Sometimes you can be helped towards a greater understanding of your own views on a subject by reading an argument that is diametrically opposed to everything you believe. This happened to me yesterday when I came across the playwright Mark Ravenhill’s piece in the G2 section of the Guardian, a piece which in the print version appeared under the headline “British writers treat audiences as bored channel surfers. I’d much rather be treated as an adult.”
Ravenhill thinks that most contemporary plays, movies and novels infantilise their audiences by attempting to be too much fun. “And so we throw spectacle at you, make sure there are three laughs on every page, grip you with the power of ‘what happens next?’, do what we can to shock you with graphic sex and violence.” (Ravenhill, incidentally, came to prominence with his play ‘Shopping and Fucking’, which, according to Wikipedia, is in part about “drugs, shoplifting, phone sex, prostitution, anal sex, and oral sex in the London department store Harvey Nichols”.) Ravenhill goes on: “From the worthiest of new-writing theatres to the brashest of musicals, from the Booker shortlist to the BBC newsroom, the assumption is the same – that you out there are very easily distracted.”
If he can find three laughs on every page of the books on the average Booker shortlist, then I want what he’s smoking, but of course the concern that our attention-spans are getting shorter is a real one, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Where we part company is in Ravenhill’s equation of the need to be entertained with immaturity. He describes a visit to Poland to see Polish theatre director Krystian Lupa’s play ‘Marilyn’, a “three-hour work in progress that will eventually form part of a nine-hour exploration of ‘personality’”. Ravenhill admits that the play was occasionally “really, really boring”, but then claims that this was OK, because “I was truly being treated as an adult, someone who didn’t need to be constantly diverted.”
I like to think that I too am an adult who doesn’t need to be constantly diverted – unless, that is, I have paid good money to be in a place of entertainment (and even the theatre, which God knows has provided some of the dullest nights of my life, can still, at a stretch, be described thus) – in which case I demand diversion, every single second of the evening. Anyone who is currently constructing “a nine-hour exploration of ‘personality’”, it seems to me, has completely forgotten about his audience, or at least the conventional notion of an audience, full of people with jobs and worries and dependants, people who are tired after a hard working day or week. My suspicion is that the policeman and the teacher and the nurse who works in a hospice does not feel infantilised in the least by someone’s desire to keep them entertained and diverted; rather, they are grateful for it. The job of providing these diversions, however, can occasionally seem less than adult: writers sit around in jeans and old T-shirts for large parts of the average working day, eating biscuits and watching some of the funnier acts from ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ on YouTube, while their friends and contemporaries don suits, rush off to meetings, save lives, keep entire transport systems running. Perhaps inevitably, there is a desire to compensate for the lifestyle, produce plays and books and films that are no fun whatsoever in an attempt to convince the world outside our offices that a day in front of the word-processor is the equivalent of eight hours down a Siberian salt-mine.