Luvvies, the SAS of the arts

The failure of a book is a private affair. But the actor in a flop must relive the experience nightly
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The Independent Online
You have until Saturday evening to witness, at the Albery theatre in London, an extraordinary theatrical phenomenon. It is not a unique theatrical experience - I've witnessed the same thing perhaps 10 times in 15 years of theatre-going - but it is unique to theatre among the arts. What you will see at the Albery, in the next five evenings and two matinees, is artistic failure and humiliation staunchly borne in public.

The play is Simon Gray's Cell Mates, which has famously proved unable to survive the loss of its co-star, Stephen Fry, who went on a solo tour of Belgium rather than appear in it. This has been seen, understandably, as a story about the psychology and temperament of Stephen Fry, but there seems to me a much broader story about the psychology and temperament of those who work in the theatre. Specifically, I want to attempt a defence, or at least an explanation, of "luvvieness", that fashionable word for the thespian psyche, although it is really only a modernisation of those old greasepaint sneers "drama queen" and "prima donna".

Failure, and critical ridicule, are risks in any artistic endeavour, but to flop in theatre is a special kind of bomb: the nuclear variety. The traditional justification of theatre against television or cinema is that it is "live": the experience is recreated specially every night. But failure, too, is live, and recreated specially every night until the show comes off. Because of contractual requirements for cast and crew to be given notice that a play is ending, there will generally be a two- week period in which a doomed production is performed to tiny audiences.

The failure of a book, a film or a television series is played out at home behind closed doors, in perhaps tearful but private scrutiny of reviews, royalty statements, box-office returns, ratings. The actor in a flop, the performer reading over breakfast that he can't act, has to turn up that night and the next, and recreate the experience just sneered at. Put a duff joke or an opaque idea in a novel and you will never be around to see the reader groan or frown. Put a bad gag or a weak conceit in a play and you're sitting in the stalls to hear the silence.

In this sense, although it is not fashionable to say it, theatre is, in terms of the courage and nerve required, the SAS of the arts. Cinema, television and books are by contrast the catering corps. Thus "luvvieness" - by which we mean a febrile cast of mind and tendency to squawky hyperbole about the difficulty of the task at hand - should be understood as a reasonable response to the insecurity of the profession and the constant possibility of humiliation. In this respect Rik Mayall, Fry's co-star, has been something of a hero. He has seemed a model of professionalism, turning out each night during his partner's initial mysterious and perhaps even tragic absence; praised by both Fry's understudy and his eventual replacement, Simon Ward, for the way in which he helped them through the show. Mayall, I had planned to write this morning, has stood, throughout the Cell Mates saga, for the antithesis of luvvieness: he has represented professional responsibility and integrity. Then we learn that the actor, on Saturday night, was detained by police after "jokily" holding up two tourists in Covent Garden with a plastic gun. It seems unlikely that this strange behaviour was unconnected with the events of the past few weeks.

Therefore, both stars of the same West End play have, to some extent, cracked up. There are two possible explanations for this: (a) all actors are hysterical ponces who get things out of proportion, or (b) the pressures of theatre - and especially of theatrical failure - are exceptional. The first is the popular option, the second the more likely. You might object that most theatrical flops come off quietly without one star in Bruges and another in a police cell, but the point surely is that neither Fry nor Mayall, though both experienced performers, are primarily stage actors. They have been shocked by an ordeal full-time theatre actors take for granted.

Some also think that the playwright, Simon Gray, has behaved badly in attacking the departed Fry. His remarks sound to many like the luvvie tantrum of someone who should simply shut up and admit that no one liked his play. Yet here, too, I think we should try to appreciate the special plight of playwrights. Gray has produced a series of terrifying articles and diaries on the process of staging plays, in which the reader is astonished by the sheer quantity of nerve-steadying whisky and nicotine. At one point he is smoking a cigarette while chewing Nicorettes, for a double kick.

Gray's career has been unusually fraught, divided as it has been with unusual starkness between vast hits and terrible disasters. His productions have also been notably accident-prone - the wardrobe mistress's body was discovered in the wardrobe an hour before one Broadway opening - but his experiences are merely an extreme example of a general problem. It would be possible to produce actuarial tables establishing that playwrighting is the killer among literary pursuits.

The ages at death of John Whiting (46), David Mercer (52) and John Osborne (65) are as typical of playwrights as those of Graham Greene (87) and William Golding (82) are of novelists, with VS Pritchett and Anthony Powell in the latter camp still alive at 94 and 89 respectively.

If theatre is harsher to the body, it is also harsher to the body of work. The veteran novelist who turns in a weak late book can be given a small advance and the novel quietly published. The veteran playwright who turns in a weak late play is looking for a producer to gamble about £300,000 on it. Distinguished Sixties dramatists such as Arnold Wesker and Peter Nichols now have drawers full of unproduced plays. It is hard to think of silenced novelists of equivalent rank.

So if playwrights and actors are more hysterical than those involved in other areas of the arts, then it should perhaps be remembered that their profession contains far more provocation to hysteria. Only one member of the Cell Mates company has behaved badly, in ducking the struggle. Think not then, this week, of the Hermit of Bruges, but of the actors at the Albery dragging out their dead play each night in front of the empty stalls.

I suppose they could paint outside the theatre the opening line of this piece - "You have until Saturday to witness an extraordinary theatrical phenomenon". That would be a kind of good review, for the genuine courage and professionalism which is the flipside of what we call luvvieness.