Minority report: can theatre avoid the fate of classical music?
CULTURE SHOCK: SITTING ON THE bus on the way home from a Dublin Theatre Festival show last week, I suddenly started thinking about what happened to classical music.
Until about a century ago it was a living form, not just at its experimental edges but at its centre. Mainstream concertgoers or operagoers could expect to encounter not just the works of the great tradition, such as pieces by Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but also, for example, a new symphony by Mahler. They presumably would have expected this situation to continue indefinitely. But it didn’t.
Gradually, the form broke in two: a mainstream that is almost entirely historic and a contemporary avant garde that is of interest only to a minority of hardcore devotees. From time to time a new work will cross the divide, but this is an exceptional occurrence.
Just look at the main programme of forthcoming concerts at the National Concert Hall: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Verdi, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Brahms and so on. The odd work by a living composer, such as Frank Corcoran or James MacMillan, will sneak in, but as a side dish rather than a main meal.
Theatre could well go the same way. It won’t die. There is too much artistic greatness contained in its classics. There will always be an audience for Shakespeare and Ibsen, Chekhov and Synge, just as there will always be an audience for Bach and Mozart. Equally, there will always be a small hardcore of devotees fascinated by new, abstract explorations of the form. Theatre practitioners will go to see other theatre practitioners just as highly trained musicians now go to hear the work of the most difficult experimental composers.
This, it seems to me, would be a tragedy. Theatre’s glory has always been its peculiar fusion of populist vulgarity with the highest and deepest of artistic and intellectual ambitions. The best theatre is half carnival, half sacred ritual. The great Greek tragedies were followed by filthy satyr plays. Shakespeare is a startling compound of knob jokes and profundity, of exquisite poetry and crowd-pleasing stunts. Beckett is influenced as much by Buster Keaton as he is by Racine. What has always maddened puritans of every hue is that great theatre refuses to be purified, to be either fully serious or merely entertaining.
This is, of course, especially true of Irish theatre. Even after postwar European theatre began to break up into a mainstream and an avant garde, Irish theatre kept that distinction fluid. Its big postwar figures, such as Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, are full of formal experiment, much of it radical and daring. Even John B Keane, who looks old-fashioned at first glance, is stark and strange. But the world they put on stage is also easily recognisable to a mainstream audience. And on that stage they play out the psychological tensions of social changes and contradictions that are also recognisable to a wide audience, for the simple reason that the audience is living through them.
TO MAKE THIS point, however, is to leave oneself open to accusations of conservatism and nostalgia. In an interesting letter published in The Irish Times this week in response to my raising of these questions in relation to the Dublin Theatre Festival, Prof Barry McCrea suggests that, in praising DruidMurphy and wondering whether we might see its equivalents ever again, I am guilty of an “implicit dismissal of the rest of contemporary Irish theatre as pretentious, apolitical, self-absorbed trickery”.