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Thoughts on: Theatre and the Market

For me the act of creating theatre has always been an act of resistance.

At the beginning, the very beginning of my life as a theatre writer, I had no voice. I needed to struggle against silence. And to struggle with all my strength.

The struggle was necessary because it seemed to me that there was no-one, no-one in the whole wide world, who was writing theatre in the way that I wanted to write it.

And so I was afraid.

But somehow - and I don't understand how - I managed to conquer my fear and find my voice in the theatre. If not my definitve voice, then at least a voice that I could use. And now, some fifty or so plays and scripts later, I feel as if I have understood that this struggle against silence is no longer simply a personal or an individual struggle.

It is a struggle that involves all of us: all of us engaged in the process of creating theatre.

And I am still afraid.

I must explain that I come here with a very different perspective from those of you who live and work here in Spain. After so many years of the most horrible, repressive, fascist dictatorship, you are engaged in the process of building a new society and a new theatre culture. It is a problematic, it is at times a heart-breakingly frustrating and difficult process, but it is at heart a positive one. The very existence of this Congress, this amazing Congress, bears witness to it.

And I say amazing because this Congress does amaze me. A Congress of this importance, of this stature, of this prestige, could never occur in my country. It is even unthinkable.

Many people have paid tribute to the wonderful theatrical tradition of my country. Of Great Britain. This adjective 'Great' is completely inaccurate. It really should be 'Little'. Little Britain. Poor Britain. Stupid Britain.

And I give country all these insulting epithets because yes, it is true that we posses a wonderful theatre tradition. But it is also true that until very recently we have been engaged in the process of destroying it. In the process of little by little destroying all those structures that make it possible to create and enjoy theatre. To enjoy and learn from theatre of the past and to create the theatre of the present and the future.

We are doing so because we have handed ourselves over to the power of the Market. We have done with very little understanding of what e are doing and with very little resistance to it.

And the market is the enemy of theatre.

The market understands profit. The market understands the movement of capital. The market understands the buying and selling of commodities. The market understands and glorifies individual effort in competition with the rest of the world.

Theatre is about none of these things. Theatre is not about profit. Theatre is not capital intensive: it is labour intensive. It is not about capital: it is about human beings. It is not about creating artefacts, objects that can be bought and sold and traded. It is about the creative moment: that amazing, wonderful moment of interaction between actor and audience. It is not created through individual effort - through the miserable and mean spirited attempt to cheat and profit from our fellow human beings. It is created collectively, within a framework of co-operation and mutual respect.

And its main enemy - I repeat - its main enemy is the Market.

The market's most perfect form of artistic expression is the television commercial. Many many people watch television - are addicted to watching television - not because of the programmes themselves, which are mostly terrible, but because of the commercials.

And these commercials, this little stories created often with the most astonishing persuasive power and skill, little by little are colonising our imagination. They show fantastic skill in the manipulation of images, in the degradation of language, in the manipulation of our emotions and of our deepest desires: a skill that at the end of the day is dedicated to the impoverishment of the imagination and the imprisonment of the free mind.

Arrabal was talking of the day he was taken off at dawn to be imprisoned. No-one is coming to take us away to prison. What is happening to us is that day by day little by little another tiny bit of our imagination is taken away to be locked up in a shopping centre.

And we don't even notice the process.

This is very dangerous. The Market's conquest both of the outer world, and little by little its far more subtle and far more dangerous conquest of the imagination, represents a huge danger. Not just to theatre, but to life itself.

We all know that the huge problems that confront our world cannot be solved by the simple application of market forces. I am talking here of the ecological disaster that confronts us; the terrifying health problems that endanger us, the atrocious injustice of the division between rich and poor that so damages the lives of most of the world's population.

A crucially important tool in helping us to understand and come to terms with the global situation is the creation of an art form that empowers the imagination. An art form that enriches - but truly enriches - the imagination. An art form founded on both private and public experience. An art form that cannot be traded, that cannot be bought and sold, that cannot be treated as a mere commodity. An art form that is not just built on individual effort but is created in an act of collective co-operation.

I hope you have understood that the art form I am talking about is the theatre.

And so I am both profoundly pessimistic and profoundly optimistic. Because the very things that make our lives as theatre artists so dangerous, and so marginalised are the very same things that make us absolutely necessary.

Theatre has to be at the service of life: and life itself needs theatre.

- Madrid, 27 November 1998



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