by George Gunn
As I write this a child is dying every hour in Gaza. To write about theatre at such a time may seem to many an irrelevance but to me, because it is such a big part of my creativity and a public art, the theatre grows more important in my life by the hour and with every tragic death. These Palestinian children are not dying from disease or malnutrition but from high velocity ordinance fired indiscriminately into the Gaza strip by the Israeli army, navy and air force: the sophisticatedly armed and highly resourced killing machines of a rogue state supported by the world’s only current military superpower, the United States of America and in complicity by its ever loyal ally, Britain. When I am asked by people who are unsure about Scottish independence for “more information” I usually tell them to go to Iraq and there they will find all the information they need on why Scotland must be an independent country. The latest batch of war crimes enacted by Israel and her allies against the Palestinian people is yet another example of how Scotland, attached to the UK’s horrendous foreign policy, is impotent to do anything about it. The hourly death of innocent children makes that impotence increasingly painful. We are culpable through political union, so we must end this union so that at an international level Scotland can embrace the cause of the Palestinian people and then be able to directly and practically help them.
According to Bertolt Brecht theatre consists of this:
“…making live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings and doing so with a view to entertainment.”
(A Short Organum for the Theatre, 1947)
This reference to “entertainment” from a man who had been on the run from the Nazi’s since 1933, who followed the evolving tragedy of World War II with a sardonic eye and a heavy heart, had been subjected to public interrogation by the FBI led House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in had returned to the destroyed desolation which was Germany in 1948, may appear incongruous but I think it is vital if we are to make sense of and bring any human vitality to the confluence of history, politics and art – by which I mean theatre: that “live representation of reported or invented happenings between human beings”.
If theatre has anything to say about the shelling of Gaza, if it can transcend the narcotic of amusement – which is not the same as the need for entertainment – which currently bedevils it and fills the gills of every other media like algal bloom, if it can represent and report on the fact that 80% of the world’s resources are consumed by 20% of the world’s population, that increasingly global wealth is held by an entrenched elite who have reduced material transaction to the nihilistic business of rentier capitalism and gambling, then theatre has to re-examine how it engages with its audience. Entertainment, in the Brechtian sense, is generated by a theatre which focuses people’s attention so that they can gain some insight into their circumstances.
In Scotland our theatre does not seem to have the desire or the capacity to tell these stories, it has not developed a form or means to credibly connect to these events. Aristotle maintained that narrative is the soul of drama. Celebrity, spectacle and irrelevance are the current trinity of requirement worshipped in our modern theatrical temples. In Glasgow, as Grey Coast rehearses “Three Thousand Trees”, the city is full of the bread and circuses of the Commonwealth Games. To walk the summer streets of Glasgow is to be as a contemporary Juvenal in the time of the new Emperors. Yet in many ways – as history develops – it is no longer fitting even to look to ancient models such as those used by the Greeks or the Elizabethans as metaphors for or be analogous to our present condition: in contemporary Scotland, in the modern world, we have a completely different relationship to what is being shown on stage, because what is happening in places such as Palestine is increasingly brutal.
If I say that contemporary theatre in Scotland does not connect with contemporary events, does not offer up a critique of them, then that is because it would claim to be a-political, or “a politics free zone” as the out-going director of the Edinburgh Festival announced of this year’s programme. In truth this means that both mainstream theatre and the Edinburgh Festival are allying with the ruling elite. Why should this come as a surprise? In as much as ordinary people pay for the fraudulent criminality of banks which are “too big to fail”, so too do ordinary Scottish people pay, through taxation, for theatre which has little or nothing to do with them. Theatre in Scotland does not report on the majority: it does not represent them. Why does it not represent them? Because theatre in Scotland is managed by people who know nothing of and care less about the majority of Scottish people, their history or culture. One could say the same of many Scottish cultural and political institutions.
One of the unexpected consequences of this year’s referendum debate is how it has quickly facilitated, in the public mind, the morphing of Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems into a political singularity. Until arguing against Scottish independence forced them into a position of actively defending the same thing – the Union of 1707 – they all readily proclaimed their differences. No more. Better Together has alchemically fused them into a union with each other as opposed to advocating the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Whatever happens after September 18th the three major Westminster parties are going to find it almost impossible to sustain any kind of individual political future in Scotland. Likewise, by ignoring the political and economic reality which constitutes the everyday experience of the Scottish people, the various companies which constitute mainstream Scottish theatre, have also rendered themselves an irrelevance to the principal constituency which should make up their audience: the very same Scottish people they ignore. These theatre companies have abandoned any attempt at a coherent narrative, they have embraced the toxic narcotic of titillation and the short term hit of celebrity. It is also difficult to see what kind of future they expect to inhabit. Diversion, inevitably, leads to a loss of direction.
From its earliest beginnings the theatre had entertainment – storytelling which develops attention and insight – as its central business. This is what gave it its dignity and fuelled its ceremony. Theatre is a sensory art form and if we forget this principle then morality can find no house room in it. Society can gain no instruction from theatre if there is no pleasure. Theatre, of itself, cannot justify anything other than that it can make life more bearable, more beautiful. Most contemporary theatre seems, to me at least, to be a preparation for catastrophe. There is no beauty of language, no narrative where elegance leads to imagination or illumination: it is illusion only, without a compelling story.
Ironically our society is becoming, daily, more illusory as it becomes more dangerous which is why the stage illusions of the theatre must become more truthful. Innocents are dying in Gaza because Israel is surrounded by what it considers “enemies” and because it has few natural resources. That is why it is a State in a state of constant war with the Palestinian people. It is also why Israel is the most vulnerable country in the world. However, Israel has outgrown any sympathy most of the rest of the world thought it was due: it has long ago overdrawn from the memory-bank of its history. To exist it must exploit other people and nature. War has become the industry of advancement. Like all industries it will – over time – consume and exhaust all finite natural and human resources. Israel’s parent state, the USA, in its desperation to become “self-sufficient” in hydro carbons, is fracking much of its own land mass to a state of collapse and converting the bituminous tar sand deposits of Alberta into oil and causing an environmental disaster in the process. The long US hostility to Venezuela has everything to do with the vast tar sand deposits nature has “blessed” it with and which the US covets. Every trace of carbon, of energy which is the result of ancient sunlight, is being forcibly extracted from the Earth and exploited without much thought as to the consequences – and all this despite the growing evidence of climate change, global warming and melting ice-caps.
Each night millions of people across the planet watch TV which, unbeknownst to them, is preparing them for the end of the world. On the other hand theatre is one of humanities greatest achievements and can prepare us for survival, for life. The fact that the theatre itself has survived at all is testament to its robustness, its flexibility, its tenacity, its humanity. Human beings are passionate and active creatures, despite the mainstream media portraying us all as passive consumers. Theatre is an active, participatory art form and it looks outwards, not inwards. It incorporates history into the moment in order to seek out the future and no-one can stand outside history any more than they can stand outside the human race. A play must speak up decisively for the interests of its own time. It must contain the essential joy which is the seed of the possibility of freedom. It is not a singular thing: it is the great plural and at its tiniest it is two people. That is the nature of dialogue: it is how we learn from one another how to live.
Life in Gaza at this time must seem, to those imprisoned within it, almost impossible. Tank shells explode in hospitals. Artillery barrages destroy schools, houses, streets. Snipers shoot at anything that moves. Children die. The story is ugly and tragic but the people of Gaza prove daily that they are brave and beautiful and despite their pain and suffering they retain their humanity and elegance: their dignity. The Western democracies ignore them as they are too busy exploiting the last of the ancient sunlight locked deep in the Earth, which is the essential “interest” of American foreign policy and the real driver of the “war on terror”. Without imported oil and appropriated water Israel would grind to a halt. That day is not far off. All political and military ascendancies are imperfect and provisional. The theatre knows this both instinctively and historically. The story of powers collapse is the narrative drive of the theatre. It is what it shows to society – it allows society to observe itself. In this observation, these “live representations of reported or invented happenings”, as Brecht would have it, human beings can deal with terror, with catastrophe and can gain pleasure and hope from learning how to live. If Shakespeare suggested that art can hold a mirror up to life then Brecht insisted that it uses a very special mirror: the theatre. That special mirror, that reflector, is human experience itself – and as Paul Weller once sang: “Now that’s entertainment”. It is the real sunlight of the human heart and something we can readily and safely exploit.
©George Gunn 2014
George Gunn’s play “3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae” runs at Venue 109, Gryphon@West End, Hilton, Bread Street, Edinburgh from 1st August 24th August @ 19.15