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Rhubarb. By J.B. Pick.

When the odd collection of wonderers, wanderers, worriers, sceptics, dyspeptics, questers, questioners, anarchists, existentialists and devotees of the great Groucho's maxim 'Whatever it is I'm against it', known in 1945 as the London Forum, decided to entertain themselves at Christmas with charades, they chose with typical eccentricity to perform Dostoevsky's 'Legend of the Grand Inquisitor'.

This appears as a story told by Ivan in 'The Brothers Karamazov'. It supposes that Jesus returns to earth when the Inquisition rules, is immediately arrested, and taken before the Grand Inquisitor. The Legend would be a dialogue if Jesus spoke, but although he is questioned and challenged by the Inquisitor he does not answer a word.

The Inquisitor, in a speech of great length and subtlety, explains that Jesus's wish that people should awaken to his message freely and follow his teaching through understanding and choice was a mistake based on a delusion. Human beings are not, - he insisted, as perceptive and well-intentioned as Jesus imagined, but base, venal, ignorant and selfish. They require to be led and controlled by the wise, who know that peace and prosperity are more important to their welfare than freedom, which leads only to division, strife and eventual disaster. Jesus, says the Inquisitor, cannot be allowed to again raise hopes and longings in these flocks of sheep and goats which have been ordered into acquiescence by the benevolent rule and restriction of the wise, and so protected from the bitter 'experience of responsibility. '

The Inquisitor explains that he and his elite company have undertaken the terrible and lonely task of accepting responsibility on behalf of those who could not bear its weight.

There was no doubt in anyone's mind as to who should play the part of the Inquisitor. Wilfred Ward Coupe was a deeply sceptical Catholic believer - a paradox typical of his nature - with a wily intellect and a taste for the esoteric. His favourite thinkers were philosophers of whom no one else in the Forum had ever heard, men such as Staundemeir, whose doctrine of 'the reversibility of perception' Coupe had once expounded in an impenetrable lecture, to the complete bewilderment of his audience, and the heavily perceptive Ludwig Klages, whose book 'The Science of Character' was nothing of the kind. Coupe had the advantage over the rest of us in being able to read obscure volumes in German, Spanish, Latin and Greek as well as English. Another Forum member and myself once attempted, sitting in a café at Marble Arch around midnight, to discover any book of note which Coupe had not read. We failed.

Coupe resembled a bird of prey - a pernickety vulture, perhaps - but with a cock of the head more like a robin's than a vulture's.

He did not indulge in argument or dispute, but listened with a demeanour at once inquisitive and sceptical, as if he could have destroyed the thesis of anyone whatsoever who happened to be speaking at the time if he had so wished, but preferred not to. Instead he attended impartially. The reason was, he explained, that 'all conversation is equally revealing.' I always wondered about that 'equally', but Coupe usually meant what he said, and if at any time he didn't, then he took on the role of ignorance or error for a purpose.

The problem of who should play Jesus was more difficult. It is a part which no one is capable of playing in any circumstances. Many actors in many plays have attempted it, and by so doing betrayed their misunderstanding of the world. The fact that in Dostoevsky's 'Legend' Jesus remains silent throughout does not make the part any easier to play. It requires an actor of great talent to say nothing while establishing a presence that is attentive, alert and robust. The fact that I cannot remember who did in fact play the part of Jesus shows that he must have performed either very well or very badly. To achieve stage anonymity is a rare and estimable feat.

The distinction between a charade delivered by Forum rules and any play in which people speak the lines written for them by a proud author, is that under Forum rules no known language can be used. The actors involved must express themselves only by uttering the word 'Rhubarb' with every possible variation of emphasis and meaning.

The moment that Coupe fixed his eyes upon the prisoner and began to expound his thesis, we realised that we were in the presence not merely of a Master but of the Grand Inquisitor himself, despite the fact that he was dressed in a white sheet with black shoes peeping out below. He had an air of magisterial authority, appalling sincerity, and ruthless pragmatism, which for its effect of threatening power was more alarming than all the efforts to frighten us of Boris Karloff as the Mummy and Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

"Rhubarb," he said. "Rhubarb, rhubarb," and with each rhubarb and with each pause between rhubarbs his lonely and ascetic dedication became more deadly. But however forceful and logical these rhubarbs became, the prisoner uttered not a single rhubarb in reply. He was silent, painfully awake, and entirely rhubarbless. The effect was to cause us to question the role of authority in the world once and for all, and to realise that freedom is the most precious of all human possibilities, to be gained and maintained only by dedicated attention to the world as it is, and the most subtle and determined resistance to those who would rob us of it. This, of course, was precisely against the intentions of the Grand Inquisitor. Was it, however, the exact intention of Wilfred Ward Coupe?

Dostoevsky's 'Legend' runs to a great many pages and if Coupe had delivered as many rhubarbs as Dostoevsky delivered the contents of his dictionary, we would have been there for over an hour. Coupe engaged us for no more than ten minutes. It was enough.

At the end Jesus performed his one overt action. He moved swiftly towards the Inquisitor and gave him a gentle kiss. The Inquisitor started back in a kind of fear, then opened the available door and Jesus departed into the dark streets of the dark city - or in point of fact, into the kitchen.

So effective was the performance that the audience demanded an encore at the New Year. In the second performance the 'rhubarbs' gained in weight and resonance, giving the impression that the Inquisitor's suffering was in exact proportion to the authority he wielded, that he knew he was working in the service of the Great Antagonist, and accepted this for what he regarded as the benefit of his flock. Jesus, the Inquisitor's rhubarbs implied, should have accepted the Adversary's temptation in the desert, and taken upon himself the regulation of the world. Freedom, he insisted, was a terrible delusion, leading only to an increase in suffering for the ordinary, the ignorant, and the innocent. By this time the virtual-Inquisitor had become for the audience an active threat; we began to grow restive, restless, uneasy, and the end of the charade came as a joyous relief, ensuring that the party which followed was a great success.

A lady of great dignity and charm, wearing a large hat with flowers on it, approached the Inquisitor with a bouquet of seven stalks of greenhouse rhubarb, obtained with who knows what difficulty, and presented it with a dignified curtsey.

"Rhubarb," said Coupe as he accepted the gift, inclining his head like a crow on a fence. "Rhubarb." And then and there he ceased to be the Grand Inquisitor, taking up once more his normal task as the defender of all questions to which no answer is possible.

But a disquieting thought remained with us. Could we any longer entirely trust Wilfred Ward Coupe to be the wandering scholar we had always thought him? What was the true extent of his ambition? Could it be that an actual Inquisitor was moving among us in disguise?

JBP November 2004

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