Writing plays and writing Great Art

For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn” as performed by Kilmuckridge Drama Group

I’ve been writing play scripts for more than twenty years now, and I still can’t shake one stupid idea: Plays ought to be Great Art. Plays are SUPPOSED to be something cerebral, majestic, inspiring (and, if at all possible, inaccessible by ordinary, dull people.)

We all know what I mean. We read Shakespeare at school, and if you’re old enough, they didn’t bother trying to make it relevant, or understandable. They harped on the structure of the lines, the bloody iambic pentameter, the alliteration, the symbolism, the classical references (and I still can’t remember who Phoebus was, or why he had a car in Shakespeare’s day, let alone Tarquin and his ravishing strides.) The implication always was “Of course you don’t understand this, you mewling, puking toads, this is ART! It was penned by a genius, who wrote all of this in a few weeks, even though it will take us a term to tear down one or two scenes.”

And then we get to more recent playwrights, like Pinter or Beckett. Again, the majority of the time we are pressed to believe that this is not meant to be fun, not meant to be accessible. If it’s on the stage, it should be ART and that’s all there is to it.

Except.

Except when I was young, I went to pantomimes. Huge, bright, explosions of slapstick. Verbal somersaults, jokes fired off at machine gun pace, raucous musical numbers and the audience positively begged to throw their hearts and souls into taking part. This was clearly not ART because I was crying with laughter and thrilled to my very centre.

SMP Dramatics performs “Watch this space”.

When I sat down to write a play script of my own, I couldn’t shake the need for it to be ART. Though I based it on my own experiences, I threw in great and dramatic speeches about the nature of life, of creation, of the uncertainties of self-determination. I blurred the lines between imagination and reality and got thoroughly invested in my own bullshit. I still like that play, by the way, but part of me will always run and hide when I read or see it.

“Work in Progress” by the RAF St Athan Theatre Club

It took a long time for me to accept that what I really enjoyed was writing silly comedy stuff. I mean, I knew I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think I was really allowed to put it out there as publishable. It’s not Great Art. I still wanted to write a play that would make the critics search their souls for the perfect review, wanted one that would stun audiences into silence, awed, reverent silence. But why? Is it better to have a stunned audience, or one that’s helpless with laughter, and will think of the show in days to come because their ribs are still aching? I’ve made it to forty nine, and I don’t think I have discovered any shocking fundamental truths about the universe that need writing down, other than “If everybody was nicer, the world wouldn’t be such a bad place”, although the cynic in me wants to write “If everyone was nicer, some bastard would take advantage of them.”

It seems a bit rich to be pontificating on what’s the right thing to write when I haven’t completed a writing project in two years, but then again Shakespeare hasn’t produced anything new in the last four hundred, and he’s bound to have a bunch of stuff performed next year. I think my point, if I had one, was that I’ll probably write more comedy when the muse strikes, and give up forever on the idea of the Great Work. Because, really, what’s so Great about it if it doesn’t make someone smile?

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