Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

A National Theatre?

Anna-Marie Taylor looks at the options

The great age of national theatres in Northern and Central Europe took place some two hundred years ago. Theatres were prominent amongst the various institutions founded - libraries, conservatoires, academies of arts and sciences, universities and opera houses - that aimed to reinforce the cultural identity of emerging states and linguistic groups. Thus, in the hundred years after the playwright Lessing's influential attempt to create a nationally appropriate stage in Hamburg in the 1760s, national stages were founded in territories as politically and as culturally diverse as Bohemia, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Moravia, Norway, Poland and Rumania.

For some of these lands and ethnic groups, for example Czech-speakers in Bohemia and the inhabitants of the Rumanian principalities, creating a national drama was an important and defiant act of cultural liberation - to be censored and silenced regularly by imperial powers. Other ventures were politically less dangerous, supported by ducal and royal privilege, given handsome buildings and enthusiastic sponsorship, as with Goethe and Schiller's theatre in Weimar and the Swedish national theatre which was championed by its dramatist monarch Gustav III.

Disparate as the political and theatrical circumstances were in these countries, one idea that recurred in many of the petitions and manifestos that accompanied the foundation of national theatres was the Schillerian insistence on the stage as a "moral institution". Of all the cultural forms, it was, according to its practitioners at least, the national drama that would edify, elevate and educate the citizen. In some cases, the high moral purpose of the theatre was a much less abstract concern. Education extended to the actors (not usually viewed as the most model of citizens) who were trained not only for their stage parts but in self-discipline and good behaviour - as is evident from various rule books that outlined punishments for trangressive behaviours that included spitting and blowing your nose on stage, and picking quarrels and being drunk in rehearsals.

Concern about alcoholic excess (and the theatre's hitherto unrecorded role in limiting intake of the demon drink) also colours a petition put before the Emperor Francis in Vienna in 1821 that argued for a Czech-language theatre in Bohemia on the following grounds:

Thus numerous inhabitants of the capital city of Prague, who know only the Czech language, will be given dignified entertainment in place of nightly drinking bouts which cost them considerably more than would the price of a theatre ticket. At the same time, many families will be shown how to broaden their minds, refine their social manners and come to understand their civic duties toward all other ranks of society.

In this entreaty of considerable length, its author Mikulas Muller (his name summing up Prague's clash of cultures), pulls every argument out of his petitioner's hat to plead for a culturally-relevant theatre. Again and again Muller returns to the chief preoccupation of the petition which is the conviction that the Czech language, and with it indigenous Czech (not German) culture, will be reanimated by such an institution. Muller was not alone in his belief, and a foremost hope in establishing national theatres throughout Europe in this period was that neglected and suppressed literatures and languages would be given voice and authority.

Therefore by the mid-nineteenth century many individuals in European countries - in powerful and stateless nations alike - had agitated to set up national theatres. The British theatre, though, was an exception. Blatantly commercial, robustly popular and much less dependent on aristocratic support than its continental equivalents, the theatre on the British mainland developed on maverick lines in this highly active period (from circa 1750-1850) of imagining and creating national theatres.

It was not only the different economic basis of these theatres (and the withdrawal of more "literary" writers to other forms than the drama) that hindered such a national venture. Whilst the quest for national theatres went hand in hand with the struggles for independence of distinct ethnic and linguistic groups in mainland Europe, the consolidation of national identity in Britain was inflected differently.

For, as Linda Colley so persuasively argues, many Welsh, Scottish and English peoples' sense of national identity from the 1707 Act of Union to well after the succession of Victoria, was based increasingly on a belief in Anglo-Celtic unification, Protestant rightness, colonial greatness and Britishness; not the imperially disabling characteristics of difference, smallness, ethnic and linguistic separateness.

Therefore, if you had been looking for a national theatre of Britain in this era of colonial expansion, you might have been well advised to go to the patriotic extravaganzas of Astley's Amphitheatre. Here, in this highly popular forerunner to the circus, London's theatr~ going public was able to see British identity portrayed and valorised in the highly visual and exotic entertainments that Astley's specialised in. Great British events - be they the "New War Entertainment between a British Sailor and a Savage Chief" featuring "Surprising Equestrian Exercises" of 1788, or a large-scale enactment of the Battle of Alma in 1855 - were staged using epic casts of animals and humans. These spectacular shows, featuring tamed beasts and trained humans from all corners of the colonised globe, must have clearly displayed Britain's might as right; declaring pan-British con- trol over foreign nature without any equivocation.

Astley's is no more, and live public entertainments that speak to Britain with the national confidence of the amphitheatre's shows are rare indeed - especially now that the fabled beasts and humans of Buckingham Palace no longer engage the public imagination. There is, at long last, a Royal National Theatre, purpose-built in 1976 in concrete-carbuncle style. But as a belated addition to the cultural institutions of London, the National Theatre's role has been an uncertain one of heir apparent (like its chief architectural critic) to a post it is not certain of; its obvious function as custodian of the nation's dramatic heritage upstaged by the older-established Royal Shake- speare Company.

London's National Theatre was agreed in Parliament in 1949. Edinburgh and Cardiff, however, have not followed suit in passing legislation to establish national theatres in Scotland and Wales. This neglect is not the result of a lack of campaigning, as is evident from the numerous attempts to found a national drama in Wales (including in recent years the Welsh National Theatre Company in the 1960s, and the varying fortunes of Cwmni Theatr Cymru from the 1960s up to the early 19805).

Like the European campaigns for a national stage of two centuries ago, national theatre campaigns can be found nowadays alongside quests for cultural self-determination as in the case of the various African national theatres established in the wake of colonialism. While in the United Kingdom a sense of cultural pride and a desire to promote nationally-appropriate forms of staging and writing - redolent of earlier national theatre manifestos - informs the well- orchestrated National Theatre for Scotland Campaign. Set up in 1993, the Edinburgh-based campaign has been very active in lobbying the Scottish Arts Council, and the creation of (in bureaucratic talk) "a national theatre resource" has been placed high up the SAC Drama Department's agenda.

Many of the arguments put forward by the Scottish campaign recall those of earlier campaigns by emerging nations. The identity of the nation is to be expressed through the distinctiveness of its national language and playing style. In the case of the Scottish theatre, this distinctiveness is in its various languages - Gaelic, Scots and Scottish-inflected English. A housed touring company (not the more nebulous agency promoted by the SAC), that would have specific regions to tour and audiences to address, would also be responsible for actors' training and the development of a national style of playing. Sensitive to pundits' views that there is no Scottish drama of worth, the campaign has compiled lists of Scottish drama, over three hun- dred plays at present, that would form a confident and far from parochial repertoire. The Scottish stage would be outward-looking, and, apart from its educative and artistic purpose at home, it would also act as a showcase for Scottish drama abroad.

The Welsh national theatre campaign, quiet of late, has been re- kindled as well. The gauntlet has been flung down by playwright and former chairman of the Welsh Arts Council's drama panel, Julian Mitchell, to open up the debate to found a national theatre of Wales. Acting in part to protect the future of Mold's Clwyd Theatr Cymru (whose thriving theatrical output is under threat from the re-organisation of the unitary authorities and the scheduled departure of its innovative director Helena Kaut-Howson), Mitchell advocates the creation of a national touring company that would work in both north and south Wales by using the Mold theatre and the New Theatre in Cardiff, once the Welsh National Opera has moved to new premises

According to the western mail, the repertoire of classic plays would have a Welsh inflection, as with Mitchell's own successful transposition last year [1994]at Clwyd Theatr Cymru of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to a rural Welsh context. On the whole, the productions would be performed in English, but existing Welsh-language companies would join forces with the touring theatre so that its work would be nationally representative.

Mitchell's suggestion rightly celebrates the achievements of Welsh theatre at present. However, at the risk of kicking our theatre when it is up, if you compare Scotland's claims for a national theatre, theatre here still lacks the confident cultural assertion and established prac- tice of its Scottish equivalent. For a start, leaving aside the issue of whether it would be possible to retrieve a full repertoire of Welsh plays, if we accept the argument that a national drama is bound up with the language(s) of its people, where are the plays that celebrate the forms of English spoken in Wales seriously and with dignity? There is of course no equivalent of literary Scots here. But where is the use of vernacular urban (and rural) English that matches the sophisticated deployment of contemporary spoken English in plays by writers such as John Byrne and Liz Lochhead? Where is the confidence to translate European drama into idiomatic spoken Eng- lish in the way that translators at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre have transposed foreign plays into contemporary Scottish English? Or a translator such as Gareth Miles who has developed a living dramatic language in his translations into Welsh?

But, to stop this awful finger-wagging at "second-hand Saxons" (myself included), and to cut short any kind of false enmity between Welsh and Scottish theatres, perhaps I am asking the wrong kinds of question about Welsh drama? Wales at present does not have a developed literary theatre on the lines suggested by the Scottish Theatre Campaign. Its tradition of professionalised theatr~making is much younger than that of Scotland.

A national theatre in this age of electronic reproduction might not occupy the key cultural position or have the high moral purpose it had two hundred years ago in Warsaw or Prague. It is unlikely to change the drinking habits of its burghers. But it can still act (as is hoped in Scotland) as one of the badges of developed and, almost, independent nationhood. Unfortunately Wales still does not possess many of the institutions that are associated with burgeoning nation-hood. Thus, the plea for a national theatre can appear an irrelevance when health, transport and education services are de-nationalised and ruled by quango, when national institutions such as the University of Wales and National Parks are in danger of being broken up and part-privatised, and whenever that middle-class icon a national opera house is scorned out of being.

However, these threats to national autonomy do not mean that there should not be an institution that celebrates theatrical activity in Wales, though maybe this organisation should not be along the Staatstheater lines that Julian Mitchell is advocating. Let us imagine something outside the discrete category of "theatre". Instead, perhaps, we should aim to create a multi-arts initiative - a kind of national arts exchange - that would celebrate the productive way Welsh arts as a whole have represented and questioned this shape-shifting nation we live in.

Bring together dance, music, drama, film and the visual arts. Build upon what has been achieved across art forms and languages as in Brith Gof's and Earthfall's work, and across communities as in Theatr Powys's, Arad Goch's and Valley and Vale's long-standing efforts, and in the Sherman Theatre's recent ground-breaking youth project A Generation Arises. Work across literatures as in Clwyd Theatr Cymru's exemplary stage versions of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and Caradog Prichard's Full Moon. Such theatrical ventures can help us to imagine and invent other possibilities of nationhood. Millennial thoughts, but perhaps we should put pressure on what is almost the only pan-British institution that people are prepared to put blind faith in - the National Lottery - to establish such an initiative.

author:Anna-Marie Taylor

original source: Planet # 110 April/May 1995
01 April 1995

 

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