I’ve just been writing an essay on Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind which I’ll put up tomorrow. I’ve realised that my writing style has a tendency to imbibe and imitate whatever critic I’m reading at the time. This week it was Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, which probably accounts for sentences such as ‘For the West Wind is the deity which, paradoxically, heralds in its own destruction… the frantic dancing priestess whose funeral dirge is linked through dance to the Hindu God of destruction Shiva’. Which is pure Bloom, flamboyant and ridiculously esoteric. It’s a brilliant writing style to read and clearly its infectious, and doesn’t bother me all that much. After all if I already had my own mature, developed writing style I wouldn’t be subjecting myself to this furious essay writing crusade.

What is of slightly more concern is when the ideas – which in Bloom’s case I disagree with more or less without exception – begin to exert their influence (and only now am I slightly anxious about using that term) over the argument. I’m sometimes blinded by the newest idea I’ve assimilated, and just like a bright light it’s stuck itself on my retina for a moment, so that I begin to see things in the text that aren’t really there.

Consequently, whether Shelley really means to see poetry as ‘born out of struggle and destruction… only able to provide release by destroying its own inspiration’, perhaps will only become clear when I reread this essay in a few weeks time. If I’m then under the influence of some other critical bias, then perhaps a whole sequence of these misreadings will potentially circle upon the real meaning. In this way I can hope to trully overcome this ‘anxiety of influence’ that I actually don’t even believe in.

John Synge – The Playboy of the Western World (A theatre review)

I went to see this production a few days ago at the Old Vic so I thought I’d write up what I thought of it… It was good. Having neither read the play nor seen any other productions, I’ll assume that play and production are one and the same for the sake of this review…

This is a fascinating piece of drama for the complexity of feeling it arouses. You can see why the first productions started riots: beneath the virile, musical dialogue and flamboyant performances and stagecraft, lies a moral and philosophical discourse that is deeply unsettling even to an audience today – we could describe it as nihilistic pastoral. The protagonist, Christie Mahon, arrives in a rural Irish pub claiming he’s killed his father. The story enthrals the villagers, and turns Mahon from self-effacing social outcast to a ‘playboy of the western world’.

When it comes to light that his father is in fact still alive and chasing after him, the villagers turn against Mahon and hand him over to his father. Christie’s second attempted parricide, far from bringing the renewed devotion of the villagers, causes a vindictive disgust amongst them, and they prepare to hand him over to be hung. When Christie’s father reveals himself to still be alive and seeks to make reparations with him, Christie rejects everyone and leaves to seek a new life, this time armed with a true story that will bring him fortune elsewhere.

What this summary perhaps draws attention to is the play’s complete lack of faith in the idea of natural human sympathy, human kindness and principles. Contemporary audiences saw the play as a slight on the Irish character, and certainly the portrayal of rural Irish community is fairly unsympathetic. One exception is found in the character of Pegeen – a role very attentively performed by whoever performed it – who we as an audience attach to from the very first scene. Her pride, scepticism and seriousness are attractive in contrast with the foolery of her father and suitor at the start of the play. The way her own vindictive ignorance is revealed at the end seems almost a comment on us: Synge is making us aware that no one escapes this dark conception of human character.

The change in Christie’s character, brilliantly acted in this production, suggests that human character is governed by forces far less permanent than personality and morality. Rather, we are at the whim of chance and the erratic affections and hatreds of others – the play seems to reject the idea of ‘soul’ and ‘being’ and replace it with the far more contingent ‘story’.

It is this value placed on the idea of ‘story’ that inspires the absorbing, beautiful dialogue of the play – its richness seeming to jar against the nihilistic characterization. By so consciously enjoying its own language, the play seems to offer a hope of escape or alternative in language itself, offering perhaps something more fixed and trustworthy in language than can be found in humankind.

A really enjoyable production, I’d strongly recommend it. It’s hilarious at times and absorbing from start to finish, but the dark current of meaning leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.