PURITANISM AND THE THEATRE
PART FOUR— Of Prods & Gods & Dancing Girls; Of Censorship & Things.
The Ulster Humanists and the Ulster Unionists have in their respective magazines this summer both deplored the fact that the Irish Censorship was reluctant to approve the showing of a film called Showgirls. It cannot be that they are against film censorship on principle. There is after all a British Board of Film Censors which decides which films it would not be good for us to see. And the British Film Censorship was established years before the Free State was set up. Censoring films was one of many state activities which the Irish state took over from Britain as a matter of course. But whereas the British Censorship stopped films on two grounds, sex and politics, the Irish Censorship only stopped them on the ground of sex.
This difference was not widely appreciated, partly because of the difference in the mode of censorship. The Irish Censorship was exercised openly and a list of the banned items was officially published, and news of it was circulated around the world by political tendencies aligned with Britain. The British Censorship was conducted much more discreetly, behind a facade of libertarianism, but also much more thoroughly. And the British Censor had a dimension of power that was lacking in the Irish Censorship. He could not only stop films from being shown, but could stop them from being made. Because of his tight control over a major market, film producers, even Hollywood ones, submitted scripts to him before making films. And if he said he would not allow a film made from a particular script to be shown in Britain, the producer was likely to abandon the project.
The first British Film Censor was a penitent Fenian, T. P. O'Connor, a recruiting sergeant for the Battle of the Somme and other spectacular and astonishing events of that period. He became Film Censor in 1916, around the time when impenitent Fenians tried to halt the killing frenzy of the ongoing "War that will end War" with their gesture of dissent at the G.P.O. O'Connor's task as Film Censor was to ensure that the cinema-going public felt horror at the handful of lives that were lost in the minor affray in Dublin while feeling good about the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lives that were lost every hour in the war that Britain had declared on Germany. And it was the job of his successors to ensure that the British war against Irish democracy in 1919-21 was not represented on cinema-screens to confuse the moral orientation of the British public.
As the Ulster Unionists/Humanists have said nothing against the British Film Censorship it follows that their concern about the censoring of Showgirls in the Republic cannot be a concern about censorship as such. It can only be an expression of a different value judgment from the Irish Film Censor about the social or artistic merit of this particular film. They must feel that Showgirls is a film of such vital importance to humanity that any state that withholds it from its people is going beyond any defensible bounds of censorship and must be held up to ridicule.
I suppose Showgirls must have been shown in Belfast. But I did not notice it. And nobody I asked noticed it. There is legitimate suspicion of informal censorship, which is of course less defensible on liberal grounds than official censorship as it is done behind the back of the public. And if it is the case that it has not been shown I trust that the Unionists/Humanists will set up a great public outcry to remedy the matter. Else the blue skies of Ulster will become as murky as the grey skies of the Irish Republic!
Meanwhile this magazine can supply a poor substitute for the real thing. Showgirls was much ridiculed by the British film reviewers and had a very short shelf-life in London. But I was fortunate enough, after reading the Unionists/Humanists about it, to catch a one-performance revival (only a few months after its release).
Showgirls is the story of Naomi Malone; a woman in her early twenties, a product of the smalltown American midwest, who has become a rolling-stone. The film opens with her hitching to Las Vegas to become a dancing girl. She suffers a cultural shock when she discovers what is required of a dancing girl in Las Vegas. Her first audition is for a place in the chorus line in one of the respectable shows. The auditioning choreographer points out to her that her brassiere is on when it should be off. So she takes it off, feeling there was nothing too outrageous in that.
Then he points out to her that her nipples weren't doing anything. They were just lying there, unconcerned about the world. She is puzzled. That's how they are, and that's it. That's how nature made them.
The choreographer, amazed at such naivete, explains that her nipples, as they are at that moment, are in one of the conditions provided for by nature. If she is to be a Showgirl she must be able to arrange for them to be in the other condition when she is naked. If this doesn't happen as a matter of course when she takes off her clothes for people to look at her, she must make it happen. The audience must see her nipples in an excited condition. She can arrange for this either by exciting them herself, or by applying ice cubes to them so that they harden up as if they were experiencing sexual excitement.
Isn't that interesting?
She failed her first audition for the respectable show, but after an apprenticeship in a strip show she became a success in the legitimate theatre.
She was naked in both shows—perhaps only apparently so in the lower region in the respectable show, but indisputably so all over in the strip show.
The respectable show is performed on a large stage raised above the audience. It has a large cast, ballet dancing of a kind not seen in Covent Garden, and spectacular stage effects, such as erupting volcanoes. The strip show, in which she is entirely naked beyond any possible doubt, is performed on a small stage, about a foot above ground level, with the audience milling around on three sides very much within touching distance. There is no pretence of plot or performance beyond the display of nakedness close to, in the most tempting way possible. And some brothel facilities are provided.
The star of the respectable show visits the strip show, takes a fancy to Naomi, and arranges for her to get a part in the respectable show. The strip show was pleasure, but the respectable show is ambition. And so Naomi enters the rat-race. And she claws her way to the top by the methods of the rat-race. Having reached the top she is overcome with dislike of life at the top and what she has made of herself in order to get there. She sloughs off her success. The film ends with her leaving Las Vegas in the same way that she entered it. But she leaves with pleasant memories of her time in the sleazy strip show in which nakedness at close quarters was everything.
It is remarkable that the Unionists/Humanists should have seen great cultural merit in this film. Perhaps it is a sign that there is still some hope for them. And perhaps not.
Showgirls is, of course, a moral film. Hollywood films are necessarily moral. Hollywood morality may be a commodity. But American law is also strictly a commodity and yet it is law none the less. In fact there is probably as much law in America as in all the rest of the world put together. And if law can reach its highest development in the form of a commodity, why is it impossible for morality to flourish in the commodity form?
But I do not wish to be unfair to America. Law is every bit as much a commodity in Belfast as it is in the United States—Belfast in that respect being well ahead of London. This is something which I know from personal experience. Some years ago Professor McAleese—a failed Fianna Fail politician—sued me for libel in Belfast, where she had been appointed head of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. She thus provided me with the opportunity—rarely presented to the laity—for a close look at the inner workings of the law in its higher regions. As I have virtually no purchasing power in the market-place I could not enlist the services of a legal prize-fighter. Those gentlemen in Belfast perform strictly for hire. (There may also be ladies in the profession, but in my adventures in the High Court I didn't notice any.)
If the legal system sells law as a commodity, why should Hollywood not sell morality as a commodity?
Some ancient Greek said on some great public occasion that the Athenians would be known throughout future ages for their great deeds of good and evil. That kind of statement is no longer possible. Evil has been ruled out of order as a component of human life—even though much of the pleasure of contemporary life avoided extinction in the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth only because it found a refuge—a safe haven—with the forces of evil.
But this is the era of "market democracy"—-to quote the definitive definition of our era as stated by President Clinton. And in market democracy everything which hopes to exist must be both moral and saleable.
Pornography is a force of evil—in Britain. The campaign against pornography is not less intense now than it was forty years ago. But average life today includes conduct which forty years ago was restricted to the sphere of pornography and which survived the construction of bourgeois society only because men and women dedicated to evil, in defiance of the law and the profits, gave over their lives to it. It is an illusion or a pretence of the bourgeois outcome of the Puritan impulse that pornographers are motivated by avarice and that pornography is a way of making easy money by breaking the law. Whether it is an illusion or a pretence is a puzzle that would take a lot of unravelling. There is usually an element of illusion in pretences of this kind, as there is usually an element of pretence in illusions.
It simply is not the case that pornography was maintained by a desire for easy money. It survived on the basis of an entirely different desire. And it was not a way of making easy money.
During the past twenty years the cultural confusion into which Britain has drifted has allowed the emergence of soft-porn millionaires such as David Sullivan, who have made themselves pillars of society by producing a travesty of pornography for a mass market. These are merchants selling an ersatz product with the approval of the law. The law gives its blessing to the circulation of a vast quantity of pseudo-porn as a protection against the very much smaller quantity of genuine porn which circulates in continental countries.
The production of pornography has never been a way of making easy money in Britain. The combination of skills and aptitudes required for it was so poorly rewarded in financial terms, and the risk of total loss was so great, that nobody wanting easy money would have gone in for it. Its survival is explicable only as a labour of love—or to put it another way, as pure evil. That it was the product of a pure impulse—an unalloyed impulse—is beyond serious dispute. It was not the incidental by-product of another impulse. And since it was universally condemned as evil by the organs of law, morality and social opinion, one can only say that it was maintained through an impulse of pure evil.
Eartha Kitt wasn't joking when she sang
I want to be evil,
I want to be bad.
She was just using the words as the words were used.
One of the strange consequences of the English way of dealing with this aspect of life is the cottage industry in soft porn that emerged during the eighties. Since the existence of a distinct and legitimate sphere of pornography could not be allowed, it followed that whatever was allowed might not be legitimately curtailed. A distinction between family viewing time and adult viewing time was eventually made for television, but it was an uneasy distinction, and it was made with such publicity that its effectiveness was largely negated. And it was not made at all in newspapers. All newspapers were family newspapers. When semi-nude pictures of teenage girls with large breasts became a highly publicised feature of two or three of the papers with the largest circulation, this became an element of family culture. And families naturally enough began to supply the girls.
In those days not very long ago when Britain had an Empire one used to hear about how British soldiers in Port Said were approached by Egyptian urchins selling pictures of their sisters. The situation in post-Imperial Britain in the eighties seemed to be that respectable fathers and mothers were closely observing the physical growth of their daughters around the age of sixteen to see how soon they might try selling pictures of them to the newspapers. In the event of success the father often became the manager of the domestic business of selling naked pictures of the daughter to newspapers and magazines.
In cases of outstanding success the daughter might be interviewed on the radio, in Woman's Hour. She would represent her business as being entirely respectable, in the sense of being entirely asexual. The photographic sessions were chaperoned. The pictures showed breasts, buttocks, thighs and flat stomach, but poses were always arranged so that no pubic hair was visible. And she would never dream of doing anything naughty, such as spreading her legs—not that such a proposition would ever be put to her in her highly respectable profession.
Insofar as sex entered into the matter at all, it was not from her side. She was, as far as that went, a sheer sex object, a piece of meat without an animating spirit, marketed from the asexual warmth of the domestic family circle.
"Much is there passing strange;
Nothing surpassing mankind."
But let us return from the strange mode of disintegration of Puritan life in England to the more human world of dancing who get involved in their work, and who, therefore, are evil.
It was a well-known fact throughout many ages and climates that gods have a special relationship with dancing girls. Even Goethe, the Weimar bourgeois, hinted at it in one of his Eastern poems. But the gods who were the patrons of dancing girls were gods who had not been made subjects of theological science. They were gods who acted in freedom, moved by their impulses, uninhibited by what the neighbours would say. They were not totalitarian gods obliged by the burden of their responsibilities to act with discretion. They were not anthropomorphic gods bound by the decrees of constituent assemblies of the human race to be the lowest common denominator of public hypocrisy, and so they were not afraid of giving scandal. They were gods whose characters added relish to life, whose existence was interwoven with the existence of the world, and who enlivened the way of the world.
And the dancing girls of those times were also free spirits, capable of acting without commercial justification or constraint. Witness the Triumph of Bilitis:—
"Les processionaires m'ont portee en triomphe, moi, Bilitis, toute nue sur un char en coquille.
"Et autour de moi j'entendais bruire la rumeur ardente de la foule, tandis que l'haleine des desirs flottait sur ma nudite, dans les brumes bleus des aromates."
(i.e. The crowd have borne me along in triumph, me, Bilitis, completely naked on a scallop shell. And around me I hear the ardent murmur of the crowd while the breath of their desire caresses my nakedness with an aromatic blue fog.)
Vox populi, vox dei: therefore to elicit collective desire was to elicit the desire of a god. But the gods of those times were not perfectly divine. Bilitis flourished in the atmosphere of pre-Platonic Greece---Greece before it laid the foundations of Christian theology four centuries before Christ, despite the ridicule of Aristophanes, in the Socratic Forms.
Ancient Greece had its final fling in the final play of Euripides, the play in which, after a lifetime earnestly dedicated to citizenship, he reverted to the bacchanal. The women of the city, hearing that Bacchus is in the neighbourhood, go in pursuit of him, leaving behind them their citizen-husbands in whom the call of the wild has atrophied. The play is swept along by the Bacchic Choruses, which have such power that they made a poet, momentarily, out of a citizen-Professor of Greek, Gilbert Murray:—
Men in their millions float and flow
And seethe with a million hopes as leaven,
And they win their will, as they miss their will,
And their hopes are dead, or are pined for still,
But who'er can know, as the long days go,
That to live is happy has found his heaven.
It being understood that living is not the same thing as waiting in a condition of stoical endurance, as it became in the theological and industrious universe foreshadowed by Plato.
(But the Bacchae also has an odd foreshadowing of a piece of the Bible. Bacchus is brought before the City magistrate, whose name escapes me, and he replies to questioning with a series of enigmatic answers, which struck me as being similar to the answers given by Jesus to Pilate (if I am right in thinking that it was Pilate who questioned him) four centuries later. I am not a Biblical scholar, and I have every intention of never becoming one. But I once read Albert Schweitzer on The Quest For The Historical Jesus. What I recall from that very learned book on Bible criticism is that the historical Jesus, like the rainbow, disappears as he is approached. And I recall that George Moore, in an introduction to The Brook Kerith, described a recurring argument between his father, a Catholic gentleman of Connacht, and Archbishop MacHale, as to whether St. Paul was not the actual founder of Christianity. It is certain, at any rate, that there was a wild dimension to Jesus's view of the world which was incompatible with English Christianity and with the bourgeois/Puritan Catholicism of modern Ireland.
Byron would have liked to be Greek, but he wasn't.
Eternal glory gilds them yet
But all except their sun has set,
and it was not his imagination that would make them live again.
Shelley, though philosophically a Platonist, was moved by impulses that were the reverse of Platonic.
I sang of the dancing stars,
And I sang of the daedal earth,
And of heaven, and giant wars,
And love, and death, and birth:
And then I changed my pipings,
Singing how down the vale of Menelaus
I pursued a maiden and clutched a reed.
Gods and men, we are all deluded thus.
It breaks in our bosom, and then we bleed.
And all wept, as both ye now would
If envy or age had not frozen your blood,
At the sorrow of my sweet pipings.
It can only have been by way of exception that Pan pursued a maiden and found that what he had caught was a reed. The trick, as I recall, was played on him by Zeus to save a nymph he fancied for himself. But in our civilised times it seems to be quite a common experience to pursue a nymph and find oneself clutching a reed. The reason being that, although Christianity is dead, we live in its skeleton. We have been influenced so profoundly by the Platonic Forms, which acquired mass force through Christian culture, that we live by stereotypes. The mechanisms by which the body informs the intellect about the dimension of life which remains incorrigibly located in the animal sphere are over-ridden by the stereotypes, while the cultural force behind the stereotypes is running out of momentum.
Pre-Socratic Greece lives with a fair degree of vigour in German philosophy—in Holderlin, Nietzsche and Heidegger. But it is not easily accessible there. How could it be, if it was to exist? Few things are so alien to the modern world as the culture of Greece before the Platonic ice-age, so if it is to exist with any force in this world it can only be by being hedged off from it.
One aspect of ancient Greece survives in German thought and another in French conduct. (In France culture is conduct—is style.) Samantha Fox—family industry in pseudo-porn—is inconceivable in French culture, but Bilitis, the dancing girl who was acquainted with Sappho, reincarnated in it about a hundred years ago. And the modern dancing girl in France may sometimes go about her work with such involvement in it that in the midst of it she has the impulse faire une bacchanal.
And there is a flicker of the spirit of Bilitis in the life of Naomi Malone. It is snuffed out. Circumstances do not permit it to flourish. But for a moment it is there in rudimentary form.
Now that Ulster Unionism has made this intriguing gesture towards paganism, it cannot call a halt with mere criticism of the Censorship Board in the Republic. It must give special showings of Showgirls in Glengall St., or in Orange Halls around the wee province, otherwise their criticism of the Republic will be dismissed as a trivial debating point made in a spirit of ignorance, for which they expect to be forgiven on the ground that they know not what they do.
Postscript:—I notice, in connection with the banning of Crash by the Westminster City Council, that the British Board of Film Censors has changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification without changing its function. "Classification" is a libertarian word for Censorship. The Republic should certainly try to be liberal enough to do away with its Censorship in the same manner.