Don't slip on the media's banana skins

Umberto Ecoargues that society is ill: the press is full of gossip, and only the rich want privacy

I haven't had time to read today's paper yet, but I might just as well not read it, because I saw the news on the telly last night: the deaths of famous people, natural catastrophes, hotbeds of war - it told me everything I need to know. I could have bought a newspaper to find out the exchange rates, but I have a free subscription to an international service on the Internet, which e-mails me daily the lira's value against all other currencies in the world, including those of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.

So what could I possibly get from a newspaper that would make it worth reading as I ride on the train or drink my coffee? Gossip. We find ourselves faced with a cosmic phenomenon: gossip is becoming the number one interest of the written press. If you count the number of pages and columns devoted to Monicagate compared with Irangate, you'll see that gossip is the raw material of information today.

When there was a murder in the Vatican recently, the whole press corps moved into action even before it was known who had fired the shots. The papers were full of complicated, implausible explanations. The murder, we were told, involved a love triangle or a homosexual relationship. Or the colonel of the Swiss Guard was a Stasi spy. (Even if he were a Stasi spy, this would not explain the murder at all.) This is a big crisis for information.

Until recently, it seemed to me that certain problems concerned only the Italian press. However, the Clinton case has shown that this is not true. Paris-Match has shattered the myth that the French press is not concerned with the private life of its presidents. This is a big issue connected with the problem of democracy, because when the media's chief concern is gossip, it means that society is ill.

This illness was bound to infect the Internet. The sites that spread metropolitan legends may be more numerous than those that send me the exchange rates every morning. Anyone who has an intellectual profession today, for example, is besieged by the press with questions about the horrors that will usher in the year 2000. The story is going about that there were horrors at the first millennium, so the world's press is looking for the horrors of the second millennium. But when journalists tell you that there are Satanic sects, astral sacrifices, ufologists, you can tell them that they all already existed at the beginning of this century. People couldn't care less; they are thinking about booking New Year's Eve 1999 in Fiji or the Maldives. There are no horrors in store for the year 2000, and no one thinks there is except the media, which is doing its best to create them.

So gossip is one problem about the mass media. A second is privacy. There has never been so much talk about privacy as there is today. Italy has even set up an authority on privacy. Although I am not a sociologist, I shall venture to make some sociological remarks. (In any case, philosophers are allowed to talk about everything.) There has never been an age like ours, in which the masses did not desire privacy. People constantly make an exhibition of themselves in public, discussing their family problems on TV talk shows, rambling on about their sexual, financial and health problems on their mobile phone as they ride along in the train. Some even become serial killers to get into the papers.

Who wants privacy? Only a few rich people. Gianni Agnelli hasn't got a mobile, nor has Bill Clinton. The masses, for reasons I won't go into here, yearn for status symbols, throwing privacy to the winds. But the status symbol is no longer the indication of excellence, but of mediocrity, because it is sold at a low price to everyone (except the Rockefellers, Clintons and Yeltsins of this world).

What privacy can we still defend when no one wants it to be defended? Yet privacy is a value. I think the main problem is not how to defend the citizen's privacy, but how to educate the citizen to recognise privacy as a value. This is a problem for the press as well.

I should like to remind people in finance that it was Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo who first described the media's impact on the banking world. In order to ruin the banker Danglars, the Count of Monte Cristo alters a message coming over the wire; false news arrives and the stock market crashes; Danglars is ruined. So, the first lesson for national and international bankers is: don't trust the media.

I should like to end with a brief anecdote that I find instructive: we have all heard about the danger of slipping and falling after stepping on a banana peel. I think every language has an expression like, "he slipped on a banana peel". But I have read that it's not true that banana peel makes you slip. There is no physical-chemical element that makes a banana peel more slippery than a squashed tomato, a grape pip, or a pear skin. So why are we so sure that banana peels make us slip? Because in the first slapstick comedies, when a person had to slip, the alternative was dog mess on the pavement. Out of prudishness, the banana peel was invented as something particularly efficacious and visible. So all our language, our knowledge of the world, our way of walking along the street, is determined not by an electronic falsification put out today on the Internet, but by a deformation constructed by the media.

But where did I read this news? In a newspaper. Perhaps this should make us confident, in the end, of the information circuit's almost biological capacity to heal the very wounds it inflicts.

A longer version of this article first appeared in "The Journal Aspenia" (Rome), winter 1998 issue

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Romola Garai in The Writer.
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The Writer at the Almeida: a drama which tries to have its meaning-cake and eat it

This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

God, the Almeida’s new production knows how to push my buttons. “Don’t you know how hard it is to write a play?” one character shouts at another, two-thirds of the way through. Every fibre of my being wanted to scream back: “Try working down a mine!”

The Writer is an endlessly tricksy piece, trying to have its meaning-cake and eat it, showing you scenes and then immediately undercutting them with meta-narrative. What is it about? Good question. Impossible question. It begins with a young black woman (Lara Rossi) who has left her bag behind in the theatre. On her way out, she is cross-questioned by an older, effortlessly middle-class white man (Samuel West) about the play she’s just seen.

Her criticisms of the state of modern theatre are brutal: women are there to be judged on their looks, while we wait to hear what men will say and do. Girls in hotpants present themselves like animals on heat; actresses are encouraged to get naked on the thinnest of pretexts, when it’s very hard to be both topless and truly empowered. Even worse, the director “added a rape” because that’s seen as being both titillating and “edgy”.

I agreed with all this checklist of chauvinism, and I even recognised the lazy, patronising indulgence of the powerful man trotting out the usual defences in response. Surely, he says, you don’t want to ban people being sexy? The woman points out that she was talking about rape, not sex. Also, doesn’t he recognise her? She knows he directed the play she just watched. He once told her that her anger was impressive six years ago, when she was a student, and that she could have a career in the theatre. (Yes, apparently anger is a proxy for creative ability, which is why the YouTube comments section swept the board at the Oliviers.) Then he tried to kiss her. She didn’t want to accept a job on such compromised terms.

And – scene. Ho ho ho, what we’ve just been watching was, of course, a workshop of a new play. Perched on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, as if taking part in a post-show talk, The Writer (Romola Garai) is chided by another older white man (Michael Gould) that it’s too angry, too lacking in nuance. The problem is: while he is patronising, he is also right. It might have been entirely correct in its sentiments, but as drama, it only had one gear. If I wanted to watch people identify genuine problems with thumping earnestness and zero self-awareness . . . well, there are plenty of left-wing op-ed columnists for that.

This self-referentiality persists throughout. We get a scene with The Writer and her boyfriend, where he wants her to take a film job and she is too principled to do it. They have bad sex on the sofa he has just bought for her. The first scene had mentioned the cheapness of bringing a real baby on stage (a clear dig at The Ferryman), so a real baby is brought on stage. The audience coos appreciatively, because it’s impossible to resist millennia of genetic programming, even when you want to look cool and self-aware.

Then Romola Garai’s character monologues about having a contraceptive coil fitted, which then slips into a story of her swimming through a lake to a lost world where she has lesbian sex outdoors and feels happy for the first time not to experience the male gaze. (I don’t remember there being an obvious segue between the coil and the alfresco cunnilingus.) This "tribal shit" is no way to end a play, says Michael Gould’s Director, who has turned up stage-right. It’s not as good as your angry first scene. Again: the annoying man has a point.

Then he tells the Writer he’s only giving her these notes because he thinks she’s brilliant, which feels like incredible chutzpah in a drama which will inevitably be read as thinly veiled autobiography. (There's another moment like this, when The Director tells her that you can't write a play where the protagonist is endlessly self-involved, and she shoots back: "Hamlet!" It's a great joke, but it does also set the bar quite high for how good the rest of the writing has to be.)

The final scene also features The Writer, this time with her girlfriend, in a smart apartment, eating curry. She’s just handed in a project and wants to relax by going to her girlfriend’s bar to do something “manual” and switch her brain off. Her girlfriend gives her the same unimpressed look at this Marie Antoinette dilettantism that half the audience do.

The couple then have bad sex on the sofa. The Writer, who is clearly now rich and successful, is just as inattentive to her partner’s enjoyment as her boyfriend was before – edging towards the point made by Naomi Alderman’s The Power that it’s not some innate property of the Y chromosome which creates sex inequality, and therefore gender roles could plausibly flip one day. Give a woman a financially dependent, less outwardly successful partner and she can play all the subtle, controlling tricks we associate with rich old men.

I watched The Writer twice; once in previews, and the leaner, tighter version displayed on press night. I enjoyed it more the second time, because - whatever else you can say about this play - it elicits a strong response. Knowing that it would provoke me, not always intentionally, cleared my mind to notice the pacy direction and mostly strong performances by the cast.

In a way, I’m grateful. The Writer has made me think as much as any play I’ve seen this year. It’s prompted a series of searching conversations with the handful of other people I know who’ve seen it. (It also prompted eye-rolls at all the male critics who clearly felt boxed into being nice about it on pain of being identified as Lead Patriarchal Oppressor of British Theatre.) This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

That said, I do resent the meta-theatricality, usurping my right to my own responses by telling me constantly how to feel about what I’ve just seen. The text tries to pre-empt criticisms by voicing them within the play - this is boring, this is too angry, this doesn’t have an ending - when it could work harder to rebut them instead. Are we meant to see The Writer’s complaints about the difficulty of creative work as heartfelt sentiments, expressed with refreshing candour? Most writers I know, male and female, feel similarly, self-indulgently wronged by a world where reality TV is more popular than whatever they’ve slaved over for months. They are just clever enough not to say these things in public, where you might end up talking to, say, an intensive care nurse. Yes, there are flicks of knowingness here and there, but how much ironic distance is there between The Writer’s view of herself and the text’s, in the end? (The play's author, Ella Hickson, has spoken of her dismay at hearing the audience laugh when the female character says at the start that she wants to "dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy", as if that's evidence that we have lost confidence in the transformative power of theatre. But there's a difference between a character expressing ambition and one with a messiah complex. Put it this way: I've written some fairly scorching thinkpieces, but I don't think any of them will stop Brexit. And the closest theatre has recently come to making me want to smash capitalism is when I realised how much I'd spent on tickets to see the binbag-themed Macbeth at the National.)

The Writer invites us to hold it to a terrifyingly high standard, by presenting itself as dangerous – a vivid j’accuse to hidebound theatrical traditions and smug audiences. It elides criticisms of West End celebrity-driven flam and the lazy, highbrow male gaze merchants of the subsidised sector. Its few identifiable targets are not always the most obviously deserving of scorn. (I didn't much like The Ferryman, but there was a proper play hidden under the Riverdance and haunted grandmas.) In the first scene, there’s a glancing reference to Laura Wade’s play Posh, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. It was watched and enjoyed, says the young woman, by exactly the same establishment it sought to satirise. The choice of example sits oddly in a jeremiad against patriarchy, because this was a rare new-ish play both written by a woman and directed by one. Is The Writer on the side of these women struggling to be heard in a male-dominated industry? It doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps Posh should have featured a scene where we were told that the Bullingdon Club is bad, as is capitalism generally, just to hammer the point home? But that’s absurd, because there is no way that play left the audience in any doubt that they were meant to despise the Oxbridge window-smashers. Perhaps some people are simply beyond the reach of theatrical guilt-trips.

The Almeida has had an astonishing run over the last year, with awards and West End transfers raining from the heavens. But the Writer – inevitably – suggests on stage that her play has only been programmed because it would have been too awkward for a white middle-class male artistic director to reject it, in the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo. I didn’t like the audience’s knowing, indulgent laughter in that moment. It felt like the joke was on us, and we didn’t know it.

The Writer runs at the Almeida, London, until 26 May

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition