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Questions Raised by the Work of Playwright John McGrath Still Resonate Today

This January marks the 12th anniversary of the death of John McGrath, playwright, screenwriter, producer, director, and founder of the 7:84 Theatre Companies in both England and Scotland. McGrath’s legacy is well remembered, and honoured, by many people around Scottish theatre who recall his passion for taking theatre out of its red-plush, middle-class setting, and bringing it to audiences who might otherwise never have been theatregoers; as well as his determination to make popular, accessible theatre about the experience of ordinary working-class people, best embodied in his legendary 1973 show about land use and land ownership in the Highlands, The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

As I made my way around this year’s Scottish pantomime season, though, I found myself thinking more than usual about the depth and seriousness of McGrath’s commitment to the idea of a popular theatre. It’s not only that the annual round of Christmas shows traditionally attracts a much larger audience than any other form of theatre – including many people who never enter a theatre at any other time of the year – or that they are so vital to the finances of many theatre organisations. Edinburgh’s Festival City Theatres Trust, for example, estimates that the annual panto at the King’s – with this year’s Peter Pan still running, until 19 January – accounts for around 25 per cent of its yearly box office income, across both the King’s and Festival Theatres.

It’s also that the show itself – with its rowdy, accessible form – reminds us how a truly popular theatre might look and feel; and of how an art-form draws strength and energy from a close, wide and deep connection with the community it serves. This week, a document is circulating suggesting that one key answer to the ruthless economic approach to the arts advocated by the current Eng-lish arts minister, Maria Miller, is to build up popular support for the arts as part of the life of the community. And while the arts in Scotland are not facing such bleak prospects – the Scottish culture minister Fiona Hyslop has made it clear that she does not share Maria Miller’s views – there’s no doubt that strong public involvement and support gives arts organisations both creative energy and resilience, in uncertain times.

All of which makes it particularly interesting to return to the chapter in McGrath’s great book of theatre theory, A Good Night Out, in which he describes the key characteristics of popular or working-class theatre. Times have changed, of course, since 1981, when McGrath gave the series of Cambridge lectures on which the book is based; traditional “bourgeois theatre” is perhaps less dominant and daunting than it was then, and various forms of introverted and self-referential post-structuralism perhaps do more damage today.

Yet there are still many people who feel that theatre is not for the likes of them; and when I read McGrath’s list of the nine key qualities of popular theatre – directness rather than obscurity, comedy, music, emotion, variety, effect, immediacy, and localism both of material and performers – I am bound to wonder just how often I see all or most of those in action, outside the panto season.

McGrath’s views are always infinitely debatable, of course. Yet more than any other British theatre-maker of the last half-century, he made the effort not only to create working-class theatre, but to analyse and describe the ways in which theatre could break the bonds of convention, and reach out to a much wider audience. And it’s because of that unique contribution to both the practice and the theory of his art that theatre-makers should still be reading and discussing McGrath’s work today; not because it invites agreement, but because it asks the right questions about where theatre sits in our society, and about how it can reconnect with the ancient energy of popular entertainment – the energy embodied in the pantomime – while still creating great contemporary theatre, with the power to confront the toughest and most daunting issues of our time.

This article by Joyce McMillan appeared in The Scotsman on 11th January 2014.