Meet Professor Playwright

Terry Eagleton, wildman of Eng Lit, has a nice sideline going in dramaturgy. Dominic Cavendish asks him why.
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The Independent Culture
Here's a word of advice for academics from Terry Eagleton: "If you're going to write creatively you should always choose drama, because, like bingo and bowling, it's a good way of getting you out of the house." The world-renowned Marxist critic genially proffers this thought as we sit in a dusty chamber in the London School of Economics before an evening lecture. It should sound droll but it comes across as alarming. Has the radical who spent the Seventies dancing on the grave of The Author, who exposed the sinister ideologies propping up "the canon", and who even called, in his best-selling primer Literary Theory, for the death of literature, become a half-hearted dilettante?When you hear Jonathan Church, whois staging Eagleton's Disappearances at the Salisbury Playhouse, describe it as "post-socialist", you start to wonder.

Eagleton's fellow academics at Oxford are, apparently, only too happy to treat his playwriting as harmless fun - "They regard it as a hobby much like playing snooker or jogging," he says, chuckling. "They maintain a polite silence." And what about Eagleton, who, with his softly spoken expatiations and regulation crumpled canvas suit, seems decorum personified? In the last 10 years, he has had three stage-plays professionally produced - and there's been a radio play about the Great Hunger and a draft piece about Wittgenstein that got auteur-ised by Derek Jarman. He's not much bothered by dead-lines: "When my agent says `They can't put it on this year', I go `So what?' ". But is he really only playing around?

On the face of it, Disappearances is the antithesis of hard-hitting. There are a lot of teasing autobiographical hints - both the author and Kaman, the central character, went to Trinity, Cambridge and are now globe-trotting lecturing types, yet both see themselves as "outsiders" (Eagleton on account of his Salford working-class roots, Irish immigrant background and leftist tendencies; Kaman as a dissident poet-in-exile). The case for doing nothing and staying put appears to win the day. Isn't Disappearances a thinly disguised act of self-justification from a man who has written about "the strategic goal of human emancipation - the production of better people through the socialist transformation of society", who tags himself "the barbarian in the citadel", but has actually been sitting pretty in Oxford for nearly 30 years?

"The problem is this kind of polarised thinking that imagines that if people aren't everything, they're nothing," Eagleton retorts. "There is something in between the ivory tower and the Romantic image of the writer who is going to get things done, and that's where the interesting things happen. Kaman says that art is an end in itself, that we too should be ends in ourselves, and that's the politics of it. Any politically committed person coming to this play will not get a comfortable ride." If that sounds like a catch-all, it's worth considering Eagleton's other plays, where "doing nothing" has been given a fiercely post-colonial reading.

The professor's rash of playwriting was brought on by an interest he developed in Oscar Wilde at the end of the 1980s. Saint Oscar, packed with his own epigrams, was, on one level, an act of self-discovery: "I was brought up within an English educational system where I was trained to be a critic, and, for all the gains of that, one has to sacrifice some creativity. I began to rediscover it through drama." Now at the age of 54, he has acquired a reputation for living and breathing his ancestry, singing Irish ballads whenever possible, and dividing his time between Oxford and Dublin. On another level, his interest in Wilde located the subversive spirit of the colonised subject. Eagleton cherishes Wilde's determination to be an actor rather than an activist; "If, like Wilde, your history has been largely one of colonial disruption, you are less likely to be enamoured of stable representational forms. You will find yourself a parodist and a parasite." In The White, the Gold and the Gangrene, his second play, the martyr hero James Connolly says almost nothing throughout. Kaman, meanwhile, hopes to conduct a "private anti-colonial campaign".

This paradoxical inactivity seems to encapsulate what, if anything, Eagletonian theatre is on about; it may seem modest, not Marxist, but it is deliberately aware of its limitations. "At least we can look at the kind of privileged structure that makes it possible to even write a play," he argues. "I don't think British theatre seems even to think about that." There is a rare burst of passion: "People should do what they can do, or they can do best, and shouldn't keep beating their breast, `Lord am I contributing to the greater good?'. I'm not making any claims for a resurgence of radical theatre. In the act of writing, in the white heat of writing, you can have the fantasy that you are in control and doing something that could be potentially transformative. Sometimes that's true." He frowns through his little round specs. "But only in a small way."

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