The Theatre of Peter Gill

by Barney Norris

Seren ISBN 978 1 78172 181 0 £14.99

reviewed by Alan Dent



                                    The title, those familiar with John Donne will know, is the last words of The Ecstasie. This is not the place for an exegesis of that complex poem, but its essence is one of Donne’s obsessions: the relationship between body and mind, or as he would have said, soul. Norris claims Gill’s plays explore the same “secret life” as the poem. At the same time, he praises Gill as a “social realist”. What is the relation between the “secret life” and the “social realism” ? Terms like the latter are always rough and ready; essentially after-the-fact labels. Is Joe Orton a social realist ? Not in technique, of course; but in content ? Early in the book Norris says it isn’t essentially a study of Gill’s work but of a “way of seeing” the world. It’s impossible to use that phrase without evoking John Berger. I’m not sure that was Norris’s intention, nor that Gill has much in common with Berger.  

                                    Gill, of course, is often thought of principally as a director. Mention his name and you will often get a response about his staging of the Bert Lawrence plays at the Royal Court in 1968. The book does a good job in reminding readers of what an important and accomplished playwright Gill is. For that, we should be grateful. I can’t help feeling, however, that Gill might have been better served if this study had been taken through a few more drafts. I know publishers can’t afford to employ editors any more, but at times this reads like the first draft of a PhD thesis. On the other hand, it’s a thorough study with plenty of detail about the plays and their productions for those who want to be informed, and Norris is not without insight. Some of the writing, though, is clumsy and some of the thinking confused. I wouldn’t want to deter anyone with an interest in Gill or in modern drama in general from reading this book; on the contrary, I would strongly recommend it. If I point in this review to some of the weaknesses of the study it isn’t to discourage readers, but to encourage them to read it critically and to think hard about Gill and the nature of modern theatre. 

                                    In an early chapter on influences, Norris sensibly discusses Chekhov and Lawrence. He sees Gill, like the Russian as a chronicler of boredom. That’s fair, and there is a sense in which the characters in some of Gill’s play share the fate of Chekhov’s: stasis. Yet for all their exclusion and diminution, didn’t working-class folk in twentieth century Britain have far greater possibilities for dynamism than the middle-classes under Czarism ? Aren’t Chekhov’s characters stuck because their society is stalled ? Gill, like Lawrence, brings onto the stage people who’ve never been there before. Not the low-lifes of Elizabethan or Jacobean drama, but the modern working-class; that is, people who, as a class, have a chance to make history and as individuals within it, to define their lives for themselves. Norris sees Lawrence as an heir to Shaw who, he thinks, made theatre politically relevant and morally serious. Don’t forget Shaw’s enthusiastic eugenics. He really was in favour of exterminating “useless” people. The sensibility of his plays is marked by this impatience with people who can’t keep up. Lawrence’s work, novels, stories and plays alike, is filled with the idea of “superior” individuals who should be able to lead, set the tone, command, whether in political or social relations. Much of this, in both Shaw and Lawrence, is quasi-mystical tosh. I think Norris is too ready to see them as “progressives”, a designation which often conceals a multitude of regressions.  

                                    Norris also compares Gill to Beckett, in the senses that the commercialism of the theatre has failed to develop the ideas contained in their work and that they both evolve the concepts they deal with rather than sticking to a proven formula. Beckett is an anti-commercial, anti-populist writer, not wilfully difficult but deliberately unwilling to flatter. British theatre treats him as a curiosity: how many neophyte dramatists are told by fringe theatres that a play must have a plot, character development and a resolution ? How many are told too, that in spite of Orton, farce isn’t serious ? Hence the sameness of much contemporary drama.  

                                    At times, Norris can be a bit gushing and overstated. The beginning of Chapter 4 is an example. The first paragraph waxes a little lyrical about his view of the art of directing, but the meat of the meal is served in the following paragraph when he begins to consider Gill’s directing work. The chapter deals with Gill’s production of the three Lawrence plays in 1968. Norris is right that Lawrence, inspired by Synge, went a step further and showed rather than eavesdropped on working-class life. His plays are very good but they are marked by what is present throughout his work: a neurotic view of relations between men and women. Over and again, he is trying in his writing to make amends for his parents’ bad marriage. It’s worth recalling too that he wasn’t the only dramatist of the time (around 1910-15) who was bringing the working-class on stage. Stanley Hoghton did it in 1912 in Hindle Wakes, and added something Lawrence never did: a working-class woman standing up to rich men. But the point is well made that Gill’s work on Lawrence was a watershed and helped him find his future path as a dramatist. It’s interesting also, to this reviewer at least, that in 1966 Gill  directed The Ruffian On The Stair. Orton belongs to a newer working-class than Lawrence: one with television, The Beatles, the vote, the Labour Party, motor cars, Formica and a widespread culture of sexual abuse. If Lawrence was always writing about his parents’ incompatibility, Orton never eased up on the abuse he suffered at the hands of a stranger in a cinema as a vulnerable teenage boy from a loveless family. It is seldom recognised how accurate he was, but post Jimmy Savile we know how the pop culture of the post-war period was rooted in abuse. I think Gill carried forward much that is in Lawrence but I wonder if he grasped the modernity of Orton.  

                                    Gill, the author argues, made Lawrence’s “hallucogenic realism” part of his practice. Is Lawrence hallucogenic ? Isn’t it rather that his neurosis always intrudes, that he’s always trying to get to some well-spring of life in his characters which is beyond, or prior to consciousness and hence sees foxes or horses or lizards as more alive than people? Isn’t this wishfulness, as if human beings might be spared the burden of selfhood, conscience, self-consciousness, knowledge ? But if we were, there’d be no Bert Lawrence. It’s queer (to use a word Lawrence was fond of) to be a writer yet to harbour a wish to be as dumb as a lizard.  

                                    Later, Norris evokes Wittgenstein’s famous dictum in relation to Gill’s frequent treatment of the tongue-tied, oblique nature of communication between people who know themselves poorly. I’m not sure this is appropriate: Wittgenstein surely means human knowledge has limits, in the same way that Chomsky argued that our inability to elaborate a convincing account of language points to the limits of our cognition; but what’s going on in Gill’s plays is more akin to the emotional inadequacy so often referred to by Rattigan. Though often dismissed as middle-class, reactionary and overthrown by the Angry Young Men, Rattigan has much more in common with the post-1956 dramatists than at a superficial glance may be realised.  

                                    At points, Norris’s style strains beneath his content. A good editor would have picked up on these instances. There are moments too when he overreaches himself: 

“We experience life as a collage of impressions, inflected and reorganised always by memory…We experience life as a mess, as a dance between multiple time signatures, as an ebb-tide always pulling us from the present into the past.”

How we experience “life” is much more complicated than that. This is essentially a lyrical flight and its one of several points at which the register of the book goes awry. It’s an unnecessary intervention: if we need to be reminded of the multiple functions which come together to engender consciousness, it can be done in more subtle way. Norris is no neuroscientist (he might be well advised to read Leslie Brothers) nor philosopher of mind. Why should he be ? This is a book about theatre. In the same way, Norris treats us to his pet theory about how contemporary theatre develops new talent (on the way he let’s slip that farce is a lower form that appeals to the same impulses in our brains that inspire petrolheads or train spotters – so much for Aristophanes and Orton). It feels intrusive and ill-judged.  

Praising Gill’s dialogue, Norris writes: 

“It takes real intelligence to phrase an argument in favour of the music of Cliff Richard persuasively.” 

The character in question, however, has damned Richard with faint praise by saying he has a perfectly good voice. That depends on what you mean by good: it’s good enough for cheap pop songs, but not for Schubert. Perhaps it takes real mental gymnastics to phrase an argument in favour of The Young Ones or Summer Holiday. Aren’t they musical candy floss and as bad for your brain as spun sugar for your teeth ?

“…all arrogance or self-absorption seems to me to be the product of insecurity at its heart…” Norris tells us in a parenthesis. It’s the kind of cod wisdom you might hear in a student kitchen late a night. All arrogance ? Surely some of it is just the product of stupidity or lack of self-awareness. In his discussion of Thatcherism, whose psychological legacy he claims is the theme of Gill’s Mean Tears, Norris says he has never understood how defence of the family can be reconciled with individualism; but this is politics not serious thought. Politics is about power not truth which is why its rhetoric is always confused. To expect Thatcherism to be intellectually cogent is to confuse realms. Confusion is good for politicians; the last thing they want is an electorate that thinks clearly.  

                                    Norris has a near fetish for the word “human”. Mostly he uses it redundantly: “…..stepping away from real and human emotions dulls and kills them…” What emotions other than human can we step away from ? And what are false emotions as distinct from real ones ? What is an emotion ? Antonio Damasio has established a distinction between emotion and feeling which Norris might find useful; but when we talk about people’s emotions being false don’t we simply mean that there’s a dissonance between the context which engenders them and their expression, and aren’t we all guilty of that to some extent ? There isn’t a clear and fixed line between false and real feeling. 

“When we address human questions through corollaries, whether alcohol or language, we simplify, we miss or kill the point that wanted making in the first place.”

                                    Just what this means, I’ve no idea. In what way is language a corollary and how can we address any problem without it ? Even mathematics can’t dispense with language altogether. Norris is straining to express what he thinks is an insight but his expression is poor because his thinking is confused. The use of “human” adds nothing. All questions are human. No other species asks them. In what way is alcohol the same kind of phenomenon as language ? Language capacity is wired into our brains, almost certainly because of a random mutation in a single individual about 50,000 years ago. What has alcohol in common with that ? One of Gill’s characters says : “You drink because without it you can’t feel nothing..” Perhaps Tennessee Williams has the better of this argument: drinking is the pursuit of the click in the head after which nothing matters any more. I think, perhaps, Norris is trying to make a simple point: life involves facing hard truths and we often run away from them, sometimes into drink, sometimes into empty talk. 

                                    Norris speaks of Gill’s plays dealing with “the anxiety that comes with being alive”. No one gets through life without some anxiety but it is no more the defining response to life than joy or nonchalance. He refers to “the struggle that everyone has with the fact of gender”. Why not the delight that many people have in the fact of gender? He claims that “rebellion…is as predictable and prescribed as conformity”. Is this true of the rebellion of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Anna Politkovskia ? He asserts “all sense and structure overlaid over human beings is as artificial and unimportant as what kind of underpants you wear”. Once again, working out what this is supposed to mean is almost impossible. It’s spliff-philosophy. Who does the overlaying ? Is he saying life is without sense or structure ? Every life ? On what basis could such a wild claim be made? And are sense and structure overlaid or do they arise from the choices people make ? This kind of intoxicated non-thinking perhaps reaches its apogee in this: “there is nothing to resolve- there is just life..” And if we ask “What is life ?” we immediately have something to resolve. We aren’t, after all, even able to decide definitively whether a virus is or isn’t a life form. 

                                    Fussy it may seem, but Norris misuses “presently”: it doesn’t mean right now, but soon, at least in England.

                                     In the last pages of the book, Norris’s confusion descends to this: “..at a certain level, it is true there is no such thing as society. Just as there is no such thing, on one plane of experience…as an idea. You cannot put society or ideas on stage.”

                                    The final statement is shocking for someone trying to write seriously about drama. Shakespeare doesn’t put ideas on stage ? Arthur Miller doesn’t ? Ibsen doesn’t? Brecht doesn’t put society on stage ? Stanley Hoghton doesn’t ? Orton doesn’t ? Norris should tell us what the level is at which society does not exist. Without society, he wouldn’t have language. What level would that be ? Where is the plane of existence from which ideas are absent ? Our brains generate ideas endlessly. We can’t stop them, thankfully. Even when we sleep our brains generate them. There is much that could have been edited out of this book to improve it. Surely any responsible teacher would put a red line under the final line quoted above if it appeared in a GCSE essay ?

                                     It’s a pity Gill has not been better served. He is a serious and important writer. Norris too writes plays. Let’s hope he takes them through many drafts.