‘Stan, Don’t Let Them Tell You What To Do’: Protecting the Self from the Social

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Harold Pinter’s early career was spent as a jobbing actor playing minor roles in popular comedies and crime dramas. Whilst touring in Eastbourne in 1954, he met a man in a pub who recommended the boarding house he was staying in. On visiting the establishment, Pinter found that it was filthy; that his new acquaintance was the only guest; and that he was being patronised by the landlady in a curiously over-familiar way. When Pinter asked the lodger why he tolerated this, he said:

‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

This experience partly inspired Pinter’s first full-length play, ‘The Birthday Party,’ a fine production of which is currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London (until 14 April).

‘The Birthday Party’ considers the plight of Stanley, an out-of-work pianist and the only guest in a dingy seaside boarding house. Stanley lives a life of indolence; of mollycoddled mornings, corn flakes and fried bread. But his quietly anonymous existence is disturbed by the arrival of two sinister besuited men, who seem to bring with them the threat of violence.

As the play unfolds, Stanley is given a birthday party he doesn’t want; presented with a child’s toy drum; and induced to play blind man’s buff. The mystery men interrogate him; break his glasses; make threats and accusations.

‘You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour.’

‘The Birthday Party’ is a somewhat surreal and enigmatic work that refuses to explain itself. It has been described as a ‘comedy of menace.’

Many critics have seen in Stanley an individual pitted against the establishment. He simply can’t escape the pressure to conform, to fit in, to play the game; the compulsion to be ‘normal.’

Of course, we imagine that our modern lives are a million miles away from the small-minded conservatism of 1950s Britain. We consider ourselves free-thinking and open-minded; self-reliant and self-sufficient. We live in the age of empowerment; the era of the individual. But perhaps we should not be so confident.

The pressure to toe in line is timeless and universal. An invisible hand lightly touches us on the shoulder. A soft voice gently whispers in our ear: ‘Go with the flow, follow the crowd, run with the pack.’ It affects us through our families, friends, communities and colleagues. It affects us through customs, codes and conventions; through language, style and gesture. And as the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has pointed out, it even affects us through our recollection of events:

‘Memory is anything but a solo activity. Even an innocuous ‘Do you remember?’ is an invitation to negotiate a shared account of the past with someone who lived through the same events. Getting the story straight can be a key part of making relationships work, and disputes about memory can easily float to the surface when partnerships break down.’

Of course, we now face an additional pressure to comply, one just as insidious as anything Pinter had in mind. Social media are not just the glue that binds us together; they’re also the glue that prevents us from getting away. At the same time as enabling exchange of ideas and freedom of expression, they invite consensus in our behaviour and actions; conformity in our thoughts and attitudes. Just as they celebrate diversity and individuality, they reinforce prejudice and confirm bias. Social media create a gravitational pull towards ‘normal.’

Inevitably this ever-increasing inducement to integrate and fall in line poses particular challenges to the marketing and communications industry, where our core competence is challenging convention and designing difference; where we need independent spirits and original thinkers to sustain us.

So what are we to do?

How do we insure ourselves against ‘groupthink’? How do we preserve autonomous thought? How do we protect the self from the social?

Or should we like Pinter’s Eastbourne lodger simply acquiesce : ‘There’s nowhere else to go.’

At the close of ‘The Birthday Party’, as the two sinister visitors take Stanley away - we know not where - the landlord calls after him:

‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.’

No. 167

Don’t Get Lost on Bolsover Street: Delight in Complexity, But Then Rejoice in Simplicity

There’s a distinguished production of Harold Pinter’s 1975 play, No Man’s Land, currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre in London (until 17 December).

Hirst, a successful literary figure, has invited Spooner, a struggling poet, back from the pub to his grand Hampstead home. Here they engage in heavy drinking and circuitous conversation, attended by Hirst’s two mysterious man servants. The play is famously difficult to decode. Is it all about writer’s block, or unreliable memory, or the descent into alcoholism? Is Spooner Hirst’s alter ego? Is he a character pitching to feature in Hirst’s next play? Is he a harbinger of death?

Pinter refuses to resolve these questions for us. Indeed he seems to revel in our uncertainty. He’s happy to leave us, like the key protagonists, in No Man’s Land.

At the start of Act 2 one of the servants, Briggs, explains that he first met his colleague, Foster, when Foster stopped his car to ask him the way to Bolsover Street.

‘I told him Bolsover Street was in the middle of an intricate one-way system. It was a one-way system easy enough to get into. The only trouble was that, once in, you couldn't get out. I told him his best bet, if he really wanted to get to Bolsover Street was to take the first left, first right, second right, third on the left, keep his eye open for a hardware shop, go right round the square, keeping to the inside lane, take the second Mews on the right and then stop. He will find himself facing a very tall office block, with a crescent courtyard. He can take advantage of this office block. He can go round the crescent come out the other way, follow the arrows, go past two sets of traffic lights and take the next left indicated by the first green filter he comes across. He's got the Post Office Tower in his vision the whole time. All he's got to do is to reverse into the underground car park, change gear, go straight on, and he'll find himself in Bolsover Street with no trouble at all.’

Exactly.

I think it’s important that strategists are comfortable with complexity. Most people, most lives and relationships, are contoured and convoluted, tangled and tortuous. They are driven by motivations that are often arcane, nuanced and irrational. In the same way, businesses and brands, media channels and environments, user journeys and experiences tend to be confused beasts too. We should delight in this intricacy, recognise its essential truth and doubt anyone that denies it.

‘Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.’
Woody Allen

But sometimes we strategists become not masters, but victims, of complexity. We can be cursed by an intelligence that sees sophistication and subtlety at every turn. Our brand onions look like eye tests; our engagement strategies like cat’s cradles; our ecosystems like distant galaxies. We get lost on a business problem that won’t resolve itself; on a deck that doesn’t get any shorter; on a customer journey that’s got no destination.

This malaise can extend into the rest of our professional lives. We soon find ourselves becalmed on an account that’s unrewarding; in a role that’s unsuited; in a career that’s not progressing. In no time at all we’re lost on Bolsover Street.

‘I did warn him, though, that he'll still be faced with the problem, having found Bolsover Street, of losing it. I told him I knew one or two people who'd been wandering up and down Bolsover Street for years. They'd wasted their bloody youth there. The people who live there, their faces are grey, they're in a state of despair, but nobody pays any attention, you see.’

So, whilst acknowledging the essential intricacies of life, business, consumers and media, we should also recognise that the core strategist’s skill is to bring simplicity to the complex, to reduce and refine, condense and concentrate; and that it’s only through the ability to distil, both the problem and the solution, that we can avoid being cast adrift on a Sargasso Sea of unworkable strategies and unfulfilling careers.

‘Why is it the French revolution was able to sum up its beliefs in three words –Liberté,  Égalité, Fraternité – and yet we need twenty six to sell a tin of cat food?’
Sir John Hegarty

I’m conscious that I’m encouraging the cultivation of equal and opposite talents; that I’m suggesting the best strategists can be both complex and concise; that they are at ease with antithesis. But ours is a trade that has contradiction at its heart: between the rational and emotional; between behaviour and belief; between compression and expansion.

So let’s embrace this contradiction. Let’s delight in life’s complications; and then reduce them to simple truths and decisive acts. Let’s not get lost on Bolsover Street.

 

Simplify Me When I’m Dead

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead. 

As the processes of earth 
strip off the colour of the skin: 
take the brown hair and blue eye 

and leave me simpler than at birth, 
when hairless I came howling in 
as the moon entered the cold sky. 

Of my skeleton perhaps, 
so stripped, a learned man will say 
"He was of such a type and intelligence," no more. 

Thus when in a year collapse 
particular memories, you may 
deduce, from the long pain I bore 

the opinions I held, who was my foe 
and what I left, even my appearance 
but incidents will be no guide. 

Time's wrong-way telescope will show 
a minute man ten years hence 
and by distance simplified. 

Through that lens see if I seem 
substance or nothing: of the world 
deserving mention or charitable oblivion, 

not by momentary spleen 
or love into decision hurled, 
leisurely arrive at an opinion. 

Remember me when I am dead 
and simplify me when I'm dead.

 

Keith Douglas (an English poet who fought in North Africa during World War II and was killed in 1944 during the invasion of Normandy.)

No. 103

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 13

Truth Amplified: Is Now the Time for Verismo Advertising?


‘Now then you will see men love
As in real life they love, and you will see
True hatred and its bitter fruit. And you will hear
Shouts both of rage, and cynical laughter.’

Tonio, Prologue, Pagliacci

In December I attended a magnificent performance of Ruggero Leoncavello’s Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House.

Pagliacci was first performed in 1892 and it is regarded as one of the definitive verismo operas. The term ‘verismo’ derives from the Italian word ‘vero,’ meaning ‘true’. In verismo composers sought to break with the operatic tradition demanding stories of deities and mythical figures, nobles and royalty. Verismo concerned itself with the lives and relationships of ordinary folk.

Over its brief seventy-five minute running time Pagliacci tells the tale of a touring theatre company beset by plots and rivalries. Among the company is Canio, the clown, who rails against a life in which he must play the fool while his heart is breaking (‘Vesti la giubba’). It is one of the most moving arias in opera.

Pagliacci is not a mere everyday soap opera. It deals in extremes of passion and emotion. It is a tale of lust and jealousy, of intrigue and infidelity. It conveys a heightened reality. It is truth amplified.

I think the world of brand marketing could learn something from verismo. Firstly, of course, the most effective communication tends to feature regular everyday people, rather than the wooden marionettes of advertising cliché. But, secondly, the best work often puts those average people in exceptional circumstances.

Because of its brevity advertising must always distil; but, in order to create impact, it must also intensify. It amplifies truth.

Moreover, Pagliacci illustrates how to manage a dramatic ending. The story culminates in two tragic stage deaths. At the last the actor, Tonio, addresses the audience: ‘La commedia e finita!’ (‘The play is over!’) Perfect.

‘The Most Difficult Thing To Do Is What’s Most Familiar’ (A Giacometti)

I recently visited an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s portraiture at The National Portrait Gallery.
Giacometti grew up in a small Swiss village and his early paintings of his family are colourful, sunny and seemingly effortless.

Photograph: Tate London 2015

However, over time, and as his unique personal style developed, his portraits became more intense. He subjects his sitters to scrutiny. He locates them in the centre of the canvas, facing straight out at us, almost confrontational. He labours to capture their essence in the stillness; to distil the truth of their identity. He repeatedly scratches and scrapes at the paint until he is satisfied. The works are often small-headed and hollow-eyed. The sitters seem alone and remote. Staring out at us in grey, black and brown, they haunt the space.

Reflecting on Giacometti’s relentless pursuit of his subjects’ vital presence, the exhibition notes quote Samuel Beckett:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

In the world of brands and marketing we deal in the everyday and familiar. But this doesn’t make our jobs easier. If anything it makes them harder. Stripping away the clichéd, extraneous and redundant; isolating the human essence, the genuine insight, the cultural nuance. These are genuine challenges. Only the truly great practitioners can make the ordinary proclaim its vital truth.

The Benefit of the Doubt

1965 looms large on the London stage at the moment. The Trafalgar Studios are hosting an excellent production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (until 13 February). This great play was first performed in 1965. Meanwhile the Wyndham Theatre is staging Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Hangmen (until 5 March), a work largely set in 1965.

In 1965 the Beatles played Shea Stadium, Bob Dylan went electric, Ali beat Sonny Liston and West Ham won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But these two plays consider more sinister themes.

The Homecoming tells the story of a long-lost son returning with his wife to his robustly working class North London family home. It’s a place of masculine threat and inarticulate regret. The past haunts; violence is just around the corner. Speeches are coded, veiled, misleading. There seems to be so much left unsaid.

“The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear… One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” 
Harold Pinter

McDonagh’s work considers the plight of Britain’s last hangman at the time when capital punishment was abolished. He doesn’t let us settle. Is he condemning hanging and the culture that accompanied it? Or is he criticising the sixties liberalism that swept it away? His characters are difficult to pin down. Again there is menace, mistrust, misgiving. Sometimes the audience laughs when it should be disturbed. Perhaps comedy and fear are more adjacent sentiments than we might imagine.

One walks away from both plays with a sense of unease and uncertainty; with more questions asked than answered. It’s actually quite a satisfying sensation because, of course, life itself is marked by doubt, mystery, ambiguity.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” 
Harold Pinter

For the most part we consider modern commerce a field for certainty. We strive to deliver openness and transparency. We earnestly endeavour to make brands comprehensible and credible. We convey approachability, accessibility, familiarity. We explain ourselves.

But I wonder would some brands not benefit from embracing a little more mystique, an aura of expertise, a suggestion of secrecy? Imagine a brand that asks more questions than it answers; a brand with hidden depths, not manifest shallows.

Should we not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt?

No. 64