The Playgoer: Theatre of the Right

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Theatre of the Right

Excellent--and long--"think piece" in the Guardian by Jay Rayner on Where are the Right Wing Playwrights? Or even just conservative playwrights.

One of the dying breed, Julian ("Gosford Park") Fellowes sizes things up:

'Very simply put,' he says, 'after the Second World War the avant-garde became the establishment. That meant that no one was poking fun at the establishment any more because they approved of it.'

So is it a conspiracy? 'Absolutely not. I don't want to give the impression that there's some plot going on. It's just become impossible not to be a socialist within the artistic community these days.' He recalls emerging from drama school in the Seventies and realising he didn't fit in. 'Suddenly being young meant being left-wing, because if you were to the right you were a boring old fart.' And that, he says, has not changed despite changes in government. The problem, he says, isn't too much theatre from the left: it's a simple lack of it from the right. 'There's something profoundly non-intellectual about it. Any reasonably free society must allow for a range of views, and we don't have that.'

Here, here, I think.

I'm glad Michael Billington is quoted to remind us that conservativism does at least have one representative left in the theatre. And he happens to be still probably the most beloved playwright in the English language. His name is Tom Stoppard.

My theory has always been that somewhere after the 60s, conservatives simply felt dissuaded enough from entering theatre, or the arts, that they're just not writing and/or submitting the plays. I also have to wonder if conservatives are on average less willing to toil away for no money and no reward? (Then again, once you assume conservatives are wealthier or value money more, then why aren't they at least taking up playwriting as a leisurely hobby!)

Then again, you do have to wonder, how many NYC Artistic Directors would green-light a script that, say, attacked the Democratic Party...from the right. Or that questioned the welfare state. That faulted unions for the working man's lot?

Hey, I would attack all these positions in my review. But I wouldn't mind seeing the plays!


parabasis said...

hey garrett.

If anyone's interested, I have a few thoughts on this very same essay over at Parabasis

Anonymous said...

And don't forget David Mamet -- another extremeley conservative playwright. (Remember Oleanna?)

Alison Croggon said...

Jay Rayner's piece is extremely problematic. Not to say simplistic. For example: the whole matrix of "right" and "left" is a problem when imposed on theatre. The old fashioned left wing playwrights like David Hare are, well, extremely conservative. What do you do also when radical and conservative might be applied to, in the first case, Bush's policies, and in the second case, to environmental politics?

The terms need to be rethought if they're to mean anything. In the meantime, Rayner's piece seems to me like a lot of huff.

Anonymous said...

This may be oversimplified, but I think conservatives tend to think that if something is worth doing it should be able to support itself.

Theater is rarely profitable, and most of the stuff we talk/read about is being supported by grants. A conservative writer who is opposed to public funding for the arts would recognize himself as a hypocrite if he accepted it in order to produce his own work.

But even though I'd hesitate to call him "right wing," Jonathan Leaf is a playwright who is decidedly more conservative than the average NY theater buff. Of course, he's also a contrarian, so he may be conservative by default. He's had a few productions over the last few years (Garrett even reviewed one), and all the money as far as I'm aware has been privately raised.

Anonymous said...

By the way,

I don't think Oleanna qualifies anyone as being an "extreme" conservative.

Jonathan Leaf said...

I'm not sure who anonymous is, but whoever this is he/she seems to have a good sense for me.

It's true that I'm not really that Conservative, that my plays have relied exclusively on private fund-raising and that I have philosophical problems with state funding of the arts.

Regarding Hytner: while he may say he wants a mischievous right-wing play, the English theater establishment doesn't actually want such plays put on in Britain, and the problems such theater faces are overwhelming. My play "The Caterers" got raves over here, but it was deemed a possible death sentence by its British producers. (They were afraid of being killed - yes, literally - and believed no theater would rent them space.)

Aaron Riccio said...

To be fair, there are plenty of conservative playwrights out there; they just happen to be writing for Fox News and other such scripted networks.

Ha-ha. Joke aside, the point is well taken. Look at all the trouble a certain show that aired the Palestinian side of a conflict ran into. What might the right-wingers encounter on a NY stage?

Personally, as an ineffective independent, I'd love to be challenged more to alternative views by what I see in the theater. It's too easy to just go with the norm, and that's when we get stock characters and their melodramatic monologues.

Playgoer said...

Allison-- I take your point on the shaky schematics of "left/right" "conservative/liberal". I guess I still admire the article just for being! And for being so long and "sourced" as opposed to an off the cuff op-ed. I mean, I can't remember reading any such examination in the US. (Except there's certainly been debate on Fox News about conservatives in *Hollywood*. Where it counts, I guess.)

Yes, we have to define our terms. There are conservative *aesthetics* as well. And some writers may see themselves as liberal politically but end up siding with "cultural conservatives" in denouncing anything avant garde as offensive or "obscene".

I'm also interested in taking up Billington's quoted point about the inherent politics of genre and form, like the romantic comedy. This is especially true in more popular genres in film & tv.

I mean, just to be obvious, "24"? The Die Hard and Leathal Weapon franchaises? All these celebrate unbridled individual private justice over meddling government/civic bureaucrats.

But maybe that's just no-nothing nativist populism. I agree that we need to look more for--and foster--"small c" conservatism.

Mamet is a fascinating example. As a man who admits to being "card carrying member of both the NRA and ACLU" and an ultra pro-Israel conservative (in the religious sense) Jew, I do believe we have a right to include him on any such list. His TV show "The Unit" by the way is not as jingoist as "24" but finds a moderate way to trumpet individual heroism and patriotism against foreign evildoers that definitely beares the marks of the Bush-era. But it also has done episodes explicitly anti-torture and alludes to US past misdeeds in Central America.... And it's totally a guilty pleasure of mine!

Anonymous said...

Yes. Good additions about Mamet. His "pro-Israel" (a term that should not belong only to the right) positions are extremely conservative - right-wing, in fact -- so he's conservative not just in the religious denominational sense. His has also asserted his support for the nuclear hetero family as THE proper form of the famly unit. And yes, Oleanna is deeply anti-feminist, relying on a right-wing caricature of femnism and so-called "political correctness." A deeply conservative play.

Anonymous said...

Mamet may be personally conservative, even "extremely" so, but my point was that you can not responsibly draw such a conclusion from Oleanna alone.

If you saw it as an anti-feminist play relying on caricature, it is your right to critique it as such. But it is reasonable for others to see it as a cautionary tale about how ambiguous climates of thinking can lead to the exploitation of good intentions (think Doubt, The Visit, or The Crucible--and if those examples aren't "feminist" enough, check out Spinning Into Butter or The Story).

For all I know Mamet could be laying a wreath at Jerry Falwell's grave this minute. But I doubt Falwell was buried with a copy of Oleanna.

Anonymous said...

This article was published in The Observer not The Guardian ... (the Guardian media company owns The Observer, a sunday newspaper (The Guardian runs daily Monday to Saturday) but their supposed to have separate editorial identities to some extent (I know the website makes this confusing although the "guardianunlimited" website is supposed to be something of a distinct brand too (yes, this is unconvincing...).