Every workplace has its pros and cons, of course, but as I turn my mind to where to go next in my life and career, hell holds certain undeniable attractions.
After so many years labouring away, doing as I’m told, setting a good example to the young people, correcting missed apostrophes and capital letters in red biro, paying my monthly mortgage instalments— never going out on a school night and turning up every morning in a freshly laundered shirt—there now boils within my tumultuous breast the spirit of mutiny and rebellion. Why should I bow and sue for grace with supplicant knee? I ask myself. Why should I submit forever to the heavy yoke of conscience and meekly obey the tyranny of goodness?
In hell, whispers Satan in reply, you will be free. Hell is where you may reign secure, and in my choice, to reign is worth ambition: better indeed to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
Yes, the liberty promised by hell is certainly appealing—as is the prospect of a little healthy, up-yours, teenage bolshiness after decades of craven obedience and self-defeating toil, even if it does mean slumming it in a dungeon horrible and putting up with longwinded speeches in blank verse.
There are only two other major downsides to the profession of rebel angel I can foresee. First, in making evil into one’s good, one may procure one’s liberty, but one might well also be required to be nasty to other people—and I really can’t be doing with that. Second, there’s the little matter of eternal suffering. And call me shallow, but this strikes me as a hefty price to pay for one’s liberty. I’ve already had more than enough of a twinge of gout in my big toe, and it’s only been hurting me for the last couple of days.
So, what was served up at the Lyttelton Theatre in Rodney Ackland’s 1952 play, Absolute Hell, should have been much more up my alley: for, here was a hell mercifully free from either pain or active evil. La Vie en Rose—a seedy Soho private members club—provided a comfortable, tolerant asylum for a large cast of fallen angels: there were streetwalkers and queers, good-time girls and demob-happy GIs, a bohemian writer and a flamboyantly cynical film producer. There was a lascivious landlady and a pie-eyed painter; a German émigré with a soft touch and an imperious Eastern European countess; a much-put-upon cook and a dotty old dear with a rouged face and birds-nest hair. War was finally over—La Vie en Rose had stayed open throughout the Blitz—and a Labour government was about to be elected. The greatest trials and tribulations now facing the club’s clientele of hedonists and misfits were the catty squabbles of lovers; borrowing money to get over a writer’s rainy day; the restless search for clandestine sex; the nightly struggle to cadge cigarettes and to get blotto on after-hours drinks.
At the centre of the rowdy, tanked-up ensemble of 28 were the brittle proprietress Christine (Kate Fleetwood) and the penniless gay writer Hugh (Charles Edwards). Both actors provided excellent performances—and the whole cast did a pretty decent job, as a matter of fact—but the overall effect of Ackland’s script was one of exhaustion. After the first hour, I was getting fidgety; by the interval, I was distinctly bored, frustrated by the lack of forward momentum; by the end of the night, I’d realised just how long a season in hell might feel.
After the show, I began to puzzle over why the absolute hell of a Soho drinking den was so boring compared to Milton’s darkness visible. The first reason I settled upon was the lack of jeopardy—to use the term so beloved of screenwriting gurus. The devils that inhabited La Vie en Rose may have been free, but only because they'd thrown in the towel and given up. They were no more than booze-befuddled hedonists in headlong flight from reality—and so there was never anything more at stake than whether Hugh could wheedle £200 as an advance on his film script or whether the sozzled GI would get lucky with a willing girl or boy, or whether the slumming socialite, Elizabeth, would keep sober long enough to give one in the eye to the countess and make it to the polling station. These hapless, hopeless rebels displayed no unconquerable will, no immortal hate, and they were not resolved to wage eternal war irreconcilable on any grand foe: they just wanted to get pissed and have a good time.
The second problem with this play is, I think, closely related to the first. Yes, making evil into one’s good would be a major turn-off as part of a real-life job description—unless one happens to be some kind of sadist or psychopath—but everyone knows evil is pure box office in fiction. Whether it’s Macbeth or Harry Lime, Richard III or Tulkinghorn, Satan or the Joker or a cat-stroking master criminal in a hollowed-out volcano, there’s nothing—absolutely nothing—that gives more of a kick to a drama that a good villain. But nobody in Ackland’s drama possessed the energy— or, indeed, the ambition— to push their feckless selfishness as far as anything so strenuous as villainy.
Not only were there no villains in Absolute Hell, but there was also no intrigue. In the course of three long hours, no devilish plots were hatched and no cunning stratagems unfolded; no Machiavellian deceptions were practised and no farcical confusions ensued. Of course, Jez Butterworth turned to a similar drinking club for his brilliant 1995 Royal Court debut, Mojo, and Patrick Marber made Soho the setting for his 2007 updating of Molière’s Don Juan—and, more generally, the city has been the location for ingenious comedy from Plautus to Jonson—so there’s absolutely no reason why Ackland’s play should have been so short on plot. But with nothing beyond the location of La Vie en Rose to tie together the various characters’ stories—and no overarching plot to bridge the various encounters we’d witnessed on stage—it grew ever harder to care what would happen next on stage or what would become of the play’s characters.
The last thing I found myself missing from Ackland’s vision of hell was, paradoxic-ally, the pain. John Maybury’s 1998 biopic of Francis Bacon, Love is the Devil, painted a picture of Soho’s artistic and sexual demimonde that was gripping and disturbing because it contained devils and damned bound together by cruelty and pain, violence and suffering. In contrast, Ackland’s Soho seemed very cosy: yes, there was a drunken homosexual painter called Michael—who gabbled incoherently about Verlaine and Rimbaud and who turned up at one point waving a service revolver—but whatever drama Michael might have brought to the play was quickly anaesthetised by booze and inadequate plotting, and the most he achieved with his gun was to put a few bullet holes in the ceiling and bring Christine’s club to the attention of the law. The authorities quickly discovered the fabric of the bomb-damaged building was structurally unsound, and La Vie en Rose—like Ackland’s shakily plotted drama—was hastily closed before everything collapsed in a heap.
Absolute Hell was billed as a black comedy— a suitable genre for a drama set in the heart of a great city—but it had more of the drifting, directionless quality of the pastoral. Nothing much happened; nothing much changed; nothing much was at stake. It was much closer to paradise than to hell—and just think how boring the Garden of Eden would have been without the serpent turning up to add some drama to the proceedings.
The worst things about any real hell would be pain and evil. The worst things about any fictive hell are monotony and boredom. Based on these aphoristic conclusions, I might have enjoyed an evening painting the town red in 1940s Soho. But for the purposes of literary enjoyment, I’d turn to Milton’s hell every time.