Drama as literature ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Drama as literature

Having spent today addressing an empty screen in the increasingly vain hope that the god of critics will bestow some benediction, or at least half an idea, it's a relief to know that somebody else has the motor running. In today's Crikey, Guy Rundle has weighed into the debate about the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature. Literary types will know that there's been some to and fro about this anthology already; but here Rundle is looking at the representation of plays. And he doesn't mince words.

"It has to be said that in [the representation of drama] the anthology is a disgrace, an expression of a barely disguised lack of interest in the form by prose-and-poetry-centric editors," says Rundle, pointing out that, among others, Jack Hibberd, John Romeril and Alex Buzo are notably absent. "...One can’t help but look at the formally safe, polite, mildly fey drama selections and feel there is an active bias here by editors against a wilder, more energetic drama that nevertheless reads well on the page (better, in Hibberd’s case, than just about all the selections here) — and that also frequently channels a larrikin, masculinist language that captures Australian sexism, rather than trying to dust over it."

I don't know whether it's an overreaction to masculinism (White's plays aren't included either). I'd say it's more a more or less conscious decision that plays are "for the stage not the page", meaning they're not really proper literature. More on what I and others think in the comments, where editor Kerryn Goldsworthy swings in to defend her baby.

Update: in response to Kerryn in the comments below, I unpack my own criticisms a little, and reproduce them here. I'm sure making an anthology like this involves endless choices, which are all going to be under a spotlight. I don't have many quibbles with the other sections - there I can see the editors have done their best with such pressures of space and significance as they see fit. And fair enough. One can argue about the various choices, but in most genres they are recognisable representations.

Not so with drama. The passion occurs because it so clearly demonstrates how drama is a second-class literary citizen, at the least an afterthought. If the anthology didn't claim that it covered "all genres — from fiction, poetry and drama to diaries, letters, essays and speeches — [mapping] the development of one of the great literatures in English in all its energy and variety", perhaps that would be ok. But it does claim that. As Nicholas Jose says in the intro, "Our aim has been to represent the main currents of Australian writing and to indicate its diversity, including the work of less familiar writers alongside iconic works while also giving an adequate sampling of major authors."

This may be the case with poetry and prose, which seems fairly representative to me. But it is certainly not the case with drama: major authors have simply been left out, there is little idea of its diversity and there is absolutely no idea of what is happening now. It gives a very uncertain idea of what Australian plays both have been and are. I for one think it would have been better to leave drama out of it, rather than to represent it so half-heartedly. It would have at least made the status clear.

16 comments:

dmu23853 said...

Many people are unaware that the Miles Franklin award is for either a novel OR a play. How long since a play was considered? How many brilliant Australian plays are there that should have at least made it to the short-list? It's arguable that Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling was as good as, if not better than, several of this year's short-list.

Anonymous said...

This point was argued out quite recently on Kerryn Goldsworthy's blog, actually. The Miles only goes to a play if there is not a novel of sufficient merit. The last play to be nominated, from memory, was Hannie Rayson's Life After George in 2000. The nomination provoked similar debate - is a play really literature? So - it goes around and around and it comes out here - again.

Jodi

Jake said...

Having invested in a copy of the anthology in the belief I was getting a serious survey of Australian literature, I'm astonished to learn that writers like Jack Hibberd have been excluded partly on the grounds of "too many swears". Jesus fucking Christ!

Anonymous said...

Oh, the banality!

Alison Croggon said...

I didn't know that about the Miles Franklin. It's kind of weird... plays being the junior partner in the fictional enterprise (I suppose short stories come third - poor Chekhov).

Yes, it's a shame, because it's a missed opportunity. One of many, alas. I admit the perceived cultural divide between literary and dramatic art here gets up my nose sometimes (I've had some interesting arguments in the world of poetry on this question, and been infuriated by a pervasive incuriosity and snobbery - not true of all poets, I hasten to add, but to me mystifying). This is only a reflection of a more general cultural attitude. It will be interesting to see whether it will remain supportable. Meanwhile, I think that literature suffers much more from that divide than theatre does, because theatre still remains curious about literature.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Way to misrepresent, Jake. That is not what I said.

The anthology is not 'my baby' (and I was not 'defending' so much as providing information). The anthology was put together by an editorial team of seven, the General Editor Nicholas Jose plus six section editors of whom I was one, responsible for fiction and drama since 1950, and when I first joined the team, slightly late in the piece, the question of drama and the amount of it (roughly) that would be included had already been decided, so (a) it's not for me to 'defend', and (b) I had to make some hard choices, as did we all. And we made them for the benefit of the readers, not the writers. The anthology's entire contents were extensively discussed by the whole team plus a number other consultants (education people, publishing people, overseas academics with an Aust Lit interest, and so on).

I can just imagine the howls of execration if any of the playwrights who were included had not made an appearance. As far as Patrick White is concerned, there are three substantial and important pieces by him -- short story, essay, novel extract -- so the anthology is already a bit White-heavy. Every writer who writes well in several genres (Hewett is another) was at some disadvantage in this respect, which is a shame, because they are often the most interesting ones.

If the editors had not regarded drama as literature then we would simply have left it out altogether, as I think at least one previous anthology of Australian Lit has done. And even if we had left it out, there would still have been a huge amount of material demanding space. It is not the Anthology of Contemporary Australian Literature, either; there were 217 years' worth of stories, poems, essays, novels, plays, letters, speeches and journals to be chosen from.

I must say I'm a bit startled that there should be so much passion on this subject from drama people yet no existing Anthology of Australian Drama. There are lots of Australian poetry and short-story anthologies; why hasn't anyone done a drama anthology (unless you count the 227-page school textbook that someone put together for Macmillan in 1979), if drama people really do believe that being extracted-from does plays and playwrights justice, and if it is suddenly so important to be anthologised?

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Dammit, sorry, that was me.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Kerryn - apologies if I've misrepresented you, although you are definitely defending! And I'm sure making an anthology like this involves endless choices, which are all going to be under a spotlight. I don't have much quibbles with the other sections - there I can see the editors have done their best with such pressures of space and significance as they see fit. And fair enough. One can argue about the various choices, but in most genres they are recognisable representations.

Not so with drama. The passion occurs because it so clearly demonstrates how drama is a second-class literary citizen, at the least an afterthought. If the anthology didn't claim that it covered "all genres — from fiction, poetry and drama to diaries, letters, essays and speeches — [mapping] the development of one of the great literatures in English in all its energy and variety", perhaps that would be ok. But it does claim that. As Nicholas Jose says in the intro, "Our aim has been to represent the main currents of Australian writing and to indicate its diversity, including the work of less familiar writers alongside iconic works while also giving an adequate sampling of major authors." This may be the case with poetry and prose, which seems fairly representative to me. But it is certainly not the case with drama: major authors have simply been left out, there is little idea of its diversity and there is absolutely no idea of what is happening now. It gives a very uncertain idea of what Australian plays both have been and are. I for one think it would have been better to leave drama out of it, rather than to represent it so half-heartedly. It would have at least made the status clear.

There are in fact anthologies of Australian plays, mainly extracts for actors looking for pieces for auditions. It is not a foreign concept to drama by any means, and consulting such books might have provided useful models for extracting coherently. I'm sure they are more common than anthologies of extracts from novels; but you don't seem to have the same kinds of problems with longer prose works.

Just on White: ignoring his place in Australian theatre really does mean not taking drama seriously. If drama were taken seriously, you couldn't not include his plays.

Anonymous said...

To not include Alex Buzo's Norm and Ahmed is simply puzzling. The effect this work had, single handedly on an idiosyncratic culture and voice...defies belief.

Is Barry Dickens in there? Why not? The man is a bloody genius, who doesn't seem to edit, but geez...genius all the same. This is the larrikin of inner urban australia - an equal and opposite force to them banjo patterson and henry lawson, all that colonial bullshit.

Patricia Cornelius, a female writer who continues to have an impact (recent work titled 'slut') and who else explores in the theatre the broken woman beating back? Who else provides an alternate view of female in the current age? Geez, does she need to die to be acknowledged?

To not include John Romeril's The Floating Garden (geez, is that what it's called? The cruise ship with the vet who's losing it) is a disaster...I mean what other literarature explores the broken australian male returning from war (george Johnston's My Brother Jack) does it so much more, effusively...and well, tritely.

To not include Jack Hibberd's White with wire wheels is similarly ludicrous. This is a dramatic text that delves deeply into a psyche that williamson would envy if he had the balls. Therefore, to include Williamson you must include the peers.

Just tell me, did you include Summer of the Seventeenth Doll? Cos that is one great play!!!

Now perhaps if any of those writers mentioned had prizes named after them, or sold huge houses all over the world...then perhaps this would get them in?

What a stupid dumb loser of a book. Even it's approach to select from a wide pool and only include certain writers, is just a waste of time. A waste of time and a waste of money.

And guess what, students will be taught with this failure and the ozco funded it.

Go and get a newspaper and read the letter section, then include all of them why don't you. It would be just as relevant.

Useless.

fail.

Alison Croggon said...

It's The Floating World, anon. And yes, I'm with you on those missing (especially Dickins). Selling huge houses over the world isn't a qualification - if you're a dramatist, anyway. Daniel Keene isn't in there either, which is perhaps not so surprising, unless you're one of those Europeans who consider him one of the major dramatists of our time. But Ray Lawler's Doll is definitely there.

All the same, I'd suggest looking at the actual book before you fail it. The concept of the anthology - which always selects from a wide pool and only includes certain writers - goes with the territory, and is legitimate in itself. As far as I can see, it's only in the area of drama that the selection fails quite so dismally.

Tom said...

as an emerging Australia playwright I'm quite comfortable with Australian plays not being included in such an anthology. In my opinion thinking about plays as if they are literature can really limit our views and ideas of theatre. Plays don't really exist on the page like prose does. Plays need performers and need to be seen and heard to really be 'plays'. I think more can be gained by thinking about plays as if they are related to a score than to a novel. In saying that, perhaps they deserve an anthology of their own??

Jake said...

But...but...plays ARE literature, to the extent that term has any meaning. If I mention Shakespeare, am I breaking some equivalent to Godwin's Law? King Lear seems to exist on the page just fine.

Tom said...

Actually Jake I don't think King Lear does exist on the page. Not in the same way War and Peace does or any other form of 'literature' because Shakespeare didn't write it for you to read it. That doesn't mean we shouldn't read it and that it isn't a great experience to read it, but King Lear is not actually fully formed when on the page, whereas I think 'literature' is.

Jake said...

Charles Lamb thought otherwise. I’d call it a matter of taste. But a conception of literature that excludes everyone from Aeschylus to Pinter seems as impoverished to me as a purely text-based conception of theatre.

George Hunka said...

We can't be absolutely sure that Shakespeare didn't write his plays in the knowledge that they wouldn't be read. He must have been aware of the circulation of plays in published form (both quartos and folios) in his time; if he didn't take care to supervise their publication, that doesn't mean he wasn't aware that they would reach a reading public that hadn't attended performances in a theatre. Perhaps he just didn't much care; in any event, he did finally permit rather than bar their publication in printed form (at least, we have no evidence that he attempted to stop them).

Having done quite a lot of research on this recently for an upcoming issue of Yale University's Theatre magazine, let me just say that some contemporary dramatists, at least, are fully aware that they'll have a readership the number of which may far outstrip their theatrical audience; in preparing their texts for publication, they prepare them with the reading audience in mind. Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis is just one example; Brecht took care to present his published plays within gray covers (and oversaw the volumes' design fairly carefully when he could); and though "free versification" (for want of a better term) may be more intended as an assistance to performers, often enough this is not rendered as prose in the published texts, at the dramatists' discretion. All of this argues for the literary approach to the playtext, and those who create them are aware of this printed form. While it may be a different aesthetic experience to read a play than to see it performed, this does not make it necessarily an inferior or incomplete aesthetic experience.

Tom said...

I would still argue though that this focus on a reading audience is a secondary life for the works, even if larger. When we read prose we are experiencing it as the primary, and in fact only form the author intended us to experience it through. This could never be said to be the case for a play. Although we do read plays, and as I said earlier there is much to be gained from reading them, this is not the primary experience the work is intended for and for me that makes it substantially different to 'literature'.
Generally my concerns with thinking of plays as literature is that it takes us away from the theatrical experience and therefore diminishes our understanding of theatre. We need to hear music for it to really exist and for us to really understand it. If we think of plays as literature, we lose the musicality of them and forget they are something to be experienced through more than one of our senses. I believe we can't fully 'understand' a play unless we are watching it and not just reading it.
In terms of writers like Sarah Kane, she chose carefully how to place her words on the page. This might be an interesting experience for a reader, but it is also a significant message to actors and a director. It says a lot to them about the possibilities of the live performance and heavily influences the staging of her plays. The only two things a playwright has at their disposal is the words on the page and how those words are placed on the page. I think the balance of these two things are a deeply theatrical tool and Kane used it like she did because she understood theatre deeply.
I think when we read plays we often forget that they are actually written for actors and a director, and should be read with this in mind. The playwright does not have a direct relationship with their audience and the moment we ignore this we ignore almost everything that makes a play really exist. Sure, read a play to get an insight in to the process of making theatre, but when you read a play as if it has been written for you to do that, I fear your missing much of the point.