The Arts: Theatre: Playwrights: A User's Manual ; Ben Elton? `the Subtle Music of Dialogue Is beyond Him.' Lee Hall? `Profoundly Inauthentic.' Tom Stoppard? `like Dealing with a Lunatic.' Paul Taylor Asks Dominic Dromgoole Why He Wrote His Shatteringly Frank Book on Theatre's Current Writers
Taylor, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, is currently developing movie treatments of two plays - Pond Life and Knives in Hens - by writers he nurtured when he ran the Bush in the first half of the Nineties. As soon as he tells me that, though, he checks himself with a wry smile and adds, "But even there, the collateral damage from the bombs I've dropped in the book may have screwed things up."
Apparently, the folk who were prepared to raise the finance turn out to be "people who have friends who have friends" of some of the playwrights Dromgoole slags off in his breathtakingly frank and frequently acute new tome, The Full Room: an A-Z of contemporary playwriting. "No, career- wise, it was not a clever move," he muses, though not sounding in the least racked with regret.
We meet in the Polish restaurant where the book's launch party was held, which lasted, he reports proudly, from 6pm to 5am the next morning. It would not be a reckless gamble to bet that the guest- list for the bash did not include Ben Elton ("the delicacy of the human heart, the subtle music of dialogue and the light perfection of form are all beyond him"). Or the flavour of the decade, Lee Hall ("there's something profoundly inauthentic going on... Thus far it's hard to tell if he wants anything but success"). Or, yet again, certain members of the old guard, such as John Mortimer (he "has the look of a Faust who has said yes to the devil so many times that he has got nothing to trade with") and Tom Stoppard ("it's rather like dealing with a lunatic who keeps telling you he's got a map showing where he buried his underpants but he's eaten it").
The introduction to the book contains the cheeky note: "I have been counselled not to include a list of those who are omitted, so as not to offend those who are omitted from the list of those who are omitted." Quite a tease, that, given the number of luminaries who would surely have settled quite happily for being overlooked.
In the two weeks since its publication, the book has become notorious for its audacious jibes. They've certainly got The Full Room noticed, but by buying into the culture of the sound bite in this way, hasn't Dromgoole conspired in distracting people from the book's underlying argument and its passionately celebratory vision of Nineties theatre? After all, nobody forced him to structure the book as 100-odd mini-essays (some as short as the jokey one on Yasmina Reza - "Yasmina Reza est tres riche"), with its general insights sprinkled in no particular order among them, nor, indeed, to preface the whole with a disclaimer protesting that "this is not a book of criticism" because criticism is a subjective "nonsense based on what someone had for lunch, when they last shagged, where they went to school... or their athlete's foot".
Dromgoole, who looks a bit like a stockier version of Griff Rhys Jones, defends The Full Room on the grounds that "it probably is excessive, but it's meant to be excessive as a corrective" - a corrective to the kind of criticism that affects an Olympian authority "as though it were interpreting the tablets for us" and comes with a smug Platonic recipe book for what makes a good play, and to the culture of theatre practitioners in which "loathing for everyone around them builds up like a great ballooning cancer, but they'll never say a word, because it's a great arse-lickers parade."
Hence, the reckless candour, the "deliberate anti-coherence" (on occasion, hard to distinguish from incoherence) and the calculated "levelling effect" of the alphabetical ordering. Dromgoole started to write an attempt at an authoritative overview, "but it was grotesquely false as it was coming out of my pen. I thought it was more useful to follow my own voice."
This director has never been overburdened with diplomacy. When he ran the Bush, his social style at press nights was in marked contrast to that in operation at the Royal Court, where Stephen Daldry, a dab hand at PR schmoozing, would greet the critics with a "Hi, gang" and inclusive questions ("How do we feel about x? …