Spotted this in the Guardian this morning:
Europeans fear US attack on Iran as nuclear row intensifies
Now I know I'm usually quite strict about this being a theatre blog, but it's at times like this that I wonder whether I shouldn't have gone into something else entirely.
Just after I graduated (almost a decade ago now) I had a long conversation with a good friend, who had also just completed a Drama degree, about what difference we could possibly make in the world. We went round in circles for a while trying to find examples of when Theatre had had a political impact that History had actually acknowledged, and couldn't come up with very much. My friend was more of an idealist and less of a pessimist than me (and had done a slightly more leftfield degree) and he kept banging on about Augusto Boal and all that grass roots type stuff. That's all well and good; I've read some of his books and admire some of his ideas, but the bottom line is that he achieved more through writing political literature and eventually standing for election than he ever did as a writer or director. I know there are such a thing as 'soft outcomes' and working as I do in education I do value those personal changes in individuals, such as increased confidence in young people, that involvement in theatre can bring about. But when it comes to the big political stuff, I feel powerlss, and more than a little frustrated.
I wondered at the time whether I was just a fresh-faced graduate without the facts at my disposal. But ten years on, five of which I've spent as a playwright, I still struggle to point to a single play or season of plays which Unequivocally Changed Something - such as stopping one country bombing another.
Maybe that's asking too much. Maybe theatre's political effect can only ever be a drip-drip one, carving a small but steady fissure down the cliff face of society's perceptions. There are the cliches: we hold a mirror up, we are one of the few remaining spaces for collective consideration of aspects of ourselves. I value all that, and I acknowledge that this in itself can indeed slowly bring about change in small ways. But when I see headlines like the one above and just feel that sudden yearning that This Isn't Right, and Will The Idiots Never Learn?! then that the next feeling is always I Have To Stop This. But I can't.
I know there are people who have tried. Harold Pinter springs to mind. I've just (belatedly) finished reading Billington's biography of him. Alright, he speaks his mind and has a platform and is taken as seriously a playwright probably ever will be in political circles. And he got kicked out of the US embassy in Turkey, along with Arthur Miller, for asking the ambassador if he'd like to have his bollocks electrocuted. Big up. But what difference did it make in terms of preventing torture in that country?
Could we as theatre-makers make more of a difference if we didn't waste so much energy making theatre? I know that might sound like a stupid question, but think about the amount of time and extraordinary mental effort that goes into writing a play - for me, 3 months or more of full-time research, plus another 3 of full-time original creative thought to make the play (and that's just the first draft, then there's everyone else's efforts to get it to the stage) - and then think about the outcome. It makes me rather depressed. All that work, which stretches me to the very limits of my capabilities, and for what? A round of applause, a few people nodding and going 'Hmm yes, how interesting'? Then going home feeling entertained and mildly better informed. Sometimes this doesn't feel like enough, and I wonder whether this energy couldn't be better spent. If I put in the same level of exertion into, I don't know, working for the UN, or Amnesty, or The Red Cross, or as an investigative journalist - wouldn't the actual net result in terms of lives changed be so much greater?
Obviously, I'm a bit stuck now. To do that stuff I'd have to go and re-train and start over and throw away years spent working towards where I am today. Or is that just an excuse? I could do it if I really wanted to. Maybe not in time to stop America bombing Iran, but there might be plenty of other future events which my efforts could be put towards avoiding, which writing a play about them would never prevent.
But I'm stuck wasting my time with this indulgent middle-class career-hobby. Sometimes I wonder why.