Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Liars' Gospel

By Naomi Aldermann
Published by Penguin, 2012

 Judas, by Lady Gaga (from Vevo).
Her interpretation of a demonic Judas contrasts with Alderman's  less vital interpretation.

Tendentiousness undermines an attempt at retelling the Jesus myth in a naturalistic manner.

Jesus, Moses and even God are literary characters and creations. They may, if you are a believer, also have a different kind of reality, but whatever else they may be, they are characters in stories.

This is a reimagining of the Jesus story. It assumes, reasonably, a familiarity with the outlines of this story, but the characters are unhelpfully given names different to their common English ones – so Jesus becomes Jehoshuah, his mother is Miryam, etc. Oddly Pilate retains his English name, and is not called Pilatus.  

This mild distancing effect suggests anxiety that the story might be seen as blasphemous or shocking; but the only shock I encountered (admittedly as an unbeliever) had nothing to do with the representation of Jesus.  

In telling Jesus’ story indirectly, from the perspectives of his mother, of Judas, of the Jerusalem High Priest and of Barrabas, we are drawn into the wider contemporary context of the story, in particular the political situation in and around Jerusalem. 

This historical part of the work is done well. The atmosphere of occupied Jerusalem is skilfully evoked, and the narrative is lively, bookended by descriptions of the original Roman conquest through to the destruction of the city in  the first century CE.

But this aspect of the novel is also the most shocking. For Jerusalem is currently at the heart of a similar conflict. Given that the current oppressors claim authority as descendents of the Jews of this novel, this novel appears to provide historical justification for Israel’s current brutal oppression in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (and more widely across modern Israel). 

I don’t know if Alderman intends this; it may be that she intends rather to show that violent oppression begets violence, unless somehow we understand Jesus’ unique addition to Rabbinic teachings, ‘love your enemy’. 

Perhaps readers are supposed to link the practices of the ancient Romans with those of current Israelis; but I didn't get that impression, nor does the treatment of the central focus of this novel suggest that the author was aiming for irony.

The central focus of the novel is Jesus' ministry, and this is is significantly weaker because the author seems to be pushing her views on us at every opportunity.

On moral grounds, I am unhappy with the parrallels to the current situation in Israel; on aesthetic grounds, this treatment isunobjectionable. The reverse is true when it comes to the treatment of the Jesus myth.

A novel centred on Jesus is a formidable challenge, for the realist novel can – perhaps must – humanise everyone. This is a poor option for mythic figures, even those nobody directly worships, such as Ulysses. Any attempt to realistically convey, for example, Jesus' childhood in a novel would frustrate even the most orthodox Christian.

The author sensibly retains some of the strangeness of the Jesus myth, particularly of the earliest retelling of it we have, the disturbing Gospel of Mark. She stresses the human and apocalyptic aspects of the myth.

In so far as there must be some demythologising in an historical, realist, novel, the author seems to have adopted a conservative approach, allowing a reader to believe in Jesus’ divinity, or at least that he was an important spiritual teacher. 

Oddly, some of the most problematic aspects of the myth, from the viewpoint of ‘realism’, are retained. I think this is a bold idea, but it results in the novel’s weakest scene.

Miracles are accepted (albeit judiciously). Visions are accepted, so that Judas may have been blessed by Jesus before his betrayal. Nobody knows what happens to Jesus’ body, leaving resurrection a possibility.

Confronting the Greek-writing, perhaps self-hating Jewish apostles, Alderman goes horribly wrong in attempting to reimagine the trial of Jesus. Its important for the historical fiction strand of the novel that we experience a Jewish freedom fighter / terrorist, and this is a good idea for explaining Barrabas’ popularity with the crowd, but why would Pilate ever agree to allow the harmless Jesus to be executed over such a trophy as a resistance leader?

I found Alderman completely implausible here, and this undermines her attempt at realism. The canonical gospels are much more effective here – and since we know crowds can be extremely nasty, there are no moral reasons why the author should try to exonerate the crowd that condemned Jesus.
Lest I seem perverse in suggesting that the scene quoted in all manner of anti-semitism (christ-killing) is aesthetically and morally unobjectionable, I must add that all that is needed is to show that this was a typical crowd, rather than a crowd of Jews, as if being Jewish were the important distinction.

I regard it self-evident that it is possible to give a plausible explanation for Jesus’ condemnation that did not imply anything negative about Jewish people (or judaism) in general. I don't mean to downplay the gospel author's genuine anti-semitism, but this is from their perspective a happy coincidence arising from their pragmatic aesthetic choice.

The Greek Testament scene(s) of choice between Jesus and Barrabas is an aesthetic triumph and a moral disaster (at least in retrospect). Taken as art, these are the scenes that grant something like tragic eminence to the myth, and are responsible for much of the regrettably continuing appeal of Christianity. In life, they are linked to the continuing anti-semitism responsible for so much misery.

Perhaps the greatest mystery in Christian religion is not how Jesus can be both God and man, but how a loving Jew can symbolise a religion that has and does persecute Jews.

While the desire to provide an alternative interpretation to these scenes is extremely understandable, the implausible reinterpretation here is a major aesthetic mistake.

This tendentiousness, the intense desire to tell us that the Jesus myth has been a disaster for Jewish people, bedevils the entire novel.
If the novel is judged a contribution to refute antisemitism, or to informing believing and non-believing Christians / gentiles of the rich tradition within which Jesus existed, then it is a success, notwithstanding my reservations about modern Israel mentioned above. 

If the novel is judged as art, it is a failure. Someone – an Inuit hermit? – unfamiliar with the Jesus myth would wonder why it mattered, whereas reading Mark’s gospel, or certainly John’s, would surely understand its splendour, while disliking its racism, among many other things.

Although her writing style is normally admirable in concision and beauty, Alderman tends to characterise the four central subjects similarly – sympathetically, as intelligent, wise and courageous, albeit on different sides. While some dark humour enlivens proceedings, I wanted greater variety of character; perhaps the High Priest could have been a more comical figure unaware of his weaknesses, etc. 

Sometimes, the author’s desire to convince us of her central thesis betrays her style – an observation that couldn’t occur to the character (perhaps because it refers to things before they were born, or when they weren’t present) intrudes on the narrative. 

The most disastrous intrusion of authorial voice rather than character voice happens in the last two pages of the novel, and I would suggest readers simply stop before then. I can’t imagine the reader who would need the point battered so much that the last pages would be worth reading .

Overall, then, an interesting failure. Perhaps Alderman can now tackle a less mythical, yet much more significant early Christian Jew: Paul. I think she could achieve great things with this subject more congenial to a novel.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Old Times

Harold Pinter Theatre, 25 February 2013
The evocative opening of this production. From here.

The overdetermined love triangle gets a near-ideal production, only confiorming its weaknesses.

This interesting production downplayed or removed themes I associate with Harold Pinter’s dramas, while retaining his style. I didn’t notice much violence, hinted or otherwise, nor was there a sense of inarticulation or struggling to communicate.

Nonetheless, it retained his distinctive brand of Beckett-influenced realism. I have a fairly low opinion of his variations on relationships – he strains in trying to imply the deeper significances of Beckett, while failing to deliver anything particularly compelling to watch on stage. 

Here, for example, exploring the triangular relationship between a straight couple and the woman's long-time friend, he covers the power relations between lovers, friends, and men/women while throwing in some class (or at least income) differences.  

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the drama is its revealing that we don’t necessarily escape regrets over decisions we take, even if we ourselves don’t happen to regret them. I think the implication is that someone else – our lover – might end up regretting the perceived cost of our decision, and then the harm is done.

I haven't yet named the characters, simply because the massive weakness here is that I don’t believe in these people. Nor does the author give me any reason to care about their lives and choices. At no point did I feel sympathetic.

If anything, I felt that they hadn’t really lost any chance, they were simply convinced they had, and resigned to torpor.

It’s quite possible this is as Pinter intended, as a representation of the boring, cowardly instincts in us all.  

In the programme, unilluminating claims are made for the author’s interest in memory – I don’t see, given his setup, he could have done anything else but describe the characters’ impressions of the past.

I would be surprised if a better production could be possible. Ian Rickson’s direction makes the most of the theatrical nature of Pinter’s art. He sees it is all about the positioning of characters so that we can observe all their reactions as the dialogue progresses. And their relative placement is also part of the overall impact, which holds the attention when the words don’t.

Three beautiful people are in these roles – and with the plausibly handsome Rufus Sewell as Deeley I wondered how Pinter  himself could possibly have taken this role. Kristen Scott-Thomas and Lia Williams are alternating in the roles of Kate and Anna, and I saw them in those roles respectively.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


Royal College of Music, 21 February 2013

Steve Reich's Tehillim, by ASKO and the Schoenberg Ensemble.
From youtube.
A satisfying programme of contemporary music spanning the minimalist soundscape.

Variable Geometry, led by Jean-Philippe Calvin, is apparently an RCM group dedicated to contemporary music, with a focus on composer/performer collaborations.

This concert of highly rhythmic pieces was impressively varied. Performance standards were high, and the musicians were visibly enthusiastic about each piece, which is surprisingly important at a concert, where there is usually little visual stimulation.

The weakest work was the opener, John Adam’s Chamber Symphony. Surprisingly, given my expectations of this composer, I was bored even before the first movement had finished, and the humorous movement titles did not translate into humorous music. However, at least the second movement, Aria with Walking Bass, grabbed attention.

Not Wanting to Say Anything About John, a collaboration between composer Raquel García-Tomás and video artist Aïnoa Sarabia, was charming. This in spite of its chance-influenced creative process, an homage to John Cage’s piece on Duchamp, is probably best thought of as a mildly perverse way of structuring the piece for the creators, rather than something which enhances the experience for the audience.

The combination of images and music seemed appropriate, and kept my interest, even if I felt the images were the most striking aspect of the work, and the music effectively ‘mickey mousing’.

Workers Union by Louis Andriessen seems to have a similarly complicated creative process, though again it didn’t seem relevant to this powerful realisation. I didn’t notice the work resembling political action (as the composer apparently intends) but the sense of tension and force was conveyed, which may be similar.

Both these works made me wonder at the significance of an artist’s methods. These give grist for academics, and that shouldn’t be underestimated as a method of consolidating an artist’s position in the canon.

But the artist (or the work) first needs to be part of the canon in order to receive attention from academics. Which normally means the artwork must appeal to audiences, whether general or specialist. And I don’t think that can happen based purely on theoretical methodologies, it must happen because the work itself appeals directly. I think it is no coincidence Schoenberg established himself with Transfigured Night before launching the second and later string quartets.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Steve Reich’s majestic Tehillim, settings of parts of psalms in Hebrew. 

This is clearly a major work, though I don't think it was fully successful. The musical side is appealing, conveying ritual in a new way, and very beautiful. But the words of the psalms themselves sometimes blended and distended into oblivion. Certainly it was hard to follow the text. 

If it is odd to link Reich with the polyphony of the late European middle ages, it is appropriate – the music takes priority over the text, and a sense of ritual takes precedence over both.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Kiss Me, Kate

Old Vic, 19 February 2013

I Hate Men,  Lilli-as-Kate's song from Kiss Me, Kate, sung by Patricia Morison in 1958.
From youtube.

An impressive production and cast makes the most of this musical, but cannot disguise its damaging indulgences.

The Taming of the Shrew is not the greatest example of Shakespeare’s genius. But it retains more life than Cole Porter’s work, which seems dated just 50 years after it was written. 

Admittedly, the English dramatist can seem disturbingly misogynistic in this work, but the key to countering that impression is that Kate is both superior to Petruccio and in love with him at first sight.  

On this view, it is the social imprisonment of women that the poet exposes, and one problem with updating the scenario as done here is that even in the 1930s women had much greater rights than in Tudor England. 

Thankfully the book by Bella and Sam Spewack retains some of the sense that women choose beneath them. It also retains the bard’s healthy disrespect for mere plausibility. And so it is a relatively effective abridgement of the Shrew. 

But the contemporary framing device, far from making Shakespeare ‘relevant’, is fairly weak. Quarrelling actors are just too cute. As we know everyone on stage is acting at one or two removes, the distancing effect is distracting rather than enlightening (post-modernism avant la letter?) 

Worse, sometimes the implausibility is stretched too far by the updated setting. Not only is there no doubt that Lilli will return to Fred, but in the event it is so implausibly sentimental that even Trevor Nunn cannot direct the scene to make it effective.

Some of Porter’s lyrics, and most of his tunes, keep things deftly afloat.

Even here, there are problems, and I found them the worst problems in the piece. It is easier to forgive some tuneful additions that don’t advance the plot, such as Too Darn Hot; the real sins are the indulgent rhymes of Brush Up on Your Shakespeare and Bianca.  

The cast is great, and mostly manage to sound from the US even if they aren’t (though I prefer actors in their natural accents).  

A seemingly endless supply of enthusiastic, energetic and talented singing actors can be found for London musicals, and as usual everyone was very good. Perhaps some authentic yankee pep might have been necessary to lift the drama out of its doldrums. Only Adam Garcia, in a relatively unimportant role, seemed to possess this quality.  

Special mention should go to Hannah Waddingham’s versatile voice. Her I Hate Men was the lasting highlight in a lively but unaffecting evening.

Sunday, 17 February 2013


Barbican, 15 February 2013
Zero Mostel's famed transformation into a rhinoceros.
Vastly - truly vastly - inferior to the distrurbing transformation in this production.
The surely definitive production of this disturbing theatrical fable.

That the people turn into rhinos in this drama is a happy accident, according to Ionesco’s daughter, who took part in an informative after-show discussion at the Barbican.  

Although he wanted rhinos because they are alien, thick-skinned, stubborn, violent, and make incomprehensible trumpeting sounds, he had also wanted a gregarious animal. It’s clear also from his notes attached to the programme, that Ionesco was originally aiming at a satire on fascism, or fanaticism more generally. 

His theatre parable is immensely more powerful for - accidentally - not having such a clear message. Nor, watching it, could I imagine he could ever have intended such a message, so convincing are the transformations into rhinos. No other animal could work in this drama, I felt. Certainly not one with a leader, or any kind of social mentality.

The hero, Bérenger, who alone fails to change into a rhino, is already alienated at the very start of the action. Purposelessly passionate, and typically yielding to others when he realises he has gone too far, he is also consciously detached from the world of work, the world of romance, indeed everything around him.

Rhinoceros is usually described as an absurdist drama, a term I’m happy to discover Ionesco found as confusing as I do. There are some wonderful absurd moments, none related to the transformations. For example, the prattle of the logician painfully satirises the reason that is supposed to distinguish us from rhinos.

Importantly, the transformations do not seem absurd: they seem inevitable and quite realistic. In this way, the drama retains its integrity, and avoids a straightforward interpretation.

Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production is so good I can’t imagine a better one. Serge Maggiani is a convincingly pathetic Bérenger, while the moralistic Jean’s slow transformation, signposted from the start, involves no mugging on the part of Hugues Quester. It is deeply disturbing, as it should be.

The rest of the cast are also excellent, and the depiction of the gossip-ridden, mechanical wine merchant’s office where Bérenger works, is now burnt into my visual memory.
The final image, of the last man stepping into the void, is wonderfully correct. If there can be a better production of this drama, I will eat my horn.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Death: 2 exhibitions

Death: a self-portrait
Wellcome Collection, 15 November 2012  24 February 2013

Doctors, dissection and resurrection men
Museum of London, 19 October 2012 – 14 April 2013

Untitled (skulls with finger and eyelash) by Ray Johnson. From here.

An exhibition on death symbolism is complemented with one on the social history of medical grave-robbing. Both encourage reflection on our feelings towards dead bodies.

"If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it."
Michel de Montaigne. 

Like taxes, death is certain; unlike taxes, it can only be delayed, not avoided. I am hopelessly muddled on the subject, but I suspect everyone is.  

Our own death may be impossible to come to terms with. The emotions around bereavement are important, but as they aren’t relevant to contemplating our own deaths, perhaps other emotions (fear? desire? of what?) are involved. Death is related to, but distinct from dying, from fear of old age or from pain. We feel there can be an unjust death, but a just death is a peculiar idea to me too. 

The exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is drawn from the modern cabinet of morbid curiosities of the collector Richard Harris. The Museum of London complements this wide-ranging exhibition with a more specific focus on the medical demand for dead bodies for dissection, and how this came to be regulated in the UK through the 1832 Anatomy Act.

Mostly focussed on visual representations of death, Harris’ collection has a lot of skulls. It seems all over the world, the skull represents death, either as something to be contemplated and commemorated or something to be feared and appeased.  

A repeating motif in the exhibition is the use of a skull or skeleton in otherwise everyday settings. A portrait of a doctor with hand on a skull; personal photos with family members, perhaps, holding a skull; printed books depicting a skeleton holding the hands of people of all ages and social situations; Tibetan death masks.  

These images address death abstractly, and create a sense of reflection rather than the horror we usually feel when thinking about death. The powerful exception is the sets of prints by Callot, Goya and Dix, all depicting – from different wars – actual or imagined horrors of war, including some extremely violent deaths, or at least corpse mutilations. 

Corpse mutilation is also the main theme at the Museum of London, and the horror this inspires. The trade in dead bodies, necessary for medical research, is still fairly shocking, though I’m not sure why. Certainly the trade had social implications – as hanged murderers were the only legal source of bodies, it was a source of great shame when the poor had their relative’s graves robbed, whether illegally or after 1832 legally.

I would have liked more of this social background, and more on the harsh implications of the Anatomy Act for the poor, as well as more links to recent controversies over the rich paying for organ donations, etc. I was surprised to learn that even today, demand for dead bodies exceeds supply. 

The two exhibitions provoke introspection on the subject of bodies, in particular. At the Collection, the skeleton, or skull, is clearly a powerful, immediate symbolic representation of death. The Museum stresses the sanctity of the dead body. I think this has something to do with the mystery of death; that one moment we are alive, the next not. Our bodies don’t seem to change so very much, though eventually we end up skeletons.  

Unsurprisingly, neither exhibition is remotely the last word on death. But seen together, they help me, at least, to reflect upon that complicated mix of reactions I feel on the issue.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A chorus line

London Palladium, 12 February 2013

 The finale, from Richard Attenborough's film version. Stressing the eventual anonymity of the chorus members
(and seeming  to make comparisons with goosestepping military types).

A near-perfect theatre work that manages to have its cake and eat it by being both clever and moving.

Whenever I watch a musical, even if I dislike it, I sympathise with the chorus line, the singing, dancing, hardworking anonymous entertainers. So this particular drama is a stroke of genius, focussing as it does entirely on the chorus.

It is also cruel. Underneath the ‘no business like showbusiness’ sentiments, this ruthlessly illustrates that the chorus line will remain anonymous. Although every member is skilfully sketched, there are no stars in this show, either within the world of the show, or in our world.

It’s also not a tale about tearful clowns or navel-gazing actors. It has a wider appeal, touching upon professional competitiveness, personal ambition and productive employment. Each of the cast is given sufficient time to define themselves, and while in some cases this is fairly crude, it is cumulatively effective.

And then, in the final number, doubling as a curtain call, we experience the chorus line ‘in character’, supporting an absent star in a glittering dance routine. A powerful irony, as the dancers finally become completely anonymous, and indistinguishable, at the time when typically we would be applauding specific actors.

So, this is a postmodern drama that actually works. It even has a big tune inserted without dramatic necessity, though in such a way that ‘What I did for love’ can be seen as the comment of the entire cast (in and out of character) on their current career choice.

Credit for this remarkable achievement belongs to Michael Bennett, the original writer / director / choreographer, although the programme note claims that Bennett’s genius applied mostly to the specific productions he directly oversaw, and cannot readily be found in new productions, such as this one. In which case the current director, Bob Avian, deserves the credit.

One person who doesn’t cover himself in glory is the composer, Marvin Hamlisch. His contribution is serviceable, and I’m astonished this was such an enormous hit in the 1970s and 80s. It deserves to do extremely well again in this revival, though I suspect the music will help sink it (rather than a lack of star power, as great music could overcome this).

Even my recurring complaint with musical theatre, that the cast is amplified, has less force with this work. I can’t really expect dancers to also be able to fill the large London Palladium with their natural voices. Still, it would be nice to be able to determine who was singing without a big spotlight being necessary.

But then again… the essential anonymity of the cast is the central concern of the show. A collection of attractive, superfit, talented dancer / singer / actors working very hard night after night, and yet allowed only small flashes of individuality before merging as efficiently as any circus routine.

If Chekhov went to Broadway, this is what he would have written.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Judas Kiss

Duke of York's theatre, 11 February 2012
Rupert Everett striking a typical expression as Wilde, with Freddie Fox as Bosie behind.
From Hampstead theatre website.
Wilde-as-Christ is a powerful idea, but it needs an approach that generates greater sympathy for the central character.

Oscar Wilde’s life was so remarkable that it’s no surprise it is ripe for dramatisation. David Hare has, necessarily, a partial view, but this isn’t itself a fault. 

Hare’s Wilde is an aesthete dramatising his own life, and proclaiming a gospel of love, knowingly imitating the Christian gospels, and at the climax making an effective criticism of their literary value – Judas was unknown to Jesus. It would have been more artistic had Jesus been betrayed by John, whom he loved. 

This is the audacious core of the drama. A serious retelling of the Christ story in velvet. The idea might have appealed to Wilde himself, though I think he would have cautioned Hare against some of the dramatic, rather than theological, pitfalls. 

For one thing, while Wilde genuinely suffered, we aren’t shown this by Hare, but are rather told it by his central character. It’s an eloquent report, pointing out that hard labour teaches apathy, not patience. But it isn’t the same as seeing suffering, in our imagination or on stage. 

Without this, I was left out of sympathy with Wilde, who, as with the apostle’s Jesus, comes across as exceedingly difficult. Jesus found only 12 friends, one of whom betrayed him. Hare’s Wilde is left with none at all.  

Prophets, even when they impart wisdom, are usually unlikeable, perhaps especially when they are the Son of God. In at least some of the gospels, Jesus’ passion helps humanise him. Hare is not able to do the same with his Wilde. 

We are left with a character who says things I completely agree with, but find unbearable.

Matters are confused a little by the gayness of the drama, especially in Neil Armfield’s production, in which several beautiful men are naked, one for a comically long time. 

Hare’s Wilde is not preaching a Gay Gospel, but the audience might be forgiven for thinking this, and that’s a great pity.  

Rupert Everett’s performance as Wilde is a further problem, as he only succeeds in making the character more unattractive. He sounds and looks affected and false, as though he can’t let up playing a role. I think some of this is Hare’s intention, but it should be possible to humanise the prophet a little more.  

Everyone else is fine, especially Cal Macaninch’s Robbie, who essentially represents us, the audience, bemused and frustrated by Wilde, but also shamed by him.

Monday, 11 February 2013


10 February 2013
The statue to Lincoln in London's Parliament Square.

Another filmic contribution to the relatively benign Lincoln myth, though hints of a less ethical, more interesting figure keep the drama alive.

"For the first time, Seward understood the nature of Lincoln’s political genius. He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking timid backwoods lawyer […]." 

This is the key revelation for the wily Secretary of State in Gore Vidal’s tragic historical novel, Lincoln. It is not the kind of revelation that appeals to the Lincoln hagiographers, among them Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose tepid Team of Rivals is supposedly the inspiration for this film. 

Thankfully screenwriter Tony Kushner seems to have ditched most of this inspiration, and produced a relatively subtle Lincoln portrait. Except when it’s not at all subtle, and presents a viewer with serious flaws. 

The film is mildly mistitled. It’s really about the US House of Representatives vote on the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. A big budget film about politicians wrangling and then voting – its existence is pleasantly surprising in itself, before considering any flaws. 

Lincoln (and Seward) are important characters in this drama, but are shown neither as the only ones, nor necessarily vital to the vote, though their decision to bribe congressmen to support them is obviously important to the plot, as is Lincoln’s expressed motivation for getting the amendment passed. 

The film might have been much better had it relegated Lincoln to a shadowy presence, important but rarely seen. This might have permitted greater possibility for criticising the saint, along the lines of Vidal’s novel. And I believe in any case it would have strengthened the drama. 

As it is, we also get a portrait of the first imperial President, and a curiously sidelong view of the terrible civil war over which he presided.  

Slavery is such a great evil that a modern audience is surely surprised there should be any dramatic tension possible over its abolition; certainly the author’s villainous democrats and Confederate leaders are poorly sketched. So where was the resistance to abolishing it earlier? Here Kushner cleverly suggests that Lincoln himself was the problem, which is to say he knows his racist constituents must be brought along with him.

Though Lincoln is the main character, the show is comprehensively stolen by the principled Thaddeus Stevens, who gets to say unkind things about whites that are clearly true, but rarely heard in major films. All the more amazing, then, that the President’s cautious pragmatic approach, almost but not quite unprincipled, was the one that ended slavery. 

Here, I think, is the core of the drama. Two different approaches to governing, both converging in greatness at the end. 

Unfortunately, Kushner blots both his depiction of the central character and his dramatic tension by having him make a few highly liberal, anti-slavery remarks, as if we needed to be told he was not really a villainous slowcoach. This simplistic signposting swerves the film back into Honest Abe hagiographic territory. 

These clumsy moments confirm that without them, the film-makers worried that an audience might actually regard Lincoln as a villain, or at least divided over the evils of slavery. 

[Ironically, at least one Lincolnite has suggested that at least one of the anti-slavery speeches gives the false impression that the great man was concerned about making history rather than living through it.] 

So it is the unblotted film that I admire, with its suggestions of how slavery lasted so long, and what this might mean for us now. 

Other, lesser, aspects of the film are better done. The chaotic conduct of the civil war, the dire effect of the presidency on Mr and Mrs Lincoln personally, and the high camp of congressional horsetrading and speechifying.