Sunday, March 04, 2007

John McGrath: A Good Night Out

From John McGrath's outstanding book A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form:
"I could have called [these lectures] 'Telling the Story' - because that's what theatre does. You go into a space, and some other people use certain devices to tell you a story. Because they have power over you, in a real sense, while you are there, they make a choice, with political implications, as to which story to tell - and how to tell it.

But we go in, watch their story, and come out, changed. If their work is good, and skilfully written, presented and acted, we come out feeling exhilarated: we are more alive for seeing it, more aware of the possibilities of the human race, more fully human ourselves. So far, so wonderfully universal. But this story we watch can have a meaning: a very specific meaning. What if we are black, say, and we go to see some splendidly effective, but com­pletely racist theatre show? What if we are Jewish, and go to see a piece of anti-semitic drama such as one could easily see in Germany in the 1930s? Are we quite so exhilarated? Quite so fully human? Or would we not feel demeaned, excluded from humanity, diminished in our possibilities and a great deal more pessimistic about the future of the human race than when we went in? The meaning, and value, of theatre can clearly change from country to country, group to group, and - significantly - from class to class.

What does this mean then? That not all stories are so wonderfully universal? That the political and social values of the play cannot be the same for one audience as they are for another? What a terribly confusing state of affairs!

How can you know where you stand? How can you be suitably academic, objective and withdrawn? How can you make a universally valid judgement?? It is next to impossible to take the existence of various different audiences into account, to codify their possible reactions to a piece of theatre, to evaluate a piece of theatre from within several frameworks. So what do we do?

Well, I'll tell you what most of us do - we take the point of view of a normal person - usually that of a well-fed, white, middle class, sensitive but sophisticated literary critic: and we universalize it as the response.

The effect of such a practice is to enshrine certain specific values and qualities of a play above others. For example, mystery - or mysteriousness as it so often How often has this 'all-pervading air of'mystery' been praised by critic and academic alike, from Yeats's Purgatory down through Beckett to our own cut-price product, Harold Pinter? Mystery, the ingredient that leavens the loaf - or should I say makes the dough rise

But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have hap­pened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin. Unfortunately, almost all the current assump­tions of critical thought do precisely that, by universaliz­ing white middle-class sensitive but sophisticated taste to the status of exclusive arbiter of a true art or culture. I intend to devote the third of these lectures to a more de­tailed analysis of the differences of value between the two main kinds of theatre audience in this country, the 'edu­cated' middle-class audience, and the 'philistine' working-class audience. For the time being let me just note that there is indeed a difference, and that I do not accept the following assumptions:

1. that art is universal, capable of meaning the same to all people;
2. that the more 'universal' it is, the better it is;
3. that the 'audience' for theatre is an idealized white, middle-class, etc., person and that all theatre should be dominated by the tastes and values of such a person;
4. that, therefore, an audience without such an idea­lized person's values is an inferior audience; and
5. that the so-called 'traditional values' of English literature are now anything other than an indirect expression of the dominance over the whole of Britain of the ruling class of the south-east of England.

To be more specific, I do believe that there is a working-class audience for theatre in Britain which makes demands, and which has values, which are dif­ferent from those enshrined in our idealized middle-class audience. That these values are no less 'valid' - whatever that means - no less rich in potential for a thriving theatre-culture, no thinner in 'traditions' and subtleties than the current dominant theatre-culture, and that these new basis for making theatre that could in many ways be more appropriate to the last quarter of the twentieth century than the stuff that presently goes on at the National Theatre, or at the Aldwych.

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