The other week, 'Roadrunner' by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers came up on shuffle. It's a glorious song, with its famous count-of-six opening, its simple propulsive rhythm, its barely more than two chords, Richman's adenoidal vocal and its aimlessly driving lyric. In the standards history of rock, it's considered an early instance of punk, which in the US was in part about connecting music back to the simpler virtues of rhythm, melody, countercultural energy, and youth (in Britain, it was that but had a much more aggressive and political aspect).
I found myself thinking about theatre. I and many others have championed the wave of playwrights and theatre companies who have continually striven to be formally experimental, to find new forms for new times, to engage in puzzling, cryptic, complex, metatheatrical reflections on the means of telling more than the story told. And nothing in what I am writing here is intended to doubt the virtue and value of formal experimentation in theatre.
But what punk did in the late seventies was to kill prog. By prog, I mean progressive rock: the form of rock that emerged out of psychedelic rock in the late 60s and challenged the centrality of the three-minute pop single, preferring to extend ideas across albums - sometimes multiple albums - writing songs that might sometimes take up a whole side of an LP, using unfamiliar time signatures (Pink Floyd's catchiest song, 'Money' is in 7/4 for instance), taking on complex themes in the lyrics, bringing in a much wider range of instruments, often collaborating with orchestras, taking musicianship much further. In other words, prog was a form of formal experimentation in rock. There were some good things in prog, probably, but it's not to agree that in the move from 'Jailhouse Rock' to 'Tales from Topographic Oceans', something of rock's joy and power was lost.
And so I caught myself wondering: are we prog? Are we, in our interest in formal experimentation and metatheatrical sophistication, the ones who are losing track of some of the theatre's BASIC virtues?
These thoughts were also prompted by going to see Andrew Keatley's The Gathered Leaves at the Park Theatre. Keatley's play is extravagantly, ostentatiously old-fashioned. It's about the various members of an upper-middle-class family coming together for the patriarch's birthday. Three generations are gathered together in their large country house. Tensions mount, secrets are revealed. It's the sort of play that Wynyard Browne or N C Hunter wrote in the 1940s and early 1950s. It has some affinities with Terence Rattigan, in its care for its characters, its delicate concern to cherish love and friendships, its crafted exploration of emotion. It has some Big Speeches and some huge star parts. It has big entrances and exits and characters called Giles and Aurelia and it's absolutely the sort of play that They Don't Write Any More.
And I loved it. Perhaps my unnatural love for Rattigan primed me (and - full disclosure - Andrew Keatley is a friend), but I was very struck by how rare it is as the moment to see a moment in a play where one action or a line makes the audience audibly gasp and lean forward in their seats as if they are being gravitationally drawn into a fictional world. The Gathered Leaves had several of these ('I've met someone else', 'I had an affair') and I suddenly thought, watching it, that there is something oddly punkish about the gesture of writing a play using this 70-year-old dramaturgy, relying on craft and emotion and fiction and storytelling. It's almost aggressive to put upper-middle-class characters in a fuck-off country house with all their money and expect us to care about their woes. In 2015 to call a character Samuel Pennington and make us sob like children at his situation is 'The Ramones's first album' of theatre.
Of course, before you all cuss me down, I know: the binaries here are absurd. Formal experimentation can be emotionally devastating (An Oak Tree) and involves at its best remarkable craft (Tomorrow's Parties) and often elegantly elaborated fiction (Carmen Disruption) and extraordinary storytelling (Men in the Cities). I have also overstated the traditionalism of The Gathered Leaves which actually begins with a brilliantly contemporary scene (paradoxically set in the past) where two young boys re-enact a scene from a classic-era Doctor Who which is as metatheatrical and performative as you could wish. And, to be clear, I'm not saying that the well-made play - because that's what we're talking about here - is theatre in its rawest state; it's just another form - but one that offers very particular pleasures and joys in a very refined form.
So a small chill gripped my heart as I thought: are we prog? (No, we are Devo, all you devotees of US 70s punk will be shouting.) Put more positively, what is the ongoing political valency of traditional dramaturges of the kind I've been describing? the kind which David Eldridge once described as 'clunky what's-round-the-corner' plotting. Is our current distaste for fiction depriving us of something persistently valuable in the surprise we find in immersing ourselves imaginatively in a fictional world and the joy of the surprise, the revelation, the twist, the reversal? What actually is our problem with fiction (or at least fiction that doesn't announce itself to be fiction)? What are the conditions in which we might see - and politically approve - a revival of clunky what's-round-the-corner plotting?
These may sound like rather leading questions, but the spirit with which they are asked is openness. I'd be really interested in pursuing the conversation.
Hey ho, let's go.
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