1990s >> 1991 >> no-1040-april-1991

Between the Lines: The Art Attack

We have come to the end of a sickeningly stage-managed war. It was all a performance of ghastly hypocrisy and what is worst about it is that the TV war was but a dress rehearsal for a bigger military production yet to come.

The Labour Party spent the war seeking to appear patriotic. Kinnock went into a permanent Cenotaph mode: solemn voice and pseudo-Thatcher Britishness. Labour loyalists, whose long-term duty is to pretend to themselves and others that their leader stands for something decent, must have turned their sets off throughout The Gulf War Show in which the Kinnockite puppets danced to the dirge of the national anthem.

This disgusting Labourite Toryism is but the culmination of a decade in which the British Left has virtually collapsed. Their claim to stand for an alternative, which was never genuine when it was stated with vigour, is now hardly stated at all. The British Left is an unburied corpse. Kinnock is a Bob Hawke in waiting, the CP is full of Stalinist geriatrics and Young Liberal types, the SWP is full of anachronistic insurrectionists preaching a Leninist dogma which is not worth the paper on which it is written. Apart from the Socialist Party, it is hard to think of any claimants to the role of a genuine political opposition to capitalism. That, it seems, is pretty well beyond dispute.

But the 1980s has not been a period of complete quiescence from those who dissent from the pernicious priorities of the profit system. If so-called Thatcherism was the shrill cry of apparently victorious money men. the vitality of the dissenting arts has been the lively chorus of discontentment that things have gone as they have.

The Late Show (BBC2, 11.15pm, 11 March) took a look at what it called “Culture in the Eighties”. It served as a reminder that amid all the sell-outs of the political radicals who caved in under the pressure of a packaged Iron Lady, there have been some quite remarkable writers who have shown the way. The programme showed excerpts from such great works as Boys From The Black Stuff and Pravda. It interviewed David Lodge, whose Nice Work showed the prostitution of academic minds to business agendas.

Also interviewed were Trevor Griffiths (perhaps one of the finest British playwrights of the last twenty years) whose Comedians can be seen as the definite text out of which Ben Elton and Harry “Loadsamoney” Enfield have emerged as serious social critics; Griffiths’ Bill Brand, which ought to be repeated every two years in case Labour voters should forget its message, was a series about the futile reformism of Labour MPs that was more piercing than most Marxist lectures could hope to be.

The writers of the Eighties were a significant force in the struggle against Capital’s intensification of its exploitative assault on Wage Labour. The likes of Griffiths, Howard Brenton, David Edgar, David Hare, Caryl Churchill and David Leland did more to point out the contradictions of capitalism than the pathetic Westminster leftist lobby fodder could ever do.

What was interesting is that most of these plays started out on television. Great though theatrical attacks on the system such as Brenton’s The Churchill Play or Brenton and Ali’s Moscow Gold have been, these were seen by but a few people, most of whom agreed with the writers before they went to see the plays. It might be the case that in Moscow or Leningrad a great critic of the system like Mikhail Shatrov can have queues forming outside the theatres to see his latest offering, but in Britain the medium for the art attack must be the TV screen — or, perhaps these days, cinema and video releases.

The days of lefty worker-actors performing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in trade-union halls and expecting the world to change are over. (I read recently Ewan MacColl’s historical account of the Workers’ Theatre Movement of the 1930s and was really depressed by the artistic emptiness and woodenness of what was evidently a very enthusiastic and inspired enterprise. Putting on bad plays does not make socialists).

Of course, socialists are not under illusions about the artistic militancy of the last ten years. Yes, there has been some fine writing, but it is noticeable that most of it was in the early Eighties. As the decade went on demoralisation set in. TV companies (increasingly independent, commercial ones) became more nervous and, as The Late Show pointed out, the earlier attacking drama gave way to rather hysterical works about the fear of the nuclear state — Edge of Darkness is one of the better examples of this rather defeatist genre.

Another reason not to have illusions is that most of the plays which comprise this Eighties’ artistic resistance were only attacking aspects of capitalism. That is all a play can do; it is a revolutionary party which must grasp both the bull and the horns. Sometimes the radical writers of the Eighties did not quite understand what this system is that they were attacking. The rather supercilious literary critic, D.J. Taylor, was interviewed on the programme and seemed to be dismissive of the extent to which socially critical plays have made any difference. In his book, A Vain Conceit, Taylor suggests that the failure of the radical writers to have as much literary power as they would like is “that writers have lost the ability to describe and define the society of which they are part”. (P. 33)

This is where the need for socialist writers becomes clear: we need to be able to shine the spotlight on the capitalist stage on which this whole social farce is being played out.

Steve Coleman