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Popular Theatre and John McGrath

Dateline: 21st April, 1997

Well, the General Election approaches. Soon all the huffing and puffing will be over with, the insults exchanged, the rubbishing ended, the promises made, and we will wake up to the cold light of a new Labour/Tory/hung government. I say cold light because I'm pretty damned sure the arts will be low down on the list of priorities of any government, no matter what its hue. It's going to be, so this old cynic thinks, more of the same.

And so it will ever be, whilst the arts remain a minority interest. OK, they are a generally middle-class interest, but, unfortunately, an interest for the minority of the middle class. The arts don't have enough political clout to attract any serious commitment from any party. They all pay lip-service to the arts but no party will ever make them a plank of their election platform.

The trouble is, you see, the high profile arts either don't need subsidy (Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Cameron Mackintosh et al. do quite nicely anyway, thank you very much) or they attract opprobrium rather than support (will they ever forget that damnded pile of bricks in the Tate?). As for the rest, give the average middle-class punter the choice between a 1p off the basic rate of income tax and a couple of quid off a ticket for the local theatre and the (s)he'll take the tax cut any time. Put the same question to the average punter from the working class and (s)he'll look at you as if you're daft. Let's have a bit more on the pension, or more money for the local school or hospital. Let's reduce prescription charges or increase child benefit. But money for the arts? Get real!

It's hardly surprising, really. After all, when has the theatre, for instance, gone out of its way to try to attract the ordinary punter, no matter what class (s)he may belong to? Not for a long, long time. Not since the seventies, I would say.

No. What the theatre, in common with the other arts, has done, is say, "Here we are. Come to us, by all means, but on our terms. You fit in with us and with what we think is good."

All of which is a rather long preamble to this week's topic, a book which I periodically revisit to straighten out my perspective on theatre when I find myself getting too precious or arty, too "luvvie and darling". It's called A Good Night Out and it's written by John McGrath. If you were around in the seventies (oh, how it hurts to have to say things like that!), you may remember John McGrath's group, the 7:84 Theatre Company. It was a Scottish touring company, playing non-theatre venues, and probably its most well known production was The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil.

(Actually, it's still going, but it's lost its crusading, politically-committed edge - like everything else in this post-Thatcherite era!)

The book's subtitle is Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form, and it contains six talks given by McGrath to a seminar when he was the first Visiting Fellow of the Judith E. Wilson Fund of the Faculty of English in the University of Cambridge in 1979.

The title and sub-title say it all: it's a book about popular theatre, with the word popular being used in the sense of theatre of the people, and the first chapter sets the tone - Behind the Clichés of Contemporary Theatre. Specifically, he says that he does -

believe that there is a working-class audience for theatre in Britain which makes demands, and which has values, which are different from those enshrined in our idealised middle-class audience. That these values are no less 'valid' - whatever that means - no less rich in potential for a thriving theatre-culture, no thinner in 'traditions' and subtleties... and that these values and demands contain within them the seeds of a new basis for making theatre that could in many ways be more appropriate to the last quarter of the twentieth century than the stuff that presently goes on at the National Theatre, or at the Aldwych.

Using his work with 7:84 (which, incidentally, gets its name from the fact that 7% of the world's population own 84% of its resources) as an example, he goes on to argue for a new approach to theatre, based upon "working-class" traditions. He wants a theatre which is rooted in working class experience, which works through the entertainment traditions of the working-class, and which is shorn of the word-play which, he believes, characterises what he calls the middle-class tradition of theatre.

First appearances to the contrary, this is not an argument for agit-prop theatre. His theatre is political, but then he believes that making theatre is a political act. As he says in the first chapter:

You (the member of the audience) go into a space, and some other people use certain devices to tell you a story. Because they have power over you, in a real sense, while you are there, they make a choice, with political implications, as to which story to tell - and how to tell it.

Inevitably, he feels (and I think he is probably right), in a middle-class theatre, which is essentially what the theatre establishment is, the concerns voiced will be those of the middle-class (and, I would add, those of that proportion of the middle-class which is the theatre-going public), and this effectively excludes the working-class from theatre altogether, unless they embrace the aspirations and values of the middle-class.

There is - there must be, surely? - a place for different kinds of theatre. But where, in Britain 1997, is the place for this kind? There are still one or two small-scale companies producing this kind of work, but they are struggling, living on the breadline. Where is the support for it? In a business-sponsored theatre environment there is no place for this sort of theatre, unless the Trade Unions get round to theatre sponsorship! But until there is support, then there'll be no real popular theatre, and what theatre there is will remain the preserve of a small coterie of the middle-class. Is that healthy?

And please don't argue that you get a lot of working-class people going to shows like Les Mis, or Phantom. You don't. You get a few, certainly, but they're the ones with middle-class aspirations anyway.

And you can't argue that it doesn't matter, that working-class people aren't interested in theatre and anyway they've never had it and won't miss what they never had. Apart from the fact that that isn't true (as 7:84 and other like companies have shown), it's an argument on a par with the one which used to say that you shouldn't educate the working-class because they've never been educated in the past!

And finally, by allowing this kind of theatre to dry up and vanish, you cut off a source of new ideas, even new life, and theatre in general will go the way of what we would call modern 'classical' music, which has become so introverted and esoteric that it is in danger of vanishing up its own backside!

Read McGrath's book. You won't agree with everything - I certainly don't! - but it will broaden your theatrical horizons, and that's got to be a good thing!

A Good Night Out is published in paperback by Methuen, ISBN 0-413-48700-8.

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©Peter Lathan 2001