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Artillery Row

Don’t judge a play by its label

The instinct towards appeasing “sensitivity” would stifle the creative impulse

Just a few years ago, the submissions page of a theatre company asked writers for a script, a bio, and perhaps the very briefest synopsis. But times have radically changed. The Royal Court Theatre has come up with its own Scripts Submissions Content Warnings page. This is designed to help you “flag the contents” of your script “so a reader can prepare themselves to adequately engage or, if necessary, disengage for their own wellbeing”.

The actual idea that any dedicated Royal Court reader could have their mental wellbeing damaged by a script is absurd. This is, after all, the uncompromising theatre that launched Blasted by Sarah Kane, Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill and The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh. Surely, its readers will have cast an eye over the Royal Court’s back catalogue and be ready for the most shocking content possible. The most vital criteria required for a playreader are an open mind and a strong stomach; without them you wouldn’t become involved in theatre in the first place.

The Royal Court gives examples of “key content warnings” in a list that is “not exhaustive” but definitely exhausting. There are the expected culprits of incest, paedophilia, racism, animal cruelty, sexism, transphobia etc., but other warnings seem more randomly specific i.e. “fat phobia”. What about skinny phobia? As someone who has been drunkenly lambasted by teenagers in Bradbury Place for being “a specky ginger fucker,” I’d happily argue for other phobias to be addressed in the interests of fairness.

It’s tempting to laugh these submission specs off — I can only imagine a readers’ panel divvying up the scripts, saying, “I’m okay with incest if you do suicide.” But they point to worrying trends in society. Influential literary institutions aren’t content with labelling writers as, say, global majority, disabled, queer or working class from a list as long as an orangutang’s arm, but are now expecting writers to label their own work. Filling in the Royal Court’s form feels like playing a game of bingo outrage. I’m delighted to tell you that my new play Referendum contains pornographic content, violence, kidnapping and abduction, hateful language directed at religious groups, sexism, blood and death. When you break the play down into these elements it sounds so serious you’d hardly think it was a satire on government corruption.

It’s terribly ironic that the Royal Court mentions racism, sexism and classism, but leaves out the one “ism” it has perpetrated the most over the years – ageism. The Royal Court has always enjoyed a reputation for promoting bold young newcomers like Sarah Kane (24), Mark Ravenhill (30), Martin McDonagh (25), Lucy Prebble (23) and Jasmine Lee-Jones (20). Ageism isn’t purely a Royal Court issue either. All theatre companies are guilty of a youth cult, believing that debutant older writers aren’t capable of summoning up the requisite rage and panache to write a seminal play.

It’s also misleading for the Royal Court to reduce content into these simplistic terms. Problems rarely arise from content “of a difficult or potentially distressing nature” in itself. It’s the treatment of subject matter that usually offends people. If, for instance, a reader says there is a problem with ‘tone’, it almost always means she or he’s had a humour bypass when it comes to black comedy. This month the writer Lemony Snicket revealed that a sensitivity reader had issues with his 2018 book, Poison for Breakfast, because of “tone”. In Snicket’s case, he was lucky to be such a big name he could find a better publisher.

Trigger warnings on language, sex and violence are common practice now in play programmes. Some may argue it’s for the best that newbie theatre-goers are prepared for the onslaught of eye-gouging (King Lear) and the baby-murder horrorfest (Saved, Cyprus Avenue) that typifies theatre. But shock value has always been the playwright’s stock-in-trade — or shock-in-trade. In a script, surprise is everything, so it’s nonsensical to “flag” things for readers as it will destroy the impact of the play when read.

To give some credit to the Royal Court, it does say:

 You do not need to give full details, and difficult content will not prevent your play from being read or considered. Instead, it enables us to give your script the best chance to be read as objectively as possible whilst safeguarding those involved in the reading process.

But please name me one reader who needs “safeguarding” from the category examples of “death or dying” and “pregnancy/childbirth”? Death and childbirth are an intrinsic part of the human condition. Sarah Kane would turn in her grave at this coddling – though any reference to burial would presumably send your average Royal Court reader running for the hills. If a reader in a theatre finds “blood” objectionable, it’s as ridiculous as having a hemophobic surgeon in an operating theatre.

Analysis, for a writer, often leads to literary paralysis

The Royal Court proudly calls itself “the writers’ theatre”. However, it’s highly uncomfortable for any writer to decide what might be uncomfortable for a reader. It’s like acknowledging that you’ve purposely tried to appall them. As the playwright Edward Albee said, “Creativity is magic. Don’t examine it too closely.” 

The Royal Court’s Content Warnings page is yet another extension of the all-pervasive identity culture. Labelling has gone out of control. Some writers are now permanently prefacing themselves with labels like “neurodivergent” and “working class” like they’re talents rather than states of being. I suppose it’s a bit more interesting than giving your age and birthplace, though the point is that labels are being used by writers as if they are credentials for extraordinary literary work. Labels, in fact, are marketing categories cynically employed by publishers to find an audience.

As soon as you label yourself, your writing will be expected to continually fit that mould. To define yourself is to confine yourself. The truly great writers (and great plays) try to be original and uncategorisable. To return to Edward Albee, he was openly queer, but cleverly preferred not to be defined as such. In 2011 he said, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”

The truth is I’ve always admired the Royal Court. Its blistering playscripts fill my bookshelves — Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Rat in the Skull, Far Away, Cock and Violence and Son to name a few. It’s doubtful, though, it will ever produce spine-shuddering work again, now it’s using tiptoey conservative language like “potentially sensitive content”.

While it isn’t easy to be a reader, it’s important to read plays without self-imposed caveats. I’ve read for the Lyric Theatre Belfast and have had to suppress my own biases, but if a reader wants to “disengage” from certain topics or particular words in a script, the Royal Court should disengage the reader from their employment. Writers shouldn’t be forced into submission to fill in submission pages. The play, as dialogue tends to do, should always speak for itself.

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