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Myra, me and the lynch mob

Diane Dubois, whose 'tasteless' play sparked moral outrage at the Edinburgh Festival, puts her case for free-thinking theatre

My play, Myra and Me (yes, that Myra), was forced to move venues at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe because the financial backers of the original venue, having received letters of complaint from some self-appointed guardians of our moral well-being, got cold feet and threatened to withdraw support from a whole chain of venues unless my 'tasteless' play was axed.

Needless to say, neither the backers nor the letter-writers bothered to read or see the play before condemning it. They didn't have to: their opinions on the matter were already established. It is a scary time for all of us who work in the arts when financial backers think they can dictate artistic policy. It is even scarier when they choose to do so without bothering to look at the piece of art in question.

I had hoped that the idea of 'good taste' had gone out with Matthew Arnold, but it seems to be making something of a comeback. 'Taste' can mean little more than subjective preference, but the mood of the moment seems to extend way beyond the likes and dislikes of any one individual. Contemporary notions of 'good taste' frown upon personal preference, choosing instead to propagate a uniformity of opinions, dictating notions of 'common decency' and squeezing out debate in the process.

Matthew Arnold talked about taste because he feared anarchy. And if we look below the surface of this contemporary culture of 'good taste', fear is what we find. So what is it, today, that we are all afraid of?

People often respond with fear and anxiety when some of us decide to examine nasty things like the Moors murders; the shock and dismay is reminiscent of a Victorian nanny catching naughty children peeking at things they shouldn't be allowed to see. We are told that our curiosity is 'unhealthy', and that wanting to know, to open debate about a matter which is 'naturally' closed, can only be the desire of a sick mind. We are encouraged to turn a blind eye and leave well alone.

It is obvious to me that to wish to examine something is not to condone it. Yet when somebody tries to ask questions about taboo subjects today, they are assumed to be sympathetic to the subject, maybe even a little deranged, and certainly suspect. They become an outcast, and this coming adrift from the herd is also something which many fear. Better to be seen to be part of the lynch-mob than to become its quarry.

And so, as a result of all this fear, I am branded as tasteless; as an insensitive, inhumane sensationalist cashing in on tragedy.

Shakespeare wrote tragedies, with all the implications of fate and providence that the word implies. And tragedy, like taste, is a concept I thought somewhat outmoded. We are not as flies to wanton boys, killed, by the gods, for their sport. We are people, some of whom are doing dreadful things to other people, every day. And to call these dreadful things tragedies is to fail to take full responsibility for our actions.

But tragedy sells. People want to read it, watch it, hear about it And in our 'wound culture', the victim who has suffered the greatest tragedy is given the loudest voice and the most respect. Reportage on world events is reduced to some sort of horror gameshow, where the contestant with the biggest catalogue of personal disasters wins. And we all shake our heads, say, 'What a shame. Tragic. Nothing we can do about it'. And the result is inertia. We spout a lot of medieval, superstitious nonsense about 'evil' and 'fate'; we 'reach out' to the victims; we do anything but think. And because we refuse to think, we cannot begin to imagine why things are as they are, or how we might go about changing them, and so, ultimately, we deny ourselves the freedom to act.

Except, I hope, on the stage. In the empty performance space, anything is possible. Its only limits should be those of the imagination, which according to Blake, is infinite. Unlike so many other storytelling media, theatre doesn't work in soundbites. Theatre can provide a complex forum for open-ended discussion of complicated issues. And that is why I defend its right to exist, as a free art form.

Except the mob mentality doesn't want that. It prefers to react, and not to reason. It wants things clean, not complicated, prefers emotional touch-feely gibberish to rational discussion and chooses closed, and preferably happy endings over open-ended discourse. Any 'distasteful' voices are swiftly silenced.

The issue here isn't about the right to speak freely against a fear-fuelled and emotionally driven onslaught of 'good taste'; it isn't even about the right to see and hear alternative opinions. Ultimately, it's about the freedom to think for ourselves. The process has to start in our own heads. And it is thinking freely which people seem really afraid of.

No issue is ever really closed. But eyes can be closed, along with ears, mouths and minds. In writing my play, I asked people to open up not just their hearts but their heads, too. I didn't ask anybody to throw away their compassion; I just asked them to think.

How extremely tasteless of me.


'We've given up on the idea that we can transform the world. Now we only want to transcend it.'

So says Robbie in Diane Dubois' new play Myra and Me. He is not a happy young man. His sister Jo is conducting research into the Moors murders, reawakening dark memories from his murky past. One of Jo's flatmates, Graham, is a would-be Damien Hirst, revelling in depictions of death and decay. Another of Jo's flatmates, Dooge, is an aspiring dj dealing drugs on the side. Robbie finds all of these people morally reprehensible, and the audience probably shares his view.

Myra and Me rises head and shoulders above the fashionable plethora of plays, films and novels that use gritty realism to deal with the immorality and futility of nineties life. Properly speaking, the play is more 'realistic' than any of these, because rather than making out that life is barren and futile it tries to understand why people interpret the world in this way and what such an outlook says about today's society. Myra and Me is not a play about Myra Hindley (as the critics glibly assumed) but a play about the iconography of Hindley: the way in which she has been elevated from a murderer to an icon of misanthropy through becoming the subject of morbid public fascination. Dubois' cleverest and best-observed creation is the character of Graham, whose designer nihilism is sadly reminiscent of much of Ghoul Britannia's current creative talent.

Sandy Starr

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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