MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN
Translated by Tom Leonard
reviewed by Alan Dent
It’s always good to see classic foreign-language works re-translated. This is a fine effort from Tom Leonard, whose poetry many readers will be familiar with. What distinguishes this version from previous is its focus on language as an identifier and therefore its role in political struggle. Mother Courage is a Glaswegian who speaks the vernacular of her class and city. The other characters’ speech shades into middle-class conformism or the official forms which are supposed to elicit immediate deference. It’s a clever idea and Leonard carries it off with the aplomb you would expect (I wasn’t sure, however, that ditching Brecht’s “Let’s you and I go fishing says the angler to the worm” in favour of “Come into parlour said the spider to the fly” was necessarily an improvement). What the play in this manifestation makes you think about, however, is how language, through its form rather than its content, carries potent messages about status, power, wealth, authority and submission. It was long believed, following Saussure, that the sounds of language are arbitrary, that there is no intrinsic reason why the sound “small” applies to whatever is diminutive. We now know that sounds are far from arbitrary; on the contrary, there is a necessary connection between the sound of a word and what it refers to. You can convince yourself by trying Ramachandran’s simple test (incidentally, he has come up with the best account of the origin of language we have; see The Tell-Tale Brain): become conscious of the movements of your lips and tongue as you say big, small, tiny, petit, klein etc and you find the words meaning big involve larger movements than those meaning small. The reason is a pre-existing cross-translation between the fusiform gyrus and the Broca’s area, not something we can devote space to here. The important point is that an environmental stimulus has a significant influence over the sound of a word. The same applies to accent. Accents didn’t arise willy-nilly, they were produced in specific circumstances and reflect the conditions and values which prevailed in them. Take, for example, the neutral speech of PR, a class accent. People who grow up speaking PR in Liverpool or Birmingham or Newcastle or Plymouth, do so because their class shields them from local influence. This takes tremendous effort. It’s by no means easy to grow up in a city like Liverpool and end up with a neutral accent (like Laurie Taylor, the radio sociologist). This work to avoid assimilation of what is “common” embraces much more than accent, of course. PR is, therefore, usually spoken by people who don’t belong to a region; rather they belong to their class. There is a regional tilt, however: the common speech of the well-heeled of Surrey is effectively PR but that’s because in this case, class and region are coterminus. Try assuming PR and become conscious of what happens to your lips and tongue and the implications of that for facial expression and tone: the glass I left on the grass was made in France. If a northerner says this, the glass and grass rhyme with mass and France rhymes with manse. Producing these sounds pulls the lips back slightly so there is the hint of a smile. The open “a” of PR, however, makes the jaw slacken and permits the face to remain masklike. The differences are subtle but the brain doesn’t miss them. To speak PR is to be colder, less friendly, less “common”, less one of the people, more inward, official, a figure of authority. These things are conveyed by barely noticeable changes in facial expression required to produce the sounds, but we know how the brain responds to minute changes in this regard. In fact, it’s possible to read someone’s reactions if the only part of their face you can see is the band across their eyes. PR is the “accent” of the middle-classes and upwards, but principally of the upper classes. It’s a form of speech, that is, of those accustomed to power, who expect to be listened to and obeyed, who disdain their social inferiors. PR came into existence to express and reinforce this “superiority”. That’s why you can speak it with a poker face, why it shapes the face in ways which engender a response of fear, deference or discomfort. In the same way, Liverpudlians speak as they do because of the history of their city. The birds were flying over the Liver Building. Say this with a scouse accent and your lips will be forced back on the “i” of “birds” in a way that imitates a smile and gives your face an open expression. The same vowel in RP can be said almost to sound like “buds” and involves virtually no lip movement. In the Liverpudlian accent, the “i” in “birds” and “Liver” is extended, however slightly, in a way that suggests interest or surprise, and the rhythm of the sentence is sing-song while PR is rhythmically fit for undertakers. Accents are astonishingly specific. Where I live, ten miles makes a big difference and it’s easy to tell where certain people came from even if they grew up a short bus ride from those who speak with the prevalent accent of the town.
In a society divided between wealth and poverty, power and submission, accent is the sound of injustice. The way we form our speech gives away so much about us and is picked up so subtly by our brains, that it can be either a passport to success or a ticket to failure. A strong northern accent is still heavily associated with stupidity, lack of education, lack of authority, gormlessness. When you hear Joan Bakewell on the radio, remind yourself she came from Cheshire. They don’t speak with strong accents in her neck of the woods, but all the same she felt it necessary to eliminate all trace of her northern origins when she went to Cambridge. Would she have been successful had she not ? The important point is that people can feel under a compulsion to hide their origins and those are advertised in the way we use our lips, tongue and larynx to produce language. Just as it’s true that we make small movements when we say “tiny” because of what’s going on in our brains, so it’s true that the emotions and feelings ( emotion and feeling aren’t the same, the former is a kind of action, the latter a response to it) our circumstances engender find their way into our mode of speech.
Quite right, therefore, that Tom Leonard should pick up on this and make forms of speech central to this play. The only modern British writer who has done something similar is Joe Orton. His plays seem to be written in a simple, uncomplicated style. In fact, the speech of his characters mimics perfectly their conformism, cowardice and corruption and every time they speak they inadvertently reveal their mentality.
It’s worth saying something too about the play as Brecht wrote it and how it has endured. Its flaw is that the characters are too representative. Brecht escapes from this in Galileo, but his Marxist aesthetic defeats his dramatist’s instinct here and elsewhere. The essence of this lies in Marx’s naivety about mind. His reflective view of consciousness implies that the mind is a blank sheet on which culture writes the specifics of circumstance. We know now that this is a caricature; mind is made from the interplay of what natural selection has wired in and the influence of circumstance. Marx can’t be blamed for knowing nothing about genetics, but in so far as Brecht reduced characters to carriers of social forces, he oversimplified. Genes influence everything about us, including who we vote for and we are not merely bearers of the forces of our time, we are utterly individual bearers. Drama works precisely by hitting the point at which unique individuality and generic social forces meet. Brecht tilts too far in the direction of the generic forces. Once again, Orton is a great corrective example. The advantage he had was absence of political ideology. He wrote from below. Brecht writes from above, a theorist in possession of answers. In the light of significant social and intellectual changes, the play seems too schematic and its characters slightly less than human.