Books: Glued to the Box : Moral imagination | clivejames.com
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Moral imagination

Existentialists have to remake their personalities every day. Last week Jean-Paul Sartre finally ran out of chances to remake his.

For someone so clever he was a hard man to like. There is not much point in hating torturers, who are the way they are. But there is good reason to despise a philosopher who, self-proclaimedly free to choose what he shall think, goes on and on providing justification for the sort of regime that employs torture as a matter of course.

It is a moot point whether Sartre went on backing Stalin and Mao because he couldn’t see how ruthless they were or because he could and liked it. (Actually the point isn’t moot at all, since he was very well informed, but the dead should have the benefit of the doubt.) Perhaps he was taking revenge for his bad eye. In the news programme last week it was usually staring off to camera right while the good eye looked straight at you. The ITN announcer called him Jeanne-Paul Sartre, thereby proving that forgetfulness sets in fast.

What Sartre lacked was a moral imagination. He had everything else, but could never grasp the elementary principle that ends do not justify means. Lionel Goldstein, author of an excellent ‘Play for Today’ called The Executioner (BBC ), would probably not be able to match Sartre’s power of abstract thought, but can think rings around him when it comes to the concrete subject of morality. Played with quiet force by Paul Rogers, the Executioner of the title was a one-time officer in the Polish Army who, while travelling through West Germany in 1979, suddenly finds himself under arrest. In January 1945, while serving with the Allied armies of liberation, he had killed a captured German officer. By putting him on trial the German prosecutor (Robert Stephens) hopes to prove the law’s impartiality and thereby get the statute of limitations lifted so that he can go on bringing the other kind of war criminal to justice.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, the Executioner turns out to have been a Jew all along. The man he killed was an unrepentant SS officer. Since the Executioner’s entire family had been wiped out by just the sort of man he had killed, there is not only little chance of getting a conviction, there is every reason to put him on the next plane back to Britain. But by this time he doesn’t want to go. As he explains to his unsympathetic defending counsel (Deborah Norton), Germany must be told. By refusing to acquit himself he puts a whole nation on trial.

The whole chain of thought, deed and consequence was brilliantly worked out, with only the odd spot of cheating to aid the tension. The German authorities would probably have sussed much earlier that the man their computer had helped them pick up was too hot to hold — they seemed strangely reluctant to ask him what had happened to his family, and in the circumstances he seemed even more strangely reluctant to tell them. But that was a blemish rather than a flaw. Otherwise the whole thing clicked.

All the natives spoke proper English without any cheaply atmospheric peppering of German words, although Robert Stephens employed the word ‘irregardless’ on one occasion. Deborah Norton was her usual stunning self— a bucket of ice who melted for one second, then froze up again. She didn’t want her generation indicted for crimes it didn’t commit. She was right, but not obviously right. The Executioner was right too. It was a stand-off. Several of the players were also in Holocaust: typecasting, but piquant, since it was Holocaust that really did get the statute of limitations lifted — the most powerful single instance to date of television affecting history.

The Executioner, though more subtle than Holocaust, nevertheless had its mechanical aspects. You knew you were being steered through hoops. But the total effect was enough to make you wonder about the amount of hoo-ha generated by the live theatre. How does it happen that a chucklehead like Rolf Hochhuth gets so much coverage when a playwright of Mr Goldstein’s quality is largely unknown? They both deal in the moral problems uncovered by political upheaval, but the difference between them is the difference between a light way of being serious and an hysterical way of being frivolous. Still, no doubt some of those glowing theatrical reputations are deserved.

I would like to think that Simon Gray’s is, although I might have to take the dizzy step of actually going to the theatre to check up. Those plays of his which have been on television have impressed me mainly as exercises in mental superiority, in which the hero stands revealed as pretty much bored and insulted by the petty concerns of the ordinary mortals around him, although sometimes he manages to achieve a sort of weary compassion. But The Rear Column (BBC1) had a bit more in it. For one thing, there was no playwright-like hero standing around being bored, insulted and/or wearily compassionate.

Instead there was an assorted batch of British officers waiting for Stanley in the Congo. Eventually Stanley, functioning as the kind of deus ex machina whose machine has run out of petrol somewhere offstage, would tell them what they had to do. Meanwhile they had to wait, with their native bearers dying messily in the wings. Their commanding officer, played excellently by Barry Foster in his Orde Wingate manner plus a pint of sweat, was clearly bonkers. Others were less clearly bonkers. One of them, the artist, seemed not to be bonkers at all, but turned out in the end to be the most bonkers of the lot. He had been quietly drawing pictures of a cannibal cook-out in which an eleven-year-old girl had been barbecued.

It was possible that Mr Gray was grappling at this point with the problem posed by the man who has an artistic temperament but no moral sense. If so, it was not a very strenuous grapple. Compared with The Executioner, the play was without focus. But it was not without incidental interest, and Harold Pinter, in his first try at directing for television, broke with the tradition established by other famous stage directors who come late to the cameras — he planned his shots with tact, avoided all gimmickry and unassertively ensured that the whole thing moved forward with what inexorability it could muster.

20 April, 1980