The issue of "issues" ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The issue of "issues"

A bonus for all you happy readers: Victoria Chance from Currency Press has a special offer to TN readers: if you order Power Plays online before Monday (click here) and write "Theatre Notes" in the comment box, you'll get a 20 per cent discount when the order is processed. Note that the discount won't appear until the order is processed but, Victoria assures us, "we will do it".

Ms TN is surprisingly well after an intense three weeks of theatre. I put this down largely to having severely edited my diary so that I was only doing one thing. Next month I'm back to wearing three hats (I have to do the rewrite on my novel) but I'm beginning to see the point of a singly-focused life. Not that I seem very capable of it.

But today, swimming out of the post-fest haze, comes Corrie Perkin's preview of Hilary Glow's book Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda in the Australian. (Reviewed in Eureka Street here too: link via Ben Ellis, one of the playwrights discussed in the book, who also include Stephen Sewell, Hannie Rayson, Wesley Enoch and Patricia Cornelius).

The book is on my to-read list, so I can't comment on its substance. But a couple of Glow's comments made me pause. She says that under the Howard Government, theatre companies have been forced to adopt a more conservative repertoire and avoid risk. "I think there has been a change," says Glow, of the past few years. "And it's a change in which it's harder for critically adventurous work, challenging work, to emerge."

There is most certainly a truth in this - I've recently criticised the MTC for its conservative repertoire, which to me appears to emerge precisely from various kinds of risk avoidance. But equally, fresh out of a festival notable for its adventure and challenge, and packed with profoundly political works, ranging from Laurie Anderson's Homeland to Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead to Jérôme Bel's anti-spectacle The Show Must Go On, it strikes me that this is a very partial view. On the contrary, in many places I'm picking up an increasing political thoughtfulness, an increasing engagement with contemporary issues, an increasing sense of urgency among artists to connect, to speak, to make.

What's shifted is the idea that theatre is primarily a socio-political document, and primarily the home of naturalism. The focus has moved from issue-based plays to a more multivalent awareness that representation itself, in this media-saturated world, is a deeply political issue, and that it is not nearly enough merely to state the issues. You can see this awareness, to cite a few examples among many, in productions like Stephen Page's Kin or Nigel Jamieson's Honour Bound, both on at the Malthouse, or in independently produced plays like Hélène Cixous's The Perjured City, or Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur. All of them wholly engaged political works which certainly meet the benchmarks of adventure and challenge.

Criticising the controversial Behzti by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, British critic/blogger Andrew Haydon recently observed: "Plays which 'expose secret, seedy worlds' in my experience often do so at the expense of pretty much anything else that might make a play watchable or indeed, uh, theatrical...The whole play would have sunk utterly without trace were it not for the disgrace of its being rioted off stage." He goes on to comment of "issue-based" plays:

...writers frequently appear to be encouraged to produce what amounts to emotional pornography - moreover: authentic, “urban” or exotic emotional pornography. And lastly, and worse, they appear to be encouraged to do this in a very narrow, restrictive, shallow sort of naturalism, which utterly refuses any use of language, metaphor, or most of the other things that actually make theatre vital.

I'm all for conversation, for art being on the public agenda. But as I said in my review of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, "political writing, if it is to mean anything, has to reach both higher and lower than the banalities of ideology". That means, among other things, an attention to the form of theatre itself, and not regarding it as simply a vessel into which are poured various worthwhile messages.

Puzzling over the claim that theatre is less political, when it is so manifestly not the case, I suspect that this shift away from naturalistic issue-based plays is the change that Glow notes, and mistakes for a lack of political engagement. And while Glow's book includes a variety of writers, many of whom I admire, it has to be said that some of them have given me the most boring nights I've ever spent in the theatre.


penelope plummer said...

It's funny, isn't it, how 'political' in theatre seems to always refer to content, but not form?

Abe Pogos said...

I remember Trevor Griffiths - an overtly political playwright in the sense that much of his work was issue-based - was the keynote speaker at an Australian National Playwrights Conference in the early eighties. The theme was political theatre. He stated that the most political playwright in Britain was Samuel Beckett because "he was preparing us for the bomb". And that the second most political playwright was Harold Pinter.

By the limited parameters of Hilary Glow's definition of political theatre one would have to assume that had they been Australian, neither would've got an interview in her book.

Perhaps that might explain why Daniel Keene was overlooked.

George Hunka said...

There have been some minor blogospheric skirmishes here in the US about political theatre recently, first over a Charles Isherwood column in the New York Times and then more recently David Cote's notes on political theatre on his blog. There's a reluctance to admit that truly political innovation requires an innovation and revolution in formal structures of human experience as well; a seeming political progressivism is tied to a conservatism in aesthetics which too often leads to condescension to the audience to which it preaches.

For what it's worth, Richard Foreman considers himself a profoundly political playwright, and as anti-ideological as he is, Barker's profoundly political as well. Perhaps a play which refuses to wear its politics on his sleeve isn't considered political enough by progressive movements. It's an odd thing, to favor blunt force trauma over the insidious conspiracy that theatre is best at.

Do you know Griffiths' Comedians, Abe? It's a fine piece of work.

Abe Pogos said...

Hi George (and welcome back),

When Griffiths was at the ANPC they screened the TV production of "Comedians". I thought it was stunning and probably the highlight of the conference.

It was made during a golden age in British TV, the late 70's to the late 80's, (an era that produced Pennies from Heaven, Boys from the Blackstuff and Edge of Darkness) when TV looked like it would be the preferred medium for serious political drama. I think those expectations have been dashed for a while now.

George Hunka said...

Interesting too how that play encapsulates the same issues we're talking about here: the entire second act is an examination of the traditional forms of stand-up comedy; Gethin's routine, which closes the act, needs to stretch the bounds of traditional comedic forms to enclose its political insight. Fascinating piece of work, that.

Andrew Field said...

Yes, yes and yes.

I think also this notion of a politics of form (or, an awareness that how we speak is as politicised as what we say) can and should be extended also to the sites in which theatre happens.

For example, I went to see a dynamic and formally radical piece by The Wooster Group at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Problem is that the show either required you to be a) Either a French person with an education that has meant you are fluent in English or an English speaker with the means to get to France and b) Aware of this very limited run and able to get to the centre of Paris to watch it.

And then of course there's the politics of the auditorium itself, which following any number of people from Brecht onwards we can interogate as being essentially bourgeois, conservative and anti-democratic. An environment designed for passivity, for voyerism, traditionally defined by an elitism that suggests that the more you pay the better or more complete view (as in - sightline, as in opinion) you will have of preceedings.

For these reasons those shows that deconstruct this spectacting tradition, and hence the audience that conditions it, are implicitly carrying out a political act whether they're criticising the Iraq war or not.

Andrew Field said...

Ooops...that last bit should read:

"and hence the audience that is conditioned by it"

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Abe and hi George - I heroically didn't mention Daniel, but surely he's a major oversight if you're considering Australian political theatre. And even if his work has been more present in Europe than Australia, there was all the KTTP work (14 seasons of it, I think, with seasons at the Playbox and the Sydney Opera House) in the late 90s/early 2000s (even if so egregiously mis-described by Radic in his book as "the politics of caring", excuse me while I gag).

To be fair to Hilary Glow, I haven't read the book and am only speculating on her comments. Her selection process is on the Currency website: "I contacted the Artistic Directors of the seven state-based mainstream theatres funded through the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Board, and five of them agreed to be interviewed. I asked them to nominate those playwrights whom they felt had a current national profile with major, politically-informed plays produced over the past decade. From that list I then selected the writers who were mentioned by more than one of the Artistic Directors."

And I'm deducing her definition of politics from her headlining of Rayson and Sewell as exemplary political playwrights. From what I've seen, I don't think Wesley Enoch, for example, is in anything like that sort of territory.

I saw Comedians on tv in England when I was about 16. I think it was a formative experience: I never forgot Jonathan Price in that night club, pinning a brooch onto the bleeding mannequin. It was years before I discovered who wrote it, because I never knew the name of it (I missed the beginning). It's an amazing play.

Hi Andrew, there are any number of ways of interrogating the politics of watching. From where I'm looking, it's a preoccupation that seems fairly deeply embedded in contemporary theatre practice here.

Alison Croggon said...

To be fair again, I ought to post Glow's explanation of what she considers a political play.

"In my book I’ve looked at plays which have an over-riding interest in investigating the world of ideas, and the way those ideas impact on us and our beliefs. It is difficult to come up with a categoric definition of political theatre partly because it is a subjective matter: what is political to me may be innocuous to you, and vice versa. We have also become inured to the idea that the personal is political and this has come to mean that everything is political. But as I considered the recent work of a range of playwrights, it made sense to draw a line in the sand on this matter. Terry Eagleton says that ‘political’ work is that which refers to the processes of legitimating or challenging systems of power. So I have focused on plays which not only explore current social, economic and cultural issues (race and racism, history and identity, class and globalisation for example) but also demonstrate a quality of critical engagement with these subjects. I am not suggesting for a minute that ‘political’ plays are simply catalogues of worthy ‘topics’ – in fact the opposite is true. I argue that some of the most exciting plays we have seen in our theatres over the past ten years are those plays which have told powerful and dramatic stories of political struggle. These are plays which challenge systems of power and see politics as a struggle over ideas – ideas which define our values."

Which does seem to sideline Beckett. Odd though that someone interested in critiquing processes of legitimation should have begun her search (and seemingly limited it) by consulting State theatre companies.

Abe Pogos said...

I think someone needs to produce a companion edition to her book along the lines of "interviews with political theatre artists who are being ignored by State theatre companies". (You busy over the next year or so?)

Anonymous said...

Great discussion!

I couldn't agree more with the need to insist that our form is as, if not more, as politically potent as our content. Augusto Boal's on the money for me in this regard. If our traditional forms just let us have a nice little vicarious protaganistic catharsis, then we're let off the hook - and nothing needs to be challenged - the resolved form has done it for us. (Or even an unresolved story within those structures that suggest that nothing can be done, so one gives up.).

It's when the mechanics, the workings of both theatrical form, and therefore society, are consciously played with and exposed, that I can feel a sense of possibility. And, yes, like Andrew, I include the whole question about location, venue, style etc

Which is why I loved Dood Paard's Medeia (MIAF). Its form, performative language and style ripped away any expectations of my past Medea experiences. The chorus' experience is foregrounded, not being able to act, only to speak and "feel sad" - but I read that experience as one constructed by the political dynamics of the time (content) and by the performance style which is always about awareness, listening & thinking, not "acting" (form). It's identification is not with the protagonists, but with ourselves, the contemporary chorus to Laurie Anderson's "Bad Guys" and "experts". Which leads me to think of what democracy, born in Ancient Greece (and not for women and slaves) really is and isn't ... and so on.

And if a work makes me think and question (and not just feel), then that's definitely part of a "political" definition for mine.

Thanks for the thoughts all,

Catherine Ryan

Victoria Chance said...


As its publisher, I’m glad to see the book being the launching pad for this conversation. But you should be aware that Hilary deliberately sought out so-called ‘mainstream’ playwrights because she is looking at writers who want to influence the public agenda and who therefore seek the widest possible audience (and likely the most politically influential one too). And, as she points out in her book, when writers choose to work within the mainstream ‘it brings with it a corresponding set of choices to favour the formal elements of naturalism such as a unified narrative, psychologically plausible characters and emotional engagement – all hallmarks of conventional mainstream theatre writing and production’. They need to do that to get produced in the first place. For their part, the major companies are forced by economic constraints to focus on the commercial viability of productions and this makes them increasingly disinclined to stage risky work. They need those (upper) middle-class bums on seats. Seems to me when you’re blaming Hilary for a narrow definition, you’re ignoring the larger problem. But go read the book. In fact, if you buy one from our website before Monday, and put ‘Theatre Notes’ in the comment box, we’ll give you a 20% discount when we process the order. (NB it won’t appear until we process the order, but we will do it).

Alison Croggon said...

Lovely comments on MedEia, Catherine. Did you see Titus? A different experience, but equally resonant, I thought.

Hi Victoria - Thanks very much for the offer - having brought this up I do intend to buy and discuss the actual book. Unfortunately, I don't possess a credit card: so I will have to go through more conventional channels (a bookshop). As I hope everyone else here does, too. Buy it, I mean, by whatever means.

As I said above, I can quite see that there's a basis for arguing the problematic conservatism in a lot of mainstage - and other - programming. What Glow says is utterly fair, for example, about the MTC. I'm wondering though about the assumptions about "mainstream" here. Surely the book is kind of self-fulfilling in accepting those assumed limitations? I ask because, for example, the STC has been hosting things like Howard Barker's Victory, or Kosky's The Lost Echo (my grinding regret that I missed it only increases with time) and even Benedict Andrews's production of The Season at Sarsaparilla - which I did see - critiqued modes of perception in its design and direction. And the politics in next year's STC program is quite difficult to escape, although at least a third of it eschews the naturalistic model of "unified narrative, psychologically plausible characters and emotional engagement" (although I always hope for emotional engagement). Which at the least brings into question the idea that those formal choices have to be observed in order to be programmed. And if you look at the theatre companies supported by the Major Performing Arts Board, they include the Malthouse and Company B, as well as Bell Shakespeare and all the State companies. So by that definition, they're surely mainstream? And surely the Melbourne Festival is mainstream too? And they reach beyond the model of naturalism as well.

The examples I've noted seem to me to be quite noticeable eruptions of political critique - in the larger sense that people have been discussing here - in mainstream venues that, yes, absolutely have to get those bums on seats, but are still exploring this kind of work. Isn't part of this discussion that the parameters of the "mainstream" has noticeably been changing over the past few years?

Anonymous said...

I've been following all the debate about state theatre company programming of late and the bashing stc and mtc are getting, which to be honest kind of scares me. Why so much hate - and mostly about things that haven't occured yet - the MTC 2008 season and that Upton guy and whats-her-name - his wife.

Maybe the press should give them up there in sydney and the 2008 season in Melbourne a chance before casting such negative and possibly damaging judgement in the mainstream media.

Alison Croggon said...

Absolutely fair comment, Anon #32543. (I don't think I've ever had so many anons in a thread, except when the right wing nutcases discovered my blog - no reflection on anons here, I add hastily). Yes, of course we can't know until we actually see the work. Still, the program is the fragrance before the feast, and is there to provoke appetite. So speculative comment is perfectly fair, I think.

Alison Croggon said...

...and I should add that speculative - or negative - comment isn't necessarily hate. It might even be love. Though some of the stuff thrown Blanchett and Nevin's way is a bit startling.

alexf said...

i always get a bit twitchy when the ol' form/content dichotomy rears its head. For me the two are so closely entwined as to make the distinction a murky one at best.

But surely the reason for attempting to discover new theatrical languages is to enable us to say things that we couldn't with the old? (with the proviso that a language here is more action than words and what we do when we make theatre isn't really "saying" at all).

Ben Ellis said...

Let's be fair. Having read the book myself (quite apart from having been interviewed for it) I think that Hilary's choices allow her arguments about politics and theatre to be focused. As in playwriting, you can't put everything into the one work and Hilary acknowledges in her introduction what she's not covering.

The book discusses at certain points work as diverse as Wogs Out of Work; White Baptist Abba Fan; and Scissors, Paper, Rock among the work discussed more in depth. I think that one of the achievements of the book is to suggest where more discussions lies. Am I being overly defensive to point out that the work sets out its own limits and sticks to them?

Alison Croggon said...

No, Ben, it's quitefair to say so. And I assure you that I will read this book and write about it (I feel obliged now). Really, this discussion opened out of Hilary Glow's observations, quoted in the paper, about theatre under Howard, and my feeling that they needed to be qualified. I didn't quite expect it to take off like this, but it demonstrates that something is quick inside these ideas and arguments.

Alex, I don't understand the bisection of form and content either, but it is done. Usually it means that something is dead, as usually happens when you cut something in half. :)

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Ben,

My quibble with Hilary that began near the top of this comments thread was mostly provoked by this quote attributed to her in the Corrie Perkins article:

"Some people think writing a play is just getting a couple of people you shove in a room, put a bit of dialogue between them and you've got a play.

"But these writers (the ones interviewed in her book) have looked to the world outside and attempted to bring into the dramatic moment a really powerful consideration of complex ideas about why the world is the way it is."

I felt she made a value judgement about form and content that I wanted to take issue with.

And that's why I used the examples of Pinter and Beckett, two playwrights who demonstrated that one doesn't need to look to the world outside the room to present "complex ideas about why the world is the way it is".

It may well be an excellent book, but I still feel it was fair enough to question (assuming she was quoted fully and in context) what she said in that interview. After all, it may well be that more people will read her interview than end up buying her book.

Alison Croggon said...

Assuming that someone is quoted "fully and in context" in a newspaper interview is a bit dodgy, Abe (though Corrie Perkin is a good reporter, unlike a certain Age journalist notorious for misquoting people). Even in the best circumstances, sense can be subbed into oblivion.

Ben Ellis said...

Hi Abe,

I really enjoy your point about Beckett and Pinter.

Re-reading the article feels like I'm reading the story of Perkins's response rather than Glow's ideas, with those quotations used to fit the story. (It's happened to me with a couple of journalists before, either to irritating or disastrous effect.)

But I'm not sure that Beckett and Pinter didn't look to the outside: what about One for the Road, Mountain Language, or Catastrophe? :)

Alison Croggon said...

The book is on its way. Watch this space. (I hope some of you are buying it, so we can have a proper discussion).

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Ben,

the notion of "looking to the outside" in the terms suggested in Perkins' article seems more about plays that spell out specific political issues and specific social agendas. That becomes part of the form of those plays so they could be described as agitprop (I don't mean to place a value judgement in using that term).

Pinter's and Beckett's seminal early work were written with a post Hiroshima, post holocaust consciousness, but those realities were never spelt out, nor was there any overt social purpose. My comments were more about those plays than the ones you mention.

I know Pinter himself called "One for the Road" agitprop, and I suspect he'd say the same about Mountain Language. In the case of Beckett’s Catastrophe however (which was dedicated to Vaclav Havel who was a political prisoner at the time) even if the purpose of writing the play was intended to raise people's awareness of political repression in authoritarian regimes, I’d still argue that the play as a work of art does not “look to the outside” in the terms implied in Perkins’ article.

The action in Catastrophe takes place between an actor, a director and his assistant in a theatre space. You could argue that Beckett makes a statement about repression by "looking to the inside" in a very extreme way.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest,and apologies for being obvious, that the interface between the"outside" and the "inside" is not as sharp a delineation as some masculinist discourse would have it.
It's a porous,contradictory and mercurial boundary and terrain which is often explored by what I would consider to be political theatre. Some privilege statements and the disemmination of ideas ,others the experience of the individual or an individual and so forth.Sometimes a complex integration of all.
All hopefully challenge in some way received wisdoms and ideologies which dominate our lives .It all has a social agenda,conscious or not,overt or implied.It all contains constructions of what an individual is too.The aesthetics of this work I think its fair to say generally reflect the discursive preferences of the makers and vice-versa but even this is surely not linear(I remember reading somewhere that Beckett at some point expressed regret that his aesthetic biases prevented him from engaging with more directly political questions?)
And when its really good it ammounts to so much more than any of this, a gestalt that cant necessarily be entirely rationalised.I guess thats what makes it art.
(sorry to be another anon-I dont want to be anonymous! but I cant get my head around the damn form)

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Eileen,

you said:

"the interface between the"outside" and the "inside" is not as sharp a delineation as some masculinist discourse would have it."

I wasn't trying to make that delineation, I felt that delineation was being implied in the interview between Perkins and Glow. I was in fact trying to take issue with it.

So I think we're basically in agreement (even if I am a bloke).

Anonymous said...

Hi Abe, sorry if my generalising sounded like I was taking a swipe at you-not intended at all-I didnt read it that you were making it black and white... even if you are a bloke!
Hopefully more to come of this discussion when we've all read the book heh.

Anonymous said...

You know what? I thought the comment about shoving two people in a room and giving them dialogue was a way of saying that it’s hard to write a good play. But I guess it can also mean that plays about ‘relationships’ in a way like, say, Joanna Murray-Smith’s plays are (not to criticise just to distinguish) are not essentially political. But I’m still a bit perplexed as to how it makes judgement about form and content. What am I missing?


Andrew Field said...

Can I just say, without wanting for s econd for this conversation to trail of into introspection, that this thread has been one of the most interesting and pleasurable I've read in a long time.

So nice to see an internet debate that is now approaching 30 comments without devolving into tetchiness and intractability.

Form vs content (like inside vs. outside) may be a problematic distinction but its one that must be confronted as the latter is so frequently valorised at the expense of the former, with the implicit assumption being that if ain't talking about politics nothing political is happening.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Angela - I guess it's how you're reading the comment in a wider context (a play that doesn't deal overtly with "relevant" or headline political issues is not a priori political - a pretty wide assumption you must admit in much playwriting and commentary). Equally, a play about "relationships" can equally be totally political. As with all things art, it's very difficult to generalise; in the end one has to speak of specific examples. Beckett does nothing except put people in a room (this room, now).

It seems to me that this conversation has sprung off Hilary Glow's book into a number of concerns people feel about contemporary theatre. Once we've read the book, we can talk about that as well...! If nothing else, it shows that politics is a locus of lively interest.