"The British epic theatre with its issue plays that my generation of playwrights invented and wrote through the 1970s and 1980s has died on us. We need new ways of dramatising what people are thinking and feeling out there." So writes Howard Brenton in his new book Hot Irons, thereby articulating the problem that a younger generation of theatre-makers has been wrestling with for some years. At the most experimental end of the spectrum, practitioners are declaring not just epic theatre but the play form itself dead and buried. But even among people who happily describe themselves as playwrights, it is clear that what constitutes a well-made play has evolved very far from the days of Terence Rattigan (about whose work the phrase was coined) and even the formal experiments of Brenton and his contemporaries.
Ruth Ben-Tovim, who works with writers in the live art field and is now collaborating with Pete Brooks of Insomniac Productions, explains: "The linear play form is no longer representative of the way we view the world or the way we receive information. Through the century, there's been a deterministic view of the world, a belief that we can control and influence our lives and that all the parts add up to an identifiable whole. But all aspects of our world are changing: politically, with the collapse of socialism; scientifically, with the advent of Chaos Theory; and in terms of the new global technologies."
Her words are borne out by companies like Forced Entertainment, who have been incorporating these new realities into their work for a decade, as their writer, Tim Etchells, explains. "We wanted to make theatre for those of us raised in a house with the TV permanently on. Your idea of plot changes if every major event in childhood occurs with a story going on simultaneously on the screen - narrative means at least two things, maybe more.
"We're so haunted by other versions of ourselves and our lives as reflected by the media that it comes to us second-hand, and that fundamentally affects our notion of character. It means you can't present a character that can speak with a single voice, but only a collection of eyes or voices which circulate around a fixed point."
The work that such a philosophy produces is fragmented, seemingly chaotic and without any clear beginning, middle or end. In its refusal to offer up identifiable characters or storylines, let alone any readable message, it is troubling to a theatre audience expecting set-up, conflict and resolution in a drama. It's significant, though, that the bulk of Forced Entertainment's core audience (apart from the avant-garde at the ICA in London) are young people of the MTV generation who have no difficulty in reading their work.
David Edgar, a key figure of Brenton's "new orthodoxy" generation and a teacher of playwriting, counters with the claim that political theatre has proved more adaptable than its detractors allow. "I perceive a new confidence among British political playwrights, many of whom spotted that Marxism was in crisis a long time ago. We're still able to analyse society, even though we may not be saying that the answer is a Marxist alternative." As a teacher, his advice is that rules are invented to be broken, but you have to learn the rules in order to break them effectively.
Television is frequently cited as the great enemy of the theatre, both stylistically (it encourages naturalistic writing, yet does naturalism much better than the theatre can) and formally. Accusations fly that its influence causes writers to use episodic structures of short, elliptical scenes, and that playwrights have forgotten the craft required to build sustained scenes and coherent structures. Apart from the fact that canonical writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Brecht, and Brenton have all adopted episodic structures at one time or another, there is a distinction to be made between episodic and fragmented writing. …