What might have happened, Sean O'Brien asks in his programme note, if a "gifted young poet" in the 1930s had taken up right-wing politics, instead of the Auden generations allegiance to the Left? Keepers of the Flame offers a disturbing answer. It shows O'Brien's protagonist Richard Jameson as a derelict shell in 1987, his poetic gift long gone, though its legacies are still coveted by factions of extreme Conservatism and the National Front. Sections dramatizing his memories also explore the loss of his talents through involvements in 1930s politics: principally his seduction by a Mosley-like organization which seeks only propaganda and "marching songs, no end / of bloody marching songs".
Both phases, past and present, offer a dire prospect of a poet forced to betray his principles, his relationships, his writing, and ultimately himself. As in his earlier verse play for Live Theatre, Laughter When We're Dead (reviewed in the TLS, June 30, 2000), Keepers of the Flame is unrelenting in its depiction of the seductive corruptions of politics and power. As allusions to Faustus confirm, O'Brien is a Mephistophelean playwright, interested in characters carried beyond any glimmer of redemption; and in taking the audience, along with them, down to hell with ease. The result might well have been an excessively - perhaps implausibly - gloomy evening in the theatre.
Many factors prevent this. First among these is the quality of the performances. In a demanding part, Alan Howard persuasively conveys both Jameson's 1980s decrepitude and despair, yet also the edgy realism and egotism which preceded it. David Rintoul projects into the Mosley figure a brusque self-certitude both sinister yet plausibly alluring. Other members of an outstanding cast likewise endow every syllable and gesture with controlled vigour and wilfulness, so that power and its fascinations seem to exude from every movement of the play. Yet its action is never allowed to lurch towards melodrama; scenes of horrible violence are thoroughly unstagey, and convincing.
So is O'Brien's blank verse. It is delivered much as T.S.Eliot might have recommended: with a naturalness which makes it undistracting as poetry. Yet in lyric interludes, or at moments of heightened tension, it bears comparison with Faustian or Jacobean antecedants also recalled by O'Brien's dark vision of lusts and treacheries. Nor is this linguistic power an incidental grace: rather it is integral to some of the wide-ranging questions Keepers of the Flame explores. Several of these are straightforwardly political. Like Simon Armitage, in recent poems such as The Twang, O'Brien scrutinizes English nationalism and the risks of its appropriation by the Right, often the far Right, pondering the possibilities of being "a patriot" without going "much further out".
Like Armitage, too, O'Brien examines the relation of nationalism, and its moral and imaginative base, with the Platonic England of the countryside. "On fire / With poems and plays and operas and films / And England, England, England", it is to "a core of light / Among the oak and ash" that Jameson turns, like so much English writing, for his inspiration.
O'Brien's profoundest questions, however, are about relations between poetry and a world of action more generally. Like Theodor Adorno, concerned about the validity of lyric poetry after Auschwitz, O'Brien questions how poets, or even words themselves, could continue to serve the world in a century of unremitting violence, destruction, and political immorality. Even in the 1930s, Jameson's Oxford tutor concludes that "our age is what comes after poetry", and that "poetry / Is finished ....... a language of the dead, / A world we study when the action's done". Young and idealistic, Jameson nevertheless remains convinced that "poetry is England", and that a poetic talent for "putting pictures in your head" is ennobling and enabling - a way of redirecting the lived, actual world through the power of the imagination. Later, poetry seems to him merely a form of cowardice and evasion: a betrayal of that lived world, and a flight from its responsibilities.
Tensions between these views raise artistic, critical and moral challenges which make for an absorbing evening in the theatre. This is a thoughtful play, excellently produced, with particular resonance for any reader of the life of the twentieth century, or of its poetry: ultimately, for anyone who works much with words at all.
Times Literary Supplement, 21.11.03.
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