Two of the best things I’ve sampled were at the revamped Royal Court Theatre: both productions of classics from the movement that the critic Martin Esslin called the Theatre of the Absurd: Ionescu’s Rhinoceros (which sees a small town disrupted by the appearance of a large rhino) and Frisch’s Arsonists (which deals with the duping of the bourgeois by two very obvious would be arsonists).
I hadn’t really even thought about these since I did my A-levels (somewhere back when someone cracked the making-fire-by-rubbing-two-boyscouts-together breakthrough and just before the wheel was invented) but what struck me in seeing the pieces again was how much both deal with some of our Herd themes.
Both have a central Everyman character whose world (initially quite unremarkable) is gradually unpicked by other people. In Rhino, the influence of others is palpable: the rhino of the title turns out to refer to the swathe of individuals who one after another, following the example of those around them, choose to abandon their human forms for the thick skin and ponderous gait of the pachyderm. Berenger, the central character, struggles with the issues around conformity and self-determination that we regularly discuss here.
Frisch’s piece takes a very different angle on similar issues. The central character – a bourgeois self-delusionist to his toes – knows that he is being fooled by two arsonists into letting them set fire to his house. The ex-waiter Eisenring even describes how while playing on the sentimentality of his victims works well, the best disguise for the Arsonist’s intentions is the “naked truth”: each of us is so caught up in our concerns for politesse and keeping the social peace that we will ignore the evidence in front of us and fail – despite the warnings of the Fire Brigade as Chorus….(see pic).
Both of these plays were written in the shadow of the bloody first half of the 20th Century – in particular, the rise of National Socialism (Ionescu Frisch Swiss-German) and so it’s no surprise that they deal with the implications of these HERD aspects of our nature in the context of the events which they created in the lifetime of both playrights and audience. However, it struck me very clearly how easy it would have been to spell out the historical meaning (Arsonists in uniforms or rhino demagoguery, anyone?) but there’s no “evil is…” moralising (Frisch calls his piece a “Morality play without Moral”). Rather, both authors serve to show – with humour and seriousness in equal measure – something important about our nature and what it can lead to…But of course, that’s the downside, isn’t it?
On another note, had dinner with 3 old friends that I’ve known since my student days and pondered whilst our connection with one another was just as lively and strong – and each of us is much the same as we have always been (if a few pounds heavier) – how difficult if would have been back then (or even 10 years ago) to predict exactly what each of us would be up to. And how pointless that would be.
Yet, in a conversation with Hugh today, we both quickly got to discussing the obsession with high-precision predictions that marketing folk (and management generally) suffer from.
“How will this work?” asks a client. “Not generally, but specifically….”
Unless you can give a (false) answer of (pretend) specificity, it’s all too easy to be accused of being a bit of a numpty….
I know my answer – human behaviour is a complex phenomenon and there not the kind of thing you can predict precisely…
But what’s your answer?
And how can we – thanks Messrs Ionescu and Frisch – resist the pressure to conform with our clients expectations?