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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

Science Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

Cover Supervisor

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker