Friday, 30 January 2015

Refusing the premises

[or: could David Edgar just stop this now, please?]

Another day, another article by David Edgar alleging a conspiracy against playwrights and playwriting (or playwrighting, depending), this time in the Guardian (there was one I didn’t even bother reading in The Stage before Christmas, I think. Let’s just assume it says more or less the exact same stuff).

The problem with this article Edgar keeps writing is that it bears little relation to reality, to the point of seeming deliberately disingenuous. Worse; this iteration ignores evidence; uses unverifiable, single-source, anecdotal evidence; merrily mixes time periods from the 1960s to the present day; and egregiously ignores context. All to debunk an idea that NO ONE IS PROPOSING.

So, let’s have a look at this thing so we can put it to bed once and for all. Again.

The problems start in the third paragraph:

“... playwrights became increasingly concerned that the kind of experimental company they’d learned their craft with was no longer using playwrights to write shows but devising them from scratch themselves.”

But that’s surely the business of those companies? Note that it’s not *the* companies that these unspecified playwrights “learned their craft with”, but “the kind of...”. And this ignores “the kind of experimental company” that *was* still “using playwrights”. Wasn’t 2006 the year that writer Al Smith’s company, Kandinsky, produced *two* totally different productions of of Lucy Kirkwood’s Geronimo? Wasn’t Ella Hickson’s Eight in 2008 again produced by precisely the same sort of company? So what if some other emerging theatre makers preferred making work in other ways?

“Having battled, as we saw it, for new work against old, we sensed the drawing of a new fault line, between a dusty, out-of-date text-based drama (everything from Electra to Educating Rita) and a vibrant, innovative theatre based on devising and physically-based performance. In 2005, Guardian critic Lyn Gardner’s article celebrating the Edinburgh fringe programme was headlined ‘Playwrights? They’re so last year’.”

Yes, it was. Because sub-editors tend to choose the most inflammatory, click-baity headline they can think of. Lyn didn’t write that headline, as well you know, David. The actual conclusion of Gardner’s infinitely sensible article, which was merely pleased that some other stuff was *also* being given a chance, is:

“Too often those working in classical or new-writing theatre and those working in visual or physical theatre have viewed each other with distrust. The time has come to strike a balance. Maybe this year’s Edinburgh Fringe will go down in theatre history as the time that started to happen.”

Wise words a decade ago, and perhaps ones worth remembering now. (Except, I’d argue it’s mostly only David Edgar espousing distrust now.) Hell, the history books have already been written. Duška Radosavljevic’s Theatre Makingmy own modest take on the 2000s in Decades, and many more, have already called time on this needless wrangling and conflict, highlighting the syntheses, diversity, and general positive atmosphere all round in theatre-making by the end of the 00s.

Edgar goes on to note the catastrophic pre-2008-overhaul Arts Council making some noises about circus, but then doubles back to note that the British Theatre Consortium’s 2009 survey which finds that new plays are thriving. He concludes: “So to put it mildly, the death of the British playwright” which NO ONE HAD CLAIMED “has been greatly exaggerated”. Well, if you invent a lie yourself, it’s pretty easy to disprove it, right?

“However,” Edgar contunes “there are two clouds on the horizon.”

One is the result of the austerity cuts. Which is unarguable. Although it seems a shame that Fin Kennedy’s In Battalions report focussed solely on New Writing and not all forms of theatre, which, it seems fair to assume, are all similarly pinched, at risk, and embattled.

“The second cloud is this: playwrights’ concerns about work devised by performers is not just about protecting the presence of their craft within the industry... It’s that, for at least a generation, there has been an orthodoxy in university theatre departments that playwriting is an inherently hierarchical practice, promoting a false and reactionary view of the world.”

This would be the same “generation” during which David Edgar started the first playwrighting MA course at a British university and which saw an exponential growth in such courses across the country? The same decade when virtually every subsidised theatre started a young writers’ group? Where playwriting courses of every imaginable stripe blossomed in the UK?

I’m not even convinced that this “orthodoxy” exists. It certainly doesn’t exist in the work of any academic I know at all. Not any of the five or six leading academics who contributed to each of the six books in the Methuen Decades series on British Playwrights. Not in the work of theorists like Nick Ridout, whose work encompasses all manner of productions of texts ranging from Shakespeare to Chris Goode, alongside films by auteur and writing *on* theatre by the likes of Walter Benjamin. Surely the growing body of scholarship on playwrights like Martin Crimp and Simon Stephens points to a serious, dedicated, and ongoing admiration of playwrights by the academy. (Indeed, of the two chapters for academic books on which I’m lucky enough to be working, the first concerns Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek plays and the second: interviews with directors of the plays of Simon Stephens. Nothing could be more text-based or less “devised” (in the sense that Edgar intends), surely?)

Maybe *some* academics do espouse those views. While others, perhaps, cleave to a more hardline version of playwright-centric history. I mean, Aleks Sierz still teaches at a university, doesn’t he? So, orthodoxy is something of an overstatement. At the very least.

It’s the final few paragraphs where the logic falls apart and the article really starts to feel like a man just flailing about, taking pot shots and failing to land a single blow. In one paragraph it is claimed:

“In a 2013 edition of a leading academic theatre journal, tutors in three major universities revealed that they discourage young playwrights from linear, dramatised narrative, inventing convincing characters or developing a personal vision or voice.”

Ok. *maybe* that’s true. (And, to me, it sounds like a really awesome development as part of a wider, more plural whole.) But it’s still *teaching playwrighting*. Just because some rare course in Britain is apparently equipping its students with the skills to write Heiner Müller plays rather than David Edgar plays doesn’t mean that *playwrighting* is under threat, does it? Precisely the opposite, in fact. It is being strengthened by diversifying.

Edgar then makes this unfathomable lurch from playwrighting being taught to, in the next paragraph the observation that “by the mid-2000s, two of the leading progressive venues in London could proudly declare themselves script-free zones.” Two. TWO. (BAC and CPT. I presume.) Two. IN LONDON. That’s maybe *nearly* 4% of theatres in the capital? Pfft.

The next two paragraphs are worth reproducing in full, because, with the exception of the querulous tone, I agree with pretty much every word:

“In reality, the divide between performance and text-based theatre was and is being breached by playwrights like Bryony Lavery, Abi Morgan, Dan Rebellato and David Greig, who have worked and are working with performance companies like Frantic Assembly, Lightwork and Suspect Culture. Plays at the Domnar take the form of seminars, and at the Royal Court lectures. And the idea that the individual writer is trapped within linear narrative and picture-frame settings is belied by the work of Simon Stephens, Martin Crimp and Caryl Churchill.

“The fact that playwrights are finding new ways of working creates an opportunity to concentrate on what they can do rather on what, allegedly, they can’t. The revival of all of the late Sarah Kane’s plays at Sheffield, a season that starts next Wednesday, is an opportunity to revisit work which has spread across the world, demonstrating Kane’s extraordinary structural and dialogic skills as well as reinventing what constitutes a play.”

It’d be cheap to note that the above listed playwright/company alliances directly contradicts the bit where Edgar earlier says “playwrights” are “increasingly concerned that the kind of experimental company they’d learned their craft with was no longer using playwrights to write shows”. And even cheaper to recall that Sarah Kane had nothing but contempt for David Edgar’s Birmingham University Playwriting MA, which, I think I’m right in saying, rather failed to spot the brilliance of the first half of Blasted, which she wrote there. But, y’know...

The final para is a puzzle:

“Now that new work is predominant, it’s time to dismantle narrow ideological prejudices and to acknowledge the different skills that go to make up a collaborative art form which has so successfully shown society to itself. That’s not all that theatre does, or should do, but it’s one of the things British theatre does best.”

Wha? Who’s got ideological prejudices? This either invalidates the whole of the article, excludes Edgar himself, or implies that only writers can show society to itself (or only plays that are written do). Whichever way you slice it, it seems a fairly barmy place to end up after all the mud that’s just been slung.

Playwrights are fine. I missed the launch of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize (which is FOR A NEW PLAY) because I was watching the Donmar Warehouse’s utterly faithful production of *proper play* My Night With Reg which has now transferred to London’s posh West End because of the demand for tickets, but, even as I wandered from the Apollo to The Vaults to see a new avant garde opera in which an aborted foetus starts a nuclear holocaust (also *written*. And, yes. Really), I didn’t see any pickets outside the numerous theatres showing written plays. New, revived, or classic. No disgruntled “devisers” cornered me, demanding to know why I was carrying on in this reactionary fashion. Indeed, not one audience member seemed to show outward signs of caring one iota as to how a piece of work had been arrived at as long as it was good. Oh, and apparently there’s a new Tom Stoppard on at the National too, now.

I’m not even convinced that there is all that much “devised” work even still being made, least of all without the presence of a writer. Perhaps another massive sea change in the current landscape of British theatre is precisely the resurgence of a new sort of writer. Writing-for-theatre is on the up, and hugely respected. Look at Oberon’s “Best Plays of 2014”: Mr Burns, Men in the Cities, Adler and Gibb, This is How You Will Die, Confirmation, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland, Lippy, Spine, The Body of an American, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again...

Look at *all those published texts* (and add Pomona and King Charles III), and honestly tell me British theatre has a problem with new writing or scripts.

It’s nonsense.

Please stop pretending otherwise.  


Kate Newey said...

Necessary riposte. Speaking from one of the department he demonises, and a teacher of the old historical sort, the other problem is that recent attacks have been very pointedly at young female academics. Who have very politely engaged with David, to be used as whipping boys for something ... I know not what. Or rather I suspect I do know what's underneath all this, and it's quite sad.

Ian Herbert said...

Thanks for this, Andrew - hadn't caught the tendentious original. Wonder what David E is saying in his Professorial visit to Oxford this week ...