Modern British Playwriting - The 1980s
In Britain, the 1980s are always likely to be seen as the Thatcher years. The future Dame of the Realm came to power in 1979 and her government ruled throughout the next decade.
This put great pressure on the artistic community, as increasingly the enterprise culture demanded that financial performance be regarded as the only significant measure of success, completely eschewing aesthetics.
Jane Milling has very strong left-wing political views that she does not try to hide from her overview of both the period and its theatre. Indeed, one has to get beyond the first 50 pages of this book to find out anything significant about what was happening on stage, although the underlying political climate, financial strictures and small-scale reorganisations are detailed.
Her choice of playwrights might be seen as unexpected, showing a tendency to favour the avant-garde and less mainstream over those that are better known and have endured more successfully in the public eye.
In part, this might result from the 1960s and 1970s equivalents nabbing some of the best-known and most successful writers during these ten years, such as Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and Sir David Hare. As such, this volume could well be seen as largely of benefit to students and other academics looking to garner quotes rather than general readers interested in the topic.
Sarah Goldingay’s section on Howard Barker is, to say the least, challenging and, for some reason, the selection ignores Barker's most popular play Scenes from an Execution, preferring works that are more obscure.
Barker's current executive producer seems determined to prove a thesis on the multiphrenic in theatre instead of putting the writer into the context of this decade.
In fact, as Miss Goldingay presents opinions about the nature and impact of seeing productions of the same play in different eras (having to theorise about The Last Supper where this was not even the case), it almost feels as if she is either using this book as a means of recycling previous work or to develop new theories for future use.
David Lane does a good job in summarising the writing and contextualising the work of Jim Cartwright, who probably peaked in this decade which saw Road and Two. Some might argue of course that The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was his zenith but the section gives a good introduction to the popular chronicler of northern working-class life.
The selection of Sarah Daniels to be profiled by Jane Milling herself appears much to be the latter's personal championing ahead of the likes of Hanif Kureshi or Terry Johnson for example.
With all due respect, Miss Daniels has made a career as a scriptwriter for Grange Hill and EastEnders and Radio 4, writing relatively little for the stage over the last couple of decades. She did present various feminist, pro-lesbian plays in the 1980s, although the receptions even then tended to be mixed.
The best writing in this book comes from Sara Freeman who allows readers to enthuse about three plays by Timberlake Wertenbaker, The Grace of Mary Traverse, Our Country's Good and Love of the Nightingale. This profile really gets to the essence of what made this playwright such a significant new writing force during a decade when competition was in short supply.
The conclusion that one will reach is likely to be that there was a great paucity of good new playwriting in the decade. This might either be a correct analysis or a reflection of the choices made in this volume.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher