Sunday, 31 August 2008

So It's Come To This: SpaceSquid On Musicals

Sometimes the universe folds back in on itself in strange and surprising ways.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved the musical Chess. Well, if we’re rigidly accurate about things (and we all know how much I love rigid accuracy, unless it gets in the way of the dick jokes), I can’t claim to live the musical itself, because I’ve never seen it. Moreover, there at least two very different versions of the show, and I’m not talking about either of them. I’m talking about the original work in progress double CD released back in 1984. From what I understand, the West End version of the musical (which kicked off in 1986 and ran for three years) bears great similarity to this recording. The Broadway version, though, not so much. They gutted the whole thing, setting it over one tournament instead of two, and in the process pissed all over the core concept in a way that forever proves that the Americans hate art, chess, the Swedish, and, er, Elaine Page (even the Broadway critics were smart enough to recognise that it was bilge). Since then, apparently, newer variants of the show have combined the two versions in various ways.

None of which particularly matters. It’s the original concept album that fascinates me. My mother listened to very little music whilst I was growing up, and my father almost none. The one piece of music that I was ever likely to catch whilst we drove around my dearly departed home county was the bearded half of ABBA’s latest project. Sometimes I wonder if this lack of input as a child is what left me essentially entirely uninterested in music until I was into my late teens, but that’s another story.

As a young child there was very little about the story I understood. Obviously, something was going on with chess matches and such, and the Cold War was involved (of course, I was still in primary school at the time, so the Cold War was something I only understood in the vaguest terms: the Russians didn’t like us, and if we were very lucky no-one was going to get blown to pieces for no good reason). All I really took from it, though, was there was one song about a man whose father had left him at twelve, and whose mother had ignored or berated him throughout the following years (I banned Dad from playing that one because it upset me so much, which I‘m hoping is an admission people class as sweet rather than pathetic), and another one which made use of the word “bastard”, a truly thrilling prospect to any prepubescent boy.

The months went by, added up to years, and eventually my father tired of the increasingly worn tapes [1], and I got to get my sticky mitts on them. On and off, they began to soundtrack my teenage years, and ultimately my time at university and beyond. Of course by then I finally had a grip on the story as well.

And what a story it is. The chess World Championship is to be played between East and West in the very middle of the Cold War (this actually happened in the early Seventies when Spassky Boris Spassky faced Bobby Fischer). The Russian (neither player has names in the original) and the distinctly Fischer-like American [2] will be playing each other in the mountains of Tyrol . For their respective countries, this is an opportunity for a glorious propaganda victory (this desire is most overtly expressed by the Russian’s adviser and party-man Molokov, for whom beating the American is the only consideration for the entire competition, but one assumes the Americans are just as bloodthirsty). The problem is that neither player wants to, forgive me, play along. The Russian dreams of defecting, not due to any love of the West but because he is so tired of the endless machinations of The Party who believe they control him utterly and can take the credit for his victories. The American, on the other hand, simply wants the adoration of the public (likely due to the neglect he suffered at his parents’ hands, hence the song that made little Squid so miserable). More importantly, though, he wants the love of his second, Florence (though the exact nature of that love is ambiguous). She, however, quickly falls for the Russian, and joins him in exile when he defects at the end of the first act [3], having beaten the American to a pulp over the course of the tournament.

The fall-out to this is extreme. The Russians are furious that they have lost their prodigy, and the American is devastated that he has lost not only the title, but Florence too. A year passes, and the Championship begins again, this time in Bangkok (“One Night In Bangkok” being officially the second most famous song from Chess). The Russian will be facing a former countryman (this time of unquestionably loyalty to The Party), with the American acting as a kind of MC to the whole affair. The Soviets plan to embarrass the “traitor” by allowing his wife Svetlana to join him in his exile, a development that leads to him leaving Florence since he refuses to deal with her concern at the cost of the tournament.

The American, for his part, demands the Russian forfeit the match, or else he will tell Florence the secret of her father’s betrayal during the Hungarian Uprising in ‘56 (information she doesn’t possess, and which has been handed to the American by a wrathful Molokov).

It’s almost too obvious to point it out, but the characters themselves are of course trapped within their own chess game, as oblivious as their pieces.

Ultimately, the American and Molokov are ignored. The Russian annihilates his opponent, losing Florence and Svetlana, both of whom realise he doesn't care about anything but winning (both had begun to suspect that, of course, that's what the song "I Know Him So Well" is about, which every person reading this post has heard). He, for his part, realises that winning is a necessary condition for him, his unquestionable dominance of his chosen field is essential to his self-worth. Women and countries come and go, but his abilities are unquestionable. All he ever really wanted was the chance to show his victories were his, that he was responsible for the movements of his own life (hardly surprising for a chess player, did I mention this works on two levels yet?). No matter how obvious it is that he needs to win, though, he seems to find it harder to persuade himself that winning is sufficient.

The American has always been convinced that winning is sufficient, not for its own sake, but because he is sure that it will immediately lead to the respect he has been searching for his whole life. Of course, he will never get to find that out. He lost the actual chess tournament a year ago, and he has lost the meta-game now. The Russian has ignored him as irrelevant, Florence has abandoned him. The only bullet left in his gun is the secret regarding his former assistant's father. Which, of course, knowing that it will do him no good and will cause her nothing but pain, he fires anyway. It's literally the only move left to make in the game.

These ideas about finding one's necessary and sufficient conditions for happiness/self-respect correlated to thoughts I had been having at the time, and continue to have to this day. Am I best attempting to excel in one particular area of my life, or would I be more content striking a balance between various things? Most importantly, how much of one aspect should you deliberately sacrifice in exchange for advancement in another. I still haven't decided, and of course it strikes me as massively unlikely that there is just one answer (or that that my answer and your answer would, or should, match). Sometimes I wonder to what extent I enjoy Chess because it ties in so closely to those themes, and to what extent those themes were something I subconsciously acquired through repeated exposure to the musical in the first place. [4]

So its important to me; important to a degree very few artifacts from my childhood can match. Given all of that, it’s tempting to leave my view of the musical frozen in the past, just reach for my CD’s again, and pretend that nothing ever changes.

Except that on Wednesday I discovered that there’s going to be a performance of Chess in my humble little town come November. My better judgement tells me that I shouldn’t go, that it can’t possibly measure up the images my brain has constructed from the songs and singers I’ve been listening to for two decades now. On the other hand, the chance to finally watch the story unfold rather than to just read a synopsis is pretty hard to resist, even if I know that both main story variants dare to end on less of a bummer than the original does.

Plus: night at the theatre. I could get myself right purdy. Scrub m’sel’ up all posh like. And, of course, they have a bar…

[1] He’d started playing the flute and wanted to listen to as many flautists as possible, presumably to maximise his self-loathing. I love my Dad.

[2] If you’ve never heard of Bobby Fischer, please take the time to read his Wikipedia entry. The man was a grade A lunatic. His refusal to defend his title in 1975 is a high point of advanced nuttiness. The entry doesn’t go into full detail, but he refused to play because the ICF would only agree to 178 of his 179 conditions for attendance. Condition 179: if the tournament ended in a nine-all tie, he won.

There’s much more in there (I keep meaning to try playing some Fischer Random Chess with Danny, though I am certain to lose fast and ugly), and it gets increasingly unpleasant (Fischer was a notorious anti-Semitic) , but it’s a fascinating story about a true genius, who also happened to be a total douche.

[3] The Russian lays out his feelings just before he is smuggled out by a Western embassy in the song “Anthem”, one of the better known pieces from the musical. He opines that nations and borders are all wastes of time, needless barriers to humanity. Of course, he has a natural advantage in that his pride and self-belief are so bullet-proof that love of ones home would never occur to him. Who needs a place to belong when everything you give a damn about you get to carry with you?

Incidentally, Michael Ball massacred the song without mercy on his 1996 album The Musicals, proving once and for all that there exists nothing in this universe too great for Michael Ball to be unable to reduce it to foetid excrement with his touch. Seriously, he’s like King Midas, if Midas has wanted everything he touched to be turned to sewage. And then sold to idiots.

[4] I know full well that I’m heading out of my area of expertise, but I would think there are some fascinating discussions to be had on the effect our favourite fiction has upon our emotional and intellectual development, and to what degree our personality chooses our best-loved works as oppose to our best-loved works shaping our personality. The phrase “X changed my life” probably exists for a good reason, and I have several things that could replace the unknown in that sentence.

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