That "entertainment" word ~ theatre notes

Monday, December 18, 2006

That "entertainment" word

Prompted in part by a glum viewing of the Short & Sweet website, our favourite New York tragedian George Hunka lets rip on the commodification of theatre as mere "entertainment", which he calls "the new Fascism".

To say that every theatrical production must have an element of "fun" or spass, and then to drag Shakespeare and Brecht and Beckett and Bernhard and others down to our own professional purposes, in support of our own need to be distracted (Attention Deficit Disorder our psychic Black Plague: the iPodization of experience), is to befoul their work, disavow their pain. To take part in the entertainment culture. To paste over the tragic wound that the Art of Theatre can best present, to try to stop the gore with a designer Band-Aid ("Helps make healing fun!"), through which blood and pus continue to seep regardless.

Designer Lucas Krech points out that, nevertheless, play is an essential part of theatre, and that it needn't be synonymous - can in fact be resistant to - crass commercialisation.

George, it seems, is struggling against mindless commercial entertainment. The kind of fluff that does nothing more than causes small green rectangular pieces of paper to change hands quickly. But there is another kind of fun, a powerful and transformative type of play that could get lost were one to simply disregard the whole and focus only on the void. That fun is the kind that acts in counterpoint to tragedy and suffering. A kind of divine play. This is the morbid humor of the gatekeeper in MacBeth or the pathetic antics of Vladamir and Estragon. This kind of desperate humor is necessary in the midst of a world filled with so much suffering.

I agree with Lucas. The tragic and the comic can be equally profound, and they are equally cheapened by the mass culture anaesthetisations that George identifies here. Trevor Griffiths' brilliant play Comedians, for example, has a good look at these distinctions.

Meanwhile, speaking of grim things, Sydney actor William Zappa has started a blog, Acting for the Planet, which aims to be a locus for discussion among performing arts types about climate change. He kicks off with a serious question about the connections between the advertising industry - where most actors earn their bread and butter - consumerism and climate change. Check it out.


TimT said...

'Tragic wound'?

George sounds like an intellectual and philosophical masochist. (Oh yay, bring on the tragic wounds... that sounds fun!)

His line about crass commercialism is a bit hoary and cliched, too. I don't mind most of the effects of commercialism, and some of the effects can actually be quite positive - think of the manner in which shows like 'The Simpsons' or even 'The Chaser' accommodate themselves to the 'commercial' form for their own purposes.

A cranky reaction on my part, perhaps, though I'm sure that George's post in itself is deliberately reactionary (just trying to carve out his own territory). But really! I can't understand how anyone would seriously see an alternative to the leisure culture. Leisure is nice! Please, may I have some more leisure?

Alison Croggon said...

George reads too much Schopenhauer (don't you, George?) But we love him all the same and sometimes even agree with him.

Anonymous said...

All philosophy is somehow a response to masochism somewhere timt, else why bother? Without some feeling or encounter or strangeness or pain where's your starter?

There's music and then there's musak. There's hard art and there's leisure art. There's late goya (the sinking dog in the quicksand) and then there's matisse (the comfy chair in the sun). of course it's more complicated than this, as it always is, for example there's someone like warhol who is a comfy chair in ikea in the sun ALL DAY.

But then, I don't think that most art is in fact leisure at all, even though it masquerades as such with it's keyrings and coffee shops. Art is too hard, it wants rupture, it wants questions and difficulties. It is a different thinking. The fact that this shifting ocean on occasion bouys us giddy to the surface, gasping for air and flushed with pleasure is what keeps us in it. It's fun for a moment, then hard hard work. It's relief from drowning. I like it but it leaves me knackered.

Anyway enough of that bollocks, s & S isn't entertainment or leisure, or even theatre, it's sport, plain and simple. Teams, routines, rules, judges, stopwatches, groups of spectators cheering on thier clan. It's a different kind of tiring. We hated it, we felt used and kind of spat out after it. The structure is so rock estedford as to be patronising, limiting and insulting. blearquch!

I hate sport.

i'll withhold who i am because i was in it last year and this is a small city sometimes.

TimT said...

There's music and there's muzak and there's Michael Moorcock.

Interesting response, anonymous, but I don't think it really encompasses the sublime joy I get from reading James Thurber, or Edmund Spenser, or from listening to J S Bach. You want rupture? Never, ever listen to Bach's Prelude in C Major.

Anonymous said...

i tried but i fell asleep

Alison Croggon said...

I'm personally rather fond of Matisse - that beautiful line, that has been so execrably copied in thousands of Catholic handbooks and turned into cliche; but that line still resonates. Those gorgeous books he did for Mallarme. He gives decorative art a good name. But he can't paint a crucifixion to save himself. It was quite a lesson looking at his work. Alexander Calder has a beautiful lightness in his work - "great elusive Nature, squandering pollen and abruptly causing a thousand butterflies to take wing", as Sartre said. There is a place for lightness in art. But that pleasure doesn't come through passive consumption: you still have to enter it, let it wake you up. Consciousness can be painful. (Personally, I think consciousness is fundamentally tragic, but that's another question).

Depends what you mean by leisure, I suppose. I think of tanning studios, for some reason, which for some reason represent for me one of the circles of hell.

TimT said...

You never know. Bach's Goldberg variations - which can be sublime, too - were written on commission for an insomniac king who wanted restful nighttime pieces. The opening to those pieces does have a somnolescent, nocturnal feel - it's almost like a dream of God, a sublimity that has been muffled, and hums rather than sings. There are other famous 'nighttime' pieces; Vaughan Williams dreamed many of his works, and Paul McCartney's famous song 'Yesterday' was a waking dream. It would be interesting to see a history of those works. So I don't know if art requires you to be active, or even conscious - just open and willing.

(I sometimes tend to reference music in these discussions because at uni, when I was introduced to many of these ideas, I majored in music).

Alison Croggon said...

One of the best concerts I have been to was a performance of the Goldberg Variations by the Russian pianist Sergey Schepkin at LACMA in LA. It kept me very much awake, I can tell you. But you seem to be speaking about waking dreams, which are a part of consciousness art very much accesses...

George Hunka said...

Gould's Goldberg Variations invite you into the interior of this music, as I experience his performances, which are far from tranquilizing themselves.

Before I'm thoroughly considered a spoilsport, let me say that I enjoy comedies as much as anybody else, the more subversive the better. I'm no great fan of Orton (all that shameless dramaturgical mugging), but one of the great American stage comedies of the same period was Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, a tremendously funny and occasionally even lyrical piece of work (see Alfred's two monologues in the first act), shocking and, speaking from the perspective of the 21st century, far more subversive even now. I hope, before some AD, looking for a 1960s comedy, schedules an umpteenth revival of Loot or Entertaining Mr. Sloane, they do at least read Little Murders.

George Hunka said...

(Or watch it. The play's out of print, but Alan Arkin's 1971 film is on DVD in most regions. And a stellar cast: Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson and Mr. Arkin himself in peak form.)

Alison Croggon said...

I'm with you on Little Murders. Oddly, we have a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane coming up (I'm looking forward to it) but to be fair to AD Mr Phillips, I do seem to remember that he did Little Murders quite a while back.

But do we really have to prove that we have a sense of humour whenever we say that art is a serious business? I mean, like Woody Allen said, comedy is pain plus time. It's not like laughter is necessarily an escape. Often the reverse.

Can't we just be serious sometimes? Because art is a serious business. And it is hard. It demands attention in a world which does not reward that kind of attention. And it's exhilarating. And frustrating. And stubborn. And everything else it is. Let's not apologise for that. I take all my apologies back.

George Hunka said...


Just to prove I'm not entirely down on Orton either, I wish somebody, somebody would do a good production of What the Butler Saw. Just once. It's Orton's most demanding play (and most precise in its targets) and needs a nice big well-equipped theatre. But it's his least produced (probably for that reason).

TimT said...

Hey, it was anon who bought up the issue of the narcoleptic effects of Bach!

I saw productions of both Orton and Feiffer by the Newcastle Repertory Company some years back. Orton was bad enough, but the Feiffer completely failed to connect; the first half was completely dominated by a monologue that was not in itself particularly interesting.

Anonymous said...

And I wasn't dissing matisse either. my main point, which seems to have drifted by without comment is that S & S is literally a sporting contest, not like one, it IS one. It should be covered on sports tonight or shown on espn or something.

Alison Croggon said...

I seem to remember through the fog of time that Simon Phillips' production of Feiffer - many years ago - was pretty fun. (I'm not even sure it was that play - reasonably sure - I seem to recall it was at the Russell St Theatre, which makes it a long time ago).

Sorry Anon, got distracted there. I didn't mean to ignore your point, which is well made (I thought of Theatresports myself). Except that sport (I am a very dilettante sports fan) is, on the whole, much more interesting.

Anonymous said...

Re art: satyam shivam sundaram

Truth (Satya) is God (Shiv) is Beautiful (Sundar)

Quite correct about Little Murders, Alison. February 1989 at Russell Street. (Even had a revolve!) Gerry Connolly, Bev Dunn, Pamela Rabe, Kevin Harrington, Peter Cummins. Simon directed an unusually controlled production.

The film is, as George says, bloody brilliant. Gould is stunning. But, for god's sake, don't watch it on DVD. It has to be experienced in a cinema (if possible) with a crowd. It builds up a mass hysteria I have never encountered in a cinema, before or since.

Chris Boyd

P.S. Still having same problem with Beta Blocker. Tried a couple of browsers. I suspect Google is getting narky. If you don't upgrade to Beta, you can't play. Fuck em.

Alison Croggon said...

Wow, Mr Boyd - mind like a rat trap! Or a particularly well-organised filing system? (Same thing, I suppose...)

Sorry about the beta blocker. You could always do my trick and set up a secret beta blog to try out before you upgrade. It saved me a week of headaches, even given the headaches I had.

Anonymous said...

Good suggestion re pre-ugrade path. (I could have a series of alter-egos... altered egos even!)

As for the rat trap... I live in a three bedroom filing cabinet.


william zappa said...

Just adding into the debate about comedy and the other stuff. If you look at the ancient Greeks, for example, there's not much left in the way of comedy, probably because not much was written. That Mr Shakespeare managed a handfull, but he did have the gift of sticking some funny bits inside the serious stuff.

It's not suprising really that most theatre is 'serious'? Humans are serious, (seriously fucked, some would say) and it may be that the world has become Soooooo hard to deal with that people need 'escape' more than 'explanation' or thoughtful or touching or moving. Hm..... The Movies, take me to the movies!

william zappa said...

Alison, thanks for mentioning my blog.