Do audiences want what they get, asks Peter Crawley
W ho bears responsibility for the following: the reappearance of the Wispa; an 11th-hour reprieve for the spice burger; the resistible rise of Jedward; and three successive Fianna Fáil governments? Well, apparently we do. Each of these phenomena has been propped up/sustained/ rescued by that combination of democracy and consumerism we call “popular demand”. The public gets what the public wants – so the logic goes – and the public largely wants what they already know.
Oscar Wilde, for one, had little faith in unreasonable demands: “Whatever is popular is wrong.” Perhaps he would have taken it as a stern rebuke, then, that Conall Morrison’s highly popular production of The Importance of
Being Earnest in 2005 was revived for a second chomp of the cherry in 2006. From fading music groups to long-lost confectionaries, many things come back by popular demand. Rarely, though, do they begin that way.
That’s certainly the sense we’re getting from the current theatre, where a litany of revivals, reheated successes and reissued classics are announced as the gracious answers to adamant public requests. I’m unaware of any letter-writing campaign waged to return Sam Shepard’s
Ages of the Moon to the Abbey, and if a public march on Parnell Square shook placards insisting that the Gate “Bring Back A Christmas Carol!”, I missed it. Christmas, as every gift-receiver knows, is a time for recycling, and nobody will resent a second chance to see The Santaland Diaries (back in Bewley’s . . . by popular demand). But this theatrical deja vu isn’t just about rewrapping seasonal favourites. With the recent return of
Terminus and Ages of the Moon, the current revival of The
Seafarer, and January’s forthcoming visit from Gúna Nua’s well-travelled Little Gem, the Abbey named a programming strand “By Popular Demand”. Next from the Gate, meanwhile, is
Faith Healer, which played there a whole three months ago.
It isn’t hard to fathom the logic here. Bracing themselves for the impact of funding cuts and fighting for an increasingly cautious audience, theatres become risk-averse. With some proven interest, actors on standby, sets in storage and costumes in mothballs, it’s a much safer bet to remount a show than to try something new.
It’s not a groundless worry. Recently the Arts Council’s advocated an “audience-led” policy for touring theatre, talking up the importance of brand-name companies, recognisable writers and famous actors in order to avoid unfilled auditoriums. But brand-name companies and famous writers had to start somewhere.
Easy to invoke but hard to calculate, the popular demand of an imagined public doesn’t insist on something abstract or essential, like a theatre that replenishes itself. If this conservative interpretation of popular demand goes uncontested, then new voices will go silent and more theatres will congeal into endlessly reheated crowd favourites.
When the lifeblood of the art form finally ebbs away, they can pin the blame on popular demand: Hey, you asked for it.