There's little difference between theatre and sport

It was a good wheeze of the Guardian to get arts critics and sports reporters to swap jobs: I even enjoyed my spell in Cardiff watching the darts. (You can see more pictures here.) But actually the idea that there is some unbridgeable gulf between art and sport is highly debatable.

Both are public spectacles that reflect society and depend on attracting paying customers. The only real difference lies in the uncertainty of the outcome. I remember Bryan Cowgill, a former head of sport at Thames Television, once saying to me: "My problem is that if I go and see Hamlet, unlike a soccer game, I know the result in advance."

True enough. But, in fact, there is a close kinship between art and sport. And it's no accident that cricket, of all games, has attracted legions of theatrical followers. Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, Ayckbourn and Rattigan all played the game and on a test match day at Lord's you're likely to meet more actors than at a fashionable first night. And it's not hard to see why. Cricket, like theatre, is a formal ritual with a built-in aesthetic appeal and its own subtext. Pinter once referred to "the hidden violence of cricket"; and, as in one of his own plays, what you are watching is a battle for dominance ultimately dependent on strength, skill and judicious timing.

All sport, at its best, is a form of drama. It can also produce the most amazing, cathartic experiences. I defy anyone who enjoys plays, movies or fiction not to have relished Sunday night's famous soccer match between Turkey and the Czech Republic. It had everything you could wish for. A last-minute reversal of fortune in which the Turks came from behind to win. The tragic downfall of a great hero in the Czech goalkeeper's fatal fumble of a slippery ball. It even had a touch of gratuitous farce as the Turkish goalie needlessly hit the Czech striker. Aristotle, who thought action was the basis of drama and understood all about hubris, would have had a field-night if he was watching from in the heavens.

The only surprise, given that sport is so full of tension and reveals so much about who we are as human beings, is that it is not better represented in the arts. Boxing has yielded some great movies. Cricket has its place in literature and has recently provided a fine state-of-the-nation play by Richard Bean, The English Game. Rugby League gave us John Godber's hardy annual, Up 'n' Under. But there is still a widespread assumption that sport is box-office poison, supposedly because it alienates a female audience: a grotesque insult to the myriad women up and down the land who play or watch all manner of sports.

We all know there is plenty of drama in sport. So why isn't there more sport in drama? It is time to break down the traditional barriers and recognise the deep affinity between competitive games and the pleasing patterns of art. The late Johnny Speight once described ballet, with shocking political incorrectness, as "poof's football". We may deplore Speight's language, but deep down he had a point.

Tuesday, December 2nd 2008

New comment:

News | Politics | Features | Arts | Entertainment | Society | Sport