Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Globe and Gove-ing of history

[airing a concern]

Recently, an Arabic theatremaker FB friend posted the following on Facebook:
This is utterly shameful copy from the Shakespeare’s Globe:
Holy Warriors is a kaleidoscopic tale of holy war and revenge in the struggle for Jerusalem, taking in over two millennia of bloody conflict, as Richard the Lionheart marches east to face Saladin, the Romans take Jerusalem; and Hamas militants explode suicide bombs on buses.
Keen to get an expanded version of this argument, I innocently suggested:
To my untrained eyes “utterly shameful” seems a bit strong. Explain?
(No, of course I knew what s/he meant really)
Their reply, however, is important:
You’re probably right - I might be asking too much considering the parochial, self-congratulatory liberal state of British theatre. But I will hold it to account and expect more. To be honest, I don’t think it requires much training. Putting aside the Eurocentric and problematic potted history of Jerusalem, to end on such a false and incendiary note considering the current plight of Jerusalemite denizens is shameful. As shameful as any copy for a play offering, say, a similar two hundred year history of Southern Africa ending on a note characterising Apartheid as militant black Africans killing white settler farmers and necklacing collaborators. Such wording doesn’t come out of naivety, but an unquestioned ideology – and I always thought one of the tasks of a playwright was to unsettle such structures of thought and language. But maybe I’m wrong.
I replied:
I imagined that would be what you’d say. On the other hand, maybe the marketing copy will simply be reflecting the content of the play. That is to say, in a worst case scenario it’ll be three acts – or intercut scenes from these three acts – with made-up or historical characters from these three points in time, using them to offer a bit of whitesplaining of “the problems of the region” and a shrug saying “I dunno! It’s always been a bit of a problem over there, hasn’t it?”
Indeed, it sounds like it might be a sort of geographical transposition of The Romans in Britain.
And, yes: Richard I “marching *east*”, and “Hamas militants doing X”... Well, as you say, the blurb it wears its Western position very plainly.
And, FWIW, I think you’re right to hold it to account. Indeed, I think your longer explanation of why it’s offensive should be posted somewhere a bit more public – if only to engender some more public questioning of these assumptions.
Whether it’s misguided – or merely reflecting the content of the play – is rather beside the point. The issue of ignorance you raise poses a particular challenge to cultural gatekeepers, tastemakers and artists – the systematic relationship between the cultural production of ignorance and the relationship of ignorance to power.
And now the properly chilling bit (s/he continues):
And I agree with you – there really needs to be larger, broader, more public questioning of these assumptions. But unfortunately, whenever there has been an attempt to spark such a conversation, those raising these difficult questions have been portrayed as ungrateful, jealous, bitter or carrying some kind of unfortunate (historical) chip on their shoulder.
Which is why “critics” are useful: the (only) thing I’m not going to be accused of is being bitter or jealous (at least, not in the same way as if I were a playwright, actor or director). And I’m not going to lose work for saying any of this out loud. It’s also, problematically, why being white, middle class, and privileged is useful. No one is going to accuse me of having a historical chip on my shoulder or being ungrateful that I’m being represented on stage *at all*.

The fact that I am white, English and was raised within the Christian faith, does however leave me wide open to accusations of both racism and anti-Semitism. So I would like to begin by simply acknowledging that I agree that by *only* mentioning Hamas in conjunction with present-day Jerusalem, the Globe’s marketing copy appears to lean somewhat further in one direction when describing a situation considerably more complex.


However, Euro-centricity, and Anglo-centricity? Now there’s a subject I can really go to town on. Self-interestedly, and in the interests of my country, as it happens.

I put “Gove” in the title of this blog. As you may recall, our esteemed Secretary of State for Education recently took it upon himself to bemoan the way that history was being taught in British schools (warning: Daily Mail). He was thinking of the First World War. It was a shame, he thought, that WWI was being presented as senseless carnage in which millions of British working men died in to protect the class interests of an imperial aristocracy. History, while already being taught in a lamentably Anglo-centric way, wasn’t being quite Anglo-centric enough, he grumbled.

To be honest, that thought itself is so preposterous that it’s not worth engaging with. However the wider point about Gove’s Anglo-centricity does need thinking about. The fist two points in time named in the Globe’s blurb for Holy Warriors are the sole two points in the 3,000+ year history of the city of Jerusalem that I ever heard about at school when I was growing up (ok, actually, school might have done better with occasional Old Testament mentions as well, but...).

That is to say, the only two points when Jerusalem comes up in “history” is when it related directly to Great Britain (in a positive light): the Biblical period, most specifically around the crucifixion of Christ (the founder of The Church of England, obviously), and: the bit when “Richard the Lionheart” from out of the Robin Hood stories goes off there to fight Saladin. Now, of course we can add “the present day”, which – post-9/11 – is linked in some spurious, murky way to “The Threat of Islamic Terrorism™”.

So, yes. Total Gove Syllabus thinking cleaving to its central dictat: Only mention anywhere else in the world when Britain is involved. (Involved, that is, apart from those times – say, the British Mandate for Palestine between 1922 and 1948 – where the British were the land-grabbing oppressors.)

Back to the Globe’s blurb. The first half suggests:

“Saladin’s great army have corrected a great wrong by taking Jerusalem back for Islam, after the barbaric slaughter of their people one hundred years ago. But for Muslim and Christian alike Jerusalem is a Holy City. Across England and Outremer, nobles answer the call to arms from Richard the Lionheart to march on Jerusalem in the third crusade and retake the Holy City from Saladin.”

There are a couple of amusing points worth noting here too. At the start of the Third Crusade in 1189, England was an occupied country. In 1066 it had been invaded by the Normans, who were still the ruling class. Native Britons laboured under a foreign oppressor. Indeed, “Richard the Lionheart” was actually Richard Coeur de Lion, who also ruled as Duke of Normandy (as Richard IV), Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes, and Overlord of Brittany at various times during the same period. Richard spoke langue d'oïl, a French dialect, and Occitan, a Romance language spoken in southern France and nearby regions. He lived in his Duchy of Aquitaine in the southwest of France and spent very little time in England, preferring to use his kingdom as a source of revenue to support his armies. (Wikipedia).

Moreover, the Third Crusade was not simply a matter of Richard vs. Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, or, ahem, “Saladin”. Calling it “Outremer” hardly covers the sheer scale of how-not-about-England-this-was. Even the belligerents listed *by Wikipedia* are: Knights Templar, Teutonic Knights, Knights Hospitaller, Kingdom of England, Angevin Empire, Kingdom of France, Dukes of Burgundy, Holy Roman Empire (Swabia, Austria, Montferrat, and Bohemia) and the Kingdom of Hungary.

Nor was it even a matter of Christian versus Muslim. Even a quick glance at Wikipedia will note the mystifyingly-overlooked presence of THE ENTIRE BYZANTINE EMPIRE (Christian) fighting alongside the Muslims.

At which point, we may begin to appreciate that calling it “The Crusades” (literally War of the Cross, right?) was little more than an appreciably smart PR branding move on the part of the Knights Templar, Teutonic Knights, and Knights Hospitaller, who all, coincidentally, had crosses on their shields. Unlike *anyone else involved* on the “Christian” side, who were all still pissing about with lions and fleurs de lys and other such heraldic fun.

Once you factor in the Byzantine involvement on the side of the defenders, we see that this was nothing more than a territorial war; a Western European land-grab.

So, to recap so far: the blurb is Anglo-centric to the point where the statement: “taking in over two millennia of bloody conflict” is possible, we see that whatever happens in the thousand or so years between “Biblical”, “Crusade”, and “Now” need not concern us one bit. Also, remember that this is a version of English history which totally buys into a myth of monarchic succession supposing an absentee Frenchman to be meaningfully representative of England, probably because Robin Hood.

And then we come to another issue. The issue of “regional instability”. There is the heavy implication in the title and time-span of Holy Warriors and the phrase “over two millennia of bloody conflict” which repeats the canard: ‘the middle east is a notoriously unstable area, historically’. Apart from the point between 1517 and 1917, say, where, generally speaking, Jerusalem was pretty peaceful (Wikipedia – worth a read, though).

I mean, sure, that’s not *uninterrupted* peace, and the previous millennia was clearly no walk in the park either. But is it any more “regionally unstable” than the Europe of that period. The period 1517 and 1917 *in Europe*, FFS. When we had the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, the rise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, the constant wars between the Ottomans and the Balkans, probably a bunch of fighting between the Poles, the Lithuanian, the Russians... And during which time, Britain committed two genocides in North America and Australia and the Spanish one in South American. You begin to see why someone Arabic (or Jewish, for that matter) might begin to feel a) incensed at the language and mindset used to portray the region, or b) deeply concerned about the way that Britain uses a history which it doesn’t understand to legitimise a set of prejudices against a region with which it only cares to engage with in short, millennia-separated bursts.

Consider the graphic that the Globe has produced for the piece (top). The visual equation is clear, a medieval painting of “the crusades” is cut out into the shape of a modern-day tank. There is a seamless, uninterrupted progression from point a to point b, it implies. It is a view that only the British, with their catastrophically insular view of world history could allow to stand.

It’s like if someone wrote a play called “Always Fighting The French” about Britain based solely on 1066, 1415, and 1815. I mean, we have done other stuff. We do have other stuff to offer the world. We do have a rich and varied history and culture. Why, if that’s so obvious and easy to see about Britain, can we not see it about any other country in the world?

Disclaimer: this is mostly a polemic about the disgraceful way that Britain teaches and understands history. Yes, it was triggered by a bit of blurb written for a play that will appear at the Globe theatre this summer. Given that that play is five months or so away, this – necessarily – cannot be any comment on the play, since no one has seen it and I haven’t read it. For all I know, the play might actually be making precisely all the points I've raised above in a spectacular and dramatic fashion. It is a bit of a comment on the Anglo-centricity and perhaps unconscious political racism (or the playing to a Very White Gallery indeed) of the blurb. Blurb which rather a lot of people found worryingly ignorant. Which perhaps the Globe wants to think about.

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