The final act

With more shows every year, you might think that Scotland's annual arts bazaar was alive and kicking

It's over. At the risk of catapulting myself into pole position for the Curmudgeonly Old Git Award (Coga), I have to tell you it's curtains for the Edinburgh Festival. True, this bizarre bazaar is showing no sign of imminent demise. Indeed, were growth the determining factor, the patient would be alive and kicking. After all, where there was just one festival in 1947, there are now at least seven, including the International, Fringe, Book, Film, Military Tattoo, the intercultural weekend Mela and the annual media bun fight (sorry, the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival). And all of them are expanding at an ungainly rate. The Film Festival, Britain's second largest after London's, has 74 UK premieres; the 58th International Festival has roughly 150 opera, classical music, dance and theatre events; and the Book Festival, celebrating its 21st anniversary, boasts no fewer than 550 living authors.

Then there's that triumph of hope over experience, the forever burgeoning Fringe. Its programme, accommodating nothing but listings and advertising, is the size of a telephone directory - 224 pages guiding you (hah!) through Edinburgh's 236 venues hosting 735 companies performing 1,695 shows in 26,326 performances. That's a 10 per cent rise on last year. Hurrah!

But hang on a minute. We're talking art, not merchandise, so why are we so hung up on size? Shouldn't we be vaunting quality over quantity? Not at Edinburgh. Less is no longer more. This is the festival most easily mistaken for a marathon, and every year some schmuck attempts to beat the record for the number of events crammed into 24 hours. Well, good luck to you, but I'm staying out of the running. We may live in a culture where nothing succeeds like excess, but since acting at Edinburgh - I once even took my clothes off on stage - then returning as a critic, I've concluded that you really can have too much of a good thing.

You don't have to go back to the festival's founding year to know that, once upon a time, it was incontrovertibly a good thing. Until the 1980s, the International Festival was a corrective to British performing arts organisations, which largely remained aloof from the rest of the world. Learning by example, however, rivals such as the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) and the Barbican's Bite seasons sprang up, programming grand- scale work from abroad and thereby diluting Edinburgh's brand. Former regulars such as Pina Bausch and Mark Morris have switched allegiance to London's rebuilt Sadler's Wells. The International Festival still commissions brand-new work for a percentage of its ambitious programme, but the rest is available from the international touring supermarket, whose aisles are now crowded with British managements eager to snap it up.

The 1980s also heralded the arrival of one green bottle. The Perrier Award appeared in 1981 - when it went to the Cam- bridge Footlights, whose personnel then included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. Suddenly the media had a focus and comedy was crowned king. OK, I have read the statistics, and comedy accounts for only 23 per cent of activity on the Fringe, but everyone knows it's a month-long trade fair for TV transfer.

Yet the real reason for the supremacy of comedy and the death of drama is cost. All you have to do to be a stand-up is pay for the space, write your material, turn up and talk. Taking plays to the Fringe requires money - lots of it. On top of steep venue charges, there's publicity, advertising, set, costumes, crew and all those pesky actors demanding wages and accommodation, with an estimated 15,629 performers fighting for space.

Worst of all, the (unofficial) average size of a Fringe show audience is, amazingly, 11. That means an awful lot of shows play to nobody. The odds are so stacked against attracting reviews and an audience that established theatre companies no longer play there. The only people who can afford to are students and amateurs. The exception is the minuscule number of companies invited to perform at the Traverse Theatre. Virtually every other venue operates a pay'n'display, open-door policy, but appearing at Scotland's leading new writing theatre guarantees quality control. Perform there, at the Assembly Rooms or at the Pleasance and you also buy in to publicity machines that give you access to the ultimate goal: media coverage. The busiest people in Edinburgh are the hyping, hassling, pleading PRs. Mind you, after countless hours experiencing performances ranging from the witlessly naive to the frankly naff, the PR-lassoed critics may find their standards have gone haywire. Anything with halfway decent dramaturgy is trumpeted as the future of theatre. In the stern light of the inevitable move to London, few shows survive the more sober critical response.

Yes, I know, what about last year's glorious mega-hit Jerry Springer: the opera? Well, a) it had been a media event since its first appearance, in London; b) it was in a prime Assembly Rooms slot; c) it had serious money behind it; and d) it used a celebrity name. In the wake of which, let me tempt you with this year's offerings, which include Jeffrey Archer's Prison Diary - Hell, Killing Paul McCartney and Hitler Sells Tickets. Call me old-fashioned: if that's what makes Edinburgh tick, I may not be a celebrity, but I'm certainly getting out of here.

Hit or miss?

Ian Rankin Edinburgh dead? I think not. More shows than ever selling more tickets than ever. That unique mix of big names and absolute beginners. It's still the only festival where you can arrive a nobody and leave a star (and, occasionally, vice versa). Edinburgh continues to be the perfect venue. For all the professionalism, there are delightful surprises - plays set in public loos or the back seats of cars. Every inch of the city is utilised in a way that larger cities can only dream of. As an Edinburgh resident, I still get excited when the programmes arrive, and spend too much on tickets.

Bonnie Greer The festival is a great institution. The spirit is still there, but with age it has become a little creaky and mainstream. It was hard to perform there when I did, 20 years ago; it's now even harder. What it needs is an alternative - a bit like what Slamdunk has done for the Sundance Film Festival - to give it some juice, more of an edge, and put it back in gear.

Fay Weldon I try to get involved in the Book Festival, which I always think is rather amazing, but I believe that the festival as a whole remains vital. It offers a chance to underfunded performers who long to practise their craft, even if they do so to an audience of two. It would be nice if they all had more money, more time and better venues, but I am rather alarmed to hear the festival damned. I say good for them!

Fiona Shaw I spent August last year in Edinburgh preparing and playing in Peter Stein's The Seagull. The cast and director lived and rehearsed together for a month before - the kind of preparation that is now almost unheard of in British, and indeed European, theatre. Festivals allow a unique approach to work, a cavalier hope and the perfect conditions for once. Edinburgh is a place to see and be seen to experiment, and to be part of success and failure. I hope the curtains stay open, and close only to give us time to reassess and start again.

Arnold Wesker There are always arts doomsters around announcing the end of the novel, the demise of theatre, declaring that this writer has had his day, or that painter is painted out, or the glorious Sixties were not so glorious after all. But here we all are, still creating, and new generations come with innovative work and dreams that festivals such as Edinburgh are the gateway to stardom. Let them dream. If it has to die, it will die of its own black hole. Send the arts doomsters packing.

Miranda Sawyer Edinburgh is like Glastonbury meets the Groucho: the attraction isn't the performances, but the haphazard atmosphere - the blagging into parties, the bumping into people you didn't expect to see and the staying up all night with strangers in odd places. Like Glastonbury and the Groucho, the Edinburgh Fringe (which is the real festival) isn't dying; it's just attracting more mainstream punters, which puts the noses of the we-were-here-first snobs right out of joint.

Norman Lebrecht I don't think Edinburgh is "dead". The Fringe maintains its vitality and remains a good seedbed of fresh talent. The Book Festival goes from strength to strength. However, the official festival is looking pretty pallid; where once it was not to be missed, now there is not much that compels a journey.