Pentecost: Act One

11 08 2007

I’m starting with a post about the first act of Pentecost. It’s a complex play so there might be a bit of overlap and I am discussing in detail some key plot points so if you aren’t familiar with the play and don’t want it ruined please don’t read any further…

The first act of David Edgar’s Pentecost lays the groundwork for much of the second act. The painting is introduced as is one theory about its origins, which is then discredited – but again the reason for the discrediting foregrounds the major revelation about the painting in the second act. There is a lot of foreshadowing and building that needs to be done in that first act to make the second act as emotionally charged and effective as it is. The groundwork is also laid for the various relationships betweens the characters, and even beyond that is the need to establish a context for the political forces at work and how the society of this fictitious European country views itself and its past.

It is there – in terms of the past and history and national and personal identity – that my interest really lies in the first part of the play. The issue for many of the characters is history and the past and though their feelings manifest themselves over the debate about the painting, there is much more to it than their concerns about the fate of the painting.

There is an exchange in the third scene of the play between Gabriella, the woman who discovered the painting and a citizen of the fictional European country (and who is working with Oliver, a British art historian, to remove the painting and have it placed in the national gallery), and Leo Katz, an American, who has come to stop the removal of the painting, preferring instead that art age in its natural state.

LEO But surely, you shouldn’t wipe out all that history?

GABRIELLA No? Whyever not?

LEO ‘Cos it’ll be forgotten.

GABRIELLA Maybe some things best forgotten. (33-34)

Here we have contrasting views of “history” and the past. Leo speaks very much for a viewing of preserving history as a cautionary tale, whereas Gabriella who has lived in a country only just emerging from the difficulties of its WWII and post-WWII history is much more keen to forgot.

Leo continues the presents his view of history in Scene Four. He is against the trend to preserve or restore paintings by stripping away dirt and signs of decay. He talks about how paintings have become “stars” of the “Hollywood variety,” never allowed to age or “crumble, or grow old” (45). But he insists that isn’t how it should be:

But paintings do grow old. Their history is written on their faces, just like it is on ours. And like the history of people, or of peoples, either you acknowledge it, and try to understand it, or you say it never happened, nothing’s changed, and you end up doing it again (45).

What is particularly interesting and effective in the production I saw is that the director choose not to have the painting on stage. The painting is represented by the fourth wall – by the audience – and the decision is significant in terms of this speech by Leo, but even more so by what occurs in the second act of the play (which I’ll return to in a future post).

Edgar’s discussion of history and identity continues in an exchange between Karolyi, one of the priests working to stop the painting’s removal, and Anna Jedlikova, the magistrate who is going to oversee the trial about the painting. Karolyi’s father escaped the country and in their exchange Anna expresses her anger at people like Karolyi and his father who got out. Her rationale for this is that those who leave stop being witnesses. She goes on to tell him a story about children being transported to a camp who are so hungry that they eat their name tags – they literally “eat their history” by eating their names and their family names and when they die they are not remembered because of this. Anna insists that “We must not eat our names,” particularly now that people, like Karolyi, are returning and changing names back and words back – those decision re-instating something of the past, but also wiping away a part of the more recent past (38).

It’s an interesting contrast Edgar establishes here because it is not just a case of Gabriella vs. Leo, but rather Gabriella and Anna’s competing views of history (though the two women do not discuss history or their views of the past together). They are both from the same country and have experienced the same recent political and national past, but because of their differing ages (Anna is older), they have not experienced that past or history to the same extent. Anna has seen and experienced more and her memories of past injustices stretch back further. It is their competing views of history which ultimately have an impact on the decision regarding the painting’s removal. Leo, who has overheard the exchange between Anna and Karolyi and is able to manipulate Anna’s decision by revealing that in their quest to restore and remove the painting, Gabriella and Oliver have scraped away names that were on the wall when the Church was used as a torture chamber. Though the origin theory for the painting that Gabriella and Oliver have come up with is discredited by this point and thus the painting’s removal already is doubtful, it is Leo’s revelation about the removal of the names that seems to sway Anna, coming, as it does, right before she says she is ready to make her decision.

Because Gabriella is presented as a sympathetic and likable character, her desire or impulse to forgot rather than remember is something that is understandable and though she doesn’t speak openly about any trauma in her past, it seems clear that she has suffered, whereas Leo’s brash exclamations along the lines of those who forgot history are doomed to repeat seem at times over the top and unconvincing, and yet Edgar – based on the story Anna presents of the children eating their names and the stories of the refugees that come to the foreground in Act Two – does not seem to be supporting a view that history is sometimes better forgotten. The importance lies in knowing the truth and hearing stories, particularly individual’s stories, not in proclaiming (as Leo does) that history must not be forgotten. It is the difference between saying and actually knowing. And it is story and knowing that are really the key to the second act of Pentecost and the hope that resides in the play.

There is so much more that could be discussed about the first act, but I’ll stop here and hopefully return with another post about the second act (and particularly the issue of story and language) as soon as I’ve got it read.

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12 08 2007
Pentecost: Act Two « still waters

[…] Act Two 12 08 2007 My thoughts on the first act of Pentecost can be found here. As with my first entry, I am giving away key plot points in my discussion. If […]

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