- British Blame Game
In one sense, Thatcher’s Theatre: British Theatre and Drama in the Eighties deals with issues more urgent and immediate than its title suggests. The book attempts to blame—directly, uniquely, and absolutely—the conservative hegemony of Margaret Thatcher and her Arts Council for the creation of a crisis in British theater. But just one week prior to its release in March 1999, Sir Peter Hall announced the formation of a “Shadow Arts Council,” a protest group of leading artists and writers united in their anger at Tony Blair and his Arts Council’s oppressive policies. As Hall and his cohorts continue to denounce the “New Labour” administration’s acrimonious, bureaucratic, jargon-laden, and maniacally cost-obsessed distribution of arts subsidies, their arguments sound virtually identical with Peacock’s harsh criticisms of Thatcher’s conservative program. Perhaps unwittingly, this book demonstrates how not everything about New Labour is entirely new, nor entirely Labour. Peacock suggests as much in his final chapter: “At present there appears to be no reason to believe that the theatre’s increasing isolation from the social and political life of Britain will be halted. In this regard, the cultural shift initiated by Thatcherism has been successful.”
But these recent developments undercut the political and economic urgency of Peacock’s project. Thatcher’s Theatre begins by revisiting a 1988 conference of leading theater professionals united in a “common detestation of Thatcherism and all its works,” an event bearing the portentous title “British Theatre in Crisis.” What was the crisis? Peacock describes a British theater industry ideologically drained by the oppressive politics and conservative funding policies of Number 10 Downing Street. The activities of Great Britain’s playwrights, mainstream companies, fringe and minority artists all suffered throughout the decade. How did the crisis come about? Peacock makes no attempt to hide his partisan ideas about what was responsible: “the influence of Thatcherite capitalism . . . of the 1980s.” But if, as the book argues, the theater community was already voicing “widespread demand for political change” as early as 1978, and if so many of the same personalities from the 1988 conference—among them Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, and Harold Pinter—join Hall in sounding the alarm today, is it fair to give Thatcher such direct responsibility in destroying the drama of her country?
Without seriously exploring how certain dangerous conditions might have predated or survived beyond Thatcherism, Peacock is determined to implicate Maggie at every turn. He faults the “totally inappropriate administrative structures . . . of a politicized Arts Council” and the “almost standstill funding” for the arts during her ministry. Above all, Peacock implicates Thatcherism’s “abrasive and adversarial” political discourse for virtually depriving the British theater of all vitality. Certainly Thatcher deserves reproach, as does her American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, for drastically downgrading governmental support for the arts in the 1980s. But Peacock takes the project to excess, especially in his desperate attempt to disprove Thatcher’s claims that “central government spending on the arts . . . rose sharply in real terms while I was in Downing Street.” He uses two charts and clumsy statistical gymnastics to reach a murky conclusion: “It would appear from the above figures that, on average, arts [End Page 138] funding remained slightly ahead of inflation. If, however, the additional inflationary pressures experienced by the arts, particularly the performing arts which are highly labor-intensive, are taken into account, the overall increase in the Grant-in-Aid is somewhat less than inflation and, therefore, in real terms, represents a cut.” The analysis is as uninteresting and irrelevant as the prose is awkward. Elsewhere, Peacock devotes an entire chapter to Thatcher’s political oppression of John McGrath and his Marxist theater troupes 7:84 England and 7:84 Scotland. (The names refer to a finding that 84 percent of all British wealth is controlled by 7 percent of its population.) In the author’s telling, McGrath becomes a brave socialist martyr and Thatcher a reactionary oppressor. But the book never convincingly describes the artistic value of these leftist groups’ activities. Too often, Peacock...