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Towards The End of the Century – On The Road With Passing Places

If the 90s were just the 60s turned upside-down, as some wag once
suggested, then such a notion  confirmed what cultural commentator
Michael Bracewell described in his book on the era as an age 'when
surface was depth'. What this appeared to mean by the time Stephen
Greenhorn's play, Passing Places, appeared in 1997, was a definition of
a decade that had already spawned Brit Pop, Girl Power, New Laddism and
Cool Britannia. Here, then, was a shallow pool of pop without politics,
Barbie Doll feminism in a Union Jack mini dress and sexism with an
apparently ironic twist.

The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989, and, after a decade of class and
civil war by way of the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax, Conservative
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been forced to resign from office
after an eleven year reign of terror. Tony Blair's landslide New Labour
victory in 1997 suggested  that things could only get better, but
suddenly, with no pricks to kick against, it wasn't easy to tell which
side was which anymore.

Was this, as post-modern philosopher Francis Fukuyama had asked in his
1989 essay of the same name, the End of History? Or was it the sort of
rootless search for meaning at the end of a turbulent century that
Chekhov had captured so poignantly a hundred years before?

At the time it seemed like the former, as once rebellious youth
embraced first the apathetic slackerdom of Douglas Coupland's
Generation X, before getting it together enough to sally forth into the
hedonistic excesses of a loved-up dance culture in which they just
wanted to get loaded and have a good time.

The title of Primal Scream's indie-dance call to arms, Loaded, inspired
a magazine of the same name, which, fired by the spirit of the Beat
Generation and Hunter S Thompson's Gonzo journalism, attempted to capture in print the
irreverent spirit of sex, drugs and rock and roll largesse that had
just erupted.

The era's hard-partying rise and fall would go on to be
defined by Oasis, whose debut album, Definitely Maybe, captured all the
unleashed hunger and righteous snarl of dole queue kids who wanted a
slice of the action. Their follow up, (What's The Story) Morning
Glory?, was mission accomplished, a cocksure, cocaine-fuelled
masterpiece of apolitical triumphalism.

By then, however,  the come-down was already ongoing, as playwrights
such as Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane and others lumped in with the
in-yer-face wave of dramatists were making clear. Kane had made waves
with her debut play, Blasted, at the Royal Court in London in 1995, and
Ravenhill with Shopping and F****** the following year. In Scotland the
groundwork had been done several years before by the likes of Lance
Flynn, John McKenzie and Anthony Neilson, all of whom looked to a raw
poetic form to break out of the straitjackets of naturalism.

All three writers had early plays produced at the Traverse in
Edinburgh, the new writing theatre which itself was undergoing
something of a shift as it prepared to move from its tiny Grassmarket
space to a new, purpose-built home next to the Royal Lyceum Theatre and
Usher Hall.

One of the Traverse's early hits in its new space was The
Life of Stuff. Written by Simon Donald, The Life of Stuff was set in a
deserted warehouse occupied by gangsters, their molls and their not
entirely willing henchman, and, with its characters high narcotic
intake, in 1992 seemed to pre-date Irvine Welsh's seminal novel,
Trainspotting.

While Trainspotting wasn't published until 1993, excerpts appeared a
year earlier in Rebel Inc, the brash litzine that would give similar
voice to a disaffected generation in search of something beyond what
the perceived literary canon could offer. By the time Harry Gibson's
stage adaptation of Trainspotting appeared at the Traverse in 1994,
those voices were growing in confidence by the day.

Much of this activity had developed from a nascent spoken-word scene
that existed in Edinburgh in the early 1990s, which Greenhorn had been
around. In theatre, however, the quieter, more thoughtful voices of
David Greig, David Harrower and others of Greenhorn's generation were
just as questioning about personal, if not explicitly political,
identity.

In 1994, Greig's play, Europe, cast a disparate set of characters in a
deserted railway station that became a hinterland between unknown
borders between people as much as nations trying to connect. The
following year, Harrower debuted with Knives In Hans, a rural-set stale
of one woman's getting of wisdom as she discovers the power of
language.

In 1997, the same year Passing Places debuted at the Traverse, other
key works included Mike Cullen's Anna Weiss and the David Greig
scripted Timeless, presented at the Edinburgh International Festival by
the collaboratively run Suspect Culture company. While Anna Weiss
looked at the contentious issue of repressed or false memory as a
female psychotherapist took a young woman under her wing, Timeless
looked at the ever changing relationships between a quartet of friends
trying to hold on to what first brought them together.

Here, then, in a panoply of disconnections, was a generation in a state
of ontological flux, who had grown up with punk and protest, but who
now, with the rise of New Labour, which eventually turned out to be
Thatcherism with a smile, had nothing left to believe in. The
Stranglers had been right. There really were no more heroes.

The Tory government's crude attempts to outlaw a burgeoning dance
culture with the Criminal Justice Bill, which made the assembly of two
or more people in the vicinity of the sound of 'repetitive beats'
illegal, politicised a generation who now had to fight for the right to
party.

All of this seemed connected too to the rise of bands like Arab Strap,
who themselves sounded like they'd escaped from a Gordon Legge short
story as they spoke in an unreconstructed Falkirk accent about the
sorts of things that did or didn't happen to a couple of small-town boys who would do
anything to get out of it.

The pair of likely lads in Passing Places took things too far in other ways.
These dead-end kids stole a surfboard, went on the road and tried to make
a scene of their own. Then, as now, it looked like a bid for self-determination.
Either way, the possibilities were endless.

An extended version of an essay originally commissioned by Pitlochry
Festival Theatre as programme notes for their production of Stephen
Greenhorn's play, Passing Places, July 2014.

ends

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