Posted on Gwen, 2013-09-06 17:26 by David Pountney

Just as we are gearing ourselves up for the Tudors and all the concomitant nostalgic indulgence in the romance of our colourful history, the great houses, the ceremonies, the frocks, the jewels, the possets and the galliards, the marriages and the executions, when along comes historian Peter Stead, who woke up the audience at our “In conversation with…” evening with the outrageous suggestion that we should rather regard the Tudor era as the equivalent of Stalinism! Before we go any further with this idea, I would like to reassure you that there are no red flags, no slogans and no marches to the Gulag in our productions. But does he have a point?

If we believe Hilary Mantel, and now that she has almost attained the status of the National Trust itself, we must, then he can be right, but only up to a point. For a start, Henry VIII did not bother with any Gulag, he just cut straight to execution for those he disliked. But then Stalin was no shirker in that department. And the show trials of their various victims were in both cases equally empty of real judicial impartiality. What is the point of a show trial if you don’t get the result you always wanted?

Spies, informers, denunciations and agents provocateurs were probably as central to the administration of Henry VIII as they were to Stalin, with the huge difference that technology gave Stalin better tools to do the job, though neither in this aspect could hold a candle to the powers that are available to our liberal democracies today to pry into everything under the catch-all excuse of “security” – the biggest euphemism for “tyranny” which the dangerous combination of technology and politics has yet spawned.

Evidently religion was a huge stumbling block for Henry, whereas Stalin simply set about dismantling it, until his own folly and unpreparedness meant that he discovered he might need religion once again to sanctify the slaughter of the Second World War. You could counter that Henry vandalised our culture merely in the cause of switching from one set of religious propositions to another, but in Stalin’s case, for religion, read communism, which rapidly acquired all the worst characteristics of a religion, allied with a similarly irritating assertion that it was all for the common good. For both rulers the minute interpretation of dogma, whether from Christ or Marx, became a life and death issue for their subjects, particularly the “professionals” – in Henry’s case the bishops, in Stalin’s the communist veterans. Under both reigns, holding these positions was an almost certain guarantee of a very close brush with death. Woe betide any whose awareness of the latest shift or shadow in the interpretation of party or religious dogma had slipped.

"Guilt by association" is another common area, of awesome consequences in Stalin’s Russia (and probably Putin’s too soon enough) as evidenced by Orlando Figes astonishing book "The Whisperers". Being associated with the wrong family was under Henry a fatal mistake if the family was significant enough, but naturally the penetration of this malevolent chain of consequence was far greater under Stalin, where it reached down into every strata of life, into every cramped apartment block and factory canteen, and through the total obliteration of the officer class came close to losing him the war.

Well OK, I admit, it’s a slightly absurd comparison, pace Mr Stead, and the subject of religion would prove it. If a totalitarian tyrant is someone who can do what he wants regardless, then the extraordinary agony and prevarication which accompanied Henry’s decision to divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn point to the fact that ultimately a respect for the law underpinned his actions in a way that would seem very foreign to someone of Stalin’s ilk. But, ominously, respect for the law cuts both ways. Once he had persuaded himself to change the laws and religion of the country, the entire country had to follow suit,and that on pain of death. He may not have got to that point by a totalitarian route, but his decisions certainly had totalitarian consequences. So whilst we should not push this comparison too far, it is certainly a useful antidote to the nostalgic costume-drama version of the Tudor world, and by reminding us that at least within the orbit of the centres of power, Tudor politics was an extreme world, it makes an important link to romanticism and the world of Donizetti’s historical operas.

Romanticism was the cultivation of extremes both in landscapes and emotions. The mountains must be higher, the desolate places more desolate, the moors more windswept, the seas more terrible, the nights more moonlit, the darkness more impenetrable, and here in these extreme locations, extreme emotions found their expression. Thanks to Sir Walter Scott, the British Isles became for the whole of early 19th century Europe the location most associated with romantic extremes,  with extreme landscape and therefore extreme weather – bad weather of course, and therefore of course Scotland – if not Switzerland! And from the stories of medieval chivalry and derring-do, of swords emerging from lakes and knights serenading in wrinkly tights, it was a short step to the dynamic and extreme characters that inhabited that extreme political and emotional environment, the Tudor Court. Of course this embodies one of the greatest historical ironies of all times, since at the very moment that the romantics, some British writers like Wordsworth included, were celebrating the romantic status of the British Isles both as landscape and historical politics, Britain was powering the Industrial Revolution which would with its “dark Satanic mills” utterly destroy the romantic dream.

What I hope will emerge over the next two weeks is what a fertile, if surprising combination this Tudor series represents, between the extravagant formality of Italian opera in which heightened emotion is given power and expression precisely through the constraints of a formal musical convention, and a political environment in which men and women were corseted not only by convention but by the deathly seriousness of their struggles for power, never mind the actual lacings and straps that tortured their bodies into the desired shapes of extreme fashion.

We all probably remember the extraordinary frisson of Earl Spencer’s speech at Lady Diana’s funeral, in which one had the sense of being a given an insight into some ancient dynastic battle. If you can imagine that speech set to music, and being witnessed by that extraordinary Court of Royal and profane characters, then you might have a rare contemporary example of an event that might have been a scene in one of Donizetti’s Tudor operas. I hope that frisson of shock and recognition will come to you all at some point during our unique Tudor series.