Trial of a Judge

In the final act of Stephen Spender's play Trial of a Judge (1938), one of the communist revolutionaries imprisoned with the protagonist tells him:

"Your tragedy
Is not a Beethoven symphony where the hidden silence
Of deaf genius becomes the terrible core
Of all his sound, and symbol
Of suffering humanity.
There is no suffering humanity
In whom your death will be the multifoliate rose
Of a Christian sunrise
Speared on the eternal mountain snows.
There are no weak and meek whom you must pity
Merging in them, your own identity;
As for the oppressed, they will be the strong,
Not to weep over but to make weep
Those who are now their oppressors."

During the time this play was being written and produced in London, Spender was also working on what turned out to be excellent translations of Lorca, eventually published as Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca by The Hogarth Press in 1943. Lorca's influence on the allegorical nature of Spender's play is obvious and there are several moments in Trial of a Judge that Spender manages to develop fantastically, with style and rhetorical (political) force. Somehow, large portions of the play don't seem effectively written, perhaps taken too far into clumsy & abstract speeches, to the detriment of the story being performed. The characters are versions of Spender's own political and personal struggles, though fascism remains the key subject of the play.

In that respect, the play coincides with Edward Upward's first book Journey to the Border, published in 1938 by The Hogarth Press. Upward's novel also has a protagonist who's forced to confront the imminent threat of fascism, or political dictatorship. Upward's young, Cambridge-educated teacher travels in one day from personal doubts to hallucinations at a county fair, to a surreal political conversion at dusk, in the form of a moment of awareness. The novel ends mysteriously, with the teacher's decision to work toward becoming a revolutionary.

What saves Upward's book from being propagandistic or clumsy—as parts of Spender's play do seem, though I keep thinking of them in a more naive, or utopian, "Barton Fink" manner—is that he achieves his own poet's version of a novel, as in Borges, Kafka or Sebald, with chapters encompassing sagas and narratives hinging on radical perceptions transforming reality.

Both texts fail in certain ways, that's what I like about them, along with their value as 1930s documents. Spender and Upward's 1938 books tried to develop literary and political methods (ways of seeing) based on intersections between poetry and prose. As for the political nuances and maps of these two writers, whose work spans from the 1920s well into the 1990s...

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