The radical playwright David Edgar had a long article last week about the recent surge in theatre productions based closely on actual events – from Deep Cut to Guantanamo. He suggests that this latest cycle has filled a gap which has been left by the decline of journalism as a critical activity. And he also makes an interesting historical comparison with a similar movement in the early ’60s.
Edgar noted the other “factually-based” plays which had been critical successes at the Edinburgh Festival this year: Scamp Theatre’s Charlie Victor Romeo (edited from black box transcripts), and Motherland (based on the testimony of mothers, sisters and wives of British soldiers in Iraq). The dance company DV8 has a show at the National from the end of October based on 85 audio interviews about homophobia. They’re only the latest of what is now quite a substantial body of work (well-rehearsed in his article).
Although Edgar didn’t mention it (and I can’t find the link I’m looking for) the same phenomenon has also been noticed in the cinema, where documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine, Inconvenient Truth, The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Taking Liberties have had theatrical releases.
Why isn’t journalism still doing this? All sorts of reasons, from falling editorial budgets, to less regulation, to the demands of rolling television news (which elevates description over analysis, the ‘now’ over the ‘why’), to greater media concentration.
What’s interesting about Edgar’s piece is the historical comparison he makes with the ‘Theatre of Fact‘ movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, “which built plays out of documents, particularly trial transcripts”. The Theatre of Fact was associated with playwrights such as Peter Weiss (The Investigation, about the trial of Auschwitz guards), and Robert Hochhuth, who confronted their audiences with facts so they couldn’t retreat in fictional versions.
There seem to me to be similarities. The late ’50s and early ’60s in Germany were times when it was difficult to say certain things – the Nazi history was too close, and for many still too personal – and in recent years the dominance of neoliberal ideas in public and political discourse in the UK has pushed alternative versions to the margins.
The question is whether, in effect, confronting people with the texts – the official versions – has an impact or not. Edgar says it does:
In the 2003 play about railway privatisation, The Permanent Way, David Hare and his collaborators did the kind of in-depth, investigative, historically analytical job on a contemporary political story that conventional journalism rarely does any more, occupying space abandoned both by long-form print journalism and by traditional television documentary. In Deep Cut, reporter Brian Cathcart is quoted as saying that “journalism dropped the ball” after the internal inquiry into the four deaths, implying that theatre has now picked it up.
Steve Waters, a playwright who discussed this in an article four years ago, thinks not.
Today’s theatre of fact emerges in a time of ideological confusion where documents demand commentary. Yet there is no apparent political project beyond a commitment to confront actuality. Justifying War’s condensation of Hutton exemplifies this, the show reproducing the inquiry’s ambivalent brief, offering incidental vignettes of corruption gathered round the central absence of Dr Kelly.
This debate resonates with my own personal history. I spent the first years of my working life as a broadcast journalist, believing that better presentation of the “facts” was enough to enable people to make their choices. I think I’ve now come to the view that this isn’t enough: that understanding is a deeper process which requires interpretation and meaning. Even if you know what was said at the inquest, in the briefing room, it doesn’t have an effect without a perspective – one that even good investigative reporting can’t provide on its own. This is the case that Waters makes:
In the work of dramatising and fictionalising there is often a deeper act of interpretation at work that transcends reportage; for stories are not just a means of getting past the libel lawyers. … The theatre of fact offers a necessary challenge to writers to embrace contemporary life, and proves the stage is one of the few public places where complex stories may be told. However, the playwright’s imagination should be chastened, but not defeated, by actuality; in a world flooded with information, its task remains to reveal the facts behind the facts.