CONCLUDING his examination of Scottish plays, playwrights and performances, and in the aftermath of an era of “lockdowns” prompting revaluation of “liveness” and personal presence, Alan Riach asks what it might mean now to have “A Good Night Out”?

IN his book A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form (1981), John McGrath says this: There are “different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations” and the distinction might be made polemically: “The two main kinds of theatre audience [are] the ‘educated’ middle-class audience, and the ‘philistine’ working-class audience.”

But, McGrath reminds us, this will not do. “For when we discuss theatre, we are discussing a social event, and a very complex social event, with a long history and many elements, each element also having a long and independent history.”

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Those elements, all of which contribute to this “social event” have their own provenances, languages and idioms, and in Scotland, as in Britain more generally, class identity is a crucial factor in understanding them.

Thus: “The tradition created among the European bourgeoisie by Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Galsworthy, Anouilh, Cocteau, Giraudoux, Pirandello became a strong and self-confident tradition. It declared, without too much bother, that the best theatre is about the problems and the achievements of articulate middle-class men and sometimes women, is performed in comfortable theatres, in large cities, at a time that will suit the eating habits of the middle class at a price that only the most determined of the lower orders could afford, and will generally have an air of intellectuality about it – something to exercise the vestiges of one’s education on and to scare off the great Unwashed. There will be critics to make it more important and learned books written about it to prove that it really is ‘art’.”

By contrast: “In the late [19]40s, Joan Littlewood, Gerry Raffles, Ewan MacColl and a few other socialists had formed various companies to tour with socialist plays before working-class audiences, in Scotland, around Manchester and eventually in the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in east London.

There were several Unity theatres, which were closely connected with the Communist Party, and which put on agitational and other socialist plays to working-class audiences. In other words, another, different story was being told. Reality was being mediated in several very different ways.”

The polemical picture McGrath draws here perhaps oversimplifies the story but the central point holds good. In his book, McGrath describes sensitively the risks that were run in addressing working-class audiences in urban industrial centres, where the values of “entertainment” had emerged from conditions that had been part of the life there since the Industrial Revolution, where “the brutality, the violence, the drunkenness, the sexism, the authoritarianism” were pervasive.

And yet, by identifying the liabilities here, he is also able to specify clearly the strengths that can be built upon in a progressive, rather than a reactionary, theatre.

McGrath identifies some “fairly generalised differences between the demands and tastes of bourgeois and working-class audiences”. These would include:

1. Directness. As opposed to obliqueness or innuendo, what’s needed are direct explorations of economic conditions, exploitation and working conditions and the history from which these arose.

2. Comedy. Laughter is welcome, and comedy must be sharp, perceptive, critical and fast. If it is formulaic, mechanical or predictable, it fails.

3. Music. Lively, popular, melodic, performed by good musicians and singers, the presence of music and song should dramatically highlight a performance, and does not detract from a play’s seriousness.

4. Emotion. The open expression of emotion by characters on stage may be vital to a play’s effect, rather than emphasising the restraint or suffering silence characters might maintain in bourgeois drama.

5. Variety. Theatrical performances might draw on popular forms and switch rapidly from a singer, to a comedian, a juggler, a band, a chorus number, a comedian and a “come-all-ye” finale. The public nature of all such performances is openly engaged.

6. Effect. If the performance is effective, it will be appreciated. There is no reason for restraint or endurance among members of the audience. The work of attending has to be rewarded.

7. Immediacy. There is room for improvisation, or topical reference. And this leads to:

8. Localism of place. Which is to say, some productions will have greater or lesser effect depending upon their application to specific localities. This applies most evidently in McGrath and 7:84’s productions of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973) in the tours of the Highlands of Scotland, where the stories being told related so closely to the history of the people of those places, the audiences who attended the performances.

But it applies equally to the same company’s The Game’s a Bogey: 7:84’s John Maclean Show (1975), which was performed in Glasgow and other industrial cities where Maclean’s story had close local relevance. And finally:

9. Localism of performer. Particular effects can be achieved by a performer local to the audience in a specific area. Familiarity in this case, breeds not contempt but recognition of affinity: this person is speaking on behalf of people in the audience who trust him or her.

So there we have nine itemised qualities of live theatre that might be kept in mind in any application of value. And these priorities hold the practice of theatre out in stark contrast to the essential characteristics of television, as McGrath described them in his follow-up book of essays The Bone Won’t Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times (1990). As I list these, we might consider, what’s changed in the last two decades? Have there been any improvements?

McGrath asks, what are the values represented on TV in “the money-oriented society we live in”? And with the warning that “we are in the hands of people with no concern for cultural well being”, he gives six: 1) TV “sells America, hour by hour, day by day, year by year”. Murderers, cops, tycoons, the rich and charming, the powerful.

And British TV emulates this. 2) “TV sells sport” of all kinds, cruel, dangerous, ruthless: competition is the only law and winning the only victory. 3) TV “sells sentiment and nostalgia”. The emotional range explored on television is extremely narrow. 4) TV endorses the role of women as predominantly in the home, domesticated, disempowered, or else sexualised, even in seemingly self-determined action; in any role, they are presented as exploitable commodities and the objects of spectacle. Or more simply, TV sells patriarchy and misogyny.

5) TV “sells news as a commodity, a set of tricks or disasters adding up to a fictional construct of the world”. And the built-in values endorsed are always profoundly conservative. Finally, 6) TV “is advertising”. Not “sells” but “is”. And that’s the final difference to note. Advertising exists to take stuff from you. Art exists to give. It is the work of minds that helps keep other minds alive. Since governments know full well that an ignorant electorate is easier to guide, their interest by and large is not to educate anyone, and certainly not to invest in the arts.

Am I over-generalising? Are these judgments too sweeping and crude? Prove me wrong. Show me the government that invests in the arts as a priority and educates people to think for themselves and articulate clear criticism of any governments and the media representing them. Show me a government anywhere demonstrably committed to generating a culture of critical thinking.

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So those are two options: a good night out or a bad night in.

WHAT’S changed since 1990? Perhaps predominantly only the sense that to find TV of palpable value you need to know what to look for and where to look for it. As far as the context of terrestrial society is concerned, forget it. Everything itemised there in 1990 has only become exaggerated since.

For McGrath, the theatre is or can be “the most public, the most clearly political of the art forms. Theatre is the place where the life of a society is shown in public to that society, where that society’s assumptions are exhibited and tested, its values are scrutinised, its myths are validated and its traumas become emblems of its reality.

“Theatre is not about the reaction of one sensibility to events external to itself, as poetry tends to be; or the private consumption of fantasy or a mediated slice of social reality, as most novels tend to be. It is a public event, and it is about matters of public concern”.

And that remains a judgment of lasting value.