David Caute Irving Wardle - Essay

Irving Wardle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunter Grass's The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising [is] a study of revolutionary art overtaken by revolutionary events to which [Mr. Caute's] The Demonstration seems much indebted both in its organization and in its main character.

Grass's play shows Brecht failing to join forces with the east Berlin workers while rehearsing a production of Coriolanus which appears to support their cause. Mr. Caute shows a Brechtian drama teacher temporising with his students when they abandon a revolutionary production and take over the university instead.

It is a damaging comparison for two reasons. First, the political realities of the German situation throw the triviality of British student protest into sharp relief: their rebellion is no less a piece of play-acting than the play. This, of course, is a problem for anyone trying to create drama from the British political playground. But it leads to the second objection: that in trying to engineer a conflict between political make-believe and political action, Mr. Caute goes to work under a smoke screen.

He starts by showing the students as a group of dogmatic slogan-mouthing simpletons. However, they have to be given some grievances; so he allows them to present a play of their own satirising the university administration as a crew of puritanical tyrants who drive the undergraduates into revolt. In the next scene this revolt has actually happened, and Mr. Caute, by sleight of hand, has passed off the satire as a genuine piece of provocation.

The author is a virtuoso dialectician and his cast can rapidly talk themselves out of any tight corner. But the play leaves a strong sense of intellectual duplicity, unredeemed by any marked gift for characterization or control of events.

Irving Wardle, "Students and Revolution," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1969), November 20, 1969, p. 16.