Thursday, 16 January 2014

Genre, ecology and economy

[was going to be a short, then it got longer]

Over at Exeunt, playwright Duncan Gates has published an interesting essay about genre in theatre. Interesting, but with some deep flaws, I would say. Gates’s contention is this:
“theatre[’s] assumption that the consumer is driven by the form, rather than the story, is why anyone ever struggled to sell any art they ever made. It unhelpfully sets theatre up as a genre against other art forms in a ‘fight’ that quite simply it’s not capable of winning because its reach is so much less. 
“To me, the ‘What’s On’ page of most producing theatre buildings or companies reads like a massive piece of horizontal marketing, identifying fans of ‘the genre of theatre’ and targeting them – to the exclusion of those who don’t like the genre.”
Gates’s point of comparison here is film, with its many genres. What Gates unhelpfully fails to note is that the film industry is pretty much just as rubbish at identifying the “genres” that cover most of what we see in theatre. I mean, any industry which has as a category “World Cinema” needs to have a bit of a look at itself, right? Even breaking “World Cinema” down by country or continent is pretty bloody meaningless, unless “Japan” is actually a genre, rather than a country. And a country capable of creating comedies, thrillers, horror films, and some very slow productions of Shakespeare, at that.  Moreover, most of the films that are most like plays, or even ones that originally were plays (interesting discussion under the link from the Chicago Tribune complaining about film reviewers saying “the film exposes the flaws in the play” when they didn’t see the play), get classified as “Drama” anyway. Which is what most (straight) plays that aren’t comedies, tragedies, or art-house, get classified as.

It strikes me that Gates’s wider gripe is really a bemoaning of the loss of other genres in theatre. And, while it might not be a gripe that especially irks me (although I did say in 2008 that I’d like to see more good Sci-Fi plays), it’s certainly a case that can be made. The commercial theatre of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s pretty much existed on a staple of murder mysteries and country house comedies or melodramas. Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders and Downton Abbey on revolve, I imagine. And there’s not so much harm in wanting bit more variety, maybe a bit more lightness, maybe some more genre-stuff and lightness. Probably. I guess.

There’s an interesting bit in Michael Blakemore’s Stage Blood where he’s talking about Peter Hall’s plans to simply play Pinter’s No Man’s Land in the NT at the Old Vic for one booking period only and then transfer it straight to the West End. Blakemore is aghast, noting that under Olivier, because of the rep company, a production that was doing well could extend indefinitely before transferring to the West End:

“My mind was racing. If the author of a new play knew that by giving his script to the National Theatre... if it succeeded it would move in no time to the West End, why would he be offering his play to anyone but the National Theatre? Would the West End now wither away? Or be forced to become something else – a purveyor of down-market entertainment.”

Writing with the benefit of forty-odd years hindsight, Blakemore’s prophetic soul (assuming you agree with his analysis of the current West End) might be taken with a pinch of salt. Although, Sir Peter Hall’s West-End-only production of Simon Gray’s Japes in 2001 remains one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life, upmarket or otherwise. But, cheating at prophecy or not, it’s a startling paragraph just because it is so much now the status quo (ok, add in the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Chichester Festival Theatre, and the private Menier Chocolate Factory and you’ve got a clearer view of the last decade, but...). No one blinks twice at the automatic West End transfer of anything successful that will sell. And sell at vastly inflated prices. And for the personal enrichment of a few individuals, as well as the NT itself.

By coincidence, a piece from August 2012 by Lyn Gardner has been being re-circulating recently on Facebook and Twitter. It is garishly titled: Why major theatre institutions should be left to die – which isn’t really what it argues – but it does wonder if Arts Funding might be better spent at a more grassroots level. It’s an interesting question, sharpened, perhaps, by the fact of one West End Theatre being in such a state of disrepair that its ceiling fell down on the people watching (the National Theatre-generated) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

At the same time, the government has just announced an inquiry into the work of the Arts Council (England), reported by The Stage as an investigation into London funding bias as a follow-up to the “rebalancing our cultural capital” report last year.

The problem with this government having anything to do with public spending is its comprehensive failure to grasp that money can be spent on things other than subsidising tax cuts for the enormously wealthy, and making Britain a nicer place for the enormously wealthy to live. The idea that Britain is something in which the conservative Party might invest seems an anathema, even while it sees Germany consistently beat us in every available measure of civilisation, and fails to understand it’s because they spend on education and culture.

If I thought for one moment that the Tory solution was going to be anything other than cutting funding, I’d totally support it. As it is, I suspect the “rebalancing” will just involve chopping off a lot of London funding to make things “more equal”. Yes, under a progressive, left-wing government, or even one that just understood arts funding, this would be an important and useful exercise. Conducted by the current lot, it will only result in yet more vandalism, and probably selling off the fucking NT to property developers, as if it was theirs to sell. Like the Royal Mail. (If you want an excellent summary of how the Tories deal with public assets Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece on North Sea oil from the Guardian two days ago should probably tell you everything you need to know).

Which brings us back to Peter Hall, Michael Blakemore and then to Duncan. Thanks to Peter Hall, we do have a slightly funny situation with the National, and one which has been continued under Nicholas Hytner. That funny situation is: the National has a lot of resources, and it can use those resources to create shows which do incredibly well, and transfer not only to the West End, but to Broadway and even to the boulevard theatres of West Berlin. I should say, I don’t have any particular personal animus against War Horse. Indeed, I liked it very much when I saw it, but I also think War Horse is atypical. Certainly the version of its making that has passed into legend is that everyone was terrified before previews (even during) that is was going to bomb horrifically. And it was made by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot. And used “alternative theatre” techniques from Morris’s old BAC days (indeed, Morris’s move to the NT and transfer of all that old BAC learning could be seen to be the point where it was proved that “form” is in no way actually “political” at all...). But, similar successes seem more deliberate: One Man, Two Guvnors; The History Boys; Curious Incident...

And, in the rubric we’ve come to accept about theatre, these have tended to be trumpeted as massive successes, vindications of public funding of the arts, and proof of the popularity of theatre. And, in many, many ways, I don’t think I’d especially dispute that. But I’d also argue that none of them have anything whatsoever to do with art. And I think the biggest argument now facing British Theatre is about Art versus Entertainment.

I think Duncan’s article essentially calls for much more entertainment-based theatre. He doesn’t, for example, talk about the cinema or Lars von Trier, Jean-Luc Godard or Tarkovsky (go on, what “genre” are they?). He just talks about different sorts of films that should be grouped together under “entertainment”.
Britain has an intensely conflicted relationship with Art vs Entertainment. We’re pretty much taught to hate, fear and mistrust art. And the one defence usually left open to theatre-makers is that they’re being entertaining. But this plays right into the hands of those who would seek to cut funding to the arts. If it *can* pay for itself (largely by turning out to be entertaining), then it doesn’t need funding. If it can’t, then: well, look at all that stuff that can – this just clearly isn’t very good. Seems to be their circular argument.

Now is probably a bad time to propose anything – given that Britain is hurtling backwards into the middle ages, and we’ll be lucky to emerge from the next general election with anything left of modern Britain to save – but if we ever do get a left-wing government and proper arts funding to continental levels, I think we might need to go right back to the drawing board and work out what that funding really should be used for.

Arts Council money for *art*, not entertainment, I might provocatively suggest.

1 comment:

Tim Wood said...

Not to argue the main point, but parts of the movie industry are mind-boggling amazing at identifying genre -- see Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic on Netflix and their 76,987 micro-genres