Is theatre primarily political or essentially just entertainment? This debate has rumbled along with most theatre practitioners insisting on the former whilst the process of an application to the Arts Council for a grant suggests that the main purpose of theatre is actually just inclusivity and diversity!
Bertoldt Brecht and Arther Miller were both essentially political playwrights, whilst Samuel Beckett was more interested in exploring our inner motivations and psyche. Henrik Ibsen explored both the socio-political and our inner angst whilst Alan Ayckbourn’s plays (of which there are a great many) revolve around human failings and the same can be said to a large extent of John Godber. Of course, no one has yet bettered William Shakespeare in exploring the human condition, although there are many other notable examples going right back to Ancient Greek theatre.
Despite all of the above, there are writers who merely aim to amuse and entertain and an interesting question is whether these playwrights should be regarded as lesser artists. As the great farce writer Brian Rix once said, if you think farces are facile, have you actually tried writing one?
A really good, funny, sophisticated comedy need not contain any political undertones or psychological insights because if you set to make people laugh and you succeed, then have you not succeeded? There have been several attempts to announce the death of the farce over the years but the beast simply won’t die. If you need any proof of this, look at the success of Mischief Theatre and the phenomenal ongoing success of ‘The Play that went Wrong’ and their subsequent offerings.
Perhaps emerging writing would do well to dwell on the fact that the first role of the playwright is to entertain and there is no reason why this cannot simply be an end in itself. Politics and psychology are possible add-ons but then so is laugh-out-loud comedy and who is to say which is the higher or lower form of art?