Surfing the net recently, on one of those feverish Sunday afternoons when you pretend to be relaxed, enjoying doing nothing, I came upon a diverting piece in which Elaine May purports to interview Woody Allen and Ethan Coen.
I say purports because in fact it's no more – or do I mean no less? – than an excuse for some rather lame, if amicable, three-way clowning on the eve of the Broadway opening of Relatively Speaking – three short plays by Elaine May, Woody Allen and Ethan Coen.
After a failed attempt to get a conversation going about climate change, May tries world peace. How would you go about achieving it if you had the time, she asks. Coen rejects the premise on the grounds that he has the time. Allen does the same, reasoning that world peace is impossible given the innate aggressiveness of human nature. "Have you ever seen women at a sample sale?" Universal harmony being a pipe dream, he suggests we focus on more modest goals, "Like a ban on yodelling." You get the picture. We're at one of those staccato dinner parties that were the staple of early Woody Allen movies. I'm not complaining. I would have liked to be there.
Elaine May threatens to make the interview up – it's possible she already has – unless her fellow wits do better. So: on to more serious matter. Woody Allen claims his play has no redeeming social value. What, then, is "redeeming social value"? And which plays had it last season. Before anyone rushes to answer, she throws in a proviso. "Plays from England don't count." Which is the best joke so far.
Americans are strange about the English. Woody Allen has made good films outside America, but no matter how much time he spends in London, he can't make a good film about the English. I'm not aware that Elaine May or Ethan Coen has ever tried. Maybe they think Woody Allen has made enough mistakes for all of them. So what's the problem? How come they think all Englishmen sound Australian, wear cravats for breakfast, go to work in fog carrying furled umbrellas and have not yet discovered sex?
May's joke sheds light on all this. English plays don't count in any discussion of which plays have "redeeming social value" because, to an American observer, English plays have nothing else. In their view, the art we make is solemn-minded, worthy and pedantic. Our creativity is hobbled by class and morality. We lack what Henry James – another American who found us stuffy – called "plasticity".
These charges do not, of course, stop Americans occasionally liking what we do. Our best plays win prizes on Broadway. Our worst television – Downton Abbey, say – succeeds similarly, precisely because it is hobbled by class and morality. But our writing is nonetheless perceived to lack vitality, and it is certainly hard to imagine the English equivalents of May, Allen and a Coen brother sparking off one another in the playful manner I have described. Let's go further: it is hard to imagine English equivalents of May, Allen or a Coen brother full stop. A Jewish thing, is it? Well, Jewish writers have succeeded mightily in the English theatre. Pinter, Wesker, Kops, Harwood, Leigh – you can't accuse their work of lacking the vital spark. But you can't see them fooling about, either, for the sheer joy of being nimble witted.
So what's the difference? Vaudeville for one. Behind all the great American Jewish comedians – and any number of American Jewish writers have been comedians of sorts – lies the vitality of a culture of popular showmanship: a a song, a quip, some fancy footwork. That this culture was embraced enthusiastically by poor migrant communities goes without saying: America existed to provide just such opportunities. England did not. If our culture lacks the razzamatazz of America's it is because marginal voices – often out of diffidence – have in the main stayed marginal. Heavy with the great achievements of the past, we English move a little slower.
But I still don't accept the American valuation of what we do. The French, surprisingly, appreciate us better. Proust notes the essential paradox of the English when he describes the jesting of Shakespeare's fairies as simultaneously "lyrical and coarse". When Baudelaire first saw an English pantomime in London he marvelled at its "dizzy and bewildering exaggeration", so different from its melancholy French equivalent with its mooning, sad-faced Pierrots, so furious in its derisive laughter that the whole theatre "appeared to rock on its foundations".
We are fortunate to have two supreme examples of this quintessentially English comic explosiveness alive and kicking in the contemporary theatre. Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem is one – a play Americans prized highly even when they didn't entirely get it. If Mark Rylance's performance in this play is the greatest by an English actor any of us has ever seen, that is partly because it connects to a quality of obdurate independence, of furious and yet somehow poetical intransigence – at once lyrical and coarse – that is as ancient as the earth we walk on. In the final 10 minutes, Rylance conjures up – and it really does feel like magic – who the English are.
So too, in a very different spirit, does James Corden in the more pantomimical One Man, Two Guvnors. Though it's an adaptation of an Italian play, the playwright Richard Bean anglicises it entirely, giving Corden the chance to tap into the great English tradition of largely bewildered, sometimes sweet, sometimes vulgar, clowning. It's a far lighter performance than Rylance's, but the play is just as funny, and no less refutes what the Americans in their charming ignorance of us see as moralising worthiness.
We are a wild, indomitable people, at our best when we express ourselves in wild, indomitable art. As for our "redeeming social values", they are just another savage jest against ourselves.