21 March 2014 • by Christopher Haydon
"We Welcome Anyone Who Wants To Change The World..."
“We welcome anyone who wants to change the world. “
I’m currently rewriting the Gate’s mission statement and I just found myself typing that sentence. Gosh – that’s a bit grandiose isn’t it? Can a theatre in a small room above a pub in Notting Hill really change the world? We’re not exactly Oxfam and I am a theatre director not a cabinet minister. For that matter, can any kind of art really ever affect any kind of significant change? Hmm.
Earlier last year I was in rehearsals for Bruce Norris’ subtle, remarkable play Purple Heart. At one stage, we were being interviewed by Lyn Gardner of the Guardian and the question of the play’s politics (it is set during the Vietnam war) came up. Bruce was mischievously adamant about the uselessness of theatre in political terms: “The idea that theatre can change anything," he said "is optimistic… The test would be if it didn't just change what we thought – but what we do. It doesn't. I still do what I did when I was nine. It would take a traumatic disruption to change what I do. I live parasitically off the labour of others and benefit from the power structure that protects me. I'm lazy, selfish and infantile and so are most people."
I got the impression that Lyn, a critic for whom I have enormous respect, agreed with him to some extent. If he’s right, then what I am trying to do at the Gate really does seem pretty pointless. And he’s certainly not alone in taking this attitude. Billy Bragg, that most political of musicians and activists, has also spoken of how “the notion you can change the world by singing songs can only serve to undermine activism.”
And yet, there is evidence to suggest that art can in fact have a significant impact on the world. In his excellent book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gotschall gives the example of the impact that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin had in the United States when it was published in 1852. A brutal account of slavery it enraged and galvanised opinion in equal measure and forced the debate around this issue in to the public sphere. Its impact was so huge that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in the middle of the Civil War he reportedly said to her “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war”. Elsewhere, critic Derek Malcolm has made the point that Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film about Killing (part of his Decalogue series of films made in response to the 10 Commandments) had an instrumental role in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.
Of course, these are purely anecdotal examples. But as Gotschall argues, there is an increasing body of psychological research which demonstrates that fiction does play a very clear role in moulding our minds. Our brains tend to be much less good at separating reality from fiction than we might imagine (or hope). Again – this should not be surprising. Pilots often receive a significant part of their training in flight simulators. They know, rationally, that what they are doing is not ‘real’ and is little different from a sophisticated video game. But the fact that what they are doing is fictitious does not stop them from learning very concrete practical skills which will enable them to keep a real plane up in the air.
Perhaps another way of understanding the tangible power that art can have is to look at who gets pissed off when it is created. In a recent article for the Daily Mail, Michael Gove attacked shows like Blackadder and Oh What A Lovely War for propagating what he sees as a ‘leftist’ view of the First World War in the public eye. Now, as the historian Richard J Evans points out, Gove’s grasp of history might be remarkably poor. But I can’t help feeling that if a powerful politician like him is getting upset, then Tony Robinson, Rowan Atkinson and Joan Littlewood must have been doing something right.
There is a catch of course. Whilst it might well be the case that art can indeed shape and change our views and behaviour, that does not necessarily mean that it will automatically do this for the better. For instance, Hitler himself once said “whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must understand the works of Wagner”. Or, at a less extreme level, the fashion industry – that most commercial area of the arts – is constantly, and rightly, berated for its use of size zero models and the affect this can have on female body image – particularly amongst young girls.
And that’s not the only problem. The world is a complex, contradictory and messy place. The best art reflects this – there is no point creating something that is little more than a vehicle for a didactic or reductive argument. Audiences can smell that a mile off and they will rightly get bored if they don’t feel they are being made to work a bit and invest, emotionally and intellectually, in what they are seeing. As a result, no matter how progressive and intelligent ones intentions are, it can be very easy to get misunderstood. Just look at how Leonardo Di Caprio recently had to defend his new film The Wolf of Wall Street against accusations that it glamorises the corruption and greed that it depicts. He argues (quite reasonably, it seems to me) that it is intended as a satirical indictment of what it represents not an endorsement of it. Yet whatever the intention, if somebody reads your work in a manner that you did not intend, there is not necessarily much you can do about it. Eminem makes this point succinctly in his song Stan which tells the story of how an obsessive fan reads far more in to Eminem’s music than was intended – with lethal consequences.
So perhaps the real thing to worry about is not whether art/theatre/whatever can change the world, but how it does this. Just as you can rarely predict which show will be a hit and which a flop, one can never be quite sure how a piece of work will be interpreted by the wider world. In that respect, maybe an artist is more akin to a lion tamer – with the audience as a lion. If you’re really good – you might be able to coax and cajole the lion to do what you want it to do, but if it ends up biting your face off, you only have yourself to blame.