“[John Thelwall] also had the misfortune to be a mediocre poet — a crime which, although it is committed around us every day — historians and critics cannot forgive.” —E.P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class*
It was called The Battle of Waterloo, and it was one of the plays offered by J. K. Green’s Juvenile Drama: in other words as sheets of figures to cut out, colour and deploy, on little slides, in a miniature proscenium theatre you’d built yourself, from paper or card on a wooden frame.
A miniature proscenium theatre like this features as a prop in the classic 70s version of The Railway Children — one of them is bedridden, the others put on a show for her, and the show is Waterloo.** It also features in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1884 essay ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’: as he writes, “I have assisted others in the illumination of The Maid of the Inn and The Battle of Waterloo.” Two things are immediately worth noting: in the first, the version the children stage clearly involves their own made-up script; in the second, Stevenson — having listed at length the dramas he himself owned (and painted) — admits that Waterloo was one that someone else would have, an oddity for specialists (viz: nutcase nerds) only.
I’ve hunted my own rambling nerdburrow, and the many cupboards and attics of my dad’s house, but I haven’t yet unearthed the folder which contains the remnants of the edition of Waterloo I owned (and cut out and coloured in) as a child. So hurrah for interwebs! Where I can discover that this particular play was issued as the character and scene sheets of a “juvenile drama” in 1842 to cash in on the success of a real actual show, first staged in c.1824, an ‘Equestrian Melodrama’ performed in the round with real actual horses and real actual cannons etc, in the years after the real actual battle. A re-enactment, in other words, of Waterloo itself, where possible featuring — on the horses — some of the very cavalrymen who had helped win the War against Boney. It appears to have been written by one J.H.Amherst, and it took place at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre, formerly a riding school on the Westminster Bridge Road,
So why the search, online and in lumber-room? Because of THIS, Jo Mitchell’s ICA re-enactment of Einsturzende’s infamous on-stage riot, 23 years ago. WHICH IS TONIGHT.
Now the ICA is often a very slly place, and there are plenty of reasons to suppose that tonight’s shopw will be a bit lame: not least the problem of pre-publicised shock art in a venue devoted to “challenging” our “assumptions” — the one thing we can’t get is the creative energy of actual surprise (welcome to the doom of everything that announces itself as the avant-garde). All the same I bridled a bit at the first responses to the project — at Simons’s harrumph of amusement (“like one of those fake Medieval villages you can visit”) and Mark’s flat scorn (“covers over an actual Event and replaces it with an officially-sanctioned commemoration”). They both came it at the problem from the wrong side.
After all, the Waterloo re-enactment also sounds fairly ridiculous, to modern tastes and minds, all twirling moustaches and military dressage. But what tugs at me, about the latter, is the longevity of its allure, the afterburn of this utterly commercial spectacle that traces down the decades, as long as Green’s theatre sheets stayed available, as the toy theatre shop flashed through other half-forgotten names… Skelt, Redington, Pollock. The chain-links are forged of child-world intensity and as such avoid i. being coaxed back into official cultural history (inc.‘theory’), as well as ii. vanishing altogether.
Several major cultural figures besides Stephenson actually discuss toy theatres and/or the Battle of Waterloo, among them Thackery and Dickens, almost always in a context of fond What Were We Thinking?-type nostalgia for childhood pleasures — in other words, cast as a counterweight to Proper Adult Art, if not by the nostalgists themselves, then by the cultural gatekeepers who keep watch after them. Clearly late Georgian Equestrian Melodrama was never going to appeal to Arnold or Leavis — haha or Z. Zzzzyzzy ZIZEK? Or whoever it is we’ve appointed to help us prejudge where our aesthetic values should lie; anyway, as regards what ART should be doing, Historical Re-enactment is surely just not it. Apparently.
So what IS the issue here? Call it the class dynamic of the relationship of the participating audience with history-as-she-ought-to-be-explored — and here’s while you process that is another very vivid childhood memory, in fact one of the few engagements I personally had with history-as-a-school-subject (which was taught at all my schools but for some reason almost never to ME): here I am, aged nine or so, dressing up as a little celt or saxon and warring with my classmates at BEACON RING.
Who’s going to deny that BATTLE RE-ENACTMENT is a non-starter, if you’re at all nervous about being thought NAFF… small-town IT guys in cuirasses bussing over to Naseby to pretend to be gunned down by chain-shot fired a platoon of togged-up provincial chartered surveyors? And yet and yet and yet…
All the same, there are elements to be learnt from re-enactments that official history finds it very hard not to omit, from the smell of hot metal and cordite and andrenalised horses to the viscreal feel of being one small confused person without perspective, weighed down by your kit, lost at the centre of a swirling smoky action that will mean something very different to Big H History than it does to you… Theory has a kind of built-in whiggish condescension-of-posterity towards those who aren’t up to speed with today’s ways of seeing the past: with the result that critics and writers are inclined to map retrospectively onto the worldview of generals rather than footsoldiers; artistic intention rather than audience use (even radical poets are secret royalists, argued Hazlitt). There are APPROVED WAYS of accessing information — with linked-in systems of initiation — and others, less chic, very much home-made, often a bit tentative and self-deprecating, often prey to capture by unstated assumptions. What I’m getting at is that what Simon is after all doing with Rip It Up or Energy Flash is ALSO A SPECIES OF HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT. And what I’m calling out is is the easy belief that there’s an intrinsically PROPER way to make an artwork, to explain a story, to appreciate the meaning of a show; in other words, that the only acceptable route into understanding Einstürzende and the riot is to READ about it — to access accounts that gather together the wider issues of the day, that plug you into the MARCH OF HISTORY blah blah.
What’s the alternative? To expose yourself — untheory-begirt — to the semi-randomness of the effects of the sounds or smell or feel of the event, the stuff that BIG PICTURE THEORY edits out, downplays and disdains? The scattered constituent elements of the world of history’s losers, for example. OK, I know it’s NOT an either/or. I attended the ICA re-enactment of the Ziggy Stardust Farewell Concert: and it too failed to re-enact any of its infamous audience participation (scroll down to “sucking-and-wanking” heh); and i don’t pretend to be very effectively “untheory-begirt” — but still i took one thing away from it that I’d possibly never have been struck by any other way. Here was a Bowie lookalike exactly matching the zigster move for move — and because this was an actor working to re-enact, I suddenly recognised (by the magickal Brechtian process of Aesthetickal Estrangement) how much tentative nervousness was part of Bowie’s then-demeanour, and how much a response to this side of his shtick belonged in the self-construction of the little frightened glamfan (scroll down further). Which is partly to say — I’m a writer too; and reading matters, and to understand is in the end to write and to read. But this seemingly small stuff — the responses of the non-critic, the wide-open child, the shy child buried in the jaded adult’s memory — is easily, easily lost, and sometimes, with it, an understanding of quite unexpected dimensions to the event in question. High-cultural aesthetic autonomy is a deeply class-coloured species of radical achievement: one of the great breaks in of 19th-century drama and music was the point where the desired audience were successfully intimidated into sitting quietly, as a mark of their superiority: the other art and/or pleasure seekers went to other venues.
“Then came the time,” write E. P. Thompson quoting Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor’s 1844 The Employer and The Employed, “‘when rich folk frightened poor folk our of their sense with “He’s a cooming” and “They’re a cooming”.’ ‘Who are “they”, Robin?’”‘Why, Boney and the French, to be sure. Well, that time when rich folk frightened poor folk and stole all the land.’” (TMotWC, p255)
Just pop back up through the Amphitheatre link above, and reread a key sentence: “Bonaparte was brought upon the stage face to face with Wellington, and made to utter very generous sentiments, and to do all sorts of generous things, which were loudly applauded by the galleries.” Napoleon was the Saddam-esque bogeyman of his day; his nemesis, the Iron Duke, was Prime Minister from 1828-30 (the worst ever, many say): so what (besides secret poetic royalism) meant this cheering and this counter-intuitive warmth towards a national foe, on this particular long-vanished equestrian stage, by this particular, deeply unArnoldian audience?
Whereas the upper-upper version of same, 1839, at Eglinton — a big day out for the Gothic Revivalists convulsing into daftness when the entire very expensive spectacle was but rained off. SEE YOU THIS EVENING AT THE ICA**
*This is part two in a bunch of things I’ll EVENTUALLY post, in a series called A DALEK MADE OF LIGHT. Er I’ll explain why another time. Possibly.
**Er actually it isn’t, it has knights in armour instead. I remembered it as Waterloo but on rewatching it clearly ain’t. I was going to elaborate a bunch on E.Nesbit’s politics, and Stevenson’s, and kid-lit as the undercurrent of radical something-or-other … oh well. NO TRUTHS HAVE BEEN HARMED IN THIS FOOTNOTE.
***Or actually I won’t as there is lollardry afoot.