A plagiary on both your houses

It’s been a bad week for people who don’t believe in the concept of copyright.

Here in the UK the wounds of IndyRef have been ripped open all over again by what I suppose we should abbreviate to Lardogate, whilst in the US everyone’s favourite toe-tapping rape apologist’s charter has failed even to be sufficiently original.

There’s a colossal discussion to be had around both the magnitude of ‘theft’ in both cases and indeed about whether artistic ideas can even be owned. For now though, I’m just going to offer a thought as to why the writers of each are, to some extent or another, in the wrong:

The law of theft is entertainingly complex, far beyond that of simply taking someone else’s stuff without asking. One facet of this is that theft can just happen without anyone necessarily realising, like when the milk unexpectedly turns, or several playwrights move house at the same time.

If you agree to give me your lawn mower for a week (let’s say it’s a strange magical land where two normal people own gardens), but then I either through malice or uselessness fail to return it to you, then technically my continued possession of the lawn mower – and denial of your ability to use it – amounts to me having stolen it.


If you create some art, you are giving the ideas and aesthetic therein to society. Inevitably (you hope), some element of it will inspire me to create some art of my own. It’s obviously neither practical or desirable to monetise this relationship, but it would seem like a matter of honour to acknowledge the inspiration. If, either through malice or uselessness, I either refuse to acknowledge it, or outright deny that the inspiration has even happened, then I’m asserting my sole possession of the idea and arguably denying you the ability to use it. This may not be illegal in the same sense, but I feel it’s a level of disrespect that ought not to be shown from one artist to another, and it’s what the writers in both cases above are guilty of.

Obviously in any individual case there can be nuances – Wayne Coyne showed a great attitude in a comparable situation, contesting the philosophical principle, but also taking ownership of his mistake.

Basically, just be transparent, eh? The human race has been around too long for anyone to have any truly original ideas, so there’s really nothing to be gained from trying to look like a divinely gifted genius. Transparency could probably do a lot to create a genuinely strong culture of creative sharing, and if you don’t like the sound of that, then you’re probably a bit of a jerk.

Expressions that are not to be used again to describe theatre: New

We can’t really start to address this issue without asking what ‘new writing/a new play’ actually means.


This is one of those questions so big that every answer is wrong. As such I can only answer for myself – these are the various red flags it throws in my direction:


– Direct contemporary relevance (one might almost say… ‘urgency’…), including being set in or heavily referencing the present

– An ‘edgy’ style reminiscent of the ‘in-yer-face’ school which formed the formative development stage of a great many of the ‘new’ writers and ADs of today – e.g. ‘fractured’ dialogue where people take about a page to say stuff and repeat each other a lot for some reason; the death of a baby; bad dramatic swearing; a ‘look-at-me’ body-horror set-piece; the death of a baby; some form of dissociation (perhaps because depression is harder to cobble together without time-consuming research); and the relentless, inevitable, bang-ordinary death of a baby.

– A bias towards younger characters

– Relationships are hard

– People have computers

– Computers have the internet and that is a thing

– As late 90s/early 00s ‘confused man’s decent band’ Embrace once said “Come back to what you know” (e.g. family, where you grew up, etc.)


[NB. A lot of plays are like this – they have a ‘keen sense of place’. I don’t mind it in the slightest as an audience member, and obviously to a lot of writers it’s extremely important. Fair play to them. But for me, who was born in Maidstone, moved to Worcestershire when I was one and spent my entire childhood being considered ‘posh’ by my contemporaries, it’s just something I haven’t got. My ‘home’ has been defined by people I’ve met – the individual places I’ve met them have become increasingly irrelevant. So when I see a play being specifically praised for vividly conjuring the place where it’s set, it goes right over my head – alienates me, even. Just to reiterate, I have *absolutely* no problem with it being done – but for me, on an artistic level, it’s like having all the characters wear a red hat. If that’s your artistic choice then great, go for it, have a blast – I just won’t fully understand why it matters. I sometimes think ‘hmm, that might be nice’, in the sense that getting a tattoo ‘might be nice’, but that says nothing about how likely it is to actually happen]


What I’m trying to say, in a dreadful rambling roundabout way, the fact of something being a new play doesn’t *really* matter very much to me. If a play looks interesting I’ll watch it. Personally, I don’t see that much innate artistic value in revivals/


(I find it weird that the film and TV industries gets such a hard time for producing remakes, when theatre essentially does it all the time – what’s the *actual* artistic difference between a revival and a remake? The only obvious imperative is that playwrights don’t get repeat fees or DVD sales, but that only applies if they’re still within copyright and can actually make some money for the writer or their estate. I’ve always liked to think that Shakespeare would be a bit disappointed at how much of his work we’re still doing. ‘Yeah, cheers, but you know, steady on’, he says in my head, ‘what are YOU guys writing, more importantly?’ – which might illustrate why relatively few people have asked me to write historical drama)


/but essentially I take each play on its own merits. Like most people, I have relatively obvious prejudices – the paranormal, moral ambiguity and foul-mouthed animals cover everything pretty well – and much as I try to expand my there’s not a lot of point pretending otherwise. I’d be more interested in seeing a revival of The Witch of Edmonton (written, collaboratively, in 1621) than a conventional ‘new play’, which might contain any/all of the arbitrary characteristics mentioned above and make me wish I’d stayed at home with a feature-length Poirot.


There are any number of ‘new’ shows that I’ve absolutely loved and they couldn’t be described like this in any way. I often find myself thinking ‘yeah, it’s described as a “new play”, but still, the content sounds pretty good’. You suck, marketing. I know you dearly want a tiny box to put this piece of art in, but seriously just tell me what the play’s ABOUT. I don’t care about new-ness. That means f*ck-all. There’s no correlation between new-ness and whether I’m interested. Call them ‘original’ maybe, give the ownership to the writer not to the era. If it’s a great play the era will mean f*ck-all and will continue to mean f*ck-all for many glorious years to come. That’s the measure of it.


Incidentally, you might reasonably ask ‘but what about people who actively seek out new, as opposed to old work?’ I’d argue that, by their nature, people who want to see new plays are likely to be what you might call ‘connoisseurs’, and will therefore have a good knowledge of ‘old plays’ to begin with. They will keep up to date with events in the new writing world and are likely to already be aware of contemporary new writing companies and/or individual writers. Therefore they probably already have sufficient knowledge about whether or not a play is ‘new’ and won’t need to be told.


People who only want to see old plays and specifically not original plays won’t go anyway. And, y’know, that’s a thing they do. Don’t come to my shows, don’t buy my records (they won’t – they don’t – I haven’t even got any records out. God help you when I do).