I want to say that I'm speaking today more as a playwright than as an academic.
Not only that but, using the terminology invoked in Daniel's original call for
papers, as a working-class playwright. I'm also going to be argumentative and
consequently much of what I say you may well feel inclined to argue with.
I would like to take you on a kind of journey from where I begin as a writer, through what often seems like the war zone of where I work, to the play Wittgenstein's Daughter. It is a journey prompted by the subject of today's conference.
Something about the class terminology: We're talking about the professions but for the sake of my arguments that relate to class I'll be referring to the professions as the middle-classes. These terms, of course, can mean different things to different people. When I use them I want you to think of the middle-classes as those in authority and the working class as those subject to that authority.
I begin as a writer in the belief that the theatre means something and that it has a relevance. I think this because I believe that the professions which order our society - by making its laws, educating its children etc. - have a moral responsibility to that society and that theatre, which is also a profession has an even deeper moral responsibility which is to keep an eye on the professions on behalf of the rest of society. What I would describe as monitoring democracy. Theatre, therefore, needs to be relevant. I can't imagine moral activity that's irrelevant! Any failure must be serious. Unfortunately, the way I see it, it is failing.
In a recent edition of University Challenge the bonus sections of two questions, that is six questions in all, on Contemporary British Theatre failed to elicit a single correct answer. Interestingly, the answer that was given for: who wrote The Romans In Britain, was Trevor Hall! I say interestingly because Trevor is the Christian name of one of our most prominent theatre directors and Hall is the surname of one other. Neither, of course, is a writer. On this showing, Contemporary British Theatre (in which the director looms large) would appear to be irrelevant to even our young intellectuals. If it's not relevant to them then we're clearly in trouble. And when I say "we" I mean all of us. Society.
I have long suspected what the University Challenge example seemed to reinforce. Certainly during the time when I was writing Wittgenstein's Daughter. But it is only one example. There are many more.
There is, in my opinion, what I call a moral silence at the heart of contemporary
Because of the views I have about theatre's function, I cannot separate what plays are about from the process of making them. For example, in my play Wittgenstein's Daughter, Alma searches for a language to give to her soon-to-be-born child. At the same time, the play itself is a search for language. It argues that there is a silence at the heart of things - a silence which I will come to talk about - invoked by Wittgenstein. A moral silence. Thus the play itself and its problems, mirrors the problems of theatre. And because these problems come out of its relationship with society, then the play is not merely abstract but a commentary on the moral silence which exists in society. The action of the play is the acting out of the consequences of applying my arguments to the problems. Wittgenstein himself, the professional philosopher, epitomises in my account, the malevolent professional. The play debates the consequences of the moral silence.
To begin with I want to talk about why I think things are not right. Then
I want to say something about where I'm coming from as a writer and what Theatre
means to me before looking more closely at Wittgenstein's Daughter.
The most obvious manifestation of the problem - the moral silence - is that today's theatre is a predominantly middle-class pursuit. And not only that but there appears to be an almost exclusive middle-class theatre going audience. We're not getting through to even our young intellectuals because of this failure to be all embracing. And if it is exclusively middle class, what about the relationship of the working class with Theatre? Let me tell you what I think this is like.
Recently, a housepainter who lives across the road from me, told me how he'd
had to put his dog down. The dog was fifteen years old. There had been a deep
bond between them. But, at the vet's, things had gone wrong. The vet hadn't
been able to find the appropriate vein in the dog and had had to keep stabbing
away at the poor animal. The last thing the housepainter heard before being
overcome and leaving was his old dog crying. Crying because of the vet. The
housepainter told me that he'd wanted to kill the vet. Instead, he left. He
left feeling hopeless, useless, as if he'd failed the dog. For all he knew,
the vet may have been drunk. No apology, but more importantly, no explanation
had been given. The event was a kind of theatre. The relationship of the housepainter
to this event mirrored the relationship of the working-class with our theatre.
How? The housepainter had left the vet's in silence. It's not so much that the
working class leaves the theatre in silence, they don't even enter in the first
place! The professional had imposed the silence. Our Contemporary Theatre imposes
a silence on the working-class.
The housepainter knew instinctively that there would be nothing he could say to the vet to get the understanding of the event that he needed. They speak different languages. These different languages are the languages of different classes. The language of the vet's world is the language of professional authority. Supposing the housepainter had asked what went wrong. The vet would have dismissed the housepainter's question in terms that would freeze him out; as though in the vet's world there is a different, specialised language that the housepainter has no right of access to. Had the working-class housepainter approached the world of the professional with questioning at an intellectual level, he would have got a very indignant: "How dare you!" and been dismissed.
Silences in theatre are very important. Silences caused by Theatre are a very different thing!
Wittgenstein argued in his first work, the Tractatus Logico Philisophicus that it's in the silences that the important things happen. The working class in its relationship with society has experience of a certain silence. I have experienced it myself. But while it may have been for me in the silence that I developed my intellect, in the silence that I have shouted about the injustices in my society and in the silences that I plot, if Wittgenstein was right when he said that it's morality that we cannot speak of in the famous last line: "Whereof one cannot speak one must remain silent" then there may be severe implications for the working-class who may seek to find some authority in the natural justice of moral codes.
If I can extend the metaphor of my story at the risk of suggesting the absurd, one might argue that a central question for our theatre could be: didn't the housepainter deserve an explanation for what the vet did with his dog. There is, perhaps, an intellectual dimension: how much did the dog suffer because of the low social status of its owner? Perhaps the best the housepainter could have hoped for from the vet would have been a kind of obituary for the dog. Which is what, incidentally, most of our plays about the working class are like: obituaries written by middle-class writers. No analysis of things just description. What I call chocolate-box theatre. By which I mean, mere representational theatre. But I'll come back to this too. In the end, all the working class writer is left with, perhaps, is the housepainter's desire to kill the vet - which, maybe would make a good episode for The Bill. But not for me. As a working - class writer, the purpose of my theatre is to bring language to the silence.
I have made this discovery: while it appears that our mainstream Theatre is for the middle-class this is, in fact, an irony. It's an irony because the great truth is that Theatre is most importantly for the working class. And this is because the working class stand to gain more, ultimately from the proper functioning of the Theatre. That's not to say that there isn't a kind of theatrical activity enjoyed by the middle-class which is valid. There is. And it's important. It's important because as long as it's there it reminds us of why we desperately need its alternative: what I call analytical theatre. Unfortunately, this analytical theatre has become a victim of the moral silence. In fact, the moral silence, you may say is the absence of analytical theatre.
The moral silence at the heart of Contemporary British Theatre is deeply pernicious. It feeds on the confusion it breeds. Perhaps most widespread is the confusion about what theatre actually is. Increasingly it seems that even people who work in the theatre are confusing it with the cinema. As though they're the same thing! A theatre play often appears to be a trial run for a screen play. And it's alarming how many stage plays often by our leading writers are translated into film with such ease and become successful. The latest best example is, I suppose, Godber's Up and Under.
In order to understand what Theatre is, it's important to understand what it isn't. It isn't cinema. But the moral silence in the Theatre has made people less vigilant and the distinctions are blurred. This is critical. It's critical because - as I'll show, while the relationship between the audience and the stage in a piece of real theatre is active, even creative, the relationship between the cinema audience and the screen is a passive one. This suggests to me that some of our most applauded plays are not really plays at all! So I must say something about this.
It's easy to be confused. Until I was about twenty, apart from the annual visit to the pantomime, the only time I sat in an audience was in the cinema. I would imagine that the pantomime would have seemed strange to a young person used to going to the cinema. The proscenium arch of the pantomime theatre was not much different from a screen. But that's as far as it went. Though there was some kind of story, which was in the end, all a bit silly, it was more like the circus. Only in the circus the things that went on went on in the middle of all of you. The audience. Here, at the pantomime, people were lined up in front of you, high up, shouting. Shouting at you. In a way, cut off from you. Not like the circus. So what was it for? Other than to let you shout back and maybe throw things.
The first play I can recall seeing, was when I went with the school to a production of Macbeth. This was like the pantomime and the cinema. You all sat in this big room and you watched things take place on a stage which, from where you sat looked like a screen only down there there were real people running about. Not as good as cinema because they looked too small. You couldn't see their faces. More like pantomime because the people were falling over; falling over each other and falling into the bits at the back that were supposed to make it look real - the scenery - and making that fall over! Difficult to work out what it was for. What was its point. Cinema does it much better. And so, as I've said, until I was about twenty I stuck to the cinema entirely.
Then, as I became political, I became aware of playwrights like Brecht and Bond. One thing I'd noticed about cinema, it wasn't very political. It showed pictures of things but it didn't show what was going on on the inside of events. Politically. I became interested and involved in theatre because of this political dimension. It seemed to be a place where you could discuss the problems in society at a public level; something otherwise denied, in effect, those outside the political profession. I recalled how, at school, we'd read a play called Strife and I remembered I'd quite liked it. It interested me because of what it was about. It was about workers striking. But in the end, I know, I'd felt disappointed. It was more like a picture. It was a description of things. Cinema can do this better. Plays must be about discussing why. I knew this instinctively. But why must theatre be about discussing why? If it was entertaining, cinema would be about discussing why. And even Brecht said that theatre must be entertaining. I came to feel, in desperation, if the business of theatre and cinema was the same then why bother with theatre at all when cinema can do it much better? My conclusion was that they must be different. As social activities they'd seemed so much alike and yet I knew that the only way I was going to come to believe in theatre and want to write for it was to discover what made them different.
One day, as an adult, I took my small daughter to the circus and there I found
the key to what I was looking for. The circus was a small one. Some of the acts
seemed quite amateur. It even seemed in some ways, run down. The moment of this
revelation which had been building as the clowns had come to us and we'd seen
behind their masks and into their eyes, was watching a young woman who seemed
to be not much older than my own daughter, falling from a trapeze, falling through
the air looking, it seemed, for the trapeze that she needed to get to to stop
herself from falling to the circus floor. She seemed unhappy. I realised that
she and I were in the same place precisely. Inhabiting the same space. A space
which included my daughter and everyone else there. My feeling of involvement
with this young woman looking - searching for her trapeze had been total and
had extended to what was happening everywhere in that tent. And because of that
it seemed as if she was looking for more than just the trapeze.
It was as if we were all separate from the world in a different special world as if something was happening to us that we, collectively, needed to understand. I know you may say that this is all rubbish I just fell in love with the girl. But even if there was something of that it wouldn't matter. I had connected with something deeper than the sheer spectacle. And it didn't matter if it was on an emotional level: this, after all, is how Mother Courage appeals to us despite Brecht's intention and yet we are able to understand it in the way he wanted us to. The way we, the audience, inhabited the space, made the experience more than just a spectacle being played out before us. As if on a screen. And importantly it wasn't a case of cinema doing it better. Frankly, circus films are awful. They don't work because they entirely miss the point, which is that you have to be there: in the circus audience.
The distance between you in the audience and the picture on the screen in
a cinema show, is empty. It's a dead gap. Its only function is to carry as much
light as is needed to see the film. You are not a part of what's going on on
the screen and no amount of illusory tricks can change that reality. In fact,
they reinforce it. Also, isn't watching a film at home alone, on the TV screen
the same experience as watching the film in the cinema? The only difference
is that the screen is smaller and any effects less spectacular. And isn't it
nice to be on your own without all those other people? The audience in the cinema
can be something of an irritation! This is an important point. And it's not
simply some maybe abstract philosophical argument like: a piece of theatre cannot
exist without an audience because no is watching it while a film can. In its
But while circus, like theatre, has live action and live audience, it doesn't have story. In the circus there is no identifiable emotional journey. You may make one up but it's not one the whole audience will share. Cinema has story but we know it's different from theatre in that the experience of the audience is different. Put at its most simple, to restate the point: a film doesn't need an audience and you don't need to be in an audience to experience it.
So how is theatre different? And what makes it unique amongst the arts? I think it ought to be like this:
In Theatre what you have is an enclosed space which is filled with live people in the audience and live people on stage. The apparent gap between the audience and the action on stage is, unlike in the cinema, full and fraught. There is an inter-connectedness that makes of what's going on in this space a society. In a sense, it's an alternative society. You may see it as a microcosm of society at large. It's a society separated from society at large only by its special purpose.
Societies live out stories. In order to understand themselves and to progress they analyse their stories. In society at large this is called history. In more specialist areas it's called philosophy and elsewhere the social sciences. In that space where these people have congregated it's called Theatre. The people on the stage in Theatre have come out of the audience. Their roles are interchangeable. The reason they're all there is to analyse a story. The story is about a problem. In the complex of society at large it's not possible to see the problem clearly, so someone is hired who has special skills, to focus the problem and outline it clearly and prepare the analysis: the playwright.
In order to make it clearer and to make it a more democratic process, the writer borrows people from the audience to create a picture of his analysis that they can all engage in. The event is all-embracing. Ideally, the space would be filled with people from all the different classes in society and all walks of life. After all what's happening here is something that concerns everyone. Remarkably, the endeavour is entertaining! But it's not entertaining in the way that the clown in the circus may be entertaining, in the sense that he simply makes you laugh as if he'd tickled you, it's entertaining because of the journey of discovery you've all gone on. It has a suspense but it's not a suspense that's manipulated by some wicked master to cause you to, say, be shocked, it's a suspense that comes out of the revelations; out of the unravelling of the problem. Not a suspense like waiting for the girl to get to her trapeze or, perhaps, to fall but one filled with the knowledge that one day she'll find what she's really looking for. In fact, the delight in this entertainment is derived from the authority you discover in the exercising of your intelligence in seeing with the other people in the space the working out of the problem. If you like, the difference between the entertainment offered in the circus ring and the entertainment experienced in Theatre is the difference between mere pleasure and real happiness. A society that pursued only pleasure and not happiness would be, I think, doomed to extinction. I think that goes for Theatre. Particularly when one considers that cinema does it better.
As I've already suggested, I would say that for theatre to work, for it to
fulfil itself, the relationship, based on this analysis, between audience and
stage is an active even a creative one. And, of course, a moral one. They're
embarked on the same quest. But Contemporary British Theatre is Director's theatre
and I'm sorry to say, I think that many of our theatre directors behave like
I mentioned earlier how, the only function of the otherwise dead space between the audience and the screen in cinema, is to carry just enough light as is needed for you to see the film. That quantity of light is decided by the director and it's just enough to let you see his vision. What you see is, if you like, non-negotiable. It's essentially one person's vision. Of course there is a kind of collaborative process between the director and the designer, the cinematographer and the editor but, ultimately this collaboration serves the one vision: the director's. In no way is it like the collective experience of theatre. In the theatre, the collaboration is between the audience and the stage. There is no collaboration between the audience and what takes place on the screen. You may say: but the audience doesn't effect what takes place on the stage in the theatre. This is the important point. It's the audience expectation which affects the stage. And I don't mean a particular audience like, say, the audience that goes to The Barbican or the audience that goes to The Cottisloe, I mean the audience that is society. And that expectation is that the writers will write plays that open up the debate between audience and stage. Of course, there is going to be a conflict between the writer who understands his professional responsibility to theatre in this way and the director who wants to be a whiz kid and would really rather be making films.
There is another point: film essentially has a moral silence at its heart: because you the audience can't debate with it. Director led theatre which in effect mimicks film also has a moral silence at its core. But acting in the theatre must be a moral activity! Actors have to connect morally with the morality of the play. How can actors act in a moral vacuum? They can't. So they don't understand stage acting and then can't act the plays the responsible playwright wants to write. But it's the playwright who's blamed for not writing a play they can act while it's really the director's fault for not wanting to direct plays as they should.
In theatre, the director's role ought to be simply to facilitate the audience's
access to the play which will enable them to engage creatively with the debate.
The director should never, as happens in cinema, bring to bear his or her vision
and interpretation on what takes place in theatre and by so doing decide for
the audience how to interpret what it sees. To me, this is anti-democratic.
It thwarts theatre's purpose. It's no different, really, from dictatorship in
society. It happens. We've already seen how big, how important our director's
are. They even get credited in a curious hybrid way with authorship of an important
play! By showing off their creative talents they deprive the audience of their
own creative role. Analytical theatre gets marginalised if not eased out altogether.
In his Commentary on the War Plays Edward Bond talks about this relationship between society and theatre. It's a similar argument put a little differently. He writes under the sub-title: We are sent to the Theatre:
In the early world of jungles and deserts, and in the classical
world of fifth century Athens, the whole community went to
the drama. If slaves, convicts, the mad and women were
sometimes excluded, that is because they were not fully members
of society. Society sent people to the drama just as it sent them
to the fields, the hunt and the well. It seems that now we are not
sent to the theatre but choose to go. This is an illusion. We are
still sent there by society. It must send us to the theatre even when
it can only send representatives. It needs theatre as much as it
needs its other institutions - its prisons, universities, parliaments
and so on. But just as democratic society wrongly assumes that
everyone in it, and not merely the ruling class, has power, so it
wrongly assumes that when society sends representatives to the
theatre, it is sending the community there. Unjust society not only
manipulates force by disguising violence as law and order, it
also manipulates the rest of culture. Just as it usually sends the
wrong people to prison and parliament, so it usually sends the
wrong people to the theatre. The other it sends to the petrified
drama of most film and television - and their frenetic activity
is a sign of their moribund state: giving electric shock treatment
to a skeleton does not bring it to life.
Bond: War Plays (Methuen) P.259
Interesting about Bond: a contemporary British dramatist who many serious theatre thinkers and commentators throughout the world consider one of the great dramatists of the twentieth century has been practically frozen out of contemporary British Theatre. Interestingly for us his play In The Company Of Men which we may include in our category of plays about the professions, has been playing to full houses in Paris while here its production at the Barbican in 1996 was received with malice.
I think what Bond means, at least in part, is that the working class aren't sent to the theatre. If theatre is about - as I believe it is - debate ( to put it at its most simple) then you can't have a debate with only one side in attendance. And in our society, the social debate is between the classes. I hope the connections I'm making are becoming clear. What seems clear enough to me is that if Contemporary British Theatre is as I've suggested essentially Director's theatre where analytical theatre is not wanted then it's clear why it appeals in the main to the middle-classes. Ironically, perhaps, the professional classes. It's because they don't need to have their society analysed to understand their position in it. And theatre then has a different function. It's one in which, in the main, their complacency is shored up or at best that their liberal views are given reassurance. But it's not Theatre. It's what I call theatrical eventing and is produced for a particular audience and not the universal audience Theatre looks for. It's when this kind of theatrical event predominates at the expense of Theatre, that you get the kind of grotesque discussion I saw a few weeks ago on Newsnight when, in discussing Labour's Welfare-to-work philosophy, the "drama" referred to as approximating to some kind of commentary on this was not some play on at the Royal Court, say, but The Full Monty. A film!
Before I go on to talk about Wittgenstein's Daughter, I'd like to briefly
restate my arguments.
As a playwright I have come to see that Contemporary British Theatre is failing. If I can make a joke, it makes how theatre deals with any subject, including the professions, purely academic. It's failing because most of its audience is middle-class and while its moral duty ought to be to monitor the other professions which collectively shape our society on behalf of the rest of society, it can't because a part of that society is excluded from the theatre. This makes theatre in general terms all but irrelevant and produces a moral silence at its heart. I am a working class writer and so have a duty to address the problem of this moral silence, if you like, on behalf of my class. The moral silence has caused those who work in the theatre to confuse it with, primarily, cinema and caused them to lose sight of theatre's unique purpose. My play Wittgenstein's Daughter is an attempt to understand this moral silence and to dramatise the arguments that surround it.
It has been said to me: how can you call yourself a working class playwright when your plays - especially a play like Wittgenstein's Daughter - are so intellectual. I reply: What, you think the working class have no intelligence? In fact, the working class has a greater need for the use of intellect than anyone else! But its denied the right to use it. The professions, by which I mean, in the main, the media though also our professional politicians etc., have made the intellectual investigation of the working class by, in particular, the working class, unfashionable. They even deny that the working class exists!
In the main, I don't write about the working class. Why is this:
If the audiences in our theatres are predominantly middle-class, why write about the working class. The only purpose could be to paint a kind of sentimental picture which will amuse the middle-class or create a kind of horror story that will invoke pity. I don't think you can write a play analysing the conditions of the working class by writing a play about only the working class. This is because those conditions are instituted by the middle-class and reinforced by its language. You can't discuss, if you like, the nature of oppression without analysing the language its couched in and that language would be absent from a play that's just about the working class. I'm afraid the kind of play you end up with is a play that's like the famous 1930's photograph of the family of dust-bowl refugees, taken during the American Depression when the farmlands of Oklahoma turned to dust and the Oakies as they were called migrated to California. A middle-class photographer Dorothea Lange - came out of New York to take some pictures. When she returned to New York she did so in possession of a photograph of a mother and her children - called Migrant Mother - which had about it a very rare quality. It seemed to capture in a very poetic way all the suffering of this dispossessed people. The liberals of New York threw dinner parties around reproductions of the photo and cried into their wine. It didn't really explain anything and it did nothing for the Oakies who, you would have thought belonged to an entirely different society. It was just that the whole terror of the calamity seemed caught in that pose and it allowed them their comforting cathartic weep; the kind of thing that Brecht so despised. Dorothea Lange, like one of our middle-class slice-of-life dramatists became a celebrity famous for her humanity and her eye: that she could have seen this moment of meaning in the meaninglessness of the maelstrom. In fact, what she did was to exploit the terrible condition of these almost unbearably lost people for it came out that the photo was a fake. The family's pose had been directed by the photographer. In the same way, the working class is exploited in plays about them in our middle-class theatre. It's what Germaine Greer recently called the pornography of representation.
Like it or not, it's not that the working class have no intelligence, but that, as I've already indicated, they have a repressed intelligence. It contributes to their particular silence. I'm not going to go into a history of industrial society or quote Marcuse to prove this. I don't need to. I grew up in this environment. It gets into the collective psyche. The proof of it can be found in the way that the sense of guilt created can produce a hatred for the intellectual. The tool of this oppression is language. The result is, as I've already suggested, different languages.
People while appearing to speak the same language, say English, are in fact
speaking different languages. For example - and it's a simple example, the working-class
confronted with a problem - maybe some kind of prohibition - might say (collectively):
We can't do that
while the middle-class faced with exactly the same problem would be more likely to say collectively:
We must find a way of overcoming the problem so that we are able to do that.
I am, as a working class writer, using the second language as a means of understanding the relationship between the two.
I wanted to write a play about the moral silence. To analyse it dramatically,
to bring it to an audience and by being entertained by the way I tell the story,
engage with it and perhaps come to an understanding of the problems. I knew
of Wittgenstein's famous declaration invoking silence in matters moral and though
I didn't study Wittgenstein at University, nor am I a linguistic philosopher
I guessed it would be a good place to begin. After all Wittgenstein was a philosopher
His early work the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, as I've already mentioned, concludes with the famous line: "whereof one cannot speak one must remain silent". The "whereof" meaning morality. Basically, it seemed to me, what Wittgenstein was saying in this work was that the only things we can talk about with certainty are tautologies: The propositions of scientific fact like, say, a triangle has three sides. Three sides is contained in the idea of the triangle. Nothing else, including morality, can be spoken about with this certainty. What Wittgenstein means by silence is an absence of appropriate language. Which is why it's in the silence where everything that matters resides. This was a thrilling idea. It seemed that this is the way I was thinking about silence.
I came to reflect at this time on a lecture I'd attended while studying for a PGCE certificate at Cambridge in 1980. The lecturer - a leading Cambridge educationalist - detailed a strategy for Comprehensive School teaching which was liberal and to my mind just a little cavalier. I was furious with what he had to say because I knew that his liberal ideas - basically the abandoning of teaching the grammar of language and the grammar of mathematics and so on, would encourage laziness in teachers and lead to the kids of my class being deprived of a detailed enabling kind of education while those kids who would one day find themselves in Oxbridge Universities would have a very different kind of education in their private, so-called public schools. An education which would be all embracing and ennabling. In the end the language of the working class kid at Comprehensive School would be diluted, stripped of its need to question; its ability to analyse and any sense it may have of its own authority. It would be a subject language which would provide an increasingly unheard voice. Of course, it's happened. I felt deeply betrayed by these professionals and left Cambridge after a term. It seemed to me that here, in effect, were the seeds of a conspiracy but one achieved , perhaps, by default rather than something actively pursued.
Then I was introduced to a book written by an American, William Warren Bartley
III which contained a very dramatic argument. This argument put at its simplest,
was that Wittgenstein was a closet homosexual who conceived a moral philosophy,
the terms of which would prevent any discussion of his sexuality!
Next, I came across Fukuyama's end of history idea. What Fukuyama seemed to be saying in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that in this now post-modern world, politics would everywhere find a centre ground, that there would be no opposition and we would find ourselves forever subject to an overwhelming, amorphous middle-class. Fukuyama was a philosopher and here was this philosopher telling us that in post-modernism there would be no voice for anything but the middle class! An argument for a moral silence at the core! This was a refinement of my conspiracy theory!
I had become by this time, after eleven or twelve years of Thatcherism and Kinnock's collaboration, deeply concerned about what was happening to our societal values. In particular our socialist values. If bourgeois meant, in some sense, that value had become extrinsic i.e. measured by how much a thing was worth in monetary terms (especially a human being) rather than intrinsic - which is what I believed bourgeois to mean, then we were living in the apotheosis of bourgeois society of which Fukayama's theory was a symptom rather than a proof. A symptom which describes the moral silence.
I felt that the story needed to be some kind of investigation which brought me to Wittgenstein's second major work, which appeared at the end of his life, The Investigations. Not only that, but what this work of Wittgenstein was saying - in opposition to his early work - was that language was actually a game within the boundaries of which we, its users, are trapped. We can never get outside. So we can never be objective and can never, therefore, speak the truth. We don't even have the tautologies of the Tractatus. But if the working class doesn't even have the possibility of access to a language which might tell the truth about their condition - even though they may have to struggle through minefields to get to it - what is there? What weapon can they have?
Another piece of what was clearly becoming a jigsaw puzzle then arrived. And in some ways it was the most devastating piece for me in my dealings with the betrayals of the professions. It concerned the philosopher, Paul de Man, who, I discovered, had used the new philosophy of de-constructionism which seemed to incorporate Wittgenstein's language of non-truth, in order to rewrite his own history and hide from the world his own crimes as a fascist in the Second World War.
Then I was sent a cutting from a newspaper. I believe it was The Independent. It was by Danah Zohar and was about de-constructionism and its associate philosophy and was about Fukuyama, Wittgenstein, post-Modernism, Derrida; most of what interested me in this context.
So what it looked like was this: Wittgenstein's philosophy which, to put it crudely contended that you cannot use language to tell the truth was used by Paul de Man and, who knows maybe others, to duck responsibility for his crimes against society. And maybe it would be used ultimately do deny the holocaust! And also, according to Bartley's book, Wittgenstein's whole argument had derived from his desire to surround his homosexuality with silence. So I needed to bring these things together by means of some kind of investigation. Then I could, in dramatic form, analyse my own arguments around the question of the professional, his responsibility to his society, in particular the subject classes and how those classes remain subject through the manipulation of language.
Of course, such a drama will be a kind of language game itself, but for me
it is acceptable if, in pursuit of its serious intention, the play is playful.
The final piece of what I needed to make my play came when Robert David Macdonald, the director at the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow, suggested to me that the play needed a woman. Suddenly everything became clear. If Wittgenstein was a homosexual the chances are he wouldn't have a daughter - which he didn't; and if the philosophy had originated in this need to obscure the facts of his homosexuality then couldn't the creation of a daughter also have this effect. And if there is a woman known as Wittgenstein's daughter then wouldn't it be reasonable to construct a play around her need to discover, precisely, her identity? A search like the young woman's search for the trapeze. An investigation!
Now I needed a starting point. Zohar's newspaper article had begun:
"In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Dodo introduces
Alice to the notion of a Caucus -race. He marks out some
space with no particular shape, various creatures stand around
in it "here and there", and in quite random fashion some of
them run about.
"There was no 'one, two, three and away', but they began
when they liked, and left off when they liked, so it was not
easy to know when the race was over."
It is an irrational way to run a race, a race with no centre,
no rules, no authority and no purpose "
This seemed a reasonable place to begin. This is talking about language stripped of meaning. My Alma, the name I had given to my heroine, would be a kind of Alice only her journey would not be quite so benign. As I say in the notes to the play:
"Post Modernism with its uncertainty is like a mine-field .
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."
P.7 Wittgenstein's Daughter
The way I would do it would be this way:
Alma at the beginning is without language - in the way that I've described. But she knows things aren't right. In a sense, as soon as the play begins, I would have her begin her journey of coming into language. I decided that she should be pregnant then she would have someone she would want to give a language to. Everything seems to her without meaning. I would have to show this. Maybe she lives with a husband she doesn't admire because he somehow is a purveyor of anti-meaning. I would have her driven by this emptiness to go in search of her own history - which would mean finding the traces, as it were, of her father. She must go to Cambridge but there she should discover that there's been a conspiracy to deny her her real history and, consequently, her language. She should unravel the conspiracy and in so doing empower herself and give herself a language: the meaningful language she can then give her child.
So. The play opens with Alma in Paris. She has come there with her husband
Celine who is a member of the French National Front and is to make a speech
at their conference. His speech is to be on the end of history. She is despondent.
To begin with, she has no language of her own. She complains about her husband,
"he brings home terrible phrases " by which she means clichés, "like other men bring home friends "
and yet she herself speaks in cliché:
"I am overwhelmed by clichés to the point where I can do nothing about it: trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea."
She argues with him halfheartedly. He is already denying the holocaust. He dresses and leaves. A concierge arrives with a television. They talk. He's working class. English. So is she, of course. She thinks he's coming onto her sexually. He tells her he's gay. This causes her to feel at ease and she's able to confide in him. But it's as if he is a nobody. As if he doesn't really exist. A cypher. This is why she can speak to him about these things that are otherwise cloaked in silence. She tells him that she's pregnant, and that her husband doesn't know. She tells him of her worries about bringing a child into this world. At the end of history! It comes out that her father was Wittgenstein. He tells her that she shouldn't bring a child into a world that she perceives has no values. She tells him about a Mr. Beckett , who lives in Cambridge, who knew her father and the Concierge tells her that she should leave her husband and look this Beckett up. He says:
CON.: ..Your old man (meaning Wittgenstein) must
have had a few ideas which maybe he imparted to this Mr.
Beckett who you may now speak to as though he were your
father. This will help you decide whether to have your baby
or not. I would say you can't go wrong with a dead,
revered philosopher as your father. You'll be in any aura
he left behind. I'd say you were onto a winner.
Alma leaves her husband and goes to Cambridge where she looks up Beckett, who is an ex-boxer and now one hundred and one years old. He reluctantly lets her in but is not pleased to see her. She has brought him a present of a book (the Bartley book with the argument about Wittgenstein's homosexuality). He tells her that his television doesn't work and asks her to go and get someone to look at it. He asks her not to come back. As soon as she's gone, Wittgenstein's Ghost turns up.
The Ghost tells Beckett that he (Beckett) has to accept the woman as Wittgenstein's Daughter even though it, the Ghost, doesn't know where she's come from. Alma returns. The Ghost is put into a closet. Alma hasn't been to the television shop. There are things she wants to clear up with Beckett. Beckett shows her photographs of Wittgenstein and her mother. Beckett tells her that an old student of Wittgenstein's, Carrington, is coming to dinner but there is no food, would she go out again and buy some fish and chips. She goes and the Ghost returns. The Ghost is to become Carrington. Beckett bandages the Ghost's head having told Alma that the old man has had his face eaten away by cancer. While Beckett bandages the Ghost's head he lies to the Ghost telling it how the plot to get Wittgenstein a child was carried out by a group of his students. We discover that Beckett was Wittgenstein's first lover.
During the meal, the book Alma has brought - the Bartley book - is discussed. Things get heated and the Ghost becomes angry stuffing Alma's mouth full of chips when the truth about Wittgenstein's homosexuality is revealed. Not only that but Beckett's lie about the group of student's is discovered. Beckett is the man who impregnated her mother and Alma knows now that he is, therefore, her father.
Alma falls asleep. When she wakes, Beckett has gone leaving a note behind saying that he's gone to St. Giles's Cemetery. Alma feels certain that this must be where her mother is buried. As she is about to leave she finds in a newspaper that was used to wrap up the chips, the Zohar article. She reads it and its argument that Wittgenstein had killed philosophy just as Nietzsche had killed God. She reads of, I quote:
contemporary thinkers who have made it their
declared aim to undo philosophy, to chip away at
the foundations of thought and of the self who thinks,
to shock and undermine - to de-construct - the
beholder's sense of reality ..the end of
philosophy thinkers claim there is no deep
truth waiting to be discovered.
In place of truth or reality, we have only limited
human discourse ."
She reads about Paul de Man and concludes that , Wittgenstein is responsible for her own angst not to mention, in a curious way, her own husband's fascism. The article brings things together for her (as it had done for me, the writer) and gives her, through the understanding it offers, that authority which is the basis of ownership of language.
Young Beckett - who is also the ghost of Beckett and the Concierge at the
beginning - has appeared with Beckett at Wittgenstein's grave (not Alma's mother's)
and tells the old man to dig up the body and lay the skeleton out as a statement
of pure language. Beckett does this and dies collapsing onto the skeleton as
though he were making love to it. Alma arrives and believes that the skeleton
must be her mother. She removes the dead Beckett and herself lays on the skeleton,
fondling the bones tenderly and speaks to them about her pregnancy and her worries
and then, her new determination that's come with her being able to speak about
these things. Then she sees the headstone and discovers that it's actually Wittgenstein's
grave. Angrily, she puts her hand inside Wittgenstein's skull as though looking
for the traces of the mind that has so influenced her life. Finding nothing
there she gives birth at the grave of Wittgenstein while hitting out with two
of Wittgenstein's bones to fight off the pain.
The play is straightforward:
Alma's husband - the fascist, wants to talk about the end of history - a distinctly fascist notion. Alma goes in search of her identity prompted by the Concierge, a cypher who represents her working class origins - being an incarnation of her father Beckett. He spurs her on to overcome his own sense of guilt (the working class are often the footsoldiers of the fascist) at his own part in the collaboration between the classes which would deprive the working class of its language. She walks into a conspiracy which seeks to silence her and deny her her history by maintaining the idea that she is Wittgenstein's Daughter carrying the book about Wittgenstein that for my dramatic purpose at least, tells the truth that Wittgenstein has sought to cover up. Alma is finally able to speak - to possess a language which is the expression of her own authority, with the aid of the Zohar article that explains so much for her. She has created a language and a moral presence for herself, out of the application of her intellect to the deepest philosophical arguments that arise from her case. She has brought light out of darkness. Language out of silence.
In the notes to the play I have written:
"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 upon which my dramatic
intention writhes. The outcome, I hope, is an expression of
the human condition and even a search for the meaning of
We might say that apparent language is the language of the professional classes while real language is the language of the humanity tortured by the language of the professional classes. In a sense, this language is an ideal language: the language of real democracy. The language the housepainter would like to have had in his dealings with the vet. In the following note I write:
"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 [for 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 (at Wittgenstein's grave). The play is
utterly simple but fraught.
At the very beginning she is not able to speak about her own pregnancy. The only person she can tell is the Concierge who, in a sense, doesn't even exist. The words she speaks are powerless. Awash in the flood of time. What spurs her on is the moral drive of noumenal history. It sets her off on her quest. The play is playful. It knows none of the boundaries Wittgenstein may have imposed on language. It doesn't pander to realism - as I've said, cinema does this better. It attempts to look inside the skull: into the noumenal realities. The only rules it may acknowledge are those of Drama. When we think of the Concierge as the Young Beckett, for example, then we have the irony of Beckett setting her on the trail that will reveal what he did. But, of course, because it cannot be the Young Beckett, the irony becomes something more subtle: a paradox. And this is the central paradox for humanity: that in the lie resides the truth.
The end of history is a phrase. It's also the sub-title of the play: Scenes at the end of history. Alma's fascist husband Celine, at the beginning, is going to use it in his speech to the National Front Conference. He is going to argue that there is no more Communism - or Socialism for that matter - and that the stage is set for the fascist millennium. This will come about because there is no more opposition. It will come out of the middle-class which will grow and grow. Wittgenstein's Ghost argues against history by denying Alma her's - it's something to be manipulated - as Paul de Man manipulated it, to hide the truth. But the end of history is a paradox. The mere statement of the idea proves that history lives. The phrase causes us to wonder at how language can be used to make this claim despite ourselves. We are history. We are history in the making.
The end of history of the sub-title, not only refers to Fukuyama's theory, but to Alma's condition. Until she finds out the truth she has no history. That history which is a working class one. Nor does she have a language. There is only the moral silence. As I suggested at the beginning, her struggle to discover that history, her language, whatever, is also the struggle of the play. She has been denied that history by the professionals and the collusion of her father Beckett and even that of her sad mother, whose condition, one might say, is the quintessential condition of the working-class: the whore. Or is this the oldest profession?
At one point in the late eighties, before the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow
made its commitment to the play, the Royal Court were interested in my Wittgenstein
idea. Or I should say, the courageous Michael Hastings who was, at the time,
literary manager. He managed to get me some money from a fund they had there.
I'd considered having two Wittgenstein's: the dying one and his ghost and the
ghost would be responsible for bringing the past to life and deal with the Bartley
allegations. Michael felt he couldn't push this idea: one Wittgenstein was quite
enough for these people who had thought, anyway, that Wittgenstein was a pack
of cigars! Michael eventually had to abandon me and my idea in the face of this
I've tried to show that I believe that the way that theatre should deal with the professions is to recognise that they have a particular responsibility to the society they authorise, as it were; that theatre itself has a deeper responsibility as the profession that keeps an eye on the professions. The monitor of democracy. That this purpose is not just a moral and aesthetic one but that it makes theatre relevant. My worry is that instead of being society in microcosm charged with the business of analysing society at large by the application of the dramatic aesthetic to a particular problem, it's actually becoming (or behaves as) an often dirty little pursuit for the gratification only of those in attendance. An environment heady with the air of complacency. Places where there is an overwhelming sense of self-congratulation lost on most people outside its confining walls. Usually that congratulation is directed at the Director for we have Director's theatre.
The play Wittgenstein's Daughter is very much about my own struggle with and within Theatre. I said at the beginning that I can't separate the making of the play from what the play is about. The conspiracy at the heart of the play is a mirror image of the conspiracy to silence my kind of theatre. The birth at the end of the play is the birth of my work over the grave of radical, questioning, analytical theatre.