Actor, director, and artist Dennis Hopper staged performances of British poet Rudyard Kipling’s “If” throughout his career. In Kipling’s original poem, the voice is that of a father offering prudent advice to the son on how to be a man and remain focused in the grip of conflict. The conflict discussed in Kipling’s poem is an external as well as an internal one. Kipling’s real inspiration for the poem was Sir Leander Starr Jameson, the British colonial politician, and leader of the botched Jameson Raid of December 1895 which intended to trigger an uprising by the primarily British expatriate workers against the South African Republic government of Paul Kruger. The uprising never happened, but the incident was a slow trigger for the Second Boar War of 1899 to 1902.
Hopper’s interpretation of Kipling’s “epic evocation of the British virtues of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and stoicism in the face of adversity” re-imagines the poem as a declaration of creative intent. Hopper’s free and fluid use of the poem, and his own persona of 1960’s hippy radical, strips away the father’s authoritative voice, the iffy colonial overtones, and the stoicism of British virtues and allows the poem to become an artistic manifesto to oneself.
Hopper’s first recital of “If” came in 1971 during the Johnny Cash Show. Before Hopper stepped up to the stage he commented to Cash, and the audience that “‘If’ is the middle word in life.” which offered a different pretext to the performance that many in the audience would have expected. Wearing the counter-cultural uniform of denim jeans, shirt and jacket, matched with a cowboy hat and boots, Hopper performs the poem under a solitary spotlight to the live audience. His reading is measured and calm, tailored towards the mostly middle-class and straight-laced audience of the Johnny Cash Show.
In 1976, Hopper performed a more boisterous version live at The Warehouse in New Orleans as an opening act for Bob Dylan. His reading here is more forceful and wayward, perhaps reflective of the state of mind Hopper was in at the time. His onstage performance is an extension of the photojournalist he played to crazed perfection in Apocalypse Now, which was at the time in production. The lines
you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
are delivered with slow precision, yet Hopper elaborately screams them into the microphone. The audience whoop and cheer him on giving the reading all the feel of a Beat performance, or an early example of slam poetry. Again before the performance of the poem begins, Hopper comments to the audience that “If is the middle word in life in the English language” emphasizing the importance that the poem’s statement is one of seizing the moment in a creative manner, as opposed to an aggressive front.
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