What did the British theatre prematurely lose in Cecil Taylor last December?
Well, it may not be relevant to say so in a critical column; but it lost a very nice, very good man….
He began his career in 1962 with Aa Went te Blaydon Races, a play he later admitted ingenuously expecting to provoke revolutionary incidents in the centre of Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was always a committed socialist, but one who increasingly came to annoy the ideologically straight and narrow, because he couldn't help seeing the flaws in the human material from which socialism would have to be built. His characters like to think of themselves as enlightened, progressive, or simply good. The drama, and usually the comedy, comes from their attempts to deflect, suppress or ignore whatever tends to contradict their illusions and undermine their self-esteem. Good itself is the extreme case. In it, a young intellectual actually ends up as one of the powers-that-be at Auschwitz, the victim of a moral erosion so subtle, so gradual, so invisible, that even then he seems only dimly aware of the hollowness of his self-professed humanity. And Taylor, always too observant, acute and (I suspect) self-knowing a writer to indulge in blacks and whites, tacitly presses the attack still further. How many of us, thrust into the same circumstances and subjected to the same pressures, can be absolutely confident of sustaining an integrity much flintier than this?
I'm inclined to think Good Taylor's best, most challenging play; but he wrote several that were more wryly witty and some that were wickedly funny. Myself, I have a special affection for his Black and White Minstrels, which was set in his native Glasgow and involved a self-consciously free-living and free-loving ménage-à-quatre. Its members were never at a loss for the latest radical catchphrase or snippet of psychiatric jargon—'Why are you bored?' became 'Could you unravel this bored personality you're projecting?'—and yet their actions, which included the seduction and eviction of a black tenant, made it clear that their 'socialism' was mainly self-admiration, their 'liberalism' sexual greed. The play was mischievous, mocking, but by no means negative: a call to the left to purge itself of dishonesty rather than the cynical attempt to subvert radical faith Taylor was sometimes accused of making. It would be well worth reviving, as would several of his other plays, notably Allergy, Bread and Butter and Walter.
Benedict Nightingale, "Good Man," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 103, No. 2651, January 8, 1982, p. 23.∗