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Liberty by Glyn Maxwell at Shakespeare's Globe
Reviewed by Nancy Taaffe
Marxists are often accused of being idealists. However, in my mind, the million dollar questions are always whether the idea is any good, whether it can become a reality, and whether it moves history and society forward or drags it back.
The realisation of ideas and ideals are made by people and, as any mother will tell you, human beings are complex creatures. This play explores certain people who made, watched and experienced the great French Revolution of 1789-1799.
The play opens with a picnic soon after the execution of King Louis XVI. Frolicking in the countryside, the main characters are enjoying a well-deserved break from the pressure and strains of the living, breathing, unfolding revolution.
Glyn Maxwell's Liberty explores the idealism of the French Revolution, its great historical position as a world changing event that literally transformed the 'globe', the reality of the Terror and the human cost that it extracted from those who forged it.
The French Revolution was a capitalist (bourgeois) revolution, different to the Russian Revolution which led to the working class taking power. In the French Revolution the rising capitalist class lent on the masses, used them as a bulwark to push out the ancien regime and then brutally crushed and slaughtered any attempt to construct a socialist democracy.
Each of the main characters displays a facet of the elements that went into making the revolution; a young painter full of idealism and enthusiasm for change; a tired old arty aristocrat who believes he's seen it all before. There is the loveable rogue-chameleon who lives for himself and his own pleasures and thrives on cynicism.
There are two women, one a groupie to the revolution who initially doesn't have a complete understanding of it but is swept along in the romanticism of the event, and another who welcomes it uncritically, thinking she understands completely what is required and has no moral outrage for the blood or carnage that ensues.
The play examines an interesting dilemma as it lists the progressive features of the revolution i.e. universal suffrage, abolition of slavery, education for all and a division between church and state. The play debates the loss of liberty while the revolution is being attacked by the monarchists of Europe.
We witness the transformation of these characters, as they wrestle with the demands of the age and their own personal needs, requirements and ambitions. Inevitably the terror takes hold and the poverty and devastation caused by war elevates the bureaucrat, weakens the idealism and leads to a questioning of why people fought.
The setting of the play at Shakespeare's Globe is apt, as the play has a 'mob' feel to it, and you have a sense that the masses are never far away.
Many parallels can be drawn with the Russian Revolution of 1917, except with the Russian Revolution the masses, before the rise of Stalinism, were centre stage and they struggled to make it the most democratic revolution in human history. But Liberty focuses on individuals, and the masses, the motor of history, are firmly in the pit.
In The Socialist 2 October 2008:
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