In the lyrics of The Star Spangled Banner, America is encountered not as a country, a landmass or a population, but as an idea:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I find the US national anthem moving because it works like a cipher for the history of America; at a stroke, it reveals the underlying moral framework by which America seeks to live. It’s not great poetry – “gloomy grave” is plodding, and as anthropomorphism goes, a “triumphant” flag is hardly William Blake – but what works about Francis Scott Key’s words is the idea behind the writing, which acts, flaglike, as something to rally round.
Where can we put our finger on a similarly clear expression of the philosophy of England? Few have explored that idea more provocatively than Timberlake Wertenbaker, whose play Our Country’s Good is currently at the St James Theatre in Victoria, produced by Out of Joint, where I work. The play is set in New South Wales, but its characters are almost universally British or Irish, exiled and set to thinking about identity because a distance has been imposed between themselves and their country. Separated from the habitual contexts of their lives, they turn to wondering who they are. This self-fashioning is always done in the context of the memory of England:
Ralph Clark: We could forget our worries about the supplies, the hangings and floggings, and think of ourselves as at the theatre, in London with our wives and children, that is, we could, euh –
Phillip: Transcend –
Ralph: Transcend the darker, euh – transcend the –
Johnston: Brutal –
Ralph: The brutality – remember our better nature and remember –
England becomes a beautiful idea here, synonymous with the better natures of these men and rising ghostlike above the situation in which they find themselves. But country can mean opposite things:
Wisehammer: It renews you with trees and grass, you go rest in the country, or it crushes you with power: you die for your country, your country doesn’t want you, you’re thrown out of your country.
John Wisehammer has the most involved and nuanced engagement with the idea of his country in Our Country’s Good – partly because his love of language allows him to see that words mean different things depending on who says them, but also because he is Jewish. He protests whenever anyone says this means he isn’t English:
Wisehammer: I was born in England. I’m English. What do I have to do to make people believe I’m English?
Liz Morden: You have to think English. I hate England. But I think English.
Here, another familiar image of England emerges, contrasting starkly with Ralph Clark’s memory:
Arscott: There’s no escape!
Liz: See. That’s English. You know things.
Typical English defeatism, and a typically English attempt at playing worldly-wise from Liz Morden. Ralph Clark tells Wisehammer in the play’s final scene, “the theatre is like a small republic”, and the colony presided over by Governor Phillip is another such small republic: a microcosm in which the breadth of England’s struggles with self-identification are on display.
Perhaps Wertenbaker’s most scintillating engagement with the question of national identity comes in Three Birds Alighting On A Field, which Out of Joint will present a reading of at 4pm this Wednesday, February 13 at the St James. First presented at the Royal Court in 1990, the play is a story about the art world. When I encountered it for the first time at the end of last year, I was captivated by what it had to say about England. At the play’s outset, a gallery owner, facing falling sales, is encouraged to sell work that speaks of England in order to turn his fortunes round. Specifically, he needs to find a living English landscape artist – “to give interviews”, explains the American advisor, who is much taken by the suggestion of one Stephen Ryle, a northern painter: “The North, that’s good. Spirituality. Snow. Yeah.”
Elsewhere, Yoyo Andreas is trying to buy into England with the sponsorship of two operas, while his wife, former Benenden girl Biddy, is finding that money is the only currency that matters in England: “I hadn’t expected this, because you see, my husband is foreign, Greek actually, and I found that not – well, not quite properly English, you know, to be married to a Greek… but he was so rich and I became used to it – him and me: being important.” Englishness is the quality Yoyo longs for above all others. Sitting on the Glyndebourne grass with Biddy, he asks of their house:
Yoyo: why doesn’t it look more English?
Biddy: It did, Yoyo, before you asked me to throw out my grandmother’s things.
Yoyo: All that chipped china and knives that didn’t cut.
Biddy: Yes, well.
Yoyo: And those sofas.
Biddy: I know they were hideous, but that’s English: ugly pieces of furniture one inherits from one’s grandmother.
Liz Morden might be surprised to find her line, ‘That’s English’, in the mouth of Biddy Andreas – but it’s a word whose meaning Wertenbaker has interrogated repeatedly, in wildly differing contexts. The question of identity preoccupies all of Wertenbaker’s characters, as Julia points out to Biddy:
Biddy: I loved being in Venice with you, Julia, but –
Julia: It’s not your identity. Your identity has to come from a man. Otherwise it’s worthless. That’s sick.
Biddy, it seems, needs to live according to some template she is not quite sure of the shape of – she longs for a star spangled banner she can put at the centre of her life, and for want of a better one fixes on a man. But the flags in the play keep changing shape in the wind. Marianne fights to defend art, her standard:
Stephen: This filthy art world scene isn’t sacred to me, Marianne, why is it to you?
Marianne: Because I grew up believing in it, I studied it, I loved it, because I believed in your work, because if even art is a joke, what’s serious?
But no one fights England’s corner. There’s no consensus on what England is in the clubs:
David: You can’t ask him, Philip, he’s one of us now.
Philip: Yes, but who are we?
While Stephen, pictured as Ted Hughes when first introduced (spirituality, snow) sounds more like Larkin when he says, “I paint what is vanishing. As it vanishes.” That will be England gone, indeed. This vanishing world Stephen records is one, he suggests in the play’s final scene, that is effacing and destroying itself:
Stephen: When England began doubting itself, why did it have to stop loving itself? It keeps gashing its own limbs.
Wertenbaker doesn’t gash at England with the contradictory visions of her characters; rather, she dissects. The contradictory voices and visions of England presented in her plays develop into a compelling series of questions for her audience, and in the interplay between them lies the quality I believe Wertenbaker’s work diagnoses as an essential condition of the English: a self-reflexive self-questioning that is audible in the overlapping philosophies of her characters.
Michael Billington, upon attending Peter Gill’s rehearsed reading of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance by John Arden at the Royal Court last year, sang the praises of that “all too rarely seen” play. It strikes me that Three Birds Alighting On A Field, another play which points the machine gun into the audience with its wit and clarity of thought, is another piece of major public playwriting long overdue a revival. For as long as we live under a Conservative administration that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, Wertenbaker’s questioning of the way England reveals itself in its attitudes to money seems to me to be a valuable prompt for new thinking. Stephen Ryle closes the play by observing: “Not daffodils. Foxgloves, fireweed and a wood anemone. And then, only a shape, a colour.” His conclusion asks us to re-evaluate our country, not to see it through Wordsworth’s eyes but to look at it afresh, in all its complexity, to recognise its contours and contradictions without reducing them to one image. There is no more vital role a play can play.
In our own national anthem, what stands out for me as a characteristic we might rally round is the concentration of plural possessive pronouns in the poetry – “our”, “our”, “us”, always falling on a stressed beat, which seems unusual till you notice the pattern (you might assume the Queen would get the most heavily stressed beat in the line). People complain about the English national anthem. They say it’s too much about the Queen, and wish we could sing Jerusalem instead (which also culminates with another self-portrait crowd scene – “till we have built”). It seems to me that the real subject is the people doing the singing. In Wertenbaker’s overlapping voices, the stage is given over fully to them.
Out of Joint are holding a rehearsed reading of Three Birds Alighting on a Field at 4pm on 13th February at the St James Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website.