The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead

Theatre

Nosferatu, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 31 October - 3 November

Halloween may be over, but if you haven’t got your fill of scary thrills, head over to the Barbican for their current theatre production, Nosferatu. Performed by the multi-award winning Polish company TR Warszawa, who are rapidly gaining an international reputation for experimental theatre, this show takes a new interpretation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. In a production full of horror tropes - dry ice, billowing curtains and flashes of lightening, the production promises to seduce the audience “into a dream-like state”. Director Grzegorz Jarzyna is collaborating for the first time with avant-garde musician John Zorn in an attempt to explore “what lies between an idea and reality, between light and shade.”

Art

Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present, National Gallery, London WC2, 31 October – 20 Jan 2013

Perhaps surprisingly the first major photography exhibition to come from the National Gallery, Seduced by Art, looks specifically at the influence of Fine Art traditions on photography. Spanning the early beginnings of photographic technology to its current digital phase, the show will juxtapose current photographers such as Sam Taylor-Wood and Gustave Le Grey alongside iconic paintings from the national gallery collection including Ingres and Degas. Divided into the themes of portraiture, still life, nudes and landscapes, the show demonstrates the continuation of an historic tradition which has been re-worked, re-interpreted, but still remains very much relevant to aesthetic judgements today.

Film

The Master,  Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson With: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

This hugely anticipated film by renowned director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood) could have scarcely been more hyped-up by its previews. Initial reviews have uniformly reduced critics to stutters as they attempt to articulate its power.   Joaquin Phoenix stars in what has been dubbed a "laceratingly powerful" performance alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in a story loosely inspired by the life of L Ron Hubbard. Essentially a  story of two sociopaths and the elusive American dream, the film has been hailed as “a supremely confident work from a unique film-maker”, which leaves viewers “utterly lost in its demagogic thrall”.

Music

London International Festival of Exploratory Music, Kings Place, London N1, 31 October – 3 November

For those who don’t like their music mainstream, LIFEM is a four day festival at Kings Place which self-professes to “push back boundaries, challenging audiences with bold musical initiatives and a rejection of expectations”. This year’s theme is "Sounds from the Arctic Cool". Featuring a line-up of Scandinavia's most cutting-edge musicians, including Biosphere, EF, Deaf Centre and Wimme Saari, this promises to be four days of dark, surreal sounds.

Festival

Day of the Dead, Old Vic Tunnels, London SE1, 31 October - 3 November

Appropriating the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, the Old Vic Tunnels are being transformed into a four-day festival featuring music, art and theatre all to celebrate the eventual prospect of shuffling off this mortal coil. Featuring world music from Rodrigo y Gabriela alongside a host of stalls and bars selling Mexican street food and a liberal dose of tequila. New art commission enliven the tunnels with works from photographer Graciela Iturbide and the Le Gun collective, whilst families are also accounted for by Saturday’s children’s workshops.

Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. (Photo credit: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.