He was planning to attend in person, but a last-minute change of plans meant that the British playwright Dennis Kelly held his opening speech for the Stückemarkt over Skype this evening. We are publishing the German translation of his words of the wisdom to the young authors on the blog, and here’s the original in full. The title: Why political theatre is a complete fucking waste of time.
In 2004 I wrote a play called Osama the Hero. I was angry with my country’s roll in not only the war in Iraq but also in the war on terror as a whole. But perhaps more than that I was disgusted with what I felt was a shameful lack of perspective in the British media. It seemed at that time almost heretical to make the proposition that this frightening form of terrorism might have anything resembling a reason, that it might share some DNA with every other form of terrorism the planet has ever known, from the IRA, to the ANC to the Boston Tea Party to the French revolution, and that there might be a possibly understandable root cause. To see these Islamic terrorists as anything other than a new breed of monster was not allowed and to put forward the notion that somewhere in there – when you get past the hate and murder and all of the stuff you just fundamentally disagree with – there might be a reason, an attraction even, was not allowed. And perhaps the biggest affront to my fledgling dignity as a new playwright was the fact that almost no-one in British theatre seemed to be talking about it. It was as if theatre had looked at it, thought ‘shit, that’s too big’ and got back to writing plays about how hard it was being poor.
I was angry. I wrote about it. I wrote it into the play, probably not as well as some other writers would have done, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I did my best. The play was put on in 2005 and I knew that once people saw my argument, things would change. People would listen. The war on terror was essentially over and I fully expected a withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of the year. So. I sat back and waited.
This didn’t happen. I got some good reviews, I got some bad reviews, some people liked it, some didn’t and I was commissioned to write a new play. Something was wrong, very wrong. I decided to try again. I wrote a play called After the End, a play about two people trapped in a nuclear fallout shelter after an appalling terrorist attack, only the attack hadn’t really happened, and one character was using it as an excuse to control the other. So pleased was I with the metaphor that I knew it was only a matter of time – Bush would be thrown out of the Whitehouse, Blair would be found dead hanging from a lamppost, a two state solution would be established between Israel and Palestine and the age of Aquarius would be ushered in. Again I waited. And this time the response was different. This time I got lots of good reviews, the play was sold out and it was done in some other countries. I think I might have even won an award. I knew then what the problem was – it was the war on terror. No one could see past it, this was the wrong angle from which to change the world.
So in 2006 I gave it one last crack – I wrote a play called Love and Money, it was about our relationship to cash and about debt. This, I thought, will change everything. This must mean something. But in 2008 the credit crunch happened and now we’re all fucked. If only you bastards had listened.
And so I realised that it was probably necessary to adjust my expectations.
I hope I’m not coming across as a cynical prick. I hate that. I hate cynicism, I think it’s lazy and un-honest. And actually I really do genuinely believe that theatre can change the world. I think it does it on a small scale by changing the lives of people who come into contact with it. I know this from personal experience – even if I hadn’t become a playwright, theatre would have changed my life by being there for me. It opened my mind, it has led me on to knew ways of thinking and to enjoying thinking and the fact that went on to get any education at all I owe to theatre. But I also believe it changes the world in a bigger sense, perhaps a more political sense. I just believe that it does it in conjunction with other things. That it is far more subtle than causing an audience to run out and man the barricades, and that to expect anything more than that is unfair to theatre.
I’ve always thought that one of the great-untold stories of British theatre in nineties is that of gay theatre. In the eighties sexuality (at least sexuality publicly) was political. It was politics, it needed to be. But in the nineties something changed, it became just something you were. I think theatre played a huge part in this. I think plays like Angels in America, Beautiful Thing, Shopping and Fucking all depicted ordinary people with ordinary concerns, getting on with their lives, sometimes political, sometimes not. This shift was soon reflected in film, on television and in public in general. In the UK now it is not at all surprising to know that a performer/presenter is gay, we don’t even think about it. It doesn’t bother us that public figures are married to people of the same sex and even our right wing prime minister David Cameron (who in all other senses is an utter cunt, by the way) is putting forward a proposal that civil partnerships or gay marriage has exactly the same status as heterosexual partnerships. These things would have been unimaginable in the 80’s. I believe theatre played had a role in that, possibly a leading role.
In his book, The Hidden Plot, Edward Bond writes very beautifully about Justice. I wanted to quote some of it to you but when I came to write this speech I realised I had lent it out to someone who hasn’t fucking given it back yet. So I’m afraid all we can learn from Edward Bond today is never to lend out books. But really, go and buy it, it’s a fantastic book and you should own it. But I remember reading it and being impressed by the way he talked about justice as something separate from judicial justice, courtroom justice, as something that is an unalienable human right and something that everyone needs to strive for. I kept that idea close to my heart and modified it slightly, and for me the thing the writer really needs to grope towards is truth.
Truth is a tricky thing. It often doesn’t look like itself and it likes to hide. I believe that no-one can know they’re telling the truth – the moment anyone tells you they’re definitely telling you the truth, well for god’s sake just don’t believe them. But everyone can aim for truth. It is something that we can head in the general direction of and hope we get close to. What complicates the journey to truth is the layers of other stuff that gets in the way – our egos and prejudices, our anger, our love, our hate and our desire to do well. But beneath all this lies truth. It is often very hard for a playwright to really know they’re telling the truth. But, unfortunately for us, it’s often very easy for an audience to tell when we’re not. I’ve come to believe in truth as a real thing, not relative, not abstract, but strong and existent. And I’ve come to believe that it is the job of theatre makers who genuinely believe in theatre to somehow try and get close to truth, no matter how hard that may be.
One of the things I’ve noticed when talking to young writers in the UK is that these days they can be quite aware of their careers. This is understandable; we live in a difficult, unstable world and a world that tells us we need to have certain things in place by a certain age or we’re shit. But it is also slightly depressing. It seems to me now that in the Britain we have two types of theatre maker emerging. The first is ambitious and thinks about making the right moves and gaining success. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with these things in and of themselves – in small doses. But if you are this type of theatre maker this speech probably isn’t for you. I’m not saying these people are wrong or evil or anything, it’s just that personally when I’m in an audience I’m only interested in seeing plays made by people who believe that theatre is a creed, not a career. And so if you are a person that truly believes in this medium and you also want to create work that has something to say about the world, then sooner or later you will come across the big question when making something like this – am I serving the subject or is the subject serving me?
This is a very difficult question and one I can never fully answer. I try to be honest and direct, I try to make sure I’m not sneaking a huge issue into my story so that it’ll make it sound better or will make me look cool and will make women want to sleep with me (and that has never actually happened, by the way – playwrighting is the least sexually attractive occupation in the theatre). But I know that there are parts of me that are quite base and shallow and self absorbed. I know that I have the capacity to try and make myself look clever, to drop a fact into a conversation to try and impress other humans. But the thing about plays is that they are transparent: we can usually, at some level, see right through them into the theatre maker’s heart. And the sight of a playwright or director dragging the Rwandan genocide or the Arab Spring into their play for the wrong reasons, i.e. just to make the play look good is an unedifying one. So how do we make sure that we are not doing this? How do we make sure that it us serving the subject and not the subject serving us?
The answer is we probably can’t. But something that can really help us is truth and the quest for truth. If we aim for truth, if we are as truthful with ourselves as our fallible human psyches will allow, we’re probably on the right track. Some of the issues you and I will write about are too big to be messed around with, too big to be used and abused. Keep truth with you. You’re going to need it.
I was recently researching a play that meant I interviewed two sets of people on either side of an argument, both utterly opposed to the other. What was interesting was that when I spoke to one side I thought they were right, when I spoke to the other I thought they were. I was convinced by both sides, which led me to worry that I was stupid and easily led and I really had nothing worthwhile to say about the matter so I quickly abandoned the play. But what was even more interesting was that I began to see that there was absolutely no chance that either side was going to change their minds. The arguments that swayed me so completely had no impact on them whatsoever, and in fact they would take the same facts that had convinced me and change them into an argument that proved they were right. It made me wonder where I was doing the same thing with issues that mattered as much to me as this issue mattered to them: and I know in my heart of hearts that I am. We all are. We don’t make our minds up using facts or arguments, we use facts and arguments to support what we have already decided is true. We bend and squeeze reality into a shape that supports what we feel. It is our feelings that rule us, not our minds
And this is where theatre has its impact. Theatre lies in emotion; it is an emotional medium, not really an intellectual one. But how does a playwright reconcile the quest for truth with an understanding that facts and arguments are essentially untrustworthy and that debate is something lawyers use to send people to jail regardless of whether they guilty or innocent? Well, perhaps they don’t. Perhaps they just say fuck it, this is what I feel, and they’re just honest about that. Theatre is essentially, at it’s best, a lone voice standing up in a darkened room and saying ‘I think this’. They’re not necessarily saying this is what’s right, or you should think this or this is what we should do, they’re saying ‘I think this. Does anyone else think the same?’
Personally I no longer really like to talk of plays that are political and not political (perhaps because of my earlier failures). Instead now I prefer to talk about plays that have meaning and plays that sort of don’t. I suppose the reason for this is that if we keep banging on about political plays it may encourage someone to reject that play they were going to make about their family and write about the French elections instead. And the one about families could’ve been amazing and instead we’re stuck with the last days of Sarkozy. But how do we find plays with meaning? I know every time I sit down to write a play I genuinely have no idea how to do this thing. I never know what to write, what to write about. But I have come to believe in one guiding principle when writing a play; if this was the last thing I ever got to say to another human, if the moment I wrote the last word my life was ended – what would I say? It’s not always easy or possible to write a play like this or to find that thing you need to say more than anything else, but I think this is a good place to start from.
One last thing. And then I promise I’ll go.
I believe young theatre makers need a very healthy dose of ‘go fuck yourself’. I think it’s useful for a young theatre maker to look at the things they’re being told, to think about them, assess them and then – if necessary – say ‘go fuck yourself’. My impression is that here in Germany this is healthier than it is in the UK at the moment. I’m sure that right now in this audience there are people listening to this and thinking ‘go fuck yourself’, and that is actually right a proper and good luck to you. Although please don’t feel it necessary to tell me after – let’s just assume that I’m already going to go fuck myself in some way or other. But if over the next couple of days, or weeks or months or years you are thinking ‘go fuck yourself’ then that’s not a bad thing. But just make sure it comes from the right place. Make sure it comes not from arrogance or an inability to see your own flaws, but from a desire to change things, from a belief in the power of theatre that is bigger than writers, directors, artistic directors and dramaturges, that it belongs to all of us and is never to be taken for granted.
So if there are two things to take from this speech then it’s probably ‘the quest for truth’ and ‘go fuck yourself’. Beyond that, I really haven’t got anything else to say.