David Thompson


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November 11, 2007



Hello David, and thanks.

I found Jayner's article suggestive and refreshing, but also circuitous and equivocal: as if he's trying to make an iconoclastic point, but can't do so too freely, lest he upset the chair he's sitting in.

What caused my beagle to bay? Jayner never clearly defines the item whose deficit spurs his lament, "right-wing theatre."

He does hint that "right-wing" plays should challenge the Leftist establishment-theatre, and he presents theater insiders who support his thesis - as well as some who don't. He even exaggeratively intimates what the term should not mean ("A rape scene in which the women starts to like it..."). But he never unequivocally defines what "right-wing" means, nor what "right-wing theatre" is or should be.

Which means his argument in favor of a "see-saw" between adversarial theatre movements founders for lack of a logical fulcrum.

I'll take a guess at why the central term goes undefined. If Jayner were to have defined the term, he'd have to have included some notes about the term's place in today's political discourse. And, in so doing, he'd be forced to admit that the term is a shifting, Leftist political caricature that Europe's Left-leaning politico-media elite has been nurturing for decades.

Jayner comes across as left of center (his credentials are conveyed early-on in the piece with a requisite critique of the Iraq war "mess"), and so he probably knows that the "Right-Wing" slur has been, and continues to be, a useful tool for the Left (the slur alone has succeeded in bringing down a democratically-elected Austrian Prime Minister, and it continues to cow Europe's politicians from enacting enforceable immigration reform, just to mention two), but only so long as the term's edifice remains intact.

On a brighter note, Jayner's piece does suggest that a deeper discussion is stirring about what the effects of government subsidy may be on the arts, and that traditionalists looking for sympathetic scripts in London's venues are beginning to get a voice.



“…he'd be forced to admit that the term is a shifting, Leftist political caricature…”

I’ve heard the term “right wing” used more than once to describe, or rather denounce, just about anything that falls beyond an extremely narrow and rigid outlook – one which very few people share. Likewise “NeoCon”, which is often used in much the same way. It’s possible, for instance, to be denounced as “right wing” for defending free speech and freedom of belief and suggesting those things may be of benefit to others, or for arguing that young men shouldn’t be hanged or imprisoned for kissing other young men. Such are the times we live in.

As Teleros noted recently, one of the effects of ideological echo chambers is that extreme positions become more prominent and self-justifying. And efforts to appear “oppositional” - for some, a matter of paramount importance - will tend towards ever more cartoonish imaginings. Hence, as seen above, a “right wing” position is characterised, bizarrely, as an approval of racism and a delight in rape.


Hopefully the best artists will have complex personalities and produce challenging work that doesn't easliy fit into left-right dichotomies. In "The Brothers Karamazov" Dostoyevsky presented the atheist viewpoint far better than the theist, even though he agreed with the latter.

I reckon theatre is less dogmatically leftist than it was in the 80s heyday of 7:84.

The "In Yer Face" scene of the 90s isn't really Marxist. If anything it's nihilist. Mark Ravenhill's "Shopping And F***ing" shows all human transaction reduced to consumerism. But it doesn't imagine any socialist alternative. Patrick Marber's "Closer", and especially the later plays of Sarah Kane take up similarly bleak views of human relationships. Such plays despair of any possibility that human beings can act collectively for their mutual benefit. This makes them right wing in the sense that Adam Curtis thinks of R.D. Laing as right wing in "The Trap".

Formalism, of the Beckett / Martin Crimp / Sarah Kane type, is usually considered an unwelcome diversion from the class struggle by orthodox Marxists (how bizarrely quaint that sounds).

David Mamet's plays are right wing. Especially "Oleanna". Tom Stoppard's plays are also sort-of right wing.

Peter Brook? Complicite? I really don't know...


I'd say Hanif Kureishi's "My Son The Fanatic" forces the audience to question multiculturalism.



I thought this extract was interesting:

“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.’”

This illustrates what I was getting at above. An oppositional self-image is very important to some people, especially to many 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) has to be ignored or distorted, and the views of one’s political opponents have to be caricatured. Hence the denial of theatre’s left-leaning tendency, and hence the claim that a fondness for racism and rape are “right wing” attributes.


Well, David, I guess we're back again asking what, exactly left and right mean. Is it left wing or right wing to support Behtzi? Is it left wing or right wing to suport the Sikh mob which closed the play?

What about Voltaire's 1736 play, "Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet"? Is it left wing to support the play or the Muslim attemps in 2005 to supress it?



“I guess we're back again asking what, exactly, left and right mean.”

Well, yes, the “left/liberal” tag isn’t entirely convincing, as much of the left is decidedly illiberal in many key respects. I suppose plausible markers of a leftist outlook include some notion of egalitarianism, a readiness to spend other people’s money (or “society’s money” as Ms Moosa put it) and certain kinds of relationship between the individual and the state. I notice, for instance, that several contributors to the Liberal Conspiracy blog favour punitive taxation, smoking bans and raising the age of compulsory education. The authoritarian leanings of, say, Polly Toynbee or George Monbiot are well known (if not to themselves), and “progressive” egalitarianism entails a great deal of coercion.

Publicly subsidised industries, including theatre and much of the arts, will tend to favour a political outlook in which subsidy of this kind is most often endorsed. Thus, I wonder if a change in the funding of theatre – say, a withdrawal of public subsidy – would affect some kind of change in the broad political tenor of the work being produced.


Historically the left were optimists and the right pessimists. The left believed in the progress of man; the right, often with a strong belief in original sin, believed we'd probably only make things worse. At some point these attitudes reversed. I find, say, George Monbiot closer to the old right wing. He believes in environmental original sin, believes attempts at progress (economic growth, nuclear power, now even bio-fuels) will only make things worse. My god, he's depressing to read! The paranoid left of 9/11 conspiracies - which Monbiot, to his credit, rejects - wind up with an even bleaker philosophy of human powerlessness. I don't know if you've ever bothered to argue with a 9/11 "truther". But every flaw in the conspiracy theory is answered with the claim that it's an even bigger conspiracy. Things spiral, and they're soon claiming that literally tens of thousands of US government employees were in on a plot to murder US citizens. It's the politics of David Icke. And its ultimate message is, we're all helpless.

For myself I think progress is both possible and desirable. I think it's possible and desirable that even the poorest African nations of today can raise their economies up to "first world" income levels, and have futuristic cities with amazing architecture. As far as I can tell, Monbiot wants to drag our first world economies down to the level of the poorest African nations. I'm amazed he can motivate people behind such a programme. If I believed Monbiot's analysis was correct I wouldn't feel like getting out of bed in the morning. What's the point?

I generally like humans - we're a pretty ingenious species. iPhones for everyone, that's my philosophy.



“I’m amazed he can motivate people behind such a programme. If I believed Monbiot’s analysis was correct I wouldn’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning.”

Yes, Monbiot’s sermons are joyless, embittered, soul-withering stuff - though they can be inadvertently hilarious. But maybe we should entertain the possibility of other, less benign, motives at work – motives that do tend to animate people – some people - quite vigorously. Resentment, pretension and sanctimony are unlikely to lose their appeal any time soon, and if they can be dressed up as modish virtue, so much the better.



Regarding your suggestion of removing subsidies. Subsidized arts spending now means, what, Lottery funding? I think the press keep a keen eye on where the Lottery money goes. I can't really imagine living in a country which had no state-funded museums, art galleries, libraries, theatre, ballet or orchestras. I know the argument that such things are there purely for the toffs, that the proles prefer football which isn't subsidized, and you shouldn't tax the proles to subsidize the toffs. I don't like this argument, though I don't know why...

The Windsors are a state-subsidized institution. Let's spend less on them and have a few more orchestral concerts.



How about a tick box on lottery tickets. See how many people untick the arts for funding.



I don’t have a strong view on the funding of museums or orchestras, but it seems to me that the nature of arts and theatrical funding has some bearing on the political tenor of the establishments and of much of the work that’s produced. In the case of museums and orchestras this may not be particularly relevant. But there’s no shortage of overtly politicised “art” that peddles an ideological message or badmouths the terribly bourgeois values of the terrible bourgeois people who are nonetheless expected to pay for it. In such cases, the objection is easier to understand. If people wish to use art to propagate a political message, perhaps they should find a suitably likeminded sponsor, or do it on their own dime.


But how's that going to work in practice? A revival of a Shakespeare or Ibsen play will tend to have political intent. Olivier's film of Henry V was considering the Normandy landings of D-day, 80s revivals hinted at a Falklands connection, and a recent production had Henry in US body armor, clearly referencing Iraq. Probably the most political thing I have ever seen was a staging of Thucydides. All they did was read an English translation of the text. The timing alone (in the build up to the First Gulf War) was enough to make the political point.

I'd urge you not to bracket all and sundry together in this. I don't know if you are familiar with John Adams' opera "The Death Of Klinghoffer". American critic Richard Taruskin publicly attacked Adams for the unspeakable crime of portraying PLO terrorists as human beings. Adams has been called an anti-Semite and an apologist for terror over the opera. I just don't think these accusations are fair. And interestingly, no one in America made these accusations over Neil Jordan's film "Michael Collins". Adams is probably more critical of terrorism in "Klinghoffer" than, say Sean O'Casey is in "Shadow Of A Gunman".



“But how’s that going to work in practice?”

Well, exactly. As I said, I don’t have a strong position on the subject. I was pointing out that it’s easy to understand the objections some people have to the public subsidy of overtly politicised art. The answer, I suppose, would be to let such art thrive or perish based on who actually *chooses* to pay for it. Bums on seats, as they say.

It’s easy to sneer at the sentiment of ‘bums on seats’ as mere philistinism, but there’s an inescapable arrogance in the assumption that a given artistic or theatrical effort should somehow circumvent the preferences of its audience and be maintained indefinitely despite the audience’s disinterest or disapproval. I suppose the analogy to draw is with recent mainstream ‘anti-war’ films, which were, to the best of my knowledge, funded as other commercial films are, but which performed rather badly on release. The box office performance of such films will determine whether more are made. Quite rightly, I think.


To David's point about subsidy's effects on entertainment content -

What if Hollywood's unionized writers went on strike, and their recusal was followed immediately by a huge change in studios' content away from Bush- and Republican-bashing, and towards more conventional, pro-American fare?

If this sea-change occured, couldn't we media consumers safely deduce that the union-writers have been producing Socialist, political agit-prop, not popular entertainment, for our consumption since at least 2000?



A right wing play would leave theater goers with the impression that some leftist ideology or practice causes injustice. As a result, the director and actors would be punished by the communist thought police that dominate the arts.


A black man who had a father get into the foreign service thanks to a strong civil service exam, overcoming racism to do it. The son then tries to be a diplomat, but thanks to the civil rights act of 91(?) the test is abolished. He must now navigate a maze of leftist racist beaurocrats who want to test him on ideology, and treat him like an uncle tom for not being a liberal.

The experiences of a conservative immigrant from Africa who finds himself baffled by the lazy and excuse-making black american culture.


Good ones, Smarty. You got my gears grinding...

How about a play casting a young "gay" man who grows through a series of realistic, dead-end, narcissistic homosexual relationships, only to discover in his late thirties a selfless, socio-political responsibility to bond with a women and raise her children.

Set the film in the Savannah, GA, and make the couple biracial, just to drive the point home.

Or, to lend much-needed conservative perspective to the oppressions that ennervate the bulk of Leftist stage-craft, how about a play that juxtaposes the everyday, quickly-forgotten offences and conflicts experienced daily between loved ones sharing a household, to the Left's global, abstract, "-ist" affronts? The Left'll come out looking whingy in comparison.

Hey! This is fun.


You could also do a play that thinly fictionalizes something out of the FIRE archives. Or Indoctrinate U. Or just set The Trial on a modern university campus.


How about a play set on a American university, where a set of white students have a party with a black stripper who afterwards claims rape. All the white guys are instantly judged guilty by the academics without a shred of evidence because they are the wrong colour...

Horace Dunn

How about presenting "The Crucible" as an allegory of Stalinist show trials, or Mau's persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution? The text would certainly lend itself rather well to such targets (in fact rather better than Miller's intended target).

Somehow, I don't think the critics would like it...


David Mamet's Oleanna isn't very far from what you're describing.

I simply don't recognize this image of an all-prevading identikit, mentally unfree leftism in the theatre. "Sir" David Hare - how anti-establishment a title is that - is a Labour man. But, for me, it's not that his plays just parrot a pre-formed leftism. He does at least try to portray two sides of the argument. The real problem is, they're dry, didactic and dull. The best political writing right now is in South Park. In 20 minutes they explore political issues in ways which Hare can't even get close to. Did anyone see "Best Friends Forever"? It manages to portray all sides in the Terri Schiavo case, and prick at their stupidity, in a way which is tight, economical, dramatic and very very funny.



“The real problem is, they're dry, didactic and dull. The best political writing right now is in South Park.”

Actually, there’s a not unserious aspect to this. It seems to me that politicised stage drama has pretty much been left looking quaint and mannered by other, commercial, cultural forms. If I want some political edge to my entertainment, rendered vividly and with concision, I’m more likely to turn to, say, South Park or Battlestar Galactica than the plays of David Hare. And I don’t think that makes me a complete philistine.

Time for a song, methinks.



I agree wholeheartedly.

Actually, pretty well every "good night out" I've had in the theatre in the last five years has been as far away from traditional "fourth wall" theatre as possible. It's been a mixture, involving dance, video, physical movement in some new combination. I loved Complicite's adaptation of Murakami, "The Elephant Vanishes". Pretty well any modern dance group at Sadlers Wells will radiate more passion and presence than Sir David's plays.


How 'bout http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlS8O257Gi0 ;-)


Nick Hytner, the artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, who was quoted in the Guardian article as saying he was unable to find a "mischievous right-wing play" (the quote was from last year, apparently) gave a for-example last week at a Soho theatre: "I would like to see a play about the white working class communities that were completely displaced by waves of immigration. These are the offensive plays we're not doing."

New Culture Forum's Peter Whittle, who is completely onside with Hytner's desire for a less-PC theatre, takes Hytner to task for the crime, apparently, of not using the "finger-quote" gesture -- I thought it was clearly implied -- around the word "offensive":

"What is quite breathtaking about Hytner's latest statement is his judgement that a play on such a subject -- displaced white working class communities -- would be 'offensive.' It is a remarkable and depressing use of the word...If Hytner put on his 'offensive' play, who then would he be worried about offending?..."

Nothing advances a cause like shooting the wrong guy at exactly the wrong time.




Thanks for the link. I know almost nothing about Hytner or his motives and I don’t know whether “finger quotes” were implied or not. (Perhaps Whittle interviewed Hytner in person and registered a particular tone?) But I do think Whittle makes a couple of important broader points.

Firstly, this:

“In his comments this week, Hytner seems also to be suggesting that the purpose of such an ‘offensive’ play would merely be to irritate or annoy the great liberal audience, not genuinely challenge their worldview and maybe move the argument on. In other words, in all likelihood we would be treated to a self-consciously politically incorrect play which spent its time winking at the audience, like a pantomime.”

I can’t speak to the particulars of Hytner’s position, but being “offensive” (ironically or not) is, as Whittle says, hardly the most important objective. It seems to me that one of the failings of the current Conservative Party is its inability to advance strong moral arguments against aspects of the left/illiberal consensus and its assumptions. Given the current censorious creep, whereby realistic discussion is often deemed beyond the pale, now would be a good time.

And this, too:

“There are very good practical reasons why the arts remain virtually silent on the issue of immigration. Chief amongst these is the fact that so many arts institutions and centres rely on grants which are only given if certain ‘diversity’ criteria are met. A play, exhibition or installation which dealt with the topic critically would therefore not get past the commissioning stage.”



Drama is about conflict. And there's a fascinating personal, internal conflict to explore around this subject. I'm a liberal lefty - yes, really - basically harmless, and I used to believe in multiculturalism. Still want to. I hated bland English food, bland English semi-detached suburban housing, horrid, dead English Sundays. I'm not a "self-hating Englishman". There's plenty to be proud of in English history. But I hated the deadening monoculture. And I looked to "the other" to rescue me. Afro-Caribbeans gave us new musics, like drum'n'bass, 2-step, grime & dubstep. Indians gave us food that actually tastes of something. Listen to this:


I think this melody is so insanely beautiful.

I wanted this to work. That's why I feel doubly angry - resentful even - at Islam. It's Islam that's killed multiculturalism.


George, I know what you mean. I think we all look south, out of our languor, for a bit of vigor:




Whittle implies that Hytner a) doesn't care what the subject matter is so long as it's offensive, and/or b) feels a sense of odium towards the sort of subject matters he's trying to get staged. I'm not at all convinced that either is true.

Consider this statement: "I would like to see a play about the white working class communities that were completely displaced by waves of immigration." It seems, at face value, like he's describing events that he considers to be real, as opposed to dreaming up some mise en scene he's hoping will offend everyone.

Whittle's take on Hytner is based on his own interpretation of Hytner's use of the word "offensive." But consider the Steve Edwards essay "On the Right to Give Offense" that you brought to our attention. The title didn't portend an upcoming argument for the right to crap on a neighbour's porch, or spit on a Muslim's feet, more that, in an historic context where opposition to the expression of certain thoughts overpowers the expression, anyone who wishes to express those thoughts ends up *in effect*, not in intention, fighting for the right to be offensive. So when Hytner gives examples of what isn't being staged, and says "These are the offensive plays we're not doing", I sort of take it that way.

I admit that his phrasing is a bit...inapt, but at least he's pushing things in the right direction, and putting himself in the line of fire, and so I'm inclined to be more charitable than Whittle is.



“…at least he’s pushing things in the right direction, and putting himself in the line of fire, and so I’m inclined to be more charitable than Whittle is.”

Fair enough.


“I think this melody is so insanely beautiful.”

It is rather lovely. And I don’t think anyone could present a serious objection to a richer, more flavoursome, menu of food, music, etc, or to syntheses thereof, and in fact I don’t think anyone tries. If anyone does, I wouldn’t particularly want to know them. But difficulty arises when incompatible worldviews of an intimate and fundamental kind share territory.

“It’s Islam that’s killed multiculturalism.”

Quite possibly, insofar as the uniquely political and supremacist aspects of Islamic conviction have proved… um, difficult to accommodate. As, for instance, when some citizens wish to control what can be said about their beliefs, even on matters of urgent fact, or wish to disassemble the basic operating system of the country, to which all citizens are subject, and replace it with something grossly inferior and immoral.

“I’m a liberal lefty - yes, really - basically harmless…”

Gather firewood. Light the torches. We must chase him from the village.

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