Tom Sutcliffe: A good play has no sell-by date

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The Independent Online

Watching the current revival of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation the other night I found myself thinking about the durability of plays. This is a matter, you might have thought, of considerable interest to playwrights too, since they all must dream (at some level) of adding a work to the permanent repertoire. And since plays only truly live on stage, the question of theatrical durability is particularly pointed for them. They can't just lie fallow, as novels often do, coasting through that dangerous slough that lies between novelty and established endurance – the death valley of Yesterday's Sensation. They are likely to need some kind of performance history to get them across the badlands. There are lots of exceptions to this rule of course, but even the exceptions seem to prove the rule. John O'Keeffe's Wild Oats, for example, was a big hit in 1791, then pretty much took a 200-year sabbatical before the RSC revived it in 1976, a production that itself spawned a number of regional productions. But it would be hard to argue that it's been restored to the permanent repertoire.

To be honest I thought, before I saw it, that Six Degrees of Separation might fall into that honourable category of plays that fit a period so perfectly that they won't quite work when the period has passed. For a start there's that catchy title – drawn from the idea that any two humans on the planet can be linked by just six steps of acquaintanceship. At the time of the play's premiere, in 1990, this idea was seductively counter-intuitive. "Only six!" you thought – "What? Between the President of the United States and that bloke that sells kebabs down the road?" These days, we may well think that six sounds excessive. We're used to the notion that the world has been comprehensively networked and, what's more, the thing that did it has rendered the essential plot of Six Degrees irretrievably historical. Almost the first thing you would do if an unknown young man blundered into your house claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier would be to Google his name and check out the details. You wouldn't be nearly quite so reliant on personal intuition as the Kitteredges – the middle-class Manhattan couple in the play.

Then there's the racial context of the play, subtly changed I would have thought from a time when Sidney Poitier represented the perfect type of what Spike Lee calls the "magic negro" – that is a black man approved of by whites as tame enough to satisfy their need to congratulate themselves on their colour-blindness. The play now finds itself revived at a time when the President of the United States and of South Africa are black, altering the issues of guilt and wariness that must have been present for audiences in 1990. And yet the production at the Old Vic doesn't for a moment feel as if it's of historical interest only. Getting up to leave, I heard a young American woman in front of me repeating the word "Wow!", a tribute not just to a good production, I think, but to the sense that this play had been aimed squarely at her.

It has had some luck. I can't have been the only person in the theatre who thought of Bernie Madoff as I watched the Kitteredges at work, taken in by their own amour-propre and their own concentration on pushing through a big deal with a South African house guest. And the credit crunch has sharpened the sense that nobody – however well-connected – can necessarily be trusted. But, like any good play, it broadened its own odds by the way several different themes overlapped. In ten years time you can imagine that this might be a play about something else entirely – about marriage, say, or about the need to belong. Underneath all the perishable stuff (the stuff that may need footnotes or a theatre programme essay in another 20 years time) there's something that has no sell-by date.

Getting over a bad start

I'm thinking of creating a new literary prize – the Flopper – though the logistics are a little tricky. It's intended to go to the worst first book by a writer who goes on to have a distinguished career – and the idea was prompted by the unequivocal kicking that A L Kennedy (pictured) gave to her own literary debut Night Geometry & the Garscadden Trains on Start the Week the other day. She actually urged listeners not to read it, although it is acknowledged on her website, where it is accompanied by a line from a tart review in the Glasgow Herald ("A L Kennedy: making misery tedious"). And she isn't the only writer to disown a first creation. Salman Rushdie, I seem to remember being told once, actually tried to buy back the rights to his first novel Grimus after the success of Midnight's Children. And Zadie Smith recently talked of White Teeth in embarrassed terms – an unusual instance of a writer criticising a commercial and critical hit. Judging the prize is going to be tricky, obviously – since the disjunction between the disappointing debut and the career that underwrites the word "disappointing" may take decades to establish. But I feel there is a gap in the market here – and I propose it as an award that, for once, won't be intended to encourage the public to read, but to encourage novelists to, as Beckett put it, "fail again, fail better".

I remember once having a surprisingly heated row with a friend just before Jaws opened in this country. In her view, the anticipation for this cinematic thrill ride was a pure triumph of marketing and to buy a ticket for the movie was to make yourself personally culpable for the stupefaction of Hollywood. I took the view that she should lighten up just a bit and argued that there comes a point when resistance to hype might be trumped by a legitimate curiosity about a cultural phenomenon. For some reason I don't think this argument applies to books (the idea that one might be the last person not to have read The Da Vinci Code is quite attractive). But I fear that Avatar may shortly achieve that tip-over status. I wasn't hugely resistant to seeing it, but didn't get round to it right away and then reached that mysterious point at which it no longer seemed worth bothering. But then people started to suffer Avatar-induced melancholia and now we learn that the Chinese government has withdrawn the 2-D version from distribution, in a move that has been interpreted as an attempt to keep its stirring political message about land-rights from poorer Chinese audiences. It's already reached its tentacles into psychotherapy and geo-political theory. All that remains now is for a Thought for the Day to use it as a text, and there'll be no option but surrender. I can only pray that it isn't as bad as Titanic.