The Art of Serious Comedy
by Connal Orton, November 2000
(Introduction to PLAYS ONE)
Most Literary Managers will tell you that they develop a sort of sixth sense about plays before too long; that they can smell a good one as it comes out of the envelope; and that this wonderful feeling doesn't happen too often. I was therefore equally blessed and cursed, in my first week as Director/Literary Manager at The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, to find myself confronted by an unsolicited play by Torben Betts which shone out like a beacon in the darkness: blessed because that's a pretty satisfactory first week at the office; cursed because it would be a good year or so before I discovered quite what a rare feeling this was to be.
The production of that play, re-titled A Listening Heaven, marked the first stage in a relationship between The SJT and Torben which has involved rehearsed readings, a six-month stint as Arts Council of England writer-in-residence and now a commission for his new play, Clockwatching, to be produced in Scarborough in 2001.
The relationship between writer and theatre is one The SJT cares about passionately. Most famous of course for premiering all of the work of its Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn, The SJT nonetheless champions the new writing of many other playwrights in the early stages of their careers and beyond. Ayckbourn's vision, and my brief, was to identify and nurture a school of writers driven by the urge to say something of importance to an audience, to say it in a well-crafted fashion, but above all else to entertain that audience. Torben falls naturally and squarely at the heart of this brief.
Comparisons may be odious, but comparisons with Alan Aykbourn are an inevitability for writers produced at The SJT, I remember Tim Firth and I eagerly opening the Scarborough Evening News to search for the review of our premiere of Neville's Island, the play I had directed and Tim had written, only to I the said review under the somewhat misleading headline 'Ayckbourn Does It Again'. The fact is that Alan Ayckbourn's work, the artistic policy of the theatre and the aspirations of the writers who are drawn to the SJT as a natural home are all inextricably bound together. The principal link is that Ayckbourn has championed Comedy as a serious medium for many years and it is that objective that many of Scarborough's new writers - Torben included - share.
Looking at the collection of the three plays published here, the term 'Comedy' seems pretty much tested to the limit. Each play catalogues the pain and suffering that we inflict on one another as an ordinary part of our day to day living, each offers a feeble, thwarted yearning for some sort of higher spiritual meaning and each features a death. The sort of stuff that's guaranteed to have them rolling in the aisles.
But look more closely, listen to the rhythms of what is and isn't being said and the comedy emerges like the sun from behind the storm clouds. No doubt there would be a way to produce these plays that didn't provoke laughter, worthy and rather po-faced in its approach - but that would be to miss the point entirely. All the best jokes are based on truth, and in laughing here we publicly admit to recognising what Torben is describing, even if that recognition in private, and in our own relationships, would be difficult or impossible to own up to. That, in essence, is the purpose of intelligent comedy in the theatre.
Comedy is frequently thought of as the poor cousin at the feast - a categorisation which some take to mean a play less serious, and therefore less important, than a tragedy. These plays are social comedies, a form which some politically minded writers would argue is fundamentally reactionary. But anyone in search of a cosy night out watching young couples running laughing through French windows is in for a bit of a shock here. Certainly, the landscape these plays describe is domestic in the best traditions of Coward, Priestley and Rattigan, and the characters are bound to each other more often than not by the complex knots and tangles of family relationships. But all of these homes are cold, in the process of being built, or repaired, or decorated, or tidied to the point of utter sterility.
The sad totems of family life are tied up in rituals (celebrations!), involving awkward gatherings, buffets of leftovers and tatty paper party hats. The characters walk in and out of each other's lives leaving clutter, or breakages, or muddy footprints behind them. The family here seems an animal that requires constant feeling and attention, demanding maintenance and sucking the life out of you while offering little by way of compensation. Family - the people you have to be with but can't actually abide. What little comfort there is comes in stolen moments, usually illicitly, and brings little if any happiness. Affairs seem to be slight pleasures, stolen from others, and come with so much guilt attached that they cease to bring relief, only pain and sorrow.
The world of these plays is white, well-heeled middle England or trendy London borough. The people here live the lives we do, vote like us and believe in the same things as us. God, Buddha and Marx are alive and apparently utterly indifferent. If He's listening in His heaven he isn't doing much about what He hears. Characters cling to their religions in the desperate hope that reincarnation or an afterlife may bring some sort of improvement on the here and now. Consumerism is a different kind of religion laid bare; here. People in these plays are always consuming - food, or booze, or drugs. And money is used as power, offered as a bribe or a salve to conscience, taken away as punishment, refused as an act of hostility. Principles don't come cheap, and the devil is never far away with temptation in this wilderness, armed with his chequebook and biro. Even the kindest of characters don't seem to be able to move themselves beyond selfishness.
In short, we need to be careful what easy assumptions we make about comedies.
But why, we might ask, is the playwright laying all this human misery open for us to gawp at? And why, more to the point, is he inviting us to laugh at it? For my own part, I tend to think of plays in two categories: 'microscope plays' and 'telescope plays'. Telescope plays are overtly Political, exploring big concepts, taking the audience on journeys to foreign lands.
On the other hand, microscope plays, like the ones collected here, look at the political landscape from a much more apparently trivial level - but in doing so ask perhaps more fundamental questions: if we cannot communicate a simple thought across the breakfast table, if we cannot even be civil to those we are supposed to love, how can we ever hope to address the larger Political and Social issues?
In Torben's plays the jokes are often the shocks that open up these apparent contradictions, exposing the gap between the expectation and the reality of social relationships. Communication, or the lack of it. These plays are full of people talking as a means of avoiding communication. They watch the telly and describe its dullest moments in inane detail; they treat the room to the catalogue of A and B roads they'll be using to drive home; they bustle in and - more often -out of the room under the guise of preparing barbecues and buffets, always running away from serious conversations lurking on the horizon like gathering storms. Alright? Alright? Alright? they ask - but the last thing they ever want is an honest answer.
Torben is a master of the nasty, niggling row, the drip drip drip of domestic disharmony and resentment, where the big argument and the real subject of the scene is always just out of frame, pushing against the dam we feel sure is about to break. And break it sometimes does. The violence can't help but spill over. The only reason it is kept at bay so long is because these lives appear to be lived under anaesthetic, feelings pushed so low that characters can control the hatred they feel but have lost with it the ability to love properly. The awkward and uncomfortable tone, the petty squabbles, always point towards much bigger and more troubling issues.
These then are comedies with a deeply serious intent. The politics may be with a small p, but the intention and effect is very far from reactionary.
Finally, a word about language. It would be a mistake to see these plays as purely naturalistic just because they are horribly real. The rhythm of the dialogue, the particular nature of the vocabulary, the balance between language and pause reveals the poet in Torben Betts' writing. It's this poetic quality, the real writer's ability to put one word next to another and make the perfect shape, sound, meaning or resonance, that one sniffs as the good plays come out of the envelope. Halfway down the first page one can spot the author as that all too rare beast, A Writer.
For all their heightened, abstracted, poetic renderings of normal speech, these three plays nonetheless represent the social realist phase of Torben's writing (in contrast to the collection of work that is due, at time of writing, to make up Plays Two). His distinction between the plays printed here and his other more abstract writing is an interesting one - his more overtly poetic plays he sees as 'about characters who can use language and so create tragedy, rather than characters who cannot (thus perhaps creating comedy).'
But one shouldn't mistake the inarticulate nature of the characters here, their apparent inability to string a sentence, never mind a thought, together with a lack of meaning or content in the plays themselves. There's a whole I host of social issues being tackled here, a whole raft of questions that need addressing and ethical dilemmas that challenge the audience.
So by all means let the plays invite you to consider these questions. But for God's sake don't forget to laugh.