When the orchestra is mad, who can be sane?

Tom Stoppard is of my generation.  Although, of course, I never knew him personally,  he has been part of my growing up.  I took Marion to see ‘Jumpers’ in the nineteen seventies.  It was the play that I remember best.  I still have the script somewhere.  It inspired a love of the theatre that I retain to this day. . 

‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ was written at around the same time.  It was Andre Previn’s suggestion that Stoppard write a play for orchestra while he write the score.  Stoppard originally thought of building it around a triangle player who imagined he owned an orchestra.  But Russian dissidents were being imprisoned in mental institutions, so conceived the idea of having two men imprisoned in a mental institution, one, the triangle player, who was really mad and the other, just politically insane.  Madness is always a cultural diagnosis.  If it weren’t, all devout Christians would be considered mad. 

The orchestra becomes a theatrical device, not to say, gimick.  It not only expresses the emotion, but when the musicians are abused and their instruments smashed, it shockingly depicts the state sanctioned assault on feeling and truth; the madness in the system.    Alexander Ivanov is an embarrassment.  He refuses to retract his criticism or to admit that his treatment has worked.  He refuses to save himself, even when his son pleads with him to do so.

Human behaviour is predominantly driven by emotion.  Civilisation and its institutions; medicine, the law, government, protect us against uncontained emotional reactions by setting rules and customs for behaviour.  But what happens when those rules break down into anarchy and when those responsible for maintaining the rules ignore them or commit atrocities themselves?.  Then people become conditioned to corruption and brutality; they cease to notice any more. Terrorism and war can do dreadful things to men.  Remember the SS, Smersh and the guards at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay as well as terrorists anywhere.  They become brutalized.  The veneer of civilization is scraped off leaving the rust of repression, the erosion of fear.    

My companion at breakfast was from Johannesburg.  I asked her how she survived the constant threat of attack.  ‘You get used to it,’ she said. ‘Very few muggers or thieves get prosecuted.  Many of the police were freedom fighters and they just turn a blind eye when it comes to arresting ‘their own.’   

But strangely, Stoppard’s play failed to shock me – perhaps because the theme seemed too familiar or perhaps because I’ve become too cynical.  I am less easy to shock these days.  .   


Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is currently playing at The Olivier Theatre with the South Bank Symphony Orchestra.