David Edgar Interview: The Arts & the Left

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It’s around 5.30pm, the rest of the conference crowd has disappeared off to dinner and we’re sitting in a brightly lit common room with playwright David Edgar. We’ve come up to Northampton University for the 50th anniversary conference of Searchlight Magazine, the anti-fascist, anti-racist publication that Edgar first wrote for back in the 70s.

The Birmingham born writer has just delivered his extremely cogent speech to a feisty bunch of academics, activists and entertainers and has been gracious enough to let us pounce on him for a quick chat. Having spent the last 40 years seamlessly straddling the balance between the arts and left wing political activism, we’re particularly interested in his take on the close relationship between the two.

“When I started out in the theatre, which was a very lively exciting time: end of the 60s, early 70s, Vietnam war raging, battles between the unions and the Edward Heath Conservative government, the lights going out, three day week, all of that… I believed that theatre could directly affect political change… and should directly affect political change.”

In 1972, at the start of his career as a playwright, Edgar was also working as a journalist in Bradford. It was here that he began taking a more focussed interest in the actions of the far right. “I was alarmed by the growth of racism in Bradford’s local politics, which is a town where a lot of Asian workers had come to in the 1960s.” Whilst working on a local paper he began digging into the Yorkshire Campaign to Stop Immigration, which turned out to be run by a former Conservative councillor.

“I became aware that this Bradford right wing group was connected with the National Front, and I began to start reading about the National Front… and then the National Front did very well in a by-election in West Bromwich in 1973, and I moved back to Birmingham – which is where I was born – and met up with Gerry Gable and Maurice Ludmer, who were just starting this magazine called Searchlight.”

Edgar was setting out to write the hugely successful play, Destiny [BBC adaptation, 1978, YouTube – it was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company], about the National Front, and was eager to discover what members of the far right were really like. Gable and Ludmer were instrumental in giving him exactly the type of insight needed to make the play work. “They gave me a lot of information – and [then] sort of turned around and said: ‘You’re a writer – would you write for this new magazine?’ So [for the next] six years of the magazine, I was writing a column about the far right press called ‘What the Papers Say’. From then on I was part of the team.”

“And then I had to confront the issue of what I was going to do with the rest of my life and – rather like the Northern Line – I split into two. I wrote the play Destiny… and I also wrote another play based on the industrial struggles of Asian workers [Our Own People]. And I like to think those plays, although I think they had a political impact – and I wanted them to have a political impact – they were plays that had complex characters. They weren’t just about, ‘see this play and go out and vote this way’ or ‘build this barricade.’”

The challenge for Edgar was the tough balance between creating art and foisting his own political views. “I justified it to myself by saying that [although] at the same time I was doing propaganda, I was doing it by writing for Searchlight, and by speaking at anti-Nazi League meetings, so it was two different [avenues] – but to a certain extent – those were in conflict.”

Edgar explains this dichotomy in relation to showing understanding for socially destructive views. “Destiny’s central character is a British army sergeant who loses his business in the 60s and becomes caught up with the neo-fascist movement. He’s a tragic hero. And to an extent I was sympathetic with him and his plight.”

“Now, I wasn’t particularly sympathetic with anybody in the National Front,” continues Edgar, “and I wasn’t going to get up at a meeting and say ‘I think we should understand these people,’ but I think it was very useful that people were understanding those people because one of the problems the left had – and the reason for writing the play – [was that] the left were saying ‘these are rabid foaming at the mouth Nazis… and there’s nothing to understand.’”

“I thought there was something to understand. But, you know, that’s not what you say at a political meeting. It’s not what political meetings are for – it is what writing plays is for.”

“In the 70s we were lucky in that we absolutely knew which side we were on and who the good guys and who the bad guys were. And so in a sense we had the luxury of looking at the bad guys and saying ‘I wonder why they’re bad guys?’ And ‘is there something to kind of – not empathise with – but at least understand and sympathise with?’ Whereas I think the last decade has been much more complicated to deal with and continues to be so.”

“In what you could call the community arts, the arts comment more obviously on contemporary political life – [and] I think 9/11 was a huge shock. People were thrown. They didn’t know how to respond to it. I think instinctively the left felt we should be on the side of people whose countries have been invaded by the Americans, which is broadly speaking a good instinct. On the other hand the people whose countries were being invaded by the Americans were homophobic [and] anti-women. I think all of those things were very complicated and difficult.”

Partly as a way to wrestle with these conflicting viewpoints, Edgar wrote Playing with Fire, for the National Theatre in 2005. This took up where Destiny left off and covered the Burnley, Bradford and Oldham Riots. In 2008 he also wrote Testing the Echo, about citizenship and Britishness. Maybe it is this continued questioning of the political left through his art that gives Edgar – and artists like him – a compass as to what the left should represent:

“I think the left has to be egalitarian. I think it has to be in favour of more equality than there is at the moment. I think the left has to be hostile towards any kind of hierarchy of groups on the basis of things they can’t do anything about, like race. I can’t see a racist left being a meaningful idea at all, or, I think, a hierarchical left.”

“Historically the left has been at its best when it’s been a combination of the kind of concerns of what we used to call the progressive intelligentsia – things like freedom, and civil liberties for oppressed groups; gay rights, liberalisation of things like abortion law and divorce law and so on. Civil liberties… on the one hand, and on the other hand, an egalitarian thrust towards a more equal society with a strong welfare safety net.”

“And I think that alliance – that kind of alliance – has brought about most of the really unambiguously good things of the 20th century: from the campaign to support Republican Spain, to the civil rights movement in the United States, to the creation of the welfare state here [in the UK] and the New Deal in America. And, you could say the antifascist movement of the late 70s in Britain was another example”

The 21st century, however, is a very different battleground. “The progressive intelligentsia have turned on equality, and I think you can see the Coalition government as being a kind of alliance between economic and social liberals to exclude and marginalise the poor.”

“I think there’s a danger of a new kind of fault line being forged and culture plays an important part in that. I don’t think we’re dealing well with identity and I don’t think we’re dealing well with the urge towards identity.”

And in a today’s world of social media, rent-a-quotes and disposable fame, there is a fine line between making a statement through your art, and simply making a statement because you are an artist. “I’m [almost] now of the view that it’s rather a pity when writers and novelists, who I admire, start speaking politically, and in my view speak politically really badly.”

“I think ‘could you not bring a little of the complexity and the sensitivity of your work as writers into the business?’ But on the other hand, I still do it. So I guess I might be thinking that, I’m uniquely brilliant at thinking and writing in two ways about the important issues of the day and other people aren’t – which is obviously not true.”

“But I do think we live in an age in which writers are probably taken more seriously than they were perhaps 20 or 30 years ago and certainly Harold Pinter winning the Nobel Prize as a man who – like Tony Benn – moved to the left as he got older, defying the usual political trajectory, was very important. It was very important that he said what he said when he picked it up. He was a defiant political activist… and very influential as a consequence.”

“I think we’re now – with books like Cloud Atlas – in an area where the novel is becoming more interesting, formally, and certainly that is happening in the theatre [as well]. And it may be the question we should ask of that is not: ‘how we can use a more open and exciting theatrical practice in order to make better propaganda?’”

“But it might be: ‘how can the very act of making art itself contribute to social change?’ and not contribute in the sense of ‘go there and do this,’ but actually contribute to the development of both people as audiences and participants – and in a more complex way than just saying ‘this is how we think you should look at the world.’”

And therein lies the crux of why the left and the arts are so intertwined. The right will look at the way certain sections of society are feeling and will tell these people who is to blame and what the cure is. When in fact concludes Edgar: “We need to understand what those impulses are and what that sense of loss is about. Culture is one way of doing that. Culture is a way of both talking about it and making sense of it.”

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

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