This series of plays were intended as a response to the events of autumn 1989, now they're being presented as history. Do they still stand up?by David Edgar / November 12, 2014 / Leave a comment
David Edgar’s Pentecost was premiered by the RSC in 1994 © Jason Dail Those of us who wrestle with the challenges of writing fact-based theatre can take comfort from the fact that playwrights have been here before. The earliest Greek play we have—Aeschylus’s The Persians—was about the recent defeat of a rival army. The RSC is currently running two Elizo-Jacobean plays—Arden of Faversham and The Witch of Edmonton—based on real life stories (Arden ends with a “what-happened-next” speech, like the captions at the end of a television documentary drama). In the 60s, dramatists edited transcripts of important trials (a strategy revived by the Tricycle Theatre in the 1990s). In the 70s, so-called “State of England” plays charted the decline of post-war Britain in fictional plays based on real events (from the Suez crisis to, in my case, the rise of the National Front). Since 9/11, British fact-based theatre has been dominated by verbatim plays based on interviews. In 1990, I began writing an accidental trilogy of plays about the causes and consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall which are now being revived together for the first time. Three plays which were as topical as they could be when premiered (the first was presented by the National Theatre one day before the first anniversary of the fall of the Wall) are now being presented as history. It will be fascinating to see how they stand up aesthetically, but also factually. Set on the fictional end of the spectrum between strict verbatim theatre and fictional drama based on real events, two of the three plays follow the same dramaturgical principle. The Shape of the Table is about the actual events of the autumn of 1989. But because, basically, the same process happened five times, in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany and Czechoslovakia (Romania was different), I decided I could and should create a fictional, paradigmatic east european revolution constructed from the body-parts of all the real ones. Most closely based on the Czech revolution, the play begins with a dissident writer being brought from prison during a popular uprising to discuss the terms of his release. The play was and is a celebration of those brave East Europeans who had returned revolution to the historical agenda, and with a vengeance. But, ironically, they had done so in order to overthrow regimes which claimed to be the torchbearers of the revolutionary ideal. And although I had never had much time for the Soviet Union, I was formed by the student revolt of the late 60s, which was both an inspiration for the 1989 insurgents and the most recent version of the ideology it sought to overthrow it. So the play isn’t just about riding the wave of history, but about those left behind. But for all the euphoria, it was apparent when I visited Yugoslavia in early 1990 that the unprecedented move from communism to capitalism had had some unpredicted and unpleasant side-effects. Despite the assertion that 1989 was reuniting the continent (many called it a counter-revolution or a restoration) it was clear in immediately post-1989 Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia that “Europe” was a place that stopped at your country’s eastern border. What the new Europe meant, who owned it and where it stopped was the subject of my second play, presented by the RSC in Stratford and then at the Young Vic in 1994-5. Pentecost is the most fictional of the three plays: its starting point is the discovery of an imaginary fresco on the wall of an abandoned church in an invented East European country. The third—also for the RSC—returned to the dramatic principles of the first. Inspired by a television documentary on the Oslo peace process, its source material was the initially successful attempts to settle those long-standing contentions in South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Middle East which after 1989 seemed open to resolution, and new disputes which emerged in the wake of the cold war. In the manner of The Shape of the Table, I wanted to draw on these different real world events and create a fictional paradigm (an insurgency by a majority Muslim province against a majority Christian, post-Soviet republic). But as I worked on the play, what had seemed a success story was falling apart. Following the unqualified success of negotiations in South Africa and what appeared to be breakthroughs in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, peace settlements were beginning to unravel. The Northern Ireland process appeared to grind to a halt. The techniques which had ended the Bosnian war at Dayton failed to resolve the Kosovo conflict at Rambouillet. Despite Oslo, the Middle East settlement crumbled and the intifada exploded once again. Suddenly peacemakers were facing charges that far from being honest brokers they had their own agendas, not always in the interests of the people they were claiming to help. Then, during its first run, The Prisoner’s Dilemma entered the past tense on 11th September 2001. Now all three plays have become history, how do they look? Dramaturgically, they are closer to what’s happening now: political theatre has moved away from strict verbatim, expanding its reach to encompass factual plays set in the recent past (like James Graham’s This House, about the Labour governments of the 1970s), fictional versions of real events (like Laura Wade’s Posh, about the current Conservative leadership at Oxford), explorations of the past by the present (like Lucy Kirkwood’s Tiananmen Square play Chimera) and indeed the projection of real people into an imagined future (Mike Bartlett’s Charles III). Factually, my three plays are nearer to the headlines than at any time since they were written. In The Shape of the Table, the dominant political reality for the leaders of my generic people’s republic is referred to euphemistically as “our great neighbour to the East”, a country now led by Vladimir Putin. In Pentecost, a country divided between a supposedly civilized, European-oriented west and an allegedly backward east is invaded by asylum seekers, including an Afghan fleeing his collapsing country and a Kurd fighting for a separate state. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is about two peoples of different religions, trying to work out whether they can live together in the same country, or whether the ultimate solution is for the Christians to flee from the Muslim areas and for a new state to be created by forced partition of the old one. The first two plays note with alarm the rise of the far right in Eastern Europe. The second two speculate that once the rubble of the Berlin Wall was cleared, Europe would find it necessary to build new walls further east: one is now being planned, along the Ukraine-Russia border, to be built by the Germans. The first image of the Iron Curtain trilogy is of an artist in a country whose totalitarian regime is about to be overthrown by a mass popular uprising. The last is of another artist, threatened with expulsion from a separatist statelet that has been taken over by religious fundamentalists. They weren’t written as history plays, but audiences may feel they’ve turned out that way. The Burning Coal Theatre Company’s productions of David Edgar’s Iron Curtain Trilogy is being performed at the Cockpit Theatre from 13 to 30 November.