Angels of history
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise…
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 44 days from the election, the United States inches closer to a precipice. Just thinking through the possible ramifications makes me nauseous in the half-light of these pre-breakfast hours. The turbulence of the country’s 19th century history is back, in the early 21st century, at the beginning of the end of its global hegemony. Only this time round, the consequences cannot be localised. Civil liberties and the planet now depend on a few million unlikely and swing voters in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Another heroine died last week. I was not old enough to remember Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers, brandishing that little pistol with all the menace of a dessert spoon at a society dinner. It was only when she played opposite Miss Piggy in the Great Muppet Caper that I was first struck by her knowing, indulgent look – a look that seemed always to say, ‘Yes, but come on, it’s only a party game’. Her Lady Holiday, who had her ‘fabulous baseball diamond!’ stolen, with the pig falsely framed for the heist before Kermit and friends rallied to save the day, was just the latest in her line of characters of towering chic.
I saw her stealing the stage at the Albery, in June 2004, as Mrs Venable in Suddenly Last Summer. In those days I tended to scribble my notes blindly in the dark auditorium on a print-out of one of Michael Billington’s theatre review. The curtain lifted to reveal an enormous, searing space, thumping like a factory with a piercing, dissonant monotony (‘the vast garden-jungle set inside a circular drum’).
“Hot, waaaay hot!” Rigg oozed.The one-act play is a brutalising stand-off between her with her daughter Catherine, Victoria Hamilton, shaking and twitching with each drumbeat of horror at what she has witnessed. Rigg delivered Williams’ lines like a lyric pugilist-poet, verbal jabs, doubling back, reeling you in. “Most people’s lives—what are they but trails of debris, each day more debris, more debris, long, long trails of debris with nothing to clean it all up but, finally, death.”
Bader Ginsburg said her ‘most fervent wish’ was to be replaced on the Supreme Court only under a new president.A forlorn sentiment, ringing with the pathos and tragedy of one of Tennessee Williams’s own imagined menageries.