The young playwright is necessary but far from sufficient to maintain the health of a theatre culture. In a consumer celebrity culture dedicated to the cult of youth, however, this fact has been buried beneath the enthusiasm for any and every young playwright. What makes the young so attractive is their energy: impatient and imaginative, they throw everything at the stage, tested or untested, infusing it with brash and dynamic “what-me-worry?” enthusiasm and cheerily absorbing the products of the Culture Industry that defined its adolescence. On the other hand, the energy of youth is also arbitrary, capricious, often ignorant and impatient; untested and unseasoned, it is unable to judge between the concerns of the day and more lasting questions, shunting the products of older writers to the side as boring or uninteresting or uninformed. As any theatre artists accumulate experience through time, they are less likely to indulge in the kind of brash provocation that may inform their earlier work; if time teaches anything, it is humility in the face of the years that pass and in the certainty of one’s own consciousness. Indeed, the voice itself becomes more seasoned and more supple, finding new expression only with the continuing exercise of that voice and vision. While some dramatists produce their best work early in their careers, many others — Brecht, Beckett and (dare one mention him?) Shakespeare — do not.
This can readily be seen in the ways in which both British and American theatre cultures have treated their playwrights of older generations. The once-rising and bright stars of our older generation of playwrights in the United States (Albee, Shepard and Shawn, to name just three) have been eclipsed by those of the Sarah Ruhls, David Lindsay-Abaires and Lynn Nottages of our day, and gender and race aside, it is ageism that denies enthusiasm for the new works of the former, however formally progressive these former may still be. (Far more, it may be argued, than the latter trio, when one figures in Box/Mao/Box, Buried Child and The Designated Mourner.) The British have more affection for the late plays of some American playwrights, especially Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams; indeed, in recent years, the late works of Williams have been undergoing such a thorough re-evaluation that they’re beginning to be staged more and more in the United States as well.
With the exceptions of David Hare and Alan Ayckbourn, the British theatre culture seems to be undergoing the same obsession with the youth of its dramatists, even though many of its strongest playwrights — Edward Bond, David Rudkin, Howard Barker and others — remain productive, if marginalized. Another dimension of youth is a blindness to the past: the young believe they are reinventing form and content as nobody before them has ever done, but a moment’s glance back demonstrates this is precisely not the case; that they are, more than anything else, reinventing the wheel. Long before Gordon Ramsay recognized the tensions and viciousness that can take place in a kitchen during a dinner service, or Tony Kushner set Communist parents and their children at odds in living rooms, Arnold Wesker in The Kitchen and in his “trilogy” of early plays Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem, was doing much the same thing back in the early 1960s. In his 1994 autobiography he talked about his unease at having been shunted to the margins of British theatrical culture despite his early accomplishments:
It is the queerest of sensations, this literary leprosy… I sense within the profession a kind of nervous terror of me. What is this plague which I fail to recognise, but obviously marks me like Cain? I search around as one does for stains on a shirt, shit clogged in a shoe, a torn pocket. Does my breath smell? Are my armpits unwashed? I don’t remember murdering anyone. I’ve fulfilled all professional commitments, turned up on time, directed and made stars of actors… What could be my crime?
One man’s valid complaint is another man’s whinging, of course, but Wesker himself is now being “rediscovered” (which has a rather insulting ring to it, for he’s continued to work in the meantime); The Kitchen is scheduled for revival at London’s National Theatre later this year, and Chicken Soup with Barley is due at the Royal Court next month. The Observer (UK) yesterday ran this lengthy interview with Wesker, who will turn 80 next year, one of the most remarkable figures of the British theatre’s recent past. Perhaps he has a point.