David Edgar`s speech on Critics' Conference , Sofia 16.4.08.
When I was three and three quarters, my parents first took me to the theatre. The play was Beauty and the Beast by Nicholas Stuart Grey, and at the first entrance of the masked and fearsome creature, I screamed the place down. Eventually, my behaviour became so disruptive that I had to be removed from the auditorium, and as, conveniently, my aunt was administrator of the theatre, I was escorted backstage to meet the now maskless beast in his dressing room, to shake his hand, to watch him put his mask on again, to shake his hand a second time, and to be taken back into the auditorium. Thus reassured, on his next entrance, I screamed the place down.
I have had good experiences in the theatre since, but none quite like that. A year later I went to the same playhouse to see the same author's Tinder Box – a play full of sinister witches and huge dogs. But this time I was wise. I'd realised something which we will need reminding of every day of this conference – the point Dominic made yesterday – it's all pretend.
Now I know it's not that simple. The border between the real and the unreal can be breached. Some violence in contemporary (gr. drama = czynność, akcja), nazwa używana w I połowie... More is not pretend. Even if violence is pretend there are delinquent activities associated with it – swearing and public nudity – which are actually occurring. Margareta Sorenson will remind us this afternoon of Swedish playwright Lars Noren's habit of putting real people with violent opinions on to public stages. And although, with Sir Philip Sidney, no one believes they really are the gates of Thebes, part of the point of the endeavour is to suspect that disbelief. I used to go to theatre with someone who, knowing what was coming in King Lear, used to shut her eyes for the dividing of the kingdom. Even though the other point of the blinding of Gloucester is that we are being invited to witness its simulation in order to discourage us from such cruelties in real life.
As usually happens, when I was asked by Kalina Stefanova to give a keynote at this conference, I insisted that this wasn't my topic. My plays are notorious for their lack of sex and violence, and although I have upped the violence a bit recently, it doesn't get much beyond the level of the rare fistfight or the odd loud bang. this topic would be of interest, or – like Canon Chasuble's sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness in The Importance of Being Earnest – that my thoughts on any topic could be bent to apply to the subject . As usual, Faust-like, I accepted the pact, particularly as (in this case) your side of the deal was an invitation back to Bulgaria. Finally, and most usually of all, as I came actually to try and write my keynote, as the prospect of speaking real words to an actual conference became more and more terrifying imminent, my hope that I would find some kind of loophole in the bargain seemed increasingly distant.
All I can present is a picture of how my theatre – British theatre – has responded to the events of the last 13 years, since the massacre at Srebrenica finally put paid to the heady optimism of 1989, as we set out on the course from the pan-European dream of what Europeans write as 9/11/89 to the horror of what Americans write as 9/11/01. It's a story that begins with a theatre wallowing in blood and excreta, enacting what had never been enacted, and ends with a theatre shivering in the diagetic chill of third person reportage, directly enacting hardly anything at all.
Five years ago, I attended your Congress in Novi Sad. Like all of the British delegation, I was struck by how much time at that conference – which I enjoyed and valued – was spent in discussing what was variously regarded as the splendid or baleful influence of a very small number of British plays. I had of course known of the popularity of the work of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill in the European theatre – like most regular theatre travellers, I now know the words for "Shopping", "Fucking", "Blasted" and indeed, "Psychosis" in all the language of the expanded EU. I knew – as we were reminded yesterday – that the wave of new British theatre writing that emerged in the mid-90s – known variously, at home, as the Bratpack, in-yer-face theatre, cutting edge theatre and the New Brutalism – was known over here as blood and spunk theatre, cool theatre (this on the basis of an interesting mistranslation of the essay title "Theatre in a Cold Climate"), or as no less than New European Drama. But I hadn't realised the importance of this work in the debates that were going on on this side of the channel. There are topics on which I am not going to agree with Sanja Nikcevic, but I found her argument about the New European Drama intriguing and robust. For her and others, NED was not so much a body of dramatic literature, but the site for a intergenerational power struggle within the European theatre. This reading sees the postwar German repertoire in particular dominated by great auteur directors, leading to the effective expulsion of writers from the rehearsal room and the stage. . By the 90s, however. the work of this distinguished but ageing generation had become intellectually arid, cold and emotionless. Appointed in his 20s to be director of the studio Baracke space at the Deutsches Theatre Berlin, Thomas Ostermeier saw in British plays like Blasted, Shopping and Fucking and later Gagarin Way – and subsequently the work of new German dramatists like Marius von Mayenberg – an opportunity to reenergise European theatre, and to put it back in touch with a young audience.
Critics of this movement, including Dr Nikcevic, go on to accuse the New European Drama of being the brand name of an essentially commercial phenomenon, a view reiterated yesterday by Louise Ghirlando. They argue that for all its shock and awe, NED was as cold and arid as the work it sought to supplant. Some point to falling audience for British NED and its followings and the fact that since he has been appointed to the Schaubuhne in Berlin Ostermeier has reverted to post-war form by returning to the classics – within two years of the conference his updated version of Ibsen's Doll's House toured to the Barbican Theatre in London, followed earlier this year by a similar hatchet-job on Hedda Gabler. Yesterday Tiago Bartolemeu Costa revealed he has mounted the most tired old warhouse of all, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In Britain, the drama of Ravenhill, Kane et al was not part of a directorial but a writerly story. I believe that all the great periods of new writing in the British theatre are share two characteristics: they occured in the wake of great national upheavals; and there was a new audience hungry to comes to terms with consequent social and cultural change. So Shakespeare, 20 years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, interrogates the new Renaissance man, freed from the bonds of feudalism. A decade or so after the defeat of Crnowell's Puritan commonwealth, Wycherley and Etherege challenge as well as celebrate the amoral atmosphere and ethos of restoration London. And the challenge to triumphant industrial capitalism posed by Bernard Shaw, Granville Barker and in his way Wilde comes 20 or 30 years after the zenith of Britain's great industrial and imperial achievements. The British theatre epoch that began in 1956 also addressed the consequences of upheaval in conversation with an audience whose lives were changed by it. The upheaval in question was of course the second world war, and the vast social changes that flowed there from; so, playwrights from John Osborne and Arnold Wesker to the early Edward Bond confronted the consequences of the working-class empowerment, in some cases with enthusiasm, in some cases with alarm. For the generation that followed, forged in the youth revolt of the late 60s, the questions were much more aggressively political. They were about the limits of social democracy and the welfare state, the debate between liberal reform and socialist revolution. In the early 80s, the ground had shifted once more, as young playwrights confronted the questions of difference and identity which had emerged in the 70s and 80s. While in the 90s, in-yer-face dramatists articulated the frustrated agonies of a generation for whom politics was Margaret Thatcher, pleasure was heroin and sex was AIDS. As is well known, these plays were largely about young people, possessed of a cool and sheeny style, and containing the representation of explicit sex, drug-use and violence. Many of these plays also shared a subject, which was, indeed, the dominant theatre subject of the time. The play of the mid 90s address masculinity and its discontents as demonstrably as the plays of the early 60s addressed class and those of the 70s the failures of social democracy. Insofar as masculinity touches on economic, cultural and social issues – most particularly violence and militarism – it is a political subject. There is a criticism – it's been levelled at me – that people living in the comfortable quietude of north-western Europe can know little and should say nothing about the wars which tore Yugoslavia (fr. a part), inaczej: monolog lub zwrot na stronie; wypowie... More. But, certainly, the reemergence of barbarism in late 20th century Europe joined drug addiction and AIDS on the increasingly bloody backdrop against which Kane, Ravenhill, Walsh, Burke, Prichard and others wrote their plays. And, finally, because Mark Ravenhill writes about a generation which can't see beyond next Tuesday or back past last weekend, it doesn't mean he likes it. Among other things, Shopping and Fucking is an elegy for lost political certainties. In Ravenhill's underestimated Some Explicit Polaroids, an AIDs victim who is refusing to take the medication which will save his life, admits: "I want Communism and apartheid. I want the finger on the nuclear trigger. I want the gay plague. I want to know where I am". Similarly, Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way, is about a group of articulate but incompetent anti-globalisation protesters whose hamfisted and finally disastrous capture of a company boss is consciously evocative of the bold political activism of an earlier era. Far from celebrating the death of racial politics, it seems to me that one of the great subjects of in-yer-face theatre is mourning its loss.
It would have been a surprise if, unlike the previous waves, a movement with its finger so obviously superglued to the Zeitgeist would go on for ever. There is no doubt that, after Sarah Kane's suicide in February 1999, in-yer-face theatre suffered a decline. By the turn of the millennium, the increasing dominance of new plays about young people shooting up and sounding off in south London flats led to a justified suspicion that a theatre that sought to diagnose the crisis of masculinity was now merely a symptom of it; that a drama which sought to mourn the end of politics has biodegraded into a drama which demonstrates it. And, predictably, the buzzards started gathering: as is always case when new writing is a temporary dip, post-modern critics in the universities and elsewhere were keen to proclaim text based theatre dead. In this, they found support with the main funding body, the Arts Council, whose latest policy statement for the theatre drops new writing from its production priorities in favour of giving "particular emphasis to experimental practice and interdisciplinary practice, circus and street arts". Bring in the clowns.
Whereas I think that, once again, death of new theatre writing has been much exaggerated. It's too early to look back on the new writing of the noughts with the analytical confidence that we look back on the earlier waves of new writing, in the late 50s, the early 70s, the early 80s and the mid-90s. But it's clear that 9/11 gave new writing a new subject. It's also clear that there is a particular form that has emerged from the need to address terrorism and the war mounted against it. Surprisingly, amazingly, in stark contrast to in-yer-face, that form is essentially cool, distanced, objectified. It is fact-based theatre.
Almost all post 9/11 British political drama can be mapped on a spectrum, calibrated according to its strict fidelity to fact. On the one end, there is strict verbatim theatre, like the series of edited dramatizations of significant trials and tribunals at the Tricycle Theatre in north London, including inquiries into the killing of a young black man in London, Stephen Lawrence, and the suicide of an Iraq-war whistleblower, David Kelly. Then there are factual plays like Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo's Tricycle play Guantanamo: Honour bound to defend freedom, based on edited interviews with prisoners, their relatives and lawyers, and the public record of statements by politicians. Other interview-based plays include Robin Soans' Arab-Israeli Cookbook, a play about the middle-eastern conflict based on interviews about food, and the same author's Talking to Terrorists, which was as its name implies. Further along the spectrum lies David Hare's Stuff Happens, which joined up the dotes of the events from the 9/11 attacks through and beyond the Iraq invasion, in the manner of traditional television drama documentary. Gregory Burke's highly-feted play for the National Theatre of Scotland about the Scottish Regiment the Black Watch and its tour of duty in Iraq was based on interviews with former soldiers and contains what appear to be genuine documents and emails. Further out again are the satirical plays of Alistair Beaton, presenting loosely fictionalised versions of public figures in satirical treatments of subjects like spin-doctoring and royal marriages. While, on the far opposite end of the spectrum to verbatim theatre, writers have been creating plays in which the global and domestic issues raised by the war on terror and Iraq are confronted by representative but fictional characters, set against the background of real contemporary events. Such plays include Roy Williams' recent play for the RSC about British troops in Iraq, Days of Significance. Finally, there is the form I call faction, in which a number of phenomena are conflated and fictionalised in order to present a thesis about their underlying characteristics. This form has the longest pedigree: it includes Frank McGuinness' Someone to Watch Over Me, a factionalised version of the Beirut hostage story, David Hare's An Absence of War, about a generic Labour election failure, and my own The Shape of the Table, The Prisoner's Dilemma and Playing with Fire, which were factional abstractions of the East European anticommunist revolutions of the 1989, the international peace processes of the mid-1990s and the 2001 riots in three northern British towns, Oldham, Burnley and Bradford.
But why fact at all? One way of looking at it is historical. It's worth remembering, that we have been here before. In the 50s and early 60s, the international Theatre of Fact school built plays out of documents, particularly trial transcripts. However, the theory behind these works was very precisely not to explain the phenomena they described. The idea of using documents as opposed to dramatic invention was a kind of abdication: it was saying, after the enormities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the old concepts of cause and effect no longer apply. All the playwright can to is present the documents, naked and unadorned, and you can make what you will of them. In this sense, Theatre of Fact is the other side of the coin of 50s and 60s absurdism. Both of them sought to represent a world they could no longer analyse.
Superficially, verbatim theatre doesn't appear a direct or even bastard descendant of Theatre of Fact in that sense. Of all people, David Hare has not abandoned his mission to explain. But I wonder if, in the deliberate anti-theatricality of the Tricycle tribunals, and the minimalism of Robin Soans' reportage (the question you ask before most verbatim plays is, "is it going to be stools or chairs?"), there isn't an element of, if not abdication, then a desire to present a rather wider configuration of dots for the audience to try and join up. The point about faction is that it's a way of presenting a thesis unencumbered by factual specifics. One advantage of verbatim theatre is that you present factual specifics unencumbered by a thesis.
Then, increasingly, verbatim theatre has become increasingly metatexual, not just sourced from interviews but about interviews. Aleky Blythe's Come Out Eli – a play about an east London siege in which the actors literally have earpieces on which the original interviews are played during the performance – is as much about the process as the product (indeed, it's top and tailed by a reproduction of negotiations between Blythe and a key witness who's only prepared to give an interview in exchange for sex). The Black Watch has scenes which represent the interviews on which the play is based, with the "writer" as a character, in which the interviews express disappointment that the (real and named) female researcher is not part of the interview process (one of the soldiers complains they thought they were going to be "all getting our cock's sucked by this posh lassie"). Similarly, Robin Soans' Talking to Terrorists seemed more about the contrast between the domestic lives and personal mannerisms of its interviewees and the enormity of their subject matter than it was about terrorism (in that sense, it could have been Talking to Environmentalists or Talking to Drug-Dealers). Increasingly, the Tricycle tribunals have been as much about the contrast between the coolness of the inquisitive form and the heat of the events they seek to explicate as about reportage. While the latest Tricycle tribunal play – Called to Account – gave the usual editing treatment to a fake trial of Tony Blair for war crimes; and Dennis Kelly's Taking Care of Baby is a stage version of television mockumentary, an entirely fictional work about a woman wrongly imprisoned for murdering her baby, which effectively fools the audience for at least half its length that it is a real verbatim drama based on interviews about a real case.
So, theatre is addressing important contemporary content at a double distance. By forgrounding the narrative processes (whether interviews or trials), it places inverted commas around the often bloody events it describes. Calling mid-90s British drama "cool theatre" was the result of a mistranslation. Calling the theatre of this decade "cool theatre" is an accurate critical description and, for most of this decade, it kept on getting cooler.
But something else is happening. As verbatim theatre becomes strangled by its own quote-marks, so direct, traditionally mimetic drama may be returning, to treat of our times through fiction. I argued earlier that British new theatre writing has spoken most vividly when it has had a new audience to address and a new subject to worry, in the shared, safe space of dramatic fiction. One recent example of that was the way in which young Asian women flocked in surprising numbers to my own local theatre in Birmingham to see plays by young asian women which addressed their concerns about culture, sexuality, family and faith. (Sadly, there have been many less insightful, dangerous and brave plays on these themes since a group of young Sikh men attacked the theatre and forced the closure of a play called Bezhti, about sexual assault in a Sikh temple, in December 2004).
More recently, a group of older playwrights have been using theatrical fiction to address the dilemma which is tearing apart the liberal, progressive left; how comfortable we feel, or don't feel, to be marching shoulder to shoulder with people who are demonised at home and invaded abroad, but whose beliefs on a whole raft of serious and important issues – from women's and gay rights to free speech – run counter to ours. This is part of the subject of David Hare's highly traditional five hander The Vertical Hour, a hit in New York last year and revived at the Royal Court in London earlier this year. It is also the subject of two works currently in performance in London. One is a fashionably intervalless mosaic play about the tests that Britain and other countries require aspirant citizens to take, of which the longest single strand concerns a liberal English-language teacher in confrontation with a Muslim student who accuses her of discrimination, a play which uses the cut-up techniques of agit-prop theatre to pose questions – like the relationship between the revolutionary students of 1968 to the rebellious Muslims students of today – to which the author has no persuasive answer. The other is a series of sixteen 20 minute plays, performed all over London, many of whom begin in the recognisably cosy world of middle-class consumer liberalism, a world which is challenged and disrupted by both the aggressors and the victims of the war against terror, often literally: in the last play, a group of "artist-facilitators" entering a wartorn country are confronted by a blind woman, her mouth full of blood, who dies in spasms before us on the stage. In a sense, these plays confront the dramaturgy of the noughts with the drama of the 90s, disrupting the icy calm of the courtroom drama with the bloody images of mid-90s in-yer-face. Collectively titled Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, the play series was written, day by day, during last year's Edinburgh Festival, by Mark Ravenhill. The citizenship test play – called Testing the Echo – was written by me.
Five years ago in Novi Sad, I argued that new theatre writing would retain a provocative, oppositional and cutting-edge role in British culture. There is a general view that post-9/11 work, particularly the various forms of fact-based theatre, has not addressed the big questions of the noughts with the certaintly with which preceding generations addressed class and gender. Clearly, the plays I've just referred to – written by men into if not well past their 40s – are not going to provide a vocabulary for post-verbatim British playwriting. It may well be that their subject is not the next big subject of British theatre at all. But I have to say I think it will be among them.
I want to conclude at the beginning. This year British theatre celebrates the 40th anniversary of the abolition of theatre censorship, instituted in 1727, under which, at the pleasure of an office of her majesty's household, British playwrights were forbidden to show two men in bed together, mention venereal disease, criticise the Royal Family, insult friendly foreign powers, or represent God. For 20 years after that, we could believe that the battle for free speech had been won, that any further prosecutions (say, of the Schoolkids OZ or Gay News) were merely the death rattle of a discredite dogma, and that – finally – acceptable infringments of free speech had been narrowed down to Oliver Wendell Holmes' proverbial 1919 proscription against "shouting fire in a crowded theatre and causing a panic". Today, fears about the influence of sexual and violent images, the commodification of all forms of culture, a growing concern for the victims or crime and the emergent movement against criticism of religion are among many factors which have widened the net. Now, Holmes' proscription is no longer just a matter of preventing a stampede: today, shouting fire can be censured for distressing the relatives of people killed in other fires, infringing the rights of the firemen, offending religions for whom fire is a sacred object, and glorifying, condoning or encouraging arson. All of which possibilities arise out of the idea that, fundamentally, deep down, to shout "fire" is to start one.
As Carmelita Celi reminded us yesterday, theatre is by its nature extreme. By enabling us to imagine what it is like to see the world through other eyes (including through the eyes of the violent and the murderous), artistic representation develops capacities without which we cannot live together in societies at all. Defence of free speech is not primarily a matter of the rights of the speaker, but the rights of the listener. In that sense, we all have the right not only to outrage and to terrify, but to be outraged and terrified. After all, what happens at the beginning of Henry the Fifth? A man shouts "fire" in a crowded theatre.