Spies like us

Simon Gray, like Bennett, Potter and Mitchell before him, has made a tr aitor the hero of a play. Paul Taylor dusts off the spy dossier Since glasnost, the KGB has found a nice little earner in churning out spy memo irs Treachery, argued Dennis Potter, is English irony taken to its logical conclusi on
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As Lord Annan recently remarked in a piece in the New York Review of Books, there's one Russian institution that seems to have had no trouble adapting to the new entrepreneurial culture. He was referring to the KGB, whose retired officers have, s ince glasnost, discovered a nice little earner in churning out personal memoirs (duly spiced, of course, with revelations from hitherto secret Soviet files). Recent examples of the type are Uri Modin's My Five Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross By Their KGB Controller and The Philby Files by Genrikh Borovik, a TV star and journalist who had close links with the KGB and who made the shrewd career move of acquiring Philby's dossier.

There's comedy in this fact that, even as the Cold War recedes into history, the British and American craving for stories about the Cambridge traitors can none the less transform KGB autobiography into a rare lucrative growth industry. It's an ironic case, you could argue, of the Cambridge gang having served the KGB's turn twice over. But there was also comedy in the morally touchy subject of spy memoirs back in the pre-glasnost era, as Simon Gray now demonstrates in his new play Cell Mates. This focuses on the relationship between two real-life figures: George Blake, the spy convicted of working for the KGB while serving as an officer in Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, and Sean Bourke, the Irish petty criminal he met in prison. In 1966, Bourke masterminded Blake's escape from Wormwood Scrubs after barely five and a half years of a record 42-year sentence.

Once established in Moscow, Gray's Blake (played by Stephen Fry) is encouraged to write his memoirs, since such a book would constitute a propaganda coup for the KGB. There are a couple of snags with this project, though. For a start, Blake is self-confessedly incapable of producing a sentence that doesn't make him sound "like a pompous liar" (indeed, the real-life Blake's first attempt at autobiography was rejected on the grounds of being too boring). Then there's the problem of Sean Bourke (played by Rik Mayall) who also has literary ambitions in the memoir market and whose derring-do disclosures of how Blake actually gained his freedom would not bathe the KGB in quite such a flattering light.

Out of this sly, unacknowledged contest between the spy and the man to whom he owes his freedom, Gray has constructed a masterly comedy about mutual dependence and mutual imprisonment, and about the psychology of the ideologically driven traitor. It explores a situation where Forster's controversial line "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country" gets warped into the wish to have the guts to betray a friend rather than the exploded ideological myth to which one has devoted one's life.

In taking a real-life spy-traitor as its subject, Cell Mates falls into what has become a well-stocked theatrical sub-genre. A striking characteristic of such dramas is that they tend to home in on the spies either before or after their years as fully functioning agents. It is not the tediously arid intricacies of the espionage game that make the spy-traitor attractive to these writers as a protagonist, but themes like the difference between private and public morality, the dubieties of patriotism and the doubleness of the self.

If Julian Mitchell's Another Country shows us a Guy Burgess in the making at public school (and ascribes his politicisation to, inter alia, pique at being barred from the exclusive Twenty Two club), then all three of Alan Bennett's spy plays touch down on the opposite end of the scale: after the game is up. It's an unmasked Anthony Blunt we meet in A Question of Attribution. In An Englishman Abroad, Guy Burgess is seen deep in Muscovite exile, a disreputable, down-at-heel charmer avid for London gossip.Likewise, the setting of The Old Country is a dacha outside Moscow, the residence of defected traitor, Hilary (whose model is less Kim Philby than WH Auden in American exile).

In his book Myths and Memories, the writer Gilbert Adair complains about the disrespectful way the Cambridge spy-play genre tends to treat Marxism, presenting it not as "by far the most influential political philosophy of the 20th century (arguably its sole philosophy)" but principally as the means whereby certain frivolous English eccentrics reacted against their upbringing. It's true that (apart from in Another Country) Marxism gets somewhat short shrift in such works, though in Blunt's conversations with Chubb, his shrewd, amiably philistine MI5 interrogator in A Question of Attribution, Bennett does drolly point up the discrepancy between the proletarian-championing Marxian creed and Blunt's snootily fastidious horror of the general public in art galleries. By drawing analogies between political history and art history, that play also suggests that, like pictures, traitors need to be judged within the context of their times, in Blunt's case, the anti-Fascist Thirties.

What essentially interests Bennett, though, is not the particular ideology these men espoused but the condition of double agency, of having a foot in both camps but feeling at home in neither. This crops up all over his work, whether in terms of class, culture, or sexuality. His spy characters, drastic versions of this syndrome, are almost exercises in self-projection, offering an extreme perspective from which Bennett can examine his own ambivalence about England and Englishness. Dennis Potter, who wrote two Cambridge traitor plays for television (Traitor and Cream in My Coffee) maintained that "these men are the antithesis of what I take to be the essential English man - who is non-ideological, slightly philistine, genuinely liberal". But Bennett suggests that the treachery of these characters has its quintessentially English aspect. Treachery, he argues, is English irony taken to its logical conclusion. Irony is a way of meaning something and not meaning it in the same breath, the linguistic equivalent of double agency. It's an inescapable mode of communicating in England and it's an invitation, nay a provocation, to duplicity.

Hugh Whitemore's Pack of Lies, a West End hit in 1983, dealt with the Krogers, the American couple living in Ruislip who were arrested and imprisoned for their role in the Portland spy ring in 1961. Unusually, they are still functioning agents during theplay but this never becomes an alienating factor, since the emphasis is on their friends and neighbours, the ordinary, decent Jacksons who are suborned by the security services into co-operating with the entrapment. In this tragic clash between private loyalty and public duty, it's the authorities, if anyone, who are felt to be the villains, not the spies next door. Because you are shown them predominantly in the guise of ideal, concerned neighbours and unwitting victims, you lose the sense that it's the Krogers who are ultimately responsible for their friends' excruciating dilemma.

For those who feel that this is a case of a spy play being typically soft on spies, Simon Gray's Cell Mates will come as a bracing experience since, in its portrayal of George Blake, imaginative understanding is adroitly balanced by stringency of judgement.

n `Cell Mates' is at the Albery Theatre, London from 14 Feb