Arts: Who says philanthropy isn't an f-word?

A week in the Arts
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Clothing industry millionaire Peter Wolff is giving pounds 1m to help young playwrights. It is one of the most generous pieces of philanthropy in the arts for some time. But the gift from the 67-year-old self-made man, who once worked in the lingerie department at Marks & Spencer, comes with a notable caveat.

Mr Wolff does not want swearing or gratuitous sex and violence in the dramas he funds. He wants to help aspiring playwrights produce "middle of the road" drama, saying: "I want to find and help a group of playwrights to write good theatre without needing to put 20 f-s in it. So many people I know are becoming reluctant to go to the theatre because there is so much filth and violence."

Now there's a hell of a challenge, if Mr Wolff will pardon my language. Do we have a single young writer, or indeed a playwright of any age, who can craft a play without any swearing, sex or violence? Mr Wolff's offer conjures up for me a delightful vision of writers all over the country tearing up pages of drafts in exasperation as they struggle in vain to master the long-forgotten skill of the f-less play, five-pound notes vanishing before their eyes.

"I tried," a despairing Mark Ravenhill might plead with Mr Wolff, tears rolling down his cheeks, "believe me, I tried. But Shopping and Sewing just didn't work."

Looking down the list of West End plays now on, I could find few that accord with Mr Wolff's wishes. Peter Pan certainly, but even there Captain Hook has a violent kink and Wendy's continual pleas for a kiss strike me as suspiciously gratuitous.

Not that Mr Wolff doesn't have a point. There is rather a lot of gratuitous swearing on stage. I recall that even Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard had an f-word in the opening moments and not another all night. It was incongruous, but he was far from alone in adding an incongruous swear word for no particular reason, rather in the way that Hollywood film-makers do (the real reason there being to gain a street-cred- worthy Certificate 15).

Yes, aesthetically, Mr Wolff might have a point. But he is wrong to put his money where his mouth is. Over the past decade of arts sponsorship, there have been constant cries of wolf (no pun intended) that a sponsor might try to influence the content of an artistic endeavour. It never really happened. Now it has, though this aspect has gone largely unnoticed in the publicity surrounding the generosity of Mr Wolff's gift.

Constraints on writers do not produce good work. They produce a formulaic hack-job, "middle of the road" plays made to order (bring them back if they do not fit). Yes, occasionally there is unwarranted swearing, sex and violence (though, on the West End stage, it's largely the first and very, very rarely the other two). But these are explorations in art for both writers and audiences. Where the language is relevant, it works; where it is not, audiences sooner or later stop coming, writers mature and develop their style.

I am sometimes worried that we are in danger of losing what Harold Pinter once called "an underground vocabulary" if we have too much swearing. There is nothing to fall back on in genuine moments of verbal aggression. But let audience response determine what the public find relevant to their lives in drama, not the diktat of philanthropists. Mr Wolff is a generous man, and theatre should be grateful for his gift, but no strings, please.

Incidentally, it is striking that Mr Wolff cites as his own favourite playwrights David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller and David Mamet. David Mamet! Take away the swearing and sexual discussions in Mamet and you shorten the evening considerably. If Mamet had had a patron who had insisted that the young writer avoid those alleged sins, a great writer might have been stifled.