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New writing: what David Edgar says

(This is where my journey started - and boy, what a trip it's been...)

Interview, 1997

Book review


New writing: interview with David Edgar by Aleks Sierz

When I saw Shopping and Fucking - Mark Ravenhill's shock-fest of nudity, sodomy and rimming - at the Royal Court on 2 October 1996, I sat just behind a black down-and-out who, making the most of the 10p standing tickets, was sheltering from the cold night. During the play, the tramp's bemused glances at the mainly white middle-class audience seemed to be asking: what are these nice people doing watching these horrors? And then, just to prove that new writing can keep a new audience, he came back after the interval.

Ravenhill's debut is a reminder of the vitality of British drama - Cool Britannia is not just about Brit pop and Brit films. It's also a good example of how plays that are about now are usually about blokes. And not merely about blokedom, but blokedom in crisis. Just when you thought that laddism was confined to the television and the tabloids, it boots its way centre stage. For masculinity, says veteran playwright David Edgar, 'is the big subject of the 1990s'.

While in the 1980s, it was plays by women that headed new writing, now it's the turn of what Edgar calls 'the boy's own play'. 'We are seeing a revival of the all-male play,' he says, citing West End hits such as Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice and Tim Firth's Neville's Island, or the all-male gay play, such as Kevin Elyot's My Night with Reg, recently screened as part of BBC 2's Performance season. So if you're into playing poker, outward bound courses or male friendship, head for the theatre.

One variant of the boy's play, says Edgar, 'is the girl-in-the-boys-gang play, where one woman holds a male milieu together.' Trainspotting and Shopping and Fucking are good examples. But if men in the 1990s are looking at a crisis in masculinity, the news from the frontline of the sex war is not very good: when the boys find themselves up against the wall, they always need a woman to help out.

As Edgar's postgrad course in playwriting studies at Birmingham University gears up to host its eighth annual conference (called 'About Now', 11-13 April 1997), the author of Destiny, Maydays and Pentecost is upbeat about its theme, which is new writing. 'Clearly,' he says, 'over the past three or four years, there has been an immense growth in exciting new writing by people under 30.' What a contrast to four years ago, when the conference explored new writing under the more pessimistic title of 'All Passion Spent'.

Now theatre is hip again, with young writers such as Jez Butterworth (Mojo), Sarah Kane (Blasted) and Ayub Khan-Din (East Is East) stamping their mark on the cultural renaissance of Brit plays. With talent like this, many more theatres are ready to take a risk by putting new plays. While between 1985 and 1990 new work dropped to 7 per cent of the mainhouse repertory nationwide, it is now 'creeping up' to the 20 per cent mark.

As always, the powerhouse is London. One factor in the growth of new writing, says Edgar, is sympathetic artistic directors such as Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court and Dominic Dromgoole at the Bush. 'The good news is that Daldry took over at the Court at a point when it was committed to promoting new writing in a bold and imaginative way - and that he refused to accept that this was a high risk strategy.'

The current new wave of in-yer-face plays also owes much to imitation of American models. 'To me,' says Edgar, 'the two texts that really turned things around were Tony Kushner's Angels in America and David Mamet's Oleanna in 1993 - they reminded British theatre of the sort of play we used to do so well. A lot of people sensed that if American writers could write seriously and imaginatively about today's issues, then so could younger British writers.'

The National under director Richard Eyre also set an example. 'New work by old hands such as David Hare and Alan Bennett proved to young writers that the obituaries of new writing were very much exaggerated - they demonstrated that here was something that really could be thrilling and central.'

Crucial to the development of new work, says Edgar, is 'the self-help movement among younger writers - the North-West Playwrights Workshop, Stagecoach in Birmingham and a myriad other writers' workshops.' At least a third of the 90 graduates from Edgar's MA in playwrighting studies, which started in 1989, are now 'professional playwrights' - names include Sarah Kane, Clare Bayley, Rod Dungate and Ben Brown - and many others work in the field as teachers.

'But what's needed,' Edgar says, 'is more institutional help for writers', allowing them to develop when they're no longer 'flavour of the month'. Can the Arts Council help? 'We campaigned for a New Writing Fund, which would do three things: increase the number of literary managers; raise the number of new commissions and help the production of new work.'

There are problems. New plays, says Edgar, 'are inherently more expensive to do, not because they do badly at the box office - that's a myth - but because they inevitably need more rehearsal and more publicity.' Much new work is developed during the process of production, so the early part of rehearsals is a 'voyage of discovery which has already been undertaken by classics such as Hamlet'. More rehearsal time costs money.

None of these ideas have made it to the 1996 Arts Council report on drama, the timid conclusions of which have already been drowned by waves of lottery money. 'The trouble with the lottery,' says Edgar, 'is that it's piecemeal; what we need is a coherent policy.' The lottery is also at risk from a populist backlash. 'One can imagine what the Sun would have done to Sarah Kane's Blasted - with its scenes of rape, masturbation, defecation and cannibalism - if it had been directly financed by the workers' pennies: lottery projects are very vulnerable to moral panics.'

Although Edgar has no desire 'to return to the arts paternalism of the 1950s and 1960s', he does think 'that there are certain overall policies which it is legitimate to expect publicly funded bodies to follow - like an interest in education, equal opportunities and opening up access.' With Labour pledged to review Arts Council policies, there may be reasons to be cheerful after May 1 [date of the 1997 General Election]. But don't break open the champagne just yet - Jack Cunningham, shadow Heritage Minister, has signed up to Labour's two-year freeze on public spending.

Meanwhile, new plays by twentysomethings are dashing all around the theatre. 'What's striking now is how mature the younger writers - such as Martin McDonagh, Rebecca Prichard or David Eldridge - are in terms of their craft,' says Edgar. 'Their writing has got both vitality and good craftsmanship.' But isn't it all a bit too naturalistic? 'Well, a lot of new writing is certainly conservative in form. But this just doesn't apply to the content. And although most new work is naturalistic, accessible and domestic, there are exceptions - such as Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life.'

But are new plays apolitical? 'In a sense yes. When there's a core of writers for whom politics is not in the foreground, this raises the question of what political theatre is anymore,' says Edgar. 'After all, although Shopping and Fucking, Blasted or Trainspotting may not be state-of-the-nation plays, they certainly do analyse a social milieu that's in crisis, and that's in itself a political statement.'

While the 'big political play' is not being written by people under the age of 30 any more, the reasons might be geo-political. 'In the 1970s we knew what we thought,' says Edgar. 'We had the optimism of the 1960s; we felt we were taking over. After the collapse of communism, it's surely no surprise that alternatives to our present set-up are hard to find. And so political drama is no longer centre stage.'

Is Edgar worried that the Young Turks of new writing might soon drift into television and film? 'Not at all. It's old-fashioned to view theatre as art and television as commerce. One of the great things about Britain at the moment is that you can have a career in both.'

But before we start to pat ourselves on the back, Edgar does warn against complacency. 'The bad side of the current boom in new work is the element of fashion - this leads some people to think that last year the in-thing was smack, and this year its sodomy. This can lead to dangerous mannerism,' says Edgar. And while new playwrights are good at crafting plays, they will still need help from arts funding. Otherwise the risk is that the whole new wave will dry up as fast as it arrived.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'The Write Stuff' in The Independent newspaper on 9 April 1997

See From Liverpool to Los Angeles: On Writing for Theatre, Film and Television by Peter Ansorge - review

See State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting by David Edgar - review

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Review of David Edgar's State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting by Aleks Sierz

The recent revival of new writing for the theatre has been one of contemporary British culture's success stories. Thanks to a handful of enterprising artistic directors, arts funders and impressarios, the writer is once again centre stage, with British and Irish playwrights influencing theatres all over Europe and the United States.

Early signs of this return to the spirit of 1956 were spotted by playwright David Edgar, who edits this collection of contributions drawn from 10 years of the Birmingham Theatre Conference, a unique public forum which he organised from 1989 to 1999. By way of introduction, Edgar gives a lucid and confident account of postwar British theatre, dividing the period into four phases and using the metaphor of a 'public conversation' to show how the first new wave of the late 1950s was mainly concerned with questioning the postwar political and social settlement, the second wave with advocating radical solutions, the third with including marginalised voices (female, gay and black) and the most recent with discussing the crisis of masculinity. Edgar further contextualises these phases within a valuable discussion of national cultural policy.

The neatness of Edgar's mapping of the terrain will occasionally provoke scepticism: for example, while American models did inspire British writers in the 1990s, too much weight shouldn't be put on just two plays, Oleanna and Angels in America. Nor should it be forgotten that this is a argumentative account: Tom Stoppard fares less well than writers such as John Osborne and David Hare. But the sharpness of Edgar's insights, the daring of his comparisons and the polemical verve of his writing should provoke fruitful debate and further discussion.

The diversity of the current new writing scene is well illustrated by the book's other contributors: from Mark Ravenhill, David Greig and Conor McPherson to Timberlake Wertenbaker, Winsome Pinnock and Anne Devlin, from Kevin Elyot and Andy de la Tour to April de Angelis and John Mortimer. Whether discussing the laddish plays of the 1990s or women playwrights' experiments in form, or the knotty question of political theatre, or Irish drama, the sheer range and passion of their opinions make this a thrilling read. The collection ends on a high note, with an acerbic critique of literalism in theatre and a defence of dramatic metaphor by American playwright Phyllis Nagy. Her advice to 'a young playwright' is impassioned, provocative and says more about contemporary theatre in 10 pages than many books manage in a hundred.

State of Play's great strength is that it is both accessible and offers a real engagement with contemporary theatre. A must for all students, critics and academics, the book turns its back on obscure theory and tackles the relevant issues of theatre practice today. It's a real inspiration for everyone who's interested in new writing.

© An earlier version of this review appeared in New Theatre Quarterly 64, November 2000: pp 394-395

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