Dic Edwards in Conversation with Torben Betts, January - April 2002
Torben Betts: Given that your work has largely been repudiated by our national companies, what do you think it is about your particular style of theatre that sits so uneasily with the UKs literary departments?
Dic Edwards: Im
not sure. The first thing I always think is that the work is just not
good enough. Repudiated suggests that someone has sat down
somewhere and said: We will repudiate Edwards. I think that
mostly they just havent noticed me, though in the Eighties when
I started out, successive literary managers at both the Royal Court and
The Bush wanted to do my work. In the case of the Court - where I actually
had a writers pass - the artistic director didnt like me (on
What Id like to believe is that todays mainstream British theatre mostly wants entertainments that are clearly entertaining. I think most of my plays are entertaining but often in difficult ways. Most obviously in the sense that they make you think. But I do seriously believe that mainstream theatre is to be found in the work of a writer like Bond - who really has been repudiated - while in the whole history of theatre, current West End and mainstream theatre will be seen itself as being the fringe.
TB: Youve spoken before
about your opposition to what you term the theatre of representation,
which is clearly the language of television. It seems that a serious playwright
that wants to survive in any way at all must nowadays either develop a
second profession or succumb to the inevitable and write for TV, generally
losing both freedom and control in the process. How is theatre to be saved
from the demands for accessibility, easy answers and broad audience appeal?
Why, because a writer
It may be felt that TV is that arena and that programmeslike Panorama and Newsnight fulfil this monitoring function. The problem with this is the relationship between the audience and the screen. Ive said elsewhere that the space between the audience and any screen is a dead space which renders the experience of the audience a passive one so I dont want to go into it here. But it means that the audience has to rely on the intelligence and determined application of that intelligence by the TV presenter to discover the truth about the story - assuming that that story is the necessary one! So while these programmes are useful, they dont work. The thing thats missing is the moral involvement of the audience; the audiences own creativity and the presentation of the story in a way that engages these two elements. Even Question Time and programmes like it which seem to be interactive and are occasionally quite splendidly theatrical, fail because they have no sense of story.
We still have the philosophers, artists and teachers. Teachers are constrained by the National Curriculum and so are ineffective. Philosophers - as I tried to show in Wittgensteins Daughter - have abandoned truth and arrived at the end of history (not to mention philosophy itself) and the effectiveness of much of the art world as part of that debate (here at least) is determined by Saatchi and Saatchi so that we have most of our new artists playing silly games in a twilight world of fascist modernism that should have died with the last century. This leaves the theatre and its playwrights! Theatre is the only place where you can tell the necessary story of our social lives in a way which actively and creatively and morally engages the audience and their intelligence and in a way that satisfies democracys desire for opposition to the lawyers and other constrainers of truth.
Of course, theatre has been almost entirely taken over by what I call unfashionably the bourgeois class and that class has no interest in discovering the truths about our society and bellicose capitalism because they profit from it! They just want to be entertained. This has determined that the theatre has become a place of spectacle which involves the spectacle of actually arriving at the building as much as the spectacle of, say, people acting! As television is naturally inclined to entertain through its reproduction of real life so that the audience may, say, get a vicarious pleasure (Schadenfreude? ) at the suffering of others but no intellectual stimulation, then a confusion has built up over the relationship between TV and theatre which can lead seriously regarded commentators (as I saw recently) to argue that our new theatre writers should learn from those writing for TV!
The answer for writers writing for the theatre is to recognise that if you write your plays like TV shows then ultimately people will stop going to the theatre to see anything other than the most spectacular musicals because they can get what youre offering on TV. And, of course, theres the sense of responsibility that every artist has to his/her art and what those responsibilities are in your own case.
TB: So the passivity of watching TV and cinema is due to the fact that they merely describe events and situations, whereas theatre asks why these things should be as they are. Would you say that the simple fact of being present at a live event makes very real demands upon the moral sense of the spectator, demands which are not made in any other form of drama?
In theatre its the writer
who is most important. The directorshouldnt be important at all
other than in an organisational sense. The directors importance
is in the planning of rehearsals and in his/her determination to get the
actors to understand the play fully. Once directors begin to direct they
encourage actors to act and what you get is both directors and actors
dictating to the audience the meaning of the play. And so the writer has
a responsibility to write his play in a way that leaves
I do believe that being in the audience at a play (not, I should say, a play in a large, modern proscenium arch theatrewhere its difficult to connect audience with stage) involves one in something unique. The very fact that actors are live human being means that the space between the stage and the audience is fraught with a kind of intellectual tension which becomes the battlefield of ideas
Another distinction, I think, between film/TV and theatre is that the former tells its story with pictures, the latter with words. (I think I heard Mamet say this.) In film and TV language is used very much in the service of the plot. So the characters need to say what needs to be said in order to get the plot to go where you want it to. Of course its not as simple as that in the post-Tarantino cinema but lets say its what you can get away with.
Language in theatre has a very different function. It serves the dramatic purpose. Also, I think my theatre deals a lot with appearance and reality (obviously) and I believe that there are languages which relate to these: the language of appearance and the language of reality. I think one of the ways we create dramatic tension is to have a conflict between the two - if you like, between what people seem to need to say and what they actually need to say. I think my oppressed characters are more likely to say what they need to say while the oppressor charcters say what they seem to need to say: by which I mean what they need to say in order to keep their authoritarian positions.
Recently I had an argument with a director about the end of a play Id just written - which was, it has to be said, based on a misunderstanding. I thought he was saying that the end is no good because things are too resolved and you need the audience to go away and wonder what might have happened afterwards. I said (misunderstanding him): No, the action must always be resolved. What we want them to be thinking about after the play is the arguments. Its the arguments that must be unresolved: this is how you connect the audience with the play on a moral and creative level.
I hope Carlo in Francos Bastard is seductive because then we might get the audience sympathising with a character whos actually a fascist, which ought to make them wonder about where they stand politically. So I do set out to achieve the effect youve summarised in your question.
DE: In a sense it is a meditation on Wales but Id like to think it has universal application. In another way its a contemplation on the relationship between city and country: the differences are magnified in Wales because the cities - most notably Cardiff, have English-language cultures while the rural areas of the West and North are predominantly Welsh-speaking and the culture is different. So the use of pastoral is intended to draw attention to this dichotomy, but also Im using it ironically in the sense that one thinks of something pastoral as something peaceful - while in the play the pastoral harbours violence and hatred.
Finally, the person I was thinking about when I wrote the play was the head of a quasi-terrorist organisation called the Free Wales Army.. I was actually attacked one night by him and a henchman with a bottle and hammer. Between them they broke my jaw and put me in hospital for a week. Strangely, there was something amateur about it and it occurred to me that there would be something amateurish about this person thinking he may actually be the son of Franco and quite funny, I think, that he might think this and regard himself, as a consequence, as a bastard!
Welsh language culture is content to speak to itself - and it gets huge subsidies, rightly or wrongly, to do so - so theres nothing here pushing the English language work out - though the company doing Francos Bastard are hoping to take it to London. I compare this experience for English-language Welsh writers to being left to sleep on the street outside your own home.
But of course eviction is not just this. Many writers dont fit into bourgeois culture and so are evicted in that sense too.
I had been commissioned to write a play for Theatr Clwyd by the then artistic director Helena Kaut-Howson. I wrote my version of Dostoievskys The Idiot (also the title of my play) dealing with the Bosnian conflict and she got sacked and so it wasnt going to be done. At about the same time I read about Rheinardt Bonnke the German evangelist and the absurdity of everything seemed to take shape for me so I took the old Lola play which was already quite absurd and quite quickly wrote about the Brechts. It was one of those works which you write when the time feels absolutely right - with an urgency, and throwing in everything youve got stored. Its a bit like Dylans Hard Rains AGonna Fall. I read how he wrote that at the time of the Cuban missile crisis when he felt there may be only a matter of days left and no time to be too particular. So every unsaid line he had he used. The Idiot has never been produced.
The kind of theatre I dislike most is the kitchen sink stuff that was around in the Sixties and, I think, is back again. People think its working-class theatre but its not. Its middle-class theatre. Its condescending. Its middle-class writers making themselves feel better by creating caring pictures of working-class difficulties. True working-class theatre wants to make the middle class feel worse by analysing the culture that they manage which has evicted me and my class. The best example of this is New Labour: a middle-class ethos took over a working-class party with its core vote then kicked out the working-class values thus leaving that core vote, which has nowhere else to go, evicted. Also, of course, its government by lawyers - there should be a name for it: legalocracy or something. My play Black September, which deals with the life of the French poet Baudelaire, is about this.
Western politics uses language to deny democracy (from Nazi propaganda to New Labours sound bites); theatre should use language to promote it. Another of my plays, Low People, is about this. Theatre should be in direct conflict with the political system. That conflict should centre on language.
The purpose of language now is to win elections and to entertain. This purpose has so dislocated us from the truth that most people dont vote. This is not alarming to politicians even though they say it is. It means that the other function of language - to entertain - is working. Everything now, including most theatre, is show biz. The idea is to entertain the people tothe extent that nothing else means anything and they become entirely passive. Then they are controlled and politics can be left to the political classes.
|Dic Edwards and Torben Betts