LOUISE: I’m writing a book, you know. I’ve nearly finished. Self-help. A loser’s handbook. It’s dreadfully down-market, I’m afraid, but that’s where the money is, and that’s why I’m writing it. I already have an American publisher. So I shall probably amass tons of money and buy myself an island, or a piece of one, buy myself a slice of the sky and sit and contemplate eternity. (Beat.) Because… and I really believe this… I really believe we’re beyond help. As a culture, as a species. I actually believe we’re doomed. (Beat.) And I’m supposed to be one of the healers. That’s what I always wanted, to help them heal that small child inside. But the child’s taken over. He’s in control. There’s no stopping him… — Doug Lucie, Gaucho (1994).
It’s hard to think of a living playwright who’s been more unjustly neglected than Doug Lucie.
Lucie was among the luminaries of the British stage in the 1980s and early 1990s, His plays were produced at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place and the Royal Court, among many others, and he was hailed by critics for his singular voice and his acid pen. His literate plays often bristle with sudden and unexpected violence, making Lucie a key transitional figure between the overtly political British drama of the 1970s and the “in-yer-face” school of the 1990s.
“[W]here are the aspiring dramatists of either sex,” asked Benedict Nightingale in The Times in 1990, “who instantly identify themselves by the timbre of their dialogue or the idiosyncracy of their stance, as Pinter and Bond once did? Doug Lucie perhaps, that sour observer of the go-getting Eighties; no one much else.”
Yet today only five of Lucie’s plays remain in print: Progress, Fashion, Grace and Gaucho together in a Methuen collected edition, and Hard Feelings – Lucie’s breakthrough play that juxtaposed the New Romanticism and the Brixton riots of 1981 to devastating effect.
Indeed, key Lucie works including Key to the World (1985) – a prescient take on the then-tottering Eastern Bloc (which counted Sting’s future wife Trudie Styler in its cast) – and The Green Man (2002) – a brilliant rendering of local commerce and moral abyss executed with the loving detail found only in Ibsen – and his skewering of the Murdoch-ized British press The Shallow End (1997) have fallen out of print.
No small part of this disappearing act is due to Lucie himself. He remains resolutely old-school, uncompromising, irascible by turns, and mostly plies his trade in theatre and radio, refusing to churn out televised tripe like the Warrocker trilogy. (Hard as it is to believe that David Hare cranks out such nonsensical fare, facts are indeed stubborn things.)
Yet I would argue that the deeper reason Lucie’s been ignored (and why he may now be on the cusp of a highly satisfying revival of fortune) is that he is one of those irritating and persistent truth-tellers whom our smug, irrational and unjust society would very much like kept out of mind – and thus places him as far out of sight as it can.
Lucie’s work is politically astute without a trace of political correctness. He’s a playwright who measures with a yardstick as exacting for his fellow travelers as it is on the misruling classes, and audiences tend to leave his plays with their presuppositions and prejudices vigorously challenged. Plays like Progress (1984) – a scathing and emotionally raw drama that anticipate the rise of the so-called “men’s movement” – and Grace (1992) – which depicts a collision between American evangelical politics and English country life that closes with an unusually (for Lucie) optimistic curtain – remain deliciously uncomfortable reading and viewing.
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Richard Byrne talks with Doug Lucie
Richard Byrne: Gaucho seems like such a bleak play following on the heels of Grace. What happened?
Doug Lucie: “Why did I go from Grace to Gaucho? When I wrote Grace I was optimistic. I felt that if you told the truth you might win the day. [Margaret] Thatcher had just been toppled. It looked odds on that Labour was going to win.
“Then, unexpectedly, the Tories won. It was that moment in which I wrote Gaucho.
“Gaucho is not just about the end of an era. It’s a howl of rage and pain that these bastards were still running the place. The time for compromise is over.”
It was a return to form. Plays like Progress and Fashion are pretty righteously angry.
“Progress was based in something real. In the pub one night, some bloke said to me: “I have a men’s group going. And sometimes we meet with a women’s group. I’m getting me leg over all the time.”
“With Fashion and the marriage of politics and advertising you had with the Saatchis, it’s really what I say in the play: “Advertising is the revenge of business on culture.” I was burning off a lot of anger. All those cancers of the ’80s. I’m looking at the world and saying: ‘Either I’m mad or they are.'”
Where do you feel the greatest resistance to your plays?
“There’s resistance to the fact that my plays come from a proletarian soul. It makes them uncomfortable. They don’t like that. They love David Hare doing it. He’s urbane. He’s one of them.
“I remember Toby Young [author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People] in the Spectator writing about The Green Man in 2003 and saying, “This is the sort of play I should hate but I loved it.” (Note: Young went on to write: “What’s so impressive is how unobtrusively [Lucie] manages to incorporate his high-minded concerns into this lowbrow set-up. It’s like an episode of Cheers written by Eugene O’Neill.)”
You wrote an episode of EastEnders and famously observed that you hated doing it. What happened?
“Not only do I hate the program, I hate all soap operas. Characters in a soap opera don’t have any autonomous life.
“Writers’ rooms are like gossip hour in the typing pool. They talk about these characters as if they are real. They sent me off to write a script and shove the characters around.
“I really felt as if my soul was dirty. It’s not for me.”
There are strong signs that Lucie’s reputation is now on the ascent again. Successful London revivals of Hard Feelings and his 1990 one-act Doing the Business last year have been accompanied by a new play on English singer-songwriters John Martyn and Nick Drake called Solid Air, which had its world premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.
On February 9 in Washington, D.C., I have organized a free public reading of Lucie’s 1994 play, Gaucho, to give U.S. audiences a chance to rediscover his work.