Saturday 10 November 2007

Our theatre, right or left

For some reason, someone has felt the inexplicable urge to ask “why are there no right-wing plays?” again. As if it hadn’t been adequately addressed in March here, here, here, here, here, here, etc. [I'll add some more when I have more time].

It is striking that this question seems to be asked most often and most loudly by those who have no apparent background in theatre. There are three possible explanations for this. Those of us who actually do work in and around theatre are such tools of a left-liberal - or even further left - consensus that they are a) happy with this apparently liberal-consensus-centric status quo, or b) so soaked in their ideological stance that they do not realise that it is the case. Alternatively, c), those who work in theatre, or as its attendant critics, tend to see enough to convince them that there is in actual fact quite a spread of work being staged. After all, Quentin Letts, Charles Spencer and Lloyd Evans, as the three most prominent non-leftie critics, do grumble from time to time about how much writing seems to be of the left - but none of them, to my knowledge, has ever said there are 'no "right-wing plays"'.

Obviously, since Rayner’s blog is a partial take on his Observer piece, it is difficult as yet to engage fully with his queries and qualms. But since this question has been raised a million times before, it should be pretty easy to trot through the available positions.

Firstly - to define terms - what do we mean by “a right-wing play”? Christopher Campbell, the Literary Assistant of the National Theatre is very interesting on this point: “When Nicolas Hytner made his comment about wanting a ‘good, mischievous right-wing play’, we were suddenly inundated with plays arguing that Hitler was right.” he says. I’m assuming that this is not the sort of right-wing play that anyone (well, hardly anyone) wants to see.

So we are talking about plays which effectively advance, endorse, or at least do not attack mainstream “right-wing” positions, yes? Or is there a wider question at work? If, once a Conservative knows a particular playwright is left-leaning in his or her personal life, will that colour their conception of their work? For a play to satisfy the criteria, does it actually need to be written by someone who actually votes Tory?

Another pressing issue is: which element of the right-wing are these plays to advance? Currently the spread of values among just the Conservative Party and its published commentators, let alone its grassroots support base and life-long non-party-member voters, ranges hugely from Neo-Cons, Libertarians and Free-Market fundamentalists to paternalists, patricians, old-school (and old-school-tie) social conservatives, and every possible stripe and combination in between. The gulf between David Cameron and Norman Tebbit, or between Michael Gove and Simon Heffer, or between Peter Hitchens and Peter Whittle, rather suggests that if this putative right-wing play were to be devised by committee, it would be a conflicted, confused beast indeed. In much the same way, many so-called “left-leaning” plays are attacked just as vociferously from the left as they are from the right: which hardly points to a “liberal consensus”. So why pretend that there is a single entity that is “the right-wing play” that is not being produced? There are a lot of writers I know who while privately left-wing or centrist in their outlook would be mortified to be told that they had created a “left-wing play”.

And are all the plays currently being produced really left-wing? Looking at the irritatingly scant number of plays I’ve seen in the past week or so: there was Joe Guy - Roy Williams’s morality tale about a British-Ghanaian footballer; Present Laughter - Noel Coward’s amoral-but-conservative light comedy; Casanova - an historic, semi-sexualised romp; Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s intellectually demanding chamber epic about particle physics and the invention of the atom bomb, and on Monday I’m catching up with Ramin Gray’s Royal Court production of The Arsonists - Max Frisch’s tale of how a well-meaning middle-class couple take in a pair of lodgers who turn out to be terrorists plotting their destruction - a play that Gray has explicitly talked about in terms of containing a clear critique of Islamism and Britain’s role in the War on Terror.

Now, call me blinkered, but I’m not seeing all that much to upset a middle of the road Tory in there. Perhaps some at the more Mary Whitehouse end of things may find the humorous, unapologetic promiscuity of Casanova a bit much. However, because of the company’s impeccably concerned and feminist ethics, the way that this sexuality is handled makes it totally appropriate, if potentially baffling, viewing for children.

And this leads to another point. Hundreds of “right-wing” positions find analogous positions on the left. For every anti-globalisation protestor moaning about McDonald's, there will be some Home Counties Tory bemoaning the vulgarisation of his/her local high street. Each conservative Church-going objector to an increasingly sexualised culture will have an opposite number in the feminist-intellectual camp. Every Marxist writing off the church as a superstitious opiate of the masses will have a cool-headed Richard Dawkins-type rationalist agreeing whole-heartedly. These culture wars are being fought on deeply asymmetric territory. There is perhaps an impression given by the right wing press that “British Theatre” is left-leaning, precisely because it employs such as range of voices that at least one will find something to object to in any given play, leaving an overall impression of a unified front against another unified front, whereas in fact the truth is much more subtle.

As Ian Shuttleworth points out in his comments on the Jay Rayner blog piece, compared to the sixties and seventies, economically there is now hardly any playwright who appears to subscribe to any sort of radical departure from current fiscal policy. And if there are more than a handful, it certainly isn’t being reflected overtly in their work. Indeed, I would argue that in practical terms the old argument that “the right won the economic argument, while the left won the culture wars” seems to offer a far more decisive victory for the right’s victory than that of the left.

At the same time, is it really a triumphalist liberalism to argue that it is a good thing that homophobia, racism and misogyny are now widely understood to be wholly unacceptable? Would a “mischievous right-wing play” be a Richard Littlejohn-penned caper in which comic caricatures of homosexuals and immigrants cavorted with clear criminal intent until brought to book by heroic, stout Englishmen? One suspects not. That said, it is worth remembering, irrespective of how one feels about his columns with their perceived racism and homophobia, that even Richard Littlejohn was good friends with the (gay) Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker (is there no end to this liberal conspiracy?).

So, firstly we should not accept this uninformed prejudice trotted out that the views of the right are uniformly rubbished or ignored on the British stage. When this teacup bothering tempest last blew into town The National was showing Etherege’s Man of Mode - about as right-wing a play as you could wish for on many levels - while the Royal Court was showing Mike Bartlett’s blistering assault on the failure of liberal values in a capitalist society My Child. Now it blows into town again, the National is doing Coward and the Court is doing the Arsonists as a kind of “warning from history” about Islamic fundamentalism. The longest running play in the West End is still The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, who was hardly a Marxist. Andrew Lloyd-Webber - himself a Conservative supporter - still packs out theatres with his musicals, many of which contain at least soft-core messages, which could easily be argued to be pointing rightwards. And increasingly adaptations of Hollywood movies and jukebox musicals fill in other spaces. Of course both Hollywood and pop music are reviled by certain sections of the right - but broadly speaking, such productions, especially in view of their attendant prices and aura of commercialism, put off many more theatregoers with leftist leanings. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, The Finborough has made a point of staging plays by writers with contentious political stances, such as David Irving’s friend Rolf Hochhuth.

But of course there is an elephant in the room here. While it is possible to make a case that there are in fact plenty of “right-wing plays” and many others which, through seeking to have no political position whatsoever, could be equally enjoyed by right- and left-leaning audiences alike; the fact remains that a seemingly vast proportion of those who work in theatre in some way self-identify as “leftish”. Sure many of these claims wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. And there is also what feels like a growing tendency for increasing numbers of actors to be quite Tory nowadays. But at the same time, that also leaves a lot of left-wingers of various types working in and around British theatre. In much the same way that, I suspect, there are an awful lot more Conservative voters working in investment banks. The question is, does this mean that there is the potential situation where plays which propound right-wing ideals get binned, shelved, censored and vetoed? Is there a conspiracy of left-leaning artistic directors, directors and writers that ensures that no right wing play ever makes it to stage? Well, quite aside from the previously discussed examples - I think the honest answer is that it varies wildly.

I don’t think for a moment that Lisa Goldman the artistic director of the Soho Theatre - and formerly artistic director of the Red Room Theatre company (a company whose name was quite deliberate in its implied associations) - will ever stage one, for example. Her political acumen does however appear to be limited enough to let all sorts of apparently non left-consensus arguments be made on her stage, provided they are made by the right sorts of minority - not so much in the case of Joe Guy - which has its moments - but certainly the summer’s Deafinitely Theatre show made a lengthy argument for deaf separatism which would put it right at odds with anyone with any sort of “inclusion” agenda, for example.

On the other hand, Dominic Cooke (like Ian Rickson before him) and Nicholas Hytner both seem quite comfortable with accommodating and representing a plurality of views on their stages. Is Nicholas Hytner even left wing? We don’t know. Apparently when Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll was discussed at the Royal Court, there were some furious arguments made against it, and against allowing its conservative writer a platform in a theatre that used to be regarded as a preserve of the left (especially by one particular female left-wing playwright). However, the play was staged. And no one actually did resign over it. And it did good business both at the Court, where it sold out its run, and in the West End.

It is fascinating that while many are inveighing against a preponderance of leftist plays in the theatre, many of those of the left - commentators, theatre-practioners, critics and, uh, Bidisha - view theatre as conservative, Conservative, reactionary and all manner of other tropes considered right-wing by such accusers.

Without wishing to bandy platitudes or get all Panglossian about it, this tentatively suggests a potentially healthy state of affairs. Being accused from all sides of being against whatever it is that the accuser would rather you were for, particularly when the accusation is spread so widely across the political and artistic spectrum, rather suggests that there is some even-handedness at play. More heartening, though, is the fact that anyone cares enough to be making the accusations. As long as there remains a fierce battle for theatre’s soul, at the very least it suggests that there is a soul there that is worth fighting for. And the battles themselves, both the political battle and the attendant artistic one, create an air of vital urgency on which the artform itself thrives.

In other news: Anyone who cares at all about theatre should read Chris Goode's new essay on the relationship of mainstream theatre to experimental work prompted by the announcement of Dominic Cooke's forthcoming programme at the Royal Court, of which Andrew Field offers a more upbeat assessment.

There should also shortly be reviews from me of Told By An Idiot's Casanova and the excellent revival of Copenhagen at the Tabard Theatre, along with a review of Michael Billington's State of the Nation and, oh, I dunno, some more bloggy stuff, I expect.


Anonymous said...

Reading your comments here after a few hours of percolating Chris Goode's latest essay has me groping towards a social and cultural theory of everything. At the moment it's nebulous, but I'll give it a go...

Perhaps (it's all perhaps) one factor that we should take into account is that notions of the centre have shifted, and shifted to the right: (alleged) absence of right-wing plays does not mean preponderance of left-wing plays.

To some extent this is covered by the notion of consensus, but in another way this seems to be precisely what left and right tend to have it in for: liberalism, pluralism, consensus arrived at through conversation.

Again, nothing new there, but when it's applied to culture it may make fresh sense of general criticisms of work and arguments as wishy-washy, timid, lacking in vigour. What these criticisms mean is that a view is prepared to listen, think and develop, always, without ever imagining to have arrived. In that respect, what's being yearned for in "right-wing plays" is a firm stance, or as I'd prefer to put it a pretence to have the answers. What left and right alike value is ideological testosterone: thinking that has muscle rather than, paradoxically, thought.

But pluralism is not relativism, not atomisation. This is what I've started to consider with regard to Chris's piece: the possibility that maybe in one respect the artistic-cultural conservatism he and others perceive as being so tenaciously rearguarded by Michael Billington and others is a surrogate, or a consolation, for a social-cultural conservatism, and that the atomisation of modes of creation, presentation and perception is perceived on some subconscious level as analogous to the atomisation, or at least the increasing fractal subdivision, of our society as a whole in a globalised, polyglot, multicultural era.

And this is the point in the argument at which I have to conquer my fear of finding myself overtly conservative.

Because if I try to re-apply this argument back the other way...

I don't fear the loss of a culture that I think of as mine, or as ours, or indigenous, or properly national, or whatever, in such a life. But - really, I shudder to find myself saying the same things Blunkett has said - it seems to me not unreasonable, and indeed pragmatically essential, that a lingua franca be available to a certain degree and level, and by available I mean required. And here the pedant in me is muttering about calling English a lingua franca in an attempt to drown out the realisation that I've just said immigrants should be required to attain a certain level of English. BUT WAIT...

Because it seems to me that, as it's not possible to communicate adequately beyond a certain affinity group unless a common linguistic framework is used, the same is true of art, and in the case at hand, theatre. (This, for instance, is one reason why so much conceptual art is up itself.)

The next sentence is incredibly tortuous, sorry...

I have shadows of worry that thought such as some of what I perceive in Chris's piece, thought of the atomisation of performance relationships, of working on the relationship of the work to the audient, singular, rather than the audience as a distinct and more powerful entity than all its members put together... I have worry that this is analogous to the social position, and that beyond a localised constituency what may happen is that an audience admires and delights in the shapes and sounds of a work but not is content.

And that gets close to the quote of Michael Billington's about the likes of ...Red Death that's getting so many hackles up, to the effect that it's no substitute for the real thing.

And so in this respect I find myself a cultural conservative.

You can, if you like, filter it through the current buzz-concept of liveness. It seems to me that communality is a crucial component of liveness - that in order to gauge something as live we require a referent outside ourselves as individuals, otherwise it's a solipsistic experience. And as I've said on Chris's blog, that element of the experience (the gesamt-experience, if you like, God help us) applies even in a context such as the Punchdrunk work where the momentary encounter may be entirely one-to-one.

So (desperate attempt to draw these threads together, and disentangle them, burning the metaphor at both ends): it seems to me that the "not enough right-wing plays" barkers and, potentially, the enthusiasts for new performance modes and territories are - as you say, Andrew - manifesting dissatisfaction with the same thing: a consensual centre, be it of form or content. And it seems to me that such a centre is something that doesn't need to be apologised for - more, that needs to be championed because in its absence the whole fucking structure will implode.

I think. Maybe.

Did any of that work?

Alison Croggon said...

Hmmm - not enough time to address all this in any reasonable way. But I did read Chris as objecting primarily to the idea that "content" can only be authored, or authorised, by writers, or more specifically by A Writer, a stance which seems pretty unarguable to me. I've seen quite a lot of substantial work that doesn't have a writer, as such. (Ariane Mnouchkine's Les Dernier Caravanserail as one example - one of the few she did without Cixous - hugely attacked by Robert Brustein for that reason, and I think very mistakenly).

Nor am I certain that he is about atomising audiences. The fact remains that even in a singularly Authored play, the audience is made up of a bunch of individuals, each of which is going to have his/her individual experience. And as any post-performance converstion reveals, these can vary so wildly even when you're sitting right next to that person you're disagreeing with, that it seems rather nonsensical to speak of a singular audience experience.

Alison Croggon said...

PS I loathe the brute division of artworks into "right" and "left" so much I really don't have anything to say about it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree that that's Chris's primary drive, but I think that along the way his remarks about treating an audience (or not) as an "undifferentiated mass" implicitly set up a fictitious binary opposition similar in structure to the one that so depressed him in Billington's argument. And I think you might be doing the same, Alison, when you say that "it seems rather nonsensical to speak of a singular audience experience." Certainly it seems nonsensical to speak of that alone, but I'm not doing that. I'm saying that a collective experience - which, notwithstanding that there may only be one such, is not quite the same as a singular experience (though it's a nice distinction) - has to be the primary mode in which a live piece performed to a plurality of people works, and has also to be the primary consideration in creation. Again, it simply seems axiomatic to me that if you intend a work to convey anything - be it political argument, sensory experience, whatever - then you must have a collective "the audience" in mind; otherwise, all you're doing is deciding to create a piece of work, without any further specific intentions as to perceived form or content.

I don't go along with rejection of the terminology of left and right - it seems to me to be of a piece with end-of-history-type positions, which are themselves products of the dominant ideology of the moment in question (which happens, in that case, to be of the right). But if it helps, we might consider using them instead as descriptions of modes of argument rather than content: thus, a left-wing play would work along consensual, collaborative, communicative lines, a right-wing play along declamatory, disseminative ones, regardless of what the "message" was in each case. Cf. John Carpenter's distinction between "left-wing" and "right-wing" horror movies, "left-wing" being that kind in which the monsters are to all intents and purposes us, or are indistinguishable from us until it's too late, as opposed to "right-wing" in which they are distinctively Other. Thus, for instance, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers in its various forms is left-wing horror even though the first movie version was a rabidly paranoid anti-Commie tract; conversely, although Carpenter is a card-carrying Republican, most of his movies such as The Thing, Prince Of Darkness and They Live work in a "left-wing" way. And in that respect, the "muscular" plays of my previous comment, whether socialistic or individualistic in ideology, are alike "right-wing" in the way they work as theatre. Which means that there are even more of the bleeders around :-)

Anonymous said...

I think it's because theatre tends to be concerned with failure of one kind or another and right-wing people have no truck with failure.

Unknown said...

Just to say that I've tried to reply to Ian's comments about individual vs. collective experience as constituted in the artist/audience relationship over at my place.

I think a bit of flakiness in my original post is probably at fault for having given a slightly misleading impression of my actual perspective on this: which is, simply put, that the communal experience within theatre is immensely valuable, but that it has to be activated by the event itself rather than being assumed to be inherent.

In other words, the same point that I make about liveness, specificity, risk, "the magic of theatre" and all stations to Amersham. xx

Alison Croggon said...

Binaries are being scattered everywhere! No, I am not arguing at all against communal experience: I am saying that the communal experience is made of a whole bunch of individual experiences, and to forget that (as marketers tend to) is to forget something crucial about what a communal experience is and to begin to second-guess in a way that ends up with work that on the whole I find deeply depressing. ("Our audience expects...our audience wants...)

I've seen collectively made work that is extremely focused (Dood Paard, Theatre Du Soleil), and singularly authored work that is all over the shop (names suppressed to keep me out of trouble). And vice versa. Maybe I mostly agree with Chris in his call for rigor, only I'd apply it to all kinds of theatre.

Linking form and process to ideology has imho whiskers all over it. Such linkings may be generally true in one context, but in another wildly misleading.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I posted a great, articulate and nuanced distinction between "collective" and "communal" responses here - reneging on my own use of "collective" in the process - then alluded to it on Chris's blog, only to find that my browser never delivered the bleeder! Let me try to reconstruct:

I know it can look precious and pedantic to go back to etymology, but I think in this case it's a help. A collective response, is something collected, lit. laid together: something composed of other things, those being the individual responses. A communal response is something held in common, one thing held by many hands - is, here, the response, singular, of the superbeing Audience of which we are members... members with some subsequent autonomy, but at this point members, limbs, under the command of common impulses.

No, it was better first time round.

Anonymous said...

I think you make a nuanced, textured and strong response Andrew.

Incidentally, I read some articles by Peter Whittle and was very interested in what he said, about the need for the ‘liberal left group-think’ of the arts world to be challenged. I agree with this, because I hate some of the complacencies and assumptions that I see around the theatre and other art forms. So I spent some time on the New Culture Forum and watched a few of the TV discussion shows on there that he hosts, and some of the debate was dire. All that there seemed to be was a replication of the same kind of dogmatic criticism of works on the basis of how far they cleaved to an imagined (and at times paranoid) assumption of ideological offence that we see on the more self-parodying side of the Left, or even the more doctrinaire critiques of art proffered by various religious or racial theorists --- ie: it’s not like me or us, therefore it’s wrong.

This whole thing seems to dissipate as quickly as anything else into pitiful pleading. As such, apart from protest and squeals, often from, to put it frankly, individual twits who seemed to be letting off steam rather than truly engaging with the aesthetics or meanings of a work, I could not find any original thought there at all. At best this is a lighthouse, a useful reminder and warning against the lazy thinking that can prevail, but in and of itself it offers as little as any other rigidity and conspiracy minded default.

I remain convinced that an instinctual skepticism, a tender sneer, a fleet-footed and lean suspicion underlying a childlike love of the form is the appropriate mode to approach theatre with in this time of complexity and ideological fuzz. For the culture of theatre, the impulse of theatre and the achievement of the work itself.