there are no jobs for hairy blokes without finesse: an interview with playwright richard bean
"It's a tough town, Hull, but we are mad and proud."
Richard Bean is one of the most important playwrights to emerge in Britain in this century. He's best-known for his farce One Man, Two Guvnors, which ran on Broadway last year. Here is the full interview with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback.
WALTER BILDERBACK: You had a somewhat unusual career path to playwriting, at least from an American standpoint. You started out as an occupational psychologist and then became a stand-up comic, if I recall. How did that develop?
RICHARD BEAN: Yes, I trained in Social Psychology at Uni, mainly an American discipline with the dominant psychologists being Milgram, Asch, Skinner. I ended up with a BSc and went into the occupational side.
WB: What led to the transition to playwriting?
RB: I'd been working in Personnel and Training departments in big factory situations for 15 years and all of that time I was corrupting myself with the literary education that I hadn't had at university. Specifically I started reading Henry Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Conrad - just for fun really, but it was Henry Miller who corrupted me just through serendipity. I was working as a Personnel Officer in a telecoms company and I, by chance, started reading Tropic of Capricorn, which is Miller's story of his life in New York and Brooklyn as a Personnel Office for a Telecoms company - and I was corrupted. I became self-conscious about my work, which destroyed my ability to do it, and so, bit by bit, I started writing, and my first step was stand-up comedy.
WB: And the stand-up?
RB: I did stand-up for six years in all. I did three years as a character, took a year off, and then came back as myself. My material was good but my performance was less good. I had an agent and toured the UK, I'm not saying I was rubbish.
WB: Were there any particular playwrights who influenced you when you started?
RB: Yes, when it came to playwriting I was essentially naive, and not up to speed with fashion. So I was very influenced by David Storey, having seen a naturalistic production of his play The Changing Room. I thought it was rather boring as I sat and watched it, and then theatre magic worked on me, I couldn't get it out of my head, and then I realized how I might dramatize my year's work at a mass production bread factory. A play which became Toast.
WB: What impact has standup had on your playwriting? Even in your most serious work, there are plenty of laughs – sometimes at a point where another playwright might have tried to be very heavy. In one interview you said, “I aspire to tell tragedies with comedy.” Is that still true? What do you mean by that?
RB: There is something of a technique of telling a tragedy with jokes. I think Mamet does it well, though you would never call what he does jokes, it's more character with him, but I do jokes with heavy full stops, and it's very satisfying when the tragedy is told in this way, because the audience are entertained and then hit with the humanity, the tragedy. A lot of it came from my analysis of The Changing Room which I loved for its humanity but found a little boring. When I came to write Toast I wanted the humanity, but also wanted to entertain. It's dangerous territory because too many laughs and one's writing will be dismissed as an entertainment, but I started out as a stand-up so I love that audience can respond, to prove they're awake.
WB: Under the Whaleback, like Toast, is set in Hull, which is your hometown. You grew up right as the fishing industry started to decline. Can you tell us a little about Hull?
RB: I was born into a big industrial, rough, smelly town of about 300,000 people. Smelly? You might question - but the dominant industry was fishing and I remember one Hull Daily Mail headline when I was growing up which cited an consultant surgeon at the hospital having to stop an operation because the smell from the fish docks was so bad. It's a tough town, Hull, but we are mad and proud. We claim we invented constitutional parliamentary democracy because in 1642 Hull closed its gates on the King and so began the first violence of the English Civil War. We claim we ended slavery because our Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, pushed through the legislation that ended British involvement in the slave trade.
Nowadays we are a depressed town struggling, a little like Detroit I guess, the industry has gone, only the women can get service jobs, there are no jobs for hairy blokes without finesse.
WB: Something that attracted us to the play is that it's about a workplace and how people support themselves. It seems that what people do to support themselves is important in almost all your plays.
RB: I love work plays. Work has hierarchy, hope, ambition, need, compromise, tragedy, and comedy. Work is society touching the individual. Work is the individual engaging in society. Often the language is richer, saltier for sure, but also more revealing.
WB: Many of your plays, including Under the Whaleback, span relatively large periods of time. In this play, it's 35 years. Another "Hull play" of yours, Honeymoon Suite, covers 49 years, Harvest 80-some, and England People Very Nice goes from the 17th century to the present. What draws you back to this dramatic strategy?
RB: Time adds depth. Time reveals patterns, repetition, tropes of humanity. It also makes the audience work, and if they're working, and willing to work, you're ok, they're on board.
WB: In addition to England People Very Nice, some of your other work has stirred some controversy: The God-Botherers, which takes a "jaded" view of English NGO workers in Africa, and The Heretic, which looks at global warming, but with a protagonist who's a skeptical scientist. Do you aim to provoke sometimes?
RB: My hobby is shouting at the television, and I have become more self conscious as I get older, and I've come to realize that anything that excites me and makes me shout must excite others. I have never written a play outside of my beliefs just to be controversial. The critical view of multi-culturalism in England People Very Nice; the skeptical view of the dodgy science behind so-called global warming; and the madness of giving money to the big men of Africa who drive Mercedes Benzes - these are all attitudes which I personally believe. They often do not fit with the bien pensant liberal orthodoxy but I am always comforted by the personal knowledge that I am more liberal than most, I just don't like crooks.
WB: You're best-known in this country for One Man, Two Guvnors, which has been a monstrous hit in London and ran on Broadway last spring and summer. It's a bit of a departure for you, because it seems to be pure fun. How did that come about?
RB: I'd rewritten Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance for Nick Hytner at the National and he'd been happy with what I'd done, and of course, he knew me from England People Very Nice and so that's how I got the gig. Nick and I were a good match as we're the same age and we had drunk in the same British humor over the last 56 years and we just reproduced that slightly saucy, non-ironic, in yer face gaggy comedy.
WB: What writers are you following these days?
RB: I find most passive-ish activities these days difficult - that is television, dvds, novels. I prefer to be active, which means writing or researching. Most of my reading is factual research, politics, or polemic.
I think the world lost a truth teller when Christopher Hitchens went, but I'm not following any particular writers at the moment. Of course I have my favorite newspaper columnists but I don't think that's what you mean.
WB: What are you working on now?
RB: I'm writing a play about the Pitcairn Island, which is a very iconic British story. It's the Pacific island where the mutiny on The Bounty mutineers went to live, to hide, and to try and create a new life. It's basically the Garden of Eden, an island fantasy, but which of course turns ugly and turns into a grown up Lord of the Flies. I'm hoping that the Royal Shakespeare Company will do it, they've read and they like it, but want a rewrite - plus ça change.
Photo: Richard Bean. Photo (c) Steve Cummiskey