Broadway in New York City snakes through midtown like an uncoiled length tossed casually across a grid. It creates wedges: one at the Flatiron building on 23rd Street, and another at Times Square at 42nd Street the one-time-and-forever centre of the known entertainment universe.
In these “interesting times” where we live, now and then I get an intuitive confirmation of the impressive prescience of certain twentieth century novelists; my latest was olfactory. Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World – he sure was right about genetic engineering – but do you remember the scene in the book where there is a public protest? The authorities rock up and instead of laying about the populus with strong arms as in cruder locales, they merely pump “soma”, the happy gas, into the vicinity. And while they are doing it they play a soothing voice-over.
“Friends… friends… friends” croons the voice in a tone at once loving and mildly, fraternally, disappointed by the disharmony. The public is soon quieted. Today in real-world Manhattan the streets of midtown are filled with the sickly-sweet skunk-imitator scent of cannabis leaves burning quietly, and undoubtedly to some of us it brings a welcome oblivion.
Orwell was another one. He had it right too, the Big Brothers who presently rule territories East and West are watching you, and some are more equal than others, while the telescreen is the Colosseum, and the public mind marches toward total biddability as Fact, Ethics and Truth are lost in the oubliette of Opinion and the soothing-stimulating somatic-discourse that calls itself “News”. Plato was right after all (when a society seeks the Good above the True – it’s over) and it’s only taken a couple of thousand years to prove it.
By the way, George Orwell wrote an at-close-quarters account of a hanging that happened in Burma (Myanmar) when he was a civil servant there. He was struck by how the condemned man side-stepped a puddle on the way to the gallows.
Along the side streets of midtown there are theatres. They cling to Broadway like barnacles on a submarine cable and claim its name. From them you may purchase entertainment.
Is there a difference between entertainment and art?
“Our job,” says a senior advertising executive to a colleague in the 1980s TV dramady Thirtysomething, “is to give people faith in their leaders, comfort in the purchase of consumer durables and security in the belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong.”
Last week I joined the company of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. I stand by for Mark Addy, an actor of extraordinary calibre and absolutely outstanding in the role of Harry. The show previews Feb 28th, opens March 19th.
And if you do see it, will it give you any somatic relief from the chafing-on-the-nerves challenge of being alive in these “interesting times”?
I doubt it.
The author, Martin McDonagh, is on record as saying he had no intention for a play-of-message as he wrote it. Even so, the show is confronting. It’s very funny. State-sanctioned murderous use of hempen weave – what could be funnier? But if you laugh, soon after you are likely to think “What kind of person laughs at this?!?
I’ll call that art.