15 July 2013

The Masque of Anarchy

Last night was the last Manchester International Festival performance of The Masque of Anarchy.

First, some history:
The Masque of Anarchy was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1819, on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre. Peterloo looms large in Manchester's working class history-- when the workers of Manchester's mills, some 60-80,000 of them, went on peaceful strike, after years of famine and unemployment, high bread prices and horrible Industrial Revolution-type conditions. The military responded in a somewhat less peaceful manner, charging the crowd with sabres drawn, and killing around 15 people. Many hundreds were injured.

Some of the peaceful protestors were veterans of the Battle of Waterloo, and claimed the massacre at St Peter's Fields was worse, thereby it the moniker 'Peterloo.' It was considered one of the defining moments of its time. It was Kent State.

Shelley, being not a very working class-type, was in Italy at the time, on what I can only imagine was some sort of Romantic writers' retreat. But when he heard about the workers of England standing together to demand their rights, he was moved.

This performance of The Masque was brilliantly Manchester-specific, which is part of what made it so meaningful. The location, the poem, the topic, the performer-- all had to do with Manchester.

The Albert Hall housed the performance. A former Anglican church, it's one of the venues that's been newly reopened for the Festival. It stands very near, if not on, the site of the massacre.

Photo credit: The Manchester International Festival website.

It was performed (beautifully, magnificently) by Maxine Peake, who was raised in Bolton, which is very near Manchester. And in Britain, this matters a lot. Peake is from here. She is Northern. 

Maxine Peake is not only a brilliant Northern actor, though. She's the perfect performer for this poem because she's a Socialist. She supports the Working Class Movement Library, and she has her head on exactly right.

Her recitation was powerful and impassioned. Framed by a giant organ and a wall of candles, her performance took on the air of a sermon. Directed by Sarah Frankcom, she spoke the poem with the whole range of emotions demanded by the drama of the words: from despair ("Misery, oh, misery!") to calm reassurance ("Ye are many; they are few").

The Masque of Anarchy is probably the most eloquent call to nonviolent civil disobedience in the English language. Before I went along to the play, I learned that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. had used it in their speeches, rousing their followers to stand, firm and peaceful, against the violent, crushing action of a state that does not want them to know they are human.

And it was hearing Peake's performance of the verses that describe, fully, what a real commitment to nonviolence means, that made me shiver:

‘And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, —
What they like, that let them do.

‘With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.’

I shivered as I thought of people trying, as they did, in India and in Southern US, to stand strong and peaceful, while their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers were slashed and stabbed and maimed... people trying to expect no better justice or revenge than just shame heaped on their violators. People trying not to even scream out, not to resist.

I thought of Trayvon Martin. All the work the Civil Rights movement never finished.

And I thought about how very difficult it must have been, to convince people that this was a tactic that could possibly work. What true, visionary, astonishing leadership is needed, to convince people to simply look upon the military and police 'as they slay.'

Afterwards, Jonti told me he's never had any religious feelings before, but Maxine Peake, in front of 100s of candles and an organ, calling for workers to stand in solidarity, is probably as close as he could get.

And I doubt Maxine Peake wants to be the leader who finally gets us out into the streets, gets us standing against the banks, the bankers, the welfare cuts and the privatisation of the NHS. But if she did, after hearing her speak last night, I know I would follow.

1 comment:

  1. Those lines remind me of and expand on the call Jesus made in Matthew 5: "You have heard that it was said 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." It's a supremely difficult thing to do. I hate violence and conflict, but this type of resistance is extreme and goes against fight-or-flight instincts. A powerful demonstration if one can manage it.