I’d like to draw a tentative line between a couple of events from the past weekend. The first is an interview with Tory cabinet minister Ken Clarke in which he described Ukip members as ‘clowns’ and some of its supporters as racist. The second is Hofesh Shechter Company’s performance of two works at Sadlers Wells: Uprising “a highly-charged work that leaves audiences buzzing” and The Art of Not Looking Back (“Physical, complex and unrelenting”).
But first some thoughts about Speeches.
I think an easy place to go to when thinking about political speeches and movement is fascists – just think of Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother which features a ranting demagogue reminiscent of Nazi leadership. As I’ve sightly flippantly remarked to my friends, I think this might partly be because extremists have the most dynamic movement when giving speeches. I’ve got a few theories about why this is so. One is that big movement was just how things were done before film recording and amplification became commonplace. For example in the Victorian era, a group known as the elocutionists “felt if you did certain things, the audience would always react the same” according to Richard Doetkott, a veteran professor of communications studies at Chapman University, California.
“They used to have a book of gestures that they could study. It was more effective with the audience of the time but it’s important to understand that they had no sound reinforcement, so in order to enhance the fact that you were portraying something dramatic, such as anger, you would raise your fist. And even though the people may not have been able to understand the words that you were using, they understood that you were angry. The elocutionists had a complete repertoire of all kinds of gestures that they could use. And really, this is all about stagecraft, theatricality, acting. In those days, public speaking was an extension of the stage.”
Another reason for that big gestures are seen as fascistic is that Hitler and Mussolini gave them a bad name, so even if they were still useful to speakers, people wouldn’t want the association. But I think a stronger reason is that there is that there is an intrinsic connection between a dramatic performance when speaking and fascism, something to do with connecting with audiences on an irrational level.
Bring on the clowns
The performances of Mussolini and Hitler are almost comical in their overacting and some people seemed to see this at the time. As Theodor Adorno wrote in his 1970 essay Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda “Educated people in general found it hard to understand the effect of Hitler’s speeches because they sounded so insincere…” As one eyewitness told the BBC last year, “He shouted out really, really simple political ideas. I thought he wasn’t quite normal.”
But Adorno explains that for many, the insincerity was actually valued:
“Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning. They are observed as such, and appreciated. Real folk artists, such as [Austrian actor, Alexander] Girardi with his Fiakerlied, were truly in touch with their audiences and they always employed what strikes us as false tones’.
Adorno argues that by putting on a show, their ideology became palatable:
“Just as the housewife, who has enjoyed the sufferings and the good deeds of her favorite heroine for a quarter of an hour over the air, feels impelled to buy the soap sold by the sponsor, so the listener to the fascist propaganda act, after getting pleasure from it, accepts the ideology represented by the speaker out of gratitude for the show. Show’ is indeed the right word. The achievement of the selfstyled leader is a performance reminiscent of the theater, of sport, and of so-called religious revivals. It is characteristic of the fascist demagogues that they boast of having been athletic heroes in their youth. This is how they behave. They shout
and cry, fight the Devil in pantomime, and take off their jackets when attacking those sinister powers’.
He adds that fascist demagogues engender themselves to the public by appearing stupid on their behalf:
“The fascist leader types are frequently called hysterical. No matter how their attitude is arrived at, their hysterical behavior fulfills a certain function. Though they actually resemble their listeners in most respects, they differ from them in an important one: they know no inhibitions in expressing themselves. They function vicariously for their inarticulate listeners by doing and saying what the latter would like to, but either cannot or dare not. They violate the taboos which middle-class society has put upon any expressive behavior on the part of the normal, matter-of-fact citizen. One may say that some of the effect of fascist propaganda is achieved by this breakthrough. The fascist agitators are taken seriously because they risk making fools of themselves.”
We must then be a little wary of political clowns.
An irrational rhythm
Mussolini’s performance was as wild as Hitler’s. According to Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi in her book Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy:
“He talked with tight teeth; words were assembled in groups and distanced by pauses; each unit of words was pronounced with a measured rhythmical style.
His face was a spectacle in itself, appropriately coordinated with Mussolini’s oratorical tone and body movements. His head leaned halfway back, his eyes almost out of their sockets, his chin and mouth forward, Mussolini underlined with his exaggerated facial expressions the word units he uttered.”
But Falasca-Zamponi explains that these were not just political speeches with added theatricality. Mussolini “expressed discomfort with the traditional categories of politics” and “rejected rhetorical statements”. “He wanted his speeches to be neatly distinguished from the model of democratic debates, which he had always opposed.”
Instead these were speeches stripped of rational content that could be considered or countered. “He aimed at “schematic” eloquence. Rhythm and tone were more important than learned expressions.”..”He invoked symbolic means and forms that would excite emotions in the people. He underplayed traditional and rational laws…”
And similarly, historian Laurence Rees explains that Hitler “was not a “normal” politician – someone who promises policies like lower taxes and better health care – but a quasi-religious leader who offered almost spiritual goals of redemption and salvation.”
Somehow this comes back again to Shechter’s brand of deafening “unrelenting” performance. The Financial Times rightly described Political Mother as Total Theatre meaning that it places equal weight on sound, staging, movement etc. and Shechter himself has said “I aim to create one piece of art, a total experience”. The effect of total theatre is that the audience is swept up in a world of the artists’ that is sensorial, instinctive and emotional. And while it is not the case that total theatre is inherently fascistic, it is a favourite technique of fascists and certainly in some small way wears down the audience’s capacity for action. And this is why the Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht and others emerged. By breaking theatrical illusions in various ways it sought to stop the audience from taking their experience (in the theatre and in the world) without question.
Epic Theatre arose explicitly as a reaction to fascism, but even in more moderate times do we want to give up on our capacity for action?