John McGrath Essay - Critical Essays


John McGrath’s works, numbering more than forty plays, roughly fall into three periods—the plays written before he began to define working-class theater for the contemporary stage, the plays of the 7:84 years that applied his theories, and his direction in theater since the collapse of state-run socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

His earliest works feature lone, rebellious men who openly oppose middle-class institutions that stand for moneyed success, dehumanizing deference, and conformity. Though these rebels are able to define the system of values that they reject, they provide few practical solutions that might alleviate oppression of the individual spirit. Although positive about their own values and their attack on society, these loners never form adequate relationships, particularly with allies in causes that might help them create change, so their dissent remains fixed at a certain level. Being authentic—that is, living by their own principles—is more important to these men than joining others, lest they are forced to compromise. They have, therefore, a commitment largely to themselves and their own dissent. Nevertheless, they are compelling figures for the moral integrity that they articulate and the intensity of their resistance to mainstream values.

Bakke’s Night of Fame

McGrath’s early heroes in Random Happenings in the Hebrides, Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, and Bakke’s Night of Fame are thus best understood through the values of French existentialism, which influenced McGrath at the time. As an inmate on death row awaiting imminent execution, Bakke, in Bakke’s Night of Fame, insists on defining his own humanity. He does this by drawing attention to himself as an individual unlike his predecessors on death row. He goads the attending priest, who tries to deal with him as yet another penitent parishioner, into consciously acknowledging Bakke as a person like any other, with contradictions, desires, fears, and whims. Bakke similarly toys with the guards and needles the executioner into catering to his mercurial moods. It is Bakke’s way of struggling against the limitations of life itself and the humiliation of his fate. Teasing the priest into trying to guess whether he was guilty of his crime, Bakke attacks the traditional Christian notion of morality that judges human guilt.

It is never established whether Bakke committed a murder—some of the time he seems guilty and at other times he seems innocent—but the question of culpability is not important. Bakke wants to make it clear that he is a testament to the infinite mystery of human liberty. At the center of his being he has an inchoate but irreducible potential that gives him a freedom to assert his own autonomy. Whatever his fate, he attains dignity by virtue of his inviolable freedom to define himself as a human being and to amend that definition with each new act. The priest fails to grasp what Bakke is trying to teach him about life. He sees Bakke’s patter as mere play-acting. Of course, that is what people around Hamlet accused him of doing too, and Bakke teases the priest with echoes from William Shakespeare that suggest that Bakke, like the Prince of Denmark, is conscious of being able to shape life’s boundaries through each crucial decision and act.

For McGrath, Bakke’s Night of Fame also provides an opportunity to protest the inhumanity of capital punishment, an issue that materializes the abstract nature of Bakke’s struggle. Bakke insists on confronting his executioner and asking about the executioner’s children, who might themselves have to face a death sentence some day. He is trying to force the person who will kill him to put a face on the man he will soon electrocute. Bakke makes no equivocation about capital punishment as an act of murder and the human life that is at stake.

The 7:84 Period

By contrast, McGrath’s plays written during the 7:84 period deemphasize individualism. Their protagonists are likely to be female as well as male, and they stress solutions to topical issues of economic and social injustice through communal interests. Convinced that the sources of the working-class struggle could not be readily visualized and fully understood through the surface reality of everyday situations, McGrath rejected naturalism or realism as choices for dramatic forms. To reveal the underlying economic forces that are normally...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)