Brecht anti-Hitler play Arturo Ui on stage


This video from the USA says about itself:

8 April 2017

Performed by Colorado State University‘s Department of Theatre students. Directed by Walt Jones. WARNING: ADULT LANGUAGE CONTENT.

Bertolt Brecht’s shudderingly accurate parallel between Hitler and his henchmen on the one hand, and the old crime lords of Chicago on the other, is a vigorous eye opener that was produced on Broadway with Christopher Plummer. The Cauliflower Trust in Chicago is in need of help and turns to a racketeer by the name of Arturo Ui to begin a “protection” campaign. His henchmen look astonishingly like Goebbels and Göring. Their activities include “accidental” fires and a St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

The performance was recorded by the RAMProductions student live event production team. RAMProductions was created by the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University with support from Campus Television (CTV), the College of Liberal Arts, and CSU External Relations.

By David Walsh in the USA:

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: Bertolt Brecht’s parable play about the rise of Hitler

17 October 2017

Left-wing German dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a parable play about the political ascension of Adolf Hitler, was staged this month by the Department of Theatre and Drama at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Brecht, a refugee from Nazi Germany, wrote the play in several weeks in March and April 1941 while he was in Finland, awaiting a visa for the US. Arturo Ui was not produced until 1958, two years after Brecht’s death, and not in English until 1961—although it was originally intended for the American stage.

The Ann Arbor production took considerable and conscientious care with Brecht’s play and its concerns. The present world situation and the situation in the US in particular were clearly on the minds of the director, Malcolm Tulip, Assistant Professor of Theatre, and the student-actors.

The satirical play creates a parallel between the career of the Nazi leader and the rise of a fictional Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui. In a note in his journal for March 10, 1941, Brecht observed that he was “thinking of the American theatre, again struck by the idea I once had in New York, of writing a gangster play, that would recall certain events familiar to us all (the gangster play we know).” The latter of course referred to the career and coming to power of Hitler.

Although the play—divided into 15 scenes, a prologue and an epilogue—is designed to bring to mind specific historical events, the dramatist took pains to give “the ‘masking’ (which is an unmasking) some life of its own, i.e., it must … also work independently of its topical references,” otherwise “people would constantly be looking for the ‘meaning’ of this or that move, and would always be looking for the real-life model for every figure.”

Brecht succeeded to a considerable degree, although Nazism and Germany are never far from view, nor intended to be.

The play follows the efforts of Ui, a thug down on his luck, to worm his way into and eventually dominate the vegetable trade in Chicago, and beyond. Times are hard for the “cauliflower trust,” a group of businessmen (Flake, Caruther, Butcher, Mulberry and Clark). “It looks as if Chicago/The dear old girl, while on her way to market/Had found her pocket torn and now she’s starting/To scrabble in the gutter for her pennies.”

The trust members succeed in getting the widely respected—but corrupt—businessman, Dogsborough (“The good old honest Dogsborough!/His hair is white, his heart is black”), to help obtain a loan for their business from city hall. Arturo Ui uses his knowledge of the illicit practices to make a deal with Dogsborough: Ui and his men will shield Dogsborough from an investigation, and the latter will protect the gangsters from the local police.

Once he has taken over the vegetable trade in Chicago, and rubbed out a malcontent in his own ranks, Ernesto Roma, in an evocation of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Ui sets his sights on Cicero. Ui has journalist Ignatius Dullfeet murdered, out of fear of his muckraking articles, and proceeds to woo Dullfeet’s widow, Betty (“Now you stand defenceless/In a cold world where, sad to say, the weak/Are always trampled. You’ve got only one/Protector left. That’s me, Arturo Ui.”).

Having won out in Cicero, Ui has plans to expand rapidly his operations all over the country:

“Peace in Chicago’s vegetable trade
Has ceased to be a dream. Today it is
Unvarnished reality. And to secure
This peace I have put in an order
For more machine-guns, rubber truncheons
Etcetera. For Chicago and Cicero
Are not alone in clamouring for protection.
There are other cities: Washington and Milwaukee!
Detroit! Toledo! Pittsburgh! Cincinnati!
And other towns were vegetables are traded!
Philadelphia! Columbus! Charleston! And New York!
They all demand protection! And no ‘Phooey!’
No ‘That’s not nice!’ will stop Arturo Ui!”

If Ui corresponds to Hitler, his henchmen Giuseppe Givola, Emanuele Giri and Ernesto Roma suggest Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring and Ernst Röhm (murdered on Hitler’s orders in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934), respectively. Dogsborough stands in for President Paul von Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and Dullfeet represents Engelbert Dollfuss, the right-wing Austrian chancellor assassinated by Nazi agents in July 1934.

The plays also includes an episode that alludes to the notorious Reichstag fire, the “terrorist” arson attack on the German parliament in February 1933 that the Hitler regime used as a pretext to institute dictatorial measures and carry out mass arrests of Communist Party members.

Its rich, captivating language is one of Arturo Ui ’s great strengths. As Stephen Parker in his recent biography of Brecht notes, “There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Julius Caesar, and of Goethe’s Faust, as well as of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Brecht’s use of roughly hewn blank verse in the grand style of the verse drama brilliantly counterpoints the sordid content of the dialogue.”

At any rate, the savage irony of gangsters declaiming in high-flown fashion, while plotting arson and murder, is only a slightly exaggerated and “unmasked” expression of the everyday reality of bourgeois political life, especially in our day.

It is all very amusing and very sinister at the same time, including the scene in which a second-rate actor tutors Ui on how to walk, stand, sit and speak (based on an actual incident). The scene concludes with Ui reciting Mark Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body in Julius Caesar, “a model of demagogy.”

The play makes a strong impression, much stronger, in my view, than the works of that period for which Brecht is far better known, Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, all of which suffer from political discouragement and an artistically pat and ultimately unconvincing approach. Arturo Ui is something of a revival of the sort of bitter, lively satire to be found in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929-31) and other earlier works.

The epilogue, spoken by the actor who plays Ui, is powerful and memorable (in any of the various translations):

“Therefore learn how to see and not to gape
To act instead of taking all day long
The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape
The womb he crawled from is still going strong.”

In the recent Ann Arbor production of Arturo Ui the décor was minimal, with few props or concrete references to Chicago or Germany. “We’re putting canvas on the floor,” director Malcolm Tulip told journalist Hugh Gallagher. “Brecht loved the idea of theater being like a boxing ring.”

The actors, all in white face, threw themselves into the work. Clearly, the present political and social conjuncture was a factor. Tulip told Gallagher, according to the latter, that “last year’s presidential campaign rhetoric made Brecht’s play appropriate for the times and the early stages of Trump’s administration have only increased the play’s immediacy.”

The director himself explained: “When Charlottesville happened, it was really out there with the Nazi symbols, the far-right symbols, it became more and more relevant. … People say, ‘Well, you’re doing this because of Trump,’ and I say, ‘No. We’re doing the play because we’re asking the question ‘how does a mass of people put a person in power when that person might not work in the best interests of the mass of people?’ I think Brecht was looking at that, too. It wasn’t just about Hitler but about the people who put Hitler in power.”

Jesse Aaronson, who does an excellent job as Ui, told the same journalist, “I spent a lot of the summer researching Hitler … I read parts of Mein Kampf, which was very difficult reading—one, because it’s poorly written; the translation I read focused on how Hitler wrote it, which was mad scrawlings.”

Aaronson added, “With Hitler, you can’t pass him off as a madman. … He was very successful, he had the support of the people most of the time, and figuring out why that happened and how it happened has been a really interesting part of the process for me.”

“He was going to make Germany great again, he was the original make-the-country-great-again, he really was. … He toured the country and said to the people, ‘I’m the guy for you.’” Aaronson wears a long red tie at one point.

The recognition of the threat represented by Donald Trump, Steven Bannon and the extreme right is entirely legitimate, and it is critical that students and young people are turning to a study of the historical issues and parallels.

However, the allusion to Hitler’s popularity and similar views underscore weaknesses in Brecht’s play and political standpoint.

When he portrays the support of big business for Hitler and the cowardly response or complicity of petty bourgeois layers, Brecht was on the mark. However, when the playwright moralized, “The play is not so much an attack on Hitler, but rather upon the complacency of the people who were able to resist him, but didn’t,” he was leaving out the decisive issue: the role of the parties that supposedly represented the German working class and were charged with defeating fascism through the socialist transformation of society. Hitler was only able to come to power through the bankruptcy, impotence and betrayals of those organizations.

Hitler’s horrible rise was indeed “resistible,” but Brecht’s remarkable play provides only a portion of the answer as to who was responsible for its coming to pass.

Anthony Scaramucci’s new media organization is sparking outrage for a poll question asking readers how many Jews they thought had been murdered during the Holocaust. Tweeters accused The Scaramucci Post, which President Donald Trump’s former communications director launched in September, of pandering to Holocaust deniers by asking its 24,000-plus Twitter followers this question on Tuesday morning: here.

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African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, new film


This 8 September 2017 video from the USA is called Sighted Eye/Feeling Heart – Official Trailer.

By Joanne Laurier in the USA:

African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry

4 October 2017

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Tracy Heather Strain’s new documentary Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart chronicles the life of African-American writer Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), famed author of A Raisin in the Sun, a play about black working class life in Chicago in the 1950s. Strain’s movie takes its title from Hansberry’s contention that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”

Filmmaker Strain was the coordinating producer for the 2016 documentary, The Mine Wars/American Experience, about the West Virginia coal miners’ uprisings in the early 20th century.

Lorraine Hansberry was politically and artistically influenced by and personally knew historian W.E.B. Dubois, singer Paul Robeson and poet Langston Hughes among other significant African American intellectuals. The title of A Raisin in the Sun comes from Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred,” in which he asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, Or does it explode?”

Strain’s documentary combines fascinating archival material and interview footage of Hansberry, as well as Anika Noni Rose’s reading of Hansberry’s words. It presents a straightforward and enlightening picture of a woman who was smart, sensitive and rebellious, tragically dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34.

Hansberry was born in Chicago during the Great Depression. When her family moved to a “hellishly hostile white neighborhood”, her father became involved in a battle to end restrictive housing covenants that prohibited the sale of houses to African Americans, Jews and others.

At the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, Lorraine Hansberry joined the Communist Party, through the medium of the Henry Wallace campaign. Moving to New York City, Hansberry then worked for Paul Robeson’s magazine, Freedom. In 1953, she met songwriter and activist Robert Nemiroff on a picket line in New York, and they soon married. (Nemiroff co-wrote the song “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” famously recorded by Eddie Fisher in the 1950s). The couple divorced in 1962, and Hansberry later became an activist for gay rights.

Debuting on Broadway in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun made Hansberry, at age 29, the youngest American and the first black playwright to win the Best Play of the Year Award from the New York Drama Critics. A film version of the play was released in 1961, featuring its original Broadway cast of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Louis Gossett, Jr., among others.

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart does not shy away from the fact that Hansberry, like other black artists, such as Robeson, novelist Richard Wright, singer-actor Harry Belafonte, Dee and Hughes, turned to the Communist Party, seeing the fight against racism as part of the fight against capitalism.

That A Raisin in the Sun was not an exclusivist work, that it was intended to illuminate the lives of working people of all races and ethnicities, helped account for its wide popular appeal.

“Mama: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change. . .

Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.” (A Raisin in the Sun)

According to director Strain, Hansberry was influenced, among other works, by Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1924), a play about the Dublin slums during the Irish civil war in 1922. Hansberry’s play is humane and sincere. If it does not rise to the dramatic heights of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock or The Plough and the Stars (1926), the stagnant, conformist atmosphere in the US has a great deal to do with it.

Interestingly, Hansberry’s friend, singer Nina Simone, quipped that when she and the writer got together, “It was always about Marx, Lenin and revolution—typical girl talk.” In his memoirs, another friend, Belafonte, states that in his early years, he moved in circles of “socialists and communists [who] embraced the working class as the bedrock of a new political order.” Notably, on June 18, 1953, on the eve of their marriage, Hansberry and Nemiroff were picketing the Chicago Federal Building against the execution scheduled for the following day of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Communist Party members who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

Hansberry once wrote: “A status not freely chosen or entered into by an individual or a group is necessarily one of oppression and the oppressed are by their nature (i.e., oppressed) forever in ferment and agitation against their condition and what they understand to be their oppressors. If not by overt rebellion or revolution, then in the thousand and one ways they will devise with and without consciousness to alter their condition.”

It is not clear when Hansberry left the Communist Party. In an interview with Harold Isaacs, she apparently told him that she “had quietly left in the late 1950s.” FBI spies concluded that Hansberry had quit the party before its 1957 convention. …

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart includes a video clip of the 1963 meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Hansberry, Belafonte, James Baldwin and other civil rights activists, which ended with Hansberry’s walkout. The documentary does not mention that after the meeting Kennedy ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to increase the surveillance on Baldwin and several others. One of the results was an FBI report labeling the gay Baldwin a “pervert” and “communist.”

A few citations from A Raisin in the Sun may help shed light on Hansberry’s political thinking and her general view of life. The universality of her concerns is expressed in lines such as these: “I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time. What has He got to do with anything?… I’m not going to be immoral or commit crimes because I don’t believe. I don’t even think about that. I just get so tired of Him getting the credit for things the human race achieves through its own effort. Now, there simply is no God. There’s only man. And it’s he who makes miracles.”

Or this passage that speaks to the question of class: “Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the ‘tooken.’ I’ve figured it out finally. Yeah. Some of us always getting ‘tooken.’”

… Tracy Heather Strain’s Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart provides a valuable examination of a remarkable, courageous woman who fought against the existing social order on the grounds that “an oppressive society oppresses everyone.”

In a 1988 introduction to A Raisin in the Sun, Nemiroff wrote that the play “will remain no less pertinent. For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration, and human relationships—the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever the forms it may take, and for individual fulfillment, recognition, and liberation—that are at the heart of such plays. It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.”

Ancient Greek fable and American raccoons’ intelligence


This February 2017 video is called The Surprising Intelligence of Raccoons.

From ScienceDaily:

Raccoons solve an ancient puzzle, but do they really understand it?

Study investigates whether mammals understand the principles of water displacement

September 29, 2017

Scientists have been using an ancient Greek fable written by Aesop as inspiration to test whether birds and small children understand cause and effect relationships. In “The Crow and the Pitcher“, a thirsty crow realises it should drop stones into a pitcher in order to raise the water level high enough so that the bird is able to drink it. A group of US scientists led by Lauren Stanton of the University of Wyoming have now extended this body of work to study raccoon intelligence. Their research in Springer’s journal Animal Cognition is the first to use the Aesop’s Fable paradigm to assess if mammalian carnivores understand the principles of water displacement.

The research team included Sarah Benson-Amram and Emily Davis from the University of Wyoming, as well as Shylo Johnson and Amy Gilbert from the USDA National Wildlife Research Center, where the experiments were performed. The scientists first tested whether eight raccoons (Procyon lotor) held in captivity would spontaneously drop stones into a clear fifty centimetre tube of water to retrieve floating pieces of marshmallow. They found that, similar to studies of birds, the raccoons did not spontaneously drop stones into the tube from the start.

Following previous studies on birds and human children, the scientists then trained the raccoons to drop stones into the tube. They did this by balancing stones on a rim on top of the tube. If the raccoons accidently knocked the stones in, this raised the water level high enough to bring the marshmallow reward within reach. Raccoons could then learn that the stones falling into the tube brought the marshmallow closer.

During training, seven raccoons interacted with the stones, and four raccoons retrieved the marshmallow reward after accidentally knocking the stones into the water. Two of the four raccoons that got the marshmallow during training then learned on their own to pick up stones off the ground and drop them into the water to get a reward. A third raccoon surprised the scientists by inventing an entirely new method for solving the problem. She found a way to overturn the entire, very heavy, tube and base to get the marshmallow reward.

The two raccoons that successfully dropped stones into the tube were then presented with different objects that they could drop into the tube to solve the problem, such as large versus small stones, and sinking versus floating balls. These experiments enabled the researchers to determine whether the raccoons really understood the problem. If the raccoons understand water displacement, they should select the objects that displace the most water, like the large stones and sinking balls.

The raccoons performed differently than birds and human children did in previous Aesop’s Fable studies, and they did not always pick the most functional option. Stanton, however, believes the raccoons’ performance is not necessarily a reflection of their cognitive abilities, but more so of their exploratory behaviour and the build of their dexterous paws.

“We found raccoons to be innovative in many aspects of this task, and we observed diverse, investigative behaviours that are unique to raccoons”, says Stanton, adding that the way in which the experiment was conducted might also have played a role. She explains that the raccoons had fewer opportunities to interact with the puzzle than did many of the birds that were tested in previous studies. Therefore, the performance of the raccoons might improve if they have more time to familiarize themselves with the stones and the water tube.

Despite the low success rates of the raccoons, Benson-Amram is optimistic about running more experiments with raccoons. As Benson-Amram explains “Our study demonstrates that captive raccoons are able to learn to solve novel problems and that they approach classic tests of animal cognition in diverse and exciting ways. We can’t wait to see what they do next.”

British Grenfell Tower disaster and poetry


This 4 July 2017 poetry video is called Grenfell Britain by Potent Whisper.

By Bethany Rielly in Britain:

‘What happened at Grenfell was an act of war’

Wednesday 13th September 2017

Spoken-word artist POTENT WHISPER talks to Bethany Rielly about the disaster that exposed the deep and dangerous divisions splitting Britain down the middle

THE GRENFELL disaster opened a chasm between rich and poor, exacerbated by a media and political Establishment which ignores and disconnects itself from such communities.

But there are people who have always represented and spoken up for them — artists.

While much of the press held back about how and why the fire happened, they immediately shouted the truth. It happened because the residents of Grenfell Tower are poor.

“What happened at Grenfell, that was an act of war/The murder of innocent people who died because they’re poor”, is the chilling opening of Potent Whisper’s spoken-word piece Grenfell Britain.

Along with Lowkey, Akala and Stormzy, the rapper and spoken-word artist from south-west London — aka Georgie Stephanou — was commended in Parliament as being one of the poet laureates of the disaster by Kensington’s Labour MP Emma Dent Coad.

His piece, released on YouTube shortly after the deadly fire, is an unflinching attack on Kensington and Chelsea Council, Grenfell’s Tenant and Management Organisation and the wider factors which have been eating away at social housing and endangering and displacing tenants for years.

The piece, performed in an estate in Woolwich, south-east London, acts as an auditory guide. It explains in detail who should be held to account, their exact role in the disaster and, more importantly, what we can do to ensure Grenfell residents get justice. “If you want revenge there’s many names to get your tongues on/Very many companies and many hands with blood on/But we won’t let any of those devils pass the buck on.”

This is Potent’s trademark and it links many of his works aiming to empower people with the knowledge they need to take action and resist.

“Perhaps the greatest attack on the British public is the deliberate lack of information and false information being provided by the mainstream media,” he tells me. “A person cannot defend themselves unless they first come to realise that they are being attacked.”

This is often the case when estates are targeted for regeneration. The demolition and rebuilding of social housing is often packaged as being “for” the community but in reality tenants are kicked out of their homes and the new builds are sold on the open market with little or no social housing in sight.

Through rhyme, Potent breaks down complicated and deliberately misrepresented issues such as regeneration, translating politicians’ garble into accessible prose.

As a result he considers himself and other artists to be the “people’s media,” whose role it is to inform and arm communities with information.

The threat of regeneration features heavily in Grenfell Britain and follows a previous spoken-word piece Estate of War, released earlier this year.

In it, Potent warns tenants that if their homes are found to be unsafe in the wake of Grenfell, it could be used as an excuse to tear them down.

Knowing the fate of those who lived on London’s Heygate and Aylesbury estates — to name just two — Potent exposes what regeneration really means: “They’ll smash down your homes/You’ll get dashed out and cashed in/You’ll be on the streets in a click, it happens that quick.”

The 28-year-old is an activist as well as an artist. In heavily gentrified Brixton, he’s a wellknown and respected figure, having co-lead the Save Brixton Arches campaign against the mass eviction of a row of independent businesses and has challenged everything from library closures to Trident.

But his fight for the rights of social tenants is a more personal one. Growing up on an estate in a single-parent home, he and his mum routinely faced abuse by council staff, were threatened with eviction and denied vital repairs to their home.

“As a child I quickly learned that life would be quite the battle and that I, like my mum, would have to go on to fight for even my most basic needs,” he says.

With years of campaigning against gentrification, regeneration and evictions under his belt, Potent knows more than most how deeply connected the Grenfell disaster is to wider housing struggles across the country.

“The incident was caused by an amalgamation of factors that have been and continue to cause the suffering and death of social housing residents across Britain,” he explains.

“They include placing profit before people, the human cost of austerity, the destruction and violence of estate regeneration, the dehumanisation of working class people and the failures of housing legislation.”

He stresses that this is the context Grenfell must be viewed in. The disaster is a consequence of Grenfell Britain, in which nurses use foodbanks to survive, people with disabilities die after being declared fit for work and social tenants burn to death because money is valued above the lives of the poor.

“Every single day we’re seeing Grenfell killings/We suffer corruption is a Grenfell system/This isn’t Great Britain, it’s Grenfell Britain,” Potent declares and the piece ends how it starts, with a chilling battle cry: “Their screams are burnt into our minds/And their names into our hearts/The fire might be out but a rage has been sparked/It’s a rage that will blaze on every street, with every march/There won’t be a day of peace until justice comes to pass.”

His words still resonate deeply three months after the deadly fire. In that time, we’ve witnessed the Grenfell survivors treated with the same contempt that killed their family members and neighbours.

We’ve seen the repulsively rich reject them as their neighbours in a luxury block for fear they would “bring down the local property prices”. We’ve seen probe chair Martin Moore-Bick try to remove the social context from the inquiry.

And we’ve seen local councils continue to push through their regeneration programmes.

The deaths of more than 80 people have done little to change the Establishment but, as Potent warns, the rage it has sparked will not stop “until justice comes to pass.”

Potent Whisper’s Grenfell Britain is on YouTube. He’ll be appearing at a fundraiser for the Morning Star with singer-songwriter Lilly Gaskell on October 14 at the Constitution pub, 42 St Pancras Way, London NW1 0QT. The event starts at 7pm and tickets (£10/£5 reductions) are available from Mary, maryado2000@yahoo.co.uk

London’s Grenfell Tower fire, Ben Okri poem


This video says about itself:

26 June 2017

‘Grenfell Tower, June, 2017’ is a poem written by Nigerian writer Ben Okri. To raise funds for relatives of victims of the Grenfel Tower fire, and for survivors.

By Paul Bond in Britain:

Poet Ben Okri on London’s Grenfell Tower fire: “It has revealed the undercurrents of our age

11 September 2017

The fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14 that killed at least 80 people has had an immediate impact on political life in Britain. It has had an impact on artistic expression too. There have been fundraising concerts, of course, but direct creative responses are also appearing.

Within days of the conflagration, the Financial Times commissioned a poem on the tragedy from the Booker-Prize-winning Nigerian author Ben Okri. The newspaper published Grenfell Tower, June 2017 on June 23 and Okri subsequently filmed it for Channel 4 News.

The poem encapsulates well the position now confronted by artists. Okri’s performance is dignified and moving, pointing to the work’s stronger aspects. As poetry, however, it is not so uniformly convincing.

Okri reveals a deep empathy for the victims and a disbelieving horror at the criminal administrative decisions that led to the tragedy. He recognises that this is not an individual failure. Okri’s declaration “It has revealed the undercurrents of our age” is absolutely on point.

Within certain limits, the poem points to the gulf between rich and poor and how each is treated. As Okri puts it in the poem, “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.” Grenfell has forced home the realisation that class remains the fundamental division in society. In Okri’s words, “Poverty is its own/Colour, its own race … They were young/And old and beautiful and middle aged.”

This recognition of the importance of class brings with it a requirement to see what lies behind such a division of society. Okri recognises the capitalist profit motive in the decisions that led to Grenfell: “It happened in the profit margins. It happened/in the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.”

With this in mind, the poem summarises the spending decisions made around Grenfell, from the deadly cladding intended to prettify the tower for its rich neighbours to the skimping on safety measures. “But in twenty four storeys, not a single sprinkler./In twenty four storeys, not a single alarm that worked./In twenty four storeys not a single fire escape/ … That’s the story of our times,” Okri writes.

In the poem’s final passage, Okri points more broadly to the way social and cultural provisions are being axed—“Nurseries and libraries fade from the land”—and concludes “In this age of austerity/the poor die for others’ prosperity.” He also recognises the gulf that has developed in political representation, although he seems to blame the working class for this with his comment about “The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them.”

None of this is quite so pointed as it appears. The empathy of the poem is Okri’s solution as well as response. He is clearly sincere in his feeling for the victims, but he is addressing himself here above all to those in power with an appeal to pay closer attention to the effects of their actions (“…if you can pull/Yourselves from your tennis games and your perfect dinners”).

“A sword of fate hangs over the deafness of power,” he writes, clumsily, suggesting that they just need to listen better in order to avoid a ferocious reaction. If only they would go and see the horror of Grenfell and witness the way the local community has rallied round, he seems to be saying, their humanity could be revived—“See the tower, and let a new world-changing thought flower”—and politics overcome: “The heart reveals itself beyond political skills.”

It is noteworthy that the “See the tower …” line is part of a repeated chorus that punctuates the poem, and what will flower is, in sequence, a “dream,” a “deed” and finally this “thought.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, with its determination to “teach … injured countrymen how to resist” (as Mary Shelley described it), Okri’s poem is not.

There has been a noticeable tendency lately for poems on social themes to be primarily performance pieces, often written by poets who emerged from the rap scene (poet and spoken-word artist Kate Tempest springs to mind). What makes a good performance poem, given the flexibilities of the medium, does not always look so convincing on the page, particularly with directly documentary political pieces like this by Okri.

Okri is perhaps best known as a novelist. His novelistic style relies much more on what he has called a “dream logic” than his more directly political poetry. This poem works much better heard aloud than read, allowing some of the clumsier and more trite imagery and lines to become more obvious. The poem is largely free verse, and its occasional rhymes are not always beneficial, as in the particularly awkward concluding passage already quoted:

“Nurseries and libraries fade from the land.
A strange time is shaping on the strand.
A sword of fate hangs over the deafness of power.
See the tower, and let a new world-changing thought flower.”

I have already commented on “the deafness of power,” but the previous line reads as if written mainly to fill the couplet.

The poem’s chorus, each line of which is also used as a refrain to close a stanza, is also rhymed and awkwardly scanned:

“Those who were [are] living are now dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.
See the tower, and let a world-changing dream [deed/thought] flower.”

Not all of the poetic imagery is unsuccessful, by any means, and some of the political points are well served by the imagery, as in his description of “ … Political cladding,/Economic cladding, intellectual cladding—things that look good/But have no centre, have no heart, only moral padding.”

Grenfell has thrown a spotlight on how artists will respond to changing times and conditions. The sincerity of Okri’s feeling for the victims is not and should not be in question, as is clear from his reaction to graffiti artist Ben Eine’s use of his poem in an east London mural: “Anything that can draw attention to that outrage to humanity, anything that can commemorate the dead and help the survivors has my support,” he told the Evening Standard.

Eine’s Shoreditch mural was the first contribution to a social justice art project, Paint the Change, founded by filmmaker Maziar Bahari as a way of discussing social issues through the arts.

The question of artistic and social interaction has come up even more sharply in the area around Grenfell Tower. Nearby, Opera Holland Park (OHP), whose front-of-house worker Deborah Lamprell died in the fire, staged a benefit performance of Verdi’s Requiem a month ago, raising £40,000 [US$53,000] for survivors.

OHP became an independent charitable organisation two years ago, when the last of its local council funding was cut. At the time there was criticism that the company was given a final £5 million grant from council reserves to enable it to continue its accessibility and outreach schemes at the same time as local services were under threat. As one protester said, “It’s high time [the council] stopped spending money on art frippery and concentrated on providing vital services.”

Michael Volpe, OHP’s general director, outlined the conundrum to the Guardian: “If we were asked the question: ‘Should money be spent on opera or social housing?,’ you’d only get one answer. But we don’t believe it should be a choice” [emphasis added].

He is right. The crisis that Grenfell has laid bare touches on every aspect of social and cultural life. Artistic responses are a significant part of the necessary addressing of this crisis. They have the ability to influence the thinking and feeling of masses of human beings. But for this to happen the artist must know something important about the world, society and history and to show life and reality as they are and not retreat into self-absorption and social indifference.

Grenfell is a sign that we have entered a new stage of development. The economic and social crisis, along with relentless wars and militarist violence, are fueling popular discontent and have created the conditions for an immense movement to the left that will lead inevitably to revolutionary struggles.

It is giving artists the opportunity to understand and reveal the truth about the complex, often confusing and intense experiences that millions of people are passing through.

Jewish British poet Michael Rosen’s memoirs


This video from Britain says about itself:

Compilation from – A Great Big Cuddle – Kids’ Poems and Stories With Michael Rosen

8 September 2017

Here is a compilation video of me performing poems from my book, ‘A Great Big Cuddle – Poems For The Very Young’, with pictures by Chris Riddell, published by Walker Books.

Michael Rosen

Video directed by Joe Rosen. Go behind the scenes and see how it was made: here.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Memoirs of a ‘nothing’ who became a much-loved figure

Monday 11th September 2011

So They Call you Pisher!

by Michael Rosen

(Verso, £16.99)

MICHAEL ROSEN is known to numberless children as a marvellously entertaining performer of his own poetry, to grown-ups as a regular broadcaster on BBC language programmes and to Guardian readers as the regular writer of Letter from a Curious Parent, which reveals the crass and destructive policies that the government imposes on the education system.

This hugely engaging memoir excavates the theatre of the mind and memory both as a search for identity and a way of expressing his deeply affectionate but ambiguous feelings for his own father who, unlike his mum, he calls Harold throughout.

Michael’s parents, Harold and Connie Rosen — both prominent educationists — came from a working-class, secular Jewish background.

They were committed socialists and, during most of Rosen’s early life, members of the Communist Party.

The final chapter of the book details Rosen’s extensive efforts to trace all the uncles, aunts and their children who were among the great “disappeared” in nazi Europe, people that Harold had been strangely reluctant to show or communicate interest in.

Rosen tells his father posthumously that he is using the education his aspiring parents had worked so determinedly to give him because “I didn’t want the nazis to be successful in disappearing” his unknown family and his and Harold’s human heritage.

The Yiddish term pisher, Rosen tells us, means “a pissy little person, a nothing” and he emerges from this feast of detailed memories from childhood and through schools and university as a person always ready to defy the arrogance, pomposity and smug self-confidence of authority.

He marries an insatiable curiosity with a writing style which distances his present self from his memories — “being in the moment and outside it” — making them all the more vivid. His anarchic humour, which is the hallmark of his children’s poetry, threads throughout.

In his Oxford final English literature examination he painted on the back of the obligatory academic gown “Hell’s Angels. Jeff Chaucer.”

There is a wealth of historical observation in Rosen’s childhood and adolescent memories — summer camp in East Germany, the 1968 student turmoil, CND demos — and the man who grows through these formative times emerges as a benevolent and warm-hearted human being.

His father would be proud of him.