Another book on the Vietnam War? Yes, and one well worth our attention. Enough time has now passed that A.J. Langguth's Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975 serves not only as a wonderful addition to the rich and diverse literature on the war but as a good vehicle for revisiting and better understanding a tragedy of profound dimension. It is also an excellent one-volume introduction to the subject for those to whom this two-decade national experience is mainly a historical episode--and a useful lens through which to view the new Administration of George W. Bush as it begins to deal with military and national security issues.
Langguth is not a professional historian who approaches the Vietnam War merely through archives and secondary sources; he is a seasoned journalist who was on the ground in Vietnam for the New York Times when US combat troops began fighting in large numbers. Initially as a reporter and then as the paper's Saigon bureau chief, Langguth covered the war during this transformative period of 1964-65. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 to report on the aftermath of the Tet offensive, and then in 1970 to report on the US invasion of Cambodia. In preparing Our Vietnam he made five trips to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, wherehe writes he was "warmly received by Vietcong officers and lifelong Communist politicians."
Langguth's firsthand experiences in Vietnam help infuse this anecdotally rich chronological narrative with a vividness and immediacy that propel the reader through nearly 700 pages of history. It is disappointing that he did not write a concluding chapter or two in which to reflect on the longer-term meanings and consequences of the war. But, to his credit, he does cover the war not only from the American perspective but also from the vantage points of the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Langguth stays out of the way of his story--as he states, "My goal was simply a straightforward narrative that would let readers draw their own conclusions"--but makes his own point of view quite clear in the book's final paragraph: "North Vietnam's leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam's leaders had deserved to lose. And America's leaders, for thirty years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States."
Our Vietnam compares favorably with other books on Vietnam written by journalists that attracted wide public acclaim when published and retain distinguished and important places within the literature on the war. David Halberstam began The Best and the Brightest on the heels of covering the domestic turbulence created by the war during the 1968 campaign, in which he "had seen the Johnson Administration and its legatee defeated largely because of the one issue." When his book was published in 1971, US soldiers were still fighting in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was President. Thus, although Halberstam's study of how and why American leaders made decision after decision leading up to and sustaining the war remains a touchstone, he wrote of an event he was living through and for which he had limited sources.
Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History is an exceptional single-volume history of the American war in Vietnam, which Langguth almost seems to have used as a guide for his own effort. Although Karnow gives his thoroughly engaging, magisterial history a broad perspective, Langguth had access to more information because he was writing later, and his narrative provides a richer Vietnamese perspective on events. Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam is a remarkable, at times staggering, historical account of the war. But because Sheehan uses the story of Vann's life to tell the tale--even ending with the observation that "John Vann...died believing he had won his war"--his captivating narrative is more personal than a conventional historical account.
Our Vietnam should help keep the record honest today, too, by constituting an antidote to the published memoirs of those who planned and executed the war, the most prominent being former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In his memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara wrote that his "associates in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were an exceptional group: young, vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning, patriotic servants of the United States," and he wondered: How "did this group...get it wrong on Vietnam?"The mistakes, he insisted, were "mostly honest mistakes," the errors ones "not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities." (Langguth's chronology and evidentiary record contradict that view forcefully.)
Langguth's retelling of America's involvement in Vietnam covers already familiar ground. After the North Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Washington--in keeping with a cold war mentality that gripped much of the nation--promised "free elections" in South Vietnam and dispatched military personnel to train South Vietnam's army. But Vietnam was not on President Eisenhower's radar screen. When he met with President-elect John Kennedy during the transition, he drew Kennedy's attention to Laos as a potential trouble spot and made no mention of Vietnam. As the new President became focused on Vietnam, Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles--both an oracle and a lone wolf--warned (to no avail) against US military involvement there, because it would put the "prestige and power" of the United States on the line "in a remote area under the most adverse circumstances."
In 1961 McNamara became the Kennedy Administration's "supervisor for Vietnam," which caused many, years later, to refer to the conflict as McNamara's War. In 1962 Kennedy began to increase the number of US personnel in Vietnam. In 1963 Buddhists there were mounting a challenge to the autocratic ways of South Vietnam's Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem; indeed, that summer one Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, horrified the world by burning himself to death on a Saigon street. Diem was murdered only weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
On to the Johnson Administration: On August 7, 1964, Congress rubberstamped--the House vote was 416 to 0 and the Senate's was 88 to 2--an Administration-drafted resolution informally called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (following a trumped-up incident of attack on a US vessel), which authorized the President to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against" US forces and "to prevent further aggression." A month after eight Americans were killed at the US base in Pleiku in February 1965, the United States commenced Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, which continued (with some pauses) until October 1968. In March 1965 President Johnson committed land troops to South Vietnam, which over the next two and a half years were increased to more than 500,000.
When the United States went to war, most Americans might have said that the goal of the war was to stop the spread of Communism. But it is likely that only a small portion of them gave much thought to the meaning of that slogan as it applied to Vietnam. Moreover, a still smaller percentage probably thought carefully about how this war would actually prevent the spread of Communism, and what important interest the United States really had in doing so in South Vietnam per se. Thus, when the war began for the United States in earnest in 1965, the American public had only a wafer-thin understanding of why the nation was fighting a land war in Southeast Asia, the goals of the conflict, the dangers, whether the aims of the war were realistic and what magnitude of commitment and sacrifice might be required to see it through.
Once the war began, it dragged on from one season to the next, year after year. The public became restless and the antiwar movement became forceful. In early 1968 the North Vietnamese pulled off the stunning Tet offensive, which left the indelible image of Marines desperately fighting for their lives as they defended the US Embassy in Saigon. Washington tried to assure the American people that Tet was not a Communist victory. But George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, may have expressed the public's mood best when he said sardonically: "If this is a failure, I hope the Vietcong never have a major success." In the end, Tet shredded confidence in Washington, the idea that the war was being won and the suggestion that the South Vietnamese government was anything but a corrupt puppet.
Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged President Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and stunned the nation by getting 42.2 percent of the vote in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary. A few weeks later, the group of so-called Wise Men advised Johnson not to escalate the war further, and days after that Johnson told the nation he would halt much of the bombing and agree to negotiations with the North Vietnamese. He added that he would not be a candidate for re-election. When the Paris Peace Talks were about to begin, the South Vietnamese refused to attend, and the North Vietnamese and US delegations settled into arguing about the shape of the table at which they would sit--and Americans and Vietnamese continued to die.
When Richard Nixon won the general election, he didn't consider an immediate cessation of hostilities. Instead, he inaugurated a policy--eventually termed "Vietnamization"--of gradually withdrawing ground troops. At the same time, the war from the air was enlarged as he ordered the secret bombing of Communist bases in Cambodia. But the war did wind down, if slowly, and the last US combat troops left South Vietnam in March 1973. Rather than face an impeachment trial, Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, which left Gerald Ford as President when the North Vietnamese smashed through the gates of Independence Palace in Saigon and defeated the South Vietnamese in 1975.
Vietnam was a tragedy of immense proportions, and although it is regrettable that Langguth does not try to distill its causes, his carefully presented evidence makes it plain that the only arguable United States national security interest in Vietnam was the cold war policy of containing Communism to ward off the oft-invoked "domino effect." But even in this regard, Langguth's account indicates that those who planned and executed the war believed that the primary interest of the United States had less to do with containing Communism than it did with some vague idea of national prestige. As the respected John McNaughton, assistant secretary for international security affairs, stated in a 1965 memorandum to McNamara, "70%" of the purpose of US military intervention during the transition was "to avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)."
Langguth's account also firmly rules out the idea that Vietnam was a quagmire that US leaders stumbled into unaware of the risks. The "quagmire thesis" first made its mark on public consciousness when David Halberstam wrote The Making of a Quagmire in 1964, maintaining that well-intentioned, idealistic American leaders blundered their way in. After that, many were responsible for restating and elaborating the theme, but it was probably Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the prominent historian and former Kennedy aide, who gave the thesis one of its most quoted expressions, in The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966, published in 1967.
When I did my research for The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, it seemed that the Pentagon Papers had smashed the quagmire thesis to smithereens. The Pentagon Papers were a massive, 7,000-page, top-secret military history of America's involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War II to 1968, which McNamara had commissioned in 1967 and which Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times (and the Washington Post also ran) in 1971. They consisted of government documents embodying key decisions that led up to the war and sustained it, as well as accounts written by so-called Pentagon historians whose task it was to write a narrative of the decisions and events as recorded in the government documents that the study comprised.
But the theme of a morass that had trapped us unwittingly proved resilient. Weeks after the Pentagon Papers became public, none other than Schlesinger stepped forward to defend the quagmire claim against attacks on it by Ellsberg and others. Schlesinger wrote that "the Vietnam adventure was marked much more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by foresight, awareness, and calculation." He concluded that "I cannot find persuasive evidence that our generals, diplomats, and Presidents were all that sagacious and farsighted that they heard how hopeless things were, agreed with what they heard, and then 'knowingly' defied prescient warnings in order to lurch ahead into what they knew was inevitable disaster."
Even today that view continues to have currency, but Langguth will have none of this. He establishes not only that ranking US officials time and again perceived the dangers but that they were simultaneously unconvinced that the United States had any meaningful national defense or security interests in Vietnam that would have warranted war. Langguth's portrait is one of these same leaders feeling hemmed in by domestic political considerations. They believed that the harm to themselves at home (as well as perhaps to their party) would be too substantial if they were to change the direction of the cold war-inspired policies that were spawned at the end of World War II, and gradually but relentlessly supported the American military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Consider three incidents recounted by Langguth as illustrative of this theme. President Kennedy told his scheduling secretary, Kenny O'Donnell, in 1963 that "withdrawal in 1965 would make him one of the most unpopular presidents in history. He would be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. 'But I don't care,' Kennedy said. 'If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.'"
During a 1964 taped telephone conversation between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Russell said, "I don't see how we're ever getting out [of Vietnam] without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles. I just don't see it. I just don't know what to do." Johnson answered: "That's the way I've been feeling for six months." When Johnson asked Russell, "How important is it to us?" and Russell answered, "Not important a damned bit," the President did not disagree. Johnson also told Russell that he did not think people knew much about Vietnam and that "they care a hell of a lot less." Toward the end of the conversation, Johnson speculated, "They'd impeach a President that runs out, wouldn't they?"
Langguth also reports a telling incident just before Christmas 1970, when President Nixon told Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, that he "considered making 1971 the last year of America's involvement in Vietnam." Nixon said that he planned to tour South Vietnam in April 1971, reassure South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu about the consequences of the impending US withdrawal and then come home and "announce that America's role in Vietnam was over." Kissinger protested. He argued that after the withdrawal, the "Communists could start trouble" in 1972, which meant that the "Nixon administration would pay the political price in the 1972 presidential election." Kissinger advised, as Langguth recounts, that "Nixon should promise instead only that he would get American troops out by the end of 1972. That schedule would get him safely past his re-election. Nixon saw the wisdom in Kissinger's argument that guaranteeing his second term would require American soldiers to go on dying."
It would be overreaching to assert that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon made defense and national security decisions solely in response to their own perceived political fortunes, but the evidence does make it clear that their decisions were greatly influenced by the consideration. And to accept that domestic political concerns played such a pivotal role in the US war in Vietnam, which cost 57,000 American and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese lives, constitutes a profound challenge to the capacity of a democratic order to fashion and implement moral and prudent policies.
As damning as it is to accept the degree to which personal and party interests prompted policies that led to such a protracted war, it would be a mistake to think of the Democrats and Republicans who made those decisions as somehow uniquely flawed. It is unlikely that the qualities of mind, temperament and character of current and future political leaders will be more vital, wise or resourceful than those who occupied high office between 1954 and 1975. One must accept that the United States is not likely to have leaders who have the vision, the ability to communicate and that rare quality of leadership that will allow them to reshape what is politically possible by fundamentally altering (after they have helped formulate it) an entrenched mindset that dominates a nation.
Although Langguth's Our Vietnam does not confront this conundrum, his vivid retelling of the American war there allows us to consider once again the role played by the antiwar movement in bringing the war to an end. In so many ways, the movement was chaotic and ineffective. But can one imagine what would have been the course of the conflict if there had been no movement? Would the US combat forces in Vietnam have risen to a million? Would the United States have used nuclear weapons? Would the United States have supported a war of attrition for another three or four years? The movement was the countervailing force to, in its words, "the system" that made and sustained the war. The movement restrained Johnson's buildup; it put Senator McCarthy in a position to mount a challenge to a sitting President; it pressured Nixon to find a way out of an even longer war. The movement accomplished nothing quickly or easily--it couldn't. It was battling a cold war sensibility implanted in the American mind since the end of World War II. What is so astounding, therefore, is not that the movement did not achieve more, but that it achieved so much.
Just as a people may set constraints on the political process that politicians experience as a prison without walls, the people may also be, as they were during the Vietnam War, the system's last best hope. And if that is true, then the people need to be fully engaged as the inexperienced President Bush confronts an array of defense and national security issues: When and under what circumstances should the United States commit ground forces to a situation comparable to Kuwait or Bosnia? Should the United States deploy a national missile defense system? Is the United States meddling in a civil war in Colombia under the guise of advancing a hapless "war on drugs"? If dangerous weapons of mass destruction are identified with certainty in a nation considered a threat, what is the appropriate response?
Langguth's Our Vietnam reminds us time and again of the importance of skepticism and distrust in assessing defense and national security policies. One anecdote about that engagement makes the point memorably. In August 1964 Johnson was widely praised for ordering airstrikes against North Vietnam in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident. The influential New York Times columnist James Reston wrote that "even men who had wondered how Johnson would act under fire 'were saying that they now had a commander-in-chief who was better under pressure than they had ever seen him.'" There were not many dissenting voices, but I.F. Stone was one. Referring to the right-wing Republican presidential candidate, who criticized Johnson's policies toward North Vietnam as insufferably weak, Stone wrote in his weekly: "Who was Johnson trying to impress? Ho Chi Minh? Or Barry Goldwater?" Stone's response in this pivotal event is a vital example of a frame of mind that would serve the nation well if it were widely adopted. Any book that becomes a vessel for meaningful re-examination of a national tragedy is exceptional and demands broad attention. And that is what Langguth's book is, and does.
With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
A director, now an old man, alone, sits in his tidy house by the sea, everything in its place, the notebooks piled in their drawer, the letter opener and pen neatly on the desk. He conjures up his dead lover, an attractive actress named Marianne. She settles into the window seat, or sits in a chair opposite him, or, more rarely, strolls briefly around the room as she flashes back through her life with him and without him, by turns caustically, tenderly, revealingly, angrily. Through watery, startled, wounded, even yearning eyes, he stares at her and at himself years earlier. For entr'acte punctuation, he stares out the window toward the rolling sea, and three or four times even walks toward it. That, and a couple of Paris-from-the-rooftops shots, are among the few shifts from this movie's claustrophobic interiors and tight head shots and static camera setups. Welcome to Faithless. Premiered at last fall's New York Film Festival, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, the movie takes 150 minutes, more or less, to relive one extramarital affair and its aftermath.
The setup? Marianne (the beautiful and talented Lena Endre, whose performance is one of the film's best aspects) is married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor who's rich, powerful and handsome. They have a daughter, the saucer-eyed preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Markus's best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a pudgy, morose, egocentric, not-quite-unsuccessful director. One night David shows up when Markus is on tour, and asks Marianne to sleep with him. She is startled, then agrees to sleep--and only that--with him. And so she does, but the seed of adultery is planted. She fantasizes about David, approaches him and kisses him on the lips (his characteristic response: "This is serious") and decides to meet him in Paris while Markus is in Detroit at a recording session. They agree to "discover" they'll be in Paris at the same time during Markus's farewell dinner, and the affair begins.
Throughout its twists and turns, angst prevails, as steady and remorseless as the unwavering camera's medium-to-close-up range, through flickering moments of sex and happiness. For the older though not much wiser David has conjured a Marianne less Eurydice than Emma Bovary. She's ironic, introspective, optimistic, yet armed with an existentialist sensibility, although somehow--it's unclear whether this reflects the general human condition or whether Marianne is yet another woman in movie-love who pays the wages of sin--she never quite manages to understand why these things are happening to her. She stays almost willfully blind to probable chains of events even when she's set them in motion herself.
Watch how she persistently teases Markus on the eve of his departure about her being with David in Paris. She nudges him into suspicion without a clue that that's what she's done--until he shows up, months later, to confront her in David's bed. In one of the film's most human and effective scenes, she and David blur between laughter and tears while Markus rages and guilt-trips and swaggers and simply stares.
From there on, things unravel relentlessly. There are Isabelle's emotional traumas; an aborted death pact between Markus and Isabelle; David's calculated outbreaks of violent jealousy (in one scene, he asks Marianne about previous lovers, then throws her around after she tells of Markus's sexual power over her); Marianne's unconvincing analyses of herself and her world (she insists to David that she likes simplicity, where he insists things must always be more complicated than they seem); her abortion of David's child after she's screwed Markus several times in one night as part of a "deal" to get custody of Isabelle (all-powerful Social Services looks askance at her future with David); and the affair's last spasms and final collapse. Like a revenge tragedy, it ends with nearly everyone dead, and the old man once more walking toward the sea, meditating on drowning.
Even compared with Bergman's 1973 TV series Scenes From a Marriage, there's a remarkable amount of talk here, far outweighing action. Characters ponder the links, articulated and not, between sex and death, happiness and pain, and the guilt of the past unredeemed. What, Bergman seems to ask in Faithless, could be more human than to blunder or float from event to event as if this particular chain of them were wrapping its way around somebody else? Maybe nothing, but it's also a bit of a trick question: Bergman is no moral relativist. Time after time he's filmed his brooding sense that moral codes as rigid and predetermined as his camera angles underlie the apparent games of chance operating the universe. It's no mere conceit that Faithless is made from the voices of the dead in an old man's head.
Ullmann (who, in addition to her many deservedly praised starring roles in Bergman films, played the wife, also named Marianne, in Scenes) has praised Bergman's hard-won willingness to face himself in this script, mentioning its autobiographical genesis. Fair enough: The film doesn't spare middle-aged David, but it also makes him the center of Marianne's story. Here it's worth noting that Bergman is very much this movie's auteur, though he hasn't directed a feature film in eighteen years. Perhaps it's unintentional, perhaps it's a larger Bergmanesque irony, but Ullmann directs in Bergman's cinematic language in much the same way Marianne, his "muse," speaks his own thoughts.
In her fourth directorial effort (her previous film, Private Confessions, dutifullyshot another Bergman script, that one based on his parents' marriage and infidelities), Ullmann has clearly internalized her erstwhile friend and lover's deliberate, at times ponderous, pacing and pared-back camerawork, his tight shots, even his masterful flair for subtle signposts to mark a mood shift or plot turn, like changing the light or color of a scene. What is more typically Bergman than interrelations between macrocosm and microcosm?
But honesty? Aside from the nagging sense of loss that middle-aged and old David share, what does this self-described malcontent carry with him from all those grave trips down memory lane? The old man touches Marianne's face, and his own younger face too, in benediction, but it reads more like solipsism than real emotional connection.
For all its biting truths, this is a movie about talk whose talk meanders around self-examination without ever really striking self-awareness. Everyone in Faithless is trapped, by their creator's design, in a self-sealed world. Is this honesty about human reality or a kind of smug, bleak paternalism? That and its quaint take on infidelity explain why Faithless ultimately feels like a soap opera for highbrows. (Who else sits through movies with subtitles?) It lacquers an existentialist veneer onto Big Issues like Life and Love and Relationships and Death. But minus the larger framing issues that resonated through Scenes and that series' far more dramatic vicissitudes, in modern America--if not modern Scandinavia--Bergman's truths too often come off as melodramatic, heavy-handed and trite rather than timeless. We're left, in Faithless, with an almost medieval allegory that ultimately flattens human foibles into archetypal moral categories.
It's as if in his old age Bergman has forgotten his lessons from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, where real, if inevitably frail, individuals are dramatically, provocatively shaped and bent by larger forces. Scenes worked best when it followed Ibsen's lead. In Faithless, however, Bergman, like the old David (Erland Josephson, who has played the movie Bergman before), spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. When does merciless self-examination slide imperceptibly into narcissism?
Here's my problem. If there's a line separating the later Bergman's existential dilemmas from daily infusions of TV soapsuds, Scenes From A Marriage helped confuse me about where that line might be. (PBS and BBC costume dramas, movies like The English Patient and My Dinner with André, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Williams and Op-Ed pieces about media violence have the same effect on me.)
Until then, I knew I was supposed to be in awe of Bergman. I saw The Seventh Seal when I was a teenager, and like a good intellectual wannabe, entranced by Death the chess player, I voyaged through Bergman's oeuvre during high school and college. Scenes From A Marriage left me saying goodbye to all that. I guess I decided it was more fun, less patronizing and (in ways I didn't have to defend to myself anymore) more enlightening, even, to tune in to An American Family, the 1973 PBS foray into reality TV that aired at around the same time. Who remembers the Louds, Santa Barbara's favorite upper-middle-class real-life soap opera, who became inured to cameras following them through a year of their lives? One kid coming out of the closet, sex and drug problems for the others, a disintegrating marriage between the apparently sophisticated adults masquerading as parents and, through the bemusement and horror, some key issues of contemporary American life driving a cast of self-consciously avid talkers who grew remarkably sophisticated (if frequently self-contradictory), somehow conscious and unconscious about cameras and soundbites as their Andy Warhol moments of fame spun on and on and on...
A few years later, I was living in Italy when I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, his first overt homage to Bergman. My Italian was pretty good, but as I sat in the huge cold Roman theater with a smattering of chatting Italians watching the frozen, black-and-white anguish spread like molasses across the patched screen, I kept straining for punch lines that never came, making them up for myself when they didn't, finding ironies in the dubbed Italian voices emitted by actors whose accents I knew only too well. I left feeling as though I understood multiple-personality disorder from the inside--not because of the movie, exactly, but from my time in the dark spent in parallel with it.
The unintentional Brechtian effect that Interiors had on me extinguished whatever was left of my need or desire for Bergman's increasingly circumscribed world of angst and sin and guilt, even if filtered through Liv Ullmann's disciplined lens. That, of course, isn't their fault. But despite some fine moments, Faithless didn't convince me I was wrong.
With a more prudish administration assuming office, pornographers are carefully tailoring their product so as not to offend—or be the target of investigations.
A survey of films from this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Single-payer healthcare is favored by the public, yet the insurance industry has too much to lose if it is enacted.
Nick Bromell's Tomorrow Never Knows explores rock and roll in the sixties.
"Yes, nonviolence is a noble ideal, but do you really think it would stop a Hitler?" Or a street thug, a dictator, a death squad?
Pacifists are long accustomed to these questions, mostly thrown up by self-proclaimed realists. And they get the put-down message: Nonviolence is a creed only slightly less trifling than hippies sticking flowers in soldiers' gun barrels.
Readers whose minds are open to another view will be rewarded by A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. It is a comprehensive and lucidly written addition to the literature of peace. Its worthiness puts the authors, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, in the high company of Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, Michael True of Assumption College and Richard Deats of the Fellowship of Reconciliation--all scholars of mettle who bring before the public the many historical examples where the force of organized, nonviolent resistance defeated oppression.
Ackerman and DuVall, deserving of praise for writing nonideologically when they might easily and self-indulgently not have (and thus lost readers looking for hard reporting rather than soft commentary), use fourteen chapters to document and analyze history-altering reforms created by nonviolent strategies. These include the early 1940s Danish resistance to the Nazis; Solidarity's strikes in the 1980s, which eventually took down the Soviet puppet regime in Poland; the 1980s public demands for free elections that removed the Pinochet junta in Chile; the near-bloodless elimination of the Marcos government in the Philippines; the work of the Palestinian-American Mubarak Awad to rally nonviolent civil resistance against Israeli authorities in the occupied territories; and civil rights workers in Nashville in the 1960s.
These are the better-known examples. Ackerman and DuVall also explore the removal of autocratic governments in El Salvador (in 1944), Mongolia and Eastern Europe. Oddly, the authors omit the story of Le Chambon, the French village that was a leading center for hiding Jews in the early 1940s and whose pacifist citizens successfully faced down the Nazis with weapons of the spirit, not weapons of steel. (That story is told by Philip Hallie in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.)
Ackerman and DuVall do not portray Awad, King Christian X of Denmark, Gandhi of India, Mkhuseli Jack of South Africa, Reverend James Lawson of Nashville and others as willing martyrs for the cause. Instead, they were hard-thinking political strategists who built bases for citizen support that would not crack when the heat rose and the dogs snarled.
"Nonviolent resistance," the authors write,
becomes a force more powerful than the hand of an oppressor to the extent that it takes away his capacity for control. Embracing nonviolence for its own sake does not produce this force. A strategy for action is needed, and that strategy has to involve attainable goals, movement unity, and robust sanctions that restrict the opponent.... When the regime realizes it can no longer dictate the outcome, the premise and means of its power implode. Then the end is only a matter of time.
Debunking the prevailing image of pacifists as appeasers or well-meaning but addled dreamers who've read one too many biographies of St. Francis, Ackerman and DuVall provide ample details to dispel those errant notions. As portrayed here, organizers of successful collective, nonviolent opposition to oppressors tend to be self-disciplined, practical and dogged--traits commonly held up as military virtues, which is why Gandhi so admired soldiers. The authors write:
Nonviolent action is like violent combat in at least two ways. It does not succeed automatically, and it does not operate mysteriously--it works by identifying an opponent's vulnerabilities and taking away his ability to maintain control. If a regime intends to remain in power indefinitely, it will require extensive, long-term interaction with those it rules--and that creates a dilemma: the broader the regime's system of control, the more vulnerable it is, because it depends on too many actors to ensure that violence against resisters will always work. Once an opposition shows its followers that this weakness exists, it can begin to pry loose the support that the regime requires--its revenue, its foreign investments, or even its military.... Victory is not a function of fate; it is earned.
Tolstoy described pacifists similarly: "For us to struggle, the forces being so unequal, must appear insane. But if we consider our opponent's means of strife and our own, it is not our intention to fight that will seem absurd, but that the thing we mean to fight will still exist. They have millions of money and millions of obedient soldiers; we have only one thing, but that is the most powerful thing in the world--Truth."
Peter Ackerman, formerly a visiting scholar at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and Jack DuVall, who has worked in television and as a political speechwriter, also collaborated, along with producer Steve York, in a three-hour PBS documentary of the same title that played last September. The film quotes a postwar historian summarizing the Danish resistance to the Nazis by strikes, work slowdowns, hiding or helping Jews and not obeying orders to disperse: "Denmark had not won the war but neither had it been defeated or destroyed. Most Danes had not been brutalized, by the Germans or each other. Nonviolent resistance saved the country and contributed more to the Allied victory than Danish arms ever could have done."
A Chilean leader said of the organized resistance against Pinochet in the 1980s and the successful call for fair elections: "We didn't protest with arms. That gave us more power."
Refreshingly, the authors offer compelling observations--almost as sidenotes--about the ineffectiveness of violence. Lech Walesa and Polish strikers taking on the Jaruzelski regime remembered that except for momentary glee nothing was accomplished by Polish workers in 1970 and 1976 when they burned down Communist Party buildings. "In the 20th century's armed liberation movements," Ackerman and DuVall write, "portraits of gunwielding martyrs--the Che Guevaras of the world--were often flaunted as symbols, but none of those struggles produced freedom."
A Force More Powerful will likely stand as a book more powerful than any guts-and-glory war memoirs by generals or gun-toters, or any extollings of military might by one-note historians.
Quite recently yet another of Jasper Becker's indispensable dispatches from China appeared in his newspaper, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. "Every year," Becker reported, "about 10,000 of China's five million coal miners meet gruesome deaths underground." He went on to explain that censorship limits news of industrial accidents, but that conditions have certainly gotten worse in the past two decades, during China's breakneck effort at economic growth.
You have to pause a bit to let the impact of this statistic set in, especially after realizing that it does not include deaths from other industrial accidents, including factory fires, explosions and collapsing buildings, only a fraction making it into the pages of the Morning Post. Chinese workingmen and -women are dying at a higher rate than their counterparts in Victorian England or turn-of-the-century America, and, until now, the world has been paying little attention. By contrast, when an explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, killed 361 coal miners in 1907, the single largest such accident in our history, the disaster attracted national coverage.
You won't see much of Jasper Becker's kind of reporting in the American mainstream press. Over the past decade or so, American journalists, along with their ideological elder brothers at The Economist, have focused on the booming Chinese coastal cities, glorifying young entrepreneurial yuppies with cell phones and marveling at the construction burst of shopping plazas, office towers and upscale housing.
Slightly more conscientious reporters may mention, in passing, sweatshops and pollution, but they imply that these are the unfortunate and temporary byproducts of "economic reform," a phrase normally presented without the quotation marks, suggesting a self-evident good instead of a controversial set of economic policies. This uncritical attitude, best described as "market fundamentalism," has taken over much of the US media. Even Paul Krugman, currently the economic columnist at the New York Times and someone smart enough to know better, wrote an article back in 1997 titled "In Praise of Cheap Labor."
Jasper Becker is different. He is British-born but fluent in Chinese, and he has spent the past ten years in China, most recently for the Morning Post, skeptically tramping into areas of the country and listening to people most other Western journalists disregard. His years of work (some of it is also available on the Internet, at www.scmp.com) provide two tremendous services. First, he introduces us to Chinese people we would never otherwise meet. Second, he raises profound doubts about a core belief of market fundamentalism: that Chinese suffering today will be justified by a developed nirvana in the future.
Becker is not inspired by any nostalgia for the now-departed Maoist era; his last book, Hungry Ghosts (1998), was a powerful account of how the Great Helmsman's arrogance and the undemocratic Chinese Communist system caused more than 30 million people to die in a man-made famine during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61).
In The Chinese, Becker continues to care about the impact of economic policy on the lives of ordinary people. His book's very structure proves his determination to look beyond the minority of the newly prosperous, the people the Western market fundamentalists and investors find most photogenic. He starts at the bottom, in a village in the Guangxi region with some of the poorest of the 1 billion peasants, and then slowly moves up through the increasingly stratified Chinese society. Local officials shadow and harass him on his visits to the rural poor, who he says "probably constitute the largest unenfranchised group in the world." He goes on: "Forbidden openly to organize themselves to defend their interests against either the central state or local despots, they form secret underground armies, cults and millenarian sects as they have done throughout history. The state seems involved in a continual battle to crush them, and from time to time faint reports of this repression...reach the outside world." He speculates, "Given the chance, peasants would quickly organize themselves into associations or even political parties but at present that seems a remote prospect."
Becker also writes about the several hundred million migrant workers, third-class citizens who flock into the cities for low-paid, dirty work and who have no permanent right to stay or to bring their families, a state of affairs that would be depressingly familiar to black southern Africans. He visits the collapsing old industrial cities of the northeast, with their millions of angry, sullen unemployed. Becker profiles Chinese intellectuals, demoralized by repression after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and the consequent "depoliticization of so many aspects of life." He explains: "Censors searching for subversive messages have examined everything from slogans on T-shirts to poetry magazines. The propaganda machinery has returned to its traditions." His grim conclusion is that "intellectuals have tried but generally failed to find some independent space within the system."
Becker describes the Communist Party, with its 58 million members, as a privileged minority in a country that now has nearly 1.3 billion people, but he estimates that "the real size of the ruling elite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million." Only toward the end of his quest does he reach what he calls "the apex of the pyramid, the tiny group of self-selecting rulers."
Becker is extraordinarily cautious and measured. He points out that many of the precise-sounding government statistics, including the glowing economic growth figures, are either exaggerated or "simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day." Still, his years of experience crisscrossing the giant country have earned him the right to make certain observations, some of which may surprise even experienced China watchers:
§ Inequality in China is widening dramatically. Becker reminds us that the average annual peasant income in China is still only $240, a figure that has actually fallen in the past few years. The growing gap is distorting the Chinese economy; Becker points out that "much of the considerable investment in new housing was aimed at the very top end of the market despite a pressing need for low-cost housing."
§ Health and education for most Chinese are deteriorating. This discovery is perhaps Becker's most alarming. The decline is a disheartening contrast with the Maoist era, which despite its crimes and excesses brought significant progress. Becker even speculates that the Falun Gong religious cult, which continues to suffer vicious state repression, attracts adherents partly because "its leader, Li Hongzhi, promised his followers that if they adopted his system of exercise they need never take medicines or go to [the] hospital for treatment."
§ China today is governed by a kind of lawless authoritarianism. Local party bureaucrats, most apparently drained of any revolutionary idealism, wield unchecked power, arbitrarily imposing hundreds of different kinds of taxes on the rural poor. Quite logically, corruption flourishes.
At the upper levels, "princelings," the offspring of high party officials, commandeer what was once state property for personal gain and, in league with foreign (often overseas Chinese) investors, dominate vast segments of the economy, accompanied by corruption on a grand scale. Becker reports one particularly ominous development; some of the elite--you cannot call them "new" because many are the actual biological heirs of the old rulers--seem to be stashing billions outside China, a variant of Latin American- or African-style rapacity.
Such capital flight is a dangerous break with the East Asian pattern. In places like South Korea and Taiwan, the new industrialists did prosper, but they were required to keep the gains inside their countries, to reinvest in productive growth. Also, in neither place did the expanding economy widen inequality.
§ China's success at exporting from its coastal enclaves may be exaggerated. The inhuman conditions in these sweatshops are slowly becoming known, thanks to courageous Chinese activists and to solidarity movements overseas, but it may still be a surprise to learn that for the mostly female workers "talking is usually forbidden. To go to the toilet or drink a glass of water requires a permission card. Sexual harassment is common and punishments can involve beating, confinement or cancellation of wages."
Becker once again provides a fresh look, by raising serious doubts about the purely economic benefit of all this repression. He points out that the export zones are subsidized by the rest of the economy and that some of the apparent growth is in fact a speculative bubble (the kind of feverish phenomenon that Internet investors in the West have just painfully learned about).
§ China's security apparatus is actually expanding. Becker's revelation comes as something of a surprise, because the surface of Chinese life looks more relaxed after the monochrome, bleak thought control of the Mao Zedong period. But as Columbia University scholar Andrew Nathan explains in his valuable introduction to the recently published Tiananmen Papers, "To be sure, [the regime] has diminished the range of social activities it purports to control in comparison to the totalitarian ambitions of its Maoist years. It...no longer aspires to change human nature. It has learned that many arenas of freedom are unthreatening to the monopoly of political power."
So even though people in Beijing and Shanghai now wear Western-style jeans and running shoes, Becker points out that repression continues; arrests--not just political--are arbitrary, torture is routine and the death penalty is applied more frequently. Bill Clinton's 1998 state visit and China's accession to the World Trade Organization were supposed to be liberalizing influences. The market fundamentalists who insist that increased trade somehow automatically improves human rights have some explaining to do.
§ China is--for now--not a strong military threat to Taiwan, despite Beijing's bellicose threats. Contrary to the alarms of Western conservatives, Becker contends that the Chinese Navy could not--yet--mount an invasion across the Taiwan Strait, adding that "Chinese pilots cannot even fly in bad weather because their radar screens are unreliable."
§ Environmental degradation is perhaps the worst threat to China. The water table in the north is dropping; The Chinese includes a photograph of a forlorn figure trying to pump from a shallow pool in what is left of the Yellow River. China's water and air are polluted, and deforestation and loss of topsoil continue. Much of this is no surprise, thanks in large measure to the pioneering work of the scientist Vaclav Smil. Becker stresses that the environmental catastrophe is linked to China's lack of genuine democracy: "Since almost everything the state says is untrue, and most information is kept secret, there is no real trust or co-operation between its officials and the rest of the population."
Becker points out humorously that even Chinese weathermen have lied: "In 1999 it emerged that meteorologists had for fifty years been under orders never to report that the temperature had risen above 37 degrees centigrade (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), although why no one would explain. Perhaps such an admission was seen as discrediting the Party."
China's environmental failure illustrates one of Becker's most important conclusions: Human rights, democracy and government accountability are not luxuries, worthy ideals to be set aside until economic growth is achieved. In fact, genuine, broad-based, environmentally friendly growth will not happen until there is respect for human rights. Spasmodic government exhortations will not reduce corruption at either high or local levels, but a vigorous free press, freedom to speak out and genuine multiparty elections are the only hope. Continuing government lying will not heal the environment, but independent ecology movements can help, as they have already demonstrated in neighboring Taiwan.
Becker is cautious about the prospects for change. He does recognize that "some foreign and domestic observers have predicted that such an explosive mixture of corruption, poverty and unemployment in China must one day result in a rural revolt. Perhaps." But he also points out that the Chinese bureaucratic state can trace its ancestry continuously back to the first Emperor in the third century BC, making it "probably the oldest functioning organization in the world," one that has been "exercising a tighter grip over its subjects than any other comparable government in the last two millennia."
The market fundamentalists of course assume that change will come as the automatic consequence of economic growth. They have done little to help this evolutionary process along. The great Chinese democratic dissident Wei Jingsheng, released in 1997 after eighteen years in Chinese prison camps, sits in exile in the United States, just about ignored by the mainstream media. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a household word at a similar stage in his career.
Market fundamentalists disregard China's terrible level of industrial accidents and the decline in health and education. They are uncomfortable about Chinese sweatshops, air and water pollution, and corruption, but they justify these ills as an inevitable part of growth, looking back with a kind of misty glow at Dickens's England and post-Civil War America for reassurance that "we" came through the hard times, and so will the Chinese. Jasper Becker's remarkable book ought to raise crushing doubts.
But let us just imagine for a moment that the market fundamentalists are right. Their point of view is still immoral. They are implicitly suggesting that some people, those who gain from the unjust international economic order, have the right to impose suffering on other people, in the name of some ultimate goal. No one asked those 10,000 Chinese coal miners who died last year, men and certainly at least some women, whether they wanted to sacrifice for a greater future. No one allowed them to vote for people who might have protected their rights; no one permitted them to form independent labor unions. Apparently, globalization does not yet mean that members of America's United Mine Workers and other overseas unions can openly visit their Chinese colleagues and share their experience in fighting for safer workplaces. But at least, thanks to Jasper Becker, we are becoming aware that the Chinese miners exist, so they are no longer dying in total silence.
When, halfway through Hamlet, the prince proclaims that the purpose of playing is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," the players listen. As have generation after generation of theater artists returning to the play, and the character, to seek a reflection of their own age. "Hamlet is played everywhere, all the time," writes theater visionary Peter Brook. "As a tramp, as a peasant, as a woman, as a hobo, as a business man, as a movie star, as a clown, even as a marionette. It's inexhaustible, limitless. Every decade offers us a new interpretation."
Take the past decade, for example, during which there has been a veritable parade of distinctive Danish princes across the English-speaking stage: In London, there was the sensitive Daniel Day Lewis at the Royal National Theatre (1989); the dark and dazzling Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida (1995); the nightshirted Mark Rylance at the Globe (2000); in New York, the erudite Kevin Kline (1990) and the stalwart Liev Schreiber (1999), both at the New York Shakespeare Festival. On film, there was the intense Mel Gibson (1990) and the charismatic Kenneth Branagh (1996). To name only a select few.
But there is something special about the recent "rash of Hamlets," as acclaimed British actor Simon Russell Beale calls the three princes in this, the "true millennium" year. Something arresting. He's referring to Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet, with Adrian Lester, now playing at Brook's celebrated Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris but due to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. He's also referring to his own Hamlet, directed by John Caird, currently at the Royal National Theatre in London but also set to sail to the United States this spring. And then there is the film Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, recently playing on both London and American screens. Three startling productions, that provide us with the rare opportunity to rediscover the play and the prince anew. And each one accomplishes this in a markedly different way.
"It is only by forgetting Shakespeare that we can begin to find him," writes Brook, theater director and theorist. Brook is a master at making us forget the classics and experience them anew. He's been reimagining them his entire career, with his innovative A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, as well as with the operas Pelléas et Mélisande, Carmen and Don Giovanni. In the case of Hamlet, it's a play he's been exploring for almost half a century, beginning with his traditional rendering in 1953 with Paul Scofield; next, with a deconstructed "Theater of Cruelty" version during the sixties in collaboration with Charles Marowitz; and decades later, in 1995, with Qui est là? ("Who is there?"), a theater étude, named after the opening line of Hamlet, at his International Center for Theatrical Creation in Paris. Brook explored how the play might have been approached by a number of noted theater theorists, including Stanislavsky, Brecht, Meierhold, Artaud and Gordon Craig. "It was really about the mystery of the theater, and where theater comes from," explains Bruce Myers, one of the permanent members of Brook's multinational troupe.
From this journey, Brook arrives today at The Tragedy of Hamlet, the name he gives his challenging new chamber play. (It's performed in English to preserve the poetry, as Brook explains in recent interviews.) Still, if you've cut your theatrical teeth on the traditional Hamlet, you too will be wondering "Who's there?" along with Horatio, who now speaks the opening line of Brook's boldly deconstructed version. The regular retinue of more than twenty-five characters in the court of Elsinore has been radically reduced by Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, to thirteen, played by a tight troupe of eight actors. Gone are Fortinbras, Marcellus, Osric, among others; gone, the opening sentinels' scene; gone, the salutatory Claudius/Gertrude scene; gone, Laertes's leave-taking scene with Polonius's famous fatherly advice (Laertes appears, eventually, to exact his revenge, but almost at the play's end); gone, "The Murder of Gonzago" (in its place is a scene in ancient Greek). And there's not only deconstruction but also reconfiguration.
Where is "To be or not to be"?! (I panicked, but it turns up later in this revised text.) Act V closes with a speech from Act I: "But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad..." And the very last words of the play reprise the first: "Who's there?", articulated again by Horatio as the corpses strewn across the stage slowly rise to their feet and face us. Under Brook's direction, this Hamlet, now playing at two hours twenty in contrast to the traditional four, cuts straight to the chase. So pared, so spare, so severe it is, that at first you'll think you're watching Ibsen or Albee. Yet, halfway through, it happens magically, just as Brook intends it to. You're seeing the play. You're rediscovering Hamlet anew.
So "though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Brook's method, of course. All the familiar features are there--the essentially empty stage (save only a floor covering, with a few brightly colored cushions and a table or two), designed by Chloé Obolensky, an exposed, crumbling theater wall, a familiar instrument stand (Toshi Tsuchitori stands off to the side, a range of primitive instruments at his fingertips). No props, save a pair of skulls and a bamboo pole. Bare, spare, elemental, the Brook theatrical vocabulary. "The joy of creating from very little," as Bruce Myers puts it. The result? A pure, clear, crystalline new play, The Tragedy of Hamlet.
"We pared it down for the French audiences, for clarity's sake. So that they'd understand it," says Myers, who doubles deftly as Polonius and the gravedigger. "We went straight to the heart of the play." At that heart, of course, is Hamlet himself, and as portrayed by the charismatic young British actor Adrian Lester, he's as vibrant as the orange-colored carpet beneath his swift, slippered feet, upon which he commands center stage. Dressed in black pull-ons and tunic, the lithe, dreadlocked Lester is a supple Hamlet, dazzling in his range from philosophical to physical, from preppy to pantheresque, from petulant to powerful, from witty to weepy to warrior-like. "A notion of character deadens character," said Lester in an interview about the rehearsal process. "So I live in the moment." And it shows. He's poetry in motion, morphing from one body image to another, now mincing in gait and words, now crouching, snarling, feigning madness to Polonius & Co. And no matter what his stance, what his guise, Lester's is the rare Hamlet who is, above all, in control. Of himself and of the play.
Brook's celebrated company of English, Caribbean, Indian and Asian actors clearly underscores the universality of this theatrical event, most notably Jeffrey Kissoon, who doubles as a stately Claudius and Ghost, Natasha Parry as a dignified Gertrude, and Shantala Shivalingappa as a delicate Ophelia. Ultimately, with its multi-national cast, its minimal mise en scène and text, and its metatheatrical stylistics, Brook's could just as soon be called The Ritual of Hamlet--reimagining a myth, restating it, celebrating the ceremony of theater and its power to move, enlighten, startle us from our complacent conceptions.
Lester's is not the only Hamlet to take the stage in this season of revelations. Across the channel, at London's Royal National Theatre, the versatile, award-winning actor Simon Russell Beale has defied casting conventions and claimed the prince for his own. Short and stocky, Beale was acclaimed for his recent Iago as well as for other character roles at the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The readiness is all" for his startling interpretation, which defies the tradition of sleeker, self-obsessed Hamlets in decades past. "'Am I capable of doing it?!' I asked myself," he told me in an interview. "Can I inhabit him?" His recent Evening Standard Award for Best Actor is the answer. "It was a big surprise for me," Beale said, of the role. "He's a sweet prince."
In contrast to the somberness of Tim Hatley's severe steel setting ("Denmark's a prison," and that's what's on the deep, dark Lyttelton stage, dimly lit by church chandeliers and scored by solemn sacred music), Beale's luminous, human Hamlet is a beacon of light. Playing against the grim world he's given, he's radiant with intelligence, clarity, wit and charm. And more: He's gentle, warm, magnanimous, affectionate, playful, light on his stockinged feet (he fairly leaps with joy when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear). Sensitive, sincere, vulnerable, too. "Hamlet's greatest strength is his sense of humor and irony," Beale continues. "And his sense that he isn't competent, that he can't do it [meaning, take revenge]." This Hamlet is full of surprises: His "get thee to a nunnery" to Ophelia is articulated with tenderness and care; he spends the entire closet scene consoling Gertrude instead of assaulting her, as it is traditionally played. Humane, compassionate, real. A rare, lovable prince, indeed.
Beale is supported by a distinguished RNT cast, featuring a compassionate Gertrude in Sara Kestelman and Denis Quilley, who doubles as a rambunctious Polonius and a delightful gravedigger. Under John Caird's astute direction, there is a rare and heart-stopping moment when both his parents (mother and ghost-father) flank Hamlet, a hand caressing each cheek, and you see straight into the heart of this family tragedy.
And still, there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in (our) philosophy. Michael Almereyda's ingenious film adaptation shows us the infinite possibilities for future Hamlets, still maintaining (though again reducing) the poetry while setting it in a contemporary forest of steel and glass on Park Avenue. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Corporation, and Ethan Hawke, the son of the slain CEO, is called home from college to set it right. Hawke's hip Hamlet, in ski cap and shades, sees his world through a digicam. As he wanders through the Blockbuster Video's action aisles, taping his own "to be or not to be," we catch a vivid glimpse, in his lens, of millennial man hopelessly alienated by technology and a menacing, monolithic corporate culture. The all-star cast is hip, too, with Kyle MacLachlan as a cunning Claudius and Diane Venora as a stunning Gertrude, driving around town in a black stretch limo (Venora once played Hamlet herself at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1980s). Bill Murray's Polonius is droll, Liev Schreiber's Laertes is affecting, Sam Shepard's ghost is beguiling and the ubiquitous Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, drowns sensationally in the Guggenheim Museum pool. It's a slick, spectacular Hamlet, with a proud, vulnerable pop-culture prince at its epicenter.
Comparisons? Similarities are more illuminating. Both stage versions eliminate Fortinbras completely, forsaking the political for the metaphysical world of Hamlet (the film cleverly announces Fortinbras's arrival on CNN). Neither the plays nor the film adopts the Oedipal interpretation so popular in the past century. Above all, none of these three millennial Hamlets is mad. Lester may be unpredictable; Beale may be ironic; Hawke may be angry. But they are all clearheaded, charismatic, capable of action. Hampered by grief, perhaps. Despair. Frustration. But not by inertia. "I want to be sane," declares Beale. "I want to die standing up." A stunning similarity to Adrian Lester's Hamlet, who sinks slowly to his knees but never fully drops, and dies seated, erect. A choice both stage actors mention with pride. "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!"
At the end of our interview, Russell Beale remarked with pleasure that the actor Paul Rhys had just been to see his performance; so have Michael Bennington and Ralph Fiennes. "There's a community of Hamlets," he smiled. New ones will join this community, along with Hamlets of the past (Gielgud, Guinness, Olivier, Burton, David Warner, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi). For, as Brook explains, "we are in front of something which we cannot ever finally understand." The magnificent mystery of Hamlet. And yet, says Brook, "we can always rediscover this play, make it live again, embark anew to seek out its truth."
Meanwhile, Beale's Hamlet is to tour Boston, Phoenix and Minneapolis this spring while Brook/Lester's arrives at BAM. Angela Winkler's Hamlet (from Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus) tours Europe. Sam West's begins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford this summer. And so on. "Who's there?"