I MUST start by explaining my somewhat fanciful title, for language is not supposed to be brittle. Brittle is a word which describes dry sticks, leads inside pencils, anything which snaps or breaks easily. Jumbo jets with metal fatigue become brittle. You can talk about a brittle beauty, meaning someone who looks fine in the right light-but cracks under stress, such as getting up in the morning, and you can describe people's characters as being brittle, if they are not to be trusted in a crisis.

But languages are not thought to be brittle, quite the reverse. They are flexible, adaptable, resilient. We have been using much the same mixed-up language in Britain for five hundred years, which is proof of our conservatism, and we've shaped the core language, English, into dialects which reveal where we've come from, our educations and sometimes our statuses. English can be used for high technology or low graffiti, can be transformed into a system of grammatical rules and vocabulary for the purpose of relating it to other languages through translation and it can provide the basis for new mixed-up languages, like Pidgin. It can even be spoken by Americans, up to a point. But it does not break, it does not snap.

The language of the theatre is equally malleable. In our theatre departments in university we no longer concentrate on the plays of some twenty or thirty dramatists, the 'set texts, allowing research students to dig vainly around the seventeenth century to find some forgotten playwright on whom to build their doctorial theses. We have learnt, with the infinite ingenuity of academics who want their departments to expand, that drama is a process involving some form of mimesis which performs many functions in society and is certainly present in such non-literary theatrical forms as carnivals and circuses, hunting and religious rituals, street theatre and television game shows.

If we take this broad view, then theatre has clearly adapted itself well to the challenges of the new technology, further proof that it isn't brittle. There is more theatre in Britain than ever before and it reaches, through television and radio, more people. We have a choice of four or five plays on television every night, another three or four on radio, while those of us who have video-recorders can store those plays which were carelessly transmitted on nights when we had to go visiting; or we can replay films from local video libraries. With the coming of satellite and cable television we can happily look forward to a time when our social lives are saturated by the theatrical process.

I do not, on principle, view this prospect with alarm. There are many people whom I'd prefer not to talk to because television is on. When my children watched cops-and-robbers movies after school I felt that it kept them out of mischief, and fifty murders a night on television was fine by me, provided that they didn't have the sound up too loud. And it is not complacency, but the reverse, which convinces me that sex and violence on television is not a fundamental cause of violence in our streets or on football terraces.

Many reputable surveys in Britain have failed to establish any causal link between television violence and city riots, or even muggings, and there is in fact no statistical connection. The same number of television murders are seen in peaceful British towns like Cheltenham or Tunbridge Wells as are watched in Liverpool and Brixton. Of course, there are those who cast doubt on this evidence. British judges are wont to point out that the rapists on trial before them have been watching pornographic videos, thus attempting to establish a link between pornography and rape, by which token Britain would have some ten million rapists which is not the case. Mrs. Thatcher recently tried to prevent, but fortunately failed, a BBC interview with an IRA leader, Martin McGuinness, arguing that it would stir up even more trouble in Northern Ireland.

Despite the evidence fears about the impact which the mass media could have on the public mind has led to an inbuilt caution on the part of our television authorities, who believe that if they are too controversial in their programme-making the government might take powers to intervene. This has led to a kind of self-censorship. If a young dramatist were to offer a contemporary Titus Andronicus or Othello to the BBC or an independent television company, it is unlikely that it would be screened on a national network, although it might be made into a horror movie. Certain new fundamental inhibitions creep into our use of the theatrical language as a result of the presence of the mass media, which is partly what I mean by the language becoming brittle. If the theatre is prevented from expressing the range of human experience, for whatever worthy motive, it starts to lose touch with how people think and feel, becomes less useful and more dispensable.

Indeed, it is tempting to turn the conventional arguments inside out. Since there is little provable connection between what we see on television and what we do in our everyday lives, what has happened to the potency of our theatrical language? For thousands of years mankind has used mimesis as a way of anticipating events, of understanding them, of preparing the mind to receive them. It has performed the central artistic function which is 'the shaping of experience'. If the theatrical process within our societies no longer performs that function, something has gone wrong. Those who are prone to violence can reach no fuller understanding of its causes and consequences from watching bad ad-mass television drama, where it is too frequently presented as kitsch and ketchup, and accordingly they have to learn the bitter lessons of violence from real life. An inhibition of language leads to the expression of feeling by other, more anarchic means.

But I do not want to stress the political or quasi-political restraints on the theatrical language at the expense of other more commonplace restrictions, which derive from the scale on which we have to operate when we develop plays for the mass media. During the 1960s, I worked in the script department of Paramount Pictures, a time rich in incident. My job was to scout for scripts-we called them 'properties'-in British theatre, which was then bursting with new talents; writers, directors, actors and above all ideas. It was also a time when Paramount had decided to switch from making many pictures on comparatively small budgets to making fewer films on bigger budgets, in the interests of cost-effectiveness. The theory was that more people would spend more money to see bigger pictures and it was one of several streamlining measures which came in the wake of a takeover of Paramount Pictures by Gulf Oil, the frozen food division.

In practical terms, this meant that I had to produce more copies of my reports because they had to be read by more people because more money had to be raised, and since there were so many synopses of 'properties' cluttering up the offices, we developed a coding system for listing them. King Lear would have been coded: Drama/Family-character part/Middle Ages. If historical soap operas with Burl Ives were doing well that year, there was a chance that they might dig out King Lear from the filing system-which is now, of course, computerised. Good plays looked exotic when subjected to that formula. 'Marries his mother? What kind of schmuck is that? If a story got past that filter, the script would be discussed by various levels of middle management who would then gather round boardroom tables to decide whether the public was ready for it. Much has changed since those days, but I still sense intuitively that in the dim recesses of Wardour Street there are clusters of middle management earnestly debating whether the mid-Atlantic market is ready for the ultimate in horror movies, a Jewish Dracula with AIDS.

This was when I fell in love with the little theatres in Britain, where a dozen or so professionally trained enthusiasts would work impossibly hard for impossibly low wages in order to put on plays which might have only a minority appeal but in which they all passionately believed. Under those conditions the theatrical language was subjected to more rigorous tests than any which could be devised in the crowded boardrooms of film companies. If an actor or actress didn't like the part he or she would say so, mainly without tantrums, for questioning the director's decision was a more normal part of the daily rehearsal process than it ever could be on a film set. And so, at best, you could reach a kind of mutual understanding, a group creativity which, as Peter Brook said earlier this year, was still the rarest but richest reward from his work with the International Centre for Theatre Research. When the phase of preparation was over, there was no way of avoiding by statistical analysis the penultimate test as to whether the work had been worthwhile (the final one being future history)-the responses of a live and paying audience. It was then that you could tell whether you had caught the attention of the people who were watching, or lost it, whether they laughed at the jokes, and the quality of that laughter, and could sometimes feel, very occasionally, the presence of a great myth which had seized the collective imagination and would not let go, to the extent that future impressions and experiences would have to come to terms with it; and that it was there, this myth, indelibly implanted in the mind, so that even when we are not 'waiting for Godot' we nevertheless suspect that we could be waiting for him, at any time.

Such joys were ground out of films intended for the mass market not by any malevolence or lack of talent among the film makers but by the day-to-day routines of raising money, disposing of resources and calculating the odds in market terms; but I do not wish to suggest that philistinism is yet another nasty by-product of capitalism, for the same kind of inner destructiveness occurs within the BBC, which is state-subsidised, and also in theatres which become too large. Indeed, I was poignantly reminded of Paramount Pictures in Novosibirsk in Siberia last November, when the director of their excellent local theatre described the discussion that they had with the Ministry of Culture about whether Victor Rozov's The Woodcock was too far ahead of its time.

It was scale that made the difference, when there were too many people in the producing team, when the audiences were calculated by population percentages, when too much money was at risk or too much national prestige. It was then that the imagination seemed to freeze and thought itself had to be simplified into primary building blocks, as in infants" school. Here is a Conflict, there is a Crisis; he is a West Indian, she is a young girl trembling with desire on the verge of womanhood. And theatrical language not only became less expressive but positively resisted that which had to be expressed. For many years in Britain, it has been fairly easy to put on facile, left-wing, shock-the-bourgeoisie plays; but away from those ruts, and those of standard boulevard drama, the dramatist with anything new to say has to fight against the narrow limits of our expectations.

There is nothing wrong with fighting, and at least our dramatists can write for small theatres as well for the mass media. But it's not so easy to earn a living by writing only for the theatre and any British playwrights find the financial rewards of television not just hard to resist but necessary to survive. And the outside critic can observe how their playwriting techniques dwindle and diminish as the result of working for television, how they can never sustain a scene for longer than four and a half minutes, how they can never handle more than three characters on a stage, how their stories become episodic mentally to allow for commercial breaks, how the span of attention fits into the 55-minute slot and how their dialogue loses its sensitivity to audience response so that their jokes are over-explained. And you can feel how their work is designed for sloppy viewing, for people who have just switched over from water- polo and are trying to find the News.

And you can sense how the theatrical language starts to lose its resilience and strength to rise to the great issues of our age, how it cannot imaginatively encompass even the immediate questions so that a really tatty disaster movie like The Day After, which was so successful in Britain and the United States, has to stand as our response to the prospect of nuclear warfare, and you stop believing that the theatrical process can do any better-it's mere entertainment after all-or that there is any way in which the inexpressible future can be better contemplated, as we ride, blindly, in mid-winter (John Elsom snapped a pencil) across Lake Constance.

November 1985 (given as a talk for the IATC and the BBC Third Programme)

At the Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics held in Rome, November 1985, John Elsom was elected President of the IATC. He has been the theatre critic for the Observer, The Listener and Mail on Sunday and broadcasts regularly on such BBC programmes as Kaleidoscope, Meridian. and Critics' Forum. He is Chairman of the Liberal Party's Arts and Broadcasting Committee, which brought together the 1982 Arts Manifesto.