Monday 27 November 2023

Shakespeare (in HAMLET) explains the Focolare movement's 'Old Man'

When I met the Focolare Movement in 1967, I was 17 years old and had very clear ambitions: to be a writer and film maker.  I had already written two 70,000-word children's novels and made films using standard 8 equipment, which at the time was difficult and very expensive, unlike today with all the digital possibilities readily available.  I had won various writing competitions, including, at age 16, the first prize of a two week trip to Rome in an international essay competition.  At first, in my enthusiasm to become a fulltime member and continue to follow my creative ambitions within the Focolare movement, I did not realise that Focolare members are only lay persons in appearance.  In fact they are required to renounce all personal ambitions and talents as 'attachments' and instead become available as vessels to be used by the movement, in particular to further the ambitions of the foundress Chiara Lubich - most of which I now see as verging on the megalomaniac.   Within a few months, I was swept away by the love-bombing I was subjected to and had not only shelved my artistic ambitions but destroyed the novels that, with remarkable discipline for a teenager, I had spent months slaving over , and which my mother had spent long hours after work typing up to be sent to publishers.

While I was a member of Focolare, without fully understanding it, I realised that the movement's key to intelligence, culture and creativity was censorship.  I remember one particularly striking example was when I was at Loppiano.  One of the first focolarini, Giorgio Marchetti, but rebaptised by Chiara Lubich as 'Fede', then head of all the male focolarini in the world, was visiting and in the course of a casual conversation with a small group of us solemnly proclaimed, 'Shakespeare was a great expert on the Old Man.'  The term 'Old Man', borrowed from St Paul, was frequently used in Focolare to describe mankind's - or an individual's - negative aspects.  The reference to Shakespeare was, of course disparaging, suggesting that his work was of little value because all he knew about was the bad aspect of humanity.  Probably 'Fede' made the comment as a dig at me, since I was the only English person present. I wasn't really shocked at the time, because it was common for leaders in the movement to dismiss virtually everything in the 'World'.  'World' and even 'human' had a negative sense in focolare-speak. 

 A few days ago I came across a passage, referring to the 1964 Soviet film version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, singling out the 'flute scene' as one of the great director Grigori Kozintsev's finest achievements.  Watching the scene, I realised that 'Fede' was partly right - at least in the sense that Shakespeare 'was a great expert on the "Old Man"' of the Focolare Movement and the focolarini.  You can find the scene in glorious 4K black and white widescreen on Youtube here (I would recommend to all cinephiles that they should watch the whole film) : (

This is the text of the 'flute scene':

Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2: 


          Will you play upon this pipe?

My lord, I cannot.
I pray you.
Believe me, I cannot.
I do beseech you.
I know no touch of it, my lord.
'Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with
your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.
Look you, these are the stops.
But these cannot I command to any utterance of
harmony; I have not the skill.
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of
me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me. 


Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet and Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Ophelia in Grigori Kozintsev's 1964 film of Shakespeare's Hamlet
For Russian audiences in 1964, Kozintsev's filkm of Shakespeare's  Hamlet, probably the all-time great filmed version of a Shakespeare play, must have made a colossal impact, packed as it is with subtext.  Fortunately, the powers that be in the USSR - as is usually the case for censors - were too dumb to pick up on subtle subtexts, but audiences weren't.  From the start of the film, Elsinore is shown as a prison, its great portcullis falling behind Hamlet as he enters it shortly after the opening credits.  Audiences knew, for example, the torments endured by the composer of the monumental score for the film, Dimitri Shostakovitch, and the translator of the text, Boris Pasternak, under the Soviet authorities.  How relevant this scene was to them: the Soviet powers had tried to 'play' them just as Hamlet believes he is 'played' in this scene. In one sense or another, the whole population was being 'played'. It is worth analysing carefully Hamlet's last speech: the line 'you would/pluck/out the heart of my mystery' is devastating and so true for those who have experienced it - who knows the echoes it must have inspired in the hearts of Shostakovitch and Pasternak.  

But how relevant this scene is also for all those who were internal members of the Focolare movement.  Doesn't it sound familiar? Weren't we 'played' too? Forced to do jobs that we did not choose and that served the needs of the movement?  Forced to marry against our will someone with whom we were not in love?  Forced even to 'convert' from our natural, God-given sexuality?  They tried to do all three to me: seeing my writing abilities, they made me editor of the Focolare magazine New City in the UK; they wanted to 'convert' me from my natural sexuality as a gay man and arrange a heterosexual marriage with who knows who.  Thank God, I managed to escape, and eventually build a happy life as a gay man, succeed as a film director and writer by profession ( So, after all, 'Fede' was right - at least in this case of 'playing people'.  Shakespeare was familiar with at least one form of 'Old Man', one of the many forms practised by the Focolare movement: the attempt to 'play' people as if they were an instrument to be used for the movement's megalomaniac powers.   Fortunately, they did not always succeed. 


No comments:

Post a Comment