Iconoclasm in modern British drama

Al-Kasim, Faisal Moayad

Literature; Mass media; Performing arts

Thesis or dissertation

© 1989 Faisal Moayad Al-Kasim. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Iconoclasm has proved to be a major feature in modern British drama, where in a short period of time, the theatre has witnessed a host of iconoclastic dramatists, where demythologization has been widespread and fierce and where the icons of the present and the past have been subjected to a wholesale desecration in large numbers at the hands of the Ardens, Brenton, Bond, Churchill and others, who, as their dramatization of history and its idols has shown, have much in common.

Although the above playwrights and others were most active towards the end of the sixties and throughout the seventies, their assault, however, has not completely died away in the eighties. As I have shown, Berkoff in 1987 launched in Sink the Belgrano! a fierce onslaught on political sacred cows, including the present Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher who was mercilessly pilloried. On the 19th of February, 1988, Radio Three began broadcasting a nine part iconoclastic cycle by the Ardens, Whose Is The Kingdom? in which iconized personages from Roman history are revealed in a new light. In the above cycle, the playwrights set out to "demolish" "established notions" about Christ, Christianity, and rewrite the history of the Roman Empire, exposing its heroes and icons such as Constantine as manipulators and hypocrites. In other words, the Ardens' iconoclasm does not seem to have subsided; indeed it is on the rise!

However, as mentioned earlier, iconoclasm is not merely the result of petty spite; it is a major aspect of political drama. It works towards changing the received images that the audience hold of history, the present and their icons the latter of which represent both the former. However, like the political theatre of which it is part, iconoclasm has failed to achieve its objectives for a number of reasons, foremost of which is the fact that the denigration of a historic idolatrized figure amounts to attacking the audience itself in whose mind, the images of those assaulted are deeply ingrained as holy and untouchable. The audience sees in such figures its own reflection. Lindenberger, in his book Historical Drama rightly argues that historical playwrights could "present a historical character or action within a broad framework of accepted notions". In other words, a playwright dramatizing a historical figure should try to adhere as much as he can to what is handed down to him and to his audience about the figure by history. Lindenberger goes on to say that "Historical material had the same status as myth, both belonged to what Horace called 'publicly known matters' .... and both depended - indeed, still do depend on - an audience's willingness to assimilate the portrayal of a familiar story or personage". Any portrayal of Achilles as not "restless, irascible, unyielding, and hard" would appear to the audience as unacceptable.

The above theory can be rightly applied to the iconoclastic modern British playwrights' treatment of venerated persons. The audience would certainly stick to the “accepted notions" about Lord Nelson, Queen Victoria, Sir Winston Churchill and others. Plays such as The Hero Rises Up, Early Morning, and The Churchill Play can only arouse indignation in the audience and not a renunciation of received images. As I have shown, many spectators and critics were offended by, say, Arden's treatment of Nelson or Bond's degradation of Queen Victoria and William Shakespeare. The audience would rather adhere to what it already knows than revise its views, which brings to mind Marx's statement about the spell that the past casts upon the people, "The old has a strong grip on the people and, progress proceeds slowly." "Tradition is a great retarding force, is the vis inertiae of history". "The tradition of all past generations weighs like an Alp upon the brains of the living”.

However, although they may be considered to have failed politically to dislodge right-wing iconography, the modern British demythologizers have established iconoclasm as a major trend in modern British drama and have revived an old tradition and consolidated it .

Bond, a playwright who has constantly since 1968 called for the renunciation of the past .and its icons is, however, only too aware of the difficulties that his iconoclasm faces, yet as we Mire seen, he has not stopped producing iconoclastic plays. In his play, The Bundle, his revolutionary hero, Wang works hard with his fellow rebels to rid themselves of the past. He eggs them on to think of the future. For that purpose, he narrates to them the story of a man who carried the king on his back all his life, who even "did not know the king had died long ago", and who "carried him always and wasted his life", He goes on to say that the worst thing is "to carry the dead on your back", What the iconoclasts have tried to do during the past two decades is to remove that dead man from their nation's shoulders.

Department of Drama, The University of Hull
Peacock, D. Keith
Ethos identifier
Qualification level
Qualification name
14 MB
QR Code