The broader meaning gets narrower

Playwrights today prefer the personal to the political. This reflects our deep pessimism, says Anne McElvoy
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The Independent Online
REVIEWING Look Back in Anger in 1956, Kenneth Tynan exulted: "All the qualities are there we despaired of seeing in theatre ... the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the curt rejection of official attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour, the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlining all of these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned."

The same words could have been written now of Patrick Marber's West End hit Closer. No critic can better Tynan's rave, "I doubt that I could love someone who did not want to see this play", but the outbreak of superlatives for this, the second play of a 32-year-old, has been universal. Yet the most important review for Closer came, not from a heavyweight critic in one of those Sunday papers that Jimmy Porter so despised, but in the pop gospel Melody Maker: "Forget any notion you may have about theatre being boring. Closer is sex and danger, delivered by emotional letterbomb."

Sex, danger and emotional letter-bombs are what drama has been about since Aeschylus, but the paper was shrewd in detecting the significance of Marber's play - namely that it is luring to the theatre the sort of people who don't usually go to the theatre. The plot is an old-fashioned square dance of desire, with characters unable either to make the compromise of lasting love or to live without it. The sexual act becomes the only expression of love with which they are comfortable. It is the drama of an erotically fixated society.

Closer certainly embodies the Zeitgeist. It is shocking and frank and ... wait a minute - haven't we been here before, not so long ago? Look Back in Anger was driven by John Osborne's loathing of Butskellism and the dead hand of Fifties consensus. Now Marber's work exudes dissatisfaction with uncontroversial, managerialist New Britain - "the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for". The doctor has "more private patients than Bupa" and only returns to the NHS because, we hear, his new girlfriend won't sleep with him until he does. The only character who makes an ideological statement never appears on the stage.

This shift towards the personal, the primacy of sex over politics, is what separates a generation of new playwrights from forebears such as Howard Brenton and David Hare. A few weeks ago, Brenton and Tariq Ali proposed to the National Theatre a parody of Brecht's Arturo Ui, a parable of Hitler's career, titled The Resistible Rise of Antonio B. They were turned down by Trevor Nunn on the weasely grounds that he had "gone some way down a very different track of trying to persuade influential members of the Government to change course and one approach would entirely conflict with the other".

A more honest rejection would have said that ideological theatre lacks appeal at present, because the purveyors of political drama in the 1980s have not yet forged a coherent critique of Blairism beyond the fact that New Labour does not dish out sufficiently generous subsidies to them. What we might call Marber's Paradox runs as follows: today's theatre succeeds best at the old "political" project of widening its appeal when it is does not talk about politics. Like his young peers in the West End - Martin McDonagh of The Leenane Trilogy, Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking (now there's a 1990s play title) - Marber's worker is instinctively leftish but not left-wing. These dramatists are the mirror of a society of political eunuchs, "classless and leaderless", as Tynan said of the Jimmy Porters of his day. Their target is the way we live now. The me-generation grows up and its contempt turns inwards. Osborne extrapolated his loathing of middle-class values into a hatred on his country. But at least his country exercised him enough for him to send it a "hate letter": "Damn you, England, you're rotting now and quite soon you'll disappear. My hatred will outrun you, even if it's just for a few seconds." I can't imagine Marber composing such thoughts, even if he has them. He reserves his wider broadsides for journalists, a too-easy target: even journalists hate (other) journalists.

The stage is less strident than it was 10 years ago, more accessible, enjoyable and personal. Theatre still satisfies the parts of us that film cannot reach. One of the reasons why the sweaty old houses of Shaftesbury Avenue and the old theatres in the regions still have the edge on the manicured comfort of the National is the sense of intimacy. If a character smokes on stage, a good part of the audience smells the tobacco. There is a physical excitement about theatre which is distinct and more intense than the suspense of film. If you spend one evening at a play and another at a film, you notice that swearing on screen does not affect the audience in the way that swearing on stage does.

There is no screen to shield us from the impact of hurtful or graphic words. Theatre is about language in its most potent form. It allows writers freedoms and excesses denied them in television. We are past the point where this is done pour epater les bourgeoises. Indeed, the bourgeoises have come to expect it. More false fuss is generated about Tarantino having a black man call another "nigger" in Jackie Brown than about a concerto of oaths on the stage.

The association of the theatre with violent language - it's hard to find a serious recent play which doesn't use swear-words - is another sign of the intense concentration on individual sensibilities. What the characters feel, whom they sleep with and betray, is more important than who is in government or the risks of the arms race.

The end of the Cold War, as much as the passing of Thatcherism, has made our mental world smaller. The result is a different, and in some ways deeper pessimism. Political drama, however gritty, contained a grain of optimism because it believed that things could change and that change would make us happier. The epilogue to Brecht's Good Person of Setzuan enjoined: "Go, find the ending yourselves. There must be a better one. Must, must, must!" The flight into the personal means that the quest is a far harder one than this. The answers, if there are any, are within ourselves. The problem, we begin to see, is us, not them.