Saturday, 25 May 2013

Gary McNair and Trevor Griffiths

It’s unsurprising that Gary McNair’s Donald Robertson is not a Comedian lacks the particular edge of Punch or Trevor Griffith’s Comedians. McNair’s liberal credentials were evident in his Count Me In – a gentle plea for a more representative democracy – and his on-stage persona has always juggled amiability and satirical intention. While it might seem a move away from the more explicitly political bent of his earlier work (Crunch had a poke at economics), it fits precisely into his personal, idiosyncratic style. He might be concerned with the wider world, but McNair is cautious to avoid vapid generalisations.

A few months ago, there was much pondering, specifically in The Guardian, about the state of contemporary political theatre. Michael Billington showed his age by bemoaning the lack of “working class drama,” remembering some Golden Age when every other playwright was getting realistic. Lyn Gardner noted that there were young writers – especially in Scotland – who were ready to take on the Big Ideas, including McNair.

There is a sharp contrast, however, between the political vitality of the 1970s, when Griffiths wrote
Comedians and the twenty-first century’s crop of activist authors. Although Griffiths was never as blunt as I’ve described him in the past – he consistently undermined the pomposity of the Marxist revolutionaries and gave their opponents some of the best arguments – there is no question that he saw social change as being a product of left wing dialectics. Donald Robertson does engage with the possibility of change, although there is no necessary link to the dreams of the SWP.

Indeed, the change that Donald Robertson imagines is well within the existing, brutal confines of capitalism. The hero, a young boy at the bottom of the school hierarchy, uses vicious humour to win a place in the feral pack of youths of roam Glasgow. His successful routine, which necessitates him attacking his mentor, doesn’t bring him opportunities beyond a place in a gang. There’s even a subtle suggestion (in his misuse of “Castle Greyskull” as a place of villainy) that he has rejected his intelligence for popularity.

McNair’s genius is to have recognised how contemporary comedy is not the force for liberation that Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks might have claimed. In Comedians, the tension is between old fashioned, musical hall style comics and the modern, more aggressive acts: Griffiths opposes them and questions the difference between humour at the expense of the weak and comedy that tells “truth to power.” Donald Robertson may have a brief moment when he does the latter – specifically, telling a teacher who has betrayed him that he is a bit of a cunt. But it’s clear that the comedy he adopts is merely another form of bullying.

McNair’s genial monologue does hide a pessimistic vision of both comedy and society. Like Comedians, the central relationship is between a student and teacher and the climax is a performance: both students ultimately resist their teacher, and the audience is not given a clear moral finale. Yet where Comedians ends in an unresolved conversation between the two, Donald Robertson describes the final parting of ways: McNair remains on the bus, while Donald runs free with his pack, lobbing bricks at it.

Comedy in both works has a social function, but Griffiths’ belief in the possibility of grand change (the “revolution” that so many 1970s’ authors could at least imagine) is replaced by McNair’s characters’ compromises within an existing hierarchy. Throughout Comedians, the comedians debate whether success is worth selling out: for Donald, success is a matter of not being at the bottom of the pile.

The limited horizons of McNair’s protagonists are palpable in the scale of their ambitions, and the cultural reference points they share. In Comedians, a final issue becomes the teacher’s visit to Belsen: a variation on the old “no poetry after Auschwitz,” the importance of comedy is questioned in a world where such atrocities can happen. For Griffiths, the correct response to the location of the mass extermination of a religious group is crucial (and it isn’t the erection that the teacher gets). McNair uses the correct knowledge of He-Man’s sanctuary as a symbol of how Donald has sold out his mentor.

The pessimism of Donald Robertson isn’t so much in the inevitable failure of comedy to change anything – Griffiths questions that potential – but in the way it maintains the status quo. McNair’s world is circumscribed – a bus, a school – geographically, morally and socially. His best hope is that the victim of Donald’s routine “deserved it” and Donald’s best bet is to become part of the tyrannical gang, not defeat them. The irony that Donald betrays him is never revealed to McNair, and he becomes the perfect victim: his smart suit and coiffure suggest he is part of a middle-class that Donald could not join anyway, and he receives no consequences from his metaphorical beating. The compassion that led him to help Donald does little to alleviate the divisions that have cursed the student: there is no reconciliation, or even acknowledgement of the huge social gap between man and boy.

In the past, McNair’s gentle person has hidden the edge of serious complaints (Crunch hit at the faith in money) or matched some pleasantly liberal investigations (Count Me In). Donald Robertson is a more cunning performance – certain of the jokes have fridge brilliance, and the perspectives of McNair and Donald are switched in the finale, deconstructing McNair’s confidence and Donald’s apparent innocence. Even his asides, revealing the structures and tricks of comedy, are deconstructed when the truth of persona, story and details are called into question in the final moments. The darkness in which Donald Robertson exists is wrapped in charm and apparent hesitancy and its meaning is a slow reveal, unfurling over hours after the echo of the last laugh has finally faded. 

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