Playwright of the Possible
by David Pownall, June 2001
(Introduction to PLAYS TWO)
On first encountering a playwright's work, a fellow author is made aware of instinctive movements within its feel and structure: either to escape from the stage and its restrictions, or embrace it, warts and all, desiring its roughness. The first kind inevitably give themselves away by sketching the ghost of a film or television series within what has been created. The theatre energy is false, even though the writing may be clever. The author is only present in this cleverness. So the identity is glib.
Torben Betts is not one of these. He relishes the stage and lives by its laws - those harsh laws which compress action into meaning and, hopefully in the heart of the playwright, bring forth a moment of revelation. He naturally believes in the power of acting and the power of being within that transforming power. His presence originates in the stage, as a spiritual platform. In the case of two of these plays, at the time of writing the premieres have not taken place. Although lifting plays off the page is an art many of us imagine we have, I defy anyone to read The Biggleswades and Silence and Violence and foretell their impacts. We cannot determine the effect intellectually because it is not explicit in the design, even in the writing - it comes, I suspect, only to an actor receiving a performance script and underlining his part, sensing an energy field and an orientation of sense. Some time I must watch a Betts play in an enormous theatre and sit at the back. I've got a feeling his best work, when written, will have no problem in reaching me because it will be long-armed, passionate and made to carry.
The stuff of Torben Betts' imagination is foolishness as seen through the many shapes of fool. Not propelled by incomprehensible obsessions, or even the fatal flaws beloved of playwrights, they endure weakness, blunder, addiction to fashion and easy answers, blindness to consequences and all the other banal traits on the slag-heap of human petty sin. The garb his actors rage in is despair but they are always maddened by the memory of hope.
Alternatives pulse beneath everything he puts on the stage - the pulse of a better world he feels must be there - which can be revealed.
Beneath all his excesses and errors, all his successful scenes and high points, beats the hopeful, moral heart. His skill in portraying the foibles of family life and all the associated stupidity and insensitivity has been agreed - but the plays in this volume go beyond those Ayckbournian frontiers. The sneer drops away and wilder expressions take over. In the melees and the madnesses more space is created -space he can fill rather than settling for containment.
'I shun the fake, the asinine...' ...says one of his characters in Incarcerator, as she attempts to purge herself of fashionable idiocies and stand alone. But she can't. The fakeness and asininity are in the air she breathes, whatever she looks at or listens to. There is no escape, only death. So the vision is a dark one - the despair is one we know only too well.
Even after we've laughed at the jokes and shrugged off the bawdy and youthful burlesque, the question keeps being asked in whatever Torben Betts writes - how do we get out of this mess? The other side of his coin is, of course - how did we get into this mess?
This is a particular strength in his plays; a powerful sense of horror at what we have settled for as life. Out of this he spins webs of inanity, exploding webs which then reform into a greater web from which there seems to be no escape. The effect of life as we generally live it now on the natural mind is for him like watching slurry being poured into a spring.
What he restrainedly rages against is studded throughout his work - the spiritual sloth, the cowardly complacency, the self-destructive hunt for pleasure in the modes dictated by commerce and the media. One side of his divided writing persona presents this as comedy - without the happy ending - the other forces it ever downwards in the hope it will break through into a purified artesian well of the future.
At some point, if he refuses all the advice he's currently in receipt of - the two sides of the writer will...may...perhaps.. .merge and help lift the theatre to another level. We can't remain in the one-way system of despair for ever (Why not? I find myself asking.) Using a rolling Bettsian metaphorical extension, the ring-road of non-communication and the cul-de-sac of sex and violence miraculously disgorge into it anyway.)
For all the talk of creative freedom, this remains a bullying, prescriptive age. The idea of a natural author, unattached, unhampered by discipleship, living inside our society and coming up with their unique interpretation of existence gets more out-of-the-question as each day goes by. The pressures of political correctness, corporate power, media-backed fashion and ventriloquistic money preaching its abominable sermons, are intense. This is not the era of the individual voice especially a voice from the humane but unsentimental tradition blasted by deconstructivist despair, but - in the case of this playwright - it is the age of the come-back. He feels the tradition but changes its weaponry to something more up-to-date.
Torben Betts isn't afraid to disclose his subjective torments. Characters struggle to extricate themselves from suffocating mundanity, go mad when they discover the wadding is already within. He often strikes chords with characters outside their stage function, pleas and heartaches are expressed in language beyond the character's limitations as if some god were hereabouts, a rough deity directly in touch with the author. In the playlet (can't bring myself to call it a sketch) The Invention of Morality - which could be straight from a university drama competition on the one hand but his use of crassness saves it because the god is speaking - Flack, a security guard with wings, (not real ones but a metaphorical pair) pleads with a tabloiderthal colleague to break out of the prison which employs them:
FLACK: ...I can offer you nothing, nothing but your own freedom, your own agony. Think, if you can... Think, if you dare...
His answer is a head-butt - a blow not from an oppressive system but from the victim of an oppressive system who refuses to identify the force bleeding his brain white - the machines, the cameras, screens, loudspeakers which construct reality for us.
We are not threatened by this take-over, the playwright is saying, it causes no trepidation. We are already inside it, looking outwards from the comfort of our surrender.
Having been tormented for thirty years by requests for one-line descriptions of plays and books written, life came much easier when approaching the five works in this volume. Thematic links are everywhere, the spider-mind at the centre of the web is knowable, his feelings frank within every paradox or contradiction he pursues. His concerns (ah, that word!) flash and rumble beneath that which sings and that which croaks - both being well represented in this selection.
Five Visions of the Faithful is a group of short plays delving into cruelty in all its guises; Incarcerator is a pastiche of a Jacobean verse revenge play set today with appetite as its target; The Biggleswades shows the married life of an obsessive, paranoid, dominant male who is terrified of the real world - including the reality of his submissive wife; The Last Days of Desire is a mock autobiographical dream of a terrorist playwright manipulated by the society he hates; Silence and Violence centres on a crazed megalomaniac couple ruling and ruining a country, who are screwing an image of themselves out of a heavily-abused sculptor.
All these plays are criticisms of what we might call love, or devotion, or passion, or commitment. However wrongly defined, in each case, because of greed or need or lust or sloth of soul, the love is hurtful to those in receipt. It is not love. It's a mess, a warping of truth, a pollution. If he weren't the playwright of the possible he is, shorn of all neatness and easy answers, his vision might roll up the future too much, bringing us overly close to our hypnotic, submissive suffering. But his zest for play and pitfalls is such, all I can do is look forward to what he makes of the rest of his writing life.