Disreputable professions

BEING A playwright, Howard Brenton told the December branch meeting, is looked on by some as a romantic trade. Like being a journalist. But not by all. Some years ago Howard had a VAT bust. The man came and sat in his living room and said "I don't know about this... Let me see whether I've understood... you sent a play to Germany?" Yes. "So... you have a shipping return for it?" After much more muttering he concluded: "Your affairs, Mr Brenton, are like that wrought-iron salesman down at Camberwell Green."

Our entertaining speaker was, in fact, talking about the fundamentals of journalism. He set out to discuss the matter of the theatre, like newspapers, having "a sort of default setting to which it will, despite your best efforts, always return". Being a man of the Theatre, though, he went the scenic way around... When he began writing, he had a romantic idea that he would go and work in weekly Reps. Newer readers should be informed that Reps -- repertory companies -- did one play a week, thriller or comedy, starting rehearsing on Monday and opening on the Saturday.

One incident at the Worthing Connaught branded into Howard Brenton's head the theatre's default setting. The play was the usual thriller: right at the last line The Mother Did It. "I had an Assistant Stage Manager who was a bit flaky, sitting on the book calling all the cues. I was making tea in the prop room -- and heard this incredible clotted vocalising right at the end of the play. So I rushed up to the stage... the ASM had brought the curtain down three pages early. But the audience applauded happily, anyway, and left the theatre. So if they weren't following the plot, what were they there for? They were there, I think, for their boys and girls -- the actors.

"The theatre returns to that kind of condition. The play is immaterial but the audience loves spectacular acting."

Like all arts, advances in the theatre are made by trying to make it more real. For Howard, this is not about naturalism -- but about trying to say something about life and how we live it.

But the theatre has has survived most of its history without playwrights. Outbreaks of original writing have been rare. The great era of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles lasted only about 50 years -- about as long as, say, the heyday of the Royal Court theatre, and longer than the Elizabethan heyday.

The Athenian theatre had the backing of the new state -- which made up this brand-new ancient tradition of a Dionysian Festival. "You'd assemble two miles from the theatre in the academic grove, and process carrying huge phalluses on sticks, following priests and a white bull to the theatre, which is smeared with the slaughtered bulls' blood. The performance opens with State announcements. In the front row are the war orphans wearing golden armour... and then begins Oedipus Rex!"

There were State versions of the plays, to stop the actors reverting to mucking about. The theatre became Classical.

Shakespeare's time was a very brief outbreak of originality in the 1590s. Shakespeare went round in a uniform with the King's Men and made his living not from the Globe, but from selling productions to the Court.

Elizabethan England was a police state -- it was like writing in Czechoslovakia in Havel's prime, so they wrote in code -- but everyone had the code. Then they hit it. Ben Jonson went to jail for six months over The Isle of Dogs. A year later Richard II was done at court just after the Essex rebellion. Everyone got frightened.

"Lear is supposed to be wonderful but it's a Great Man being windy. Then came the Restoration and right at the end, the greatest, Congreve... then nothing right through until Shaw and Wilde. Then in our time Brecht and Lorca, making new national theatres. When theatre goes decadent," Howard concludes, "you get actors being dominant, and in our time you get directors being dominant."

Is this familiar? Could we be in a time of decadent journalism, returned to its default setting when performance is all but we've lost the plot? Discuss.

Mar/Apr 2000
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