BOOKS / The Art of Theatre: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: 3 The Epic

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ALICE: I don't know why anyone lives in this country. No wonder everyone has colds all the time. Even what they call passion, it still comes at you down a blocked nose.

(Susan smokes quietly. Alice is distracted by some stray object which she tosses into a packing-case. The man stirs and turns over. He is middle-aged, running to fat and covered in dried blood. Susan cues Alice.)

SUSAN: And the food.

ALICE: Yeah. The wet. The cold. The flu. The food. The loveless English. How is he?

SUSAN: Fine.

(Alice kneels down beside him.)

ALICE: The blood is spectacular.

SUSAN: The blood is from his thumb.

(Alice takes his penis between her thumb and forefinger.)

PLENTY by David Hare, start of Act I, Scene I

LITTLE MONK (surreptitiously): Signor Galilei, before he left Father Clavius said - now let's see if the theologians can put their rings back in the sky again] You've won.

(He goes out.)

GALILEO (tries to hold him back): It has won] Not me, reason has won]

(The little monk has already gone. In the doorway a tall priest appears, the Cardinal Inquisitor. An astronomer accompanies him. Galileo bows. Before he goes out, he whispers a question to a door keeper.)

DOOR KEEPER (whispering back): His Eminence the Cardinal Inquisitor.

(The astronomer conducts the Cardinal Inquisitor to the telescope.)

THE LIFE OF GALILEO by Bertolt Brecht

trs Howard Brenton, end of Scene 6

SUSAN TRAHERNE is parachuted into occupied France, where she fights a gallant war. But her stubborn integrity is unwelcome in peacetime Britain, a place of shifty compromise. She drinks, makes embarrassing scenes, damages her lovers, has breakdowns.

Plenty is both intimate and epic, 'epic' being the only term I know for the form which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the retrospective drama of Sophocles, Racine or Ibsen. That shows effects. The epic shows both effects and causes. If this means hopping from place to place, or leap-frogging across the years, so much the better.

One gain, for the audience, is the fun of the ride. The other great gain is objectivity. The epic is cool. We're free to watch, to analyse, to keep our distance. (The one thing the epic can't very easily achieve is a relentless build-up of emotion.) Somewhere behind the epic is the heroic arc of birth, life and death: a difficult graph to handle, death being such a notorious anti-climax. Susan's life is more difficult still: it starts at a peak and then goes steadily down.

David Hare adjusts the shape of the graph by twisting time. The penis scene is the aftermath of a frightful row which doesn't take place till well into Act Two. To discover what it's doing at the start of the play, you have to look at the scene which immediately follows. (In the epic, God is in the juxtapositions.) Scene Two is set 19 years earlier in wartime France. Susan is young, brave, aflame with optimism. But Scene One provides it with a sombre undercurrent: never again, we know, will she be so fulfilled.

So her downward spiral doesn't disappoint us: we expected it. When the author invites us to see it as moral triumph, we go along. But in case we don't: the last scene caps the play with a flash of optimism. Plenty, till now, has been nocturnal: only one daytime scene so far, set deep in the bowels of the Foreign Office. A half-world is evoked: a place of covert activity, all-night whispers, rackety sex. Suddenly, daylight blazes. Susan - young once more - is glimpsed in a sun-drenched France: 'There will be days and days and days like this,' she declares. Ironic but also not: the hopes were real.

In Brecht's hands - as everyone knows - the epic became the basis for a vast and somewhat imprisoning body of theory. But Galileo escaped: Brecht said it had 'a curiously theatrical effect', perhaps thinking there was something wrong with this.

Scene Six sees Galileo sitting in silence while clerics of various shapes and sizes voice objections to his work, all so daft and frivolous as to be harmless. Approval arrives from the great astronomer Clavius. Success seems certain. Then the Church produces a genuine threat . . .

Each scene in Galileo ends with the neatest possible payoff which is also a cliffhanger into the next one. Each scene is complete in itself; each has its set of oppositions, linked - just as the themes of a play are linked - by a doubtful conjunction at the centre: a 'but', an 'although', an 'on the other hand'.

The scene - the real scene, which belongs in the play but has toughness and life enough to stand on its own - is the epic's basic unit. Freedom of time and space is no excuse for confusing the epic with the television script manque: the utterly hopeless play, made up of atmospheric snatches, monologues and ur-scenes which end the moment they start to get interesting.

Nicholas Wright is an Associate Director of the Royal National Theatre and the author of 'Mrs Klein'. Next week: Time.