from lecture A Politics of Body and Speech
... which began as an address I gave to a conference of the English Speaking Board. These two or three extracts suggest as well as anything what I feel to be my social function as a dramatist.
... If academics and critics - and theatres - overlook me, it’s a poor response for me as a dramatist to complain. My job is to go on doing my job.
... In Britain, the term political is narrowly understood. And it tends to denote, of theatre, a drama that espouses a particular ideology or polemic, almost always toward the Left. I was never classed as a ‘political’ dramatist, rather as some wild marginal creature, unpolitical. Yet I’ve always felt that life has stationed me at the centre of the essential conflict where our authentic identity confronts all that is ranged against it. In that existential sense, I am political.
... It’s not granted to us all, to be heroes or martyrs. But in our culture at least, spared some of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, we have the energy and means - I would say, the obligation - continually to re-author ourselves. The impulse of political institutions will always be reductionist: to limit us to identities that stop growing, that can be mechanically satisfied, predicted and controlled. I believe it to be our moral human duty to subvert that. It’s an anarchist stance, in the classical sense of that word. And if I look back over the protagonists in my drama, I see almost each one in a process of unruly becoming, virtually a coming to new birth. At last, each seizes his or her own life, wrests it from those forces that would seek to control it, and makes a naked gesture of starting to live. (One conspicuous exception is The Triumph of Death, a title which speaks for itself. And that it is an exception, that too speaks for itself.) However daunting the play’s end-state, to the character on the space, that end is a beginning. I have been howled down by various political activists for not ‘giving’ my characters a creed or value-system to take into their new lives. That’s the whole point. It is of such prescripts that we must be free.
Interview: September 2001
When the Royal National Studio revived Afore Night Come at the Young Vic in autumn 2001, Oberon Books re-published the play as a programme-text. In its preface are excerpts from some answers I’d given to questions I’d been asked about the background and history of the play, and what I felt about it then, and what I feel about it 40 years on. These answers fill in some general background besides. Here is an edited transcript in full.
Why did you write this particular play?
Everything starts a long way back. I knew I was going to be a writer, the first time I opened a book. I was about 4. I was fascinated by the look of the print, the shapes of its lines and spaces on the page. I wanted to make things like that. So it was books I wanted to write, not plays. I didn’t know about plays, I didn’t know they existed. My father was a Revivalist pastor; theatres and cinemas were forbidden places, abodes of Satan. But my mother did take me, secretly, to see films: Gone with the Wind, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which were then (1940) on their first release. Because we couldn’t risk being seen coming out of a cinema where people might know us, we had to go to distant cinemas far across the city -
Birmingham - my mother’s family had come over here from Ireland, just before the war. She had been a millgirl in county Armagh; my father had first met her when he went over from England on an Evangelical crusade. Because the cinemas were so far away in distant suburbs the other side of Brum, and we couldn’t be out very long, we were never able to see a film complete. We had to make several trips, so I saw all these films in bits and pieces, and many parts of each film I saw several times. So I got to know these films, image by image, pretty well.
Later, when I went to high school (a mediaeval foundation that taught old-fashioned things like grammar, and Latin and Greek - I cherish the memory of that school for its tradition of learning; I hate it for its sub-fascist ethos), in English classes we ground our way through Henry IV part I, Macbeth, King Lear... And in Greek class we struggled through the Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus and the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and Euripides’ Alcestis - comparatively tame, that one; but then we went on to his Hecuba, then the Medea, and ultimately The Bacchae. So, I grew up with a concept of drama as by nature a thing of murder and blinding and cannibalism.
After school, I did my 2 years’ compulsory military service, as a cipher operator in the Royal Signals, then took up my place at Oxford, where I read Mods and Greats. (A rather arcane term, denoting a four-year course in classical languages and literature, ancient history, and ancient and modern philosophy.) At Oxford I became involved in university theatre, and did a lot of acting and directing - I was truly putting my Revivalist background behind me. It was the generation of Patrick Garland, John McGrath, Michael Billington, Ken Loach... I also found myself directing an 8mm silent film. There was a University Film Society, that ran a programme of silent and early classics on an equal footing with films by British and Hollywood auteur directors - Ford, Hawkes, Nicholas Ray, Carol Reed... And there was an adventurous cinema, the Scala. I was discovering cinema as an ‘art’: the ‘classics’, and the then (late 1950s) contemporary ‘greats’ - Hitchcock, Buñuel, Bergman, Welles, Fellini... - at the height of their powers. (A far cry from a Revivalist’s abode of Satan.)
And I came to realize that there was more to drama too, than Shakespeare and the Greeks. The artistic director at the Oxford Playhouse, Frank Hauser, ran seasons of world classics: I saw plays by Ugo Betti, Pirandello, Ghelderode, Ionesco... He also hosted ‘difficult’ try-outs on their way to the West End. But when friends said to me I should try writing a play myself, (it was just after Osborne’s explosive arrival at the Royal Court, ) I felt I didn’t have the theatrical background, or the technique. And the real problem, as I saw it at the time, was the problem of language. I could put on the stage a world and characters that a modern audience would find recognizable, but how could I have those characters speak in a language that was natural and truthful, yet had poetic stature and held the stage? It seemed impossible.
Then (1958) a really strange play came to the Playhouse on its try-out; it was called The Birthday Party, and was by an unheard-of writer called Harold Pinter, and it simply exploded between my ears. This amazing unknown writer had discovered poetry at the very opposite end of the language spectrum, in the trite and the stunted and the banal. So of course I wrote a couple of student plays very much under the influence of that.
But then, the following summer vacation, I went to work as a fruit-picker in a Worcestershire orchard. It was only a couple of miles, as the crow flies, from the Longbridge Austin motor works; if you cycled, as I did, over the rim of hill at the southern perimeter of Birmingham, you free-wheeled down almost immediately into dips and crannies of old rustic Worcestershire. (It is still so.) I reported for duty at the foreman’s farmhouse (his name wasn’t Spens, that was someone else who worked there); and with me, looking for work too, was a lad who had come down from Redditch on his motorbike - he wore a sort of gear influenced by the Teddy Boy fashions of 4 or 5 years before. Later in the morning we were joined by an Irish tramp, in broken shoes without socks, a long ragged herring-bone overcoat, and wearing dark glasses, and a teacloth on his head. His name was Roche. Suddenly a play was there: in all the dialects and various coloured forms of speech around me; I was doing what the Pinter play had taught me to do: to find the poetry by listening. What was shaping was an amiable, quite comedic piece, without much of a story. And it wasn’t Pinter, or anybody else: it was itself, and already it was writing itself.
So your tramp owes nothing to Pinter’s Davies in The Caretaker.
I wrote Afore in September 1960. I knew nothing of The Caretaker; had it been produced then? Roche came into my play from the world itself. The influence-spotters are wrong: I know better than they what I owe to Pinter, and what I don’t.
Anyway, as we worked our way along the rows of trees, this Roche began to become the butt of everybody’s jokes, and the victim of their resentments and frustrations, and their rancour and malice too, and sometimes these broke out in physical buffeting and ragging. I didn’t behave very honourably, I kept a low profile because I was beginning to be afraid. Roche had singled me out as a sympathetic soul, and I did talk to him, but when I did, I felt the others’ hostility. I was an outsider too, just as in the Army I’d been: a college boy who talked posh. (My Irish speech that I took from my mother had been long schooled out of me.) Then one afternoon, the weather broke. We were all sent down to some disused brick outbuildings called the ‘dusthouse’, where we were each issued with knives to slash armloads of cycle-tyres the foreman brought. Roche had been sacked by now, but he’d kept coming back; he found his way down to the ‘dusthouse’ and tried to take part in slashing the tyres. The others by now were really angry with him, and talked at each other through him as though he weren’t there. I thought, in a Christian sense they’re murdering this man: and the comedy that was writing itself in my head, took a lurching step sideways into the dark. At last, muttering and cursing, the poor old wretch shambled off into the rain. I never saw him again.
On what was to be my last day in the orchard, there was a torrential downpour, there couldn’t be any picking, so I stayed at home, and began to write the play down. Lined foolscap paper, two fountain-pens - black ink for the dialogue, red ink for the stage-directions. That ritualization helps focus - and economy. But soon, as I saw on the page where the play was taking me, I became uneasy... It was not so much the thought that no one would ever do this piece. That’s never been a consideration with me. It was the transgressive nature of the writing itself. The language was ‘stronger’ than I’d ever heard in a play. But it was rhythmically integral to the ‘poetry’ I had been hearing in that orchard. - A second factor was sexual. I needed to thread through this dark story a counter-element of desire and love, to offset the rage and hatred - and there weren’t any girls working in this company, and in any case the rage and hatred were all very male, the tender feelings had to be male too. So inevitably the erotic dimension had to be homosexual, which according to the laws of the time meant that the play was endorsing a crime. (The Lord Chamberlain would later cut certain lines from it on those grounds.) In plays at that time, anything or anyone homosexual was very rare, and heavily coded. I think this was the first British play in which this fact of life was handled candidly and straight. - A third problem was that the logical moral outcome of the play’s process would be a climactic act of violence of a sort that happened only in the ‘classics’. Modern drama seemed never to drive toward a visceral act like that. That drama I’d first known, that elemental world of storm and sacrifice, of ecstasy and blood, just wasn’t present in our theatre.
Overall what was daunting me was that I was tearing myself open, making my inner self visible to people. (And at any production there might be, among the audience would be acquaintances and family...) I had come to a moment in the writing where I had to choose. Back off, keep my inner self secret, leave that play forever in the dark, and turn aside, write something safer. Or go where this play was taking me, regardless, and be damned. I remember that moment of wavering - and choice. With my black and red pens, at the table in my parents’ house. I knew this was the first ‘real’ piece I was writing. If I was going to be a writer, there wasn’t a choice.
I never thought of it as being ‘about’ anything. After I came down from Oxford, I found a job as assistant Latin and Music master at Bromsgrove County High School - ironically, only 2 or 3 miles from those orchards where the play had ‘happened’ to me - and when the RSC’s first production of the play was imminent, my Head of Department asked me what was the play about, what was it ‘saying’? I was quite surprised. I hadn’t thought about it as ‘saying’ anything. It was just what it was. What was important to me when writing it, was to get the play right for itself. And what’s important to me about the play now is not so much any ‘message’ in it, as the kind of theatre it is - rather like a dream that grips you, and pulls you in, and takes you through a natural-looking world you think you know, down into that underworld you visit only in your dreams; a kind of theatre that enables you to see into the roots of things.
It’s scary, having your first play staged. Because I was in full-time teaching, I wasn’t able to be around at the rehearsal process except at weekends. But I could see that the actors had a real respect for the play, and I felt confirmed by that. But then, as the first night drew near, I was smitten with a total uncertainty - had I been fooling myself? Were I and the director and all the company of actors under a group delusion? The moment we put this thing up in front of an audience, would they just laugh it off the stage? I had a dread that the evening would end in spectacular and humiliating disaster for me.
It nearly did.
Yes. I’ve said it’s a transgressive play: it crosses several boundaries, and when an audience feel affronted or disturbed, they will take any opportunity to disconnect themselves. Merry scornful laughter is their safest recourse. It was a very hot evening, quite thunderous, rather as in the play itself. After a long slow build-up, there’s a sudden scoop upwards to an orgasmic release of violence - it was hideously beautiful in that production, the bloodletting, with the helicopter screaming down, and its glistening shower of pesticide sprinkling the action - but it was appalling too. The perfect balance. And then the action took that one, awful step further. It was at this moment that the audience began to mutter, and I could hear the sounds of a woman moaning and fainting, then the rhythmic slapping of hand on face as someone tried to revive her. Up there on the stage, the actors simply froze; they did not know how, or whether, to proceed. I thought, this is the end of me as a dramatist. As the disorder grew, a man’s authoritative voice spoke out loudly and clearly: ‘Shut up and listen!’ It turned out that this was Harold Pinter himself, no less. The audience quietened down, and the play resumed.
As for the notices, I had to go back to the Midlands that same night, as I had teaching to do at that Worcestershire school, so I wasn’t around to see the London papers the next morning. My agent Peggy Ramsay rang me very early, to say ‘Well, you’re not going to be a rich man, dear.’ (She was right.) The notices were mixed, mostly cool, some mildly patronizing, some downright dismissive. (One reviewer had obviously left at half-time, and had written up the play as a ‘quaint and charming rustic comedy’.) The critic of the lead Birmingham paper observed that something must have gone badly wrong at the RSC, for them to choose to do this play at all. (He continued to vilify the piece in all the other, weekly columns he wrote.) Another Midlands paper wheeled out their resident ‘Countryman’, who wrote that I was obviously a gullible townie boy, and that ‘everyday country folk’ had been pulling my leg. I felt quite shamefaced in front of all my friends and colleagues - to say nothing of my family, who had been badly shaken by the play. To the kids at the school, the crits didn’t count: I was suddenly on tv a lot, and that’s what rated with them.
The Sundays, on the other hand, were encouraging. In a startling review in the Sunday Telegraph, Alan Brien remarked that the woman who fainted had responded as Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’ requires. (I hadn’t heard of Artaud at that time.) The critic we all most dreaded, Kenneth Tynan, wrote in the Observer that the play had flaws but bore ‘stigmata’ too, and was the most striking first play since Look Back in Anger. So I began to feel more confirmed than otherwise – and started thinking already about what my next play might be. And very soon I came to recognize that, as a dramatist, to be truthful to myself, I would with every next play have to make that same choice I had made with Afore, cut open new earth and be transgressive in one sense or other. So I must expect never to have the intellectual consensus on my side. Peggy Ramsay saw that from the start. It took me longer.
You can’t discuss violence in isolation. The issue is, what does that onstage violence mean? With what people loosely call ‘violence’ on the screen or on the space - and it’s the same with acts of sex - the question has to be, what is its intended narrative? The enactment has to be staged or screened in such a way that you can see through its representation, to the essential moral or emotional meaning of what is taking place. Hitchcock understood that, and his Psycho shows the force of it. That’s 1960 as well, though I didn’t see it till later that year.
When I see violence or sex merely ‘simulated’ on the screen or space, it strikes me as simply wrong - not for any moral reasons, but because it doesn’t work. With bald simulation, you’re being blatantly told the actors are faking, so your responses are blocked. And with full nudity, you are (if you’re honest) distracted by the actors’ nakedness. Again, the relevant responses just arent engaged. These things have to be staged, not necessarily in a highly formalized way, but in some intelligent non-faking way that draws the spectator’s attention to the essential narrative of the act. (We did the sex scenes in Ashes, for instance, fully clothed, so that the actors were free to play the couples’ joylessness and sorrow: without their bodies in the way, it was the characters the audience could see.) It calls for truthfulness on everybody’s part - author, director, actor - to perceive the necessity for this, and to achieve it. The truest sex scenes I’ve seen onscreen are in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur: her images of sex make visible what this sex is about, and what it’s feeling like, for the man and woman there. Most onscreen violence is plain boring - e.g. the much-lauded ‘set-pieces’ in Face On/Off - because they’re untruthful.
If you’re ‘prophetic’ as an artist, it’s not because you see into the future; it’s because you’re tuned into the present - down at some deep level where the future’s like an embryo waiting to uncurl. England did rather catch up with Afore Night Come.
In a personal sense it was prophetic for myself too. When I wrote it, I was still a student - and I knew that students always put themselves into their plays, in the leading rôle, intellectually or morally heroic, with a big climactic speech in Act III. I’d done it myself, in my student pieces. Now I was writing my first 'real' play, and I knew I'd have to avoid that pitfall. So what I did was unambiguously to put myself in (after all, I was actually 'there') but in the smallest part, and as not a very admirable character. I thought I was being very clever. Fourteen years on and older, working on a new production (at Stratford, 1974), I was startled to see myself in the play, all right, but not as Larry: now I saw I was Larry's 'shadow' figure, Johnny Hobnails - marginalized, with transgresssive desires, and hearing voices in the head. A portrait of the artist as a young man, wouldn't you say? - and a portrait the truer for my not being conscious of it at the time. The right hand knoweth not what the left hand is writing. As one becomes more canny at one's craft, the danger is that one will lose that vital innocence. So one must keep on digging forward into the unknown. When I saw I was Hobnails too, then I knew that the day would come when I'd see myself looking out of that play at me as Roche as well. That day has come. A marginalized scarecrow who deludes himself he is a poet, with people looking through him as though he's not there: I certainly feel I'm that, if I so much as walk past a theatre now.
So what do you feel about your career since?
I've worked in every medium that involves public performance - on the space, on screen (cinema and tv), and on the air. Some of my happiest working experiences have been in radio, and I've written some pretty ambitious pieces there. I feel fulfilled in music theatre as well, because that involves the musician in me (at one time, I was studying to be a composer). In cinema my experience began marvellously, with figures of the stature of Truffaut and Zinnemann, but since then it has been, apart from an occasional flicker, mostly disappointing, and it gets more so. Rather as Welles said of himself, I started at the top and worked my way down. Most of my work now is in adaptation for the screen, which is almost always soul-destroying. Usually you're struggling to diminish and reduce a good book to fit some pretty superficial requirements. Worst of all is that it's not my own work, it's always to serve someone else's. People don't much ask for my own work now. Though there is an ‘original' film-project coming up, that is big and scary and challenging - and it promises to be a significant piece of cinema, and very urgent in the current world situation. (Not a British or Hollywood project, need one say.*) But over all I still think of myself mainly as a dramatist, even though I've not worked in the theatre for 16 years.
* This was to be an independent Italian production on the endeavour of S Francis of Assisi to end the Fourth Crusade by personal intervention with the Sultan of Egypt. Seeking finance in 2000-2001, we met with 'The Crusades? Who wants to know?' Post-9/11 the response was 'The Crusades? You must be joking.' DR.