Matt Trueman: the best of Britain’s playwrights constantly reinvent themselves

Matt Trueman reflects on how Britain’s best playwrights have the same desire to constantly reinvent that David Bowie had

Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill and Anthony Neilson
Playwrights Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill and Anthony Neilson
© Dan Wooller

Strange to be writing this on the day of David Bowie‘s death. Bowie was, after all, the ultimate shapeshifter – not just in his music, but in his whole person. That restlessness, that desire to constantly reinvent, to push his art into new ground again and again and again – that was what made him a true, true artist. His whole body of work, indeed his life, was a testimony to the necessity of novelty in art.

I spent the Christmas break reading Arthur Miller‘s extraordinary biography, Timebends. It’s a beautiful piece of reflexive writing – its author determined to push for precision – and it’s really shifted my sense of his work. It’s fascinating to see the personal drivers beneath ostensibly political plays, for example. That The Crucible is about sexual guilt as much as McCarthyism now seems crucial, given it was written as Miller was starting an affair with Marilyn Monroe.

More than that, though, it made me realise that Miller was a master of reinvention as well. We don’t always think of him as such, preferring perhaps to file him under Great American Playwrights or Political Playwrights. It’s easy for classic plays (and pop songs, for that matter) to crystallise in our minds. Looked at in the present moment, they can seem entirely conventional, almost self-evident even. It sometimes seems like these works of art – so well-made and well-honed – have always existed.

Timebends served as a useful corrective: a reminder that all art has to be made, that every artist undertakes a process and that the history of art is driven by innovation. The mistake is to see these works as tried and tested, fitting into the forms that they themselves have helped to shape. Classics look conventional because their own conventions have redefined the classical – not the other way round.

Miller writes, at length, about Death of a Salesman – not just the figure of Willy Loman, but how to portray his story onstage. Today, there’s nothing extraordinary about its shape, the blend of present and past, experience and memory. We see it all the time: it has become the language of the mainstream and of movies. Miller, however, had to make it up as he went; an entirely new way of writing. "I had known all along," he writes, "that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy the past was as alive as what was happening at that moment, sometimes even crashing in to completely overwhelm his mind. I wanted precisely the same fluidity in the form."

To my mind, if new writing is going through a particularly rich phase at the moment, it’s down to formal innovation – playwrights experimenting with the way they tell stories, as much as with the stories they tell. It’s no coincidence that the two writers championed as our greatest living playwrights – Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill – are both pathfinders, whose plays have broken new ground.

Their innovation has informed an entire theatre culture. Mike Bartlett switches his style on every project: mock history plays to unpick the monarchy, borrowing from bullfighting to portray corporate toxicity. He’s not alone: Nick Payne, Sam Holcroft, Tim Crouch, Alice Birch, Antony Neilson – all of them restless, all always reinventing, all shapeshifters. The best of Britain’s playwrights have something of Bowie in them.