When my son was born, almost three years ago, my wife and I split the night shift. I did everything until 3am and she did everything after 3am. Usually our boy would wake at around 10 and need a feeding and then I’d need to get him back to sleep. I tried various things but the only thing that worked well was to cuddle him and talk to him and he would slowly drift off to sleep - and I mean slowly: if I was lucky it would take 30 minutes. Generally it took an hour. Sometimes it took an hour and a half. And this meant I had to produce a lot of material. I would walk in circles in our front room with my boy in the crook of my arm, lights very dim and just talk to him, almost anything that came into my head.
I remember that sometimes, just to keep my voice going, I would think of a concept and explain it to him. And one evening I remember the word ‘eudaimonia’ popping into my head. This is central term term in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and it is usually translated - not all that satisfactorily - as ‘human flourishing’. Aristotle is asking what should guide our ethical behaviour or, more broadly (because, for Aristotle, ethics is much much broader than morality), how should we live in order to live a good life. And he starts, as he often does, at the end; what is the ultimate aim of what we do? We might work hard. But why? We work hard to earn money. But why? We earn money that we can have a nice home and buy books and have lovely meals with friends and loved ones. But why? Because these things will contribute to our own fulfilment and the flourishing of who we are. And that point, we have to stop, because it makes no sense to ask why any more. From whatever point you come, via whatever route, we always, says Aristotle, arrive at the same destination: human flourishing. The aim of living is human flourishing and a good life should be whatever best produces eudaemonia. I would explain this, in a low voice, to the half-sleeping boy nestled in my arm, as I padded gently round and round and round.
I thought about this a great deal during Jack Thorne’s new play the end of history… which follows a family across twenty years from the children’s late adolescence to their early middle-age. The parents are tirelessly left-wing; the children struggle to live up to their values. We watch as the children move through various kinds of accommodation to life in the twenty-first century while the parents’ values seem unwavering. But towards the end of the play, we pull back from the detail of families, relationships, divorces, jobs, and money to ask: what is a life? what is a life lived well?
It’s only a mild spoiler to say that late in the play we hear a funeral oration - I won’t say whose it is - and it invites us to remember that all lives are complex, unexpected; we don’t know the lives of the people closest to us, in part because they don’t tell us everything, but in part because they are so close to us. Death can be a moment to step back, finally to take in what is now a whole life. And the description of the life is terribly moving, without being sentimental, because it shows that what might have seemed annoying or eccentric or daft are merely the moment-by-moment curlicues that decorate a life; that beneath it all, a good life has a vision of principle to it, a guiding thread that seeks human flourishing, not just of ourselves but of all of us, because who can truly flourish alone?
This sounds quite high-minded, but Jack Thorne’s play is also asking some big but specific questions about the place of a certain kind of left-wing activism in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The parents David and Sal are committed leftists: free love in the seventies, Greenham Common in the eighties, excoriating Blair for removing Clause 4 in the nineties. In the central act they are just back from protesting the destruction of some local social housing, which won’t do any good, so what’s the point, asks one character. The point is to try, says the father. The vividness of their life in the 1970s, their commitments, their clear-sighted vision of what David calls a beautiful world slowly seems to trivialise as the new century wears on, it drifts, seems quaint, even selfish at various moments. The parents love their children but, in encouraging them always towards altruism, seem unaltruistically judgmental about their choices. There’s a motif in each act of food being prepared but not eaten, a great comic device, but also a smart symptomatic image of a family’s domesticity turning awry.
Why is the play called the end of history…? Three things: first, it reminds us of Francis Fukayama’s 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’ which boldly predicted that, with the Cold War won by capitalism, liberal democracy and liberal economics had established themselves as the historically final form of society; we had arrived at the end of history, because this is where we were always going to end. Not in communism but in democratic capitalism, the most perfect possible environment in which to promote human flourishing. The essay was denounced and mocked at the time and indeed Fukayama has rowed back from some of his claims (of course he did; if all the macro-political debates have been solved, it’s going to put political scientists like Fukayama out of a job). The new century has shown that ideological struggles continue regardless. But what Thorne is perhaps capturing is what happens when a life lived according to one set of values drifts on into a world where those values are suddenly taken less seriously.
Second, the title of the play is in lower capitals. I think that’s deliberate and not just a funky design choice. (It’s on the title page of the published text, not just the poster.) And I suspect there’s a certain caution expressed there. The play is not making a Big Statement; it’s modestly reminding us of these debates; it’s also suggesting that these huge global ideological concerns are often experienced at the level of a few personal relationships, the way Brexit’s faultiness have sent cracks running through homes, kitchen tables, beds, desks, friendships. When a character dies in the play, it becomes a time to recover the guiding thread of that politics and affirm again that it matters.
Third, of course, it’s got those dots at the end, because this play is also saying, and now what…? Where do you go after the end of history…? As Sal asks, haunted, ‘what do we do now?’ I’m sure I won’t be the only person to compare this play to Russell T Davies’s Years and Years, which does not recover the last twenty years but projects twenty years into the future. And the previous day, I saw Sam Adamson’s marvellous play Wife at the Kiln, a play which reaches into the past, brings us slowly to the present, and then takes us into the future. But, in a sense, all of these scripts are doing the same thing, asking us where we are now, one by looking to the past, the other by imagining the future. Both productions feature fast-forwards as we jump through the years and watch the relationships come together and apart.
All of this makes the play sound enormously high-minded. And it isn’t, in a good way and maybe in not such a good way. The first thing to say is that it’s mainly a comedy, or is played like a comedy. The first act is a classic sitcom premise: the son bringing his first girlfriend home to meet his eccentric family. The second is a fairly old-fashioned family drama premise (not that there’s anything wrong with that): a family reunion with a Big Announcement. And the third act takes us into more sombre territory, though it’s a scene about a family coming together in the act of coming apart. It’s played beautifully by an ensemble cast. David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are wonderful as the parents: Sharp’s frenetic logorrheic intensity beautifully counterbalanced by Morrissey’s genial Dad-isms. Two moments: at one point in Act 1, David is goaded into saying something to his son much harsher than he intends. Morrissey’s face is defiant and then very slightly slackens, aghast at what he’s just said, wracked for a second but indescribable guilt. At the end of the act a horrible discovery is made: Sal’s face changes from defiant bonhomie to seem skeletal, haunted, facing indescribable pain. These are terrific performances.
Kate O’Flynn is stunning as the middle child, going from being a sulky student to a high-flying corporate lawyer, never satisfied, fiercely intelligent, glowering with resentments and a fear of emotional commitment. Sam Swainsbury is the oldest son, going from cocky teenager to paunchy adulthood, someone whose contentment comes from accepting that he never quite lives up to those around him. Laurie Davidson is the youngest son, with probably the hardest part, going from troubled youth, to troubled maturity, to troubled adulthood. There’s an intensity to him that rumbles even through his cocky confidence early in the middle act; we watch his suffering unfold through the play, mature alongside him. And Zoe Boyle plays the posh girlfriend - a part, I might say, written with unexpected sympathy (usually, she would be the butt of the joke) - but here the Right have some of the best lines and occasionally have right on their side. Zoe plays Harriet with embarrassed confusion in the first act before turning into the most confident of them all in the second, a completely plausible, indeed in retrospect inevitable, transition.
The director John Tiffany is the great showman - the inheritor of Stephen Daldry’s seemingly effortless ability to glitter - and the play is extremely watchable, always enjoyable. But I wonder how well the thing hangs together? Tonally, I think the production is all over the place. It is roaringly funny in the first act but actually charges off at such a pitch that it becomes a little grating. I’m sure that’s press night mania; the production will no doubt calm the fuck down. But it means that the balance between the comedy and the view of ourselves is a bit askew. The sense of the parents’ values gets lost in sitcom stereotypes (we even have a mum who can’t cook, which was a tired comedy trope decades ago); the moments where the story takes a darker turn sometimes work (the big announcement in Act 2 and the father’s appearance in Act 3 is brilliantly written and played), and sometimes feels like its emotionally forced (the revelation in Act 1 and the end of Act 2 felt like that to me). At moments - say, the oration - I felt something serious and delightful starting to emerge, but at others I felt the frenetic comic tone was fighting it, as if it was so scared of boring an audience with anything serious. In the hilarious first act, there are some exquisitely observed moments: when Sal addresses the posh girlfriend, her stumbling class confusion has her correcting ‘mum’ to ‘mother’, as if translating for a foreigner, while Harriet, sensing awkwardly the unfamiliarity of the family, corrects ‘Daddy’ to ‘Dad’; these little touches suggest an acutely observation of class behaviour, but they are swamped a bit by the high-octane comic approach. Aa a result, at moments I thought this play was heading somewhere profound; at others, it felt slight.
But it did get me thinking and reflecting on those nights spent walking around in the semi-dark, wishing my son would have a life of deep satisfaction and unending human flourishing and wondering if any of the values I would want to pass on to him will survive the coming years.