Art and the economy

Last nights programme on Irish playwriting during bubble and bust was thought-provoking and enjoyable (I’m not sure if the link works outside Ireland). It also gave us a chance to see frequent commentor on this site, Gavin Kostick, in his natural habitat.

I love Irish theatre, and the last 10-15 years have given us some fabulous plays. But O’Toole wanted something more: art that engaged with the really big themes in Irish society, a lot of which are, nowadays, economic. I found myself wondering how you would have written a bubble play that would have been more than an unfunny and joyless (Michael Colgan’s phrase) social satire. But surely there are cleavages in Irish society today that are ripe for artistic exploration.

32 thoughts on “Art and the economy”

  1. I went to see a play in the West End a couple of weeks ago, written by a Dubliner, GBS (not to be confused with LBS). It was called Pygmalion. Fantastically entertaining. If you are ever in London, I do recommend it. I hope the production comes to Dublin and Belfast soon. Maybe Gavin Kostick can bring it over here.

    That was a real play. The audience loved it. That’s what audiences want in the theatre, to be entertained. Not the sort of miserable left-wing drivel that O’Foole would like everyone to be forced to watch. O’Foole, like Lenin, Stalin and the rest of them, sees theatre simply as a vehicle for indoctrinating the public with marxist socialist propaganda. You can be sure that, in O’Foole’s ideal world, any play the public were allowed to see would simply be a monotonous outpouring of anti-capitalist, anti-family, anti-american, anti-catholic, anti-nationalist propaganda, designed to reduce those watching to the same level of gloom as himself. I counted no less than 3 photographs of O’Foole in yesterday’s Irish Times. The man is obviously on some sort of personality roll.

  2. Perhaps, in the short run Faustus Kelly could be revived? Indeed much of what Brian O’Nolan wrote has a resonance with recent events.

  3. A thread for me!

    If you didn’t blink you’d have caught on the programme. I was the bearded chap asking Fintan what he actually wanted from playwrights.

    @ JtO

    I’m delighted to say that “Pygmalion” is currently playing to packed out houses at the Abbey.

    I did about an hour long interview with Fintan, and of course I’ve been thinking about it since.

    Just one point for now.

    I reckon the last time Ireland was wealthier than our neighbours in Britain was around 1780s – 1800. You can see it in the architecture, the old Four Courts and the new Court Building. It was also the previous time a national theatre was attempted (not the Abbey), on Fishamble Street, by Robert McKeown. It is this after which the company I work in is named.

    Where possibly there was a lack in Irish theatre in dealing with the boom, boom (not the bubble), was in a lack of farces being written. Farce is the medium that deals well with the anxieties of manners and new found wealth.

    The ever canny Friel did do a play called ‘The London Vertigo’, which was an adaptation of a Macklin (1690?-1797), play and did make the link, noted above. Macklin wrote for the original Fishamble Theatre.

    By the way, there are now about 70 venues all around the island of Ireland and 40 odd festivals. So nearly everyone blogging here is close to some local Irish culture.

    I’ve been busy on smaller scale, affordable works recently, and you are all very welcome to come along to a modest effort on a story capturing events in sunny Finglas.

    http://www.bewleyscafetheatre.com/events/fight-night-by-gavin-kostick

  4. @Kevin O’Rourke

    Last nights programme on Irish playwriting during bubble and bust was thought-provoking and enjoyable.

    JTO again:

    Use of the term ‘bubble’ to describe the period of high economic growth is factually wrong, but an indication of how O’Foole would like the period to be portrayed, if the (no-doubt taxpayer-funded) politicised theatre, designed to indoctrinate the public into swallowing his version of the period, ever came about.

    For the record, the so-called ‘bubble’ period saw unprecedented real economic growth, which lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty, created hundreds of thousands of jobs, transformed the infrastructure, led to unparallelled falls in mortality rates, led to unparallelled rises in life expectancy, totally transformed housing conditions, brought peace to N. Ireland, and so on. Describing all this as ‘bubble’ is nonsense, but no doubt the sort of nonsense the theatre will be devoted to propagandising if O’Foole gets his way. It is true that in the late stages of that period, a bubble developed in one sector of the economy. However, nearly all the growth remains intact, as do the social advancements it brought about. As a measure of this, GDP rose by 198.5 per cent in REAL terms between 1993 and 2007. It then fell by 11 per cent between 2007 and 2010. Nearly all economists forecast that real growth either allready has, or will shortly, resume. If it was all a ‘bubble’, as O’Foole’s plays will be devoted to portraying it as, then how come the vast bulk of the economic growth that occurred between 1993 and 2007 remained intact after the ‘bubble’ burst?

  5. @Gavin Kostik

    I’m delighted to say that “Pygmalion” is currently playing to packed out houses at the Abbey.

    JTO again:

    Excellent news.

    But, I doubt that that is the sort of play O’Foole has in mind.

    I think that people in the arts like yourself need to be on their guard to make sure that they are not used for purposes of political propaganda, which is clearly what O’Foole wants. I am not saying you are, or ever would be, merely that there are lots, like O’Foole, who want you to be.

  6. Whatever about the dismal state of Irish theatre – where is the wider satirical artistic mocking of the establishment that has delivered the country into the arms of the IMF/ECB, had it’s banking system implode from corporate fraud, revved up it’s emigration engine and watched it’s political piggies run for the pension-feathered hills?

    Or is this just a run of the mill thing, not really worth culturally noting?

  7. What about Opera? We had the DGOS/Opera Ireland for 70 years (1941 to 2011). It used to put on two seasons a year, initially with 3 or 4 operas per season. As it grew more dependent on state funding, the number of productions fell to 4 a year and finally or 2 or 3.

    In 2009 it was decided to merge Opera Ireland and the Opera Theatre Company to form the Irish National Opera Company. Last week the INO was killed off without ever having staged a single production, and it would appear to have taken the constituent companies with it. What a performance!

    We still have Wexford, of course, but that’s probably kept going for the tourists, and to hell with the locals in Dublin. The whole affair stinks and it shows what a dead hand State intervention is in Ireland, presided over by civil servants and politicians who are totally lacking in cultural appreciation.

    Please don’t start about opera being elitist: most good art is to some extent, and other countries which are more egalitarian than Ireland support it.

  8. I happened upon this programme by accident and despite O’Toole’s persistent questioning and obvious desire that current theatre should be about the Celtic Tiger and it’s aftermath it was clear that the artistic people had no truck with him and were looking up to high heaven saying to themselves what is this eejit spoofing on about.

    I go to the theatre to be entertained not depressed and it is clear that artistic people here see it the same way. Methinks O’Toole sees that if the present gloom recedes that he is out of a job…………

  9. Hollywood flourished during the Great Depression. Some temporary escapism and some respite from the daily grind and gloom is salutary and necessary. And the contemporary references will always surface. Staging well known plays or new plays set in a different time or place, by definition, will have a contemporary relevance as the choice of the former or the artistic motivation of the latter will spring from the ‘now’.

    Anyone seeking doom and gloom can huddle here where the dismal scientists congregate. And as for those seeking to disabuse the perceived false consciousness of the masses, they should engage in the political process – which some, prior to the last election, signally bottled.

  10. @ KO’R,

    Check out the Bill Moyers interview with The Wire screen writer, David Simon on PBS some time. Simon had been a reporter in the Baltimore area for a decade, before he eventually became cynical about journalism as a way to tell a story. He turned to using fiction (based strongly on real characters) instead, and found that the story had a greater connection for people.

    Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, took three decades to finally publish his own account of the Vietnam war. One of his main inspirations to write the book in the first place, was to try and connect with the peace protesters of the 60s/70s, who he faced as a young marine returning from the war. He wondered how such a gulf had developed between two factions, who were both essentially a bunch of kids. Recently, Marlantes found himself again engaged with the same audience, the peace protesters of the earlier decades, in a small independent bookstore at Berkeley to do a book reading. He was expecting a reception, quite different from the one he got. The audience present, took to his book rather well, and were able to use the fictional novel, as a means to bridge across to some understanding of the other side, and as a starting point to engage in discussion amongst themselves.

    In both instances, what we encounter is the use of fiction, rather than factual, as a way for the opposite side of the divide to gain an understanding of a life or experience, which they never had. I haven’t read Bonfire of the Vanities, or any of the other 1980s classics, but it was mentioned in a recent Guardian newspaper podcast (see link), that those classic novels do stand up well today. I have an old hardback copy of Bonfire holding up my flat screen monitor, because it seems to be about the right height. I don’t know why that appeals to my sense of humour, but it does. One of these days, I’ll pull it out and read it. I have a copy of Age of Turbulence, that can take it’s place. BOH.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/audio/2010/oct/12/business-financial-crisis-culture-audio

  11. That settles it: the artists caused the crisis.

    O’Toole is becoming a nostalgic. Nothing is ever as vital as it seemed when you first took an interest in it.

    But let’s accept his premise for the sake of sport: dramatists are not addressing the big questions.

    Hypothesis: much artistic activity in Ireland is rent-seeking, it is cultural output in search of subsidy. Of course it’s domesticated! The situation will only get worse as artists allow themselves to be further assimilated into the promotion of the State’s favoured ideologies (e.g. ‘the export-led knowledge economy’).

  12. @ Jon Ihle

    “Hypothesis: much artistic activity in Ireland is rent-seeking, it is cultural output in search of subsidy. Of course it’s domesticated! The situation will only get worse as artists allow themselves to be further assimilated into the promotion of the State’s favoured ideologies (e.g. ‘the export-led knowledge economy’).”

    There are as wide a range of artists with as wide a range of views as citizens in general.

    It is true that amongst artists and playwrights there are voices that express discomfort and objection to being ultilised for ambassadorial ends. However, a strand of artists have always taken the position of speaking-truth-to-power and writers/performers like Bisi Adigun, Mannix Flynn, Abbie Spallen, Roddy Doyle even (and works like ‘No Escape’), continue to make uncomfortable and adversarial contributions.

    As the arts world is a very low pay one (average stage actor on 7k a year for their work), very few artists are in it to make money, and are not driven by the desire to get subsidy. In my experience they are far more driven by a passionate belief in what they do, some sort of need in themselves and a conviction that they have something of value for the public to hear.

    This is not to say that the arts world cannot be distorted by the way subsidy is deployed. If there is an impact, it would most likely be subconscious, as I have never yet met a decent playwright who would alter their world-vision for the sake of chasing funding.

    The Arts Council model for subsidy (or investment if you like), isn’t bad as at least it has artists on it and is arms length. The French, I think, are funded ministerially, and I gather are much more likely to be held tight to the political agenda of the day.

    On a wider scale, it’s a constant problem for really counter-cultural artists that they’re always being assimilated for commercial exploitation – see punk for details.

  13. Agree about satire. Rory Bremner was the most effective anti-Iraq force in the UK by a distance. Twenty years ago his feel for the City was as good as many stockbrokers. I think the absence of a talent like his in Ireland has been a real problem for the country. He wouldn’t have even had to try.

  14. Gavin,
    My hypothesis was a bit of mischief to poke the State-worshipping Fintan O’Toole in the eye. I’m not the least bit programmatic about the content of art. Although I have some very strong aesthetic preferences, I have no fantasies of enforcing them on any subgroup of artists or, God forbid, on all of society. Kommissar O’Toole seems to feel differently.

  15. The problem is that during the boom, most people I know were very happy. It was nice having money, and parties and a new car and a new kitchen. I’m not sure how much drama you can get out of people enjoying acquiring stuff. I think Gavin is right when he suggests farce might the only way to deal with it, but its funny too how blind people are to themselves.
    They can sneer at what they might consider to be other people’s ostentation and yet presume THEIR spending is refined and justified. I think I heard the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly author saying he heard some “goys” in a pub quoting and laughing about his column and never realising that they were the target of his humour.

    At the other end of the scale, I got heartily sick of Irish literature that survived by perpetually mining MOPE and I’ve boycotted the miserable Irish Childhood genre. What I love in a book or a play is a STORY.
    The best play I saw of the last ten years was Conor McPherson’s The Weir at the Gate a few years ago with Sean McGinley. I think it was the first since the Steward of Christendom (with Donal McCann) where I was completely transported and moved at the theatre. It’s a great story and deals with Other Worldly things and people’s individual stories, because everyone has a story. I don’t need a morally superior playwright telling me that money is bad. It doesn’t work, unless there’s a great narrative behind it.

    btw, another great play I saw several years ago at the Project was Copenhagen, which dealt with a crucial meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr about atomic theory and secrets. It was incredible that a play about theoretical physics could be so compelling. Perhaps if this play was on the Leaving Cert course it would generate interest in science! (apropos earlier thread on maths).

    @JtO

    ++++++1
    (and for math’s thread too)
    you keep taking them tablets 😉

  16. @ John the Optimist

    “Annabelle Comyn’s delightful production of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion”

    That’s from O’Toole’s celebratory, knowledgable review of Pygmalion at the Abbey.

    Keep it up.

  17. I watched chunks of the show.

    I confess I found it difficult to understand how the deputy editor of a national newspaper could be blaming the drama world for not holding the government to account.

    Hmmm…who has the greater responsibility? Our supposed paper of record or a theatre company?

  18. @ Hugh Sheehy

    And so the lines of Art and Economics begin to converge.

    Art competes for the attentions of the media whore in some demented urge to be seen to be popular – but the media had another suitor…

    Don’t be upsetting Fintan with the economics of the media and it’s subsequent colouring of their response.

    Don’t mention the Irish Times buying a property website for €50 million.

    Don’t mention Richard Delevan getting fired for upsetting an estate agent.

    Don’t mention coke-fuelled broadcasters moonlighting as property shills.

    Don’t mention ad-funded property porn masquerading as content.

    Don’t point out to Pat Kenny that going to the high court over a piece of rock makes his daily rants against the greed and avarice that brought us to this point pieces of exquisite satire…

    Or maybe that’s the point!!!

    Maybe the whole media thing is one anarchic, continuous, free-form, satirical performance – the art is in being able to discern it!

  19. It’s funny how Fintan O’Toole sends right wing people around the bend – childish cracks like “O’Foole” and “Kommissar O’Toole”, silly stuff about “state-worshipping” (whereas clearly O’Toole is a liberal as well as a socialist). This kind of stuff can be reliably expected when FO’T’s name arises. I get that he can come across as preachy, pious (hence joyless) but I think he deserves better than this kind of childish taunting and unwarranted smear (as though he were some kind of would be totalitarian – cf references to Lenin, Stalin, Komissar).

    Also, the idea that theatre-going punters just want a larf or a good story and aren’t interested in plays with dark, tragic, bleak or socially and politically charged content cuts against a lot of evidence. Arthur Miller’s plays, for example, were staged with great commercial success (at any rate they sold well) throughout the 2000s boom – I think O’Toole might ask why we were getting our socially relevant drama from American plas written 50 or 60 years ago rather than contemporary Irish playwrights. Of course combining a good story about individuals with social or political content is a trick not many will pull off as well as Miller.

  20. Since culture seldom gets a look in here I’m taking the opportunity to post links to the ‘Wallets Full of Blood’ Film Trilogy which deals in the main with ‘really big economic themes’.

    Trilogy is made from bits of hacked up horror/zombie movies and a lot of other stuff including bits of Joyce, my own writing and lifted RTE archive. Zombie Banker Blues managed to predict the arrival of the IMF well in advance. Roscommon Death Trip is about the end of Fianna Fail and NAMA. Houses on the moon is shot in a ghost village in Roscommon.

    Houses on the Moon

    Zombie Banker Blues

    Roscommon Death Trip

  21. I think time is an issue. Complaining about the lack of politically relevant Irish drama, say something that exposed the superficiality of the Boom and revealed our folly to us, might be premature. Sometimes time and space are needed to fully assimilate events. I think the discussion will be much more interesting in 20 years. AFAIK, there have been few efforts to introduce Haughey into plays and books, and how long is he dead and look at the effect he had on Irish society.

    Also, often a mechanism for analysing the present is to use the past (e.g. since you mention Miller – the Crucible). But we have no parallel in our history for the past ten years.

    On the “theory” of a “good story” – well that is hardly mutually exclusive from “dark and tragic” . The basic requirement of a play is that it MUST have a great narrative or any political point it tries to make will just bore or insult the pants of its audience. You do have to care about the characters so individuality is everything. I’m sure an Irish Miller will present him or herself in due course.

    Which brings us to another point – does poverty and danger actually create the best art? Comfortable playwrights perhaps can’t produce uncomfortable plays? Or at least comfortable times can’t produce uncomfortable plays and if the Boom was anything, it was very comfortable.

    As for Fintan – well, the jokes are jokes, and the left is open to the accusation of being devoid of a sense of a humour. The sight of Gerry Adams SMILING during the leaders debates was a key breakthrough for SF IMHO. It certainly made me like him a lot more. Pat Rabbitte used to smile too. But he’s gotten a bit crabby recently.

    Perhaps Gavin will write a comedy about the enraged political media establishment sitting around an office complaining about the inexplicable (to them) popularity of Fine Gael. 8 years of sneering and Enda’s ratings continue to rise!!!

  22. “we have no parallel in our history for the past ten years”

    The 1960s?

    “The sight of Gerry Adams SMILING during the leaders debates was a key breakthrough for SF IMHO.”

    I tend more for the “collapse in the economy benefits opposition parties” theory of politics but to each their own I suppose. As for Enda’s ratings, they were pretty awful for seven of those eight years so maybe the sneering worked until the election.

  23. I bought a great book in Charlie Byrne’s in Galway a few years ago called Reimagining Ireland whih was the guts of a confeence organised by Peadar Kirby and one of the chapters was on the arts in Ireland and the Tiger and how everybody had more or less been co-opted and bought. So there was no alternative view of how things might be, not that someone growing up in Tullamore or Cavan would know about at least . I think the same process happened in the UK.

    I was looking for a good video to describe the Celtic Tiger and came across this which always reminds me of the optimism that drove the building of estates in Leitrim .

  24. meh, the 1960’s. Admittedly, I wasn’t actually alive then but not sure the widespread prosperity was relative to the noughties. Although FOT did one of his best columns ever on a magazine article about the Haughey’s dinner parties as discussed in some nouveau magazine and the arrival of the fondue set. Fondue was gloriously exotic back then and he made the point that everyone else was so poor, that an inside toilet was an aspiration and all it took was a fondue set to keep ahead of the masses. And Haughey’s financial voraciousness was driven by the realisation that as prosperity did spread, one needed considerably more than a fondue set to stay ahead of the peasants. Now there is a seed for a play. It’s the teeny tiny individual things that say so much. Perhaps HE should write it!

    And think how marvellous Enda must be to tolerate the sneering and STILL win 🙂

  25. @all

    The Aesthetic Turn in Irish Economics gathers pace! ‘Sall fiction, ain’t it?

    Kum bak Rashers Tierney; all is forgiven. Leading role in my upcoming magnum opus, provisionally titled: ‘The Thrill o the Troika’, the sequel to the best ever sell-out ‘The Greatest Bank Heist in Irish [or World] History’.

  26. @ David O’Donnell

    There’s a compendium of tales to be told!

    In fact, let’s get Paddy Aesop in – I hear he does a good line in Fables.

    His rates are expensive and he’s a bit of a tax cheat, they say – but he’ll knock up a grand apartment complex on the side and, when it falls apart, market it as a heritage experience.

    Seems like a fine artistic business model to me!

    Now… Who do I get one of those EU grants from?

  27. I suggest that Gavin Kostik write a play about Sarah Carey’s departure from the Irish Times. It has all the ingredients for a major hit. A beautiful and intelligent heroine, the mob on the street (or, at least, the mob on the internet) baying for her blood, her fateful and dramatic appearance on Prime Time, when her failure to look sufficiently glum tipped the mob over the edge. Fintan O’Foole could play himself in it.

  28. @John TheOptimist

    The producer really needs to know the colour of that wine; and if any correlation exists with the repressed closet neo-marxist tendencies of the gonzaga boy recipient, which the casting director is trying to figure out jesuitically at the mo. Holmes, unfortunately, is not available, as he is on a Dinny_O’Brien retainer; his nemesis, strangely enough, is still available.

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