Richard Jordan: How will we mint the next generation of classics?
What makes a play become a classic? Who decides? You can wait for the playwright to die, and assess the body of work, elevating the highlights. Or, more commonly in the modern era, look at the number of revivals a work has had and anoint the victors with ‘classic’ status.
But this model is flawed. It introduces the risk of a false positive, and may make it harder to find new classics in future.
Recently, of 15 plays running in the West End, four were written by two contemporary writers: Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee. Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and 1974 play Travesties, and Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and 2002 play The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? all received West End revivals.
The Goat had not been seen in the West End since its UK premiere in 2004, nor Travesties since its last revival in 1993, while over the years Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have been revived regularly.
Commercial theatre understandably sticks to familiar titles. Alan Ayckbourn’s 2004 play Private Fears in Public Places is one of his finest pieces of writing but it has never received a significant revival, nor a West End run. Instead, the focus is on his earlier works such as How the Other Half Loves.
When Daniel Radcliffe stars in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, his name can bring new audiences to the theatre, and also introduce them to Stoppard’s work. That introduction is valuable in itself, but it’s the frequency of revivals – and the column inches – that confers classic status.
And that is under threat. The pattern, certainly in the West End, for many years favoured regular revivals of Stoppard, Ayckbourn, Bennett, Frayn and Pinter. And they ran and ran – before being recast for national tours.
Today’s star-led 12 to 16-week runs afford no such luxury.
I’d love to see more producers taking the opportunity to revive less familiar titles from a playwright’s body of work, many of which are equally deserving of a revisit. The current roster offers a very narrow palette of West End plays and there is a danger that the fallout from rising ticket prices and repetitive programming will become detrimental to industry health. Look to Broadway, where The Glass Menagerie is on its fifth revival since 2005.
We also need to find a way to give new work the chance to become as celebrated as that of Stoppard or Albee. As things stand, I suspect in 20 years’ time, we are more likely to see those playwrights’ work than that of the equally talented emerging writers of today.
That’s partly because, like lesser revivals, they find it hard to get a foothold in the West End, but also because we have become obsessed by ‘event’ theatre. The dazzling production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time leaves an indelible memory – but it can’t be easily revived before a significant period of time has elapsed. Sadly, it may be the case that a one-set play will have a stronger chance of revival (and of becoming a classic) than a more imaginatively staged production.
If we make an effort to pull commercial focus on today’s writers, we can create fresh opportunities for new classics. If we don’t, we risk having a commercial theatre industry that is entirely reliant on reviving a handful of ‘greatest hits’ from a ‘golden era’ – and the legacy of modern talent will be lost to the ages.