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19 December 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:23am

Let’s hear it for state-sponsored depravity at the theatre

Why the Mail's Quentin Letts is wrong to attack shocking plays subsidised by public money.

By Alan White

Sitting on a shelf above my desk is a large, tattered black book, entitled Landmarks of Modern British Drama: The Sixties (1985). I bought it years ago, back when I was a schoolboy drama student. It contains the scripts of seven plays:

Roots, by Arnold Wesker,
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, by John Arden,
The Caretaker, by Harold Pinter,
A Patriot for Me, by John Osborne,
Loot, by Joe Orton,
The Ruling Class, by Peter Barnes

. . . and one other, which I’ll come to later. Around the time I bought this book I’d became something of a theatre obsessive, because the discounts given to drama students allowed me cheap entry to all sorts of West End plays. Some were very bad. Others I remember, with joyous clarity, many years on: David Suchet in Amadeus, Stephen Daldry’s chilling An Inspector Calls (complete with collapsing house), Jennifer Ehle’s mesmerising turn in The Real Thing.

I was fortunate enough to watch some fantastic drama. But I would have given it all up for the chance to watch the original productions of the plays in this book.

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Look Back in Anger, performed at the Royal Court in 1956, changed everything. 1950s British theatre was sentimental and inconsequential, a ping-pong of trivial banter in drawing rooms. Suddenly Jimmy Porter burst onto the scene, railing against the middle classes and the Establishment, and the theatrical world was turned on its head. Of course there had been social theatre before; George Bernard Shaw’s portentous offerings the most well-known, but not one of his characters’ speeches could compare with Jimmy Porter’s electrifying rage.

Jimmy: There is no limit to what the middle-aged mummy will do in the holy crusade against ruffians like me. . . I knew that, to protect her innocent young, she wouldn’t hesitate to cheat, lie, bully and blackmail. Threatened with me, a young man without money, background, or even looks, she’d bellow like a rhinoceros in labour . . .

How shocked the middle-aged, middle-class patrons of the Royal Court must have been by such blunt language. The writers that followed Osborne were of the left, but they were no preachy, artistic dullards. Just as they revolutionised theatrical themes, so they subverted form — the three act play went out of the window, to be replaced by pastiche, songs and poems. The lives of people like Jimmy Porter were chaotic. Form had to mirror subject.

The hype surrounding this imaginative, idealistic (and, yes, often misguided) movement had knock-on effects that went far beyond the action on the stage. Writing was less rarefied: only John Arden, of the playwrights included in Modern British Drama, had a university education. Re-reading Roger Cornish’s introduction to the anthology we’re reminded that in the 1960s, Jennie Lee was appointed Undersecretary in the Department of Education and Science, with special responsibility for the arts; as a result, Arts Council subsidies rose on an unprecedented scale.

In Cornish’s description of all this, I couldn’t help but be struck by this passage:

. . . let it be announced that the editors of these volumes are Americans . . . we especially value in the British drama of the last thirty years what seems missing from most American drama of the period: passionate concern for the quality of the national life, the energy of intelligent scepticism, and a sense of historical immediacy . . . For a brief time in the thirties, serious American dramatists had a strong social and political orientation that promised to revitalise American drama…but when the Federal Theatre Project, the first government-supported theme in American history, ended in 1939 . . . such themes began to disappear . . .

Imagine English theatre without the Royal Court, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the network of regional reps! Their survival depends on the local, regional and national arts subsidies that, instead of demanding instant financial success, permit experimentation and possibility of excellence.

My italics. But first let’s dwell for a moment on those three traits that our American friends deem so important: “passionate concern for the quality of the national life, the energy of intelligent scepticism, and a sense of historical immediacy.” These are not left- or right-wing qualities. They are simply things that good, vigorous theatre can have. It would be a a grave disservice to characterise any of the plays in Modern British Drama as left-wing diatribes. They’re complex, nuanced works of art, concerned with class and politics; rarely do they proffer simple lessons or answers.

Well-spent arts education money has an impact far beyond its surface aims. I think of the love of theatre I developed thanks to the cheap ticket prices I was afforded as a teenager. On the surface, it achieved little. I was neither a talented enough actor nor an imaginative enough director to have a career in the theatre. But years later, as a provincial teacher, I was still inspired enough to instigate and co-produce an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Sixth Form students directing and acting. The director of that play, on his first full-length project, did an astounding job. He’s now a successful young London director. Of course I wouldn’t claim credit, but no doubt it helped set him on his path.

All this brings me to the final play in Modern British Drama. It’s a play written in 1965 by a then young, working class man who had joined the Royal Court’s writers’ circle. His name was Edward Bond and the play, Saved, is about a group of poor young people in South London. It features one shocking scene, in which a baby is stoned to death by a group of youths. It is a play that twenty years later its author described in Modern British Drama as, among other things, “irresponsibly optimistic” and “formally a comedy”. The reason is that the chief character is “naturally good, in spite of his upbringing and environment, and he remains good in spite of the pressures of the play.”

The most obvious pressure is the callousness of his friends. Of the baby-stoning scene, the author had this to say: “The scene is typical of what some people do when they act without restraint . . . Everyone knows of worse happenings. This sort of fury is what is kept under painful control by other people in the play, and that partly accounts for the corruption of their lives.” More provocatively, he adds: “Compared to the ‘strategic’ bombing of German towns it is a negligible atrocity, compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children its consequences are significant.”

He goes on to say: “If we are to improve people’s behaviour we must first increase their moral understanding, and this means teaching morality to children in a way they find convincing.” And interestingly, in the light of this week’s speech by David Cameron, he concludes: “Yet almost all the morality taught to our children is grounded in religion. This in itself makes children morally bewildered — religion has nothing to do with their parents’ personal lives, or our economic, industrial and political life, and is contrary to the science and rationalism they are taught at other times…morals cannot be slapped on superficially as a social lubricant . . . that means teaching, oddly enough, moral scepticism and analysis, and not faith.”

That, at least, is what the author says the play is about. Viewers may differ in their view of how successfully Bond explores these themes. But his intention — and most critics agree, his achievement — is to present them with an open mind. The recent revival of this play was warmly received: even this cursory summary should make clear that its themes carry huge relevance in Britain in 2011.

One critic, of course, dissented: Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail. For him, “Bond is a dogmatic clunker, so intent on his nihilistic sermonising he forgets the truth of human love.” I’d argue the final scene of the play portrays entirely the opposite. But our divergence of opinion is very much by-the-by, because his review is now synonymous with this blog post from Dan Rebellato, in which he accuses Letts of ringing up the sponsors of the Hammersmith Lyric and pointing out the nature of the work they were sponsoring.

I should make absolutely clear that Letts subsequently got in touch with Rebellato and denied making these calls. However, as Rebellato points out, even if he didn’t, the subject of theatre funding seems to have long been a cause of concern for the Mail’s theatre critic. In his review of Saved he looks around the audience and sees “at the state-supported Lyric . . . teenagers on some sort of educational trip (paid for from public funds?)”

These teenagers, like Letts, were apparently rather bored. According to Letts they played on their mobile phones, ate sweets and sighed. In another piece on the play he wonders if Children in Need, the Big Lottery Fund, Help a Capital Child, Hammersmith and Fulham’s Children’s Commissioning and others “know what is being done with their money”. In his review of Sarah Kane’s Blasted he notes, “I’m sure Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will be intrigued by the way [the Lyric] uses its public subsidy”. Reviewing Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade he describes it as a “shocking waste of money”.

And it’s in this final review he really warms to his theme. Describing his ennui at the hideous things he sees on stage and citing a number of other explicit works currently being staged he asks: “Should we be proud that we are so tolerant of the way our art handouts are used? Or should we beware the trashing of communal manners?” What follows is a tired old rant:

Does subsidised theatre not have, in part, an obligation to raise us up as a civilisation? What comes first? A violent society or a layer of intellectuals who so glamorise violence that the rest of society thinks it can behave that way with impunity?

Artists claim to be powerful. Very well, let them use their power to mend our country instead of simply ‘reflecting’ it.

As the Mail‘s drama critic, I still try to warn readers when shows have bad language and violent sex, because I know such things continue to anger many of you. Communal decency has not yet been engulfed . . .

My 16-year-old self, who attended all those shows in part thanks to state handouts, would certainly have agreed with him on Marat/Sade. It’s a bloody terrible play; a more tedious evening would be hard to find. And I’d have been pleased to see that the reviewer understands the play’s intentions — he explains the concept of Brechtian alienation before asking a (sort of) reasonable question: “The characters were so stripped of humanity that I cared about them not one jot. At what point does alienation technique become plain disengagement?”

But even back then I feel I would have questioned Letts’ notion that subsidised theatre has an “obligation to raise us up as a civilisation”. Letts offers absolutely no definition of what this improving art looks like. I wonder if The Importance of Being Earnest fits the bill? I suspect it appeals to his somewhat-manufactured, snarky conservatism. Of course, its author once wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written.”

And one of Oscar Wilde’s major arguments — especially in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” (1889) — is that Victorian society’s stability lies in its lack of self-questioning and its readiness to assume the veracity of its cultural assumptions. The resulting ignorance creates a confusion in which behaviour appropriate to the sphere of ethics is prescribed for the more abstruse, transcendent sphere of Art (“There is no essential incongruity between crime and culture”), meaning that English ideals are emotional rather than rational in their motives.

The confusion is embodied by journalists like Letts: indeed, Wilde is able to joke that the murderer Thomas Wainewright’s “worst sin” is his influence on the trade. This doesn’t mean that art, for Wilde, can’t have moral value. As a student, Wilde was confronted by two different readings of Aristotle’s philosophy of art appreciation in The Nichomachean Ethics. John Ruskin argued that theoria was the most important ideal. This view argues that the ability to contemplate allows one to “have true knowledge of human power and human worth [which is] simultaneously the means to and the end of the good life”. By contrast, Wilde’s other mentor, Walter Pater, felt that energia (or heightened consciousness) was more important than conduct in Aristotle’s philosophy: his materialist perspective argues for “aesthetic hedonism based on individual contemplation and enjoyment of sensual experience”.

Oddly, the famous hedonist Wilde took Ruskin’s side: he argues that the production and contemplation of non-mimetic art is far truer to the self, and therefore encourages development of the individual.

Now Wilde was a much better dramatist than the continental bores of the 1960s. His (far more effective) device was to be slightly unbelievable, to be selective in how much of his work reproduces fact. That’s why he referred to the creative process as “lying”. Art is only what you bring to it: not the creed of some trendy continental relativists, but a Victorian genius schooled in the Classics.

So no, the depiction of “depravity” is no reason to scrap state subsidy. But there’s a more fundamental reason why I think my teenage self would have argued both Marat/Sade (a bad play) and Saved (a good play) should be subsidised. It’s because the staging of them carries historical weight. Back then I wanted to be a good director, and I realised it would require a great deal more than an understanding of Stanislavsky and naturalistic techniques.

Without Epic theatre or Theatre of Cruelty productions like Marat/Sade, performances such as those I mentioned earlier — Daldry’s An Inspector Calls, in particular — would never have happened. These techniques have become ingrained in British art, especially comedy and satire, from Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War right the way through to Blackadder Goes Forth and the League of Gentlemen. Such works, which I’ve no doubt Letts has enjoyed — or at least not found “boring” — don’t exist in a vacuum. If you want to appreciate them fully, you need to understand where they come from. You have to watch them. Theatre doesn’t exist on the page: the script is barely the half of it. So I have no qualms with influential plays being staged nor subsidised, however dull or repulsive they may be.

After Reballato’s post was published, the Guardian writer Stephen Moss joined in a conversation I was having on Twitter and wrote: “Letts is a very good writer. Problem is he treats politics as theatre and theatre as politics.” It’s spot on. I don’t know if the latter is because of a Wikipedia-level understanding of art or a simple desire to play to his chosen gallery. But his attacks on the funding of controversial plays aren’t just boring: they threaten the quality of our nation’s future output.

Alan White’s work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.

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