Review: Special, Silent Disco ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Review: Special, Silent Disco

I wish I could adequately explain the irrational joy that The Rabble's latest work, Special, invoked in me when I saw it last week. There is something in it of pure theatre, unafraid act, that set a flame in the gloom that has bedevilled me this long Melbourne winter. Or maybe it's just liberating to see something this angry.

In Special, The Rabble confront the psychic disintegration of contemporary life. Emma Valente and her collaborators tap into the increasingly ominous sense that it is later than we think, that the endemic violence that powers the machinery of our society - violence against people, against meaning and relationship, against the living systems of our planet - is accumulating to a point of crisis. In such a time, what can meaning mean?


We are left with the absurd, the abyss over which our attempts at continuity and knowledge and purpose flail and expose their emptiness. Yet what The Rabble track in their vignettes is not, for all its sardonic exposures of failure, a trajectory towards nihilism, but a strange and exhilarating affirmation. "If nothing had any meaning, [nihilism] would be right," said Camus in the 1940s. "But there is something that still has a meaning." It's that "something" - relationship, the possibility of transformation - that is at the centre of this extraordinary work of theatre.

In Kate Davis's design, the stage is surfaced with a deep layer of earth, topped with a thin layer of a disconcertingly artificial green, with the earth mounded on one side to create a small hill. On three sides it's surrounded by what appear at first to be white curtains but which are in fact white paper streamers. Special consists of a series of scenes between the spectacularly pregnant Special (Mary Helen Sassman) and her mother Goldie (Liz Jones). When the lights first come up, Jones, in a white pantsuit, is slogging away on an exercise bike, while Sassman, decked out in a huge Indian headdress, is lying on her back, ostentatiously licking an ice cream. It's worth seeing for this image alone, which somehow evokes the emptiness of consumerism in one gloriously absurd moment.

The lighting and set emphasise toxic hues of green or oxidic white, so it seems that our characters are enclosed in a world which unsuccessfully mimics the natural world. Within this frame of the artificial, Sassman's pregnant belly (no illusion, there's a real baby in there) and the exposed earth suggest a chthonic anarchy on the point of eruption. This eruption - of anger, desire, violence, love - is more or less what happens through the show. Valente exploits some extremely effective lighting and sound design to create an almost Artaudian sense of transformation. Only this is - how do I put it? - a distinctly female exploration, in which conception and rebirth are much more than metaphors appropriated into masculinised meanings. There's a strong whiff of Hélène Cixous's "repressed" about the whole thing.

The relationship between Goldie and Special is both antagonistic and mutually dependent, and it's this relationship which gives vitality and shape to the bizarre rituals which they explore during the course of the performance. They collect the rubble of transcendence, scraps and fragments of ritual stolen from a grab bag of cultures - Native American, Spanish American, Catholic, tribal African - which they pile into an increasingly grotesque pastiche of faith.

Goldie announces it is her "special day", which involves an elaborately solemn costuming and which collapses into comic anti-climax. Instead, the mysteriously pregnant Special, whose child we begin to suspect is immaculately conceived, begins to create her own ritual. What's interesting is how this sense of transformation is embedded in the ridiculous: there's a lot that makes no sense, or at least, doesn't make any common sense. But it's riveting theatre.

Its theatrical movement makes me think of Octavio Paz's comments in his book on the sacred, Conjunctions and Disjunctions: "History is a discourse. But the rebellions of the twentieth century have violated both the rules of dramatic action and those of representation. We have unforeseen irruptions that disturb the linear nature of history ... both the events and the actors betray the text of the play. They write another text, or rather invent one. This is the end of discourse and rational legibility." Special mimics the formation of this "other text", opening possibility beyond the enclosures of words.

I haven't seen all The Rabble's work, having missed their Sydney productions, but Special is the first show I've seen that isn't hobbled by a sense of over-aestheticised seriousness. It's funny, tough, unafraid, and beautifully realised.


Silent Disco, which is part of the Full Tilt season at the Victorian Arts Centre, arrives from Sydney with a raft of glowing reviews. It's fair to say that the glow didn't transfer to me; without exactly hating it, I was scratchily disappointed. I guess I expected more than a competently realised, conventional social drama.

Lachlan Philpott's play about a doomed relationship between two misfit kids is directed by Lee Lewis, last seen here with her beautiful production of Twelfth Night for Bell Shakespeare. As with Robert Reid's The Joy of Text, the play is set in a school, and related through the matrix of educators; but in its tracking of adolescent breakdown, it recalls Declan Greene's Moth, recently remounted at the Malthouse. Unlike Moth, which created an authentic theatrical diction for its characters, Silent Disco never escapes the sense that this is an adult vision of young people. It's not surprising to find that Philpott has been a teacher.

Unlike Reid's The Joy of Text, teaching itself is presented unproblematically, as a known (if sometimes failing) function: a central character is the well-meaning English teacher Mrs Petchall (Camilla Ah Kin), observing with concern the disconnected, alienated generation hooked up to their iPods and Facebook. The "silent disco" of the title is one in which everyone dances to his or her own headphone music, which here becomes a somewhat obvious metaphor for social disconnection. I'm not sure it's that simple: this is an authority's perception of youth culture, which only awkwardly enters into the experience of what that culture is.

The central characters are troubled teens Tamara (Sophie Hensser) and Squid (Meyne Wyatt) who wind up towards inevitable crisis. In both cases, slightly disturbingly, their problem is absent, uncaring mothers - Tamara lives with her gay father, the Indigenous Squid with his auntie. Their awkward romance is derailed by Squid's criminal brother Dane (Kirk Page), who targets Tamara for seduction as revenge for being thrown out of the family house, and to undercut Squid's nascent ambitions to make something of himself.

Silent Disco affirms all sorts of worthy impulses - concern for deprived youth, the role of education, and so on - in the lingua franca of heightened naturalism. In two acts, it's overwritten and you can hear the dramatic shifts coming a mile off. The odd verbal or theatrical pyrotechnics don't prevent its being weighed down by predictability. The British have a brilliant tradition of socially committed work that looks at the experiences of alienated or deprived young people - think Ken Loach's devastating film Kes, or Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or more recently Shane Meadowes's This Is England. Philpott's intentions are clearly in the same arena, but Silent Disco never gets near this kind of plain-speaking anger or emotional power, and it certainly isn't anywhere close in terms of political intelligence.

With her hard working and committed cast, Lee Lewis's direction injects the production with moments of vitality. There's Tamara's evocation of her first experience of sex, a delicate subject that here attains a moment of real theatrical power, or a comic portrayal of check-out chicks at the supermarket, sharply observed vignettes of social irony. Aside from these moments, it seldom touched me. It's fine, as far as it goes; it just doesn't go very far.

Pictures: Top: Liz Jones in Special. Photo: Marg Howell. Bottom: Meyne Wyatt (left) and Sophie Hensser in Silent Disco.

Special, directed by Emma Valente, concept by Emma Valente, Mary Helen Sassman. Devised and performed by Liz Jones and Mary Helen Sassman. Lighting, sound and composition by Emma Valente. The Rabble @ La Mama Courthouse, until August 21.

Silent Disco by Lachlan Philpott, directed by Lee Lewis. Designed by Justin Nadella, lighting design by Ross Graham, sound design and composition by Stefan Gregory. With Camilla Ah Kin, Sophie Hensser, Kirk Page and Meyne Wyatt. Griffin Theatre Company, Hothouse Theatre and Australian Theatre for Young People, at the Victorian Arts Centre Fairfax Studio, until August 13.

48 comments:

sydney arts journo said...

Rabble people... I do hope you are coming to Sydney town.

Sara Bannister said...

I agree the sound, lighting, set and some of the ritual scenes were terrific, but it's the relationship between Goldie and Special - or should I say lack of - that was really disappointing for me. The director's notes talk about a lot of stuff, such as a 'black secret' behind Special's pregnancy, that I don't think came across in the show. Did you get a sense of a black secret? I found it a frustrating performance in that sense, despite the obvious talent and effort put in by The Rabble.

Alison Croggon said...

I read the director's notes half way through writing my review (when I suddenly thought I had better, in case I missed something). While I was watching the show, the relationship seemed quite clear to me in the performances of Jones and Sassman, which seemed palpably real to me. I didn't expect, after the first minute or so, for it to make "sense" in any conventionally dramatic way. The fact is that it doesn't. I guess I was watching other things.

4 Coffins said...

Thanks for the review Alison. If I may prod you slightly, I think you've fallen short a little bit with Special. I don't know why. I think it's difficult to approach. I don't think I have the tools to make a good attempt. Maybe that's the point - there is something beyond language going on here? Or maybe it's some sort of critic-proof mechanism. I had almost nothing to say about it afterwards, only thoughts and feelings, and so don't blame you in the slightest (if e'r my accusation be true).

nb any male viewers... I tried out the Simone de Beauvoir/Special double on Sunday... not recommended... by the time I got home I just wanted to get the sharp knife out of the cupboard, whip the daks off and finish the job myself... kidding. I actually found this surprisingly accessible, though I'm sure it meant something vastly different to the various stages of womanhood sitting around me.

Alison Croggon said...

If I may prod you slightly, I think you've fallen short a little bit with Special.

Probably, 4C. I often do. But I did my best...

Cameron Woodhead said...

Was Silent Disco the show where you strongly disagreed with me? I wouldn't characterise it that way. I certainly wouldn't demur from some of your criticisms of the play, but at 250 words, I didn't want to waste any describing the script's defects. The acting interested me more.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - just realised that although it's misleadingly under your byline on the website, it was your colleague who gave Special that excoriating review. So, sadly, our differences will have to be deferred until next time.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Ah so it is. That makes sense. Next time, Gadget, next time ...

Lachlan Philpott said...

Oh please Cameron, list the scripts defects. I would find that really helpful. And interesting and enlightening. Seriously
Why dont you join in too Alison? I imagine the list would have to start with:
1] This play is about Sydney and comes from Sydney...but perhaps I wont be like you and play critic and clairvoyant?
Look, if you think the writing sucks be bold enough to say what sucks about it.
Warm regards,
Lachlan

Cameron Woodhead said...

The blogosphere, Mr. Philpott, is an irony-free zone. The fact this play was from Sydney barely registered with me. As for it being about Sydney ... Really? And here I was thinking it was about people.

If you are serious, send me a copy of the script through my blog for a chance at more detailed feedback. I'm currently writing a survey of Australian drama from the last year for a literary magazine. Perhaps I can work it in.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Lachlan - excellent to see you here. It's never pleasant to get a negative review, so I understand your anger. I don't understand what you mean by my review being "clairvoyant" or that I haven't articulated what troubled me about the script. (I didn't think it "sucked", btw). But let's not enter that Sydney/Melbourne thing, FFS. That's complete nonsense.

If you want a list, I'll recap my major problems, as outlined in the review: 1. Silent Disco seemed to me very much a portrait of youth culture as drawn through the ideology of institutions and authority, the effect being a kind of emotional displacement which I find problematic (but which does make it possible to talk about "issues" as opposed to experience, theatrical or otherwise); 2. Partly as a result of (1): compared with some other (British, not Melbourne) works which seem to me to explore similar themes brilliantly, it lacked a sense of real context that gave it social and political force. 3. I think it's overwritten, and the whole might have been more effective in a single act. To be blunt, I was pretty bored. 4. This is minor, but it did bother me: why that very similar mother issue with both of your major characters?

This isn't to say I am "right". I know that others think otherwise. It is, however, a fair and faithful representation of what I thought and felt about your play. I'm sorry it isn't a better response.

Lachlan Philpott said...

Hi Cameron,
Thanks for your quick response.
The blogsphere is quite informal too, so calling me Mr Philpott is not necessary...though clearly a kind gesture.
I do think that there is something in Melbourne's attitude to Sydney but I can not be bothered to try and articulate it on here right now.
The fact that this is a Sydney play didnt register with you suprises me. Poor Justin Nardella the set designer might not find it so funny, given the first thing the audience are faced with is a set which quotes the Sydney skyline. And when you get it, take a look at the text and all the references to Sydney in it Cameron...
Plays can be about people but people exist in space and often the definition of the space enhances the audience experience...in the case of your Silent Disco experience this did not occur but Sydney and its specific issues, rhythms and people were important to me when I was writing, and I hoped that this would be communicated to the audience.
BUT this is not where we need to go evidently, given your generous offer.
I know that most writers crave intelligent conversation with critics about their work and we rarely get it. For this reason, I am delighted to get your response and shall be blogging you right away. I genuinely appreciate that you are willing to devote time and energy to this Cameron. Thanks!

Lachlan Philpott said...

Hi Alison,
Thanks for your response.
I am not angry nor was I ever angry about your review. Critics who have an agenda or simply no idea at all make me mad. There are a few of these types around but nobody could say that about you.
I delight in actually conversing about the work.
I am going to have a think about your most interesting comment about the perspective on youth culture and then get back to you.
I will also explain then what i mean by you playing clairvoyant. Its a minor point in this review but an ongoing concern I have about critics more generally and the assumptions they make about writers and their intentions.
Cheers

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Lachlan - I'm glad to hear you're not angry. I'm used to making people angry, even people I like quite a lot, and am kind of resigned to it - what do I expect for writing in opinionated ways about other people's work?

I will be curious to know what you mean by "clairvoyant". Personally, I am careful not to assume anything at all about what the artist "intends": that seems to me to be impertinent, quite apart from the side issue that artists often don't know what they "intend" anyway. I can only speak about my responses to the work itself, for better or worse.

Lachlan Philpott said...

You say this Alison but in the review you have said "The British have a brilliant tradition of socially committed work that looks at the experiences of alienated or deprived young people - think Ken Loach's devastating film Kes, or Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or more recently Shane Meadowes's This Is England. Philpott's intentions are clearly in the same arena,'
I would suggest that you have made an assumption about what I intended as a writer which is where the clairvoyance issue comes up.
How on earth could you begin know what I intended when I wrote the play? To be fair how on earth can any critic look at a production of a new play and fairly assume to know what a playwright intended? It would take more work to accurately make such assertions surely? Perhaps you might read the text and then look at the production in juxtaposition? You could ask the writer? But as if you or anyone has time for that, let's face it.
I agree that sometimes writers don't know what they intend but in this case my intentions were very deliberate.
The play is a reflection on a school community and how an incident such as what happens in the play affects it. I chose to tell the teacher's story because I think it is important and yes, it is intened to extend the frame.
I wanted to write about a teacher because I find so many portrayals of teachers offensive. I often think about to one horrific portrayal of a teacher in Arena's Angela Betzien play a few years back- a minor role and an authority archetype in a motar board and gown and it made me feel so angry because it made the same assumptions you make that teachers equal authority and are therefore out of touch with youth culture.
Most teachers I know are quite in touch with youth culture Alison and authority in the context of 'at risk' kids becomes a very slippery thing.
This play was developped in 2008 and done in conjunction with three school communities- young people were consulted, they heard readings they gave feedback etc etc. I never got from them a sense that what they were viewing was an adult view of the world they inhabited.
I have to admit that your comment 'Silent Disco never escapes the sense that this is an adult vision of young people' interests me but enlighten me, what else could it be given that I am nearly forty and so is the director?
Anyway, a few ramblings...I'm not meaning to sound snarky but if I do, I'll assume you will be able to read more into my intentions than that.

Cameron Woodhead said...

FWIW I don't agree with Alison that 'Silent Disco never escapes the sense that this is an adult vision of young people', at least in performance. Oscar Wilde rightly points out that actors are the first critics of drama, and I'm surprised Alison didn't excavate her thoughts on the performances more.

Intention is tricky. It's trendy to ignore the writer's intention as something impossible to know, or beside the point. It isn't that simple.

Alison claimed just yesterday on another blog that Roland Barthes was a writer of "rigorous lucidity". She can't think too highly of him, because as you say Lachlan, she commits the cardinal sin of reading the Author into Silent Disco: "Philpott's intentions are clearly in the same area", and thus imposes a limit on the text. A big no-no, according to Barthes' seminal essay.

The first piece of theatre criticism I ever wrote critiqued Barthes' theory in relation to the theatre. The text we get on stage is not the same text as the playscript. It has already been interpreted, and must be again.

In this situation, where the Author is more distant, can we 'know' what was intended? Not absolutely, of course, but that isn't how the mind works. Life would be impossible without drawing conclusions about people's intentions.

Now, if I see a man chasing a naked, screaming boy through a park, I have enough information to say he's trying to catch up to the boy. If I want to determine whether he's the boy's father or a child-molester, I'll need more to go on.

But what if there's no easy way of finding out? Yep, I guess, based on experience.

Alison is within her rights to guess your intentions in the way she does. Nothing clairvoyant about it. She looks at your play in the context of other works she's seen. She might be dead wrong. She might see a child-molester where you intended a harrassed father. She might be a better critic if she looked to the script first ... but she's only doing what we all do all the time.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Lachlan - I don't know how locating a work in particular traditions is any reflection of the "intention" of the author. Works have contexts whether its authors know it or not (and it's better to know it). A careless phrase where I loosely speak of "intention" (it would have been better to say "this work is clearly in the same area") doesn't change that.

I'm kind of astonished that you would want to write a work in a realist/heightened naturalist mode about socially disenfranchised young people WITHOUT being aware of that great 20C tradition of works which have dealt with precisely these things - it goes back to De Sica and beyond the film makers I briefly mention includes a tradition of theatre - artists like Lindsay Anderson, Trevor Griffiths, Arnold Wesker... "No text is an Island, entire of itself", to mangle Dr Donne. The kind of play you wrote is drawing on techniques and assumptions created by these people - even the development model in the community that you used comes from much earlier artists, who started working in that way for particular political reasons. You might only know these techniques and approaches through second hand sources, and so think it outrageous of me to make these connections, but it's your business to know them as much as it is mine. It's not clairvoyance, it's criticism.

Re the teaching thing: I'm not saying baldly that teachers = authority. I did say that the action of the play seemed to me to be very much filtered through a paradigm of authority, which is subtly different. The character of the teacher is clearly more complex than that, but the entire play actually reinforces certain institutional assumptions, even notions of redemption, that go with an institutional ideology. You never really get a sense of uncontrolled anarchy, for instance, where that youthful recklessness is celebrated: it's all parsed in terms of risk and danger and as a result of familial/social dysfunction. (Now I'm thinking of the best school film ever, Linsday Anderson's IF, although I admit that one is a stretch - but it does have a sense of danger that I missed here). I say this because the actions of the children always seemed judgeable - she's doing this because her father has AIDS, he's doing this because his girlfriend has betrayed him, both have been abandoned by their mothers - in ways which actually enclose the action in legible ways. They are legibilities which appeal to a middle class audience, and which in the end leave the world quite safe: redemption is possible in this paradigm (Tamara), even if for others things go wrong (Squid). It's the families that are at fault (this is where I have the problem with the mother-thing). Obviously the institutions too, but the institutions offer a rational way out, via the compassionate teacher. Etc.

As I mention above, lots of adults have written convincingly and unpatronisingly about young people. Age isn't the point.

I experienced the play as a play, which means I listened quite hard, but no, I didn't read it (although I often do read plays I write about). That's what I got from seeing it in the form in which it as written to exist. I'm not meaning to sound snarky either; on the one hand, it might be reasonable to expect a critic to read a play he or she writes about, but, after all, it's a play, and a performance is a totally valid experience of the text.

Lachlan Philpott said...

I don't know what makes you think I am unaware of these works Alison. Not to worry though. I have appreciated our discussion. I think I saw you are on the list for the Australian Theatre Forum. I look forward to seeing and no doubt hearing you there.

Alison Croggon said...

Me too, Lachlan. And yes, I would be astonished if you WERE unaware.

Anonymous said...

that is such bullshit, excuse my language - that an artist should be aware of other works of art (or acts of creative expression) that somehow fall into the same domain of expression or the same school of meaning or what have you.

That is such bullshit, for one very good reason, that reason being that somehow every artist has to exist within the prism of every other work of art that has already ocurred and somehow indebted to it. Which is bullshit. That somehow every artist somehow has to have knowledge of every other artists work (I mean a writer could be using words to create meaning knowing only every single fruit or single celled organism on the planet) or if writing about the experience of taking drugs, has to bloody well take every single drug there is: otherwise they are somehow not up to the task of bloody writing about it, because somehow this lack of bloody knowledge renders them somehow less worthy of creating a work of expression based purely on their own inner world.

Sure, having knowledge of other works of art, especially as they occur in the same field of endeavour, may be helpful. But this may is not the are essential that a scientist drawing on research would have to contend with.

This is bullshit because it means that anyone who wants to smoke a spliff and drive to Adelaide has to read On The Road. Or that anyone who wants to write a play about love and unrequited love has to read Romeo and Juliet (then watch the film). It assumes that if they haven't, then they are not worthy of writing about smoking a spliff and driving to adelaide. Or about love and the parents of the girl they love.

Bullshit bullshit bullshit.

That's a bullshit elitist bullshit argument Allison and I think for the first time ever you have made me bloody mad.

I am expected to read every single bloody response to a blog post ever, in order to be able to rightfully write a response to a blog post?

Bullshit.

Alison Croggon said...

I feel like the guy in Flying High - sure picked the wrong week to give up cigarettes...

I will say this. Every single piece of criticism I have ever written has been predicated on the assumption that art is made in the context of other art as well as in the context of the society it is made. Every. Single. Piece. Of. Criticism.

It doesn't mean that I have read everything, by any means - there are huge gaps in my knowledge. But the kind of connections I make here are pretty damn obvious. If Lachlan knows these works, he will know exactly why I have mentioned them. I think what makes people angry is that they stretch beyond our sea-girt shores and are older than the past five years. Yes, maybe you have to work a bit.

I absolutely DO think that if you want to make a work of art you should know your antecedents. Which is not the same as knowing every single work of art ever: it IS about knowing the history of what you are writing. I don't expect readers of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials to have read Milton, but I (uite rightly) assume that Pullman did, and I expect any critic worth his or her salt who writes about that work to have read Milton too. There is always more to know, for artists and for critics, but some things are basic.

Sure, in some Situationist mode, smoking a spliff and driving to Adelaide may be a work of art, but I am unlikely to witness such a thing and no, in life you don't have to read Jack Kerouac to do that. But if you wrote and published a journal about it, yes, I absolutely would expect you to have read Kerouac, and think you remiss if you hadn't.

T said...

Anonymous is a lazy bum.

Anonymous wants to roll out of bed and make Art.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Snap with the cigarettes. And I put my hand up to cover the ATF on the first day of registration, so I'll see you both there!

"A careless phrase where I loosely speak of "intention" (it would have been better to say "this work is clearly in the same area") doesn't change that."

Is it carelessness though? If it is, you're a very careless critic. I can point to many reviews where you've used this construction: look at how you talk about "intention" when reviewing Joanna Murray-Smith's plays, for a start.

Not that I care. Unlike you, I disagree with Barthes and think that speculating on a writer's intention is sort of inevitable, and has its uses.

But if you agree with him, and think the Author really is dead, it would behoove you to avoid using the word "intention" so much in your reviews, as a matter of intellectual consistency, don't you think? Or are you having second thoughts about Barthes?

BTW it's false to posit that something neutral-sounding like "this work is clearly in the same area" doesn't carry within it an imputation about the author's intention. That's nothing but spin. Of course it does. It's why you can get sued over such things.

T said...

Anyone who hasn't read Kerouac, led alone Romeo and Juliet (!?) - is a bum.

Also - I am disturbed by both Cameron Woodhead's dubious metaphor, and his depressingly predictable reference to Roland Barthes.

All of you - except Alison - make me sick.

T said...

Oh my god, he's still talking about Barthes...

Cameron Woodhead said...

Again Alison's barrackers attempt to hijack legitimate debate. Yawn.

T said...

Legitimate boring debate.

Barthes, Barthes, Barthes - I would posit most people reading this blog are familiar with old Barthes' seminal essay.

Move on! Move on, Cameron! Before I am sick!!!!

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron: I think when I've used the word intention, it's pretty clear that I mean an intention intuited in the work: and that I DON'T mean that I have a magic lantern that illuminates the processes inside another artist's head. I'm quite willing to concede I could be more careful about signalling precisely what I mean, though: as you would know yourself, the pressures of responding to two or three works a week means that my expression is often not as graceful as I wish it were.

A work is, quite self-evidently, not the same as its author: there is (fortunately) a big difference between the two. And there are abundant examples everywhere of works which escape stated authorial intention. It is, and I'll maintain this forever, entirely possible to discern intentions - or tendencies towards certain meanings - in works, though these are always arguable. It is totally impossible to guess an author's intention (how would we know?), or even to believe an artist's intention if they indeed are able to articulate one. I've always assumed an artist's intention is to make a work of art. Though I'm beginning to suspect that sometimes I must be mistaken on that one.

And you really do have a reductive idea of the death of the author, don't you? I think we've discussed this before. Barthes is arguing against the kind of crude reading-through-biography for authenticity that dominates a certain kind of critical thinking. It is in fact a real bugbear of contemporary literature, where celebrity is all. It's as fallacious as it ever was, and Barthes' critique is every bit as relevant.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Now we're getting somewhere.

Yes, I understand the pressures of writing and I make enough linguistic errors myself not to hold yours against you.

No, I do not have a reductive view of Barthes. The reading-through-biography part of Barthes' critique is lucid, and if he'd stopped there I'd have no problem with him. Sure, if Shakespearean criticism remained limited to asking what Shakespeare intended, we'd be much poorer for it. But Barthes goes way beyond that argument, as you know, to argue that our apprehension of an artist's intention - rather than the artist's intention itself - ought to be utterly irrelevant to our appreciation of the work. That's madness, but such were the times.

You think a work can have intentions, and you'll maintain that forever? Rubbish. Only conscious beings have intentions. Anthropomorphising art in that way is ridiculous.

Nor is it 'impossible to guess' an author's intention: guessing by its nature embraces a state of affairs where knowledge is lacking, and every time we approach art, that will necessarily be the case to some extent.

(Conflating "intention" with "tendencies towards certain meanings" shifts the goalposts a great deal. I always love it when you do that.)

And of course there are many examples of works where our apprehension of the artist's intention IS irrelevant, because there's another way of looking at the art that's more beautiful. But we should by no means conclude from this that such a line of enquiry is ALWAYS irrelevant, or that there isn't SOME value in pursuing it.

Anonymous said...

Howdy
Just a quick one for Lachlan. The teacher (with the mortar board) in Girl Who Cried Wolf by Angela Betzein was, in keeping with all the minor characters, stylized. She was a representation of 12 year old Laura Black (the central protagonist)’s fantastic, gothic worldview. Like many of the other elements, such as the gothic narration and the design, it wasn’t LITERAL. Hundred’s of teachers have seen the show and none have ever complained. I can appreciate you didn’t like it or it didn’t work for you but a horrific portrayal - really?

Best and see you at the forum.
Rose Myers

Alison Croggon said...

Cameron - I'm a bit tired of this argument, to be honest, not least because I have rather a lot of other things to do. But as I'm struggling with a novel at the moment that keeps evading my intentions and introducing its own, unexpected intentions, I claim that, yes, absolutely, a work of art can have intentions that have nothing to do with the conscious intentions of its author(s). It's one of the many mysteries of making art.

I just don't get how we, outside, can possibly "apprehend" an artist's intention. Really I don't. It's nonsensical to think we can. We can map in a work of art what I called earlier tendencies towards meaning - unsatisfactory phrase, I agree, but here drawing on Muriel Rukeyser's beautiful designation of poetry as a place "where meanings tend". Whether the maker meant them to be there is absolutely moot.

(As an aside, how does it shift the goalposts, Cameron? It is simply a clarification of what I mean, given that you have - understandably - misunderstood it. I have long been personally hostile to the idea that anyone can know what goes on in an artist's head while making a work, and dubious that even if that knowing were possible, that such understanding would be very useful. If I meant the author's intention, I would say so.)

I also don't think it's any of our business what the maker thought, especially if he happens to be Shakespeare. Our business is the work. But hey, I'm not one to legislate avenues of speculation. If you find it useful, good oh.

Alison Croggon said...

A PS - I think that authorial intentions, whether or not they exist, have been well and truly mixed up in this argument with formal genealogies/traditions. My connecting of SD with various realist traditions is the latter activity. Such taxonomies are always arguable, of course. But they manifestly have nothing to do with "intention".

Cameron Woodhead said...

If they have nothing to do with intention, why do we both mix them together so often? Surely such taxonomies have something to do with intention. I'd argue art is what it is partly because the intention of artist and audience is rather deliberately not contiguous, allowing for a multiplicity of meanings in the nexus between them.

And your novel isn't really introducing its own intentions Alison. That's just your unconscious.

Anyway, I'm fantastically busy too. Over and out until the nicotine craving subside.

Lachlan Philpott said...

I'm sorry Rose. My comments about your production were thoughtlessly worded and made a tenuous point. I am a real fan of your work and Angela's and I loved that production with the exception of that one choice. It was a while back though and not the right words or context so my apologies.

Alison Croggon said...

I've been thinking further. I think that the only thing an artist can honestly "intend" is to make a certain form. That's it. In which case taxonomies, perceived by either watcher or maker, are indeed an aspect of intention, although again I'd locate the intention in the work of art. Frankly, where else are you going to locate it? Especially if the artist has been dead for centuries. But this is all getting a bit wibbly wobbly timey wimey.

"And your novel isn't really introducing its own intentions Alison. That's just your unconscious."

Spoken like a true critic, Cameron. I don't believe in muses either, but I just wrote a poem to one. Whatever the phenomenology, the tricks the mind plays withs itself puts whiskers all over authorial intention.

Alison Croggon said...

Another PS: an extremely pertinent quote, coincidentally read last night in Gombrowicz's A Kind of Testament:

"To tell the truth, the artist doesn't think, if by 'thinking' we mean the elaboration of a chain of concepts. In him thought is born from contact with the matter which it forms, like something auxilliary, like the demands of matter itself, like the requirement of a form in the process of being born. Truth is less important to the artist than that his work should succeed, that it should come to life."

Which is to say that form has its own demands, its own "intentions", if you like. And that final sentence hits it on the head for me, save that "truth" - or at least truthfulness - in art might well be a measure of vitality, or aliveness, rather than veracity. Hence such paradoxes as Picasso's "art is the lie that revea;s the truth", etc: also Wilde's strictures on sincerity in art.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Matter gets pretty wibbly if you look at it too closely, as I suppose does thought. I'm not sure I agree with or even understand what Gombrowicz is trying to say, although:

"truth" - or at least truthfulness - in art might well be a measure of vitality, or aliveness, rather than veracity.

certainly tallied with my view of Namatjira last night. Now for Genet's The Maids at La Mama.

Alison Croggon said...

Gombrowicz, or at least that passage, makes total sense to me. It's a parallel take to Sontag's argument about the material properties of art.

I am thinking I should see The Maids. Yumi Umiumare in Genet sounds wild to me.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Better be quick. Yumi is wild, the show's amazing ... and almost sold out, from what I understand. The Caryl Churchill play at Winterfall is also first rate. Yet again, independent theatre made my week.

BerlinBlogger said...

Thanks for the apologies regarding your reference to Girl Who Cried Wolf Lachlan. You’re right, you didn’t choose the right words or context. That was poor form.

Thanks Rose for contextualising the work.

I’ve only read your play unfortunately but I think it’s really beautiful Lachlan. Well done.

Alison, if you’re keen to see another play written for and about young people come see War Crimes this week. We sent you an invite. I promise you this is no adult vision and after three years of development we reckon we’ve got the diction of young girls living in regional Australia right. It’s a story told by an ensemble of five women in one action packed hour. How often do you get to see that?

Angela Betzien

Anonymous said...

What concerned me about Silent Disco was the high value it placed on dominant cultural values characteristic of the white middle to upper classes. A dominant class is easily able to impose its definition of reality upon the working class, particularly in an educational context. Mrs Petchell’s “story” merely reflected the powerful position held by the ruling class within Capitalist society. I would say it did very little to empower working class kids like Squid and Tamara, then again, perhaps that wasn’t the intention.

Anonymous said...

Calm down everyone. Theatre is not the cure for cancer. I love reading Cameron and Alison. It's more interesting and entertaining than any theatre I've seen recentlly. Have you thought about doing a TV show together? I am serious. I think you would make a fortune. A sort of theatre version of Margaret and David, only younger of course. You could even tap into gen Y and do it reality style where you are forced to live in the same house together for several months, never go anywhere except to the theatre, also together. Theatre really needs you two to do a show together. Seriously. Then theatre will make more money and its artists will suffer less poverty.

Lachlan Philpott said...

Thanks Angela. Thanks each and every anonymous blogger. Please Alison, can you please review something else now. This had run out of gas.

Anonymous said...

Why hasn't someone already commissioned this reality TV series? Sure-fire hit.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Cameron Woodhead's comment about Winterfall Theatre's production of Caryl Churchill's A NUMBER. I saw it and was blown away. It was the most unsettling, disturbing, funny, and compelling theatre I have seen in years! Yes indeed, independent theatre can make a big impression- I am cancelling my MTC subsciption. Loved Hamlet but I am sick to death of seeing the same faces on their stage all the time- All the usual suspects and often not entirely right for their roles. It happens at The Malthouse too. If you're going to cast someone- get the best- not the best known- If the best-known is really right for the part and really good at it, that's fine. After all, commercial restraints play a big part in business. However mainstream companies in Melbourne also insult their audience by presuming that we won't continue to come unless some household name is at the forefront of every show. THe MTC has NEVER given me the tingle right up my spine that I got at Winterfall Theatre's A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill. Good on you Cameron. I am beginning to really respect you.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all. Glad to see the enthusiasm for discussion about everything! I feel that I should create an open thread where people can talk about productions they've seen. What do you think?

Lachlan, I'll be attempting to get a couple of reviews up today. The truth is that over the past couple of months I've been feeling a wee bit burned out, so am a bit slow. Sometimes I just can't keep all these different balls in the air: this blog is only one of the things I do.

Cameron sees way more stuff thsn I do, and kudos to him - it's exhausting. Two reviews a week is about all I can manage. Cameron and I as the Margaret and David of Melbourne theatre? I suppose it's not precisely inaccurate. (If a little embarrassing.)

The most exciting energies have always come from independent theatre, since way back when. Certainly since I started going in the dawn of time...

4 Coffins said...

I think it would be an interesting experiment to open it up to different people but you might get some self-promoters. I wonder if there is another way? "flagging" or something??

I also really like the authorship you have here and I like it when people hijack that it's fun :)

We all need something to rebel against.

Enjoyed the convo but feel like it's old ground as a theoretical discussion - appreciate that it's personal for some though.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to say that i am not to be confused with those anonymouses masquerading as me.