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Extracting the Michael

The Redgraves: review.

The Redgraves: a Family Epic
Donald Spoto
Robson Press, 384pp, £25

Given how much our culture admires glamour, it is remarkable how little careful thought we give to it, especially in the form that is most devoted to glorifying it. Celebrity biographies are, by and large, the last place to seek enlightenment about the meaning of celebrities or glamour. Deriving etymologically from a Scottish word for witchcraft, glamour provides our secular world with a mode of worship, which is why its metaphors are religious, its stars called icons and idols: glamour offers us a more exalted vision of ourselves.

It is not an accident that we think of them as gods, as the remarkable Michael Redgrave seems to have understood. In addition to being one of the greatest actors of a magnificent acting generation, Redgrave was also erudite and highly intelligent; he wrote several books, including a novel, The Mountebank’s Tale, which opens with an epigraph from Rilke that concludes: “In the life of the gods . . . I understand nothing better than the moment they withdraw themselves; what would be a god without the protecting cloud, can you imagine a god worse for wear?”

Compared with the legacies of Redgrave’s male contemporaries on the London stage – Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson –his achievements have been somewhat overshadowed since his death in 1985 at the age of 77, his star unaccountably allowed to dim. Happily, recent biographies are working to burnish it once more, arguing rightly for Redgrave’s place at the centre of an epoch of remarkable theatrical accomplishment. Donald Spoto’s The Redgraves: a Family Epic is the second biography of Redgrave to appear in eight years, and the first American biography of Redgrave and his dynasty (although Spoto ends his book quoting Vanessa Redgrave’s resistance to the term “dynasty”, it seems a fair characterisation of a family that has achieved fame and influence across three generations and counting). The first biography of Redgrave, Alan Strachan’s Secret Dreams: a Biography of Michael Redgrave, itself long overdue, was published in 2004 and then only in the UK. This is lucky for Spoto, as Strachan’s book is by far the superior: considerably more thorough and detailed, more thoughtful and much better written.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Redgrave acted in and occasionally directed more than 260 plays and films, along with countless television and radio appearances, as well as readings and recordings, and writing a small handful of books. It is hard to imagine the energy that enabled him, amid all this work, also to maintain, usually concurrently, longterm relationships with members of both sexes, a 50-year marriage and a family with three children (Vanessa, Corin, and Lynn), all of whom became notable actors themselves. That said, it is clear that his wife, the actress Rachel Kempson, did the lion’s share of the work raising the children and holding the family together –while her husband appeared at times to be trying to pull it apart.

It seems clear that Redgrave was a genuinely doting father, although his peripatetic career and his habit of always keeping a male lover or two handily nearby meant that he was largely an absent one as well. Although Spoto claims that this will be a story of the entire Redgrave clan, his primary focus is on Michael and his “split” sexuality. For a writer who has published 26 celebrity biographies to date, most of them about actors (including Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean), Spoto does not always seem very interested in the process of acting. Redgrave was a serious actor, devoted to his craft, but his charm and handsome good looks meant that when he was cast in his first film role, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 hit The Lady Vanishes, he became an instant celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Spoto continually implies Redgrave’s discomfort in a world of stardom without actually addressing the difficulty of being a “classical” actor in an age of celebrity, the actor’s perpetual conflict between vanity and craft, external image and internal turmoil. This remains subtextual – Spoto has some pungent comments on Laurence Olivier’s cultivation of celebrity – but his stated personal liking for all of the Redgraves (he interviewed and chatted with both Michael and Rachel before their deaths, getting to know the latter fairly well, it seems) keeps this biography safely skin-deep. Despite its protestations to the contrary, it is mostly about Michael. As seems to have been the case in life, he is the centre, the rest of the family the orbiting moons: he dominates the story for almost 300 pages until his death in 1985 at the age of 77; the others are summarily despatched in another 80 pages.

Where Spoto does want to delve deeper is into the cognitive dissonance of a man who was so actively bisexual. In his diaries, Redgrave sometimes referred to his sexuality as his “split nature”; Strachan takes Redgrave’s admission of bisexuality (“I am bisexual, to say the least of it,” he told Corin many years later) on its own terms, whereas Spoto strongly implies that Redgrave’s primary erotic energies were directed toward men. It is impossible to know what choices Redgrave might have made had he lived in a more open society; perhaps his bisexuality was a compromise with the closet but he also had several long-term sexual relationships with women.

The more salient point is that in an era when gay relations were aggressively prosecuted (in the UK between 1940 and 1955, Spoto points out, the number of arrests for homosexual “behaviour” increased by 600 per cent), his relationships with men caused Redgrave intense guilt, anxiety and outright fear of disclosure, even as they also clearly gave him great pleasure, both sexually and emotionally. But after years of promiscuous infidelity on his part, when Rachel suggested that perhaps the couple should separate after the birth of Lynn, Corin later said, the idea “brought such a storm of grief that she had to spend the rest of the week comforting him”.

According to Strachan, Rachel had a fourth pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage, during Redgrave’s decade-long affair with a man named Bob Michell, an episode that Spoto doesn’t mention, leaving the reader with the strong impression that the Redgrave marriage had ceased to be sexual, becoming only a respectable cover for Redgrave’s “true” homosexual desire. Yet the truth, as so often happens, seems to be more complex than that.

In general, Redgrave made little effort to hide his affairs; long-term lovers such as Michell joined the family for years, an honorary uncle to the Redgrave children. (Strachan’s book includes a photograph of Michael relaxing on a beach lounger between his beautiful wife on the right and his handsome lover on the left; even Strachan’s photographs are far superior to Spoto’s.) Rachel, who seems often to have genuinely liked her husband’s lovers, began to dream that she had two husbands, and Spoto deems this peculiar: “In dreams and fantasies at least,” he tuts, “things were becoming more and more curious.” Surely the dream seems perfectly understandable if we accept that Rachel acquiesced to her husband’s lovers, a decision not exactly unheard of, and Michael and Rachel clearly loved each other. He had other sexual and emotional needs, and, eventually, so did she, taking her own lover for several decades (at which point, amid all this sophisticated tolerance, many readers will be cheering her on).

One occasionally hears an axe grinding in Spoto’s commentary: discussing the public prosecution of homosexuality in the UK in the mid-20th century, he writes that the attempt to suppress it “was of course an impossible agenda, as any sensible person knew”. Any sensible person today may know that but in the 1940s and 1950s many more or less sensible people genuinely believed that homosexuality could be cured – it was listed as a mental illness by the American psychiatric association well into the 1980s.

Spoto is also prone to abrupt spurts of judgmentalism that are clearly at odds with how the Redgraves chose to live their lives. Rachel accepted her husband’s male lovers in part because Michael had warned her of the “difficulties in his nature” before they married, and she knew what he meant; in part because of her generation’s sense of duty; and in part because, by all accounts, the Redgraves loved each other deeply and loyally (although not faithfully) for half a century.

Rachel entered the marriage with her eyes open; and if in the beginning she thought she could change Michael, she quickly learned how wrong she was and began the far more loving and generous, if painful, process of letting her husband be who he was. Spoto finds it odd that Redgrave was so open with his wife about his liaisons but this may well have been a facet of what kept them together: they would not have been the first couple to conclude that deception might be more damaging to their marriage than sexual infidelity.

So when Rachel and her (male) lover and Michael dined together after one premiere, Spoto patronisingly (and speculatively) adds “it was all very civilised and tepid”. One man’s tepidness is another man’s fair-mindedness and Redgrave was certainly in no position to cast stones. One of his intense affairs was with Noël Coward during the Second World War. After their sexual relationship ended they remained good friends. One day, some years later, Coward saw a movie poster in Leicester Square advertising “Dirk Bogarde and Michael Redgrave in The Sea Shall Not Have Them”. “I don’t see why not,” he quipped. “Everyone else has.”

Although Spoto can have something of a tin ear (“‘the best dressed and best acted bad play in London,’ whined the Times”), he does offer some entertaining anecdotes, such as the marvellous advice Michael gave a young Vanessa when she realised she was going to be quite tall: “Don’t worry . . . hold yourself up and be severe, demanding, splendid!” But then Spoto rather spoils it by telling us that this was Redgrave’s first acting note for his daughter, helpfully explicating what a note is (“a direction or suggestion”). He also explains that Shaftesbury Avenue is “London’s Broadway”, although one imagines that a reader sufficiently interested in the theatre to read a biography of Redgrave would not require this gloss. Spoto’s feel for such cultural translation is not always strong: he says that Redgrave received a “baccalaureate degree” from Cambridge in the 1930s: he took an upper second in English, in reality.

This biography, Spoto declares at the outset “is in no sense an authorised biography”. Actually, it is in several senses an authorised biography and not just because of Spoto’s avowed personal fondness for Michael and Rachel. In the book’s later pages he is fiercely defensive about Vanessa and Corin’s political activism, castigating Americans for what he sees as their bigoted response to it. He ignores the awkward questions raised by some of their more extreme statements and allegiances and by the contradictions that undermine any celebrity family claiming the moral high ground while enjoying the perks of wealth and fame. By the end, his generally admiring tone has become positively hagiographic.

It is perhaps not fair to blame Spoto for not transcending his own form, but after 26 books he might take a lesson from Redgrave himself, whose family came to understand that he frequently became irritable before his performances because he could not bear to repeat himself from one night to the next. From such dissatisfaction comes greatness – and it is time for celebrity biographies to begin to aspire to something more commensurate with the power of their subjects.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia. Her next book, “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby”, will be published in June 2013 by Virago

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide