After seeing recent revivals of Waiting for Godot and The Caretaker, Charles McNulty “suddenly realized how ravenous [he] was for language in the theater with poetic density and grit.” In his essay published in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, McNulty goes on to describe the rich literary traditions with which both Beckett and Pinter were familiar. “Their education and training didn’t come courtesy of an MFA program, with its cramped curriculum divorcing the stage from the other arts. They were carving paths for themselves as wide-ranging men of letters, to use a phrase that has sadly gone the way of ‘bibliophile’ and ‘public intellectual.’”
There is nothing to argue with in McNulty’s essay, though he’s misinformed that “the biographers of Beckett and Pinter would do us the service of inventorying their reading material during their apprenticeship years”; Knowlson and Billington, as well as countless others, have already done so, ad nauseam in Beckett’s case, so the service has already been done for those who care to look. But this broad knowledge of classic and contemporary literature was also accompanied by a deep familiarity with other art forms, not the least of which was music. As early as the 1960s, Pinter cited Anton Webern as a composer who may have had an effect on his work, and of course there was Beckett’s Schubert, whose music formed the soundtrack for a few of Beckett’s late television plays. It would be going too far, I think, to call these composers (or, for that matter, writers like Middleton and Dante) “influences” on these dramatists’ work. But there are affinities, which may be even more important, since they leave the pathway open to Beckett and Pinter’s own sense of formal experimentation.
It is not merely language that provides the poetic density and grit, but the means by which this language opened the stage itself to new formal possibilities. Christopher Fry and T.S. Eliot, as McNulty says, went down quite the wrong path in their attempts to reintroduce a self-consciously poetic drama in the 1940s and 1950s, not least because their language, whatever its virtues and vices, did not permit an extension into form, which Fry and Eliot co-opted from existing dramatic structures. As early as her 1960 essay “Not Ordinary, Not Safe: A Direction for Drama,” Caryl Churchill recognized the close interrelationship of dramatic language and dramatic form:
At the moment everything we have is at the expense of something else: poetry without plots, songs and stylisation without observation, naturalism without imagination, character without action, slice of life without form. We must find a balance that doesn’t impose form and poetry unrelated to the details of life nor pile up details without finding form and poetry. Form is in itself a means of expression, and a good play is like music in the reappearance of different themes, changes of pace, conflicts and harmonies; and fuller use of form should make plays not less but more true to life. 
Churchill’s observation still holds true, and perhaps Fry and Eliot would have better luck today. The turn away from the lyricism and formal experimentation that McNulty mourns may be a hostile reaction to the difficulties that this writing poses to a theatre that seems to have successfully displaced the dramatist from the center of the theatrical experience. The product of the individual dramatist has become mere grist for the collective mill of administration, performer, designer, and audience, and the individual dramatist is in no small part responsible for surrendering to this process. This process crushes idiosyncrasy and the individual vision as expressed through dramatic language, rendering it only one element among others, when it should be at the center, or at least the primer inter pares, of the production experience.
I doubt that Churchill, or many others, would agree with the above diagnosis; but then nobody likes a diagnosis of cancer, and denial is among the first stages of acceptance of such a finding. Beckett and Pinter — and Churchill — began their careers in a theatre which put new writers at the center of the process. The Royal Court was dedicated to finding and producing “hard-hitting, uncompromising writers,” as its first artistic director George Devine put it, and according to its Web site it continues to hold “firm to its vision of being a writers theatre. Its plays have challenged the artistic, social and political orthodoxy of the day, pushing back the boundaries of what was possible or acceptable.” It is hard to think of an American theatre that can be described as a “writers theatre”; not any more.
McNulty offers this in conclusion, worth quoting at length:
The looseness of so much of today’s playwriting comes in no small part from the shift away from dramatic poetry to dramatic writing, a less medium-specific pursuit in which the “storyboarding” of plots is considered equally applicable to theater, film and television. What’s important is a good yarn rather than a trenchant vision. The stage in this scheme is nothing but a steppingstone to a more remunerative opportunity.
Dramatic poets might not get rich, but they endure. They become part of a tradition in which poetry and philosophy merge before a grateful public. The legacy of Beckett and Pinter — alive in the works of Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Will Eno and Enda Walsh, among others — isn’t in danger of going away. But the values they represent are in for an uphill fight.
McNulty does not say whom or what these values would be fighting against, and I’ll leave it to you to form your own conclusions. Let it be said, however, that there continue to be dramatic writers who work in that tradition, apart from those that McNulty cites: there is Barker, of course, but on this side of the Atlantic there remain writers like Wallace Shawn and, among the younger generation, several from Mac Wellman’s program at Brooklyn College. The turn towards “a good yarn rather than a trenchant vision” is not unlike the return to tonality in contemporary music, and besides, good yarns can be found practically anywhere, from the television set to the novel to the personable drunk at the end of the bar. Whatever this turn’s virtues, it is also a surrender to the status quo — and nearly a guarantee that theatre and drama will go no further towards a meaningful advance into the 21st century.
- Cited in Philip Roberts: About Churchill: The Playwright and the Work. London: Faber and Faber, 2008, xxvi-xxvii. [↩]