What is theatre for?

After scraping a living as a scullion, Irving Wardle became a drama critic for the Times. It set him on a lifelong quest to answer one question

Irving Wardle | July/August 2013

Towards the end of 1955 I gave up my job washing dishes in a South Kensington guest house and started reviewing plays in the Times. As a scullion I had done a fair amount of writing, most of it gloomily introspective, and the pleasure of exchanging that for writing about events was intense. An exhibition of hand-painted eggs, for instance; or an Indian hypnotist who specialised in snipping off the end of your tongue and handing it round a group of observers before sticking it back on again. These were the audition assignments that brought in a flow of freelance jobs and released me from the kitchen.

It was a marvellous escape. It got me into circuses, and variety shows, and comedies in ancient Greek, and into an old Yiddish theatre where a Cossack whom I’d just seen leading a brutal pogrom squatted beside me in the stalls to explain the plot, and led me to an adjoining shop in the interval where he offered to stuff my pockets with chocolate. That was all enjoyable, but I would have been happy seeing anything that allowed me to make a living by writing. Before long, though, I noticed that something special was going on. I was the lowest of the low on the Times arts page, but when Joan Littlewood launched Brendan Behan’s "The Quare Fellow" or the Berliner Ensemble made its London debut, it was I who was sent to sweep up these trivia while A.V. Cookman, my silver-haired senior, strode into the night to match his wits against some taxing West End comedy-thriller. I can still hear the sound of his scratching pen, and his high-table voice hissing, "It’s a bugger, it’s a bugger."

What was going on was the new writers’ movement at the Royal Court Theatre, initially patronised by the top-brass reviewers and subsequently written off as "1956 and All That". It had to do with the widespread feeling among malcontent youth that when it came to gaining a voice in places of power and influence, they had not been invited to the party, and that, thanks to the H bomb, the party was going to be over pretty soon anyway, unless they managed to break in and declare world peace. Being of this mind myself, and still licking my wounds from two compulsory years in the army, I was an instant convert to what soon became known as "the Breakthrough".

How to convey its intoxication? For me, it is inseparable from another Joan, a Montreal psychology graduate of Russian-Jewish origin whom I had fallen in with as soon as I opened a bank balance. Joan was a natural recruit to any revolution on offer. She had resentments against everything from her bourgeois upbringing to the commercial abuse of psychology, and nursed them like suicide-bombs. It was with her that I saw the first plays of Harold Pinter, with whom she fiercely identified, as a pugnacious Jew who had broken out of the Jewish community; and John Osborne’s "Look Back in Anger", the play that first ignited the malcontent masses. Coming out after the show, we were speechless, holding on to each other like two drunks. We loved it. We loved it so much that we agreed on the spot to get married.

The marriage didn’t last. My infatuation with the Royal Court outlived it, but was no less full of hysterical rows and flying dinner plates. The rot set in with Osborne, whom thousands of us revered. Not only did he express what I was thinking, if only I’d been able to find the words: he was an oracle on the state of Britain. So it remained for years. Then came "A Bond Honoured" (1966), an incoherent and shouty Lope de Vega adaptation. I couldn’t see the point of it, and said so. For Osborne, who had treated me with guarded courtesy, this amounted to an act of betrayal.

He declared war in a telegram, following it up with a threat to send men round to break my knees. I responded with an offer to meet him for a gentlemanly punch-up (though my legs turned to water at the thought of it), which he gracefully declined in a second telegram—"Thank you for your nice note...I’m bigger than you but I’m sure you’re stronger so let’s forget it." Then the affair spread to involve other defectors, and an evening was booked at a theatre in Holborn for Osborne to meet his critics. The place was packed out, but he failed to turn up. I never found out why; but the days of hero-worship were over.

More painful to my amour propre was a row with Edward Bond whose first main-house play, "Saved" (1965), I had rubbished on account of its notorious baby-stoning scene. The London theatre community promptly split in two, between those who recognised the arrival of a major talent, and those who felt the gorillas were taking over. As one of the second group, I found myself among the sclerotic old guard which the breakthrough generation was pledged to liquidate. Whose side was I on?

I partly regained my balance when I interviewed Bond on television and he declared that the only cause of aggressive juvenile behaviour was parental mistreatment. I said that, as a parent, I was for some reason unable to hit children, but had seen physical aggression developing between my two boys. So where was it coming from? Bond stared at me derisively and curled his lip in a manner deftly calculated to alienate the viewer. This cheered me up for a day or two. But there was no escaping the fact that I had treated his work unfairly. Just as he disbelieved in what I said about family life, I disbelieved what "Saved" said about the South London working class. Babies were seldom stoned in my area, where policemen had sometimes been known to stroke the neighbourhood cats. So I climbed down and conceded that I had attacked the play out of self-protective ignorance.

There was always a lot of noise coming from the Royal Court, but at its centre was deep silence. The noise came from the young writers and directors, filling the air with their war cries. The silence was that of their boss, the artistic director, George Devinea man who had invested 25 years of his life in theatre reform and was still playing a long game. His first priority was survival, safeguarded with two mottoes: "Be prepared to eat shit" and "Never resign".

Other slogans proliferated around him, but Devine had no time for them. He sided rather with the anti-slogan of Jacques Copeau, founder of the Vieux Colombier Theatre in Paris: "Barricades, Odéon, Père-Lachaise" (or, as Shaw put it, "every man over 40 is a scoundrel"). Like Copeau, Devine had seen too many young revolutionaries wind up as old blimpsa fate which famously befell Osborne. In the meantime, he was more than happy to put up with his noisy stage family for the sake of what they created on his stage.

It was through meeting the phlegmatic Devine that I began to lose my fervour for his cause. Its benefits were plain to see: the renaissance of British playwriting, the growth of state subsidy, the spread of new regional theatres. What began to bore me was its militancy. There always was something farcical in the sight of ex-National Service boys, who, like me, had detested the army, talking about storming the citadels of the West End, and overthrowing the management of H.M.Tennent Ltd as if it were the Hapsburg dynasty.

This mindset infiltrated the reviewing vocabulary, so that the highest praise you could bestow on a play was to call it "subversive" or "lethal" or "front-line". If anything had offered "lethally front-line subversion", it would have been the ultimate masterwork. The time came when I could hardly bring myself to utter the word "Breakthrough". Not only was it stone-dead, but the evidence kept mounting up to show that the enemy was quite a good chap.

One turning point came in 1967 with the London opening of Alan Ayckbourn’s "Relatively Speaking". Until then it had been my unswerving conviction that no play could be any good unless it had a theme, preferably one of urgent public importance. "Relatively Speaking" has no theme; it is a love triangle with an extra side, and all it does is to show a secret affair like a house of cards that keeps miraculously escaping collapse. Just the kind of mind-killing fodder that gave the old West End its bad name. Except that it produced two hours of sustained comic delirium; and convinced me that plays could succeed with zero content, provided that was balanced against 100% technique.

A year or two later I curried an interview at the Globe Theatre with the West End’s demon king, Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, head of Tennent’s and architect of all that the Royal Court’s shock troops wished to demolish. I came to ask him about his dealings with the director Peter Brook. He was at a large desk, a suave figure with beautiful hands, which he used to carve shapes in the air as he talkedmuch as Brook did. When you’re in a theatre audience, he said, your eye is your own. You look at whatever you choose to look at. With a Brook production, you can’t do that. He takes your eye and puts it wherever he wants. No other comment I’ve ever heard about Brook has measured up to that insight.

After the interview Binkie stood up, revealing a paunch, and led me to the smallest lift I had ever seen. We crammed into it, belly to belly, and began the descent. "The American manager Charles Frohman was once in this lift," he said, "and it got stuck. When he finally reached street level and the gates opened, his hair had turned white." From his parting smile the thought struck me that this little frisson might have been a stylish rejoinder to all the efforts of my generation to make Binkie’s hair turn white.

This was one occasion when a manager turned out, on closer inspection, to be a human being. Another was the bricks-and-mortar supremo Donald Albery who defended the West End by comparing it to a traditional grocery shop where customers could pick up Arbroath smokies or Oxford marmalade. This might not give them the biggest thrill, but they knew they were getting a reliable brand. Whereas who knew what they might be getting at the Royal Court? That sounds quite reasonable, until you remember that it meant moribund evenings with the superannuated Marlene Dietrich, the later works of Noel Coward and other old fruit that was past its shelf-life.

Discovering the cuddly side of managers was all very well but hardly exciting, and with my waning enthusiasm for the Royal Court revolution I needed something to get excited about. Writing against the clock four nights a week did something to keep the blood circulating; but to feel really alive required either infatuation or indignation. I did not have to look far for these, and sometimes they could be combinedas in the case of Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, a source of marvellous local documentaries in the late 1960s, whose survival was threatened by the Arts Council’s attempt to uproot its implacably Stoke-based director, Peter Cheeseman. I had an amiable meeting with the Arts Council’s head of drama, Dick Linklater, who trustingly confided his policy towards regional artistic directors as "Keep them moving". When I quoted this in Cheeseman’s support, Linklater apoplectically denied it. Cheeseman hung on to his job; but once the crisis had subsided, the building had lost its magic, and I never saw anything remarkable there again. Perhaps it would have been better if I had kept my indignation to myself.

It’s hard now to recall the veneration in which young playwrights were held in the early years of the new writing revival. The Royal Court’s line, "the playwright leads", was echoed in New York by the Rev. Al Carmines, pastor of the Judson Poets’ Churchthe temple of off-off-Broadway. He gave it an evangelical re-spray: "new writers are our visionaries and prophets; they point the way." But as so many of them fizzled out, that belief did not persist for long into the 1970s. What did arrive then was the "state-of-the-nation" play, whose exponents did English drama a favour by taking it out into the open air, but otherwise led us up the garden path with grim forecasts of Britain’s imminent transformation into a police state, with special concentration camps for shop stewards and union leaders. In some ways a recap of the breakthrough, this movement assumed the same air of unquestionable authority which Osborne had earned legitimately. Even when his successors were clearly talking crystal balls, it was a standard line of defence that their "dark vision" had to be respected. Finally the idea got around that they knew no more about the future than anybody else. But it was several years before one of their leaders, David Hare, abandoned the artist’s god-given right to make everything up and conceded that writing about the state of the nation also required doing some homework.

By now, the late Seventies, I had come to a crossroads. Theatre had twice changed my life: first by giving me a congenial job, then giving me something I could believe in. In the first years it seemed an enormous liberating force, changing public attitudes and institutions as much as personal lives. To those who shared this experience, the word "entertaining" was an insult. Entertainment was merely a by-product of something more important. However, once the Royal Court oil well stopped gushing and the playwright stopped leading, these reassuring certainties were in danger of crumbling away.

I knew I was on shaky ground in seeking a utilitarian justification for watching plays, but I took comfort from the director Otomar Kreja’s saying that although art is entirely useless, once you accept that, it can come in quite useful. I needed to believe that the theatre had more urgent business in the world than giving people a giggle. And I spent years trying to find evidence for that, though not without fear that my quest was a self-comforting delusion a palace of lies mirroring the pretence of theatre itself. For want of another Osborne or Pinter, I started getting infatuated with directors.

In their brief history, stage directors had acquired a reputation for elbowing actors and writers out of the way so as to claim creative dominance for themselves. This changed during the new-writing boom, when the most talented of the younger generation submitted to placing themselves at the service of the writer. Once the playwrights started to lose their commanding position, directors resumed their quest for top-dog status. I was glad of this developmentpartly because of the classics, in which the interests of critics and directors converge. Nothing bores a reviewer more than yet another worthily adequate "Twelfth Night". Nothing gets a director’s juices pumping more energetically than having his wicked way with the dead. He can reset "Twelfth Night" in the Congo and luxuriate in a sense of creativity; while the reviewer can enjoy seeing it as if for the first time.

There speaks an old hack. I didn’t feel like one at the time, as I hung on to my idea of the theatre as a friend of humanity; and it seemed that it might become so more through directors, who worked with other people, than writers, who worked largely in solitude. Also, didn’t the theatre have a debt to the world? Why shouldn’t it devise shows about important events instead of waiting for the writer to decide that the moment had finally come to speak of the Holocaust? Finally, not to leave art out of the picture, there were some directors who could play the stage like a musical instrument.

It sounds improbable now, but the first age of directors at the turn of the 20th century was launched on a wave of spiritual promise, led by people like Vyacheslav Ivanov and Georg Fuchs. In a throwback to those times, when Jerzy Grotowski’s Wroclaw Lab Theatre sailed out on a tide of critical ecstasy to conquer the West, they attracted not only the cultural novelty hounds of the 1970s but also seekers for spiritual renewal. With a foot in both camps, I joined the select audience for their London debut. We were driven to a mystery venue and told to leave our things in the van while we reverently filed in to see "Apocalypsis cum Figuris". We filed out again to find that all our belongings had been stolen, at which point spiritual advancement dropped off the agenda.

But not for long. Whatever the passing flops, the idea persisted that in some way theatre could change your life. Politically, there was the rebirth of agit-prop in outfits like the Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre, whose purpose was to show overtrusting workers how they had been shafted by the management. Ariane Mnouchkine’s "1789" scrubbed the historians’ graffiti off the French revolution and recreated it as a street spectacle, buzzing with danger and recharging the idea of revolution as the route to an earthly paradise. Equally impressive were the modern commedia shows of Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, whose comic-strip strike shows for Mexican-American farm workers came over as red-hot even in a grey Edinburgh council estate. In London the scene was shaken up by resident AmericansEd Berman’s Almost Free Theatre, Jim Haynes’s Arts Lab and Charles Marowitz’s Open Space Theatrewhich gleefully set about corrupting the city’s youth with freedom before the word "alternative" had been drained of meaning.

Marowitz’s theatre in Tottenham Court Road was a black cellar which he had sound-proofed by lining the ceiling with painted egg-boxes. This was the place that meant most to me, for several reasonsit was there that he put on "The Houseboy", my play about washing dishes, a response to a word-of-mouth invitation for anyone to submit a piece about something that had happened to them. I heard of it from Christopher Hampton, who had reluctantly decided not to have a go because he couldn’t think of anything that had happened to him. David Rudkin, by contrast, came up with "Ashes", a fine study of infertility, almost too painful to watch. Marowitz’s programming consisted of new English and American texts, instant productions whipped up from the day’s events, and collage Shakespeare, a form of his own which involved chopping up the text and redistributing lines to different charactersa seemingly crazy process which often produced amazingly dramatic results.

The instant history shows were also unique, as they showed events through the lens of a particular sensibilityMarowitz’s. He was a writer as well as a director, but he did not editorialise. His views were implicit in the way he got the stage to speak. In his tribute to Jan Palach, the story of the Soviet invasion of Prague and the student hero’s self-immolation was set cacophonously on four rival stages, to build a bridge from the safety of middle-class London to the burning body on Wenceslas Square. Marowitz’s forte was apocalyptic farce, which hit its peak in a show about the 1970 Chicago Conspiracy trials, featuring Abbie Hoffman (author of "Revolution for the Hell of it") winding up Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation), who would have been at home with the Salem witches; and who, in a masterstroke of casting, was played by William Burroughs, author of "The Naked Lunch". To some people Marowitz’s abrasive personal manner made him unapproachable. As a writer, his choice of such armour-plated genres as reworked classics and dramatised public events suggests the same temperamental bias. At the same time, these were often productions of great tenderness. He needed a mask before he could allow that to breathe.

Shows like these did something to salvage my obstinate conviction that sitting in the dark for two hours watching people pretending to be someone else could do you good. The West End did nothing to support it, least of all the West End first-nighters. Month after month, year after year, I saw the same faces assembling in the stalls. I can see them now. The wealthy backer’s wife, always arriving ten minutes late, straight from having her hair lacquered into a brittle football. The agent with a fresh client on his arm every night, each one festooned with bling. The bland millionaire grocer and his beaming wife. The diminutive diamond-mine heiress, forever fondling the uncomplaining critic of the Birmingham Post. As I never spoke to them, they aroused my irrational dislike and I took to turning up in a bedraggled donkey jacket, the better to dissociate myself from the glitter. Whatever went on in there was not doing them any good; the only way they were changing was in getting older and fatter.

In the teeth of this daily experience, I still clung to my life-changing hopes. Nobody did more to keep them afloat than Peter Brook, whose productions I had followed from the 1940s as a barometer of the national mood. In 1970 he reached one summit of his career with "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", a production which seems to have pulled everyone who saw it into the same charmed circle. At the very moment of embracing a wider public, Brook turned his back on it and retreated to a Paris research studio to explore ways of developing a universal theatre language. Its first big experiment took place in 1971 when Brook and his troupe unveiled a multi-national show called "Orghast" at the Shiraz Festival in Iran. It was typical of the venture that nobody, except Brook and his writer Ted Hughes, knew what "orghast" meant.

The festival was an artificial event, created by the last shah as a plaything for his artistically cosmopolitan wife, the Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi. Virtually no Iranian work was on view. Most of the work was parachuted into the desert from Paris, London or New York. "Orghast" Parts I and II were allotted two sacred performance spaces in the rock tombs above Xerxes’s palace at Persepolis and the cliff valley of Naqshi-Rustam, burial place of Darius the Great. The sites were crawling with first-nighting trend hounds. I did not spot the diamond heiress or Mrs Football Hairdo; but MC, Brook’s Brooklyn cheerleader, was there, lounging against an Achaemenid fire temple in her accustomed cocktail dress. There, too, was my dramaturg friend M, who had driven all the way from Hamburg, and there, in the festival press office, jumping up and down and demanding his free leather bag, was O, the thickest-skinned freeloader in the history of arts journalism. The place was an avant-garde honey-pot, and the artists had nowhere to escape the swarming horde that came buzzing after them with tape recorders, hungry for quotable material. Apart from Hughes, who hated tape machines, the Orghast team were surprisingly tolerant, and it became common knowledge that the show had to do with the Prometheus myth, involving an endangered infant, and that it was being performed in a mixture of ancient Greek, Latin, Avesta (a ceremonial Zoroastrian language), and Orghasta language invented specially by Hughes.

On the day of the performance we piled into a van and drove off to the site, only to be barred by the security police. "Bastards," Brook said, and led the company and audience to a nearby tea-house for a lengthy stand-off, while news filtered in of the empress complaining that royalty was having to wait while the actors were behaving like kings and queens. In the event none of the Pahlavis turned up, but the security boys melted into the night and we finally set off on the path up the sacred mountain, MC kicking up the dust with her high heels. "You filing tonight?" she asked. I wished I could think of a saucy answer.

On arrival at a small tomb, quarried high above the main site, the privileged spectators, about 30 of us, squashed onto a rock shelf. Absolute silence was demanded. Note-taking was forbidden. O opened his bag, yanked out a gigantic tape recorder and got it going with a crescendo of reverberating clicks. A sobbing wail came from inside the tomb. Out staggered Irene Worth (Goneril in Brook’s renowed "King Lear") clutching the fated bundle, and "Orghast" was under way. I remember being struck by the contrasted sounds of the different languages sonorous Latin against the dry clicking of Avesta; and the use of the vertical rock face to compensate for the tiny acting areaparticularly the use of descending naphtha flares, acknowledging Persia’s Zoroastrian god of light as much as Prometheus’s theft of fire, while, above the tomb, an actor from Mali improvised a blues lullaby. It had a formal musical shape and was often beautiful to see and hear. Verbally, it was incomprehensible.

Back at the hotel, while everyone was discussing what it all meant, I noticed that M was missing. As we’d agreed to meet, I made inquiries and found him in O’s room, both of them guiltily hunched over the giant tape machine. M seemed glad to leave. O, he explained, had asked him for a little help with his rusty German. This turned out to mean that he had cobbled together some of Brook’s advance comments on the show and turned them into an interview which he required M to translate into German, and then record the translation, with M speaking Brook’s lines, on a tape for O to sell to Norddeutscher Rundfunk. But why had M agreed to this? "I wanted", he said, "to see how far this man would go."

I’ve told this old story in some detail to show how rarefied experiment and the crassest kind of showbiz sometimes go together, and to illustrate how ill luck seems to befall anyone who sets out to redefine the theatre’s accustomed milieu. Cheeseman tries to create a citizens’ theatre and runs foul of bureaucracy. Grotowski tries to create a theatre of spiritual renewal and winds up running a monastic cult in the depths of a Polish forest. Marowitz’s theatre of everyday history collapses in a stupid row about money. Brook, renouncing commercial prestige to develop a world stage, achieves an elite event which even the favoured few cannot understand; and associates himself with one of the last century’s nastiest regimes. Student deputations would approach him with documentation on the latest atrocity by Savak, the shah’s security police who specialised in interviewing their guests on a large electric toaster, and he would accept it with the proviso that it was "for information only". Meanwhile the equally compromised press, me included, were sniffing around as though "Orghast" had been a West End opening with the chance of a Broadway transfer.

The difference between Brook and the others is that, after years of playing with fire in the commercial theatre, he knew how not to get burned. The move to Paris was a means of guaranteeing his resources and his independence, so that he could always concentrate on the next task, whether it pleased people or not. Unlike other major talents, he never got trapped in a cage of his own making, but lived on to become the great experimental survivor, still producing unforeseeable work into his late 80s. As for "Orghast", it was gone overnight, leaving no trace behind (unless O’s tape is still lying in some dusty cupboard). It can be remembered as the ultimate elitist absurdityan attempt to reach an international public in a language designed to be impenetrable. But I prefer to see it as a fearless first step towards the genuinely multi-national masterpiece Brook achieved in 1985 with "The Mahabharata". When I see an Iranian film like Jafar Panahi’s "Offside", with its optimistic final display of Zoroastrian fireworks, I think of Brook’s naphtha flares lighting up the rocks of Naqshi-Rustam. The word "orghast", we finally discovered, meant the sun.

To some practitioners multi-national theatre is a contradiction in termsmeaning, at best, the kind of vapid spectacle that has no life outside arts festivals. The real stuff has to be national, even local. Cheeseman’s deep-rooted shows about the potting industry worked marvellously in Stoke’s theatre-in-the-roundbut would have died if he had tried to plant them anywhere else. So that supplies one answer to my old question. Yes, theatre can do you good: it can make you value the place where you live.

Move to the far end of the spectrum and ask the same question of a director whose reach exceeds even Brook’s: Robert Lepage. When I saw "The Dragons’ Trilogy" (1985), Lepage seemed Brook’s natural heir, a maestro who could play the stage like a Steinway grand. The production cut across five time zones, from Quebec to Vancouver, in three languagesFrench, English and Chinese. Did it change me? Yes, because the beauty of the Chinese scenes was such that I promptly enrolled in a Tai Chi class. But that was only one detail in a show proliferating like a fractal.

How had it come into existence? It was the result, Lepage told me, of pooling the company’s resources. Not in conventional discussion where people waste time in arguing their case and trying to win. Instead, his colleagues would bring their fantasies and dreams, and the scenario would emerge. As he put it: "I cannot argue with your dream."

We see two characters digging under a table and coming out on the other side of the Earth; or an Air Canada pilot lying prone on a bench, being his own aircraft while the floor beneath him ripples into pinpricks of light as it becomes the city under his flight path; or a group of soldiers smashing up a shop and then melting into a Tai Chi routine as their martial actions soften into the gestures of remembered combat. If you ask what is the good of that, you get the same answer. As with the celebration of a local railway service, so with the exploration of a continent: if the work is good enough, it can make you value the place were you live; it can make you feel at home in the world. There is only one recorded instance of the theatre inciting a national uprisingthe Belgian revolution of 1830. But, on the right night, it can make you glad to belong to the human race.

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