I once interviewed the legendary Elaine Stritch at London’s Savoy Hotel where, in some splendour, she had previously lived for 13 years. Knocking back Diet Coke – the days of vodka stingers were long gone – she regaled me with tales including one of appearing in 1963 in The Time of the Barracudas, the now forgotten debut by British playwright Peter Barnes.
She was starring opposite Laurence Harvey, whom she found impossible to work with. Then the reviews came out, including one observing: “Elaine Stritch has her back to the audience for the entire evening. However, this reviewer would rather look at Elaine Stritch’s back than Laurence Harvey’s front.” She barked: “And I had to go back out on stage with him!”
Small wonder that many actors don’t read reviews. Even if a critic doesn’t lay down terms for intra-cast warfare, it’s not just bad reviews that do damage. Good ones can be troubling, since the singling out of, say, “that thrilling moment where X does Y” makes the actor in question horribly self-conscious.
Novelists, I’d guess, are similarly wary of reading about themselves in print. Hilary Mantel is the only British writer to win the Booker prize twice, for Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. But if she reads her publicity, I hazard she’ll have been underwhelmed by the sentence in last weekend’s glowing Sunday Times interview that announced: “Mantel, 67, is one of the country’s most successful and enigmatic female novelists.” Seriously? In 2020, the term ‘female novelist’ is still in use?
It’s much the same for 81-year-old Caryl Churchill, who is often referred to as ‘one of our most important female playwrights’. But that’s okay because in all the think-pieces and reviews for his latest play Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard has been referred to as “our greatest living male playwright”. Except he hasn’t.
Sexism in the critical industry is scarcely news. Even before two of the most notorious recent cases – body-shaming reviews for the Donmar’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 2018 and Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier in 2014 – Nicholas Hytner, then director of the National Theatre, caused uproar when he asserted that female directors were reviewed differently from male directors.
Charles Spencer of the Telegraph dismissed the accusation as “a mad rush of blood to the head”, while the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh called it “bilious” and “a declaration of war”. The Guardian’s Michael Billington described Hytner’s statement as “balderdash and piffle”, arguing that “the idea that critics review productions on the basis of gender and sexual orientation is absolute nonsense”.
He was possibly right, in the strict sense that few, if any, critics do so consciously. But surely Hytner was pointing to the far more insidious business of unconscious bias.
So let’s be charitable and say that’s what’s happening when playwrights are ranked. When first talking about Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt last year, Sonia Friedman told the Guardian: “He is without question our greatest living playwright and alongside two or three others the greatest playwright of the 20th and 21st century. Just look at his body of work.”
To be fair, any writer who became an overnight sensation with the early Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and then went on to write something as intellectually and emotionally mature as Arcadia must be up there. But I’d argue he is considerably less vital a dramatist than Churchill in one crucial aspect: influence.
Aside from the much-aped gamesmanship of early shorts including the hilarious After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound, I’m struggling to think of another dramatist whose work has embraced his style or voice in any way other than being a failed copy. But you’ll be pushed to cite any younger UK playwright who doesn’t acknowledge Churchill’s overwhelming influence on their craft.
As the London revivals of Far Away (at the Donmar Warehouse) and A Number (the Bridge) – plus the upcoming Escaped Alone at Sheffield Crucible – prove, she not only changed the way people write plays (inventing, among other things, the now standard notation for overlapping dialogue), she has dismantled and fascinatingly rebuilt what a play is and can be. Without Churchill’s iconoclasm, Lucy Kirkwood’s breathtakingly original The Welkin, running at the National, couldn’t have existed.
Churchill’s one ‘error’? Unlike Pinter, Bennett, Hare or, indeed, Stoppard, her voice is not in easily identifiable dialogue and, crucially, she has never repeated herself. That makes it impossible to define what her plays look, sound or feel like.
Like Bauhaus artists who argued that form follows function, Churchill’s voice is in her constant rewriting of theatrical rules to find the freshest structure to explore and express ideas dramatically. That makes her impossible to categorise. It also makes her the most dazzlingly original of dramatists. Long may she thrive.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict