Monday 19 January 2015

The literary genre of Drama is ephemeral - confirmed


Continuing from:


Last Christmastide I had the experience of discovering that my favourite TV programme ever was no good:

This is now becoming a pattern. Last week I bought a DVD of the 6 X 1 hour, 1985 TV drama Edge of Darkness - written by Troy Kennedy Martin, and starring Bob Peck. I have always said that this was at the pinnacle of TV drama, and contained one of the great acting performances with Bob Peck.


In re-watching, I knew that I would now be out of sympathy with the eco-thriller premise (back in 1985 I was a member of both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and a Subscriber to the Schumacher Society's Resurgence magazine - and all the rest of it...).

But it was worse than that. Edge of Darkness just wasn't very good. It was incredibly slow, for reasons that seems pretentious rather than dramatically justified; Peck's performance was uneven and unable to convince - and included more than one unconvincing 'breakdown and scream' episode (there were *far* too many of these!); the plot was contrived, full of coincidences and pumped with trivialized murders; the characters were cynical, crude and stereotyped; and the famous climax was terribly disappointing on re-viewing.

My star rating dropped from five (out of five) to just two.


My point is that drama relies on topicality to a far greater extent than the other literary arts. A really effective and enjoyable drama can becomealmost un-watchable very quickly - as the topicality subsides - and indeed, a drama with which you do not share the assumptions is very difficult to enjoy in the first place.

I remember watching Look Back in Anger by John Osborne,from 1956, which revolutionized the post-war theatre; had a huge impact. Twenty years later it had become not only dull, but positively embarrassing.

This does not happen with novels! I can re-read novels which I especially enjoyed ten, twenty, forty years ago - and I can always enjoy them now; maybe not quite as much, but I do enjoy them - even children's stories like Enid Blyton or the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. 


My conclusion: Drama is different - and usually inferior.

Or, maybe it is too easy to write high impact but ephemeral drama: the 'theatrical' experience casts a spell which persuades us that there is more going-on than really is there.

But most drama is ephemeral, very little lasts - and the counter-examples of Shakespeare and Shaw are merely exceptions that prove the rule. 



dfordoom said...

I'm not sure that drama has to be obsessed with topicality. It's a choice that has been made by writers. Partly it's because television and the theatre have been, since the 1950s at least, heavily politicised. I watch a lot of old television and even in the mid-1960s British television had become very very politicised.

Perhaps it's because theatre and television are communal endeavours so it's much more difficult to avoid being swept along by the prevailing political climate in those areas. Novelists work alone so it's easier to practise some degree of independent thought.

Although in fact I find a good many supposedly great 20th century novels also to be embarrassingly weighted down with tedious ideological baggage. The Left has been determined to make all art and literature political and they've succeeded to a worrying degree.

Wm Jas said...

Shakespeare, Shaw, and the Marx Brothers.

NovelAbouttheNovel said...


Have you thought that perhaps it is the medium? As a general principle, a good book reveals something about ourselves, whereas a good movie or television show reveals what we think about ourselves. This subtle distinction is overlooked because our experts and amateurs alike approach the cinematic experience as if its exactly like the novel.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dod - My point is that it is the topicality which is making a lot of the impact of an average successful play - more than we typically realize.

@WmJas - I think you meant to say Laurel and Hardy.

NotN - An interesting suggestion - although I do not find that good movies 'date' as fast as good plays (on the other hand, over-hyped movies date almost instantly) - but I have still enjoyed most of the movies I enjoyed as a kid or a teen.

Maybe movies - as a medium - are about halfway between novels and plays?

Nicholas Fulford said...

Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.

- Marx (Groucho)