David Edgar

David Edgar’s play about the northern riots of 2001, Playing with Fire, was first staged at the National Theatre in 2005. His book How Plays Work was reissued in August.

People Like You: In Burnley

David Edgar, 23 September 2021

Mike Makin-Waite​, a militant anti-fascist, was working for the borough council in Burnley when, after riots in the town in 2001, it became a stronghold of the British National Party. On Burnley Road explores the complexities of these events, not least as a way of explaining the fall of the ‘Red Wall’ nearly twenty years later. As a young man in the mid-1970s, Makin-Waite became...

If​ 2016 was the year of the crime, then 2017 was dominated by the police investigation. In the eyes of most commentators, there were two prime suspects: the responsibility for the Brexit vote lay with either economic privation or cultural loss. In The Lure of Greatness, Anthony Barnett, the founder of Charter 88 and co-founder of Open Democracy, has identified a third: the constitution.


What did happen? Ukraine

David Edgar, 21 January 2016

This is what​ it looks like from the West. A post-Soviet republic holds a presidential election which a candidate from the east of the country with criminal backing attempts to steal, provoking a popular uprising, a rerun of the election and the victory of his opponent. Six years later the eastern candidate wins the presidency against a divided opposition, jails his main opponent on trumped...

Had things​ been different, last year’s obituaries might have read like this. Although known for his charm, wit and talent as mimic and raconteur, Jeremy Thorpe will be chiefly remembered as the deviser of much of the programme of modern British liberalism, and the architect of one of its great periods of electoral success. The grandson and son of undistinguished Conservative MPs,...

Exit Humbug: Theatrical Families

David Edgar, 1 January 2009

Ellen Terry was the youngest daughter of two touring players, and began her own stage career at the age of six. Ten years later, she married a painter three times her age; they separated within ten months. Three years after that, she took up with the architect Edward William Godwin. They did not marry, but had a daughter and son together, and the expense of their upkeep drove her back to the...

There’s an old adage about American presidential debates: nobody ever remembers the feed-line, only the response. Geraldine Ferraro is remembered for rounding on George Bush Sr in 1984 for patronising her, as is her 1988 successor Lloyd Bentsen – with an equally questionable excuse – for accusing Dan Quayle of comparing himself to President Kennedy. In the last of the three 2008 presidential debates it was the counter-blows that will probably be forgotten. Certainly, Barack Obama had and has effective voting data to counter the implication of McCain’s effective one-liner (‘I’m not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago’) while McCain was unable to recover from Obama’s equally well-rehearsed counter to the charge that he ‘pals around with terrorists’.

With three down and one to go, it’s clear that the 2008 debate season is fitting the pattern of every series since the early 1980s. No major, Gerald Ford-type gaffe, no obvious, Reagan-like knockout blow, but a careful, well-rehearsed negotiation for minute advantage, contests in which confidence, body language, expression, and even forms of address have proved as important as points of policy.

Who Will Lose?

David Edgar, 25 September 2008

This year’s presidential race is the first not to include a sitting president or vice-president as a candidate since Dwight Eisenhower fought Adlai Stevenson in 1952. For the first time, a woman or a black person is guaranteed national elective office in a country that historically has been resistant to both. The two parties are neck and neck in a race in which – unlike in 2000 or 2004 – there is likely to be substantial crossover of support between the two main parties. No surprise, then, that the cycle of presidential and vice-presidential debates – starting on 26 September in Mississippi and ending on 15 October in New York – is being seen as the decisive factor.

Much like the 1950s: the Sixties

David Edgar, 7 June 2007

Early in 1982, at the nadir of the fortunes of the first Thatcher government, a number of ministers sought to identify the causes of the riots that had erupted in British cities the previous summer. On 27 March, the prime minister herself blamed events in Brixton and Toxteth not on economic or political forces but on a decade. ‘We are reaping what was sown in the 1960s,’ she...

Ticket to Milford Haven: Shaw’s Surprises

David Edgar, 21 September 2006

As anyone who has directed a remake of King Kong knows, revisiting classics is a perilous business. However much you claim to stand on the shoulders of the mighty beast, you still risk ending up, like Fay Wray, squeezed in its paw. A.M. Gibbs spends most of the introduction to Bernard Shaw: A Life justifying his decision to return to a very well-ploughed furrow. But by citing no less than...

Stalking Out: After John Osborne

David Edgar, 20 July 2006

From within a few weeks of its opening in May 1956, it’s been accepted that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger ushered in a theatrical revolution. Launching both the Angry Young Man and kitchen-sink drama, the play is held to have had a devastating and irreversible impact on a postwar theatre scene dominated by winsome drawing-room comedies and witless country-house whodunnits. At the time, the play and its message were anatomised in leading articles, discussed by school debating societies, and worried at in the pulpit. In retrospect, its first production at the Royal Court has become, in the words of Mark Ravenhill, the creation myth of the contemporary British theatre.

“When my father, Barrie Edgar, joined the BBC in 1946, its television service consisted of two studios at Alexandra Palace, and two outside broadcast units. Rising quickly from studio manager to the rank of outside broadcast producer, he spent his early years, in London and then in Birmingham, producing anything and everything: from seaside summer shows and circuses to race meetings and general election counts, from Muffin the Mule to the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Rejecting a good financial offer to move to ITV in 1955, he saw many of his programmes hived off from outside broadcasts to specialised (and centralised) BBC departments; over the years, he lost the King’s College Christmas carols to Music, Songs of Praise to Religion and Come Dancing to London. He spent the last years of his 33-year BBC career producing a programme that might have seemed a broadcasting backwater, but which anticipated the trend towards the lifestyle shows that have dominated BBC2 for ten years: Gardeners’ World.

Vindicated! The Angry Brigade

David Edgar, 16 December 2004

“Thirty years on, the miners’ triumph in 1974 looks hubristic, an ironic prologue to the tragedy of 1984-85. On the other hand, the Angries’ libertarian socialist critique of consumerism appears surprisingly, if not uncomfortably pertinent. This is a world in which challenges to oppression have been downgraded into lifestyle choices, the political process has been turned into a form of shopping, and (to quote a Situationist slogan) the ideology of consumption has become the consumption of ideology. In the paranoid atmosphere of the early 1970s, libertarian socialists all too easily slid into moral self-righteousness, mutual intimidation and witch-hunting. But today’s anti-globalisation protests look a lot more like the political theatrics of the libertarian movement than the solemn cadre-building of the neo-Bolsheviks.”

“In his 1987 autobiography, Arthur Miller tells of a conversation with a Kentucky farmer about the Holy Ghost. Pressed to give a definition of the most mysterious element of the Trinity, the farmer replied: ‘I figure it’s sort of an oblong blur.’ In a later interview, Miller used the same phrase to describe the political mood of the late 1970s: ‘We were living in what to me was a kind of oblong blur. There was simply no definition to the society.’ At a stretch, the metaphor could also stand for the conventional view of Miller’s career: a sturdy quartet of well-carpentered plays that caught the spirit of mid-century America, followed by a long, increasingly unfocused, foggy tail.”

What’s Coming: J.M. Synge

David Edgar, 22 March 2001

There’s a saying that all great English playwrights start out as failed Irish actors. In fact, only the late Restoration dramatist George Farquhar fits the bill completely. But actor-playwrights go back from Marber, Pinter, Osborne and Coward to Jonson and Shakespeare. And if you leave out the Irish (by birth or upbringing), you lose Congreve, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw. The...

Be flippant: Noël Coward’s Return

David Edgar, 9 December 1999

In the film about Noël Coward that Adam Low made for Arena in 1998, there is a shot of Arnold Wesker watching a recording of a Royal Court fundraising gala in which Coward is marvellous but clearly miserable as the restaurant owner in an extract from Wesker’s The Kitchen. Less emblematic but equally germane is the story, told in Philip Hoare’s 1995 biography, of Coward’s visit to the Court to see David Storey’s grittily realistic Rugby League play The Changing Room. His attention having been drawn to the male genitalia on display in the bath scene, Coward remarked: ‘13 acorns are not worth the price of admission.’‘

The major contribution of the English theatre to last year’s Brecht centenary was Lee Hall’s dazzling version of Mr Puntila and His Man Matti, presented by the Right Size, a touring company led by the comic actors Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. Their prologue goes some way to explaining why the Anglophone response to the Brechtfest was so muted. Announcing that ‘Before we start/this evening’s art/we’d like to take you through a bit of theory,’ Foley and McColl went on to outline the origins of Marxism, the theory of surplus value and the essence of Brechtian dramaturgy in 16 doggerel lines.‘

Showman v. Shaman: Peter Brook

David Edgar, 12 November 1998

For all its glories, the postwar British theatre has driven an embarrassing number of its brightest stars into exile. Conventional wisdom attributes this to a combination of parsimony and pragmatism. Finding the balance between inadequate subsidy and the need for the box office to make up the shortfall has contributed to a no-nonsense, suck-it-and-see anti-intellectualism. For socialist playwrights like John Arden and Edward Bond, the consequence, in one case, is external and in the other a form of internal exile. But the most noted instance of the prophet rejecting his own country is the director Peter Brook who, having forged a glittering career in the British theatre, from a consummate King Lear to a definitive Midsummer Night’s Dream, decided to up sticks and set up an international company of actors abroad.

Fintan O’Toole’s publishers announce that Richard Brinsley Sheridan has been generally ill-served by biographers, ‘who rehash the familiar outlines of his story every decade or so without bringing any intelligent new insights to the task’. By contrast, O’Toole has written a ‘gripping, carefully composed exploration of Sheridan’s career’. His biography comes hard on the heels of Linda Kelly’s, and it would be comforting to report that O’Toole’s was the rehash, but the Granta puff has it the right way round, while Alan Chedzoy’s life of the first Mrs Sheridan (the noted soprano and beauty Elizabeth Linley) is more boisterously entertaining than either of them.‘

Which is the hero?

David Edgar, 20 March 1997

There is little about the charming Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento to indicate quite what inspired Henrik Ibsen to write a play about congenital syphilis while staying there, and not much more (I am assured) in the equally delightful Hotel Luna at Amalfi to evoke the dark midwinter drama of A Doll’s House. The incongruity between the stark Scandinavian gloom of the major plays and the Mediterranean lushness of the places where Ibsen wrote them is a warning against reading the art too readily from the life, and one that Robert Ferguson has not heeded. For him, the life is the only way to support his thesis, which is that the great plays aren’t great at all, and that after Ibsen’s first success, Peer Gynt (written at Casamicciola, Ischia, in 1867), it all went horribly wrong.


82nd Airborne

8 February 2001

Michael Byers (LRB, 8 February) quotes George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as saying that ‘we don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.’ This much-cited quotation appears to refer exclusively to the role of the US Forces in places like Kosovo. But in fact the 82nd Airborne was the division sent in by the Federal Government...

Positively Evil

4 March 1999

Much of John Willett’s irritation (Letters, 1 April) is based on a misreading of my article on Brecht. I referred twice to his defence of Brecht against John Fuegi’s notorious charges and it is clear that my references to Auden’s attitude to Brecht are taken from Willett’s collection: ‘There are essays on his often turbulent relationship with Auden (who described Brecht...

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