Scarlet Fever

Cover of "The Fever (Evergreen original)&...
Cover of The Fever (Evergreen original)

I can recommend Wallace Shawn‘s play The Fever. I recommend it this way: Want a really harrowing time? Go see Wallace Shawn’s The Fever!

Another moving performance by Jerry Levy, but wow – this play is a lot more intense and depressing than Marx in Soho. Good though – in the way heavy theatre can be. Cathartic. Though I’m never sure about catharsis. Is it not just the feeling of pleasure you get when someone stops hitting you over the head?

And The Fever hits you over the head repeatedly. It also punches you in the kidneys and kicks you when your back is turned. It concerns a wealthy Westerner going through a crisis of conscience while suffering a fever in a Third World hotel. In fast succession, his unfastened personality swings from tortured liberalism to fascistic rage as he both realises that his pleasant life is a root cause of injustice, torture and death in places he once avoided even knowing about, then pities himself for being burdened with this  knowledge.

No, we’re not really expected to like him.

But is this dream a moment of clarity? In his febrile vision, the world is a giant zero-sum game where wealth only exists because it is wrested from the poor by violence, where every surplus means someone else goes without a necessity. You can draw different conclusions from that. One of course is that the only possible solution is a radical, total equalisation of humanity.

Another is that there is no solution, and all you can hope for is to be on the winning side. And fight tooth and nail to keep your advantage because the alternative – that the poor and oppressed might someday get to exact their revenge – is too horrific to contemplate.

Or maybe that’s just me. The Fever is a rambling play for sure, it loops and leaps, and yet there seem to be patterns in it. A Rorschach blot – Shawn spills the ink but leaves conclusions up to us. And you will see yourself in this play. Just perhaps not the best of yourself.

Marx Sells Out

Cover of "Marx in Soho: A Play on History...
Cover of Marx in Soho: A Play on History

A moment before he walked on stage I was gripped by an unexpected fear. Can professors of sociology actually act?

Sure, they can act in the sense that they can get things done; the guy who lectured me is President now. They can certainly talk – well, the good ones can. But playing a role is a whole other proposition, and the notion of an actor-professor suddenly seemed very incongruous. Were we about to sit through a thinly-disguised lecture on a dry historical figure?

I worried needlessly. Jerry Levy is an actor, and Karl Marx – in the script by Howard Zinn at least – a warm, living, mischievous human being.

And, just a man. A thinker, a writer, an honest man angered by injustice of course. But no colossus and no antichrist, not the towering figure envisaged by both his followers and his detractors. A person, by turns kind and foul-tempered, drunken and diligent, who achieved much yet whom we might hardly have heard of if he hadn’t befriended Friedrich Engels or fallen in love with Jenny von Westphalen. Zinn’s play, among many other things, illuminates the fact that great lives are really just ordinary lives with unusual consequences.

Marx In Soho is in a lot of ways a simple play. You could almost call it predictable – until you remember it was written in 1999. Back then it would have seemed overly pessimistic to say an unchallenged capitalism would become less constrained by democracy, ever more greedy and unjust. Now that seems obvious.

But this was almost a passing observation. The larger point was that the divisions between people are mostly false dichotomies, artificial distinctions drawn between countries, religions, classes, ideologies, even right and left. The only real division is that between justice and the absence of justice. And there is no justice where people do not have the basic things they need to live.

In the second play of the double bill – The Fever by Wallace Shawn – we go from the broad and theoretical to the immediately personal. How do you live in an unjust world? 8.30 tonight in the Town Hall Theatre. Book nowMarx In Soho sold out.

Marx In Soho

Want to see a play about Marx? I’m serious. It’s time to look again at capitalism’s most famous critic. Was he onto something? Clearly it has its faults – the main one being, the way makes all the money gather at one end. But does Marx offer any solutions?

On the face of it, his approach to the problem hasn’t worked out well. Any country that called itself Marxist seemed to end up being a pretty crappy place to live; authoritarian and restrictive. On the other hand, these states bore not the slightest resemblance to what Marx envisaged. There’s only one major one left now, and somehow we all owe it money. On yet a third hand, the stateless workers’ paradise he did predict seems to be taking its time materialising.

With a track record like that, you might fairly wonder why anyone still pays him any attention. Was he just an eloquent guy with a compelling vision and a terrific beard? Maybe so. But he was an interesting guy.

What’s more, he’s being played by an interesting guy. Actor-director Jerry Levy is a sociology professor back in Vermont, but at an age when most would be retiring he began touring the world with Howard Zinn‘s “Marx in Soho”, a one-actor play on the idea of Marx returning to see the modern world.

It’s on today Thursday in the Town Hall Theatre Galway, and will be followed tomorrow with Wallace Shawn‘s “The Fever”, a darkly comic piece about the pitfalls of owning a conscience. Both shed moving, humorous light on the times we’re living in. See you there?

I Qualify To Be American

The passing grade is just 58. I could be an American! I hadn’t been planning to apply, but maybe they do an honorary membership.

Just sad it’s not a perfect score. I need to bone up on the achievements of James Madison. Sure we’ve all heard of him, but what exactly did he do? No idea.

Easiest one I got wrong: What is the national anthem? You see I knew it was a trick question – The Star Spangled Banner is not officially the US anthem!

Or it wasn’t in 1929, when my copy of the collected Ripley’s Believe it or Not was published. Important lesson there: Weird and interesting facts may be subject to change. When the thing that everyone knows is actually wrong, sometimes people alter reality to make it conform to their misconceptions.

You can take the “Test of Americanness that many actual Americans would probably fail” test here.

Attack Of The Spider-Attacking Spiders

Urgh. Suffering from advanced brain death, and a mild cold. The weather’s been so heavy recently. Feels like I have feet of clay, and legs of logs.

I’m actually only just very, very slightly sick. But with the weather and a long day on the conveyor belt of other people’s problems, looking for small pieces of necessary equipment, checking every place twice and then checking them twice again in case I’d only checked once, up in the attic inhaling the dust and soot and cutting myself on the cheesewire threads of cellar spiders, it has built up into general malaise.

What about those cellar spiders? These are the beasties that are all legs and almost no body –  one of the three unrelated species that get called Daddy Longlegs, though I think that’s mostly in America. (In Ireland it seems to be the crane fly that gets to use the sobriquet most commonly, in Britain I think probably the harvestman.) It weaves – if weaves is the word – messy, patternless webs of quite amazingly tough and elastic (but thankfully not very sticky) threads which it seems to use less as trap than as a defence mechanism. Bother one, and it will set itself vibrating in its elastic cradle so rapidly that it becomes a blur. Quite disturbing the first time you encounter it.

Its victims include other spiders, so if you live in a place where many species are dangerous – or where people just think they are, as in much of the US – it’s often thought to be poisonous itself, a sort of serious spider badass. It’s not; it’s entirely safe to pick them up and throw them out – if you can catch them. It’s been claimed that they’re capable of a small, essentially harmless bite, but I’ve handled them without feeling anything.

I do suspect them though of endangering the cute little house spider, which they seem to be ousting as most common indoor species. I would swear the cellar spider was rare in this country even twenty years ago. They need a place that doesn’t get too cold in winter, apparently because they’re subtropical in origin and only spread as humans thoughtfully built them nice warm shelters. (Who knows, perhaps this is our true purpose in the ecosystem.) Is it climate change, or have I simply never lived in a house warm enough until now?

It’s being a weird summer for insects too. I saw my first wasp today! Seriously, first I’d seen all year. No bad thing in some ways, but a little worrying. You think of wasps as a tough species, but this summer seems to have been too harsh even for them.

On the other hand, it’s being an amazing year for dragonflies, a species I once thought of as endangered. Now the beautiful monsters are back, bigger and more iridescent than ever, and it’s the all-too-common wasps that seems to be waning.

Hey, maybe dragonflies are eating the wasps. That would be cool.

The Last Refuge

English: Julian Assange, photo ("sunny co...

What is the difference between Julian Assange and Roman Polanski, two men on the run from accusations that could reasonably be described as rape? Well, there is an obvious one: Polanski is avoiding imprisonment for the sex crime, no two ways about it. There’s no question mark over his guilt.

Assange on the other hand claims the accusations were trumped up to render him into American hands and turn supporters against him. His decision to avoid investigation is not an admission of guilt at all therefore, but necessary to protect himself.

The question is whether we believe him.

I have no trouble believing that the US government is out to get Assange, by fair means or foul. America seems to hardly do anything these days except unlawfully imprison foreign nationals. Certainly they’d like to charge Assange with something, even if all he really did was act contrary to America’s interests. Call me an anti-Imperialist radical but I’d like to live in a world where it’s still legal to act contrary to America’s interests, so I am unequivocally opposed to him being extradited to the US.

But for these charges in Sweden to be such a stratagem would take what could only be described as mind-boggling, breathtaking, evil. It would require them to somehow bribe or blackmail two erstwhile supporters into bringing extremely serious accusations against an innocent man. Or, infiltrate his network with agents provocateur who presumably seduced him before accusing him of rape. That’s nightmare stuff.

The US – or if you prefer, its security services – is capable of immensely evil acts I have no doubt. What I have difficulty believing is that they would be capable of such terrible PR. To use false accusations of rape against a public figure? If the truth ever came out – which seems likely enough, as such a plan would have needed considerable arrangement – it would do more damage to the US than Assange could ever have.

And along with this we have to believe that Assange would be at greater risk of extradition/rendition from Sweden than he was from the UK – or will be from Ecuador. It is easier to think that he doesn’t want to face investigation in Sweden because he did what he’s been accused of in Sweden.

The Right To Kill

There’s a campaign on here to put cigarettes into featureless generic cartons, just as was recently done in Australia. Rather than the maker’s livery and logo they will be an unglamorous colour, uniform across all brands, and be covered in prominent and graphic health warnings.

I’m against this. It’s quite ridiculous, banning all the traditional iconography of smoking, celebrated in film and glossy magazine for over a century. No; cigarettes packets should be smeared in canine excrement and fired at the purchaser from a powerful air cannon while the vendor screams “Children can see you doing this, you pig-rimming imbecile!” Once the excrement has been wiped off, the packaging must clearly state the health warning “Why not just kill yourself now you bag of pus? In the long run it’ll be easiest for all of us.”

Giving up smoking is hard, and one of the things that makes it so is the easy availability of failure. You can walk into a shop on nearly every street and get failure handed to you, no questions asked. It wouldn’t work to ban cigarettes outright, but we could make it harder to fail.

It’s not always failure, because not all smokers are trying to give up? Wrong; not trying to give up is also failure. The only conceivable success when it comes to tobacco is to be as far away from it as possible; anything else makes you sicken and age and lose money.

Giving up is difficult because of the insidious nature of the drug, and up-givers need all the help they can get. The tobacco industry however is determined to give them every hindrance, and one way they can do that is by flashing images associated with the addiction at their victims as often as possible, igniting their reflexive cravings. Their branding, their logos, are weapons in their war against those trying to kick the habit. It’s cruel, and it kills. But it makes them money.

Representatives of the industry argue that banning their logos and liveries “effectively extinguished their intellectual property rights“. Why is it that bastards always cry infringement of intellectual property? Perhaps because it’s a sufficiently vague concept to be abused every which way. Whatever was intended by IP though, it was surely not the right to advertise no matter what is being advertised.

A branch of the UK industry lobby meanwhile, operating here under the unconvincing title “Forest Éireann“, says that there’s no evidence this packaging will discourage children from taking up smoking. Maybe so, it’s early days, but clearly it’s stopping someone smoking. Otherwise why would they be against it?

Repackaging cigarettes to better represent just how nasty they really are is a good idea. It may not have a huge impact, no. But even a small discouragement to smoke could save thousands of lives, and improve thousands of others.

By the same token, I think “Forest Éireann” should also be repackaged – under the name “We Want You To Die”.