Urgencies ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


My, it's June already. Like around 30 per cent of the Melburnian population, I've had a cold for more than three weeks. And Ms TN is again three reviews in the red: this time for two Arts House shows, The Folding Wife and Bromance, and Bell Shakespeare's King Lear, which opened on Friday night.

Meanwhile, the outpouring of oil into the Gulf of Mexico continues unabated. The Israeli government is busy spinning its latest assault on international law by casting itself as victims of an innocent commando night raid during which the unarmed protesters defended themselves. And this weekend Louise Bourgeois and Randolph Stow - surely one of the most brilliant writers Australia has produced - both died.

And what has this to do with theatre reviews? Everything and nothing. Like everyone else on this planet, I live on this planet, and "no man is an island, entire of itself". This weekend, I kept thinking of a conversation overheard many years ago on the train: "Do you think the human race is worth saving?" (Pause.) "Naah..." Or Hamlet: "Man delights not me".

Yes, people - even great artists - die all the time. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is small beer besides the three-decade environmental catastrophe in Nigeria, where equivalent oil-spills occur every year. Not to mention the depradations that are the price of our global wealth: the illegal forest clearing in South-East Asia, the disastrous overfishing of our oceans, the suicidal consumerism that drives so much global injustice, the mass species extinction that is every bit as catastrophic as climate change. The Israeli state is no more dishonest than any state which decides that habeas corpus is an unnecessary legal detail.

Shall we continue fiddling as Rome burns? Or are we doing something else?

I write this blog because I think one of the few saving graces of the human race is that we make art. I also write it because it keeps me truthful, and it exercises my faculties when I'm not writing other things (and, quite often, when I am). But at the moment a shark is swimming about in my subconscious, gobbling all the thought that would normally be directed to writing criticism. The shark has always been there, and it's never dormant, but for some time it's been down in the trenches, lurking below the visible light. Over the past six months or so, it's been surfacing. It's a question, a demand, a fury. Some time soon, I'm going to have to do something about it. It's not as if there's a choice.

I'm not stupid or vain enough to think art can save the world. But those who denigrate art are even more stupid than those who proclaim its vanities: it is imagination that has created our entire human reality. If PR and the media are thought to be so powerful, it's bizarre to say art is impotent. The problem is that art's power exists only in its truthfulness, and truthfulness is not the lingua franca of power. Art's potency exists in the abdication of power that is also human love. Imagination is the necessary condition of art, yes, but also, more crucially, of love. And without love, each of us is nothing.

I don't mean, being loved. I mean our inner capacity to love, to see our realities in all their grievous beauty. "Love never stopped a bullet / Or stayed the raping hand / Of a damaged world. / But it is the only way / To remain undefeated."

The shark is asking: how serious are you?

So, to quote Les Murray, now I've said my beliefs. I'll do the reviews, probably later this week. And I'll go prepare myself to deal with the shark. That's a long-term project. But if there's some thrashing about on the surface of the waves, you'll know why.

Update: Or, in other words... Maladjusted on philosophy (and art, and love): "Time to fight. ... Time to refuse any reality principle that can only locate reality in the relentless, nihilistic pursuit of profit."


Paul K said...

In a decade, actually century so far, that gives us global problems - terrorism, climate change, financial crisis... all with the prefix 'global' - I think a lot of people are wrestling with the same shark.

For me it's the desire to do something but not for the life of me knowing what that something might be when set against a global problem.

Alison Croggon said...

Global can also mean the complexities of the individual psyche. The hugeness of those complex world-wide problems doesn't mean that the the minute, the local, the intimate, are any less important. I think rather, it throws an almost unbearable pressure on our everyday ethics. No wonder we all seek distractions...

Our sense of helplessness is both inevitable and illusory. Pushing through the illusion that what we do will make no difference - a product of being considered consumers rather than citizens - is part of the battle. As is saving ourselves from our own narcissism, which places Me at the centre of everything.

Anyway, for me it's fairly simple. The only thing I can do is write. So I will be writing.

Paul K said...

"Our sense of helplessness is both inevitable and illusory."

Where were you when I was writing my director's notes last night? That's what I was trying to say but much less succinctly.

epistemysics said...

The idiocy on display here is astounding - wrestling with sharks? Please! Get a harpoon and blow that sucker right out of the water! Honestly...

But yes - a wise man would have something meaningful and profound to say here. I'll let you know when I find one.

Anonymous said...

"As firmly as a hand holding a stone. Held, however, so firmly, merely so that it can be flung a greater distance. But there is a path even to that distance."

Franz Kafka.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the handy fishing hints, EP. The only problem is that using a harpoon might result in my blowing off my own feet. The shark c'est moi. I have a rather predatory daemon.

And many thanks for the Kafka, Anon. That image reminds me of Tarkovsky's Stalker.

5thwall said...

an excellent post Ms TN,

thank you for reminding us why we must continue to love and forgive each other, through art or other means, if only to set the example to our descendants; and have it on record that for a pack of filthy animals, we have some pretty nifty things to say.

art won't save the world, but it will make it's passing a little easier.

“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

Mark Twain

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 5thWall - I wonder if everything is forgivable. Some things, surely, are not... To quote Kafka again, it seems imperative that we must all be very kind to one another. Kindness is a much underrated virtue. (And isn't a synonym for wishy-washiness, either...)

ruler of the world said...

and the world spins around how much their houses are worth, now that to me is the cause of mirth, for in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take, and the coloured girls go, arbeiten macht frei, bless me father for I have sinned, and 2 rounds fired to the head and bang bang you're dead

Jana said...

This quote reminded me of what you say here:

“I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent like Leyner’s or serious talent like Daitch’s. Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that love can instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. I don’t know. But it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do–from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or the Pynchon of “Gravity’s Rainbow”–is “give” the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”

-David Foster Wallace, from the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1993, Volume 13.2