300 episodes

Leading writers on arts, history, philosophy, science, religion and beyond, themed across a week - insight, opinion and intellectual surprise.

The Essay BBC

    • Society & Culture

Leading writers on arts, history, philosophy, science, religion and beyond, themed across a week - insight, opinion and intellectual surprise.

    Women

    Women

    The Paris Commune lasted less than 100 days, yet this populist movement had extraordinary impact and offers a fascinating comparison to populist turbulence in 2021. Having survived the horrors of the Siege of Paris, winter of 1870-71, Parisians refused to accept the terms of French surrender after the Franco-Prussian war and declared independence. For ten weeks, the Communards experimented with alternative living: revolutionising education, political representation, the role of women, the upbringing of children, even parts of the landscape. The Commune was crushed brutally at the end of May, but it caught the attention of conservatives and radicals across the world. 150 years later, what does the Commune still have to say to us? Have we lost its legacy or, just maybe, are we all Communards now?

    Dan Rebellato, writer and thinker, is inspired by personal observation of the modern legacy of the commune:

    “In 2016, my wife and I moved to Paris and we had a baby. In London, walking along a narrow pavement with a buggy, people generally get out of your way. In Paris, there’s often a stand-off. In London, the public space is not really public at all; we carry with us a portable sphere of private space that should not be invaded. In Paris, if you’re on the street, you’re in the debate. Although French society is in many ways very deferential and hierarchical, this is not true on the streets. Anyone can speak to anyone - in Paris, every encounter is a debate. And so I found myself looking into the history of those Parisian streets; the way they’ve been remodelled and remade, the way the famous cobblestones have been torn up as weapons, the way the boulevards are ghosted by barricades and street battles. It’s a story that has markers in 1968 and 1961 and 1945 and 1940 but ultimately this contested Paris, where the very streets are sites of battle and debate, takes us back to 1871 and the Commune.”

    These essays will bring the Commune to life with vivid description of key moments, entering into history, to explore how it shaped French society and beyond, through personal connection with the facts and the sense of a city Dan knows well.


    Essay 5: Women

    23 May 1871: As the French army poured into Paris to end the Commune, Parisians set light to some major buildings in a vain effort to stop their advance. On 23 May 1871, the Tuileries Palace was ignited. Amid the smoke and fire a new figure was born: the ‘petroleuse’, the woman communard with a bottle of petrol, glorying in the destruction she wreaked. In fact, there is very little evidence that such determined incendiarists existed, yet reports spread, ironically, like wildfire. The destructive woman became a cautionary tale and an icon of the Commune, haunting generations to come. The complexity and contradiction of women gaining independence is still resonant – the demonisation and vilification of over strident women is ubiquitous. The Commune genuinely offered women new ways of being, new models and roles. Yet this new woman is ghosted in the figure of the petroleuse, a horrified and horrifying response to repudiating a conventional domesticity.

    Dan Rebellato is a leading British radio dramatist, as well as a Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway London. He has written extensively for BBC Radio 3 and 4, most recently Killer for Radio 3, as well as theatres such as Plymouth Drum, Suspect Culture and Graeae, and Pitlochry Festival Theatre. He has won Sonys and BBC Audio Awards for his radio dramas. He was lead writer on the blockbuster BBC Radio 4 Series, Emile Zola; Blood Sex and Money, starring Glenda Jackson. He has published several books, most recently co editing Contemporary European Playwrights in 2020, and is currently writing a practical playwriting guide for the National Theatre, due out in 2021/22.


    Director/Producer, Polly Thomas
    E

    • 13 min
    Destruction

    Destruction

    The Paris Commune lasted less than 100 days, yet this populist movement had extraordinary impact and offers a fascinating comparison to populist turbulence in 2021. Having survived the horrors of the Siege of Paris, winter of 1870-71, Parisians refused to accept the terms of French surrender after the Franco-Prussian war and declared independence. For ten weeks, the Communards experimented with alternative living: revolutionising education, political representation, the role of women, the upbringing of children, even parts of the landscape. The Commune was crushed brutally at the end of May, but it caught the attention of conservatives and radicals across the world. 150 years later, what does the Commune still have to say to us? Have we lost its legacy or, just maybe, are we all Communards now?

    Dan Rebellato, writer and thinker, is inspired by personal observation of the modern legacy of the commune:

    “In 2016, my wife and I moved to Paris and we had a baby. In London, walking along a narrow pavement with a buggy, people generally get out of your way. In Paris, there’s often a stand-off. In London, the public space is not really public at all; we carry with us a portable sphere of private space that should not be invaded. In Paris, if you’re on the street, you’re in the debate. Although French society is in many ways very deferential and hierarchical, this is not true on the streets. Anyone can speak to anyone - in Paris, every encounter is a debate. And so I found myself looking into the history of those Parisian streets; the way they’ve been remodelled and remade, the way the famous cobblestones have been torn up as weapons, the way the boulevards are ghosted by barricades and street battles. It’s a story that has markers in 1968 and 1961 and 1945 and 1940 but ultimately this contested Paris, where the very streets are sites of battle and debate, takes us back to 1871 and the Commune.”

    These essays will bring the Commune to life with vivid description of key moments, entering into history, to explore how it shaped French society and beyond, through personal connection with the facts and the sense of a city Dan knows well.


    Essay 4: Destruction

    16 May 1871: On 16 May 1871, the Vendome Column, erected in honour of Napoleon’s Austerlitz victory, was smashed to the ground. In the Commune’s final days, many great buildings were set alight in what its enemies described as an orgy of destruction. But destruction is not always destructive. Some argue that Haussmann’s pre-Commune rebuilding, after the uprisings of 1830 and 1848, deliberately created streets too wide for revolutionaries to barricade, yet straight and long for swift deployment of the army to quell insurrection. The Commune showed the futility of that aim. In our era too, we have returned to destruction. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign argued that the statues to the architects of Imperialism should be taken down. There have been violent clashes over the bringing down of statues to Confederate generals in the USA. To some, pulling down a statue is to reject the values implicit in venerating such men; to others, it is to hide from history. Yet perhaps the only thing more destructive than destruction is restoration. Swiftly, a column identical to the former one rose again. Paradoxically, to prove the futility of trying to blot out history, the French government blotted out history – the new Vendome column is a kind of ruin of a ruin.

    Dan Rebellato is a leading British radio dramatist, as well as a Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway London. He has written extensively for BBC Radio 3 and 4, most recently Killer for Radio 3, as well as theatres such as Plymouth Drum, Suspect Culture and Graeae, and Pitlochry Festival Theatre. He has won Sonys and BBC Audio Awards for his radio dramas. He was lead writer on the blockbuster BBC Ra

    • 13 min
    Art

    Art

    The Paris Commune lasted less than 100 days, yet this populist movement had extraordinary impact and offers a fascinating comparison to populist turbulence in 2021. Having survived the horrors of the Siege of Paris, winter of 1870-71, Parisians refused to accept the terms of French surrender after the Franco-Prussian war and declared independence. For ten weeks, the Communards experimented with alternative living: revolutionising education, political representation, the role of women, the upbringing of children, even parts of the landscape. The Commune was crushed brutally at the end of May, but it caught the attention of conservatives and radicals across the world. 150 years later, what does the Commune still have to say to us? Have we lost its legacy or, just maybe, are we all Communards now?

    Dan Rebellato, writer and thinker, is inspired by personal observation of the modern legacy of the commune:

    “In 2016, my wife and I moved to Paris and we had a baby. In London, walking along a narrow pavement with a buggy, people generally get out of your way. In Paris, there’s often a stand-off. In London, the public space is not really public at all; we carry with us a portable sphere of private space that should not be invaded. In Paris, if you’re on the street, you’re in the debate. Although French society is in many ways very deferential and hierarchical, this is not true on the streets. Anyone can speak to anyone - in Paris, every encounter is a debate. And so I found myself looking into the history of those Parisian streets; the way they’ve been remodelled and remade, the way the famous cobblestones have been torn up as weapons, the way the boulevards are ghosted by barricades and street battles. It’s a story that has markers in 1968 and 1961 and 1945 and 1940 but ultimately this contested Paris, where the very streets are sites of battle and debate, takes us back to 1871 and the Commune.”

    These essays will bring the Commune to life with vivid description of key moments, entering into history, to explore how it shaped French society and beyond, through personal connection with the facts and the sense of a city Dan knows well.


    Essay 3: Art

    15: May 1871: On 15 May 1871, 16-year-old Arthur Rimbaud wrote to his friend, Paul Demeny, announcing his determination to make himself into a ‘voyant’, a seer, by a profound disordering of all the senses, seeking out extremes of all kinds in order to arrive at something unknown. He claimed to have fought to defend Paris, though this has been disputed. Many writers absented themselves from the capital during the Commune and not a great deal of art came directly out of it. Most of its most enduring representations were either made long after the fact or hostile caricatures by outsiders seeking to turn international sentiment against the uprising. Dan discusses contemporary art and subsequent artistic evocation eg Maximilien Luce’s painting A Street in Paris, May 1871. As a boy, Luce witnessed the brutal events of the ‘Bloody Week’, which he sought to capture in his painting; Brecht’s Days of the Commune, is a rich, nuanced and savagely satirical critique of the destruction of the Commune. Brecht questions how we can represent such an event, by trying to create collective heroes and so pushing against theatrical conventions.

    Dan Rebellato is a leading British radio dramatist, as well as a Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway London. He has written extensively for BBC Radio 3 and 4, most recently Killer for Radio 3, as well as theatres such as Plymouth Drum, Suspect Culture and Graeae, and Pitlochry Festival Theatre. He has won Sonys and BBC Audio Awards for his radio dramas. He was a lead writer on the blockbuster BBC Radio 4 Series, Emile Zola; Blood Sex and Money, starring Glenda Jackson. He has published several books, most recently co editing

    • 13 min
    Education

    Education

    The Paris Commune lasted less than 100 days, yet this populist movement had extraordinary impact and offers a fascinating comparison to populist turbulence in 2021. Having survived the horrors of the Siege of Paris, winter of 1870-71, Parisians refused to accept the terms of French surrender after the Franco-Prussian war and declared independence. For ten weeks, the Communards experimented with alternative living: revolutionising education, political representation, the role of women, the upbringing of children, even parts of the landscape. The Commune was crushed brutally at the end of May, but it caught the attention of conservatives and radicals across the world. 150 years later, what does the Commune still have to say to us? Have we lost its legacy or, just maybe, are we all Communards now?

    Dan Rebellato, writer and thinker, is inspired by personal observation of the modern legacy of the commune:

    “In 2016, my wife and I moved to Paris and we had a baby. In London, walking along a narrow pavement with a buggy, people generally get out of your way. In Paris, there’s often a stand-off. In London, the public space is not really public at all; we carry with us a portable sphere of private space that should not be invaded. In Paris, if you’re on the street, you’re in the debate. Although French society is in many ways very deferential and hierarchical, this is not true on the streets. Anyone can speak to anyone - in Paris, every encounter is a debate. And so I found myself looking into the history of those Parisian streets; the way they’ve been remodelled and remade, the way the famous cobblestones have been torn up as weapons, the way the boulevards are ghosted by barricades and street battles. It’s a story that has markers in 1968 and 1961 and 1945 and 1940 but ultimately this contested Paris, where the very streets are sites of battle and debate, takes us back to 1871 and the Commune.”

    These essays will bring the Commune to life with vivid description of key moments, entering into history, to explore how it shaped French society and beyond, through personal connection with the facts and the sense of a city Dan knows well.

    Essay 2: Education

    8 April 1871: On 8 April 1871, the Commune declared that religion would be taken out of the schools: no religious iconography, no prayers, no hymns. Schools would be a place where the young openly come to learn without the shadow of prior beliefs to constrain their freedom. Although this principle was undone as soon as the Commune was destroyed, it returned only a decade later in the principle of laïcité, of secularism, enshrined in the Ferry Laws of 1882. The ethos of the Commune will be familiar to most children who’ve been educated in Britain since the 1960s: an emphasis on the creative expression more than rote-learning, the equal education of boys and girls and so on. There is a direct line from the Commune’s education policy to the drama club in my 1970s south London primary school.

    Dan Rebellato is a leading British radio dramatist, as well as a Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway London. He has written extensively for BBC Radio 3 and 4, most recently Killer for Radio 3, as well as theatres such as Plymouth Drum, Suspect Culture and Graeae, and Pitlochry Festival Theatre. He has won Sonys and BBC Audio Awards for his radio dramas. He was lead writer on the blockbuster BBC Radio 4 Series, Emile Zola; Blood Sex and Money, starring Glenda Jackson. He has published several books, most recently co editing Contemporary European Playwrights in 2020, and is currently writing a practical playwriting guide for the National Theatre, due out in 2021/22.

    Director/Producer, Polly Thomas
    Executive Producer, Eloise Whitmore

    A Naked Production for BBC Radio 3

    • 13 min
    The People

    The People

    The Paris Commune lasted less than 100 days, yet this populist movement had extraordinary impact and offers a fascinating comparison to populist turbulence in 2021. Having survived the horrors of the Siege of Paris, winter of 1870-71, Parisians refused to accept the terms of French surrender after the Franco-Prussian war and declared independence. For ten weeks, the Communards experimented with alternative living: revolutionising education, political representation, the role of women, the upbringing of children, even parts of the landscape. The Commune was crushed brutally at the end of May, but it caught the attention of conservatives and radicals across the world. 150 years later, what does the Commune still have to say to us? Have we lost its legacy or, just maybe, are we all Communards now?

    Dan Rebellato, writer and thinker, is inspired by personal observation of the modern legacy of the commune:

    “In 2016, my wife and I moved to Paris and we had a baby. In London, walking along a narrow pavement with a buggy, people generally get out of your way. In Paris, there’s often a stand-off. In London, the public space is not really public at all; we carry with us a portable sphere of private space that should not be invaded. In Paris, if you’re on the street, you’re in the debate. Although French society is in many ways very deferential and hierarchical, this is not true on the streets. Anyone can speak to anyone - in Paris, every encounter is a debate. And so I found myself looking into the history of those Parisian streets; the way they’ve been remodelled and remade, the way the famous cobblestones have been torn up as weapons, the way the boulevards are ghosted by barricades and street battles. It’s a story that has markers in 1968 and 1961 and 1945 and 1940 but ultimately this contested Paris, where the very streets are sites of battle and debate, takes us back to 1871 and the Commune.”

    These essays will bring the Commune to life with vivid description of key moments, entering into history, to explore how it shaped French society and beyond, through personal connection with the facts and the sense of a city Dan knows well.

    Ep 1: The People

    18 March 1871: The Commune was founded by a democratic vote, and declared on 18 March 1871, a key historical moment in a new understanding of what the people were. The Commune is haunted by the crowd: the emergence of the metropolis and the masses was one of the great phenomena of the nineteenth century. For Baudelaire, the crowd marked a new evolution of humanity, an opportunity to dissolve one’s identity into it. For conservatives decades afterwards, the Commune was a dire warning of the dangers of the mass. The Commune, and perceptions of its dangerous disorder or its astonishing lucidity, threads through debates over the ‘crowd’ even now. Are the people to be trusted with the future or not? In an age of Brexit, these questions continue to haunt our politics.

    Dan Rebellato is a leading British radio dramatist, as well as a Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway London. He has written extensively for BBC Radio 3 and 4, most recently Killer for Radio 3, as well as theatres such as Plymouth Drum, Suspect Culture and Graeae, and Pitlochry Festival Theatre. He has won Sonys and BBC Audio Awards for his radio dramas. He was lead writer on the blockbuster BBC Radio 4 Series, Emile Zola; Blood Sex and Money, starring Glenda Jackson. He has published several books, most recently co editing Contemporary European Playwrights in 2020, and is currently writing a practical playwriting guide for the National Theatre, due out in 2021/22.

    Director/Producer, Polly Thomas
    Executive Producer, Eloise Whitmore

    A Naked Production for BBC Radio 3

    • 13 min
    In Praise of Flatness

    In Praise of Flatness

    Why are mountains linked with uplifting feelings? Noreen Masud's Essay conjures the vast skies of Norfolk and the fantasy of hope felt by Kazuo Ishiguro's characters in his novel Never Let Me Go, the idea of openness described by Graham Swift in his fenland novel Waterland and the feeling of freedom felt by poet Stevie Smith who declared: "I like … flatness. It lifts the weight from the nerves and the mind."

    Producer: Luke Mulhall

    Dr Noreen Masud teaches literature at Durham University. You can hear her exploring aphorisms in this Sunday Feature https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000rtxb and debating Dada in this Free Thinking discussion https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k9ws
    She is a New Generation Thinker on the scheme run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to select ten academics each year who turn their research into radio.

    • 13 min

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