Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The National Theatre in England

not at all totalitarian font, then

The traditional histories of the National Theatre (of England, or Britain) tend to begin in around 1848, when the idea of a state-funded company was first given formal, public expression. There then follows a slightly depressing litany of the various attempts to persuade the government to stump up the readies, with Kenneth Tynan emerging as a bit of a super supporter in the 1950s and being rewarded with the post of Literary Manager (not, as he testily points out in one interview, the dramaturge).

It’s a lovely, coherent story, and has plenty of very English heroes, struggling manfully against institutional inertia while the state manages not to be blamed since it was usually a war that stopped it fulfilling its various promises (or, in the 1950s, the building of the Welfare State). It is so delicious and lineal that it has the quality of a myth, and immediately awakens my distrust.

These days, the meaning of ‘national’ is far more contested. The growth of Scottish Nationalism mocks a National Theatre based in London as any sort of representative body, while even my gentle Wessex Regionalism questions the unity contained within the concept of a British (or English) nation-state. Back in the 1970s, they joked about “The People’s Republic of Yorkshire,” both to identify the county’s leftist bent and the distinctive character of its inhabitants. These days, regional identity is more difficult to define (Yorkshire was once notable for refusing players who were not born in the region of flat caps and vowels) but promoted more heavily. Scottish Nationalism has made a point of not limiting itself to any racial, religious or even geographical purity.

And so, thinking about the Establishment of ‘The National Theatre” is a pain in the arse, and not something I would be likely to do without the motivation of an academic requirement. I am not even sure of the best way to name the bloody institution – it is too easily confused with “The National Theatre of Scotland” or “The National Theatre of Wales.” For the record, I am talking about the one that was set up in the early 1960s with ‘Dear Larry’ Olivier as the first artistic director. From now on, it gets called the NT, so I can cut the angst.

Anyhow, back to that delicious creation myth. Part of the myth depends on those plucky characters who fought to establish the NT: Granville Barker, Archer, Winston Churchill (he made one speech about it, then promptly forgot what he had said), GB Shaw (who was probably hoping that it would provide a warehouse for his interminable issue plays), Kenneth Tynan (shameless enough to apply for a job immediately after his lobbying for the NT) and Olivier himself. They provide an elegant, acceptable structure to the narrative. Not only do they fit the traditional English stereotype of ‘the great men, who made history,’ allowing the NT to follow the same pattern as the Tory version of the past, their plucky failures give them a quintessential English glamour.

What this version lacks is something I cannot provide because I understand history in flashes of lightning against a dark background of ignorance: the economic and social vagaries against which the evolution of the NT as an idea was played out. One book makes an effort to compare the two great exhibitions, one in Victorian times, the other in 1951 to show how the political context changed. This was inspiration enough to encourage me to climb towards a more… dare I say… comprehensive analysis.

In another sidebar, it’s worth saying that comprehensive is not the best word. Let me stick with alternative. The problem comes from noticing how, in ten years, the very idea of ‘National’ has changed so much – leading me to consider that in the century between the first stirrings and the NT’s origin, the intentions and understandings of building a National Theatre would have changed so much that they would scarcely recognise each other.

What do I know about 1848? Well, there were revolutions all across Europe – mild ones compared to the gore-fest of the previous century, but ones that would lead to the birth of the German state (about thirty years later) and the Italian. Britain had no Labour Party, so the representation of either socialist or working class politics in government was minimal (in that respect, 1848 is closer to 2013 than 1951). Actors were low in the hegemony of Victorian society (Queen Vic got pelters for watching a play about The Corsican Brothers).

Britain had already had a Glorious Revolution (1688, I think) and was getting better at reforming through parliamentary democracy. I am sure we had the Corn Laws around then – I can’t remember what they were exactly, but they get mentioned in any history of how British democracy became more inclusive. I am betting on an increased social confidence, the growth of Empire and the presence of a capitalism that might be recognisable to the contemporary observer, albeit with more mutton-chop facial hair and a dash of philanthropy.

I am probably talking about the period around 1848, up until about 1900 or so. Just long enough so that I can point at the next time slot during which the NT was debated (Shaw, Granville B and Archer) and pretend that I can delineate the differences. Shaw was a Fabian and intellectually respectable, so I am betting on their being a good socialist aspect to the discussion in this period. By the time of Tynan, socialism was perfectly legitimate for the Oxbridge cabal that runs the country (once the back of the aristocracy was broken, they took over. Let’s not waste time debating that and pretending it’s all meritocracy in these isles). So the meaning of ‘National’ had expanded from meaning ‘the rich and the bourgeois’ to everyone living in the country.

The idea that the UK was inclusive is put to shame by the sudden memory of Dear Larry blacked-up for his Othello. Even if that version of the Moor wasn’t racially offensive, I don’t think the chat about it suggested that the Jamaican migrants were part of the national conversation. When Jonathan Miller sniffily called Olivier’s Othello a clippie, he wasn’t exactly breaking down stereotypes.

But it was, in the way of the UK until post-modernism broke it all, getting more inclusive. Slowly and relatively, the UK was becoming more diverse and, possibly cosmopolitan. In 1848, the Empire was emerging, and was A Good Thing. By 1951, intelligent people had learnt to be ashamed of running about the world and enslaving people for economic gain.

Now that I have established how Britain went from a tentative parliamentary democracy to the land of happy joy, I have two different very different contexts for the discussion of the National Theatre. Stupid generalizations aside, the state in 1848 and 1951 had two distinct sets of priorities, and the results from history show that the latter had more will to establish the NT. I wish I had the skill to prove that the latter date was establishing an organisation that is fundamentally different to the one proposed, thereby destroying the usual myth and disconnecting the NT from the traditional history.

I have proved nothing of the sort, but I have introduced a degree of doubt, enough to make me think that there are other ways of reading the evolution of the NT than tracing its slow development to fruition as the story of Great Men Inspired.

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