Saturday, 14 January 2012

A Savage End

I’ve just read two fascinating works by Cicely Hamilton, actress, writer and suffragette and one of my feminist heroes. Hamilton (1872–1952) wrote the words to the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women, as well as a number of sharp, funny suffragette plays. She also wrote Diana of Dobson’s, a play about a shop girl who comes into some money, and Marriage as a Trade which railed against the Edwardian women’s enforced inability to support themselves in any other way but marriage.

The books are Theodore Savage, a novel published in 1922, and a play, The Old Adam, which had its first performance (as The Human Factor) at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1924, and later played at Kingsway, London. Like her 1919 novel, William: an Englishman both are concerned with war and man’s destructive, violent nature. Both could also be described as science fiction for the prominent role of technology in them.

In The Old Adam, two neighbouring fictional states are on the brink of war. Desperate to avert a conflict for which it is ill-prepared, the government of Paphlagonia accepts the help of a scientist who has invented a ray which will paralyse the enemy Ruritania’s machines. “Its lights will go out and its trains will stop short. Its factories will be idle…its new pattern electric rifles won’t go off”, gloats General Cunliffe. Panic will set in and the enemy will capitulate.

Unfortunately, the Government has not taken into account people’s enthusiasm for war. Inventors, moral campaigners, and women surgeons are eager to volunteer their help. Young men are keen to enlist. Even pacifists will feel cheated if the war is won peaceably by men they vilify. As Barton-Phipps, the Minister for War, remarks: “What they want is not only victory – they want a good fight for it first”. And, when the ray is switched on, they discover that Ruritania has the same technology. Both sides are paralysed. Undeterred, they improvise. Communication and transport systems are established: seaside donkeys and circus elephants are requisitioned. Battles are fought hand to hand with whatever is to hand: bayonets, spanners...After all, says Cunliffe, “Hannibal managed without motor cars and Scipio had never heard of high explosives”. And so the war goes ahead.

In the dystopian Theodore Savage there are no miraculous rays to stop the war caused by one belligerent state that a league of nations is powerless to control. This is a total war, waged not on army fronts but against civilians. Cities are bombed mercilessly. Both sides wait for the other to collapse but as every infrastructure breaks down and government fails there is no one left to negotiate peace. The war grinds to a halt, leaving only a displaced, wandering populace dying of starvation and disease, or slaughtering one another in fierce fights over dwindling food supplies. Mankind becomes feral and Theodore Savage, “with a thoughtful taste in socks and ties”, a collector of Hepplewhite furniture, colour prints and English glass, who is engaged to a dainty “porcelain girl”, ends his days as “a coarse-fingered labourer” living in a cabin.

The problem is, explains Markham a scientist, that people in the mass are destructive. “Almost any man, taken by himself is reasonable…so long as he stands outside a crowd”. Then he “is the instrument of instinctive emotion…man, as a herd, does not think…the crowd-life is still at the elementary, the animal stage”. It is the “human constitution…the periodic need of the human herd for something to break and for something to break itself against,” for a “periodic blood-letting”.

A bleak vision of humanity indeed – and perhaps it is true. In her books Hamilton raises questions about the uses of science, the nature of man and woman (women are not necessarily peaceable creatures), the dehumanising effect of suffering and the fragility and value of civilisation. Remarkable themes for remarkable works, delivered with Hamilton’s usual wit and passion.