francois villon—that mad fifteenth century Frenchman—concludes his Brechtian Ballad, Counter-Truths, with the verse:
You want the truth from me?
There is no joy save in illness
Nor truth in literature save tragedy
Nor cowardice save in being a gentleman
Nor sound more horrible than melody
Nor wisdom save in the folly of lovers.
In a recent paper-back of his complete work (Bantam classic, 4/6, translated by Anthony Bonner with French text vis-a-vis) the third line is helpfully mistranslated—“nor truth outside the theatre”. It is with this idea I want to begin. Life has hit the London stage at last. And with real drama has come the truth. It has come with Orson Welles’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; with the Lunts’ magnificent performance in Friederich Dürenmatt’s The Visit, which combines the insights of Kafka and Marx in the form of Greek Tragedy; and in the method-acted Tomorrow With Pictures, which begins as a straight comedy-attack on British stagnation and ends up on the level of Eugune O’Neill, with an exposure of the social and psychological pathology of a Rothermere or Kemsley-type family empire. It has come in the shape of John Fernald’s magnificent production of Brecht’s Good Woman Of Setzuan by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art which was done at the York Festival: a play which enacts just how the Gods (if there are any) fail to understand that to love and be good is impossible without at the same time surviving as a tough businessman. It is there too in Harold Pinter’s Caretaker and Brecht’s Galileo—the latter given the rough-and-ready performance Brecht would have liked, at the Mermaid: a play about the sempiternal struggle of reason against the complacent, the bureaucratic, the Tory and the brain-washers. In Galileo, Bernard Miles frees himself of all suspicion of veniality in taking over the businessman-sponsored Mermaid Theatre by showing his sponsors just what they would have done with Galileo. I hope his toff audience is getting the message. Finally, it has come—and the New Left has been waiting for it, because it is probably the one it thinks most worth seeing—in the Wesker Trilogy, whose Centrepiece, Roots, I want to discuss first.
Roots tells us the truth about ourselves in the New Left. Dramatically, it is a triangle play. There is us, which is Wesker or you or me. There is Beattie, the girl who has left her working-class agricultural background, and who is that Trade Unionist we might be trying to address or that Labour voter we may be trying to convert. And there is Beattie’s family, the mass, the cause of our moments of despair. And what does Roots tell us? It tells us that we are both to blame—both Them and Us. It tells us more—that, such as things are, we cannot love Her because she is still one of Them. And for all our talk (and I include Wesker as one of Us), when the time comes we are still liable to stand Her up. But it tells us also that there is still hope, for she might become one of the salt of the earth, one of the transformatory minority, one of the leaven that will lift the loaf.