- Brecht, Brexit, and a Kingdom for a Horse
Landing at Heathrow 36 hours after the Brexit vote, one sensed that a shift had occurred, a minute realignment of plates shunting everyone’s path a few degrees. One felt stranded on a receding landscape: Is it me floating away or the world? Perhaps I was simply sick of standing in customs for more than an hour. In a decade of trips to London, I’d never known the process to drag so horribly. “Thanks a lot, Brexit,” I joked under my breath. A stout woman in a flowery hijab cast me a sidelong glance. She grinned in sympathy.
My wife and I were traveling to London to see friends and take in shows at the National Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, and the Almeida Theatre—three of the city’s best venues for new plays or fresh takes on classics. We had planned months in advance, thinking very little about Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union. In hindsight, the productions we saw—Ralph Fiennes as a sadistic Richard III, a zestfully profane Threepenny Opera, and a soul-seared revival of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—seemed perfect viewing in a country that had suddenly split itself in half, deciding that it would rather drift in a choppy sea than cling to a larger body. Each show we saw, in its way, was a commentary on national identity, on belonging or cutting loose.
In the days ahead, we would speak to many friends who were appalled by the referendum, as newspapers and websites filled up with article after article castigating craven politicians and low-information Britons, gloomily forecasting economic disaster. But in the rosy dawn of post-Brexit England, not everyone was depressed. Take our driver: a short, powerful bulldog of a man with a bright smile and Cockney accent straight out of central casting. He picked us up in the airport (at the exact spot, a sign told us, where the opening sequence of Love, Actually was filmed) and led us to the car. As we drove a circuitous route to central London (many streets were closed for Pride Weekend), conversation turned to the vote. “You [End Page 142] should have been here yesterday,” the driver said with a chuckle. “Everyone walking around, looking shattered. Like the world’s come to an end.” Suspecting that this voter might have had a hand in the shattering, we gently pressed for more detail. “It’s mad,” he said. “It’s gotten so bad that people are being called racist for voting Leave.” I pointed out that the British pound had already dropped in value. He was silent for a few seconds. “Ah, it’ll bounce back,” he muttered, eyes fixed on the road.
We rolled our bags a few blocks to Hazlitt’s, a boutique hotel in Soho, occupying a row of houses that date back to 1718. Its central location, cushy Georgian-style furnishings and amenities (an honesty bar where you can make a gin and tonic) make it a delightful destination for the literary-minded. Did the name catch your eye? The address, at 6 Frith Street, was where the great English critic and essayist William Hazlitt lodged until his death in 1830. Seeing as Hazlitt was England’s first great theater critic, I could scarcely resist.
Hazlitt wrote vastly more than just theater reviews and meticulous analyses of Shakespeare’s plays. His journalistic output was enormously varied: painting, poetry, politics, and even boxing (his thrilling 1822 account “The Fight”). Given that 2016 England was undergoing an upheaval in national identity, I sought out Hazlitt’s opinion on the Brexit vote. Here he is nearly 200 years earlier in “On Patriotism—A Fragment”:
Patriotism, in modern times, and in great states, is and must be the creature of reason and reflection, rather than the offspring of physical or local attachment. Our country is a complex, abstract existence, recognized only by understanding. It is an immense riddle, containing numberless modifications of reason and prejudice, of thought and passion. . . . It is not possible that we should have an individual attachment to sixteen millions of men, any more than...