By John Elsom
257 pp. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press

Reviewed by Don Rubin*

British critic John Elsom served as President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (publisher of this august journal) from 1985 to 1992. His latest book—State of Paralysis: A Cultural History of Brexit—very much reflects his own long-time obsession with politics, generally, and cultural politics, more specifically. As one of the first serious attempts to provide understanding and insight from a specifically cultural perspective on Britain’s decision to leave the European Union—Brexit—this study is, by definition, important.

The problem is that trying to come to grips with Brexit at any level is rather like trying to wrestle a bear. But just because a challenge is nearly impossible doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be undertaken, and Elsom’s broad, culturally-developed shoulders are as good as anyone’s to stand on to see what is really happening. He is, after all, not only a veteran of Europe’s theatre wars, but also a card-carrying political junkie, having once run for Parliament in the U.K. on the Liberal ticket.

The book itself actually runs a rather fine line between being a personal cultural history and a cultural-political study. And the personal often dominates. He tells us in the book’s opening sentence that he was “nine years old during the invasion of Normandy,” and we soon see life through his eyes in a gutted London after World War II. The personal and political remain tightly tied together as we share his youthful introductions to two of Europe’s most influential existentialist thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and to watch the U.K.’s on-again, off-again attempts first to join the European community and, then, try to leave it again after its 2016 Referendum.

So, will the U.K. really leave the European Union? A difficult question for everyone because, as Elsom suggests right from the beginning of his study, nobody in his country “quite knew what leaving the EU might mean. . . . We may have voted to take back control but control over what? Were we gaining an ounce of sovereignty but losing a ton of influence?” (6).

Providing his very personal political history to this complex issue, Elsom notes that there has always been a substantial portion of the U.K. population dubious about any sort of a union with Europe (as there was certainly doubt in parts of Europe about Britain’s commitment to the continent). Even Britain’s 1971 vote to finally join the European Economic Community (EEC) was a significantly split one—356 to 244. Elsom tells us that the split never went away.

It was the cultural stereotypes as much as anything that kept this distrust flourishing. For the British,

French culture in London was associated less with history than with soft porn, more Folies Bergère than the Louvre. French publishers produced sexually explicit works, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and James Joyce’s Ulysses, which were banned in the U.K. and the U.S. In Anglo-American movies, the Italians were passionate lovers or priests, Germans were shaggy-haired geniuses or goose-stepping Prussians, and the Swedes went skinny-dipping at midsummer and committed suicide during the rest of the year. Multiculturalism was not the answer to such misconceptions. It was a description of them. (31)

Would that Elsom went further in this particular area. Unfortunately, he drops it in favour of more readings of the political zeitgeist. He quotes, for example, the little-known Russian Alexandre Kojève, who believed that Europe was divided into three essential cultures—an Anglo-Saxon one, a Slav one and a Latinate one. These groups, said Kojève, spoke different languages and worshipped different forms of Christianity—Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic—“on which were based their various laws, customs and sense of natural justice.”

The French, suggests Elsom, were at the core of the Latinate culture which cultivated the art of leisure, “the source of art in general.” So, it was France which tried to take charge of European culture by offering to host in Paris the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural programs in 1946 through UNESCO. “France thus became the landlord of a large, global, cultural headquarters” (36-37).  

But “history is a hall of mirrors. At every step, the angles change and another perspective comes into view” (39). And as Elsom’s UNESCO view becomes clear, his perspective changes once more to the very personal. We learn that during the 1960s, he “liked being self-employed” and served not only as a talent scout for a major film company, but also as a free-lance theatre critic for both London Magazine and “The Listener” on BBC, where he was able to see a whole new generation of playwrights emerge with new ideas about post-war society— John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourne and Edward Bond among them.

It was through the decades of the 1960s and 1970s that Elsom watched the theatre in the U.K. change with the appearances in London of such landmark productions as Grotowski’s The Constant Prince from Poland, with the opening of the American love-rock musical Hair in the West End and with the Peter Brook-Ted Hughes Orghast making dents in the country’s well-made play tradition. Then, there was Peter Daubeny’s many World Theatre Seasons at London’s Aldwych Theatre. A rich time indeed for a politically-inflected young theatre critic (or, perhaps more accurately, a culturally-inflected would-be politician).

But the U.K. and Europe were still vastly different cultures, “one of which was frightened of too much state control and the other of too much individualism. Their world perspectives were at odds” (114):

At a time when British entertainment industries were basking in the glow of winning the war, continental theatres were undergoing a painful self-examination. They were striving to examine the causes of war, all wars, and why the revolution of the people was so hard to achieve and so close to tyranny, once it had taken place . . . the stories might be dressed up in the metaphors of the Absurd or in the cool detachment of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic theatre . . . But there was little room for evasion. Dramatists from both sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe understood all too well how their continent had become civilisation’s charnel house for much of the twentieth century. (71)

There were certainly many in the U.K. who, like Brook, were trying to make their own changes. Elsom notes the satirical revues of the 1950s like Beyond the Fringe and the 1960s experimental seasons Brook piloted at the RSC. And popular British culture showed a wide range of cultural muscle leading the world, for a time, “in ‘soft’ diplomacy. In 1965, the visit of Laurence Olivier in the new National Theatre’s Othello was triumphantly received in Moscow. . . . The British boy bands—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones—were heading the international charts” (73).

As a result, European attitudes toward the U.K. did begin to change. “When in 1968, a new Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, approached the EEC for the third time to apply for EEC membership, he was met with a cordial welcome, not a rebuff” (73). But was the U.K. electorate really ready? As Churchill once said, if ever it were “faced with a choice between the Continent and the Open Sea, the U.K. would always follow the Open Sea” (87).

There were certainly those after the war who

favoured the idea of sacrificing some sovereignty for participation in a wider European community. The Common Market was an economic success. It would soon become the largest trading bloc in the world. But those who hankered after lost imperial glory and saw signs of betrayal [of the] past was strong. To abandon the Commonwealth in favour of an economic arrangement with those countries on the Continent which had recently been our enemies was hard to accept. (58)

Yet, the French themselves continued to feel that “Britain was not European enough. It was too tied to its transatlantic Big Brother, whose secrets it shared, without sharing them with France” (62).

That said, [Jacques] Delors—a major supporter of the idea of a united Europe— “pretended that all national cultures were good and should be respected, except when they were bad, in which case they should not be called culture” (128). The real question for the Brits at this time, according to Elsom, was whether the EU could “become the civilisation that matched the vision of its founders or would it become merely the sum of its trade deals?” (180).

Britain, of course, did become part of the European Union despite the fact that there were many in the country who never did agree with the idea. In the U.K. today, Elsom says, they are mostly members of the nationalist UKIP party which during the Leave Referendum, and with the Conservatives, intentionally “mangled history, turned a blind eye to the EU’s achievements and promoted the white commonwealth, the Anglosphere, as if it were an alternative” (150).

Elsom also blames the Leave decision on the ubiquity of the Internet, which, he says, was manipulated to tilt the balance toward Leave in the debates. The key questions at the time became simply economic in nature: how much of the national income “should we spend looking after the vulnerable as opposed to strengthening our defence system and building more houses? How much should be spent on improving our own standards of living, as opposed to responding to famines elsewhere?” (159).

He argues that the Internet also shrouded the nation

in a fog of nostalgic self-delusion. . . . Facts mattered less than gut instincts. The Vote Leave campaign sent carefully targeted messages through social media, borrowing the skills of commercial marketing. The Brexiteers were conviction politicians, but their sense of purpose led many to believe that their patriotic ends justified their dishonourable means. In cricketing terms, they were proved guilty of ball-tampering on a massive scale. (196)

Ultimately, the study concludes, “The grand simplicities of Leaving grew more complicated day by day” (208). For Elsom, always an advocate of open and fair critical debate, “the emergence of a critical culture” never really happened, that “the better way ahead never became apparent through the process of discussion” (225). The debates became badly blurred by national and generational fears. For some, the arguments being put forth

were pieties, to others, necessities. To some, they meant only interference from the state, to others, the protection of the state. . . . Those who grew up before the 1990s and the arrival of the Internet had a certain understanding of what was meant by national borders. Those who corresponded daily across the world through the social media were less likely to see them as barriers to be controlled. (231)

And, as we know now, the conclusion to those debates, these hopes and fears, the conclusion to Brexit itself is still to be written.

At the arrival of a new year, 2019, we in Britain do not know what will happen. Will we leave or will we stay? . . . The saddest feature of the Brexit paralysis is the way in which a national self-absorption has stopped us from facing up to global challenges. The great betrayal of our heritage is that we no longer have time to play our full part in world affairs. (237)

So, has John Elsom provided any deeper understanding of Brexit by looking at it from his own cultural standpoint? Hard to say. Personally, I think he spreads both his personal and political canvas a bit too widely and too often drifts across the surfaces of such subjects as the economic and military influence of the U.S. on Europe, the Iran-Iraq war, the present position of the Gulf states and even Africa (the latter given a whole chapter in this book on Brexit). The focus really does fade from direct view at too many points.

Certainly, the Brits and Europeans already know all the political and social background contained here. That being so, one must ask if the cultural aspect is honed enough to provide new insight. Perhaps not. But, certainly, for interested non-Europeans like me, who look in amazement at Britain’s current political and cultural “state of paralysis” and wonder how long such navel gazing can last having this historical background, is certainly useful. And such a cultural focus does provide an unusual intellectual arc through this impossibly large subject. And Elsom himself, in the end, is a continuingly amusing guide, one who consistently provides verbal food for thought on such Brexit-related subjects as Equality and Democracy. As he says of these subjects near the end of the book:

Equality began as a cry against privilege but it became a denial of difference. . . . Democracy is the expression of equality at a national Level. . . . It adds layer after layer of excuses for, when everyone is responsible, nobody is to blame. Democracy is the lemmings alibi. (234)

Yes, when everyone is responsible, nobody can be blamed. Truly a lemmings’ alibi for something as profoundly disturbing as Britain’s “state of paralysis.” 


*Don Rubin is Managing Editor and Books Editor of Critical Stages. Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Toronto’s York University, he was the General Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and was the founding Editor of Canada’s national theatre quarterly Canadian Theatre Review. He has served as President of both the Canadian Centre of the International Theatre Institute and the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and has represented Canada on the International Executive Committees of both these organizations.

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State of Paralysis: A Cultural History of Brexit
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