My articles No.8 – Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and negative views of popular culture

This is an edited version of an essay I wrote in October 1997. It was the first essay I wrote at university and was written for a module on popular culture.  Lecturer: Glen McIver.

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Set in late 1970s English suburbia, Abigail’s Party is an “unflinching look at the chromium-plated, leather-upholstered nastiness of the nouveau riche” as seen through the eyes of Mike Leigh and the actors who developed the play through rehearsal and improvisation. (1) The play takes place over a single evening at the home of Beverly and her husband Laurence. Invited to their informal get-together are a married couple, Angela and Tony, and a divorced neighbour Susan, whose daughter, Abigail, is throwing a party of her own at home.

The play is critical of suburban life and of the people who inhabit it. It covers an evening of endless drinks, cigarettes, and banal conversation. The evening is interspersed with moments of tension and diversions, culminating in the traumatic death scene of Laurence. He suffers a sudden and fatal heart attack while listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and waiting for Beverly to appear from upstairs with what he regards as a ghastly picture, but which she likes.

The five characters in Abigail’s Party are all shallow, with empty lives and depressingly dull futures. Beverly, the host of the party, is a lonely woman who has married a man she doesn’t love. Her reason for marriage was to maintain for herself a lifestyle she believed gave her status and self-worth. When asked if she would have married her husband if they had lived together first, she replies “if we’d lived together … I don’t honestly think it would have worked out.” (2) Beverly does show some concern for Laurence, particularly for the amount of stress his job is putting him under. However, for most of the play, she and Laurence are having a constant battle between themselves over their differing points of view and tastes.

Laurence is an estate agent whom we quickly learn is under a great deal of job-related stress. He appears weak and submissive towards his clients, unable to say no or speak up for himself. He is often patronising towards Beverly. We see an instance of this when the characters are talking about choosing a car. Beverly complains she doesn’t have a say in the choice of the car and we learn that she has failed her driving test three times. This prompts Laurence to remark, extremingly demeaningly, to his wife: “when you’ve passed your test, Beverly, then you can have your little say. Until then, please leave it to me.” (3)

Angela and Tony are a married couple who have just moved into their first home after living in a a furnished flat. Anglea is passive and easily led, especially by Beverly. She appears weak and unable to form her own opinions. At the end of the play, however, Angela’s true self and strength emerges when her skills as a nurse are put to the test. Tony, as Alan Bennett describes him in his introduction to Abigail’s Party when shown as part of the BBC’s Evening with Alan Bennett, “says very little, but speaks volumes.” Tony is often silent, allowing Angela to do most of the talking for them. Occasionally signs of aggressiveness show through. Yet towards the end of the play we see that Tony is supportive of his wife. He and Angela are much more compatible as a couple than Laurence and Beverly.

The final character, Susan, is a divorced mother. It is her teenage daughter Abigail who is throwing a mysterious party next door – out of sight throughout the play  but not of mind, at least for Susan. Susan is quiet and retiring and is attending the get-together because she wishes to be out of Abigail’s way and not you would think out of any genuine desire to socialise with her neighbours. She is the only genuinely middle-class person in the play. She does not play up on this fact, even when Laurence is continually trying to draw her into talking about his pretentious high-cultural ideas – which are no more than intellectual name-dropping.

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Above: The BBC’s Play For Today 1977 TV production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Left-Right: Tony (John Salthouse), Susan (Thelma Whitetley), Laurence (Tim Stern), Beverly (Alison Steadman) and Angela (Janine Duvitski).

In the play Laurence attempts to portray himself as high-cultured with references to, for instance: “Montmatre by night, the Champs Elysées [and] boulevard cafés.” (4) These are places he has never actually visited or knows anything about – but he associates them with high-culture simply because they are French and in Paris. He furthers attempts to create an air of cultured-sophistication by referring to Van Gogh: “They called him a post-impressionist, but to my mind he was more a symbolist.” (5) He says it as if prepared beforehand, ready to impress with when the moment is right. He does not understand what he is saying – his words merely a means to an end, an attempt to give a sense of artistic and cultural understanding and appreciation.

He also brings up the ultimate in intellectual name-dropping – Shakespeare. Laurence boasts about Shakespeare’s complete works on his book-shelf. As he demonstrates  the mint-condition of the books to Susan, who is feigning interest, he manages to highlight his ignorance of both Shakespeare and liiterature in general when he tells her: “[Shakespeare] is not something you can actually read.” (6)

For F. R. Leavis, Laurence would be representative of the vast majority of the population who are totally incapable of appreciating classic literature. For Leavis Shakespeare is one of the guardians of classic literature, a member of the Canon – a list of writers he says are worthy of appreciation and respect. Leavis maintains that only an elite are capable of naturally “appreciating Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Baudelaire [and] Hardy.” (7) He says that upon this elite “depends our power of profiting by the finest human experience of the past [and that] they keep alive the subtlest and most perishable parts of tradition.” (8) He accepts that there are a few  others who can understand – even if not fully appreciate – provided they are guided in the right direction. The remaining vast majority of the masses are incapable of any appreciation of classic literature and, presumably, all forms of high-culture. (9)

Dwight Macdonald uses a metaphor to differentiate between high-culture and mass-culture. He suggests that mass-culture is similar to homogenised milk in that “it mixes and scrambles everything together, producing what might be called homogenised culture.” (10) For Macdonald, the cream of high-culture, which has always distinctly sat on top of the milk of mass-culture, was being destroyed and losing its individuality, values and ability to discriminate, through a blurring of the boundaries.

Macdonald reflects that the advance of technology has increased the spread of mass culture. This has forced a previously inward-looking minority, who could “formerly ignore the mob and seek to please only the cognoscenti,” to become competitive. (11). As we see in Abigail’s Party, the availability of mass-produced imitations of classic art and literature has allowed the masses to partake, if only in a superficial manner, in high-cultural ideas. Macdonald sees the threat as serious. He says that the masses will eventually engulf all that is high in culture. Invevitably what will matter will simply be quantity and superficiality with quality and substantiality no longer factors. (12)

Denys Thompson supports the idea that mass-production can never be synonymous with quality or individuality. He says that as mass-production requires large amounts of capital investment it is necessary to keep churning out products simply to keep machinery producing and contributing to the profit margin. “Individual preferences are ignored, because mass-production pays best when millions of copies of a few designs are turned out, rather than fewer copies of more designs.” (13)

Vance Packard writes that consumers must be encouraged to consume more – to keep on wanting new products or new versions of old products. “Consumption must rise, and keep rising.” (14) As production rises greater consumption is the only means of absorbing the ever-increasing range of products. Packard describes these ideal consumers as “super customers.” (15) He would see aspiring consumers such as Beverly as not born consumers but as ones created by the media and capitalism. Through endless and increasingly sophisticated advertising consumers are tempted into wanting more than ever before. As Packard says they are encouraged to have no limits to their desire to consume. Consumerism is an integral part of mass-culture and a key to its success. Whereas, for example, a night at the opera might generate a greater amount of spending than a night at a football match per person, the sheer quantity of people standing on the terraces makes their economic power much greater than the couple of hundred at an opera production.

For Packard, mass-production promotes waste. He says that it is no use having a cheaply-made product that will last for years. Manufacturers need to sell as many of their products as possible. To do this, Packard suggests that deficiencies are built-in to a product. These necessitate the consumer to replace the product long before its true lifetime has expired. They are also encouraged to replace an item when it fails rather than having it fixed. Another method of selling products that Packard describes is the use of advertising. If consumers can be led to believe a product they have is not longer fashionable they will buy the new model. This fuels consumption for the sake of it and for fashion.

In the play we see consumption as a statement rather than a need . Laurence replaces his car every year. He doesn’t do this because it has worn out but because he sees it as giving him status. Super-customer Beverly is living in a world of conspicuous consumption. Her home is a haven for useless products whose only purpose are to convey an image. Even her dress is part of her image: wearing an evening dress to an informal get-together. Forstein Veblen would suggest that she does this to demonstrate her ability to “consume freely and uneconomically.” (16)

Veblen argues that women, in particular middle-class financially inactive women, need to present an image of uselessness and  unproductiveness in order to emphasise their status. The more inappropriate the costume the more status it confers on the wearer. (17) Beverly’s use of her evening dress is part of the mask she is hiding behind, part of the image she has created to impress.

Mike Leigh’s characters are all hidden behind their masks. Beverly is hiding from reality and the banality of her life. She uses her possessions as demonstrations of how fortunate she is. She is hiding her true depression, frustration and loneliness behind consumerism. Her desire to learn to drive is perhaps a reflection of her desire to break out of her constricting suburban life. Her repeated failure to pass the test is a symbol that she cannot escape and is trapped in suburbia.

Laurence uses his possessions and scant knowledge of culture in an attempt to present an air of cultured sophistication. He portrays himself as something he’s not and no-one (probably even Laurence himself) is fooled by any of it. It is simply part of the mind-numbing banality of suburban life and keeping up with the Jones’s. Laurence, I would think, is a deeply frustrated man. He feels trapped in his work and his life and by the constant need to maintain the lifestyle to which he and – perhaps more significantly – Beverly expect they should be leading. He wants more substantial things in his life but, as Leavis expressed, he is simply incapable of achieving these.

Susan is hiding her emotions. We see Susan’s mask drop dramtically when she excuses herself and retreats to the bathroom where she slumps against the closed door in a moment of release from the stress of maintaining her mask. She is unique among the characters as the only single woman. She appears more genuinely middle-class than Beverly but in true English style she has repressed her emotions.  She has been where Beverly is now – a sburban wife – and understands more than anyone else how empty Beverly’s and Laurence’s life is.

Tony is hiding behind a mask of silence, saying and doing little that would reveal himself. He allows Angela to talk for them with only hints of the frustration this may be causing showing through at times. At the end of the play his relationship with his wife seems to have much more strength and realness than Beverly’s and Laurence’s.

Angela’s mask stops her from being herself. She is subservient to Beverly and has allowed Beverly to dominate her. Her real ideas and talents are suppressed by Beverly’s personality, and perhaps by her own misguided belief they don’t fit in with suburban life. It is only at the end of the play, during the death scene, that we see Angela’s mask drop and her true self emerge.  She is a nurse and for  once we see something real from the characters when Angela assumes her role as nurse when trying to help Laurence.

All the characters masks gradually slip throughout the play, primarily as they drink more and become exasperated by the banality and boredom of the evening.

The characters in Mike Leigh’s classic play  would represent for many  critics the darker side of mass-culture. They could be seen as people who are incapable of discrimination and who are simply satisfying their own whims without thought beyond immediate gratification. They are all playing to the expectations they have placed upon themselves and which they feel have been placed on them. They are all part of an elaborate and increasingly unsustainable charade that is English suburbia.  As the sociologist Theodor Adorno says, they are victims of a culture industry which “impedes the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves.” (18)

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Above: Mike Leigh.

Leavis expresses hope that things must eventually recover but concedes that the situation is desperate. He does not feel that there is a factor on the horizon that will reverse the downward acceleration of mass culture. (19). The pessimism of Leavis and others is not one I entirely share.

Culture can be what you make of it, regardless of whether it is considered high or low. Most people only partake in things they enjoy, although more consideration and discerning choices could often be made. Yet the idea that the masses are incapable of any degree of discrimination is misguided. It is also a symptom of the snobbery of high culture which wishes to maintain its distance from low culture.

However, elements of the criticism of consumerism feel very real today. The relentless drive of consumerism has become dominant and consumerism feels as if it is being driven by capitalists and not by consumers.  It is fuelled by desire and not need. The idea that products are designed to fail and that the consumer is persuaded through advertising and fashion to buy new products and consume more and more is very real.

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NOTES

1 – John Peter, Spectator, quoted M. Leigh (1983).

2 – M. Leigh, Abigail’s Party and Goose Pimples, London, 1983, p. 29.

3 – ibid., p. 17.

4 – ibid., p. 60.

5 – ibid., p. 62.

6 – ibid., p. 55.

7 – F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture in J. Storey (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 1994, p. 13

8 – ibid., p. 13.

9 – ibid., p. 12

10 – D. Macdonald, A Theory of Mass Culture in J. Storey (1994), p. 32.

11 – ibid., p. 31.

12 – D. Thompson, Discrimination and Popular Culture, 1964, p. 10.

13 – ibid., p. 11.

14 – V. Packard, The Waste Makers, 1960, p. 21.

15 – ibid., p. 21

16 – F. Veblen, The Theory of Leisure Class, New York, 1966, p. 170.

17 – ibid., chapter 7

18 – T. Adorno, The Culture Industry, London, 1991, p. 92.

19 – F. R. Leavis, op. cit., p. 18.

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