24 MARCH 1967, Page 29



'In short we seek that Pox Americana That all the Freedom-Loving world desires.'

MacBird! Act II Sc 2

It is now almost seven years since Beyond the Fringe opened in Edinburgh. Watching grim- faced and with every critical faculty alert as Dudley Moore, in the role of a diminutive Russian pianist, was persuaded to stop saying 'Mr Khrushchev (sound of approbation) Mr Macmillan (raspberry),' and to say instead `Mr Khrushchev (raspberry) Mr Macmillan (sound of approbation),' the bright-eyed prophets of trend were powerfully reminded of Berlin in the 'thirties.

Nostalgic for the clear-cut issues of Fascism, they fancied themselves in some smoke-filled cellar, listening with hysterical excitement for the clatter of jackboots on the stone steps as Bertolt Brecht dreamed over the keys of his accordion in a dark corner and a grim-faced gag-man stood alone in a single spotlight, rising from the waves of thoughtful laughter to plant barb after barb in the rump of the Nazi beast. Disregarding Peter Cook's surreptitious right- wing assault on retired coalminers, they dis- cerned in the entertainment the Rebirth of Left- Wing Satire, soon to set the whole country on fire and to bring about the downfall of both Mr Macmillan and his decadent administra- tion.

Since then Satire has become unfashionable again, and has made way for LSD and union- jack-painted alarm clocks. Percipient critics in the Daily Express and various girlie magazines have hailed its arrival and exulted over its de- parture, always emphasising the barbed shaft image popularised by the first intellectual admirers of the vogue. In this the satirist is seen as a sort of malicious cupid. hovering about the politician or local dignitary, occasionally draw- ing a well-feathered arrow from his little quiver, fitting it into his bow, and when the politician or dignitary has adopted the most absurd position possible, letting fly. What happens after that is not usually explained by the critics who demand sharper barbs and more savage assaults, but it is understood that the politician or dignitary should give a cry of surprise and pain, straighten up, and ruefully withdraw the dart, reflecting as be does so on his own foolishness and the superior wisdom of the cherub, who by then has fluttered back to his library to muse on the ideal Marxist, Christian or Conservative position.

What has always struck me as odd about the image, apart from the fact that it is never used of clowns parodying other aspects of human frailty or of the writers of tragedy, is that it leaves out of consideration altogether any idea of enjoyment, either on the part of the author, the performer, or the audience. And yet this is precisely the element that is universal and un- changing and which ultimately makes nonsense of the theoretical talk about barbed shafts and savage attacks. The primary pleasure for example of captur- ing, even for a single phrase, the exact intona- tion of another speaker, whether it is one's aunt or the Foreign Secretary, is a very ancient one. A similar thrill must have been experienced by the innocent primitive as he cupped his brown hands and produced a passable imitation of the parrot on the branch above his head. And it is a proof of our humanity that we should recognise

the similarity and find it funny rather than be- lieving, like the unreflective beast, that it is the real thing. We also learn to listen more critically to.the original. Similarly the pleasure of distort- ing a prose style in parody or of distorting a face in a cartoon is precisely the same as OA: enjoyed by the noble savage lying beside S'onie'

woodland pond and disturbing the surface of the water, watching the images of the trees wobbling as the ripples passed through them. Even closer is the pleasure of a primitive sculp-

tor carving grotesque representations of the creatures he fears, learning as he does so to know them better and to fear them less.

Both these simple pleasures, of mimicry and,- parody, however, are enjoyed by any novelist, dramatist or comedian. The satirist merely has the additional thrill of seeing that the crudely made puppets bobbing about on the end of his strings, haranguing each other, getting drunk, indulging in pawky flirtations or emptying whitewash over each other's heads, all bear a pleasing resemblance to our betters. This is not to say that the original rage or delight that in- spired the author to go to his typewriter is any less genuine or intense, or that the positive opinions of the man are less firmly held. It is simply to say that they are not the secret of his originality. The more generally his opinions are held, the greater his success will be, but only if they are expressed in an original and beautiful way: his own pleasure and ultimately that of his audience derive from his ability to mimic and to distort.

This is why Barbara Garson's Macbird! (soon to be published in England by Penguin Books) has been so successful as a political satire. Apart from the intense pleasure of seeing the thinly disguised and farcical characters of the Ameri- can President and his wife forced to move through the rather macabre plot of a travestied Macbeth there is the enjoyment of recognising parodied passages of Shakespeare. slabs of paunchy American rhetoric corseted in blank verse. caricatured American political attitudes and the occasional felicitous obscenity. The political attitudes implicit in the piece are healthy and sensible, and it is a tribute to the limited liberty of the American citizen that they should have been expressed in this way; but stated in a few sentences on a political plat- form they would seem unsubtle and unoriginal.

Where the originality lies is in the use of the parody framework to dramatise figures of speech. like the scene in which Robert Kennedy appears during a raucous celebration in LBJ's hotel room, disguised as his brother's ghost, or the mimicry of Lady Bird wandering round the presidential office with a huge bouquet of flowers, ordering her daughters to spray the room to mask the phantom smell of death, and undertaking her beautification scheme for planting flowers `to sweeten this accursed land.' It seems unlikely that the President. stung by this dart, will ruefully abandon his plans for victory in Vietnam or refuse to run again for the presidency. It is however possible that those-who see his puppet will understand him better: and at any rate they should have a good laugh.