Are playwrights custodians of the public conscience?
Kate Mulvany and Daniel Keene
The MTC 2012 Cybec Readings are an opportunity for playwrights to road-test new work, this month three readings are to take place at the Southbank Theatre. Two of the playwrights, Kate Mulvany and Daniel Keene, responded to the idea from Cybec Foundation Director Dr Roger Riordan that ‘playwrights are custodians of the public conscience’.
Almost every one of life’s lessons that I experience now as an adult I first encountered in fairy tales. Politics, power, love, hate, ambition, mortality, family—all were within the pages of my story books that I was read until I could read them myself. This progressed to performing the stories with my dolls and teddy bears. Then with my friends. To our parents, extended families, schoolmates—anyone that could be bothered watching. As I got older, I realised these stories had nothing to do with fairies at all and everything to do with humanity. The lessons started to correlate with my own life, and the wisdom within them struck me all over again.
30 years on, I’m a professional storyteller. I tell stories because—like those fairy tales I discovered as a child—they educate me whilst they keep me guessing. As I create a new story, I discover neverending details about the world around me and the inhabitants of it. I am forced to bend and twist and shape myself differently in order to expand my imagination, and my audience’s experience.
As a writer, I have moved beyond those initial fairy tales that first pricked my imaginative education. But not too much has changed. My wicked witches and trolls and trapped princesses have become doppelgangers of the consciences and souls, politics and morals of the word I live in. Reality, in all its wonder, horror, hope and rigour.
Because of this, playwrights are indeed ‘custodians of the public consciousness’. I think all artists are. But our job as ‘custodians of the public consciousness’ is to also be breakers of it, renovators of it, reminders of it, shakers of it, nurturers of it, questioners of it. We’re custodians, but hopefully brutally tough ones who constantly challenge our world and the part each character plays in it.
I find this an uncomfortable proposition. Who assumes or grants such moral authority?
Perhaps it’s a tempting delusion for those who would like to imagine that writing has some kind of socially acceptable function, like waiting on tables or building bridges or delivering sermons. Or it might serve as a justification for what could otherwise be considered a vain pursuit, for those who are uneasy with vanity.
It would be a legitimate proposition in a society that demands that the work of the playwright educate and inform, as a lecture or a carefully balanced current affairs program might. Both of these exist without the need for theatrical metaphor or the burden of imagination, with all of their lies and truths and liberties.
Perhaps it would be a useful proposition if the work of the playwright were required to artfully confirm the acceptable level of current public despair, or to accommodate and comfort the already comfortable, like a diligent servant.
It would be a useful proposition if the theatre were meant to be a mirror in which the audience is reflected, confirming their desire to be acknowledged and to know themselves. This reflection would only be disturbed by the playwright’s ability to amuse by exaggerating recognisable and tolerable foibles. The characters portrayed in such a theatre would be characters who were acceptable to the kind of people who have the inclination and the disposable income to attend the theatre: members of the liberal middle class.
There would be no difficult questions asked and no failures contemplated. Cruelty, doubt, mortality, defeat, loneliness, poverty unrelieved and injustice unanswered, would all be unacceptable topics. There would be no plays of Samuel Beckett performed, and certainly none by Patrick White.
To be the custodian of the public conscience is to stand guard over it, to keep it safe, to simply confirm it, to hold a mirror up to it.
Who appoints the guard? Why is the public conscience so vulnerable that it needs to be kept secure? Why isn’t the public conscience at liberty? Why must it gaze only upon itself, living in front of a mirror, preening itself? Playwrights should be the liberators of public conscience. The mirror should be smashed, like the walls of a prison.
Kate Mulvany, Richard Flanagan and Daniel Keene will have their plays publicly read on 27, 28 and 29 September, 7pm at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler. For information and tickets go to the MTC website.
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