Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why can't conservatives write good plays?

An article in the Guardian brings up a question I raised years ago at an ART Forum - why can't conservatives write good plays anymore? The author of the article, Jay Rayner, points out that even though the British government has moved left of center, no playwrights have taken on the new liberal consensus. Indeed:

Last year Nick Hytner, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, mused during a radio interview that he seemed unable to find a 'mischievous right-wing play'.

Of course in America, the problem is a little different; although there's clearly an aggressive, lefty consensus on the theatrical fringe, the mainstream clings to apolitical statements, and our ruling elite is still overwhelmingly conservative (if undergoing an obvious crack-up). Perhaps our society is so polarized that its gatekeepers fear any political edge could send us - well, over the edge. Or perhaps, as some conservatives would have us believe, voices on the right are suppressed by a leftist cultural consensus.

Still, if that were true, you'd think there'd be some conservative play that would have surfaced by now as a cause célèbre - or at least something as edgy as, say, the movie Citizen Ruth (which took plenty of shots at the pro-choice crowd). Instead, as Rayner points out:

What strikes me most, during the discussions I have, is an almost total failure of imagination when it comes to working out what a play from the right might actually look like. We none of us have any problem naming overtly left-wing plays or their playwrights: names like David Edgar, Caryl Churchill, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare fall into conversation with ease. By contrast, even defining an overtly right-wing play, let alone identifying one, is apparently impossible.

Things weren't always this way; there were once plenty of "well-made" plays in evidence from playwrights like Noël Coward (yes, politically he's conservative), J.M. Barrie, and Terence Rattigan, that critiqued yet celebrated the status quo. (Even Shakespeare could fit beneath this umbrella, btw.) And there's certainly enough salient subject matter today to engage a right-wing, or at least free-thinking, dramatist, from the ironies of leftist sympathy with Islam to the contradictions of the diversity police.

So I remain convinced that this counts as a major failure of the right, not the left. After all, one has to wonder at a political "movement" that seems to have no coherent cultural component - indeed, that seems only interested in polemic, and often appears hostile to culture outside the norms of nostalgia. Of course perhaps the problem lies coiled in the very nature of the drama - as noted in the following quote from Sir Peter Hall:

'I don't believe drama is necessarily about conflict, but it is always about confrontation leading to change,' [Hall] says. 'If you write a play saying let nothing change, you could be celebrating the right, but it would make for poor drama.'


  1. Hey don't forget what some people call the first Neo-conservative play, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, (an adaptation from Herman Wouk's novel.)

    In that play the sinister machinations are orchestrated by the Elitist lefty writer Tom Keefer. And the conservative, dictatorial Captain Queeg is held up as a hero in the end, though suffering from paranoia.

    How many playwrights today would write a play where their stand-in gets drink thrown in their face and called a coward...and it's TRUE. (A fantastic scene in the movie with Fred McMurray.)

    Compare to A Few Good Men, where the Ivy League smart asses win the day AND the moral high ground.

    In Sorkin's play, and the movie, Nicholson/Jessup, gets the great monologue, but is also a murderer.

  2. I'm guessing you've already considered (and discarded) the likes of Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and "Arcadia"?

    But neither are recent plays, so maybe they just don't fit the bill, either.

  3. I know what you mean about Stoppard, and I pondered discussing him; to me he is reactionary (I know he was an admirer of Thatcher), but not actually conservative - or at least, not in any systematic way; he's a libertarian libertine, I suppose, who likes tweaking the left but still basically sucks on its teat. Alan Bennett is another possibility - only now that he's openly gay, the American right couldn't stomach him (unless, perhaps, he married Mary Cheney!). These are both cases for another day, and another post!

  4. Jonathan Leaf is the best example I think of for a conservative playwright, at least that I can think of off the top of my head. The link comes out all screwed up here, (so I'm not including it) but if you check out the Playgoer's Blog I know there's a review of one of his recent plays. I think Leaf's status as a conservative voice is pretty secure given that he writes for the Weekly Standard and Notional Review. Exactly what he'd call himself I don't know so I'd rather not try to label his place on the political spectrum. Really, Paleo... Neo... it's all so damn confusing... and they're so damn WRONG on so many issues. It's worth noting that Screenwriters are a whole different bag- I think you could find a much more even number of open political conservatives among that bunch.