Pursued By A Bear: “How do I escape the tyranny of boring British naturalism?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I’m bored by naturalism.  What’s your opinion on this?  Do you think there’s room for truly experimental theatre in the UK?  Or should I just give up and move to Germany?  (FWIW I also hear rent is cheaper there.)”

Naturalism is a form of theatre which seeks to create the illusion of reality. Not to be confused with naturism, which is a lifestyle choice to embrace and engage in public nudity.

From what I understand of the German people, they are bigger fans of the latter, and find less enjoyment from the former. So yes, if you want to banish naturalism from your writing, a move to Germany might be a good place to start. It also wouldn’t hurt if you enjoy getting naked in the park.

The British aren’t known for our wild imaginations. This is probably why naturalism is so popular here. It’s really second only to the musical, which we inexplicably love, despite being such cold-hearted and joyless bastards.

We don’t like our escapism to be too far removed from our own reality, in case it inspires us to somehow dream of something better. Why don’t we want to dream? Because the dream probably won’t come true and then it’ll only compound our lingering sense of abject misery. No, it’s far better to escape from your reality by immersing yourself in an even more depressing version of reality and telling yourself; “Yeah my life sucks, but at least I’m not Phil Mitchell.”

If you’re from another country where people like to occasionally enjoy happiness rather than resent it out of blind loyalty to the national hobby of pessimism, I’ll provide a short anecdote to illustrate my point.

A friend recently took a trip to America and absolutely loved it. He had a fantastic time, the best holiday he’d ever taken in his life. He went to Las Vegas, took a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to San Francisco and finished off with a weekend in Seattle. When he came back, I asked him how it was and he said, in typical British fashion “Yeah. It was alright.”

“I bet you’re gutted to be back in this dump?” I responded.

“I did have a good time, but actually, it’s a relief,” he said, “Americans are so enthusiastic. It was driving me mental in the end. They smile all the time. It’s just not believable.”

It’s just not believable.

My friend refused to believe anyone could be consistently happy throughout the course of an entire day; “What is there to enjoy about pouring coffee for a stranger? What happiness can be gleaned from ushering mindless tourists into Planet Hollywood? Even the homeless people smile when they wish you a nice day.”

And it wasn’t just the amount of happiness he had an issue with either, it was also the intensity; “They aren’t just happy about bringing a burger to your table, they’re excited. It’s like they’re getting a thrill out of it. No one is that happy all the time. It must be fake. I found it completely exhausting.”

Happiness is exhausting for us. And even when we are happy, we try not to let it show too much because of a bizarre fear that other people will think we’re putting it on. No one’s that happy.

So we Brits prefer our theatre to be firmly rooted in a slightly gloomier version of our own reality. Nothing too abstract we can’t relate to. We’re not all that comfortable exploring our own imaginations, so we definitely don’t want to see inside yours. We like things to be steady and predictable.

A few years back I went to see Mark Ravenhill’s Over There at the Royal Court. If you haven’t seen it I don’t want to ruin the surprise so just skip the next five paragraphs and imagine I said something brilliantly profound and life-changing. The play is set in Berlin, featuring two brothers named Franz and Karl, who were separated by the Berlin Wall at a young age and have just been reunited. Ravenhill sets up a very uneasy atmosphere as the brothers each reveal more of themselves, and the ensuing conflict ramps up the tension.

I remember the play being fairly naturalistic throughout, with few surprises. I was enjoying myself; settling into the comfortable familiarity of a gradual build-up of resentment, which would inevitably lead to a shouty conclusion whereby the brothers would air their grievances before finding some mutual ground to grudgingly get past their differences.

Imagine my horror when the East German brother suddenly and violently murdered the West German brother, squirted ketchup all over him and started eating his corpse. Then the curtain came down.

It’s not entirely unheard of for a German to indulge in a bit of cannibalism. However, this is not what Mark Ravenhill led me to expect from this particular German. It was all a bit… metaphorical. I just couldn’t get my head around it.

I don’t believe for a second that in this situation the poor German would eat the wealthy German. For one, there was tons of food in the flat, and the rich German had loads of money to buy more. Secondly, I don’t imagine a raw human corpse tastes that good, even with ketchup; any sensible cannibal would hack it into pieces, cook what he wanted and freeze the rest for later. And thirdly, the way the whole murder and devouring was carried out, he could never hope to get away with it.

It just wasn’t believable.

You’re absolutely right though, naturalism can be boring. Everyday life is packed with enough dismal problems already, why do we go to the theatre to experience other peoples’ car wrecks? I guess it’s for the satisfaction of catharsis. Because naturalism only creates an illusion of reality.

In real life, there are no conclusions. True stories rarely have satisfying endings. I think this is where the appeal of naturalistic theatre comes in. These characters are going through things we can relate to, but eventually they tend to reach some kind of resolution, which we never seem to find in our own lives. And even if we did, we’re British so we’d quickly find something else to moan about.

Is it unfair to say we lack the openness to enjoy the more abstract theatre they seem to favour in places like Germany and France? I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, but that’s my guess. Brits tend to prefer the familiar. We want music that reflects the everyday drudgery of our bleak existence, so we listen to Oasis. We want to watch people on television whose happiness is as fleeting and half-hearted as our own, so we watch Eastenders. Even our films tend to be quiet and moody, with actors who are relatable and mildly attractive without ever being too good-looking.

Leave the happiness to the Americans, the artsy soul-searching to the French and the metaphorical weirdness to the Germans. We want to watch actors drinking tea and disagreeing politely about the economy.

So what can you do if you want to explore other kinds of theatre in the UK? Despite everything I’ve said above, we are open to less familiar theatre occasionally, as long as we’re thoroughly aware of what it is before we get there. Don’t underestimate the popularity of writers like Sarah Kane or Samuel Beckett in the UK.

And don’t forget, the most famous and beloved playwright in our history, William Shakespeare, can hardly be called a naturalist. When was the last time you held a conversation in verse or swapped identities with a member of the opposite gender to foil a sinister plot? As a caveat to this point I do have to point out that a lot of Brits avoid Shakespeare because “The characters talk funny.”

If writing non-naturalist plays is a real passion you should definitely pursue it. Why not move to Germany? Even if it doesn’t work out you’ll still accumulate lots of fascinating material with which to write boring naturalistic plays about Brexit when you eventually give up and come back to the UK. Rent is cheaper there, as are beer, meat and prostitution. Plenty to keep you busy between penning absurdist plays about talking lederhosen.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

1 thought on “Pursued By A Bear: “How do I escape the tyranny of boring British naturalism?””

  1. Actually it is the characters that count you can do very, very imaginative things as long as the characters are REAL. There is nothing more boring to me than characters that are not real. Whatever happened to decent crafting of characters, look at Beckett’s work, two characters stuck in a mud heap, no shouting or screaming East Enders style. Look at J B Priestly’s modern version of an Inspectors Calls, Brilliant. No wonder there is a dearth of real, new writers, with the demand for ‘clever dialogue’ and mwtaphors without real characters and the warning from Artistic Directors ‘do not bother to send in conventionally structured scripts.’ Actually conventional structure is there for a reason, to draw the audience in, to really make them feel. One very famous film writer (name escapes) me wrote:

    “If I feel the emotion then my audience will.”

    They hit the nail on the head, writing is about humanity, use fantasy, to highlight the humanity.

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