over the last few months there has been a spate of comment on Luther and The Devils, seizing on the fact that both Osborne and Whiting are preoccupied with religion and non-naturalistic forms to suggest that the theatre is at last growing up out of that nasty habit of grubbing about in the lower reaches of realism, of insisting that the theatre has a social purpose. Rumour happily has it that everybody from Wesker to Delaney via Shaffer is writing, or has written, an historical play, and that the theatre is moving to a higher plane of concern altogether. As Kenneth Pearson expressed it in an unfortunate article in a recent Sunday Times: “Now that the kitchen sink has sunk, and ‘God and Conscience’ are scribbled on our playwrights’ memo pads. . . .” One can almost hear T. S. Eliot and Noel Coward waiting in the wings.
Trend-spotting is, at the best of times, a dangerous and fruitless pastime, for genuine talent has a way of creating trends rather than following them, as Raymond Williams discovered when, in 1952, he forecast a revival of poetic drama under the banner of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. At that time, the British theatre was—to quote Arthur Miller—“hermetically sealed against the way society moves”; it was running in ever-decreasing circles round a tea-table, and the elegant verse dramas of Eliot and Fry seemed as good a way as any of giving some element of dramatic surprise to well-bred philosophy and chatter. And so it might have gone on, had not Life, in the shape of Jimmy Porter, suddenly burst upon the stage. Inevitably, the first manifestations of the theatre’s astonished renewal of contact with living material were primarily naturalistic—taking a long, close look at people, documenting their reactions, disillusionment, hope and fear. Hence the settings in garrets, slums, suburban homes, the dialogue drawn from English as she is spoke, the resolute refusal to manipulate characters as if they were pawns in a game of chess. It is all too easy—now—to forget that Jimmy Porter was a strange animal when he first appeared in 1956, to the theatre at least. Young people looked, recognised, and responded passionately; older playgoers began to get some inkling of what lay smouldering beneath the apparent disillusion and apathy of the younger generation. A measure of naturalism was not only inevitable, but exactly what was needed.
But, as Raymond Williams has pointed out in an admirable analysis of the achievements of the last few years (autumn issue of Twentieth Century), the new movement has never been, essentially, a naturalistic one. Noting the “bitter, almost inarticulate rage at the general condition”, Williams writes: “We have then the curious situation of a revival of naturalist drama which, when its structure of feeling is analysed, is only intermittently consistent with naturalism. This new work is less the drama of social description and probability than the drama of a state of mind. It has used naturalism, consciously or unconsciously, mainly as a means of expressing this state of mind. This is why it is so stupid to call it ‘kitchen-sink drama’.” The real influences, he points out, were Anouilh, Sartre, Brecht, Beckett, Giraudoux, Ionesco. There are some odd bedfellows here, but Williams is right when he says that much of the work of these writers “realised, in practice, what the revival of verse drama had originally been about: the expansion of dramatic action and speech to a more vital and more extended human range”.
From this viewpoint, it is clear that there has been a consistent development among the best of our younger writers over the last five years. If the theatre has at last become aware that, as Kenneth Tynan put it, “art is an influence on life, not a refuge from it or an alternative to it”, it has also been aware that naturalism simply records, does not allow of the creative scrutiny and imaginative illumination of life which is the keynote of art. Almost immediately writers began to seek to extend their field, reaching away from naturalism towards the sort of theatre which John Arden defined admirably when writing of his aims: “What I am deeply concerned with is the problem of translating the concrete life of today into terms of poetry that shall at the one time both illustrate that life and set it within the historical and legendary tradition of our culture”. Osborne, in The Entertainer, broke away under the influence of Brecht from conventional to more formal structures, and explored the use of symbolism in his analogy between Britain and the crumbling Music Hall. Songs were used as an integral part of the action in The Hostage and The Lily White Boys. Pinter probed the surrealistic menace lying dormant beneath a minutely-observed naturalistic surface. John Arden experimented with vernacular speech compressed into poetry in Live Like Pigs, with expressionist techniques and ballad poetry in Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, with masks and the comedy of humours in The Happy Haven. Shelagh Delaney moved from naturalism (the musical interruptions and swirling music-hall speed of action
Our theatre, as Stuart Hall correctly pointed out (Encore, Nov.-Dec), has not yet found its Brecht, Sartre or Miller. That is, with the possible exception of John Arden, we have no dramatist who can astonish by the searing imagination and intellectual power with which he illuminates his subject. What alarms me is the suggestion by some critics that because Osborne and Whiting are preoccupied with religion, because they use historical settings, therefore they are on the right road to greatness. From this it is only a small leap to the position, instanced by Kenneth Pearson’s article (“We will accept the fantasies of the Duke of Elba, not those of Joe Bloggs”) that the prerequisite of great drama is that it should be about kings, in costume, and with a “big” theme. This seems to me as false as that old chestnut which crops up over and over again whereby the proper medium for the higher reaches of the drama is held to be verse. Even Raymond Williams seems to harbour this notion when, writing of the reasons for the failure of the Eliot-Fry verse drama, he says, “There is also a steady abandonment of any attempt to use dramatic verse for its original purposes: to express the full range of experience rather than the version of experience that could reasonably be put into the mouths of probable characters”. It is the dramatist’s business to create a probable language for a probable character—a language which will enable that character to reveal himself fully. This language may, or may not, be verse; but poetry is not the exclusive property of verse, and may be contained just as securely in prose which is forged as an instrument of expression, like the “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him” of the end of The Crucible. Nor is there any short cut via “big” themes or noble characters: a theme or a character is as big as the dramatist’s treatment. Allowing for the enshrinement accorded to the dead, it is surely perfectly possible to talk of Hamlet, Galileo, Les Sequestres d’Altona, Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night (for example) on equal terms.
The obvious fact is that there is no formula for great drama. Taking a historical setting, or non-naturalistic approach, simply makes things easier for the dramatist, Osborne, for example, might have written his play round a Jimmy Porter about to take monk’s habit. The feel of the resulting play, and its meaning, would not have been very different from Luther, but audiences would not have found it so easy to accept a Jimmy Porter’s crise de conscience as having the same world-shaking impact as a Luther’s. Luther’s impact is historically validated. Jimmy Porter’s would have to be taken on credit—the amount of credit required being dependent on the dramatist’s power and insight (c.f. the way in which Sartre, in Altona, manages to invest with universal importance the decision of a single Nazi soldier to accept responsibility). In the same way, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance could have been written round a modern army sergeant instead of a 19th century figure, but audiences would have been more likely to baulk at the idea of four army deserters holding up an English town to preach a doctrine of pacifism at the point of a gun, had the setting been contemporary. As it is, the situation is accepted as historical, while the mental transposition to a modern setting and significance is made inevitable.
The use of a historical setting, moreover, means that, because of the distancing, it is easier for the dramatist to gain objectivity from the audience, without loss of involvement (c.f. Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt: familiar situations are shown in a new and unfamiliar light). Thus, in Mother Courage, one can be emotionally stirred by the horror of war, by the spectacle of human greed and courage, and at the same time clinically observe the causes and effects of these things. At the opposite pole is a play like Diary of Anne Frank, honest and true enough, but where one’s emotions are so assaulted that it becomes impossible to examine cause and effect: one’s mind is swallowed up. It is worthy noting in passing, however, that the use of a historical setting is not the only, and not necessarily even the best way of obtaining this critical objectivity: John Arden did it in Live Like Pigs, with a contemporary setting, by making his “heroes” brutally asocial and unpleasant, so that the audience automatically kept them at arm’s length, and was led to examine their case objectively.