Saturday, October 23, 2004

Thatcher Government and the Theatre in the 1980's

The most notable effect of Thatcherism was the redefinition of the cultural status of the British theatre, which with the aid of the Arts Council, had been fixed after the theatrical "revolution" of 1956. From the late 1950s, dramatists and theatre workers saw themselves as contributors to the political, social, personal and moral changes taking place rapidly around them. The gradual increase in Arts Council funding after the war appeared to validate this role.

In contrast, the Thatcher government's unwillingness to continue to increase funding were intended to convey the impression that theatre was not an agency of cultural, spiritual, social or psychological welfare, but an entertainment industry that was otherwise irrelevant to the workings of society. In the Thatcherite view, it was, therefore, justifiable to provide enough money to keep theatre viable but not to encourage any activity which had sociopolitical intent unless, as with urban regeneration, it coincided with current Tory policy.

By restraining funding the government relocated theatre at a distance from topical concerns, to be judged primarily on the basis of its theatrical values rather than on its contribution to the democratic structure and cultural health of British society.

In spite of financial stringency, new work, written by established playwrights such as Brenton, Bond, Edgar, Hare and Churchill, continued to be produced during the 1980s by the Royal Court, the RSC and the National. However as the decade advanced, the prospect of new playwrights seeing their plays produced by major companies, even in their studio theatres, became even more unlikely than it had been in the previous decade. In 1993, David Edgar calculated that between 1970 and 1985 about 12 percent of the repertoire of London and regional main-houses consisted of new plays, whereas between 1985 and 1990 the figure had fallen to about 7 percent and was still decline. In order to attract the size of audience required by funding bodies, theatres preferred to produce plays by established playwrights, using known actors.

The process of commercial mainstream and the institutional theatres taking playwrights such as Brenton, Hare Edgar and Churchill, and adopting theatrical discourses (such as the promenade production, from the Fringe) appeared, however, to be under threat during the 1980s as, increasingly, writing by unknown dramatists was viewed by theatre managements as too great a financial risk even for studio theatres. Nevertheless, writers continued to inundate theatres with unsolicited plays. The Royal Court (still perceived as the home of new writing)attracted about forty scripts a week by new authors, more than either the National or the RSC.

Jemma: 1980's British Theatre Group