The 'New Play' Houses

What are our 'new play' houses? Pre-eminent, I guess, is the Royal Court and long may it continue to be so. But we have also the Bush, Hampstead, Soho. Before the modern era, really until the middle of this century, all theatres were new play houses.

To begin at the beginning: the theatre at Delphi and all the other theatres of Classical Greece were without exception new play houses. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed once at the annual festival of Dionysos - admittedly before an audience representing (if not consisting of) all the male citizens of Athens - and, as far as we know, never again.

Shakespeare's theatres - the Swan, the Globe, the Rose, the Curtain - were all new play houses. Occasionally a magnificently successful play - The Spanish Tragedy or Henry IV Part 2 - would be revived from the previous season. But, by and large, 'a play' meant a new play.

And in the centuries that followed, Shakespeare himself proved to be the only exception to this new play rule. The great English actor managers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries - Garrick, Macready, Irving - all presented new plays with Shakespeare: Sheridan and Shakespeare, Congreve and Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the only revivable survival from another world, an earlier time.

In Spain, during the Golden Age, all the theatres were new play houses, presenting the works of Calderon, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Tirso da Molina. In 17th century France, there were Moliere, Corneille and Racine. Admittedly, the last adapted Euripides for many of his own masterpieces, but the thought that you could actually put on one of the old boy's plays themselves seems never to have occurred to anyone.

Mirroring Its Audience

We need to reflect, I think, on how different, as a consequence, those theatres must have been from the way we imagine a theatre now. How deeply bound up they must have been in the rituals, the habits, the structures of meaning and of need dominated by the powerful and the rich - for theatre, if it has an audience larger than a coterie, has always needed to negotiate a relationship of meaning and of need with the rich and the powerful.

What social function did those theatres fulfil, reflecting back to their audiences, as they did, so consistent an image of the audiences themselves? And these were not, we must remember, isolated communities. English politicians and merchants of the time travelled habitually to Italy and Spain, where Webster and Ford and Tourner and Middleton set many of their plays. But there's no evidence of the text of a Spanish or Italian play being brought back to England by any of them. Elizabethan acting companies were also known to tour Germany and Poland, but again brought home no 'Best Polish Plays of Today' to suggest to their dramaturg as lively additions to their repertoire.

During the Restoration, the only way Moliere managed to get into England was by having scenes or entire plots of his plays purloined by English dramatists. His The School for Wives became Wycherley's The Country Wife and so on.

All Change at the Court

When did all this change? When did 'a play' come to mean either a Greek tragedy or an Elizabethan comedy, a work by Soyinka or Dario Fo or Chikamatsu?

The hero in this as in so many things was Harley Granville Barker who with, we can now appreciate, astonishing boldness, presented almost 100 years ago performances of Sophocles in translations by Gilbert Murray at the Court Theatre for occasional matinees. Though his Sophocles had little success, it was followed by further occasional matinees of outlandish foreign dramatists, though modern ones: Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov.

George Devine's first notion when he set up the English Stage Company, at what was by then the Royal Court, was that it should present the European repertoire. His first seasons included Becket and Brecht and Ionesco. But Osborne and Arden and Wesker were desperate for a home and found one there, and so, more or less, it has continued to this day.

It wasn't really until the setting up of the National Theatre in its first try-out existence at Chichester under Laurence Olivier - much inspired by Granville Barker and also by my own particular hero, Michel St-Denis - that the idea of staging whole seasons that drew on the international repertoire took hold. Strindberg and Baumont and Fletcher in the same season, an astonishing novelty.

The Miracle of a Good Play

And so it continued when the National Theatre moved to the Old Vic and, in the fullness of time, caused to come into being the Young Vic whose first ever production was the French classic Le Forberies de Scapin, here presented under the more arresting title of Scapino.

The Young Vic has always been an international theatre. Our multi-cultural, trans-cultural, poly-cultural roots go very deep. Do we hold 'the mirror up to nature'? Well, that's a large claim to make. But do we hold it up to culture - the challengingly complex, delightfully diverse culture within which we live - as well as the tens, maybe hundreds of cultural realities that, on an international level, intersect with our lives every day: Chechnya, Iraq, Israel, Texas, Somalia - we try to, we aspire to.

A good play is a truly miraculous - if I believed in God, I would say a godly - thing. By means of the tiny handcrafted one-off gobbet of verbal machinery that is a play, if we treat it with candour and respect, fuel it well and keep it polished bright we can journey across hundreds, even thousands, of years and across boundaries otherwise blockaded by hatred, ignorance, anger, barbed wire, tears.

David Lan is the artistic director of London's Young Vic, which announced its spring 2003 season this past week. The multi-national schedule includes new productions Red Demon, Simply Heavenly, Peribanez and Hobson's Choice (see News, 9 Dec 2002 for more information).