British dramatist John Whiting (1917-1963) had a peculiar career in the English-language theatre. After writing A Penny for a Song, Saint’s Day and Marching Song, which enjoyed brief runs in the West End and were greeted with considerable confusion if not contempt in the early 1950s, he wrote nothing for the theatre between 1954 and 1960, though he did contribute criticism and reviews to publications such as London Magazine. Whiting returned to the theatre in 1960; of his major work he completed only The Devils before dying of cancer three years later at the age of 45. Upon his death, actress Peggy Ashcroft said, “We have lost one of our finest dramatists but also a major critic. Perhaps a critic is even more rare than a dramatist … [he had a] marvelously balanced attitude to the theatre — no involvement in one camp or the other but a completely clear and absolutely honest view of his own.” In 1965, the John Whiting Award was established, its honorees selected by Arts Council England, to honor work that “shows a new and distinctive development in dramatic writing with particular relevance to contemporary society.”
Whiting’s plays are very occasionally revived (Ian W. Hill is directing The Devils this month at The Brick playhouse in Brooklyn, for example), but Whiting should also be remembered for his fine essays and criticism, most recently collected by Oberon Books in At Ease in a Bright Red Tie: Writings on Theatre in 1999, edited by Ronald Hayman. The book opens with Whiting’s lecture to the Old Vic in 1957, “The Art of the Dramatist,” delivered three years into his self-imposed exile from the theatre. At the time the lecture too was greeted with derision and ridicule, especially from Kenneth Tynan. “In the annals of the theatre, it may indeed come to be regarded as Romanticism’s Last Stand,” Tynan wrote puckishly, “the ultimate cry of the artist before being engulfed by the mass, the final cry of individualism before being inhaled and consumed by the ogre of popular culture,” going on to caricature Whiting as an “attenuated hermit saint bravely keeping his chin up while being sucked through the revolving doors of a holiday camp.”
“There are instances today,” Whiting said in the lecture, “as Mr. Eliot has pointed out, when a writer may be misunderstood because he is saying exactly what he means”; perhaps Tynan’s response demonstrates the truth of that observation. Given that Tynan’s words are commonly available and Whiting’s are not, a few pieces from “The Art of the Dramatist” here to allow Whiting to say exactly what he means. They continue to be of interest.
A work of art is the statement of one man. It is one of the noblest, because it is one of the most selfless activities of human existence. It has nothing to do with an audience or a wish to please. It does not necessarily entertain, instruct or enlighten. It can do any one or all of these things, but that it should is not the artist’s concern. That is the work of art in its perfect state. The thing is there: an audience taking from it what it can. It is not the artist’s job to simplify the means of communication.
I suggest that the voice you hear today in all branches of literature is not the individual voice but the collective voice. And this especially from any writer under forty. In other words, the writer has become the spokesman not for himself but for a group, an organisation, a class or a sect. The danger is that some don’t know they are doing it, and those who do know often consider, and are led to consider it a virtue. “This young man speaks for his generation.” “This young woman is the rallying point for all young women with big feet.” You know the sort of thing.
The communal voice. We have settled for the time being and for better or for worse on the democratic life. We must hang together and speak as a man. But must we not consider that in these circumstances we shall have to give up what we call art? At least, in its conception of the past few hundred years. Why should we think that as an activity it is timeless? Why shouldn’t this be the end? After all, like human life it is a fairly modern invention and neither are entirely satisfactory. Perhaps to make our days on earth longer we must also make them duller. And noisier. We must get through. We must be heard. We must communicate. One voice will never be enough. Call in the boys. And it is encouraged. It must be. Art has to conform to the conventions of life. It must also conform to its catchwords. Such as freedom. Freedom from authority, yes, it has that, apart from censorship. Freedom from the people? Certainly, it has freedom to speak just what they think. The cult of the individual is now [in 1957] almost as great a social crime in the West as it is a political crime in the East. This is unfortunate, as the cult of the individual is the basis of all art.
The questions are continually posed. What effect does the atom bomb have on writers today? What effect the Welfare State? Are we aware in our work of the extermination of the Jews in Europe during the war years?
Well, of course, anyone writing today is aware that these things happened and are happening. But it is the blind spot of the journalistic mind, so pre-eminent and so pre-occupied with art today, that it thinks the problems should be directly involved. In other words, the play must be set in a concentration camp, beneath an immanent explosion, or in a new town. The assumption seems to me naive, but understandable. After all, the art of journalism, and a very fascinating and considerable art it is, must concern itself with the present happening in its exact place. But journalism is not the theatre or literature. Let me put it like this. Suppose a play is set in that uncontroversial place — an English drawing room. And the play is about — say, adultery. Suppose atom bombs, concentration camps and social welfare are never mentioned. And you know it’s extraordinary how rarely they are in ordinary conversation. But this does not mean that they are not present or non-existent. The writer has been touched by these things, as we all have, and if the play is anything of a serious work it must be shadowed by them.
I said earlier that [the dramatist] should not be aware of [the audience] as an audience whilst writing the play. But he must be aware of them as people.
Am I wrong in thinking that audiences, and especially young audiences, today won’t accept the theatre because of its death’s-head artificiality? I think it’s true. People no longer want to be taken out of themselves, as the saying was, because now they are themselves and are aware of how good a thing that is.
Two institutions are notably in decline these days: the Arts and the Church. And both for the same reason. They are practicing an abracadabra which takes in no one. The feeling is that both artists and the Church are trying to trick people into accepting something which is worthless. The sales talk, the little free packets of wisdom we both give away, quite obscure the fact that both the Church and the Arts have something real to offer.
People are too wise now, and the young too charmingly cynical for artists to go on in the old way.
The remedy lies with one man, because all the buildings, the managerial offices, the impresarios, the directors, the designers, the actors, the musicians, the men who move the scenery, the people to take the money at the box office, the critics and the gossip writers, depend on that one man. The dramatist, alone in his room, happily or miserably, with ease or with difficulty, cynically or whole-heartedly, writing a play. The dramatist practicing his art.