S C E N A : časopis za pozorišnu umetnost
Novi Sad, 2003. broj 4-5 godina XXXIX jul-oktobar YU ISSN 0036-5734

Jedanaesti međunarodni simpozijum pozorišnih kritičara i teatrologa :
Nova evropska drama: umetnost ili roba?
David EDGAR (Great Britain)
Provocative drama is alive, well, and living underground!

  For the 25 years following the war, the cultural policies of most European nations was essentially patrician, aimed at widening the audience for the traditional high arts (though frequently in alliance - as in Rotterdam - with modernist ideas of rationalist city design). In Britain, this strategy was exemplified in great institutions like the BBC, and implemented the ethos of the arts council (Britain's euphemism for the ministry of culture) from its foundation by John Maynard Keynes just after the war. In conscious opposition to mass popular culture (though frequently in alliance with the high modernist avant-garde), its slogan was Keynes' ringing declaration: „Death to Hollywood”.
But from the mid-50s onward, this approach came under challenge from a new spirit of provocation. So in the late 1950s, provocative young theatre makers challenged the role of the theatre as providing cosy entertainment for the middle-class. In the 1960s, young directors and dramatists provided the same challenge to the BBC, producing a range of irreverent satire and hard-hitting film documentary that have not been equalled since. This assault on the patrician model then found political expression in the 1970s and early 80s, as the activists of 1968 moved from the streets into city government, bringing with them a hostility to high art and a rejection of the patrician principles of extending its reach. Instead, new political forces from the anarcho-collectivist Movimento in Rome and Bologna to Britain's Greater London Council sought to challenge the distinction between high and popular art, and to encourage grassroots arts activity, for festively subversive purposes. Indeed, the generic art form of this period was probably the carnivaland its bard Dario Fo..
It was this strange alliance between the provocative and the populist which, paradoxically, enabled what happened in the 1980s. This was of course the period when the neo-liberal assault on state socialism was expressed - in the arts - by reductions in subsidy and the demand that the market be let rip. The great cultural paradox of the 80s, surely, is that while the commercial was aestheticised (in every area of life from interior deocation via advertising, fashion and graphic design to food), the arts were commercialised. Battered by a provocative critique of its legitimacy in the 60s and 70s, demoralised by the argument that the patrician privileged elitist producers over consumers, the patrician high arts were no match for the populist assault. Accordingly, orchestras, theatre and opera companies, and museums were forced to justify themselves in economic terms - bartering their contribution to the national prestige and the tourist industry for dwindling state subsidy. Politically, too, city councils from Rotterdam to Rennes, from Montpelier to Munich, from Birmingham to Barcelona found it necessary to justify their cultural spending not on the basis of its inherent value but on the grounds of economic utilitarianism - attracting tourism and investment. As the Arts Council itself put it: „The Arts are to British tourism what the sun is to Spain”.
The irony is clear. In the realm of cultural theory, the anti-high art practice of the late 60s counterculture led in the 70s to a progressive intellectual challenge to the high\popular art distinction, thus giving legitimacy to free market populism. In practice, the municipal socialists of the 70s opened cultural policy out into the hitherto despised „commercial” realms of electronic music, broadcasting and fashion. Thus, in practice as well as theory, a supposedly provocative challenge to the patrician served only to legitimise populism. It is an exaggeration that the counter-culture set out to replace Hamlet, Keats and Beethoven with Dario Fo, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground but ended up giving a progressive imprimatur to Casualty, Jeffrey Archer and the Spice Girls. But it's not TOO far from the truth.
The cultural effects of this superficially attractive strategy were various and almost all bad. In classical theatre, the populist challenge to the patrician led to directors, actors and designers defecting from the classics to the expensive, long-running through-composed blockbuster musicals whose emergence was such a feature of the 1980s. In music, the essential contest was no longer between Brahmns and the avant garde, but between the traditional orchestras and opera and ballet companies and commercialised pop opera performed by world stars in rock stadia. In television, the rush to the marketplace led quickly to the death of the single television play and the exclusion from drama of any human experience that cannot be observed from a police station, a hospital, or the nineteenth century.
In summary: the emergence of the subsidized arts throughout Europe after the war represented the triumph of the patrician over the populist. In the 60s and 70s, the patrician was confronted and invigorated by a provocative challenge, which called its pretensions to account. In the 80s, an overwelming assault by the populist commercialism - backed not just by the principles of neo-liberalism but supported by fashionable post-modern opinion - pushed the patrician on to the defensive and eliminated the provocative altogether. In the 50s, 60s and the 70s, the idea that drama was oppositional - that offending the audience was a legitimate ambition, that the audience was not always right, that one of the purposes of art was to call the prevailing culture to account - was viewed as self-evident. By the 1990s, expressing the idea that the customer could be wrong - that there was another way of measuring artistic success other than the balance sheet - was to shove you into the same basket as those who believe the earth is flat, Elvis lives and emancipatory socialism is still on the world historical agenda.
So how does new theatre writing fit into this story? From the 1950s to the 1980s, new theatre writing was at the cutting edge of the provocative challenge. In the late 50s, as I say, that challenge was to the cosy world of mid-century commercial theatre - the world of the drawing room comedy and the country house whodunnit. The result was the emergence of the Royal Court - a small but traditional theatre building - as a permanent base for oppositional theatre; from which a number of oppositional new plays went on to commercial success in theatre and cinema. In the 60s, the young post-68 revolutionary generation of which I'm a part emerged, first to proclaim the virtues of theatre outside theatre buildings, and then to demand our place on the large stages of the great institutional theatres that had emerged in the previous decade - the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre - as well as on television and in film. In the 1980s, the new women writers whose emergence was the most striking aspect of new writing in that decade were increasingly performed on the main stage of the Royal Court, in the west end, and, in the case of work by Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems, Charlotte Keatley and Timberlake Wertenbaker - around the world. So all of these three waves of new writers took on the patrician institutions, and transformed them thereby.
By the 1990s, however, as I say, the patrician surrender to the populist had pretty much squeezed the provocative off the big stages and out of the other dramatic media. The result was predictable, but noone predicted it. In the late 80s and early 90s it was not only fashionable to write off the theatre, it was more less compulsory. Then suddenly, in the mid-90s, a new generation of writers emerged once again - as provocative as any of the previous waves, and arguably more so.  While all the competitive media - television, film, the novel, serious music, even the visual arts - was pandering the populist, suddenly, in the theatre, a new generation emerged which was concerned to push the outer edges of the possible.
You can argue many things about the brat pack - is their basic subject masculinity, is Ravenhill the elegist of lost political passions, is Kane as much about the destruction of subjective identity as violence and disgust. One thing that sets them apart from their predecessor generations is that their work appears largely unadaptable into any other media. The Entertainer is a better film than a stage play; Plenty and The Secret Rapture were made into movies; even Top Girls made it on to television. You just have to say Shopping and Fucking the Movie to demonstrate that in yer face theatre is defined by its theatricality. It is also work that is confident about being presented in small theatre spaces. True, Mark Ravenhill enjoyed Mother Clapp's Molly House going into the west end - where a National Theatre smash hit crossed the Thames and turned into a west end smash flop, to nobody's particular benefit. But he is clearly happiest in small theatres or working in medium-scale touring. My generation was desperate to get on to big stages and make big statements. Ravenhill, Neilson, Grosso and Prichard seem properly content with being in spaces where the intense theatricality of their work can have maximum impact, albeit on smaller numbers of people at any one time. (Blasted has had two short runs at the Royal Court, but then, it's been seen all round the world).
In other words,  provocative drama is alive, well, and living underground, precisely because of the  destruction of the provocative impulse in film, television and large-scale theatre. That theatre sector that was once called the underground, then the alternative, then the fringe, is the real theatrical invention of the last 40 years. Sometimes it takes the form of site-specific performance work - though I think the importance of this work is sometimes exaggerated. Mostly, it's about individually written plays, which by their form and content could not be performed anywhere else than in relatively small theatre spaces, but which nonetheless continue to punch way beyond their weight, not least because of the blandness, conformity and homogeneity of the wider culture which surrounds them.
Copyright: Sterijino pozorje 1998-2004.
 
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