Features Essays Published 18 February 2011

Act Two: A Distinction Between Showbiz and Art

In the second part of our serialisation of Arnold Wesker's three-act essay "Interpretation - To Impose or Explain", written in 1988 and updated in 2010, the playwright asks us to distinguish between "the lovely lady everyone loves to love called ‘showbiz’ and the embarrassing slut everyone wishes stayed away called ‘art'".
Arnold Wesker

A  Distinction Between showbiz and art needs to  be identified in order that a playwright be given  freedom to develop.  Freedom to develop and explore new areas of their power is essential; the one characteristic we deplore in any artist is opportunism.  But for perfectly understandable reasons the market-place invites opportunism: investors do not want to lose money, subsidised theatres cannot sustain endless deficits, and directors must be – in this precarious, unholy trade – constantly on the lookout for opportunities of glory and wealth.  Herein lies the playwright’s central dilemma: on the one hand slow, painstaking development with all its risks and attendant condemnations; on the other hand opportunism with its instant applause and the chance to survive.

A further phenomenon obtrudes: a neurotic, anal urge by academics and media to divide life into decades.  The best writers work at material they believe is of lasting value.  They may be self-deluded and be writing ephemera – posterity will judge that – but serious artists work in the belief that they are selecting material on the basis of criteria that will cross time and frontiers, that they are contributing to a mainstream of drama going back to the beginning, and not the current vogue of a mere ten years.

Of course Euripides belongs to 5th century BC Greece, and Shakespeare to 16th century England, and Chekhov to pre-revolutionary Russia, but something other than the decade or the century marks them: a strange chemistry made up of perceptive intelligence, poetic sensibility, imagination and God knows what, that enables these writers both to reflect and to stamp their times with a quality of insight from which future generations seem able continually to refresh themselves.  No writer attempts to calculate how this can be achieved, they write as they must.  Lasting impact is, however, what all writers hope they have achieved.  Whether I have succeeded or not I don’t know but I do know that I  never contemplate material unless I feel it can resonate, unless I sense that it’s more than itself.

The English fight shy of the concept of the ‘artist’.  To consider oneself an artist is to ‘take on airs’.  A bit pretentious actually.  Few in the theatre dare or quite know how to make the distinction between the lovely lady everyone loves to love called ‘showbiz’ and the embarrassing slut everyone wishes stayed away called ‘art’.  The result is that criteria become jumbled and inverted snobbery reigns.

It is not an easy distinction to handle.  Few in Britain enjoy being caught ‘serious’ for fear they might be thought ‘solemn’.  It is cosier and more comforting to link arms with the multitude and ‘have a good night out’.  The possibility that ‘a good night out’ can be achieved through engagement with intellect, emotion and laughter at a level richer than ‘the multitude’ is normally considered capable of, is deemed haughty, snooty, high-and-mighty, bumptious, imperious, highbrow, egg-head, high-falutin’, arty-farty, airy-fairy – Roget’s Thesaurus is full of the dismissive jargon fed to the fond multitude.  The contempt showbiz moguls really have for the poor multitude is an essay in itself.  It has remained a mystery to me that with everything going for them – vast financial backing and popular success – showbiz requires such a savage arsenal of insults for those of us huddled together in remote corners really unwanted if the truth be told, our heads hung low muttering, despite the terrorism of showbiz demagogues, ‘yes, well, actually, we are artists.  Sorry about that’.

But what is the distinction between art and showbiz?  The question is almost a philosophical one and cannot be answered satisfactorily in a brief essay such as this.   It has to do with three elements: with the complexity of the material handled, with the power of thought  brought to bear upon that material, and with the degree of poetry applied to the play’s conception.  None of  the great and basic themes are simple to handle – love, death, meaning, old age, happiness, self-contempt, disillusion – even the stuff of laughter.  Some laughs are cheap, easily earned; others are rich, hard-earned.  And by complexity I do not mean obscurity.  The demand of art is for as much clarity and simplicity as possible.   But life and living are not simple and sometimes no matter how hard an artist strives for clarity and simplicity it cannot always be approached because the material is Gordian, the going hard.

There is also this: art finally is a passionate, individual vision tailored for no one in particular.  It is one person’s view of the world.  Showbiz cannot be expected to accommodate this.  The stakes are too high.  The public’s taste and needs are all.  Ambitious directors will sacrifice the individual vision and tailor it to what is imagined is the public’s taste.  I do not quarrel with this nor stand in judgement.  My plea as always is for distinctions to be made.

Taken from “Wesker on Theatre”. Available from: Marston Book Services on tel: 01235 465 577 or email: [email protected], and reproduced with kind permission of Oberon Books.

You can read the first part of Arnold Wesker’s three act essay here.




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