The Empire Strikes Back ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Empire Strikes Back

That monstrous crrrritic Ms TN gets a bit of what's coming to her in Crikey today. My spies tell me that Peter Craven has gone for the throat in a piece that attacks my recent overview of Joanna Murray-Smith's plays in the Australian. I have little to say in response: on the strength of what he says here, I expect Craven and I will never agree on what constitutes serious writing. But I will say that I thought my piece was in fact very fair: for instance, I clearly acknowledged Murray-Smith's achievements as well as my reservations about her writing.

Moreover, Craven himself has made a serious "category mistake": I was not asked to write a "profile", and neither did I "interview" Murray-Smith. I was asked to write a critical overview of the playwright, not a puff piece. And that is precisely what I did.

This is part of what Craven has to say:

It was astonishing to see the profile of Joanna Murray-Smith by Alison Croggon that was published in the Arts pages of The Australian on February 8. Croggon, the paper's Melbourne theatre critic, suggested that Murray-Smith (whose play, The Female of the Species, is being done in Brisbane) was a right-wing purveyor of soap, that her "anguish" was all a matter of upper-middle class aspirationalism, and that she was essentially a vapid, self-involved commercial hack who had turned her back on any form of artistic seriousness or political commitment -- Murray-Smith is the daughter of the left-wing intellectual and editor of Overland, Stephen Murray-Smith -- and that her comprehension of feminism (The Female of the Species plays on a famous incident where Germaine Greer was tied up by a young female intruder) was shallow and self-dramatising.

Murray-Smith's conflicts with Robyn Nevin, the former head of the Sydney Theatre Company, are presented as the real wellspring for her comedy's conflict between an older and a younger woman.

The overwhelming implication is that Murray-Smith is only concerned with motherhood issues in the pejorative sense because her work and her statements about it are so many walking cliches.

Croggon's piece is an odious piece of work and has caused widespread dismay. This so-called profile is an extraordinary case of poisoning the wells and it is also a category mistake. Alison Croggon has written a hatchet job opinion piece and served it up as a profile in a way that (if it were to set up a precedent) would make anyone apprehensive of an arts interviewer.

Reminds me of the good old days. Though I'd remind Craven there is plenty of precedent for this kind of thing. F'rinstance: Kenneth Tynan, Michael Billington, Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley...

One final point. In the fuller article, which gets a fair bit nastier - and is also wildly inaccurate insofar as my personal taste is concerned - Craven claims: "Alison Croggon can't stop herself from saying that the Australian playwright who vies with Joanna Murray-Smith in terms of how much his work is performed overseas is her own husband, Daniel Keene." If he had a better memory, Craven would realise that factoid comes, almost word for word, from an MTC press release for Murray-Smith's play Ninety (sent out at the beginning of the 2008 season). I don't in fact know how the precise figures divide between the two playwrights. He uses this to suggest that my criticism of Murray-Smith's work wholly stems from a competitive and personal agenda.

(In retrospect, it might have been wiser to ring the Australia Council and get the precise figures. But it hardly seemed worth the trouble, and I had a deadline. It is a detail that has already been widely reported, is merely a straight fact and is hardly promoting Daniel's interests. I would personally add - in the nicest possible way - that to be at once a theatre critic and married to one of the more significant Australian playwrights is more of a pain in the arse than anything else, since anyone who wants to smear your motives has a faecal missile ready to hand. In such moments, I remember that I am an artist first and a critic second, and that I am interested in the art of theatre, not its tawdry politics.)

And I reject Craven's insinuations absolutely. It's not personal, Peter: it's business. At least in this neck of the woods.

22 comments:

Tom W said...

Your post title says it all Alison. I almost thought this one was going to pass without retribution!

Chris Boyd said...

There's no doubt about it, you're a minx. (The word verification on the comment box says so in bold bloody resolute red!)

Murray-Smith... [is] a right-wing purveyor of soap, that her "anguish" [is] all a matter of upper-middle class aspirationalism, and that she [is] essentially a vapid, self-involved commercial hack who had turned her back on any form of artistic seriousness or political commitment...

This quotation reminds me of a comedy sketch where the defender of the reputation of the abused actually magnifies and sharpens the criticism. I'm sure you weren't anywhere near so crrrritical.

And, if memory serves, you were a thorn in Joanna's side long before Mr Keene came on the scene. :-)

TimT said...

Craven's a pompous old windbag who gets too much space in the MSM. It's mildly amusing to see him getting his dander up about your piece in the Oz, so for that, a hearty congratulations, Ms Croggon.

BTW, saw Tartuffe last night and enjoyed it, and will probably link to your piece tonight with some non-serious musings of my own.

Alison Croggon said...

Correctly remembered, Mr Boyd. And tut tut, TimT: heaven forbid that any such sentiment pass my prim lips.

I realise of course that in sticking my neck out, I'm exposing it to any hatchets that happen to be around, but I'm a big girl and can take it on the chin. As it were. I suppose what always gets me is that, in the scheme of things, I am hardly an iconoclast. In some parts of the world, it takes so very little to rock the boat. Or at least, the dinghy.

enthusiast said...

Did Craven and I read the same piece? I thought you were incredibly generous to JMS, and allowed some of her more bizarre conspiracy remarks to go unchallenged. The fact that some very good actresses have appeared in "Honour" says more about the dearth of good roles for women over fifty than it does about the quality of her play. If Craven's going to play the hubby card, is it not fair for you to mention the rails run JMS gets in "The Age" (the leader of the attack against the STC on her behalf) and her own spousal connection?

Alison Croggon said...

It would be fair game, Enthusiast... and certainly it's the kind of thing that makes me think of Moliere's comments about hypocrisy. But I'd rather not stoop to such tactics myself. Excelsior!

Anonymous said...

Where does Ray Gill work these days?

Alison Croggon said...

Actually, waking up this morning, what insults me most of all about these kind of attacks is how said attackers impugn you with what you can only assume are their own tawdry motives. Perhaps because they can't imagine any others, like being interested in art or something. (Who'd be interested in art?)

It might have been stimulating, for instance, if Craven - being a literary critic and all that and presumably not short of an argument - had taken issue with what I had said, rather than who I am - eg, showing how JMS's plays and ideas are not the kinds of things I claimed they were. In fact, he seems to agree that they are, but that I ought to show more respect to famous British people like Trevor Nunn. Yes, guys, the cringe is alive and well and slouching around Melbourne. On the other hand, I have it on Craven's own authority that he never reads plays, because he doesn't consider them proper literature.

Anonymous said...

But Craven would never actually engage with the debate about the work - and that's what the real problem is in the critical culture in this country. You apparently had the gall to imply that Murray-Smith's plays might have some shortcomings. Therefore you hate her, and she can't hang out with you and the cool kids at playtime. So now, Peter Craven will yell rude things at you. To which you are supposed to reply yeah? And so's your mum. Maybe it's that it's too small a community. Everyone knows everyone, so anything you say will be taken personally. Quite recently I and a colleague read an academic paper at a symposium suggesting that there might be some problems in the representation and mythology of the New Wave, only to find that a great deal of the reaction revolved around the apparent fact that we had been horrible and mean to the people involved in the New Wave. We were rude, it seems. Criticism is rude. Even measured, academic criticism is rude. Just as you have been rude to Murray-Smith. So now her friends will be rude to you. Until the theatre community - and the literary community, and I'm sure it's the same in the visual arts - can get past the food fight and deal with the work, we are, to be rude, screwed.

Jodi

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jodi - I do think that most people except the dinosaurs have got past the food fight. In any case, we are past them, arguing with each other and looking at the work. And it's much more fun here than there.

Freeman said...

Just read the piece.

Suffice to say: Ouch. I am glad not to be Joanna Murray-Smith as written of by Alison Croggon.

Troubador said...

Freeman,

we'll just be grateful that you're not another Joanna Murray-Smith period.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
George Hunka said...

We were supposed to get "Female of the Species" here on Broadway this spring (the Broadway return, too, of Annette Bening), but it's been postponed; the NYTimes had a story about it last summer here. The hair may still be on its way.

Alison Croggon said...

You know: strangely enough I think that a woman's hairstyle has little to do with her writing style.

I just deleted a comment that I thought was getting personal about JMS, and refer you all to the comments policy (click through from the sidebar). I'm all for a bit of friendly malice, as it were, but let's not get into personal abuse or ad hominem (or feminen) attacks. Just because a prominent defender of JMS has no compunction about getting personal doesn't mean that we have to follow... Thanks all.

George Hunka said...

Indeed. Nor does a man's hairstyle. As mine proves, day in and day out.

Alison Croggon said...

Heh. I wasn't wagging my finger at you, George.

Troubador said...

sorry

Diana Simmonds said...

Peter Craven is obviously obsessed by your "perfect right" he mentions it often in his attack. (If that is the right word: is there another that describes being gummed to death by an elderly pug?) Whereas the thing I most fondly remember about you is your rather fine left hook.

Alison Croggon said...

Diana, that's wicked: I will never be able to look at Craven again without thinking about pugs...! I actually didn't know what Craven meant by my "perfect right", but quite a lot of that article seemed strangely incoherent - Sadly, you are too right. I was thinking rather glumly the other day about that idea that you can gauge a person's worth by the calibre of their enemies - by that measure I am small indeed... :(

enthusiast said...

Alison, now that you've gotten D Simmonds' attention, would you mind asking her why she was so hell-bent on trashing the STC Actors' Company? From what I read in Theatre Notes that certainly isn't your opinion...

Alison Croggon said...

Diana and I crossed swords (or fists? maybe that's where the left hook comes from) over that one already...