glass notes
Going Home…

Mission Accomplished
The news today is that the American war in Iraq is officially over only about nine years after George Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech in May 2003.  Just as Glass' opera Satyagraha will be relevant forever because there will always be injustice against which protest and civil disobedience is required, unfortunately there will also be relevance to J.M. Coetzee's 1980 novel "Waiting for the Barbarians" on which Glass wrote an opera at the height of the Iraq conflict in 2005 after having gotten the rights to the story in 1990.

In Coetzee's tale, Empire comes to a small town on the fringe, takes over in an effort to launch a preemptive  "short sharp war to safeguard the peace." Torturing and beatings ensue in an effort to get information about the "enemy" Barbarians whom we never see and don't really know anything about.  At one point in Act I, the opera's villain Colonel Joll, as Empire is taking over, says "Normally speaking, we would never approve of torture, but I think it's widely understood that this is an emergency."

At the end of the opera, ultimately beaten and frustrated, Empire withdraws its forces after accomplishing absolutely nothing.  It leaves the residents of the town ruined and unprotected.  The opera's main character, the town Magistrate confronts the Empire's top military commander:


(Christopher Hampton, librettist)

Play: Waiting for the Barbarians Act II Scene 8


(The town is deserted.)


Tell me…What has happened?

(The Soldier, reluctant, tries to wriggle free; but the Magistrate, whose arms have clearly healed in the time that has elapsed, holds him in an iron grip.  Two other Soldiers come to the aid of their colleague, grappling with the Magistrate in order to free him.)

You must tell me!


What?  What do you want to know?


Where is everyone?


Lost; deserted; gone we don’t know where.


Do you mean….the barbarians have conquered?


How do we know? We hardly ever saw them

They wouldn’t stand and fight

They lured us on across an empty desert

They cut our horses loose at night

They picked us off one by one

And then they vanished up into the mountains

Where our men froze or lost their footing

Why were we not told it would be like that?

(The Magistrate sees Joll, as he strides back into the square, followed by Mandel and a number of Soldiers, a couple of whom carry armfuls of loaves which they load into the palanquin. The Magistrate steps forward to intercept Joll; as they talk, the square gradually fills with Townspeople, drawn by the unusual level of activity. Joll fixes the Magistrate with a steely gaze.)


So you’re still stinking up the place?


Have you come back to spill more innocent blood?


You like to think you’re my opposite

But let me just assure you: you are not

You are the lazy lie we tell ourselves

When times are easy prosperous and fat

But I, I am the truth the Empire speaks

When harsh winds blow.

Now step aside.

(There’s a patch of raised ground on one side of the square: Joll moves over to it and turns to address the group of Townspeople who have now assembled.)

I have an announcement to make

In the name of the Imperial command

As a purely temporary measure

Our Army is withdrawing to the capital

For reasons I am sure you understand

Military operations at the front

Will cease for the winter

I expect to be back here in the spring

When we will begin a new offensive

To crush the enemy once and for all.

(A hostile murmur has arisen among the Townspeople, growing in anger and intensity as Joll’s address continues: now the crowd takes up the word “Enemy!” and begins to repeat it insistently. Joll hurries to bring his remarks to a conclusion, aware of the ugly atmosphere.)

In the meantime, my men and I must thank you

For you unforgettable hospitality….

(He’s interrupted by the Townspeople who begins to surge forward, shouting “Enemy! Traitor! Murderer!” A stone thrown from the Crowd crashes against the wall behind Joll.  He breaks off and hurries down towards his palanquin, the Soldiers automatically forming a protective phlanx around him.  But he’s unable to avoid the Magistrate, who confronts him, as he approaches the palanquin.)


The crime that is latent in us

It is our duty to inflict

On ourselves not on others

(Joll looks at him, his unprotected eyes widening.)

Do you hear me?

The crime that is latent in us

It is our duty to inflict

On ourselves not on others


(to the driver)

Go! Hurry!

Of Course the point of this whole work is that it's not about America in Iraq, or the Soviets in Afganistan, or the Germans in France, or the Japanese in China. 

The point is that this will happen again; Great art makes points and poses questions that we can have the courage to answer.  Will we ever have the wisdom to prevent it in the future? The truth is that "We've heard this story before and we know how it ends."

12 thoughts on “Going Home…”

  1. No offense, Richard but your point is, ultimately, defeatist. I can even say that to a certain extent, saying that something will happen become a self fullfiling priophecy of sorts, in that it inadvertantly excuses and enables such things from taking place again. (And I know that’s it is not your intention. It just comes out that way.)
    I don’t want to get into that.
    Instead, I’ll just say that your point seems defetist to what you said about art. I am sorry but what use is there for this art if it merely comments on an issue doesn’t do anything to prevent it. I’d like to think that operas like Barbarians don’t merely state what is known but raise awareness and as such make such things LESS likely to happen to the future. Let it be art that prevents rather than becomes “timeless” in that sense.
    We’ve made some progress. Slowly but we have done so. Let’s hope that this wil continue to be true and that one day we’ll look at these works and still recognize art in it for reasons that are more positive.

  2. So what? Maybe my point is ultimately defeatist. I think of it as realist. As much as I hope people would come around to something of a wise position about pointless conflicts, I honestly dont think we ever will. An artist can hope that things can change. As Glass said about Satyagraha, that he wrote it in reaction to a very violent time in our history. He had no idea that 30 years later things would be much worse. Does that sound like were moving in the right direction?
    My realist belief is that as long as humans walk the earth there will be wars. I can think about what Gandhi said about how he could think of plenty of things worth dying for, but he couldnt think of any that were worth killing for. Im not the artist here. I can hope things will change – and maybe they will over time. However, up until this point in human history weve been a pretty violent species. We should know better but theres an element of human nature here which is undeniable.

  3. @Maxim–I’m happy that you feel optimistic about humanities’ future. I don’t. I pretty much agree with Richard. Look at the violent history of the entire human race. Have we learned from past mistakes? No, we’ve gotten worse. We are not only still killing & torturing & at wars with each other, we have more deadly ways of doing this, & we keep developing more & more destructive weaponry. Is it not the function of art to point this out, in anyway possible? I would say it is the responsibility of art

  4. the responsibility of art to make us think. ‘Barbarians’ is the perfect example of what humans do: over & over & over again. Empire comes to an outskirts village, that no one care about except the villagers. They are lied to agai, & again, & again. Finally the Empires soldiers do nothing more than destroy everyone’s lives, including their own. They lie again, & leave the mess they have made,for no reason.
    Does any of this sound familiar. Coetze

  5. Coetzee offers no solutions. There are no solutions. Can you think of any? No disrespect, but I agree with Richard. This is realistic & this is great art.
    Sorry to burst your (or anyone else’s bubble), but take a look around. What do you see?

  6. Richard & Fran, I think you misunderstood my point. I don’t want to dwell on this too much because I really see little point in that but I will say this. You are entitled to your opinions. The issue I have is that it is my opinion that these types of attitudes are part of the very cycle they are commenting about. And as a realist, I will say, quite programtically -it’s not that this view of life is unhelpful (it’s your right) – it contributes to the general misery.
    I believe in one thing. Listening to people like you ruins any desire to be productive and do anything in the first place (even for things that are short term). It has nothing to with being an optimist. I may be as unhappy with the world I see around me as you are but if it wasn’t for people at least having some hope we’d make no progress at all. And we’ve made some. The rest, well let’s just say thast bursting bubble is all they are good for (thankfully, they often fail at that, too).
    You asked me what I see, I see comments that don’t ammount to anything.
    I don’t have to non-be a realist not to subscribe to sad-sack view of the world you paint.
    The very fact that I disagree means something by itself.

  7. And great art is something that alters the perception of people by bringing them a vision of something better/new.
    Newness and art are inseparable. Even something deeply rooted in tradition can bring something new.

  8. Maxim,
    Now youve got me going! Ha!
    And great art is something that alters the perception of people by bringing them a vision of something better/new. Newness and art are inseparable. Even something deeply rooted in tradition can bring something new.
    I disagree with all of this. I think regarding art there are a lot of fallacies including a.) that all art has to be reactionary and new. b.) that newness and art have anything to do with each other any more than anything else arbitrary – its like saying oldness and art are inseparable.
    Also there is no sociological imperative on improving the world with art. IN fact art sometimes, very frequently, does nothing more than bring attention to all sorts of aspects of the human experience.
    My point about the current state of the world, and I guess in regards to the message of Barbarians, is that we should know better at this point in history but do you or anyone else doubt that we will enter into another useless conflict? Of course we will. Its not cynicism or realism or defeatism. Its a fact that it will come to pass.
    The bigger issue facing the world as we know it now is that whether we will be able to redefine our idea of progress. Clearly we know that we cant continue on how we are going now.

  9. @Maxim, maybe I should have gone on to talk about my personal feelings about life ( at least a little). I have what is sure to be characterized as a pessimistic world view, but it doesn’t invade my personal life. I love my friends (& most relatives), I enjoy what I enjoy, I have a dog (my dog, besides being a truly positive human experience, is a walking sight gag, we laugh at him all the time). But I am a student of history. And I do see human behavior repeating mistakes over & over & over again. If you look at all the arts: music, painting, dancing, writing, you experience just about every emotion there is, & you think about what the artist is trying to say (at least I hope you do). In the case of ‘Barbarians’, I thought Coetzee & Glass nailed it. They said something real & true about the world, about history, & did it in a brilliant manner. At least that was my opinion. But it doesn’t mean I will walk around with a sighn saying ‘The End is Near’. I enjoyed the presentation of the piece & thought it was true. It made me think. And that, I believe, is the function of great art.

  10. For what it’s worth, which may not be much; I think that the power of the work, both the opera and Coetzee’s novel, lies not in the moral certainties people might seek to find reinforced in it but, rather, the ambiguities it asks us to consider. There is an uncomfortable truth in Joll’s argument;
    “You like to think you’re my opposite
    But let me just assure you: you are not
    You are the lazy lie we tell ourselves
    When times are easy prosperous and fat”.
    And, just as an amusing rejoinder, has anyone else noticed how much Eugene Perry (Joll) resembles Barack Obama while Richard Salter (Magistrate) looks more like a cross between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?!

  11. Here’s another quote, although the link to Glass is a little more tenuous, it’s also somewhat appropriate to the subject:
    “If you are able,
    save for them a place
    inside of you and save one backward glance
    when you are leaving
    for the places they can
    no longer go.
    Be not ashamed to say
    you loved them,
    though you may
    or may not have always.
    Take what they have left
    and what they have taught you
    with their dying
    and keep it with your own.
    And in that time
    when men decide and feel safe
    to call the war insane,
    take one moment to embrace
    those gentle heroes
    you left behind.”

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