, when a blizzard hits, tells the local guide that there is no one from the hotel out in the storm; the lovers die. The drama ends with Mittenhofer reading his new poem – 'Elegy for Young Lovers' – to an appreciative audience in a packed Vienna hall, dedicating his new work to the lovers whose death he arranged.

Much is made in the programme of the possibility that Mittenhofer is based on W B Yeats, although others have suggested that Hugo von Hofmannsthal and even Benjamin Britten are possible originals for the character. This scrabbling around for originals doesn't really interest me; why the trio of Henze, Auden and Kallman should think that Mittenhofer's story is an important one to tell does. There is an oddness in these three homosexual artists telling this tale, as the lovers are presented as an "approved" heterosexual pairing (unlike the age-gap mistake which is the Mittenhofer/Elizabeth affair) and as they lie waiting for death on the mountain, they imagine the life they might have lived, which is a pretty ordinary example of normative petit-bourgeois living from the mid-20th century; Mittenhofer's great sin is that he prevented their living out this existence. I can't help suspecting that there's a certain self-laceration in the trio's choice of material here; all three of them being avowedly left-wing, this feels like a public performance of self-criticism, a rejection of their own potential to use and abuse "ordinary" folk by asserting their Great White Artist egos.

The setting of the tale is a very Nietzschean one, and there is a satire here against the idea of the Great Nietzschean/Romantic artist who uses those around him for the glorification of his Important Works. The joke appears to be that Mittenhofer is actually not a very good artist (the programme notes that Auden's real criticism of Yeats wasn't that he was a git but that his work wasn't any good in the later years). In some ways, the opera offers a rebuke to the idea of the individual genius who can get away with anything in pursuit of his self-aggrandizing artworks. In this, it seems to me to be an important work – a rejection on the part of three mid-twentieth century artists of the assumptions about artists which had by the time of their writing it become rather clichéd. I have some sympathy for this, as those writers I've known who have paraded themselves in Mittenhofer-like ways have had an element of the faux-artist about them, dressing themselves in some rags of an outdated Romantic idea and finally not really coming through with the art which such a performance might be the only excuse for. I have my suspicions about the very idea of the writer who waits listening for the extraordinary things that those around them come out with and then churns out writing which is little more than compendiums of overheard bits and bobs. In Elegy, when Hilda Mack finally is faced with the truth of her husband's death, her madness is cured and she comes to possess herself again; in her new-found clarity, she scolds Mittenhofer for stealing her visions for his own work and reckons that she should have got some credit and a cut of the royalties.

In a note for Hurts Given and Received, Barker writes

The sacred character of the individual in secular democracies obliterates any possibility the sacred might be located in any other sphere, and the consequence is a war of competing egos, thinly concealed beneath sentimental and threadbare platitudes of conscience and pity. These rags of faith and reason, strung together by some dimly-remembered concept of progress, flutter over a culture which seethes with cruelty and manipulation, rendered more odious by the cult of transparency, a transparency that elicits no shame. The poet has perhaps, the obligation to own up to his wilfulness, if only to assist others to own up to theirs…
Barker's protagonist, the poet Bach, also arranges the death and distress of his friends and helpers which in turn feeds his work. The work has a great effect on those that read it – its quality even encourages a policewoman to hide Bach's sex-murder of his nymphet mistress – but Bach is in turn punished and exploited by those that come after him, taking inspiration from his work whilst standing around as he is kind-of crucified. Barker is certainly approaching some difficult questions about individuals' and societies' relationship to those we consider Great Artists; he is a lot less satirical than the Elegy trio, but as piece of work, Hurts Given and Received seemed less successful than Elegy, which feels in Fiona Shaw's production like a major work.

Some of the blame for the Barker piece might be laid at the foot of the Gerrard Mcarthur's production, which is an impressive piece of staging but I was never convinced by either the relationships nor by the claims made in the text as to Bach being who the play claims he is. I am not sure whether Barker means us to agree with the character and his admirers that Bach is a genius, but I never for a moment believed that this was a man who was capable of creating anything. Tom Riley's performance in the central role is an impressive vocal and physical display of technique - at his best, as he lowered down from his high chair, he reminded me of Jeff Goldblum's Brundlefly spouting his insect-like brand of Nietzschean craziness; but Riley's (and other important performances in the production) are one-note affairs, him beginning as a show-off and brat and staying mostly in the same place. Barker is a difficult writer for actors to pitch right, but it can be done, as Hanna Berrigan's perfect gem of a production of a smaller Barker piece Slowly (which is playing alongside Hurts…) proves.

Yet there is something worth thinking about in Barker's characterization, and maybe a future production (or even future performances of this production) will make the play live on stage. The monstrousness of the artist – an overgrown and demanding child – is the monstrousness of the contemporary Western man, demanding and going through people (consuming them) in pursuit of some expression of the self. There is more to Hurts... than just this suggestion, but this strikes me as something which connects Barker's play with Henze's opera, the attempt to deal with the monstrousness of the self in the post-1945 world. At one point, a character compares Bach to "a war" with its "brief intoxications" when "men do vile things / men not themselves vile necessarily / its like a dream from which they wake saying / did I do that / was that me?" [Howard Barker, Hurts Given and Received/ Slowly (London: Oberon Books Ltd., 2010), p.70]

Both works encourage us to look at these monstrous artists and think about their behaviours; perhaps my qualm at the beginning - " whether this is a subject which is that close to the concerns of many people" – is unnecessary. I've always believed that we create our lives (but, to paraphrase Marx, "not in circumstances of [our] own choosing") and so we're all creative artists, all little Mittenhofers and Bachs…

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