Sunday, March 04, 2007

To George Hunka

That was quick! The redoubtable George Hunka has already responded to my post of twelve hours ago -- he must have one of those splendid buzzers that goes off whenever anyone drops his name -- and quite a stinger it is too.

Eager as ever for constructive dialogue, I wanted to leave a comment for him at his blog ('Superfluities'), but his HaloScan comments box crossly informed me that it would be truncating my message because it exceeded 3000 characters. (So did the dramatis personae of Angels in America, but I didn't see anybody truncating that...)

So either: read George's post and then read the below; or, skip the whole darn thing and carry on redecorating the loft. Up to you, my dears.


Dear George,

Warmest thanks for taking the trouble to plow through my post and respond to its admittedly hardline propositions. If there's nothing else to be proud of in what I wrote, I'm glad that as a consequence it's already prompted some fine and pugnacious writing.

I've already had my turn, and there's not much to add to my original post, which I hope your readers might take a look at for themselves, in that I think perhaps your characterization of it is a little unresponsive to its occasional niceties. For example, I try to say pretty carefully what I mean by "broken", and it is surely clear from the post (though not from the soundbite you lift) that that process would necessarily include "exploration" and "examination". I would never wish for any living playwright's work to be insensitively trashed or treated disrespectfully simply, as it were, for kicks: but, I reiterate, the guiding responsibility must be to the theatre event, not to the playwright's secluded conception of it. Theatricality emphatically does not inhere in a play, it is the opposite of a play, for the reasons I delineate in my post. Writing in which theatricality inheres is what I start off my describing as 'writing for theatre'. You don't seem very interested in the distinction, which is fine, that's where we came in and I don't honestly expect to change any minds with what I write.

You're quite right that some theatre events that don't depend on the primacy of literary text end up being nothing more than empty spectacles, and I am as disdainful of those as you are. But it is reductive to imply, as you seem to, that all work built on these more recent models tends inevitably towards such vacuity. If that's been your experience, that's a pity. Though it is worth remembering how local to our cultures and our times is the Albee model. Global theatre is much older and much more various, as you know. The Albee model continues to prevail in our own cultural situation principally because it is compatible with industry and with capitalist enterprise. Which is, not least, how you end up with the farcical and distressing endeavour of good and faithful scholars tying themselves in knots over who exactly wrote what line of what we call Shakespeare. It's comical that I'm the one who ends up being portrayed as an extremist when it's the Albee position that ends up disappearing into its own fundamentalism.

I suspect the underlying difference between our positions, George -- and I'm glad you say this, because it explains much -- is that you think "it's not as if theatricality itself is inherently good or bad". I start from, and depend utterly on, the contrary position: that theatricality -- by which I mean not the decrepit artificiality of most commercial theatre, but the social relation into which the ideal theatre brings artists and audience -- is inherently good. The promise of theatre, in initiating a communal experience in which the only circulating capital is attention, is its potential to create lasting and meaningful change in people's understanding of their civic lives. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't waste my time on theatre; perhaps as a consequence I would more blithely enjoy playgoing as a pleasant interlude in what would then be an entirely different working life.

May I mention, in passing, that while you're more than welcome to find my remarks not "very interesting", you can be assured that no bureaucrat has ever been impressed enough by anything I've said ever to give me a grant. Or at least, I have never made a successful application to the Arts Council of England. My work so far is supported only and entirely by producers who have seen it, live, and found it sufficiently interesting that they want to help develop it. So the suggestion that the strenuous theoretical tussling that, for example, my blog from time to time helps to channel is no more than modish blindsiding rhetoric designed to titillate arts funders is, honestly, a bit unworthy of you.

So there we are. You think I'm being vague, I think you're being pretty vague (particularly in your woolly defence of the imagined criticism of your comparison of theatre and music); I dare say we're closer anyway than we think. I note how you mention "Beckett's theatrical texts" rather than "Beckett's plays", and I'm sure you do so carefully, and I quite agree. Beckett is a paradigmatic example of the kind of 'writing for theatre' that I'm advocating. You don't, presumably, think of his late work as empty spectacle?

Hope you're able to discern "what the fuck I'm talking about" in the above, and furthermore in these

kind regards
Chris

4 comments:

George Hunka said...

Chris,

Well-argued, sir. And apologies if you feel that I've taken some of your remarks out of context; however, I do feel that terminology counts, as do you, so "broken" is something with which I'll still have to take issue.

We'll also have to agree to disagree about this idea of theatricality as an inherent good, which I simply don't find true; the content of that theatricality (a content provided by a text -- written, gathered, collectively generated, whatever) is far more important. Let's take the inherent theatricality of a public political event, a rally, let's say -- both the Klan and MoveOn hold rallies, and these rallies take advantage of the same tropes of theatricality: music, movement, language, and certainly that connection between performer or politician and audience that you highly value. To me, this demonstrates the hypnotizing effect that this theatricality can render to the audience, the numbness that I describe. And why I say that theatricality is itself not a moral, ethical, ideological or performative good or bad. As in all good theatre, you can't divorce form from content, or genre from message or expression.

Anyway, you catch me in my mornings, when I'm at my most sensitive ebb. Myself, I'll be 45 next month, the world's Oldest Emerging Young Playwright (and really, not even that) and honestly I've got no academic sinecure, or grants, or theatre, or commissions; I've written five hours of theatre over the last three or so years, and despite having garnered some small critical notice, I'm still in the same place I was when I started writing plays again at the age of 42. I don't even have youth, not any more, and therefore not much time ahead, and directors-for-hire are far more common than playwrights-for-hire. So believe me, I'm no better off than you, and didn't mean to suggest that you were rolling in happy Arts Council wealth. Would that it were.

Anyway, all best wishes. And I'll pick up the first round of pints next time I'm in London.

All best,
George

Chris said...

Many thanks, George.

Your point about the content of political rallies is extremely well made. For what it's worth, my answer is this: that issue-driven political events, rather like plays, depend on a particular focusing of authorial (or authoritative) prestige onto the 'owners', as it were, of the sanctioned point of view. Elements of staging and rhetorical organization conspire to secure a situation in which authorial and symbolic power is invested in a particular person or image or ideological sign.

This, then, indicates the vital importance of the turbulence of the theatrical space. In the model that I'm advocating, authorial prestige (whether that's sited in playwright or director or 'star' actor or whoever) is pointedly given away. No one reading of the theatrical event is given priority, indeed both the content and its presentation are made multifaceted and noisy so that no single stable reading is possible. The theatrical event, in other words, is not reducible to a single slogan or statement, as the aim of a political rally would be. There are as many readings as there are participants (audience and artists alike), and each as likely to be expressed in terms of questions as answers.

It is -- I was talking about this somewhere on the blog a couple of weeks ago, I can't remember now, it's somewhere in there! -- it is possible to make statements, cohesive and persuasive ones, in theatre -- I'm not arguing for a huge heap of fragmentary quasi-postmodernist chaos, I don't want a theatre that can't say anything or take itself seriously as a generator of consequential experience -- but, again, this, like the dispersal of prestige or the unravelling of charisma, can, I'm convinced, be achieved at a formal and structural level.

Yes, it's possible to do all sorts of smart and potentially useful things at the layer of content: but ultimately I think it's the audience, not the 'authors', who do that work. As evidence of which I guess I'd refer you again to Beckett -- who is not least an excellent example of the theatre writer in whose work form and content are totally entwined, precisely because each is irreducible, in a way that ultimately I don't believe Albee's work (our poor hapless poster-grouch: but he started it!) is: at least not since his very earliest work, which tends to produce absurdist readings of a generally theatrical purpose.

Thanks for saying more about your own predicament. You sound ideally set up, to me!

& thanks for engaging in the exchange, George, I really do appreciate it.

all best, C.

Andrew Field said...

Chris (and George),

Thanks very much for that - interesting stuff - although the fact that I was so entertained as I sat in the semi-dark my living room on a sunday afternoon while the sun pleaded for me to do the honorable thing and go outside and enjoy it while it lasted, has made me wonder if the internet isn't the dangerously all-consuming second life that some would have us believe.

I enjoy your distinction, Chris, between playrights and writers for theatre. For me, and I don't know if this is what you intended, the latter seems to suggest a far broader spectrum, where writing need not necessarily include the creation of a script, or even language. So whereas Becket writes Quad using words, a similar piece might be written by a dancer with, or indeed in, their body. Here there is the potential for a theatre text that is written and yet almost unrecordable and, significantly, unpublishable.

Perhaps this last point is one of the primary reasons why in modern times (and by modern I mean Shakespeare and the printing press onwards) the playwright-driven theatre has become the norm. These days you can pick up a facsimile of the play before, during or after the performance itself. The play thus tries to outlive the theatrical experience it purports to represent. But in doing so I believe the theatre event (theatricality) becomes dislocated and decentred in this strand of theatre-writing. Performance itself ceases to be essential to the point where Albee can argue with a straight face that all the important stuff happens when he's on his own in his room.

And here's the second reason why I liked your distinction. 'Writing for Theatre' seems to reassert the primacy of theatre in the act of writing.

I recently went to an audience with Bill Gaskill who talked briefly about the functioning of the writer's group at the royal court in the 50s/60s (I've put a little more though not a lot about this on my blog). The most interesting point that he made was that everything that the writer's group did (whether it be Brecht, or mask work or improv) was based on performing. They had to get up and actually do it. Hence they were always aware of the centrality of the medium (theatre) to whatever it was they were writing. Gaskill seemed to suggest that too often these days writers (Albee possibly included) see theatre as only a useful platform for their writing. A rather disparaging attitude to a medium so many thousands of years their senior.

Thanks again and appologies for my own rather lengthy 2 cents.

Chris said...

I completely agree with all of that, Andrew. Thanks -- I'll check out your account of the Gaskill talk.

Looks like the sun's still out and will be for a while yet. See: theatre and real life, you don't have to choose after all.