Conversation (1): Objections ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Conversation (1): Objections

In which the PLAYWRIGHT (Abe Pogos) and the CRITIC (Alison Croggon) come to fisticuffs. Er, actually, no - in which two writers attempt to have a discussion about what matters to each of them about drama, following the criticism by one of the other's work. This is an edited version of a private email exchange, which Abe has very kindly permitted me to post here. This kind of dialogue will, I hope, be an irregular feature on the blog.

- AC

Dear Alison

Sorry I've taken so long to get back to you about your review.

I've decided not to post a response on your web site. I had a number of gos at a detailed analysis but I couldn't come up with anything I was happy with. When I tried to be funny I sounded bitchy, when I tried to be serious I sounded boring. Inevitably I found myself writing a review of my own play and I just felt embarrassed.

I gave up on trying to write an essay (I also gave up on trying to respond with a film script, an opera and an epic poem) and I've just included some general responses.

I felt that to some extent you reviewed the play according to expectations that were raised by the blurb on the Currency edition and that one of the play's failures was that it didn't live up to those expectations. I think the blurb (which I didn't write) unduly influenced you into placing emphasis on what I think are secondary concerns in the play. As a thesis on racism and genocide the play may be limited. While those issues are part of the fabric of the play I don't think they're the most important aspect. I wished you'd engaged more directly with the narrative and the drama of the piece which seemed to me to focus more on other things. The clue to what those things might be is somewhere in the following territory:

When Joan enters in the play's opening scene, the four characters on stage are the same ones who appear at the very end. In that first scene Joan discovers Toby being beaten by Christie under the authority of Duke. In the final seconds of the play Joan is weeping over the body of Christie who has been murdered by Toby while Duke is offering Toby Christie's badge. Joan is weeping over Christie oblivious to the fact that he has killed her first lover, Duke is offering Toby the badge oblivious to the fact that he's murdered Christie and Toby is on the ground whimpering in despair in spite of the fact he's been offered the two things he asked for at the beginning of the play (to be held and to be a sheriff).

I'm not sure what the moral of all that is, but the meaning of the play and its themes are contained in the sweep of the story and its ending, and the issue of racism is one part of it. You said the play has some "terrific bits...but where's the whole?" It begins in scene one and includes all the steps that take us to a climax where all the characters' and their relationships to one another have drastically changed. Directly or indirectly every scene leads to that climax and in that sense the play is organic and logical. That doesn't automatically make the play entertaining or compelling (and if you're right and the characters are unbelievable then the play fails anyway) but I'd argue there is a fundamental sense of design that you didn't see. It seemed like you decided or assumed what the play's themes ought to be or were trying to be, then got discombobulated because the narrative didn't stack up . Again I think it's because your emphasis on its themes and intentions was misplaced (I blame the blurb).

You make an attempt to state what my intentions were:

PLAYWRIGHT: I wanted to show how easy it is for people to become - other. For people to be made afraid of anyone different, and then to become cruel and murderous.

I'd argue the emphasis is the other way around. My starting point was to see what might happen if an outsider tried to gain acceptance by embracing the bigotry that marginalised him in the first place. You may argue that the Blood Libel story that Duke tells is evidence that I was attempting to analyse and deconstruct genocidal beliefs, but when I interpret the action of the scene (act 1, scene 10) I think it has a different dramatic focus.

In the scene Duke tells Toby about a child murder blamed on Gypsies some years earlier. What's most important to me is not the detail of the history lesson, but the fact that Duke is giving Toby a history lesson at all. Why? He despises Toby. It's because Duke has experienced a succession of humiliations to his dignity and his authority. He has been stripped of power and status. He can't sack Christie, he's afraid of Garth and young boys bare their arses at him. In fact his whole journey through the play is about loss of power and identity and his attempts to regain it (one reason why the scapegoating of Gypsies becomes crucial to him). He wants to be "a beacon for others" but they ignore him, so he is reduced to giving a drunken history lesson to someone on the lowest rung of the food chain and the only person who takes him seriously. The scene is not primarily about what Duke is saying, but what Duke is doing, or more importantly being; a teacher, a mentor, a father figure, an officer of the law, all the things that give him identity and status.

At the end of your review you say:

CRITIC: I thought and thought. Racism isn't about hallucinations and madness.

Again, I disagree with your emphasis. Duke's racism is a given which is there at the beginning of the play and he has no problem with it. It's what happens to him through the course of the play that sends him spiralling downward. I don't think the play is saying that racism is about madness (though I think Duke's Blood Libel story does demonstrate both "skewed realities" and "a certain kind of emotional logic"), but it might be saying that Duke's madness is a consequence of loss of power and status. (Incidentally, that's also what I think his Alien hallucination is about. Duke, having just been stripped of his badge, begins to doubt himself and God. He hallucinates another kind of divine entity that will end his torment, but even that leads to further humiliation.)

The following passage is from one of my failed attempts to write a detailed analysis of your review.

CRITIC: Suddenly it's not about these people arguing, instead they're talking about the Law. Suddenly a whole lot of imponderables and abstracts enter the conversation. Suddenly the life goes out of it.

The discussion of the law is on page one of the script. It spans about three sentences and it's not really about the law. Christie is using the law as an excuse for disengaging himself from the fool he's in the process of robbing. There's nothing imponderable or abstract about it. Also, it's an inextricable part of their argument, not something that takes place instead of their argument. When Duke enters the tension that began the play continues. If the life goes out of it, it's not because imponderables or abstracts enter the conversation. Whatever they're discussing, their actions and objectives remain constant throughout; Toby seeking acceptance, the sheriffs rejecting him. The scene is organic and logical. It doesn't begin as one thing and derail to become something else. If it fails it's for other reasons. You then suggest one of these reasons:

CRITIC: ... if you're dealing in imponderables and abstractions, (I don't think I was but anyway) if the characters are telling us all the time what they're thinking instead of, well, just thinking it - or even not just thinking it, but being it, at a level below consciousness - then it all becomes a bit too self conscious.

Trying to prove the play isn't self conscious is too abstract and imponderable for me. And if self consciousness is a fault in Toby that isn't the inevitable consequence of filling the play with characters that are "telling us all the time what they re thinking". The characters in Toby tell us what they think far less than in masterpieces like Macbeth or Long Day's Journey Into Night. It also doesn't inevitably follow that characters who constantly tell us what they think are incapable of " a level below consciousness". In any decent play characters should be more than what they tell us. What you're suggesting is that my characters are only what they tell us and this makes it impossible for the actors to live inside the characters or behave in character, that my dialogue forces actors to describe, explain or illustrate the character they're playing so they can t really be the character:

CRITIC: It all ends up being like the shape of things, rather than the things themselves.

I believe all my characters allow actors to achieve a state of " a level below consciousness" but there's nothing definitive in the text that I can show you to prove the point. In fact it's almost a contradiction if I could show you. How can they be at a level below consciousness if the text makes it explicit?

Anyway, my characters are not telling us all the time what they're thinking. Most of the characters lie and deceive at crisis points throughout the play and Christie, the second most prominent character in the play, lies and deceives in almost every scene he's in. Again that doesn't mean it's a good play but I question the way you've characterised its flaws.

CRITIC: And seeing as it's set in a (The CRITIC checks the back of the book) nineteenth century European village - don't you think it could have been a little more - specific? More like a nineteenth century European village?...It didn't seem like a nineteenth century European village at all.

Your complaint about the European village makes my head hurt. Maybe we can chat about it over a coffee one day.

You said there were only a couple of times when you believed the characters. I'll respond to the one character you dissect in any detail, Joan.

CRITIC: But I just don't understand why that girl Joan - played by Tess Butler - had to be so Pollyanna. She seemed the most symbolic of the characters, she might as well have had "WOMAN" tattooed on her forehead, how the men all owned her, how obedient she was, how her sexuality was her only means of power. I didn't believe her for a second. What can a performer do with that?

If Joanne is a Pollyanna at the beginning she isn't by the end. She s not a Pollyanna anyway and she isn't particularly obedient and her sexuality isn't her only means of power. She uses ridicule and shame and eventually lies and deceives. The fact that the men try and own her doesn't mean they actually do. They defer to her constantly and when her lover, Garth, says "she's mine", he can only say it out of earshot because he's in the process of a deception that he knows she won't tolerate. Lots of people didn't like Joan because they thought she was conceited, manipulative and ultimately opportunistic and duplicitous, not because they thought she wasn't real. She's not the greatest female role in theatre history but her actions are clear, she drives the scenes she's in, and she goes on a journey that means she's in a different emotional space by the end of the play. A performer can do a lot with that.


Hi Abe


I’m not sure that what is basically a light review can stand or in fact deserves such close analysis; some of your objections are to comments that are basically jokes, since much of the review is a satire on the whole process of criticising in the first place. The only really serious bits are at the end, when I talk about Woyzeck and grapple with the problem of moralising that happens in spite of itself (this is actually an attempt to think about a question which I think is really about form, and how possible it is to subvert it).

No, I wasn’t influenced by the blurb. I don’t take blurbs seriously, can’t write them myself since they always seem like pure corn to me – I always get other people to write them for my own books - but some critics do. That comment is in fact a satirical aside on critics who do that (or take their lead from press releases, a bugbear of mine).

As for your other points: I’m not sure I’m going to be able to articulate what I mean. My main real criticisms of Toby were firstly its metaphorical problems, because the metaphor of the play, and its internal metaphors (the alien &c) were I felt extremely confused; and secondly its dramatic language, which fell too often out of the gestic and into these abstractions - in fact, in your defences of it, I felt that those abstractions loomed large - speaking for instance of "objectives" in a scene is already a step away from a character's actual being, and into psychology (I think psychologising is one of the enormous problems, nay falsities, of much contemporary drama, and one of THE great abstractions).

Say - the aim of wanting objectives to remain "constant" through a scene is, in my mind, a real problem, since all interesting drama is about derailment in one way or another. Which is to say, the interest of drama or characterisation is not in the constants, which may or may not be there, but in the dislocations - obvious in Strindberg or Barker or Shakespeare say, not so obvious in Ibsen or Chekhov, but I would still absolutely argue it. Toby was the best character in the play, and the only one who didn't seem to have some kind of ultimately didactic role in which their behaviour meant something and was designed to achieve something beyond themselves (what does Beckett say about "we're not beginning to mean something?", Hamm, or was it Clov?); everyone else seemed to be symbolising something, fulfilling some role inside the plot, and didn't have a life beyond that. Now you would say that Macbeth is being symbolic beyond himself, and I would agree, but not primarily: he is all sorts of things, abstractly speaking, which represent all sorts of things about human beings, if you care to make him so: but first of all, he is Macbeth - a fictional, imagined character - and these other things are incidental next to that fact.

Not sure if this is clear, but I suspect that within this conversation is a real difference about what we both consider drama to be. Which is always an interesting point to begin. I want it to be poetic, and by that I mean a whole raft of stuff which I really can't write down here. The things you want from it are maybe more prosaic (I'm not attaching value judgements to either of these descriptions, btw, I write a lot of prose...)

I still think it would be interesting to have this conversation on the blog, with all its difficulties and reservations of presentation and expression.


Dear Alison,

I did wonder if you were doing an impression of a bad critic but I wasn't game to say it. The fact that you indicate that you had serious critical points to make at the end of the review muddies the satire.

I won't go into what you've written here in too much detail for now (I've already spent five hours on the earlier correspondence). I do think a discussion of what we mean by drama is worth considering and I was thinking of asking you to look at extracts from Toby that embody your reservations, and compare them to extracts from any other play of your choice that embody your values. Obviously Toby won't compare to Shakespeare or any work of genius, but my issue is not about it's relative quality, but about the way the dramatic impulse functions. I guess I want to see if you can show me examples to demonstrate your argument.

I'm not sure what you mean by abstractions. I also don't understand what you mean when you say "speaking for instance of "objectives" in a scene is already a step away from a character's actual being, and into psychology. "(I think psychologising is one of the enormous problems, nay falsities, of much contemporary drama, and one of THE great abstractions). Say - the aim of wanting objectives to remain "constant" through a scene is, in my mind, a real problem, since all interesting drama is about derailment in one way or another."

I don't see how you can divorce someone's objectives from "their actual being" and I wonder if there is a confusion of what we mean by our terms. I even wonder what you mean by "derailment" because I'd have thought there was quite a bit of it in Toby. (I should have a read of Woyzeck.)


Hi Abe

I've been thinking in a troubled fashion about what we've been saying.

I am shocked you haven't read Woyzeck. I mean, it's not like it's a minor or unimportant play or something; it's the beginning of modern drama. There's a film by Werner Herzog with Klaus Kinski which isn't bad, but you should read it, and a good translation; I've got about five different versions, and some are much better than others. The thing is that Buchner didn't finish it before he died, and so nobody knows what order the scenes should be in. But I digress.

This business about having objectives and thwartedness being the essence of the dramatic seems incredibly reductive to me. Yes, of course, you can look at most plays and figure out objectives for each character, but if the play is any good, you won't be revealing anything interesting about what's going on by doing so, because you'll have to ignore about 90 per cent of what is actually happening in a scene. Conflict is about so much more than that, and drama is about so much more than conflict. Shakespeare is about the most un-psychological writer there is, but even Ibsen doesn't do that (people forget that his first plays were verse dramas, and that his naturalism is inherently poetic).

What about the formal attributes of writing? Of language? Do you think that the dramatic impulse has nothing to do with these things?

And a question: this emanates from my experience of writing character-based novels as much as any reading or watching plays. Do you ever not know what a character is doing, or why they're doing it?


I haven't yet dealt with stuff about poetics and language. Anyway...

I don't know if the idea of "having objectives and thwartedness" is "the essence of the dramatic" but it's a good place to start.

"Let's go/We can't/Why not?/We're waiting for Godot."

The idea of struggle is at the heart of most drama. Characters striving for more than they have - or at least keeping what they've got - and the possibility of failure or loss is what engages audiences because these things resonate in our lives.

The issue about having objectives is a practical one. How do actors bring a text to life without having objectives? A text may embody many layers of meaning, be full of ambiguities, mystery, poetry and may be open to many possibilities as to how it may be performed, but actors can't play them all. They have to be selective and find an impulse to bring the thing to life. Having objectives (what do I want?) is a fundamental animating impulse of drama, and it's the actions (what am I doing?) a character plays to achieve their objective that defines character.

Defining an objective doesn't have to be "reductive" or mean you have to "ignore about 90 per cent of what is actually happening in a scene". If the text has mystery or ambiguity actors can convey that without actually playing it (in fact I don't think you can play mystery or ambiguity). Defining an objective can also be a key to revealing layers of meaning that may not be apparent on reading a text. I'll use the example of the Cheek By Jowl production of Othello which I described to you recently.

"Emilia in this production was presented as a woman who truly loved Iago and their relationship had once been loving and passionate. Her objective was to somehow rekindle their love and the scene when she gives Iago Desdemona's hanky was playful and sexy. We then saw Iago cruelly extricating himself from Emilia's advances once he gets the hanky. It conveyed the sense of Emilia's bewilderment at a breach in their relationship which Iago has never spoken about. Like Desdemona, Emilia is in the dark as to what's gone wrong. At the end when Emilia discovers how Iago has used the hanky, her sense of betrayal and loss is palpable on many levels. The tragic heart of the play in this production is not with Othello, it is with Emilia."

Assuming my interpretation is in the right ballpark, Emilia's objective of trying to win back Iago added a layer of meaning and texture that seemed to resonate throughout the play. For one thing, it drew a parallel between Emilia's journey and Desdemona's - something that had never occurred to me before.

In response to the question "Do you ever
not know what a character is doing, or why they're doing it?"

In that moment when I imagine what the characters are saying or doing to one another I usually know why. I may not know everything about that moment and with time and reflection I'll come to understand that there are more dimensions to what that moment means then I realised at the time, but in that moment I can usually articulate what a character's actions are about. That may sound reductive but at some point I'm going to be in a rehearsal room and an actor or director will come up to me because that moment is not working and they'll ask, why is the character doing or saying that? To me it's a cop out to say I don't know. I read an interview with a playwright/director who said that if a writer was in a rehearsal room and couldn't get up and demonstrate how a line or scene works, then they had noright to expect an actor to solve the problem for them. I wouldn't go that far (I can't act for one thing) but if I'm expecting an actor to invest their time, craft and humanity in realising my work in performance, I should be able to impart some clue to help them if they don't understand me. if I can't help them then I should consider re-writing.

I'd be curious to know what your experience has been in regard to this question (in the writing process and in the rehearsal room).

More importantly, did you ever do something without knowing what you were doing or why you were doing it? (Anything you might have done under the influence of substances doesn't count.)

Another question.

What you think of notions of identification? A fundamental of any script is having someone we identify with. If we don't identify at some level, why should we care?


Hi Abe

I think we have to make a distinction between what actors might (think they) want from a text and the processes and experiences of writing. Actors always ask questions of a text, this almost goes without saying. And often what they say is very interesting and illuminating. But that does not mean that their questions ought to be answered all the time: and I think it is perfectly possible, even desirable, to write a credible character who says or does something that you don't fully understand; and if that happens, the only honest answer is that you don't know. It might be far better to let an actor or a director make certain specific decisions about a text, following his or her own creative intuitions, than to permit the actor to think that someone else has the ultimate answers. That is, after all, the actor's work. The writer's work is to make a text which permits the occasion of the actor's work: that is a writer's full and actually total obligation. (You can't ask any questions if the author is dead.) If the words on the page do not provide enough for the actor to work with, then no amount of explanation by the author is going to make up the deficit.

Now, this is not to deny that writers and actors can both very often be stupid about each other's, and very often their own, work. I am trying to imagine the best possible circumstances, rather than the worst. We both know how easy it is to fail in the theatre, and how very difficult it is to make all these elements work. Let's take that as a given.

The fact is that the actor, in having to create a character on stage night after night, is the person with the ultimate answer in any particular production of a play. And one actor will find one definitive answer in a particular production, and another actor another equally definitive - but perhaps startlingly contradictory - answer in another one. Both answers will be equally derived from the text, equally "true", which suggests that the text can encompass both contradictory readings. And this suggests that a text might have something that particular actors don't want or need, some kind of surplus, and actors might have something that is beyond the text. So these questions about actorly and writerly characterisation, while being superficially related, might actually be about very different aspects of a text.

Also, if an actor asks a writer a question about a character, it is with the assumption that the writer knows better than the actor, and has a final authority in declaiming on his/her text. I would seriously question that authority.

I think a writer ought to know everything possible about the aesthetic/formal decisions he or she has made. He/she should know everything he/she brings to making a work: its antecedents, its influences, its devices, its structure/architecture, the usages of syntax, the etymologies of words, the allusions, and so on. The better a writer is, the more conscious he/she is of all the gross and minute formal aspects of any particular piece of writing. I think Shakespeare is like this. (I'm sick of this he/she thing, I'll just use one or the other from now on) But there are things that a writer does not and should not know, although she might guess or hope. These things are, I believe, to do with the emotional life and affect of a text. This is the stuff that you can't be wholly conscious about, but which is absolutely vital to the ultimate coherency of even the most fragmentary text (eg Muller). You can't be wholly conscious about it, because, if brought into consciousness, these aspects immediately go absolutely dead and lose their potency. They have to exercise some kind of kinetic, potential charge below the surface level of the text (as you suggest). To go back to the question of the actor, this emotional affect is what an actor will respond to - most actors, in my experience, and certainly most of the best actors I have talked to, are quite inarticulate about their process: they seem to work primarily physically and intuitively, exploring some sense of "rightness". When the actor's inarticulacy meets and expresses a writer's inarticulacy, all those things that can't be said but are inherent somehow within the words, something happens.

I don't want to be mystical. Nevertheless, I think what one doesn't know, what one can't pin down, what is unpredictable, is extremely important in any creative process. You would probably say this is a cop-out. But I would suggest the opposite: that to embrace and accept what you don't know is to accept the full responsibility of your vocation, to "dance over the abyss", as Nietzsche says. To know what your work is doing all the time is a desire to possess meaning, to pin it down, and the fact is that meaning is not a possessible quality. Meaning is evanescent and contingent: if theatre has taught me anything, it is the importance of context and temporality. Also, the feeling of any text (prose, poem, play) is for me a vastly important aspect of its meaning, as are its formal qualities. These things - formal qualities and feeling - are not vehicles in which "meaning" is conveyed from writer to actor to audience. One simply cannot possess all the meanings of a text, even - or even especially - if one has written it (check out Blanchot on the question of the impossibility of authors reading their own work - I think he's right).

So, to answer your question: have I ever done anything without knowing what I was doing? The answer is, sadly, yes, even without substance abuse (in real life, I do not necessarily think this is a good thing; in fact, it is not the same question). In the realm of writing, it is most certainly "yes". I have finished stories and plays in order to find out what happened at the end. I never know what a poem is going to be before I write it, and I wrote a whole 450 page narrative novel with no idea what was going to happen next, or what my characters were going to say or do. Even when a narrative is planned, there is still an enormous indeterminacy in the writing of it. Writing for me is almost wholly a process of discovery, otherwise I couldn't imagine why the hell I would do it. When the process works, and sometimes it does, it looks as if you meant it all along. But you didn't.

Saying a play or a character is about an objective is reductive, without question, if you think it is the only or primary thing that matters in the texture and the meaning of the play. Any moment of any person's life is very complicated: at the moment, I am thinking about this, while Ben is nagging me to go to the park, and so part of me is thinking about that; the temperature has just dropped in the past five minutes; I must finish off the washing for school tomorrow; and I ought to turn the light on, as the room is getting dark. And so on... It is very seldom that only one thing happens in anybody's mind, and a good text gives the illusion - and it is an illusion - of that kind of complexity. There may be an overriding objective which drives the text, but it operates on a gross level: what makes a play interesting is all the things happening underneath that informing arc, and perhaps most of all, their contradictions. To take a crass example: Iago's objective is to destroy Othello: why is it, then, that you're sure that he loves him?

- Also, and this is a big problem I have with the Objective School, it ignores the whole question of metaphor. And I think metaphor is so crucial to theatre and theatre writing that I don't know how theatre can be talked about without it. And yet almost nobody does. As soon as an actor is on a stage, without opening his mouth, it is a metaphor. It is at once itself - the banal fact of a human being on a stage - and something else - The Theatre! Another reality, which is inherently unreal and poetic and exists in the dimensions of imagination.

As for notions of identification: it really depends on what you're writing. In my young adult novels, I write characters who are absolutely to be identified with: when fans write me "I am Maerad", I am well pleased. Maerad is an attractive character, and she embodies all sorts of terrible problems about the self that young people can passionately see in themselves. This is partly because I am writing something that I want to be popular literature, and because of the kind of book it is. It is by no means the only thing that is going on in these texts, but it is a means by which I am able to manage a number of other things which interest me.

But I don't think this question of identification matters as a universal law: I disagree that it is a "fundamental of any script". What about a play like Offending the Audience? Barker's work? (Who do identify with in The Europeans or Victory?) Heiner Muller? Brecht? &c &c, there are hundreds of examples. There are many reasons to be interested in a script, and identifying with a character is only one of them. Brecht would perhaps say that this question of identification is absolutely about pandering to an audience, about making a text "safe". This is when the question of identification becomes, as it most often does, a question of "liking" a character. It's a common criticism that characters in a piece are unlikeable, and nothing makes film producers more nervous than unlikeable characters. And this functions as a huge leverage of censorship, of reality as much as of representation. The fact is that it is possible to wholly dislike a character and yet find them fascinating - Heathcliff, say, in Wuthering Heights, is one of the most compelling characters in literature. Yet have a look at Bunuel's film, the only one which really gets Bronte's savagery, and see how cruel he is, how deeply unlikeable.

That's a really complicated question, and I have probably written enough. And now I really have to go and do the washing!


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