Theatre in Wales

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Theatre & Ethics

Summing It Up

The Displacement of Self , Theatre , October 9, 2020
Summing It Up by The Displacement of Self The statement by Joe Murphy, below 2nd October, is the strongest from a source in Wales in support of theatre for many years. A reader would have to go back to Bill Hopkinson, who left in 2004, to find an equivalent.

There is an ethics of theatre. The encounter with the Other dominates contemporary ethics. Emannuel Levinas and Martin Buber are the most cited of philosophers. Buber called it “experiencing the other side.” If there were an ethical underpinning to the making of theatre this too would be it. It is to confront an other with all the consequences, be they moral or comedic.

Dramatists have a long record in attesting to the dialectical innateness of their particular art-form. In 1972 Tom Stoppard told Mel Gussow:

“I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting yourself.” This fitted with a broader view. In an interview in Theatre Quarterly May-June 1974 Stoppard said: “Briefly, art…is important because it provides the moral matrix, the moral sensibility, from which we make our judgements of the world.”

The best lesson for dramatists was expressed in 1979: “I don’t write plays with heroes who express my point of view...I tend to write for two people rather than for One Voice.”

Stoppard is the playwright most associated with ideas, consciousness the subject of his last play, reviewed here April 2015. But early on he put the issue the right way round. In a letter to Kenneth Tynan: “It is a mistake to assume that plays are the end-products of ideas (which would be limiting.) The ideas are the end-products of plays.”

Mature dramatists put themselves to one side. As Kaite O'Reilly noted at the time of her translation of “the Persians” a remarkable aspect was the magnanimity of Aeschylus towards the enemies of his own state. Millennia onward, in the 1870s, Chekhov looked back on “Ivanov”:

“I did not portray a single villain, not a single angel (though I could not refrain when it came to the clown) , did not accuse anyone , or exculpate. Whether all this is well done, I do not know."

In our own age James Graham is the lead exponent of the play of politics and gets it. Graham. “I’m more interested in trying to understand people I don’t necessarily agree with, try to understand their motivations and why they feel what they do.”

The counter-trend, material human beings secondary to abstract issues, was discussed by Duerenmatt is a playwright who has lasted the test of time.”The stage is not a battlefield for theories, philosophies and manifestos, but rather an instrument whose possibilities I seek to know by playing with it” from his “Theaterschriften und Reden” of 1966.

Anthony Nielson in an interview on 21st March 2007 had clear words on the matter, sounding off first at critics.

“Many critics still believe theatre has a quasi-educational/political role; that a play posits an argument that the playwright then proves or disproves. It is in a critic's interest to propagate this idea because it makes criticism easier; one can agree or disagree with what they perceive to be the author's conclusion. It is not that a play cannot be quasi-educational, or even overtly political - just that debate should organically arise out of narrative. But this reductive notion persists and has infected playwriting root and branch.”

He talks then about what he calls an infection.

“I can't tell you how often I've asked an aspiring writer what they're working on, and they reply with something like: "I'm writing a play about racism." On further investigation, you find that this play has no story and they've been stuck on page 10 for the past year; yet they're still hell-bent on writing it. You can be fairly sure the play, should it ever be finished, will conclude that racism is a bad thing.

“The writer is not interested in exploring the traces of racism that may lie dormant within their psyche, nor in making the case for selective racism (just to be "provocative"). This is the writer using the play to project their preferred image of themselves; the ego intruding on art; the kind of literary posing that is fed by the idea of debate-led theatre. And if you think that example sounds naive, substitute the word "racism" with "George Bush" or "Iraq" or "New Labour". Sound familiar?”

Kick the ego out of the ways, says Nielson.

“The way to circumvent ego (and thus reduces the risk of boring) is to make story our god. Find a story that interests you and tell it. Don't ask yourself why a story interests you; we can no more choose this than who we fall in love with. You may not be what you think you are - not as kind, as liberal, as original as you ought to be - and yes, the story (if you are true to it) will find that out. But while your attention is taken up with its mechanics, some truth may seep out, and that is the lifeblood of good, exciting art.

And the function of theatre? Audience.

“So tell your story as you wish - but for God's sake, if it plays best as a linear narrative, don't tart it up for the sake of feeling innovative. There's no shame in a good story, well told. Contrary to the popular maxim, do think about your audience. Ask yourself if your non-theatre-going friends or relatives would at least get the gist of it. If they wouldn't, your work is not yet done. (That said, never compromise on the grounds of what they may be offended by. Truth is not always comfortable but a dishonest play is usually dull.)”

And the playwright urges his peers to embrace the medium.

“It is time the "serious" theatre learns this lesson. We have to give the audiences what they can't get anywhere else. Debate they can get in a newspaper. Reality - well, they can get that on TV. We can offer them "liveness", but few plays, or productions, take advantage of this.

“Too many screenplays masquerading as plays and an over-reliance on mixed media have imbued the theatre with a heaviness it's not best suited to. Some may argue that technology is the key to spectacle, but most theatres can't compete with the West End technologically. The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I've heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment. There is nothing more magical and nothing - nothing - less boring.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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