‘Nobody saves anyone’s life. Just postpones their death.’
I recently saw ‘Allelujah!’, Alan Bennett’s fine new play about the National Health Service. (The Bridge Theatre in London until 29 September.)
‘Allelujah!’ focuses on the Beth, an old fashioned, cradle-to-grave hospital that is at the heart of its local community.
‘Here at the Beth, cosy, friendly and above all local, we believe that yesterday is the new tomorrow.’
The Beth is threatened with closure by a Department of Health that favours efficiency drives, centres of excellence and specialist units.
‘What makes a good hospital is an available bed.’
In an effort to court favour with the Minister, the Beth’s management has renamed its wards: from Princess Margaret, Wordsworth and Mountbatten, to Shirley Bassey, Fatima Whitbread and Dusty Springfield. It has also mounted a campaign to fight for the Beth’s survival.
But a consultant close to the Minister reveals that their efforts to keep the hospital open will ultimately prove futile.
‘Small, badly run and in the red, it would undoubtedly close. Efficiently run and meeting its targets it should close too, because, if it is profitable, why is it not in the private sector?...The State should not be seen to work. If the State is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.’
We know that Bennett’s sympathies are with the Left. But ‘Allelujah!’ is not a piece of straightforward agitprop. In the course of the work the playwright explores the various perspectives of patients, their families, staff, management and Government. He wants to tease out his own point of view by probing the healthcare dilemma from many angles.
‘You don’t put yourself into what you write. You find yourself there.’
In his Introduction to the play Bennett directly addresses the question of the authorial voice.
‘Writing a play I have never tried to hide the sound of my own voice. It hasn’t always been where an audience or critic has thought to find it and certainly not always in the mouth of the leading character. It’s often a divided voice or a dissenting one; two things (at least) are being said and I am not always sure which one I agree with.’
We live in an era of conviction. We celebrate single-mindedness, clarity and commitment. We like to secure ourselves in a social media cocoon of affirmation and endorsement. So it’s rare to encounter a ‘divided voice’: one that is undecided, open to debate, sensitive to nuance.
And yet, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill observed, an opinion that does not recognize opposing arguments is itself somewhat fragile.
'He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.’
John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’
I think we in the marketing and communications industry would do well to reflect on these words.
We like to encourage passion and positivity. But sometimes our enthusiasm and evangelism translate into dogmatism and obstinacy. Our unchallenged convictions are boldly expressed, but sustained by shallow roots.
Back in the day, when we presented draft strategies to our boss Nigel Bogle, he would respond with provocations that usually began: ‘I could easily construct an argument…’ He knew that recognizing alternative beliefs and courses of action served to test, evolve and support our own; and that through the melting pot of diverse opinion we could forge new ideas and fresh opportunities.
Agencies should learn to be comfortable with discussion and dissent. They should be environments that support different perspectives and points of view; that examine and challenge established assumptions; that celebrate the ‘divided voice.’
There is of course one caveat. Whilst encouraging a broad range of thoughts and theories, we should be ruthlessly disciplined around facts - now more than ever. As the former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked:
‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.’
‘There are always two sides
To every story.
But two wrongs can't make it right.
Oh, and two mistakes will only bring you heartache,
And you both will end up losing the fight.’
Etta James, 'Two Sides (To Every Story)’ (Bill Davis)