Theatre of The Absurd

It is salutary to go on the web and search for “human population of the world”. You can easily find an estimate of the population in real-time, steadily increasing as the seconds tick by. When I found the site, the number read 7,747,727,296. By the time I had written it down, the number had risen to 7,747.727,452. I did a quick computation. The world needs to create a new London, with all its infrastructure and facilities, once a month.

But we don’t talk about it. We talk about related issues – plastics, pollution, climate change, deforestation, but we shy from the question of overpopulation. It’s the mastodon in the auditorium.

Talking of auditoria, I’m interested in the imagery of politics qua theatre. Politicians frequently talk about “the world’s stage”. For example, we have to be in Europe, or indeed out of Europe, if we are to play a meaningful role on “the world’s stage”. Similarly, politicians refer to “the top table”. We must retain and renew our nuclear deterrent if we are to remain at “the top table”. These expressions are used so frequently that, like many other tired metaphors, they have degenerated to the condition of cliché. But I think they might be worth re-examination.

Shakespeare, not surprisingly, used the stage as metaphor quite frequently. In As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, Jaques says

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players…

He goes on, in a tone of gentle mockery, to describe the seven ages of man; mewling, puking infancy, tedious schooldays, febrile love, jealous war, pompous societal gravitas, the slippered pantaloon of retirement; and, lastly…

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

And in Macbeth, Act V, Scene V, scepticism becomes cynicism:

Out, out, brief candle.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

So it is far from obvious that the world’s stage is an enviable location on which to find oneself. After all, even if art holds the mirror up to nature, what happens on stage is not real; it is make-believe.

Related to “the world’s stage” is that other frequently recycled cliché: “the top table”. This conjures an image of university academics dining in hall; or of the hierarchical seating arrangements at a banquet, perhaps a wedding feast. Jesus had something to say about aspiring to sit at the top table. He recommended that you put yourself into a lowly position, and who knows, maybe the host will invite you to sit with him. On the other hand, if you put yourself at the top table, you might have to suffer the humiliation of being demoted. In geopolitical terms, the top table’s current makeup arose out of the Second World War. The Allies – Britain, the United States, and Russia – sat at the top table. Nowadays, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council constitute the top table and key to membership is that you must be a nuclear power. Hence the Security Council comprises Britain, the US, Russia, China, and France.

Being at the top table is a little like being on the world’s stage. You occupy your own universe and you may have little idea as to what is going on in the real world. You think what you are doing is tremendously important, but to the majority of the seven billion, seven hundred and forty seven million people, and counting, for all you know, it is all beside the point. I heard some people on the radio at the weekend who aspire to sit at the top table and occupy the world’s stage. All that is wrong with the current state of our politics was summed in in the last three minutes of Any Questions, BBC Radio 4, on Friday night, repeated on Saturday afternoon.

Chris Mason (Chair): Just time to slip in one last question.

Questioner: Are any of our current politicians worthy of the term “statesman”, or “stateswoman”?

Chris Mason: Give us a name, but not from your own party.

Grant Shapps (Conservative): general affirmation that most politicians are people of integrity and good faith (despite cynical groan from the audience.) And a name – Yvette Cooper.

Steven Kinnock (Labour) – lots of Tories, but they were all sacked by the PM. (Hearty applause from the audience. This was obviously too much for Grant Shapps, who rather spoiled his hitherto straightforward answer with a sour remark about all the Labour members defecting because they couldn’t stand the anti-Semitism.) Give us a name, Steven: Rory Stewart.

Delyth Jewell (Plaid Cymru) – used to think Jeremy Corbyn was a man of decency – but now devastated by his lack of conviction…

Ben Habib (MEP, Brexit): can’t think of a single one, especially not the leaders. And by the way what Boris says about Brexit blah blah blah we’re out of time.

Pitiful.

Grant Shapps nearly managed, and then, goaded by a political opponent’s cheap gag, threw it away. Steven Kinnock – owner of the cheap gag. Delyth Jewell – turned what appeared to be a compliment into an attack. Ben Habib – didn’t get out of his political rut to answer the question.

We are being weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Meanwhile, an update on the Mastodon in the Auditorium.

7,747,851,818

And in the time it took me to write it down

7,747.851,853…

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