And what exactly is it trying to achieve as a piece of theatre?
In January 1939, at the age of 21, a young Jewist art student called Charlotte Salomon left Nazi Germany for the south of France, where she began her extraordinary gouache sequence Life? or Theatre?, working on it daily until the summer of 1942. Its form is a set of paintings with autobiographical text, yet in its subtitle she describes it as “A Play with Music”, image and words intertwined in a series of duets. What it’s able to achieve as a piece of theatre, Jacqueline Rose suggests in her chapter on Salomon in Women in Dark Times, a book so extraordinary that I can’t stop talking about it or referring back to it, is a dissonance that embodies a “counter-fascist ethic”. Whereas Nazism, Rose argues, insisted on eradicating otherness (“You live if the other dies”), Salomon embraced it: “Only a world that recognises the other as other can set you free since the other’s freedom is inseparable from your own (if the other does not live, you die).” And what Effigies of Wickedness achieves as a piece of theatre is that dissonance “which will allow the different voices of the world … to subsist in the same space”.
“We are the buds that grow a little diff –”
with every repetition of the phrase that little syllable “diff” getting sharper, glinting, slicing the air
“– erent from the stiff and rigid trees.”
Is it a celebration of the songs?
Before there was language there was music. Or, as scientist Sarah Faber wrote in what I’m currently describing as The Best Twitter Thread Ever, “music may have evolved as a kind of proto-language, something that had limited communicative capacity, but facilitated social bonding”. Even after it was supplanted by language as “another sound-based communication system, but one that was much more precise”, humans held on to music because “we need music to be imprecise”. Music can communicate across time, across geography, across experiences.
The music banned by the Nazis – much of it composed by Jewish people, much of it inspired by jazz and therefore by people of colour – refused precision. It oozed. It lurched. It was laced with irony. This isn’t to say it lacked exactitude; instead, as singer Peter Brathwaite says of Arnold Schoenburg, it was exacting and precise in using “musical structure to convey equality”, an idea white supremacists still find destabilising.
In her chapter on music in Chaos, Territory, Art, philosopher Elizabeth Grosz looks back on the work of Charles Darwin – whose theories of the survival of the fittest underscore so much supremacist thinking – and finds not only an argument for music as “part of man’s most ancient animal heritage”, dating back to a time before “the progenitors of man had become sufficiently human to treat and value their women as human slaves” (that’s an actual quote from actual Darwin, btw), but a refusal of the idea that music might be “reducible to something useful or practically relevant in everyday life”. From this she argues: “What music and the arts indicate is that (sexual) taste and erotic appeal are not reducible to the pragmatic world of survival … they indicate that those living beings that ‘really live’, that intensify life … bring something new to the world”.
If Effigies of Wickedness is a celebration of songs – and it is – it is also a celebration of the power of music to hold and communicate human history, and the power of looking back to the past the better to imagine the future. There is a song here dating from 1928 – Petroleum Song (Mussels from Margate) by Kurt Weill and Felix Gasbarra – warning against the dangers of oil exploitation: climate change fears are so much older than is recognised by popular understanding.
A re-creation of the Weimar clubs?
July 2017: researchers working with the University College London Urban Laboratory publish a report revealing that in the decade since 2006, 58% of LGBTQI venues in London had closed, a reduction from 125 to 53. A positive spin on this might be that society, and so public spaces, and so individual venues, have become more accepting of LGBTQI people in that time. The word accepting – like tolerant – exposes the flaw in that argument. The truth is more nefarious: a finance-led creep of normativity and conformity, as more and more public space becomes owned by capitalism. I’ve performed a few times at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and before the campaign to save it gathered energy its upper floors were stripped and redecorated in a bland dead-skin grey. Before that those rooms looked a lot like the stage set of Effigies: a mess of sequins, half-broken props, washed-up detritus from ten thousand raucous nights.
Effigies would be a very different beast played in an LGBTQ+ venue like the RVT. There’s no atmosphere of debauchery at the Gate, more a delightful sense of raiding the dressing-up box. It’s like Le Gateau Chocolat says, with exquisite self-mockery: you think you’re in 1920s Berlin and then oh, no, you’re just in M&S shapewear. When I saw Effigies, the night after press night, the between-songs chat still felt a bit polite: I wanted something more unhinged. In Lucy McCormick, that something is there by the bucketload. One moment she leers with a breast hanging out, the next she’s collapsing into a failed deckchair, the next imperiously instructing someone in the audience to pull off her trainers and sweaty socks. Where the other voices shimmer with operatic elegance, hers has a touch of the scrubbing brush to it: in Sex Appeal and Paragraph 218 (Abortion is Illegal) she lets it scour.
The Gate doesn’t work as a cabaret venue, but nor should it. It’s not trying to re-create Weimar clubs. It’s trying to remind us what a catastrophe it would be if we let them all go.
A transposition of them into a contemporary English context?
In Women in Dark Times, Rose writes about several women who, it might superficially seem, are unconnected: Charlotte Salomon and Marilyn Monroe, Shafilea Ahmed, murdered by her family because she refused an arranged marriage, and Yael Bartana, an Israeli artist selected to represent Poland at the 2012 Venice Biennale. And one of the threads of connection she keeps drawing on is the presence of the second world war in a contemporary European context. Quoting historian Tony Judt, she notes: “It is a paradox of post-war Europe … that its recovery was massively facilitated by the homogenisation of populations engendered by fascism. … Europe in the 1950s prospered as a world of hermetic national enclaves, rough edges – meaning vagrant populations – smoothed away. An earlier multicultural Europe, described by Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski as a sizzling melting-pot, had been ‘smashed into the dust’.” In other words, Hitler may have lost the war, but fascism itself won.
The contemporary English context – in particular the context of London, of the Gate – would seem to be that sizzling melting pot. This is the country that defeated fascism, that welcomed fascism’s rejected others: while most of the composers whose work features in Effigies emigrated to the US, Misha Spoliansky – whose Life’s a Swindle doesn’t need transposing to a contemporary English context because it lives and breathes it – found his way to London, where he eventually died in 1985. And yet, how genuinely multicultural is this country, actually? One of Rose’s warnings is against a self-congratulatory politics that does “covert service for racism, injustice or the brute manipulation of Western power”: Britain may have fought Nazism in the 1940s but – from the covert deport-first-appeal-later policy being used to eliminate the Windrush generation to the uncertain status of EU citizens – it’s doing a pretty bad job of fighting fascism in Theresa May’s Home Office and now leadership. And that’s just what’s visible right now: it doesn’t account for years of inequality in the education, housing and employment systems.
At that level, songs like The Ballad of Marie Sanders, written by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler in protest against a law forbidding interracial marriage, don’t need transposing to a contemporary English context: they are that context. Because while the details might have changed, the discrimination hasn’t.
A parable warning against racism creeping into our own society?
I was finding Effigies hard to write about, because by the time I sat down to do so it seemed everyone else had already said everything there is to say, particularly about how good it is. So I’m truly grateful to Andrzej Lukowski for the sequence of questions he posed in his Time Out review, because otherwise I might never have pulled my scattered thoughts into any kind of order. (As anyone who’s been following me on here this week will know, I don’t think it’s possible to overthink anything!) Of all the questions, I find this one the most fascinating and revealing, because – like all the reviews, like mine even – it comes from a perspective of whiteness. No person of colour reviewing this work would see in it a warning against racism creeping into our own society, because they live that racism day after day. More unsettling still is a question posed by Rupert Christiansen in his review in the Telegraph: “Where at the Gate was the edge of danger, the feeling that any moment the SA’s bullyboys might storm in and make brutal arrests?” I want to ask him in return: have you watched that video of the immigration enforcement visit made at 5.30am to the home of Zixuan Qu? How unusual do you think that occurrence is?
Racism isn’t creeping into our society: our society was built on it. Towards the end of Effigies is a deeply unsettling sequence in which singers and musicians stand in a line and take a bow. And another. And another. Gradually their smiles fade, their faces become ghostly, death masks. The applause and laughter chill, the mood in the room palls. We are stuck in a time loop, history not repeating but continual, an ongoing present. “Life is built on logical conclusions,” notes the acerbic chorus of Friedrich Hollaender’s Munchhausen, “what’s the use of living in illusions?” Only this: that without them, without art, without queer visions and the buds that grow a little different, we might never be able to imagine anything else.
Effigies of Wickedness is on until 9 June 2018 at the Gate Theatre. Click here for more details.