Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Drama of the Far Future

As they cross London on their way from Hammersmith to visit old Hammond in the British Museum, William Guest and Dick Hammond pass through an exuberant cluster of utopian architecture which contains, on the south side of the road, ‘an octagonal building with a high roof, not unlike the Baptistry at Florence in outline, except that it was surrounded by a lean-to that clearly made an arcade or cloisters to it; it also was most delicately ornamented’ (News from Nowhere, chapter four). The building turns out to be ‘our theatre’, and Dick is particularly concerned that Guest should admire it because ‘I had a hand in it; I made the great doors, which are of damascened bronze’. ‘We will look at them later in the day’, Dick promises; but he and Guest in fact never do, so our one chance to learn more about what kinds of drama flourish in Nowhere is gone for good, and the octagonal theatre will forever remain as silent and enigmatic as the little town of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, from which ‘not a soul to tell/Why thou art desolate, can e’er return’.

Well, Keats’s Grecian urn teases us out of thought; can William Morris’s utopian theatre tease us into thought? We have some excellent accounts of Morris’s actual tastes in drama, contemporary and historical. Nick Salmon has a trenchant article on ‘The Unmanageable Playgoer: Morris and the Victorian Theatre’ (Journal of the William Morris Society, 12.4, Spring 1998, 29-35) and Pamela Bracken Wiens’s introduction to her edition of Morris’s own dramatic experiment, The Tables Turned or Nupkins Awakened (Ohio University Press, 1994), valuably extends Nick Salmon’s thoughts. Such discussions may give us some sense of what might be playing in Nowherian theatres in the immediate ‘Morrow of the Revolution’; but the novel itself also requires us to think very much further ahead than this, towards the ‘future of the full-developed new society’ decades or centuries down the line. We will need, therefore, to be boldly speculative, to draw not only on Morris’s own historical dramatic tastes but on the whole later history of political, modernist and postmodern theatre, if we are to tentatively sketch the lineaments of what might be playing in Nowhere’s octagonal theatre the day that Guest and Dick jog gently past it with Greylocks. And surely News from Nowhere encourages us to do just this. It is, after all, merely ‘some chapters from a utopian romance’ (my emphasis), a heading which licenses us to go on and write other, additional chapters for it, including, I would like to think, one on drama (whose possibility and validity the text has thus architecturally marked out for us in advance).

However, drama in utopia can have its unsettling moments too, as Samuel Delaney’s marvellous novel Triton, one of the new-wave 'critical utopias' of the 1970s, reminds us. For its hero, Bron Helstrom, discovers that his exciting early encounter with an attractive, enigmatic woman in the ‘unlicensed sector’ – rich, it appears, in sexual promise – is actually nothing but a carefully coordinated dramatic performance staged for his benefit alone (‘we’re operating on a Government Arts Endowment to produce micro-theater for unique audiences’). Which might suddenly open up the vertiginious possibility that William Guest’s encounter with his own desirable but disturbing woman, Ellen, on the upper Thames in Morris’s utopia might just be a piece of colourful Nowherian micro-theatre whose theatricality he so painfully fails to grasp …

1 comment:

sumi said...

A piece of Nowherian micro-theatre?! No way! The people in future society are more straightforward. I wouldn't imagine that. On second thought, however, everything imaginative is possible in Nowhere,on the basis of 'no slavery in any form'. I could imagine: Morris thought it his dream, but it's Nowherians that triggered Morris's dream since they were anxious about the miserable state of the past. They found the most resonating mind to respond their desperate call. They (& Morris) might be still trying to contact us for complete equal & creative society. Are we going to respond?