The Playgoer: The Megamusical's "Thatcherite Values"

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Megamusical's "Thatcherite Values"

"I would argue that it reveals a lot about Britain in the 1980s that the theatrical landscape was dominated by Cats, Starlight Express, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. These were all products of the Thatcher decade; and while Miss Saigon demonstrated the tragic consequences of America's Vietnam incursion, these shows collectively embodied, and even endorsed Thatcherite values. They celebrated the triumph of individualism. They combined escape with a spurious sense of uplift: even a literal ascension to heaven at the climax of Cats. Above all, they showed the musical's potential, through skilful marketing, to make vast personal fortunes. Whenever Peter Hall had the temerity to protest to Margaret Thatcher about dwindling subsidy, she would counter with the fame enjoyed by our theatre the world over. "Look," she would triumphantly claim, "at Andrew Lloyd Webber", as if the argument was conclusively closed."

-Michael Billington, in a terrific (and long) essay on postwar British theatre--which is a preview of his new book.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Perhaps it's my American pessismism, but I was struck by this: Billington states that the purpose of theater is: "to grapple with social reality and change our perspective of the world." I can agree with the first part (grappling), but not the second (changing)--the second assumes that the grappling, the struggling, and the suffering are all done and an answer is to be had. I don't quite buy that. It suggests that theater is a didactic instrument of a particular agenda. Again, perhaps that just shows up my pessimism and Billington's idealism.

But I agree wholeheartedly that the heart of theater is grappling. Struggle. Suffering. And I think that out of that suffering *can* come change, that that suffering is an *invitation* to change (not to avoid future suffering and struggle, but in order to suffer and struggle better). But I think *programmatic* change is the domain of propaganda, not theater. The virtue of art is that it gives no easy remedy to the glories and horrors of life but invites the viewer, the spectator, the audience, the co-conspirator, to an engagement with the world that is both terrifying and beautiful.

Thanks for drawing attention to Billington's piece!