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Roots of our time

‘I am caught between my desires and their frustray-hay-shun,’ somebody sang in A Child of Our Time (BBC2), the renowned oratorio by Sir Michael Tippett. It was one of the big productions over Easter weekend.

The principal singers, clad in black and silver caftans looking like something William Cameron Menzies designed for Things to Come, and the chorus, neatly attired in black roll-neck ensembles vaguely suggesting 1984 — i.e., precisely evoking 1948 — were to be seen inhabiting a variety of symbolic settings. If they stood in white boxes, that meant they were being politically oppressed. Meanwhile, film clips of various low moments in modern history were copiously employed to reinforce the libretto, which, like all other verbal creations from Sir Michael’s own hand, was serious, complex and unspeakable. It was singable only on the tacit assumption that it doesn’t matter if what is sung sounds ludicrous.

It takes talent to generate triviality on the scale of A Child of Our Time. Sir Michael has some insight into concrete experience, but he also has pretensions to abstract thought. Dealing with the mass sufferings of the modern era, he is presented with so much concrete experience that he feels justified in treating it in an abstract manner. From that initial blunder, everything else follows — the caftans, the roll-neck sweaters, the portentous sets and the sententious lines. The oratorio ends on a ‘personal’ note of Hope, indicating that Sir Michael hasn’t understood the blasphemy inherent in even flirting with the notion that the innocent dead suffered to some purpose.

But it doesn’t matter, you might say, that a man in a black caftan standing in a white box should be heard to announce that he is caught between his desires and their frustray-hay-shun, so long as the music has substance. Unfortunately most of the substance in the music was second-hand, since the melodies originally belonged to Negro spirituals. What Sir Michael provided, apart from a goodly number of lines about desire and frustray-hay-shun, was mainly just the orchestray-hay-shun. At the fag-end of a tradition, the essential is seen as superfluous: nobody will mind if your building blocks are borrowed. Sir Michael borrowed his from the blacks.

Which brings us naturally to Roots (BBC1). I have taken such a roundabout path only to provide an illustrative example for the contention that anaemic high art is less worth having than low art with guts. It could be said that Roots is as low as art can get. It could even be said that it isn’t art at all. But guts it’s got.

The series was such a success in America that a reaction had already set in among some of our pundits even before it reached this country. But accusations of commercialism and fakery don’t really stand up. The series might be coining millions now, but when the idea was first mooted there was no guarantee that it would make a dime — like most previous all-black projects for screens large or small, it might have died in its own length. As for the question of authenticity, I don’t see how it matters much that the author might have fooled himself into thinking his ancestry could be traced. If it was wishful thinking, it sprang from the very passion for identity that the story is about.

And anyway, something like this happened. In fact we can be sure that the scale and intensity of the cruelty were beyond anything that the script tries to convey. The Fight against Slavery, currently being repeated on BBC2, shows you the scope of the crime. What Roots gives you is not scope but focus. The driving force comes less from the thoughts of the descendants of the criminal than the feelings of the descendants of the victim. Hence the anger which keeps the story alive, even when the details are unsatisfactory.

It has been objected that the African village in the first episode seemed to be inhabited exclusively by philosophers. Certainly you couldn’t help suspecting that that older villagers were unnaturally imbued with an ironic sense of humour concerning the doings of the younger: the jokey warmth recalled Meet Me in St Louis. Nevertheless the turn was well enough served, since we got the message we needed to get — that the villagers were the flower of their culture, whereas the slavers were the dregs of theirs.

As Kunta Kinte went through the tests of manhood (the circumcision ceremony providing a flinch-worthy moment for male viewers), the slave-ship ominously sailed towards landfall. It was as sure as fate that Kunta Kinte, bravest of the brave, would be snatched away from the life he was born for. You would have given a lot to stop that happening.

For the rest of the series the hero was in another world, where it was made very clear that the true savagery was all on the part of the civilised. The standard of the direction varied from episode to episode, but the performances were nearly all good and the script never faltered, even when its language was anachronistic. On the whole Roots is an achievement for America to be proud of. There can be no doubt that it will have a profound effect on the way Americans view their past. No large claims need to be entered for the power of art to affect the world. But it is never wise to underestimate the power of a story. People who couldn’t begin to understand A Child of Our Time will have no trouble remembering what happened to Kunta Kinte.

17 April, 1977