Late in life, WB Yeats wrote a poem called “Beautiful Lofty Things” in
which he recalled moments the psychologist Abraham Maslow would have termed
“peak experiences”. But these weren’t simply personal, individual experiences,
they were sublime scenes he witnessed being played out in the theatre
of the world, moments of high and heroic drama.
He remembered his father John Yeats at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin speaking
to a “raging crowd” who were scandalised by the supposed immorality of
Irish playwright JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, saying the
following words: “This land of saints” – and then as the applause died
down – “of plaster saints.” Here what was beautiful and lofty was the
courage of exposing hypocrisy under extreme pressure, and with mischievous
What were my beautiful lofty things of 2007? First to mind comes the sight
of not just the finest tennis player but the greatest sportsman or woman
I have watched, Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semi-final, in the roofless
Centre Court under perfect July sun. Federer was playing a man possessed
of almost as much talent as himself, but rather less self-belief, the
Frenchman Richard Gasquet. Gasquet played brilliantly, especially on the
backhand side (his backhand is better than Federer’s), to reach 5-5 in
the opening set: then Federer found a single chink in his armour, broke
him with a perfect backhand, took the set – and Gasquet’s resistance crumbled.
But it wasn’t Federer’s ruthless matchplay so much as the astonishing
grace and fluidity of his game that made me feel I had witnessed a moment
of sublimity – the equivalent (without the erotic charge, I guess) of
Yeats’ sighting of his inamorata, the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne,
waiting at Howth station – “Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant
head . . . a thing never known again.”
I was lucky to witness more than one musical moment of sublimity: Angelika
Kirchschlager’s portrayal of Handel’s Ariodante at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées
in Paris in March was everything a great operatic performance should be
but rarely is. Here was someone showing such affinity with the music,
singing and acting with complete assurance and transporting beauty. Maria-João
Pires brought an unforgettable intimacy and tenderness to Schubert at
the Wigmore Hall. But still clearer in the memory stands the octogenarian
saxophonist (and one-time cartoonist) Wally Fawkes playing in a tiny theatre
above a pub in Hampstead: a visitation of what Spanish dramatist Federico
García Lorca called duende, the divinity that stirs the blood.
In a different kind of theatre, my highlight was Tony Kushner’s Caroline,
or Change, at London’s Royal National Theatre in early January. I’m resistant
to musicals that tend either to sentimentality or pastiche, but here was
a show of stringent intelligence as well as restrained emotional power.
What gave the piece its power was resistance: the resistance of the black
maid Caroline, in Louisiana in 1963, to any easy solution.
Caroline refused to stand in for the dead mother of her employer’s young
son Noah: she refused the role of so many black women in American history,
of being emotional surrogates while leaving the bigger picture unchanged.
She refused the small change that Noah left in his pockets for her, and,
until her final song, the larger change of giving up her implacability.
No easy forgiveness, but an acknowledgement of the historic resentments
that make change so difficult, on both personal and political planes.
And the singing and acting of Tonya Pinkins was beyond praise for its
integrity and dignity.
In another key entirely was the art of renaissance Siena, shown at London’s
National Gallery; but this too had its political implications. The art
of Florence has entirely eclipsed that of its smaller neighbour and eventually
tributary; here was a small chance of redressing the balance, and appreciating
the loveliness, lyricism and eccentricity of the art produced in the city
of Duccio and Simone Martini.
Siena had a knack of attracting oddball artists, from the Piedmontese
Sodoma to Domenico Beccafumi with his weird, smudgy colour effects. I
felt privileged with a glimpse into a world less obsessed with power and
money than Florence under the Medici; a world of a delicate beauty that
once flourished in a particular place and culture.
Yeats’ beautiful lofty things were, above all, moments of courage. In
this vein, I want to recall the courage of the group of protesters who
devoted so much time and intelligence to trying to save a single beautiful
Oxfordshire lake from being turned, unnecessarily, into a dump. Seeing
these mild-mannered scientists and nature-lovers standing up to RWE NPower
and Oxfordshire County Council was inspiring for me. The Save Radley Lakes
protesters may still have their application to make Thrupp Lake a Town
Green (safe from dumping) accepted: their fight goes on, and they join
my list of immortals.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres