Monday, 21 June 2010

Something's Rotten to Motton in the state of UK Arts

The playwright Gregory Motton has written a scathing polemic against the UK theatre and arts establishment, entitled Helping Themselves: The Left-Wing Middle-Classes in Theatre and the Arts. Needless to say, the book has had precious little publicity (I haven't been able to find a single review online) and I only heard of it on the recommendation of a friend who mentioned it in his facebook status. I grabbed a copy from the National Theatre bookshop and read it quickly – it is, like most polemics, a speedy read. It is a frustrating, inspiring, annoying and important book, the which central argument of which does nail a certain awkward truth about our artistic elite; I say this despite finding much to disagree with in Motton's screed.

Motton's central point is that the last half century has seen a consolidation of middle-class power in the UK (and elsewhere) and that this has been achieved partially by the middle-classes defining themselves as left-wingers at the same time as taking the substance of left-wing argument away from an economic critique of Capitalism, away from advocating the advancement of the working classes, concentrating instead on identity politics and pseudo-liberal nods towards "progressiveness." In Motton's reckoning, Britain has gone to hell in a handbasket since the 1960s and the blame for this lies squarely on the permissive society ushered in at that time and valorised ever since; the main beneficiaries of the eroding of previous hierarchies and deference have been the said middle-classes and the main mugs in the game have been those less privileged. This Motton links with the rise in neoliberal economics:

"The urban middle classes' identification with left-wing ideas ought to be seen, then, in the context of the middle-class revolution which has taken place. For it is notable that many of the aspects of this new leftwingism coincide with another sort of liberalisation – the kind required by consumer capitalism." [1]
Motton goes on to identify the faux-individualism encouraged by consumer capitalism with a popular idea that the arts are a form of self-expression, a development of the Romantic ideal. I say "faux-individualism" but Motton just uses the idea of the individual as a negative, which is all very well when complaining (as complaints have to be made) about the individualistic, selfish society that advanced Capital encourages but dangerous if not nuanced as the polar alternative – collectivism – is full of many of its own dangers, as evidenced by the failures of Soviet and Maoist communism.
After identifying the root of modern artistic ideology in the near-forgotten writings of Herbert Read, Motton goes onto the main body of his attack, on that central institution of new theatre writing the Royal Court. Motton gives a potted history of the English Stage Company, full of satirical digs, with the only artistic director having he good word said about being Oscar Lewenstein; Motton is particularly scathing about the reign of Max Stafford-Clark:

"…the stylish head-prefect who drove a Jensen Interceptor, introducing the dead hand of 'play-development into the Royal Court, and it might be fair to say that his tenure marks a low-point in the status of the writer at 'the writers' theatre'." [2]

Motton is pretty much appalled by the majority of the work produced by the Royal Court over the years; god knows I'm not an uncritical fan-boy of much of it myself, but in developing his argument that this is a middle-class hive of public school educated liberal bullies poisoning the nation with half-silly, half-sordid repertoire of rubbish feels a bit like Motton throwing the baby out with the bathwater (it is worth adding here that a number of Motton's plays were produced at the court during Stafford-Clark's fiefdom, one of which – The Terrible Voice of Satan, I saw; it was quite enough to make me vow never to see a Motton play again…).  Of John Arden's Live Like Pigs - the author of which is introduced as "an architect educated in an all-boys boarding school called Sedberg…" - Motton writes

"A pretty good play this one, which exhibits the middle-class writer's contempt for any feeble working class pretentions to bourgeois  comfort and sophistication, and makes a big noise of supporting the neighbours from hell. I loved this when I was thirteen. We can see now what has happened on the housing estates, where one family can easily terrorise a whole neighbourhood' where, just for an example, a family with 80 criminal convictions can pursue a campaign of terror against a whole community, and end up slaughtering and torturing to death two hapless students. (Not quite so fucking funny now is it, Mr Architect?). The Royal Court has to accept its share of blame for its role of architect of our modern society…" [3]

Now I don't know how most other people have taken Live Like Pigs but it seems to me that Motton here is reading the play as if he were still thirteen. The point of the play surely is not that the pikey Sawney family should be allowed to terrorise their neighbours with official sanction but that the town planners who moved the working classes as  a mass onto poorly designed housing estates were creating this kind of problem of mismatched pseudo-communities in doing so. Arden himself wrote of the play

"I approve outright of neither the Sawneys or the Jacksons. Both groups uphold standards of conduct which are incompatible…" [4]
Soon after, Motton attacks Edward Bond's Saved as "a play whose only achievement is to show how vile and horrid the working class has become" and which casts a "strange spell (…) by its inertia." [5] There certainly are criticisms to be laid at the door of Saved, most of which are encapsulated in Howard Barker's statement
"I'd gone to see Saved on the strength of a review we'd read saying that this was life in South London epitomized. We just didn't think that this was so – we didn't understand much about what Bond was trying to do with the language of the play." [6]

Many working class people were and are much more vocally and intellectually florid, as well as more ethically grounded, than Bond's characters are in Saved. But to attack the play solely on these grounds seems to me to be ignoring its strengths (it is an almighty structural achievement and is surprisingly very funny when performed well) as well as mistaking its actuality as a theatrical statement in and of itself for a realistic, generalised portrait of how the working classes are. Bond is not a realist writer but rather the creator of theatrical experiences/events. It could also be facetiously added that many of those events have since referred to how horrid the ruling classes are. Any individual play of his should be seen as being a part of a body of work by a major artist (for whom self-expression is not the modus operandi) as well as being works in dialogue with the other theatre of his time and, of course, his society.

The reason I take these two examples is because this seems to me to be a major fault in Motton's book; he lumps a lot of individual playwrights together as a mass of Royal Court writers and then beats them all with the same stick. I can say that for me, as a working class teen coming from a Romford council estate and "educated" (if you can call it that) in a local comprehensive school, Bond's plays (along with Orton's and Barker's) were inspirational. Attending the Royal Court during the late 1980s through to the 2000s, I did get the feeling of a lot of not very individual writers putting out plays which were the result of a hive consciousness, offering me some of the most boring evenings I've ever spent in the theatre; lately things seem to have got somewhat better. Ultimately, whilst I agree with the gist of Motton's nailing of the theatre establishment, I find his approach rather scattershot. Motton at least has the grace to concede that by the early 80s Bond (who is himself of working class origin) had left the Court, having

"gone too far and become a Marxist. Not only did this make Bond an embarrassment to their new ideology, it also meant that he rejected the middle-class grip on power IN THE THEATRE, and God forbid, wanted to control things himself when it came to the production of his plays!" [7]

After publicly dissing his old stamping ground so conclusively, Motton then goes on to blame the OZ trial for the rise in pornography and sexual violence, aligning himself with the moralistic/Christian right and certain feminists in the process – there isn't enough space here to go into what I think about this but suffice to say for me both anti and pro pornography arguments are usually too simplistic to deserve the final say on what is certainly a vexed area of human expression.
Motton is at his worst when writing about academia and what he sees as the rise of postmodern philosophies and thinking in the universities. For one, he massively over-exaggerates the pervasiveness of postmodernism in our universities (one of the main points of the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign was that the axed department at Middlesex was about the only centre in the UK at which contemporary European thought is focussed upon, which gives a lie to Motton's paranoia that it, like reds under the bed in 50s America, is everywhere). Even more irritatingly, Motton doesn't actually seem to know what he's talking about when dealing with postmodern thought – he has a de rigueur pop at Derrida but then goes on to give an account of a rather lame argument he had with a university lecturer friend, over whether Bram Stoker's Dracula should be taught as "late nineteenth century anxiety over the end of Empire and racial mixing" which Motton dismisses as "a load of bollocks" [8]. Now, whatever the merits of discussing Stoker's novel in these historical/cultural terms is (and I have to admit that it wouldn't interest me very much to think of the novel entirely in such a way), this has absolutely nothing to do with Derrida and deconstruction. Derrida's interest is in reading a cultural product in a complex way so that it is never reduced to less than the sum of its parts. Motton also mentions Foucault in passing; again, if he knew anything about Foucault's writings on power, he might find an ally in his own analysis that "For while certain older forms of hierarchy have certainly been removed, these have simply been replaced by similar new ones" [9]. But I don't suppose that Motton has actually read enough of Foucault to know anything other than he's a johnny foreigner whose crazy ideas have contributed towards the corruption of our youth…

More seriously, Motton says that "Access to culture and knowledge is snatched away" [10] by contemporary university education. I have no idea how he "knows" this (the book is entirely unbothered by the dreary business of citing sources - probably too close to the sort of wicked things universities encourage working class yoof to do) but I do know that everyone I know who works in academia is striving very hard indeed to provide students with growth, skills, knowledge and access to culture in very trying circumstances, especially given how poorly equipped by their schools and colleges many students who come to us are. In the education section, Motton comes across as a mouthing-off down-the-pub silly bollocks, raving in an even more generalised fashion than in the rest of the book and thus proving Blake's adage that "To generalize is to be an idiot." [11] For most of this section, Motton prattles on about something he calls "common sense" – common sense might have advised him to know something about a subject before railing against it.

This tendency to uninformed opinion-making hazards condemning Motton's book to that bonfire of vanities preserved for the likes of Nick Cohen's What's Left? and Peter Hitchens' The Abolition of Britain, works which were clearly written in a fever of excitement encouraged by an over-wheening belief that something must be worth typing and having published merely because the author believes it. But, its many and manifest faults aside, it would be a shame if Motton's mistakes blinded us to the importance of his better observations. His is a contribution best taken in the spirit of a democratic debate which is prevented from existing by the non-democratic nature of arts leadership in this country, a leadership whose rudder-work prevents a plurality of voices, methods, schools, ways of seeing and doing. Motton is right when he talks of an establishment which tends to marginalize and ignore anyone who disagrees with its avowed ideological or/and artistic stance, condemning any dissident as

"a sinister villian with an obscene agenda, a real enemy of good society, an enemy of the people, a failure seeking to aggrandise himself, a reject with personal problems, deluded, megalomaniac." [12]

I've mostly concentrated here on what irks me about it but I'd heartily recommend Motton's book is to anyone with a passionate interest in the Arts in the UK. It has the sense of being a cultural grenade lobbed through the glass window of that invitation-only coffee shop which the chattering classes have turned the Arts into in this country; like any grenade, its effects are scattershot and for ever palpable hit there's half a dozen undeserving collateral damages. But cultural grenades are easier to get over that actual ones; only wusses should be afraid of catching this one for fear of it going off and losing them face.

[1] Motton, Gregory Helping Themselves: The Left-Wing Middle-Classes in Theatre and the Arts (Leveller's Press, 2009), p.18
[2] Ibid., p. 122
[3] Ibid, p. 108
[4] Arden, John Three Plays (Penguin, 1964), p. 101
[5] Motton, p. 113-114
[6] Barker, Howard in Trussler, Simon (ed.), New Theatre Voices of the Seventies (Methuen, 1981), p. 186, cited in Rabey, David Ian Howard Barker: Politics and Desire - An Expository Study of his Drama and Poetry, 1969-97 (Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 20
[7] Motton, p. 105
[8] Motton, p. 191
[9] Motton, p. 19
[10] Motton, p. 188
[11] Blake, William Annotations to Reynolds in Keynes, Geoffrey (Ed.) Blake Complete Poems (Oxford University Press,  1966), p. 451
[12] Motton, p. 136

1 comment:

  1. This gentalman?? should go to work and learn some manners he is a poor poor man who lives of other pepole no brains or manners unfortunatly