Peter Morris: 'If you're a playwright, the US is no place for seriousness'

A play about the Bulger murder caused outrage at last year's Edinburgh Festival. As 'The Age of Consent' premieres in London, writer Peter Morris explains his motives
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The Independent Culture

When people ask me what I think of the term "political playwright", I tell them it's tautological. Like "French sex farce". One word should be enough, surely, to imply the rest. Playwrights are by nature political animals, and even "escapist" writing (and the taste for it) is ultimately political: it implies an everyday world bad enough to require escape from. There was no surer proof of the ravages of Thatcher and Reagan, after all, than the unnerving popularity of Lloyd Webber.

When people ask me what I think of the term "political playwright", I tell them it's tautological. Like "French sex farce". One word should be enough, surely, to imply the rest. Playwrights are by nature political animals, and even "escapist" writing (and the taste for it) is ultimately political: it implies an everyday world bad enough to require escape from. There was no surer proof of the ravages of Thatcher and Reagan, after all, than the unnerving popularity of Lloyd Webber.

But lately, the people who have put that question to me have actually wanted to know something else: how did I, an American in his twenties, end up in London at the Bush Theatre with The Age of Consent, a "controversial" play about the Bulger case and contemporary England? While the UK is certainly a popular destination for asylum seekers, I don't suppose fleeing Broadway would count me among them. American crassness might be as gauche as other forms of totalitarianism but is not, I suppose, as life-threatening. Nonetheless, I needed to come to London. If you are a playwright, America is no place for seriousness. Before 11 September, you were permitted at best a moralistic modishness. Now I gather wholesome piety has become another option. I'd rather be serious, and I'd rather work here. It's no accident that some of the American playwrights I most admire, like Tony Kushner and Naomi Wallace, had their work performed at the Bush long before it was seen in New York. Still, I'm not an expat, precisely; I prefer to think of myself as an amateur anthropologist gone native. I'm fascinated by England, I love it. And the Bulger case struck me as a particularly interesting subject for drama, not just because of the Englishness of it, but also because everyone (it seems) has an opinion on it, while few of those opinions – however well-meaning – are particularly constructive. That's where drama becomes most interesting, when the writer can look at something and simply frame questions rather than offer more answers. And being an outsider might actually help: I take comfort in the fact that Shaw and Wilde and Stoppard were not born here either. Writing about this country also helps me maintain the level of artifice that is necessary for good writing. Creating voices that sounded authentically English was hard work for me, and made me think about every line I wrote. So I hope I've succeeded in writing an English play: the one clue that I have was that my mother, reading the script back in New Jersey, found it wholly unintelligible. ("What's Butlins? Who's Christopher Biggins?") But then again, my mother has always been a little vague as to what, precisely, I do for a living.

When The Age of Consent premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe in August, a lot of tabloid ink was predictably spilled over the Bulger connection. I regret that Denise Fergus was harassed to give her opinion on a play she will never see, and regret that the play was deliberately misrepresented to provoke her greater indignation. My play is not really "about" the Bulger murder, although half of the script admittedly draws its inspiration from imagining what Thompson or Venables would be like now, and extending a sort of sympathy. But my play is actually about childhood, how we define it (hence the title) and what we make of it today. In fact, the other half of the play, which was ignored in the tabloid stories, actually began with a very different tragedy, and a very American one: the JonBenet Ramsay murder.

Although this case has received some press in the UK, I should remind: JonBenet was the child beauty queen who was found murdered in her Colorado home on Christmas morning, some five or six years ago. To this day no one has been charged with her murder. Rightly or wrongly, suspicion fell on her parents. But I wasn't interested in the whodunnit aspect. Living in America at the time, I was more struck (as many others were) by the video image of a six-year-old tarted up as a Las Vegas showgirl to win child beauty pageants. It became clear that, long before she was killed, something horrible was being done to this child. The unwholesome mix of sentimentality and ruthlessness in the Ramsay case was mirrored in much of the response to the Bulger murder: in order to see James as a little angel, people chose to see Thompson and Venables as devils. In fact, they were all children, and we should see them not through the lens of easy cliché, but as a reflection of contemporary society itself.

I don't have children and don't suppose I shall. But certainly childhood is where politics, as well as life, begins. If the Eighties taught most people to behave like locusts, to devour and move on with no thought for tomorrow (all the while humming tunes from Starlight Express), at least talk of children encourages us to think morally, and to think about the future.

And I'd like to believe that the root of moral thinking is in the theatre. Moral content is not something that just gets tacked on to a play, as an extra thrill. The enlargement of sympathy, and the desire to understand human behaviour, passing judgment on the motives of others – these things are the heart of drama. And what we call empathy is, in reality, no instinct but a skill, the sort that is learned by attending to things as a good audience-member or actor would. It's no accident that drama-therapy is now a useful tool in rehabilitating young offenders like Thompson and Venables.

What made the Puritans an enemy to drama was also what drew them to capitalism (and, ultimately, to found the great Puritan empire of America) – a horrible emphasis on the individual, the notion of the soul as a thing to be hoarded, redeemed, made into a brand-name by selfish solitary effort. But there are no individuals in a theatre. We go, as an audience, as writers or players, to take part in a collaborative experience, and that includes moral judgment as part of it. There is such a thing as society, after all, and working in the theatre is always my happiest reminder of it.

So when my mother flies over from New Jersey to see The Age of Consent in the company of an interested and critical London audience, I'm hoping she'll be a little less vague about what I do for a living. And I'm also hoping she doesn't suggest that we go see The Phantom of the Opera on the following evening. If she does, I'll take her to Butlins instead. There are some kinds of escapism that I enjoy too.

'The Age of Consent': The Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), opens Wednesday to 9 February

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