7 September 2023
Stalin Jnr and the New Puritans
Silencing Prokofiev and Shakespeare.
By Neil Tidmarsh
In the sixteenth century, the Puritans tried to close down the Elizabethan theatres and drive Shakespeare off the stage. But I was more than four hundred years too late to witness it, of course.
In the twentieth century, Stalin and his Communist party toadies in the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians and in the Department for Agitation and Propaganda condemned Prokofiev’s music as ‘counter-revolutionary’, ‘formalist’ and insufficiently ‘socialist realist’, censored it and eventually banned it. And of course I was too late to witness that too (though by only less than a century this time).
But last Thursday evening – 31 August 2023 – the heirs of those Puritans and those Stalinist toadies invaded the stage at Sadler’s Wells during a performance of Prokofiev’s ballet of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Matthew Bourne’s brilliant and breathtaking production) and put a stop to it. And I was there, right there, in seat D23 in the stalls, a witness to history repeating itself .
It was Karl Marx who reminded us that the tragedies of history are repeated as farce, so those revolutionary protesters should have known better. They rushed onto the stage, unfurled a banner and then tried to give us an earful of their propaganda (like a tribute band – let’s call them ‘Stalin Junior and the New Puritans’ – belting out their forbears’ greatest hits; ‘Self-Righteousness’, ‘Moral High Ground’, ‘Authoritarianism’, ‘Intolerance’, ‘Interfering Busy-Bodies’, ‘Disgust and Disapproval’ and other golden oldies). But their efforts were utterly wasted because their message was completely drowned out by the boos and hisses and “Get Offs!” of the repressed masses, ie, us, the audience. A man in front of us and a lady beside us, neither of them from the UK, were utterly bemused. “What’s going on?” they asked. “Is this part of the performance?”
Which just goes to show that the protesters weren’t wasting just the dancers’ and musicians’ and audience’s time – they were wasting their own time as well. However just or unjust their cause (they had apparently taken exception to the theatre’s loose association with something or someone who had a loose association with something or someone they disapproved of), they were clearly going about their crusade in the wrong way; their strategy and tactics were ineffectual and even counter-productive. Their attempt to convert an audience only alienated it. Their efforts simply antagonised even those of us who might already have had some sympathy for their cause.
But all that is just further evidence of history repeating itself. Those sixteenth century Puritans also had a righteous cause – the theatres really were dens of iniquity, breeding grounds for the plague, the pox, prostitution and theft – but their narrow-minded, self-righteous, bullying and intolerant approach was also self-defeating and counter-productive. Their efforts to drive Shakespeare off the stage failed. The theatres were indeed closed in the following century after a bloody and destructive civil war, but the reaction against this triumph of hair-shirted self-righteousness was so intense that the Puritans’ republic was rejected after less than ten years, a hedonistic and ungodly king was welcomed to the throne and the re-opened theatres were soon nurturing an unprecedentedly immoral Restoration drama.
Similarly, those twentieth-century Russian revolutionaries who silenced Prokofiev had a righteous cause – building a beautiful world of perfect equality – but their narrow-minded, self-righteous, bullying and intolerant approach was equally self-defeating and counter-productive, building an ugly world of despotism and persecution instead. Their regime collapsed under the pressure of its own idealistic tyranny even before the end of the century.
Those protesters – Stalin Jnr and the New Puritans – who stormed Sadler’s Wells last week had a callous and selfish disregard for the performers on stage and for the audience’s innocent pleasure. In trying to save the world, the protesters clearly thought that Prokofiev and Shakespeare aren’t important and could be sacrificed to the cause. Wrong and short-sighted, because everything which Prokofiev and Shakespeare stand for – music, dancing, poetry, stories, art, entertainment – are essential to humanity and humanity isn’t going to rally to a future where all those things are expendable. No wonder they were booed off the stage.
The uniquely powerful and beautiful drama evolving in the Elizabethan theatres meant nothing to the Puritans. They cared only about saving souls and saving the world (they believed that the apocalypse of the Second Coming was imminent; and here it has to be admitted that their modern-day heirs do at least have real science to back up their own apocalyptic/utopian vision). So they were callously and selfishly willing to sacrifice great art for their cause. But that’s no way to win hearts and minds and no doubt such short-sightedness contributed to their failure. Russia’s Communist revolutionaries were even more short-sighted and ruthless where great art was concerned; if they thought (however absurdly) that artists and musicians such as Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky had to be silenced, then so be it, a small price to pay for utopia (and from there it wasn’t a very big step to persecuting and even murdering hundreds, thousands, millions of their own people for the good of the cause). No wonder they failed too.
But perhaps questions of success or failure are irrelevant here. Perhaps the protesters weren’t bothered about failure – perhaps they even welcomed it, welcomed the opportunity to cast themselves as martyrs for their cause, relished the role of victim as they were hustled off stage. Perhaps that was the whole point of the exercise. Perhaps broadcasting their righteousness, signalling their virtue, seizing the stage as a literal moral high ground from which they could look down on an irresponsibly frivolous and morally inferior humanity, all mattered more to them than the success or failure of their cause. And everyone else – the performers and the audience – be damned, they can jolly well suffer too. We’ll spoil their fun, here’s a hair-shirt for every one of them.
Such selfishness. Shakespeare, inevitably, knew what to say to them:
Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i’the mouth, too.