Dic Edwards in Conversation with Torben Betts, January - April 2002

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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 UK’s literary departments?

Dic Edwards: I’m 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 haven’t 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 writer’s pass - the artistic director didn’t like me (on a personal
level) and vetoed any attempt to get my work produced there.

What I’d like to believe is that today’s 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: You’ve 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
is deemed ‘difficult’, should his/her work be overlooked?

DE: The problem with theatre is that it seems to have lost sight of its purpose. Go back to the beginning in Greece (in Western theatre) and you will find a theatre that concerned itself with society. If Aristotle was right that man is a political animal (by which I think he means that man has the intelligence that denies him, ultimately, ignorance and the failure to recognise other people, and so he cannot live alone but has to live in society), then there is a responsibility on the guardians of intelligence to exercise vigilance in the monitoring of social structures. The guardians of intelligence are all those who have
a desire for establishing truths. These include (ought to include) philosophers, writers, artists and, perhaps, teachers. It’s their role within democracy. They are up against lawyers and politicians (certainly in our society) who manipulate truths for a different end. If the operation of the mechanics of society is left to the lawyers and politicians unopposed then democracy is diminished. Where is this opposition to be staged? Not in parliament or in council chambers because there is the tacit assumption that because the people who populate these arenas are elected they are somehow delegated to speak for us so our subsequent speaking to them is made redundant! This, of course, is the central flaw of representational democracy. We need another arena.

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. I’ve 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 don’t 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 don’t work. The thing that’s missing is the moral involvement of the audience; the audience’s 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 Wittgenstein’s 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 democracy’s 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 you’re offering on TV. And, of course, there’s 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?

DE: If I can make the distinction by concentrating on cinema and theatre, I think it’s like this: in cinema the writer is relatively unimportant. This is because a film tells its stories in pictures and the person most responsible for how those pictures look is the director. And just because of this - because of the director’s ultimate authority over what ends up on the screen - the audience will only ever see what the director wants it to see. This is an extremely profound reality because the director doesn’t only determine what you see but how you see it. In other words, using close-ups, say, or emotionally charged music etc. In this way he can manipulate the audience’s intellectual/emotional responses. It’s this that renders the audience passive because they have no creative role (beyond either liking or disliking a film). And because they have no creative role they have no moral connection in the sense thaTthey need to make decisions about what’s going on. Of course, you may say that you respond to the film in spite of thedirector’s intention which means you have some kind of role and are part of a decision-making process. But you can’t escape the fact that the director has dictated the terms.

In theatre it’s the writer who is most important. The directorshouldn’t be important at all other than in an organisational sense. The director’s 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
the audience having to decide the issues of the play. Nothing in the writing should direct the audience to think one thing or another. This works: a woman I know went to see Wittgenstein’s Daughter and was very taken with it and even excited because she thought it was an anti-gay play - and about time too. Of course it’s nothing of the sort but it got this debate out of her. I would argue that her response was not passive but creative and moral.

I do believe that being in the audience at a play (not, I should say, a play in a large, modern proscenium arch theatrewhere it’s 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

TB: What about the language, the poetry of your work? Your plays exist very much in a world of their own and with a language very much their own, often bestowing upon the dispossessed and oppressed characters who drive the work a powerful blend of rage and eloquence. It’s impossible to confuse the language of these worlds with that inhabited by the audience member. Would you say this is essential to eradicate the recognition factor that so much of our drama relies upon?

DE: I think you’re talking about dramatic language. Dramatic language serves the dramatic purpose of the play. I think dramatic context is poetic. I also think that the genre that theatre is most like is poetry, with its concentration of idea, imagery and purpose. So it seems natural that the more passionate the playwright is about his/her subject, the more poetic he/she will become.

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 it’s not as simple as that in the post-Tarantino cinema but let’s say it’s 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.

TB: I would describe you very much as a tragedian: your work is highly poetic and theatrical, is conceived on an epic scale, features characters who do the wrong things but perhaps for the right reasons, and who, with both intensity and wit, struggle against the forces which oppress them. You might not agree with this definition but do you see yourself as a writer of tragedies?

DE: Tragedy strictly speaking, I suppose, is the fall of great people (peripeteia), a fall conceived by the gods and aided by their own tragic flaws. I suppose we can have some sympathy with them because what happens to them is not entirely of their own making. It’s inconceivable to me that today we wouldn’t expect our main characters to be responsible for their own wickedness etc. So I have replaced the tragic flaw with stupidity and it’s the common man who’s tragic and his tragedy is self-induced, brought on by stupidity. The stupidity itself is encouraged by the pettiness of small personal advantage that people pursue at the expense of the wider reading of their lives and the context of their lives. Of course, all of us at some time are stupid, which means that we can sympathise if not empathise with the characters and the tragedies of the small common man then become a passion for us all.

TB: This question of sympathy is a central issue in drama; But I just didn’t care about any of these people! is a common complaint. In Franco’s Bastard, where the central character is a violent psychopath, a rapist, a racist and a fascist, you manage to make Carlo, through both the strength of his personality and his use of language, seductive rather than sympathetic. Consequently you make his story compelling. The co-existence of these forces of repulsion and attraction creates an anxiety in the audience which is creative. Do you set out to do this consciously or is it simply your instinct as a playwright?

DE: I wouldn’t want to mislead you with my last answer into too simple an understanding of what I meant by ‘sympathise’. My characters are the means by which I convey the arguments of my play. I would much prefer to think that the audience were sympathising with the arguments, by which I must mean connecting with them at an intellectual level.

Recently I had an argument with a director about the end of a play I’d 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.’ It’s 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 Franco’s Bastard is seductive because then we might get the audience sympathising with a character who’s actually a fascist, which ought to make them wonder about where they stand politically. So I do set out to achieve the effect you’ve summarised in your question.

TB: You subtitle the play ‘a Welsh Pastoral’, it being partly a meditation on the state of the Welsh nation. What exactly do you mean by ‘pastoral’ here and what was the inspiration behind using an illegitimate son of the Spanish dictator to drive the play?

DE: In a sense it is a meditation on Wales but I’d like to think it has universal application. In another way it’s 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 I’m 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!

TB: When Ben tells Sion how he killed a man with the frozen salmon, he asks if Carlo is ‘a man who would recognise the gut anger and loneliness of one who feels abandoned, evicted within his own country.’ It strikes me that this theme of eviction is the lifeblood that runs through your work in general.

DE: The literary cultural establishment of Wales is Welsh language. So if you’re not a part of that it’s as if you don’t exist. This is why so little of Welsh writing gets to the outside world - apparently, in Richard Eyre’s book Changing Stages while there’s obviously a huge section on English Theatre, a very big one on Irish and a substantial one on Scottish Theatre, there’s not one sentence on Welsh Theatre!

Welsh language culture is content to speak to itself - and it gets huge subsidies, rightly or wrongly, to do so - so there’s nothing here pushing the English language work out - though the company doing Franco’s 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 don’t fit into bourgeois culture and so are evicted in that sense too.

TB: Other major themes in your work are the relationship between sexual repression and political suppression (notably in Casanova Undone) and the sense that characters are operating in worlds that are very much ‘at the end of history’ (Wittgenstein’s Daughter). You combine these concepts in Lola Brecht as you survey the psychological landscape from which so much of Europe’s barbarity has sprung. Would you say that Lola is an extension and development of your other heroines (for example, Alma in Wittgenstein’s Daughter and Regan in Regan) in that she struggles to reclaim her own voice, her own language and finally to take control of her own destiny? How did this extraordinary play come into being?

DE: Lola reminds me a lot of Sy lvia in Looking For The World. Like that character, her language and the truths that she would convey through it are sat upon b y a fat-headed husband who’s only really interested in his version of the world. But also, likeAlma, I think you’ll gather that my women characters are much more the truthseekers than the men who are often stupid for the reasons I’ve suggested elsewhere.

Lola Brecht was written first as a play simply called Lola which had a rehearsed reading in Cardiff in 1985. It dealt with a woman on her honeymoon trapped with her husband in a hotel (he is as much her imprisoner) while race riots are taking place in the street. A concierge tries to seduce her. I can’t remember much more than that about it except that Rob Ritchie when he was Literary Manager at the Court really tried to get it on there and when he failed did his best with Hampstead. I don’t have a copy of it now. Anyway, a local amateur/semi-professional company said they could give me £500 if I could come up with something. It was the time of the Bosnian conflict.

I had been commissioned to write a play for Theatr Clwyd by the then artistic director Helena Kaut-Howson. I wrote my version of Dostoievsky’s The Idiot (also the title of my play) dealing with the Bosnian conflict and she got sacked and so it wasn’t 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 you’ve got stored. It’s a bit like Dylan’s Hard Rain’s A’Gonna 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.

TB: Your plays are notable for their theatricality and use of traditional devices which have now all but died out: the long soliloquy, the aside to the audience, the eavesdropper and, in Lola Brecht, the use of the almost Jacobean cross-dressing device of Imra and Imri (a kind of throwback to the Sophie/Costa character in Casanova Undone). What has drawn you to these techniques over the years?

DE: These devices have died out, I think, because they are so theatrical. So many playwrights these days, I suppose, are influenced by film and TV and these devices don’t work in the same way in those media. But I love comedies of errors! Because it’s not simply mistaken identity, it’s about people believing what they want to believe (as with Paddy in Looking For The World who wants to believe he’s on a holiday island when, in fact, he’s on a prison island!). I repeat: theatre should tell its story metaphorically. The thing about Lola Brecht is that, really, it couldn’t possibly happen (like Wittgenstein’s Daughter with its ghost of the dead philosopher), but if we follow Coleridge’s advice and suspend our disbelief, what we see on stage is more real than what we appear to see in ‘reality’. The wonderful thing about the play is that it can be playful! And there’s nothing more playful than mistaken identity which carries the weight of the appearance/reality dichotomy at a much deeper level. This is the noumenal quality of theatre. And there is the playfulness between the levels of reality.

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 it’s working-class theatre but it’s not. It’s middle-class theatre. It’s condescending. It’s 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, it’s 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 Labour’s 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 don’t 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.

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Dic Edwards and Torben Betts
January-April 2002