Back catalogue: Political Economy
British Theatre in the 1990s: A Brief Political Economy by Aleks Sierz (1996)
At a time of perceived national decline, it is something of a consolation to be told that British theatre is the best in the world. As one epitome of traditional Englishness, Country Life magazine, puts it: 'London is the greatest theatre city in the world - the West End has twice as many theatres as Broadway' (24 October 1996: 46). Size, apparently, still matters. Hype like this not only sees London as the theatre capital of the world but also, according to Le Monde, Newsweek and the London Evening Standard, as the coolest city in Europe. Such attitudes affect arts bureaucrats as well as journalists: the London Arts Board estimates that while 7 million people live in London, commuting patterns suggest that a larger 'Greater South East' region enjoys metropolitan culture. This 'London' region contains 20 million people, a third of the population of Britain (London Arts Board, n. d.: 1). What an audience! Nor does theatre ignore such imperial notions of a greater London: Time Out, the capital's listings magazine, includes Stratford-upon-Avon in its ambit. Being a national institution, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) must also be 'metropolitan'. Thus London sucks all into its maw.
While, on the stage of the image, London struts its stuff as the theatre capital of the world, behind the scenes the situation is more complicated. If the idea of London theatre seems to imply a culture that's English, it is worth pointing out that some of the most memorable successes of British theatre in the 1990s have come from outside Britain: Angels in America had a great British production, but it was written by Tony Kushner, an American; David Mamet's Oleanna and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation both came from Broadway; Death and the Maiden was written by Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean; and plays by Irish writers regularly make each year's top ten. What's interesting about such images of London is that they show how the political economy of British theatre in the 1990s is mediated by myth.
Since theatre is a complicated and contradictory social activity, it's hardly surprising that cultural myths have arisen to help us make sense of its variety and to try to resolve its contradictions. Myths have a magical way of turning difficult situations into simple realities - they both explain and justify social institutions, and bring comfort to the insecure by simplifying rapidly changing situations. Whether partly true, or completely false, they create powerful stories out of confused and complex experiences. In this respect it is easier to agree with Roland Barthes when he says that myth 'transforms history into nature', than when he equates the bourgeoisie with myth and the oppressed with 'real' speech (Barthes, 1973: 129, 148, 145-50). This last is surely yet another example of an intellectual's typical sentimentality about the working classes.
At the deepest level, everyone needs myths to structure their understanding of the world. But if myths rarely tell us exactly who we are, they might show us who we'd like to be. While the concept of myth is central to understanding the political economy of theatre, it is best understood as a contested area, a place where the balance of power and belief change over time, and where political battles are reproduced on a symbolic level. And, because myth is based on our deepest beliefs, it usually poses the question of values - especially in the field of culture.
So it's hardly surprising that the current perception of a decline in values, part of the notion of a postwar national slump, is reflected in theatre in the form of two main narratives: the decline of the West End and the crisis of state subsidy. The idea of a West End deep in decline is familiar to anyone who reads the arts pages of the broadsheet newspapers. Serious drama is on the wane in the commercial sector, and London's Theatreland is full of superficial entertainment, fit only for tourists. This way of thinking - which in extreme cases announces, time after time, the newly discovered 'death of the West End' - has a variety of implications.
For while in the 1950s commerce was seen as the enemy - a hegemony of theatre barons, led by the villainous Binkie Beaumont, whose cartels dominated the industry - it is now more likely to be seen as a hapless victim, suffering a bad bout of economic pressure. Whether driven out of business by rising costs or merely swimming with the market tide, the commercial sector often looks like a risky business, inherently unstable, an endangered species crying out for state aid. This idea of the commercial often implies a nostalgia for the great impresarios of the past, and a muted lament for what's seen as another dying cultural tradition. In effect, it gives a picture of a nation in which decline is a powerful motif. Under Thatcher, in a decade devoted to praising market values, straight commercial theatre has collapsed. Lame ducks have come home to roost.
This image of the West End is one of those cultural myths that are based firmly on reality. While 20 years ago there might have been two dozen serious plays put on by the commercial sector in central London, by the mid-1990s the number had shrunk to a handful. Not only is the number of new plays produced by private enterprise down, but their place has been taken by plays tried out in the subsidised sector and then brought into the West End.
This has meant the loss of the bourgeois play - middle-class, middle-brow and middle-English - though not of bourgeois audiences. Yet, real as this decline is, does it matter? Not, surely, to theatre audiences, which can see new plays aplenty in the subsidised sector, whether at the Royal National Theatre (RNT) or above a suburban pub. Just as long as the West End offers a choice, it really doesn't matter whether private capital or state funds deliver the good night out. Although commercial producers might skimp on production values and rehearsal time.
But, like all myths, the notion of a decline of the West End is a discourse which enables commentators to make a more general point about cultural values: it flatters those who assume that 'real' cultural values can only exist if they're subsidised, that 'mere' commerce only creates entertainment for the masses and that profitable popular culture is unworthy of co-existing with 'high' culture. One thing about commerce is certain - you can rely on it to seek out the punters.
Another way of looking at what's happening in the West End is to see it not as a discourse of decline but rather as a revealing shift from one area of cultural consumption, straight drama, to another, spectacular musicals. In this perspective, the fall of the bourgeois play is balanced by the rise of the popular musical, which has tempted new audiences, including much larger working-class audiences, into the theatre. This development challenges the assumptions on which the myth of a declining West End is based; the divide between serious play and pop musical assumes much less importance - what matters is not the form of the drama but the politics of its aesthetics.
Thus the rise and rise of the mega-musical, which occurred in the 1980s, and maybe saved British theatre, is a good example of Enterprise Culture. Whether you look at management changes which made West End theatres more 'flexible' workplaces, or the aesthetic of mass entertainment with its production-line methods and coach parties, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh are perfect symbols of British theatre under the spotlight of Thatcherism. The figures alone are breathtaking: in the 1990s, gross box office takings from the West End annually average more than £200 million. By 1997, there were 21 musicals in theatreland. Every year some 16,000 live performances are seen by 11 million spectators, most of whom see a musical. On top of this, Lloyd Webber has broken all records: in 1991 he had six shows running at the same time in the West End; in July 1993, Sunset Boulevard opened with £4 million in advance bookings; in January 1996 Cats became the longest-running musical ever, with more than 42,000 performances in 21 countries, grossing over £800 million. The top ten richest men in Britain include two who owe their fortunes to musicals - Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh (Society of London Theatre, n. d.; London Arts Board, n. d., p 8; National Campaign for the Arts, 1995: 15-17; and Elsom, 1994: 906-8).
For most people in the arts community, which is politically liberal, the success of this part of the commercial sector is an embarrassment. Because the triumph of the popular musical is so blatantly Thatcherite, it seems naff to celebrate it. Because The Phantom of the Opera is so successful, it must be low-brow, reactionary. Yet, snobbery apart, it's clear that the myth of the West End's decline can only survive as a discourse if it excludes the mega-musical. Such a strategy of exclusion is not only highly artificial but also depends on out-moded ideas about the difference between high art and pop culture. Where, in terms of everyday experience, many people now enjoy both high and pop culture - Keats and Dylan, opera and football, Beethoven and Brookside - some commentators have been slow to acknowledge this.
Nor does it help to see audiences for musicals in terms of 'the masses'. As Raymond Williams points out, 'There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses' (Williams, 1963: 300, 298-9). Perhaps the myth of the decline of the West End is so comforting to middle-class prejudice that not even the spectacular triumph of the musical can touch it. How much harder it is to admit that, in the 1990s, the idea of working-class theatre is less likely to have much to do with Joan Littlewood or John McGrath, and may have more to do with Lloyd Webber and Willy Russell, whose Blood Brothers shows how a critique of Thatcherism can go hand in hand with catchy tunes. It's much easier to dismiss all musicals - except the 'sophisticated' work of Stephen Sondheim or ironical shows such as City of Angels - rather than struggle to formulate an aesthetics of the spectacular, a form 'that seeks to impress an audience with financial rather than creative prowess' (Kramer, 1988).
Isn't it time to go beyond the cliche that musicals thrive when the economy is in recession, with people longing for escapism and wanting to see their money spent on lavish sets. When the idea of extravagance becomes a popular aesthetic, it challenges traditional ideas about cultural values. The much derided musical is nothing more nor less than an example of postmodern aesthetics, a profitable meeting of melodrama and pop. As the artistic wing of Thatcher's Enterprise Culture, the mega-musical paints a picture of a Britain which leads the world in pop culture, a nation which is brash, sentimental, but also entrepreneurial and wildly successful.
Yet it is unwise to believe in too rigid a division between the commercial and the subsidised. First, because this simplifies a complex situation (for example, membership of the 50-strong Society of London Theatre includes nine publicly-funded theatres), and, second, because this division is less strong in practice than in the realm of ideas. The commercial sector not only welcomes musicals which have been developed in the state sector (the classic example is the RSC's Les Miserables), but the subsidised sector also puts on highly successful musicals (Richard Eyre's version of Guys and Dolls at the RNT is a good example). The commercial sector also draws on the talents of theatre people of all kinds who have been trained using government funds, and who work in both sectors - and there's still no way of telling that a work is commercial just by looking at it. And - one final irony - although commerce has declined on one part (straight drama) of its home ground, it has managed in the 1980s to do very well in the heart of the subsidised sector.
While Lloyd Webber symbolises the triumphalism of Enterprise Culture - he composed the Tory campaign theme in 1987 - the myths of subsidised sector hark back to a different tradition, that of the 1940s Welfare State, with its ideology of giving people what was deemed to be good for them. The foundation myth of the Arts Council - and of the state-subsidised theatre it funds - was a mixture of cultural values derived from Matthew Arnold and John Maynard Keynes: it claimed the artistic high ground; it supported good causes in the national interest and it aspired to moral seriousness. Welfare State theatre was enjoined to pursue 'quality', while at the same time widening the spread of 'provision'. This led to contradictions as those who favoured quality were accused of elitism and those who wanted a wider spread of provision were condemned as populists.
The founding myth of subsidy stressed 'high culture' because it was obvious that the market chased popular values. At its most extreme, and 'in a society where commerce is the prime criterion of artistic value', market populism 'amounts to censorship' (Billington, 1989: 164). Based on the conviction that only subsidy produces the 'best', its advocates claim that collective provision of the arts is better than individual patronage, state control better than market anarchy - and more democratic.
So although the Arts Council was at 'arm's length' from government, its flagship theatres, the RSC and the RNT, were assumed to add to national glory, if not social stability, by promoting an ideal of the nation as a community of discerning audiences appreciative only of the 'best'. This ideal of subsidy survived fierce arguments about the nature of its mission for more than 30 years. In many ways it still survives, although the original myth with its emphasis on the 'best' quality has been radically modified by 1960s ideas of better access, fairer geographic spread and greater accountability.
What has happened since the Arts Council was founded in 1946 is that successive economic crises have meant an increasing divergence between the myth and what actually happens on the ground. Led by the RSC and the RNT, the subsidised sector is a twin-peaked pyramid whose shadow falls over the nation's theatre, which is made up of a few very large companies getting big grants and very many small companies getting tiny grants. Once funded by the state (whether through the Arts Council or local government), economic necessity has forced subsidised theatre to rely more and more on marketing and, during the Thatcher years, on business sponsorship. Led by the Iron Lady herself, the attack on subsidy came from the highest level (Hewison, 1996: 242-5). As a result, most theatres now get less than half their total funds from subsidy, the rest coming from box office, marketing and sponsorship.
Thus, in the 1980s, a mixture of government policy and economic recession changed the entire theatre system. By 1995, the Arts Council of Great Britain had been replaced by a Ministry of National Heritage, a rump Arts Council of England, with similar bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Regional Arts Boards for theatres outside London. In what looks like a parody of the idea of the casino economy, the National Lottery is now held up as the only hope for expanded state funding. Since the RSC and RNT get about half the annual Arts Council grant to drama, there remains a bias towards the big and the national as opposed to the small and the regional. Indeed, the Conservative policy of rate-capping local authorities has hit regional theatres badly since their funding is not mandatory. While the RSC and RNT now get an average of £20 million between them every year in subsidy (equivalent to 10 per cent of the commercial sector's profits), the Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme raises matching funds of a fraction of that figure. This tends to fluctuate, however, since business sponsorship is notoriously recession-prone. It is also kinder to the bigger players: the RSC secured the biggest ever sponsorship deal in 1994 when it got £3.3 million for three years from Allied Domecq (Casey et al, n. d.: 73-92; Hewison, 1995: 246-7, 258).
While only the most militant of right-wing libertarians argue for the abolition of all state subsidy, government funding is not immune from paradoxical criticism. For despite the truth of the main argument for subsidy - that without it excellent work would not get produced - the drive to put 'bums on seats' in years of economic hardship results in programming which is frankly populist. This then leads to the charge that such easy entertainment could equally well be put on by the private sector. Moreover, in view of mutterings that subsidy is a hand-out, state-funded theatres now have better box office statistics than the commercial sector (Society of London Theatre, n. d.). If it is true that 'the paradox of the 1980s was that state subsidies more than doubled within ten years under a government which did not believe in subsidy' (Elsom, 1995a: 41), it is such contradictions that myths are good at resolving. What is certain is that the subsidised sector can no longer claim, as it once did, the cultural high ground. The quality of its productions has changed - now large-scale publicly-funded theatre looks less like a workshop of the 'best' (with a few exceptions such as Cheek by Jowl) and more like a branch of the entertainment industry.
In the 1980s the RNT under artistic director Richard Eyre has garnered all 'the virtues of a postmodern national theatre, putting on glittering productions of a wide variety of plays and similar theatrical happenings, where no distinctions are made between high and low art [...] a lively, unpompous and cheerful playground on the South Bank, where Shakespeare, Alan Bennett and Rodgers and Hammerstein could meet on equal terms before (mainly) large and enthusiastic audiences' (Elsom, 1995b: 779). A postmodern relativism - a slackening of boundaries - has touched the subsidised sector as well as the commercial.
Nor has the division between a conservative mainstream and a radical fringe survived the new economic climate. For while in boom times, the state was able to fund radicals whose politics it didn't agree with, in recession years the more politically outspoken companies - such as left-wing touring groups like 7:84 - were among the first to lose funding, because (it was alleged) of 'artistic failure'. While some productions in small studio theatres still remind you of the origins of alternative theatres in the avant-garde politics of the 1960s, many other fringe productions are now culturally conservative.
The effects of 1980s ideology on them have been a greater selectivity of state funding (weeding out artistic failures or censorship by subsidy, depending on your politics); greater specialisation and niche marketing (some venues concentrate on new writing, others on European drama, performance art or black or gay drama); greater integration (many innovative theatre groups - such as Theatre de Complicite - became incorporated into the national system and are now a kind of 'official' alternative). Such changes were acknowledged when in 1993 The British Theatre Directory admitted it could no longer maintain the distinction between mainstream and alternative; a year later, Time Out replaced its division of listings into West End and Fringe by a tripartite West End, Off-West End and Fringe classification. At any alternative venue, a glance at the back pages of the show's programme - with its list of grants and sponsors - can give a good idea of the mixed economy which now rules British theatre.
With the acceptance of the mixed economy, a different attitude to profit has become orthodox. Once an embarrassment to subsidised theatres worried about losing their charity status or getting their grants cut, profits have now become an essential goal. As Michael Billington, the Guardian's theatre critic, points out, 'the language in which we discuss the arts has been debased. We no longer talk of subsidy: we speak of investment' (quoted in Bull, 1994: 16; Hewison: 285). Productions are now 'product', audiences 'consumers' and the main cultural aim 'value for money'. Where once subsidy was defended in terms of traditional values, it is now defended in economic terms (good for local business) or social terms (aids inner cities). As business terminology went hand in hand with real cuts in theatre budgets, the whole ideology of running theatres suffered a radical change.
But the myth of a crisis in funding is both a reflection, and at the same time a simplification, of what's happened. For despite real cuts - which have forced some regional theatres to close - the creative panache of the nation's theatre seems undiminished. What has happened is a geographic shift from regions to the capital. (Ironically, subsidy - which destroyed the commercial touring circuits in the 1960s - will one day be needed to repair the damage done to the regions.)
Meanwhile, London is buzzing, with Theatre Record listing 651 productions in 1995, compared to 311 in 1981. Creativity, in the long run, will endure cuts in subsidy. But cuts do have severe effects on what is shown on stage. For example, the classical repertoire has declined nationwide - although Shakespeare holds his position as 5 per cent of output, neck and neck with Alan Ayckbourn. While this decline is 20 years old and cannot be blamed on the Conservatives, the more recent drop in revivals of postwar work (second productions of new plays halved between 1981 and 1995) surely can. The stress on making plays more marketable has also led to a growth in 'safe product', such as musicals and adaptations of recognisable 'brand name' books (Brown and Brannen, 1996: 380-1). The influence of sponsorship on the repertoire can be seen in the difficulty some businesses have with plays which don't fit their corporate image (a 17th-century classic, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, is handicapped by its title) or are by young, unknown writers. Despite some experimental productions at the RNT and Royal Court, the idea that subsidy gives you 'the right to fail' has quietly gone out of fashion. It is now one of those quaint phrases that call to mind a bygone era.
Even more ominous is the situation of training new talent. In 1996, after 10 years of grant reductions, the 28 leading drama schools are finding it hard to recruit students able to meet their fees. When 28 per cent of local authorities now have a policy of not giving grants for performing arts courses, added to a drop in real terms of almost a half in the value of awards in 1990-6, it doesn't take a genius to work out that while Britain may not exactly run out of young actors, fresh talent will increasingly come from those social groups where parents can afford to send their little darlings to drama school (National Campaign for the Arts, 1996a: 6). In the 1990s, university drama courses have in many places provided an alternative, subsidised route to an acting career.
While cuts in subsidy throw regional theatre into disarray, the voluntary sector is less vulnerable to such policies. A rebuke to all discourses which stress the sharp division between the commercial and the subsidised sectors, or between professional and amateur, the voluntary sector comprises thousands of people who devote their time, energy and creativity to theatre, without making a living from it. One of the reasons for the buzz that radiates around London is the high in-put of people who have given new life to the cliche that all you need for theatre is two planks and a passion. As always, in an age of postmodern values, it makes little sense to draw too rigid a distinction between amateur and professional. Roger Fox, director of the Voluntary Arts Network, argues that the terms are 'quite meaningless'. 'There is, rather, a continuum of endeavour along which people travel freely, being at different places at different times of their lives' (National Campaign for the Arts, 1996b: 17). Listed in The British Theatre Directory are more than 140 theatre clubs, and there are 2,000 'amateur' theatre groups nationwide.
These thousands of unpaid artists and workers form a pool of creativity - part of the British theatre system's R&D sector - that professional theatre can draw on. This helps explain why London theatre thrives despite political blows such as the abolition of the GLC, with the loss of its arts patronage. Getting no state lucre also frees the voluntary sector from fear of grant cuts. Playwright David Edgar reckons that to find 'creative iconoclasts' it's worth looking to 'community theatre in small towns and suburbs, where local amateurs demand and provide new theatrical sites into which the professionals seem fearful to tread' (Edgar, 1988: 21). But if the voluntary sector offers hope, its members also need stamina. As John McGrath, former director of 7:84, says, 'They will have to be ingenious, cunning, and full of optimism' (McGrath, 1996: xvi).
Although cultural conservatives usually subscribe to the myth that new writing is in decline - the past is always a golden age of great writing, where a kind of cultural Darwinism ensures the survival of only the fittest plays - there have been plenty of lasting reflections on the politics of the 1980s. Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, Howard Brenton and David Hare's Pravda, David Edgar's Maydays are obvious examples. Big plays grappling with big subjects. Yet, as the decade wore on, a more indirect influence of the changes in theatre became apparent. The 1970s hard-left politics of many writers matured into softer, more liberal voices. By the early 1990s, David Hare's trilogy of plays about Tory Britain (Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and Absence of War) is a good example. Some old campaigners such as Trevor Griffiths got smaller audiences than they deserved because managements didn't want to risk putting on politically committed work. And if the 1980s saw a greater impact of black, feminist and disabled theatre groups, many of these either ran out of ideas or were absorbed into the mainstream. Likewise, the emphasis on aesthetic populism breeds a conservatism of repertoire, with Alan Bennett and Alan Ayckbourn getting preference over more difficult authors such as Howard Barker.
Despite regional gloom, London theatres produce so many smart and snappily written plays by 20-year-olds that the 1990s may one day be seen as a decade of great new writing. If creativity really depended on state subsidy, as some versions of the myth of the crisis of funding have it, you would expect standards of new writing to collapse. Since this hasn't happened, we should be wary of letting the myth warp our judgement of new work or prejudice our expectations. When Sir William Rees-Mogg, one-time Arts Council chairman, asserted that 'the political economy of the arts is dependent on the political economy of the nation' (quoted in Pick, 1988: 114), he could have gone further.
Even the briefest political economy of British theatre shows how material structures are mediated by images: how you see theatre depends on what you believe is good and just and true. But such myths are never static. For example, while myths are good at policing boundaries - such as those between commercial and subsidised, amateur and professional, mainstream and fringe - it is precisely such boundaries that have been called into question by the postmodern values of contemporary society. In this way, myths gradually lose adherents. The myth of subsidy has lost credibility as cultural values have become more and more relative and the boundaries between high and pop culture more relaxed. One of dangers of the crisis of subsidy myth comes not from the fact that it's untrue, but that it encourages a mind-set that is defeatist and unable to appreciate new sources of creativity.
Bearing in mind the relativism of the postmodern and the way most of the myths about subsidy have been undercut by changes on the ground, perhaps what's needed is a new myth about theatre which avoids the cretinism of value for money as well as the out-moded classical values of high culture. Something to fill the vacuum of values. If we are to get out of the malaise which emphasises the discourse of decline, the culture of complaint and chronic victimhood, perhaps a new myth needs to be created. After all, creating myths is what the arts are good at.
If myths are aspirational, what do the 1990s tell us about who we'd like to be? While the old myth of decline was comfortable in that it flattered its adherents with illusions of past greatness, the new myth of Cool Britannia - British is best and booming - offers a challenge to live up to the hype generated by the revival of British culture in the mid-1990s. Here the main risk is one of overoptimism and complacency. If it's obvious that Lottery funding will produce the biggest change in the theatre system since 1946, there is a risk that this will result in the nightmare scenario of a crop of beautiful new buildings sitting empty because their companies have been cut. It's time to press for new solutions - such as endowment funding - to the age-old problems of state subsidy (see Hewison, 1996: 266-7; Marvin, 1996: 8-16).
Finally, it's salutary to remember that British theatre is a complex organism, 'a large body whose component parts comprise the commercial as much as the subsidised, the regional as much as the national, the amateur as much as the professional' (Eyre, 1995: 37). While London theatre is buzzing, it's important to acknowledge the vast creative energy generated by thousands of small groups. Here, innovation arises when people do things 'improperly', unofficially - 'theatre needs its rogues and vagabonds, its masterless men and free women [who] shout yes to the cussedness, complexity, and richness of life' (Trussler, 1994: 381). But if the distribution of material rewards lags behind this explosion of creativity, the experience of the past 15 years proves that change requires a strong political will from the top. Even then, however, it is worth remembering the sheer perversity of British theatre, its astonishing capacity to survive all political changes. British theatre can 'perhaps best be celebrated as a triumph of the human spirit over various schemes for its better organisation and improvement' (Elsom, 1994: 906).
Many thanks to John Elsom, Lia Ghilardi, Ian Herbert and Simon Trussler for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
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© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'British Theatre in the 1990s: A Brief Political Economy', Media, Culture and Society 19 (3), July 1997: pp 461-469.