Doug Lucie: I’ve grown accustomed to my plays being ignored

As a revival of his 1982 play Hard Feelings, set during the Brixton riots, opens at the Finborough Theatre, playwright Doug Lucie reflects on his body of work from that period, and why it’s so little seen today

Poster image for Hard Feelings at the Finborough Theatre
Poster image for Hard Feelings at the Finborough Theatre

When it was announced that my 1982 play Hard Feelings was being revived at the Finborough this year, a few people expressed surprise that this was its first professional outing in 25 years.

I didn’t – I’ve grown accustomed to my plays, no matter how commercially and critically well-received they were first time around, being all but ignored afterwards. There have been drama school productions occasionally, and some of them were very good, again prompting the question: why don’t we see them in the professional theatre?

One reason, I think, is that they’ve been mistakenly filed under “social satire” or “topical agitprop”. Yes, my plays, regardless of their settings, are usually informed by current or recent events; yes, they’re usually very funny; yes, I write from a particular political standpoint which informs my choice of subjects, but no, they’re not satires or agitprop.

A couple of years ago, I had two experiences which clarified the question for me – two of my plays, Grace and Fashion, were given rehearsed readings, the former at a theatre in Seattle, the latter as part of the RSC’s 50th anniversary at Stratford, directed by Mark Ravenhill. After the US reading, which I couldn’t attend, the director contacted me to say that for the first time ever, in his experience, the reading had been greeted with a standing ovation.

At Stratford, I’d been nervous because the afternoon reading was of Peter Nichols’ brilliant Poppy, and it had gone down a storm – how could I compete with that? Well, the cast went for it, and as the audience responded, grew in confidence in themselves and in the play. It was an extraordinary experience for me to see the play that had been so lauded in the late ’80s and so ignored thereafter receiving the same rapt, enthusiastic response it had all those years ago, and confirmed what I’ve always told myself when feeling down – these aren’t trivial satires or mere agitprop, they’re contemporary histories full of real characters who show us our modern predicament.

Consider my ’80s plays: Hard Feelings, which predicted the yuppie culture (and much more), and presented, in a domestic setting, the alienated apathy and hedonism to come; Progress, which dissected and ridiculed the human impulses behind identity politics and shone a light on the hypocrisy of many who spouted progressive ideals while behaving in a conventionally reactionary way (and much more); Key To The World, which went almost unnoticed because it was a change of scene for me – East Berlin in ’84 – and because it proposed that our common European experience meant that we could defuse the toxic Cold War and unite around social democratic principles (and much more), a thought-crime for which one reviewer called me a communist (I wasn’t and am not) and another wrote that I was ‘naive’, and five years later, the Wall came down; Fashion, which went deep into the intersection of advertising, media and politics while probing the emotional and psychological make-up of its major and minor players (and much more). For a few years, it was always mentioned in the same breath as Serious Money, then it dropped out of sight. Why? Well, my theory is that the ’80s was a Faustian decade which produced so much shame, guilt and self-loathing that people don’t want to see it again, given what it tells us about where we are today and have been presented with the bill, particularly when it was portrayed so uncompromisingly.

Similarly, Grace (1992) and The Green Man (2003) – both sold out and received great reviews and then disappeared. Both plays, though completely different, contain the themes which have been consistently threaded through my work since my first professional production in ’78, both are deeply serious and both are ridiculously funny.

“May you live in interesting times” as the old saying goes. Well, I have, and I’ve tried to depict those times in unconventional ways that audiences have appreciated, but the gatekeepers have decided that I don’t suit these amnesiac days. The changes in the way our theatres, and our culture in general, work since ’78 are huge and contribute to my argument above, but that’s for another time.

Hard Feelings, which is directed by James Hillier, runs at the Finborough from 11 June to 6 July 2013