My friend and colleague Bob Eaglestone has a deep animus against satire and we’ve had many long arguments about it. As I understand him, he is saying that satire sets itself up as political but in fact is fundamentally anti-political, in a way that encourages a conservative attitude to the world. By encouraging us to think, ‘they’re all laughably corrupt’, we stop believing in the possibility of political change, we become cynical about all motivations, and the path towards justice, utopia or the good society gets longer and steeper. Bob recently sent me this link which makes the point very effectively about Have I Got News For You.
Around a decade ago, I invited Martin Crimp to a platform event at Royal Holloway. Gushing away to him about his work before the event, commenting on his experimentalism sophistication, engagement with modernist and postmodernist traditions, I was surprised when he said to me ‘I just think of myself as a satirist’. Now, Crimp is a writer who enjoys the cryptic and is very resistant to scrutiny in various ways. It’s perfectly possible that he was repelling my intrusive commentary with something designed to deflect attention. But - like Pinter’s ‘weasel under the cocktail cabinet’ - while it may be designed to baffle it’s almost irresistibly revealing about the work. But he has referred to the satirical impulse in his work elsewhere and it is hard, having heard that, not to see a clear strain of satire running right through his plays. In particular, he skewers middle class attitudes, habits of speech and mind, and the shallowness and moral hypocrisy of defences of bourgeois privilege. It’s plainly there in Dealing with Clair and The Country; it’s right the way through Attempts on Her Life and Fewer Emergencies. Transposed to a work context, The Treatment is, in essence, a satire on middle-class attitudes to art and suffering. Throughout the plays, the very most civilised speech seems to rest on a foundation of the darkest, most atavistic brutality.
In the Republic of Happiness falls into three parts. In the first, an awkward family christmas dinner is interrupted by ‘Uncle Bob’ who announces that he is leaving the country with Madeleine but brutally enumerates all the faults of the family before doing so. In the second part, the ensemble collectively express their own self-righteous rights of the self: they insist upon their rights of self-dramatisation, their complete lack of politics, the unchallengeable profundity of their minor sufferings, the importance of their therapeutic journeys, the fascination of their individual self-improvement. In the third, we are in the Republic of the title with Bob and Madeleine; it is a state with only two people in it and in which Madeleine ensures happiness is all. Bob ends the play sadly singing ‘Hum hum hum / the happy song’.
The objects of the satire are three contemporary institutions, respectively, the family, the self, and the state. The most plainly satirical is the middle section, a stunning bombardment of smug, self-important, banal contemporary attitudes. Sitting in the Royal Court, it felt extraordinarily savage: the blank satire, the simple though superbly observed presentation of the present as pure verbal excess, felt like a cruelly brilliant meticulous anatomisation of us. In particular it captured the elephantine hypertrophy of the individual as the source of all value, such that no criticism can be made of him or her, and in which every detail of self-presentation is necessarily important, in which the incommensurability of ME means that all sufferings, from genocide to eczema are equivalent.
Crimp has developed two types of writing. One in which characters embody and enact events in a fictional world (The Country, Dealing with Clair) and one in which the process of storytelling is itself dramatised in the writing (Attempts, Fewer Emergencies). Some plays run close to the boundary between these styles: The Treatment and The City have elements of both, the former standing on the fictional side, The City on the side of metatheatre. This play yokes together both forms. The first part begins apparently as fiction; indeed, briefly, we might even think we are in Alan Ayckbourn territory. However, there is a note of deep strained monomania, an insistence that everyone has on telling the truth that overflows any real consideration of realism. This is not really a family, but a series of egoists. And when Bob appears, he seems to be a fictional construction: dreamed into being - by himself? by the author?
Mum. What’re you doing here, Bob?
Uncle Bob. Well to be frank with you, I’ve really no idea. I thought I would just suddenly appear, so I did. I suddenly appeared. (p. 19)
The moment is perhaps picked up in the title of the first section of the middle part: ‘THE FREEDOM TO WRITE THE SCRIPT OF MY OWN LIFE’. Are these characters demanding the right to an existence independent of the author? It’s in intriguing thought which picks up some of the ideas in The City (and reminds me also of some of the experiments in David Greig’s San Diego). It was emphasised in Dominic Cooke’s production by an unusual device in the staging of the second part: the whole cast knew the whole first section and simply spoke when they wanted to speak the next line; they also drew straws to determine where they would sit. Martin mentioned to me that on one performance in January, the random arrangement produced all the men sitting together and all the women sitting together, which gave the scene an entirely new aspect. For a writer as meticulous and detailed as Crimp, it’s an interesting relinquishing of control, but follows from the great innovations of Attempts.
The satire in the first act seems to be aimed at truth-telling as a hallowed virtue that cannot be trumped by any other consideration. This, too, proceeds from the theology of the self: if I feel it, how dare you say I can’t say it? However, in the third act, we are in the realm of happiness. It is a state with a population of two and Uncle Bob is miserable. The set was a sterile cube that - rather astonishingly - rose from under the stage. (I didn’t know the Royal Court could do that.) It’s an image of zen serenity, with an idyllic landscape behind it. But it’s bleak. God is it bleak. The insistence on happiness recalls David Cameron’s ‘happiness index’. To me - and I suspect to Martin Crimp - there is something deeply banal about measuring fulfilment through happiness. Of course we would like to be happy, but it’s a very shallow term. Hard work might fulfil us but not make us happy as such; the films of Tarkovsky, the music of The Fall, the writing of W. G. Sebald, complicated and profound friendships, are these simply happy experiences or something richer? It takes us back to the utilitarian logic of contemporary capitalism, a kind of Benthamite insistence that happiness can be measured and aggregated and everything is kind of equivalent. What it produces is lots of pop culture and a scorn for anything tougher. This is marked in this play by the songs: mostly they are kind of pop songs, but with moments of awkward electronica. Uncle Bob’s ‘happy song’ is a kind of nursery rhyme but, in its banal simplicity, haunting and broken. The last act perhaps captures the thinness of a purely happy world.
The satire of In the Republic of Happiness seems to me destructive without being conservative. It intervenes in a cultural practice that is itself conservative in order to prevent it functioning. It is quite unaffectionate and very precisely targeted. It is uncynical, just acerbic.
I don’t think the play or the production is perfect. The middle section perhaps outstays its welcome. I wasn’t completely convinced by the setting of the songs. I thought part 3 was beautifully located but the first scene misdirected the audience too much towards Ayckbourn and I didn’t feel it could quite redirect us fully. But it’s a striking change of direction for Crimp; in some ways as sharp a turn as Attempts was 15 years ago. While his work has been getting shorter, more minimal, now it’s suddenly all abundance, with a new embrace of the aleatory and chaotic. It’s time to get all excited about Crimp again.