Unfortunately, it is the spirit of risk management in the arts that has corralled the modern playwright into taking photographs from the known world. Rather than holding a mirror to society through the creation of fiction born of fact, modern plays reflect a quality that, more than ever, is too anchored in the rational world and too prone to offering information over drama. Pinter would be turning in his place of rest.
An example is Tricycle Theatre’s response to the riots in Britain in 2011. Such verbatim theatre leaves little for the imagination, despite a keen devotion to pluralism. Moreover, such plays have a limited lifespan, despite currency that gives them gravitas and sales dollars. Plays should be much more than a populist scoop or a disposable act of cultural realignment. For the accountant, sadly, artistic imagination is too terrifying. The issues-based play is the new symphony.
The ideal… a case for Harold Pinter
It’s not a compliment for an illustrator to be compared to a photographer.
This requires great courage on behalf of the modern playwright to not over expose the image (the working title of this essay fragment ‘Pub. 1977. Spring’ is the first note from scene one in Harold Pinter’s work from 1977, ‘Betrayal’. The modern artistic director or script reader would probably demand specificity, or ‘verification’ as Pinter himself would have lamented); but above all it requires patience to not reach for the loudest sound, the most obvious shape, or the most immediately newsworthy idea.
The story of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Hothouse’ is interesting. Written in 1958, he left it alone for more than twenty years until the play premiered in 1980. The ambiguous institution that is the setting for this work and the ensuing bureaucracy stemming from it are clearly adaptable to all eras. It is subject to interpretation: it could be the NHS; it could be an asylum, and a comment about a nation’s treatment of its mentally ill. Ask the full houses that attended the Trafalgar Studios production in Whitehall in 2013 if their experience was lessened by the absence of absolute facts. They seemed to find the language manageable as well, and no less relevant or obscure by the sheer excess of words – that landed like jewels from within a thankfully sparse design.
Indeed, it was often the absence of certainties that transmitted a play to wider levels of interpretation. ‘The Birthday Party’, Pinter again, is a seminal example. In Goldberg and McCann, we happily concede to not absolutely comprehending two of the greatest characters ever written. Naturally, the play was a commercial flop at the time of its premiere in 1958.
The lack of absolute contemporariness is also the key ingredient in a play’s endurance. Shakespeare’s Tempest was ostensibly relevant to a society that was starting to dominate the world. One would have expected its stocks to rise by the fact that the ‘new world’ had recently been discovered. Perhaps human beings of the early seventeenth century genuinely were debating the soul, or the responsibilities of a civil society in relation to the ‘uncivilised’ or indigenous natives of the Americas. However, the play is not specific as to place or geography. It is an island. Somewhere. There is no mention of Bermuda and what that conjures, much less Jamestown, Virginia. The title does not help us either, other than suggesting the significance of a storm.
It is little wonder that ‘The Tempest’ gained little immediate attention – yet, had Shakespeare written an issues-based play drawn from the ethical and rational considerations of Europeans discovering the new world (sans magic), and provided a title that offered greater specificity, we wouldn’t be reading it today. Furthermore, it is the amalgamation of sources that influenced the play – as opposed to a single popular event – that has guaranteed its immortality. Shakespeare certainly understood the long game.
Although I was a privileged theatre-goer during my period of study in London (and in two subsequent trips), where I completed an MA in Theatre Directing, I was also witness to prominent new writing theatre companies programming cabaret, music and dance. My experiences have reinforced the view that the quest for more measurable and immediately consumable subject matter in theatre has made language less prevalent and more linear. It is a war against uncertainty, and from Melbourne to London, the Aristotelian language-based play is under tremendous threat. Language decline is not just a problem for art and theatre. To reduce language jeopardises access and works against equality in society, by limiting the expression of thoughts and ideas.
To the modern playwright: news is for issues. Information is the natural enemy of the dramatic situation. Just because it happened doesn’t make it news; just because it’s of popular significance doesn’t make it drama. Just because we cannot completely unlock a subject has never diminished our capacity to enjoy it.