Category Archives: IbishBlog

Ibishblog Interview: Richard Byrne on Pseudo Neros and his new Glam Musical

My friend Richard Byrne, author of Burn your Books, has a new play, Nero/Pseudo being performed by the WSC Avant Bard at The Shop at Fort Fringe in Washington DC. After watching Friday night’s performance, I sat down with him for the following conversation in which he discusses his “glam rock musical” about the first and most successful of the imposters who pretended to be the Emperor Nero after his death.


Ibishblog: Let’s begin with the title, which is not Pseudo-Nero but Nero/Pseudo. And the subtitle is “Imposters Rule” which seems to me to be intimately connected to the same idea, if I’m not mistaken.


Richard Byrne: The subheader was one of our marketing tools. But that’s very much one of the things that the play is about.


Ibishblog: Okay, so what are the principal themes of the play? The basic conceit is that in Greece, a little bit remote from Rome, as with the rest of the Empire, people can’t quite believe that Nero is dead and the end of the Empire, or at least the old Augustinian empire, is at hand. The Augustinian system is gone and they can’t quite believe it. And so a guy shows up, or is discovered, and is either willing or compelled to pretend to be Nero for a time. That’s the fundamental conceit. But you’ve done it in the form of a glam rock musical. But let’s begin with the question, why did you want to write about the most successful of the pseudo-Neros?


Richard Byrne: It began when I read that little digression in Tacitus, which is the main source of information about this and which was so startling. It was profoundly jarring and I felt drawn to it immediately. This was the kind of thing that happens when there is a tremendous rupture in the system and things that normally wouldn’t happen at all are not just happening, but are normal. And that appealed to me profoundly, so I almost immediately started making notes about it and dove into it, researching it. And it was interesting to me too in that there have been a lot of portrayals of Nero, and in fact even recently there have been some theater pieces about Nero and about the family drama of Nero. Another thing that appealed to me is, how do you get at Nero without having someone try to portray Nero as such. And that challenge really appealed to me too.


Ibishblog: Well, that’s really interesting, because you actually do stage the family drama with Agrippina and Poppaea, and all that legendary horrible family drama, as a play within a play with masks. But it’s a mocking and satirical version of it. You’re making fun of it.


Richard Byrne: Yes, it’s sort of a “Behind the Music” of Nero. And that’s what I wanted to do with it. It’s such an improbable and, on some level, a profoundly oppressive story. The carnage is just so intense in the story of Nero, his whole rise to power and then his maintenance of power. And, you know, the other thing that appealed to me was that you get a sense from the historians that Nero was always being acted upon, as opposed to acting directly; that he was capricious and you didn’t want to be in his immediate orbit, but that this was not a political player in any way, shape or form. The real politics of the Empire were happening outside his orbit and people were just sort of trying to keep him in some sort of lane, and yet he was persistently veering out of his lane.


Ibishblog: Okay, so Nero was like Mao Zedong between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? An icon who was basically being ignored?


Richard Byrne: Exactly! There’s a lot of that in Nero.


Ibishblog: But I guess he didn’t have Mao’s political genius to destabilize and overthrow the whole system and then take it over again from within.


Richard Byrne: No, he kind of had someone else do it for him. And why that is a particularly interesting comparison is that within Mao’s personal orbit during that time you could be destroyed very easily.


Ibishblog: Many of them were.


Richard Byrne: Right, but the larger events were happening sort of outside the room at some level.


Ibishblog: Well, Mao could only get to Peng Zhen, and then one by one all the others, culminating in Liu Shaoqi, through the streets. He couldn’t get at them, especially Liu, just through committees.


Richard Byrne: It is really interesting is that that model perpetuates itself a lot, of being very personally powerful but then the larger ripples are happening somewhere else, inside rooms and meetings that you’re not really in. It’s interesting.


Ibishblog: In a sense Nero/Pseudo is about “imposters rule,” but it also might’ve been called Nero, The Sequel. What I want to sort of get at is that you frame it in terms of a set of dynamics that emerge during a time of rupture, but also it’s very much reflective of a kind of static, frozen contemporary Hollywood culture where movies are expensive to make, and really almost the only way to pitch a movie, or play even now, is nostalgia. Tell the money people they’re going to get their cash back because people will attend due to familiarity. Or it has to be explained in terms of “this movie meets this other movie meets a third movie,” or it’s got to be based on a TV show or comic book that people grow up with or something. So what’s the relationship, if any, to this in Nero/Pseudo, or is it a very different kind of repetition compulsion?


Richard Byrne: No, I think that’s right, and it’s reflected in the history of that time. The Julio-Claudian empire was doomed. It was not going to last. The question is what was ultimately going to kill it. And what’s interesting historically is that the first pseudo-Nero was such a reflective phenomenon. What happened historically was that Nero was out, and then a more responsible military guy came in, but he didn’t last 3 months before they brought in Nero’s best friend to the throne. And then Nero’s best friend ended up in a miserable Civil War that bled the Empire. And then Vespasian basically reasserted order in a different way.


What was interesting was that the first pseudo-Nero had ripples way beyond his own brief misadventure because this first pseudo-Nero was seized upon by the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writers. The whole notion that Nero could die and then return was, well, basically the Book of Revelation on some level.


Ibishblog: Or the much older myths of all the dying and resurrected gods.


Richard Byrne: Exactly, it also plays into all of those older myths, so it was at once familiar and very disruptive, and it had immense ripple effects. Which is why again, as I started researching and wanting to write it, this was one of the things that drew it to me most powerfully. It was clearly a very desperate and misbegotten episode, but it had all of these ripples in the culture that continue, well, until now. It was a very powerful, weird thing.


Ibishblog: So the present ripples include monotheistic apocalyptic millennialist thought?


Richard Byrne: I think there’s a direct link from the sort of thing to David Koresh or directly to all the Elvis sightings. There’s all sorts of these things.


Ibishblog: Or the “bin Laden isn’t really dead” phenomenon because, yeah, we need to see the body. Show us the body! “Where is your birth certificate, President Obama?” This business of, “I won’t believe it even if I see it.” It’s that old trope of Groucho, “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”


Richard Byrne: I think when you’re not in it, you know, when you’re not soaking in it, it seems gullible. But the power structure and the need to buy into the power structure and maintain it is very, very powerful and it can induce what we would see objectively as gullibility. I don’t tend to reach for Freud too quickly, but it is a big concern in his writing: how do these things perpetuate themselves through time. How do these conflicts, desires and needs for structure, order etc. perpetuate themselves over time? That’s what the play’s getting at too.


Ibishblog: And so obviously that has a lot of contemporary resonance.


Richard Byrne: Definitely!


Ibishblog: So it began as a play, and then became a play with songs, and then it finally developed into a full-blown glam rock musical? Why a musical, apart from the fact that Nero was a “rock star” God-Emperor? Or is that basically it?


Richard Byrne: Honestly, I think it’s a play with music. It’s definitely flouting, and then tweaking, and at some points wreaking some havoc, with the traditional musical. But I basically call it a play with music.


Ibishblog: Here’s what it looks like from the audience: it looks like a play and a concert that oscillate back-and-forth.


Richard Byrne: Yeah and I think it’s very much what I wanted it to be and what it needed to be, because if we were going to go back a little bit to that family drama of Nero, I don’t think that that’s something that lends itself to anything interesting musically or emotionally. What’s interesting is how does the performative aspect of his rule play on the audience? What is it trying to do? How do people use it or not use it? Now that, for me, was interesting. And just knowing that he had written this epic poem about the fall of Troy, I wanted to use that.


Ibishblog: Is it true that those passages about Priam and such appear mainly at the end, because that’s how it seemed to me?


Richard Byrne: There are only three lines of it that actually survived. And they are towards the end. And again, that’s another thing that just kind of blossomed in my head, because this was probably the most famous poet of his age, and yet only three lines of his have survived. And why? Of course you can be the most famous poet of your time and still be horrible. It seems to have been doggerel on some level. Or worse than doggerel. I mean, when you read people writing about Nero there is a sense that he was competent, but not distinguished. And that it took him a hell of a lot of practice even to be competent. So, that again suggests that there was probably somebody in a monastery who thought Nero was a monster and just burned all his writings instead of transcribing them for us. And that’s a really interesting thing too.


Ibishblog: Okay, so we’ve got the musical, which is a concert playing merry havoc with the form, but specifically it’s very glam. Why?


Richard Byrne: I just thought that was the music that best reflected it. On some level it was a process of elimination, because Nero is not punk at all, and Nero is not really acid rock or anything like that. There are a lot of genres that aren’t bombastic and narcissistic enough to really lend themselves to a Neronian concert. Glam really does.


Ibishblog: Maybe there are some that are too much so, like prog? That should be bombastic enough, but maybe too much?


Richard Byrne: Yes, but also too musically subtle.


Ibishblog: Too cerebral?


Richard Byrne: Yes, too cerebral. It can’t really cow an audience.


Ibishblog: So you needed a genre that’s glamorous, bombastic and narcissistic and hard-driving but also very simple, and glam fit the bill perfectly.


Richard Byrne: Yes, exactly, that’s it. That’s why it’s perfect.


Ibishblog: And glam is also outrageous, and Nero was outrageous and flamboyant.


Richard Byrne: Yeah, and I think there is a lot of debate as to how exactly gender bending or whatever he was. But it’s very clear that he did marry this boy who looked like Poppaea. There’s a lot of debate about the other thing about him marrying his freedman, and whether that was just sort of vile gossip or whether that was part of a initiation rite into a specific cult. There’s just a lot of question about how ambisexual he was, but the historical residue about him is very ambisexual and pansexual and glam helps bring that out.


Ibishblog: Yes, you can build that into glam. There’s a lot of androgyny in glam, but also, which brings me to the other point about the genre, glam is such a broad category that there’s that saying, “it’s just rock ‘n roll with glitter.” Your musical cohort and co-author Jon Langford said it best when he pointed out, “glam covers everything from Brian Ferry to Slade.” So glam has a certain set of theatrical or modish stylistic touch points, but it doesn’t have a coherent set of musical stylistic identifiers, does it?


Richard Byrne: No, and that’s the thing, it was a mode. It was more than a fad, but it was a mode. And what’s interesting is to take just one very clear example of it. Mott the Hoople was essentially a pub rock band. They were a throwback. They were kind of an anachronistic band for 1969-70. They weren’t blazing any musical trails. But David Bowie just sort of, like Tinkerbell, gives them THE glam anthem.


Ibishblog: “All the Young Dudes.”


Richard Byrne: Exactly, and it’s the most “glam” song of all done by probably the least “glam” glam band of all. I find that very interesting. Roxy Music was much more consciously glam than Mott the Hoople. But what’s interesting is that you see groups like T. Rex and Slade who could not transcend the mode versus actual geniuses like Eno and Ferry and Bowie who transcended the mode: who went into the mode and then emerged from it again.


Ibishblog: Bowie came close to inventing it. T. Rex maybe comes first, but Bowie really solidifies what glam meant. By the time you get early Roxy Music, you’re getting at least 50% satire.


Richard Byrne: Yeah, but there’s just so much churning energy and intelligence that you know eventually it is going somewhere else.


Ibishblog: Completely, of course, you can already hear it in early Roxy Music because it’s such a bizarre mashup of styles and you’re talking about very intelligent people playing with everything they can dig out of everybody else’s dumpsters, usually making fun of it.


Richard Byrne: And take note of the way, especially after those first two Roxy Music records, how the third and fourth Roxy albums really run the gamut. There is everything there, from straight pub rock to prog rock. It’s all kind of muddled and mixed up. Like you say, it’s all there.


Ibishblog: I do think if you had to single out a specific glam band for maximal achievement artistically in that mode, it would have to be Roxy Music. With all due respect to Bowie, I think they went to a lot of different places a lot more quickly and moved beyond it really fast. Maybe they were seeing through it from the start. With Bowie, on the other hand, he simply leaves it behind.


Richard Byrne: He was bored with it, and he felt like ultimately it was both career defining and ending.


Ibishblog: It would’ve been.


Richard Byrne: It would have been, and he needed to reject it publicly and categorically.


Ibishblog: Probably the biggest difference is that he had more to say than anybody else, so he keeps on exploring, which is not quite true of Ferry. David Bowie’s the guy in that mix with the most ideas. Bowie and maybe Eno.


Richard Byrne: Ferry is comfortable now.


Ibishblog: With Bowie, you get the sense that he’ll never be comfortable. I mean he’s always going to be looking for the next thing, probably in his wheelchair.


Richard Byrne: So that’s why for me, glam was the most useful mode for this play.


Ibishblog: I have to say I think that it works spectacularly well, by the way. It’s something that makes no sense on paper, but the minute you walk into the theater, even before the play begins, as soon as the musician start playing you enter into that world very, very quickly and the glaminess of it all.


Richard Byrne: I have to give my applause to the director, Patrick Pearson, and the designers because they really did embrace the kind of anarchy and artistic anachronism that I was trying to foist on people and it really does work. They made it work, and I’m grateful to them for that.


Ibishblog: If there is a song that seems to define the mood, “Soul Love” seems to be a very strong presence.


Richard Byrne: Yes, and while I can’t speak for them, I think that when Jim Elkington and Jon Langford, who wrote the music, were looking for a way into the project that was helpful. Often you look for a touchtone first, that gives you an entry into a project. I think this was that for them. It’s a song that’s very recognizable from Ziggy Stardust, but it’s not one of the hits.


Ibishblog: Moving on from the glam stuff, at the end you have a remarkable piece of writing that’s beautifully delivered by your lead, Bradley Foster Smith, which is the decapitated head of the pseudo-Nero speaking in what would appear to be the voice of Nero himself. His voice certainly changes, and becomes contemptuous and angry and sounds embittered and imperial – whether of a monarch or a rock star. I find that passage, even though it comes at the end, to be a sort of the epicenter or the navel of the play. And most of the crucial ideas in the play, in my view, and correct me if I’m wrong, are expressed in that soliloquy. But the irony of the soliloquy is that it is in what would appear to be the voice of Nero, but coming out of the decapitated head of the pseudo-Nero, and so what is the audience to make of that, if you want to help us?


Richard Byrne: There are a couple of things, but I don’t want to tell you what to think. It’s not one thing. I tried to achieve a careful layering effect. I thought was very important that three things had to happen. One thing that had happened was that the two schemer characters of the play, the ones who make it all happen, had to see Nero for real. And I also felt that the audience needed to see Nero for real. The question is, how does that happen? And the ending is very much my attempt to, within the universe of the play, make that happen. And I do think it’s crucial, in a play about imposters, to have some nod to the real. Or at least to the author’s understanding of the real. I think the other thing that’s really important is that this was probably a very desperate and misbegotten misadventure, but it did have such powerful ripples and I wanted to acknowledge that. I felt responsible to the characters. I felt I needed to give them their due.


Ibishblog: Which character is getting his due here?


Richard Byrne: All of them. All of them are getting their due on some level. It helps to do a couple things. It gets the audience to a certain place. It recapitulates and underscores some of the earlier points. It brings the strands together. It serves a lot of functions, and the audience reaction to it has been really positive and I’m happy about that.


Ibishblog: Well, it’s a very thoughtful moment, I think without doubt the most powerful moment in the play, and anyone who thinks they’ve been watching a lark will be immediately disabused once that speech starts. I’d like to just push you a little bit more on the intersection between this ancient phenomenon and the quasi-contemporary, at least early 70s style, that you have put together here. What can we learn from this?


Richard Byrne: When you write something like this you want it to have layers, you want it to speak in different tongues, but with the unity within that difference. You want different voices that harmonize. Doing a play like this as a mere allegory on X is just not useful. I’m a little baffled by people who find it unclear. The spine of the play is an Emperor singing songs about the glory of elective war and conflagration as creative destruction as his acolytes are celebrating his divorce from the so-called reality-based community. There are definitely points of reference to our times.


Ibishblog: There is a hint of the “known unknowns” here?


Richard Byrne: There is definitely some of the “known unknowns” here, but I don’t want to give anyone answers. I really want people to use this collision of history and glam and politics and celebrity to just reflect a little bit on where we are, what do we clap for, and why do we engage or not engage with this very messy and often very narcissistic phenomenon of politics and celebrity and so forth.


Ibishblog: So what’s the future for Nero/Pseudo? This production cannot be the end of it! There is no way it’s just having this one run.


Richard Byrne: I’m talking with my musical collaborators and we will certainly be pursuing another production of it, and hopefully it will be as good as this one. I’m really proud of what we’ve done with it.


Ibishblog: You should be proud. I fully intend to see it again before it closes.


Seth Duerr responds on Alan Cumming’s “Macbeth”

[NOTE: My dear friend Seth Duerr, the Founder/Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company in New York City, has responded to my musings on Alan Cumming’s “Macbeth” now playing on Broadway. As usual, there’s much we agree AND disagree about, but it is, as always, a rich, nuanced and thoughtful response from an accomplished young actor/director. I am deeply grateful for his input and his extremely intelligent comments]

Having enjoyed the opportunity to reply to your posts on Merchant and Coriolanus, I thought I’d share my thoughts on Macbeth:

This production angered me. Immensely. I long for the restoration of my money, my time and those parts of my mind’s eye scarred for life by this terrible excuse for storytelling.

We both agree with Bloom’s critique of “high concept” Shakespeare productions and you’re spot on when you say that “what they have produced entirely fails to illuminate anything new, interesting, latent or suggested in the text itself (which is the only possible justification for this kind of radical departure from normative casting and staging).” Of the entire canon, Macbeth is easily the play most subjected to incessant modernizations by theater companies around the world. It hardly requires adaptation to be made more interesting or accessible. It’s one of the most captivating and easily understood of Shakespeare’s plays, and surely nothing about the play or its characters was assisted by this staging. And ‘staging’ is a term to be used rather loosely.

You cite Messrs. Tiffany and Goldberg when discussing the production concept, but we should actually start with Mr. Cumming. It was his idea to play the Lord AND the Lady. Mr. Goldberg simply enhanced the idiocy by suggesting that Mr. Cumming play all the parts. I’m surprised that Mr. Tiffany (usually an arbiter of wisdom) failed to exercise some bloody restraint. Notwithstanding, just because you can create a brilliant stage version of the film Once, does not mean you have the ability to direct Shakespeare.

The direction (like Once) excels in the more intimate scenes. While I don’t support the view that it’s the happiest marriage in Shakespeare, it’s certainly the most examined one. No married couple are alone together more often than the Macbeths. While the title couple in Antony & Cleopatra are often the focus of their scenes, there’s always some servants with them which means we never really get to access them privately. There’s always an element of presentation for the other people in the scene. With the Macbeths, we get disturbingly enveloped by their private relationship and its subsequent erosion. Mr. Tiffany’s skills are well-suited to the microscopic work required of these moments and the most successful scene of this production is when Mr. Cumming stands downstage-left using nothing but a towel to switch back and forth between husband and wife. Unfortunately for Mr. Tiffany, Shakespeare’s play is painted on a far broader canvas and with a more profound palette than Once. Mr. Tiffany chose to drag the majority of scenes down to his level, instead of learning how to rise to their respective challenges.

The fault lies not only with the directors. Mr. Cumming has supposedly been an avid fan of the play since childhood and his professional stage debut was as Malcolm. Yet, he barely scratches the surface of any character in the play. It was the most superficial rendering of Shakespeare I’ve witnessed by a professional in a mighty long time. This is incredibly strange. Cumming is usually fantastic in Shakespeare. His Saturninus in Julie Taymor’s film of Titus is incredibly nuanced. While you’re right that he speaks the verse well, it hardly matters. He’s spent little or no time addressing why on earth he’s spouting it.

The partnership of these three stooges results only in a vague suggestion of a back-story. From what I can tell, Mr. Cumming’s character must be an actor, unless he’s some other type of weirdo who commits whole Shakespeare plays to memory. Based on his behavior, and various clues throughout the play, I’m going to assume that he murdered his spouse (the scratches on his chest had to have been made by an adult in self-defense) and drowned his child. Don’t ask me why. That’s unclear and I couldn’t care less about any of it. There is little, if any, logic on display. Nothing has really been thought through. Just a bunch of elements thrown in, piecemeal, for no other reason than the creative team felt like doing so and thought they’d appear artistic or interesting. Neither result occurred.

With three typically talented individuals, one would think they could come up with something better than a half-baked storyline as replacement for one of the most intriguing stories ever told. And it just encourages terrible behavior like this, throughout the profession. Now, a bunch of idiots who want to set Othello on Pluto or do a naked Merry Wives of Windsor or give the fairies machine guns in A Midsummer Night’s Dream will just feel like their instincts are acceptable. Granted, morons like this were going to screw with these texts to begin with, but they can use examples like this terrible production to feel like their efforts are legitimate.

Let’s discuss the disconnect between the production that I saw and the one for which everyone else gave multiple standing ovations. The audience’s reaction could be a love for Cumming or just support of what they consider to be a bravura feat. But here’s what I actually think it is: 1) people want to appear intelligent and are afraid to find any wrong in Shakespeare productions, publicly, as they’re afraid their neighbors will think they’re stupid; and 2) they paid hundreds of dollars for tickets and if they admit it was a bad purchase then they are fools and would rather pretend that they didn’t just flush money down the toilet. My ass remained seated and I felt made a fool by the creative team and the producers. You charge people hundreds of dollars for theater tickets and it leads to some very bad things: lack of diversity in the audience and a complete inability to respond honestly (to oneself and to others) to what you just laid out your money to watch.

Perhaps this is just a sense of taste. Several friends have agreed with some of my reactions, but said that they enjoyed it. Some couldn’t explain why. Some said they liked the mystery of trying to figure out why he did what he did, if he even did it. None of them could agree on exactly what the details were and I suspect these are type of folks who enjoy David Lynch’s oeuvre, which leads us to your thesis.

I despise the Lynch canon for the same reasons I loathed this production. The only exception is The Elephant Man, which is remarkably unlike the rest of his work in that it is moving, linear and makes any fucking sense. Oddly, the stage version of The Elephant Man is quite terrible and seems far more up Lynch’s alley than the script he actually chose to film. Just got lucky, I guess.

I wholeheartedly agree that if Cumming/Tiffany/Goldberg wanted to pursue the application of this back-story on a Shakespeare play, Richard 2 would be more appropriate. Though, I would not wish this triptych of bozos on any Shakespeare play, even the small handful of poorly written ones like Hamlet or The Tempest. (Can’t wait for the hate mail on this last statement…)

In closing, I’ve always been deeply alarmed at the state of classical theater in this country, but, this production was an import! As was the hideous Patrick Stewart Macbeth (though, at least it attempted to tell Shakespeare’s story). Has our almost complete inability to do Shakespeare in this country started infecting everyone abroad? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?!

Since my comments have been a real downer, here’s today’s fun factoid: Richard 2 is not the only play entirely in verse. It has some friends! Edward 3, King John and Henry 6 Part 3. All very delightful people.

[NOTE from Ibish: The question of which Shakespeare plays are entirely in blank verse is controversial. My view that only Richard II qualifies is unusual to say the least, but it’s what I think. Seth adds Edward 3King John and Henry 6 Part 3. Okay. Some others add 1Henry VIAgain, okay. To me the only one that is unassailably all in the most careful and calibrated blank verse is Richard II and I know I’m being much more picky than most about that.

BTW, I do think that Shakespeare had a role in writing parts of Edward III, especially most if not all of the first part about his obsession with the Countess of Salisbury. But I don’t think he wrote it all, and probably even not most of it (though he took almost every element of Henry V from its second half, even including the line “the game’s on foot.”) But I also think someone else wrote much of that invasion of France section, maybe Kidd, which Shakespeare later reworked as Henry V (and so much better). My conversion on Edward III is a slightly strange and very recent one. I had long taken it is my working assumption that anything mainly written by Shakespeare was in the folio (commonly referred to as “Jaggard” after its original publisher) that Hemmings and Condell put together shortly after his death. My assumption was that if anything was left out it was because Shakespeare didn’t write enough of it to merit inclusion. Thus I reasoned that Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen were only added later because it was subsequently considered that he had written enough of them for inclusion. I assume the lost Cardenio was left out for the same reason: it was mostly by Fletcher or somebody else. And I’m NOT at all convinced that there really was a play we don’t know about called Love’s Labour’s Won, which it seems to me might easily be another name for one of the existing comedies. Or maybe that one really did get lost.

Most pieces of Shakespeare Apocrypha have left me extremely cold. Double Falsehood doesn’t do much for me, and I don’t think it’s the real Cardenio or anything of the kind. Donald Foster’s colossal folly about A Funeral Elegy, which was all the rage and in all the collected works when I was in graduate school, always struck me as a ridiculous poem by a poor writer and certainly nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare. I never bought it for a second. The only piece of Apocrypha that I took (and still take) seriously is the scene from Sir Thomas More in which the lead character denounces the “mountainish inhumanity” of the anti-immigrant mob, and urges them to take “the strangers’ case.” The whole scene is entirely Shakespearean in total and thematic terms, which means I also think we have a good sample of his handwriting. Why wasn’t it in the folio? Because he was only one of several authors of this play and contributed only a small part.

Because its It’s not in the folio, I never took Edward III too seriously until I read it quite carefully about two months ago. I was floored. Large parts of it, especially at the beginning, read exactly like early Shakespeare. But, one had to ask, why isn’t in the folio? The clincher for me was that there is an obvious answer for this. The beginning of the play is distinctly anti-Scottish in tone, mocking the Scots’ attitudes, manners, valor and accent. This would’ve been acceptable in Elizabeth’s England, even though her plenipotentiary in Scotland apparently complained that the play was causing unnecessary tension between the two countries. But it would NOT have been in the least acceptable when the folio was published under James I, a Scottish king of a united Britain. So without getting into all the reasons why I think Shakespeare had a major hand in Edward III, I can at least easily explain why, if he did, it was left out of the first folio: it would have been politically and socially suicidal to include it. No doubt at some point a longer explanation of why Edward III, along with that little piece of Sir Thomas More, are the only Shakespeare Apocrypha I take seriously will be forthcoming in a future Ibishblog post.]

UPDATE: Seth rightly reminds me that, in fact, no Shakespeare play is written entirely in blank verse, least of all Richard II, which is full of rhyming couplets and even more complicated rhyming schemes. He’s absolutely right, of course. Indeed, I had quite a bit to say about the way in which Shakespeare used the rhyming scheme in Richard II to illustrate dramatic and political points about Richard and Bolingbroke, and their contrasting styles and rise and fall of political power, in an Ibishblog post from April, 2010 called “Language, legitimacy and political theory in Shakespeare’s most dangerous play.” So this was a pretty silly mistake on my part, having written so much about the use of rhyme and rhyming couplets in Richard II only a couple of years ago. Nothing blank about that!

Seth agrees with me about Love’s Labour’s Won (we both suspect it is most probably extant, but known by another name, probably Much Ado) and about what Seth aptly calls Cardenio/DoubleFalsehood/whatever, and which he correctly characterizes as “just dreadful.” “Possible Shakespeare wrote a little bit of the soliloquies,” he adds, “but what a dreadful mess.” Precisely. But, I owe him, and all my readers, a fuller explanation about my (admittedly eccentric) view that King John and 3Henry6 probably shouldn’t be considered entirely verse plays. That’s got to be the subject of another Ibishblog post in the near future. I probably won’t convince anyone, but I’ll give it a good shot. As for Edward III, I agreed it is entirely in verse, I just question what percentage of it Shakespeare actually wrote (I’d guess less than half, probably, and mostly concentrated in the first part to do with the Countess of Salisbury).

David Lynch’s Macbeth?

One of the few things that’s been actually useful in the later part of Yale professor Harold Bloom’s career is his constant railing against “high concept” productions of Shakespeare plays. With evident wrath, he would fulminate, and indeed still does on occasion, about how many directors feel the need to create some sort of “original” or “contemporary” setting for Shakespeare dramas and how often this results in, quite literally, losing the plot. Of course if a creative setting can evoke or illuminate something otherwise latent or opaque within the text, it’s fully justifiable. Some productions achieve just that in various ways. But more often, as Bloom suggests, it’s at best a waste of time, often a distraction and sometimes even a virtual obliteration of the actual work itself.

The much acclaimed “production” of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, originated by the National Theater of Scotland and currently running at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City, very much falls into the last category. Indeed, it’s not a production of Macbeth at all. None of the characters in Macbeth, for example, have any role in it whatsoever. Neither do any of the settings. Nor does any of the action in any recognizable sense. Only the dialogue remains, and even then in a very restructured and reorganized way.

Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg have managed to pretty well extirpate everything that actually defines Shakespeare’s own Macbeth. Most of the themes of Shakespeare’s play are entirely missing: power, ambition, loyalty, satisfaction, free will, destiny, time, the meaning or meaninglessness of life itself, and the nature of love and hate are either thoroughly excised or deeply obscured. What survive are not so much themes but rather abstracted affects: madness, confusion regarding illusion versus reality, and paranoia. Apart from much of the dialogue of the play, what Tiffany and Goldberg have managed (or, perhaps, were compelled) to retain were certain atmospherics not only built into the language but which must be reflected in any serious production of what is, after all, the great granddaddy of all horror movies. So Macbeth has to be horrifying, claustrophobic, creepy, and exuding paranoia. Their set and staging actually does manage to convey some of those atmospherics, although it can also and times seem equally absurd and ridiculous.

They’ve set their Macbeth in what appears to be a psych ward, possibly for the criminally insane. In a large, spare set design, on the far left of the stage are a series of beds and other medical props. In the center is a wheelchair, some other chairs and tables, and towards the back, a bathtub. On the far right is a steep set of metal stairs leading to a sealed door. Cumming is joined by only two other actors, one of whom appears dressed as a middle-aged female doctor, the other a younger, burly male orderly. They, alone, can exit or enter through the door. Cumming is completely trapped on the stage. They can, and frequently do, also observe Cumming through a large window about 12 feet or so above the stage level, adding to the paranoid, Bentham/Foucault Panopticon atmosphere of constant surveillance. There are also, crucially, three large video monitors at the very top of the extremely high stage that periodically show images that are either live, or possibly in many cases prerecorded, as well as “snow” and video distortion.

The performance begins with the two other characters going through a kind of medical/legal intake of Cumming’s character. He is extremely disheveled and has three large bloody scratches on his chest. As they remove his clothes and take swabs from his mouth and fingernails, they place them in large brown paper bags marked “evidence.” As they leave him finally resting on his hospital bed, Cumming utters the first clear lines of dialogue, crying out after them: “When shall we three meet again?” The words may be instantly recognizable, but this doesn’t have much to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Shakespeare at all. For the rest of the performance Cumming moves around the stage in an increasingly agitated, disheveled, disrobed and bloodied state, performing almost all the lines in the stripped-down 100 minute script.

You couldn’t possibly call this “William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” But you could call it “David Lynch’s Macbeth.” For Tiffany and Goldberg have given us a version of the dialogue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as some impenetrable, highly ambiguous and totally unreliable narrative of psychogenic fugue. The production owes much more to David Lynch’s brilliant film Lost Highway then to anything else. It’s clear at the outset that Cumming has either committed, or been the victim, of some brutal and horrible violence. But there’s nothing in the production that indicates whether he is the culprit or the victim. Since Cumming performs all the lines himself, adopting different tones and affects for different characters (usually astonishingly effectively, but not always), he isn’t playing Macbeth. He isn’t playing any other known character, either. His character, whoever he might be, is a novel creation who is simply reciting the lines, acting out the parts, and playing out some kind of macabre, solo Macbeth-based psychodrama in which he appears utterly trapped.

It seems likely that Tiffany and Goldberg are building primarily off of the dialogue Macbeth has with Lady Macbeth’s doctor:


How does your patient, doctor?


Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick coming fancies,

That keep her from her rest.


Cure her of that.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?


Therein the patient

Must minister to himself.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Tiffany and Goldberg either had their primary inspiration for this production in that minor but highly suggestive passage in Macbeth, or at the very least found in it a justification for their own use of Shakespeare’s dialogue. However you slice it, Cumming’s character, whoever he might be, is indeed ministering to himself, although in an apparently self-destructive manner. It’s the most telling passage of dialogue in Shakespeare’s play that suggests the psych ward staging and production Tiffany and Goldberg have created.

Even closer to this dynamic, though, is the reaction of Shakespeare’s Richard II when imprisoned in Pomfret Castle:

I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world:

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,

My soul the father; and these two beget

A generation of still-breeding thoughts,

And these same thoughts people this little world,

In humours like the people of this world,

For no thought is contented.

Richard, isolated in his cell, creates a whole world out of his own imagination. Each of these characters represents a different idea or affect and, as he goes on to explain, he uses them to act out the tragedy of his deposition by Bolingbroke. The original drama queen, Richard, in this sense, is probably a much more direct ancestor to Cumming’s character (who we cannot call Macbeth) than any other Shakespeare creation. Cumming’s character is more or less doing what Richard did, although perhaps on a grander scale.

But his most immediate forbear is probably not Richard II but Fred Madison, ostensibly the lead character in Lost Highway, and the other psychogenic fugue figures in later Lynch films. In these films, particularly Lost Highway, traumatized characters seek refuge in imagined realities, and shifting identities in desperate efforts to transcend their profound emotional disturbances. I use the word ostensibly in the case of “Fred Madison,” because in Lynch’s magnificent and masterful psychogenic fugue trilogy (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire), both the shifting implicit narrators and the narratives themselves, such as they are, are highly unreliable. Indeed, Inland Empire is so disjointed and convoluted that although there are different figures who have names (though sometimes more than one) and, at least to some extent, identities (frequently more than one) attached to them, they are not only unreliable, they are constantly shifting and are radically unstable.

That’s exactly what we get from Cumming in this production. He is, like Richard in prison, everyone and no one at the same time. He has no known identity. One could begin with the assumption that he is some version of Macbeth. However, there is no real basis for that except for the fact that it’s the biggest part he plays, because it is the largest role in the dialogue. The other great identifier is that the production concludes with a failed suicide attempt in which he tries to drown himself in the bathtub only to place a doll he has been using as a prop for Malcolm on the wheelchair he has been using as a prop for the throne and bows down in obeisance before the new king. So, insofar as Cumming’s character is particularly associated with the Macbeth role and dialogue in a way he isn’t with any of the others, there are only the merest hints, especially at the end. Some of the vocal tones and affects Cumming employs for other characters, particularly his effete and ridiculous (and ineffective) Duncan, also suggest a greater distance between Cumming’s character and the subjectivity reflected in Duncan’s lines than it does in some of the other characters. But that hardly establishes him as in any coherent sense a version of Macbeth.

The other unmistakable influence of Lynch in general and Lost Highway in particular is the use of the video monitors at the top of the set. Ever since Fire Walk with Me, Lynch has used video and TV screens in highly complex and suggestive ways. Distortions on monitors, video “snow,” “aliasing” and wavy horizontal lines, “ghosting,” and so forth are used indicate narrative instability, psychic disturbance and identity distortion. In Lost Highway, the most plausible reading of the film suggests that the video clips we see throughout are often, if not always, the least unreliable aspects of the narrative. And in the extraordinary scene featuring David Bowie in Gordon Cole’s office in Fire Walk with Me, again the reality captured by closed-circuit cameras proves more, or at least as, reliable as the ostensible diegetic narrative in the normative body of the film (as opposed to the video-within-the-film) and the apparent and stated perceptions of its characters.

Tiffany and Goldberg haven’t thought through the relationship between their monitors and their narrative with anything like the precision and brilliance of Lynch (perhaps an impossibly high standard). But they do strategically employ his techniques to suggest the disintegration, reintegration and multiplication of identities and the mirroring of mirrorings. And, like conjurers, they use the monitors to call our attention to or away from them and the stage, strategically, especially in order to change Cumming’s appearance, always for the worse and bloodier.

Without question, the monitors — along with the ominous musical score and soundscape that are quite powerful — are the “creepiest” aspects of this production. But the combination of incarceration, lost identity, psychogenic fugue and highly narrativized fantasies about life and death, love and power, from a bloodsoaked figure surrounded by guards and finding his deepest moments intimately bound up with video representations means Cumming’s character doesn’t call to mind Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But he does instantly invoke David Lynch’s Fred Madison.

What gets lost in all of this “high concept” are not only the themes of the Shakespeare play, but also its fundamental drama. It’s essential that most of the audience is familiar, as they no doubt are, with the basic plot of Macbeth. Because anyone who wasn’t would find it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to follow the basic story of Shakespeare’s play in this production, especially given the fact that his primary themes are either dispensed with or totally obscured by other themes. The primary affects are there, to be sure, but Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tale that needs to be told, even if it is by an idiot and full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

Cumming’s character struggles mightily, and indeed has to strike his body several times, before he can bring himself to utter the phrase “signifying nothing.” That could be effectively incorporated into any production of Macbeth, of course, because it is not only Macbeth grieving for his wife (the closest thing, it has been often observed, to a happily married couple in the entire Shakespeare canon) but also because it stares into the abyss of the absurdity and fundamental meaninglessness of life, or at least of the narratives we necessarily create in order to survive. In this case, it’s particularly poignant because Cumming’s character, it seems to suggest, is precisely that idiot and that his entire wrenching drama, being but the fantasy of a madman or something of the kind, “signifies nothing” even more than normative self-serving human narratives because it is, or may well be, entirely delusional. And, it seems, he knows it.

I don’t think it’s unfair to Tiffany and Goldberg to suggest that they’ve done considerable, and indeed intolerable, violence to Shakespeare’s play. They’ve rendered it incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with it. And thereby they have decided not to tell the tale at all in any meaningful sense. And even for those who are familiar, and indeed intimately, with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, what they have produced entirely fails to illuminate anything new, interesting, latent or suggested in the text itself (which is the only possible justification for this kind of radical departure from normative casting and staging).

Other than Lynch, there are at least two additional and obvious contemporary influences on this production. When Cumming is in an animated dialogue with himself, particularly arguments between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, there was, perhaps inevitably, an unmistakable element of the Pythonesque. It’s difficult to miss the quintessentially British absurdist comic aspect of watching someone staging a peevish argument between a husband and wife, on his own and when he is neither of them. Cumming’s Lady Macbeth sometimes sounds disturbingly like Eric Idle at his campiest pantomime dame extreme. In fairness, at other times he’s so effective it seems he might be the among the most effective ever male reciters of Lady Macbeth’s lines, though that’s a shortish queue, And, of course, the staging draws heavily on psych ward movies like The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shock Corridor and even, to some extent, the simple but underrated Session 9. Again, unfortunately, no aspect of this helps one understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth in any new or interesting way, or even succeeds in telling its story coherently.

And yet all is not lost, by a long shot. Cumming’s performance is uneven but often spectacularly good. If one ignores, as one should, very early on, the overwrought and under-conceptualized production and staging, and simply listens to the actor reciting the dialogue, it is frequently a truly marvelous experience. Cumming is like a virtuoso musician, with a considerable mastery of his instrument, for the most part delivering a bravura performance of a score by a great composer. The best of Shakespeare’s plays, certainly including Macbeth, have in them a deep and profound music that only the finest actors can truly unravel through precise performances. Cumming’s mastery of blank verse is genuinely outstanding, and the positive aspects of the evening were much closer to a concert than a play. Carefully tracking Cumming manipulating and deftly maneuvering around the scansion, meter and rhythms of Shakespeare’s unparalleled blank verse is one of the more pleasurable artistic experiences I’ve had sometime. His performance wasn’t flawless, but much of it was lyrically wonderful. I often found myself focusing entirely on the interplay between the metrical features of the dialogue, the beauty and power of its poetry, and the deep psychological complexities they evoke.

In literary critical circles, it’s a commonplace to conceptualize or treat Shakespeare’s plays as if they were long, epic poems (even though only Richard II is written entirely in blank verse with no prose passages). In many theatrical circles, this is the ultimate heresy, since they tend to hold that the real purpose of these plays is live performance, and everything else is secondary at best. Whether they intended to or not, Tiffany and Goldberg have succumbed entirely to the critical tendency to treat a Shakespeare play, in this case Macbeth, as if it were simply one lengthy and epic poem written in multiple voices, but without the kind of third person narrator of normative epic poems and sagas from the era of oral tradition. To a very large extent in this production Cumming far more resembles a bard of oral traditions than a contemporary actor, insofar as he is attempting to act out and communicate a long and complex story with multiple characters in front of a live audience and virtually alone. Tiffany and Goldberg might have just let him walk around an empty stage and play the music of Shakespeare with his entire body as he does so brilliantly.

But there is a need, I suppose, in any production of Macbeth, and in whatever medium, to at least try to provide an atmosphere of sufficient anxiety, dread, claustrophobia and paranoia to support the obsessive, profoundly neurotic horror of the narrative itself. On film there is no question that Akira Kurosawa got closest the mark in Throne of Blood, a truly breathtaking cinematic adaptation of Macbeth. But, being in Japanese, the film can’t access or reflect the music of Shakespeare’s poetry. Tiffany and Goldberg set Cumming loose on Shakespeare’s astounding dialogue as a kind of psychotic word salad completely disembodied from all of its narrative and dramatic context, which are ruthlessly and cavalierly expunged.

From a purely poetic, and indeed musical, perspective it works beautifully, if not flawlessly, because for the most part it’s beautifully recited and the “pure” language is freed from the story that might otherwise be seen as fettering it. There is a case to be made for such an approach, but inevitably it loses infinitely more then it gains. The dramatic context provides so much of the power of Shakespeare’s language. Although his dialogue rarely fails to be gorgeous and overwhelmingly powerful, disconnected from character, setting and narrative dynamic, its isolation may make it the sole object of attention or real interest, but also renders it infinitely less powerful and therefore, ultimately, less beautiful.

Tiffany and Goldberg might have been better off staking their claim simply on demanding the audience pay attention only to the words of the epic poem in glorious isolation, stripped of all aspects their dramatic context. “Listen to the beauty of the words,” they might have been saying, “for once, forget about the story” (among other things, because you already know it), and “listen to the music.” It would’ve been a very strange decision, but a better one. And, of course, it would hardly have needed very much from the directors, placing almost all the burden entirely on the (in that case) sole actor. But apparently feeling the need to supply an appropriately “creepy” atmosphere, and in a fit of “high concept” hubris of the worst variety, Tiffany and Goldberg have ended up staging what amounts to David Lynch’s Macbeth, not Shakespeare’s.

Revolution, Citizenship and Democracy in Post-Dictatorship Arab Societies

As the Arab uprisings continue to unfold, the word “revolution” is often bandied about with complete disregard for what an actual revolution entails. A coup; a pacted or managed transition between elements of the ancien régime and opposition forces; or even simple regime change do not constitute a genuine revolution. Revolution, properly defined, means that society changes both from the top-down and bottom-up, and looks very little as it did before. Some famous revolutions are more dramatic in this context than others. It’s obvious that the Russian and French revolutions, for example, changed everything almost overnight and dramatically for the people of those countries. The revolution against British rule in the United States, on the other hand, changed a great deal but also preserved much of what had been long-established, but was being challenged by the Parliament in London against the will of the American colonists. Nothing was ever the same in the United States after the revolution, for truly it was revolutionary, but the change was more cautious, gradual and heavily debated than the vanguardist transformations in Russia or France.


By these standards, the only Arab country which could possibly be described as having actually undergone a “revolution” is Libya, and one of the reasons for this is that Col. Moammar Qaddafi created so few real social and governmental institutions that any alternative government, even one following his natural death, would have been faced with the need to build such institutions from their very base. And yet even in Libya, there are real questions about how “revolutionary” the transformation will really be. The head of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustapha Abdul Jalil, after all, previously served as “the Secretary of the General People’s Committee of Justice” (essentially the minister of justice, as defined in the bizarre lexicon of Qaddafi’s Libyan Arab “Jamahiriya” – itself a neologism reflective of his twisted thinking). There are plenty of opposition figures in the new Libyan leadership, such as it is, and a very different political scene, especially given the absence of Qaddafi and his sons. But even in Libya there are solid grounds to question whether what is taking place actually constitutes a “revolution” in its proper sense.


In Egypt, there was certainly no revolution. The military was forced to perform a regime decapitation, removing former President Hosni Mubarak and his family, and some other elements of the elite as well as the ruling National Democratic Party, in order to try to save as much of the existing power structure — particularly their own prerogatives, privileges and economic holdings — as possible. Much of the former regime remains intact, including the Ministry of the Interior and its secret police. Egypt is now the scene of an intense, complex and convoluted power struggle between three established forces: the military, the remnants of the former regime (including the MOI and secret police) and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the liberal street protesters who brought down the former regime serving as an unorganized and unstructured fourth factor that can be brought into play in the context of a crisis. Nothing that has happened there reflects a real political or social “revolution.”


In Yemen, the street protests were hijacked by a power struggle between forces loyal to Pres. Ali Abdallah Saleh, his son and nephews, and those aligned with the Ahmar clan and rebel generals such as Ali Mohsen Ahmar (who, in spite of his last name, is related to Saleh, not his rivals in the Ahmar clan and their de facto leader, telecommunications tycoon Hamid Al-Ahmar). Whether this power struggle between the elites in Sanaa has been resolved or not remains to be seen, but even if it has, that elite will then have to deal with a revivified “Southern Movement” which seeks either radical autonomy or independence for the south; the strengthened Houthi rebellion; some other secessionist movements; numerous Salafist-Jihadist groups, including but by no means limited to Al Qaeda, which control large parts of rural territory; a drought; a Somali refugee crisis of considerable proportions; and a population that is by far the most illiterate, unemployed, under-educated and heavily armed in the entire Arab world. In other words, the factors working in Yemen’s favor for a brighter future can be listed on one hand (possibly with superfluous fingers remaining), whereas the list of challenges — only touched upon above — are virtually endless. Failed statehood, or a situation always threatening to deteriorate into that status, is not a revolution either.


In Bahrain, demonstrators never sought a revolution, except perhaps the fringe led by Hassan Mushaima and Al Haq that called for “a republic” instead of the monarchy. But most of the mainstream opposition groups, most notably Al-Wefaq, were not talking in terms of revolution or even regime change, but rather stronger forms of constitutionalism to produce a greater balance of power between royal and popular prerogatives, and redressing grievances specific to the long-marginalized Shiite majority. Even though the uprising, for the main part, did not seek to remove the monarchy, it was successfully crushed by force and therefore by no means can anyone speak of “revolution” in Bahrain. A “revolutionary situation” might be brewing because of growing tensions between the opposition, particularly the Shiite community, and the government; the lack of any forum for dialogue to find a reasonable accommodation; and the splintering of leaderships on both sides and the rise of radical fringes, including what appears to be the beginning of urban terrorism and sabotage by radical opposition forces and the simultaneous rise of Sunni vigilante gangs, particularly of a previously unknown Salafist variety, that have been attacking Shiite villages. But revolutionary situations frequently don’t produce genuine or stable revolutions, but rather yield open-ended conflict, which presently appears to be the direction in which Bahrain, which also finds itself very much in the grip of Saudi hegemony, is headed.


Syria seems not only to have a fully-fledged “revolutionary situation” but also to be inexorably headed towards full-blown civil war, probably of a sectarian nature. The government is manifestly uninterested in and patently incapable of, reforming itself. Meanwhile the opposition is deeply divided politically, militarily weak (armed opposition is strictly at an insurgency level; unable to control and hold any territory); lacks proper coordination between disparate armed groups and divided political ones; and has not been able to articulate a coherent alternative vision for the future of the country or inspire confidence that it constitutes a viable alternative leadership, as the NTC in Libya did. Civil wars, especially of a sectarian nature, are unlikely incubators of anything that could legitimately be described as a “revolution.”


This rather long-winded summary of why the most dramatic Arab uprisings don’t really qualify as revolutionary begs the question of what would. The essence of what is genuinely revolutionary is a transition that fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the individual on the one hand and the society and/or the state on the other hand. Regime changes, coups, civil wars, etc. that maintain the same fundamental relationship between the individual and the state that existed before cannot be described as revolutionary. This is the missing element in all of the Arab uprisings: none of them can yet be said to have fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state. Revolutions, it should be added, need not constitute an improvement in that relationship: the Leninist “new man” became essentially a slave of a vanguardist socialist clique; fascist revolutions aimed to produce mindless nationalist automatons; some revolutions, like the Khmer Rouge’s in Cambodia, recast many if not most, individuals as enemies of the new society, marked for death. So revolution and the change that it brings is not necessarily positive, but it must be comprehensive.


In none of the Arab uprisings cited above, have the essential relationship between the individual and the state been yet transformed. At a superficial level, more has changed in Libya more dramatically than anywhere else. But the country is too chaotic, deeply in flux, and reverting to tribal, clan and regional affiliations that actually predate the Qaddafi era to clearly identify a new, more healthy, relationship between the individual and the state or society. Indeed, throughout the Arab world, the uprisings are driving people back into more atavistic identities: sectarianism, both local and regional; tribal affiliations; clan loyalties; subnational regional agendas, etc. have all enjoyed a terrible resurgence.


It remains an open question whether or not the Arab world is really ready for a new political and social consciousness that fundamentally reshapes the relationship between the individual and the society. If so, that must be at the level of citizenship. The concept of citizenship, with its complex, interlocking and mutually reinforcing and interdependent relationships of rights and responsibilities, has been almost entirely absent from every element of modern Arab political discourse. Citizenship is a new idea, and the struggle to define it is at the core of where the most promising of these uprisings might lead, particularly in the one country whose uprising I have not yet dealt with: Tunisia.


Over the past decade or so, a new idea has taken root in most strains of Arab political thinking: the notion that legitimate governance requires the consent of the governed and its corollary that only regular, multiparty elections and the peaceful transfer of power can demonstrate that consent. As far as I can tell, the basic outlines of this idea are now accepted by almost all current strands of Arab political thought with a few notable exceptions: existing ruling elites and their courtiers (whether in republics or monarchies), although some in such circles do seem to appreciate this principle more than others; and extreme Salafist groups, particularly Salafist-Jihadists, who reject the whole idea as “unIslamic.” Even illiberal organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood parties and many other Islamist groups seem to understand the centrality of this concept, at least in theory. So, most of contemporary Arab political thought accepts the right of the majority to exercise power through the ballot box. Again, at least in theory.


What is not nearly as widely understood, even in theory, is the other side of the coin of democracy: limitations on the powers of government; separation of powers between different branches of government (particularly the need for an independent judiciary to enforce those limitations); and, above all, the inviolable rights of minorities, women and, especially, individuals on the basis of their status as citizens. In some countries, such as Egypt, the current struggle of political ideas essentially revolves around efforts by Islamists, who are probably at the peak of their influence, to try to assert as much as possible maximal authority for “majority rule.”


But throughout the Middle East, and above all in Tunisia, the Arab country which is by far the furthest along in developing a constitutional and, possibly, democratic post-dictatorship system, Islamists are disturbingly taking the lead in promoting and defining the concept of “citizenship.” This has deeply ominous implications: consider, for example, the harm done to the concept of “secularism” because of its abuse by Arab republican dictatorships that framed themselves as “secular,” only to use this as an excuse for radical forms of repression at all levels of society, including against real secularists as well as Islamists or any other opposition groups whatsoever. In other words, when the wrong people define important concepts, words can be stripped of their meaning to the point that they become unworkable and even anathema. Damaging mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of indispensable ideas thereby poison healthy political dialogue.


If the Arab uprisings are to be genuine revolutions, they will have to transform ordinary Arab individuals from subjects (or, indeed, objects) of the state — to be managed and controlled — into citizens who define that state, fully empowered to participate freely in all aspects of society with no unreasonable limitations. The essence of citizenship is that the individual has inviolable rights — freedom of conscience, religion, speech, property, equal treatment under the law, equal status with all other citizens, etc. — and also unavoidable responsibilities — paying taxes, public service, abiding by the rule of law, cooperating with legitimate authorities, etc. The most fundamental element of real citizenship is that individual rights cannot be compromised by “democratic” decisions of tyrannous majorities. Genuine democracy requires balancing the rights of majorities and majority coalitions to executive and/or legislative power, with limitations on government, and inviolable minority and individual rights protected by an independent judiciary. If citizenship is defined in any other way, it, like secularism, will become a term that becomes poisoned in the Arab political discourse and rendered virtually useless for at least a generation.


Tunisia is central because the Islamists in that country are the most advanced, sophisticated, imaginative and, indeed, crafty in the Arab world. It’s ironic that few Arab liberals or progressives pay as much attention to the concept (or at least the rhetoric) of citizenship as Ennahda’s spiritual guide Rashid Ghanouchi or its main spokesman Said Ferjani. Indeed, anyone looking at the rhetoric in the contemporary Arab world without any context or historical understanding might be tempted to see Ghanouchi and Ferjani as fully-developed liberal, constitutionalist Muslim Democrats, in the manner of the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. Obviously, in reality they are nothing of the kind, at least for now. They are probably the Arab Islamists furthest along in any evolution in this direction, if in fact that is where they are going. But, it’s important to note that “citizenship” as defined by Islamists like Ghanouchi and Ferjani is still framed in the context of “Islamic traditions” and “Islamic values.”


Ferjani, in particular, is exceptionally eloquent on the concept of “citizenship,” and has correctly identified it as the key to creating genuinely pluralistic, democratic post-dictatorship Arab societies. Yet his party remains absolutely committed to an interpretation of not only Islam, but also “Islamic societies,” that claims authenticity based on socially reactionary ideals. Arab Islamists, including Ennahda, frame religious equality in interfaith terms: they would recognize, in other words, (again at least in theory) the right to be Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Jewish, etc. So, a certain respect for this kind of “freedom of religion” may be accepted by such Islamist parties, insofar as they understand that there are different kinds of Muslims and also people who are not Muslims but belong to a different religion. But the idea that there might be citizens who have no faith at all, who are atheists, agnostics or skeptics, and that these citizens might not only want, but have a right, to publicly question religion, engage in blasphemy, satire, scholarly interrogation of the history of various religions (including Islam), or promote radical skepticism and rejection of religion seems outside of their frame of reference altogether.


Similarly, Islamists who promote “citizenship” have a major gender issue problem. If, as they try to do, they say simultaneously they are in favor of equal citizenship for all, but at the same time claim that all of this equality will be grounded in “Islamic traditions,” they face an impossible conundrum. Most traditional interpretations of Islam give Muslim men more rights than Muslim women in terms of inheritance, divorce, child custody, court testimony, and many other matters, both familial and social. They also give Muslim men more rights than non-Muslim men, in some of the same contexts. It’s absurd but symptomatic that in both Tunisia and Egypt there are huge controversies among Islamists about whether non-Muslims (inevitably defined as Jews or Christians, rather than atheists or agnostics, the second pair being entirely outside their frame of reference as noted above) should legally be allowed to potentially serve as president of the republic. In neither case is this a likely scenario given that both Egypt and Tunisia have over 85 percent Sunni Muslim majorities. So the whole question boils down to one of formalizing discrimination rather than really worrying about the rise to power of a Jewish Tunisian or a Coptic Egyptian president (neither of which are conceivable under the present circumstances and political cultures of those countries).


The point is that the struggle for good governance, equal rights, pluralism, tolerance, and actual democracy boils down to the question of citizenship, and how it is defined and incorporated into post-dictatorship Arab societies. If Islamists are allowed to monopolize the discourse regarding citizenship, turn it into a vehicle for an all-powerful majority rule that sets the stage for tyrannous majorities that oppress the rights of women, minorities and individuals, and hijack the concept of citizenship the way the former dictatorships hijacked the concept of secularism, distorting it beyond recognition, there will be no Arab revolutions at all. There will simply be the transfer of one form of authoritarian rule (republican or monarchical, but not Islamist) to another (Islamist or Islamist-influenced, possibly bolstered by consistently strong electoral results with limited separation of powers and very few protections for the rights of individuals, women and minorities). There is every reason to be deeply concerned that Islamists are dominating the conversation about citizenship at the moment in Arab political discourse. If one had any confidence that they were sincere, or even capable of being sincere, about the rights of citizens inherent in their individual citizenship, this would be a welcome rather than a worrying development. But any such confidence would be grossly naïve.


Therefore, one of the most urgent tasks facing those who seek an actually revolutionary, genuinely liberatory, and practically progressive Arab post-dictatorship future is to immediately get involved in the struggle over the definition of the concept of citizenship, and ensuring that Islamists are not able to hijack this ideal to defend oppressive majority rule, but rather to inculcate a sense that citizenship is about defining and defending the rights of each and every individual, woman and man, alike. Liberty, at its root, means maximizing the range of choices for every individual in any society while protecting the rights of others from encroachment by those choices. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s one that most of the rest of the world is much further along in negotiating than the Arabs are.


What most Arabs, above all the Islamists, but also many “liberals” who would unwisely and indefensibly prefer the old or re-jiggered dictatorships over potentially Islamist-dominated but genuinely limited and constitutionalist governments, need to understand is that real freedom — the only freedom that really counts — is the freedom for others to be radically wrong in one’s own eyes. Of course, in acting out such “mistakes,” citizens cannot violate other’s inviolable rights either. But if the Islamists cannot understand why one would be secular, agnostic or atheist, and if atheists, agnostics and secularists cannot understand why anyone would be an Islamist, that’s the whole point of freedom. Pluralism means accepting the right of somebody else to choose to be, in your opinion, completely wrong, and defending that right in the context of freedom of conscience. This, now, is the idea that must quickly make headway in the Arab world if real citizenship, genuine democracy, pluralism, tolerance and women’s, minority and individual rights will actually be protected in post-dictatorship democracies. That would transform, irreversibly, the nature of the relationship between the Arab individual and her or his state and society. That would be a REAL revolution.

Ibishblog guest post: Seth Duerr responds to my Coriolanus post

[NOTE: Two days after I posted my take on Coriolanus and the new Fiennes interpretation of it, I received the following exceptionally thoughtful and insightful response from Seth Duerr, Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company in New York City. As he notes, Seth approaches these plays from a completely different perspective than I do, since he is a professional actor and director who specializes in Shakespeare's work. From that unusual but indispensible angle, he adds many new dimensions to the conversation about the play and the film. In particular, having directed himself in the role of Coriolanus, Seth disagrees with my view of the character as an impossible and insufferable one that cannot function in his society or be identified with by most readers and audiences. Given his experiences with and reading of the play, Seth argues that, on the contrary, Coriolanus is indeed an accessible and sympathetic character, and it is rigid Roman society that is simply unwilling to accept him as he is. With his permission, I am posting Seth's entire commentary below as an Ibishblog guest post and I'm deeply grateful to him for taking the time to explain his exceptionally well-informed perspective.]

I hope that everyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare gets to see the film and read your comprehensive analysis. If they stuck with the conversation thusfar, then I imagine some further commentary may be welcome.

Firstly, I concur with virtually all of the analysis. The following thoughts are more addition than dissension. Secondly, I approach this from a rather different arena and hope to shed some light on the murkier challenges offered by the playwright from the perspective of a theatrical practitioner. For your readers' edification, I am the Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company, charged with the same duties that Mr. Fiennes assigned himself on this project, and directed the play for the stage, playing the title role in 2002. Hopefully, I can clarify how the play is meant to work, share a different way of looking at the title role and explain, from a professional standpoint, the demons with which Fiennes was struggling.

Your initial statement that the film “has much to offer, especially if it can succeed in re-connecting parts of the public with an undeservedly neglected masterwork” is the main reason that the film is valuable. Despite my intense dislike of the script-cutting and the consequent one-dimensionality of the central performance, the very idea that we’re having a discourse about this play is spectacular. Only a small percentage of the global population is familiar with the play, and most people dismiss it as problematic.

It is the “problem plays” of Shakespeare that usually interest me the most. I do not choose to work on a play if I think it is a problem, as it is not my duty to “fix” them, merely to share great stories with an audience. As warning for the future, if you ever notice in the publicity/director notes for a production a description of the play as a “problem”, then save your time and money and don’t go. Otherwise, you will be in for an evening of the director’s condescension to the audience and devaluation of the playwright. The play will generally undergo cuts, additions and re-interpretations that would make the playwright roll over in his or her grave, or, if they are still alive, seriously ponder suicide(see our discussion of The Merchant of Venice and the abuse it has undergone in Shylock’s usurpation of a play that actually belongs to Portia).

Coriolanus spoke to me very early on in my career and I decided to produce it in my first rotating rep at York Shakespeare, with Timon of Athens, Henry V and King Lear. We generally work in the classical Actor-Manager system, an increasingly obscure term used to describe leading actors who also produce the plays and handle the duties ascribed to what we have termed since the 1870’s as “director." As film took over the storytelling landscape, theater was necessarily impacted, and it became more and more rare for the leading actor and the director to be the same individual. While film is rightfully the medium of the director, theater fares better as the medium of the playwright and actor. Fiennes, with this film, has simply tried to revive a dying approach. While actor-managers were generally ubiquitous and revered for the last half-millennium (Garrick, Kean, Kemble, Forbes-Robertson, Irving, Forrest, several Booths, Beerbohm-Tree, Olivier, Welles, Gielgud, to name but a few), the rise of the Director has made them exceedingly rare. No wonder then that Fiennes had such a difficult time working in an all-but-dead profession. Kenneth Branagh seemed poised to take up the proverbial mantle in the late 80’s, but even he has found this process to be so complicated that his output as actor-manager has been less and less frequent over the last few decades. Every so often, someone like Fiennes comes along to breathe fresh air into the actor-manager system and sadly falls victim to its traps. Hopkins tried it, once. McKellen, once. All this is to say that I’ve been doing this consistently for the last decade and understand the predicament in which he placed himself and would like you to keep that in mind while examining his choices as director, producer and actor of this film.

As director/producer, Fiennes, and his screenwriter, John Logan, face two immediate dilemmas:

1)   How do we ensure that modern audiences, increasingly inculcated with attention-deficits created by the majority of film and television, will stay engaged in the story and avoid being distanced by Shakespearean language?

2)   Since Shakespeare works primarily in imagery and film is a visual medium, which images should the characters speak and which should just be shown?

As to the first issue, which rears its ugly head in the theatre as well, the answer is simple: clarity and pace. The length of plays like Coriolanus is deceptive. Despite the fact that it may take between three and four hours to play, uncut, it actually moves obscenely fast. Assuming that actors are speaking at the alleged rate of the Elizabethan performers: approximately 1,000 lines of verse per hour. Coriolanus contains 3,583 lines, so you do the math. Also, it is a common misnomer that Shakespeare’s plays are Middle English (e.g. The Canterbury Tales) or Old English (e.g. Beowulf). Shakespeare’s language is simply modern English with a more complex vocabulary and syntax. Shakespeare’s plays cannot function if actors and directors dumb down the script by over-explanation or retardation of speed. Your point on the virtual elimination of contractions is well taken here, a device that Shakespeare utilized more and more toward the end of his career, and which connotes even quicker pace than usual. Such truncated productions make for hideous experiences in any medium. I can certainly understand why Fiennes/Logan looked to modernization to fool us into accessing the world of the play, and you’re correct that the “contemporary Balkan setting is powerful and suggestive…[and]…the use of multi-media is ingenious and, mostly, surprisingly effective.” However, it was all for naught, as the cutting of the script to foster a running time of less than two hours completely destroyed any evidence of the real argument of the play and any understanding of it’s central role.

Think of all the films of Shakespeare’s plays. Now consider how very few of them actually work. Take a look at Branagh’s oeuvre: Henry V and Much Ado generally soar, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet almost completely fail. Or Taymor: Titus perhaps the greatest Shakespeare film, The Tempest possibly the worst. I’m not considering modernized adaptations like O, Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet or 10 Things I Hate About You, etc. as they’ve already chosen the easy way out of the language question and simply created a modern film influenced by the source material. Nor shall I discuss here the genius that is Kurosawa’s output. All of those are hit or miss, but are not germane to the instant discussion. The point is that, with modern versions in Shakespeare’s English, it is exceedingly difficult to strike the right balance of visual engagement and sufficient communication of the playwright’s story.

Which brings us to the second dilemma: the decision of which images to speak, which to show, and when to do both, is incredibly difficult to negotiate. While Taymor’s Titus and Branagh’s Henry V are always visually arresting, they are simultaneously very intelligent about which pieces of the text must remain for the playwright’s story to be effectively communicated. Bear in mind that before film and television, people went to go hear a play as much as see one. Even more so of the former was primary in Elizabethan England. Stage direction was so minimal by modern standards that your experience with eyes closed or open would be relatively similar. Good luck closing your eyes in the audience of a Shakespeare film and experiencing anything comprehensive after most directors/screenwriters hack the text to shreds.

I’d argue that Shakespeare and other great playwrights of the time would be filmmakers today. Character after character, speech after speech, images are projected from the actors’ mouths onto the screen that is the mind’s eye in each audience member. Film does the exact same thing, except with exponentially more images (generally a minimum of 24 frames per second) and more through visual means than aural. Note that theater certainly has a visual element, just as film has an aural one, and that all great storytelling must traverse this tightrope very carefully. While there are several thousand “heard images” provoked in a theatrical audience’s imagination at any given play, there are literally millions of actual images displayed on a movie screen. Now put yourself in the shoes of the people who must decide which of the 3,583 lines of imagery should be spoken, shown or both.

As a cinematic technique, I agree with your assessment that “many of the debates (that survive the extreme cuts in the text) are shifted to faux television news programming, and the like, with impressive results.” They certainly mimic the sense of urgency Shakespeare requires via a convention in which a modern audience has grown conditioned to respond (e.g. the brilliant use of media in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, a film which is perfect till the last ten minutes, or Orson Welles’ usage in The War of the Worlds broadcast.) However, the question is whether or not the modernization techniques used here were necessary. Based on the results, I’d have to say they were not. Plenty of period pieces are produced in film on television, with great effect, each year. There is nothing so very strange about Rome, and its period depictions on screen have often met with great success (Gladiator, Rome). 21st Century American audiences hardly require entrée into a world so very like our own. We are yet another permutation of a minority of Imperialist oligarchs ruling over a majority of lower and middle classes. Your point about the intelligence of this particular Roman mob is well taken. These are not the fools and simpletons on display in Henry VI Part Two, or, more to the point, the easily manipulated populous of Julius Caesar. It is evident from the brilliantly crafted first scene of the play (largely cut) that the citizens are highly intelligent and it takes great effort on the part of Menenius to sway them. You mention that “the imagery in Coriolanus relies on the heavy use of antithesis and contradiction, even oxymoron, to make its points, and a great deal of this gets lost in the multimedia extravaganza.” I would add, however, that the most unkindest cut of all was actually the use of synecdoche set up in the play’s opening, the linguistic technique of a part of something used to refer to the whole, or a whole used to refer to one or more of its parts.

That technique above all others illustrates the argument of the play and the tragedy its central role will undergo:


Either you must
Confess yourselves wondrous malicious,
Or be accused of folly. I shall tell you
A pretty tale: it may be you have heard it;
But, since it serves my purpose, I will venture
To stale 't a little more.

First Citizen

Well, I'll hear it, sir: yet you must not think to
fob off our disgrace with a tale: but, an 't please
you, deliver.


There was a time when all the body's members
Rebell'd against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I' the midst o' the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answer'd–

First Citizen

Well, sir, what answer made the belly?


Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of smile,
Which ne'er came from the lungs, but even thus–
For, look you, I may make the belly smile
As well as speak–it tauntingly replied
To the discontented members, the mutinous parts
That envied his receipt; even so most fitly
As you malign our senators for that
They are not such as you.

First Citizen

Your belly's answer? What!
The kingly-crowned head, the vigilant eye,
The counsellor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter.
With other muniments and petty helps
In this our fabric, if that they–


What then?
'Fore me, this fellow speaks! What then? what then?

First Citizen

Should by the cormorant belly be restrain'd,
Who is the sink o' the body,–


Well, what then?

First Citizen

The former agents, if they did complain,
What could the belly answer?


I will tell you
If you'll bestow a small–of what you have little–
Patience awhile, you'll hear the belly's answer.

First Citizen

Ye're long about it.


Note me this, good friend;
Your most grave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answer'd:
'True is it, my incorporate friends,' quoth he,
'That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o' the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live: and though that all at once,
You, my good friends,'–this says the belly, mark me,–

First Citizen

Ay, sir; well, well.


'Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran.' What say you to't?

First Citizen

It was an answer: how apply you this?


The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o' the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?

First Citizen

I the great toe! why the great toe?


For that, being one o' the lowest, basest, poorest,
Of this most wise rebellion, thou go'st foremost:
Thou rascal, that art worst in blood to run,
Lead'st first to win some vantage.
But make you ready your stiff bats and clubs:
Rome and her rats are at the point of battle;
The one side must have bale.

This entire exchange is deceptively amusing. Shakespeare, at the top of each and every one of his plays, makes clear the inciting action and how we should examine what follows. We are being asked to consider how the Rome of this play functions and what is reasonable to require of its individual members.

While the tragic flaw of Martius is certainly his pride, it is not what makes the play tragic. Rare in Shakespeare, but the tragedy comes from without more than within. The tragedy of the play is that the very society that Coriolanus has served unfairly requires personability, approachability, gratitude and likeability as items in his job description. Coriolanus’ service to Rome is beyond reproach, with each character at some point or other acknowledging that fact. Why then must this man conform to a list of “normal” behavior if it does not in any way affect his ability to perform the primary tasks of his soldiership and, in fact, may diminish those abilities should he pervert his nature? To put it another way, the question of the role and the play is “How much should society as a whole determine the behavior of any of its parts and how does the behavior of any one or more parts affect the whole of society?”

This question hardly requires modernization for a contemporary audience to comprehend and engage with the material. Take current attitudes all over the world on gay citizenry. Does society have the right to define whom its members may or may not sleep with or marry and, conversely, do the actions of gay citizens adversely affect society in any way, shape or form? In regards to the question of gay marriage, the left has pointed out more and more often that the right is on the wrong side of history. With each state (and country the world over) eventually approving gay marriage, the majority is adjusting. This occurs in the play as well. Despite a few tribunes having mild success contorting the plebeians views of Coriolanus, the citizens battle with this very deeply, and after Coriolanus displays himself in humility before them, they end up siding with him and decide that his personality should not affect his right to consulship. They are, briefly, on the right side of history. Unfortunately, the tribunes sway the citizens back to their conditioned attitudes on how people are supposed to behave. Part of the tragedy of the play is that Shakespeare illustrates such change on their part was/is possible.  Coriolanus is living in and serving a society not ready to accept him as he is. (N.B. the comparison to gay marriage and the homoerotic tones of the play are merely coincidental. For a much deeper exploration of a homosexual tragically rejected by religious and societal standards you should look to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Coriolanus defies sexual categorization and is most likely asexual more than any alternative option.)

This leads us to your claim that “Martius lacks or withholds from us any deep psychological motivations for his shifts and turns” and that he is “unsympathetic”. This is the main point on which I must disagree with you. In the instances where the philosophical/psychological/emotional/intellectual argument above is clearly staged, an audience will quite easily sympathize with Coriolanus as they will find the citizenry and especially the tribunes as hideous, prejudiced and damning as Coriolanus does. If anything, his motivations and nature are all too simple and clear. He is the chosen protagonist specifically because we are supposed to view the play’s society through his eyes. He is, by nature, an outsider, and a lot of behavior can be forgiven when a character is understood. As for his endless invective, he merely calls a spade a spade. This, too, is in service of his country; he is quite an honest physician. As to your point, that “Coriolanus does not trust language, does not know how to use it properly, and is constantly betrayed by its subtleties”, I would argue the exact opposite. Faced with the prospect of battling his sword or his tongue, I’d certainly select the former. Again, this is the fault of cutting. The Coriolanus Fiennes/Logan have offered is quite a blunt and stupid instrument; Shakespeare’s character is not. The verbal/philosophical Olympics of Act III are the greatest evidence:


O good but most unwise patricians! why,
You grave but reckless senators, have you thus
Given Hydra here to choose an officer,
That with his peremptory 'shall,' being but
The horn and noise o' the monster's, wants not spirit
To say he'll turn your current in a ditch,
And make your channel his? If he have power
Then vail your ignorance; if none, awake
Your dangerous lenity. If you are learn'd,
Be not as common fools; if you are not,
Let them have cushions by you. You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less,
When, both your voices blended, the great'st taste
Most palates theirs. They choose their magistrate,
And such a one as he, who puts his 'shall,'
His popular 'shall' against a graver bench
Than ever frown in Greece. By Jove himself!
It makes the consuls base: and my soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up,
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take
The one by the other.

Note how, several acts since the opening, synecdoche is still the primary linguistic tool. Additionally, regard how precise and insightful Coriolanus is as diagnostician.

Finally, we are left with the question of Fiennes’ acting. Our entire experience of the play comes down to how clearly we understand Coriolanus as a victim of his society. This is one of the reasons I produced it in rotating repertory with Timon of Athens as they are mathematical complements. They both center on two characters on either end of the behavioral spectrum, one exceedingly standoffish the other extremely friendly, who are used and discarded by society, self-banished and search out death. I found that these two plays informed each other quite well and our audiences had much clearer access to the arguments-at-hand. Like Richard II, a play I’ve put on many times, Shakespeare usually displays extreme antithesis, and the only way out of unhealthy behavior for a protagonist is to throw away extremity and find some semblance of moderation.  However, unlike Timon’s sociopathic generosity and Richard’s egotistical tyranny, it would be profoundly flawed to presume that Coriolanus’ behavior is ‘wrong’ or ‘extreme’.

Fiennes/Logan’s greatest misstep was the almost complete elimination of the title role. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s largest roles at 872 lines, which means that he speaks 25% of all play’s lines. He, alone, is a full quarter of a very large play. With a profoundly cut central role the arguments of the play and the role cannot be properly explored. I suspect that Fiennes lacks the ego of most of the great actor-managers, which is healthier than it sounds. He may very well have wanted to appear a team player and/or remove from audiences’/critics’ minds the phrase “vanity project.” Certainly, no one could accuse him of stealing this film and suppressing his supporting actors. Redgrave handily walks away with the movie, upsetting the balance of the story, and while it’s a genius performance, titling the film anything other than “Volumnia” is tantamount to false advertising.

I saw Fiennes play Coriolanus under the expert direction of Jonathan Kent, in both England and the U.S. I mention this as it means that I’ve seen proof that he knows exactly what to do with the role and how it fits into the story as a whole. He did this in rep with Richard II, also brilliant played. I only mention the latter, as his Richard was far more affecting when I saw him England and his Coriolanus more so when he played it here. Further evidence, I think, that Coriolanus is particularly accessible to a modern U.S. audience.

As for the actual playing of the role, Coriolanus is an outsider, and in many ways cruel. However, so many characters with whom we sympathize could be described this way: Richard II, Richard III, Iago, Lear, John Proctor, Sweeney Todd, Salieri. The very fact that we understand them during the course of the play and see society through their eyes is what makes their respective plays sing. Strange that we can value Fiennes’ portrayal of Goeth in Schindler’s List or Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, and yet he distrusts our ability to sympathize with Coriolanus without extensive cutting.

It is unfortunate that Fiennes did not trust himself and the playwright enough to present an unencumbered view of the play and its central role. What a great step forward for Shakespeare on film such an event may have been.

Mammocking Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes' new adaptation of Coriolanus — which he directs and stars in as Caius Martius Coriolanus –is deeply flawed in many ways but also has much to offer, especially if it can succeed in re-connecting parts of the public with an undeservedly neglected masterwork. On the positive side, its updating of the story to a contemporary Balkan setting is powerful and suggestive. The use of multi-media is ingenious and, mostly, surprisingly effective. Many of the debates (that survive the extreme cuts in the text) are shifted to faux television news programming, and the like, with impressive results. It actually works in updating some of the drama and making it accessible to a contemporary audience.

There are three possible ideas behind such radically updated stagings (as opposed to the more obvious Roman or Jacobean settings): 1) that they will reveal something new within the text; 2) that they will tell us something important about our own era; 3) that they will bring the play to a new audience that otherwise would have difficulty connecting with it. In this case, only the third purpose is served, and that alone is probably sufficient to justify the choice in its broadest terms. But it really is important that audiences don't think they've experienced Coriolanus after they've seen this film, because truly they have not. They must at the very least turn to the much better BBC television production starring Alan Howard, which is easily available on DVD, and, more importantly, read the play itself, in its entirety.

The multimedia — television, Skype, mobile phone cameras, etc., though Twitter and Facebook are oddly missing — in the film is not only meta-multimedia, but meta-theatrical. So much of the political drama in the play is, literally, staged that this works extremely well. The tribunes rehearse the mob before the banishment of Martius. The patricians argue about how best to manipulate the public and how Martius should stage-manage his initial appeals to them for power, and, even more blatantly, later to repeal the sentence of banishment. Their meta-theatrical language is overt: Cominius reassures him "we'll prompt you," as his mother Volumnia urges him to "perform a part Thou hast not done before." Coriolanus is a virtual hall of mirrors of ironic staging and playing. This self-conscious staging, which is practiced and inherently artificial, as opposed to spontaneous and therefore, in his view, authentic, offends Martius' sensibilities to the core. He is rash, proud and driven by emotions he does not understand and “virtues” he cannot control or moderate, and therefore is incapable of acting politically. He is shocked that his mother and other patrician allies urge him to dissemble for political gain, protesting, “Would you have me False to my nature? Rather say I play The man I am." When he finally relents, mainly because of their browbeating, he is still contemptuous:

I'll mountebank their loves,

Cog their hearts from them, and come home beloved

Of all the trades in Rome. Look, I am going:

Commend me to my wife. I'll return consul;

Or never trust to what my tongue can do

I' the way of flattery further.

Of course it all backfires disastrously because his tongue is absolutely useless for flattery and is only effective for threats and invective.

Fiennes' meta-multimedia production captures this inability of Coriolanus to function effectively in the staged world of political theater and practiced artifice. The trial scene in which his banishment is confirmed rather than repealed is staged on a TV debate set, and as he leans forward to begin his opening speech urging reconciliation and his own forgiveness, "The honour'd gods Keep Rome in safety…," Fiennes' Coriolanus is unable to control the feedback from his microphone, eliciting derisive laughter from the hostile audience. Time and again the media representations of his political and even military activities, and the mass media environment and technology with which he is so uncomfortable, mainly serve to undermine his ambitions and cast him in the worst possible light. They are in this adaptation aptly depicted as best suited to the demagogic manipulations of the tribunes, although the crafty old politician Menenius also seems appropriately adept at deploying them.

What is far less effective is the way in which so much of Coriolanus is lost in this adaptation. The crediting of the screenplay to John Logan, “based on the play by William Shakespeare,” should be carefully noted by all viewers. This is not, in fact, Coriolanus, even though very little extraneous dialogue is added and only a few words updated. It's more what is left out that draws the distinction between the play itself and this film adaptation of it. Most of the complex political drama in Coriolanus is lost here, excised presumably for simplification and to keep it short enough to hold the attention of a modern filmgoing audience. I think they've underestimated the public rather badly. Gone is the central fact that the bread riots at the opening of the play are quelled mainly by granting the plebeians the right to have five tribunes of their own choice to represent them in the government. In other words, the riots have introduced an element of public input into the Roman government that was previously missing, the roots of democracy or at least a measure of popular franchise. More than any of the other patricians, Martius is appalled by this capitulation to “the rabble” and predicts that it will be the origin of sedition and chaos. It certainly sets the stage for his own tragedy and the near-destruction of Rome at his very hands. He and the people are right to mutually mistrust each other. They cannot coexist in peace or harmony.

Another important omission is that in the play, during the first war against the Volsces, Martius is only a senior officer under the command of the serving Consul, Cominius. As the two leading popular tribunes privately fret, this secondary role means that he will likely escape all blame if the war goes badly but get almost all the credit if it goes well. In the new adaptation, Martius is a general at the outset and clearly the leader of the campaign. So this subtle but crucial appreciation of how power is accrued by indirect means as well as directly is most unfortunately excised. Indeed, most of the complex political infighting between patricians, plebeians, tribunes, Coriolanus himself, his mother and other Roman forces is obscured in Logan's script. Instead, there are very long and quite familiar, sometimes clichéd if well-shot, action sequences in what often is simply yet another war movie. After the first 15 minutes I was left asking myself, okay, this is fine, but where does Shakespeare come in to it? He does, but not enough and certainly not fully.

The film misses an important staging opportunity, one that its medium is far better suited to than theater. In several crucial passages in the play, Coriolanus is described as “a thing of blood” and looking as if he were "flayed.” In a theater, it might be hard to actually enact this hyperbolic language, but film seems to offer a perfect opportunity for that. There is plenty of blood in Fiennes' Coriolanus, possibly too much for some viewers, and some of the protracted combat scenes are gratuitous and overwhelm or omit crucial language in favor of some pretty clichéd war movie stuff. But in fact, to my mind, there isn't enough blood in it, at least in some crucial scenes, particularly Martius' blood-soaked reemergence from the Corioles city center in which he had been trapped alone. This film could have been one of the first times in which he is really depicted as emerging from the city gates absolutely caked head to foot and dripping with blood, as is described in the text, and it's a great pity they stopped short of that.

Fiennes is not at his finest in the film, overdoing his wrath at times and delivering a performance that oddly lacks subtlety. Apparently his theater performances in the play were infinitely better, although I did not see them. I did, however, have the great pleasure of attending his performance as Prospero on stage in The Tempest in London last October, and he was simply brilliant (as was Trevor Nunn's direction). A much younger Prospero than we're used to seeing gives new meaning to his renunciation of his “rough magic” at the end of the play, suggesting that there is much left for him to do through normal human means rather than creating the more typical aura of a very old man preparing his exit from the mortal world by arranging a more harmonious relationship for the next generation (and ensuring that his grandchildren will be in a much more powerful position than he ever was). Fiennes' Prospero was everything his filmed Martius just isn't: a nearly pitch perfect performance.

His first outing as a director is certainly competent, with his use of multimedia as its most outstanding feature. Possibly his most inspired moment is the cinematically striking echo of Coppola's framing of Brando's Captain Kurtz as Fiennes focuses on an ominous close-up of the back of the newly re-shaved head of Martius (with a dragon tattoo at the bottom of his neck) as the unlikely Volscian warlord. But the long and — like so much else in the film wordless and unnecessary — head shaving scene itself is strangely and amateurishly filmed. Fiennes clearly has some way to go in mastering the craft of being behind the camera.

In a sense, Fiennes probably didn't do himself a favor by casting Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia either, because while her superb performance greatly enriches the film, it also underscores how much better he could have done. She virtually takes over the movie, and the script helps her by scrupulously and appropriately maintaining the centrality of her character. Brian Cox is magnificent as the wily, sensitive and somewhat cynical old politician and surrogate father figure for Martius, Menenius. His role isn't simply maintained, it's enhanced, while the important character Valeria is essentially written out of the script altogether, with many of her most important lines either gone or inexplicably given to Menenius. One wonders, indeed, why they even bothered to include Valeria in the intercession scene in which she joins Coriolanus' mother, wife and son to beg mercy for Rome, especially since we have learned nothing about her or her character by that point in the film.

The excision of Valeria's lines involves the biggest single mistake in the entire production: the removal of the passage in which she describes Martius' son's bizarre and deeply emblematic encounter with a butterfly. I've written in the past that I think that there are often-overlooked passages in many if not most Shakespeare plays that encapsulate the central concerns of the text, for example the King Stephen song Iago sings in Othello. In Coriolanus, this passage spoken by Valeria is another instance of this pattern in Shakespeare's mature work. She says of the boy:

I saw him run after a gilded

butterfly: and when he caught it, he let it go

again; and after it again; and over and over he

comes, and again; catched it again; or whether his

fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his

teeth and tear it; O, I warrant it, how he mammocked


This passage could not better describe Coriolanus's own tragic relationship with Roman virtues, power and glory. The butterfly imagery also crucially anticipates Coriolanus' own transformation, after his banishment, into an apparently inhuman or superhuman creature, a metamorphosis that terrifies the Romans and also sets the stage for his own destruction at the hands of his erstwhile Volscian "frienemies." It also encapsulates the endless echoes and repetitions in the play: Coriolanus faces the Volsces single-handedly three times (first in Corioles, second when he goes alone to Antium in search of Aufidius, and third when he returns to face almost certain execution); he is charged with treason twice, first by the Romans and second by the Volsces; and so forth. The same scenes are enacted time and again, as with the chasing of the butterfly, in a kind of repetition compulsion, but each time the stakes are raised until his continuously threatened destruction finally becomes inevitable. As the play unfolds, Martius is in effect chasing down and then finally ripping himself to tatters.

Like the King Stephen song in Othello, indeed more so, this passage is virtually a summary of the entire plot. Valeria is important to the play in many ways, but given that the almost total excision of her role also involved the removal of this all-important passage, it's a virtually fatal error. I was astonished by the mistake, and I'm still at a loss to explain how they could possibly have committed it. Mammocked, incidentally, means to have torn to shreds, one of those marvelously obscure yet rich terms one encounters in Shakespeare. Not only the whole passage but the word itself is quite unforgettable. It's one of the great takeaways from Coriolanus as a whole, and the film's audience is robbed by its absence. Removing the "mammocked" passage mammocks the play itself, or at least this aspect of it, and leaves the film at best mimicking and at worst mocking it.

The oddest choice of all is what seems to replace the gilded butterfly of the play in the new film: an old barber's chair spray-painted gold. In a drunken revelry with his adoring Volscian troops, the once again shaven-headed and reborn superhuman Coriolanus-Kurtz ritually shaves the heads of his followers. The chair is carried aloft as a kind of fetish, and it's clearly the gilded representation of metamorphosis substituting for the butterfly of Valeria's anecdote. Martius also receives the deputation of women and his son seated in this odd prop. What possessed Logan and Fiennes to dispense with the gilded butterfly and replace it with a gilded… barber's chair (of all things) I'd be fascinated to learn. Perhaps they were inspired by the cutting observation by Martius' love-hate partner, once bitter enemy now nominal ally, Tullus Aufidius, ruminating on the fickle affections of Roman society towards Coriolanus:

So our virtues

Lie in the interpretation of the time:

And power, unto itself most commendable,

Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair

To extol what it hath done.

This passage is widely regarded as one of the high-points in the play, and possibly this is the inspiration for the barber's chair folly. Nonetheless, these choices seem to me utterly inexplicable, if not unforgivable.

Throughout the film, the language of Coriolanus is not done justice. Viewers of this truncated version will not readily notice how, extremely unusually for any later Shakespeare play, and especially tragedy, little soliloquy there is in it. Martius does not engage in any soliloquies, because he does not do self-examination or reflection, let alone criticism. He merely charges ahead. There are some long speeches that border on semi-soliloquy, such as his reflections upon first arriving at Antium, but these are also almost entirely cut. The imagery in Coriolanus relies on the heavy use of antithesis and contradiction, even oxymoron, to make its points, and a great deal of this gets lost in the multimedia extravaganza. There is another noteworthy aspect of the language in Coriolanus: the unusually and at times awkwardly insistent use of contractions, sometimes rather extreme and unlikely ones, which help to create and reflect an atmosphere of suffocation, urban overcrowding and claustrophobia.

These contractions, many of which are unusual even for Shakespeare and the English of his day (he was a highly idiosyncratic writer even by the standards of his contemporaries), are especially jarring to the modern ear and Logan apparently decided to dispense with most of them. It's another shortchanging of the audience. As for Fiennes, he seriously undercuts this atmosphere of urban and combat claustrophobia with long sequences, particularly but not only during Coriolanus' trek from Rome to Antium, which are filled with shots of huge barren wastelands, empty fields, small-town detritus and so forth. It emphasizes Martius' isolation and quest for reinvention, but it undercuts the atmosphere created by the actual language in the play. Perhaps that's ironically appropriate since the character Coriolanus does not trust language, does not know how to use it properly, and is constantly betrayed by its subtleties. But the removal of these contractions in the script combined with the many shots depicting rural and urban isolation (the inclusion of some genuinely claustrophobic scenes notwithstanding) creates a very different atmosphere than the stifling, overcrowded one suggested by Shakespeare's own very unusual language in this play.

Why Coriolanus is so frustrating: tragedy as a dead-end  

This adaptation is welcome in spite of its many flaws because Coriolanus is notoriously and understandably difficult for audiences to connect and engage with. The evidence that this is one of Shakespeare's last tragedies and one of his later plays is entirely convincing, and this only adds to the importance of recognizing that in Coriolanus, the limitations of tragedy for Shakespeare are reached at two different registers. First, Shakespeare runs up against the impenetrable difficulty of shaping a tragedy around a central character that is fundamentally unsympathetic. For all of his admirable qualities, bravery, integrity, etc., Martius is essentially an out-of-control human wrecking crew. His mother is not wrong, although she's thinking in far too limited terms of formal battle, when she says of him,

…before him he

carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears:

Death, that dark spirit, in 's nervy arm doth lie;

Which, being advanced, declines, and then men die.

In fact, he leaves a trail of devastation wherever he goes, whether during peace or war, and while it's possible, and indeed difficult not, to get caught up in the excitement and drama of his heroics, he is ultimately a truly disturbing figure who is only useful as an instrument of destruction.

The second crisis that Shakespeare apparently confronted in Coriolanus is not only that he was trying to build a tragedy culminating in the death of an unsympathetic character with whom very few readers or audience members will readily identify or sympathize, but that the flaws that define his tragic fate are — in Roman or at least Jacobean pseudo-Roman value systems — all “virtues.” Several critics have argued that at the heart of all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is some version or another of the flaw or sin of pride. If Martius' characterological issues that lead to tragedy are also bound up with pride — which they certainly are, as the plebeian rebels in act one, scene one have already identified — these are qualities that would have been normatively regarded as virtuous, but are being take into an antisocial and indeed sociopathic extreme.

It's not, therefore, terribly surprising that in spite of its undoubted excellence, it has been difficult for Coriolanus to connect with audiences in the same way that other, in some ways less finely crafted, Shakespeare tragedies have over the centuries. And, it is probably this central feature: that it's tragic hero's character flaws are an excess of certain versions of "virtue" — theoretically, an oxymoron and certainly a paradox, especially given the extent to which he is an unsympathetic if not in many ways repulsive character — that means Coriolanus was either intended by Shakespeare as a conscious final effort at tragedy as dead-end, or that it emerged as just that in practice. A somewhat earlier play, Troilus and Cressida, is also clearly moving in a similar direction and sets the stage for Coriolanus in numerous fascinating ways, most notably the dysfunctionality of what is nominally a “tragedy” illustrating the limitations of the genre for him at this stage in his career. Either way, A.C. Bradley is absolutely right, the play sets up the last phase of Shakespeare's career – works concerned with reconciliation and forgiveness.

Some aspects of the "reconciliation" at the end of Coriolanus, such as it is, presage those of the later romances, but are unsatisfactory as they yield a tragic ending and are enforced, not least through emotional blackmail. There is no forgiveness at the end of Coriolanus, only his resignation that it is better that he die than Rome burn. It does not portend a better future for Rome, any of its elements, or for Coriolanus' own family either. It avoids calamity but does not restore anything to wholeness, especially not his own character. Martius is moved by his mother's wrath and despair, not her arguments, and his response is purely and typically emotional, driven by an abstract virtue (the due reverence and fealty of a loyal son) and not any evaluation or assessment of what is for the best for anyone. Like Richard II, he embraces his assigned roles too enthusiastically and without regard for their consequences, but also without the theatrical subtlety of Richard, the original drama queen who is always playing to an audience, even simply himself alone in Pomfret Castle.

Martius lacks or withholds from us any deep psychological motivations for his shifts and turns – they appear to be merely the outward expression of the pre-defined roles he is assigned in the Roman order: valiant soldier, proud patrician, vengeful scorned man, dutiful son, but not, fatefully, patriot. This version of "virtue" based on valor and pride is so extreme that it completely overwhelms patriotism. Martius is willing and ready to sack Rome, though surely that would have culminated in his suicide. His change of heart is only affected by his filial submission to his mother's willingness to put patriotism above all other values, but there is no sense that he is actually convinced by her arguments, rather that he submits to her authority, and because of his horror at her public humiliation. He follows his mother to spare her, but cannot forgive his country.

Psychoanalytic critics have, of course, made much of this relationship but without, I think, revealing anything terribly new about either the logic of the play or the motivations of its main character. One doesn't need Freud to see that this is a case of seriously arrested development, compounded (or perhaps caused) by severe emotional abuse by a mother who is simultaneously both excessively controlling and overbearing on the one hand and cold and aloof on the other. Even less helpfully, Kenneth Muir, among others, rejects this reading entirely, holding that Martius is moved ultimately by love for his wife and son, not awe of his mother. Pride, he suggests, is conquered by love. This reading seems to me impossible to sustain: Martius relents only after a tirade by Volumnia that culminates in her icy silence and implicit threat of suicide, and he breaks by crying out, “O mother, mother! What have you done?"

Many critics have correctly posited that this is a rare instance in which Shakespeare "did not love" his "hero" or even really understand him except as an embodiment of irreconcilable abstractions run amok, though he clearly admires much in his creation. There is a palpable dearth of affection from the author to the character, and from the character to anyone else, especially outside of his tiny nuclear family. It is a cold, hard play, driven by a protagonist who is also best described in such terms, and lacks the humanity of almost all of the rest of Shakespeare's mature work. In this sense, in Coriolanus Shakespearean tragedy does indeed reach the point of diminishing returns and seems to have little left to offer, setting the stage for the reconciliatory romances that follow in which pride, vengeance, valor and civic virtues (other than harmony) must be subordinated to the healing of wounds and the restoration of personal and collective wholeness. As G. Wilson Knight noted, for Martius, war is an end in itself, driven by pride and exaggerated "virtus." It has no greater purpose, and therefore the conflicts he engages in are doomed to disastrous consequences.

The difficulties of the play have led to a massive history of wrong-headed analysis. It is not a political commentary as such, despite the enormous efforts of both left and right wing critics to cast it as one. Neither is it, as some have suggested, more of an extended "debate" than a drama. It is a drama and a tragedy, but one of Shakespeare's least engaging because its central character, though both profoundly great in some senses and deeply flawed in others, is not an accessible or convincing one. The character of Coriolanus lacks typical Shakespearean verisimilitude. He isn't even a type. He is the embodiment of a set of values — chiefly forms of quasi-Roman and Jacobean English "virtue" — taken to impossible and uncompromising extremes. Because, not in spite, of his determination to play out these fatally contradictory "virtues" to their logical conclusions, he becomes — despite his incomparable qualities that should have otherwise made him an ideal Roman — a literally impossible person. In assessing this insufferable figure, several critics have rightly cited Aristotle's famous dictum that, "He that is incapable of living in society is either a god or a beast” (Book 1 of the Politics). Caius Martius is frequently compared to both gods and beasts throughout the play, particularly when he begins his assault on Rome, in which he is described as either superhuman or inhuman: a divine creature that "wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in," or as a rampaging dragon or comparable to a merciless “male tiger.”

He is impossible for anyone to deal with reasonably because he is so unbending in his ideals, and in that sense an implausible character and hence impossible for us to recognize or identify with in any sustained manner. We may admire his valor; find his "humility" either genuine or prideful and identify with either of those; or see his rage against unjust and ungrateful Rome legitimate and sympathize with his campaign of revenge. But in the end the extremism in all his qualities is simply inhuman. Even those other Shakespeare characters that are ultimately inscrutable, such as Iago, are somehow more familiar, since, as I have argued elsewhere, we too may often not know what motivates others or even ourselves. Martius' motives are not a mystery but rather are abstract ideas and values that are not fully reconcilable in any person and taken to self-destructive extremes.

Contemporary political readings of Coriolanus

No wonder that most leading critics in the post-World War I period found the play a disastrous failure of Shakespeare's art. It seemed to many of them, in their post-traumatic shock, to be a perversion of both values and craft, and a monument to an author's loss of direction. Everything about it seemed repulsive to their shell-shocked sensibilities. Even the virtues which, if contained and balanced in the protagonist would have made him among the greatest of Romans rather than a tragic figure, seemed perverse and almost insane. In general they, understandably but quite wrongly, rejected even the questions Shakespeare raises in the play as unworthy of consideration and the whole enterprise as not only a failure but a folly.

George Bernard Shaw went even further, though before the war in 1903, seeing the whole thing as so absurd he called it "Shakespeare's greatest comedy." This can be best understood as part of his relentless and sustained attack on Shakespeare's outsized reputation in the 19th century as virtually flawless and infallible. Of course, in trying to "keep people honest" about Shakespeare, Shaw frequently went too far and was probably deliberately provocative and iconoclastic. But Shaw was certainly picking up on the layers of irony in Coriolanus in which, at some level anyway, virtually every character is parodic and absurd. Because of its dead-end qualities, it's certainly possible to read the play as a caricature of a heroic tragedy rather than a well-executed example of one.

The arch-conservative T.S. Eliot was almost alone at the time (in 1919), and indeed now, in regarding Coriolanus, along with Antony and Cleopatra, as Shakespeare's "most assured artistic success," an evaluation he never fully explained in my view. It seems that Eliot was drawn to the tight integration of the narrative in the play, which is particularly focused, lacks extraneous or tangential subplots, and has very few moments of comic relief. But clearly it lacks the dramatic range and complexity of Henry IV, Part One, the emotional depth of King Lear and Othello, the comic genius of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, or the formal perfection of the playwriting craft in the valedictory The Tempest.

A major achievement in Coriolanus is its uncanny and unusual intermingling of the tragic and the ironic at such a sustained level, as Shaw was no doubt alluding to in his “comedy” jab. This certainly would have powerfully appealed to the author of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in which high-flying Romantic and tragic affectations and allusions are brought crashing to earth by the modernist's ironic sensibility: "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…" etc. Eliot is also the author of the unfinished "Coriolan" poems, "Difficulties of a Statesman from Coriolan" and "Triumphal March from Coriolan," both directly inspired by Shakespeare's play, though very much contextualized in the post-World War I era. Shakespeare's characterization of Coriolanus is also directly referred to in "A Cooking Egg," and in the image of a trapped and self-defeated egoism in Part V of the definitive post-Great War masterpiece The Waste Land with its "aethereal rumours [that] Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus." It's a powerful image of a civilization that has just torn itself apart, mammocked itself without mercy and at the loss of the flower of a whole generation of young men.

The Coriolan poems reveal a strong desire for traditional forms of order and authority, and a sense that the unbridled (democratic, in practice) popular will threatens anarchy and attendant calamity, and will ultimately give way to  harsher, unhealthy and "unthinking" forms of order imposed by oppressive dictatorships. Eliot clearly saw his own political sensibility reflected in the main character, and in the logic of Shakespeare's play, though his reading of it in that sense has been largely rejected by other critics, both at the time and since. Political actors on the right, far more extreme than Eliot, did try to exploit Coriolanus for propaganda purposes, and the play was banned in the 1930s in France because it was being staged by fascists there and, worse still, was favored by the Nazis in Germany. Right-wingers in general have also tended, without any justification at all, to identify Menenius' fable about the rebellion against the belly (also cut from the film, of course) as the deep political moral of the play, or Shakespeare's own views. In fact, it's little more than an apt illustration of the ability of the old politico to confuse issues, change subjects and fob off grievances with entertaining and avuncular speeches, bizarre analogies and empty assurances. It doesn't even respond directly to the plebeian charge that the patricians are hoarding grain – an accusation that remains neither validated nor disproven by anything further in the text.

Marxist critics haven't fared particularly better in trying to uncover political wisdom or an agenda in the play. This is because, preferring dramatic tension and complexity over all other things, Shakespeare almost never clearly takes sides in political disputes, even, insofar as possible, in his English history plays that had to be tailored to fit the minimum requirements of the narratives of historical legitimacy for the rules of Elizabeth and James. His political skepticism also clearly grew as his work developed and in Coriolanus his disbelief that it offers any real solutions to social or human problems is apparent. There is no question that the plebeians in Coriolanus are fickle, subject to demagoguery and politically immature. But they are not the ignorant and idiotic masses of the Jack Cade rebellion in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, King Henry VI Part 2. Real ridicule, though still much attenuated compared to earlier works, is reserved for the fatuous Volscian servants. At the same time, while the play makes the plebeian case, it ultimately does not take their side, or anyone else's.

As in so much of political life, most of the charges laid against various actors by their enemies are essentially correct. The public is feckless and politically inept; the tribunes are shameless demagogues and plotters; the patricians exploiters, liars and hypocrites; and Martius himself is indeed proud, vain and self-serving to the point of abuse and, in fact, treason. All efforts to shanghai Shakespeare or Coriolanus to one political perspective or another ultimately fail because Shakespeare simply does not allow his mature texts to be read in such a tendentious, didactic manner; there is too much in them to subvert any such conclusion. To read or produce such a play as a work of agitprop, one has to do significant violence to the subtleties and complexities deep in its structure.

Does Coriolanus really offer any insights into our present-day political concerns?

I began by suggesting that the updated Balkan and multimedia setting of the new adaptation of Coriolanus might bring the play to a new audience but doesn't reveal anything new about the text itself or about our own times. It's been claimed by several critics that Coriolanus is, in many ways, Shakespeare's most relevant text to modern times because of its political content. I was particularly reminded of these claims when someone on Twitter yesterday suggested there were parallels between some aspects of Coriolanus and the unfolding tragedy of Assad's Syria and the monstrous repression being meted out to its long-suffering people. But I just don't see it. I don't think Coriolanus offers much insight into the problems of modern democracy or, for that matter, dictatorship.

True enough the play deals with a tight and complex political competition between autocratic forces, genuinely popular ones and demagogic populist opportunists. However, its concerns, while they do in some ways echo those we continue to deal with in our present day, are very firmly rooted in Shakespeare's immediate sociopolitical environment. This drama was very much a reflection of the immediate concerns of the period in which it appears to have been drafted. It could hardly be more topical. Bread riots (the Midlands Uprising and the Diggers of Shakespeare's own Warwickshire), disappointing if not disastrous foreign wars (in Ireland), upstart and possibly treasonous aristocrats (Essex, Southampton and Raleigh), and the question of the popular franchise — all key elements in the drama of Coriolanus — were among the most pressing issues in England around 1608, when the play was probably written. The ritual of popular consent for the appointment of a new Consul isn't mentioned in Plutarch, the main source for North on whom Shakespeare drew most heavily for the Roman history in this play. The emphasis on the preservation of what are cast as ancient popular prerogatives and liberties against creeping centralized government encroachment is much more of a feature if not obsession in Renaissance (and indeed much older and later) English political culture than it is Roman.

In our present day, in existing democracies we properly worry about maintaining civil liberties and individual rights against government abuses and a big-brother environment that new forms of technology may be creating. In societies, such as those in the Arab world, struggling to emerge from dictatorship, the issue is more one of creating new freedoms that never existed rather than preserving or restoring ancient freedoms. In that sense, the political issues at stake in Coriolanus are closer to our own than problems regarding the nature of monarchy and the tension between divine right and political effectiveness in Shakespeare's history plays, particularly Richard II.

So, there are indeed echoes of our present concerns in Coriolanus, but they are distant rather than direct and immediate ones. As noted above, efforts to mobilize Coriolanus by fascists, Marxists, liberals and conservatives in the modern era invariably default to distorting, oversimplifying or in some other way mammocking the play. It has more to offer us as a work of art with universal and transcendent concerns rather than specific political lessons for modern debates. Its value is in its rich character studies, the fascinating political dynamics that are most reflective of its own era, its exceptional unity and masterful integration as a drama, and brilliant use of what is, even for Shakespeare, some very powerful but idiosyncratic language. Moviegoers can and should be led back to the original text by Fiennes' adaptation of it, but those looking for important political insights into our contemporary problems are, I think, inevitably going to be disappointed. Pretending Coriolanus contains them merely distracts and detracts from the enormous artistic richness that it unquestionably does offer.

[NOTE: For even more on this subject, please see the response to this posting from Seth Duerr, Artistic Director of the York Shakespeare Company, here.]

A Disappointing Method: Cronenberg’s psychoanalysis film is a missed opportunity

David Cronenberg's latest film, A Dangerous Method, is a huge missed opportunity. He's probably the ideal director to make a film about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, and the crisis in the early psychoanalytic movement caused by their split. In such a movie, enormously important and widely misunderstood concepts should have found a perfect vehicle to be dramatized and interrogated. Unfortunately A Dangerous Method fails to deliver on most fronts. But, what might have been…

Situating "Method" in Cronenberg's evolution

A Dangerous Method is a return to more familiar themes in Cronenberg's work than his most recent two previous films, the crime dramas A History of Violence (2005) and the brilliant Eastern Promises (2007). Beginning with his 1970 silent short, Crimes of the Future, which introduced most of the themes of the rest of his career, Cronenberg has focused on the horror and dangers of transformation and change brought about by illness and often even worse treatments and technologies. His earlier, lower budget films tended to focus on physical illnesses and transformations, and what has been called “body horror,” of which he is certainly the most important investigator. Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), and his remake of The Fly (1986) are all visceral and corporeal, as well as profoundly sexual, in their content and concerns. Together they make up a distinctive and unique genre almost entirely developed by Cronenberg.

In 1988, however, Cronenberg made an enormous creative, qualitative and imaginative leap forward with Dead Ringers, which is almost certainly his masterpiece to date and which established him as one of the most important contemporary filmmakers. The “body horror” in Dead Ringers is, if anything, more disturbing and visceral than his more corporeally graphic earlier films, although it is almost entirely implicit and potential rather than actuated or depicted within the narrative. That said, once having seen them, no one can forget his "Gynecological Instruments for Working on Mutant Women." But the real disease in Dead Ringers is drug addiction, combined with some odd forms of mental illness, shared between the disturbed twin gynecologists (magnificently played by Jeremy Irons ) — not, as in his earlier works, imaginary venereal diseases (Shivers and Rabid), physical manifestations of psychological illnesses (The Brood), physical and psychological transformations brought about by technology (Videodrome and The Fly), or fanciful mutations (Scanners and The Dead Zone). Dead Ringers is hardly "realistic," but the mental illness and drug addiction that destroy the Mantle twins are firmly rooted in very real human experiences and not wild flights of fancy.

Dead Ringers not only marked a qualitative turning point in Cronenberg's career and a shift towards psychological rather than corporeal horror, it also initiated a cycle of three additional films that has surely established him as among the most accomplished and important of all directors, globally and historically. His brilliant adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1991) recognized that what is probably the founding novel of full-blown postmodernity was (as had often been noted) “unfilmable,” with its fractured vignettes, routines and symphonic rhetorical ravings. Instead, Cronenberg decided to make a film about what it must have felt like to write Naked Lunch, building on the theme of addiction (Burroughs' work generally is about trying to find escapes from control and his own heroin addiction was surely the most insidious and effective controlling influence possible).

Cronenberg's adaptation of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly (1993) is another deep dive into warped psychology, in this case that of a French diplomat and the dangerous nexus between orientalism, colonialism, sexuality, theater and espionage. The cycle culminated in the extraordinary and profoundly underrated masterpiece Crash (1996) — not to be confused with the insultingly stupid Oscar-winning movie about racism with the same name from 2004 — which dramatizes an unknown but entirely plausible social-sexual fetish regarding car crashes. Each of these four masterpieces requires careful consideration on their own terms, something I might come back to in future Ibishblog postings.

However, after Crash, Cronenberg seems to have very seriously lost his way. eXistenZ (1999) was essentially a bigger-budget but less interesting remake of Videodrome, and Spider (2002) was a boring, predictable and lackluster depiction of the delusions of a psychopath. With his improved more recent films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Cronenberg seemed to be abandoning his traditional obsessions for what amounted to forays into the gangster-film genre. Of course, “body horror” can never be too far away whenever he is at work as anyone who has seen the breathtakingly brilliant knife-fight in the steam bath using linoleum knives in Eastern Promises can certainly attest. Indeed, it's one of the most originally composed and creatively filmed fight scenes in several decades.

Given that History amounted to little more than a good start, but Promises seemed to indicate the beginning of a real mastery of a new version of a very well-established genre, one certainly expected the next Cronenberg film to be in some way or another related to criminals or gangsters. I don't think anyone, no matter how much they may detest Freud and/or Jung, would describe the early psychoanalytic movement in these terms. With Method, Cronenberg is returning to the themes first laid out in Crimes of the Future: illness, controversial and dangerous new therapeutic techniques and technologies, the uncontrolled power of physicians and scientists, the potential for research institutes becoming socially and personally threatening and dangerous places, and the problematics of personal transformation.

Why "Method" is a disappointing missed opportunity

The early days of psychoanalysis seem a perfect subject for the mature work of an artist with Cronenberg's established subjects of inquiry. It's probably most closely related to The Brood, in which a misguided psychiatrist creates a dangerous new therapy he calls "psychoplasmics," through which emotional disturbances are supposed to be cured by exacerbating them until they manifest themselves in grotesque physical mutations. All we ever learn about his book laying out his controversial techniques is its title, The Shape of Rage, which would probably make a very good title for a comprehensive book-length analysis of Cronenberg's own body of work. In a sense, Method is a much more mature return to these concerns: mental and emotional disturbance, radical and potentially dangerous new forms of therapy, the interplay of the psyche and the soma, and the self-destructive potential of distorted, unrealized or repressed sexuality and sexual anxiety. It also clearly builds on foundations established by Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly. Unfortunately, Method fails to deliver on the same kind of potential that the meeting between Cronenberg's style and techniques with material derived from Burroughs and Hwang also provided. It's a terrible missed opportunity.

The biggest problem is that Method does not focus on the relationship between Freud and Jung at all, but mainly on that between Jung and Sabina Spielrein. Spielrein is, indeed, an interesting figure having been Jung's patient and probably lover, and also, later, a student and colleague of Freud. In Freud and Oedipus (Columbia University Press, 1992), Peter Rudnytsky posits very convincingly that Freud had a pattern throughout his life of establishing close relationships with male confidants that were then disrupted by competition (not necessarily sexual) over a disruptive female. In this regard, Spielrein does in fact play a significant role in the crisis in relations between Freud and Jung, serving as the hypotenuse, so to speak, in a Freudian eternal triangle. But the two men did not split largely over Spielrein, who certainly never had an affair with Freud even if she probably did have one with Jung.

The break was very complex and, in Freud's view at least, utterly primal and Oedipal. Intellectually it was rooted in Jung's skepticism (which he had from the beginning) about Freud's emphasis on childhood sexuality and sexual repression, his feeling that Freud's worldview was narrow, rigid and overly negative, and his interest in mysticism, spirituality and the occult. Freud was not only offended by Jung's increasing rejection of, or at least independence from, his psycho-sexual model of individual and cultural development, he strongly felt that the fragile and possibly even besieged psychoanalytic movement would be deeply threatened by what seemed to him to be Jung's pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and mystical quackery. One of Freud's famous fainting spells is depicted in the film, but isn't contextualized, as it has been by a great many scholars, in his reaction to challenges by younger rivals like Jung that appear to have triggered recurrences of guilt and shame attached to the sudden infant death of his younger brother Julius.

The film does contains some dialogue referring to some of the real arguments dividing the men, although in very crude terms, but it does not ground the break in the important concepts that underscored Freud's redoubled commitment to his orthodox Oedipal theory and Jung's development of his own very different model and notions of a “collective unconscious.” The triangle involving Spielrein is ultimately a lot less important intellectually and historically to the trajectory of the psychoanalytic movement and the break between Freud and Jung than their quarrel over childhood sexuality and aggressivity, and the importance and nature of the libido. The real ideas at stake are glossed over in Method, but they didn't have to be. Instead of an account of the greatest crisis in the history of the psychoanalytic movement — the decisive break between Freud and Jung — most of the film dwells on an almost entirely speculative and not particularly interesting account of Jung's probable affair with Spielrein.

Cronenberg's fantasy about the Jung-Spielrein affair

The evidence that there was an affair is pretty strong, based on many different sources including both of the principles. But no details about it are known, and indeed it may never have been fully realized. The film, however, delves into great detail about not only its trajectory but also its sexual nature. It's well documented that Spielrein told Jung that, as a young child, she was frequently beaten by her father on the bare buttocks and that this sexually excited her. From this tidbit, a detailed relationship between the two based on dominance and submission, and especially spanking, is extrapolated. It's entirely fictional, speculative at best and improbable at worst. In fact, your guess is as good as anybody else's. I literally burst out laughing when, towards the end of the credits (with almost everyone else in the cinema already gone) a small disclaimer was screened reading: “This film is based on true events, but certain scenes, especially those in the private sphere, are of a speculative nature.” No kidding! By “certain scenes” I think we can read at least half of the film, and virtually everything involving the probable but not definitely confirmed sexual relationship between Spielrein and Jung.

The spanking scenes in Method probably tell us more about Cronenberg than about Spielrein or Jung, and it's hardly the first reference to it in his work. In Dead Ringers, another masochistic patient, Claire Niveau, asks the twin gynecologists who are both treating and sleeping with her (she has not yet realized they are more than one person) for a spanking. Neither doctor apparently obliges her. But as far as paraphilia in Cronenberg's films go, this is fairly tame. The utterly invented car-crash fetish in Crash is infinitely more “out there.” What's really crucial and important about these scenes — and the only other "sex scene" involving Spielrein and Jung in which he deflowers her — is how clinical and non-erotic they are.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cronenberg's style is his hyper-clinical approach to everything human and corporeal, particularly sex (both conventional and more adventurous). Indeed, the large majority of scenes in Crash are sex scenes of one form or another, but none of them are erotic or prurient in any way whatsoever. I defy anyone to claim to have been sexually excited by watching Crash, even though I can't think of any other non-pornographic film that depicts more sexual activity. And that's also true of the spanking scenes in Method: they are clinical, sterile and de-eroticized (for those who might respond to that kind of thing) in the typical Cronenberg fashion. He tends to film all forms of human sexuality like a scientist looking at amoebae through a microscope, with the same level of passion and engagement. This is both a great strength and a terrible weakness, depending on how it works in each film. Here, it does more harm than good.

More importantly, these scenes are entirely made up, based on no evidence whatsoever and have absolutely nothing to tell us about psychoanalytic ideas, the history of the psychoanalytic movement, the break between Freud and Jung, or even the Freud-Jung-Spielrein triangle (assuming we accept that this is what it constituted). They are emblematic of the extent to which Cronenberg and his colleagues in this film decided to make a speculative movie about an illicit, improper and, in their depiction, fairly kinky affair between a major psychoanalyst and an important patient who also became a significant psychoanalyst in her own right. It's not just a matter of dumbing-down the nature and history of extremely important ideas, it's changing the subject from those ideas to interpersonal relations that are, in the final analysis (pun intended), at best tertiary if not actually tangential to what was really important about these events.

Transference and countertransference shortchanged

The audience is therefore shortchanged on the theory and history of psychoanalysis in favor of a highly fictionalized account of Jung's life and his probable affair with Spielrein. The biggest weakness is that the film mentions but does not explain, or even effectively dramatize, the dynamics of transference and countertransference that would have been the basis of such an affair between any analyst and his or her patient. Transference essentially refers to the development of intense emotional feelings towards the analyst who assumes the role of the authority who is “deemed to know,” an idealized savior-figure. The patient then projects emotions, wishes and fantasies — in other words symptoms (in psychoanalytic terms, of course originating in libidinal and aggressive childhood experiences) — onto the analyst and their relationship, typically in an erotic manner whether overt or sublimated.

In effect, a new set of neurotic symptoms are created in the analytic process within the dynamics of transference that, theoretically, can then be more easily analyzed, managed and understood, if not “cured.” Countertransference basically boils down to the emotionally-charged and also typically erotic response by the analyst to the idealized position he or she now holds in the psyche of the analysand. Simply put, it's a huge turn-on, or at least ego-boost, to be seen as the guru, savior, and possessor of esoteric knowledge and insight.

Transference and countertransference should be instantly familiar to anyone familiar with hierarchical interpersonal dynamics, as the process is extremely common in many circumstances. For precisely this reason, it is unethical for romantic involvement to emerge between professors and their own students, doctors and patients, attorneys and clients, and many other professionals and those they serve. But in the psychoanalytic and psychiatric context, this is particularly fraught because psychoanalysis recognizes that transference and idealization, even if it does not take a romantic form, is a virtually inevitable part of the process and that it will essentially entail the production of new neurotic symptoms.

Freud initially regarded transference as a major impediment to successful therapy, but came to see it as an inevitable, manageable and, indeed, necessary part of the process. Of course, giving in to countertransference and, worse still, acting on it as the film (plausibly) posits Jung did, utterly betrays the psychoanalytic method by failing to analyze the dynamic and instead allowing it to dictate improper actions. This precisely is the most significant, although of course not the only, “danger” alluded to in the title of Method. But what's so dangerous about it isn't properly explained to the audience, and what we are left with is a somewhat tiresome saga of an obviously misguided and in every possible sense problematic relationship, and a portrait of a flawed but brilliant psychiatrist. It's almost at the level of “geniuses behaving badly.”

“Method” as an allegory about anti-Semitism

In his more recent work, Cronenberg, who is a Canadian atheist of Jewish origin, has been paying more attention to the question of anti-Semitism, a subject he ignored or avoided for most of his career and that didn't necessarily have any relationship to most of his earlier work. But the psychoanalytic movement was developed at the height of European anti-Semitism and was heavily attacked as a Jewish conspiracy. There is no doubt that part of Jung's appeal to Freud as an heir apparent was not only that he was considerably more intelligent than any of his other followers and less obsequious (although his intellectual challenges eventually became intolerable rather than stimulating), but also that he was an “Aryan” and not a Jew.

One of the more successful aspects of Method is that it pays close attention to this dynamic, not only between Freud and Jung but also between both of them and Spielrein, who was also Jewish. Spielrein wrote in her diary that she fantasized about having a child with Jung whom she wanted to name “Siegfried,” a complex and long-running fantasy that reflected both of their tendencies towards mysticism, but also has been taken by many to indicate a racially-inflected set of anxieties as well. Freud certainly was increasingly concerned with anti-Semitism as a cultural phenomenon and a threat to psychoanalysis, and the difficult relations between European Jews and Christians, towards the end of his career.

This is clearly a central theme of the film for Cronenberg, who is quoted as saying, “The character of Sabina is submissive in some ways, but she is also in control in many ways. That is the nature of the sadomasochistic relationship, and it maps well onto the relationship between Jews and Aryans in that particular time.” So Cronenberg sees in the Jung-Spielrein relationship, which let us recall is speculative at best and fictional at worst, a kind of allegory for Jewish-Christian relations in Europe between the wars. According to the director, “Sabina had Siegfried fantasies revolving around Jung — the idea that their secret, sinful relationship would yield this Germanic progeny, and Freud, in our movie, nails her on that — tells her that her fantasy of mating with a blond Aryan and producing a Siegfried are delusional.”

In the script, indeed he does. But I'm not aware of any evidence that Freud ever told Spielrein anything of the kind, directly or indirectly. I'm open to correction, but as far as I know this is also entirely fictional. Worse still, Cronenberg has Freud telling her, “Put your trust not in Aryans. We’re Jews, my dear Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be.” This is a most un-Freudian sentiment, to say the least. In 1921, Freud attributed European Christian anti-Semitism to "the narcissism of minor differences." He located the genesis of this hatred in a form of displacement, the product of childhood anxieties and family dynamics, and resentment against a people who saw themselves, and were also seen by Christians, as the "first born" of the monotheists. He also typically referred to Jews as "they" rather than "we." Most Freud scholars view his relationship with his Jewish identity as ambivalent, a mixture of pride in his heritage and ethnic-self-awareness combined with intellectually and psychoanalytically-driven skepticism about the validity of such sentiments given his atheist and universalist perspectives. Any such remarks would be at huge variance with the vast majority of what Freud is known to have written and said about anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian relations, and the implications of his work that would seem to completely invalidate and even pathologize a consciousness that fetishizes or privileges ethnic or religious identity.

But of course it's highly significant that Freud was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died in London shortly thereafter, and Spielrein was murdered by invading German forces after moving back to Russia, while Jung peacefully sat out the war in neutral Switzerland. Jung has sometimes been accused of having had pro-Nazi sympathies or at least neutrality, but in fact his hostility to such politics was quite clear. Nonetheless, while Cronenberg has created a fantasy about the Jung-Spielrein relationship that is supposed to serve as an allegory for Jewish-Christian relations during a period of intense anti-Semitism, and has attributed to Freud very un-Freudian statements to back this up, their respective fates cannot be disregarded.

Again, this tells us much more about Cronenberg and where his work is heading in the later stages of his extraordinary career than it does about Jung, Spielrein, Freud or psychoanalysis. Method is in many ways profoundly disappointing, but it is nonetheless a significant film by a major director and deserves serious consideration, particularly by those who are interested in how Cronenberg's career has progressed and where it seems to be going. 

Islamists are not taking over the Arab world

The always interesting Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic has taken issue with my last column in which I argued that it is far too early to make any sweeping conclusions about the outcome of the Arab uprisings, and points to a column he wrote a few days ago arguing that "The path the Arab people seem to want, at least for the moment, is the path of Islam." That very much remains to be seen. Goldberg's argument is based mainly on the outcome of the Egyptian elections and the alarming success of the Salafist Al Nour party, as well as that of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like many other observers, Goldberg is jumping to premature conclusions. Let me stipulate that the results of the Egyptian elections are very troubling, especially the strong performance of the Salafists, given their bizarre level of religious fanaticism. Furthermore, it shows what I don't think anybody doubts: a wide range of Islamist groups have large constituencies in the contemporary Arab world. And, of course, because they were in most cases the only organized opposition political groupings that operated under secular Arab dictatorships, they are best positioned to be early beneficiaries of any opening up of political or discursive space and all rivals will be playing catch-up for some time. They are organized and have their constituency, and they are not tainted by any connection with the former regimes, and have the patina of long-standing opposition to dictators. So while the performance of the Al Nour party was somewhat, although not completely, surprisingly strong, that of the Muslim Brothers was not.

But, having stipulated to all of this, I cannot share the conclusion of Goldberg and many others that these elections, and less still the overall trajectory of the Arab uprisings, suggests that the Arab people want “the path of Islam,” whatever that might be, precisely. Let's begin with Egypt. Islamist parties did exceptionally well in the elections, but benefited enormously from a number of contingent factors: the bizarre Egyptian electoral law heavily favored them in a number of complex ways; the liberal opposition was divided and disorganized and barely campaigned at all; much of the liberals' energy was devoted to protests in the week leading up to the election; both the protests and the Army's violent response to them made the Muslim Brotherhood look, to many eyes, like the most responsible people in the country because they did not participate in the protests (officially), but strongly condemned the deadly crackdown, thereby offending almost no important constituency.

But it's important to recognize that the Islamists in Egypt have won an early and resounding victory for a constituent assembly that has virtually no powers. Egypt has a presidential, not a parliamentary, system and the military is acting as a de facto presidency for all intents and purposes. Indeed, by emphasizing the importance of the elections, the legitimacy of the military as the organizers and guarantor of them, and praising the military for the way the elections were conducted, the Muslim Brotherhood has implicitly acknowledged the military's authority as the de facto presidency. Of coarse they are now involved in a long-term campaign to switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system, but so far without any real successes. The supra-constitutional principles issued by the military also highly restrict the role of the constituent assembly in drafting the constitution. The assembly will only get 20 seats out of 100 and can only choose between different candidates put forward by other institutions for the remaining 80 seats. Moreover, the military is reserving to itself enormous powers over defense matters, its budget and economic interests and other prerogatives without legislative oversight. Of course, this document is incredibly controversial and was a proximate cause for the pre-election protests. But it has not been rescinded, only slightly amended.

Obviously there are a lot of people in Egypt, especially the Islamists who won a majority for the constituent assembly, who are extremely upset about this document. And, given how controversial it is it is unlikely to be enforced as it is currently structured. But what it demonstrates is that while the Islamists in Egypt have a large constituency, a huge head start in terms of branding and organization, and thus far totally ineffective liberal opponents, it is hardly the only game in town to say the least. They have actually acquired very little practical political power through their assembly victory. Of course it could be argued that they now have enormous legitimacy based on a strong show of public support. That's fair enough, as long as one notes the caveats cited above. But the military remains firmly in control and shows little sign of ceding that control to anyone, and certainly not an Islamist-dominated parliament.

It's possible that the Islamists in Egypt might end up dominating a future government across the board. But I think, as I have been arguing since last summer, the more likely scenario in Egypt in the long run is a three-way division of power with the military retaining decisive control over defense and national security, a foreign policy-oriented presidency, and a parliament with wide latitude in domestic affairs (which is where Islamists might really be able to take their share of power in Egypt). But there is also the real possibility that the Islamists have peaked too early, and that their head start has been at least somewhat squandered on gaining a large majority in a powerless assembly. Next time around they may face tougher opposition, less preposterous electoral laws favoring them and a more realistic appraisal by the public of the limitations of their agenda. And, whatever happens, the military and remnants of the former power structure remain a formidable political force the Islamists will have to deal with even if they secure a string of electoral victories for parliament (the presidency, it would seem, is beyond their reach for now).

Goldberg is extrapolating not only about Egypt based on one election, but about the Arab world in general. A review of developments in the various countries involved in the Arab uprisings does not support the idea that the Islamists are taking over, although it does, of course, confirm that they are immediate and major beneficiaries of the opening of political space (these are decidedly not the same things). In Tunisia, the Islamist Al-Nahda party did better than any other group, but they only got about 40% of the vote. The badly divided secularists, who made a complete pig's breakfast out of the entire campaign, split the remaining 50+ percent among themselves, but this result shows that even at a moment of optimal advantage in Tunisia, Islamists do not command a majority. The result has forced Al-Nahda to enter into a coalition with two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. So, the Islamists in Tunisia have a lot of influence, but not a majority and can hardly be said to be “taking over.”

The situation for Islamists in Libya is even more stark. Despite all the handwringing about “Al Qaeda” now ruling in Tripoli, when it came time for the NTC to form its new cabinet, the Libyan Islamists were left completely in the cold and got almost no important jobs whatsoever. Abdelhakim Belhaj, the Salabi brothers and the other Libyan Islamists were frozen out by a consensus in the NTC leadership against having any Islamists at all in key positions. Rather than becoming Minister of Defense, as he and his supporters wanted, Belhaj appears to have been handed something of a booby prize: the Syria file. After the new government was formed, he was dispatched by NTC leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil to go to Turkey to meet with Syrian opposition figures. But, on his way to the airport he was arrested by the rival, and much more powerful, Zintan militia on the pretext that he had a forged passport. He was released after a few hours and went on his mission. If nothing else, the Zintan forces — whose leader, Osama Al-Juwali, actually did become the defense minister — demonstrated that they could not only detain Belhaj if they so chose, but that they are in control and he's not.

Moreover, increasingly large numbers of Libyans including the general public and senior officials have become increasingly outraged by Qatar's funding of Libyan Islamists. In stark contrast to the days immediately following the overthrow of Qaddafi, Qatari flags are no longer flying in Libyan cities and reportedly are not easily available for purchase either. There have been lengthy and extremely passionate diatribes by various senior Libyan officials against Qatar on these grounds. It's clear that, for now at least, the Libyan Islamists are not only not in control, their influence is decidedly limited. The Salabis and Belhaj are going to have to work on forming a political party and try to gain votes in some future elections, but they will also have to overcome a significant stigma of being the tool of a now unwelcome foreign power.

The conflagration in Yemen has not brought Islamists to power or prominence either. It's true that armed Muslim extremists of many different varieties are taking advantage of the increasing spaces of impunity emerging in that slowly disintegrating state. But operating freely in remote areas is a far cry from taking power in the major cities, and so far the main battle in Yemen is between different elite groupings vying for control of Sana'a and Aden.

In Syria there is, of course, an Islamist presence in the street protests and in the SNC, but it does not appear to be dominant. The growing armed insurgency seems to be mainly driven by defecting soldiers outraged by the government's brutality, not armed Islamists. The SNC includes the Syrian Muslim Brothers and some other Islamists, but it is not led by them. Neither Burhan Ghalyoun nor Basma Kodmani, the two most publically prominent figures in the SNC, are Islamists in any sense whatsoever, and indeed both are staunch secularists and nationalists. There are Islamists, particularly Turkish-influenced and, it would seem, also Gulf-funded, in the SNC, but they do not dominate it by any means. So, again, nothing in Syria indicates that a post-dictatorship scenario is likely to be dominated by Islamists.

Even in Bahrain, where the uprising became increasingly sectarian as it developed, the mainstream Shiite opposition political society Al-Wefaq, while it represents a confessional identity group and is led by a Shiite cleric, does not espouse Shiite Islamism of the Khomeini variety or anything remotely like that. They are socially conservative, to be sure, and indeed reactionary, but to all appearances they do not seem to fit into any recognizable Islamist model. The Bahraini opposition also prominently includes the nonsectarian social democratic party Al-Waad, led by Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni leftist activist (who was, outrageously, sentenced to five years in prison). The Bahraini government and its GCC allies appear convinced that the uprising was and is an Iranian plot and seeks to impose Iranian style theocratic rule in the country. There isn't a shred of evidence of direct Iranian involvement and most of the prominent opposition parties appear to want nothing of the kind. But even if they did, in Bahrain, however unstable and unjust it no doubt is, the government appears firmly in control for now and even if the opposition were Islamist, they are hardly about to take over there either.

I could go on but I think I've made my point. The Egyptian election is the one strong piece of data one could cite for claiming that the "Arab Spring" has given way to an “Islamist Winter.” But even in Egypt this is not true. And, as I've demonstrated, it's not true in Tunisia, in spite of the strong performance of Al-Nahda in the elections; definitely not true in Libya; and doesn't seem to be emergent in Yemen or Syria. In fact, there is only one Arab society in which Sunni Islamists have seized power (Sudan is basically run by a military junta that sometimes poses as Islamist but is actually not): Gaza. Hamas came to power there through what amounted to a violent coup that was mainly a consequence of the lack of Palestinian statehood and certainly had nothing to do with the ongoing Arab uprisings.

As it happens, the uprisings have thrown Hamas into a most un-enviable conundrum indeed. They've lost their alliance with their two main sponsors, Syria and Iran, and are having to reposition and rebrand themselves in a Middle East that is increasingly being defined regionally in sectarian terms. As a Sunni Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood, party, they cannot be part of an Iranian-led and essentially Shiite alliance under current circumstances. The uprisings have, indeed, been largely a boon to Arab Sunni Islamists, but they have been a major blow to Iran and its Shiite and Alawite allies, as well as putting Hamas in an impossible position. Hamas is gambling, or at least hoping, that events in Egypt will put the Muslim Brotherhood firmly in control, but it's hard to imagine the military giving up final say on defense and national security issues even if they allow the development of a far more empowered parliament, that under current circumstances would surely have a very strong Islamist plurality or majority.

Overall, there is no doubt that Iranian-style Shiite and revolutionary Islamism has been badly damaged thus far by the Arab uprisings, while the Sunni and constitutionalist Islamism of the ruling Turkish AKP party has become a model Arab Islamists are increasingly drawn towards. So the restructuring of regional relations along sectarian lines and the ascendancy of Turkey and decline in influence of Iran has already had a clear impact in new strategic, if not ideological, strands of thought among Arab Sunni Islamists. In addition, in the Tunisian and Egyptian elections respectively, neither Al-Nahda nor the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned mainly on their religious or social conservative agendas. Instead, in order to reach beyond their core base, they foregrounded social justice, economic concerns and good governance. Insofar as they managed to put forward the most credible platform on these issues, it would be a mistake to see the Egyptian and Tunisian elections as simply a wholehearted endorsement of the Islamist agenda. So with all due respect to Jeffrey Goldberg and so many others, it's just plain wrong to look at the events in the Arab world in 2011 and conclude that the Islamists are taking over anywhere, let alone everywhere, and that the Arabs have demonstrated they want to take “the path of Islam” as defined by these Islamist groups.


Jeffery has responded to my response to him, saying that "Arabs are voting, with eyes wide open, for Islamist parties. When they stop voting for Islamist parties, I'll revisit my preliminary conclusion that Islamism is on the rise." 
To be clear, I don't actually take issue with the idea that "Islamism is on the rise" — clearly Islamists are immediate and primary beneficiaries of the opening of political space in Arab societies. Indeed, I've said so for months. What I disagree with is the idea that they are coming to power or "taking over." There's a large gap between these two ideas. There are a lot of other forces at work in the Arab world, as I think I outlined above. So, I'm sure they will be more powerful and influential than they were under dictatorships, but skeptical they can come to any real political dominance or uncontested power.

Ibishblog interview: Mona Kareem, Part 2 – Kuwaiti politics, foreign policy, sectarianism, and tweeting

Below is the second part of the Ibishblog interview with Mona Kareem, the online activist, blogger, tweep and journalist who is a leading advocate for the stateless community of Kuwait. Part one of the interview focused mainly on the issue of the stateless. But I also asked Mona about the recent crisis and the ousting of the former prime minister, the next phase of Kuwaiti politics, sectarianism in the country and its foreign policy, and tweeting and blogging in and about Kuwait.
The replacement of the Prime Minister and the next phase in Kuwaiti politics
Ibishblog: The impression from the outside is that the recent crisis has been very focused on a couple of things. Number one, the former prime minister as an individual, the length of time he had been in office, the resistance of the Emir to replacing him, and ignoring protests by both the public and MPs. Number two is that there appears to be a very serious division within the royal family, although this is rarely seriously discussed or reported on, at least in English, that bubbles beneath a great deal of the unrest. Is there more to it than that? What's going on here? You say Kuwait may be entering a dark era. What exactly do you mean?
Mona Kareem: Many people, including liberals, conservatives, upper-class individuals, Shiites, all of these constituencies in general were essentially against the protests. Half of them wanted to get rid of the former prime minister, and the other half didn't, but they all didn't like the fact that people stormed the Parliament. The Parliament is considered by many the “symbol of democracy,” the Parliament is “public property,” and it was considered improper by very large numbers of people. I understand this, but nonetheless I like the fact that people stormed the Parliament because it was a strong message of people reclaiming their agency and their own house of representation.
However, I am completely dismayed that this protest came to be driven by Members of Parliament. It's totally ridiculous, because they are already there all day in the Parliament and they are the ones who could make changes, and yet they come in the evening, hijacking the protests, creating the wrong image, and using the whole thing for political purposes. Many people felt compelled to support the prime minister just because those Members of Parliament were siding with the opposition, so they just handed him a temporary victory. If it had been just the public against the prime minister, he would have fallen much earlier.
Ibishblog: And this is particularly true of Islamist and Salafist MPs, correct?
Mona Kareem: Yes, of course. First of all, they have been bribed by certain parties. They defend Saudi Arabia. They want to change the constitution into a sharia document. For some of them, nothing is proven, and I'm fine with those. But even so, why would they come to the protests? This makes no sense and has never happened in the history of Kuwait, because they are the ones with power and influence, so how would you side with the people against power when you have power? It doesn't make any sense. And of course it just hurts the protests. Two years ago when people started campaigning against the former prime minister, although the movement was really small, it was good and the public was impressed. It raised serious questions in an honest way and developed public interest steadily over time. The reaction from the public was good. Now the country is divided. People like the Shiites are afraid. It's not because of Bahrain, or anything like that. It's because all the potential other candidates for prime minister would not have been good for the Shiites. It's not that they'll do anything particularly bad to them, but they will totally neglect them.
Do you remember when Shiite blogger Nasser Abdul was arrested? Well, in spite of the sectarian remarks that he made, and the question of freedom of speech, which I do respect, this was purely a game between two factions within the royal family. Ahmad Fahad, the man who allied with the Salafists, fueled this whole crisis, although of course the former prime minister was to blame too, and each of them sank lower than the other. The country was in a crisis escalated by both of them for the past five years. This guy was going to get questioned when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, and also the head of two other ministries, and that created a crisis. So this man has always been a source of crises, on and off, and a lightning rod. When the Parliament wanted to question him, he was in a position of not being able to answer these questions so rather than submitting to the grilling, he referred the matter to the Constitutional Court. Parliament was outraged, and said this was completely unconstitutional. Of course he was trying to buy time. And then he resigned even before the Court made any decision. He wanted revenge against the prime minister. He believes the former prime minister left him high and dry to battle alone and failed to protect him. But since they are rivals why would he?
Ibishblog: But these developments escalated the rivalry into a full-blown open confrontation?
Mona Kareem: Yes, because it brought the Parliament into it, and then of course the media, and so ultimately the whole of society was then dragged into it as well.
Ibishblog: And the corruption scandals, or the so-called corruption scandals, are another manifestation of this rivalry?
Mona Kareem: Yes, it's another manifestation, driven by both sides. When you saw the Salafists wanting to question the former prime minister it's because they were being driven by Ahmad Fahad and they allied with him for one reason: because they hate the Shiites, and the Shiites were aligned with the former prime minister. It's as simple as that. But when you saw the Action Block or the liberals wanting to question the former prime minister, they were not driven by Ahmad Fahad. They were being driven by their own agenda of being the opposition. They are more rational, but they had their own agenda.
Ibishblog: Do you believe that the former prime minister is a spent force politically, as it seems, but that Ahmad Fahad could make a comeback?
Mona Kareem: Ahmad Fahad, because he already has made several comebacks in the past, very intelligently, if he gets any opportunity to convince the Emir and the new prime minister to get a position again he has a good chance. He has a very strong base in certain tribes, those who are interested in sports, and because his father is considered a martyr. Some people really value that. So he might push for this in a year or two, and he could make a comeback.
Ibishblog: But right now there is no interest on the part of either the parliament or the government, particularly the Emir, in having another eruption of tensions for the next year or so, so there is likely to be a relatively stable situation politically in Kuwait for the next 12 months or thereabouts?
Mona Kareem: This is what the two powers want. The government doesn't want to have any more problems, and go through another cycle of upheaval, while the opposition doesn't want to be seen by the public as continuously creating crises, as they have often been accused of.
Ibishblog: You've argued that the Islamists were able to somehow spin the removal of the prime minister as their achievement and will benefit from it politically. How do you think it's all playing out?
Mona Kareem: Historically, the Islamists have never been part of the opposition, and only recently became combative in order to try to recoup their recent electoral losses. It was the only way for a political comeback from the setback they had in the last election. They took advantage of the opposition's victory to claim credit, and are well-positioned to come back strongly. But we're not witnessing anything like the scenario in Egypt, where they are a strong majority, or even in Tunisia where they became a major force. In Kuwait they've never exceeded six seats out of 50 in Parliament, and even if they do, they'll never become a majority or even reach a third. They were never able to form any alliances in Parliament in the past. It was only in this last Parliament, because of the tensions between the Parliament and the government, that they were able to form any kind of alliance with the Action Block, which is the most popular group, and this alliance I think will expand with the coming elections.
Now, these groups have two different agendas. The Action Block is conservative and is most interested in legislation on housing, and social services, but they really don't care about the Islamist interest in censorship and such things. However, when their political interests come into play they think about their bases, and they think about various communities potentially strengthening or undermining them. One of the biggest examples of this would be gender segregation in education. Ideologically, the Action Block doesn't support this, but when it came to voting on it, they decided to support it because they have a lot of constituents who are in favor of it. So the way the Action Block panders to their voters often ends up helping the Islamists. They have different agendas, but mutual interests, and the Islamists get a lot more benefit from this.
Ibishblog: Because being aligned with the strongest party benefits the Islamists more than it benefits the Action Block?
Mona Kareem: Also you have to remember that most of the Islamists come from tribal backgrounds, and the Action Block knows that if they align with them they are winning over all of the people in those tribes, and getting more "Islamic credentials."
Ibishblog: Where does that leave the bidoun issue? It seems to be escalating, but isn't there the possibility that a more stable political situation in Kuwait, within the Kuwaiti elite and between the government and the opposition, could actually open space for raising the issue of the stateless?
Mona Kareem: Well, this is really the first time in a long time that we as a community have become so active, and that's a very important factor. We need political stability in the country in order to have our issue seriously considered. As long as there is all of this tension between the government and the opposition, or within Parliament, most people will think, "who cares about them." When there is stability, this opens space to ask questions, the issue will get more attention, international organizations will become more concerned, there will be more media interest and a lot more possibilities. During the past year because of the political instability, the issue has been completely forgotten. Any laws redressing our situation will have to be passed by the Parliament. In recent years with this "Central Committee on the Stateless," they've been doing whatever they want because of the tensions, but when there is more space and ability to focus on other issues in Parliament, there are possibilities for us. I'm not suggesting most of the parliament is sympathetic to the bidoun, on the contrary most are against us. Even those who do raise the issue are doing so for ulterior motives or political interests, mostly reaching out to those Kuwaitis who have bidoun relatives and trying to get their support and votes. But if there is political stability, at least there will be more of that.
Ibishblog: Is there any chance of getting more friends in Parliament after the February elections?
Mona Kareem: We've seen something new recently. One of the most prominent figures in the Action Block and another very prominent figure from the Muslim Brotherhood (the Islamists, by the way, have always been against the bidoun or at least avoided talking about the issue) came to the most recent demonstrations to show support for the protesters who were being beaten. And this is quite a big step, to show this kind of support. Now they are only two people, but they are two very prominent individuals in these two groups, very powerful and influential in their own circles, and this might have an impact in the coming parliament with the expected victory for both of these groups and their alliance. If they have more seats, then they will have more power, and if they are more sympathetic, there's more chance they will push for some improvements. Of course, maybe they only showed up for media attention or something. We can't really know their intentions. But this is really new, especially coming from the Islamist party, and of course he's only one man, but he really is an important representative of the whole group.
Sectarianism in Kuwait and its foreign policy
Ibishblog: Let's talk about sectarianism in Kuwait. It looks like it's contained, angry but contained as far as I can tell. Is that right?
Mona Kareem: Discrimination in Kuwait is the norm. It has always existed, it will continue to exist for a really long time, and it has many layers. Sectarian discrimination is only one form. But there are many factors, such as your origin, your family, your status, who you know, how much money you have, where your mother is from, and so forth. The whole problem is very complex. And sectarianism is just one aspect. Sectarianism has always existed. I don't respect those people who say, “no, we never had it.” That's bullshit. My perspective might sound Western, but I measure discrimination on the basis of marriage. If you have a problem letting your son or daughter marry someone from another sect or group, then you are sectarian. I don't care if you have 10 Shiite friends. You're a sectarian.
Ibishblog: I don't see why that value should be considered “Western.” I don't see how toleration of differences should be regarded as a uniquely Western value at all and I think there are Middle Eastern traditions of that and Western traditions of not having that at all. So I don't understand that accusation.
Mona Kareem: But that's what people tell me all the time. They always say, “no, that's just in the West, that's only a Western perspective, and you don't need intermarriage to prove you are not sectarian” and I say, "no, that's not true. If you have a problem with it, you're a sectarian." I don't care if you eat food with a Shiite. That doesn't prove you're not sectarian. Agreeing to intermarriage does prove it.
I'm particularly interested in the case of the activist Khaled Al-Fadala, who I admire a lot even though he made many mistakes. For instance, he organized protests nobody came to, and a bad protest is worse than no protest at all. He was arrested last year for accusing the former Prime Minister of corruption, and even though I disagree with him on many things, I admire him a lot. He even participated in a Shiite-led protest against repression in Bahrain, and he gave a speech saying, “all of us, Sunnis and Shiites, are united, and I love the Bahraini people,” and described how during the Iraqi invasion his family went to Bahrain and was hosted there and protected. So this was very beautiful and sentimental and he emphasized the need to prevent tensions in Bahrain from spreading sectarianism in Kuwait. He insisted, rightly, that it's different in Kuwait than it is in Bahrain and we can't let such things happen here.
Ibishblog: What kind of relationship does Saudi Arabia have with Kuwait, and the broader GCC? From the outside it looks like with the intervention in Bahrain and some other moves over the past 12 months, the Saudis have been very carefully letting everybody know that they are the big brother in the Gulf and they are in charge ultimately. It's a collective security thing and domestic/foreign distinctions break down at a certain point, and if the Qataris want to try to do things in Libya or places like that it's okay, but not in the GCC states, and there is one dominant player there. Do you agree with that, and where does Kuwait fit within the six GCC states?
Mona Kareem: I believe our case is different. I really love the foreign policy of Kuwait. I think it's the best in the region. Kuwait refused to participate in the Peninsula Shield operation in Bahrain. When there was an attempt to include Jordan and Morocco in the GCC, Kuwait had a really smart reaction, which was that we welcome their applications. They didn't say we either approve or disapprove of it, and this is because the Emir worked for four decades in the field of diplomacy. Unlike all the other previous rulers of Kuwait, this is the only guy who has had such long experience in diplomacy and he knows how to deal with it. That's one. Number two, he completely refused any attempts to get Kuwait involved in the Iranian-Saudi clash.
So after the intervention in Bahrain, he met with the editors in chief of all the newspapers — and he always does that whenever there is a crisis because he wants them to reflect his opinion — and he told them, “we are a small country, between two giants, don't dare make any remarks against Iran, and certainly not against Saudi Arabia.” So the media is critical, but usually wise, and respectful of his foreign policy because they don't want to enrage people. But there is also the line in some parts of the media similar to the one used in Bahrain about "Iranian intervention." They don't say the word “Shiite” but it's very clear what they mean. So that definitely exists too.
Ibishblog: Has anyone ever suggested the existence of a "Hezbollah Kuwait?"
Mona Kareem: Yes, of course. It's true we do have a representative of Hezbollah in Kuwait. He's a Kuwaiti, but he represents Hezbollah of Lebanon. But there's no Kuwaiti Hezbollah organization. Of course some people do talk about a "Hezbollah Kuwait." But the good thing about Kuwait, and I mean especially the Emir himself, is that he refuses any attempts to make us follow this line or fall into this trap. And I just love it. I really love it. I think if we were still ruled by the former Emir and the situation in Bahrain was as it is now, our troops would actually be there. But this Emir is very smart when it comes to foreign policy and doesn't fall into such traps.
Ibishblog: So, it is respectful but relatively independent relations with Saudi Arabia, within the bounds of what is possible?
Mona Kareem: Yes. And especially over the past two years if you go through the Foreign Ministry statements, you can see how intelligently they have been conducting things, and emphasizing that we are independent, and not allowing ourselves to get dragged into any unnecessary entanglements. But of course there's no challenge to Saudi authority either. Kuwait is not interested in that.
Ibishblog: What's the relationship between Kuwait and Qatar?
Mona Kareem: It's very neutral. Just like it is with Poland [laughs]. Nothing special. That's the Emir's policy: we are not friends or enemies of anyone, except the US. Kuwait only has a clear stand towards the US, which is extremely friendly.
Ibishblog: What about the idea of moving more US troops into Kuwait? There's been some talk of that.
Mona Kareem: It's definitely going to happen, of course.
Tweeting about Kuwait 
Ibishblog: You tweet a lot and I'm completely amazed to find that I can't follow any basic news from Kuwait properly, in English at least, without following your Twitter feed, along with occasional analysis and some longer articles by two noted US professors who specialize in the country. And that's kind of about it. In Arabic there is all kinds of stuff, but it tends to get pretty crazy pretty quickly. So, how did you come to Twitter and how do you find it's affected your own online activities and your relationship with your readers, because you are a writer. Without doubt, you're young but still a fully-fledged writer, not only literary but political.
Mona Kareem: Well, all these things I tweet about specifically regarding Kuwait, of course, is because I am from the country. It's true that I moved to the United States three months ago, but I still have very strong ties to all those people, especially activists on the ground. You can understand the problem with tweeting about Kuwait if you look at what happened with blogging in Kuwait. The first generation of bloggers in Kuwait spoke fluent English, and actually were almost all US graduates, but they didn't write in English. They wrote in Arabic for two reasons. First, because the outside world doesn't really care about what's going on in Kuwait. Maybe now they do, but not then. So, they never saw an outside interest, only a domestic one. Second, Kuwaitis don't seek support or care about any international view about what's going on in their country. They think they can handle everything on their own. At least that was true until the recent crisis. In Egypt, for example, people would blog in English because the outside world certainly cared about Egyptian politics and the crimes of the state, and what have you. But in Kuwait there aren't such severe crimes, or at least there have not been, and there was no real motivation to write in English. And if your audience is only Kuwaiti, they like you if you write in Arabic, especially with the Kuwaiti style.
Bloggers in Kuwait in 2006 did something phenomenal, which I don't think has a parallel anywhere in the world. The bloggers said, "We don't like our electoral system. It really supports discrimination and supports getting members of Parliament that are only representative of their tribes or certain families. We want change." So they created a manifesto, they went to the Parliament, they laid down tents, they stayed there for about two weeks, and then the law was passed. This is something phenomenal.
But it created the momentum for the second generation of bloggers. And this group is really bad, I would say. Because the first generation of bloggers was highly praised in Kuwait, many people wanted to be like them. And the new generation came from a different background. They came out of public educational institutions in Kuwait. They came with a lot of prejudices and don't have any background in politics or human rights, etc. So, blogging became very bad, and as a consequence the first-generation bloggers quit blogging altogether. They basically said, "we can't take it anymore."
So now, we are experiencing almost the same thing on Twitter, especially regarding tweeting in English. It's fascinating that the really smart tweeps in Kuwait are exactly the same people who were the first-generation bloggers. But, when the storming of parliament happened, pretty much all of them were opposed to it and they found the entire thing barbaric, while at the same time they were almost all against the former prime minister. And now, it's becoming obvious that they are getting sick of it. Again they're confronting the same dilemma with Twitter that they did with blogging: the whole thing is being dominated and hijacked by the wrong people and they are going dormant and staying quiet because they can't take it anymore. It's not because they're afraid, but they just feel it's a hopeless case. Too many people are taking it too far, and there's too much reactionary nonsense being posted. And the quality is becoming too low and they don't want to be part of it.
My number one motive for tweeting is that I see a lot of misperceptions about Kuwait and the Gulf. Sometimes people call me defensive.
Ibishblog: Actually, I think you're brutally honest.
Mona Kareem: Thank you.
Ibishblog: Most importantly in terms of domestic Kuwaiti politics, when you've been writing about recent events you've been honest enough to acknowledge the extent to which so much of this is driven by rifts within the royal family, and that's something almost nobody writes about in English. They hint at it at times, maybe, and there are the two noted US professors who sometimes hint at it gingerly, but for whatever reason so-called analysts and journalists that write about Kuwait in English for the most part never mention it, even though it's so central.
Mona Kareem: Journalists and columnists in Kuwait write about it in Arabic all the time. But you're right, people who write about Kuwait in English, for whatever reason, continuously avoid the subject. I don't have any idea why. There's no reason they need to or should. But for some reason they do. Yeah.

Ibishblog interview: Mona Kareem, Part 1 – The stateless issue and the bidoun of Kuwait

Social media is still mainly dominated by two vehicles: Facebook and Twitter. And they couldn't be more different. Facebook is heavy, cumbersome to use, intrusive, and an extremely poor way of exchanging information. It feels burdensome and almost as if it were designed to allow people to check up on each other in an often unhealthy manner. That said, it's probably indispensable for people involved in trying to disseminate their views; more's the pity. Twitter, on the other hand, is light, flexible, easy to use, easy to follow. Despite its 140 character limitations, it's an infinitely more powerful vehicle for exchanging information. Indeed, I think the character limits, although they can be gotten around in various ways, impose an interesting and useful discipline. Of course neither of them lends themselves to satire or irony, and both are open to serious misunderstandings.
But while Facebook is basically an unavoidable nuisance, Twitter has become an indispensable means of following the news and exchanging ideas. I've learned almost nothing on Facebook, but I've learned an incredible amount on Twitter. And I've gotten to know a number of very interesting minds and personalities on Twitter that I otherwise did not have access to before (again, this barely applies at all to Facebook, with perhaps one exception to an otherwise utterly barren ledger on that account).
One of the most interesting people I've come to know through Twitter is Mona Kareem, a poet, journalist, blogger and tweep who also happens to be bidoun jinsiya – “without citizenship” – from Kuwait. First, it's almost impossible to follow events in Kuwait quickly and efficiently in English — and in many cases at all — without consulting her Twitter feed (@monakareem), which does the work of 20 typical Middle East journalists. I'd go so far as to call it indispensable. More significantly, through her tweets and blogs she's introduced me, and I'm sure a lot of other people, to not only up-to-date information but background details on an issue we either didn't know about or, in my case, knew about only very vaguely: the plight of the stateless of Kuwait. It's all the more fascinating that she's only 23, has been in the United States for a few months as a graduate student studying comparative literature (my own PhD discipline, as it happens) and working on the beat generation (William S. Burroughs being a particular favorite of mine). To top it off, she seems to have a healthy taste for the blues and an even healthier distaste for the religious right of all stripes.
Given this extraordinary combination, I sought out the opportunity to interview Mona in person at the end of November, with a quick phone follow-up a couple of days ago, to talk about a variety of issues, particularly that of the bidoun in Kuwait, Kuwaiti politics, and the tweeting and blogging scene in her country. What follows is part one of this interview, one of the most interesting conversations I've had in quite a long time. It began in a most extraordinary manner: she showed me some documents, the like of which I've never seen before. First, there was her silver Kuwaiti travel document, as opposed to the normal blue Kuwaiti passports issued to citizens, which literally identified her as an “illegal resident” of the country. The visas in it were equally interesting, and in some cases almost as horrifying. And, what passed for a driver's permit that was issued to her was positively scandalous. It looked like the crudest forgery slapped up by some feckless teenagers hepped up on goofballs. I'm used to seeing the "travel documents," “permits,” “IDs,” and other inherently insulting documents issued by some Arab states to Palestinian refugees, particularly those in Lebanon. But I've never seen these, and in themselves they told quite a horrifying story.
And, as I write, today the bidoun in Kuwait are again protesting, and again facing not only severe repression which is not meted to out those deemed "citizens" by the Kuwaiti government, but also facing the added insult of continuously having to show their IDs since protesting is, as she points out, a "right" at best reserved for Kuwaiti “citizens.” It's all being barely covered by the media, particularly in English, but this ongoing outrage deserves serious consideration by all of those who care about human rights, particularly in the Arab world. In Mona, the stateless of Kuwait have, as you'll quickly note, a remarkable young advocate.
Part 1: The stateless issue and the bidoun of Kuwait
Ibishblog: Let's start with the most important issue, the stateless issue, since I've seen your passport, or rather your travel document, and it's extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. I've seen a lot of Palestinian travel documents, but this is something completely different. Before we get into what it allows you to do and doesn't allow you to do, I'd like to talk about the bidoun and the status of stateless people in Kuwait. Were you born in Kuwait?
Mona Kareem: Yes. My dad was born in Kuwait, my grandfather was born in Kuwait. We all have documents that prove that. My father served in the government for three decades, and he himself has a Kuwaiti passport. Until the 1990s, there was no such thing as this grey stateless passport. After the Iraqi invasion, there was a real problem with people who needed to travel and had medical issues and so forth, and they needed a solution.
Ibishblog: So it's effectively a travel document? But it emphasizes that you're not a citizen of Kuwait. Can you explain to us in the simplest possible terms the categories of citizenship in Kuwait and Article 17?
Mona Kareem: The first category of citizenship applies to those who've been there supposedly since the 1920s, and although this is what the Constitution says there are people who have gotten it although they do not qualify in that way. Some have come in the 60s and 70s and have gotten it. Most of this is what we could call “political naturalization.” In the 1970s there was mass citizenship awarded to a tribe from Saudi Arabia for strategic and political reasons. It was because a major politician needed a constituency to support his fortunes, status and power.
Ibishblog: He needed a base?
Mona Kareem: Yes, exactly, he needed a base. And that's what he did, and people were amazed. The good thing about it is that when this happened, no one stopped it but even the royal family opposed it. In the beginning they didn't allow them to go into the military, the National Guard, and other sensitive positions. But eventually they gave up, and said, "well, we can't really keep excluding them," and now those people have been there for generations and they're just part of the first-class citizenry.
Ibishblog: So that's category one?
Mona Kareem: Yes, then there's category two, who can vote, but cannot run for electoral office. For example, I have a category two friend who got this citizenship because her relatives are article one citizens, so she's naturalized but not fully. Such people would normally fall under the first category, but their file is missing something, so they get the second category. And sometimes someone would be placed into the fifth category of naturalization, so the second generation would then get the second category. And then maybe the third generation might get the first.
Ibishblog: Possibly, or not?
Mona Kareem: Yes. The problem is the law is not detailed, and it's very bureaucratic and arbitrary.
Ibishblog: And it's subjective?
Mona Kareem: Yes, because the Kuwaiti constitution says after 20 years you should be a first-class citizen. And then there is also Article 8, which is mostly given to women who marry Kuwaiti men, who get a kind of citizenship. They cannot pass their citizenship to their children, but they get their citizenship from their fathers. Of course children cannot be Kuwaiti from their mothers. After women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament, that was on their agenda: to allow citizenship to pass from mothers, but of course with this political crisis we're in now, no one is talking about that anymore. Honestly, I think it's a hopeless case.
Ibishblog: Well, that's standard in much of the Arab world, even in countries that are not protecting small groups of wealth and privilege.
Mona Kareem: I took part in campaigns that had to do with that, and also I worked with female political candidates, and what is shocking is not only that the society refuses it, but that even women are refusing it. Particularly women who belong to the upper classes, who get married within their own class, don't really care if you marry someone who's not Kuwaiti.
Ibishblog: So, they're protecting their own privilege?
Mona Kareem: Exactly. One of the most fundamental issues regarding statelessness in Kuwait and class differentiations has to do with ego. People always ask, "why should I be equal to this person?" This is said openly, and with no embarrassment. "I was here first, you were here later, so how can you be equal to me?" Or, "I am from this family, or from this class, so how can we be in the same group, that's just unacceptable."
Ibishblog: How many citizenship categories are there, roughly?
Mona Kareem: I think it's about five.
Ibishblog: Now Article 17 would be the most difficult, and this affects the stateless of bidoun origin, but that mainly covers people who've been in Kuwait for generations, and so we're talking about people who theoretically under the law should be first-class citizenship Kuwaitis?
Mona Kareem: No, according to law, if you are not traceable to 1922, you are not a first-class citizen. And because Kuwait wasn't a state before the 60s, many bidoun cannot prove they were in the remote areas at any given time. There is a gentleman who was the minister of information in Kuwait for a short time, and he now owns the number-one online newspaper, but he has no evidence that his family was there in the 1920s. There are bidoun Kuwaitis. But everyone knows that he and his family were there before the 1920s.
Ibishblog: So popular opinion and what's called “common knowledge” determines a great deal about what happens to any given family. So, under Article 17, As a stateless resident, what rights do you have, and what do you not have? Obviously that "passport" is a difficult thing to use internationally for travel, but I'm not really interested in travel. I'm more interested in what you can do and not do inside Kuwait.
Mona Kareem: The Kuwaiti citizenship law says if you have documents proving that you were present before 1965, and that's what most of the bidoun have, counted in the census, or that you have served the country in one way or another, for example the majority who were killed in the Iraqi occupation were stateless bidoun, and the majority of those imprisoned by the Iraqis were also stateless, but that doesn't earn anybody any extra status. The relatives of those who died during the occupation are still stateless. Those whose fathers died fighting for Kuwait in 1967 and 1973 and those who were also killed during the assassination attempt against the Emir in the 80s, all their families are still stateless. And this is the most unfair situation of all, because these are martyrs for the country. There are hundreds of such cases.
Ibishblog: Is it the case that they are recognized to be martyrs and praised but it just doesn't affect their legal and political status and that of their families?
Mona Kareem: They are recognized by the “Office of Martyrs,” which determines who qualifies as a martyr or not, and they're all recognized, but people are always assured there will be some kind of reward and there never is one. There is one additional article, which is very interesting, which says that if you are an Arab who has been in Kuwait for over 20 years, you can actually apply for citizenship. But in practice this is completely impossible. I think if someone tries, they will just laugh at them.
Ibishblog: That part is well known in the Arab world. You could be there, your children could be there, your grandchildren, it doesn't matter. If you're not a Kuwaiti, you're not going to become a Kuwaiti. This much is well-known in the rest of the Arab world, but not the stateless issue.
Mona Kareem: On the stateless inside Kuwait, there is a secret document from 1986 leaked later on, that was signed by prominent Kuwaiti figures that held that “we are spending too much money on these stateless, we need to stop it,” because they used to be treated exactly like Kuwaitis except for citizenship. Except for some social services and housing, they got exactly the same treatment. As far as education, scholarships to the outside, anything you can think of except for housing and some small privileges like marriage loans, but all the important things, like the documents and the IDs, and everything, was Kuwaiti.
Ibishblog: Is the existence of this document denied or confirmed, or people just don't talk about it?
Mona Kareem: They don't talk about it but they can't deny it because it definitely exists. And it has been recognized by international organizations. All the major refugee and human rights organizations recognize and refer to it. So the plan was to gradually cut off the rights of the stateless, and the first step was to not let them get into Kuwait University. Up until 2002, there were no private universities in Kuwait, and the new private universities in Kuwait are extremely expensive, so even most Kuwaitis can't afford it. Only Kuwaitis of high status can get in, and some others get sponsored by the government because Kuwait University is overloaded and they prefer to send some people to private universities. Especially after the invasion, and when a lot of the bidoun left to Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Jordan, in other words escaping, Kuwait did something really horrible. No one is acknowledging this, even the rights organizations, which is that Kuwait used the invasion and the liberation to not let bidoun back. There is a very well-known case of a family of one of the martyrs who served in the Army for three decades and was killed by the Iraqis and his family is locked out in Jordan with no documents and they will not let them back.
Ibishblog: So they're in Jordan, but they're not Jordanians.
Mona Kareem: No, they went there because they escaped the invasion and they can't come back, because Kuwait said, “anyone who went out is not coming back.” The only ones who came back were the ones from Saudi Arabia because the Saudis insisted on this. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein started trying to use them as cards, and he exploited the issue. It got worse, especially in the 90s, with the interior minister Muhammad Al-Khaled, who was the harshest.
Ibishblog: He has quite a reputation.
Mona Kareem: Yes, and he was completely against giving the stateless any form of documentation and not until he left the ministry did anyone start to get any documents.
Ibishblog: This was just after 2000?
Mona Kareem: Yes. So we started to be able to get drivers licenses, for instance here's mine. It's handwritten.
Ibishblog: I shouldn't laugh, but it's ridiculous. It looks like you made it in your kitchen.
Mona Kareem: I've personally been stopped several times by police officers and they question the legitimacy of this paper. I say, “ask your government, I didn't issue this." And they just let me go because, you know, it's so ridiculous and those guys have no clear orders on how to deal with us and they don't know what to do. Sometimes if they are bad people, they have complete authority to take you to the police station and start an investigation and God knows when you're going to get out. But most of the time it's too confusing even for them, and they just give up. As for the civil IDs, we don't get the regular ones. We get a huge one. And the size is meant to distinguish us from everybody else. It's green, not white like all the others, and it's embarrassing, and it says “illegal resident” in its status category. And it doesn't count as a civil ID, because you cannot use it in court and you cannot use it to get a work contract.
Ibishblog: So it's just an identification paper, nothing else, but designed to distinguish you very clearly from everybody else, almost like a stigma?
Mona Kareem: Yes, and the employment authorities, when employers suggested they would like to hire bidoun, because they are cheap labor, on a contract basis, and it would be stipulated that they don't get any benefits, the employment authorities said, "there is a clear law that no one can be hired without a civil ID, so you guys figure this out." They wouldn't cross that line. The problem is that in Kuwait everything goes through the Parliament, but the government did something extraordinary in this case that no one objected to by forming the “Central Committee for the Stateless.” This is about three years ago. This is headed by Salah Fadalah, one of the most aggressive enemies of the bidoun. He used to be an MP, and he is of high-status merchant family background.
Ibishblog: So it's more a class and chauvinistic thing?
Mona Kareem: Yes, and he made many insulting remarks against the bidoun.
Ibishblog: And so they put him in charge?
Mona Kareem: Kind of, yeah. When the bidoun protested, they carried his picture with Hitler's mustache on him, calling him a racist, and things like that. And although people protested and said, "if someone really hates us, why put them in charge of us, he can't solve our problems, he's just against us." But, whenever he gets interviewed, he always promises to work on things and claims lots of money is spent on our education, and so forth.
Ibishblog: Now, when this committee was created, no one in Parliament objected?
Mona Kareem: Only the bidoun supporters that we could call independent/conservatives objected because they have a lot of voters who have bidoun relatives, so they did it just as a statement. This Committee falls under the interior minister. Technically it should be under the Parliament, but it is functioning completely independently with no oversight.
Ibishblog: As is tradition.
Mona Kareem: On the passport issue, no bidoun has the right to have a passport. It is being done on an exceptional basis. Everyone who gets one is an exception.
Ibishblog: Now, does that apply to your travel document?
Mona Kareem: Yes, I'm the luckiest of my community. There is almost no one is lucky as me. There are many factors: my family, that we are in the 1965 census, my father served three decades in the government, I worked as a journalist for five years, I am a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton, which also helps, and sometimes showing proof that you are accepted in major foreign universities helps — not all the time but sometimes. But mostly, it's motivated because Kuwait wants people to leave.
Ibishblog: So go there, study, and stay there and become a professor in Binghamton?
Mona Kareem: Yes, don't come back. And also if you can prove that you have certain diseases you cannot cure in Kuwait you might be allowed to travel for medical reasons, if there is a foreign hospital that will take you.
Ibishblog: So everything is on an exceptional basis?
Mona Kareem: Yes, everything is exceptional. There are no clear numbers, but our perception is that about 20 percent of bidoun got passports. Pretty much everybody applied, but about 80 percent were rejected.
Ibishblog: We hear numbers of approximately 120,000 of Bidoun in Kuwait, but we don't know. What's your sense?
Mona Kareem: Minimum 100,000. Kuwait does know, of course. Kuwait has been keeping track for a very long time. But they do not say. The last time they said anything, they said it was 100,000. The community believes it is 120,000.
Ibishblog: That's the number I see usually cited. That would be the largest group in the Gulf, maybe more than in Saudi Arabia?
Mona Kareem: I don't know about Saudi Arabia because it's really complicated, but certainly compared to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, it's much the largest number. There is a problem everywhere, but no one is like our case where we can prove our residency for so many generations, given our numbers, and given the sacrifices I mentioned.
Ibishblog: The protests we saw emerging earlier in the year were only the latest of many previous protests.
Mona Kareem: In the past, there were very small numbers, you would only see 50 or 100 people coming out at a time.
Ibishblog: Okay, but this year they were pretty big, enough to garner the world's attention.
Mona Kareem: And especially with the Arab Spring, of course.
Ibishblog: As with the protests in Bahrain, this was maybe Arab Spring-inspired, but had much earlier roots. I mean the grievances are more specific than the general grievances of the Arabs that we've had enough of dictators. So have the protests increased, or have they ebbed and flowed, or what?
Mona Kareem: No, they began in February but at that point the entire society began making extremely discriminatory remarks about the bidoun, particularly on call-in talk shows, in which people would say, "throw them out, burn them, we don't want to see them, destroy their houses on their heads," and things like that. Either these people are chauvinistic or they are ignorant.
Ibishblog: What does the government say? What do they say about all of this? What does the average citizen of Kuwait think about all of this? What goes on in their imagination?
Mona Kareem: Well, it depends on your community but as far as the merchant class and the high class is concerned, we all came after the invasion. We "forged our documents," they don't know about the census, and we are just "greedy and want to take their money" away from them. And the general opinion is we came mainly from Iraq, because that invokes the hatred more than anything else. And of course the newspapers in Kuwait, because they're owned by merchants, when we protested, leaders of the bidoun community said they were meeting with leaders of Iraq to compare records of those in Iraq, and see who was from where and what happened. So then there were accusations of collusion with Iraq and all kinds of other accusations that the bidoun would be exposed as Iraqis or agents of Iraq. The bidoun community, of course, said “we didn't know about this meeting,” and this was all part of a generalized tendency to try to say of us that we are simply not Kuwaitis.
Ibishblog: Do you have supporters within mainstream Kuwaiti society?
Mona Kareem: Of course, yes, and they should be credited, especially the activists. There are lots. But also there are tendencies in the community to group together.
Ibishblog: I'm still curious about some aspects of support you get from some elements of mainstream, privileged Kuwaiti society, whatever it may be, maybe not royals, but whatever, tell me about that?
Mona Kareem: Some activists, some professors, people in different fields try to help. Like for example, you have the Kuwait Human Rights Society, three of them are sympathizers and try to help. And they make statements in support of us, and whatever. When after the protests, there were 100 men seized by the security forces, and they were tortured, members of the Society talk to them, took evidence, and that kind of thing, but they're not putting it out because the victims are afraid. But what is ironic is that the head of this group, Ali Al-Baghli, has made some of the worst racist remarks against the bidoun. He said something along the lines that we have no honor, a commonly-used term against the stateless, and also implied an Iraqi origin, which is a huge stigma in Kuwait. There are bidoun from Saudi Arabian or Iranian origin, but they tend to stick to themselves.
Ibishblog: The fact that they have ethnic or sectarian differences from the rest of Kuwaiti society makes them less dangerous than those who are Arab and Sunni, no?
Mona Kareem: Yes. Definitely. And also, they don't want to belong with the rest of the bidoun, so generally they marry each other, so these identities are, over time, disappearing. And more of these got citizenship than the rest during periods of nationalization over the past couple of decades.
Ibishblog: How long have you been writing about this?
Mona Kareem: I'd say five years.
Ibishblog: And what kind of reaction did you get when you were writing inside Kuwait?
Mona Kareem: I'll give you two examples. When I used to write as a blogger with a nickname, I got mixed comments, but mostly very respectful even if they didn't agree with me. This was because at the time the blogosphere was limited and had a certain audience.
Ibishblog: Which was literate, educated, online with access to the Internet, and all that at that time, so self-selected with a certain degree of civility? It was hard for a rabble to get involved?
Mona Kareem: A lot of them were opposed to my ideas because with the political naturalization in the 70s, people were afraid that the bidoun would be used for political purposes. But they wouldn't use any derogatory terms, which is good. But a speech I gave on the issue was published by several newspapers online and in print in Kuwait, and you have no idea what kind of comments I got. There were more than 200 comments, without even mentioning what was brought up on Twitter and so forth, people claiming, “you are Iraqi,” “our kids have to go to training colleges in Kuwait while this girl studies in New York,” and a lot of them emphasized the accusation that I am somehow Iraqi. It was a very abusive response. A lot of it was very personal, attacking my dad, because he is also a columnist and short story writer, and has a public profile. So they attacked my family as well.
Ibishblog: The bidoun movement, is it basically Kuwait-specific or is it hooked up with broader bidoun issues throughout the region?
Mona Kareem: No, it's very localized to Kuwait.
Ibishblog: So, each bidoun community in each state deals with its problems on a state-by-state basis?
Mona Kareem: There is no bidoun activism in the GCC states except in Kuwait. The rest are not active. I know some guys in the UAE who tell me that "if we even think about it, let alone do it, it's going to be so risky that it's out of the question." And, among the arrested online activists in the UAE, one of them was Bidoun. And he's the one getting the least international and regional attention, and no one has really acknowledged his case. I tried getting some information about him, but my contacts there said, we really don't know. It's such a murky case. The guy was just arrested, and now he's gone. And for sure if those guys from high status families were not getting out, this guy is definitely not going to.
Ibishblog: Is it the numbers of bidoun in Kuwait that make it possible, or is it relative political openness in Kuwait compared to other GCC states?
Mona Kareem: I'd say it's the relative openness. To be honest, the state security police has been doing a lot of harassment, checking up on activist very closely. They do not allow them to protest, especially after the more recent protests and now if they even hear of a rumor that there's going to be a bidoun protest, they just go into the area beforehand, shut down the place, completely besiege it, and if they see anyone moving around the streets they immediately order them to go home. They can easily do this because the country has, for a long time, been isolating the bidoun in certain areas, especially two or three areas, so it's very easy to shut these things down if they get any advance warning or even hear a rumor. They tried protesting at the parliament many times over the past few years, and the Interior Ministry says that not only can bidoun not protest anywhere, they specifically cannot protest next to the parliament. This is a kind of “sacred” area for Kuwaitis.
Ibishblog: Well, look at the reaction to the non-bidoun protests at the Parliament.
Mona Kareem: Yes, many people were arrested and went on hunger strikes. I think we are really entering a dark era in Kuwait.
Ibishblog: There's been another eruption of anger on December 12 and major protests by bidoun in Kuwait. This apparently is a consequence of the previous arrests and the trials and torture of some of the activists. Can you describe what led up to this new eruption of tensions, and is it particularly bad, as it looks, and if so why?
Mona Kareem: They were definitely triggered by the trials, and the refusal of the authorities to give any information about the status of the activists recently. Smaller demonstrations were dispersed, and this has led to bigger ones. It's noteworthy how ruthlessly the authorities are dealing with these protests compared to the ones at the parliament. With the bidoun, they break into houses, they use tear gas, water cannons, arrest minors and beat people, including children. At the parliament, they tried to stop the protesters, maybe they beat a few of them, but that's it, there was no tear gassing, no water cannons, no mass abuses. People were arrested, but they were not mistreated. In the case of the stateless, we are talking about people who've been tortured, and people who can't go to court to assert their rights.