Theatre: The misuse of abuse

Child abuse has become one of the most abused of dramatic subjects. Why? Because playwrights have hijacked a serious and emotive topic and turned it into an all-too-easy device for the revelation of dark and tragic secrets. By Paul Taylor
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Claire Dowie's Easy Access has received just about the most flattering tribute a play of its type could be paid. Not, of course, any of the conventional gongs (an Olivier or Evening Standard Award), but a rare recognition of the sensitivity and incisive wit with which it analyses the parlous situation of a male prostitute, sexually abused in childhood by his father. First, the Samaritans invited Dowie to perform the piece at their annual conference; then the Family Support Unit in Bradford asked if they could use the play in their group-work with abused teenagers.

A signal compliment, given that most of what passes for art about child abuse in the theatre must be repugnant to these and similar organisations. Indeed, in the past decade or so, it would be hard to find a dramatic subject that has been more abused than abuse. The forthcoming revival of Dowie's 1997 play, in a new solo remix with video footage, and the premiere of a subtle and insightful Simon Gray play, The Late Middle Classes, set in the Fifties, about a 12-year-old boy caught between two types of oppressive, demanding love (from his mother and his platonically paedophile piano teacher) offer a heartening contrast and prompt the question: what considerations make the difference between an honourable, imaginative and genuinely dramatic treatment of the subject, and one that is opportunistic and exploitative?

The virtues of Easy Access are a handy index to the artistic vices and skewed simplifications in most examples of this genre. Bad dramatists (and, alas, quite a few good ones) are attracted to the topic because a protagonist's abused past lends itself to convenient misrepresentation as the One Total Explanation for her or his life, the play moving towards this portentous revelation with the inexorable progression of a whodunnit towards the murderer.

Often allied to this is the misguided notion that the female sex has the monopoly on victimhood. Sarah Daniels' Beside Herself, an early example of Nineties abuse drama, had a powerful central image: as she went through the motions of her middle-class, do-gooding existence, the fiftysomething heroine was orbited and monitored by an anorexic young waif. This was her repressed, vengeful, sexually abused self, who repeatedly mocked the older woman for her emollience. But as the alter-ego's name - Eve - all too clearly indicated, the play had archetypal, gender-exclusive notions of victimisation.

Alternatively, plays have gone in for equally indefensible special pleading on behalf of men, as in Anna Weiss, Mike Cullen's drama about the effects of "recovered memory", where the confrontation between obsessed therapist and accused father has the same - almost copy-cat - veiled misogynistic imbalance of that between accused professor and fanatical female student in Oleanna.

Dowie, one of the pioneers of "stand-up theatre" (in such pieces as Why Is John Lennon Wearing A Skirt?), says that "anything presented as black- and-white annoys me". Her central character is therefore not only male, but drawn from one of the less sentimental areas of masculinity: the ageing rent boy.

The structure, too, is unconventional. Even plays with a liberal-minded agenda, such as Paula Vogel's recent Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned To Drive - where the driving lessons an uncle gives his young niece become an ambiguous image of empowerment, sexual temptation and suggested complicity - can't resist imparting an illicit thrill by working back to the Fateful Initiatory Moment. Vogel tries to cover herself with a double time-scheme, simultaneously moving backwards to the First Lesson and forwards to the Adult Showdown, but you still come out feeling faintly soiled.

Easy Access, while having a strong and necessary sexual charge, eschews that cheap brand of titillation. A painful progression to knowledge is indeed charted in the play, which follows Michael as he assembles a video diary of his life as a male prostitute. But here it is from the loving illusions he harbours about his father at the start - arguing with a jaunty defensiveness to the camera that "I'd hate to fall out with him over something as meaningless as sex" - to the growing desperate realisation of the way he has been duped and damaged.

The abuse started when he was six, after father and son were abandoned by the mother and one of the most pitiable admissions in the piece is Michael's recollection that it felt worse when it stopped. "It was just like it had never happened in the first place... I thought he was mad at me, or didn't love me any more."

Unlike the character Gary, another abused renter who proselytises for dumping wayward dads, the play sympathises with Michael's need for paternal affection, while demonstrating - in creepy fantasy moments where the father erotically replaces Michael's current sexual partners - how the abuse has, for the younger man, debased the currency of loving exchange.

Monologues, with their built-in knack of presenting the world from the speaker's distorted, partial perspective, might seem a form particularly suited to abuse drama, with its slippery overlappings of reliable and unreliable witnesses. But for every success in this line (Alan Bennett's stringently compassionate solo piece for a paedophile, Playing Sandwiches, or Bryony Lavery's Frozen, which artfully moves from monologue to dialogue as it steers a serial childkiller and the mother of one of his victims into a superbly testing confrontation), there are at least a couple of stinkers that jettison any equivocality.

Dennis Lumbourg's One Fine Day - in which Joe McGann played a likeable Scouser unjustly accused by social workers of molesting his little daughter - actually made it into the West End. In this example of perky, feelgood abuse drama, it was clear from the start that it would have been about as feasible to charge Shirley Valentine with mass murder. But form and content here were at odds: to plead straightforward innocence in a solo drama is tantamount to claiming complete discretion in a whispering gallery.

Easy Access is characteristically canny in its use of monologue. The whole piece is enveloped in ambiguity and ends in a peculiar solo turn that queasily heightens this atmosphere. The crisis comes when the father, a cafe owner, lets a room to his new female helper and her little boy. Are Michael's manic plots to get rid of them evidence of anxiety on the child's behalf, or of jealousy, or both? As he argues, if the father interferes with this new boy, it will destroy his belief that their sexual relationship was special and prove that, even back then, he was what he afterwards became: meat on a rack.

Like David Spencer's Killing The Cat (1990) in which the protagonist has written a dubious novel about his sister's abuse by their father, Easy Access differs from most plays on this theme by incorporating a sense of uneasiness at its own devices. The video Michael is compiling is crucial here. In retaliation for his goading suspicions - whether they be true or false - the father steals the footage and edits it so that it is reduced to a monologuing string of moments in which Michael, sometimes in the company of children, is made to look like a sinister and potential perpetrator, and his previous behaviour an elaborate rationalisation of this urge.

The systematic removal of ambiguity from that video ironically serves to complicate our sense of the twisted power mechanisms between father and son. It follows that the best drama about abuse, while making quite clear that the act itself is evil, should not simplify a sense of the complex reciprocities in the adult/child relationship. Nor should it pretend that the balance of inequalities is always tilted in the one direction. What is devastating to Michael in Easy Access is the fact that his father failed to realise what the sex meant to him. For the older man, it was a phase: for Michael, the centre of life.

And what is devastating to the platonic paedophile in Simon Gray's The Late Middle Classes is that the boy-muse remains fundamentally unaware of the painful significance he held for this stricken adult. It is only by being scrupulous about the many varieties of injury that drama can tackle the subject of abuse without artistically violating it.

`Easy Access' is at the New End, London NW3 from 22 Apr-15 May, 0171- 794 0022; `The Late Middle Classes' is at Watford Palace Theatre to 10 Apr, 01923 225 671