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the cave

Each day is a glass room that we must smash in order to break through into a landscape, and be involved. To be involved is to be alive.

Well-known for his prose, poetry, illustrations and visual art, Mervyn Peake's plays have somehow largely escaped attention: of the ten plays he wrote only one was staged during his lifetime.

'The Cave' (1950s) had its world premiere in 2010. Described by biographer G. Peter Winnington as Peake's "most philosophical work", the play was reviewed in The Times as having:

...streaks of the angry postwar nihilism of Anouilh and Sartre: the hopeful theme of rejecting fear and social coercion leads only to amoral fragmentation in the last act. But it is extraordinary: a howl, an imperfect and painful philosophical struggle, part of a remarkable artist's testament.

The play is set entirely inside a cave and covers thousands of years of human history. Its three acts take place in, respectively, the Stone Age, the Middle Ages and the mid-20th century. In these three situations, the same family is confronted with a stranger, a girl whose free spirit is felt to be threatening. They fear her because she knows no fear. Only the family's eldest son, an artist, recognizes in her a kindred spirit.

'The Cave' is subtitled 'Anima Mundi', the eternal world soul that connects all life on earth - an idea formulated by Plato, though known in other cultures as well. With this concept Peake expresses the central mystery in the play, a mystical spirit that endures independently of religion and in spite of mankind which seems driven only by fear and conformism.

The family's hostile and superstitious response turns out to be a constant throughout history - from the prehistoric nature worship and the medieval Christian witch hunts to the post-religious 1950s. For Peake the modern age is by no means free from irrational, dogmatic ideas either. Fear of the atom bomb, which threatened to bring destruction on an even larger scale so soon after WWII, looms large over the third act. (While these days the nuclear doomsday scenarios might seem outdated, there are curious parallels with the dominant fears of our own age, of terrorism and surveillance.)

Peake's aim with 'The Cave', in his own words, was "to show how man has always needed the supernatural in the form of one kind of God or another". The play grimly shows how man needs God primarily to exorcize his own fears, and how in absence of religion he will seek replacements in politics and alcohol (as subtly implied by the liquor cabinet in the third act, on the spot where before stood an altar and an ecclesiastical gargoyle).

However, unlike the postwar existentialists - who couldn't imagine any kind of religious faith after the Holocaust - Peake did not reject the metaphysical completely. Instead, he made it into an imperative: modern man's challenge is to use his creative powers to animate the world himself.

Mary, the girl who embodies the world soul in 'The Cave', pleads:

You must know in your heart that it is not the creed (...) that matters but man with his nerves and sinews, his dreams and his courage and his restless spirit. Man the Miracle.

In 1945, soon after the liberation, Peake visited the concentration camp Belsen as a war artist of the British army - an experience that would haunt him for the rest of his life, and that would make the responsibility of the artist and the efficacy of art into important themes in his work. 'The Cave' brings together the two themes of religion and art, involvement and animation/creation in a hostile world.

For despite its destructive ending, 'The Cave' also shows that direct experience of the world soul is possible, albeit only for some. It is the 'Anima Mundi' as 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans', the mystery that evokes both fear and fascination, and that is reflected in the wild, surreal visions that Peake paints in his dialogues.

The metaphor of the glass room he had used before in a poem, 'Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room' (c. 1946). Even more explicitly than in 'The Cave' it made inspired living into a daily challenge for man, even if the glass room of his soul is so "blind with usage" that he can no longer see the miracle of man, and of the enduring world soul.

A decade later, in 'The Cave', Peake's outlook was decidedly more somber, but this essentially optimistic idea still survives.

The text of 'The Cave' is so far unpublished, though an edition of Peake's plays has been announced.


each day we live is a glass room

I Each day we live is a glass room Until we break it with the thrusting Of the spirit and pass through The splintered walls to the green pastures Where the birds and buds are breaking Into fabulous song and hue By the still… Read the full post »

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