In October 2018 we produced the first major London revival of Martin Crimp's DEALING WITH CLAIR with English Touring Theatre at the Orange Tree, where it premiered thirty years earlier. Dan Rebellato wrote this article about Crimp and the play exclusively for the OT's programme.
We live in a golden age of satire, alas.
One of the few upsides of our slow-motion national breakdown has been the terrific boost it’s given to comedy panel shows, to politically-minded stand-ups, and witty comment pieces. The idiot in the White House has been accompanied every misstep of the way by late-night talk show hosts who expertly anatomise and lampoon his every stupidity. Satire is everywhere. But what good does it do? Trump seems currently immoveable. Brexit seems to grind disastrously onwards. Satire hasn’t stopped them; it may even encourage them. Theresa May happily satirised herself by dancing onto the stage of the Conservative Party Conference. The comic website McSweeneys printed verbatim Donald Trump’s remarks on Black History Month in a column usually given over to comic monologues. Boris Johnson’s columns for The Telegraph are so preening and preposterous that we must assume they are written in a spirit of elaborate self-parody.
To a suspicion that satire may flatter more than puncture the egos of the powerful may be added a concern that its topicality often leads to a certain ephemerality and thinness. The Prime Minister Robert Walpole was sufficiently annoyed at Henry Fielding’s satirical plays to institute a system of theatrical censorship that lasted in various forms until 1968, but wiser heads might have told him to ignore it; Walpole’s reputation has outlived that of Fielding’s theatre. And is there something naïve about satire – in its snap judgments, its partisanship, its superficiality? For all these reasons, satire in the theatre can seem a dubious enterprise.
But satire comes in many forms. There are the immediate jabs that illuminate a moment of absurdity, the witty response that offers a moment of clarity, but there is also a darker satire that peers into the depths of the culture and it is in this mode that Martin Crimp has produced his profoundest and most brutal work.
Crimp’s satire has a Chekhovian quality to it. Chekhov regarded his characters with a pitilessly steady gaze, in which all their faults and failings starkly revealed themselves. (The complicit laughter in this play over a ‘crumbly spine’ is cruelly, brilliantly Chekhovian.) The extraordinary precision of Crimp’s language typically provokes in me two parallel responses – one is a shock of recognition (‘that’s how we actually speak!’) and the other is the shock of alienation (‘that’s how we actually speak?’). He makes us see ourselves and then makes us wonder at ourselves. Whether he’s observing the absurdities of the commentariat in Attempts on Her Life or the clichés of the film industry in The Treatment or the vacuities of new-age individualism in In the Republic of Happiness, there remains that implacable gaze that reveals not just the foolishness of a few individuals but something profoundly hollow in the moral heart of the culture.
On the surface, Dealing with Clair just concerns the vicissitudes of buying a house. But it soon zeroes in on the phenomenon of gazumping. This was a relatively new experience when the play premiered: the word itself generally just meant ‘to swindle’ until, in the 1970s, it acquired the particular view of ‘stepping in to make a higher offer after a sale is agreed’. And as the 1980s unfolded, with its housing boom, but also its ethos of ruthless competition, dog-eat-dog individualism, the free-market espousal of selfishness as the key to the social good, gazumping became commonplace. It marked the implacable power of money and its ability to sever ties of trust and honour. (Listen to the play’s homeowner who admits ‘my wife feels we are, in some obscure way, responsible’ as if the very notion of our responsibility to each other has become unintelligible). Crimp’s play takes an ordinary market transaction and his pitiless gaze penetrates to the heart of a society without values.
Before his playwriting life took over, Crimp had briefly had a job transcribing market research interviews (which makes its way into his wonderful play No One Sees the Video) and he has shown a surgical fascination with the minutiae of language ever since, but always observing in it how power and violence and cruelty live in the things we say to each other. Dealing with Clair shows us power working through careful evasions, ambiguities, the reverberations of language. Even in the smallest interaction in this play we note with a shudder what someone means and might mean by calling someone else ‘impenetrable’; we tremble at the strange image of a house without ‘throats’; we hear the implicit brutality in ‘instructing’ a solicitor, ‘taking possession’, or ‘dragging someone back’ for a meeting; Crimp shows us how men can use words to belittle women even in the act of decrying the words that belittle women. Crimp’s astonishing, scalpel-like satire shows us – brutally, uncomfortably – the cruelty of the world and of ourselves.
Dan Rebellato is a playwright, teacher, academic
Production photo by The Other Richard