How the devil are you all? Anonymous as ever? I hope so. We have some unfinished business from the Comments section of 14th December don’t we?
Some of the points that were put to me were quite interesting. I thought I’d take each of them in turn.
1. The Metaphysicalist/Literalist distinction is a red herring for people who like breaking things down into simplistic categories. Perhaps this last bit is true, it may be a bit simplistic to say that all new plays fall into one or the other. But I think there must be two broadly recognisable tendencies out there, otherwise why would so many people be agreeing to frame the debate in these shared terms? Most recently I have read Aleks Sierz allude to it in his excellent book on Martin Crimp; he bemoans ‘British realism’ and the hostility of most of his critical peers towards work with a more abstract European aesthetic. It’s an interesting starting point for a discussion if nothing else, and therefore of some merit for that alone. But I think it’s a tag that should refer to plays rather than writers. Surely if we’re worth our salt we should be able to encompass both, and more. Being able to select the most appropriate form for one’s content is an important skill, and part of the reason we get paid to do what we do.
But I do agree that perhaps a preoccupation with form misses the most important point, which is that the content should be of standalone value for its originality, no matter how it’s packaged. More on this later.
2. I should maintain my refusal to name plays that annoy me. Well, we’ll see about that. I have to admit that I am still finding my feet with this blog, and testing the water to some extent. My recent reticence was down to having come under pressure from certain quarters in the past to write diplomatically, during my occasional forays into the pages of the Guardian. But I surely flatter myself if I pretend that this blog is anywhere near the same league.
I do remember getting annoyed during David Edgar’s Playing With Fire and Steve Waters' World Music (both of which I otherwise loved – your can pour your scorn into the Comments receptacle below) when they refused to name the BNP and Rwanda respectively as their subjects, and came up with a made-up name. If you give everyone enough information to get what you mean then what’s the point of holding back at all?
I would like to think that readers of blogs do so for the personal opinions of the writer, and that the writers are able to write in a way they wouldn’t elsewhere, free of legal implications and other tricky business. But then, as I noted before, it’s so easy to get a bad reputation in this industry, as the string of Anonymous comments I get will attest. But could saying you don’t like someone else’s play ever affect one’s own career? Surely ultimately we’ll be judged on our work and our work alone? If we were to live or die by what we said about other people then I can think of several highly successful people in this business who shouldn’t by rights be working at all. Maybe I should stop being such a wimp. Presumably you come here to see what I think and if that turns out to be a bit controversial then so much the better, eh? It passes the working day.
3. Plays don’t need to have a point. Hmmm. To be fair to the Commenter I think this was said in relation to the clunking moral messages of Hare and Edgar, though they did ask in the same breath whether plays needed something to say at all. I’d reframe the question: why do you go to the theatre? I can tell you why I don’t go. I don’t pay £15 and give up my evening and run the gauntlet of British weather and public transport and sit in the dark for two hours and risk getting stabbed to death on the way home (where I live anyway) to be told something I knew already. I’ve got better things to spend my time and money on.
There’s a very definite deal about going to the theatre as far as I’m concerned, and I’d sum it up with another question: why are you telling me this? It’s a question I ask of every play I read or see, or indeed write. Why have you taken the trouble to spend 6 to 12 months of your life telling this story? Why do you think it deserves thousands and thousands of pounds of public money to be staged? Why should hundreds of people pay further money and trek through the dark to see it? The pay-off would have to be pretty special.
And that’s the clincher for me. You’re not writing a novel where you have a one-to-one relationship with an indulgent reader, where the literary form is the end product, which will tolerate all manner of flights of fancy, and where a private profit-making publishing house will foot the bill to produce it. No. If you’re working in the subsidised theatre sector, the entire country is paying you. Why? I would argue that what we’re paying for is an individual writer’s quality of mind. I think that involves a duty to go away and investigate and give considered time for original thought to subjects of importance to us all. Or at least, a sizeable chunk of us. This for me is ‘the point’. It doesn’t have to result in clunking moral message, but I do expect at least a kernel of originality; some aspect of humanity I hadn’t considered before, some phenomenon or area of human experience I didn’t know went on, or hadn’t seen in that way before. Plays that lack this, for me at least, lack any reason to go and see them.
True, a large part of the problem is in what gets commissioned, and I’ve written at length about that elsewhere. But what I didn’t say in that piece was that in a time of threatened funding cuts we writers, as the progenitors of the stock of new theatrical stories, need to raise our game too. No-one owes us a living. Vanity-plays about ‘me and my mates’ or ‘me and my love affairs’ have their days numbered if we are going to continue to convince the ordinary taxpayer to fund our activities. I see theatre as having a social role to play in that it should examine issues of collective importance. But that seems to make a lot of people very angry when I say that, and I’ve never been sure why. Maybe you can tell me.
4. One of the plays under discussion failed because the playwright was blinded by political anger at the expense of her drama. Interesting. I think I would agree. I once went to see Pinter at the National read his anti-war poems during the build up to Iraq and was gobsmacked at how crass they were. The man was absolutely blinded by rage to the point where he wasn’t capable of anything other than the literary equivalent of a howl. This is understandable given the circumstances, I have written similar howls after relationship break-ups and the like, but you don’t show it anybody. I think poor Pinter was suckered by a newspaper editor who had told him ‘I’ll print anything you write’. And he did. Write anything. And they printed it. I suppose when you get to his level, or Caryl Churchill’s (oops) it doesn’t really matter. Everyone will admire your beautifully woven birthday suit. But it is galling when you know that writers like me or you couldn’t get away with it.
5. Writers should support each other and, by implication, this entails being less critical of each other’s work than a non-writer might be. This might be true when we’re looking over each other’s work in certain contexts, such as script development or rehearsed readings, because the vision isn’t yet realised and the point of those exercises is to help it along the way until it’s the best it can be. Perhaps we should be a bit more friendly to work that’s been developed under certain budgetary restraints too, such as fringe shows. But once its in full production at a subsidised venue and been through a development process I think the gloves are off. I’d certainly want to know if I was writing drivel, and as the next point says:
6. If we pussyfoot around and fail to criticise inferior quality work then mediocrity becomes the norm, which ultimately drives away audiences. I couldn’t agree more. There’s an extraordinary amount of politeness that surrounds peer responses to new work (less so in the press of course, but then, rightly or wrongly, that’s why they’re there). Maybe the Anonymous comments box is the way forward. During developmental readings I’ve had of my work, the responses in the after-show discussion have been all warm and fluffy and ultimately unhelpful. But stick an anonymous comments sheet on people’s chairs and you get all sorts back.
The most honest audiences of course, are children, especially teenagers. If they don’t like it they’ll shout and throw things at the stage. The last adult audiences to do that lived 400 years ago. That was Shakespeare’s only “development process” and look how it turned out. A lesson for us all.
7. The New Statesman magazine has become crap. I agree. I’m thinking of not renewing my current subscription. But I will miss it. Does anyone have any suggestions for a replacement leftie political weekly?
8. We should be generous when criticising others’ work because someone has put a lot of time into it. Well this isn’t very helpful is it? By that rationale we’d never be allowed to criticise anything. All creative endeavours take time. Ah, but I hear you say – be generous not uncritical. I’m afraid I’ve never been very good at that when it comes to theatre. Scripts in development, yes. They are there to be improved with constructive criticism. Plays in full production – what’s left to be improved? It’s too late by then, and I just can’t see past the thousands of pounds of public money that’s been wasted, and respond accordingly.
9. Sometimes you can only tell a play doesn’t work when it opens, and then its too late to do anything about it, so we may as well be nice about it. Again, I’m not sure this is true. There’s plenty of ways of telling if a script works before it gets to a full production, and even if something only comes to light in front of a full audience then that’s what previews are for, and any writer worth their money will attend every single one and make tweaks. If the problem is too big to be sorted by that stage then someone along the line hasn’t done their job properly, so it’s hard to sympathise if they then get it in the neck.
10. An honest, but generous response is more useful than one that papers over what you think. ‘Useful’ to what end? It certainly wouldn’t be useful in raising the overall quality of our theatrical output. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being generous where generosity is deserved. I admired many shows which got panned – Tim Supple’s adaptation of Midnight’s Children springs to mind – because for all their failings I could tell they were grasping at something huge and important and unique. But it’s hard to be generous when so many shows simply seem to be so impoverished in their quality of mind. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here; we need to train our new writers to be original thinkers alongside teaching them the craft of playwrighting. It’s a unique job in the modern world in that it’s the nearest we have (in this country at least) to fully paid up philosophers. It’s not enough just to write well-made plays. I want to be intellectually stimulated too. These aren’t mutually exclusive, nor does their combination result in dry work. It’s a question of stretching fledgling writers by giving them access to others who will broaden their horizons; communities beyond their own, social theorists, academics, scientists, theologians, leaders in their fields.
I go to the theatre to see original thought about the world around me skilfully mounted in an enlightened dramatic form. What other reason is there?