How, and when, did you know that you wanted to write?
It has always come naturally to me, been something I presumed I would do, but when I was about ten
years old, I realised I wasn't good quite enough to be a professional footballer. I was pretty good at
football though, I was in the school team of 11 year olds when I was 7. That was my true path in life,
and the one that won me most praise and success and fame. I still dream about it.
How did you know that you wanted to write plays?
To be honest I think it was because I realised it required far fewer words. A play is about 15,000 words
whereas a book is about 80,000. But also I liked that it is the form that most closely resembles the
actual experience of how life appears, and is therefore about our response to that. In real life you only
ever see the surface of everyone and everything. The rest is guessing. So is it in drama. Apart from the
Do we need soliloquies, or monologues, to understand characters in your plays in detail?
No, that would defeat the object of what I just said about only seeing the exterior and how that
resembles real life. That isn't to say it cant be used sometimes though, if you want to cheat. I have
written a whole monologue, a play that is just that. Then its about someone thinking.
How do you begin writing a play? Has that changed over the years?
There would, for each play, be a moment, a fleeting second when I had a feeling of what it was I wanted
to write. Then I would have to keep referring back to that feeling,in case I went off the path. Other than
that I think I used to just write fragments of dialogue, which really was just words, phrases, rarely an
interchange. Then after I had done this for a while I might notice that it could be put together into the
play. This is because my unconscious preoccupations were unified in some way, over a period of a
couple of months, so it was usually possible for me to determine, or at least realise, what my mind had
been writing about, and to take conscious control over that, and make it into a play. I still do it more or
less like that, although I can also sit down and write many pages of dialogue straight out. I used to write
while falling asleep, it was like automatic writing, but I held a balance between conscious and
unconscious, to keep it in the place I wanted. It was a way of liberating the mind. It's what other writers
in the past have used drugs for. The result was a very compact kind of writing. There is no real call for
the kind of density I used to write when I was young, there's no need for it, it doesn't ever go on anyway.
I'm not going to waste my time doing that for the drawer. I have, however, started doing it again for
Can you explain exactly what you mean by 'compact'?
I just mean dense. I mean that when you have the unconscious in a line, then it can have any amount of
Could you name, and discuss, the influence of some other writer/s on your work? Maybe begin with
I think it would be Chekhov and Ibsen, initially. Chekhov for the art of writing with complete freedom
and from an almost entirely artistic standpoint. The reason one feels so liberated when reading
Chekhov, is that he doesn't always make each line follow from the previous one. Neither do I. I guess I
might have learned that from him. It resembles life. In rehearsals I used to have to keep explaining that
to actors, (if they were new to my work) to not try to make a line a response to the previous one. They
have been trained to do exactly that, they think that's how plays are written, or they think that's how life
or conversations happens, but it generally doesn't. Ibsen, is even more important for me, I am still
excited decades later when I remember the thrill of reading those plays. Master Builder, John
Gabriel Borkman, Enemy of the People, and especially, When we Dead Awaken .The presence
of doom, or destiny, and therefore of psychology, in them stands hovering above the characters like a
god. They all have a very strange atmosphere. I cannot believe my luck in life that I ended up, through
my wife, coming to know Scandinavia so well, and even to live there, to experience for myself and to
understand the mystery that Ibsen was describing. I can't say I have ever written anything that
resembles Ibsen's work, but it is always there as an example of something worth doing, something I
haven't done, but can maybe do in some other way, on some other level or in some other form. Joyce
actually considered Ibsen to be the most perfect of writers, and he even learnt Norwegian to be able to
read his plays in the original. With both Ibsen and Chekhov, my experience of the plays is entirely as a
reader, I have hardly ever seen them performed, especially not Ibsen. Whenever I have seen Ibsen done
in England they seem to miss the point and try to turn it into George Bernard Shaw. The process
starts with the translations that try to inject an element of English chattiness that is wholly alien to Ibsen
and to Scandinavia, I wish they wouldn't do that. In performance too they seem embarrassed by the
very thing that makes Ibsen great, and try to avoid it, to sort of laugh it off, to make it “flow” like they
think a play should. I wish someone would first ask me to translate an Ibsen, and then ask me to direct
What is the connection in Ibsen's plays between destiny and psychology, or what exactly do you mean
when you equate them?
Well, I mean that in Ibsen, the psychology of the people is externalised, so that their fates, that we would
presume to be a consequence of their psychology, comes from outside, a bit like in the old fashioned
way. And it is manifested all around them. So its a bit like being inside one person's mind , or one
person's life, inside it, not looking at it. In the same way that for oneself , everything resonates with one's
self, it is something happening to you, it is your life, no mater how clearly it has nothing to do with you,
it is nevertheless your destiny to be a part of it, or for it to be a part of your life. We see it that way. “I
was unlucky, this happened to me”, is a sort of distortion, it is this one I am talking about. It is the
distortion that makes life seem meaningful to us. Other wise we could only say, “I walked along, a tree
fell, it hit my head”. So with Ibsen, we can feel that about the characters. The whole play resonates with
their particular doom. Everything is meaningful, everything is part of the same thing. That's why Joyce
thought Ibsen's plays were perfect, because each part of it contributed to the whole and also contained
the whole within it, like a stick of rock. That's why English directors who try to trivialise the dialogue, or
smooth it over and worry about making it sound easy and natural and are embarrassed by it, are
missing the point. They may as well direct something else.
How can a play that involves many characters resonate with each character's particular doom, when
each character's psychology is separate?
In the same way that the play contains the story of several fates, the play can also resonate with several.
And then, in some way you can describe a whole group of people, a whole town or a whole country or a
whole world, being in the hand of one course of fate. These overlap of course, and affect some and don't
affect others. It's a version of the collective unconscious.
What elements of Joyce’s work have influenced you the most?
The main influence is the description of a Saturday afternoon, again, I have never written anything of
that sort, but for me the idea of it is like a beacon, it reminds me what writing is. Joyce is that to me.
Also I think all my Saturday afternoons have been like that, in some way. Also it is about my class, I
am Bloom's class, not Stephen's. I listened to it on the radio in Dublin for 24 hours, I was the only one
left awake, two nurses and an Englishman fell asleep on it, drowned in the Guinness, but I was awake,
and ready for the dreadful breakfast all over again had they wanted to read it twice. On the other hand
I think I have stolen the Night-town scene for The Terrible Voice Of Satan. Don't tell anyone. I
feel inclined to steal that again and again, to the extent that I want to steal it so much I think its mine. I
think I wrote it.
The dreadful breakfast? Do you mean Stephen's in his tower, or Bloom's Kidney?
I mean that kidney thing
Where where you in Dublin when you listened to Ulysses? In a pub all night with the nurses and the
I was in a flat in Rathmines that I shared with the two nurses. The Englishman was from Birmingham
and was a very kind and friendly fellow, who had helped me find the flat, he knew the two nurses and
landed me upon them. One of those nurses actually played the tin whistle that night, it was an unearthly
I don't pretend to have read it, but what might a writer learn from Finnegan's Wake, (a writer who
wanted to write something not so complicated)?
From it you can learn anything, for its all in there if you can only find it. You could learn not to write
such a difficult book, you could learn what happens when you explode a language and a literary form. If
you read with the help of Anthony Burgess, who published a sort of guided version, that helps you to get
inside the book. It's about the contents of the unconscious and so it enables the language to expand
beyond reason, literally. It has more of the mind in it than you normally encounter. No-one comes
close. His children used to tease him that Dostoevsky was a better writer, but he isn't, they were only
teasing. He was going to write something simpler afterwards, I think he was tired, I think he was
devastated that the war took the world's attention away from his book that he had worked so long on. It
ought to have been world news, there is surely no book like it in the history of the world. He didn't win
the Nobel Prize, if anyone should it would be him. He IS literature, all of it. I am proud that an
Irishman wrote it. It seemed to finish off literature in the same way Picasso seemed to finish off
painting, but it is a far, far, far greater achievement.
Is it worth just reading some of it?
Yes it is. Certainly. But do try to read a description of the structure of the book, of the narrative, as that
is one of the most interesting aspects.
Do you feel that you share with Joyce the fate of being a writer who is widely recognised, but less widely
read or performed? If so, why is that? Thank you for mentioning me in the same sentence as Joyce
What, if any, is the influence of surrealism in your work?
I used to love Surrealism, when I was at school, painting, or art, then the films. The films were a
liberation. Actually I only saw L'Age D'Or and Un Chien Andalus, at the ICA, instead of going to
school one day. Those films influenced me insofar as they gave me a certain feeling. Later I saw
Buñuel's films, I saw Simon Of The Desert over and over again. I stole it, I stole Discrete Charm
Of The Bourgeoisie for In Praise of Progress, well I stole the idea of people at a dinner party
walking along a road, but I could have found that in Ayckbourn. In fact there is a link between
Ayckbourn and Surrealism. I loved Viridiana, for a while that and Simon Of The Desert were my
favourite films. The Exterminating Angel. I recently wrote a chapter of my book criticising Herbert
Read's introduction to their exhibition in 1935. Sad really, as I am supposed to be a Surrealist, hardly
anyone disses them but I did, it had to be done. JB Priestley did, very presciently. Their ideas were
largely either mistaken or unpleasant, harsh. They didn't really give a shit about anyone. I also dissed
Monty Python, but I love Monty Python. I don't feel as if I have been influenced by Surrealism yet,
but I plan to be some day soon. Really as a writer you are not any more likely to be influenced by
writers than you are to be influenced by tea pots.
Is it possible to say briefly in what way you think Surrealists were mistaken, for the benefit of those who
haven't read 'Helping Themselves' I wrote about that largely because the things Herbert Read said
about that exhibition in 1935, correspond to more or less every word you might hear from the mouths of
the middle-class left establishment about art, psychology, politics. It seemed a good place to start. They
are the received ideas that pass for thought and opinion now, but then when Herbert Read said them it
seemed like a revolution. Well now we see what the revolution brought and it wasn't so good. I wanted to
make a criticism of it all, and I found a lot of it in that catalogue to the 1935 exhibition. He thought that
surrealism marked the final victory of Romanticism over Classicism, and furthermore he declared
that Classicism was the fount of all that was bad. He, and they, didn't anticipate that a few decades
later their revolution would merely be the foundation of a new establishment, our so called left wing
political and cultural establishment (and I'm not talking about the government, I am talking about the
middle class hegemony over everything) that resembled almost exactly, the old one, apart from that it
continually declares itself to be revolutionary. Not just does it have the characteristics of an
establishment, but it has those of the “classical” one, it sort of proves that the delineation of the two
strands was a bit mistaken. Who could have guessed that it would all lead to a capitalist dictatorship
that they are trying to impose upon us now, still declaring itself to be radical, in some way.
Are there really no voices in the modern theatre that oppose capitalism?
I am not knowledgeable about theatre. I'm not sure what you mean by 'oppose capitalism'. Do you mean
'have criticisms of it?' I'm sure there are. I'm sure there many who can point the finger at conservative
forces within the circular crown of capitalism. That's almost the same as self justification. It's like
hearing Labour politicians running up the flag of 'opposing the Tory government'. It's meaningless, has
no reflection in it, its a distraction. I'd like to know if there is someone who has anything to say about
the middle class 'left' element of it. Maybe there are some who criticise traditional American foreign
policy, Harold Pinter did. That's something. There's not much of that, the nearest they get is hating
Israel. There are plenty of people in the theatre who get a kick out of hating Israel, does that count?
Sometimes it's just hating Jews. I remember the Royal Court nearly shot it's feet off by trying to put
on a play claiming the Jews were responsible for the concentration camps. “Perdition” it was called, by
the Jew-hating left. It's similar to Corbyn's latest statement about anti-semitism, it ended up as a smear
against Jews in which he tried to equate Israel with ISIS. Isis trade in children for sex, they sell them on
the internet. There are plenty of people in the theatre with the conventional round of libdem left views
and opinions dearly held. It makes them what they are. Where would they be without them? They are
an important part of the smooth running of capitalism, it keeps the truth at bay, it keeps the working
classes silent, the Libdem media gives the impression of being anti-establishment. They are, in the same
way Maoist governments were revolutionary.
Satire is clearly an important part of your plays, and other writing. You have been compared to Swift;
are there comparisons to be made between your work and the work of any more recent satirist?
Yes, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. I could wrack my brains for someone else. But really it
might be just for fleeing moments, like the moment in Traffic by Jacques Tati when he meets a
Belgian man in the fog, a boasting pretentious sort of man, calls himself “Barenson, Tony Barenson”,
in a fake American accent, it's a moment of utter brilliance, I think of it about 5 times per year. You
could compare a scene in Gengis Amongst the Pygmies to a scene in Duck Soup by the Marx
Brothers, I think I was instructed by those as I used to watch them on Christmas Day night, at 2am, as
a child, they seemed the height of cleverness, not really funny for me, just clever because wild, and I
liked something about it that is hard to describe, but maybe its the way the jokes aren't always the
driving part of the scene, it might be only the chaos that drives it. To me, the shape of chaos was
something very original, like the inside of a church. I enjoyed not knowing what was going on. It's when
you don't know what's going on that something new can occur to you. I enjoy the story structure of the
Goon Shows, I liked Spike Milligan especially when he wasn't funny, in the Q series-
Is chaos a driving force in Gengis Amongst the Pygmies?
No, it's Gengis trying to make order out of chaos
Do you think the chaotic dialogue in some of your plays is difficult for some people to make sense of, in
the same way that Gengis finds it difficult to make order out of chaos?
Sorry, I used the word chaos in two different ways there. The first time, I meant chaos in a work of
fiction, as a sort of style. In my mind that means not being too much driven by narrative of any of the
conventions that, important as they are, can be a drag if they act as doors that are closed on other things
of interest. I mean, to write in a way that allows disparate elements, maybe managing to draw them
together, but you have to allow them in first. The other sense in which I used it is something very
different., I said Gengis is trying to make sense out of chaos, by that I mean false senses of order, that
can be called chaos. Chaos that comes from the imposition of wrong orders.
Was Beckett, for instance in Endgame, writing about chaos?
No, I don't think he thought he was writing about chaos. But who knows. He always seems to be writing
about smallness, about life being squeezed out of you, or about settling for less and less. He was pretty
neurotic in that way. He was depressed. Threw himself out of a tree as a child if I remember right.
Tried to fly but knew he couldn't. Had boils, eruptions of dissatisfaction. His writing is a bit like
someone who has a long slow death wish, but wants to cling on nevertheless. He's very good at it. Good
at clinging on. If he came to a party at your house he'd stand in the door. For fucks sake come in a close
the door. A draught, you know. I reckon he was a man of almost limitless patience, whilst having none
at all. He had stopped wanting anything, had lost patience, so had no need to be impatient. He wouldn't
wait for anything, but he would wait for nothing. And will you look at that! I free associated for a few
minutes and ended up with the word Wait. A miracle surely. He was an Irish Buddha. But thin, not fat.
A real thin man if ever there was one.
Is the audience of the Gengis plays supposed to put themselves in Gengis' place?
I think audiences naturally try to find out where they sit in relation to what they perceive to be the
'position' of the play. They might think that is embodied by the main protagonist, or by the authorial
voice. Gengis is abhorrent to them, and then he sneaks round and says what they think, and then he
sneaks off and says what I think, and then he says something else. He is the voice of many things all
rolled into one. People usually like to know where the enemy is so that they can adopt a position
opposite to his, for the duration of the performance at least.
Would you say that both Spike Milligan and the Marx Brothers in some ways ignore what the audience
expect, or deliberately do something else?
I think Spike Milligan did both, in that he was naturally unusual as well as deliberately contrary. He was
an amateur, he possibly didn't know or care all that much about audiences. His great success was on the
radio, precorded shows that he wrote in the pub or in bed on his own, and didn't know until after the
show had been on if it had worked or not, perhaps never really knew, except he knew they were popular
and he was asked to do more. The Marx bothers were professionals in a different way. They grew up in
show business, they had long experience of live audiences on stage. On film they are working a silent,
invisible audience, but it's there, in their heads. Although, the absence of actual audience always made it
surreal and strange-seeming to me when I first saw them, that was almost the best thing about it, that it
wasn't necessarily funny. Just wild.
What kinds of people, or ideas, are usually the targets of your satire?
Satire is useful for writing about stuff that is too mundane or tedious to write about any other way.
Much of what is wrong with things is also very very tedious, satire sometimes saves a writer from having
to do that. It's good for things people repeat, for ideas they copy and adopt, its good for people who
think they are one thing when they are another. Cat and Mouse (Sheep) was about the middle class
left, among others. There's not much point satirising something your audience agrees upon disliking.
Do you think good satire can have the effect of convincing the audience to dislike something they did not
Yes, themselves. - Rather than just adding someone new to their list of allowed enemies.
How does the change happen in the mind of the spectator or reader?
Well, the kind of satire I have in mind, where the satire attacks the audience, works by tricking them
into not knowing whose side they are meant to be on, by keeping it all as a moving target and not letting
them agree with the play – the opposite of the usual theatre experience. In such a play, the target can
change a few times in each line, and the audience habitually try to work out which is the right side to be
on, but it's hard for them. And then they hear things they just don't like, and they are all ready to
condemn it, and and then they realise it sounds just like themselves. Or they experience that the play
seems to simply dislike things that they actually like, and it might lead them to think its getting approval
and then it isn't.
So let me check that I understand the idea: the audience of a Gengis play try to understand the play's
position and pick out the correct answers - the messages of the play - but they are never permitted
certainty about what the correct answers are, and in the confusion they are fooled into sympathising
with criticism of what they themselves are, before they notice?
I think that's right, although I am a bit frightened that you might be parodying me.
Do you have any advice about how to write good satire?
You have to become your target, be your target, be worse than your target, You can't do it from outside
them, you've got to be inside. So in that way it's just like any writing. You can make an audience gasp in
horror or amusement by merely repeating what they say all day long, if you say it with enough gusto. In
that way you have to be a-moral while performing a very moral act (satire). You can't sit in judgement
while you write a line, you have to be the criminal.
So a satirist looks within themselves to find the things they identify as wrong in others, and if they find
them there then they are able to describe them- is that right?
Yes that is one sure method of finding something, and being able to understand it, that's for sure. Gengis
does that, I mean as a character he is one moment indulging himself in the very thing that he condemns
the next. Gengis is both the people and the scourge of the people, and a tyrant to boot. He fights for the
oppressed and is shocked to find that they are being oppressed even more than he would like to oppress
them, and he isn't averse to a bit of oppression or just good clean dirty fun for himself. I like the idea of
not separating the good and the bad into good people and bad people, that's too easy and not accurate.
We are all pretty bad. I mean it can't always just be “other people” can it? Who would they be? It's us.
We are the bad people. I would hate the audience to leave a play of mine confirmed in whatever
prejudices and self satisfaction they may be guilty of.
Would you agree that it is unfashionable to see oneself as 'bad'?
Yes, other people are bad. I think the gist at the moment is to 'have no regrets, to move on, to have
closure, to move forwards, to draw a line under it, and so on. Love yourself, be pleased to be who you
are because you're the best at being you, you're a star, you're special, and if someone doesn't like it they
have to get over it, get used to it, and get over themselves at the same time; all opinions are relative, they
are as good as one another, that means you don't have to listen to anyone else and they don't have to
listen to you, and that's OK because you don't need anyone, you aren't answerable to anyone just
yourself with your own opinion, no matter what it is, its as good as any other.' Did you ask about chaos
earlier? In fact, it has gone one step further. There a little trick you can play, you could call it non-
identification, where you separate yourself from all the likely targets of blame (responsibility), by
making yourself a permanent rebel against nothing in particular, some people call it being an artist, they
can call it being left wing, or anti-establishment, or anything like that. By doing that you can not only
avoid being bad yourself, you can make yourself safe from any possibility of taking responsibility for
anything that might be called bad...by anyone. You can be permanently in the right. For wealthy
people, for example, making themselves what they call 'left-wing' or something along those lines, well,
once they've made that step they can never be wrong. There is no wrong-doing associated with being left
wing. It's the equivalent to Victorian morality, it's the same class too. And like in those days, any
amount of immorality is covered up by the cloak or Morality, the new one, not the old one. As long as
you stick to that doctrine, no matter what the sacrifices other people are expected to make, no matter
how distorted and unreal your vision of the world is and the consequences of your creed, as long as you
can keep the name, you're safe. And the label is a lie.
Should we be made to see ourselves as bad?
Yes but it must be on an individual level. Anything else just becomes very quickly, that other people are
bad. That's called political opinion. And most people have got rid of any self criticism and replaced it
with a political standpoint, that is the opposite of self criticism.
Is Britain losing its strong tradition of satire? Are we becoming more like America, in that way?
No, I'd say not, at least not on television. Theatre has always been very far behind television in terms of
satire, theatre is crude and conservative, it has no wit or distance or self criticism. There is always an
amazing amount of very good satire on TV. Look at Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield, their
recent? shows make theatre look like donkeys in a sack race Or WIA, or that sort of thing, very well
observed and very fast. America has some good satire, Curb Your Enthusiasm for example was very
good, that was satire I think? I'm not an expert on TV, I don't have one, it reaches me later.
Do you think that theatre is behind television because television is written for a wider section of the
That might be why. It might just be because theatre really does attract a particularly self-satisfied
audience and management. And that leads to conservatism that sees itself as progressive.
How can British theatre audiences who, only a few decades ago, managed to like Beckett have become
The managements decide what goes on and the audiences learn to like it. You can't like what you never
see. How much would they like Beckett if it had never gone on, or if it had been put on once, if the
theatre managements around the world had listened to Milton Shulman who reviewed it for the Times
and called it “nursery level symbology”? The press is very powerful, managements are very powerful.
Theatre managements rarely (but they do sometimes) go against the decision of the critics, not in the
long run. And it doesn't matter if the theatre is the size of a postage stamp, they run them as if they have
to fill 800 seats. The Royal Court used to believe in what they called 'the right to fail', they used to refuse
to be cowed by critics, once George Devine chucked them all out. Now they grovel to them and invite
them onto the stage for a dinner. Critics are treated with respect not afforded to actors, who are treated
like immature hirelings. The words “taking risks” have taken the place of leaving even the slightest thing
up to chance. I mean, its only theatre after all. There's no danger involved, why such caution. They are
subsidised to burst, they have 50 staff, wtf?
Is the dialogue of your early plays – up to and including “Looking at You (revived) Again” – meant,
in any way, to resemble real conversation?
Can dialogue be like everyday conversation when the unconscious takes up much of the space?
That is precisely what happens in real life.
Would you say that any of the dialogue in any of your later work is like real conversation – for instance
in The World’s Biggest Diamond? (This is a confusing question as it doesn’t apply to all the later
plays, not the Gengis plays or God’s Island, maybe just answer with ref. to World’s Biggest
Every word of the Worlds Biggest Diamond was actually said by someone. I just wrote it down in
In terms of your portrayal of relationships, have you been influenced by the work of Jung or Freud?
Well, I don't think my writing in itself was influenced directly by Jung, although my thinking has been,
in general terms. Not by Freud though. You can read what I think about Fraud, the fake bible of the
middle classes, in “Helping Themselves.”.
Why are Irish characters so important in your earlier plays – Downfall, Looking at You Revived
Again, The Terrible Voice of Satan?
I am half Irish so its natural for some of the characters in my plays to be Irish. Also I spent a lot of my
time on the streets in the middle of the night and met a lot of Irish people out there drinking, standing
around. And then I met the same people at home in my parents' house. My aunts are all either nuns or
alcoholics, and my cousins are either nuns, police commissioners or in prison.
Do you think there is a kind of humour that is specifically Irish? If so, what is Irish humour like?
Brendan Behan said that being a bastard, for example, was particular to each race. In other words, he
said that when he wrote, of a screw in Maidstone or wherever he was, “he was a typical English
bastard” he meant something in particular, and the reader or audience would know what he meant, as
they would know what he meant if he said “he was a typical Irish bastard”. I am in favour of that kind
of 'racism', where you try to nail each particular kind of bastardy for what it is. Brendan Behan didn't
hate English bastards more than he hated Irish bastards, he hated them in different ways, in response to
their own kinds of bastardy. That's my favourite story, it's from a book. We all have our talents and
qualities. We have to learn to love each other anyway. So, my answer is , yes I think each culture is
likely to have its own sense of humour.
The Irish labourers in The Terrible Voice of Satan go on a night out to ‘swing from infernal
Archway Tower’. Does modern London life isolate your characters from one another and make them
unhappy? Or would they have been isolated and unhappy in any place or time?
I think I was just describing things as they appeared to me, people in cities are less part of a community
perhaps, or maybe the moments of community are more fleeting, one minute you are part of one, the
next minute you're not. Community comes and goes in a city, depending who you are walking past.
Many people are lonely, not just in cities. I don't know. I was not thinking about loneliness at that time.
The labourers I was describing were having a sociable time.
Yes, on second thoughts they were having a sociable time, I was reacting partly to you calling the
Archway Tower 'infernal' as if it stands for the rest of a hellish place, but that seems wrong now.
They swung from Archway Tower, it is infernal because, I think my mind (half asleep you will recall)
connected it with the Towering Inferno, which disaster movie starred Fred Astaire, the great master of
swing and dance, plus the association of Archway Bridge called locally Suicide Bridge, and to a good
Catholic like me, suicide has an infernal association since it is supposed to bring the punishment of
eternal damnation. (I don't believe that by the way). This is what I mean by compact writing. It will
never catch on.
In Downfall (1987), the Spanish Lover asks, ‘Have you ever worried about me?’ In the same play, the
Secretary asks a similar question. In The World’s Biggest Diamond (2004), both characters regard
the other as having betrayed their love. Can your characters truly communicate with one another? Or
why do they so often seem to be talking mainly to themselves?
Yes I think they communicate, communication isn't always successful, its hard to communicate, it takes
a lot of time and effort. The Spanish lover there really manages to put her finger on something, she
communicates well. The secretary too, it's more surprising when she say it, and in that way she is
communicating even better, expressing an unexpected side of herself. They say the same thing, they are
part of a shared mind. In The Worlds Biggest Diamond there's no lack of communication, there is
simply a surfeit of pride and stubbornness, on one side at least, that separates the two characters.
Are the characters in Downfall lonely?
Didn't you ask me that?
Could you discuss the role of archetypes in your plays?
Parts of Downfall is based on the Tarot, and the Tarot is archetypes. I was looking at Tarot cards at
that time, I mean as archetypes, not anything to do with divining. I was reading Jung. Archetypes are
really just ideas of which the mind is formed. In drama as in life, a person can be both a person and can
correspond to an archetype. Like a person who is a mother is also Mother, or fails to be, quite. All
fiction, like life, is a mixture of particular people, an anecdote, and archetypes. The more we know a
story is made up the more it works as an archetype, in that it is about 'things in general', or generalised
versions of things. Mothers, lovers. And then its a short jump to being not about mothers or lovers at all,
but about our expectations of them or about the meaning or feelings we attach to these things. It's about
us then, about the contents of our minds. So when you ask me about the labourers in Downfall or the
loneliness of the Spanish Lover, I sort of don't know how to answer, because really, they are archetypes,
but I try to answer because they are also “people”, specific characters in an anecdote, and my answers
try to clarify what kind of people they are intended to be.
Do the characters in Downfall correspond closely to the archetypes they represent, or do they fall
short like real people do? They fall short as real people do. So, in that way, the characters are both,
because in the play they sort of function as archetypes, and as “people” they are just people who fail to
be the archetype.
So they are individual in the ways they fail to live up to their archetype?
Yes , that's right. As we all are. No-one is an archetype, we're all people. Of course, very few people try
to be an archetype. That way madness or heroism lies. Or both. Maybe people who are called 'great' or
regarded as being great in some way, are ones who either are good receptacles for archetype projections,
or who are such megalomaniacs that they set out purposely to fulfil an archetype. That must be
exciting, if you can keep it up. If you don't suddenly look at the empty space inside you where your
selfhood should be. God knows that's fragile enough as it is, for most of us.
You have directed some of your own plays. How often are you involved in the rehearsal process, even if
you are not directing?
In Britain writers have quite a high status and are expected to be in rehearsals, at least as far as I have
known. Directors usually welcome the opportunity this gives for the actors and themselves to ask about
what was intended. Naturally you try not to step on anyone's toes, some people get uptight if they feel
undermined, and some actors get a bit weird if they get “conflicting messages” and act as if some gross
perversion is taking place for two people to say slightly different things. That's a kind of officiousness. As
the writer you wield the ultimate bomb, so you are expected to keep quiet often. All this is distant
memories or marginal experiences, as I have been pretty lucky, directors like me to be there and to
explain the odd thing. Ramin Gray and I work together, and in complete harmony, and have a great
time. At least I do. Did. Simon Usher and I understand each other pretty well, he doesn't let me direct
though, but he turns to me and asks me things or checks if what he says is right. I learned a lot early on
from watching Lindsay Posner drilling his actors. James MacDonald got pretty good effects from
keeping rather quiet. All of these work in proper detail and believe in finding the living truth behind
whatever's going on. I have enjoyed working with directors, or just watching. All of these have more or
less welcomed my contribution.
Do you think it is a problem that other directors, or actors, could misunderstand or distort the intended
meaning of your lines? That would be a problem yes. If I'm not there in rehearsals I have to accept that
its very hard to always get it right, I might not have written it clearly or well enough, or , on the other
hand they might be failing to see what is before them and trying to make it into something it clearly is
not. Those who pursue with an honest intention the meaning of the play are not always the most
successful in career terms. But if there is an honest intention to get it right that normally is good
enough. Directors and actors work very hard to do just that. Some don't.. Some think their job is to put
their own interpretation on the play. That is a very banal and perverse idea that has broad currency
throughout the theatre world. Truth or decency often comes a poor last in the race for recognition.
People are taught a lot of nonsense about 'interpretation' at drama schools, and pick up a lot of trite
rubbish about “creativity”. Some people literally think that if an actor or director or set designer isn't
“adding” something to the play, in terms of altering its meaning then something is missing. That is like
saying, a circle always has to have a piece of putty stuck on the rim of it, or it wont be complete. I wrote
a play, it was for young people, called The Forest of Mirrors, a pastoral thing set in a make believe
sort of fairy land. The National Theatre sent out plays to drama departments in schools. In the play
was a scene, a romantic scene, a conversation in some woods, nothing in particular. I went to see it, the
drama teacher had for some reason...I wonder why.... seen fit to dress all the 16 year old girls up in
stockings and suspenders, and he turned my romantic chat into a rape scene. I could hardly believe my
eyes. The pupils of course presumed I had written it like that. There's a fine bit of interpretation! He
really added a lot to my play. He thought theatre was about making a creative contribution. It isn't.
Next time he should write his own.
On occasion, actors want to change a line, or take it out. I normally agree, they normally think carefully
before suggesting anything like that, and are usually right.
I think the drama teacher was following a trend - a trend of adding as much sex and violence as possible
to plays, as if revealing that was really what the writer meant. For instance a current BBC
Midsummer Night's Dream in which Hippolyta is made out to be a victim of some awful torture at
the hands of Theseus' men. (Sorry to put the nasty idea in your mind.) I am trying to illustrate this trend
for adding sex and violence as if the director is discovering it hidden in the play, or as if it makes it more
"relevant" to us? (What do they think we are?) Where does this nasty trend come from?
Yes you're exactly right, the great revelation all these directors have is that everyone, from every time
and everywhere, thought and believed exactly as we do now. And when one of them discovers that, yet
again, then they all get a thrill and feel warm and cosy and sort of united and , yes, a bit reassured, by
their new found fellowship with the greats of the past.
Whose interpretation of a line is most important: the actor’s, the director’s, or the writer’s?
Only the writer's intention is of any interest to the performance of a play. The director's job is to try to
understand what that is. Unless I have made a mistake of course, which I do, then I'm grateful to have it
pointed out. You can be banished to the fires of hell for saying this but I say it all the same. I've worked
with some great actors. They get into what I'm trying to do, and any suggestions they make are within
that. In my experience, older, experienced or very able actors know that they have to find the writer's
intention and follow it. Lesser actors might impose a whole load of bullshit between themselves and that
task. Great actors (Tony Rohr for example) might say simply “how do I say this line?”, and I might
try to politely in a round about way try to explain the line in a way to give the right result, indirectly,
and the actor might do that, but if I'm not getting it across right, the actor might say, “no, just say it how
you'd like me to say it” (anathema in drama schools) and I will do that. Actors like that are above
bullshit, they have nothing to prove. And, when they have squeezed themselves like slaves through the
narrow path I have left them, all constricted and constrained, by the dastardly dictatorial dictates of the
play, of me as a writer, they emerge, at the other side, having created, yes created, something I could
not have done, something that is after all more than what I wrote, in some ways, better, more accurate
than I had been able to tell them how to do. That is because a good actor uses his intuition and
technique, and he uses it in the right sphere, at the right time , in the right juncture. Not at the wrong
time or place. The good actor doesn't impose his will or his ego, he or she, is too good for that, they only
care about the play, getting it right. This is true of all creativity I think, it doesn't seek to find expression
for itself, it serves. Now it may serve itself , if it is the fount, or it may serve something else, if that is the
fount. The most creative people, in other words, are not trying to be, they become so only by serving an
idea or an inspiration or an intention, it's never about self-expression. I have almost only had good
experiences with actors. I marvel at their technique and discipline and strength. Kevin McMonagle for
example, you can give him 15 different notes, specific ones about lines in a scene, and 3 general ones
about speed and tone, and shape, and he can do each note, in the new tone, the new pace and with a new
shape and make the show end two minutes earlier if you want him to, and be considerate of other
actors. He stumbles around as if he doesn't know where he is (when he's a character in one of my plays
at any rate) but he is like Galileo, taking his position by the sun. He is so highly conscious it's like
watching a ballerina doubling as a watchmaker.
Why could you be banished for saying so when it seems natural that the intention of the writer, the
artist, is what an audience are interested in? No one tries to argue that the interpretation of the editor is
more interesting than the novelist's?
They will do, don't give them ideas. In fact, in academia of course, that stage has long been passed, it is
not the writer's intention that is important, that is a laughable proposition. No, it is the readers
interpretation that is important, and they are all equally relevant. The resulting chaos is good because it
means that the teachers' interpretation somehow floats to the surface as the really relevant one, when all
is said and done. The hierarchy is established. The achievement of this is that, as you can see, the writer
is prevented from saying anything that the academic authorities do not approve of. And this is touted as
radical – it's neo-Marxist, in fact Stalinist doctrine, in fact is it Althusser. It's now commonplace, and
the lower down you go the more this idea has a grip.
What approach do you take to directing?
I try to follow the writer's intention.
What precipitated your first absence from the British stage (1990 – 1993)?
Well, I liked to keep going, to keep developing and doing new things. When I finished a play, I remember
very well, I would think, right , what should I do next? I wanted to be adventurous. I had started, aged
23, with Ambulance which was successful and got me a lot of attention for its originality of theme and
the way I wrote. It was about people that weren't being written about, people on the streets, not
fashionable young people or anything like that, not the ones who get written about elsewhere, but
nobodies, old or useless, young and hopeless, they actually said I was the ….voice amongst the left
behinds. Which was stretching it a bit but still, they dug what I was doing, at least up to a point. It was a
change. Then I wrote Downfall which was different from Ambulance. It was more disjointed and
more “surreal” still about the same people, but it was on another level, it was better in some ways,
certainly more adventurous. And Lindsay Posner did a great production, we had Nabil Shaban in a
bath on top of a pole, to represent the Post Office Tower (what a stage direction), it has 56 scenes, it
was fragmented , a very broken up narrative, it worked on a different level. It was OK, it was a good
play in parts, a bit un-necessarily hard to follow, it was a good production it was funny , inventive , never
dull anyway, but it was a step too far , it got hammered. It was my downfall. I was undeterred, I
thought I was indestructible, I wrote Looking At You revived Again something totally different
again, it wasn't even about urban people it was about an Irish man in his 40s and his wife and some girl
he taken up with. It was lyrical and surreal in a way, got absolutely hammered again. And that was it.
When I first delivered that play as a commission to the National Theatre Studio it didn't even get a
reading. It was a commission for gods sake, they had paid £1000 for it. No reading. It was performed a
few years later in an 800 seater in the centre of Paris. Something funny was going on somewhere. Ask
Peter Gill. He was responsible. He was made to apologise publicly years later, but what was his
motive? Theatres didn't want to know after that, I was notorious. They like originality but only to a
degree. It might have been alright if I had written like I did but if I had reassured them by making it
clear that I was just like them, that I was Guardian reading social democrat who could be recognised,
whom you could predict. They even accepted Sarah Kane because they knew she was essentially on
their side. She was a Guardian reader who threw blood on the walls for emphasis. They like to know
where they have you and where you are coming from. I got interviewed and I wouldn't give them the
stock answers they wanted, I wouldn't signal to them that I was one of them, trustworthy with the right
opinions and reading the right newspapers where they got all their opinions from. I was young I thought
I could beat them all. In a way I was idealistic. I paid a heavy price.
How could they tell from Looking at You (revived) Again that you weren't a Guardian reader, what
gave you away? Or where were you supposed to be coming from?
I don't know how they spotted that. Think they could just feel it. I hope so, in the details. Also its in what
you don't say and don't write about. If you don't line up the usual targets and have a turkey shoot. I
mean that play wasn't even a satire or anything, it was about nothing at all that interested or concerned
them. Maybe it just seemed as if it was actually written by a middle aged Irishman, which I wasn't, I
was only a young one. Maybe it just seemed to be from an old world, not the new one they were excited
about where they had power of some kind.
Would you say the theatre establishment's lack of interest in this 'old world' reflected a growing gap in
society between middle class intellectuals in the big cities and the lives of the majority of the population -
a divide which is now being reflected in the battles going on in Westminster?
Yes, its more or less class war right now, the middle classes against the working classes, not just here but
all over Europe. And the middle-classes control the media, so you can't expect to read about it
anywhere, not really, not unless its gone though the filter. The middle class, Libdem 'left' have colonised
the left, leaving the working classes with no representation, and that goes for Corbyn too. Being 'left
wing' is now defined by how much you hate the working classes, or, if you are a politician, on how intent
you are on ignoring their opinions, and telling them what to think, and politician or not, how keen you
are to abolish democracy. This process has gone so far that people are soon going to have to learn to
actually think for themselves without the help of any media they can feel they believe. The referendum
has taught the (half the) whole country what the margins have been saying for decades – opinions are
formed by the lies of a distorting media, you can't trust any of it. None of it. That's a very awkward
And the second (1994 practically until 2005 and from then until the present time)?
HA, I thought the 3 year exile was a long time, I didn't know what was to follow. So I boldly wrote
Message For The Broken Hearted and The Terrible Voice Of Satan. Both different again, and
from each other, as if by different writers. I am proud to say I took the difficult path.. By an odd twist
of fate they went on in the same month. Both were hammered, really hated. It was astonishing, even for
me. My career in terms of access to stages in theatres, ended there, with a few slight exceptions. I was to
have only one play produced in Britain over the next 23 years.
Were these two plays disliked for similar reasons to those you mentioned in connection with Looking
at You (revived) Again - not being about London, or any kind of world the theatre establishment
recognised, not expressing the political ideas common in supposedly left wing newspapers? Yes, that
didn't help certainly. I mean, they were just way off. There wasn't a single line in either of those plays
most people in the audience could agree with or like or feel comfortable with. They didn't know where it
was coming from and they need to know that. In fact it was coming from somewhere they don't like.
Many people get their consciousness from the newspapers or TV Anything outside of that is meaningless
to them. For any writer though, the chances that what you are writing to is going to connect with more
than a handful of people are slim. There's no reason it should. And your chances of it connecting are
best if you reflect roughly what most people are thinking. If you don't then you have to reflect what they
are thinking but just off it. Just a little bit off.
Could your plays be adapted for British television? There must be thousands of people who would
welcome drama about people who are not normally written about, or drama written from a new point
of view. (Dennis Potter was widely appreciated.)
No, but television could be adapted to my plays. I went in to the BBC a year or two ago, to see Kate
Harwood a well paid producer there, she put one of my early plays on at the Riverside Studios
Theatre in 1987, she was the first to produce anything by me. So she has a sort of sisterly duty to allow
me to have a few moments. Anyway, we talked about a few ideas I had, and then she said, you don't
watch television do you? And I said I don't She said, so how can you know what we're doing here? I
said I saw it out of the corner of my eye in the waiting room before I came up here, you don't want me
to do that do you? I didn't expect she would want me to copy what they were doing. She said she did. I
said I knew no more about TV writing than I knew about playwriting. And off I went, never to be seen
again I expect.
Seems a shame, maybe worth another go?
I am due for another go in 20 years time.
La Liberation has called you ‘A writer of the first importance.’ Le Figaro has described your writing
as ‘unique’. Why has your work received greater recognition in France since 1995? the French have got
different taste. Also I think they like the idea of taking in an exile from Britain. They aren't afraid of art
over there. I wish they were. But they have said loads of nice things about me, I have enjoyed it. Its like
being two people, revered and reviled in turn.
Is the British theatre in a good state?
Edward Bond says it is dead entirely. Certainly to me it seems to be just an extension of everything else,
it offers no resistance because they don't even know what to resist because they haven't thought that far,
or their analysis is wrong. I guess they still think they are heroically struggling against a Tory
establishment. How? By being as successful as they can in their own careers. To me they Are the
establishment. They are just as much the enemy as any Tories. They are part of the great success story
of modern middle class dominated capitalism. That's all it is, nothing more. Collaborators You could
close the whole lot down it would be no great loss. I've noticed that my old friend Ramin Gray has tried
to commission a couple of plays to question the orthodoxy, but its not easy to get that sort of thing
written, writers are afraid too, people are afraid, generally, in case they are accused, or they all just
think the same anyway.
Do the current establishment confuse themselves about who they are: by calling themselves the ones
who subvert, challenge and shock, (you hear words like that about art all the time, particularly theatre)?
I have written a whole book about that, I'm not sure how to summarise it here. They are still subverting
the 1950s establishment. Good luck to them. I am trying to subvert theirs. I think I'm having more fun,
really, but they are getting more money. We'll see who goes to Heaven.
But won't the theatre have to change?
Middle class intellectuals who control the media and the arts can't continue forever to claim that they
are subversive when theatre audiences are filled by people who are middle class and who all hold similar
opinions. It will only change when their view of society and politics and people, is seen to be wrong, and
that won't happen until there is a demand for a change of power, not in the arts alone of course, I mean
in politics and in the economy. The theatre is now nothing more than the outlet for the middle-class
Libdem left, and their world view. They get to call themselves whatever they like, whatever makes them
feel best. There will come a time when the working classes wont accept being insulted by these people
and they will be swept aside. The working classes don't have any media control, maybe one day that
wont matter , when people stop believing the lies they read and hear.
The sequence and timing of events in your plays is often confusing or deliberately ambiguous. What is
the reason for this?
I get confused.
Is drama a useful means of communicating political ideas?
Well, it can be if you are communicating ideas that are already known and understood and agreed with,
and if you have access to the stage, which I don't. You cant do anything on your own, if they wont put
your plays on then you are silenced and that's that. The only reason I am silenced, its nothing personal,
it is because I am saying something different from what the theatre managements want anyone to say.
Its always been like that, its not surprising. If you are David Hare, Howard Brenton or Allan
Bennett and the people who have followed them, and chime closely to what the middle class
establishment want said, then of course you can have enough plays on to get a point across, as long as
that point is also being put across by the middle-class media elsewhere, and they will support what you
are saying, publicise it, and disseminate it. Naturally if that is not the case, you cant effectively say
anything, no one will hear.. I can write what I like on sheets on paper that remain in my drawer at
home, it won't make any impact. So if the theatre was all there is, I would say, no its not a good way to
convey ideas. Not principally because of the form but because of the politics of theatre, how tightly it is
controlled, how little deviation is allowed, how utterly conservative it is (while thinking it is the opposite).
Most of this applies to the whole of the media of course, not just theatre. Its not a public service open to
anyone, no reason why it should be. But it isn't, we shouldn't pretend that it is. The media is part of the
whole system of ownership and control as everything else. At the best of times its a bit like trying to
drive a car using a feather duster whilst sitting in the back seat. But if you aren't even allowed into the
car at all then , well...As far as the form is concerned , maybe you can't express all that much anyway.
You can give a strong impression, of something rather vague. Its propaganda, it can work on people.
Look Back in Anger actually said the opposite of what people thought it was saying, but it worked
very well as propaganda, for a certain kind of social change, but too imprecise to be of any real use, all
it did was kick open doors, through which a few public schoolboys then walked.
About a new version of Look Back in Anger, celebrating the play's 60th anniversary, the BBC
website said 'The play that launched the Angry Young Man movement has lost none of its bite and still
disturbs and questions in equal measure.' What do they think Osborne was 'questioning', was Osborne
As far as I know he never used that word himself. He was quite grumpy though. I wish they had let me
do that play, I think it is my job really to do that, because John Osborne was an outsider. Also he was
conservative (not that I am but I at least know how it feels to be a conservative). I think he didn't like
the old and he didn't like the new, in that he and I are similar. The present theatre establishment are not
capable of understanding John Osborne. They could have celebrated his anniversary or the Royal
Court's by getting someone who didn't accept their view of things or of themselves, to write a new
version of Look Back In Anger, if they wanted a new version. They could have asked Edward Bond
to do it. I am guessing they wrote one that tried to replicate his by swapping a few issues with the issues
they though the was writing about.
I'm not sure if they re-wrote it or simply recorded it for radio.
Why was the 1950's theatre establishment prepared to give the stage to a writer who didn't accept their
view of things?
I don't think they were. They were looking for something, but they didn't have a clear idea of what that
was. Now they think they know, they are more narrow in their tastes now. When the Royal Court
started out the idea was to have a variety of stuff, that included for example verse plays, like
Christopher Fry, they were interested in Beckett and Ionesco. After Look Back in Anger, they
were so excited by having found that style , social realism, that they shut the door to everything else. By
the time I got there in 1986 they were shocked by my style and didn't really want it, I was only allowed
in the back door. Now, a more extravagant style is more commonplace, writers like Caryl Churchill
and Martin Crimp are allowed to do it, and people who came after them. Its no big deal any more. That
isn't to say that they don't try to make sure young writers obey the rules of playwriting. These rules exist
I have seen them written on a blackboard like in a school. That's for the young writers group. And they
suck it all up, they toe the line to get their plays on. Its all finished at the Royal Court. It has run its
course. It needs closing down and starting again.
Why - in recent years (Helping Themselves, 2009, and A Working Class Alternative to Labour,
2012) - have you chosen to write about politics in the form of prose as well as drama (The Rape of
Most of the answer to that is in my previous answer. But also, I wanted to say different things, on
another level. I had something I wanted to say about economics, there was no point writing a play about
that. It was a great relief to be able to just say things outright and throw the feather duster away.
Helping Themselves, was fun to write, there were a lot of things to say about the left and theatre and
the arts, it would have taken me 250 years to say that in satires. Needless to say it's a very popular book
in theatre circles.
As far as you know have any young people, drama students for instance, read the book - those not yet
fully part of the establishment?
Maybe a handful. I got an angry letter from an academic because the book undermined their status as
masters over the writers' “texts”. If that counts. He was right, it is anti-academic, so no I guess its not
going to be on many recommended reading lists.
Would you agree that the longer speeches in many of your plays (Looking at You…, The Terrible
Voice of Satan, A Message For the Broken Hearted, The World’s Biggest Diamond) are like
Some of those long speeches are lyrical,... some are just long.
What is the attraction of writing musicals? It's like being a poet again, a writer again. I had all that
kicked out of me by years of silent boring exile and closed doors. Now, well I don't care any more You
are comparatively free to write what you like in song lyrics, I mean people will accept almost anything
in them, they actually expect them to be poetic, whereas I have been told off for writing lyrical dialogue
or whatever it is I am supposed to have done. Again, theatre is just so conservative its hard to believe.
Music isn't, people are open-minded about it. I wish I had discovered it before. I would have just been a
normal everyday lyricist, instead of the 'bad boy of British theatre'. The writing process reminds me of
when I began writing and it was like a piece of performance, the writing of it I mean. I sit down and
write a song and I know that what I do for the next hour will produce a song that I will always have
written, its exciting. I am still realising how far I can go with it. And writing music is the same as writing
I have been listening to your songs on your website. You use your tone of voice as well as melody to
express the meaning of the lyrics. Is your way of singing a necessary part of the songs, or would
someone else be able to cover them?
I hope my performances of the songs are good ones. I think any good singer uses their tone of voice,
because that happens naturally when you are thinking about/feeling what you're singing, and not just
singing some words. If you really mean it then that will make the song. When the song is part of a fiction
that effect can be the same because even when you are writing from a fiction as part of a fiction, a story,
you can't really write the song if you aren't writing from something inside yourself. Otherwise I don't
know how anyone can think of anything to write. I can be sitting there thinking all wrong, thinking 'what
would the character think?', that gets me nowhere. I have to ask myself, 'what do I feel?' If I feel
anything I can write it, if I don't I can't. Any song can be covered by someone, it works when the singer
gets inside it and sings it as if they wrote it, as if they really mean it, they have to connect with the song
on that level. My way of singing them is part of the songs, but someone else's way of singing would be
part of the song. It would work if they are singing from the same place as the song.
Does composing melody come easily to you?
Yes it does, I really enjoy that aspect. It often comes from the first few moments, when its almost a
physical relief to sing after not singing. It usually comes at the same time as the words. Usually.
Sometimes the words come while I am writing the tune, and they come as fillers, “scrambled eggs”, only
mine end up being the actual lyrics. In that way it resembles the way of writing I told you about earlier,
the automatic writing, from the unconscious, that kind of mental process is good for song writing or
poetry, that's why its so exciting to be able to do it again, if feels like being a writer again.
You have written songs about the awful suffering and death of Sarah Reed in the mental health system
and in Holloway prison. Why were you moved to write about this girl's life?
I came upon this story by accident and... well, in an hour or so I had written rough versions, of
beginnings of 5 songs. Then, unfortunately I lost them all. So I just wrote them again, or different ones ,
I don't know. I was shocked that she should have been put on remand in those circumstances. It seemed
completely inappropriate. That judge needs looking at. But the whole story of her misfortunes was
shocking. I saw the CCTV film of her being beaten up by that police officer, it was shocking. She was
just a small person. I approached the Royal Court and asked if we could do a short platform
performance there, I had a band who would perform the songs and so on, just as a sort of protest, to
bring attention to what had happened. The response I got was unbelievable, you know what the bastard
said? He said “We get 100 requests like this a week”. His name was Ryan Govin, he is a producer or
some kind of thing like that, whatever he calls himself, at the Royal Court. Remember the name. That is
what the Royal Court has become. They are finished, they are nothing. It's just about careers, a slick
meaningless sort of place. A restaurant. Luckily not 100 girls die in prison per week.
Are there no other theatres or venues where that sort of protest performance can take place?
I'm not an expert on that.
Do you think the online Sarah Reed Justice Campaign might be interested in the songs?
Why in God’s Island and Dracula do you choose to use characters from other places?
What do you mean 'other places'?
I mean in the one play biblical characters and in the other, characters from Bram Stoker's novel. You
don't change anything about the original stories; your version of Dracula is faithful to the original. I
suppose my question is really about Dracula, what do you think you bring to the story by re-writing it
as a musical?
Mainly in the songs I develop a few things maybe that aren't in the book, a few of Dracula's songs for
example are about why God, in his wisdom, invented death. I think its a good question, I mean why did
he do that? What a nasty thing to do. People always say its part of the cycle of nature and all that, but
the question is why is it? Dracula's point is that God has murdered far more people that he, Dracula,
has. And its true, God has murdered everyone who has ever been born. Unless you believe that Life
After Death business, in which case he has just murdered most people.
Did the added dimension of melody make it more possible for you to write about such a disturbing
It makes it more possible to write about many things. Its a part of what you can use to express things.
Or, its a thing in itself, beyond literal expression, like poetry. Discovering music is like discovering
writing all over again.
In The Terrible Voice of Satan, Tom expresses his love for Biddy: ‘I am a herring…floating
headless on its back, this way and that on the ocean’s tides…’ One thing that strikes me about all of your
writing is the complete absence of clichéd - received or accepted - words and ideas. How do you manage
to avoid them?
Well, I laughed at this question because that line, I think I stole it from Apolloinaire, I'm not sure but I
think so. If I do generally manage to avoid clichee its a simple matter of technique, you just reject them.
Its dead words, they work in a different way from one's own formulations. Clichees or received or
accepted phrases, refer to themselves, they refer to the other times they have been used. That is why
people like to be seen to use them, it is a way of announcing who you are, the trouble is if you define
yourself that way too much you can only be someone who is a type, but for a lot of people that is a
success, they want to be a type. Now in writing, its the same, with received ideas, even as expressed
though phrases or attitudes, writers are able to signify to the audiences, who they are , what type of
writer they are, what kind of person, and what kind of opinions they hold, and audiences like that and
can feel comfortable, as they are invited to share the experience of being that type. Most often that's
what theatre is, that's why its called “alive” because its a celebration of conformity, the whole room is a-
buzz with the thrill of feeling comfortable, and that includes comfortably rebellious to the right degree,
all together. This effect cannot be overstated as a description of the usual theatre experience. Ayckbourn
is the master of using unoriginal language to great comic effect. You don't usually feel that he is sharing
in anything, he is just showing it. He knows how people use language how they lie with it, he is a
dissector. )The result anyway of this phenomenon is that going to see a play is even worse than watching
advertisements, its like the boiled down concentrate, there is more filth in there than anywhere, more
conformism, more lies, more self-deception , more ingratiating cheapness and fakery than in any other
place, and its being celebrated in a pact between the audience and the writer and director. These are
really people who are not writers, they are soap sellers. They have sucked up every lie and every easy
conclusion that the media feeds them and have learnt all the signifiers with which to communicate with
the audience, and the actors are swept up in it, and are using little gestures and postures to signify the
same as the dialogue to the audience, and its worse than if they had stayed home and watched TV, I
look at them and I feel as if they might, crammed as they are, filled to bursting with received ideas, turn
to each other in sudden excited embarrassment and say “aren't we awful” but they don't quite, but they
applaud like mad, the more conformist and easy a play is the wilder they get, they can be jumping to
their feet and cheering, out of pure gratitude for the writer and the company allowing them to feel so
arse comfortable, to feel as if they really are something, they are on the point of exploding, I have to
run out at that point, if I am there, in case I get innards all over me, or salad dressing. For me, the mark
of a good satire is if they all leave the theatre looking very pissed off and annoyed or confused because
you have given them nothing to be grateful for.
So Ayckbourn masters unoriginal language and employs it - to show us what we are like; whereas most
current playwrights accept the received ideas and express them, thus making themselves popular with
audiences who want to see a play that confirms what they already think? Is that right? Yes except I
think Ayckbourn really just wants to make a good play, that's funny. He finds it all funny. I think he
likes the way people reveal themselves with language.
Hannah Glickstein in