The Memory Factory

Professor Elizabeth Loftus at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit on 25 March 2015

For at least a century, scientists have demonstrated the tricks memory can play. More recently, they have shown that people can be led to develop entire memories for events that never happened — “rich false memories”. People have been led to remember non-existent events from the recent past as well as non-existent events from their childhood. People can be led to falsely believe that they have had experiences that are rather bizarre or implausible. False memories, like true ones, also have consequences for people, affecting later thoughts, intentions, and behaviours. They can be readily planted in the minds of people who have distinctly superior memories. False memories look very much like true ones: they can be confidently told, detailed, and expressed with emotion. These findings have implications for the pursuit of justice in legal cases, for the practices of psychotherapists who listen to patients’ memories, and for everyday life.

(This talk covers some of the same ground as the one Professor Loftus gave a couple of years ago: Memory Matters.)

In 2013 Brian Williams, a well-known American news anchor, described his memory of a helicopter attack in Iraq in 2003:

Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in.

It turned out that he had misremembered his role in the event and it caused a scandal in the US. Williams had actually arrived 30–60 min after the other helicopter had been hit.

To illustrate how hostile some people can get over the possibility that Williams was a victim of a false memory rather than an out-and-out liar, Loftus played a voice mail left by an aggressive caller, who seemed to know with certainty that Williams had “fabricated the entire story.” He punctuated his diatribe with raucous laughter, and finished with a plea that she drop her involvement: “it makes you look very silly… anyway it’s a joke.”

Her previous favourite example of a very public false memory was Hillary Clinton’s of her Bosnia trip. She got the “Four Pinocchios” treatment (there was no corkscrew landing, no sniper fire, and so on). Clinton admitted she’s made a mistake, with some humour suggesting it made her look human (difficult to believe for some).

The public has not been as forgiving of Williams as it has been of Clinton. Before he was ranked 23 in a list of trusted people; after he dropped to 835.

Usually, Loftus is involved in giving expert opinion on memory in legal cases. The innocence project has worked to release several hundred prisoners who have collectively spent over 4,000 years in prison and who have been found to be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

One of the most important memory paradigms includes the misinformation effect, where details such as the mugger putting the wallet he has just stolen into his pants not jacket pocket are introduced post-event.

She ran a little experiment on us to demonstrate her research on face recognition and recall. The first two trials produced almost total unanimity, but we were deeply divided on the third trial, for which there was no clear preference:

I made you choose the wrong face in the middle of a talk on memory distortion.

We had been presented with an altered face, and for about half of us this stuck in our memories.

Post-event activity can induce a subject to pick the wrong person, and affect the later ability to accurately identify the right person, once they’ve committed to the post-event information.

The Jennifer Thompson case led to a fascinating book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. When she was at college, Jennifer Thompson was a victim of rape, and identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist. He got a long jail sentence. Many years later, he was exonerated by DNA evidence and the actual rapist identified. What happened next it what made this case different from all those hundreds of other cases. Jennifer Thompson felt so horrible about the misidentification that she said she’d like to meet Cotton, to ask his forgiveness. He did forgive her, and they became friends. Not only that, they teamed up and now give talks on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, in order to reduce the number of such wrongful convictions.

Loftus then covered how memory performs under stressful experiences (the field studies at Survival School), and showed how highly trained soldiers can make false IDs with high confidence. Survival School is an unusual environment, but misinformation is everywhere in the real world. Memory researchers needed a new paradigm for the extreme memory problem implicated in the cult ritual abuse scandal of the 1990s: rich false memory.

Critics pointed out that getting lost in a shopping mall is a really common childhood experience, so studies were done to show that we can implant false memories of more bizarre events that never happened. Just last month a study was published in which false memories of committing crime were implanted.

The one take home lesson is, just because a memory is expressed with confidence, with emotion, it doesn’t mean it’s true. We need independent corroboration.

She finished with a quote from Ronald Cotton:

Memory—-like liberty—is a fragile thing.

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Artificial Paradises?

Artificial Paradises? Anomalistic Psychology and the Psychedelic Experience

Dr David Luke at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit on 24 March 2015

The traditional use of psychoactive plants as sacramentals in spiritual and shamanic rituals has continued for thousands of years, apparently, while the use of these substances in the developed world has also grown steadily in the last century as ever more plants are discovered and new synthetic chemicals are created. Since the earliest clinical, anthropological and recreational reports of the use of these powerful psychoactive substances they have been associated with all manner of exceptional and anomalous experiences, ranging from the mystical to the psychical. With the return to academic research of these substances with humans after a 40-year hiatus the question arises as to whether these transpersonal and ostensibly paranormal experiences are genuine and what can be gained from studying them clinically, psychologically, neuroscientifically, and indeed ontologically.

Anomalous experience is an uncommon experience believed to deviate from ordinary experience or the usually accepted explanations of reality according to Western mainstream science. There are three main kinds:

  • Experiential extension within space-time and consensus reality.
  • Experiential extension beyond space-time and consensus reality (e.g. mental mediumship, entity encounters and cosmic consciousness).
  • Transpersonal experiences of a psychoid nature.

If anyone has psychokinetic ability, can you put my hand up? This was a good joke, and perhaps the best thing (alongside lots of intricate, geometrical, colourful artwork produced by people on ayahuasca) about the talk.

Entoptical phenomena are visual effects that originate in the eye. Phosphemes are entoptic phenomena characterized by the experience of seeing light without light actually entering the eye.

Llewis-Williams and Dowson developed a theory that rock art was based on entoptic phenomena. They represented experiences of altered states of consciousness (ASC) as “hard wired” into the human nervous system.

People on DMT (the “spirit molecule”) often use the word “multidimensional” in their descriptions of the experience (3D, multi-D, beyond D — like Spinal Tap’s amplifier). (He displayed several written examples describing these experiences, which were very creative, with lots of fancy and even madeup words, but of course little connection to reality. Luke didn’t draw the useful distinction between descriptive and explanatory reductionism used by Proudfoot (1985), essential if “insights into ontology” are being sought, as he mentioned in his conclusion.)

The prevalence of serpents has claimed to be a representation of DNA (Jeremy Narby). Kallis claimed he was on LSD when he made his Nobel Prize–winning discovery. (It still had to be proved scientifically.) Shamans use the 5 D’s — dancing, dreaming, divining, diet, drugs — to go “outside” of space and time.

There is, surprisingly, a decrease in brain activity during “profound” experience, not the increase that might be expected given the natures of ASC.

He finished with his San Pedro experiment (precognition). This kind of psychedelic research may give us insights into ontology, and into understanding consciousness, among other things.

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Danger of back-door approval

Whoever called Gareth Thomas the “son of Satan” (see What the hell does that make me?) may have been inspired by pronouncements like those made recently by the Roman Catholic Bishop Philip Egan. Egan has asked his Portsmouth diocese not to have links with charities which are not in line with church teaching on issues such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality. He wants to be sure that the church isn’t even remotely linked to charities which promote practices contrary to church teaching, citing the case of a domestic dispute resolution charity endorsed by Stonewall, the gay rights charity. The bishop argues that becoming involved in such a charity could be seen “to constitute formal cooperation in gravely immoral acts.” (Edward Stourton interviewed the bishop in this edition of the Sunday programme.)

Belief in the existence of the devil, and in the possibility that a person can be possessed by the devil, was almost impossible to challenge in Europe before the Enlightenment. In a town like Loudun (see The Devils), such beliefs led to torture and public execution. Today, unfortunately, the Catholic Church is not alone in continuing to give credence to such beliefs, which ought to by now have completely withered away were it not for the sustaining unreason of religion.

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What the hell does that make me?

One of the best ways to deal with bigots (at least with those who aren’t armed to the teeth) is to laugh at their prejudice. The response to this Q&A question is a great example:

What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you?

Someone said on social media that I was the son of Satan for being open about my sexuality. I told my mother, and she laughed and said, “Well, what the hell does that make me?”

Retired rugby player Gareth Thomas (who announced publicly that he was gay in 2009) is lucky to have a mum with such a robust and splendid sense of humour.

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Inappropriate attitudes

In this letter, Sophie Veitch complains of “the constant pressure of being viewed as attractive by boys”:

It’s exhausting and damaging, and we should not have to tolerate it. Education is needed to show that these attitudes are not appropriate in our so-called “equal” society.

She doesn’t say what form this education should take, but at a minimum it ought to include a thorough understanding of the evolutionary processes that have shaped these pressures. It ought also to challenge the widespread view, expressed by Luke Berryman in the following letter, that these pressures originate in the idealized images “in the media that surrounds us.”

Buss (2008:344) describes one of the relevant sex differences:

Women performed some acts of mate retention more than men. As predicted, women tended to enhance their appearance as a tactic of mate retention—making up their faces, wearing the latest fashions, and making themselves “extra attractive” for their mates.

Veitch also reports on the sexist language used in her sixth form:

Girls are often labelled “slut” or “slag”, whereas boys aspire to be a “lad” or “player”…

Again, an evolutionary account explains the underlying psychology (Buss 2008:156):

For ancestral man to reap the reproductive benefits of marriage, he had to seek reasonable assurances that his wife would remain sexually faithful to him. … failure to ensure fidelity meant that his own efforts would be channeled to another man’s offspring. … At least two preferences in a mate could solve the problem for males: (1) the desire for premarital chastity and (2) the quest for postmarital sexual fidelity. Before the use of modern contraceptives, chastity would likely have provided a clue to the future certainty of paternity. On the assumption that a woman’s proclivities towards chaste behavior would be stable over time, her premarital chastity would signal her likely future fidelity. A man who didn’t select a chaste mate may have risked becoming involved with a woman who would cuckold him.

Having multiple sexual partners over a short time period does not translate into multiple offspring for a woman: she can only have at the maximum one pregnancy in any one year. In stark contrast, for some (but not all) men, having multiple sexual partners over a short time period can translate into multiple offspring (see The benefits of a big name for an example of such reproductive success).

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The benefits of a big name

Jean-Claude Dagrou used to be a gang leader in London known by the name Vipoh. Now, interviewed by Adam Patterson in his living room, he’s changing his baby’s nappy. Those of us on the outside of gang culture might think of drugs or bling jewelry or flash cars as the main rewards of a life of violence. Dagrou is actually in tune with evolutionary theory when he explains the benefits of making a name for himself in London’s ganglands:

When you’ve got a big name, it’s easier to get girls.

Buss (2008:311) outlines several specific predictions of the evolutionary theory of warfare, including that “sexual access to women will be the primary benefit that men gain from joining male coalitions…”

Pinker (1997:511) notes that some people have trouble believing that anyone could go to war over women:

One anthropologist wrote to Chagnon, “Women? Fighting over women? Gold and diamonds I can understand, but women? Never.” The reaction, of course, is biologically topsy-turvy. … Across the world the best-fed foraging people are the most warlike. When Chagnon mentioned the meat-shortage hypothesis to his Yanomamö informants, they laughed incredulously and said, “Even though we like meat, we like women a whole lot more.”

Dagrou explains the meaning of Vipoh: Very Important Prostitute (it was supposed to be VIP-ho:

Yeah, I made that up. I proper made that up. I used to sleep around with a lot of females. Obviously, Vipoh sounds better… Curtis, no more chocolate.

Buss reports on a study in Colorado Springs which shows that Dagrou is not alone in having had sexual access to many women (314):

Gang members reported a significantly greater number of sex partners during the past month… than did nongang members for the same time period… The two subjects in the study with the largest numbers of sex partners were both gang leaders, who reported eleven and ten partners within the previous ninety days. Not a single nongang member in the study reported having more than five sex partners during that same three-month interval.

He concludes (315):

In sum, if having killed is viewed as a reasonable proxy for having participated and contributed importantly to coalitional warfare, this evidence supports the hypothesis that sexual access to women is an important reproductive resource gained through coalitional aggression.

(The three girls who recently went to Syria may be granting that sexual access to the Isis fighters and providing them with a valuable reproductive resource.)

More than gold and diamonds, it’s the baby in his lap that is the ultimate reward for his struggle for status and his successful coalitional aggression.

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The superstitious emperor

When reading this Loose canon column, it’s helpful to bear in mind Lady Frederick’s definition of superstition, “which is what other people believe.” Giles Fraser refers to Constantine’s superstition:

Soon after the Emperor Constantine superstitiously decided that Christianity helped him win battles and so converted the Roman Empire to the sign of the cross, Christian courtiers have been helpfully rowing back on all that stuff Jesus said about not fighting and giving all your money away…

The implication is that the silly Constantine was still a bit of pagan, going in for superstition when he should have been getting down with Christianity for — more rational reasons?

In fact, there are three holy lies in this short passage. Superstition isn’t necessarily associated with religious beliefs, but many religious beliefs are necessarily superstitious, as made clear by Robert Park (2008:6–7)

The religious use of ‘‘faith’’ implies belief in a higher power that makes things happen independent of a physical cause. This defines superstition.

Now, one of the few things that unites most religious people is that their god is a spiritual being who is somehow outside of the physical universe and yet can make stuff happen within the physical universe — which is the essence of superstition.

The second holy lie is that Jesus was against fighting. The Old Testament is full of righteous conflict:

I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy.

Jesus came in fulfilment of this kind of thing, rather too enthusiastically if we are to believe Luke 13:51–53.

Finally, giving all your money away is not so much a lie as simply the dumbest moral command ever. What if everyone actually followed this through? What would that achieve? A good moral command is one that accumulates benefits the more it is obeyed. Eliminating money would reduce the world to subsistence living or worse.

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The Devils

By John Whiting Based on a book by Aldous Huxley Directed by Nick Mouton Presented by Sedos at the Bridewell Theatre on 18 March 2015

Father Urbain Grandier is a young, educated, charming priest. People are drawn from around the country to the small city of Loudun in France to hear him speak. His reputation leads to him being offered the position of head priest at St Ursula’s Convent, which he turns down. The convent’s prioress takes umbrage to this, so she avenges herself by claiming possession by devils whom were set upon her by Grandier. The hysteria becomes widespread giving Grandier’s enemies the opportunity to make an example of him by putting him to trial for consorting with the Devil. “The assertion of self is the ascendancy of the Devil.”

Commissioned by Sir Peter Hall for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play is based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun that centres on the real circumstances that befell Father Grandier. It was famously re-imagined by Ken Russell in the cult movie The Devils starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.

Swirling smoke and a church organ establish an ominous mood, and the set design creates a sacred space reminiscent of a church, but which is flexible to double up as several other locations. Against this gothic atmosphere, the opening, and beautifully sung, plainchant Ubi Caritas (Where charity and love are, God is there) provides another texture in this complex and fascinating drama. And then we notice a hooded man left dangling in the public square after being hanged for stealing. As shocking is the sight of the citizens of Loudun going about their daily business without batting an eyelid. In their modern dress, they look just like us. The priests and nuns, in their cassocks and wimples and whatnot, look like they always have down the ages, but even these men and women of God are as habituated to capital punishment as those to whom they are supposedly providing moral guidance.

Adam and Mannoury, the town surgeon and chemist, do take an interest in the dead young man (he was 18 years old), from a purely scientific point of view. They purchase the criminal’s head, which they carry about in a bucket and then dissect. It’s disconcerting, and not just because of the obvious gory reason: we usually don’t treat other people as objects, as a means to an end, and while this corpse is no longer a person, it was one recently.

D’Armagnac and De Cerisay count themselves lucky, in so small a town, to have “a caretaker of souls” as charismatic as Father Urbain Grandier, who’s already made a big impression. His congregation aren’t used to hearing politics and wit coming from the pulpit. Grandier doesn’t just hob-nob with the well-to-do — he’s a genuine man of the people, chatting with the Sewerwoman (how many hands shot up when this part came up?). Sorcha Boyce actually creates a wonderful character, as witty and intelligent as Hamlet’s gravedigger but with more scope to observe the goings-on within the town, and with privileged access to Grandier’s inner thoughts. She articulates the miserable Christian philosophy that individual humans are like drains, sluicing sin every minute of the day, and that women are the worst of the worst:

I’m a woman, a dirty sinful woman.

So, it’s entirely appropriate that she spends her days in the town’s sewers (a not too subtle metaphor for the town’s moral life).

Sam Pearce is the young, handsome Father Grandier who is soon attracting the attention of lonely widows and amorous virgins, as well as the humpback prioress, Sister Jeanne. D’Armagnac had watched Grandier walking through the town:

He fondled a rose as if it was the secret part of a woman.

Grandier, like many preachers, has a lot to say about love, but since he’s a libertine priest his “acts of love” tend to be of the more carnal kind. He comforts the widow, and ends by kissing her. She moans:

You possess me.

Grandier turns out to be a predatory philanderer, whose priesthood both signals his unmarried status and disguises his real intentions. He’s more interested in the widows and virgins than in taking up Sister Jeanne’s offer to be director of her convent. Although that would give him access to a large number of young women, he probably reckons his charms would not be enough to break through to their secret places.

Meanwhile, Adam and Mannoury are busy with the head, excited that they are holding “the residence of reason” and that the scalpel might discover the particle of the brain that is the seat of reason. This philosophical mistake is still being made by neuroscientists today, not because their materialism is unfounded (the brain really is where our thinking and feeling take place — there is no immaterial soul) but because such integrated functions are not likely to be localized in this way and because a neural description is never going to amount to the kind of explanation we’re seeking. Grandier yawns as he listens to the two men, and can’t get away quickly enough. Like most religious people, he’s happy to take the benefits of progress in science (the elimination of infectious diseases such as polio and smallpox) but scornful of the “arrogance” of scientists who claim to have discovered anything really important about the cosmos.

Bishop De La Rochepozay is the one who insists that “the assertion of the self is the ascendancy of the devil” and who’s had it in for Grandier ever since he caught a whiff of woman on the priest’s handkerchief. Simon Hill’s bishop – slumped in a wheelchair, needing an oxygen mask after every other line as he reaches an emotional climax – is a brilliant roll-on part, Hill creating a convincing and forceful personality with an economy of technique.

Father Barre is an enthusiastic exorcist  who delights in describing one of his exorcisms. A cow gatecrashed a wedding he was conducting, and he persuaded the devil to jump from the cow into the bride’s mother-in-law:That couple will never forget their wedding day.

The public prosecutor is keen to have the cultured Grandier’s opinion of her poems. He begins:

Your creations –

He pauses to take in the gorgeous sight of her daughter, Phillipe, standing coyly to one side. He heartily agrees to her mother’s suggestion that “she should be instructed” — she’s thinking of Latin, while he has other lessons in mind. The mother is oblivious to the priest’s lascivious interest, so smitten is she with the charming man. But the double act of Adam and Mannoury are more observant:The man is a machine!They are noting down his gallivanting, and would no doubt quote from the James Brown song Sex Machine if they could.

Phillipe is melting in Grandier’s presence, feeling “forces inside” and confessing “inclinations towards sin” — great news for Grandier, who’s on hand to meet her halfway. She rationalizes that these forces must be understood if they are to be resisted. In another context, he explains his support of the town’s campaign to keep their defensive walls:

Conflict attracts me, resistance compels me.

Phillipe’s resistance certainly compels him, and he finally strikes gold when she next confesses:

I’ve had unclean thoughts. I wish to be touched.

He obliges.

De La Rochepozay doesn’t seem too bothered by Grandier’s interest in “lonely widows and amorous virgins” (that’s par for the pastoral course) but he is exercised by the protection afforded the priest by D’Armagnac and De Cerisay. Still, fornication is one way he can destroy Grandier, and while he is loathe to credit Adam and Mannoury with the snooping information they’ve brought him about Grandier’s activities he will still make use of it.

Rowena Turner is compelling as Sister Jeanne, who by now ought to be used to rejection (God has been ignoring her prayers for years, refusing to heal her hump). Being spurned by Grandier, however, seems to be the final straw. Turner creates the powder keg psychology of a character hemmed in on all sides by doctrine and the walls of the convent. She has a febrile imagination, and pictures Grandier’s lovemaking:

He takes up the shudder of her body.

She can almost smell the rank sweat of their bed, and soon a critical mass is reached within her mind and she claims she has had “visions of a diabolical nature” and that she has been possessed (in the spiritual sense) by Grandier, switching voices as the devil tightens his grip.

Towering over her is Father Barre, who is not one of the sceptics suggesting she may be playacting (no one dares deny the reality of the devil). He can’t wait to get started on the prioress and her writhing nuns (Michael Mayne’s magnificent booming voice comes in handy when confronting these raving women). He asks:

Are you there?

He’s not referring to Sister Jeanne, but to the devil supposedly inside, and who has taken control of her body:

How did you gain entry to this woman?

Barre demands the name of the fiend who is possessing her, and she names Grandier. He intones Latin in an attempt to exorcize the devil, but it turns out the devil is a heathen and doesn’t understand Latin. In the end, the fiend must be forced from her, and she is dragged screaming along with Adam and Mannoury, who are wielding some fiercesome-looking forceps and demonstrating an unhealthy interest in their presumably gynaecological operation. Turner gets to do some fantastic offstage screaming, within a few feet of where we were sitting.

The following piece by Sarah Button (Experience: pregnancy sickness nearly killed me) is an example of a very different kind of possession:

One week, I was unable to keep anything down for five consecutive days, and one day I was sick 50 times and bringing up blood. It was as if someone had taken over my body. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling normal again.

There is no suggestion that either Sister Jeanne or any of her nuns have been impregnated: their experience of ceding control of their bodies to an external agent is explicable in sociocognitive terms (see Seriously Possessed). At the time, of course, it had to be the devil’s doing, and this hypothesis is confirmed as the “devil” speaks:

God fled in horror… we celebrated his departure… God is dead.

Phillipe has some news for Grandier:

I’m pregnant.

The first thing Grandier says is:

So it ends.

He has been pursuing a typical short-term mating strategy, securing sexual access with no intention of providing long-term commitment:

How can I help you?

It’s a question Phillipe should have asked herself before having sex with him, as this passage from Buss (2008:107) makes clear:

Women, like weaverbirds, also prefer males with “nests” of various kinds. Consider one of the problems that women in evolutionary history had to face: selecting a man who would be willing to commit to a long-term relationship. A woman in our evolutionary past who chose to mate with a man who was flighty, impulsive, philandering, or unable to sustain relationships found herself raising her children alone and without benefit of the resources, aid, and protection that a more dependable mate might have offered. A woman who preferred to mate with a reliable man who was willing to commit to her presumably would have had children who survived, thrived, and multiplied. Over thousands of generations a preference for men who showed signs of being willing and able to commit evolved in women, just as preferences for mates with adequate nests evolved in weaverbirds. This preference solved key reproductive problems, just as food preferences solved key survival problems.

This is a world where everyone believes in the possibility of diabolical possession – the only question being, whether or not any particular case is genuine? Father Barre has no time for such scepticism:

You can’t have reasonable doubt where sin is concerned. … God works behind a curtain of mystery.

There certainly seems to be a lot of sin around, as the three nuns are now writing around on the floor, with Sister Jeanne out front leading the rave. Against Barre’s certainty is (I think) Father Mignon’s scepticism. He appears with a vial of Jesu’s blood, which he claims is in a small box. They perform a ritual and it appears to work a miracle, but when the box is opened it’s empty. When the Sisters later troop into the square to watch the acrobats before the execution, one slyly remarks, referring to their gymnastics:

Have we not entertained each other?

The reality of otherwise of the possession is irrelevant as far as the destiny of Grandier is concerned. He’s locked in a cell, brooding on questions of ultimate purpose and reaching some negative conclusions. He’s found guilty of blasphemy and sacrilege, and accused of unrepentant pride.

Stephen Maher’s De Laubardemont is a grimly plausible and chilling prosecutor, who unflinchingly explains to Grandier the stages he will go through under torture:

First, you’ll think, how can man do this to man? Second, how can God allow it? Then, there can be no God. Finally, there is no God.

Grandier is asked:

Will you confess?

He’s not going to comply with the investigation:

Lucifer has sealed his tongue.

Other measures will need to be used, and here Adam and Mannoury bring in a simple-looking contraption into which they position Grandier’s legs. The leg brace has slots where wedges can be hammered in, a single tap producing a hideous shriek of pain. Like Topcliffe in The Dead Shepherd, these torturers take a delight in their craft, and enjoy their trade. When they watch Grandier being burned alive, they take an interest in how human fat is rendered. But it’s OK, since his God is the devil.

Barre is upbeat:

Men of our kind will never lack for employment.

D’Armagnac is downbeat:

We are a rational people, we should be taking a stand — against something.

That pause is brilliant: it’s unthinkable that this something could be religion, and yet religion is precisely what is standing in the way of progress. D’Armagnac can be forgiven for being at a loss. The events portrayed took place over a century before the conceptual shift from superstition to rational explanations was made thoroughly respectable by the Enlightenment (although it’s worth noting that Hippocrates had already diagnosed epilepsy as a disease of the brain and not demonic possession four centuries before Christ was performing exorcisms).

A libertine priest with an unhealthy interest in his young parishioners, central government riding roughshod over local concerns, a church resisting outside interference in its affairs – all aspects of 17th-century Loudun that are not unknown today. Completely unfamiliar, however, is the hooded man left dangling in the public square after being hanged for stealing, and the sight of citizens going about their daily business without batting an eyelid. And yet, in their modern dress, they look just like us. Swirling smoke and a church organ establish an ominous mood, against which the opening, and beautifully sung, plainchant provides another texture in this complex and fascinating drama. The timeless bubble of church doctrine is one of the main themes of Aldous Huxley’s original book, and this production portrays the chilling consequences of unchanging and unchallengeable religious belief. The current pope, for all the praise he has garnered from dull-witted liberals, still gives his official backing to the practice of exorcism, and so endorses belief in diabolical possession. In the twenty-fucking-first century.

(See also The Devils.)

Cast: Trincant / Sister Louise — Jessica Clements; Adam — Jimi Odell; D’Armagnac — Juliette Chrisman; Phillipe / Sister Gabrielle — Liz Stevens; De Cerisay / Cardinal Richelieu — Matthew Tylianakis; Father Barre — Michael Mayne; Sister Jeanne — Rowena Turner; Mannoury — Sam Gregson; Father Grandier — Sam Pearce; Ninion / Sister Claire — Steph Urquhart; Bishop De La Rochepozay / Prince Henri De Conde / Father Ambrose — Simon Hill; Sewerwoman / Bontemps — Sorcha Boyce; De Laubardemont — Stephen Maher; Father Mignon — Benjamin Press

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The Broken Heart

By John Ford Directed by Caroline Steinbeis Presented by Shakespeare’s Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on 17 March 2015

The lifeless trunk shall wed the broken heart.

The scene is ancient Sparta and the loving couple Penthea and Orgilus are forced apart by her brother and Penthea is pressed into a loveless marriage with a brutal and jealous old man.  Orgilus, disguised as a poor scholar, watches, waits, and as events unfold, unleashes a terrible cycle of revenge.

Ford’s very modern fascination with psychology and mental extremes are found everywhere in this brilliantly nuanced story of an exalted love struggling to exist in a world of selfishness, jealousy and tawdry court politics.

Broken-Heart-SWOur first time in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and first impressions were that it was a magical space (although don’t look too closely at the painting on the ceiling — not a patch on even second-rate trompe l’oeil of the Renaissance). Unfortunately, I was having an off-night and the two words that were uppermost towards the end of the play were that this was tedious and incomprehensible, a play that has somehow got the keys to a dressing-up box and decked itself out in gaudy costumes for a gilded entertainment that really scrapes the barrel. One dull speech after another, one dull character going through the motions. After the interval, there is a choreography inspired by a Swiss cuckoo clock, with several characters coming through the doors clockwork fashion — there was more animation here than almost anywhere else (Sarah MacRae’s Calantha shows a bit of life at one point).

As incomprehensible as the story is the director’s first thought that the play was “incredibly modern” and “how hugely human and three-dimensional these characters feel, how incredibly colourful they are and how alive” (interview with Christopher Adams). The opposite view is closer to the truth. For instance, Orgilus displays a brother’s concern over his sister’s “honour”:

Euphrania, thus upon thy cheeks I print
A brother’s kiss; more careful of thine honour,
Thy health, and thy well-doing, than my life.

As her brother, he has a genetic interest in her offspring, and if he gets his way she will not be free to grant sexual access to whoever she pleases. He is solicitous of her reproductive resources in a way that we would find thoroughly reprehensible today, at least in societies that respect women’s independence and autonomy to make their own choices. So-called honour killings are the appalling result when this autonomy is curtailed.


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Cheapside Economics, Middleton Drama

Dr Mark Hutchings at the Rose, Bankside, on 16 March 2015

Long before Charles Dickens portrayed the horror and squalor of social inequality in Victorian England, one important writer dramatized how economic forces determined human lives and social relations. Thomas Middleton did more than any other early modern playwright to explore, expose, critique, and understand how the lives of his fellows were defined primarily in economic terms. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is perhaps the finest of his ‘city comedies’, as scholars have termed them, and this lecture focuses on how, long before Marx and Brecht, an early seventeenth-century writer diagnosed and dramatized the economic realities underpinning the lives of Jacobean Londoners.

The archaeological site was a chilly venue for this lecture, braved by a few hardy souls (including the great scholar of the period, Andrew Gurr, who was sat in front of me).

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is the only surviving play that we know was staged at the Swan Theatre (in 1613, the same year he wrote the Lord Mayor’s show), which was around 500 metres to the west of the Rose, on the south bank of the Thames. Hutchings began with the van Buchel copy of a lost original showing an Elizabethan theatre. There are many problems trying to use this print to find out about theatrical practice (it doesn’t, for example, show the discovery space), but it’s still an important document. Philip Larkin — no lover of theatre — didn’t realize how good Shakespeare was until he read his contemporaries. The Penguin edition of five plays by Middleton is very raunchy, with the editors showing no puritanical restraint in their glosses.

T. S. Eliot observed how the shadow of regular verse lies beneath free verse, and Middleton’s approach was in opposition to the norm of his day. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether a passage is in prose or verse, which has often, and unfairly, been blamed on hapless printers.

Bertolt Brecht asked:

Can we speak of money in the form of iambs?

Hutchings didn’t really answer this question, which simply seemed to be a way of dragging in Brecht. Equally unilluminating was the inquiry into whether or not we can deconstruct the rhythm of the iambic pentameter in order to understand the social construction of the world of the play. Again, this baffled me, but then I’m not versed in the arcana of literary scholarship. (I hope literary scholars don’t think the cuckold is a social construction. Why would a patriarchal and male chauvinist society dream up an object of ridicule that could only ever be a man?)

Middleton collaborates with Shakespeare in 1605 on Timon of Athens, but Chaste Maid is un-Shakespearean in that he writes about the world around in, and he’s alert to the economic realities. Classical Roman comedy was a source of inspiration, unlike the following quote from Edward Bond:

Dramatizing the analysis.

Huh? Chaste Maid is a late city comedy, and possibly Middleton’s finest achievement.

From 1580 to 1600 the population of London increased, possibly doubling in size. In 1609 Thomas Dekker writes in The Gull’s Horn Book:

The theatre is your poets’ Royal Exchange upon which their muses — that are now turned to merchants — meeting, barter away that light commodity of words for a lighter ware than words — plaudities, and the breath of the great beast, which like the threatening of two cowards, vanish all into air. Players are their factors, who put away the stuff, and make the best of it they possibly can, and indeed ’tis their parts to do so.

The love story between Moll and Touchwood Junior gets lost beneath the overriding economic forces and power relationships, and the four plots. (This is a typical romantic notion, which has trouble imagining that economic forces — more widely understand than mere cash transactions — can have anything to do with a love match.) Middleton is sometimes thought to be sympathetic to the Puritans, but this is rather simplistic, and in any case in this play it’s the Puritans who come off badly.

Peter Womack wrote an influential essay in which he described the main stage as a “threshold” but like Hutchings using “domestic spaces” to refer to houses I’m not sure how this terminology — along with “fluid space” — advances our understanding of the theatre.

How do we interpret the seemingly orthodox happy ending? The moralizing coda that concludes the play is alien to us. Middleton has been called a moral writer, an immoral writer and an amoral writer, which might reflect Middleton’s complexity (or the fluctuating attitudes of his critics).

Howard Barker adapted Women Beware Women but seriously misreads Middleton, ignoring the fact of the Reformation. For an audience in 1621, the cardinal cannot have been endorsed by Middleton. Context is all. Middleton drama relies heavily on irony.

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