Tony Harrison’s Unblinking Eye

This is the proof of an article originally published in Stand Magazine 15.3 (2017)

At the end of April 2017, poets, directors, academics and publishers came together to celebrate the remarkable work of Tony Harrison on his eightieth birthday at the British Academy in London. The range of tributes was impressive: from Lee Hall’s moving account of how the screenplay for Billy Eliot would not have been written without Harrison’s influence, to personal testimonies from Harrison’s collaborators, including Peter Symes (with whom Harrison made some of his most striking films), Giovanni Greco (who translated Harrison’s work in Italy), Oliver Taplin, who worked with Harrison on Trackers of Oxyrhyncus in Delphi, and Edith Hall, who edited Harrison’s most recent work, The Inky Digit of Defiance. Although Harrison is best known for being born and bred in Leeds, even this handful of examples confirm the unquestionably international scope of Harrison’s work, which spans centuries and insists on crossing national and linguistic borders. Indeed, Dinah Wood (Faber and Faber), who chaired a session on translation at the conference, said that Harrison is by far the most international of the drama writers at Faber.

This is not a recent feature of Harrison’s work. I talked, at the British Academy conference, about Harrison’s time working in Northern Nigeria where, between 1962 and 1966, he worked as a young lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University. During this time, he was not only involved with questions of writing, teaching and examining English literature and language in the newly independent nation of Nigeria, but also translated and produced his first play in collaboration with his old friend from Leeds, the Irish poet James Simmons. The play, entitled Aikin Mata (Hausa for women’s work), was an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Greek Comedy, The Lysistrata. There are fascinating manuscripts and letters relating to this play in Special Collections in the Brotherton Library in Leeds, and the rehearsal scripts show how Harrison developed the play in conjunction with local student actors.

Harrison and Simmons insisted that the new version of the Lysistrata should speak not only to the Greek original, but also to the specific time and place of its production in Zaria. As a result, Aikin Mata is thoroughly shaped by its modern Northern Nigerian setting – from its use of West African languages (including Hausa, Yoruba and Nigerian Pidgin), through its use of music and drumming, to the way it is influenced by contemporaneous Nigerian theatrical practice and in its use of props, casting, lighting and stagecraft. The play, which was performed for two nights at Ahmadu Bello in March 1965 to capacity audiences, reflects Harrison’s early determination to identify equivalences between different times and places. Harrison himself said that in Nigeria, he saw his own experiences of class oppression played out before him in ‘black and white’. This early work has been formative for his work in the theatre, where his translations aim to speak both to the original texts and the specificity of the new context. Indeed, he is so concerned to develop works that speak specifically to a unique date and location that he has become well-known for his one-performance plays, designed for a specific theatre and audience. He has long forbidden filming of these ephemeral performances and frequently redrafts scripts with actors in rehearsals until the very moment of production.

Although Aikin Mata is a comedy, it responds to the serious political tensions of this time, which were to erupt into a devastating three-year civil war in Nigeria very soon after (1967-1970). Harrison himself wrote about this in the preface to another version of the Lysistrata, which he translated twenty years later. This later play, The Common Chorus (1988), is set in Greenham at the Women’s Peace Camp and speaks to a very different political context, whilst still finding equivalents between the Greek and modern contexts. Harrison’s work with the Lysistrata not only reflects the way that his work is rooted in both translation and internationalism then, but also relates to his insistence that art directly tackles war, politics and human relationships. Three strands begin to emerge from this re-evaluation of Harrison’s work at 80: translation, internationalism and the unblinking gaze. What do I mean by this? Many of the speakers at the conference described the way in which Harrison’s poetry is unflinching in the wake of violence and human suffering: how he rejects the instinct to turn away and insists that we keep looking. This was particularly clear in the discussion of Harrison’s film poems by Peter Symes and Henry Stead, who shared clips from Loving Memory: Mimmo Perrella Non è Piu (BBC2, July 1987), The Blasphemer’s Banquet (BBC1, July 1989), The Gaze of the Gorgon (BBC2, October 1992) and The Shadow of Hiroshima (Channel 4, August 1995). These films have since become difficult to access, but they are perhaps more necessary now than ever, given the devastating conflicts and inequalities that continue to striate the globe, and the recent rise in xenophobia, racism and misogyny. The films challenge us to hold the gorgon’s gaze without turning to stone: to face barbarism and remain human.

One of the films made by Harrison and Symes, Black Daises for the Bride (1993), is set at High Royds Hospital in West Yorkshire and explores the experiences of three female Alzheimer’s’ patients. A review of this film described it as ‘almost too painful to watch’ (The Irish Times). And this brings us to the heart of the matter: Harrison confronts us with that which is almost unbearable, whether on our doorsteps or at the other side of the world, and insists that we overcome the desire to turn away, to keep quiet, to check our emails. The trope of the tragic mask in Harrison’s work – eyes and mouth relentlessly open to terror – returns again and again. Although Harrison has long been celebrated for championing the lives and language of working people in the north of England, we can only fully understand this commitment if we recognise the extent to which the local is tangled with the international in his work: the way that he calls us to respond to oppression in all its forms. As Harrison’s iambs continue to beat in the blood, so we must continue to face the atrocities of our age with the same unremitting gaze. Harrison’s poetry, then, remains as urgent today as it was when he began writing, as he continues to insist that, above all, we continue to take a stand.


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