All the world’s a play… a review by Croy Thomson of the lecture given by David Edgar

David Edgar: All The World’s A Play                                                                                        26.02.24

“I screamed the place down!” David Edgar’s first experience of live theatre was unscripted. Aged “three and three quarters”, he was taken to a performance of Beauty & The Beast. So convincingly beastly was the Beast, the terrified young David screamed until he was removed from the hall.

Thankfully there was no screaming, and certainly nothing too beastly, about David’s talk to the Society. Just an impeccably delivered charting and illuminating of modern British theatre, outlining how playwriting has evolved since WW2, and the critical importance of ‘alternative’ theatre to the way our nation views itself and the world around us.

We were reminded that some of the biggest challenges facing modern society are most rigorously examined in drama. The Post Office scandal was dragged into the spotlight by the recent TV drama Mr Bates versus The Post Office, but live theatre has been playing its part in stoking public debate since the 1950s. Other media cannot hit home with the same emotional potency, is David’s argument. 

Noting that censorship in this country ended only in 1968, we have since been exposed (if that’s the word) to work that interrogates subjects so sensitive they still spark a backlash. In the last few decades, we have witnessed the emergence of generations of daring writers, female and male alike. They do their job in innovative and stimulating ways, exploiting new technology to the full.

We were escorted on an eye-witness tour of alternative theatre’s rise, fall and rise again, via quirky performance acts of 60s and 70s Bradford – “… the place to be! I performed as God in a play about Scott of the Antarctic …” through the mighty Edinburgh Fringe, the Traverse Theatre, the pioneering 7:84 Company and more. “It was the overthrowing of all fixed things.”  Then radical thinking got so radical it was decided that script writing was an unnecessary restriction. The use of a written script was called “the Fascist Method” and “Imperialistic”. And how about, “Linear text is genocidal”?

We journeyed through Thatcherism, a time when playgoers became “customers” and were therefore always right: if a play was hard to understand, it was less likely to be produced. Homogeneity ensued, predictability trod the boards … until “In Your Face” Theatre bounced on stage, with its cool style, violence, sex, drugs and politics. Which might explain the next bit.

Something beastly this way comes: the ongoing cutting of Arts Funding. Scottish National Theatre faces extinction, for one taste of the future. Many British writers work now in America (hit series Succession employed a roomful of British writers: why are they not here? Netflix money, that’s why.) Yet real events still prompt new work on controversial subjects such as the Grenfell Fire. Is it not right, asks Edgar, that we look fearlessly at such moments? Some countries silence doubters by Draconian means: here we seem to be calling it austerity. David’s talk is a cautionary tale.

From Audience Questions: “Playwriters should fight the lure of television and remember the shared space of staged drama.” “Why subsidise alternative theatre? Consider the economic benefits of theatre, in employment, the hospitality industry around it, and the scrutiny it puts on the justice system and the government. Are these not worth subsidising?” “Why is nobody writing about the monsters Putin and Trump? Drama is good at explaining evil: have you seen Macbeth?”

Professor Pat Monaghan thanked David and concluded by saying, “Let us always appreciate the importance of live performance … such as our live lectures!” We exited stage left, in pursuit of wine.

Croy Thomson

David Edgar is an award-winning playwriter. In a 53-year (and counting) career his achievements include being Britain’s first Professor of Playwriting, at the University of Birmingham. He thanked the audience for attending, and Richard Lutz for recommending him to speak. The talk will be available online.

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