Napoleonic complex

Hugo Barnacle finds a theatrical mix of terrorism, incest and rape in John Arden's new novel; Jack Juggler and the Emperor's Whore by John Arden Methuen, pounds 16.99

As if the horrendous title weren't enough, there's an even more horrendous subtitle to put you off: "Seven Tall Tales linked together for an indecorous Toy Theatre". On investigation, the novel isn't quite that bad, but nearly. It revolves around a group of theatre people: the blokish director Jack Pogmoor, the pseudo-demure actress Polly Blackadder (who likes to go to church in a skintight black velvet dress), the neurotic playwright Fidelio Carver and his icy twin sister, Leonore, the stage- designer. They all come together in 1965 to create the adaptation of a Tudor morality play which will serve as Jack's postgrad thesis in drama studies at a university described as "a Redbrick - more adequately, a Glassclad Precast Concrete". (This seems to be an invocation of John Osborne, who coined the term "not even red brick but white tile", and a reminder that John Arden was also a famous playwright in the Fifties.)

After the cast party, word gets round that Jack has raped Polly, and the stigma stays with him for the rest of his life. This part of the story is told by Jack in a deposition to his solicitor, while he prepares to sue Private Eye for libel in 1986. In fact, Polly was so pissed at the time she thought Jack was someone else, but Arden takes a stern feminist view and makes a mighty meal of it, portraying Jack as a man gradually destroyed by the guilt he bears as a member of the oppressive patriarchy.

Carver is not a member of same, as he is gay, except in his passionate incestuous liaison with Leonore, which gives him gold-star minority status. Come 1992 he is murdered by a Provo double-agent working for MI5, because he once wrote a TV drama series exposing the terror tactics used by the security forces in Ulster. Such a killing is a "not uncommon" day's work for MI5, according to Arden, who suggests that "Certain Irish journalists, those who really did know something about such affairs," will see through the cover-up. Presumably these Irish journalists get their information from the Provos, who are the fount of radical integrity.

Soon afterwards, Leonore is battered to death with a flatiron by a brutal ex-Para when she tries to stop him abusing his little daughter. Meanwhile, Polly has gone off the rails, becoming a drug addict and porn-starlet, briefly finding herself again as a member of a feminist mime troupe but then, once she re-encounters Jack in the Eighties, vanishing to take a well-deserved rest in hospital after giving him some well-deserved slashes with a Stanley knife. Jack emigrates to Australia and becomes a pathetic drunk barely holding down an academic sinecure.

Into the story are inserted two very long dream sequences, around 100 pages each, both to do with plays that Jack and the Carver twins have worked on. Leonore dreams about an 18th-century murder in Knaresborough, Jack about the murder of Napoleon on St Helena by the forces of the reactionary world hegemony.

The latter chapter is quite well done as an historical mini-epic, but Arden, basing his conspiracy theory on a book published in 1982, is out of date. Current thinking has it that the arsenic in Bonaparte's exhumed body was absorbed from his wallpaper, of which a sample still exists. It was printed with arsenic-rich ink and the damp climate released a steady non-lethal dose into the air. Death was due to stomach cancer.

Carver's Napoleon play, we are told, is a call to "international class struggle and revolutionary solidarity". Possibly the same goes for Arden's novel. If it is meant as satire, it is quite ridiculous enough for the purpose, but the irony is not made apparent. And the fact that the characters all talk stage-Northern, stage-Scots, stage-hippie or stage-Blimp, according to type, suggests that nothing very subtle is going on.

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