Sunday, March 04, 2007

From The Bone Won't Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times by John McGrath (artistic director of 7:84):
'Excellence' is the other key-word of the new domi­neering ideology. What is 'excellent' about a piece of work is rarely - and only vaguely - denned. Lord Mogg is fond of 'excellence', but has as far as I know, failed to produce a definition or a description of it, clearly believing it to be self-evident…. Excellence matters.

But what exactly is it?

I'm afraid I'm not in a position to tell you, having been cut several times by the arts establishment for not being excellent enough - indeed for not even aiming at this common-sense excellence.
I can tell you perhaps which new plays, or their authors are 'excellent'. Tom Stoppard, for example, is unbelievably excellent; the characteristics most admired being cleverness, wit, sophistication, cynicism, and the ability to vulgarise a few strands of recent philosophy. Politically well to the right, bitterly anti-Communist, refusing to boycott South Africa, and very unwilling to talk about any of these, Stoppard is therefore reticent, as befits a 'non-political' writer, and right-wing at the same time. David Hare, the left-wing equivalent, is not so clearly excellent, and has not a few problems, being fortunate in having friends to fight for him. Howard Barker is the new Crown Prince of excellence, making a virtue of difficulty and ambivalence. He writes: 'The theatre must start to take its audience seriously. It must stop telling them stories they can understand.' This is going in the right direction for excellence, or a season at the RSC. Barker also writes some very intelligent and important things about the authoritarian in the theatre - left as well as right - with which I heartily agree. But this sort of intellectual arrogance is the tool of the sub-Stoppard, the weapon of the people who would rather have the audience not know what is being said, but vaguely feel it to be important.

I don't wish to attack my colleagues personally, but
they are in their work contributing to a mythology of excellence which I cannot endorse.

I have, earlier in these talks, tried to outline some different criteria for evaluating a piece of theatre. Outside the mainstream of bourgeois theatre - which I do not dismiss - I have pointed to the need for a whole layer, across the country, of a rich, thriving, popular theatre,
a theatre which connects with groups of people rather than nations, which grows from the traditions of popular entertainment, rather than from misapplied modernism - a theatre that calls on the long-suppressed sub-cultures of the working classes rather than the inflated achieve­ments of high culture - a pre-modernist rather than a post-modernist creativity.

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