The human condition in its many odd disguises

State of the Nation
November 16, 2007

As a theatre scholar in California in the 1970s, I relied on Michael Billington. The theatre critic for The Guardian brought a shrewd intelligence and lively prose to his reviews and was clearly attuned to the vital relationship between politics and the arts. His perspective was left-liberal, although ironically his views now seem much more middle-of- the-road than they did at the time. Since moving to the UK a year ago, I have noticed that my British colleagues now talk about Billington's "old- fashioned" commitment to argument, ideas and writers. But I have always believed - and I still do - that those are his unflagging strengths.

Billington's State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945 is not only a survey of the British theatre from the perspective of a talented critic, it is an argument that the theatre as an institution is fundamentally linked to the politics of national identity. Although some theatre scholars identify the 1970s and early 1980s as the heyday of state-of-the- nation epics, Billington makes the case that J. B. Priestly invented the state-of-the-nation drama with An Inspector Calls (1946) and The Linden Tree (1947).

His book traces the "obsessive concern with using the stage to symbolise and analyse the state of the nation that was to become the animating force in British drama over the next 50 years". Alongside expected discussions of many writers such as John Osborne, David Hare and Caryl Churchill are surprising commentaries on others - Ann Jellicoe, Tony Harrison and Alan Ayckbourn - "the first dramatist to pin down an essential contradiction of Thatcherism: its worship of traditional family values and its sanctification of individual greed".

The book intercalates the history of successive governments and large public events with that of theatre's economics, production histories and major artistic achievements. In the 1970s, Billington blames the disastrous Heath Government and the narrow Labour win in 1974 for "the mood of crisis that seemed to permeate every aspect of British life during the decade", leading the theatre to "a pervasive mixture of disillusion and fear", not only for the precarious financial stability of its still- fledgling subsidised institutions but also because the optimism of the 1960s was now clearly eclipsed.

About the Thatcher years, Billington is predictably scathing as he chronicles privatisation, commercialisation and mean-spirited social policies. Serious cutbacks in arts funding reversed the increases of the 1970s under Labour, instigating policies that allowed "'bums on seats to become the decade's favourite mantra", and the commercial musical to become "Thatcherism in action".

In the mid-1990s, when a new generation of writers were making their reputations through shock tactics and rejection of their socialist precursors' political programmatics, Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking became the signature play for "a dysfunctional, disillusioned post- Thatcher generation struggling to make sense of a world without religion or ideology".

Although these analyses are hardly unique to Billington, he displays an overarching range of experience, lending authority to his pronouncements and depth to his discussions. What is original, moreover, is the first sustained appraisal of theatre during the Blair years. Billington reminds us that the Boyden Report (2000) anatomised the post-Thatcher situation as dire and early Blair responses as inadequate, calling for a substantial increase in public investment. Some £25 million flowed to theatre in 2001, especially to the regions, which received a major share of the new money.

Billington writes: "If the Blair decade was defined by anything, in theatrical terms, it was by the post-Boyden boost to the subsidised sector and the resurgence of political drama." In his mind, the very money that allowed the theatre a new vitality also provided the means for an oppositional force to claim the stage against Blair's spin and foreign policy disasters.

Sometimes Billington retreads familiar ground covered in more detail in histories of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court, or memoirs and diaries of major figures such as Peter Hall and Richard Eyre. In his enthusiasm for writers, he is ill-tempered in his rejection of physical theatre and devised work: "It rarely does anything to change the situation, stir one's conscience or alert one to the injustices of the wider world."

Still, his book makes a strong argument for his faith in theatre's "linguistic richness, its thematic urgency and its ability to link our private hopes and fears to the state of the nation".

Janelle Reinelt is professor of theatre and performance, Warwick University. She is writing a book on the political theatre of David Edgar with Gerald Hewitt.

State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945

Author - Michael Billington
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Pages - 412
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780571210343

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