Are we living in the age of prescriptive documentary theatre? And will it ever pass? Playwrights must always respond to the world we are compelled to live in, but what does such forensic focus do for the art of the dramatist? Do new young dramatists feel pressured to expose and explore society’s problems at the expense of their art? One might well argue that it has always been so. But has it? In 1938 Brecht’s The Life of Galileo foreshadowed the horrors of nuclear war, five years before the first atom bombs were dropped in 1943 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet this is one of Brecht’s most accessible and entertaining plays. The eloquent speech for Galileo in Scene 14 has stuck in my memory since I witnessed Michael Gambon’s towering performance in the 1980 NT production, directed by John Dexter.
Molière’s Tartuffe which Oberon publishes in fine translations by Chris Campbell and Ranjit Bolt has proved to be one of the most entertaining plays in the repertory, revived again and again, laughter echoing down the ages, but it is also regarded as the seminal play on religious zealotry and hypocrisy. Could the subject be more relevant than it is today? And why not laugh at ridiculous extremes? Stoppard, Bennett, Bean and Brenton, among others, have entertained us gloriously for decades while still having plenty to say about the world or the state of the nation. Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice took us on a riotous journey through four waves of immigration in East London since the 17th Century. The thought police whined and wailed while the rest of us laughed. Brenton & Hare’s Pravda is a thrilling piece of theatre about the power of the press, and it might well have started to erode the walls of the Murdoch court of scandal, the News of the World, which fell in 2011 like the Berlin Wall. Who would have thought it possible that theatre has such power?
But there are still too many thumpingly turgid polemics playing to the converted. Worthy issues, earnestly documented, using actors as mechanical mouthpieces, rather than human characters. As John Whiting says in The Art of the Dramatist, theatre is not a public address system. Agreed, yet all too often I long to escape in the interval feeling overstuffed with noble thoughts but starved of wit, style and poetry. Oddly, it might seem, even radically minded fringe theatres are turning back the clock, well some of the time. Witness recent revivals at the Jermyn Street Theatre – The River Line (Charles Morgan 1952), On Approval (Frederick Lonsdale 1927); The Potsdam Quartet (David Pinner 1973).
The Finborough Theatre – London Wall (John van Druten 1931), Cornelius (JB Priestley 1935), Outward Bound (Sutton Vane 1923), The White Carnation (RC Sherriff 1953). In 1988 The Orange Tree produced Absolute Hell (Rodney Ackland 1952) which led to the NT and Channel 4 productions. The Almeida recently produced Ackland’s Before the Party. Even The Park, the flashy new theatre in Finsbury Park has just given us a revival of Thark (Ben Travers 1927). And these are just a few revivals published by Oberon, all now back in favour. I wonder why? Entertaining perhaps?
James Hogan, Oberon Books (November, 2013)