November 25, 2004
Culture Is Dethroned in World Diplomacy
By ALAN RIDING
ONDON, Nov. 19 - In the grand gallery at Windsor Castle known as the Waterloo Chamber, a truncated version of "Les Misérables" was performed recently for Queen Elizabeth II and the visiting French president, Jacques Chirac. Until then, neither had seen that hit show, presumably by choice: the queen is not given to slumming in the West End, while Mr. Chirac, like most educated French, is said to detest musicals.
Still, for some anxious protocol chief "Les Misérables" must have offered a rare example of cross-Channel bonding. Based on Victor Hugo's epic novel by the same name, the musical was written by the Frenchmen Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. What they created, though, was an English-language musical in the Anglo-American tradition. The result? "Les Miz" enjoyed a 16-year run in New York before it closed last year and is in its 19th year in London, while a 1991 French-language version lasted just seven months in Paris.
So, all in all, it was a rather forced attempt to inject some culture into the centennial commemoration of the Entente Cordiale, signed by Britain and France in 1904 to ensure that their imperial ambitions did not clash. All the more forced because, if anything, "Les Misérables" celebrates the barricades spirit that inspired the anticolonialist movements that put an end to the British and French empires a half-century later.
And yet there was something faintly nostalgic about the 45-minute show at Windsor Castle. It was a throwback to a time when culture played a genuine role in meetings between heads of state, whether emperors, kings or presidents. Nowadays, the case would probably be made that no one of any importance has time for arts and entertainment. A more persuasive argument might be that today's political leaders have little interest in culture.
True, when Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain first visited President George W. Bush at Camp David in February 2001, he was invited to watch an early evening movie, "Meet the Parents," a light comedy starring Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller. But, according to British diplomats, what really surprised Mr. Blair was not the choice of movie, but that when it was over Mr. Bush went straight to bed. Mr. Blair had grown used to yakking late into the night with Bill Clinton.
Oh, for the good old days.
In 1520 Henry VIII visited François I in northern France at what became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold for the extravagance of the occasion. The festivities lasted two weeks, with both monarchs building temporary palaces and providing entertainment to boast the sophistication of their courts. Elizabeth I and James I were in turn theater devotees: they regularly summoned Shakespeare's company to perform for them and their foreign guests.
Louis XIV was still more identified with the arts. He may have promoted them for his greater glory, but he also knew how to put on a good show at Versailles. In gardens designed by André Le Nôtre, divertimento was provided by the likes of Lully and Molière. And back across the Channel a few decades later, it was George II who commissioned Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music."
Today a few royal courts survive, but those on the throne rarely see promotion of culture as a duty: Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is an exception; the royal family of Cambodia, with its traditional dance company, is another. Elected leaders generally do little better. European governments are expected to finance culture and pay lip service to its importance, but it is hard to find individual politicians attending anything but galas and charity shows.
The nearest that recent times have known to a traditional royal court was John F. Kennedy's Camelot. As his informal minister of culture, Jacqueline Kennedy brought the likes of Pablo Casals, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine to the White House. But President Kennedy, who preferred Frank Sinatra, at least knew what to say: "It is only natural that I should call for the kind of intellectual and spiritual fitness which underlines the flowering of the arts."
The less savory truth is that authoritarian regimes have often given greater political weight to culture. Some tyrants have even played critics: Hitler disliked Brahms, loved Bruckner and worshiped Wagner, while Stalin would give his thumbs up or thumbs down to Shostakovich's latest compositions. Later, state visitors to Moscow would be expected to attend the Bolshoi Ballet, while those to post-Maoist China would sit through lengthy shows in the Great Hall of the People.
Some habits die slowly. When Mr. Blair traveled to St. Petersburg in 2000 to meet Vladimir V. Putin, he was given a tour of the Hermitage Museum and was invited to a gala premiere of Prokofiev's opera "War and Peace" at the Maryinsky Opera House. There is no other evidence that Mr. Putin actually cares for art or opera, but he clearly sees culture as good politics.
This he again demonstrated last year when he invited 46 world leaders to St. Petersburg to celebrate that city's 300th anniversary. Some $1.3 billion was spent on sprucing up Mr. Putin's hometown and its palaces, including Peterhof Palace, 20 miles away, where a gala dinner for his guests was followed by outdoor ballet performances to Russian music.
It is not always easy to corral world leaders for a cultural event. When the prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, was the host of a Group of Seven meeting in Naples in 1994, he invited his guests to a gala performance at the newly refurbished San Carlo opera house. Several leaders offered excuses. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton preferred to visit Gore Vidal at his home on the nearby Amalfi coast.
Certainly, if democratically elected presidents and prime ministers really believe, as perhaps they should, that a touch of enlightenment is good for us all, leading by example would be a healthy start. In an ideal world, they would truly enjoy ballet, opera, concerts and museums. If this is too much to ask, they might at least show up for everyone else to take note.
So, on reflection, perhaps "Les Misérables" at Windsor Castle was not such a daft idea. Queen Elizabeth, who must have time on her hands, might be nudged toward something more challenging next time. And Mr. Chirac, who never slows down, might learn to pause for a moment and allow, say, music to speak. After all, politics is always today and now. Art, one likes to think, is eternal.