How well I know from the various channels where I overhear their self-advertisements that there are plenty of young intellectual leftist spivs right now getting all foamed up over the legitimacy of revolutionary violence. Talk about arguing the toss: their wet daydreams of armed insurrection, their soppy schoolboy fantasies of militarised resistance (as if such a thing weren't self-evidently the basest contradiction-in-terms), are as cartoonishly buxom and lurid as the Tango-orange women splayed on detached centrefolds that you used to be able to find stuffed into hedges and strewn across clearings on any 1970s countryside ramble. It's not that I wholly disagree with their positing of legitimacy -- actually I'm not sure violence against buildings, which they confidently espouse, can even be considered a thing, really, except in so far as it's likely to amplify fear in a crowd who have no space individually to opt in or out; no, it's the foam I find gross and, oh go on then, counterrevolutionary, in that it so guilelessly accepts, and endorses even, the premises of the motorised boner we rode in on.
But for all my abhorrence at the notion that violence is a girl's best friend, I'm sure I wasn't the only person reading this post whose final thought on Tuesday night, as the midnight news spooled past our weary attentions, was of covering Mr Bob Diamond with a generous glug of petroleum and setting him on fire. Actually, some of what the Barclays Chief Exec told the Commons Treasury Committee was surprisingly (relatively) palatable, if you were able to find a more detailed report somewhere; still, what came through loudest and with the most baleful clarity on Tuesday was his insistence that it was time for the banks to desist in their expressions of "remorse and apology" -- the most horripilating element of which is the implication that they ever began. He was very clear too about the imperative, and the probity even, of paying bonuses in line with the certifiably sociopathic expectations of the sector: including his own, which he declined to say he would forgo, were he to be offered one this year. (Ha ha, what are the odds?) I felt, as the bulletin came unemotionally over the DAB-waves, that a well-organised bombing campaign targeting Barclays, topped with the flash-frying of Mr Bob Diamond itself, was actually the only measured, rational, proportionate response to what continues to reveal itself more and more blatantly as a decade-long declaration of civil war.
And yet, as I say, there were shreds in his evidence that didn't immediately have one gurgling with incredulous gastroesophegal reflux. In a statement with which well-meaning but slightly boring theatre-makers everywhere will gladly identify, Mr Bob Diamond suggested that banks should not expect taxpayer bailouts, but should be "allowed to fail" (the very highest aspiration of half the devising companies in the UK, if long experience of the Guardian blog is to be believed -- which it obviously fucking isn't). -- Incidentally, we might also wait five minutes before enacting our vengeful flambéeing of Mr Bob Diamond so that he has time to tell us an anecdote or two from the time he spent as a student assisting Terry Gilliam with his animations for Monty Python. (Or is that just a Wikipedian canard? If so, may I say, it's perfectly judged for remote plausibility.)
At any rate, no sooner had these torturous and terroristic urges whizzed round the circulatory system a couple of times and caused the blood to bubble a bit, then we were on to the next story: the sentencing to 32 months in jail of 18-year-old Edward Woollard (not to be confused with the late great Ewar Woowar, but that's clearly a totally inappropriate thing to say) for lobbing an empty fire extinguisher off the roof of Millbank Tower during the first of the student actions against tuition fees on November 10th last year, killing none and injuring none. Noticing as the news rolled in that I felt quite airily capable of dropping a fire extinguisher from a great height onto the charred and smoking cadaver of Mr Bob Diamond after his successful pyrothanasia, in the blunt-projectile equivalent of an ironic Roger Moore-era Bond quip ("Looks like you could use one of these, old chap..."), the most compelling thought that surfaced, which again I imagine many have shared, was this: there but for the grace -- or the witlessness -- of God go I, and go many of my friends. This is not to say that what Woollard did was anything less than stupid, dangerous, ugly and manifestly counterproductive; but it is also to say that it was not much more than those things either: and I've been all of those things, even all at once, more often than I want to remember in any detail. I know I'd also be susceptible to the adrenalin rush that presumably took hold of Woollard in that moment, were I too in a social situation that could hardly be more efficiently designed to produce acts of stupidity and unpremeditated harm: in fact I'd experienced a similar rush only seconds earlier -- and I wasn't on the roof of Millbank, I was in bed. In Bath.
It would be interesting to ask everyone reading this to draw a sort of mind-map of the degrees of separation by which one might link Mr Bob Diamond to Edward Woollard: I venture to suggest you would not need all six of your allotted steps. That's at least partly because sitting at the centre of a death-rattling culture in which these are two consecutive news stories is a coalition government (and we could probably count in ninety per cent of the current opposition too) to every member of which it is presumably as clear as Cristal that Edward Woollard is a criminal and a thug and Mr Bob Diamond is not. Which is, of course, to borrow a line from Philip Larkin, "a perfectly vile and foul / Inversion of all that's been". (That's how bad things are, sisters, I'm quoting Philip bloody Larkin.)
Seeking connections between them, perhaps we might more charitably say of both men that their actions are born of fear. Always, everywhere, the fear, the tedious unremitting fear. In Woollard's case, the fear more specifically of a situation that to a novice protester must surely have seemed to be at the brink of absolute loss-of-control; a fear that he, trapped in the situation of its escalating generation, could only think (or not even think) to alleviate by yielding to it, by allowing himself 'out of hand' -- with some gratitude, perhaps, who knows?, it's not undelightful when the fear lets up, after all.
And in Diamond's case? Is this a harder case to make? Perhaps, but it has to be made, or else there is nothing dependable in the fundamental idea -- as near or even nearer to the baseline as "all people are created equal" -- that all people are doing the best they can with the information they have. (If you can't believe that, you may as well actually be Danny Alexander, and not even Danny Alexander is sufficiently degraded to want that, surely.) It is hard for a layperson like me to imagine the information that someone like Diamond has, both at their disposal and sitting indelibly at the back of their mind or wherever the fear of drowning is kept. You can surely only stand to live the toxic life and make the grievous decisions that Diamond has made if you are working under the impression -- which may or may not be mistaken -- that ten thousand loaded guns are pointed at you all the time. I, as it goes, with my little plastic petrol can and book of matches from some jumped-up Dalston bar, do not know where Mr Bob Diamond lives, but there are plenty of people who do, and, unlike silly me, none of them is so addled as to think that money is basically a bad idea. We see it all the time -- I think there's even a specific name for the phenomenon, though I don't know what it is -- that it's the oppressor, the entity with all the power, that is more likely to behave aggressively, paranoiacally, hyper-defensively, more likely to feel under attack than does its victim. And perhaps, to some degree, with good reason: what should keep Cameron and Clegg awake at night, along with, y'know, everything else, is that they're starting to create a burgeoning constituency of engaged, civic-minded people -- young people especially -- who are ready to fight on the basis that they genuinely believe they have nothing to lose. (In which perception, one might add, they are, finally, right.)
Why are we talking about this? Oh, pshaw: because of Devoted & Disgruntled 6, of course, in a couple of weekends' time, when the squirty UHT crème de la squirty UHT crème of forward-thinking British theatre practitioners will amass, in their cute-as-buttons rag tag and bobtail fashion, at a chilly part-time boxing venue in east London, to convene an ecstatic polyphonous array of discussions, overheated and underheated and Baby-bear-pleasingly just right, on the possibilities that, in their different ways, they imagine might be ignited in the secret heart of the artform to which they are dedicating their gung-ho lives; to dream the even bigger dreams that they will file alongside earning minimum wage for their labour and not spending every Christmas trying to explain their work to angry uncomprehending relatives.
D&D 4 was my first, and a revelation; last year's was better yet (because I spent more time listening to people telling me things I didn't already know -- I sought out some discussions taking place between artists I hadn't met before whose voices were quite differently shaped than my own, and I tried to listen, and to ask questions, and it was amazing, amazing). This year's corroboree, we know, will feel more urgent, more necessary than ever: because this year, what's always been true is so much more obviously true: that we can choose, if we wish, to take ourselves so seriously that we might allow ourselves to be aware of the opportunity we have, not only in this rare weekend but also beyond it and all the time, to talk, to seriously talk, not just about ourselves and our own survival in a climate of yet more funding cuts and a more entrenched (and even celebrated) philistinism and anti-intellectualism, but to talk about others, to talk about all of us: about how we in the hall might meet those outside the hall and help to make their lives, as well as our own, more fully and honestly liveable in a time when we are all under concerted attack from a small and fearful and regressive elite who have at their temporary disposal the power apparatus of a state they do not begin to comprehend. (...At least I think that's what it said on Vanessa Redgrave's fridge magnet -- it was all a bit of a blur.)
Beginning, evidently, to think about D&D 6 and the specific topics that might be proposed for discussion there (which anyone attending may do, in this least hierarchical of structures), the brilliant theatre blogger and thinker Honour Bayes tweeted the following universe-in-a-nutshell: "We need new ways of expression to combat feeling of helplessness. What can theatre do?" This arrow-sharp question hit my eyes just a few hours after that Diamond/Woollard double whammy had hit my ears, and so that was the lens through which I found myself training my attention on Honour's provocation.
It is, in a way, exactly the right question: there is of course plenty more we need to do than simply combat a feeling of helplessness: but if we can't dispel that feeling then we can't make much more happen, other than an exhaustingly familiar tilt into cynicism, an extension of the bland liminoid irony that has not only inflected but actually quite often entirely stood in the place of politically conscious cultural activity in Britain since the beginning of the end of post-punk. What can theatre do? It certainly can imagine itself -- it is already imagining itself, in many places and contexts -- as a place where helplessness might be offset by different ways and means of expression. (I think they might not all be new ways: I think there's plenty we've forgotten, and plenty we're already successfully doing but not applying carefully enough to the questions that now face us. And I think expression might not be a big enough idea: art can do more than express and I'm not sure a focus on expression will make available to us all the resources we could imagine using.) But if dispelling a sense of helplessness is item one, then our very first task is to try to describe and understand the nature of that helplessness.
The word "helplessness" sits in a fascinating place in Honour's question, located as it is between the "we" who need new ways of expression, and the "theatre" which we imagine might be able to do something about it. It reads to me like there are two conflated (though not initially wholly separate) "we"s here, the "we" who work in theatre, and a wider "we" who feel helpless: in other words, the conceptual image these words produce is of a group of people who feel helpless in relation to a harmful political, cultural and economic matrix that does not register or will not respond to whatever expression can currently be given to the effects of that harm; and as a tiny subset of that group, a bunch of artists who know -- at least instinctively, if not in the detail of their conscious focused engagement -- that they have a degree of access (often felt to be at least partially impeded by the operations of the same matrix, but never wholly and definitively obstructed) to a set of resources that could change the nature of that relationship between the capitalist matrix (let's say in its current manifestation, so as to not frighten or alarm at this early stage) and its victims. That could change the nature of that relationship by making the expression of pain and fear and anger somehow too compelling to ignore; or by fundamentally altering the balance of power so that "we" ourselves finally have to be reckoned with; or by finding ways to actually sever the relationship altogether; or by creating a kind of social organization in which these three strategies can all work productively and compatibly together.
Our tiny subset of artists, then, know that their sense of helplessness is doubled. They have access to resources that they're sure could help everyone combat the bigger sense that we're helpless. But they're not sure how. As time ticks away, they find that the storeroom door is multiply locked and between them they're carrying a bunch of a hundred thousand keys. And the scramble to fit the right key to each of the locks is happening in the barely-spoken suspicion -- the near-certainty, in some cases -- that behind the door is an incredibly powerful piece of equipment that's sitting there in scattered self-assembly form, with no instructions, and a load of surplus parts, and a couple of components that haven't been invented yet.
There ought to be some wise punchline to this parable. Like: don't they realise if they stopped scrambling around with their keys and just talked to each other, they'd see that they don't need to get through the door? Or, if only they all turned round they'd see a giant hovercraft with... no, sorry, I have no idea where to go with that. But the point is that the image itself is essentially false, a mirage. There is nothing on the other side of the storeroom door; there is no door. We -- look!, at long last, I'm shifting from 'they' to 'we' -- are actually helpless only in so far as we permit ourselves to feel helpless. So far, so Oprah. But don't worry: this is not just a public service announcement on the power of positive thinking (though, in all seriousness, it's a vital component to this effort). What we can do is analyse our situation, analyse the means by which our sense of helplessness is produced, and think around remedies that address the causes rather than alleviating the symptoms. I want, as this post lurches towards its close, to sketch a couple of ideas that have been on my mind of late: one that I didn't intend to write about (partly because I've touched on it in other recent posts) but which I fear won't stand to be overlooked; and one which I did, from the start, want to write about, and which I hope might explain the connection I've invoked between our sense of helplessness and the image of violence that attaches, in different but far from discontinuous ways, to Mr Bob Diamond and to Edward Woollard.
The former is our too-readiness to accept the terms of the political narrative we're offered. Andrew Haydon has a brilliant post currently at the Guardian blog -- yes, the sign saying 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here' can be taken down for a week -- which is in part about the weird eagerness of the arts sector to demonstrate its maturity and reasonableness in opposing arts cuts on pragmatic rather than principled grounds (and in the same gesture disdaining to intricate that opposition into the bigger picture of ideologically-driven cuts across the board). But even those who aren't falling over themselves to become fluent in the language of their oppressor can easily become a little blind to the ways in which their own speech has been inflected by an RP-like prestige model that has begun to distance them from their roots, their communities of origin.
For me, the most pressing example of this is in thinking around autonomy. To suggest that there might be not merely virtues but actual liveable solutions to be found in uncoupling our activity, even intermittently, from the mechanisms of the state -- going 'off grid', as it were, in one way or another -- can sound to some like an effigy of Cameron's Big Lie, the Big Society. Whereas in fact the rhetoric of the Big Society has had some limited appeal for the opposite reason, precisely because it's a (clueless and distortive) hijacking of a strain of mild anarchosyndicalist thought that at some level holds some promise even for the most invested middle-class patsy. I keep going back these days to Hakim Bey, the originating cartographer of the Temporary Autonomous Zone: one of the nicest models for theatrical -- and much more broadly social -- activity it's possible to read about, and one of the least hospitable to any defeatist construction of helplessness. But "helping yourself" has such a double edge, and the idea that the individual can signify at all at the social level seems so fraught, so contaminated by Thatcherite radiation, that it's very hard for us to keep our eyes open long enough to see how the prevailing borders of liberal democracy are becoming our bogus horizon.
No doubt I've described on this blog before -- but it bears repeating -- the analogy described by the queer anarchist sociologist Paul Goodman (whose work inspired my piece Hey Mathew a couple of years ago) in his still profoundly worthwhile book Growing Up Absurd, about the origins of what was then (1960) called "juvenile delinquency" among young men. Diagnosing in his subjects -- open sexual longing for whom induced him to watch them with unusual care -- something very akin to our present sense of helplessness, Goodman describes a room, whose door is apparently closed, and at the centre of which is the "rat race", or some eye-catching, even entrancing, representation thereof. He describes how each social grouping or tribe that might be discerned -- including the several different varieties of 'delinquent' -- each places itself in different relations to the rat race: the groups are sceptical or violent or curious or disengaged or distracted. But all of them, thinking they are trapped in the room, are insistently relating themselves to that centre of attention, when all the while, the door is actually open, and all of them are free to leave.
I relate this to the present discussion not so much in its specific primary implication -- that other kinds of society are immediately (or imminently) makeable -- but in its supporting point: that we are so fixed on the dominant centre that we neglect to test practically, or even to notice, the assumptions we've made about the options that are (literally) open to us. Hard not to think -- relating Goodman's "apparently closed room" to the storeroom described above -- of Gary Larson's familiar (though I still laugh with it) depiction of the struggle of a pupil at the Midvale School for the Gifted:
The contents of the storeroom may still be a jumble of (initially) inscrutable components, but we might at least check that we, the gifted -- those of us to whom the gift of access to theatre-making has been given -- aren't pushing on an unlocked door marked 'pull'. (I stuck this picture to the wall of my room at the NT Studio when I was there on attachment this time last year, and I found it kind of helpful to see it every day, I must say.)
Mostly though I want this post to be about the idea of consequence.
"When I was told I had potentially endangered people, I felt sick," says Edward Woollard. I'm not sure what kind of an act that is, to "potentially endanger" someone, though surely I do it every time I order in a restaurant, and have commissioned the driver of every car I've ever sat in to do it to me. Not to worry: the point is clear and, ultimately, let's admit, well-made. In the moment of throwing that fire extinguisher, not only could Woollard not know that he wouldn't injure someone, but it seems genuinely not to have occurred to him, in that moment, that he might. It is a scary disconnect. One might see a similar disconnect, a similar failure to hold in the mind the continuity of action and consequence, in the decision of notoriously draconian judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC to jail him for nearly three years -- utterly derailing the life of a foolish, impetuous and freaked-out 18-year-old (in other words, an 18-year-old) -- for an action whose actual consequence was apparently threefold: an "audible thud"; the ratcheting up of fear in an environment that was already producing fear; and a dead good anecdote for a nearby territorial support group officer.
Meanwhile, Mr Bob Diamond tells us, rather commendably, that banks must be "allowed to fail" rather than be bailed out by the taxpayer (which he's saying of course because Barclays wasn't). Inept performance should have its consequences, he says. But the application even of restraint to the payment of supposedly (but actually clearly not) performance-related bonuses -- his own alone is likely to be in the region of £8m -- must be resisted because of what we are repeatedly told is the probable consequence: a mass exodus of greedy sociopaths to work in other countries. A cunt drain, if you will. Perish the thought.
A tricky business, the game of consequences. Our actions -- private, social, corporate, and, not least, artistic -- matter largely, if not only, in so far as they are consequential. This ought to be a truism, but we have lived for thirty years in an arrested liminoid culture where, for various reasons -- nearly all of which have to do with the ways in which the revolutionary technological advances of those three decades have, perhaps inevitably, been wholly shaped by the rampant permissiveness of (especially "post-industrial") commodity capitalism -- the connection of act to consequence has become radically unstable: at least to those rich enough and self-indulgent enough to be able to exploit such luxury with confidence, including most of us in the west.
(Pausing only briefly to reflect on how much this "actions have consequences" stuff sounds like something that could have issued from, say, Kenneth Baker's stint at the home office...), I could blah on about the broader cultural instances and ramifications of this fundamental alteration in the syntax of our lived relations till the virtual cows click on 'Home'. And probably some day I will. (If you're really interested, give me a shout and I'll send you a copy of my essay from 2003 on American poetry and the "information economy". For a while -- and certainly at the point that that essay was written -- it seemed as if 9/11 could be a crucial twist-point in our ability, and willingness, to abandon our liminoid capitalist bubble: and I'm not at all sure that this current apparent 'crisis' is not at least in part an aftershock, a recapitulation of that impetus.) More topically though, for now, it's worth considering how theatre might figure in all this.
What I hear in the description of "helplessness", in so far as we can take it to apply at least partly specifically to the question of "What can theatre do?", is an anxiety about how theatre produces consequence. A fear that whatever action is taken within theatre, it doesn't "help" as such, because it doesn't affect what happens outside theatre. It's literally inconsequential. Or at best it mimics the disconnect between action and consequence that increasingly defines the broader culture to which theatre might hope to stand in a dissident relation. In other words, just like Judge Rivlin and Mr Bob, it excuses its own more indulgent or regressive tendencies with pronouncements about what "might" happen, or might be about to happen. This is not hard to understand: metrics on changing the world aren't easy to come by. There's very little quantitative data that we can use to show that theatre is consequential, and much of that data is the kind of stuff that Andrew Haydon rightly deplores our dependence on in arguing the worth of our work. So we talk about how theatre -- hm, let's see -- "changes the way we look at the world", or "makes us reconsider our most deeply-held beliefs". These are not direct quotes, but you know also that they are: and you know that phrases like these are deployed every week by theatre-makers trying to write marketing copy for shows in which, who knows, four optimistic young women potter about in identical leotards and drape themselves over each others' backs; or two men in a room above a pub in Camden shout at each other for an hour and a quarter about a boating accident or drug deal upon the details of which they are unable to agree, until one finally produces the gun we have been waiting to see ever since we passed the health and safety notice in the foyer; or a crowd of quietly depressed new media creatives on a wet Friday evening are hustled by masked figures through a series of nearly-identical, exquisitely simulated drawing rooms, impelled onwards only by the sense that because they have nowhere to sit they must somehow be 'interacting', and by the (ultimately forlorn) hope that there might, at some point, be tits in it. ...Whoops, sorry, that wasn't the one I meant to go off on.
But to say simply that we can't know the extent to which theatre is consequential or not, and thus to shrug, and (to use a currently overworked phrase) keep calm and carry on -- or, more likely, give up but stay stressed anyway, is to bail out too soon. What we can think about, carefully and rigorously, is the forms and structures our work employs, and the ways in which those elements address themselves directly to the possibility of consequence.
What is an open structure? What is a closed structure? How can an audience be encouraged to feel -- or, even better, to figure out quite consciously -- that the work they're being asked to attend to will be, or at least aspires to be, genuinely consequential? Rather than creating wholly speculative fantasies or immersions that disappear like daydreams at the moment of their culmination, how can we share information that is usable, how can we give each other tasks that are active and meaningful? How can we speak out of the modes (maybe linear, maybe fragmentary) of testimony, rather than titillate ourselves with narrative games? And how can the body's own testimony, before and beneath language, be articulate? When might virtuosity, craft, elegance, high production values, help to produce consequential response in an audience, and when do they hinder it? Does ambiguity inhibit consequence? Does direct address help? Perhaps above all, do theatre actions that take place inside buildings, and especially on designated theatre stages, struggle more to be consequential than those theatre actions that take place in the street, in the home, at the mall, on the bus, in bed? And do those where we gather together in one place produce consequences more effectively than those we are asked to encounter individually, online perhaps or via headphones?
There are a thousand and one of these questions: forgive me if I don't do them all: but among the points I'm trying to make is this: we can be quite nuts-and-boltsy about these ideas: we can examine carefully every bit of the apparatus available to us, that's, as it were, strewn across the storeroom floor. If we're just picking bits up at random and saying, "What do we think this does?", it'll take us forever. But if we're picking bits up as methodically as we can and saying, "We know what job we want to do, so how might this thing help us?", we'll get somewhere faster and we'll feel more confidence (and more pleasure and excitement) in our task.
It's complex, of course (which is how we know it's real). We can carve ourselves routes of great simplicity through the middle of it all, that's fine, but it's honestly basically complex. What I'm particularly aware of is that I want to use theatre not only to help but also to think with, to think with about the shapes, the forms, of what that different life is that we want to help ourselves to move towards. There is a ticklishness, to say the least, about the task of inventing both the moving target and the arrow in flight at the same time. But, oh boy, whatever else that is, it's not a picture of helplessness.
All the way through the second half of this post I've been thinking about Scritti Politti, who I suppose these days are known -- if at all -- for their (/his) perky 80s Slimcea soul-pop, or occasional Q-pleasing oilslicks in subsequent decades, but who were one of the key bands to emerge out of the south London anarchist/squatting scene in the very early days of post-punk. In fact nothing could have more exactly summarised the punk/post-punk nexus than their first single, 'Skank Bloc Bologna', in 1978:
-- not because of the song (though I love it very much, and am not at all sure they ever did anything better), but for the sleeve. As Simon Reynolds relates in his indispensible Rip It Up And Start Again, the whole package was handmade, and the back cover gave details of how you too could do what they'd done:
Recording: Space Studios @ 19 Victoria Street, Cambridge. £98.00 for 14 hours, master tape included. Mastering: Pye London Studios @ 17 Great Cumberland Place, London W1 - IBC (George) Sound Recording Studios @ 35 Portland Place, London W1. £40.00 for cutting of lacquer from master tape. Pressing: PYE Records (Sales) Ltd. @ Western Road, Mitcham, Surrey. £369.36 for 2,500 copies at 13p, £27.00 for processing (electro plating of lacquer). Labels: E.G. Rubber Stamps, 28 Bridge Street, Hitchin, Herts. £8.00 for rubber stamp on white labels (labels included in cost of pressing.)
I find this one of the most moving, heartening, energising texts that I've ever encountered in that arousing borderzone where art and politics most explicitly meet. This is helpfulness at its most expansive, and there's no doubt that theatre that did this would be helpful too. What's more, of course, theatre can do it much more easily: there's no such list to pass on: the only elements required are free and everywhere and number just two: an empty space (copyright P. Brook); and enough intelligence and curiosity to know that, contra Brook, no space is ever empty -- from which follows everything else. If we want consequential theatre, if we want theatre that helps, if we want to change our "ways of expression", we could hardly do better than begin by noticing how much easier we find it to tell others that all they need is an empty space and the desire to create action within it, than we do to pay attention sometimes to our own encouraging advice.