A Curate’s Egg; review of Edgar

The Woodman’s Daughter, John Everett Millais, credit Wikimedia Commons

A Curate’s Egg; review of Edgar

Edgar, drama lirico by Giacomo Puccini in three acts (1905 version), libretto by Ferdinando Fontana, director Ruth Knight, City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus conducted by Naomi Woo, Opera Holland Park 6 July 2024, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Director Ruth Knight’s new production of Edgar has polarised opinion. Whereas Culture Whisper was excited to see another Puccini rarity being aired (following Opera Holland Park’s 2022 staging of Le Villi), Jessica Duchen was scathing and dismissive. Notwithstanding what Knight in the programme calls Puccini’s “profound impact on western culture…”, Edgar is rarely staged. “Back in the box with it”, Duchen adjures  (Inews, ‘Edgar, Opera Holland Park review; so bad the audience were chortling’).

For the premiere at La Scala in Milan, in 1889, the much-maligned librettist Ferdinando Fontana moved the location of the drama from the mountains of the Tyrol to lowland Flanders. Ms Knight, in turn, has transferred it from medieval Flanders (specifically Bruges, The Dead City evoked in Erich Korngold’s opera) to 19th century England, presumably because it embodies bourgeois religious and sexual hypocrisy, as documented in WT Stead’s The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. In Knight’s reworking of Edgar, Tigrana (played by Gweneth Ann Rand), was abandoned by her parents and forced to become a sex worker. We see her briefly in the Prelude as a child, in the company of a youthful Edgar. Although this is a semi-staged production, there was evidently room for a theatrical prop which presumably represents passport control and the “othering” of illegal immigrants. “It’s become all about racism and misogyny”, complains Duchen. And she is correct if not politically correct – “relevance” cannot redeem it.

Mixing his metaphors, Gary Naylor thinks that Ferdinando Fontana “sold Puccini something of a hospital pass, and [that] no amount of repairs or revisions could get him off that hook”. Edgar was “the difficult child of the canon” (BroadwayWorld.com). Dominic Lowe agrees that there is little evidence here of Puccini’s eventual “… theatrical flair and innate faculty for character development” (Backtrack). But holes in the plot, such as the reconciliation of Frank and Edgar (performed by Julien Van Mellaerts and Peter Auty, respectively), are hardly unusual in opera. The denouement of Rigoletto springs immediately to mind. The audience are invariably forgiving, providing there are what Naylor nicely calls arias “so pleasing on the air…[which] even when expressing the darkest of thoughts, lift one’s soul”. And there is general agreement that although “Puccini’s greatest music was yet to come”, the score is replete with “soaring moments” which “glisten” (Culture Whisper). Opera Holland Park chorus and the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Naomi Woo, evidently found “the passion and the beauty in the score” (Naylor).

Some reviews of Edgar beg the question “what exactly is the role of the critic?” Is it to help “excavate” obscure lost works that arguably throw light on Puccini’s development? “Without hearing this,” his second opera, Colin Clarke demands, “how can we “know” Puccini?” But Clarke also acknowledges that this is hardly “top-rank” material (Seen and Heard International, ‘Edgar, Opera Holland park’s recent excavation, is a revelation’). Puccini himself eventually concluded that it was “warmed-up soup”, and that its subject was “rubbish” (see Flora Willson, the Guardian, ‘Edgar review-Puccini was right, his biggest flop is a dud’). Let the composer have the last word.

Editorial endnote; indicatively, there were only three performances of Edgar, on the 3rd, 4th and 6th of July

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Physics Envy

Jean-Martin Charcot, chronophotography, credit wikipedia

Physics Envy

On the Couch; Writers Analyse Sigmund Freud, edited by Andrew Blauner, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 346pp, h.b., reviewed by Leslie Jones

The twenty-five contributors to On the Couch consider the founder of Psychoanalysis from a range of different perspectives. Yet key themes recur. Apropos the vertiginous decline in the scientific status of Freud’s system, a consensus emerges from these pages that many of his leading ideas, notably those concerning homosexuality, child development, the Oedipus complex, “no longer convince us” (Adam Gopnik, p255). Siri Hustvedt,  lecturer in psychiatry, likewise, endorses the earlier feminist critiques of Freud by Kate Millett, Simone de Beauvoir and Karen Horney. And Peter D Kramer evidently speaks for several other contributors when he remarks, “How extraordinary that such implausible theories should predominate in the scientific community, in medical practice, and in popular culture, for decades”. He characterises Freud’s core ideas, such as a link between obsessive compulsive behaviour and overzealous toilet training, as “fantasy”.

So what now remains of Freud’s legacy? For one thing, his undoubted reputation as an essayist. Professor Phillip Lopate, editor of Art of the Personal Essay, reads him “as one does a poet, for his allusive lyricism” and for his “aphoristic sublimity”. Referring to Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Lopate states “I know of no book that more directly encounters the crucial question: Why is human happiness impossible, except for brief moments?”. Gopnik, in similar vein, contends that both Marx and Freud continue to reach us “as literature reaches us”. He recalls that Harold Bloom considered Freud “the Montaigne of the twentieth century” and praises him for “replacing the pious fictions of received dogma with the human truths of actual behaviour”. Gopnik, another admirer of Civilisation and its Discontents, compares Freud to Dr Johnson and says that no one could be “more succinctly Latinate or depressingly accurate”. Freud’s engaging writing style is also highlighted by Sheila Kohler, who mischievously praises his skill “as a writer of fiction”. She suggests that in Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), Freud deliberately hid the identity of patient Dora to create a sense of mystery. And Rick Moody thinks that Freud’s Studies on Hysteria (1895) (joint author Josef Breuer) is indebted to the nineteenth century novel in that “he had to have a big ending. A Cure”.

Freud’s first scientific publication, as Mark Solms reminds us, was his ‘Observations on the Configuration and Finer Structure of the Lobulated Organs of the Eel described as Testicles’ (1877). Entering the University of Vienna Medical School in 1873, he studied neuroanatomy for the next eight years. Microscopic staining was invented by Joseph von Gerlach in 1858. Freud excelled in this field, devising new methods. So far, so orthodox. From October 1885 to February 1886, however, Freud attended Jean-Martin Charcot’s lectures on hysteria at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Like Charcot, the ‘Napoleon of the neuroses’, Freud believed that lesions in the brain caused the symptoms of hysteria. In Viennese medical circles, “Mental events were perceived as “brain events”.  But the inability of neuroanatomy to identify any such lesions led Charcot to devise novel methods, notably hypnosis, to remove these symptoms. Freud, in due course, developed his ‘talking cure’ to elicit the traumatic memories supposedly causing hysteria. “A radical break with the positivist perspective was the sine qua non of the development of psychoanalysis, as the premise of the latter is a mental mechanism of symptom causation, an idea that Freud carried over from Charcot” (see ‘White Lines’, QR, Leslie Jones, June 7 2018, a review of Freud, the Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews, 2017).

However, Freud never deviated from the view that the ultimate origin of the neuroses was a physical process in the brain. He made statements to this effect in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and in An Outline of Psychanalysis (1940). In 1895, fearing that his case studies on hysteria “were no more than “short stories”’, Freud began his ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’. The goal was to uncover the neural underpinnings of psychic states. He discussed this ultimately abortive project with his close friend, the otolaryngologist Wilhelm Fliess, in 1895. “The phenomena of mind”, he averred, “do not belong to psychology alone; they have an organic and biological side as well”. “Freud had physics envy too” (Siri Hustvedt, On the Couch, p 304).

Freud & Fliess, 1890, credit Wikipedia

In ‘Reflections on War and Death’ (1918), Freud opines that “War strips off the later deposits of civilisation and allows the primitive man in us to reappear” (see ‘Freud and the Writers’, by novelist Colm Tóibin, On the Couch). Freud himself temporarily succumbed to the bellicose impulses unleashed by the Great War, celebrating in 1915 the “beautiful victories of the Central Powers”.

In war, “people really die and no longer one by one, but in large numbers, often ten thousand in one day” – death can no longer be denied (Freud, quoted Tóibin, p 92). In ‘Playing the Game’, Michael S Roth elucidates the “sad biographical dimension” that informed Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which Freud radically revised his theory of the drives, positing a death instinct or ‘Nirvana principle’. Before its publication, his favourite child Sophie had died in the influenza epidemic. Her second son Heinerle subsequently died in the pandemic, leaving Freud “inconsolable”. He told Oskar Pfister that “Everything has lost its meaning for me”. Indicatively, “In the wake of Sophie’s death”, Freud was reading Schopenhauer (Michael S Roth, On the Couch, p 270).

In the aforementioned review of Freud, the Making of an Illusion, we concluded that “For all his failings, Freud surely deserved a more appreciative and generous biographer”. After all the relentless Freud bashing, herewith a positive assessment of his work.

Arthur Schopenhauer, portrait by Jules Luftschutz, credit Wikipedia

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Endnotes, July 2024

Fragment of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, July 2024

In this edition: rare English String Quartets from Tremula Records * Homage, by Randall Svane, reviewed by Stuart Millson

The more one travels to music venues beyond the metropolitan centres ~ Mid-Wales Opera in Brecon (now de-funded by Arts Council Wales); the English Music Festival at Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (not even a recipient of any state funding) ~ the more one encounters unsung heroes who are instrumental in rescuing parts of our national heritage. One such person is the tall and bespectacled Kenrick Dance, an affable, front-of-house figure at the English Music Festival, busily assisting concertgoers, not least through the Festival’s minibus service which he serves in the capacity of driver. A great advocate of the music of English composer, Walter Leigh, Ken has recently emerged as a record producer in his own right, ushering onto the music and CD scene the label, Tremula Records, dedicated to overlooked masterpieces from these islands.

A recent addition to the Tremula list is a recording of string quartets by Edmund Rubbra, Phyllis Tate and Peter Wishart. All three composers belong to the same generation, and their quartets all date from the early-1950s, an era often thought of as a conservative time for music, but actually a period in which British audiences began to hear a more abstract sound-world: Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony, the works of Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh and the music of Michael Tippett.

Rubbra’s String Quartet in E flat major of 1951 is a strongly tonal work, with a sense of elegy, both in the first movement and in the Adagio tranquillo third section; there is some welcome emotional decompression in a soft-stepping scherzo, but which in its near-25 minutes of life, conveys a clear feeling of twentieth-century and post-war introversion. Rubbra, who made his home in the Chilterns, finds unsettled skies and deeply felt darker chords, beautifully and passionately played on this recording, first committed to disc in 1992 by the English String Quartet (Diana Cummings and Keith Lewis, violins; Luciano Iorio, viola; and Geoffrey Thomas, cello). In fact, the acoustic of the recording venue, Rosslyn Chapel, Hampstead, imbues the slow movements of the Rubbra and Phyllis Tate works with a poignant atmosphere of darkness, shadow ~ even of music that brings forth a palpable physical sense of coldness, remoteness. Certainly, the ethereal, slowly-circling Cantilena section (marked Andantino sostenuto) of Tate’s F major Quartet is a masterclass in taking music and the listener to the edge of unsettled dreams ~ a little like the feelings which gradually overcome you in the Neptune movement of Holst’s The Planets.

For Peter Wishart, who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and absorbed much from Stravinsky, a spikier more obviously continental framework and style can be discerned ~ in the way that Britten’s very English Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge sounds more at home in a salon devoted to Bartok. Wishart’s String Quartet No. 3 in A dates from 1954 and is the shortest piece in the collection, but the composer doesn’t waste any time on portentous build-ups or grand statements; or indeed any discernible imitation of his overseas teachers and mentors. But his work does sound the more ‘contemporary’ of the three quartets ~ the uncertain, stop-and-start introduction is certainly intriguing. Yet from this, a far-from-unpleasant sequence of less-obviously tonal music begins to dance on and develop into variations, new thoughts, recastings of earlier ideas. The first movement has a definite air of mystery, of tension. The Allegretto and Presto movements have wonderful precision and are most understated (given their ‘presto’ designations), but what is evident from the recording is a sense of each note, each line of this sublime music inspiring its interpreters to a performance of minute clarity, detail and gentle colour.

The QR congratulates Producer, Ken Dance, on reconstituting this attractive, collection. The Wishart is a real gem. We look forward to more great things from Tremula Records: a CD label in the ‘margins’, but actually with something to say ~ and a rival (in terms of imagination and outlook) to the larger commercial labels who seem to be only able to give us yet more symphonic cycles by Brahms or Mahler.

Finally, a preview, private audio file has reached The Quarterly Review of a new orchestral work by American composer, Randall Svane. Entitled Homage, this strongly flavoured Sibelian type tone poem brings a potent, late romanticism once again to our own age of anxiety and cynicism. The composer is already making great headway in the United States (notably in the world of church music) and ~ as he tells us ~ anticipates performances and a commercial recording of Homage; a piece that is meant as a tribute to his teachers, mentors, and musical collaborators through the years. The afore mentioned term ‘Sibelian’ comes to mind because the music grows and gathers in an expansive, well-orchestrated, highly textured tapestry, yet with taut, powerful, to the point arguments and scenes, very much like the Finnish master’s En Saga or The Oceanides. But there is also a tense section, reminiscent of the nervous energy at the outset of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements; and touches in the composition which take the listener to Mahlerian forests, or to the wide, open spaces of Randall’s fellow US symphonist of the 20th century, Roy Harris.

Randall Svane is clearly an heir to the romantic American tradition –  to Harris, Howard Hanson, and the Copland of An Outdoor Overture and the Third Symphony. We look forward to his name becoming a prominent feature of British orchestral programmes.

Head VI, Francis Bacon, credit Wikipedia

CD details: String Quartets ~ Rubbra, Tate, Wishart, played by the English String Quartet. Catalogue reference: TREM 102.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

 

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Romans and their Levantine Ways

Benjamin West, Cicero & the magistrates discovering the tomb of Archimedes, credit Wikipedi

Romans and their Levantine Ways

Hannah M. Cotton, ROMAN RULE AND JEWISH LIFE, Collected Papers, edited by Ofer Pogorelsky, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Hannah Cotton is the Shalom Horowitz Professor of Classical Studies Emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Well respected, her published work, whether written by her alone or edited with others, is substantial. This collection of thirty-four papers is divided into four sections: A – ‘Government, Power, and Jurisdiction’; B– ‘Documents, Language, and Law’; C – ‘Land, Army, and Administration’; and D – ‘Law, Custom, and Provincial Life’.

There is a list of publications (XXV-XXXII) that discloses her areas of expertise. Ciceronian language, Roman Republic civil matters and Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic writings discovered in the Judean desert have occupied much of her time. But her work encompasses more. Classicists are rarely acquainted with Semitic idioms. Professor Hannah Cotton (henceforth HC), however, educates the reader on important aspects of Levantine issues. And as stated in the preface, although most of the papers are devoted to ‘legal and administrative issues… Despite the title of the book, some of the articles have nothing specifically to do with the Jews’. That claim is ‘specifically’ true only for section A. In this volume remarkable papers are included. In my opinion, readers will find vital work performed in section B. A small number of specialists will trouble themselves with C; but by far, her best research in this collection appears in the final section, D. A review of a massive first-rate work like this one calls for criticism of points of detail. It is to these issues that I will give attention. Conversely, I want it to be known that all these collected papers are models of precision, containing coherent thoughts and reasonable inferences as she explicates rather difficult-to-construe texts.

HC’s early writings treated Ciceronian texts. Her doctoral work delved into Cicero’s letters of recommendation (p.99). Of the first paper, ‘Cicero, ad Familiares XIII, 26 and 28’, she investigates the meaning of reiectio Romam, and any supposed links to whether provincial citizens needed to apply for a change of court to have better judges in Rome. Roman customs in one ancient text, The Acts of the Apostles, go unstudied. The legal rights of Roman citizens in the provinces are not everywhere locatable in ancient secular documents. Paul’s treatment by hostile Jews (Acts 21:27) and his arrest by Roman soldiers, even his examination by Roman authorities, is recorded in Acts chapters 24-26. In a Palestinian province, Paul chose to appeal his religious case to Rome as a citizen (Acts 25.10,21, 26:32). I agree with HC that ‘In many respects Cicero’s letters of recommendation are the best primary evidence we have for determining the minutiae of provincial government under the Republic, the day-to-day working of provincial administration and jurisdiction as well as certain prevailing attitudes and conventions of conduct’ (p.5). Nonetheless, Acts is of ancillary importance for her discussion but is excluded from her study. In the end, she does not believe Cicero’s letters of endorsement that suggested that Roman citizens ‘possessed a legal right to demand a remittal of their case from the provinces to Rome’ (p.22).

In the paper on ‘Iustitia versus Gratia’, HC controverts J.M. Kelly’s thesis in Roman Litigation (Oxford, 1966). He believed the use of preferential letters for friends to be incompatible with an unprejudiced application of the law. It remains true, though, that the showing of ‘favor’ to individuals whom one knows is standard operating practice in every ancient and modern society. HC may not hold so tenaciously to these views today. In this paper she is a overcautious, trying to embrace too many positions at one time. Eventually she comes down in favor of the idea that ‘The tension we have detected between the two incompatible claims of iustitia and gratia is much reduced when we take into account the emphasis on dignitas and persona in the Roman notion of aequitas’ (p.78).

In ‘The Languages of the Legal and Administrative Documents from the Judaean Desert’, HC asserts that ‘All scholars agree that Aramaic was the dominant language of the Jews in Palestine during the first and second-centuries CE’ (p.129). That assertion, however, is outmoded and misleading. For example, see Uri Mor, ‘Language Contact in Judea: How Much Aramaic Is There in the Hebrew Documents from the Judean Desert?’, in Hebrew Studies, vol. 52 (2011), where he argued persuasively that

‘Hebrew was spoken alongside Aramaic during the days of the Second Temple and ceased to be spoken around the beginning of the third century C.E…. A detailed philological investigation and socio-linguistic inspection of this corpus reveal that it represents a living spoken Hebrew dialect, very close to Rabbinic Hebrew’.

And David Flusser (1917-2000), a member of the Israel Academy of Arts and Sciences, who published over 700 articles, certainly believed Hebrew was the dominant language spoken in first century Palestine and was used for literary purposes also. HC’s examination of the evidence is fulsome, but here explanations are conventional throughout.

Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD) are interpreted variously. Students of inscriptions tend toward conjecture when attempting to tell a story. One should follow closely to see if the DJD facts lead to an author’s conclusions. How can scholars give their consent to the view that ‘It may not be a coincidence therefore that there are no documents in Hebrew which date to the years before the first revolt, or to the period between the two revolts’[?] (p.136). Later she admits that ἑβραϊστί may refer to Aramaic or Hebrew in the correspondence of Bar Khokhba (p.186 – ‘The Bar Khokhba Revolt and the Documents from the Judaean Desert’). Readers might want to find surer ground to stand on, as in the authoritative investigation by R. Buth, C. Pierce, ‘Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does βραϊστί Ever Mean “Aramaic”?’ (The Language Environment of First Century Judaea, Brill, 2014). In their analysis of the term, they illustrate copiously how, in their opinion, the term can only refer to Hebrew.

Likewise, HC is known for her scholarship on the Babatha Archive[i]. It is so named for a Jewish lady from Maḥoza (Maoza). Documents about her range in time over 35 years from c.AD94 to 132. These business records were hidden securely in a cave, which makes sense if one wanted to account for transactions of importance. Why they were placed in the location where they were found is anyone’s guess. More questions are raised upon reading. After the annexation (pp.403-404), how pervasive was Romanization in Arabia? Was the former Nabatean kingdom a new client kingdom or merely an unfortunate province, now hampered by subjugation? HC’s two papers, ‘Some Aspects of the Roman Administration of Judaea/Syria-Palaestina’ and ‘Jewish Jurisdiction under Roman Rule: Prolegomena’, are helpful but not on Arabian questions or on peculiar Nabatean policies. And despite the title, ‘Ἡ νέα ἐπαρχεία Ἀραβία: The New Province of Arabia in the Papyri from the Judaean Desert’, it sheds less light on the ‘province’ than its title implies the papyri will do.

The documentary evidence for contrasting Talmudic legal jurisprudence with Greco-Roman law is problematic. Receipts, deeds of sale, contracts and so forth are often heralded by legal experts in several disciplines. Names indicate Jewishness in these papyri only in so far as it can be demonstrated that non-Jewish persons in the Nabatean world did not use similar nomenclature in their own familial circles, as in the case of Soumaïos’ letter, P.Yadin 52 (pp.183-187). As HC states, the letter could have been written in Greek because Soumaïos was incapable of forming/placing his Nabatean thoughts in print via Jewish letters. As a consequence of the emended Greek text, it also might mean that there was nothing more than an unwillingness on the writer’s part to generate his thoughts outside of Greek, that what could ‘not be found’, or ‘produced’, was an innate wish to write that specific letter in Jewish idiom.

Regarding the custody or guardianship of children (orphans), the Greek word ἐπίτροπος/administrator does not appear to have antecedent forms in Jewish law (p.412); but in a case like this one, the lack of verification to the contrary should encourage classicists to look extensively into ancient near eastern texts and modern scholarship on them: in that part of the Levant the Emar tablets clearly show close similarities despite the lack of a term like ‘guardian’ in Sumerian or Akkadian. See ‘Custody of Children in Late Bronze Age Syria, in the Light of Documents from Emar’, in Edd. U. Yiftach, M. Faraguna, Ancient Guardianship: Legal Incapacities in the Ancient World (2013).

In her excellent last paper on ‘The Conception of Jesus’, she proves that betrothal was a significant part of the marriage process, stating ‘The structure of the story, as related in the Gospels, appears to reflect a very particular context in which the nature and portentous consequences of betrothal were clearly understood… acts of betrothal – and divorce – are decidedly crucial for the legal status of the children born to a couple (pp. 543-4)’. Interesting sidelights are provided as she contemplates Talmudic attitudes. HC devotes little space to supernatural aspects of religion. Her disquiet over the Gospel accounts is overt (p.536). Her remarks regarding Tannaitic comments are guarded (p.457f.), and her belief in ignoring Roman lore is on display in this volume.

Additional Comments:

Everywhere in her administrative research, HC compares Judaea with Egypt. The comparisons do not convince. In numerous instances, she admits a point is true or valid only to resist that consideration in the next line or paragraph. On p.174, in reflecting on papyri from the Judean desert, she says ‘the evidence of these documents cannot be set aside as reflecting the habits of fringe groups or sects, as the documents from Qumran do’. But what group utilized or wrote the Qumran scrolls? Reems of paper have been devoted to research on this topic, and decades later no one knows if they were a fringe group or not.

From what is delineated on page 310 about ου καί, emendations of Greek texts may not be her forte. Additional aid in her work on private international law in the Roman world could have been found in the writings of Arthur Nussbaum (1877-1964), Research Professor of Public Law at Columbia, who is absent from her bibliography. His 1952 paper, ‘The Significance of the Roman Law in the History of International Law’ (University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 100) contains a rich survey of material on this subject. HC, in her study, ‘Some Aspects of the Roman Administration of Judaea/Syria-Palestina’, refers to the title procurator in this way in a footnote: ‘For this designation there is no epigraphic evidence in Judaea’ (p.319,fn.9). Further investigations are needed. HC explores a few on (pp.322-323). How do we construe it all? Was Judaea a public province or an imperial one? The Pilate inscription found at Caesarea Maritima that was discovered in June 1961 refers to Pilate as ‘Praefect’. But HC does not define, nor does she disentangle any classical nuances between the two administrative titles, which in their strictest Latin senses were synonymous – as she avers on page 319. And in relation to those Latin ascriptions, what exactly is implied by her use of the English term ‘governor’? Tacitus referred to Pilate as Procurator of Judaea (Annals 15.44) as do English versions (KJV,NIV,NRSV,REB) of the Matthew at 27.2,11. Her definitions of ‘proconsul, and ‘propraetor’  in the illuminating paper ‘Cassius Dio, Mommsen and the Quinquefascales’ complicate how readers will apprehend her use of ‘governor’. On the other hand, the change of name of Judaea to Syria-Palaestina never suppressed ‘the Jewish identity of the province’ (p.323). If anything, Jews zealously embraced their identity, safeguarded relevant features of it, and by it fostered in them a xenophobia of the fiercest kind. Besides, Rome would have imposed its non-Jewish will upon (the Jewish provinces of) Palestine whatever its name.

HC’s faith in the view that the ‘guardianship by women’ (p.410) was created to satisfy Roman legal restrictions does not persuade, nor does her suggestion that ‘we may have in Arabia the first example for such an adaptation of local custom, and another expression of Romanization’ (loc. cit.). In her article ‘The Rabbis and the Documents’ she writes of an oath formula believing ‘that “the Roman oath ‘by the genius of the emperor’ was not yet familiar in Egypt”. It is doubtful if she is correct. But a corrective to her 1998 article is Kimberley Czajkowski, ‘Jewish Attitudes towards the Imperial Cult’ (SCI Vol. XXXIV 2015).

Certain classicists refer to themselves as ‘historians.’ In not a few cases the label is a misattribution. For Professor Cotton, however, the title is justly deserved. This essay collection provides plentiful data on material records from ancient pasts as well as information on the techniques and guidelines of reliable historical method. Historians of the ancient Levant should take notice. Each paper requires special tools for these literary expeditions, which take readers along the painstaking paths that have occupied HC during her fruitful career. And even if she writes with verve and clarity, numerous journals and volumes still are needed within reach to follow and/or validate the intricate points of her arguments. This collection is of note and deserves close inspection.

N.B These articles were kept in their ‘original form’, aside from ‘references to forthcoming publications’ (p.IV). It would be nice to see each one thoroughly revised. If revision occurs, on page 32, instead of ‘…Pliny in his solicitation of behalf of…’, write ‘…Pliny in his solicitation on behalf of…’.

ENDNOTE [i] For general and reliable information about the Babatha Archive, see N. Lewis, ‘The Complete Babatha: More Questions than Answers’, in SCI 2003, pp.189-192. And, J.G. Oudshoorn, General Introduction – I. The Archives, in The Relationship between Roman and Local Law in the Babatha and Salome Komaise Archives, (Brill,2005)

Darrell Sutton is a Classicist

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Front Loading

The Sir Titus Salt, former Wetherspoon pub in Bradford, credit Wikipedia

Front Loading,
by Bill Hartley

It’s not hard to find a Wetherspoon pub in our larger towns and cities. There are more than 800 of them in Britain and Ireland. Last year the company reported its largest ever volume of sales over the Easter weekend. The low price, large scale business model works well and the collapse of so many city centre enterprises has provided lots of premises for the company to choose from, when creating a new branch.

Wetherspoon is noted for breathing new life into buildings by adapting them for the licensed trade. In Liverpool, for example, there are three, the largest of which stands at the front of Lime Street Station and occupies the ground floor of the old North Western Hotel. This vast building was erected by a railway company back in the days of transatlantic steamer travel. Having stood empty for years, the upper stories became student accommodation, with a Wetherspoon below. People joke that it’s possible to complete a degree course without ever leaving the building: transport into the city, food, drink, accommodation, even employment, all being available in the same place.

What the company does is to seamlessly insert a branch into a town giving the impression that it’s always been there. In doing so it creates some significant contrasts. The product may be the same but the delivery points vary enormously. The North East provides some interesting examples.

Richmond in North Yorkshire has the Ralph Fitz Randal, named after an obscure medieval monk. The premises were formerly the post office building, which has since migrated to a big shed on a nearby trading estate. This Wetherspoon is a genteel establishment which caters for the over sixties market. Richmond is a popular destination amongst this age group. They move around the town window shopping, couples wearing the ubiquitous small rucksacks which seem indispensable to this age group. Come refreshment time they head for the Ralph Fitz Randal, which amidst the steep gradients lies conveniently on a flat bit of town. By mid morning the place takes on the air of a rest home where everything moves at a sedate pace. It is of course supposed to be a pub but there’s no scramble for attention. Instead, customers patiently form queues at the bar to order food or acquire coffee cups. The staff are attentive and kindly with a slightly patronising air, which suggests they may need to repeat themselves before being fully understood. Moving around the tables, they present more like care workers than waiters. Unfortunately the building lies close to the local Methodist church and the undertaker’s. Consequently the best dressed people in the place tend to be mourner’s looking for a pre funeral bracer, or the undertaker’s staff having just finished a job. A collection of black clad customers rather spoils the mood.

A few miles north of Richmond there are two branches in Darlington. The Tanner’s Hall is conveniently close to various bookmakers and is a gloomy no frills establishment, catering for what might politely be described as dedicated drinkers. These are people often of indeterminate age who can be found there throughout the day. Wetherspoon opens its premises early in the morning and this seems to be an arrangement particularly welcomed by the Tanner’s Hall clientele. Employment doesn’t appear to make any demands of this group and some are thoughtful enough to leave their mobility scooters at the door. Comments on the Tripadvisor website give as much an indication of what it must be like to work there, as about the standard of service. Here the staff have to deal with collapsing customers and some of the town’s stranger people. One reviewer complained that they were slow in rendering first aid to a customer; another suggested that a member of staff was drunk. There is the sense that a few hours into a shift the staff are rather less cheerful and accommodating than they were at the outset. Dissatisfied customers are prepared to use an online review to seek revenge, by identifying the individual whom they claim caused offence: ‘blonde, hair in a bun’.

If The Tanner’s Hall is a hardship posting for Wetherspoon staff, then a few minutes’ walk away is the William Thomas Stead where the customer base is much different. Named after a former editor of the Northern Echo [Editorial note, and the author of ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’], Mr Stead was unfortunate enough to have gone down with the Titanic. This is a family friendly establishment where the daytime drinking enthusiasts would definitely not fit in. Shoppers and those with young children can seek refreshment here, without sharing space with the ‘strange’ people in the sister establishment across town.

If the Tanner’s Hall has its own particular challenges then for sheer hard work the Milecastle may be the ultimate. Situated in Newcastle city centre, this vast building, which operates over three stories, has the look of a former insurance company premises. The name reflects the cities’ Roman heritage. Hadrian’s Wall is supposed to have run close by; at least until Mr Stephenson drove his railway through the district.

The enormous interior space is augmented by exterior facilities for those rare days in Newcastle when it is warm enough to sit outdoors. The unacclimatised visitor may be reluctant to use these facilities but for the locals a few rays of sunshine seem enough for them to don beach wear and enjoy al fresco drinking in the city centre.

Being on three floors the trade is stratified. The ground floor is the province of pensioners and shoppers. Above this level it is easy to discover why the staff can be worked very hard indeed. Newcastle is very much a party town and at any point in an afternoon the Milecastle may have to cope with a sudden surge. Downstairs life continues at a steady pace, up above there always seems to be a gathering in operation, gradually increasing in size as the afternoon wears on. It reflects a phenomenon known as ‘front loading’ and the staff have to learn how to cope with this. Obviously there are smarter places for the younger element to drink but these tend to be much more expensive. The Research Society on Alcoholism admits that the phenomenon is ‘not well studied’. Anyone from the society wishing to do some fieldwork would find the Milecastle a useful location. The idea is to fill up on cheaper Wetherspoon booze before moving on elsewhere in the early evening. An American study has found that this is a mostly female practise and the Milecastle would seem to bear this out.

With the staff being required to operate the bar and act as waiters it can be quite a challenge to manage both, particularly as the numbers swell and the demand for over the counter drinks increases. Staff have to cope with this, serve meals and move up and down three flights of stairs. It is quite a contrast with the homely atmosphere of the Richmond establishment, or serving the sometimes difficult but largely somnolent types in the Tanner’s Hall.

Wetherspoon is very adaptable and the positives go beyond just the reasonable prices. The company employs over 40,000 people and has brought back to life many large redundant buildings in town centres, which might otherwise have struggled to find a tenant.

William Hartley is a Social Historian

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tosca Redux

Castel SantAngelo, credit Wikipedia

Tosca Redux

Tosca, Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Glacosa, first revival of the 2008 production, directed by Stephen Barlow, City of London Sinfonia conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, Opera Holland Park, June 1st 2024, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Mario Cavaradossi, depicted in this production as a scruffy, left-leaning street artist, and Floria Tosca, an opera diva dressed to kill, make a somewhat unlikely couple. Sixteen years on, Amanda Echalaz, as Tosca once again, now “brings to the character the added patina of a watchful, maturing woman capable of jealousy” (Claudia Pritchard, Culture Whisper, 20th May 2024). Perhaps it is her age that makes her uncertain of her lover’s loyalty. For as Alexandra Wilson observes, Tosca is “jealous and neurotic, capricious and demanding”, a far cry from Mimi in La Bohème (‘Toxic Machismo and Pungent Irony’, Official Programme). And jealousy is a weakness that Scarpia, chief of the state police and an astute psychologist, is only too eager to manipulate. Iago, as he observes, had a handkerchief with which he befuddled Othello. “I have a fan”, he triumphantly proclaims, to wit, that of the Marchesa Attavanti, the sister of the political fugitive Cesare Angelotti, who Cavaradossi is protecting.

Stephen Barlow, the director of Tosca, notes that given the length of time since this production last appeared, this is “a re-visit rather than a simple revival”. There have been certain changes, accordingly. The performance is set in 1968 during elections and “authoritarian crackdowns”. Populists such as Vitellio Scarpia, “a would-be rapist and ruthless manipulator of a cowed and gullible people”, are “stocking fears while offering easy solutions” (Gary Naylor, Broadway World). Scarpia (Morgan Pearse) is “the champion of cleanliness, order and morality”, “a most commanding creep” (see Boyd Tonkin, ‘Passion and Populism’, the artsdesk.com 29/05/2024). “Thank heavens”, Naylor pointedly remarks, “nobody of so flawed a character could ever run for election in a democracy in 2024”.

In a review of Tosca at Royal Opera in 2014, tenor Roberto Alagna’s underwhelming performance of Mario Cavaradossi was referred to (Quarterly Review, ‘Tosca by Numbers’, May 21 2014). We were reminded of Richard Burton’s comments on acting in his Diaries, edited by Chris Williams. “I am easily bored”, Burton confided, “I am excited by the idea of something but its execution bores me”. On one occasion, Burton relieved the tedium by playing Hamlet as a homosexual. On another, he recited “To be or not to be”, in German. Roberto Alagna is “a prodigiously gifted singer”, but sometimes he seems to only be going through the motions. José de Eça, in contrast, received a warm reception for his rendition of ‘Recondita armonia’ (albeit not the five minute ovation that Franco Corelli once famously enjoyed). A similar comparison could be made between Amanda Echalaz’s spirited performance of the role of Tosca at Opera Holland Park and that of Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, admittedly a technically very accomplished artist, in the afore mentioned production at Covent Garden.

Tosca was one of the first operas that your reviewer attended, at Opera Holland Park, many years ago. In 2024, Puccini’s timeless masterpiece delivers once again.

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Endnotes, June 2024

Endnotes, June 2024

In this edition: a farewell to Sir Andrew Davis; rare English works on the EM Records label; Nielsen from Bergen

Sir Andrew Davis, British international conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Toronto, Melbourne, Chicago and Royal Stockholm orchestras, 1944-2024.

Portrait photo of Sir Andrew Davis, credit Wikipedia

For Proms devotees of the 1980s and ‘90s, the conductor Sir Andrew Davis was one of those charismatic presences which shaped that famous summer Festival. Born in Hertfordshire in 1944, Andrew Frank Davis was destined for a prominent career in music. An organ scholar at Cambridge. Sir Andrew later recalled how his tutors told him ‘to specialise’ — a particular form of discipline that he actually wanted to avoid. Hopeful of conducting engagements and of making a name as an exponent of the atonal Second Viennese School, he also remembered how surprised he was to be drafted in, not for Anton Webern, but for a Classics for Pleasure recording of RuleBritannia! — a work that was destined to travel with him throughout his life, as he went in to conduct the Last Night of the Proms on more than ten occasions.

Music by British composers, especially Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Tippett, drew some of the finest performances from Sir Andrew, yet he turned his hand to Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Nielsen, Mahler, Schoenberg with equal dedication and feeling. At the 1990 Proms, in tribute to his late predecessor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Pritchard, he conducted Mahler’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’; and, like Sir John, delighted in the huge, resonant late-romantic works which could fill the Royal Albert Hall, both in sound and in audience numbers.

Sir Andrew Davis carved out a glittering international career with the Toronto, Chicago and Melbourne Symphony orchestras; and productions, including Gilbert and Sullivan, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Famously, he once sang the Last Night of the Proms conductor’s speech to a G & S tune and appeared at the 1988 Last Night festivities with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Australian composer, Percy Grainger. (Percy Grainger’s very own piano roll was used in a performance of the Grieg concerto!)

Renowned for his good humour and wit, Sir Andrew was once likened, by a past member of the LPO choir, to a ‘jolly geography teacher’; a description which showed how much this conductor was liked by the musicians who worked with him. The Royal Albert Hall will be an emptier place without him.

Having said goodbye to one of our great conductors, how heartening to see so many talented British conductors now making great strides on the international and national stage. Edward Gardner, for example ~ just like Sir Andrew Davis ~ has earned a fine reputation for his BBC Symphony concerts, and for a cycle of Nielsen symphonies on the Chandos label. Most recently, Gardner has completed a production with one of Norway’s leading ensembles, the Bergen Philharmonic, of Nielsen’s Third Symphony (1910-11), coupled with the ‘Pastoral Scene for Orchestra’ Pan and Syrinx, and the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra ~ with Adam Walker as the (brilliant) soloist. Anyone who remembers this musician’s playing of the flute part in Walton’s Symphony No1, third movementat the Proms a year ago, will understand the use of the word brilliant.

Dankvart Dreyer (1816-1852), view of Funen, 1843

Nielsen’s Symphony No3, subtitled Sinfonia Espansiva, contains one of the most mysterious and enchanting movements of the early-20th century period: a long, languid meditation ~ filled with summer breezes ~ with a hypnotic vocalise at its height, performed here by Lina Johnson (soprano) and Yngve Soberg (baritone). As ever with Chandos records, the sound-engineering is immaculate, capturing the Bergen orchestra’s rich timbres; yet the ushering in of the two voices at that magical point in the movement is a little jolting ~ not quite as subtle or seamless as it is on another Chandos disc devoted to the same piece from a couple of decades ago, conducted by Rozhdestvensky. Nevertheless, a notable recording of a symphony that is not aired enough.

John Andrews, a regular with the English Music Festival, is another fine British talent who wields the baton on an EM Records disc of rare repertoire: Quilter, Delius, Havergal Brian, Alexander Mackenzie, Cyril Scott, Norman O’Neill’s La BelleDame sans Merci and another ‘scena’, the Norse saga of 1898-1900 by Holst, Ornulf’sDrapa ~ sung by that resonant baritone voice, Roderick Williams. In an essay by music writer, Stephen Banfield (written in 1990 for Deutsche Grammophon), he states that O’Neill, Cyril Scott et al belonged to a ‘doomed milieu’ of ‘lop-sided’, monstrously sized orchestrations, enveloped in theosophy, esoterica and mysticism. Only Holst, argued Banfield, with his suite, The Planets, emerged from this lost world. Yet as we can see and hear from the new disc, it is now clear (thanks to the English Music Festival) that many works, even by Holst ~ thought lost or just beyond salvation ~ can now be given a completely fresh evaluation and appreciation.

The BBC Concert Orchestra plays with strong conviction, especially in Mackenzie’s stirring, romantic Colomba of 1898; and as sensitive accompanists to violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck, whose orchestration of Havergal Brian’s Legend adds further period feel to an important collection.

CD details:
Nielsen, Symphony No. 3, Flute Concerto, Chandos CHSA 5312.
Quilter, Delius, O’Neill et al, EM Records, EMR CD085.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

In Deep

Orgreave Colliery, credit Wikipedia

 In Deep,
by William Hartley

Prior to the industrial revolution investors in mining schemes were known as Adventurers. Given that the dividing line between success and failure could be a narrow one, it was certainly an adventurous way of trying to make money. Whilst mining has come a long way since then, there are still elements of the unknown in any attempt to obtain mineral wealth from underground and the risk of failure remains constant.

The demise of coal mining in Britain probably gave the impression that there is no mining industry left. Certainly when it comes to media coverage anything involving mining rarely gets beyond the financial pages, unless of course the environmental lobby decides to object. Yet mining has never gone away and there are a number of ventures, large and small, currently in operation. What unites them is the high risk and high cost of these ventures.

As recently as 2021 there were sixteen companies seeking to explore for metals or develop mines in the UK. These comprise four main groups; base metal projects focussed in the south west and north Wales; battery metals such as lithium in Cornwall, precious metals in Northern Ireland and Scotland; and agri minerals in North Yorkshire.

Whilst mining has always had an impact on the immediate environment, dealing with a site is much more sophisticated than it used to be, when the end of a mining operation could leave a wasteland of industrial dereliction. These days, rehabilitation and conservation management can be undertaken even before production begins. Unfortunately the memory of what the industry used to be like means the strategic element to domestic mining isn’t always appreciated. Yet domestic mining can create jobs and reduce or eliminate dependence on overseas sources.

Important metals such as tin, copper and iron ore are predicted to rise in price in the coming years and demand will continue to increase. Often such metals are to be found in countries whose governments are capable of using such assets to their political advantage. The war in Ukraine gives an indication of what may happen if the supply of vital natural resources is affected. For example, the Donbas region is rich in strategic minerals, suggesting that Russia is looking for more than territorial gains. In this country, likewise, a combination of the rising price of metals on the commodities markets and the need to exercise strategic control, is making domestic mining more attractive.

Some of the sites currently being examined have a long history of exploitation. In the 18th century Parys Mountain copper mine on Anglesey was the richest in Europe. Archaeological finds suggest that the site has a history dating back to the Bronze Age and may even be the location where metal mining in the British Isles originated. For many years the site was a polluted, long abandoned wasteland. Then in 2021 Anglesey Mining began developmental work and now has a 300 metre production shaft on the site. Early tests suggest marketable concentrates of copper, lead and zinc and even some traces of silver and gold.

In West Cornwall, the tin mining industry staggered to an end in the closing years of the last century, defeated by low prices and high energy costs. The last mine to go was South Crofty near Pool, which closed in 1998 having been in operation for 400 years.  As a consequence there is now no mining for tin anywhere in Europe or North America. Supplies come mainly from China, Indonesia and Myanmar. In 2021 a company called Cornish Metals began work on the site. Reopening a mine isn’t easy and Cornish tin mines were always wet places in which to work. A major challenge at the South Crofty mine is to pump water out of a 360 metre deep shaft. Work began in October of last year using submersible pumps and it is expected to take eighteen months to complete. Although the test drillings look promising, the cost of getting even this far is £40m. Once the company is able to access the mine, then this is the stage at which investment decisions will have to be made before mining can begin. It illustrates the massive costs involved in just determining whether or not an actual mining operation is feasible. If it works out, then South Crofty carries the possibility of bringing jobs to a part of Cornwall which are not dependant upon seasonal tourism. The company is hoping to restart mining in 2026; should it succeed then South Crofty promises to be a significant strategic asset for this country.

The knife edge between failure and success is illustrated by the experience of Wolf Minerals, a company which sought to develop the Hemerden Mine near Plymouth. Despite an experienced management team, the company failed to achieve its objectives and went into receivership in 2018. The site now has a new operator called Tungsten West who, supported by £200m in investment, announced this year that they are set to become the largest producer of the metal in the western world. Currently the major supplier of the metal is China.

An even more ambitious project is located in Yorkshire beneath the North York Moors. It is currently Britain’s largest infrastructure project and  like South Crofty is a leap into the unknown but on a much larger scale. Anglo-American, the company behind the project, has seen it share price decline significantly due to investor nerves and the massive cost of the project. The company has sunk a 340 metre deep shaft to reach a product which, unlike say tin, is something no-one is at present sure has a market. They are intending to mine polyhalite, a fertilizer believed to have benefits far in excess of traditional products, although there are those who disagree. The company bases its plans on future population growth and the need to get more out of existing farmland. This massive project is leaving a small surface footprint since they are constructing a 23 mile tunnel from to link the Woodsmith mine with Teesport, from where the mineral can be exported.

What the Woodsmith and South Crofty projects illustrate is the high risk involved. Some things in mining don’t change. But if they are successful, then they have the potential to bring jobs to parts of the country which have been hard hit by the decline in traditional industries.

Bill Hartley is a Social Historian

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A Conspiracy to Silence and Control

Statue of Coatlicue, credit Wikipedia

A Conspiracy to Silence and Control

By Dr A. R. Kneen

Questioning the official narrative on a topic is often met with sneers such as: ‘you sound like a conspiracy theorist’; ‘I don’t listen to conspiracy theories’, and the like. The tone is somewhat superior and the inflection such as to demean the critic. The effect is to close the discussion. Not only is the debate closed, but it appears as though evocation of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ can also close down the thinking processes of those that invoke it. In this sense, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ is a ‘blocker-term’: these are terms that block debate – and that also possibly block cognition. This parallels the effects of other terms, such as ‘racism’ – which has the effect of closing debate upon certain race-related topics[1].

Sometimes what was dismissed as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is subsequently shown to be true. For example, it used to be denied that mass immigration could result in white indigenous British people becoming the minority in any British city. People who predicted this as a possible outcome were demeaned as ‘conspiracy theorists’. However, in many areas of Britain, White Brits are now a minority. According to the 2021 census, White British people constituted 36.8% of the population of London. This example illustrates one of the key features of the term ‘conspiracy theory’[2]: that by describing a statement as a ‘conspiracy theory’, it is thus implied that the statement is untrue[3] (it is ‘false/fake news’, ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’, etc.). Apropos ‘conspiracy theory’ as a blocker-term, Social Representation Theory[4] examines the actual meaning of terms in their social context – what terms represent socially to people.

If one looks up the term ‘conspiracy theory’ in a dictionary, one finds definitions such as:

‘a belief or statement that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by a small and powerful group of people’.

Clearly this definition does not always even fit the context in which the term is used. For example, during 2020, the official narrative was that the hospitals were ‘over-flowing’. Many people knew this to be untrue[5] – and also knew that the Nightingale hospitals were unused[6]. In 2020, the author went to a local hospital to check and saw that it was extraordinarily quiet; but stating this fact was met with the ‘conspiracy theorist’ accusation. How would stating that the hospital was quiet necessarily pertain to a secret plan by a small group of powerful people? It is merely a true and observed fact – albeit a fact that contradicts the official narrative. Likewise with the example above of indigenous Brits becoming a minority in a British city: this statement at no point refers to any small group of powerful people planning anything. Of course, any event could be planned by such a group, but there could be many other possible explanations for any of these events. And whether such events are or are not so-planned, this was not stated by the speaker nor is it a necessary conclusion from the fact stated. Moreover, if any such events were planned by a small secret group, then this should not mean that the debate necessarily should be over – surely that would, if anything, make it more important to continue the discussion. And, really, many important events are planned by small groups of people – why would that even be an issue? So not only is such a matter a non sequitur and irrelevant to the veracity of the statement, it is also unclear why this non sequitur would then block debate (and possibly also block cognition).

Although the usage of the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ frequently does not fit its dictionary definition, the social representation meaning of the term presents various constituent elements of what this term means to those using it. One such element is that the statement is untrue (see above). Another element is that the ‘conspiracy theorist’ is ‘inferior’ – this is demonstrated by the pseudo-superior tone frequently used by the accusers and the sneering and demeaning of the accused. ‘Conspiracy theorists’ are also, perhaps ironically, considered as having lower mental abilities, as being less educated and/or less well-informed. The central visual image of the term appears to be that of a weird, unintelligent, uneducated, mentally ill, undesirable, social-outcast ‘in his mother’s basement’ – possibly wearing a ‘tin foil hat’. The ‘conspiracy theories’ he/she states are false and crazy – not worthy of considering and to be blocked without further thought. Such stereotypes are discussed by Moscovici, e.g.:

Psychological processes, either cognitive or affective, that can establish as immediate connection between the stimulus and the response, must result in the production of a stereotype[7]. This is not only because individuals immediately behave as they are required to, but also because the situation is so designed as to offer only two possible solutions. (Moscovici, 2008)[8]

The two solutions that appear to be offered are to either: block the statement made by the ‘conspiracy theorist’ and hence stay comfortably with the official narrative and feeling smug, superior and safe; or to consider what was stated and then be viewed as a weird, crazy ‘conspiracy theorist’ – as well as the identity issues this presents, this can also present various potential risks (see later). By drawing upon Social Representation Theory, one can ascertain how such images have substituted logical concepts in thinking, in what has been described as ‘ritual-authoritarian language’.

This style is of overwhelming concreteness. The ‘thing identified with its function’ is more real than the thing distinguished from its function […] This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. In its immediacy and directness, it impedes conceptual thinking; thus it impedes thinking (Marcuse, 1964 [9])

Hence, Social Representation Theory helps us understand how this blocker-term has the effect that it does: most people will not want to align themselves with such an image – it is perceived as undesirable and risky. It also goes some way to explaining why this blocker-term does not affect everyone in the same manner. As Moscovici wrote:

One often wonders why people are so cavalier about validating their judgements, so forgetful of statistical rules, and so unconcerned about correcting their mistakes. It would seem less peculiar if one looked at people not only as biological organisms but also as social organisms. The question arises in what sort of universe dilemmas are formulated and what is the position in this universe of the people who must resolve them. (Moscovici, 1988)

People who use the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ appear to believe the official narrative on the relevant topic. Many beliefs held by people are what are referred to as ‘motivated-beliefs’: these beliefs are not accidental but people are motivated to believe them. But as Moscovici maintains, we are all in different positions. Incentives for people to believe can be financial. For example, some doctors and nurses have made large amounts of money from the corona virus situation. NHS staff have also benefited financially from the ‘NHS discounts’ given by retailers[10]. Indeed, NHS staff are still going into retailers and requesting such a discount [11] – the author has a friend who runs a coffee shop and NHS staff still come in asking for a ‘NHS discount’[12].

There are reports of some NHS staff receiving huge amounts of money during the ‘pandemic period’: four GPs are reported to have been paid over a million pounds a year[13]; some nurses in America were reported to have been paid $10,000.00 a week while they were put up in hotels ‘waiting to be deployed for covid’;  a number of GPs in England made small fortunes injecting people[14] as bonus payments were made in the UK per injection given (even though these were conducted during normal hours for which the medics were already being paid); hospitals in America were paid thousands of dollars for each patient they diagnosed with alleged ‘covid’; etc. Such financial benefits would provide an incentive for many not to query the official narrative [15]. Of course, there will be those who will doubt the official narrative, or actually totally disbelieve it, yet keep quiet and take the money. This would represent examples of corrupt, ‘bribed silence’ rather than incentivised-belief[16]. For others, they may genuinely believe every word of the official narrative, but this belief is motivated, albeit likely to be unconsciously so, by the money.

Examining the reverse can illuminate this process further. For example, the owners of a hypothetical small family business that was ordered to close down for lockdown, and hence got into serious financial difficulties, might be inclined to query the narrative and to thence investigate and research the alleged facts behind it. They then might discover that there is no isolate of the alleged sars cov 2 virus. Such research could cause the researchers to doubt the official narrative. This would be an example of ‘motivated-disbelief’. In other words, a person’s circumstances might motivate them to believe unthinkingly – or alternatively, to doubt, to apply critical thinking – and perhaps to research.

Motivations for belief are not merely financial. People’s character and social circumstances, inter alia, are also relevant in this regard. Drawing on the past four years, as an example, there was ample opportunity to mistreat and control[17] others. There are examples of ‘covid authoritarians’ who behaved in a terrible manner towards those not following the official narrative and/or who were not complying with the rules. Aside from the police, others also engaged in controlling, authoritarian, and often abusive behaviour – we witnessed people screaming at others in the street for not wearing face masks, there were calls on social media and television for draconian measures for those not complying with orders, etc. The desire to mistreat and otherwise control others is present in some people, and following the official narrative gave them an excuse not only to inflict pain on others, but to feel superior about so doing. As Aldous Huxley memorably said:

The surest way to work up a crusade in favour of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behaviour ‘righteous indignation’ – this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.

Another factor that can affect the level to which a person is motivated to believe the official narrative is the degree to which a person feels the need to align with the people and organisations (and their related images) presenting that narrative. For example, there are those who seem to feel the need to try to enhance their apparent status (or ‘pseudo-status’) by so doing. The very fact of sneering suggests that there is something other than the facts of the matter relevant to the sneerer[18] – in some ways, the act of sneering can be viewed as an attempt to gain status (or faux status). Another relevant factor is the extent to which an individual has already committed themselves to such organisations and behaviours. Again, with all these factors, the extent to which they are conscious or not varies[19].

The official narrative is presented as not only correct, but also as being held by the majority. Various means are used to convince people that this view is held by most people, (e.g. presentation of survey results, lack of contradictory views presented to people, etc.) – and once people are convinced that a certain narrative is the general consensus, then this can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. People display different levels of conformity to what appears the majority view. In Asch’s[20] famous experiments, a group were shown a single line and also shown a set of 3 lines and asked, in turn, which line of the set of 3 was the same length as the sole line. Of the group, unbeknown to the actual subject, all were confederates of the experimenter. It was found that many people agreed with the responses previously given by others (confederates) – even though the answers were clearly incorrect. Of course, in any such experiments one could never be sure that the subject’s actual judgement had been affected or whether he just agreed, knowing the answer was incorrect, for other reasons, (e.g. just to be polite and not contradict others, etc.).

Asch also found that if one confederate dissented from the majority view prior to the subject being asked, exposure to this dissent reduced ‘conformity’ rates (hence a reason to censor dissent). He noted that conformity was higher if the confederates were perceived as higher status (see ‘plebism’) – and that some subjects never conformed and always merely gave the correct answer. There are many other such experiments that show that people will conform to what they believe to be the majority view[21]. In 2020, during lockdown, the author was discussing the lockdown situation with someone who accepted the official narrative. At one point, the individual in question said: ‘but all the countries in the world, the whole world, the whole world and all those governments, they can’t all be wrong, it has to all be true’[22]. This phenomenon is labelled ‘the weight-of-numbers’ effect[23]. However, the latter does not influence everyone. Some people have independence of mind – perhaps related to strength, lack of faith in the abilities of others, personal confidence and grounding[24], lack of deference (see ‘plebism’ qv), etc.

The concept of authority is relevant in this context. There are two main groups of definitions of this term: those referring to ‘authority’ as being the moral or legal right to control others; and those referring to the idea of being an expert on a particular subject. In regard to legal rights to control others, laws vary across time and location. For example: substances such as alcohol and/or cannabis might or might not be legal depending where one lives today; sometimes it has been legal to own slaves, and still is in some places today.

It can be argued that there is a moral obligation to disobey and to challenge immoral laws. This point could also be extended to laws that are grounded on falsehoods or irrelevance. Regarding a moral right to control others – it is not clear what moral right anyone has to control others. Of course, there are exceptions to this, e.g.: if one were to see a toddler about to walk off a cliff, it would be imperative to pull them away; if a man were trying to rape a woman, it would be proper for her to stop him, etc. All such examples would involve the immediate controlling of other people in some fashion. And there are other types of examples such as when  two free people have agreed upon a contract between them – it would be right to enforce this contract (and to seek recompense were it breached, etc.). Some argue that it is moral to obey the government due to some imaginary ‘social contract’. However, there is a strong counterargument: that the very notion of government itself is actually immoral – as is obeying government[25]. Thus, it is clear that one should not necessarily obey the ‘authority’ – and that in some circumstances one should challenge and refuse to comply. The issue, if one wants to live ethically, is whether the orders are moral or not. Orders based on false-hoods (fraud, etc.) and that would cause more harm than good, etc. should not be followed – and any ‘authority’ giving such orders lacks credibility.

As to the idea of ‘experts’, some people are doubtless experts in their field. Nonetheless, in recent years we have witnessed many so-called experts giving incorrect advice. Maybe these ‘experts’ were corrupt, maybe they were mistaken, maybe they were incompetent. Certain fields of expertise are founded on falsehoods. It is possible that some ‘experts’ are unaware of this fact – high levels of compartmentalisation mean that many people might be working earnestly and honestly and not realise that what they are doing is incorrect. For example, within the field of virology, there are those who do not realise that the process they are using to ‘isolate’ a virus does not actually do so at all[26]. Or that the alleged genetic codes thus produced are not empirically-derived: these are merely in silico – produced by a computer. This error then has a knock-on effect; these codes are then passed on and used in testing. Those conducting and producing the resultant PCR tests might be unaware that the codes they were given to use are not derived from any isolated virus [27]. It is evidently not always advisable to listen to someone merely because he is deemed an expert.

However, despite the issues with authority, many people will comply with orders from authority figures merely because those figures are perceived as authority figures[28]. There is much research on this area[29], including the classic Milgram experiments[30] in which a majority of people were found to be prepared to administer what they believed to be dangerously high levels of electric shocks to another person (unbeknown to them, actually a confederate of the experimenter) when they believed this was part of an experiment conducted at a prestigious university. Interestingly, watching another person dissent reduced the levels of obedience. Repeating this experiment in a more run-down location instead of a prestigious university setting also decreased obedience. Demographic differences were found, such as educated subjects being less obedient and military subjects more obedient. Much could be said regarding the interpretation of the results of such experiments, and clearly obedience to authority is not the only relevant issue. However, the phenomenon of people obeying orders because they perceive the order-giver as having authority and/or prestige does happen.

What is interesting, inter alia, is why people would perceive the obligation to comply – and why they would perceive some people as having prestige. The results of some of the ‘obedience experiments’, and other matters, suggest various possible explanations. One of salient factors is ‘plebism’: the phenomenon whereby a person believes themselves to be inferior in some manner(s) to someone else and hence exhibits deference towards them. This is associated with a tendency to obey based on the belief in their own inferiority to the other person. This phenomenon was demonstrated during the past 4 years when people complied with the most ridiculous matters such as standing on yellow dots in shops, wearing masks (since declared as useless to protect against illness), etc. Some people appeared almost in awe of the people paraded on the televisions as experts and authority figures. Even when such figures are totally discredited, it seems to make little difference[31] – clearly those engaging in plebism are not considering their credibility.

The deference of plebism is found in all strata of society – this is not confined to those who are very poor and/or very uneducated, etc. In fact, there are middle-class people who exhibit plebism. When speaking with such people, it is often difficult to disentangle the extent to which their behaviour is plebism as opposed to a form of snobbery. The official narrative is usually presented as being socially superior – and constructed via various means that establish this. If a snob is defined as: ‘a person with an exaggerated respect for high social position and/or wealth who seeks to associate with social superiors and looks down on those regarded as socially inferior’, then it is possible that plebism is an explanation for the existence of snobbery. In fact, the very belief in the concept of authority could thus be, at least in part, explained thereby.

Plebism is also relevant in relation to the idea of following the ‘experts’ – or as we have been told recently, to ‘follow the science’. Using terms that are not understood by people mystifies and obscures. Of course, every field has its own jargon, and any such jargon could be learnt by most people if they took the time to do so. However, given the prestige of ‘science’, people often will unhesitatingly defer to these alleged experts.

An example of a related issue is that of cowardice: it is safer to adhere to the official narrative. The official narrative is that presented by the government, and the government has all the force at hand (police, army, prisons, etc.). Instinctively perhaps, and also perhaps unconsciously, some will want to align with this rather than against it, out of fear of disagreeing. This fear can also be caused by more open and direct threats by those in power. For example, there were those who lost their jobs in recent years for challenging the official narrative. That can also present direct risks in other ways: various laws and policies are in place that aim to prevent speech that challenges the official narrative. Sometimes these are wrapped up as being ‘nice’, e.g. various ‘hate speech laws’, etc. presenting the ‘smiley-tyranny’ with which we are all becoming familiar. Again, the new definition of ‘extremism’[32] implies links between dissent and terrorism – and provides means by which the government can inhibit dissent. Governments have repeatedly and directly told the public not to listen to ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’, etc. of the ‘conspiracy theorists’. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a person with a big smile, said: ‘dismiss anything else, we will continue to be your single source of truth’[33].

In fact, police have even appealed for the public to report ‘conspiracy theorists’ to them. This is not a new phenomenon[34], for example in 1674 King Charles II made a proclamation[35]To Refrain the Spreading of False News and Licentious Talking of Matters’ [36] and ‘penalties are to be inflicted upon all such as shall be found to be the spreaders of false news’ with ‘strict and exemplary punishments’. The King was concerned that people were talking about the possibility of him dissolving Parliament; which he then did (in 1681) – an early example of a ‘conspiracy theory’ not being false. King Charles II also commanded that people are to report on people who challenge the official narrative or they also would be punished. In another such proclamation he actually specified that hearers of such ‘bold and irreverent speech’ must report the speaker within 24 hours[37] or face punishment themselves[38]. Of course, tyrannical governments always inculcate a culture of snitching. As the Australian police said in a press conference in 2022[39]:

If anyone out there that knows of someone that might be showing concerning behaviour around conspiracy theories, anti-government, anti-police, conspiracy theories around covid-19 vaccinations as we’re seeing [inaudible 2 words], we want to know about that

Thus, there is, and has been in the past, the threat from those in power to those who dissent – and in modern times the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ often is used to refer to such dissenters.

The term ‘conspiracy theory’ with its social representation has not appeared in a vacuum: this has been constructed so as to present people with the bipolar choices discussed above. The two poles appear to be constructive of one another. Such dichotomous division was discussed by Moscovici e.g.

A further feature of all dichotomous divisions explains the mechanism that binds the themes together: anything that does not belong within one field must belong to the other. No theme can be shared by both because, if it were, the dichotomous division would disappear […] its dichotomous nature explains the concrete aspects of propaganda (Moscovici, 2008)

The image of the ‘conspiracy theorist’ has been ably constructed by the media. Conspiracy theorists are portrayed in films and stories and discussed on television. In many debates (on social media and television), someone will accuse another of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and frequently the so-accused will deny this and recoil from the term – parallel to accusations of ‘racism’. By this process, people are trained to avoid this accusation. In fact, parallel to any dissent to the official narrative about the undoubted benefits of diversity (yes, any diversity, to any extent, etc.) being prefixed with the denial of ‘racism’ (‘I am not ‘racist but…’), those challenging the official narrative on many topics prefix their own speech with ‘I am not a conspiracy theorist, but…’. The implied assumption to all such speech is that nobody wants to be labelled as a ‘conspiracy theorist’[40]. All these instances construct and bolster the image. Conversely, the official narrative is constructed by the ‘theatre’ of the titles, costumes, ‘status’, presentation and setting (e.g. podiums, etc.) and suchlike[41]. Motivational factors other than the image and perceived status are also constructed in the socio-cultural environment by matters such as the relevant laws instilling fear in people. However, despite this image, some still refuse to be silenced and controlled.

Those in power invariably discourage dissent. The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is but one tool that is currently employed to this end. It is effective because it controls how people think. The application of this term, more often than not, is inversionist, i.e. the truth is actually the opposite of what is being claimed or portrayed.

ENDNOTES
[1] Although only to some ends, not others
[2] Not only does this provide an example of a so-called ‘conspiracy theory’ not being, as implied by the term, untrue, it also presents an example of various other phenomena that are relevant to many ‘conspiracy theories’ – including the phenomenon of ‘falsehood-erasure’. This term refers to the phenomenon whereby a person who previously dismissed a claim as merely a conspiracy theory appears to later forget what they had previously said, and they seem to act as though they had never said it. The sneerer’s previous falsehood is erased, e.g. ‘well that was always going to happen, and I celebrate the diversity’.
[3] Of course, not everything that challenges the official narrative on any topic is true, but the point being made here is that by deeming something as a conspiracy theory, it is implied it is thus false – whereas in fact many statements so-labelled are not false
[4] See Moscovici and Duveen. For example: DUVEEN, G. and LLOYD, B. (1990) Social Representations and the Development of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press. MOSCOVICI, S. (2000) Social Representations: Explorations in Social Psychology.  Translated by G. Duveen. Polity Press. MOSCOVICI, S. (1985) The Age of The Crowd: A Historical Treaty on Mass Psychology. Cambridge University Press. MOSCOVICI, S. (1988) Notes Towards a Description of Social Representations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18, 211-259.
[5] Around the world people were going in to their local hospitals and filming them – evidencing that they were quiet and not ‘over-flowing’. Many such videos were posted on Twitter #filmyourhospital (and also on other social media platforms)
[6]NEC confirms reopening as NHS Nightingale decommissioned | TheBusinessDesk.com

£66.7 Million Birmingham Nightingale Hospital Has Admitted No Patients in Eight Months – Byline Times

Nightingale hospitals stand empty despite surging Covid cases as medics warn of staff shortages (telegraph.co.uk)

[7] See also Driencourt, DRIENCOURT, J. (1950) La Propagande, Nouvelle Force Politique. Armand Colin: Paris.
[8] See also Kris and Leites, 1947 KRIS, E. and LEITES, N. (1965) Trends in Twentieth Century Propaganda (pages 489-500). In The Process and Effects of Mass CommunicationW. Schramm (editor). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. First published 1947.
[9] MARCUSE, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man. Beacon Press: Boston.
[10] E.g. 20% off at MacDonalds, 10% off at many supermarkets, 60% and more off many retailers, etc.
[11] Many NHS discounts are still running 4 years later, although many have now ceased.
Top 30 NHS Discounts deals at NHS Staff Benefits – NHS Staff Benefits
[12] Which he refuses to give
[13] Four GPs paid £1m a year during Covid, NHS figures reveal (msn.com)
[14] Extra payments were given for each injection administered varying from £12.58 to £30. A bonus on top of that of £10 per shot was available if it was a child jabbed. This added a substantial income to many, already generous, salaries. e.g. some surgeries reported injecting over 80 people an hour. If they were receiving £15 per shot, then this would mean an extra income of £1.200.00 per hour (i.e. 80 x £15 = £1,200.00)

Covid booster jabs: GPs to be paid between £15 to £30 per vaccine administered as roll-out ramps up (inews.co.uk)

My GP practice vaccinated 900 patients in a day – but it’s only the start | Zara Aziz | The Guardian 900 a day at £15 each would have meant an extra £13,500.00 a day.

[15] This defence including silencing those who might challenge the official narrative in any way
[16] And of course, the fact that querying might cost someone their job (and did on many occasions) is another finance-related motivation not to be ignored.
[17] Controlling others without due cause is considered as a form of mistreatment
[18] For example, if someone merely disagreed on the plain facts, there would  be no need to sneer – sneering implies that the sneerer is trying to belittle others and perhaps hence increase his perceived prestige in some manner and/or is unable to refute or consider the point being made, etc. The very act of sneering shows something distasteful about the person who sneers.
[19] There are so many other characteristics of the individual that are relevant here and those presented in this article do not constitute a complete list. Other factors include: the level of intelligence; the level of naiveté; the extent to which a person engages in critical thought; a person’s level of knowledge on any relevant topic; how discerning a person is; a person’s level of independent thought; etc.
[20] ASCH, S. E. (1951) Effects of Group Pressure Upon Modification and Distortions of Judgements. In H. Guetzkow, Groups, Leadership and Men. Carnigie Press: Pittsburg.
ASCH, S. E. (1956) Studies on Independence and Conformity: a Minority of One Against an Unanimous Majority, Psychological Monographs, 70, 1-70.
[21] For further reading see for example:
Crutchfield, R. S. (1955) Conformity and Character, American Psychologist, 10 191-8
Sherif (1936) The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper and Row
Stoner, J. A. F. (1968) A Comparison of Individual and Group Decisions Involving Risk. MIT thesis
[22] This discussion was very long, only a snippet is presented here. However, it really did appear that the weight-of-numbers was a major factor in this man’s mind.
[23] This also can be seen with the ‘climate change/boiling/emergency’ official narrative. For example, often people are shown a large hall full of people all nodding, clapping, etc. as speakers on the stage at the front make various declarations about the climate. The sheer weight of numbers makes it hard for many to believe that all these people could be wrong. The theatre is also set by the perceived status of the speakers, etc. qv
Then the weight-of-numbers is increased further by many news items showing more people confirming the official narrative – and also phenomenon such as ‘bolstering-by-stacking’ whereby the official narrative is bolstered by the process of stacking other issues on top of it – other issues that imply the correctness of the official narrative by accepting it as true by implication. For example, bolstering-by-stacking is seen when people debate how is the best means to reduce carbon dioxide – this implying that reducing carbon dioxide is required.
[24] The below the surface hysteria of many ungrounded people renders them susceptible to manipulation by fear and security, etc. Such ‘hysterics’ frequently have a very narrow focus of thought – perhaps due to their hysterical nature – and this can be used to control them by those in power
[25] For example, see: Rose, L. (2012) The Most Dangerous Superstition, Larken Rose; 2nd edition (16 Jan. 2012)
[26] This will be expanded upon in a forthcoming article in The Quarterly Review
[27] This point is also relevant to the variation of the sneering: sometimes the sneerers state matters such as ‘are you claiming that millions of people are involved in a conspiracy?’. For there to be ‘millions’ of people doing the wrong thing does not mean that millions of people are involved in a conspiracy
[28] Factors such as level of courage, etc. are relevant. It is likely that the fear of power affects people differentially – and thus matters such as those described as Stockholm Syndrome, appeasement, etc. have effects in this regard too
[29] Of course, the interpretations of the results are a matter for debate
[30] E.g. see: Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row, Milgram, S. (1963) Behavioural Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-8
Also see: Hofling, K. C. et al (1966) An Experimental Study in the Nurse-Physician Relationship Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders, 43, 171-8
[31] For example, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson was caught having late night parties as he told the nation to ‘lockdown’ due to an alleged threat to their lives from a virus. Apparently he and his protection teams did not believe what he was saying (i.e. the official narrative). In fact, many of the figureheads for the lockdowns, etc. have been exposed as acting in a manner that demonstrates they did not believe the official narrative
[32] Can of Worms – The Quarterly ReviewThe Quarterly Review (quarterly-review.org)
[33] Is the State Your Single Source of Truth? | AIER
[34] Also see: Fake news has a long history. Beware the state being keeper of ‘the truth’ | Kenan Malik | The Guardian
[35] And much earlier similar proclamations can also be found e.g. from the 1275 Statute of Westminster ‘slanderous news’ from which ‘discord may arise’ is forbidden.
[36] A proclamation to restrain the spreading of false news, … 1674 : CHARLES 11. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
[37] Relatedly, see: Germany approves plans to fine social media firms up to €50m | Technology | The Guardian
[38] He also shut-down (‘locked-down’) coffee shops to prevent people talking
[39] If You See Anyone Posting “Anti-Govt, Anti-Police, COVID Conspiracy Rhetoric” … Call Crime Stoppers (bitchute.com)
[40] As with ‘racist’, the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ largely goes undefined – defining such blocking-terms would render their usage less useful for those attempting to close down debate
[41] The ‘theatre’ includes the image-construction as caring, wise, correct, etc. And many fall for this image, e.g. people will say things like ‘the government wouldn’t do that’ if it is suggested that the government might be involved in some wrong-doing

AR Kneen was awarded a Bye-Fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge. She is the author of Multiculturalism – What Does it Mean?

 

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Mourning Sickness Again

Katie Mitchell, credit Wikipedia

Mourning Sickness Again

Lucia Di Lammermoor, Drama Tragico in three acts, Music by Gaetano Donizetti, Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, Royal Opera 30 April 2024, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Giacomo Sagripanti, Director Katie Mitchell, Revival Director Robin Tebbutt, reviewed by Leslie Jones

QR reviewed the first revival of Katie Mitchell’s searing production of Lucia di Lammermoor (see Leslie Jones, ‘Mourning Sickness’, November 3rd 2017). Seven years on, how does it fare? Certain impressions persist. The device of a split stage still works. It facilitates a “series of pointed comparisons and contrasts” between the public and private domains, and, as in Act 111, scene 2, between “the suits in their patriarchal spaces, such as the billiard room” and Lucia and her companion Alisa “in the privacy of her bedroom, closet and bathroom”. On second viewing, however, the almost omnipresent ghosts of  Lucia’s mother and of the Lammermoor girl, murdered by one of Edgardo’s ancestors (and dressed like a doll), who move across the stage like automata, increasingly grate.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor tells a tale of ill-fated love that ultimately fails to withstand the vindictive hatred and machinations of two warring families; in the latter case, the Ashtons, headed by Enrico, and the Ravenswood tribe, led by Edgardo. Enrico Ashton’s family fortunes are in dire case. Calvinist chaplain Raimondo Bidebent (played on this occasion by South Korean bass Insung Sim) is enlisted to pressure Lucia into marrying Arturo Bucklaw, a wealthy local gentleman. Bidebent reminds Lucia of her obligation to her dead mother and claims that Heaven will reward her sacrifice. Materialistic family values are compounded here by religious hypocrisy. And there are echoes of La Traviata, when the courtesan Violetta Valéry is persuaded to sacrifice her hopes of happiness with Alfredo by his father Giorgio Germont, determined to protect his daughter’s marriage prospects.

The role of Lucia is one of the most challenging soprano roles in the operatic repertoire. Rachael Lloyd rose to the challenge with aplomb. Pyrotechnics aside, we found her performance in the denouement deeply moving.

Katie Mitchell’s take on Donizetti’s masterpiece manifestly has it all; cross dressing, bondage, murder, mental derangement, suicides, a bloody miscarriage, morning sickness. We are born, as St Augustine reminds us, between urine and faeces. In an ambivalent but perceptive review, Mike Hardy acknowledges that Mitchell’s production is “beautifully sung”. But he considers that “its staging and direction are frequently and gratuitously barbarous and brutish” (see Mike Hardy, Opera Wire, April 25, 2024). Succinctly said – we concur.

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , | Leave a comment