Plays - second class literature? ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Plays - second class literature?

A quick blurt, for those who think the artform that's inspired lacklustre talent like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Churchill, Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Bernhardt, Buchner - oh, you get the picture - isn't proper literature.

Black clouds are swirling over the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, which this year didn't award a Play Prize, supposedly because of the low quality of the entries. And how quickly it's segued into a discussion that sees plays as the problem children of literature, and perhaps really not literature at all.

Now, before you get me wrong, I know plays are written for performance. I just happen to think that writing plays is a literary, as well as a theatrical, art. Yes, reading plays is a skill - but so is reading novels and poems. We all learn how to read novels. Out of a quirk of Australian culture, we mostly don't learn how to read plays, and don't see them in a continuum with other kinds of writing. They are generally, erroneously, regarded as close relatives of film scripts, but actually have far more to do with poetry. That this has impacted on our play writing culture is undeniable, but the production of mediocre art works doesn't discredit the artform itself. Unless it happens to be playwriting.

I simply don't buy the argument that plays are not "literary": if there's a text, it exists as an autonomous script as well as a "blueprint for performance", and that text can be read on its own terms. Certainly, some of my favourite literary works are plays.

Currency Press has made the connection to the scandalously poor representation of drama in the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature. (Their press release is on James Waites' blog). Meanwhile, NSWPLA chair of judges Gil Appleton suggests in the SMH that judges of the play prize ought to be made to see the plays in performance. Aside from being impractical - isn't this a national prize? - it also begs the question. If the judges chosen to arbitrate the award aren't skilled enough to judge the texts, why are they appointed as judges?

In the same story, David Williamson makes some bizarre comments about Chekhov and the perils of literary judgment ("If you looked, for instance, at a play of Chekhov that way you would be deeply disappointed because there would be no wonderful metaphors, no sparkling language - there are just what seems like mundane lines of dialogue … ") which merely obscure the question. It's certainly a novel view of Chekhov's work. Even literary snobs would be hard put to deny the literary worth of Chekhov's plays, mostly because he's a Dead Great Writer. I'd turn the argument around, and suggest that the same qualities that make a great novel - vivid language, wit, inventiveness, formal imagination and knowledge, vitality, passion, intelligence, and (crucially) a profound understanding of metaphor - are those which go to make a great play. And maybe if a "literary" judgment of plays can't perceive or assess these qualities, you have to ask what is wrong with literary judgment.

I personally don't think the NSWPLA result is anything but an anomaly of this year's judges, and this argument is aside from the perceived quality of this year's batch of plays. What the discussion around it does reveal, however, is a pervasive confusion about the artform, which reaches into the play writing community itself. It emerges as an infantilisation of playwrights - sometimes by themselves.

Meanwhile, over the Pacific there's a row about the Pulitzer. The winning play decided by the judging panel was overruled by the Pulitzer Committee, who collectively went to see the winning - un-shortlisted - play the night before deciding the winner. Playgoer has the goods, and finishes by asking: "does the Board treat all the categories this casually? And imagine if they did treat any other, more "serious" category like this--and overrule its jury like this?"

Yes, imagine! But at least we're not alone.


5thwall said...

what amuses me about this particular brand of literary snobbery is that plays - yes they are meant to be performed/read/interpretively danced/whathaveyou; which seems to be the single principle argument being made against them being counted as literature.

But in order to do so, actors, directors and collaborators must read the text twenty or thirty times at least in the space of just a few weeks. (do any 'proper' literary critics read their text quite that much before summarising, or do they read it just a two or three times at most?)

the collaboration is reached over the intensive period so an audience can enjoy the literary nuances of the work and a particular interpretation from a simple gesture or voice inflection, which will carry and add endless different meanings to the play, night after night... can you do that with a novel?

as for Williamson, well all I can say is: "That man, there's something about him that reminds me of a bear. He shouldn't have been invited"

epistemysics said...

I think you’re being a bit too harsh, Alison, on Mr. Williamson:

''Plays are notoriously difficult to judge off the page. And a lot of the judges for that competition are looking for literary qualities that are not necessarily congruent with dramatic qualities,'' he said.

I think what he’s trying to suggest is that poetry (and by that I mean metaphors/similes/etc), for example, is something that doesn’t work well on the stage (let me explain). Take Poor Boy – do you remember that there was a scene with the daughter where she started rhapsodizing about death/life/something, and the language suddenly became very metaphorical and ‘poetic’? It was completely out of place in the play. Of course, quite often it works (Shakespeare, etc). I don’t think he’s necessarily saying that there’s no poetry in plays, but more that the poetry is of a different form – perhaps the most striking of which is the word ‘pause’, which, unless you have a very stupid actor, is never even spoken.

If you were to count the number of metaphors in a thousand words of a novel compared to a thousand words of Chekhov, I’m guessing the novel would have more, based purely on a, for lack of a better word, ‘statistical’ analysis of the text. I think what he is trying to say is that most of the literary qualities in a play are below the surface, if that makes sense.

So yes, one does have to read plays differently from how one would read a novel if you want to find the literary qualities in a text. And I do believe I’ve just argued myself back to what you just said in your post. Hmm.

I do think he’s off his rocker if he believes that the judges don’t realise this as well, though. I could be making this up, but is it just me, or does he always seem to think it’s the judges fault, and never his own?

And 5th Wall, “can you do that with a novel?” – have you seen Gatz? (Yes, I’m being facetious.)

Alison Croggon said...

That plays are works that reside in the formal conventions of theatre is taken as read, EP. And, just as with novels and poems, you have to be able to read those formal conventions, if you want to experience the work. Yes, it's a learned skill. Best learned through seeing lots of theatre and reading lots of plays.

No way am I being hard on Williamson. I can see his point in the midst of it all - those who insist literature is a flat, dead thing that exists only in the museum of the page have a great deal of difficulty with live work (not just plays). But if DW reads Chekhov and sees no "wonderful metaphors" or "sparkling language" (!), then he is reading a different Chekhov to me. Perhaps that explains something about his plays.

Buster Briggs said...

The irony here of course is that these judges are most likely the ones that awarded Daniel Keene with $30,000 last year.

Last year it was insightful. This year it's a perverse decision.

What are the bets this is just a storm in a tea cup being pushed by a few twitterers with nothing better to do?

Alison Croggon said...

Judges are usually changed each year. It's a different panel.

It's certainly a storm in a teacup (although it's been more pushed by arts and literary editors). But the sturm und drang does reveal something interesting, I think.

Paul K said...

Having read so many plays over the last few years I wouldn't hesitate to put some of them alongside the best literature I've read. Copenhagen by Michael Frayn stands out as one of the most brilliantly crafted pieces, likewise Sarah Kane's Blasted. To classify them as something less than literature because their form is different is simply small minded and wrong.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks PK. The multiplex intertubes mean I'm confusingly having this discussion in several places. This in response to Lynden Barber elsewhere, who said I was being unfair to DW by quoting him out of context, with a couple of afterthoughts:

Williamson is claiming that Chekhov does not have literary qualities (such as "sparkling dialogue"/ metaphor). And claiming that these so-called "literary" qualities are opposed to so-called "dramatic" qualities, and can't be appreciated unless you see them on stage.

And I'm saying that's rubbish. I adore reading Chekhov, and I adore seeing his work done on stage as well. I don't see how one cancels out the other, or how "literary" and "dramatic" qualities are mutually exclusive. (Nor, by the way, is all theatre writing "drama" - did Beckett write "drama?") That just seems a mystification to me. Dostoevsky knew the value of dramatic structure - he planned his novels in acts and scenes. Playwrights of quality understand the poetic of embodied language, just as poets do. Someone like Sarah Kane pushed theatrical writing about as close as possible to poetry while still remaining on the side of theatre. Writers like Michel Vinaver, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Heiner Mueller, Caryl Churchill. Thomas Bernhardt, Howard Barker, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet (etc etc) all push the possibilities of language, just as poets do. To claim that these writings aren't "literary" is to devalue their achievements as writers. To recognise their achievements as writers by no means devalues the artistic achievements of those collaborators who realise these works on stage. Respect isn't a pie with only a few slices.

The idea that plays aren't "literature", but some kind of secondary literary craft, is based on a series of false oppositions and mistaken assumptions about writing and theatre. Sometimes I think we should call it all "writing", to avoid the hierarchies of genre. Then it might be clearer that there's good and bad writing in all forms.

This fuzziness does however give space for bad writing in the theatre, such as Mr Williamson's oeuvre over the past decade or so.

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows play are for pooftahs.

Alison Croggon said...

Like poems?

Anonymous said...

Nuh. Poems are for gippos.

TimT said...

I think contemporary novels would be much more popular - and, indeed, their quality would be greatly improved - if they were consciously written for performance. Not sure quite when the practice dropped out, but innumerable passages in books by Chesterton, Dickens, right back through Austen, Fielding, etc, testify to and provide good evidence for the novel as a performative art.

Paul K said...

It'd certainly make adapting them for screen a lot easier.

DS said...

One thing I'd be curious to know - how many playscripts, apart from the 25 submitted for this year's award, have each of the drama judges read lately? I suspect very few. There is a learning curve associated with reading plays on the page - as opposed to seeing them performed - and if you come at it from the perspective of someone who reads primarily novels or prose or poetry, then you're going to miss a lot of a playscript's qualities. There's a 'language' involved in writing for theatre and it's distinct from other forms - though, as you say, it overlaps to varying degrees with narrative, poetry etc. But I'm blathering now. My main point is, unless they've got judges who regularly read contemporary playscripts then it's perhaps not surprising that they missed the 'art' and literary qualities of those plays that were put forward.

Alison Croggon said...

I think it might help if they read contemporary poetry, too. But since we don't know who the judges were (I can't find out - perhaps they're afraid of being firebombed?) there's not much likelihood that we'll know how much they know about contemporary theatre.

I do think there were some turkeys among those submitted - no question. And the limited field constricted the choices, no question of that either. But if they were dissatisfied with those submitted, it puzzles me they didn't go searching for eligible plays. I'm pretty certain that's in their remit. But this is all basically speculation, and assumes an investment in contemporary play culture. Maybe that's the nagging question of what seems to be missing.

5thwall said...

another absurdity in people claiming literary expertise and saying drama doesn't count:

the first stories, and poems were read aloud by actors at Theatre Festivals in an Ampitheatre.

Only when an Actor stepped away from the Chorus recitals and began to reply did we start to achieve some of the more beautiful elements of storytelling found in 'proper' literature; like irony, and metaphor, and tragedy. As such theatre has been a driving force, both now and then, in the development of literature as a whole.

Without theatre, storytelling would have never taken off. Do you think Homer's Odyssey just sat there carved in marble rock for nobody to read? No - the story was popularised through theatre.

and these people call themselves some kind of expert in the field, no doubt. crazy, huh!

TimT said...

Interesting comment here 5th Wall...

'Without theatre, storytelling would have never taken off. Do you think Homer's Odyssey just sat there carved in marble rock for nobody to read? No - the story was popularised through theatre.'

Do you mean just live readings, or some more complicated type of acting and performance?

In that recent movie version of Beowulf - which I don't think everyone liked, but I did, very much - there was an example of epic poetry as theatre, as it may have been in the Dark Ages.

It had part of the Beowulf poem being acted out, on stage, by two dudes, one in armour, another in a dragon costume. From memory the guy in knight costume is reciting Beowulf as he dongs the dragon with his 'sword'. This in front of an audience of ale-swilling Anglo-Saxon types.

Would Beowulf have been acted this way? Would the Odyssey - or parts of it - have been acted in a similar way? Is this depiction pure fantasy, or does it have some basis in fact? Was it through dramatic devices like this that audience attention was held and directed during the recitation of long and complicated epic works like Beowulf? And what about the use of music?

Alison Croggon said...

A little bit of confusion going on here, I think. Classical Greek drama evolved out of the lyrists (as I recall, singer & chorus - corrections welcome as I'm writing this on the train & can't check). It was the invention of the third character that created drama. The Iliad &the Odyssey are, on the other hand, epic poems, recited by the poet. Quite different and more linked to story tellers - I believe there are still such storytellers in Armenia, who have handed down a story very like Homer's (or was it Gilgamesh?) mouth to mouth over three thousand years.

As for Beowulf - enchanting though it sounds, I fear it's a Hollywood invention. Those bards too recited their epics and what was prized was the inventiveness of their language (they called it something like "braiding"). Performance, yes, but not theatre as we know it.

TimT said...

I wonder. The epic poets themselves would have tended to emphasise the elements of their poetry that they felt was most valuable - word play, etc - but there must have been a lot of unwritten performance conventions. Vulgar as it may have seemed to them, maybe a bit of costume and acting *was* used at quite an early point in order to hold the attention of an audience.

Nah, it's just speculation in order to maintain a rather pleasing fantasy.

On the other hand, the appearance and reappearance of poetic dramas all over the world - Greek tragedy and comedy, Shakespearean drama, even in drama forms as seemingly remote as Indonesian puppet theatre - would seem to indicate that poetry had performative and theatrical associations at quite an early point in its development, and that those associations changed/evolved into what we now recognise as drama, nno?

TimT said...

The music connection is interesting too. I'd go so far as to speculate that the epic poets - from wherever they came - saw themselves as a kind of musician. But if they *were* musicians - that brings in a whole lot of speculation about how they performed things.

As you'll probably know the problem with researching just about any music prior to medieval times is that we don't really know what it would have sounded like - because recording and notation didn't exist at all. (The Greeks invented a type of notation in early AD but it didn't catch on). But we KNOW there were very specific, highly-evolved performance traditions because of the existence of a number of melodic and rhythmic instruments from that time, and the existence of other records (written, visual).

So how many of these performative traditions did the epic poets draw on for their recitations?

Impossible to know exactly what those performance traditions were like. Very interesting and pleasant to speculate about, though!

5thwall said...

well, my understanding of religious festivals in that era is that the chorus came first, then the actor, which lead to the evolution of 'tragedy' as the dominant form. Given that epic poems contain many tragic and ironic elements, it follows that the systems of sharing myths and histories were vocal.

Noone will ever really know the exact format of the original plays at the festivals of Dionysus, but that's the speculation. In terms of evidence, the word 'tragedy' translates into 'goat song'; and it's the 'song' component that for me, indicates a lyrical element in certain Dionysian cult practises which predate the more official festivals.

I'm using a very broad definition of theatre as applied to live readings or even 'spoken word' in the modern sense. what is 'Thom Pain' if not theatre AND spoken word? What is Dame Edna other than theatre AND stand up comedy? If we can transgress the distinction now, why not then?

anyway - my point is that the storytelling tradition is a vocal one, and spoken word is inherently theatrical. Why should we be discerning if a man stands and recites a tale to an audience, be he Eddie Murphy, Matthew Whittet or a man in a mask at Athens speaking of Ulysses' adventures- it's theatre.

CLASH OF THE TITANS on the other hand... can make no such claim to history ;)

Anonymous said...

I think some plays are simply more literary than others. Some rely heavily on language, some find other means. And it's a huge spectrum in between. It's part blue-print, part poem. It's not one or the other. If it SHOULD be more literary, so be it. If it shouldn't, okay.

Playwrights will always be the awkward child. Too structured for poets. Not enough words for novelists. Some top scientists look at Einstein theory of relativity and are moved to tears. Most of us just know the letters and numbers. I think plays are sort of the same for most people. You look at the page and you can see it or you can't.

Apparently, the judges couldn't.

As for Williamson, trash away. Please. I just had to endure QTC/MTC's "Let The Sunshine". Sexist, racist and homophobic. Day time television on the mainstage. Subplots drop like flies so Williamson can rant about the cost of coffee in Noosa. Character arcs screech around 90 degree turns with ear-ringing screeches of shredded credibility.

Please review this show in Melbourne, Alison. I'd love to hear your thoughts. It sets the feminist movement alone back 30 years.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TimT and 5th Wall: I possess a recording of all the extant notated Greek and Roman theatre music, which is pretty cool. As for music, lyric poets were called so because they performed the work with a lyre. I'm pretty certain epic poets like Homer would have been accompanied by music, and in Beowulf there's lots of stuff about bards singing sweetly and striking their harps. So there we are.

We actually do know a fair bit about the plays that went into competition at the Dionysian Festival, since quite a number of survive. Including Aeschylus, Aristopones, Sophocles, Euripides. There's also a lot of useful scholarship about the beginnings of Greek theatre: for those interested I'd recommend Ancient Culture and Society: The Greek Tragic Theatre by HC Baldry, or the Cambridge Companion to Greek Theatre. There's a lot too on the relationship between oral and literate cultures - I recommend The Muse Learns to Write, by Eric Havelock. Also, for the sheer pleasure Anne Carson's stunning book Eros: The Bittersweet. Go to it, fellas. Amazon is only a click away.

Just as a note, I loathe, loathe, loathe the phrase "spoken word".

Hi Anon: Yes, there are all sorts of theatre texts, made in all sorts of ways. I guess I think of "plays" as the ones that are at the writerly end of things, and label the others vaguely as "theatre texts". I admit there's nothing defined about those definitions at all, just a kind of rule of thumb. And I fear I've excused myself from seeing the Williamson, especially as general consensus seems to be that it's a bad play even by his standards. I don't have to review it for the Australian, and I'm not sure my drooping spirit could bear the discouragement. Also, what have I to say, except what I've said before? It bears out all the sniping about my responses being predictable: in Williamson's case, because he does nothing unexpected, they really are. If you click on David Williamson in the label cloud, you can find some of what I've written already.

Alison Croggon said...

Just as an afterthought: I am the last person to want to limit the definition of contemporary theatre, which is many things. But I do think in talking about its beginnings (in whatever culture), it's not very useful to conflate theatre with other kinds of performance, although of course it evolved from the performance of poetry. (And dance. And there's also a good argument that the creation of Greek theatre bore a close relationship to the development of law courts, with which it was contemporaneous. Viz the court scene with the Eumenides at the end of the Oresteia). The Greeks themselves were quite clear on these distinctions - in fact, they practically invented the concept of categories.

5thwall said...

Great discussion I will definitely check out some of those titles. woohoo!

Ms TN, now I know your kryptonite, I will endeavour to use the forbidden phrase 'spoken word' as a means to get up your nose. sparingly, of course...

kind of funny how we started out lamenting that theatre is considered a lesser category of literature, and finished up deciding what may or may not qualify as 'proper' theatre... :) but I take your point about categorising when speaking of historical theatre movements this way.

ps: 'spoken word' emerged as a genre to incorporate an appeal to both hip-hop and poetry audiences, which are traditionally considered to be exclusive. and yes, it's particularly loathsome

Alison Croggon said...

My allergy against "spoken word" stems from its usage in Melbourne, where it's mainly said so people don't have to use scary words like "poetry". (Promise not to destroy your Superman suit.) It's like "performance poetry", which so often demonstrates no knowledge of either performance or poetry. So much so, that I remember meeting a young Caribbean poet in the UK, who knew all his poems by heart and recited them - but always carried a book and pretended to read them, because he got so sick of being categorised as a "performance poet".

Noƫlle said...

Can you imagine this happening to the novel? Or even to non-fiction?

I think that playwriting is going through a transition as performance writers work with, and respond to, our ever-shifting digital environment, to ‘post-dramatic theatre’, and to a whole host of other cultural forces. Along with colleagues, I’m finding that I’m writing fewer narrative dramas, and developing instead modular scripts, open texts, plays with unattributed dialogue and minimal or no stage directions, and more works which combine essayistic and documentary elements, elements drawn from other (non-theatrical) performance forms, etc. On the page these plays look quite different from their more traditional counterparts, and are therefore, perhaps easy to dismiss, not ‘proper plays’. Perhaps some judges—especially any not au fait with contemporary performance writing developments—find it difficult to read them as theatre?

The allocation of the NSWPLA prize money to ‘play development’ is a concern. With prize $ you can take the money and run with your own idea and your own process. With development schemes you have to match your idea and process with the development agency’s criteria, deal with a layer of bureaucracy, etc. Also it seems to me we’ve already got plenty of script development programs, all doing pretty much the same thing. I’ve never been a fan of free-floating script development schemes, and I suspect a large part of their popularity is down to the paucity of production opportunities. Which is a pity, because nothing beats production, and the best way to support playwrights is to produce our work and commission us to create new ones. I’m starting to rant, so will stop.

But just one more thing …

Although screenwriting and playwriting often get lumped together, I’ve always found writing plays or performance texts to be much more akin to writing poetry. Completely agree with you on that one, Alison. I also dislike the term ‘spoken word’ but do end up using it sometimes …

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Noelle - you're dead right on the point about directed "development". (I'm sure there's a pun in there somewhere about "arrested development", but I'm not up to it).

Your point about the transitional nature of contemporary theatre is important. I too had a suspicion that beneath this decision is a bewilderment about how to read contemporary theatre texts (a bewilderment easily cured by paying some close attention to contemporary theatre, surely?) Certainly, some of the interesting plays that were submitted don't fit the conventional criteria for "well-made plays".

DS said...

There's a discussion re: the decision by the judges of the play award on this morning's Bookshow (ABC Radio National). Participants are Michael McGurr (I think) and Chris Meade from PWA. Might be worth a listen. (Check the ABC Radio National Website)