A couple of weeks ago I had a life-changing experience. For the first time, I had the privilege to see Debussy’s only opera ‘Pelleas and Melisande’ at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. It was a wonderful production, sung and played beautifully. And for the first time, the supertitles above the stage enabled me to marry words and music.
In its shimmering half lights, pointillist orchestration and supreme control, the music alone is magisterial. Yet, to realise the complete, almost intuitive, connection Debussy has to the play he set endows an extraordinary power to the performance and makes for a transcendent experience. Rarely has a day passed without my pondering of what I saw and heard.
The plot seems simple. In the dying and shadowy realm of Allemonde, ruled over by the aged and blind King Arkel, Golaud, grandson of the King, meets a mysterious woman, Melisande, by a pool. He brings her back to the castle as his wife. There she meets his half brother Pelleas. Pelleas and Melisande fall in love. Consumed with fury Golaud kills Pelleas and in so doing kills Melisande with grief leaving only their infant child. The salvation that Arkel had hoped for in the marriage and child seems dashed.
Such a perfunctory telling does little justice to the richness of this great symbolist play with its pools, and woods, crowns and balls, darkness and light. But at its heart lies Golaud, the man of action, always seeking answers in the shadowy half-light, always pushing to resolve, clarify and understand and in each question and action, however well meant, driving on the careening tragedy.
Golaud’s poignant lines in the opening scene ‘I am lost too’ carry, of course, much deeper resonance than merely a reference to place. Golaud is not a bad man, but one of the many subtexts of the play is that he seeks to answer and clarify too much, that perhaps in acceptance rather than challenge would lie redemption. Or, perhaps that too is an answer that skitters away amidst the shadowy gloom of the all-pervading forest….
There seem to me many Golaud’s in Scotland today. Their shrill and loud voices speak of their own desire to silence the still small voices of doubt inside them. And many of these Golauds speak too on the Unionist side of the argument. In the stentorian shouting match about the ‘answer’, people have forgotten what the true ‘question’ is. Nor it is it, of course, one ‘question’ but many (and many in each of us) which feed into a sterile and binary divide. And that question is at the deepest level about who we are.
Golaud, in seeking escape from being lost, brings destruction in his wake and yet finds neither redemption nor understanding. In so doing he tears apart the lives of all around him. Amongst the myriad meanings of Maeterlinck’s play seems to be a question about the space within which each human can operate, a space that Golaud can neither understand or respect.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about the stagnant debate about ‘independence’ or ‘union’ is that it seeks to penetrate and speak for that shadowy space within us all, that most complex of all, that of ‘who we are’, a question to which only we as individuals can seek answers and into which the world of politics has no right to intrude.
Part of the reason for the deep anger I feel about nationalism is it’s seeking to answer for me something which is integral to me and who I am. And if, in this most fundamental of things, it seeks this ‘right’, then where will those who claim to speak for it stop?
I am and remain British because it is that polity that has never sought to intrude into who I am or what I feel. If this perhaps seems overly psychological then we should reflect on the politics of alienation and isolation which seem to have fed the various rip tides of Trump, Brexit, and nationalism.
In each case, an off the peg shiny synthetic ‘answer’ is offered to the lost. The gap is filled and those who have acquired the mental prosthetic rejoice in the marvel of a healing which is, in fact, a mutilation. In order to avoid reflection, they must engage in constant validation and reassurance as to what they have done.
It is this that accounts for the endless car and window stickers, the meetings, the constant swirl on social media. They must never stop as to stop would be to reflect and that little voice inside warns them of how terrifying that halt would be.
For their leaders, of course, this ceaseless activity to suppress thought is a perfect method of social control. And thus those who claim to be ‘different’ sink into a bland yet terrifying anonymity.
Too psychological perhaps, but should we not always heed the tocsin bell of warning when those who claim to speak for us claim to speak for us?