Theatre in Wales

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

Why Drama Has a Tough Time in Wales

The Things That Matter for the Arts of Wales

he number of women and men who make an impact on international affairs is not great. One of them was at Aberaeron's Book Weekend on November 2nd last. John Morris, the Lord Morris of Aberavon, talked about his experience within the Cabinets of three Labour Prime Ministers. His conversation with Alun Lenny had the spark and compression- and the connection to an audience- that denoted a background in the law. The law department at Aberystwyth has a tradition as Wales' dominant launch-pad for political life. In England municipal politics have been the ground for careers in Westminster. Joseph Chamberlain to Herbert Morrison to Graham Stringer is a straight line. They do not have their equivalents in Wales.

The reason is geography. Andy Street and Andy Burnham are political leaders who speak for electorates that are a third larger than the whole of Wales. They do so because Manchester and the West Midlands are broadly flat-lands. Wales has twenty-two local authorities because its terrain is rock divided by water.

Societies in uplands and lowlands are anthropologically distinct. The region that has been most researched is mainland South-east Asia. In the lowlands production of paddy rice in inundated fields has created stratified societies that lean towards world religions. Uplands areas are home to multiple groupings of hill-rice farmers who follow animist religions. Their languages are numerous.

Theatre has expressed this dichotomy. The opening song of “Pacific Overtures” is called “the Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.” Stephen Sondheim's reciter observes the rice-planters and sings of a society of extreme stratification:

“The farmer plants the rice
The priest exalts the rice
The Lord collects the rice
The merchant buys the rice.
The craftsman makes the sword
And sells it to the Lord.”

Civil society by contrast has small need of the sword because it is powered by trust. Trust is higher in small groupings and lower in cities. There is a paradox. Prosperity correlates positively with high trust, but innovation which motors prosperity is the domain of cities. Cities also carry social costs. I talked once with a social worker in Camborne. He had spent some time upcountry, as they call it, in Islington, a borough of vastly greater wealth than Cornwall. On return to his home county his work-load was greatly lower. The first recourse to households under stress, he said, was the family network itself. The second bonding mechanism was the Methodist Church. The state networks came third. His caseload was principally made of English from outside, who were not participants in these networks. A large part of Wales is closer to Cornwall than to Islington.

The map of Wales is wholly different from Scotland. In their book “the Welsh Rivers” Chris Sladden and Tom Laws describe 199 rivers of all sizes and directions. Wales is defined by border rivers that run north and south. Scotland has only one major river that runs north, the Spey. Its urban areas are distinct and unconnected to cities outside itself. Had Wales settled its border a millennium ago on the top of the Cotswold ridge it would be wholly different. If it were uninhibited by historic borders the Severn Estuary would agglomerate into a economic unit. The need to support two airports either side of the estuary would not be there. But geography and history are real.

Geography flows into culture. The term I have given to the dispersal of culture around the rim of Wales is the arc of creativity. It begins with a classical ballet company in Gwent and ends with a theatre company in Flintshire with a dozen stops in-between. I have long been beneficiary of this variegation. The downside of this disaggregation is a less fervid urban culture. There is no great novel of the city of Wales. The great urban novels are made in societies with lowlands with their higher stratification. There is no equivalent to Bellow's Chicago or Doeblin's Berlin or Jeff Torrington's Glasgow.

The arts mirror the values of upland societies. Wales at its peak had around two thousand theatre companies based in its communities. When the Albert Hall was filled, it was with choral music.

Drama has a tough time, for two reasons. Like the novel it is the art form of social critique. In Scotland their saga of the great Edinburgh tram fiasco was turned into theatre. The M4 relief road attracts no comment and cannot do so. The north-east of England had a great back-bencher in Chris Mullin and Live Theatre on the Tyneside river-front turned his career into popular theatre. Paul Flynn was a back-bencher of equal independence but it is simply against the culture that politics provide material for performance or fiction. The reason is that nation, greater than state, is conflated with state.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
19 January 2020


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