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Sunday 28 July 2019

Activism on stage

Play for today

Can highly topical political drama still hit home with audiences in a different era?

By David Edgar

The British theatre is awash with great 20th century political plays. At the National Theatre alone there’ve been recent revivals of groundbreaking political work by Githa Sowerby, Caryl Churchill and Brian Friel – with Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys upcoming. Chichester has just brought back David Hare’s Plenty (1978) and the Donmar Warehouse in London David Greig’s Europe (1994). This spring has seen major revivals of four Arthur Miller classics (three of them in two theatres on one street).

In a way, the revival explosion bucks a trend. The biggest development in British theatre this century is the move away from revivals (which used to dominate British theatre) to new plays (which do now). Some critics argue that revivals are now an endangered species. Certainly, plays written in and for another age face a particular problem when they are presented to audiences who are used to seeing plays written in the here and now. Do old plays last? Have they aged? Do they mean something different to today’s audiences? What happens to plays for today when they become plays of yesterday? Why revive plays at all?

I belong to a generation whose great ambition was to bring about the changes that have now come about. Many of my early plays were agit-prop dramas written to address particular, contemporary political issues, never to be done again. One of these plays, Rent, or Caught in the Act, was a cod Victorian melodrama intended to support the campaign to repeal the Conservatives’ 1971 Housing Finance Act, and whose short and happy production life ended with the repeal of the Act by the incoming Labour government in 1974.

Jay Taylor and Sophie Khan in RSC’s Maydays by David Edgar

For my peers, too, writing contemporary plays was a point of principle. My first job as a full-time, professional playwright was to co-write a play about the political crisis in Northern Ireland which followed the imposition of internment without trial, Bloody Sunday and direct rule. The writers who produced England’s Ireland (including David Hare and Howard Brenton) disagreed with earlier political playwrights (like John Arden, Edward Bond and Bertolt Brecht) who set many of their political plays long ago and far away. We felt strongly that the right setting for plays about contemporary politics wasn’t mediaeval China but the public realm in the here and now. England’s Ireland was given one touring production and – we felt – had done its job.

By disappearing immediately from the repertoire, the Primark plays of my youth avoided the challenges faced by plays whose revival exposes them to changing audience opinions, tastes, knowledge and attitudes. Confidently expressed revolutionary slogans began to feel a little breathless as it became ever clearer through the 1980s that the revolution had no intention of taking place. It’s an understatement that agit-prop theatre went out of fashion – though one great example, John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, continued to be revived and studied, perhaps because of its mighty historical sweep. Plays which contained or consisted of prophecies (including Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play, set in an authoritarian Britain in 1984, and my 1976 play about the National Front, Destiny) were particularly at risk from being overtaken by their own events. Last year, the RSC revived my 1983 play about political defection, Maydays, set against the background of events from 1945 to 1983, and we discovered early on that people now under 40 do not necessarily know what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis (at least 15 years before they were born).

Ron Silver, Madonna, and Joe Mantegna in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, 1988

Most obviously vulnerable now are plays – whether political or not – which deal with sexual and gender themes. Contemporary audiences at Noel Coward’s 1930 Private Lives are unlikely to respond enthusiastically to the opinion that “women should be struck regularly, like gongs”. It’s now harder to evoke sympathy for Jimmy Porter’s rants against his wife Alison in John Osborne’s 1956 pioneering Look Back in Anger. Revivals of Harold Pinter’s 1968 The Homecoming – at the end of which a woman is set up as a west end call-girl (apparently voluntarily) by her husband’s brothers and father – provoke bafflement. The sexual politics of David Mamet’s 1988 Hollywood play Speed-the-Plow – the characters being “two men around forty” and “a woman in her twenties” – have not aged well. It’s arguable that events of the past three years have led to a new puritanism about sex in the theatre, and certainly a dangerous confusion between representation and advocacy. But there has clearly been a sea-change in public opinion, which has made plays written in the wake of the 1960s sexual revolution feel less comfortable now.

However, a number of the so-called “State of England” plays by my generation of playwrights have successfully entered the repertoire, perhaps because “State of England” – with an implication of being a snapshot of particular moment – was always a misnomer, and the “here and now” rule was often stretched. Like Maydays, many of our plays began in the middle years of the century (like Brenton and Hare’s Brassneck, about local government corruption, and my Destiny, mentioned earlier), and then came up to date. Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness (about a factory occupation in the mid-70s) flashed back to Eastern Europe during the 1950s showtrials, and The Churchill Play to the second world war, where Hare’s play about the diplomatic service, Plenty, also began. The war was important because most of our plays argued (in different ways) that the political hopes of the immediate post-war period had been betrayed, that Britain was in terminal economic, political and cultural decline, and that a new socialist world would arise from its ashes. By the mid-80s that hope too had been dashed, and grand historical narratives gave way to plays which really did provide emblematic snapshots of the Thatcherite present, of which the most notable were Brenton and Hare’s Pravda (about Rupert Murdoch) and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (about futures market traders), whose successful revivals are due, perhaps, to the fact that neither the Murdoch press nor rapacious city traders have – to put it mildly – gone away.

David Edgar’s RSC production of Destiny, 1976

These two models (snapshot and epic historical sweep) were exemplified in two of the greatest American political plays of the late 20th century: David Mamet’s dissection of American capitalism seen through the real estate industry, Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) and Tony Kushner’s epic “gay fantasia on national themes”, Angels in America (1983). Both have been frequently and prominently revived. Like Plenty, Serious Money and Pravda, they do the job that revivals of recent plays always do: reminding (or showing) us what life felt like the day before yesterday.

There have also been changes in public taste (and public events) which have brought forms of drama which had dropped out of fashion back into the mainstream. Kept simmering by Alistair Beaton’s 2001 satire of New Labour (Feelgood), Justin Butcher’s 2003 cartoon documentary (The Madness of George Dubya, which had a short West End run) and Anders Lustgarten’s 2013 indictment of post-crash austerity (If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep), aggressive political drama has returned with – you might say – a vengeance. One hugely successful example is Arinzé Kene’s solo show about the experience of young black men in London, Misty; another is Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s anything-but-solo, rollicking, feminist polemic Emilia, both of which transferred (from the Bush and the Globe) to the West End.

And you can argue that history has vindicated the argument of some plays which were accused of political hyperbole when they were first put on. Premiered in 1974, Brenton’s The Churchill Play is set in a concentration camp for political dissidents (including trade unionists) in 1984. When Margaret Thatcher was elected on a platform of liberating the populace from the oppressive constraints of state socialism, Brenton’s dystopian vision appeared both alarmist and wrong. In 1984, as Mrs Thatcher employed the full force of the state (including, as we now know, the judicial and prison system) to impose market forces on the miners, the play’s thesis looked a good deal less paranoid. Destiny was clearly right to identify the neo-fascist National Front as a Nazi front (by no means conventional wisdom at the time), and to predict the split in the far right which led to the rise of pseudo-respectable figures like (for a while) Nick Griffin. What appeared delusional was the idea that businessmen would support the far right (as they had in Germany in the 1930s). In the age of investment banker Steve Bannon and insurance mogul Arron Banks, the last scene of Destiny seems less fanciful.

Today’s agitational plays – including Misty and Emilia – are not of course about the traditional class politics of the mid-20th century but about the identity politics which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. That change has led to some plays and playwrights coming back into fashion. An overdue attention to the gender of playwrights and leading characters has led to the rediscovery both of women’s plays of the early 20th century and of great women’s parts in plays by men. Following the spectacular success of her 1912 Rutherford and Son, Sowerby’s career declined, though the current revival of the play is the second to be mounted at the National Theatre. The reputation of Terence Rattigan proverbially waned with the rise of kitchen sink drama and the angry young man; but, as actor Harriet Walter points out, Rattigan wrote much richer parts for women than John Osborne did, which is one reason why Rattigan is so frequently revived.

Rutherford and Son, National Theatre, 2019

But perhaps the most visible result of the foregrounding of gender and ethnicity in once contemporary and now historical plays is in how they are produced. In both Stephen Sondheim’s Company (Gielgud Theatre) and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (currently at the Old Vic) the gender of characters is changed, and straight relationships are turned into gay ones. Of four productions of major Arthur Millers this year, three change the ethnicity of characters, with only Jonathan Church’s production of the The Price (transferred from Bath to the Wyndhams) retaining the ethnic make-up of the original. In the Jeremy Herrin’s All My Sons (at the Old Vic) the Keller family’s suburban neighbours were a black couple (a doctor and his wife), a feasible change which diversified a 21st century cast. Also at the Old Vic, Miller’s epic The American Clock (about the Great Depression) was presented by a contemporary, diverse ensemble; but the tripling up of the play’s central family (based on Miller’s own) had an additional meaning: by making them first a white Jewish and then an Asian and finally a black family, Rachel Chavkin’s production makes two points: first, that the failure of American capitalism in the 1930s hit all ethnicities, but also that capitalism’s discontents continue to afflict minorities disproportionately today. Most recently, at the Young Vic, Marianne Elliott followed Sarah Frankcom at Manchester’s Royal Exchange (last year) in making Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman African-American. In Manchester, Willy’s wife Linda was white; in London, the Lomans were an entirely black family. A persuasive programme note insists that it’s more than plausible for a Brooklyn salesman and his family in the early 1950s to be black, but the effect of the change goes far beyond the sociological. Sacked by one white employer and (as he sees it) patronised by another, Wendell Pierce’s Willy Loman is the victim of two American myths: one that anyone who works hard can make it in America; and, second, that the original sin of slavery was successfully purged by the north’s victory in the civil war and the great black migration north which followed it. But the reading of the play as an African-American family tragedy – at a time when racism is once again in the foreground of American politics – makes the play feel blisteringly up-to-date.

Three things are happening here: in the large cast plays, the acting companies are diverse; changing the ethnicities of characters sheds a new light on the history against which the plays were set (in three cases, a history which was contemporary when the plays were written); and those changes point up the plays’ present-day relevance and let them speak to today. In both the revivals of Company and Present Laughter, changes of gender and sexuality make the works more accurately reflect the truth of their own times as well as ours.

Abdul Salis, Andrew Scott and Sophie Thompson in Present Laughter at the Old Vic, 2019

And then there are plays whose treatments of their own present day becomes a successful prediction of the future. Both David Greig and I wrote plays about the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989: my The Shape of the Table (1990) and Pentecost (1994); Greig’s Europe (also 1994). Both of us noted that there were losses as well as gains in the overthrow of eastern European communism, particularly for the old and the poor; and both of us observed the chilling the rise of the neo-Nazi right. Both Pentecost and Europe are set near borders, in places whose names have changed through occupation and liberation, and involve the arrival of refugees.

Now revived at the Donmar in London (in a handsome production by Michael Longhurst) Europe is set in a decommissioned railway station in an unnamed mid-European border town, and involves the station master and his daughter, a group of young men whose factory has been closed, and a father and daughter who have fled the Bosnian war and are squatting on the station platform. During the play the initially hostile station master bonds with the Bosnian father, and their two daughters fall in love and flee on the international train system to points west. The young men beat up a former friend who has returned from a successful career in western Europe, and torch the station. One of them ends the play with the words: “In our own way, we’re also Europe”.

The Donmar programme emphasises refugees as the core subject of the play, but seeing it now I think its dominant current insight is not about the refugee experience, or even anti-refugee violence but about the social and cultural experience of the town’s redundant young men. The play pits the international, cosmopolitan new Europe of the international train routes and the mobile, aspirational and sexually experimental young against the left-behind working-class, trapped and stuck on closed branch lines in “the sort of place people come from not go to”. In 1994, this emergent conflict explained anti-refugee violence in the crumbling industrial heartland of former east Germany. Now, it explains something much wider and more profound: the now deeper fault-line which gave us the Brexit referendum result. In 1994, Europe explained why dispossessed Rostock citizens attacked asylum-seekers. Today, it suggests why Burnley, Walsall and Stoke voted leave.

David Edgar in Trying It On

If plays date because what was now becomes then, the good ones are rescued from dating by a dialogue between the ‘then’ of their creation and the ‘now’ of their performance in front of an audience. In Miller’s plays, proverbially, the past re-emerges into the present, and makes drama (as it did in 5th century Athens). Contests over the meaning of the past – whether that past is recent or ancient, the 2008 crash or the English reformation – are always contests about the nature of the present. This can apply to plays like Europe which are set in a single timescale at a point which is now the past. It applies easily to plays which explored how a ‘past past’ became a ‘past present’.

Last year I wrote a solo show about my own biography (Trying it On) which takes the form of a present day 70-year-old in conversation with his 20-year-old self. Researching it confronted me with half-forgotten things I said and did which were often funny but also painful and (sometimes) reproachful to the me of now. In that sense, the early part of the play is like a new production of a play that was contemporary when it was written. Overall, it is about how the now of then became the now of now.

David Edgar’s latest play, ‘Trying it On’ runs from 4 to 25 August at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and then goes on tour  


Photography by Getty Images, Marc Brenner, Richard Lakos, Johan Persson, Manuel Harlan, Arnim Friess


Further reading

New British Political Dramatists by John Bull is a 1980s view of new writers

The full text of Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play and Weapons of Happiness.

Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money was revived in 2009, she was interviewed in The Observer.

David Edgar’s 1994 play Pentecost which has been revived twice in London, once in New York.

David Greig’s play Europe was a response to the Balkan wars – 25 years later, it has been revived at the Donmar in a quite different moment.

David Edgar

Multi-award-winning playwright, whose plays have been presented at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and around the world. He has also written for television, radio and film, as well as articles and books on theatre, culture and politics.