In 1956, he produced the immensely successful The Dead Sea Scrolls, in which he not only summarised what had been found so far but identified the Qumran community as a Jewish sect called the Essenes and elaborated their beliefs and religious practices, going on to spell out the similarities between them and primitive Christianity. This was bold but harmless. What was far more provocative to the scholarly community was his gaining control of the Copper Scroll, two rolls of metal that the team in Jerusalem could not possibly unfold or read. He scored a great coup in having it successfully cut open in Manchester, arousing the envy of more senior colleagues, and then brought down a storm of protest on his head by offering interpretations of the contents of the scroll which claimed that the Qumran community had venerated a leader who in many ways prefigured what had hitherto been regarded as unique to Jesus – including death by crucifixion. He became embroiled in controversies about the reading of the scrolls which became increasingly heated. Allegro had invested his entire career in the scrolls but found himself in the 1960s treated as an eccentric outcast by the academic community. He became bitter, convinced he was the victim of a Catholic plot. It was then that he convinced himself that he had uncovered the hidden meaning of religion, and especially Christianity, as a drug-induced fertility cult. The whole theory was based on an analysis of the building-blocks of religious language. In Sumerian, U means ‘god’ or ‘seed’, and IA-U means ‘strong water of fecundity’. This, he claimed, was the basis of words as diverse as ‘Zeus’ and ‘Yahweh’. Adding SHU (meaning ‘to save’) to IA-U, Allegro found
I RVING W ARDLE
SLAIN FOR HIS AMBITION
K ENNETH B RANAGH
★By Mark White (Faber & Faber 323pp £17.99)
T HEFIRSTACCOUNT of Kenneth Branagh’s life was his autobiography, Beginning, written at the age of twentyeight. The second, marking its subject’s arrival at the ripe age of forty-five, is the work of a historian of the Kennedy presidency who has ventured outside his usual field to right what he sees as an injustice to the Shakespearian star. That is one way of labelling Branagh. The fact that I could equally have listed him as a film director, actor manager, fundraiser, playwright, screenwriter, premature autobiographer and lead player in a rock band called the Fishmongers suggests one thing that has fired Mark White to speed to his rescue.
‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’. Adding NU, meaning ‘seed’, he found ‘Dionysus’. The U building-block was to be found in biblical words – ‘Elohim’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Elijah’ – and also in the Bacchic cry ‘Eleleu’. These elaborate patterns of largely fanciful semantic relationships formed the bulk of his The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970, which immediately won him notoriety as the man who believed that Jesus’s last words on the cross were a paean of praise to the god of the mushroom. Allegro never recovered. The scholars lambasted the book. The press ridiculed him. He could never expect to be taken seriously again. Gradually his life fell apart, his marriage collapsed, and his attempt to return to the great questions of the scrolls and the origins of Christianity in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Mythin 1979 went largely unnoticed. It was a tragedy for him and for his family. Why did it all go wrong? First, Allegro showed little interest in subjecting his ideas to the scholarly appraisal of more learned, and more staid, colleagues. His thirst for publicity and for money made him too cocksure and too glib. Secondly, he convinced himself that he alone was impartial and objective while his Christian colleagues were biased, untruthful and in a conspiracy against him. It never crossed his mind that he might have been every bit as biased as anyone with his anti-religious zealotry – more so, as he became so immune to academic scrutiny. His daughter has written a very moving memoir which strives hard to rehabilitate her father’s scholarly achievements, but the reader takes away from this biography not so much a renewed respect for Allegro’s brilliance as a profound sadness at its tragic waste.
That thing is the English disease: the impulse to slap down ambition and close ranks against any newcomer trying to join the club. It was fine for Branagh, fresh out of Rada, to achieve overnight fame in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country in 1982. Less than fine when he failed to show proper gratitude to the RSC for placing his feet on its bottom rung; he not only resigned from the outfit but shafted it in his play Tell Me Honestlybefore going off to found a company of his own. As it turned out, the Renaissance Theatre Company was a success, as was the 1989 film of Henry V in which Branagh starred among a cast of leading classical actors whom he had somehow coaxed into the supporting roles. Nobody could say the work was bad. But
Branagh: salad days
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006