From the NS archive: drama and democracy

In this extract from his 2007 review of Michael Billington’s book “State of the Nation”, Johann Hari

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. 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. He argues that Noël 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.

Theatre became more self-consciously political after Coward, because politics changed. Billington quotes 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."
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 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads