Theatre Censorship – 31: The portrayal of fascism in David Edgar’s Destiny

David Edgar

David Edgar

Karn, the detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (see previous blog), probably wouldn’t care for the political alternatives offered in both David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) and Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields (1977). Inspired by the rise of the National Front in the early 1970s, “Destiny” begins with the granting of India’s independence in 1947 and the expectation of an influx of Indians into Britain. Then the action comes forward to 1968 as we watch the preparations for the Taddley by-election, fought by the three parties, Labour, Conservative and “Nation Forward”. This new party, just getting off the ground, is apparently an attempt to offer an alternative to the usual pendulum of Labour and Conservative; as such they make glib comments like “under capitalism, man is exploited by man. Under communism, it’s precisely the other way round.” But Nation Forward is not a centre party. It is a highly extreme right party. The introduction of Nation Forward in the play takes place, Edgar is careful to note, on 20th April 1968. The significance of this is lost on us until we realise that the party members are celebrating Hitler’s birthday. They all swear allegiance in German to Hitler’s portrait on the wall: “Ich gelobe Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten gehorsam bis in den Tod, so wahr mir Gott helfe” – which translates as “I vow to you, and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience to death, so help me God”.

Later, at a Nation Forward rally, the party’s supporters sing “Land of Hope and Glory” whilst hecklers chant “Nation Forward, Nazi Party”. The play helps us to understand how a pseudo-Nazi party can gain quick support, by trading on people’s fear and ignorance and by creating an atmosphere of paranoia where anybody of a different race, religion or colour from one’s own is automatically regarded as the enemy because of that fact. Also, because of the fear of going against the grain, constructive criticisms are overlooked, swept aside, or simply not made. Turner, Nation Forward’s candidate at the election, wants to argue their campaign organiser, Richard Cleaver, out of the party’s anti-Semitic stance, but he backs down through fear. I’m not going to make any comparisons with real political parties of today, but, personally, I find it both fascinating and scary in its potential accuracy.

Nation Forward was obviously conceived as a reaction to an overwhelming immigration problem, hence its slogan “Stand Up For Your Race, Stand Up For The Future”. But Mrs Howard, loyal Conservative Party member for forty years, has decided to leave the party because they have become: “infiltrated. From the left. The cryptos. Pale-pinks” to join Nation Forward, is also worried about “the people on fixed incomes. With inflation. No big union protecting them. What about the people without a union. What about us?” Inflation is certainly a major problem. Mr Attwood is concerned about unemployment: “with the business like it is… if it’s a British firm it’s going bankrupt, and if it’s American, some great Detroit tycoon picks up his phone and says, more profit if we shift the lot to Düsseldorf… what jobs there are, we’re not going to get”. Nation Forward say they care about these problems and lull the electorate into a false sense of security. On the question of race, moreover, Sandy Clifton, the wife of the Labour candidate, talks of a “widow I visit. Only white face in the street. No English shops any more. Can’t buy an English newspaper. The butcher’s gone. The kids smash up her windows. Yes, of course, you’ll say all kids do that, but when the street was white it didn’t happen… so I call her “racist”?” That doesn’t sound like an ideal environment in which to live, and it’s easy to see how a nation can lurch to the extreme right.

When Turner refers to the Community Relations Council at the second Nation Forward meeting, he regards it as “very nearly just a black power front… most of these groups are immigrant groups or left-wing groups like the Family Planning Association and Shelter. Not much chance of any of these being in the slightest anti-coloured or pro-British”. The dated and dubious phrase “anti-coloured” is seen as virtually synonymous with “pro-British”; and this ugly character is prepared, as a prospective Member of Parliament, to condemn the positive efforts of the Family Planning Association and Shelter. In the end, the Conservatives win the election and Nation Forward come third, although they received 6,993 votes, which is 23.8% of the vote, showing a dangerously high number of supporters for such extreme politics.

DestinyTo put the opposing view, Edgar creates the character Khera. We first see him as an eighteen-years-old servant in India, under the command of Colonel Chandler, Major Rolfe and (as he was then) Sergeant Turner (yes, the same horrible man). The Colonel encourages Khera to celebrate India’s independence with them, as an equal, and the scene ends with Khera relishing his new status, proudly and prophetically proclaiming “Civis Britannicus Sum” (I am a British Citizen). Sure enough, Khera came to Britain in 1958 in search of the protection promised by the mother country. Act One of the play ends with Khera working for Platt, the works manager at the local foundry, and the Conservative constituency chairman, but still receiving exactly the same contempt – even the same words – that he did in India in 1947.

Khera is a Labour voter, and therefore asks Labour candidate Clifton to support the strike he has organised to protest against “promotional discrimination”. This support may well be one of the reasons why the Conservatives eventually won the seat. But Khera’s political and union activity is due to his constant subjugation, and in the scuffle that follows the election result, Khera is attacked by Tony and Attwood, both of Nation Forward. Khera surprises them with his flick-knife and the last image we have of him in the play shows him finally wielding the power.

Khera’s ascent is paralleled by Turner’s downfall. Turner is comfortable in India, with some power, despite having more people above him than beneath him. By 1970 he has built up a relatively successful antique business and he is pleased that a new Conservative government has just been elected: “at last, the little man will get his chance against the big battalions”. Ironic, because his new neighbour Razak appears and explains that his landlord has been bought out by the Metropolitan Investment Trust and that Turner’s “particular retailing zone is pencilled in as a Zen macrobiotic luncheon take-away”. The developers have chosen to force Turner’s rent up so ridiculously high that he cannot afford to stay. The whole episode, because of its immediate relevance to himself, instils in him a hatred of developers – what Maxwell refers to as “speculative profiteering” – and kindles his racial prejudices as he believes Razak, a Pakistani who has (Turner thinks) the gall to carry a Union Jack carrier bag, is in charge of the development. That’s what motivates him to play an active role in Nation Forward. It is not until the end of the play that Turner discovers that ex-Major Rolfe, expressing his support for Nation Forward, has been in charge of the Metropolitan Investment Trust all along, and with this knowledge Turner’s political motivation crumbles.

What relevance does this have to a discussion about theatre censorship, I hear you ask? I merely offer it as an example of an insightful and constructive play that could not possibly have been staged under a censor’s regime.

Nation Forward and the National Front are clearly the same in all but name; even the initials are the same. Destiny is a fantasy; there is, in real life, no “Nation Forward”, no Taddley, and Adolf Hitler could not suddenly turn up in real life to close the play. “Destiny” is primarily a work of the imagination. In my next post I’m going to discuss Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields, which feels one stage closer to reality.