Friday, 7 March 2008

Morris returns to Manchester, March 6th 2008

On Thursday March 6th 2008 William Morris stood at a lecture podium in Manchester for the first time in well over a hundred years. In frock coat and with bristling beard, he glared around at us intensely in the Friends Meeting House and then launched into an impassioned discourse on ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’. In a mood of fierce indignation Morris denounced the ‘competitive commerce’ that had destroyed popular art from the Renaissance onwards. With raised index finger he stabbed accusingly at the middle class who had brought such a dire state of affairs about; with gruff humour he mocked its hypocritical pretensions; and with great sweeping gestures of his arms he opened to us alternative horizons, better possibilities of social living. This was indeed the archetypal Victorian Sage or Prophet, alive, alert, exasperated and denunciatory in every last fibre (and beard hair) of his outraged being.

Naturally, however, it wasn’t that William Morris himself had acquired an early prototype of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine and whizzed vertiginously forwards in it to our own postmodern Mancunian present to harangue us in 2008 as forcefully as he tackled his original nineteenth-century audiences on his one great theme, the relation of Art to Labour. What we were witnessing in the Friends Meeting House was the lecturer and actor Paul O’Keefe, togged up in Victorian costume and Morrisian false beard brilliantly performing ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’ on the very day (March 6th) and in the very city in which it had originally been delivered. The sweat glistened on O’Keefe’s forehead afterwards, as he painfully peeled off his beard, so astonishingly energetic and stentorian had been his rendition of the Morris text – and the audience was almost as emotionally exhausted as he was. None of us, certainly, will ever read the printed words of that lecture in the same way again; they will stir into uneasy, agitated, accusing life before our eyes, and resonate with O’Keefe’s memorably emphatic delivery.

How accurate was such a mode of delivery to what we know of Morris’s own lecture style? There are a vast number of contemporary responses to Morris as a public speaker, and he may himself have had different styles for different subjects (architecture, crafts, socialism), different audiences (middle-class, proletarian) and different locations (indoors, outdoors). I have not been back to check out all the potential references here, but my sense would be that the broad consensus is that, while everybody who heard him was deeply affected by Morris’s evident sincerity of belief and depth of content, they also tended to contrast him with the more flamboyantly and grandly rhetorical speakers of the socialist movement (John Burns, say). He seems not to have held forth in that charismatic, Barack Obama fashion, grandstanding his audience, but rather, I suspect, won them over more gradually, by the cumulative persuasive force of what he was saying and by the doggedly workmanlike manner of delivery; and there are even some contemporary voices who regard him as an ineffectual presence on a public platform. That, at any rate, is my offhand recall of my desultory reading in this field, and I certainly stand open to correction.

So it may be the case that Paul O’Keefe (who also performs Ruskin lectures) played his role with more impassioned fluency and flamboyancy than Morris himself could muster on similar occasions; and perhaps it is indeed that, at this distance in time, we have acquired a powerful generic sense of the post-Carlylean Victorian Sage, savagely indignant about the human abuses of his own period, a Platonic essence or Form which then overrides the particularity of the individual figure being dramatically re-enacted. But whether this is so or not, O’Keefe certainly mesmerised all of us in the Friends Meeting House, and when he turned on us, as Morris eventually in that text does to his audience – ‘You in Lancashire’ – we were jolted momentarily back in our seats with an alarmed sense of self-recognition and class-guilt!

[Left click on image to enlarge it].

1 comment:

Alias Guenevere said...

I just can’t think of anything more astonishing than to bring back to life William Morris! Yet wouldn’t it be extraordinary if the London Theatre Company performed works by Morris adapted for the stage?