W.H Auden and Christopher Isherwood went to the same prep school, the latter regarding the former as a strange “witch doctor” figure – a fellow agitator. Later, he bagged him as a mentor. As they grew into their writing careers and themselves they recognised similar preoccupations. Both were practicing homosexuals; something to be celebrated for Isherwood on the streets of Weimer Berlin, for Auden, repressed. And both men saw the lights once again going out all over Europe as, throughout the 20’s and early 30’s, fascism grew from a small but vocal group of bigots to a social pandemic. Their personal solutions were identical – flee to the United States and lapse into creative stagnation.
Auden and Isherwood may not have been willing to fight for the restoration of liberty but they were astute enough to understand the tyranny they were leaving behind, and minded to warn the intelligentsia so they could, presumably in their absence, mount a sort of artistic rear guard action. The Dog Beneath the Skin, revived with glorious fidelity to period at the ever-fascinating Jermyn Street Theatre, with contemporary resonance aplenty, is an impassioned defence of independent thought and the dangers of cultural complacency, written at a time, 1935, when the existential threat to the British way of life was real but not yet felt in the picture postcard principalities of our quaint, sleepy island nation.
What’s extraordinary about it, in 2018, is not just its ongoing relevance, given the revival of nationalism and insularity we’re now experiencing post-Brexit, but the play’s layered artfulness – its conscious appropriation of British theatrical tradition, in service to a story with real satirical bite. The opening, set in provincial England, parodies Shakespearian verse and theatrical devices like doubling and disguise, evoking the Bard as a symbol of our tradition and inheritance. The play then moves to Europe and there finds less loquacious characters, more grotesque, supplicant to autocrats, group think and militarism. These two titans of early 20th Century English Literature have a great deal of fun at the expense of these funny foreigners, undercutting their absurdism with ripe and defiant innuendo, and a palpable suspicion of the mob and media.
It’s a wry and lyrical warning about the potency and viral quality of totalitarian thought, that hits hard when the traveller and his dog return to their English town, only to find the military, church and other institutions of state have been contaminated. The characters no longer have a Shakespearian lilt but a taste for Hitlerian sermonising – comically overwrought here, but already a political reality for Germans of the period. The use of language, as ever, is an index of our cultural health.
The Dog Beneath the Skin’s a curious and potent revival – beautifully orchestrated comedy with a terrific cast, that’s alive with the two authors’ most sinister preoccupations. For a contemporary audience, no scene will bite harder than Adam Sopp’s sleazy club entertainer goading his audience to consent to the destruction of an authenticated Rembrandt over the horrified objections of Eva Feiler’s art curator. An expert’s considered and learned view is rejected, the mob, courted with coded racism, “it’s ugly and brown”, win out. It’s Brexit, 80 years before the referendum campaign and Michael Gove. Auden and Isherwood may have had no stomach for a real fight, but no one can say they didn’t weaponise their words in a bid to blunt the attack on a free society’s cherished first principles, the most important of which is enlightenment.