Literature and Politics

Clare Wallace, Ph.D., doc.

Psychology Faculty

In autumn 2015 I will be teaching a course exploring literary representations of political issues. 

It is a fascinating, if potentially endless, field of investigation. When authors engage with questions of agency, conflict and ethics in works of fiction or theatre, they can provide us with insights into the structures of thinking and feeling that inhere in political events, developments or crises. Or, they may produce propaganda. If literature is not merely to provide a supplement to history, it must dig beneath the surface of the mundane, and to challenge our conceptual or imaginative default settings in order to produce some new experience of reality or new attitudes to the past.

An author who has devoted himself to exploring such possibilities is Scottish playwright David Greig. Greig has written many plays that deal with the operations of power, but one particularly resonant example is his 2010 work, Dunsinane.  History and place are at the forefront of this theatrical project. The play begins as the English army camouflage themselves in preparation for the final attack on Dunsinane. It goes on to envisage what happens after Macbeth is deposed and the new king, Malcolm, is installed. Action is centred on the English general Siward, his youthful soldiers and their fateful interaction with the Scots, as they find themselves in the midst of alien territory on an impossible peacekeeping mission.

In an interview for the BBC, Greig describes Dunsinane as an act of speculation. As a sequel to Macbeth, the play’s title explicitly hails its predecessor and the location of its concluding action. This citation is noteworthy in the way it alters the focus of the source text, directing us away from Shakespeare’s tyrant to the site of his demise, suggesting the precedence of place over personage. It also recalls the displacement involved in the tradition of superstitiously referring to Macbeth as ‘The Scottish Play.’ As Greig mentions in interview: ‘to some degree for Scottish writers, it’s always felt a little bit cheeky that unquestionably the greatest Scottish play was written by the great English playwright’.

A sense of Scottish difference and marginalisation inevitably is a feature of the cultural terrain of Scottish-English relations with a long history. Taking such a context into account, this play unravels zones of incomprehension and misunderstanding between Scottishness and Englishness, but pairs them unexpectedly with an allusion to contemporary zones of conflict in the Middle East. Indeed, at the time of the play’s opening production few reviewers omitted a mention of the work’s resonances with contemporary politics in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as Greig invites his audience to reconsider the sources beyond the text of Macbeth through intertextual play, he equally invites this audience to recognise correspondences with the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Numerous elements in the play reinforce this. On a general level the politics of invasion, cultural ignorance, local complexity in terms of language and allegiance are all familiar to a British audience with even minimal interest in the subject. Additionally, semantic equivocality and ambiguity are issues that have arguably reached a new level in the realm of public (mis)information concerning events and policies in the Middle East. Above all, a central motif in Dunsinane that directs an audience’s attention to present day politics is the question of (dis)engagement. Early in the play, Gruach, aka Lady Macbeth, advises Siward: ‘There is a dance of leaving […] Try to learn the steps.’ At the play’s conclusion Siward appeals to Gruach to ‘take the first steps’ but she refuses, warning that he will ‘go home in the end. Beaten and humiliated’ and that she will continue to attack him even in his homeland. Debates concerning the withdrawal of British and American troops from Afghanistan were at their height at the time Dunsinane was first staged, while American military presence in Iraq was being restructured, making this question of ‘a dance of leaving’ acutely topical.  Such debates have evolved since with the emergence of ISIS, giving the conclusion of Dunsinane a still more prophetic tone. Dan Rebellato suggests in his book Theatre & Globalization, “theatre and performance [can] help us experience our place in the cosmopolitan community [...] and rehearse the nature of our ethical obligations” (71-75) via imaginative engagement with experiences performed on stage, as audiences, and via formal experiment and reconceptualisation. The same, I believe, could be said of literature in a broader sense. 

Clare Wallace is author of The Theatre of David Greig (2013) and Suspect Cultures: Narrative, Identity and Citation in 1990s New Drama (2006) and is editor of Monologues: Theatre, Performance, Subjectivity (2006) and Stewart Parker: Television Plays (2008). She is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary Drama in English. 



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