Everything whole and good is a reconciliation of the opposites within it. This is the basic human, social, dramatic paradigm. It is the dialectical paradigm. (Thesis, antithesis, synthesis). The failure of this reconciliation in people produces schizophrenia. Its failure in societal terms produces revolution. Its failure culturally produces what I call the evicted. My journey as a writer begins with this reality.
A Culture reflects a unity. Without a unity there is no Culture. Wales is not a unity and so there is nothing that can be called Welsh Culture. It may even be the case that the thing Wales does not exist in any really meaningful sense. Cymru exists while Wales, as the word suggests, describes a strangeness. Those who live in this strangeness are like people without a true home. People on the street. Evictees. People who live in this strangeness don't have the cultural experiences of a people who belong (say to a nation), they have the experiences of the evicted. These are the people I write my plays for and about.
I cannot be a Welshman. This is because, for me, there is nothing I can identify this notion with. In other words, I don't believe in Wales. On the other hand , though I do not belong there, I can believe in Cymru because it is a place that has a unity and an identity around a language. (Where it is is wherever people's first language is Cymraeg). In Wales there is a division of language. The consequence of this is that I am not a Welsh writer (because I do not write in the language the English language calls Welsh and the other sense of being a Welsh writer doesn't, for me, exist).
My background is urban working-class and so I have a natural cultural identity
with working-class people in other nations, but within my own "nation"
(this thing called Wales) that identity is with the working-class people of
Cardiff, where I was born. I am, like them, an evictee. This is because Cardiff
is the capital of Wales - which doesn't exist in any meaningful sense, while
to say that Cardiff is the capital of Cymru is certainly a cultural nonsense
if not a serious infringement of the rights of the people who live in Cymru.
It means that Cardiff is the capital of nowhere and must be itself, like people
who live with nowhere to live, evicted.
It may be the case that the working-class of many nations are in some sense evicted but then they would have their own culture. Even this is denied the people of Wales. It is, quite simply, because there is a supposed all-inclusive Welsh Culture! This is the paradox. The supposition causes us to always be talking about it as though it existed; we're always talking about it because it isn't there. Most modern nations are anyway multi-cultural.
Of people who live in this Wales - especially writers - the epithet anglo-welsh is often used. The sub-conscious refutation of any multi-culturalism here is given a cruel and ironic twist. This epithet while apparently recognising diversity, is, in fact grotesquely insulting, conferring, as it does, a second-classness. It is, in a phrase, that unreconciling of opposites I've referred to and proof of its badness. Just consider it:
The word "Welsh" is "English" anyway. A reasonable translation of this phrase might be (speaking, say, of a writer) "one who writes in English in that part of the world known as Wales because the language of the people who live there is English. In other words: those who write in English in an English speaking country." To convey the sense it seems to be wanting to convey, the phrase would need to be Anglo-Cymraeg. This would be meaningless, of course, because in no way could Cymraeg be characterised as English! What it really suggests is that the writer is neither; has no real identity (culturally) and is, therefore, an evictee. This is because the truest thing one might say of, say, me, is that I am an English writer but I'm not English. And so I must be existing as if on the street, shut out from any culture I might expect to belong to.
(In my dreams, Cardiff is the capital of a country which is close federation with Cymru. This country is called Gallia. It makes me a Gallic writer).
Bound out from Cardiff
I've gone into this business of identity to draw attention to where I'm coming from and why my plays are heading out to where they're going.
In a Kaleidoscope interview for BBC Radio 4, which took place on the set of my play Utah Blue at The Point in Cardiff, it was suggested that my writing about Gary Gilmore; writing about America, wasn't writing about Wales. But writing about Gary Gilmore was writing about my condition. And, anyway, as a playwright, where I began an American was bound east for Cardiff!
One of the first plays I read and so one of my earliest influences was Bound East For Cardiff by Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill grew up in hotel rooms and on ships and carried the world in the scents and smells on his clothes, just as a world in all its diversity appeared in his diversifying theatre. This diversity is a sure sign of eviction. But then, O'Neill knew all about not belonging.
People who live in ports look out to sea. Look out to the world. I look out just in this way to find my subjects. And though I've left Cardiff behind I carry the sense of it with me. The sense of it being a home of evictees and also a departure point for the world. In this sense, Casanova in my play Casanova Undone (Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and The White Bear, London) is a Cardiffian, so is Alma the woman known as Wittgenstein's Daughter in the play of that name (Wittgenstein's Daughter - Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and White Bear Theatre Club, London). As was the timeless Regan in Regan (Welsh Tour by Theatr Powys) or The Prince in The Idiot. So is Gary Gilmore in Utah Blue, Gustavo in the fourth world (Theatr Clwyd), Kitty in Long To Rain Over Us, (Leicester Haymarket) the family of Leo in Low People (Leicester Haymarket) and even Paddy in Looking For The World (Sherman Theatre Main Stage) - and to a lesser extent his wife Sylvia - who would blind himself to his condition. And then there is Lola in Lola Brecht (Casataway Theatre Co., National Tour) who suffers an eviction imposed by her husband. Finally, there is Doctor Corkfoot in The Man Who Gave His Foot For Love (Spectacle Theatre Company, Welsh Tour). All are Cardiffians.
In the only play I ever wrote about Cardiff - my first play At The End Of The Bay (Sherman Theatre), everyone is evicted - that theme that embodies my aesthetic philosophy . And in the Saturn Club (where on the wall, a god eats his child), Spargo and Fuse play a pointless endgame (Fuse and Spark) while their world falls apart about them. And so introduce a theme that sets me on my way: stupidity and the self-obsession and myopia that cause it.
Edward Bond has been my mentor. He struggles endlessly against the reaction
in the theatre. When I set out, Bond advised me never to write for a particular
audience. He is right. Audience's have become afraid and look to the theatre
as places of comfort and safety. If writers write for audiences under these
circumstances, they immediately take away one of its fundamental reasons for
being, which is to challenge our safe assumptions and all assumptions of safety.
I don't write for audiences (unless I'm writing for children), I write about
I don't belong to the school of thinking which argues that we are all living in some kind of existential impermanence. I believe that we exist in a condition of almost permanent stupidity that we must struggle always to rise above. We are the subjects of stupidity. In the immediate it is not our fault. There are masters of stupidity. Our politics is a mastery of stupidity. Our politicians are its disciplinarians. Some of these masters of stupidity have found their way into our theatres in controlling positions. This is doubly deplorable as theatre should be in the front line in the fight against this particular of the human condition.
Spargo and Fuse in At The End Of The Bay are subject to decisions made about their world, their Bay, by the disciplinarians of stupidity. Yet, in order to survive they make a go of their own stupidity with pluck, bound to scorn wise counsel because there is no one to say that they are not the wise.
Regan in Regan is different. She wakes at night in a cold sweat. Her
own ghost counsels her: why do people give up so much for so little? As Regan
was being born, Desert Storm was raging in the Gulf. To save the unsaveable
(Kuwait), so many died. Why was so much given up for so little? The world joined
Sysiphus and Bond mounting their mountains endlessly with no apparent success.
There is no apparent success but there is Radical Meaning - the answer to the
small, selfish gains which cost so much. Radical Meaning: Bond on his climb
stops, waits for other climbers and out of his and their related experiences,
creates parables which seek to bring wisdom to the condition.
If a man calls himself Nameless (Regan), he is hiding something. If he comes bearing mottoes to save you in a language you don't understand: nuntius magne societatis (I am the messenger of the Great Society), and calls himself Nameless, he relies on your stupidity and greed for the smallest possible gain with no care for the possible cost. (Though he is obviously the embodiment of everything you should be wary of: he is saviour, con-man, evictor). John Rakestraw is subject to the slave within him (the evictee) and will embrace Nameless rather than solve his problems and confront his slavehood. He has given in to his condition of eviction. (He will even abuse his daughter Regan to prove how cast out he is).
I called Regan Regan after King Lear's daughter.
For me, Regan in Shakespeare's play is moral in the modern sense while, for example, Cordelia is moral in the classical sense. Cordelia is a tragic heroine. Her moral status is determined by this. She does nothing. She simply is. What happens to her happens because of tragic necessity. Regan on the other hand acts in a modern way. Her character does. And what it does is unexpected. This is because it's as if it's the product of a reasoning conscious mind (no matter how unreasonable) and not because of anything deterministic. Regan in my play is trapped, almost, in a tragic drama where an inevitability is always threatening. But because she is not Cordelia, she can act against the trap. Regan (through her ghost) is modern. If I had made Regan Cordelia, my play's resolution - its synthesis - would have been pessimistic instead of optimistic as it is.
the first play I ever loved
The first play I ever loved was Measure For Measure. It is a "problem" play because it is so modern. It is about society. It is about justice. It is about socialism. ("Measure for measure" is almost a mirror image of the socialist creed!) Every play I have ever written owes something to Measure For Measure.
Looking For The World is a modern domestic comedy set within a Greek tragedy. The measures are the opposite. As I have said, everything whole and good is a reconciliation of the opposites within it. Everything that exists subscribes to this dialectical paradigm. Moral activity derives from it. Even in Classical justice which is about retribution rather than finding a balance for the greatest good (which is why Measure For Measure is modern). Oedipus is the good king, bad human being. Justice comes out of the resolution of this conflict. Ancient justice demands that Oedipus blind himself (so that he can no longer look into the eyes of his wife who is his mother). Paddy Milanne is the Trade-Unionist-of-Good-Intention and the man made bad by moral laziness and abominable fascist comfort. He is Cardiffian. Thebes is Cardiff. Oedipus is Cardiffian. Like Oedipus, Paddy passes on into darkness. His wife Sylvia must bleat in the silence. The silence left by his stupidity has evicted their language. (His stupidity has helped determine the tragic outcome of the play).
The Philosophical Barber
Tony Unsworth cuts hair.
Tony Unsworth studied philosophy. One day in the mid-eighties he handed me a book. A biography of the linguistic philosopher Wittgenstein. The book was written by a William Bartley III. It argued (the simplest way to put it) that when Wittgenstein wrote: "whereof one cannot speak one must remain silent" - by which he was referring to matters of morality - he was dismissing, philosophically, from what could be spoken about, his own private morality. Bartley pointed out that Wittgenstein was known to be a homosexual, had hid it, and so, presumably, considered it immoral. Bartley's theme, in effect, was that Wittgenstein's philosophy was constructed to preserve a kind of bourgeois respectability for himself. I quickly felt that this argument could be used to paint a much bigger picture.
I wanted to write about how language (in this case the English language) can be manipulated by the custodians of language (Oxbridge academics in the main) for, ultimately, political reasons and, I felt, the best way to show this in a post modern environment, was to draw a picture of a parallel (metaphorical) conspiracy undertaken for sexual/moral reasons. In this case, the conspiracy surrounding the conception and birth of Alma, known as the daughter of the philosopher Wittgenstein. (My fabrication, of course).
Wittgenstein had written (in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus):
"the correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy " I.e. tautologies like: "A triangle has three sides" in which the sense of the sentence is already contained in its subject. Because, if you like, the sense of truth is not contained in the sense of language. Well this may be OK for the instigators (and manipulators) of ideas, but where does it leave ordinary people whose only authority may be found in the language they speak? If they are not able to argue for truth, how are they to argue against the lies of the powerful? They are evicted.
The issues of Wittgenstein's Daughter are central to my dramatic preoccupations.
Wittgenstein's philosophy is the foundation of Post Modernism
In a note which appears in the published text of Wittgenstein's Daughter I write:
"Post Modernism with its uncertainty is like a minefield. In the play I quote from a newspaper article to show this: "Every value is equal to every other value, nothing is real or natural or authoritative, everything is up for interpretation - goodness, God, literary meaning or merit, artistic or architectural standards, even gender." Alma struggles through this minefield in which philosophical truth is caricatured as lie or in which simple lie masquerades as philosophical truth. Her journey is through a post-holocaust Post Modern landscape in which history seems to mean nothing and values are manipulated by the dead as, perhaps, in a nightmare."
After the fascist propaganda of the thirties and the forties, came the new post-Wittgensteinian philosophy. It declares a function for language which isn't about seeking out truths. This language is only about itself. So all the dying done in the thirties and forties was worth, perhaps, only a tautological sentence: the dead are those who have perished. (Paul de Mann, a French historian, had been a fascist but it was meaningless to say it so he escaped justice in academia). Derrida, the French philosopher, tore apart sentences to see if they contained words! Philosophers danced to the tune: this is the end of philosophy! Fukayama later said we were at the end of history.
Scenes at the end of history:
In my play, Alma has come in search of who she is. She was conceived after the rape of her mother by the boxer Beckett, Wittgenstein's first lover, in order to have it look as though Wittgenstein had fathered the child and therefore, could not be a homosexual. (The stupidity of the situation is that Beckett himself is homosexual!) She discovers this about herself. But her searching has meant that Wittgenstein's Ghost cannot rest. Cannot find that eternal silence. This is because he is the embodiment of unreconciled opposites and her arrival has acted as a catalyst to show this. The Ghost is the unreconciled philosopher and human-all-too-human man. My fabricated conspiracy is a metaphor for this unreconciling of opposites and its manifestation: post modernism and the effect of post modernism on language.
Alma has married a man (Celine) who has become a fascist. His reactionary
credo is voiced in the simplistic language of cliché. What language does
she have to gainsay him? All is cliché. Any sense of value is reduced
to a post-modern cacophony. Should Alma have her baby? Is there a language she
can give it to fight the devaluing language of its father?
She knows that the man said to be her father was a philosopher of language. And, surely, philosophers deal in values. We know what she discovers: betrayal born of the unreconciled. That the man, the philosopher who may have given the world values and a means of fighting fascism by giving Radical Meaning to language, was not only not the father she thought he was but was the destroyer of those values with his attack on language and Radical Meaning. Alma determines to have her baby and give it the language of Radical Meaning. (One element of Radical Meaning: the meaning of our lives is contained in the promise of our children). She gives birth over her mother's grave (after pushing Beckett aside). This is what she says:
ALMA: I can speak to you mother. O, have I had my trials! You see it all began .Well I'm pregnant but my husband is a fascist! It made me think: it will come it will come again as sure as anything: the footsoldiers of the holocaust are on the march all over Europe. Well, I was afraid to bring my child into such a world. I used to say things like: this is no world to bring a child into. I was deeply moved by clichés. But now, well it's as if I've learned to speak again! It is so much to do with Talk! There's one cliché that I think is true: you can talk yourself into trouble! I've remained silent about this. This fertilisation. I've had to. I haven't been able to face it! What have we come to that we face the prospect of children with shame! That's what it is! But why am I ashamed? Only because I allowed myself to speak their words! So much so that I couldn't speak about the one thing I wanted to speak about! Silence is shame! That's the reality of silence! Could I bring my child into this world? A world in which the philosophy is all dead? A world in which ideas count for nothing? A woman needs ideas mother! It's all she has to fight with! But now I'm angry! I'm angry with the philosophers! People are speaking to me as if I were an idiot! Everywhere I look there are faces looking at me out of screens saying things to me as though with authority as though with wisdom. Things that are lies! And what they've got on their side is that most of those looking back into the screens believe them! But children need to have a real language to be able to ask the way. Just in case they get lost in Disneyland! Well, I will be my baby's language and she will be my best idea! In the face of fascism, language may be all we have to give us justice.
theme: appearance and reality:
In the Notes on the Play (Wittgenstein's Daughter), arguing that dramatic
form in the play comes out of the conflict between real and apparent language,
(There is) the apparent language of our speech which is purely descriptive [it is no less valid as a language for speaking a lie than for speaking a truth] and the underlying language of what it is to be human. The conflict between these two languages informs crucially the language of dramatic synthesis where, in terms of the play, meaning resides. ..There is a conflict between the real language of being human and the apparent language of everyday discourse. To a large extent it's that conflict on which my dramatic intention writhes. The outcome, I hope, is an expression of the human condition and even a search for the meaning of that. (Radical Meaning). [Apparent language is the language of bourgeois politics. Real language is the language of humanity tortured by the language of bourgeois politics].
For most of the play, the real language of being human is one Alma can't use. Because what she might want to talk about - the birth of her baby, she can't speak of. Not until she's gone through the minefield. The play goes from the cliché to the world, i.e. The synthesis achieved between Alma's quest [real language] and the history of Beckett and The Ghost related through an apparent language [cf. the language of biography]. The dramatic synthesis is achieved at the moment of her being able to speak about her child-to-be. The play is utterly simple but fraught. Appearance versus reality is, perhaps, the most dramatic of opposites that need synthesising.
In Casanova Undone, Casanova seeks to keep alive his reputation in order to
give the memoirs he's writing, credibility. But this conflict between what appears
to be happening (the "servicing" of old aristocratic maids of the
Ancien Regime who come to him for a last taste of what was), not only leads
to his sad demise but a new sexuality (between Sophie and Angelique) - a sexuality
of liberation, investigation and justice, displacing Casanova's imprisoning,
reactionary, selfish sexuality. This is the wholesome, good synthesis that comes
out of this appearance/reality conflict.
theme: the wise and the foolish
Nequidquam sapit qui sibi non sapit.
"His wisdom's vain who for himself's not wise" is Casanova's own account of the unresolved dialectic.
Just as they tried impossibly and immorally to preserve Wittgenstein's reputation, so Casanova - evicted by the revolution (he as a prominent representative of the Ancien Regime, it could be argued, contributed to its causes) - struggles, in my play Casanova Undone, to preserve his.
It's not Casanova, of course, who is wise, but Sophie who he uses in his grand scheme, selfishly. In fact, it's in Sophie that the opposites that need to be reconciled exist. Casanova may be only a catalyst. And an ironic one at that because a manifestation of the reconciliation of the opposites produces Sophie's wisdom.
The opposites in Sophie are male and female. The resolution lies in her recognising her true sexuality. The dramatic irony here becomes acute because the whole purpose of Casanova's existence in the play is to have the reputation born of his sexuality, preserved. In the outcome, while her's is revealed his is revealed as a wasteful pointless sham. The point is: even if his sexuality was what it was claimed to be, so what? And it hasn't helped him become wise in his old age but rather the reverse.
And so Casanova gives the appearance of having wisdom because, to begin with, he seems wise. He argues against Sophie who has had enough of servicing the old maids with dildoes as Costa:
CAS.: Don't be so petty! You should subordinate your will to the fine service you give, just as I sublimate mine! Besides, you know it's a delightful idea that they go to bed with only an apparent Casanova but wake up with the real! It's not dishonest to experience by proxy the joy others would be experiencing if they weren't so miserable, so why should this be dishonest? It serves a greater goal!
Unfortunately, he is not wise. His condition of eviction (The Revolution) has
left him powerless but he is too arrogant to accept it and fails to heed his
own wise counsel (above). He believes the lie and fools himself into thinking
he can still do it and can't. He tries to do it with Angelique and can't and
has to face the terrible truth. His schemes - the product of someone who thinks
he's wise but isn't - finally bring Sophie and Angelique together and Casanova,
like all wise fools loses everything.
The language dichotomy described in the notes from Wittgenstein's Daughter quoted above, that between apparent (bourgeois) language and the language of the struggle to be human in the face of inhuman forces, is the focal dynamic in my play Low People.
Here, I should say what I mean by "bourgeois". Essentially, I'm talking
about a system of values in which a thing is not valued by its intrinsic worth
but by an extrinsic worth put on it. In this case a worth derived from a money
value. This money is the product of a market system which is motivated by supply
and demand (which can be manipulated) and not need. In other words you may say
of art in a bourgeois system that it's not needed. It's there only if an "audience"
can be convinced that it wants it (by excessive marketing etc.) What this produces
is, on the one hand, elitist "art" which is totally irrelevant to
the main body of the people and is, in fact a commodity which has had a high
price attached to it because someone rich has been convinced that they should
pay a high price for it (and then, of course, it will grow in price - because
of what happens to money not what happens to the art) and at the other extreme,
easy or popular "art" which is easily marketed to a mass audience.
The real art, the art we need to make progress as a society, that art on which,
in the end, what we call civilisation is based, the art that comes out of our
needs as a community, is, in the main, unmarketable in a bourgeois society (which
is why it relies on various subsidies). It is really only paid lip service to.
What happens with art in a bourgeois society is also what happens with language. Everything has to serve the system of evaluation - which is not based on truth but what you can get people to believe with your marketing. In bourgeois society, the extrinsic value put on a thing is considered the standard by which we make value judgments about all things. This perverse notion of value permeates everything especially language, which finds itself in the service of money making forces. In the end it becomes difficult to make judgments and moral activity is seriously compromised. "Bourgeois" is, of course, an unfashionable word. But it's the only word I know of for an apparently democratic society that is, in fact, deeply undemocratic, particularly in its capacity for undermining moral activity. Everything is about presentation. It's the triumph of form over content. Language loses its meaning; even the need to be spoken! This is extremely serious.
Nietzsche called this process the transvaluation of values. It leads, ultimately, to what he called European nihilism. For me, this is what happens when the primary needs of people in a society are abandoned to the needs of capitalism and, put crudely, money making.
Interestingly, in one of his first works, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argued that Greek Attic Tragedy - the theatre of Sophocles, Aeschylus etc. came out of the fusion of the appollonian and the dionysian i.e., in the most basic sense, the forces of order and disorder. More complexly: the appollonian may be associated with the beautiful, immovable, formal structures of Greek architecture like The Parthenon while the dyionisian with ancient ritual dance etc. or what we would now call the expressive or the creative. Thus this fusion or reconciliation is between the form and the content. Which is why it worked and produced great immortal art (as opposed to expensive trinkets).
In Low People, the language of Leo's family is utterly basic. It is used to describe their needs. It is utterly truthful. It is so truthful that the child Verity who has the least status in a family with little status (and consequently, little language: the language is stark), is virtually silent. Leo's employer, Benthos, a seemingly reasonable man - liberal, plausible and thoroughly bourgeois - is withholding some of Leo's pay - money that Ursula is saving in order to buy some help for her child. Benthos and his wife Nadir, speak volumes but say little of any truth. There is a money plot and Verity finally speaks when she sees Nadir stealing the little money her mother has saved. The opposite languages are resolved in her simple cry of "Mummy!" and she is brought out of her eviction.
theme: imperialism (including language imperialism)
In the fourth world, Charles is the spurious, liberal-bourgeois par excellence. His language of plausible argument is an assault on his wife Helen's plain speaking. Hers is another form of silence and eviction. But it has wider implications in the presence of the fifteen year old Gustavo, who has come from the Third World, disabled by Charles from speaking about the truth of his society that he'd like to speak about. Helen's struggle to force Charles to see the truth about Colombia and the circumstances of Gustavo's life, bring her out of this silence. By the end it's Charles who finally causes himself to be evicted by his stupidity - a stupidity derived from his absurdly pompous self-assurance and refusal to face the truth which is such a threat to his comfortable life.
In The Man Who Gave His Foot For Love, Doctor Lewis, another kind of specious fellow - a quack and would-be shaman living in a South American village at a time of wide political unrest, to ingratiate himself with the villagers tells them that he has a potion that will kill the pirhana in the river which eat the cattle as the men take them across. (This is based on a true story told me by a black friend of mine, Michael Burrows. He lived in Cardiff's dockland when it could still be called Tiger Bay with some credibility. He was half Arapaho Indian. He died falling out of a window in a police station in London).
The play is about the stupidity that comes out of political repression - a
stupidity often self-made in order to be able to live with the repression (rather
than fight it). Lewis puts the potion in the river and then stupidly puts his
foot in to show that the potion is working. His foot is promptly eaten. Suddenly,
Lewis becomes a saviour. They put a cork on the end of his leg, call him Doctor
Corkfoot, make him a shaman and worship him. They have conferred on him an authority
that is unwarranted; an authority that their stupidity has instructed them to
confer. He becomes, accordingly, cruel and fascistic and evicts them. Their
only alternative is to learn from the revolutionaries and fight back.
Of course, this is not a play about a real revolution. It's a play about - theatre! It's a play about the role theatre should have in our lives: that place where we may once again become friends with our intelligence.
What is wrong with our theatre?
British Theatre is director's theatre. By which I mean that it's lead aesthetically by directors. This is at the heart of what is wrong. It should be lead aesthetically by writers who would know that theatre in practice is an actor's medium.
Theatre is not a director's medium. Film is a director's medium.
The idea of theatre as a director's medium derives mainly from the age of Victorian melodrama with the enormously powerful actor managers. Of course, directors are needed for casting and blocking - someone needs to have an eye on what things look like architecturally, though there is often a virtue in abandoning even this. Anyway, this is not a matter of blocking or of architecture - if it was there'd be no argument. It's a question of morality.
Theatre is a moral place
If we think of film as director's medium and theatre as actor's medium, as I argue, then we need to look at how an audience's relationship with a film differs from its relationship with a play.
The basic relationship difference is that the experience an audience has with a film is a passive and amoral one; the experience it should have with a play is a creative and, therefore, moral one.
I mention Victorian melodrama. Here the writing (and many, many plays were written and produced in this time) would serve the impresario. What became most important was the attempt to create greater realism - which meant more realistic sets. (This may have been encouraged by the invention of photography). There is one famous case of a play in which the set involved a church (or temple) and the roof of the theatre was taken off in order to put the dome in place! Actors were required to act a style. The throwing of the voice became necessary as the proscenium arch stage distanced the audience (not in the Brechtian sense!) As a consequence, the acting style became very unnatural. (Unnatural acting on realistic sets!) It should be noted that the development of the proscenium arch has been utterly antipathetic to theatre's purpose. In this theatre, designer and director became the gods and the actors mere playthings (much as it is today). Out of proscenium arch theatre came the cinema.
Victorian melodrama failed because it was a victory of form over content. It was Bernard Shaw who synthesized these elements with basically the same form and laid the foundation of modern theatre. (A famous declaration of his was that a play should finish not with a swordfight but with an argument).
Where Victorian melodrama failed, the new form - cinema, succeeded. This is because cinema is, basically, an entertainment. In a film you're taken on a ride - the more exciting the better - in theatre the audience needs to be taken on a journey.
The audience's experience in the cinema, as I've said, is a passive one. The audience expects the director to take them on a ride and after 100 years they have some idea of what to expect. Cinema is quintessentially a visual experience - which is why, for many, the golden age was the silent cinema.
This film/theatre dichotomy is a little like the Cordelia/Regan one I mentioned
earlier. Film is like Cordelia: we know what to expect. Theatre is like Regan
- we should never know what to expect and what we get should test us morally.
The creative experience the audience must have in theatre can only be achieved when the director knows his place and abandons the idea of giving the audience his own private vision.
What should happen in a play is that the actors should respond to the philosophical and moral arguments of the play (so it's important that a play should have them!) All the greatest plays from Sophocles, through Shakespeare to Shaw and Bond have been plays with complex moral and philosophical cores. What makes them so great is their ability to make these arguments accessible to the audience (which is facilitated with the use of moral moments).
The actor must be allowed to use his own humanity - his own intellectual and
intelligent responses as a sentient being who is, nevertheless, in possession
of emotions which can be both a virtue at one time and at another, a flaw -
to relate to the moral and philosophical arguments of the play. He must be allowed
to investigate as both human being and character, the depths of the argument
and how they affect the relationships between the people on the stage.
But an actor should never switch off his mind and pretend he's not himself in order to play the character! This is often the mistake. This is when we get acting acting, which is little short of the frightened actor hiding behind a mask to defend himself from the onslaught of truthful human realities the writer presents him with. (Of course, there is a philosophical argument that we all wear masks anyway - but this, if it's the case, needn't affect the principle of what I'm saying).
If theatre (the play) is the director's interpretation, then you're getting the director's view of the arguments. He may manipulate and direct the audience in the direction he wants to take them. This is an immoral activity because it takes away the audience's right to be morally involved.
The Man Who Gave His Foot For Love like all of my plays was written with this analysis of theatre's responsibility very much in mind. (It's no good expecting directors to behave properly and know their place, if writers don't write responsibly). It was written for Spectacle Theatre Company which is primarily a TIE Company. I've written extensively for them in recent years. Apart from this play, which is not a TIE play, I have written five plays for schools: Moon River/ The Deal; The Shakespeare Factory; David; Kid and Vertigo. TIE Companies are currently in the forefront of producing real theatre and Spectacle with the leadership of Steve Davis is one of the best. He is a director very much in the mold of theatre director who's working for theatre and not for himself. I've learned a lot from working with him. That learning has become a part of my understanding of theatre and influenced the main-stream play The Man Who Gave His Foot For Love. Yet, astonishingly when it was produced and presented at Chapter Arts Centre, a director from one of Cardiff's leading theatres (with, alarmingly, a brief for encouraging young people into theatre) advised people not to go and see my play. His reason wasn't clear. This is because he didn't know what his reason was! And the reason he didn't know is because he doesn't know what theatre is. He is a leading example of what's wrong with our theatre. He is a manipulator not a moralist.
His position is a paradoxical one. How does he reconcile the two sides of the paradox? He evicts the audience from my play! From my theatre. In Cardiff.
Which is where I began ..
Dic Edwards Gocek, Turkey and Aberaeron, Cymru - Aug/Sept 1997
This article is © Dic Edwards, and first appeared in the book 'State of Play ', edited by Hazel walford Davies 1998
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