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This item is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.

IN the Times Literary Supplement towards the end of last year (3 December), Robert Hewison reported what he aptly called a 'modest proposal' by the Theatre Writers' Union that there should be a levy on plays by dead writers. The 200 members of the union apparently 'find that their work is suffering unfair competition from their famous predecessors, six feet underground'.

It may be so. The dead have many advantages, one of which, if they were playwrights, is presumably that they do not care whether their plays are put on or not. They are past all assistance from the Arts Council. The argument seems to be that those who are still able to make use of the money should have it. Producers and actors would perhaps point out that they can make use of the money, whether the plays they do are those of the living or the dead. Members of the public might say that what they want is good plays-though that would be only partly true for the public's appetite for rubbish of one sort or another is voracious.

It is natural enough that the Theatre Writers' Union should be concerned with the interests of its members, or at any rate with how much money they make, but one might ask why the matter should rest there. Are not writers of all kinds threatened by the dead? The answer to that must, I think, be 'Less than they were'. It is well within the memory of many still alive that there was a time when the most prominent stock of any decent bookshop included sets of Everyman's Library, the World's Classics, and Collins's Classics, all in hardback at two shillings a volume, when the price of a new novel was seven and sixpence and of a volume of poems perhaps three and six or five shillings. Without under-rating what several paperback publishers are doing now to keep some classics in circulation, one may say that the chances of a student or other person of modest means being able to put together a little library of good writing from the past are much less than they were. Still, the threat remains. There are still people who will read old books, and this should clearly be stopped, to give the living a chance. Since a legal prohibition is out of the question, in view of the superstitions about liberty still current, a tax on the re-publication of old books, with the money somehow going into the pockets of living writers, would surely be a good thing.

Or would it? It is a difficulty of all forms of public assistance for the arts-or indeed for almost anything else-that the number of claimants is practically unlimited. People naturally ask: into whose pockets is the money going? Any possible answer to this question will be unsatisfactory. The most satisfactory answer, from the point of view of those beleaguered functionaries who have to give an answer of some kind, must be that more and more people are getting a share of it-when circumstances permit, that more and more people are getting more and more of it. These agreeable answers cannot, in their nature, be given for ever. There must be some attempt to define those who are entitled to it. Public assistance began, of course, with just such a definition. The theory was that there were educated people who knew just what the arts were. The ballet-that great luxury of the Russian Imperial Court- was a case in point. Readers of the Guardian and The Times, then duller and better papers, already patronised it; it was to be made more widely available. There were then people in Bloomsbury who knew what the best books were, and that they and their friends were the best authors. Their works should certainly be given a wider diffusion. The whole thing was idyllic, from a certain point of view. But of course, where public money is given away, critical and raucous voices are raised. Who were these people who decided what was art and who were artists? A very awkward question, which could be answered only by those concerned becoming more broadminded. Of course there was more than one view of what constituted good art, and the patronage must be extended more widely. There are ups and downs in these matters, but we are not at the end of that process yet; indeed it has no end. Meanwhile there were unmannerly people-those who understand the processes of history and so see further into the future than you or I-who shouted that the whole thing was a plot against an ill-defined body called the working class, very prominent in the mythology of these objectors. They probably did make out a case for the proposition that the current conception of 'the arts' had something to do with the habits of another ill-defined body, the middle class. More will be heard of this rather barren discussion, we may be sure. All the time practical men and women such as trade union organisers get together to make sure that actors, musicians, writers and what-not are properly paid, and up-hill work it must be, compared with that of their brothers in the printers' and electricians' unions.

The Theatre Writers' Union is such a body, and good luck to them. As their modest proposal shows, they are not concerned with the quality of the work produced. How could they be? They have 200 members, and there are certainly not 200 playwrights whose work it would be worth going to see. Their complaint is that there are not enough new plays produced, and their remedy is to seek to penalise the old, so that they can have a bigger share of the money. Too bad that their dead rivals have centuries of work behind them and a much better repertoire! They are probably right in pointing to the decline in the number of new productions by the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and asking why this should be. Part of the answer must be in the absurdly high cost of new productions, and the success of their brothers and sisters in other unions in tying the managements up in agreements which allow insufficient room for manoeuvre. Good for them, no doubt, but not necessarily for the stage. But the outsider must wonder whether that vast concrete palace on the South Bank or that newer one at the Barbican were ever likely to be the scene of much new life, which everywhere is more likely to begin in a more unobtrusive way, with less capital, less consultations, less organisation, less prominence and more of that freedom which is so prominently talked about, though admittedly in the highly conventionalised forms of political and sexual licence.

Whatever may be the problems of the theatre, the 200 playwrights with whom Shakespeare so unfairly competes are nothing to the companies, battalions, divisions, armies of other writers of one kind and another. It is a free country, as Milton said, and woe to those who say the wrong things! (What he actually said was: 'that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners no law can possibly permit'.) The worst that is likely to happen now to those who say the wrong things is that they do not get published at all, if they produce what is unacceptable in any market, and in this they resemble the gallant 200, though no doubt the lot of the general writer is easier in so far as he has only to persuade a publisher, and it is in general cheaper to publish a book than it is to put on a play. Still it is not cheap, and publishers usually have a fairly sober view of what they can sell, and many a good book can go the rounds for years before it surfaces, if it ever does. It can hardly be said, however, that it is the competition from dead authors that is the trouble. Indeed any writer worth his salt may feel that his market would be better if there were more people who cared to acquaint themselves a little more with the best writing of the past. The real threat comes from the profusion of bad books which make the better ones hard to find and impedes or delays their obtaining any noticeable currency. It is arguable that this situation will improve, as people abandon the habit of reading in favour of television of one kind and another and the tide of printed material recedes. What is in view is, however, not a status quo ante but a world in which the number of composed words will be multiplied as never before and be immediately apprehensible or give the impression that they are. There will be no resemblance with the earlier aural cultures which were local and were marked by what by our standards would be an intolerable restriction of material and its consequently frequent repetition. It will be a new world of passing and therefore diminishing meanings. Whether literature can survive at all, in such circumstances, must be uncertain. The long view is not for us. In the short term, in the world that is already with us, there seems to be nothing to be gained by hurrying the process by suppressing the work of our predecessors. So perhaps the Theatre Writers' Union should think again.

This item is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.

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