“Theatre”, according to David Hare in a 2011 interview with the National Theatre, “is a young people’s game”. The playwright believes that what we are currently experiencing on the stage is a rare and anomalous “historical freak” in which there are too many old dramatists dominating the world of theatre, such as Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn, and himself. These are writers who have been masters of their craft for over 40 years, and Hare asks the logical question: where are all the new playwrights?
Traditionally, the working lifespan of a playwright is notoriously brief. Once you’ve said all that you have to say, you are obliged to step aside: to make way for newer, louder voices – voices that will inevitably drown yours out.
Theatre is always at its most pivotal and important when there is a young generation attempting to “sweep away” what has come before them. It’s that Oedipal Harold Bloom theory that a writer must ‘kill’ his predecessor in order to achieve greatness.
Every few years, drama is mercilessly subjected to a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’, but this doesn’t seem to have happened for a quite some time in this country. Hare concurs: “Life in the theatre is usually very short,” but he also identifies the solution: and it’s that we need new playwrights – “there’s an urgency about young theatre that I love, which is usually to do with life.
It comes from people seeing – young people feeling that the art form doesn’t reflect what they know. And so they come running in from the street and they say ‘we want to show you what life is now like’. And the first burst when you do that creates the most exciting theatre.”
Hare recognises John Osborne as the obvious pre-eminent example. It’s perhaps difficult to read or watch Look Back in Anger and comprehend why exactly it was so controversial or revolutionary for its time when it came thundering into The Royal Court Theatre in 1956, but it is vital that we understand that these ‘people’ had never been shown on the stage before.
For many years, theatre had been dominated by the shimmering middle-class wit, stylish dramas and masterful farces of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan – plays that operated well within the means of enforced political censorship.
When Osborne’s brutally honest and bleak portrayal of working class angst premiered, to see and hear these characters, these voices, who had until this point been silently marginalised and muzzled by the conservative and regimented plays of the time, must have been incredibly alarming. A new generation was blasting its way into the theatre, whether society was ready for it or not.
When we look to our own present world of theatre, it seems a long time since anything nearly as earth-shattering as this has happened. Verbatim theatre and physical theatre were unusual and audacious when they first emerged, but they have now been well established for so long that theatre is yearning yet again for a serious shake-up.
With Tom Stoppard’s eagerly anticipated new play, The Hard Problem, set to make a smashing start in January at the National Theatre, and Hare’s latest work, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, playing there already, it’s time for new voices to come out.
Theatre must never fall into the stagnant state of becoming too predictable, too reliable, or too boring. We must learn from our predecessors, of course, but not just simply imitate them. Hare laments this vicious circle: “Certain playwrights in my lifetime, by being great, have also been disastrously influential”.
He cites Harold Pinter, this time, as his exemplar. Every time the curtain rises on a new play and the audience are met by two unnamed characters vaguely threatening each other and subtly attempting to subvert and attain power, Hare despairs and cries: “Oh, Harold, what is being done in your name?”
It’s an age-old question – why write something that has already been written? Why try to do something that has already been done? Originality is vital here. Playwrights need to show the modern world, warts and all, for what it is now. Theatre must, essentially, be adaptable; it must keep up with the times. This is how theatre survives.
This is not to say, by any stretch, that current theatre is boring or lacking something. We know that we’re in safe hands when Mr Hare, or Mr Stoppard, or Mr Bennett, grace us with their latest glistening play.
But the voices of theatre are in danger of becoming all too familiar if they continue along this road for too long. It has always been the case that writers show us the world that they see, but it is an equally ubiquitous fact that everybody sees the world differently.
Young playwrights need to look at the theatre and ask themselves, “are these characters people I know?” And if not, they need to come running excitedly, with a brand-new script in hand, shouting at the top of their voice: “Here are the people I know”.