This week, the online drama House of Cards made history as the first online-only programme to be nominated for an Emmy – the prestigious US equivalent of our BAFTA awards. Not only that, but House of Cards was nominated in nine Emmy categories, including Best Drama Series, for which none of the major US TV networks received a nomination. These nominations are being hailed as another watermark for the way that the entertainment business is evolving alongside technology.
The shifts in the way we watch things are also redefining the way we think about the hierarchy of entertainment and art. If, once upon a time, theatre was the benchmark in cutting-edge, challenging artistic production, it can now seem positively archaic up against drama series created specifically for smartphones and mobile devices for people to watch on the go.
This development is linked to the democratisation of the critical voice I talked about here, but it interested me that, ever since the advent of film and television, theatre has often tried to position itself as the highest of the dramatic forms, programming the great playwrights of the past against Saturday-night TV fodder and the latest blockbuster action movie with little plot, as well as self-proclaiming as the protean, ever-changing fount of new artistic production (think Konstantin’s desperate desire to create ‘a new form’ of theatre in Chekhov’s The Seagull). Theatre is still, somehow, claiming to be more artistically valuable than TV and online shows, despite the increasing popularity of the latter and the cultural dominance of the former.
Yet in the realm of literature, theatre is far from stable in any claim to be the most prestigious form. Though Western drama is possibly older than almost any Western prose or poetry (certainly in its written form), beginning over 2,500 years ago with the Greek tragedians, critical opinion has long placed theatre scripts, with certain exceptions, firmly below the other two types in artistic terms. Part of the critic’s difficulty with the theatre script lies in its unfinished nature: a script is not the play complete, and few scripts are created as literary products (though Henry James’s plays are among those which make the strongest claim for this). A script is merely a set of instructions for a performance, which is itself the art work: to analyse a script alone is like taking the performance of one synchronised swimmer in place of the whole troupe. Despite this, so many playwrights master language so wonderfully that few would deny that the works of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, Tennessee Williams et al are works of literature. Theatre, then, occupies a strange artistic space – claiming the artistic status of literature as well as the populist appeal of other entertainment forms.
Often I ask my students whether they consider playscripts to be literature. Usually, they say yes: but when I ask whether they’d expand this to include TV scripts as well, most struggle to decide, but tend to go for “no”, often with the justification that TV scripts can’t be “literature” as they haven’t yet stood the test of time. Well, if we assume that the best TV scripts will survive long enough, in our lifetimes “studying literature” may evolve with us and come to mean studying the scripts of the programmes we love – even perhaps online programmes like House of Cards.