On the world stage

<strong>State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945</strong>

Michael Billington <em>Faber & F

The Britain of 1945 seems like an unknowably foreign country now. It was a place where every theatrical performance began with the audience standing in silence for "God Save the Queen". It was a country living on near-starvation-level rations, with a tiny weekly smattering of butter and cheese and meat for every family of four. It was a country populated by people who almost universally frowned on sex before marriage. In State of the Nation, Michael Billington - the Guardian's theatre critic for more than three decades - traces how we got from that chilly, poor, isolated island to here, through the plays that portrayed it.

Those in the theatre world who rage at Billington's writings have always complained that he fetishises a particular kind of theatre, one that is time-pegged and timed-out. His baby is the Shavian state-of-the-nation drama, a genre that, his critics sniff, is no more than a newspaper column pushed on to the stage and made to prance. But, like Billington, I love those plays. Unlike the essentially private worlds of the novel, the television and even the cinema, a work of theatre is a public space. Billington's belief that it should be used as a locus for rethinking the things that affect us all is as old as Aristophanes, and it is daft to think it dissolved some time in the 1970s.

But can you really trace the changing social grooves of a country by looking only at its theatre - a marginal art form? Billington does it, offering strange and compelling political rereadings of playwrights who have usually been seen as apolitical purveyors of theatrical confectionery. For example, he argues that Noë Coward "always hid behind the excuse of being a pure entertainer blessed simply with 'a talent to amuse'. In fact, he was a deeply political writer with a fixed agenda." He believes Coward was "a sentimental reactionary petrified of change" - and shows it with a close reading of the rarely revived plays.

In the hideous Peace In Our Time, first performed in 1946, Coward implies that Britain would have been "better [with] a brief period of Nazi rule than a descent into postwar socialism". The all-knowing character who is plainly Coward's avatar within the play - the butler Creswell - summarises Coward's view at the end: "I drink to Her Ladyship and His Lordship, groaning beneath the weight of privilege but managing to keep their peckers up all the same. Above all, I drink to the final inglorious disintegration of the most unlikely dream that ever troubled the foolish heart of man - Social Equality." This is a voice of unashamed reaction that has always been part of British life, but hadn't then learned to hide behind the polite buzzwords of faux-meritocracy. It is an intriguing historical moment, and worth hauling from some Shaftesbury Avenue archive.

Theatre became more self-consciously political after Coward, because the nature of politics changed. Billington quotes the critic Harold Hobson's belief that in the age of the atom bomb, a purely private theatre was no longer possible. Jane Austen's heroes could conduct their love affairs without really noticing the Napoleonic Wars. No pair of lovers in the 1960s could. He wrote: "A slight miscalculation in places as widely separated and as far from us as Cuba, Berlin or Laos could at any moment result in our own personal annihilation. Therefore we cannot divorce our attention from world affairs. The continuance of our existence depends on them."

Yet the two "political" writers Billington picks out as most interesting have - at best - incoherent politics. I have never understood why John Osborne was considered political at all. How political is it to shriek "fuck you all" 50 times over? Jimmy Porter, his most famous creation, raves that there are no decent causes left in the late 1950s - a time when the final fights against the British empire were being fought, when a quarter of humanity was enslaved by the Soviet Union or Maoist China, and when the United States was crushing democratic governments from Iran to Guatemala. No, this is anti-politics - a glib, self-pitying misanthropy.

Harold Pinter - whose late political works Billington loves - is even more politically problematic. This is a man who skipped from supporting Margaret Thatcher to Michael Foot to Slobodan Milosevic. (Yes, he actually joined the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic.) His most complex political message is that torture is bad. Thanks, Harold.

Does it tell us something about successful political playwrights that their politics are usually a mess? Theatre can, it turns out, frame a political conflict in new and interesting ways - but it can never resolve it. Theatre offers impressions, not programmes; questions, not answers. (David Hare's plays die the moment the characters begin to intone The Message.) That is partly why a great political playwright can actually be one whose politics you profoundly disagree with. My favourite is Tom Stoppard, whose pessimistic conservatism is almost the diametrical opposite of my own beliefs. His questions are glorious. At times, Billington seems to miss this. He praises writers whose moderate socialism he agrees with, such as J B Priestley, and tends to sniff at those on the other side of the theatrical house, no matter how brilliant.

Billington has written an impressive work of polemic nonetheless, vehemently defending his vision of theatre. He is less good at the other side of theatre criticism: reporting. Even though he has seen more than 8,000 plays, it is rare that he gives us a sense of what it was like to witness a specific production, in the way that, say, Kenneth Tynan does in his criticism. He doesn't make a play come alive again with language. He occasionally even seems to poke any evocative power away with the deadening clichés of critic-ese. As A A Gill recently asked - who ever describes plays in everyday speech as "memorably revived" or "incomparable"? Theatre critics so often say a play left them "breathless", that I have begun to wonder if maybe they are all just asthmatic.

But Billington has defended political theatre with an astonishing bank of knowledge, and with right on his (strictly leftish) side. Somewhere, Aristophanes is smiling on this book.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered