November 11, 2007
Speaking of echo chambers… In today’s Observer, Jay Rayner ponders the whereabouts of dramatic radicalism in an age of state subsidy and asks what happens if, as Julian Fellowes suggests, “It’s just become impossible not to be a Socialist within the artistic community.”
What strikes me most, during the discussions I have, is an almost total failure of imagination when it comes to working out what a play from the right might actually look like. We none of us have any problem naming overtly left-wing plays or their playwrights: names like David Edgar, Caryl Churchill, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare fall into conversation with ease. By contrast, even defining an overtly right-wing play, let alone identifying one, is apparently impossible.
One director, whose identity I will protect to save their blushes, baldly announces that they would “never put on a play that was racist or sexist.” I point out this is a pretty Neanderthal reading of neo-conservatism. We have one of the most right-wing presidents in US history in George W Bush, and yet he chose a black woman as his Secretary of State… Abigail Morris, a former artistic director of the Soho Theatre, describes how she used to receive plays in which a rape would take place “and the woman would start to enjoy it. I suppose you could call that right-wing.”
At various times, and in various conversations, I wonder out loud whether any of them could imagine a play that challenged, say, the values of multiculturalism. Mostly I am met with baffled silences. Sir Peter Hall sums it up for me when he says: “I’m sure there are people who would like to write that sort of play, but they would fear it wouldn't be acceptable.”
Update, via the comments:
Rayner makes another interesting observation:
Time and again I am told that the job of theatre is to challenge the status quo and that this, necessarily, means it must come from the left. When I point out that the status quo now is the left, there are two clear responses. The first is to switch tack slightly and argue, as Michael Boyd of the RSC does, that “the job of the arts is to discomfort any orthodoxy”, whether it be from left or right. The second, which Lisa Goldman at the Soho Theatre most cleanly articulates, is simply to question the notion that there is even the slightest tinge of red to the current establishment. “I don't think the status quo is left-wing at all,” she says. “Though there is, I suppose, a liberalism to it.”
An oppositional self-image is very important to some people, most often to people on the left, and particularly to artists. But in order to maintain the appearance of being anti-establishment or anti-bourgeois or whatever, the nature of mainstream bourgeois culture (and how it has changed) may have to be ignored or distorted, and the views of one’s political opponents may have to be caricatured. Hence the denial of theatre’s left-leaning tendency, and that of contemporary art more generally; and hence the claim that a fondness for racism and rape is a marker of “right wing” politics.