Sanity, May 1990
British playwrights are still producing radical drama, writes Paul Anderson, but what they’re doing has changed
The other week, browsing in the bookshop at the National Theatre before going to a play, I came a across Catherine Itzin’s study of political theatre in the seventies, Stages In the Revolution, first published in 1980 and now reprinted. Someone had ‘borrowed’ mine five or six years ago, and because it’s a useful reference book for anyone writing about contemporary British drama, I’d been looking for a replacement for some time. So I bought it, without, however, much intention of reading it again.
Instead, after a week of increasingly serious flicking through its pages, I read it from cover to cover, drawn by Itzin’s portrayal of a theatrical world that only a decade on seems strangely exotic.
It’s not so much that the big names of seventies radical theatre writing have disappeared from view. Indeed, it’s remarkable how many of the playwrights interviewed by Itzin still dominate the scene. David Hare (The Secret Rapture, Racing Demon) and Caryl Churchill (Serious Money) have had their greatest successes in the past couple of years. Howard Barker’s critical reputation has never been higher, with productions of Seven Lears and Scenes from an Execution two of the highlights of the London fringe this year (if the Royal Court and the Almeida can properly be described as ‘fringe’ any more). There have been new plays staged in the past year by Howard Brenton (Hess is Dead), Edward Bond (Jackets II), John McGrath (Border Warfare, John Brown’s Body) and Barrie Keeffe (My Girl, Not Fade Away).
Nor have all the institutions of British radical theatre gone. The spirit of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop is still very much alive, both at its home, the Theatre Royal Stratford East (at the time of writing showing Patrick Prior’s madcap anti-poll tax farce, Revolting Peasants) and elsewhere – the Kilburn Tricycle, Hull Truck, and Cheek by Jowl spring immediately to mind. The Royal Court continues to stage provocative new work, much of it by Women writers. The Almeida in Islington, the Leicester Haymarket, the Glasgow Citizens’ and a host of other theatres throughout the country, many of them small studios, remain committed to experiment. The Edinburgh fringe goes on, albeit somewhat shakily at times. The two big subsidised flagships, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, regularly put on radical interpretations of plays from the canon, revivals and translations of past radical drama, and controversial new work, particularly, but not only, on their smaller stages.
But the Thatcher decade has changed the sorts of plays that playwrights are writing and theatres are staging, and it has killed off many of the smaller theatres and companies, particularly touring outfits and those most involved in radical politics. Edward Bond is still turning out dour far-left polemics (Jackets II is a hysterical sub-Brechtian tale of proletarian insurgency); John McGrath is as committed as ever to class politics.
But whereas in 1978 David Hare could almost seem shockingly iconoclastic when he complained of the ‘demeaning repetition of slogans’ favoured by the ‘slaves of Marxist fashion’ in the theatre, today simplistic didactic leftism is the exception rather than the rule. The theatrical generation of 1968 has abandoned its view of theatre as a tool of the class struggle in the face of declining public subsidy and other intractable realities – not least that the proletarians of Britain show no desire to be proselytised by them.
Meanwhile, younger playwrights (all too few of them because of the tiny number of stages prepared to put on new writing) show no sign of being seduced by their elders’ onetime stances. It’s not that they’re a bunch of reactionaries – no one who has seen anything by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Neil Bartlett or Clare Mclntyre would ever think that. It’s just that agitprop, like all things Leninist, seems these days to be a fraudulent delusion.