We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars – Oscar Wilde
Christopher Marlowe, Jean Genet and Joe Orton: in the pantheon of playwrights, their works performed everywhere.
Great plays like Doctor Faustus, Edward II, Tamburlaine; The Maids and The Balcony; Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw.
A pact with Lucifer and damnation, sexuality, abuse and regicide, bloody conquest, suicide and savagery; sadomasochism and violent fantasies, prostitutes and revolution; robbery, dead bodies and corruption, sexual manipulation and murder, farcical seduction, insanity and Winston’s Churchill’s penis!
It’s not only the themes of these works that make them special, but the style, the language and the ideas of these original, challenging and memorable dramatists.
If we look at their lives and – in the cases of Marlowe and Orton – deaths, it’s not hard to see where these ideas might come from.
Marlowe was killed in a drunken knife fight after a row about money, the culmination of a life of arrest, imprisonment and alleged spying.
Orton ended up bludgeoned to death, the hammer wielded by his jealous lover. Parts of his life were as sordid as his death was brutal, with countless dangerous (and, at that time, illegal) encounters in public toilets. He was jailed (I had a marvellous time in prison!) for defacing hundreds of library books.
As for Jean Genet (immortalised in David Bowie’s song of almost-the-same name), he spent much of his early life in correctional institutions and became a thief, a vagabond and a prostitute, all of which found its way into his dramas, novels and poems. The film, Querelle, based on a novel by Genet, captures the danger and sensuality of his themes: betrayal, power and love.
Many plays by these and similar writers positively thrive on the idea of the outcast, the unusual and the unsavoury.
It’s a passion, a disease, a lust. Art can rest on sinister foundations and has the most intimate knowledge of sickness.
Those words are from a speech by Chinchilla, a character based on Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. The play was written by Robert David Macdonald, with whom I worked for many years at the Citizens’, Glasgow.
David was a most erudite and articulate writer, translator and director. At the same time, he firmly believed that any masterpiece of European dramatic literature could be improved with a fart gag.
This mixing of the exotic and the demotic, the sacred and the profane, may not be as incongruous as some may think. I’m always surprised when somebody describes theatre as posh, middle class or respectable, when it often depends on being the very opposite.
To presume the absence of sordid vulgarity and squalid transgression is to deny the evidence of theatre as it has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Look back through the history of performing arts – and other genres – and you can see quite how much they rely on the degenerate for inspiration and expression.
Rape, tongues and hands cut off, several filicides and a mother eating her sons in a pie, as well as countless killings. Yet Jan Kott (Shakespeare Our Contemporary) says Titus Andronicus is by no means the most brutal of Shakespeare’s plays.
Infanticide is possibly the most horrible act imaginable, yet it happens with blood-chilling frequency in so many stories and dramas. Greek mythology is full of child-killings, including parents serving them up at feasts.
In Medea, one of the great classic dramas, Euripides has her poison King Creon and his daughter, her rival in love, before taking a knife to her two sons.
Those bloodthirsty old-timers, eh? Not really: contemporary dramas haven’t exactly shied away from lurid, violent breaches of good taste, morality and the law.
Sarah Kane deals (or dealt, she hanged herself, aged 28 in 1999) with pain, sex, torture and death. Her first and most infamous play, Blasted, includes male rape, eyes sucked out, a baby dying and being eaten. In 2010, a revival won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement.
The death of a baby – this time being stoned, centre stage – also features in Edward Bond’s Saved, originally prosecuted but later praised for its ‘remarkable delicacy’.
OK, so not every play goes as far as these, but the creation of drama does tend to mix the noblest of ideas with the basest of actions. Marlowe, Genet, Orton, Shakespeare and the rest know that in order to reach our hearts and our minds, they have to look life right between the legs.
Theatre isn’t a refined art that just occasionally sinks into the sewers; it positively embraces the low-life and the perverse alongside the highbrow and the inspirational. They work together; they’re symbiotic, dependent one upon the other to make the most powerful dramatic effect.
Is present-day theatre safer and more respectable than in the past? Maybe dramatists and producers used to have a more free-wheeling attitude to those who helped pay the bills.
Is there a danger nowadays that the culture of public funding and compliance risks making subsidised theatres less likely to embrace the base and the beastly? Let’s hope not.
As long as those who write, produce and present theatre understand the vital relationship between highbrow and low-life, we should be spared too much respectability. Or, as Chinchilla has it, Many reasonable people are appalled, many despicable people delighted, but none of that matters.
As we stood in the foyer of the Citizens’, in our heads we were bank managers, but in our hearts we were mesdames of a brothel.
As it’s still commonplace for proper theatres to combine the sublime with the cor-blimey, it might be fun to imagine how it would work the other way round.
What if the commercial theatre incorporated a bit of high art in its populist repertoire? Instead of Elvis tributes there could be Make Like Mozart and Beethoven Karaoke. Not so much Dirty Dancing as Smutty Swan Lake or Naughty Nutcracker. Forget The Real Glesca Dance Mums – try A Midsummer Night’s Dram!
So here – by way of a frivolous coda – are my top ten plays, ripe for adaptation and inclusion in the next brochure of the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow:
- Mary Doll’s House
- Lady Windermere’s Scran
- The Duchess of Malky
- Drouth of a Salesman
- Lidl Women
- Langside’s Journey into the Night
- A Steak Bake Named Desire
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Street?
- Anne of Green Gorbals
- Measure for Massage
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, August 2019.