There’s a funny thing happens when you make a piece of theatre. In fact, it’s something of a paradox. As a theatre maker, you try to make every gesture, every word and every move as specific and as concrete as you can. But at the same time you hope that somehow that same gesture/word/move will have a resonance, something which is completely outside of the specific and the concrete.
Quite where that resonance lies no-one seems to be able to agree. For many people who make theatre there is something called ‘truth’. They know when they spot it, even if they can’t define it. ‘Oh yes keep that bit in,’ they say. ‘It feels very true’.
When I first started working in theatre at the end of the 1980s, I was horrified. I was a student of both the well established school of Marxist aesthetics and of the emerging school of post modernism, both of which saw any truths as at best temporary, and at worst as deceptions . And so I cringed to hear my fellow theatre workers using the word ‘true’ so readily. But I got used to it. I guess ‘true’ was their way of saying something was both precise ( in the way that a carpenter might use the word true )and had a wider significance (in the way that a religion might declare something a truth).
Alongside the word true, some people still used the word universal. ‘Yes’, they would say, ‘this is a very good play about a black British family in South London but it is also a universal story’. Or another popular word was timeless. ‘Yes it’s set amongst the Jewish community of 1940s New York, but it’s a timeless story’. But my readings in cultural politics and gender studies of the 1980s and 1990s meant that I – and many other people – were suspicious of the words universal and timeless. Universal was too often used a short hand for imperial domination. ‘We’re simply bringing universal values of civilisation to backward countries’ was a nineteenth century justification for European domination of the globe. (And It is still in use today when our politicians justify war). Timeless, too, has often been used to justify the positions of those in authority, What better way to obscure the constantly shifting nature of power relationships, to make it seem that your power is unassailable, than to promote the idea of timelessness? Of course, the people saying that a black British drama or a Jewish American drama was universal or timeless thought they were elevating the work, offering it liberal inclusion. But many of us were suspicious that these words universal and timeless were agents of oppression, not liberation.
So there we were, in the 1990s, a new generation making theatre. But we’d stopped believing, or were deeply suspicious, of the words true, universal and timeless, words that had been the mainstay of British theatre practice for a couple of hundred years.
Maybe – some theatre makers reasoned – we should try to ignore the resonance bit of the theatre paradox altogether and just focus on the concrete. ‘I just want to tell stories about me and my girlfriend’ declared one young British playwright in the 1990s. He wasn’t alone in attempting to turn his back on wider resonances. In the world of performance art and its sister disciplines, there was a parallel attempts to create solely concrete acts, moments of confession or performative self-harm that presented themselves as private acts: acts expressing an entirely personal language but in public spaces.
The theatre itself, of course, carried on being a metaphorical medium, even if many of the theatre makers denied it. For those of us wanting to explore the full concrete/resonant paradox of theatre there seemed to be little vocabulary to use: Marxism and post-modernism had sent so many words to the naughty step. When I first started writing plays in the middle of the 1990s narrative itself seemed to be the only really trustworthy concept. ‘Story’ offered a concrete set of skills to learn but also allowed you to place your work in a wider context, the narrative tradition. Alongside many others, I took thoughts about narrative from sources as diverse as the Jungian Bruno Bettleheim, the playwright David Mamet, the screenwriting teacher Robert McKee and the philosopher Francois Lyotard and started writing plays for British stages.
But then something surprising happened. My plays started to be translated widely. They were produced in different cultures and in fresh contexts. I wasn’t alone in this. The UK produced a fresh new batch of playwrights in the 1990s. Although we didn’t know it straight away, this was perfect timing for a new group of theatre writers to emerge as an international force. Many countries, particularly the former communist states, were opening up not only their economies but also their cultural life to the outside world for the first time in decades. As one Russian director said to me: We know about British drama up to Shaw, then everything is a blank, and then things start again with Sarah Kane and you’.
Of course, British playwrights were translated and produced internationally throughout the twentieth century. But by the end of the millennium things had reached a dizzying speed. It was a strange feeling for our generation of playwrights. I’d be sitting down to write in my council flat in Camden and as my fingers hit the keyboards I’d suddenly realise that these words would soon be translated into various languages, that my play would be enacted by actors belonging to totally different theatre cultures, watched by audiences of whose concerns and interests I had little understanding of. I remember Sarah Kane returning from a stay in New York in 1997. She had finished her play ‘Cleansed’ the day before. Already dramaturges from across the world were on the ‘phone clambering to read and translate the play.
Gradually, at the end of the 1990s, I saw that I was being presented with the dominant force shaping much of our lives: globalisation. In fact, I realised guiltily, I might even be an agent of that same globalisation. The Royal Court Theatre in London – home of so much of the new British drama – has been called, because of the number of subsequent productions its writers receive, the Starbucks of playwriting . And sometimes, as I was invited to see my plays produced abroad and then to speak about theatre or to teach playwriting, I felt like I was just another manager of a global franchise. For a while I even found this a block to my writing.
But I’ve come to realise that travel and translation have been, on the whole, a good thing for my work. The exchange of ideas with theatre workers and audiences around the world and the exposure to varying theatre practices will, I believe make me a better writer. And I hope that by learning from the outside world and in doing so producing better work, my plays will challenge theatre makers in other countries to make better work themselves. Through international exchange, a sort of virtuous circle can happen.
I’ve found something to replace truth, universal and timeless as the other part of the theatre paradox. Resonance for me now lies in the international. I am fascinated by the way a work mutates and is reborn through translation and re-production. I think, now, when I make a piece of theatre there is always the concrete: how this particular actor with this particular audience can use this word or this gesture to better capture the sense of being alive at this moment in this city in this culture. But there is also the resonant. And this resonant is for me is : I wonder what this will mean in other countries and cultures?
Mark Ravenhill 2010