War declared as arts slide down market;Another Voice;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
Maybe I'm just a grumbling arty-type, dreaming of a golden past of Radio 3 programmes when they broadcast all of a string quartet not just the slow bit, or an English version of the wonderful French radio station France Culture. But it seems to me that radio, television, journalism in both tabloids and broadsheet newspapers and arts programming are all dumbing down to an alarming degree. Something is going seriously wrong with our culture.

Here is an example from the theatre.

Last year was the centenary of the birth of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Many years ago, when I was a raw supply teacher in Yorkshire, I found Brecht's play The Caucasian Chalk Circle a deep well of stories and ideas for my class of nine to 11-year-olds. It is a hallmark of the greatest plays that they can not only be restaged in many ways, but they generate retellings in many different forms.

Some have claimed Brecht is as great a dramatist as Shakespeare. He is certainly Ibsen's equal and it is hard to think of another playwright of this century who can match his variety and inventiveness.

Germany honoured him last year with nation-wide celebrations. Helmut Kohl, a right-wing Christian Democrat who was then Chancellor, gave a state eulogy calling the communist Brecht a great German who belongs on a plinth next to Goethe. British playwrights were invited to Berlin to speak about him in a ceremony at the dramatist's house.

And how did the celebrations, the retrospective seasons of the playwright of the century, go in this country, a country which prides itself that its theatre is the best and most sophisticated in the world? They didn't, there were none: not a play from the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Royal Court Theatre, let alone a retrospective with an invitation to German playwrights to speak.

This was not because Brecht does not win audiences. One of the dumbing-down fallacies is that serious and intellectual plays such as Brecht's, even though they are full of good stories and comedy, cannot, by definition, be popular.

Actually, people flock to them: witness David Hare's recent highly successful versions of The Life of Galilei and Mother Courage and Her Children, and the commercial production of Mr Puntila and His Man Matti at the Albery Theatre.

But the mood is against Brecht and anything like his work. The theatre is getting in line with the world of Radio 4 quizzes and current affairs programmes that have to broadcast a funny story every 20 minutes and of self hating liberals in television drama departments who, though they may personally like Brecht, plan yet another police show with a serial- killer plot.

Under the dumbing-down pressure, the theatre is reverting to a pre-war, No * Cowardish state, in which camp irony is all and classical productions have no value except the popularity of famous actors. It is as if the theatrical innovators of the Sixties and Seventies John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill and above all Joan Littlewood - the nearest we have had to a Brecht in our theatre - never worked. Brecht's plays, which bear witness to the history of our century and which have so much to entertain and teach us with, are disappearing over the cultural horizon.

What is happening? Are we all getting more stupid?

There is a curmudgeonly element, the "Dear Sir" letter writer from Surrey who blames the schools: I used to learn a sonnet a week standing on the desk, etc, etc. But a good case can be made that the national curriculum is well- designed to ensure that a door is opened to literature and drama.

Over the past five years it has encouraged a huge effort by English teachers to interest Year 9 students in Shakespeare.

The problem is that the culture does not reinforce it; there is very little in broadcasting, or in the weakened library services, which reflects the values of the curriculum. An English teacher told me that Leonardo DiCaprio is a godsend; the film William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet validates for 14 year-olds what they are being taught. But there is hardly anything else.

Stalin forced a horror on Russian arts called Socialist Realism. We are having an equal horror forced on our arts called Market Realism. It has a spurious democratic rationale: "give people what they know they want", meaning sell them what you think you can get them to buy.

Artists always say: "find something new people may love". In that spirit, a group of us are planning to launch a cultural radio station, unashamedly broadcasting classical and modern music and tough, argumentative reviews and discussions. It will be called Radio Einstein and attempt to rebuff the market realists. Let the culture wars begin.

Playwright Howard Brenton is campaigning against the dumbing down of British culture

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