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”.

This is mere hyperbole, setting up a straw man to be knocked down. The key word is “implicit”, which is necessary because, of course, I have never described the rest of Irish theatre as pretentious, apolitical or self-absorbed. I am not known for a lack of explicitness; if I thought these things, they would not have to be deduced “implicitly”. I merely suggested that, in the work I saw in the festival, much of which I praised, there was little evidence of a coherent response to the crisis in which we are mired. I also pointed to one work – Louise Lowe’s diamond-tough Monto Cycle – that does indeed have the fierce public ambition that our times demand.

But McCrea does make a more important point: “To judge the art of one time on the basis of its similarity to the heroes of another is almost the definition of critical short-sightedness. Each historical moment requires and produces its own forms of literary expression, and the aesthetic modes of engagement with political, social and psychological realities must, by definition, be different for different times . . . To write a contemporary play in the mould of Tom Murphy (or of Beckett or Friel or Keane for that matter) would be an artificial, anachronistic exercise.”

As it happens, I couldn’t agree more. Maybe the subtleties get lost in the argument, but I can think of nothing worse than a young playwright trying to “do” Friel or Murphy. (Part of the reason I can think of nothing worse is indeed because too many young playwrights have done precisely that, with predictably lifeless results.)

Such attempts at imitation would, in any case, be self-defeating. What makes Friel and Murphy great playwrights is that they don’t even imitate themselves: for more than 50 years they have been ruthlessly restless. They know precisely that “each historical moment requires and produces its own forms of expression”, hence the startling difference between, say, A Whistle in the Dark and Bailegangaire or between Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Faith Healer.

But the point is not about the imitation of forms or of content. It’s about the continuity of an ambition. At different moments of crisis over the past century or so, Irish theatre has recreated for itself the ambition to be a mind-altering substance, to be a force that actually changes the way Irish people as whole see themselves.

It is a ridiculous, overweening, arrogant, self-important ambition. But, astonishingly, Irish theatre has fulfilled it more than once. A playwright such as Murphy is important not as a model to be copied but as a reminder of how much theatre has mattered.

The only similarity I’d like to see in the work of his younger contemporaries is in the willingness to play for such high stakes.

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