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May 15, 2008

Brendan Simms uncovers the hidden neoconservatism of Martin Crimp - and is reminded that it sometimes takes a general: Martin Crimp's Cruel and Tender

Posted by Brendan Simms

Martin Crimp's Cruel and Tender
directed by Matt Jones
Corpus Christi Playroom, Cambridge
29th April - 3rd May 2008

Martin Crimp's The City is currently playing (24th April - 7th June 2008) at the Royal Court and in common with so much of his work, the play is marked by an engagement with current events: the city in question has been compared with Fallujah. It is therefore opportune to be reminded of an earlier War on Terror in Cruel and Tender, recently revived in Cambridge.

Like the Greek tragedy on which it draws - Sophocles's Women of Trachis - Cruel and Tender takes aim at a quintessentially male hero. Crimp turns Zeus's son Heracles (or Hercules in Roman myth) into The General, a sinister militarist who combines the menace of the Dublin gangland figure of the same name (a.k.a. Martin Cahill) with the presence of Othello. For it soon becomes clear that the man for whom his waiting wife Amelia pines is far from being the subject of universal adulation. He is in fact a war criminal, whose methods - to borrow the language of Apocalypse Now - are deemed to be so "unsound" that the government is beginning to distance itself from him.

One account has him cutting out a boy's heart in public. Worse still, his most recent victory, in which an African city was completely levelled, turns out to have been motivated by lust for Laela, the smouldering beauty and daughter of the vanquished rebel leader he has sent home ahead of his triumphal return. The General expects Amelia to care for this latest political and sexual conquest under her own roof.

It is strong stuff, and it is perhaps for this reason that the first twenty minutes or so of this short play - are something of a rant. The General's wife ruminates about whether all men are rapists - she hopes not, but only because she cannot bear to be thought the victim she so clearly is. There is also some clichéd exchanges about men being conditioned to kill, hardly enlivened by the ostentatious brandishing of toy guns.

By the time the two Africans waifs – Laela and her "brother" ("The General's" son) - arrive the message could not be clearer. So far, so dark, and so black and white. It is only the commanding figure of Amelia - the subject of a mesmeric performance by Marieke Audsley - who holds the whole thing together at this point.

Having advanced an impeccably liberal critique of the War on Terror, however, Crimp then proceeds to subvert it. The African leader slain by The General had literally torn the food out of the mouths of the people - or so Laela tells us. We are given the distinct impression that the world is better off without him. Amelia reflects on her trendy university friends who rejoice at the death of soldiers younger than them who have sacrificed their lives for their freedoms.

And in a striking scene, The General, who finally bursts upon the stage in person shortly before the end, reminds his son that he had risked his skin daily in order to allow him to spend his days in freedom - or at least in front of a computer playstation.

Running parallel with all this is a love story. Amelia and The General lacerate each other with affairs - she speaks of each one of them being like having "acid thrown in her face". And yet there is a brutal honesty between them, which compares favourably with the equivocations of the weaselly government spin doctor. Amelia pronounces fiercely,

I happen to believe that love and truth are same thing.
Ironically, it is Amelia's love for The General, her yearning for his return, which finally brings about his downfall. Many years ago an old flame - who had forsaken his radical principles to work in a government military research institute - had given her a secret phial. This potion, he tells her, will persuade anybody who ingests it to abandon all martial instincts and return home. In fact, it turns out to be a diabolically effective bio-chemical agent which physically all but destroys "The General". Stricken by remorse, Amelia commits suicide.

In the end, we do not really know what we are supposed to make of The General. What or whom are we to believe? Is The General just a recruiting-sergeant for terror as is suggested by his reference to three heads leaping up whenever he lops two off? Or is he one of Auden's necessary murderers, who does the dirty work of the War on Terror, the "Dirty Harry" which some think the West cannot do without?

Crimp's references to the defence of our freedoms here are surely not purely ironic. If The General's final blustering promise to defend himself behind the glass screen is a reference to the trial of Milosevic before the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, it cannot have escaped Crimp's notice that it took a fairly drastic breach of customary international law - the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia without United Nations sanction - to put him there. Sometimes it take a general to put "The General" behind bars.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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