(Natasha Tripney’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/30; Photo: A mirror on the world … Mark Rylance in Jerusalem at the Royal Court. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian. )
While many writers have created troubling dystopian visions, few plays have imagined better futures. But the act of theatre itself can embrace utopianism
When the UK entered its first lockdown in March, there was a lot of talk about using this enforced pause as a chance to reassess and maybe even remake the world. As the months took their toll, that energy waned. But with a vaccine rollout and a man for whom empathy is not an alien concept about to take up residence in the White House, it does not seem unreasonable to start imagining a better tomorrow.
In literature there have been many attempts to create utopias, other lands more golden than our own, untainted, Edenic, more equitable societies in which war and poverty are things of the past. From Thomas More’s 1516 book, which gave us the term, through the writings of William Morris and HG Wells, to the comic-book monarchies of Wakanda and Themyscria (respective homelands of Black Panther and Wonder Woman), to one of the most enduring utopian societies of them all – the Star Trek universe, people have used art to imagine better worlds.
When trying to identify a play that exemplifies these ideas, it gets a little trickier. There are numerous dystopian plays: Caryl Churchill’s prescient Far Away, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, Alan Ayckbourn’s interminable The Divide, but it’s harder to name a truly utopian play. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem could be read as utopian if viewed through the eyes of its protagonist, Rooster Byron. Ella Hickson’s The Writer explores the concept of feminist utopia, but as one of a series of narrative resets and rug-pulls. But the list is not a long one. Is there something that makes them particularly challenging to write?
To playwright Vinay Patel, whose television credits include Doctor Who, “actual utopias – as opposed to the places that just seem to be utopias – are, by themselves, inherently undramatic. But it’s the contrast they provide to dystopias or, indeed, our present day that make them compelling.”
For Anna Jordan, a Bruntwood prize-winner for her play Yen, and part of the writers’ room for Succession, “perfect societies are harder to imagine because we have access to social media and more information than anyone has had before. It makes it harder to believe that while there is so much difference in the world there could be such a thing as a perfect society.”
From More onwards, all utopias are essentially refractions of the world in which they were created. Utopian fiction necessarily reflects the preoccupations, struggles and divisions of the time and culture in which it is produced. The various Star Trek offshoots still bear the hallmarks of the explicitly post-conflict universe created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s.