Theatre in Wales

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Rebuked By Reality- Artists and Isolation

Summing It Up

Playwrights and Politics , Political Theatre , September 25, 2020
Summing It Up by Playwrights and Politics Theatre, both comedy and drama, is the art of humans in dilemma. That is its attraction; our lives too- and our moral continuing- being made of almost-daily dilemma. Politics too is the mastery of dilemma, democratic politics the reconciliation of the divergent or opposed. Dilemma, and reconciliation, are the fuller subjects of the article below 28th March citing Ernst Schumacher on “the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon.”

Theatre and politics by rights ought to meld. Those in the arts are themselves without power outside their domains of skill. They ought to be fascinated by those who do have power.

The blockages are several.

Firstly, writers and actors are solitary; it is a condition of what they do. David Hare touched on this in his book collection of occasional pieces “Asking Around".

On page 3 he speaks of “the dangers of spending so much time alone. It is not just that the writer begins to project his or her own misery and isolation on the world at large and assume that other people suffer from neuroses which are in fact the writer's alone.”

The larger difficulty is that writers have small to no knowledge, or experience of depth, of organisations. Politics is the negotiation within and without organisations.

David Hare: “But also sheer ignorance begins all too easily to take its toll. The world is not as it is when we last had a proper job in it. There is nothing better for a writer than to go out and be rebuked by reality.”

Hare's verbatim play about the railway industry “the Permanent Way” was revived in 2019 after twenty years. I was there to see it; it held up well and for a reason. The playwright really had got out and about.

The hesitation by people to get out more widely in the world is long attested. The challenge was addressed by Brecht. In “Vergnuegungstheater oder Lehrtheater?”, translated by John Willett in 1957 he wrote:

“Wanting to show lust for power, must show how politics or business works. But writers are less interested in how things work. A paper like Voelkischer Beobachter or a company like Standard Oil is complicated.”

So Brecht; writers have to be interested in how things work. Organisations are seething hotbeds of personal versus extra-personal ambitions. They cannot be represented, or known, by their surface, from the outside. Peter Hall wrote in his “Diaries” after seeing “Fanshen” critically of Brecht versus Hare. On 6th March 1975 his entry ran:

“Brecht managed to make characters in political plays come alive through human inconsistency. However hard he tried not to, he always wrote about human beings. David Hare has not written about human beings.”

Theatre starts with the human being, individuals in their dual domains, isolation and social connection. So too with political theatre. Since writing is an emergent phenomenon so too the author's opinions are emergent. Simon Stephens in the Observer of 30th August 2009: “I write not because I understand but because I don't. I am trying to make sense of darkness.”

The alternative is well-known. Anthony Sher in his book “Year of the King” came by a loud drama of simple-mindedness. “Like most political theatre”, he recorded, “it’s intense and faintly embarrassing”.

Christopher Hart was once in the National Theatre: “This play’s political sensibilities strike you not so much as right or wrong, but as seriously lacking in complexity, maturity and breadth; emerging from a tiny, tiny little world where everybody thinks exactly the same, agrees with each other ardently and credulously reads the same newspaper. It is not a good recipe for political theatre.”

Theatre needs to get out in the world. Anthony Sher in his diary-book writes: “The one common criticism I’ve heard from directors working with new writing is they feel playwrights don’t research their characters or the world of their play enough.”

Kaite O'Reilly years later writes in her own blog on writing.

“The one common criticism I’ve heard from directors working with new writing is they feel playwrights don’t research their characters or the world of their play enough. I’ve also found when mentoring writers who are writing naturalistically, if they have come to an apparently insurmountable block and have begun to doubt themselves, the solution invariably lies in the work, as that is where the problem is, not in the writer.

“A few choice questions about the rules of the world, or the needs, motivations, or backstories of the characters often illicit a loosening of the obstacle, a thawing of the ice, with fresh material to pursue.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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