Benjamin Britten, Owen Wingrave, And The Pacifist Tradition

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on OWEN WINGRAVE for Scotsman Edinburgh International Festival preview supplement, 28 June 2014
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IT’S THE SUMMER OF 2014, and we are surrounded both by the remembrance of war, and by pervasive images of its continuing presence in our world. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War coincides with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings; war flares and continues in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in eastern Ukraine, and across cental Africa and Sudan.

And as ever, at such moments, the memory of war becomes part of contemporary politics, a pawn and a weapon. After the radical “Oh What A Lovely War!” decades when it was widely accepted that the First World War was a catastrophic confrontation of elites, cruelly ill-fought with the bodies of millions of young men thrown into battle against machine-guns and artillery, now we hear revisionist voices telling us that we should read other poets than Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and suggesting that the First World War was after all a worthwhile and just patriotic battle against tyranny.

With the idea of patriotism, of course, comes the debate about which homeland we are bound to defend. Here in Scotland, as the referendum debate gathers pace, nationalists point out Scotland’s disproportionate sacrifice in all of Britain’s wars; while some unionists argue that to vote for Scottish independence is to insult the memory of all those Scots who have laid down their lives for Britain. And then there are those who feel that their first allegiance lies not with any nation or government; but with ideals of peace and justice that can never be served by acts of war, no matter how well planned or well intentioned.

And it’s because the great 20th century composer Bejamin Britten was one of those conscientious objectors to the whole idea of war, that it’s both thrilling and intriguing to find, at the heart of Jonathan Mills’s final Edinburgh International Festival programme, a rare production by Aldeburgh Music of Britten’s 1970 opera Owen Wingrave, based on the Henry James story about a young man from an eminent English military family who decides that he will not follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers, and that he cannot become a soldier.

In an intense two-act chamber opera – originally commissioned for BBC television – Britten leads us through the final week of Wingrave’s life, as he returns from London to his family home in Suffolk, and undergoes a series of ferocious confrontations in which they seek to reverse his decision. “Family pride, his country’s call, my love, hate, scorn – nothing will move him now…” sings his former sweetheart Kate; while the music sung by Owen himself soars into whole new worlds of peace and acceptance. Even the ghosts of past generations of Wingraves, who haunt the house and finally take Owen’s life, cannot shake his resolve; confronted by the ghostly image of a frightened boy and his terrfiying father, Owen sings, in a moment of spine-shivering radicalism, “Tell him his power is gone.”

“Britten was a lifelong pacifist,” says the award-winning theatre-maker, writer and director Neil Bartlett, founder of the ground-breaking performance company Gloria and former director of the Lyric Hammersmith, who is directing the opera for Aldeburgh Music. “He and Peter Pears left Britain for America at the outbreak of war in 1939, but they returned in 1942, at the height of the conflict, because Britten felt that he should be here as a musician and artist, to play his part in what was happening, and he became a registered conscientious objector.

“So when the BBC approached him in 1967 to write an opera, it was at the very height of the Vietnam War, when our television screens were filled night after night with images of that disastrous conflict; and Britten had a lifetime of opposition to the idea of war to call on when he decided to create an opera based on Owen Wingrave. And in this opera more than any other, through the character of Owen, he confronts this key question: what does it mean, to say that you step away from violence?”

Like Britten himself, Neil Bartlett is no stranger to political controversy. Born in 1958, he was a young gay man in London at the height of the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s, and became involved in many campaigns for gay rights, and against the notorious Clause 28; and he identifies strongly with Owen Wingrave’s struggle against the rigid, authoritarian and militaristic idea of manhood which his family seek to impose on him.

“His family roll out all the argument against his decision, “ says Bartlett. “Patriotism, money, and above all the idea that there is an intrinsic value to being a soldier, that all men were born to be soldiers. For the last few days of his life, this young man fights with terrific courage for the right to make this decision, and he loses. And all of the emotion of this terrible struggle is in Britten’s music. Britten doesn’t tell you what to feel, but he does insist that you do feel. He will not tolerate the stiff upper lip and the suppression of emotion that has allowed the sacrifice of so many young men throughout history.

“What do I think about the politics of it? Well, as we work on the opera, I am finding the topicality of it all absolutely astonishing. As I speak, we’re in the middle of five days of technical rehearsals, at that point in a production were people often wonder just exactly why they’re doing this, why they put themselves through it.

“But it’s also the anniversary of D-Day; so when I got up early this morning to head off to rehearsal, there it was on the news, not only the story of all the D-Day commemorations, and of the 95-year-old veteran who slipped out of his care home to go to France, but also the story of that US soldier who has just been released in Afghanistan, amid accusations that he was really a deserter, who rejected the war. And I thought, “Right, I know exactly why I am going to work today, and every day.

“Because in the face of all the evidence, I do think, like Britten, that it is possible for human beings to step away fom violence, and to renounce it. I don’t think war is inevitable. Anger and violence is certainly part of us – part of both men and women. I don’t think it’s gendered, until our culture makes it so. But I do see the possibility of change in the way we deal with these impulses. In my lifetime, for example, there has been an absolute transformation in the lives of gay people, and that didn’t happen by itself. We made that happen, by believing that change was possible, and working for it.”

In an powerful introductory piece for the Aldeburgh Festival website, Neil Bartlett has also speculated on the possible emotional source of Britten’s profound pacifism, which led him to join the Peace Pledge Union at an early age. As a gay man at a time when homosexual relationships were still illegal, and a conscientious objector after 1939, Britten certainly knew a great deal about the vengeful rage experienced by those who breach social norms; but Bartlett believes that the roots of the rebellion expressed in Owen Wingrave may lie even deeper, in the recurring images of the frightened boy and the bullying man that appear throughout his work.

If the deepest reasons behind Britten’s fierce commitment to this subject may never be known, though, it’s clear that Henry James’s short story, which was first published in 1892, triggered a deep response in a man who must have recognised many aspects of Owen Wingrave’s conventional Victorian upbringing. Britten was born in 1913, the year before the outbreak of the First World War; his early chldhood must have been dominated by news of young men lost in battle, and by the demonstrations of exaggerated patriotic and jingoistic feeling that were supposed to assuage that grief, and make those losses meaningful. Britten in many ways makes an unlikely rebel; he was a dapper, quietly-spoken man of conventional appearance, who did not seek conflict, and gladly accepted the knighthood and peerage which eventually came his way.

Yet his early experiences seem nonetheless to have created something implacable in him, a hard-edged determination not to collude with the patriotic pieties that are used to justify slaughter, or to enter on the slippery slope of glorification which begins with the widely-held belief that men are often at their best in war, and that without war they can never fully experience the virtues of courage, comradeship and self-sacrifice.

And despite the lapse of more than century since Britten’s birth, what is clear is that despite so much radical social change, the outright renunciation of war dramatised in Owen Wingrave remains deeply controversial, and still seems to some people almost blasphemous or treacherous. We are still invited to revere the memory of young soldiers who have fallen in the recent Afghan wars, and to believe – on pain of insulting their grieving families – that they gave their livesin a worthy cause. Young men stil struggle to find persuasive models of successful masculinity that do not involve violence, or aggression, or the grinding-down of enemies, real or imaginary; we are still told that the demands of patriotism – however defined, in a globalised world – may require the ultimate sacrifice. And we therefore still need artists with that same unflinching, radical courage shown by Benjamin Britten, when he began, in 1967, to create his version of Owen Wingrave: the courage to defy the powers that be and their conventional wisdom, the courage to begin to redefine how a successful human life might look, and the courage to look the old patriarchal gods in the eye, and to tell them, once and for all, “Your power is gone.”

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 15 and 17 August.

ENDS ENDS

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