The battle for Welsh theatre

Peter Stead says it is now easier to cast a Cabinet in Cardiff Bay than to pick one from those politically eligible

Interwar Germany’s Weimar Republic formed one of those key periods whose cultural intensity and originality have fascinated historians and lovers of all the arts. The philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke on behalf of young Germans of that time when she commented that they did not read the papers, they just went to the theatre. The subsequent fate of Weimar was to dramatically illustrate the dangers of not reading the papers but, nevertheless, the priority Arendt recalled was one that cultural enthusiasts will appreciate and even envy. I think of the Arendt quote every weekend as I open the Saturday and Sunday papers, take out the respective cultural reviews and leave the news and business sections in the unread state in which they normally remain.

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There is something thrilling and deeply satisfying in an addiction to cultural reporting, reviews, analysis and even gossip. As the historian G.M. Young famously commented, ‘things tend towards a culture’.  In any society the ideal is for the cultural stew to be thickening and for the reviewers to pick up on the way in which authors, players, musicians, dancers and artists are enriching and complicating the debate and honing performances. All the while the arts should be stimulating debate, setting an agenda, defining the times and helping resolve issues of value and identity both in a local and global context.

The phenomenon of the cultural ‘buzz’ is something to be treasured. There are days in London when, armed with Time Out when one is overwhelmed with the possibilities, similarly in Edinburgh at Festival time. In other places at other times things are quieter but generally, when in cities or settlements of any size, we have reasonable expectations: there must be ‘something on’, a film, some jazz, a band, an exhibition, something ‘live’ and that, of course, is the key word. We need something that confirms that there is life in the locality, something that will entertain us even as it enhances our own sense of authenticity and completeness as a person. We will reflect on that performance or show, becoming more sophisticated in the process, and we will make sure that all our friends are soon told about it. We all in a way undergo the Hannah Arendt experience. We all want to inhabit a vital culture and to ensure that we have our own authentic and recognised part in it.

Recent decades have made it increasingly evident that an individual longing for a conscious and shared membership of a respected culture is a particularly noticeable characteristic of a significant number of people in Wales. There is, at one level, a widespread awareness that within the distinct communities and distinctive landscape that constitute Wales that music, words and performance play a defining role. But beyond that there are many people who have a more specific belief that something beyond identity is possible, a sense that excellence and real significance can be achieved in all the major art forms. It is this sense of imminent cultural breakthrough that has made Wales such an exciting and rewarding country as one century ended and another began. Frustratingly, and yet fascinatingly, this sense of cultural expectation has come at a time of economic and social dislocation. Inevitably therefore there are battles to be won and obstacles to be overcome before we can directly tackle our much anticipated cultural agenda.

People directly involved in the arts know all too well aware that in promoting their own initiatives they will have to overcome popular misconceptions and mythologies that shape the perception of the art form concerned. In Wales, and very much in contrast to words and music, both the visual arts and theatre have had to battle with the notion that the country as a whole is hostile territory. Our galleries, public places and domestic interiors provide clear evidence that the visual arts have now essentially won their battle to be regarded as indigenous. We are a nation that produces great art and we all seem increasingly to need that art. Perhaps theatre has still a little way to go.

Back in my schooldays a prominent place was given in the History syllabus to the Methodist Revival and I well remember the master suggesting that it was Nonconformity that had prevented the interludes of Twm o’r Nant developing into a fuller theatrical tradition. At that time nothing was said about the absence in Wales of the 18th Century metropolitan culture that allowed theatre to take off in places like London and Dublin. Even less was said about the relative ineffectiveness of the Methodist diktat for, as a fine essay on Drama in the Encyclopaedia of Wales explains, the people of Wales were capable of generating their own popular culture. A generation of social historians has now given us evidence that dramatic entertainment had a secure place in the fairs, markets and street parades and processions of Wales. The Methodist hostility to entertainment was always a reflection of how aware they were of the popular passion for entertainment and diversion.

Richard Burton’s famous comment that, if born just a little earlier, he would have ended up in the pulpit has lodged a particular time-frame in our minds. The actor may well have been thinking of the decline of religion in the face of popular culture but his remark should also lead us into considering the extent to which much of Nonconformity in Wales was pure theatre. The preaching stars of the Welsh denominations were as dramatic and fascinating as the great romantic actor-managers of the Victorian stage and the power of the word, punctured by the ‘amens’ of deacons and congregations, generated an intensity which was the envy of every showman. Meanwhile remembered verses and spontaneous testimonies allowed the rank and file to find their voices.

All the while in Wales things were ‘tending towards a culture’ and, of course, it was finally the emergence of a mass urban and literate society with schools, newspapers, public transport, auditoria and leisure time that ushered in a new age of popular culture as the 19th Century ended and a new century began. In accounts of this period much attention is devoted to the rise of Cinema and given the prosperity and vitality of its industrial towns it was not surprising that Wales played an important parting the emergence of British Cinema both in producing movies and then more markedly in paying at the box office. But alongside that new passion there flourished a love of live theatre.

In researching social and cultural history the historian is usually chasing up his or her own hunches but thankfully there are often moments of surprise. In my own case I well remember the precise moment when I first became aware of that great enthusiasm for amateur dramatics that had characterised Wales in the first decades of the last century. As a classic product of the 1940s my initial enthusiasm had been for the Cinema but, courtesy of grammar-school, I developed an interest in English drama. I began to appreciate that school plays and, in particular, the perorations offered in the annual eisteddfod suggested that there was a local potential as far as drama was concerned. When I moved to Swansea I was astonished to discover in the pages of the Evening Post that there were amateur companies regularly providing live theatre in assorted halls in many distinct communities that made up the town. Pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were coming together but a few years later that sudden discovery in the archive of a long-standing indigenous tradition of live performances completely transformed my understanding and appreciation of my own country. I walked away from the Cardiff Reference Library smiling and exuding pride in the newly discovered richness and sophistication of my own culture.

That, however, was not the end of it for it was all to happen again. That great early 20th Century flowering of amateur theatre in Wales had coincided with the breakthrough decades of Cinema. Almost half a century later, just as Television was establishing its cultural dominance, Wales was to rediscover a passion for live theatre. In the 1970s and 1980s the amateur tradition was eclipsed by independent production companies and the sudden mix of new writing, new production techniques and marketing skills seemed to place live theatre at the heart of a re-energised Wales that was filling out its culture as never before. Political devolution was still problematic but what was more important was that there was a new political agenda in Wales and the debate on broadcasting and the arts was at the core of that politics. For a while it was theatre that seemed crucial: there were more important things to do than read the papers or watch the news.

Once again I was to be surprised by aspects of this second wave of theatre in Wales. What surprised me this time was the sudden emergence of acting as a significant Welsh profession. For decades one had appreciated the joy and pride of the culture in identifying amateur talent: that is what eisteddfodau, concerts and quarterly meetings had been all about, but now real actors were pouring out of schools and colleges, working with local companies and in impressive numbers going on to appear in the West End, Stratford and both Welsh and network television. As a historian one had appreciated the fact that the most important development in post-industrial Wales was the revitalisation of a bilingual generation of young people, but the alacrity with which political protest had given way in Wales to a seizure of opportunities in broadcasting and the culture was breathtaking. It was a bilingual youthful generation that put a vibrant culture at the top of the national agenda.

The century ended with my envying a younger generation that had so quickly found its cultural feet. I went to productions and talked to students eager to understand what had attracted them to drama in such numbers. Whilst enjoying the product I could not fully understand the motivation.  At the time there was little analysis of this phenomenon. Later, I read Eleanor Catton’s fine novel The Rehearsal (short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize) which brilliantly examined the place of drama in school culture. In a Wales that has in many respects lost its way educationally, the teaching of Drama stands out as a success story as it attempts to relate language to passion and both to physical action and control. Wales suddenly possessed a practice and profession that is capable of manifesting a maturity and complexity of language, speech and action that eludes our so-called public leaders. It is now easier to cast a Welsh cabinet than to pick one from those politically eligible.

In the second decade of the 21st Century we have ample proof that culture and the arts are what Wales does best. The political agenda is a simple one to comprehend. We need entrepreneurs and scientists to create new jobs and new wealth. Within that programme the arts generally, and in particular broadcasting, film and live performances of music and theatre, must figure significantly. The prospects of our youth, the fortunes of our educational system, the vitality of our towns and cities and the extent of our tourist industry all depend on our generating a cultural buzz in Wales. A coming together of entrepreneurs, producers and politicians will be essential in that national promotion. But one senses that the vital breakthrough, as was the case a generation ago, will only be generated by the cultural energies of youth.

As courtesy of the broadcasters, the film studios, Dylan Thomas 100, The National Theatre of Wales, the Arts Council and other agencies we edge towards this new Wales there are several obstacles. The Methodists have gone but some of their attitudes remain. There are those who still regard culture in general as a sideshow, a mere diversion. Why is it that all too frequently it is politicians who seem particularly to be drawn to this viewpoint? Ironically it is politicians, blinded by shibboleths, who fail to realise that one always has to go with the best show in town. What is surprising and disappointing is the degree to which broadcasting schedulers and news reporters allow those politicians to dominate coverage. Things have improved, but in broadcasting and print journalism, culture and the arts have to battle all the way for what still often amounts to token coverage. More generally there are many people who think of culture solely in terms of celebrities and who work hard to promote Wales as a mere Celebrity Culture. Speak to the celebrities themselves and one realises that they fully understand the way in which their energy and personality fit into a cultural mosaic which they are eager to develop.

Within the last couple of years I took in National Theatre Wales’s production of Tim Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning at Cardiff High School, the Globe’s Henry V at the New Theatre (in which the Welsh scenes brought the house down), National Theatre Wales’s Coriolan/us at Hanger 858 St. Athan and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black Julius Caesar also at the New. The drama of politics is alive and well in Wales. We are a nation in urgent need of finding a fuller sense of our own potential and of aspiring to some complexity in the level of our public debate. Many signs suggest that in searching for regeneration the theatre is as good as any place to start. We should follow Hannah Arendt’s lead and opt in the first instance for the real thing and not let the over-hyped, underwritten substitutes that pass for public life box us in.

Peter Stead is the author of Film and the Working Class and Acting Wales and he has written studies of Dennis Potter and Richard Burton. He was a founding Trustee of the National Theatre Wales and is President of the Dylan Thomas Prize. This article is also published by the latest on line WalesArtsReview (

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