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A Cowardly lesson

By Clas Zilliacus

Last October, a meeting at the Finnish Institute discussed the relationship between public opinion and the arts. I was there on a panel and I was absolutely certain that there was a connection between the two, but I was not and am still not up to putting my finger on it. I would have loved to, if only out of sheer respect for the worldly-wise acumen of Noel Coward. In my book, he is one of the more underrated luminaries of the British theatre.

What I am referring to is an observation by Coward on acting which is easily transferable to politics. Coward’s three golden rules for an actor, I seem to remember, run as follows: "Don’t forget your lines, don’t stand in front of the lead, and don’t upset the furniture." Neither Aristotle nor Stanislavsky ever gave the precept greater cogency.

I may have furtively altered the Coward triad to suit my purpose, which is to translate it, retrospectively, into a survival manual for Finland in the Cold War. The common denominator of politics and histrionics, obviously, is that of the performing arts.

Don’t forget your lines, i.e. use your brains to learn the liturgy by heart, there is nothing personal about it. Don’t stand in front of the lead, i.e. see to it that he feels like a star and he may not notice that you’re just acting. And don’t upset the furniture: history shows that you will be liable for reparations.

There is nothing cowardly about using your wits, or someone else’s wit.

Clas Zilliacus is Professor of Literature at the Åbo Akademi University.

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