Wednesday, 2 January 2008
New year / old debate
Yes, I know it’s been a while. I’ve finally [mostly] got round to posting the ream of reviews from the end of last year - . After seeing those shows, the final week before Christmas got rather chewed up by the threatened Arts Council funding cuts, particularly those to NSDF, combined with an increasingly lethal round of Christmas drinks parties. And then everything stopped. The conversation around theatre seemed to take to its bed and nothing could be done to rouse it for the remainder of the holiday season. As a result, I’ve actually watched some TV and read a few books. Strange to think that there are ways of entertaining oneself that don’t involve leaving the house - or that books needn’t be read solely on public transport.
As if to demonstrate the palpable lack of a new issue to discuss, Dominic Cavendish at the Telegraph has reheated the corpse of “Where are all the right wing plays?” You’ll be pleased to hear that I really can’t be bothered to rehearse those arguments again (or again, or again). Instead, let’s think about trying to move this discussion forward - or at least onto some new territory.
Cavendish’s article is a good starting point for a discussion of the elusive/putative Right Wing Play as it is written without rancour or sneering (unlike some such articles). It does seem to be genuinely interested in finding out what such a thing might be like.
Perhaps the most helpful starting point comes from the artistic director of the Soho Theatre, Lisa Goldman, however. She makes the following startling series of claims and accusations:
“At Soho I am looking for work that flies in the face of received wisdoms. I don’t programme work because I ideologically “agree” with it – sometimes far from it. I programme work that I find provocative and artistically innovative. Yes, most of this work comes from – broadly speaking – the radical Left, but I think that’s because most great art has a rebel heart, a restless search for change. What would a Right-wing play have to offer? Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home? How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place? In my view what theatre needs is not more Right-wing plays but better Left-wing ones.”
What a depressing roll-call of nonsense. It is tempting to rip it apart line by line, but since that would be no fun to read I’ll resist, and will try to avoid making catty comments about the Soho’s utter lack of anything even faintly resembling an artistic policy as it increasingly becomes a receiving house for, well, whatever’s around really, at the same time.
There are two main planks to Goldman’s reductive thesis. The first is that work from “the radical Left” is “provocative and artistically innovative”, which she attributes to her view that “most great art has a rebel heart, a restless search for change”.
This all smacks of someone seriously failing to recognise the extent to which their own prejudices inform their thinking. The most interesting claim is her association of “left” with “rebel”. This is simple sloganeering. Moreover, it is built on some pretty shaky thinking. After all, there is very little about the structures and aims of the left that encourage rebellion (at least no beyond an initial revolution). The left, as I understand it (and, ok, there’s some slightly broad-brush portraiture going on here), is interested in fostering *communities*. Think of the utter disgust at Thatcher’s claim that there was “no such thing as society”. It is about everyone helping each other - at least in the eyes of the left - yes? Hardly the same as everyone being a rebel. If you’re aiming at a society of which you want to be a part, why would one be a rebel?
The problem is, Goldman has bought into that confusing 1950s mythology of The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, which has left an indelible mark on subsequent cultural representations of political positions. And it is a mark which curiously few seem to have tackled since. The central difficulty is that these original rebels were railing against a conservative, straight-laced middle America (or England). However, their mode of rebellion was straight-forwardly individualistic. So there’s a paradox. There’s also the issue that everyone now seems to want to buy into this myth of being the lone rebel. Goldman’s “rebel heart” is reminiscent of everything from the romantic view of lone writers knocking out their angry young plays (John Osbourne is an excellent illustration of the paradox, since he was both rebellious and reactionary) through to, oh, Tom Cruise’s “maverick” behaviour in Top Gun (often cited as one of the most right-wing films ever made). It is worth remembering that George W. Bush’s vision of America is still of a lone cowboy riding into town in the face of insuperable odds (the rest of the world, pretty much: Old Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, the Middle East etc.). And by the same token, elements of the left frequently characterise America’s behaviour as Empire-building or imperial. It’s like global politics reduced to everyone in the schoolyard arguing about who gets to be Luke Skywalker.
The second interesting plank of her argument is how she chooses to characterise the right: “Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home?”
Certainly all these viewpoints have been espoused by one or more right-wingers at some point in history. I refuse to believe that none of them have ever similarly been held by those on the left. Are all right wingers automatically anti-democratic, misogynist bigots? I think not.
At this point in the argument, left wingers and right wingers alike usually start putting distance between themselves and others who are supposedly on their side of the political spectrum with whose views they disagree, while unfairly characterising the views of the other side as more extreme and immutable. It is a stupid way of arguing, and one which leads to no understanding of anything. Since the left (well some of it, anyway) prides itself on its tolerance and understanding, it might do well to actually sit down and talk to its political opponents. From this series of claims, it would appear that Goldman has never even actually met a Conservative, or has been remarkably unlucky in those few that she has met.
Her final question - “How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place?” - is an interesting one, but one which a) only describes a particular form of right-wing thinking: for example, Thatcher was more radical and modernising than, well, *conservative*; Bush and the neo-cons are pretty much entirely forward-looking in their foreign policy - not isolationist or laissez faire. Moreover, b) it forgets history - look at, say, Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and the Italian Futurists. All pretty right-wing, as far as I understand it, and yet creating the diametric opposite of old-fashioned work. Although, from what I remember of Lewis’s journal, Blast!, it was indeed still underscored with nostalgic leanings, alongside its radical futurist manifesto. Indeed, Blast might well serve as the most optimistic model for what right wing theatre might look like. Artistically valid, innovative, experimental and yet undoubtedly political.
The best possible outcome for politically informed theatre that we could hope for this year is the cessation of childish, ill-informed attacks like Lisa Goldman’s. Of course political factions will still disagree with one another, but without this fatuous process of claim and counter claim, the arguments may actually go somewhere, and theatre may even be significantly enriched as a result.