That old classics debate

by Jane

Plays change over time, usually for the worse.  Ten-year-old plays have a way of seeming talky, while twenty-year-old plays often sound like school boys late for assembly, briming with over-elaborate explanations.  Over twenty, reputation is up for grabs: it’s classic status or bust.  That is what ‘classic’ means: that a play can change its meaning and survive.

–  Richard Eyre & Nicolas Wright (2000) Changing Stages: A View
of British Thetare in the 20th Century,
Bloomsbury, London, p253
(Emphasis mine.)

When I came across this paragraph I think I re-read it a good three or four times, just letting it sink in.  I think this is the most perfect description of a classic text I’ve come across.  That a classic is that thing which still rests with gravity on our society, no matter how society has moved on from the situation at hand.

I do fear some texts which were perhaps still relevant with changed meaning twenty years ago are no-longer, but they have been decreed as classics and now can’t be touched.  The danger is, I feel, theatre moving from a classic in which we can still derive meaning, to a museum piece – a curious relic of a time which was, but with no pertinent baring on our current lives.  Yes, one which perhaps greatly influenced modern playwrights; but then perhaps it is their turn on the stage, in that great living beast which is theatre.

Looking at the Penguin Classics book range today, trying to choose my next fiction book after finishing the mammoth essay which was Changing Stages, I was again struck by the thought that while I have such choice and freedom over the novels and non-fiction texts I read and am exposed to, I have such limited choice over the plays I see.  Not that anyone is dictating to me you must see this, you cannot see that (although my wallet sometimes has a say), but in that the limits of theatre – that it must (or at least really should) be made by a talented and highly skilled group of people, coming together in a particular time and a particular place – places limits on the reach that an audience can have.  The smaller the place, the higher the limits.  So while I can walk in to bookshops and libraries in Adelaide and choose between literally millions of books, or failing that, find the world of literature just a mouse click away, my theatrical choices in Adelaide in any given year are limited within the hundreds.

I don’t quite know what this means for my theatrical education.  Should the selection of what texts I see be deferred over to experts?  Does this expand the shows I would see outside of my own tastes and world?  Or does it simply narrow it into the world view of a few select people?

I have very little patience for bad literature (or even mildly adequate literature): I won’t read it, and by many people’s standards I probably don’t give it a fair chance at all.  But when there are so many millions of books I have never read, nor will never get to read, why waste even a chapter on a book or an author I’m not enjoying?  But I can’t look at a theatre season, or, worse, sit in an audience and think yeah, I’d chuck this one away.  In the scheme of things I suspect this is a good thing: forcing me to judge things on their merits as a complete work rather than a couple of pages, but then there is always going to be that feeling, particularly starting the year, looking at theatre brochures and fringe guides and thinking but what am I missing?

What old texts could be standing upon these plays, but haven’t been decreed a ‘classic’ by the powers that be?  What new texts aren’t getting a look in edgewise?  The theatrical offerings in this year’s Fringe are outstandingly poor – hopefully some gems, and there is a few I have my eye on – and, to be completely honest, I’m not looking forward to the rest of the year with the feverishness I have come to expect from myself.

Could I have done a better job?  I doubt it. But that is the curious nature of the beast: we’ll never know, we’ll never get to choose, we just have to hope that the people doing the choosing are the best people for the job.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Penguin Classic We Have Always Lived In The Castle and I need to get better acquainted.  This isn’t what I set out to write about at all.