Wednesday 10 November 2010

Drama is (nearly all) ephemeral


When you look at how many new plays get written and performed every year, it is remarkable how little drama is lasting - how little of it is really any good.

I don't know how many good, lasting novels there are in English literature, from previous generations - hundreds or thousands of them.

Books that people still buy and read; books that are are worth re-reading.

But hardly any plays.


In drama there are so few lasting works that you can be a famous playwright for doing just one of them: Oliver Goldsmith for She Stoops to Conquer or Oscar Wilde for The Importance of Being Earnest.

In the whole 18th century there are indeed only three standard classic plays - She Stoops and two others by Sheridan: The Rivals and School for Scandal.

There were periods of many decades when not a single lasting play was written. I know there are several so-called 'Restoration Comedies' - but really...?


In fact, if you subtracted Shakespeare and Shaw (who were both prolific of classic plays) - drama would pretty much disappear from the literary canon.

If it wasn't for Shakespeare, who would (except from curiosity) want to sit through anything by Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson? Or Webster, or Beaumont and Fletcher? Not I.

If it wasn't for Shaw, who would bother with Pinero, or Galsworthy?


Plays which seemed overwhelmingly good on first viewing (for me this would include Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and Travesties, and Harold Pinter's The Caretaker) after a while seem unlikely to survive.

Indeed, in most respects, it seems that theatre is even more ephemeral than movies.

Assuming the medium itself survives, there were a lot more classic movies in the twentieth century than there were classic plays - does anyone really want to see an Arthur Miller play nowadays?


I would guess that there never have been, and presumably never will be, many really good plays. 

Indeed, leave-out Shakespeare and Shaw and it would be a reasonable approximation to say that there are no really good plays at all, and theatre is merely a diversion.



dearieme said...

So it would seem that it must have been Shaw who wrote Shakespeare? There's one in the eye for the de Vere lobby.

Anonymous said...

I'd never noticed this before, but you're right, and it's not limited to English. Most literatures have only a handful of really good playwrights -- but, oddly, those few tend to be among the very best writers in their respective languages. Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere, and Ibsen -- the definitive writers in their respective languages, and dramatists all (well, maybe not Goethe). With the single exception of Homer, the top tier of Greek literature is also dominated by drama.

Bruce Charlton said...

To try and explain this - the first thing is perhaps that novelty and shock are effective at grabbing and holding the audiences attention - and also other non-literary things like famous actors, beautiful actresses, stunts, special effects, and laughs.

A play full of all these may grab an audiences attention and make money - but is not likely to last.

A lasting play must have beautiful language and eternal human situations.

A comparison is with opera, which needs both beautiful music (equivalent to the dramatist's language) and a plot which generates dramatic situations which engage eternal human emotions.

Indeed both great plays and operas are often quite crudely constructed - yet if they have these characteristics that may not matter.

Most Shakespeare plays are stringed together from a variable number of somewhat arbitrary scenes, full of padding which is not necessary to the plot (and excruciatingly un-funny 'clowns').

Yet so long as the language is wonderful, and the dramatic situations or scenes are compelling, then it 'works'.

Most plays fail to last because the quality of the language is not good enough - after the novelties and the tricks of the trade have faded; or else that the human situations are ephemeral rather than eternal (e.g. the obsolete and incomprehensible artificiality and cold-heartedness of Restoration drama.)