Talk given at Middlesex University Literary Festival, April 2005.
This talk is about drama, what it is to me and what it has come to be seen as by our society.
Drama is now referred to as “a product” and that product, like all others, is sold to “consumers”. Consumers now consume a lot of drama. Our TV screens are full of it, our multiplexes, our theatres. There is a great deal of competition for consumer interest, and therefore the whole idea of consumer satisfaction comes into play. I have seen audiences given questionnaires to gather their thoughts and feelings about their “viewing experience” – in which the experience of the drama itself is lumped together with their experiences at the box office and the ice cream stand. This has reached nightmarish proportions in America (a country where everything comes in nightmarish proportions, from its consumption of the world's resources to its prejudice and social injustice). Cinema audiences in the US are shown previews of films which then get re-cut or even rewritten to be more congenial to the public’s so-called “taste”.
I want to explore some of the implications of this for the individual writer, and talk about some of the ways in which I have responded to it. But first I want to clarify my terminology a little – what certain words mean to me. From my mid to late adolescence, I recognised that drama was a way in which human beings communicated directly with each other. The first writer to truly communicate with me was Joe Orton, whose play Loot a group of us performed as a school production. Loot spoke to me about my life in a way which I recognised as profoundly different from anything in what might be called “the mainstream” - the soaps, news programmes and quizzes which were my family’s TV diet. I never for a moment, even as a small child, took something like Crossroads, my mother’s favourite, seriously. It did not speaking to me, was not even tangentially related to my life. It was merely something which one sat through. Looking back, I quite soon developed a curious resistance to the idea that one’s time should be merely passed whilst watching something. From the moment I could think for myself, I didn’t trust the idea of mere entertainment. This is worth dwelling on for a moment. I don’t want my rejection of the word “entertainment” to be mistaken for a belief that one should not be engaged by what one is watching. One should not be bored. Actually, it is the things which are merely “entertainment” which are the things which most bore me. I have always felt that my skull was being crushed by episodes of, say, Emmerdale.
So, suddenly there were these people – Joe Orton, then Edward Bond, Howard Barker, as well as some filmmakers – Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Bunuel – & some songwriters – Strummer/Jones of The Clash, Bob Dylan – who were speaking directly to me about my life, helping me make sense of it and shaking any sense of complacency which I might have had. Pretty soon, I was dipping my toes in the water of writing my own plays. I brought the principal that I was communicating directly with other human beings into my own work. I was attempting to comprehend my life, comprehend my society and the ways in which people acted within it. I was doing this publicly by writing plays which were going to be performed before an audience. I recognised that it was my job to be in dialogue with my audience. I am attracted to the idea that any creative artist is a kind of shaman, going through a process of discovery on behalf of his community.
I now had a relationship with other people who I had never met – I had an audience. As soon as I was writing plays, I went about putting them on. Over pubs and in community centres, with friends as actors. To my surprise, people came to see these plays. What was I up to in the dark with these strangers?
A little digression which might explain a few things. I was what was known as a punk in my late teens. I harkened to John Lydon’s great cry of “Get off your arses!” I heard the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and I wholeheartedly agreed. Our society is a con, full of injustice and imbalance. Most of us have very little real power over their lives; we are kept out of the decision-making process – either by force or distraction; there is a lack of truly human values at the heart of our way of life. Later I became intrigued by the tendency of people to collaborate in the process of their own disenfranchisement. This is what you might call a “donnée” underlying all of my work, “a datum; a basic fact, an assumption, etc” is the OED definition of “donnée”.
Perhaps I am communicating something which some people might not want to hear. But they are paying to see my work. They are Paul Simon’s famous customer who has to be kept satisfied. They are consumers – they want something for their money. What is the deal here?
Perhaps, in the case of audience members who don’t go easily along with what I have to say, I have to break the rule of a consumer society and deliberately not satisfy them. If they want “a good night out” which entails a break from having to “think about things” for a while – escapist entertainment – then I have to refuse them it. Which is not to say that I intend to bore them, god forbid (boring people, I often think, is that unforgivable sin to which Christ cryptically refers in the Bible) but I do have to deny them the satisfaction of sitting through something which pleasures them in the same way as a visit to a massage parlour. I think we all know the word for someone who does that, and although I agree to a certain extent with the old punk phrase “we are all prostitutes”, some of us still feel that we have to draw the line somewhere!
As I mentioned earlier, there is a plethora of what passes itself off as drama nowadays, and the subject matter is often what one might call “dark” or “controversial” or “shocking”. This only makes it more challenging if you wish people to really think about and feel these things. People have been encouraged to get into the habit of congratulating themselves for having sat though “a hard-hitting drama”. In the first play of mine which I really consider to be written in my own voice, I hit on a novel way of dealing with this particular problem.
The World and his Wife is about disintegrating relationships, psycho-sexual violence and what it is to be a victim. How do I put these subjects seriously before an audience which is used to seeing them nightly in their soap operas, blockbuster films and TV series? How do I stop these things becoming merely “plot-points” and encourage the audience to actually consider what they’re seeing? The solution I came up with was to make them not the subjects of earnest drama, the watching of which earns both writer and audience brownie points, but rather these serious “issues” I made the basis for rip-roaring but still painful comedy.
One of the sub-plots of the play was the presence of a serial killer in the neighbourhood. This was around the time of The Silence of the Lambs and other pieces of Hollywood exploitation nonsense. Murder has been used to titillate for years. Sometimes this is excused under the pretence that some such bunkum as “the psychology of evil” is being “explored”. In The World and his Wife, a detective describes and enacts a graphic series of sex-murders on a timid housewife. It is played as a Punch & Judy comedy routine, albeit one in which the character’s suffering is very real. The atmosphere in the theatre becomes dangerous. Some individuals wanted to laugh, but were appalled that they did. Occasionally someone guffawed despite them self. This got them into trouble with other members of the audience, who obviously wondered how anyone could find these things funny. Everyone was put into the position of questioning their own viewing experience. There could be no passive viewing. The satisfaction of switching off for a couple of hours, of a routine, knee-jerk or complacent reaction, was denied. The audience became discomforted. They lost the satisfaction of comfort.
The offer and withdrawal of a laugh is an important element of my aesthetic. In my recent play I Really Must be Getting Off, a guest at a country house called Will questions a Eastern European manservant called Arben about his work and background. There is a couple of pages of comedy of misunderstanding – funny foreigner misunderstanding floundering Englishman. Then things turn…
ARBEN: Which do you want to know?
WILL: Where are you from?
ARBEN: I am from Kosova.
WILL: Isn’t it Kosovo?
ARBEN: That is which Serbs call it.
WILL: I see. Where abouts in... Kosova?
ARBEN: It is where used to be Yugoslavia.
WILL: I meant which part. Of Kosova. Do you come from?
ARBEN: You know Kosova?
WILL: (shrugs) A little bit.
ARBEN: I come from my village near Peca. A short while from Montenegro.
WILL: Oh right.
ARBEN: You heard of Peca?
ARBEN: I believed you might have. It was reported in your news of Peca few years back. And my village.
WILL: Why was that?
ARBEN: My village was burned.
The last line is written as if it were another gag line, and even though it is not funny it still gets laughs from some of the audience – laughs which stick in their throats. The satisfaction of easy humour is taken away from them. They find themselves listening more intently to what is going on and having to respond to it moment by moment.
In that particular play, I very consciously restrict the information given about characters: their jobs, their back-stories, their inner lives. Only the things which would naturally come out in conversations at the play’s particular time and space is allowed. This is a convention of realistic naturalism which holds great sway over British dramatic writing, and the play was to a certain extent a commentary on it. I dislike most so-called “naturalistic” drama, precisely because it denies us access to anything but the social surface of people’s lives. My earlier plays Fat Souls and Coming Up used soliloquies and asides to access the souls of characters, often working class, who would under the prison sentence of naturalism, not be allowed to talk about their inmost hopes, fears, visions and desires. I Really Must be Getting Off uses naturalism in order that the audience shares two dissatisfactions: one, the central character’s dissatisfaction with his fellows’ inability to speak anything more than drivel in their social circumstances; the other, to express my dissatisfaction at a dramatic convention which denies us access to anything other than the social service. I was attempting to defeat my enemy by singing his song, as corporate capitalism has done with rock music.
I want to end by telling you about two new techniques for creating audience dissatisfaction which I have explored in two recent pieces. In one, a short film called Apeth, I have refused the notion of explanation. In the plot, a man uses modern technology – text messaging, email – to invite two guests around to his plush flat, in order that his most basic, ancient desires be satisfied. The guests are a scally from a nearby council estate and an ape from London zoo. The film ends with them sharing a circle jerk. The script and the filming (I directed as well) refuse to comment of these characters and their activities. I haven’t actually filmed it as a drama at all – more like a nature documentary. The audience must to come away with a certain dissatisfied feeling, ask “well, what the hell is all that about?” If they do, then I feel I will have done my job.
In my new play whatever, I take things further than I ever have to upset audience expectations. The central characters are wealthy, urbanised liberals: the kinds of people that work for The Guardian; due to the chaos of modern life and sexual desire, they become involved with three young men from my old hometown of Romford, one of whom is a fully paid-up member of the BNP.
I know full well that my theatre audience is likely to be full of more Guardian types rather than Romfordian ne’r-do-wells. I know that they have condemned the BNP guy before the curtain even rises, and that nothing would give them more satisfaction that a play in which a racist is shown to be a nasty piece of work. In my scenario the racist, despite his noxious views, is one person in the play who is willing to stretch himself as a human being in order to stay faithful to some crazy vision of “looking after the family”? When he finds out that his younger brother is gay, his response is not shouting and condemnation but rather tenderness and self-overcoming.
TONE: Havin’ trouble getting’ my head around… Why d’yer think I go on about immigrants and that?
DEAN: ‘Cos you hate blacks.
TONE: ‘Cos I think you should stick up for your blood. Kith, kin and culture. Who more’n you is my blood?
The Guardian liberals in the play show no fealty to anything other than their own spurious freedoms and the satisfaction that their self-image as social consciences gives them.
It is not that I am elevating my right wing character to hero status – his views are palpably appalling and rise from ignorance and fear – nor am I making my liberals the villains of the piece. What I am trying to get away from is the easy satisfaction of looking at some people as villains and some people as heroes. So that we comprehend rather than condemn, that we look at our own behaviour as much as the behaviour of others, that we respond in a lively manner rather than sitting down and going into autopilot. If the audience object, riot, disapprove – so much the better.
In the mid-sixties, one of the world’s most inspiring artists, Bob Dylan, stopped performing acoustic folk music and toured the world with some astonishing, mind-blowing electric rock. His audience were appalled, someone even calling him “Judas” in the midst of a concert. Dylan replied “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar” before instructing his band to “play fucking loud.” That music is now considered to be some of the best of the 20th century.
Sometimes, in order to maintain one’s integrity and do one’s job properly, one has to dissatisfy one’s audience rather than give it easy satisfaction. Now more than ever, lumbered with a government which is progressively more authoritarian, an ever-increasing gaps between the rich and the poor both locally and globally, potential man-made environmental disaster and the widespread belief that the only rights one is entitled to are one’s “consumer rights”, as a serious dramatist I must use every means at my disposal to deprive the audience of lazy satisfactions. In the words of John Lydon on PIL’s great Metal Box album, I am “sowing the seeds of discontent.” In the end, many members of one’s audience will thank you for it, as the satisfactions they have gained will be perceived not as merely worth the price of admission but priceless.
James Martin Charlton,