Sunday, March 04, 2007

What's it all about, Albee?

I'm going to have to start by writing about the second most exciting theatre event of the past week, because the most exciting was self-evidently the opening of Gisèle Vienne and Dennis Cooper's Kindertotenlieder at the Antipodes Festival des Arts Indisciplinaires at Le Quartz in Brest, where I absolutely wasn't. It's coming to the Tramway in May, but I'll be at the very other end of the country -- or, rather, the very other end of the country below -- doing Speed Death of the Radiant Child in Plymouth, so I'll have to wait till it arrives in Nottingham in the autumn. In the meantime, take a look at the photos on Dennis's blog, and the commentary passim, and consider the prospect of the Stephen O'Malley & Peter Rehberg soundscore, and then look me in the eye and tell me you don't want to book right now. -- With his usual gift for uncanny interventions, Dennis also posted a bunch of great River Phoenix-related stuff this week, just as I was disinterring my own RiP archive for feeding into the making of Speed Death. (His is the Death of the title, and he's sort of the Radiant Child too, though also that's a Keith Haring thing, or more importantly a reference to Rene Ricard's brilliant and infuriating Artforum essay on Haring and Basquiat. And yes I know it wasn't speed that did for River, it was a speedball [and cough syrup] death if you want to be finicky, but Speedball Death... is a much clunkier title and anyway I was thinking as much about, you know, hurtling... Anyway, you don't want to be finicky, do you? The sun's out, the sky's blue, and the Tate has bought back Turner's The Blue Rigi, it's a beautiful day. No finicking. Go play on the tyre swing.)

Phew. Where were we? Oh yes, the second most exciting theatre thing of the week. Well, my vote's going to Michael Sheen's spankingly good reading of Kenneth Tynan's theatre criticism, in the Book of the Week slot on Radio 4, tying in with the recent publication of Dominic Shellard's edition of Tynan's Theatre Writings. I haven't got the book yet, I didn't have a very formed impression of Tynan (at least of the particular character of his criticism), beyond sketches from other sources and a vague sense of ferocious intelligence gradually undermined by distractedness (mostly libidinal) and decline. As ever, what's missing from the caricature outline is the hard precision of the thinking. (No wonder the equally driven but essentially stupid and largely revolting Peter Hall couldn't abide the notion of keeping Tynan on when he took over the National.) Anyway, the readings were gripping, immobilizing; Sheen read superbly, a tricky task given the movement of ideas and tone in the writing. (We're so used now, not least in arts criticism, to irony being used to smudge and subdue, not to penetrate.) As of right now, all five programmes can be replayed at the BBC web site but will expire and be replaced seven days after broadcast. If you care about theatre at all and you didn't hear these readings, and particularly if your knowledge of Tynan is, like mine, diffuse and fourth-hand, I would really urge you to spend an hour and a quarter getting properly turned on by this unusually sexy intellect.

(It was a good week for this kind of 15-minute spoken word slot, which more often than not brings out the worst in programme-makers and readers alike. Over on BBC7 they were repeating a selection of Alan Coren's Times columns, read by the author. I know Coren's a bluff reactionary type beneath whose knockabout cartoon xenophobia lurks a thin streak of verité racism. -- News Quiz fans who think I'm overstating this should check out his Punch Idi Amin parodies, for example. -- But he's also, almost indisputably I should think, the best mainstream prose stylist this country's produced since G.K. Chesterton. Even when the attitudes it encapsulates are rotten, the writing is scintillatingly clever and musical. Talk about a guilty pleasure... Again, you've got seven days to 'listen again', as they perplexingly call it -- I wonder how many people use the facility to listen to a programme a second time?)

Tynan's criticism wasn't, however, the only controversial theatrical discourse being aired this week. As the Guardian arts blog notes, Edward Albee has been telling the LA Weekly that directors and actors are "the forces of darkness"; a little bit of his outburst is worth reproducing here:

"The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act.
It isn't. It's a creative act, and then other people come in. The interpretation
should be for the accuracy of what the playwright wrote. Playwrights are
expected to have their text changed by actors they never wanted. Directors seem
to feel they are as creative as the playwright."

Responses, according to the Guardian blog, have been various (though not at that blog itself, where the three comments so far left are uniformly pretty witless, even that of the normally reliably engaged and interesting George Hunka); personally it was, I had better admit, rather pleasing to see Alison Croggon quoting my remark from a while back about how there are playwrights and then there are writers for theatre, which still sums up how I feel about Albee's ilk. But perhaps this needs a little amplification in the light of a recent post at Encore Theatre Magazine, of whom I generally approve (even though they describe me as "affable", the shits): wherein, commenting on the new NT season -- at first glance literally nothing I'm remotely interested in seeing, by the way, which is a shame; maybe the honeymoon's finally over and we're back to a National Theatre that's turned completely in on itself -- they report on "a slight sense ... that the tide of fashion is turning against playwriting. Not from audiences, but from theatremakers." Encore goes on to describe this turn as "rather peculiar and strangely moralistic".

Not surprisingly, a few folks show up to tilt at this big fat Celebrity Pork Windmill, including a furious Jon Spooner and an emollient and largely sensical Notional Theatre (who incidentally has also recently turned in a smart development of my earlier discussion of Robert Wilson's architectonic procedures). But I think Encore may be right. I share the sense -- which Albee obviously has, and which even an avowed big-tent centrist like David Eldridge seems to have been expressing in his recent comments here -- that conventional playwrights (by which I mean, those who produce scripted plays which are to all intents 'complete' before rehearsals begin, though of course they may then be modified by the influence of the staging process) currently feel under attack. I can see why they would feel that, even though nobody ever really seems to attack them as such, which means that the ferocity of (what they consider to be) their counterattack can be surprising -- though not, I think, inexplicable, for reasons I hope I can unravel.

Encore rejects the label "text-based" for this kind of theatre; George Hunka, defending Albee, doesn't appear to: "in scripted theatre, [writing is] the primary, originating act." Both are describing the same thing, though, and so, it seems to me, is Eldridge; their position glosses, roughly, like this. We who are playwrights, or support and approve of the work of playwrights, are the first to acknowledge that many elements go into the staging of plays -- acting, direction, design, music, perhaps choreography, etc. -- along with the script; and we furthermore acknowledge, with cheerful magnanimity, that theatre is nowadays made in multifarious ways, quite a bit of it privileging these other elements above the specialist craft of the writer. We accept that, and we accept that it sometimes works, and we try hard to say so. [I exempt Albee from this characterisation, obviously.] But (they would continue) the reciprocity between the "text-based" wing and the "devised" / "physical" / "visual" wing seems lopsided. Why won't they say that what we do as playwrights, with our primary originating acts of script-writing, is also legitimate and valuable in the ecosystem of the big tent? (As professional writers they wouldn't stoop to countenance such metaphor-mixing; I hope they'll forgive me for this misrepresentation, at least.)

I've come to see that it is this imbalance of cordiality, as it were, that so infuriates the playwrights: so a slow-burn of resentment builds up, as in any off-kilter relationship, until one quiet evening you only have to ask what's for dinner and you get a fork in the eye.

So, what is this imbalance? What's actually happening?

I don't suppose that what I'm about to describe are the only two indicators that such an imbalance is real, and is wider in nature and in influence than simply its pertinence to the broad-church courtesies of variously inclined practitioners in a large and jostling communion: but they're among the most significant.

Firstly -- I don't know, are there any statistics on this? -- my guess is that around 80 or 85 per cent of theatre produced in Britain [using the word 'theatre' in its generally accepted sense(s)] is still created along conventional lines, with a director responsible for realising a script that exists more-or-less complete prior to the rehearsal process; some considerable proportion of that textual work may have been 'workshopped' or 'scratched' or whatever but the text even so retains its primacy and its discrete originality. In this light, it would certainly be accurate to say that a disproportionate amount of what you might call secondary cultural attention -- by which I mean media reportage and criticism, and, to a lesser extent, discussion within and around the creative industries as a whole -- is bestowed on the non-traditional: the 'devised', the hybrid, the non-'text-based'. (Forgive all these scare quotes, I can't bear to do without them.)

Partly of course this is something to do with the eye-catching qualities of innovation -- or, more accurately, both in respect of media and commercial interests and often the ideation of the work itself, the eye-catching qualities of novelty. Site-specific theatre, which is hardly ever pre-scripted by an individual before production work begins, is the obvious case in point: there's always an angle for the papers -- not just newness but urgency. The attachment to novelty (for its own sake) is, wherever it occurs, despicable, and my own feeling is that even innovation is in itself value-neutral. But the urgency also arises from the rapid come-and-go of these projects, particularly the 'go': they're not just unusual, they're news, and if you don't catch them while they're hot, you've missed an experience you can't have any other way. Like I keep not getting around to seeing Punchdrunk's ecstatically-received Faust, but I've got to get my act together and go: and that sense I have of 'got to' is not just from wanting to see something that lots of people think is great, but also that it's all or nothing: be there or miss it forever. Whereas let's say I'm not too bothered about not having seen The History Boys at the NT, because it was clear from the start it would tour, it would probably wind up in the West End, there would be a film version, a radio version, probably a book on tape, maybe eventually a tea-towel, and above all, there'll always be a published play text, so not only can I read The History Boys on the tube, I can also mount my own production some other time, or wait for a student company to take it to Edinburgh. This I know to be true: that most of the people howling "No, no, that's not the same thing at all!" at this lackadaisical attitude are precisely the ones who want to argue that the play text is "the primary originating act".

What I'm getting at, and this is not an accusation but simply a description of one element in the imbalance I'm trying to explore, is that a play text is not a piece of theatre, not yet, not ever. It can become part of a piece of theatre, but it will never itself be theatrical unless it behaves as do the other elements in a theatrical production (including the other elements in its own production), and disappears. Almost everyone, not least the most literary and conventional playwrights, will speak out in favour of the 'liveness' of theatre, will agree that this here-and-now ephemerality is one of the medium's special and distinguishing characteristics. So those productions that emphasize this complex of signs and conditions that we refer to as 'liveness' will inevitably commend themselves more immediately to audiences and secondary commentators alike. A play which hits the bookshelves at the same time as it hits the stage has already forfeited its claim to those attentions.

Secondly -- and again I apologise that I can't back this up with statistics but I'm certain it's true and I'm certain most industry folks would agree -- the way that theatre is taught, to some degree in schools but particularly in universities and on many courses in specialist theatre training institutions, has changed rapidly and radically in the past few years. Broadly speaking there are two reasons for this: one, the generation who started going to the theatre in the late 80s and grew up with the non-traditional theatre models of Complicite or Forced Entertainment are now of the age where they're not just delivering but actually designing these degree courses; two, work in these areas of theatre tends more often to arise out of an exploratory, questioning attitude, one that rejects or is anxious about orthodoxies -- and it therefore comes with a sort of built-in availability to strong educational and pedagogical processes. As the phrase "well-made play" implies, form for playwrights is secondary to content, in other words it's there to serve the content and set it up to its best advantage; this is precisely how it comes about that it's possible to tip the content of The History Boys into different containers and, though some modification is of course required, the essence of the piece remains the same, its qualities, its 'message' (if it will own up to having one, or many). In the work that the university theatre departments now favour, the medium is once again the message, and the question of what the theatre experience is, or can or could be, takes precedence over the surface detail of who says what to whom on what topic. (What's galling for the old guard playwrights is that this work is not simply the province of the academy; lay audiences flock to Lepage, to Shunt, to Stan Won't Dance, and find there a rich variety of pleasures and challenges.)

It seems to me, from the direct experience that I've had, that maybe half of all graduate and post-graduate theatre-makers coming about now into the industry take the methodologies and critical underpinnings of non-traditional theatre as read. It would no more occur to them to accept the Albee model of theatrical creation than it would to light their stuff with oil lamps or cast Beerbohm Tree in it. (Actually, the oil lamps they might quite fancy.) In a strict sense, some of this is worrying -- I suspect 'devising' is now too often an eight-week module with its own gradually ossifying orthodoxies, and we might be needing to clear that mess up in fifteen years time. But what it means now is a substantial shift in the expectations of younger audiences; it may not be a permanent shift in the culture, but it's permanent in those people, and they're going to be around for a while yet.

So: these two things, the disproportionate cultural saliency of non-traditional work, and the emphasis on that work in the encounters that younger audiences and emerging artists have with theatre as a whole, tend to unbalance perceptions on both sides of the fence. And of course both of these trends feed back into commissioning rounds and the operations of support and advocacy networks within and between institutions.

This is as fair and balanced (to borrow a phrase) as I think I can be about the cause of the "slight sense" of perturbation in the Encore ranks and the unappealing distemper of Albee, who, to be fair, has worked hard to develop and refine his own craft and become a playwright of some distinction -- by which I mean, it's a long road from Zoo Story to The Goat but you can usually tell it's him. (I'll take Zoo Story, thanks, and actually, that's it.) But he makes plays: not theatre, which is something completely else, and which he apparently cannot comprehend.

But I should be a bit more careful to say exactly what I'm getting at. I don't particularly mind what playwrights do, how and where and when they work; if they believe they get good results by writing alone, for 'characters' in their imaginations rather than for people they already know and talk to, then that's fine. I prefer to work among people, actors in particular, and to draw on what they have to offer: I'd rather have my writing emerge out of a conversation between many voices, partly because I think richer and more complex work emerges that way and I think those things, richness and complexity, are themselves distinctively theatrical qualities. But then I'm always writing for theatre, not writing a play. I also prefer to work in collaborative ways and in collective settings because I spend so much of my life in those sorts of working environments -- theatre is to me as Second Life has become to some other poor saps -- and if I get to help invent the terms and conditions of those working and living environments then I'd prefer them to resemble the sort of society I'd rather be living in, rather than making them in the image of the society I want to use theatre to examine and critique. But that's a personal commitment, and good results can certainly come through other set-ups.

It's easy for me to say because I generally direct my own writing, but the fundamental point is this: that at the moment that the playwright (I mean very specifically the writer of plays) hands over his play text to the director, he is handing it over to be broken. A good director will understand that this is traumatic and will behave accordingly, soothingly and reassuringly like a good mohel or a decent undertaker. But the play has to be broken in order to become available for theatre use, because the play is closed and theatre (properly) is open. What do I mean by closed and open here? The actual connotations of 'play' within the word 'play' as in 'play-text' have become a bit invisible, but they're there. A play is a little cell of fiction, secluded and complete (for all that it might treat of topical themes). As such it is a game, an ironic procedure, unable to sustain consequences outside of itself: the dead of the piece get up and bow, and even if on some self-consciously avant garde whim they carry on playing dead, we know it is still in play, because it's still in a play. For the play to be made into theatre, that closure has somehow to be breached. Some playwrights know this instinctively and will try to do it themselves, but very often will make the mistake of trying to do it at the level of content, by 'sharpening' it: use spiky realism or jagged sensationalism to skewer the bubble; but the bubble is a formal one, and to try to break it with content is like trying to untie a knot by swearing at it -- it makes you feel better but it doesn't get the job done.

The formal problem, on the other hand, can be solved only when the play is configured so that its form is compatible with the terms and conditions of theatre: when those distinctive qualities that we associate with theatre are allowed, if not to occupy, then at least to touch, at one point or along one surface, the secluded area of the play. The best -- the least traumatising -- solution is to write for theatre in the first place, to write from the get-go in a way that allows for, and ideally fosters and enjoys, liveness and contingency and unpredictability and ephemerality and, above all, the turbulence of the travel between stage and audience. You can still write articulately, beautifully, rigorously, with all the craft and attention to detail that your literary talent encompasses; none of that is prohibited. If you're determined to be the sole author of what is spoken in the room, so be it. (I'm about to do that with Speed Death, for a change; there is neither disgrace nor dishonour in it, necessarily.) All of that is possible in writing for theatre. It's just that what you end up with then probably won't be publishable in a perfect-bound Nick Hern paperback for sale at the usual outlets. The way some of my texts have ended up over the years, loose-leaf nightmares of scraps and diagrams and lists and images and smudgy xeroxed journal entries, would remind anyone of what Wittgenstein said about how if animals could talk we wouldn't understand what they were saying.

If that's too frightening -- why should it be?, but if it is -- then here are the only other options. Carry on writing plays, give them to directors whose approach you find congenial, and consent wholeheartedly to the necessary breakage. Carry on writing plays, and publish them without them being produced; this is not much different to writing novels, admittedly, but then, that's the contract you're offering. Or carry on writing plays and direct them yourself. You'll either fail to let go of the writing function, and create wretched stillborn non-theatre; or you'll break everything left right and centre, and conceivably have a ball doing it. Whatever route you take (and we can be sure that Albee will take none of them), one thing remains true. The director's fidelity is to the demands of theatre, not to the demands of the playwright; indeed, once the director has the text in her hands, there is no playwright. There is only theatre. The playwright in the rehearsal room is utterly and irretrievably fallacious. -- Or I suppose, there is one final option, the Albee-friendly option: continue to insist on whatever confused and superstitious model of theatre it is that's got you this far, the self-burning effigy that keeps on winning you those Pulitzers. Fret not, dear fellow, there's still plenty more of you than there are of us, and apparently we're already facing the backlash, as announced by Encore.

...The vitally important epilogue to this, though, is to remind everybody that there is as much untheatrical work on 'my' side of the fence as there is on Albee's. Devisors and, Lord knows, physical theatre practitioners can be just as self-deluding in their insistence on total control, repeatability, predictability, and so on. On this side, for 'play' read 'performance'. At least the deception is less complicated in physical theatre, as it doesn't depend on the further idiocy that most plays do -- the dismally unexamined notion that language is merely a window through which 'characters' may be viewed going about their business: with perhaps some overlay of 'style' by which the playwright's own voice may be identified and hailed in the service of the Individual Genius industry.

So don't imagine that the work that is routinely called (or calls itself) 'experimental theatre' is immune to such hidebound and defeatist anti-theatrical behaviours; don't for a second believe the apparent 'conservative vs. radical' faultlines. Only this week, Tim Etchells was apparently in town (at the second of the Siobhan Davies events I was talking about last time), describing his and Forced Entertainment's continued devotion to the idea of failure, and the amount of work and time and attention that goes in to making FE's on-stage "performance" of "failure" precise and repeatable and predictable. This is particularly exasperating because it's so close to being useful. For nearly ten years now I've been droning on about the vital importance of failure in theatre; but FE and its attendant failure fans, Adrian Heathfield and Matthew Goulish [both excellent persons, btw] and the like, make exactly the same reactionary category error as Albee. The creative fertility of failure inheres in the medium of theatre, the noise that distorts and displaces the signal and opens out the theatre experience by a thousand times, the failure that at once falls short of and exceeds the frames of performance and virtuosity. This is something fundamentally different to Etchells's project. Making work that is about these failures (while covertly trying to minimise them) is an abject dereliction of the possibilities for actual consequentiality in work that admits and discloses and is shaped by failure, theatre's perpetually breaking heart. FE's fetishistic mimicry of failure is the equal and opposite stigma of the BAC Scratch format's totemic simulation of risk. Forced Entertainment are brilliant and have been important (and Etchells in particular is, or was, one of the best theatre-writers of the past two decades): but if theatre now had its Guy Fawkes, I would want to send him not into the vicious nullity of the West End or the brooding grey conundrums of the big subsidised houses, but up the M1 to Sheffield, where, if I'm allowed to colour in this fantasy in a bit more detail, Forced Ents would be rehearsing for a revival of Showtime, and in would come Mr Fawkes with a real bomb strapped to his chest. I don't wish any of them any bodily harm, I just would like them to have to talk him out of it.

And before anybody asks, yes, I have just seen Tim Crouch's utterly brilliant An Oak Tree for the first time, and yes, it does (sort of appear to) say everything I've just said but in a third of the time and with five times the eloquence; fantastically good writing for theatre -- ...and yes, I did buy a copy of the very nicely formatted Oberon play text.

OK, rant over. Partly I'm warming up for Tuesday, when I (finally) get to give the paper to the graduate seminar at Central that I should have done in November and missed due to an appalling administrative failure here at Thompson Towers. I can't quite remember now what I intended to say before, but anyway this time out it's basically the above rant threaded around some ideas about the misuse of 'liminality' as a word and concept in performance studies. Except last night (sorry, this is the Jimmy Stewart thing all over again) I dreamt I turned up to Central and the graduate seminar turned out actually to be a hairdressing demonstration.

Which further reminds me, as a p.s. to my previous post:

Becoming Jane, cert. PG. "Contains mild sex references and scenes of boxing."

All together now: if I want that, I can get it at home.

Right-o, it's past my bedtime. But as the 38th Governor of California taught us to say: Albee back.

1 comment:

George Hunka said...

Well. Response -- and with luck, more witfully -- here.