by George Gunn
“Through knowledge, it drives the spectator to action.”
The “it” in this sort of sentence is the theatre and it is one of the central maxims of Bertolt Brecht’s theory of Epic Theatre. It was his counter to the old Aristotelian concept of catharsis which leaves the spectator purified at the end of the event of the play. This was Brecht’s attempt, in his time, to promote reason over emotion. Brecht lived through the horrors of the rise of the Nazis and World War Two and was constantly on the run. He finally settled in Berlin in the German Democratic Republic of East Germany and became the director of the world famous Berliner Ensemble.
As well as being a communist Brecht was a playwright and at his core he was a poet. He was hugely influential. No playwright, especially in Scotland and especially now, has that amount of influence – or any influence at all. Playwrighting in Scotland has never had such a quiet position as it currently occupies. That is not to say there are not the writers out there: I know there are, but they are not writing for the theatre. This is the age of the novel, of “award winning authors”, of book to film to DVD to e-book or the other way around. It is also the age of form over content and the writer, consequently, has a marginal position in this industrial process. This is a confusing and contradictatory time. Alienation, another Brechtian idea, is comprehensive. The more electronic gizmos we surround ourselves with the less we seem able to communicate with each other and communication, like shipbuilding, is a specific skill and once it is lost it is very difficult to re-learn it. Playwrighting is all about communicating. A story told in public is also a saleable asset. For this capitalist system which depends upon commodities and consuming this is actually a good climate to sell; in fact it is the perfect psychic weather. The only problem with this weather is that it is toxic: it is killing us.
This charting and exposure of the erosion of reality and freedom and the creation of another, better imagined world used to be the stuff of theatre because it concerned everybody. But what passes as theatre in Scotland has long stopped pretending to concern itself with what ordinary people think or how oppression affects them. This for both the people and the art form is tragic. History, however, tends to trample tragedy into the dust of obscurity. History is cruel.
Scotland, now, is embarking on a journey, a risky and emotional journey which represents probably the most significant period of change in our history since the 18th century. As the recent launch of the Scotland Yes campaign has indicated debate, discussion and dialogue are needed now more than they have ever been and all the exchanges of ideas as to our future direction, independence or not, have to be undertaken by the people in public. This is the function of the theatre and despite what Alex Salmond and the media in general contend this forum is not happening. That both main private and state sponsored broadcasters are hostile to constitutional change is evidenced by the lack of such a public forum, the absence of programmes dedicated to the question. In this case the London head still rules the body politic in Scotland.
Politics has become the occupational hobby of the middle class and as can be deduced from the amount of millionaires on the Westminster front bench it is a politics of material goods and confines itself to a very narrow narrative. The politics the majority of the people of Scotland need and desire is a politics of passion, of change, of a striving for a different set of values. Scotland has to put the old dogs of reaction to sleep, if not then no-one will bother to turn out to vote for anything as we began to see at the very low turn-out for the local elections. New ways of being have to be explored and this is not going to happen, I would suggest, in the pages of the Daily Record of Mail or on the BBC.
The day Scotland becomes independent and we, as a people, can begin the real job of constructing a future for our children’s children, this day should be marked by beacons being lit on every hill fuelled by copies of every available tabloid. The slight indent this would put onto our carbon footprint would be worth it.
The place to air these public dreams is in the theatre and it is the job of playwrights to conjure up the fables to inspire us, represent us and define us. When playwrights cannot get into the theatre, when the public dream-fables lie unrealised, how on earth can our people come upon knowledge, let alone be driven to action?
No state has ever wanted its people to be truly active or spontaneously free unless they are the population of a foreign country and it suits the interests of the state. Our people are “actively” encouraged to be passive. When we are consuming we are not thinking. So it is that this consumption allows the privileged children of the well-off, privately educated English middle and upper class to practise their self—indulgent whimsies, in the name of art, in our publicly funded theatres.
When they deem to turn their attention to matters Scottish, which they do from time to time, from boredom or embarrassment one cannot know, what is produced are shortish, small cast plays which are usually populated by drink and drug addled Glaswegians shouting and swearing at each other in the dark. Of course this description is itself a cliché and yet it could, with one or two notable exceptions, be applied to what the National Theatre of Scotland considers to be representative of contemporary Scottish dramaturgy. Big poetic plays about the nature of change in Scotland or even about Scotland itself, in some shape or form, of these creatures the current crop of artistic directors seem to be allergic. It is difficult, I know, sometimes to tell the difference between art and management but surely we can produce some visionaries who are not malnourished civil servants with pretensions and who are not shock-frozen by the rigours of money and risk?
This is grossly unfair, I know. I just happen to believe it to be the truth. The subject, I would argue, is too important not to be addressed and to be overly concerned that these mere words may upset a few people. I have spent all my working life trying to take theatre to my own people and to facilitate them making their own productions and I have been called many things for it. Often the criticisms have been growled but I prefer them to the whisperers and as I always tend to side with the comedians as opposed to the tragedians I am prepared to lie down with any lion if it brings me closer to the truth.
Now that Vicky Featherstone, whom I like, has left the National Theatre of Scotland to ply her trade at the Royal Court in London will there be put in charge someone with a passion for public discussion, storytelling, poetry and a love of Scotland? And with the nose and gumption to understand that by your ticket price shall you be known? In short: a Scot?
I fear that the needs of the Scottish people will be as nothing to the career ambitions of a few driven individuals and the indifference of the Scottish Government to the matter. I once shared a discussion panel with Wendy Alexander, then a Government minister, and she more or less laughed at the idea that Labour MSP’s should actually care about our National Theatre company. As long as there is a whiz and a bang about the appointment and some spin about how all of this is terribly exciting the business of ignoring the artistic and cultural needs of the nation will carry on as normal.
The truth is that the National Theatre of Scotland has constantly hedged its bets and hidden behind its novelty, failed actively to engage with the political realities of the day and is more concerned about the democratic destinies of Arab nations than it is of Scotland. We should all, of course, be concerned about what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East and I have a funny feeling that if I was a Syrian poet or playwright I would either be in jail or dead by now.
Contrary to the impression which may have been given so far I have no desire to add to the contradictions and confusions, insecurities and struggles, currently manifest in Scottish theatre. It seems to me that Creative Scotland has saturated that market. No, my dreams are much humbler: what I long for is a socialist future for this country where the people’s republican government encourages its poets to dream in public, to garner courage from the salt air of possibility, to drive us “to action”. The years to 2014 are a crucial time. In our theatres, because other media outlets are so heavily censored, the Scottish people should be able to come together and engage in an imaginative debate about our future, the possibilities, the dangers.
The diet of intensely internal psychological monologues disguised as drama – which are all the rage – cannot provide that stimulation or instigate that forum. Disagree with me if you will but without public knowledge there can be no public progression. Let us free our theatres so we can be free. If we do not we will not have a country. It is people who create theatre and states that control it. We owe it to ourselves to create a new way of doing things. We need playwrights. The Scottish Government has it within its power to be smart about this. A truly educated and stimulated people are more likely to demand a new nation than they are to buy a sofa.
© George Gunn 2012