Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Carl Tighe

In Memory

Dramatist, Commentator, Activist , Theatre of Wales , June 7, 2020
In Memory by Dramatist, Commentator, Activist “No one from this school has ever gone to university, and we’re not going to start with you.”

Those words were spoken to Carl Tighe in his schooldays. He went on to prove his headmaster wrong. In 1973 he graduated in English from Swansea University. He left Wales in 1987 and went on to teach in Manchester and to a Professorship in Derby. He became a prolific author across all the genres. The National Library of Wales holds eighteen titles under his name.

Among the drama, poetry and fiction the novel “Burning Worm” was a milestone in his life. Turned down by more than thirty publishers it was picked up by IMPress, a small Manchester publisher. “Burning Worm” won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize.

The novel was based on his experience in Poland. For two years he taught in Wrocław and Gdańsk at a time when the country was at the peak of its material deprivation. “I got asthma”, he said of the time, “as a result of the stress and damp and cold and very poor diet. Sometimes I didn’t eat the whole day.”

He returned to Poland over 1980-81, teaching at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and helping to monitor foreign radio for Solidarność. His PhD in 1994 analysed the relationship of Polish literature and Communism.

Julian Preece, Professor of German at Swansea University, paid tribute: “Carl Tighe was a unique scholar and adventurous individual. He brought back news from Poland in the last decade of the Cold War. He knew more about Polish literature and culture than anyone in the British university sector, though his academic study was Creative Writing”

When Manchester University awarded him a Doctorate of Letters it cited his work on the politics and literature of Eastern Europe and his overall contribution to British literature. John Worthen, Emeritus Professor at Nottingham, knew Carl from their time in Swansea and said: “Carl was one of those people whose political grasp was matched by a searing kind of wit. He could hardly believe what he was seeing and understanding in the world around him - and he could show that devastatingly and always with mordant humour.”

The legacy that Carl Tighe left from the time in Wales is important. He was not just a dramatist, but active in the Theatre Writers Union and a commentator on a period that is thinly documented. Many years ago he sent me copies of the most significant writings.

“Theatre (or not) in Wales” began as a talk at the Sherman, The occasion was an event by Made in Wales “Write On: New Theatre Writing Festival.” It appeared in “Wales: the Imagined Nation”, published by Poetry Wales Press inn 1986. It is a panoramic view of theatre in Wales stretching back to 1503. On new plays, remarkably, “a large slice of the money allocated by the Welsh Arts Council was unspent at the end of the the years 1982-9184 the Torch Theatre and Theatr Clwyd between them managed to spend less than 6% of the WAC's new writing budget.”

The article lists the topics unaddressed in the theatre of Wales. They are every single public topic that made the 1980s the decade what it was.

“New Theatre Writing in Wales” began as a questionnaire and was developed into the introduction to “The Playwrights' Register”, published by Yr Academi Gymreig in 1985. The tone is salty. A competition with a prize of £2000 attracted 159 plays and deserved no winner. A judge: “the standard as a whole was low, showed a lack of knowledge about theatre...the plots and characterisation were generally of a pretty low standard.” Another: “eight of the plays were just readable.”

Carl's article is long and comprehensive. Its final paragraph reads “There are those who persist in seeing a the possibility of a Welsh National Theatre company. Usually they see it as a theatre without writers.”

The dramatist is clear: “Without playwrights there can be no Welsh National Theatre.”

An article for the Theatre Writers Union in 1985 describes an enquiry into the Wales Arts Council by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in the House of Commons. “After a shaky start before the Committee WAC just about managed to pull together a creditable performance” observed the playwright. As for the knight who chaired the Council: “it is clear from the minutes and the evidence that WAC has great difficulty in accepting the advice of its own professional staff.”

An Open Letter to the Arts Council runs to six pages. Its first page reads “In May 1987, after twenty years residence and eighteen years of professional writing, I decided to cease all connection with the Welsh stage...this was a very difficult decision to make...My contribution in this document will be to explain how and why I came to that decision.” In clear and elaborate detail Carl does just that.

Carl knew from his experience in Poland that the role of the writer mattered. He gave his inaugural lecture at the University of Derby, delivered 17th March 2004, the title “Words in War: War in Words”. In the lecture he said:

“For all writers the conscious creation of new work entails dealing with two contradictory impulses. The first is the temptation to use words as they are given, to set down only words which do not cause problems, which can be easily absorbed, which do not challenge. This is, I think, to accept that the writer can make no meaningful intervention in the world and is merely a part of the entertainment industry. The second, opposite impulse, is to seek out and make use of words, to probe meaning, to make it obvious how words are compromised in daily use, to reveal what the user hides.

“A writer must always choose between these two possibilities, must always choose between servility or insolence. For a writer to say what they hear, to record what is happening to words, to be an ear-witness, will always be characterised as an act of aggression by those who do not want these things observed, recorded or dragged to light.”

These are words to ring.

Some writings of Carl Tighe on theatre in Wales can be read on the Commentary section of this site 1st-4th June.

Carl Tighe 26th April 1950- 8th May 2020

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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