Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Plays for today

The Tories have slashed funding to theatre and the arts. Trevor Griffiths, a socialist and one of Britain's best known playwrights, spoke to Sabby Sagall about the implications of these attacks and about how working class resistance inspires his work in the theatre
Trevor Griffiths

How does the growing crisis and anger at the effects of ruling class attacks affect you as a playwright who is a socialist?
Through the 1980s there was a major attempt to marginalise people from power. At the same time, we are more atomised now, as individuals, than we've ever been. We have a shrinking industrial base, with workers a smaller proportion of the totality than at any time during the last 100 years.

So what constitutes a labour movement today? We have organisations of workers acting defensively to further their interests under the new conditions imposed by the accelerating globalisation of capital. But we have a vacuum in political leadership. The notion of a labour movement has been virtually erased inside Labour Party thinking.

But people to some extent have taken matters into their own hands in a much more freewheeling way. It started with the miners' strike and the miners' support groups. Through the 1980s it seemed to disappear until the Gulf War. And then we get another resurgence of spontaneous anger.

In the 1980s the market invaded every sphere of life. How has this affected the arts in general and theatre in particular?
It's in television, which I take to be the more important drama, where I feel the loss the keenest. The marketisation of television, the demand for audience at all cost, has led almost to the removal of political drama from television. The only kind of drama you get that runs for any length of time and is prestigiously received will be an out and out assault on Militant in Liverpool--GBH. It won't be an examination of the role of the British state, for example in the miners' strike, the series I was putting together for the BBC until they got cold feet.

Managements of cultural institutions have been redrawn. Personnel have been changed radically. Their functions have been enhanced at the expense of practitioners. They have all now been set new targets so as to popularise their efforts to the extent that they can get people, rather than the taxpayer, to pay for what they do. So the ticket now constitutes between 50 percent and 65 percent of the total spent by provincial theatres.

The loss here is to the imagination. We are no longer free to imagine the world beyond this one. The 1980s saw an ideological shift to the right. You can't see anything on television that is going to stimulate you to think and to struggle. It's satisfaction or celebration drama, not exploratory or examination drama, not drama that rips open a crust of wherever we are and says, 'Look what's happening. Look who's doing what to whom.' It's extremely difficult to find people who will do what you want to do any longer. They want to do work that clearly signals 20 years ago, not now.

The West End has never been where the revolutionary thrust lies in theatre. But there was always a possibility of getting a play like Comedians into the West End for a limited season. People were in a theatre that usually plays Terence Rattigan and suddenly they're looking at something about Turin in 1920. The element of surprise is missing now. When you go to the theatre, you know the fare you're going to get. And it ain't gonna be good.

One of the gains of the 1960s and 1970s was the freeing of entry to a whole set of craft skills in the arts to working class people such as myself: writing, acting, directing, designing. Now we have an acting profession which is stuffed with the sons and daughters of the rich.

But with the Tories slashing the arts, is there a tendency even for subsidised theatre to play safe so as to attract audiences?
Yes, but not only that. The energy and imagination of the theatre in the provinces goes more and more away from what happens on the stage towards what happens at the bar, in the coffee lounge, in the gallery, all the things that are supportive of but subordinate to the stuff on the stage. When you look at these places, the biggest office is marketing and press.

There are still tiny, independent, serious minded theatre people across the land but they're living on shoestrings. You could see new play making virtually disappear over the next decade or two in this country, with the exception of certain people who reach luminary status--Harold Pinter, David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn. But where are the new, untidy geniuses who are coming through?

The problems of building a working class revolutionary leadership have been a regular theme in your work.
Occupations was a play about the occupation of the factories in Turin in 1920. It was very much about the relationship between leaders and led in revolutionary situations. The Party was an attempt to look at the largely European notion of party leadership and discipline, what parties might bring to the revolutionary impulse by way of organisation. In 1917 Lenin said, 'Spontaneity is the embryonic form of organisation', which I've always taken to be a profound statement. How do you get from the human impulse for freedom, fairness and brotherhood to seeing it embedded in real human societies? Leninists have answered: through a Bolshevik kind of party.

Surely Lenin's statements stressing the need for both spontaneity and organisation are not contradictory.
I see them as a fruitful contradiction. I do believe that the Bolshevik model has dominated the imagination and practice of many Third World strongholds and I think the history of the Russian Revolution shows us that it's a very limited model. Now The Party is full of argument. There's even a strong Third World argument put forward by Andrew Ford, a member of the New Left Review board, on the need to get rid of the dead wood of European practice. We've got to envision different kinds of political practice. And none of the Bolsheviks worked out the theory and practice of how you get from a party which creates the revolution to a party which builds the revolution after power has been taken.

Do you have a role as a playwright who is a socialist?
I rarely see myself in terms of a role or a mission as a writer. I'm just a writer. But I happen to be a social writer. And I think the best writing is social. That includes not just Brecht but Chekhov, not just Mayakovsky but Turgenev. So 'social' is broadly defined by me. And I don't see myself as having some kind of heroic mission to represent socialism on the stage. All I can do as a socialist and a playwright is look at what hurts, what scares and terrifies, what warms and inspires me. And sometimes there'll be enough that resonates with other people.

Playwrights try to articulate something in themselves that might also be lodged inside other people. One of the reasons I never joined a party was because I have to have the relative autonomy to do what I sense needs doing as a writer rather than feel a lean on my imagination from outside. Writing plays is a solitary activity, like a nightwatchman. The strength is you have to contact areas of yourself you don't want to revisit in a hurry. I don't give myself easily to despair. I feel hope but it's a hope that depends on large numbers of people making a decision that they're going to write the play that matters, that changes the situation. In Comedians Eddie says we've got to change the situation and adds, 'Or we can leave the place exactly as we found it, a shitheap.' I don't want to leave this place a shitheap. I want to find a way of embracing more people around this notion of change and fairness. The more people that can be brought to a point where they say, 'Something has to be done and something can be done,' the better.

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