October 21, 2020

Sightings of the Ancient Mariner — Coleridge, Camus, and Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo”

By Stuart Mitchner

I could get to where the massacre happened in 15 minutes on the bus when I was a kid.

—Director Mike Leigh, discussing Peterloo

I spent last Wednesday morning finishing The Plague and rereading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. With Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s birthday a week away, it made sense to go from Albert Camus and his apparent conclusion that the plague “opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought” to Coleridge’s concluding reference to the Mariner’s captive audience, the Wedding Guest, as a “sadder and wiser man.” Both narratives appear to end on a positive note. For Camus, it’s “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” For Coleridge, it’s “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.”

Except that The Plague’s Doctor Rieux realizes at the close of the novel, as he listens to “the cries of joy rising from the town, that such joy is always imperiled … that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years … that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves, and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

And despite the freedom the bright-eyed Mariner feels after unloading the burden of his “ghastly tale” on the terrified Wedding Guest, he knows the “woeful agony” will return, when his heart within him “burns” and he must pass, “like night, from land to land,” with “strange power of speech” until he finds the man who must hear him (“To him my tale I teach”).

Poetry Happening

If you’ve been writing for most of your life, it’s tempting to identify with the romantic notion of wandering from land to land and listener to listener “with strange power of speech.” Through his verse, letters, notebooks, and marginalia, Coleridge has been a living breathing presence for me ever since I discovered him in my late teens among the books in my father’s study. As for “ancient,” well, he’s 248 years old today, October 21, 2020, and he’s still telling his tale; his Mariner’s still standing on the “rotting deck” of a plague-stricken ship on “a rotting sea,” with a crew of corpses because he shot the albatross, the “bird of good omen.” But after reading of those men, “all dead,” as “a thousand slimy things” lived on “and so did I,” you’re with the Mariner seven stanzas later when he envisions the “water-snakes” moving “in tracks of shining white,” every track “a flash of golden fire,” and now they’re “happy living things” so beyond-words beautiful that “a spring of love gushed” from his heart.

That sealed my bond with Coleridge, the day I ventured into a dull blue 700-page volume titled The Best of Coleridge and for the first time saw poetry coming to life on the page.

The Rime of Peterloo

I’ve just been stopped in my tracks and pulled aside by another ancient mariner in the form of British director Mike Leigh (a mere 77), who has a tale to tell that begins on the smoking battlefield wasteland of Waterloo and ends with the bright sunny holiday carnage of the Peterloo massacre, where on August 16, 1819, a cavalry of armed government militia charged into a crowd of some 60,000 people from Manchester and surrounding towns, gathered there for a peaceful protest calling for Parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights. The outcry following the attack, which resulted in as many as 18 deaths and 700 wounded, led to the eventual founding of the Manchester Guardian and helped make possible the passing of the Great Reform Act 13 years later.

Having finally settled down to watch Leigh’s two-and-a-half-hour epic Peterloo (2018), I’ve been wondering if the germ of his future mission was latent in the air when he was growing up and going to school a short bus ride away from the scene of the massacre on Manchester’s St. Peter’s Fields. I imagine a sort of fallout, a toxic cloud haunting the site of an event of that magnitude, something like the plague bacillus Camus tells us never dies or disappears for good but  can “lie dormant for years and years.” And yet, as Leigh says in an April 2019 interview on wsws.org, “Nobody talked about it. Why, as primary school kids, we weren’t taken down there, a short distance, and marched around and told ‘this is what happened here,’ I have no idea.” Even though there were people of various generations working on the film, they didn’t know about this “seminal event in the history of democracy in Britain and the labor movement.” A hundred years later, Peterloo “resonates with so many things,” says Leigh. But “it’s not a polemic; it’s not a film that leaves you with a black and white message. I deliberately end it when your emotions are aroused.”

The Naked Mariner

With admitted hindsight, it makes sense that the emotional momentum driving Leigh’s masterpiece Naked (1993) is embodied by a wild man from Manchester. A doom-saying variation on the Mariner, Johnny (David Thewlis) careens through the city-of-dreadful-night streets of London with his mad gaze fixed on the approach of the Millennium. “The end of the world is nigh!” he tells one stand-in for the Wedding Guest. “The game is up!” At one point he riffs on “the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie,” and how in The Book of Revelations “when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?… Chernobyl!”

It’s hard to believe that Thewlis created his non-stop word-drunk performance without benefit of a script. Like an inspired jazz musician or the most enlightened of rappers, he improvises whole cadenzas on the cosmic wretchedness of existence. His body English equally kinetic, he moves like a broken-winged bird of ill omen and howls like a werewolf (he plays Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies). The film’s concluding image shows him limping and hopping toward some unthinkable fate.

The film world responded like the Wedding Guest, held by Johnny’s “skinny hand” and “glittering eye” (“The Mariner hath his will”). Thewlis won Best Actor at Cannes, and Leigh Best Director, and 25 years later Cannes rejected Peterloo.

Joseph’s Journey

What made Peterloo persona non grata at Cannes, resulting in a medium-low rating on Metacritic for a director whose films usually score high, is the rhetorical opposite of Naked’s most conspicuous feature: excessive speech. As much as my wife and I admired Ted Pope’s cinematography, the costumes, the sets, and the acting, there were moments when we asked ourselves if we had the patience to stay with the film. Clearly it was Leigh’s fascination with the human and political magnitude of the event that moved him to allow the speechcifying an almost documentary latitude. As he told IndieWire in April 2019, “Here is democracy in action, here are genuine hopes that come out of genuine things in people’s lives. To be dealt with in this destructive, chaotic, blind, insensitive, self-serving way by people in power — all those things remain resonant.” 

In fact, the film’s most powerful single messenger hardly says a word. Just as Naked’s Johnny can’t stop talking, Joseph the 18-year-old Waterloo survivor can’t start. Imagine a youthful incarnation of the Mariner with a ghastly tale of war to tell, traumatized, struck dumb, voided by the experience rather than burning with it. Joseph is the first human figure we see, a shell-shocked, battle-weary redcoat wandering lost on the waste of Waterloo with a bugle in his hand. Probably his single most eloquent moment comes with the reflex that leads him to put the bugle to his lips and blow — for what? A pointless reveille on an abandoned battlefield. As it is, he barely has the strength to stagger home to Manchester.

A crucial element of Leigh’s genius is that he’s so unsparing with his characters. There’s a clip on YouTube showing the director standing on the battlefield coaching David Foorst, the spirited, smiling young actor who pays Joseph. In the film, his weariness, his beyond PTSD trauma, almost precludes sympathy. The moment he finally breaks down sobbing in his mother’s arms is hard to watch. It’s wrenching, ugly, painful to think of, all the more when in a subsequent scene the government awards a six-figure fortune to Wellington in honor of his glorious victory. Joseph never shakes the weight of Waterloo from his shoulders. It’s still there when you see him caught up in the mob scene at the end, no less lost, no less stunned, in the sunny chaos of the massacre when he’s struck down by one of the cavalry. Leigh ends the film with the boy’s burial.

I keep thinking of how much greater the impact, to see Peterloo now, after eight months of coronavirus, a summer of growing civil unrest with an unhinged president stoking the chaos, clearing Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters on his way to his Bible-in-hand photo op. More than anything else, even the other side of Election Day, I think of the image of a man suffocated by the policeman’s knee on his throat. There are times in Peterloo when it’s as if Leigh’s knee is on your throat, the pressure relieved at the existential moment when just as you’re about to go black, the world becomes brutally brighter.