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22 Jun, 2009

Painting political scandal

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

As the worn countenance of the doomed Gordon Brown continues to loom over the news, the chattering classes of whom I am a member have been seeking out Shakespearean parallels. What is Brown’s fatal flaw? Is he a Macbeth betrayed by vaulting ambition? A Hamlet hamstrung by his indecision? A Julius Caesar too trusting of his confederates? The “fatal flaw” theory is itself fatally flawed, partly because it is a clumsy attempt to extend the Greek notion of hamartia, the fatal error, into the realm of psychoanalysis, and also because it relies on a non-dramatic notion of character transposed from the interpetation of novels. Macbeth is ­destroyed not by what he is but by what he does. Brown is not a tragic character but a person, as imperfect as the rest of us. Politics, especially British politics, has never been the realm of heroes.

British politicians have always fared badly at the hands of artists, whether painters or poets. Since the 14th century, when Piers Plowman was written, poets have written against the government. Rochester was dependent on the good will of Charles II, but he was a member of the country rather than the court party, revolted by the king’s frivolous lifestyle and his refusal to recognise the rights of parliament. The king, having heard of a popular new poem by his favourite, asked Rochester to show it to him. The poem Rochester drew out of his fob was another one that begins:

In the isle of Britain long since famous grown

For breeding the best cunts in Christendom

and goes on to praise (ironically) the king whose “sceptre and his prick are of a length”. The ending was treason:

I hate all monarchs and the thrones they sit on

From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.

The king could see that the poem, which uses ­obscenity as inventively as Peter Cook used to do, was unforgettable. ­Rochester had to flee Whitehall and sit out his disgrace in ­rural Oxfordshire.

Rochester’s older contemporary Dryden would never have dared lampoon the king; to the disgust of his peers, he would eventually accept the laureateship. It is Dryden’s ­attack on the Duke of Buckingham, who with Shaftesbury engineered the attempted usurpation of the throne by one of the bastard sons of Charles II, that sets the standard for poetic vituperation. In Dryden’s caricature, Buckingham

Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong

Was everything by starts and nothing long,

But, in the course of one revolving moon,

Was chemist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon . . .  

Swift, Pope, Fielding and Johnson all attacked Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister; Hogarth ­caricatured him and Gay put him on stage in The Beggar’s Opera as the criminal Jonathan Wild. Walpole’s ­response was to set up the office of the Lord Chamberlain, to vet all new plays before performance. Politicians remained safe from theatrical calumny until the Lord Chamberlain’s office was finally abolished in 1968.

The dedication of Byron’s masterpiece, the comic poem Don Juan, was too hot to publish with the work itself. To a modern mind, the most shocking part of it is the vicious ­attack on the “intellectual eunuch Castlereagh”, who as foreign secretary represented Britain at the Congress of Vienna.

A bungler even in its disgusting trade,

And botching, patching, leaving still behind

Something of which its masters are afraid,

States to be curbed and thoughts to be confined,

Conspiracy or Congress to be made,

Cobbling at manacles for all mankind,

A tinkering slave-maker who mends old chains,

With God and man’s abhorrence for its gains.

Byron used Castlereagh’s tragic end – he cut his own throat in a fit of depression – to rip off one of the most ­explosive lines in British poetry, in a final howl of rage at “Carotid-artery cutting Castlereagh!”

William Pitt the younger, who built the modern role of prime minister, had as much to fear from painters as from poets. In 1791, James Gillray portrayed him as a toadstool popping up from the fermenting dunghill of the crown. In 1795, a Gillray cartoon featured Pitt putting John Bull (standing for the British people) through a mincer producing coins to pay the colossal debts of the Prince of Wales. Thomas ­Rowlandson and Gillray were as likely to attack Fox and the Whigs as to attack Pitt and his Tories, on the same grounds we might hear ­today – that each was as bad as the other. The history of Grub Street shows that ­British cynicism about politicians is nothing new. It is ­probably to be thanked for keeping this country safe from political extremism.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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