Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Theatre by diktat
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Play Doctoring

By Peter Gill, Playwright and Writer and Theatre Director, July 2006

A sub-edited version of this article appeared in the Guardian on 11 July 2006

The embarrassment caused in the theatre by Channel Four’s recent programme The Play’s The Thing, which showed a vain attempt to manufacture a West End play from the early offerings of first-time writers, should prove salutary.  I doubt if it will, however.  The programme only presented in a caricature form a set of now common practices, ways of handling new writers, and the current desire to create theatre by diktat.

The new interventionism seems to have begun around 1979 as part of a proliferation of new ideas – devised theatre, and documentary, attempts at new forms, physical theatre – which all had their roots in the 1960s. The emphasis on top-down thinking rather than anything created writer-up meant that a new form of censorship (just when the theatre had shaken off the toils of the official censor) began to impose itself.  This has led step by step to a situation where young writers now deliver drafts instead of plays, knowing the humiliation that lies in store for them.

The 70s generation of university educated writers, and most of those who followed, were prepared to take part in this collaborative way of looking at things, caught up simultaneously in two unobtainable romances – on the one hand the writer is providing new pages on the set of a Billy Wilder film or on the other adjusting the play to help Vsevolod Meyerhold out of a corner.

Many of the 70s influences have been fascinating and often productive.  But with the performance of new plays this kind of intervention has led to a lowering of standards.  It’s not that dramaturgy was not a vital part of the work of the theatre before 1979 – in the commercial and in the subsidised theatre it was seen as being vital – it’s just that new plays were not automatically regarded as the playthings of others; and directors learned how to direct new plays instead of thinking that there was nothing more to putting on a new work than supervising a rewrite..

Until the nineteenth century the production of new plays was overseen by the playwright and the actor; in the nineteenth century the actors took over from the playwright; during the last century the roles of the stage manager and the dramaturg coalesced and morphed into the modern director.

In this country the emergence of the director as the person best placed to give coherence to the theatrical representation was influenced by the ideas of two men: Harley Granville Barker and Edward Gordon Craig.  Barker led a movement in which the director was seen as the person best placed to animate the play, to bring together in an imaginative form the various elements that make up a production.  Craig was more concerned by the director as prime mover, possibly the creator of the event.  Barker saw the actor’s role as vital; Craig did not.  Barker saw the director’s role was to animate the play; Craig did not.  Barker’s work is virtually unknown in Europe but he is the father of modern British theatre.  Craig came back to this island by means of the European theatre where his ideas had found a more congenial home.  Barker was an actor and playwright and a manager; Craig was an actor and designer.   Most directors at the beginning of the last century came from within the workings of the business:  Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, for example, were both actors.   In today’s interventionist theatre, most directors are not connected with the practical side in this way.

It is not either that the theatre before 1979 was not collaborative.  In my early days at the Royal Court Theatre, collaboration between artists and artist, and artist and management was vital.  It was combative, abusive. But genuine. It was not mandated by committee or seen as something desirable outside the fact that it worked.  One of the problems of interventionist theatre is that it is not in fact collaboration at all: it is autocracy masquerading as collaboration and it is, like the political changes since 1979, essentially conservative in nature, with all the conservative’s misunderstanding of certain vital facts.

There are no perfect English plays. The battle between the impulse of the writer and the form in which he finds himself has always been awkward. The English dramatist has none of the French dramatist’s delight in form: Hamlet is not a good revenge play. The Way of the World is not a good Restoration comedy. Both Harold Pinter and John Osborne in their first successes, The Caretaker and Look Back in Anger, follow the form of the conventional one-set five-character play and find it uncomfortable. They are awkward plays, which is why they are so unsettling and interesting.

What is usually wrong with a play is so deeply wrong with it that very little can be done to improve it, just as what is right with it is always going to be right with it. Most plays need help. But the chatter about narrative and structure, back-story, scènes á faire and metaphor has led us to a lot of unwieldy screenplays with a self-consciously poetic dimension. The cult of originality has squeezed out the competent play with a good part for an actor. That there is no legislating for genius should go without saying of course. Singular talents will always bust their way through.

I have just directed Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance for the National Theatre. It disobeys most of the rules of modern dramaturgy: one of the protagonists dies after the second act; the play is constantly moving and wayward; and it changes its apparent intentions completely in the last act and ends without a proper resolution. But that it is continually enthralling is due to its dense musicality and theatrical sense. Look Back in Anger defied dramaturgy when it was first performed and it would defy dramaturgy now: it is a play which you either like or dislike. Its one startling unarguable achievement is that, unlike many otherwise talented writers at the moment, the writer has faced out some essential thing about his subject and presented it unsanitised.

That talent is a fact is something I find more and more to be true.  How talent is created or where it comes from is impossible to discern.  It seems that by the time people get to early adulthood, it is evident.  That it can be enabled to flourish or develop, that techniques and solutions can be taught is true.  That there are mute inglorious Miltons I am certain; that new Labour’s access programme is not doing anything to help this, I am sure is also true. Increasingly the theatre is becoming a kind of outreach work for the children of the white middle class, while the theatre of George Devine and Joan Littlewood is being squeezed between the twin impulses of show-business and student drama. 

It seems that both the auteurs and the collaborationists should watch out, though. What is rapidly becoming clear (and The Play’s the Thing vividly dramatised this) is that the producer clones of David Milliband and Anthony Adonis are going to kick them into touch along with everyone else.

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