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.

Similarly:

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: True

We’ve all seen it. The review that overcooks itself and praises a story for feeling or being ‘true’. I don’t like it when they do that, and here’s why:

– Surely it only really applies to a very familiar, i.e. naturalistic situation, in order for the judgement to be valid. That being the case, logically, anything abstract, speculative or fantastical is excluded forever. A play revolving around an intergalactic war (we’ve all written one of those, right?) couldn’t be described as ‘true’ because it’s based on events that *specifically* haven’t happened.

– Even if it’s naturalism, the concept of ‘truth’ is actually a bit dumb. ‘Carthage’ (the current, and apparently very good, Finborough show about social work) is written by former social worker Chris Thompson. I’m sure that with ten years experience of social work, he can write very truthfully about it – but then, he would, right? It’d be downright weird if he somehow engineered to write untruthfully about it. But every writer, sooner or later, has to examine subjects they don’t necessarily have first-hand experience of. It’s why research exists and continues to be unpopular. Is it still ‘truthful’ when they do? If I wrote a play about social work then I’d want it to appear truthful – except it wouldn’t be, because I’m not one. Believing the ‘truth’ of a story in that context proves nothing more than that it’s been convincingly told – and liars are also adept at telling stories very well.

– ‘But actually Duncan’, you might say, ‘we’re talking about truth of emotion, rather than truth of circumstances’. I’d argue that that’s just a sentimental way of talking about how thoroughly and consistently the characters are constructed. That’s only ‘truth’ inasmuch as the characters always act in line with how the playwright’s created them to act. If the writer’s done a good job, the characters only ever do things that make sense in their emotional world (which is why ‘Breaking Bad’ is so terrific). If they haven’t, the characters are doing any old thing for any old f*cking reason and congratulations, you have unlocked the achievement ‘writing crap drama’.

– If you’re still feeling argumentative, you might wheel out verbatim at this stage and present it as theatre being ‘the literal truth’. Which is FINE, as long as it’s delivered in a COMPLETELY balanced fashion and isn’t edited or truncated in any way. At all. It probably wouldn’t hurt to accept also that the reasons for creating and putting on a theatre production are inherently partial and therefore representative of one side of an issue/situation or another. If there is one side, there must therefore be another, which means the whole exercise is subjective and ultimately a test of the ‘truth’ of your particular argument. I think one of the most interesting things about humans is that they can make an argument for absolutely everything.

Basically, next time you enthuse about how ‘true’ a piece of art is, remember that what you’re really saying is ‘I BELIEVED THIS’.

Think on.

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).

A homeless play

Sometimes you write something so context-specific that you can’t usefully use it in any other capacity. In these situations you have to ask yourself “tough questions” (expression licensed from A Bunch of C*nts, May 2010) about what to actually do with the thing and whether you’re fundamentally happy with it or not.

I’m quite happy with this play. It was written for a Youtube-oriented call-out for short plays and didn’t get selected. It’s essentially ridiculous and maybe will have a life of its own one day, but right now that seems unlikely, owing to having to watch the video first and enact that onstage in a practical fashion. Anyway, do enjoy it. If you end up performing it some day then do tell me – it’s just nice to know these things…

“Something stupid I wrote where cats are funny on the internet”

 

Watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h6mlNiDkHXA

APACHE sitting onstage. A white plastic bucket over APACHE’s head. APACHE looks comfortable. NEASDEN enters, notices what APACHE is wearing, swears and almost exits immediately. NEASDEN pauses, thinks better of it and slowly advances to sit next to APACHE.

NEASDEN

Yeah. Yeah, you’re funny. You’re very funny.

 

APACHE

(giggling) Yeah, I know. This is brilliant. Topical and witty. Amuses me intensely, this does.

 

NEASDEN

You don’t think it’s got even slightly old?

 

APACHE

NO.

Pause. APACHE starts laughing.

APACHE

What was most funny/

 

NEASDEN

/you’ve said/

 

APACHE

/I know – what most funny was how serious you looked, like it was either a total game-changing revelation or some kind of horrible trap. And then you just stuck your head in it. Because you’re a genius.

 

NEASDEN

Doesn’t hurt to be curious.

 

APACHE

Yes it does. Yes it definitely does. There is SO much precedent for the danger posed by curiosity. To quote another human saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you look like a massive bellend’.

 

NEASDEN

It’s actually quite tragic when you think about it.

 

APACHE

Why?!

 

NEASDEN

I was the daring, clever one, now they just think I’m a moron.

 

APACHE

What?! Neasden, they did not think you were the daring and clever one.

 

NEASDEN

They did!

 

APACHE

When?! They called you ‘Neasden’!

 

NEASDEN

When I was on the… on the thing, they loved that.

 

APACHE

On the skateboard?

 

NEASDEN

Yeah.

 

APACHE

When you stood on the skateboard?

 

NEASDEN

…yeah

 

APACHE

When you stood on the skateboard and sort-of trundled around going ‘what the fuck’, and then a while later you did it again?

 

NEASDEN

They filmed it. Loads of times.

 

APACHE

They filmed ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ loads of times. Means fuck all.

 

NEASDEN

Why were they even filming me with the cup? I don’t even remember the camera being there.

 

APACHE

Yeah well… you wouldn’t.

Pause.

NEASDEN

What do you mean?

Pause.

NEASDEN

What do you mean I wouldn’t remember being there?

Pause.

APACHE

They don’t call me ‘Apache’ for nothing. I move like a shadow.

Pause.

NEASDEN

What? No. No no no no no. You can’t work a camera.

 

APACHE

Er, you point the bit that looks like an eye at what you want to look at and you press the big red button. Yes I can. Because I’m a genius, and you can’t get out of a cup.

Pause.

NEASDEN

Why would you do that?

 

APACHE

Partly, to be honest, for a massive fuck-off giggle at your expense. Enjoy. (pause) And also for you own good.

 

NEASDEN

How?! In what way ‘for my own good’?!

 

APACHE

Left to your own devices, you were gonna come to a bad end. It’s a slippery slope. They get used to the idea they can just make you do anything. Stick you anywhere and you’ll put up with it. All it takes is a house party and a mate who’s a dickhead and you end up in the tumbledryer. Or worse. Not worth it.

 

NEASDEN

At least they wouldn’t film that.

Pause.

APACHE

Anyway, I’ve made my point. I can probably take this off now.

Pause. APACHE does nothing.

NEASDEN

Do you need a hand?

 

APACHE

Nah. I’m still finding it pretty funny in its own right, to be honest.

 

NEASDEN

You’re very harsh.

 

APACHE

I’ve got quarter of a million views. Come back to me when the world stops finding it funny.

Pause.

APACHE

You know I’m right, Neasden.

 

NEASDEN

Maybe I was feeling the pressure. All that responsibility and expectation I didn’t even understand. It was too much. Maybe I wanted this to happen.

 

APACHE

(sniggers) Yeah, like most people want the whole world to see them make a tit of themselves. Obviously.

 

NEASDEN

Do you not worry people will think you’re being even more stupid and film you/ (APACHE turns the bucket around – on the reverse side is a fabulously-drawn portrait of a glamourous and sophisticated-looking cat)/ no, no course not, you’re a genius. (pause) Can I have a go? You know, get the monkey off my back.

Pause. APACHE slowly removes the bucket and passes it to NEASDEN. Pats NEASDEN on the shoulder and exits. NEASDEN stands holding the bucket and looking at it. Fade down.