Trapped by the Past ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Trapped by the Past

Trapped by the Past: Why our Theatre is Facing Paralysis, by Julian Meyrick. Platform Paper No. 3, January 2005, Currency House, ISBN 0 9581213 7 0

"Those who cannot remember the past," said George Santayana, "are condemned to repeat it". Applied to theatre, this is a vision of terrifying sterility: some outer circle of Hell, decked out like a cross between an English drawing room and the set of Neighbours. And as Julian Meyrick argues in his very interesting polemic, Australian theatre's ignorance of its own history dooms it to an endless cycle of "forgetting and despair".

Too right, say I: if memory is a form of consciousness, then Australian theatre, as a discrete if debatable entity, is a dead duck. We barely have a repertoire: how often do we see reinterpretations of classic texts by White, Hewett, Beynon, Kenna, Hibberd, or any other playwright who has made a mark in the past fifty years? And how many new plays have any life beyond a single four week season?

I'm grateful to Meyrick - that rare beast, a theatre historian - for his careful delineation of this problem in his paper Trapped by the Past. He spends some time discussing how institutional and governmental structures and assumptions have formed the present, and he chronicles a depressing history of botched or even hostile public policies and damaging intercinine rivalries. But Trapped by the Past is, most importantly, an impassioned plea for cultural memory.

"Donald Horne's complaint that the industry's idea of cultural debate is a one-line telegram signed by twenty artists points up the lack of articulated vision coming from theatre professionals on the ground today," says Meyrick. "At a recent public meeting on the future of Playbox, I was not the only one struck by the lack of specific knowledge about the company we had come to discuss. And when, at the end, someone stood up - as someone always does - and said 'Who needs the past anyway?' - as someone always does - a vision rose before my eyes of a wheel of fire on which Australian theatre was to be endlessly wracked, our historical forgetting a constituent part of our on-going suffering."

The Greeks said (they got a lot of things right) that Memory was the mother of the Muses, so cultural amnesia is probably about half of the thousand cuts that are currently bleeding Australian theatre dry. But Meyrick's thesis is not so much that Australian theatre has forgotten its past, as that it only remembers certain parts of it. He points out that theatre is an art form with a history that extends far beyond our sea-girt shores and into a past far deeper than the past thirty years, facts which too seldom seem to enter our theatrical conversations; but here his main concern is with local history.

His experience of finding teasing glimpses of alternative, unwritten histories echoes my own when, as a young critic, I was attempting to inform myself about Australian theatre. I remember being told about all sorts of interesting things - the international avant-garde edge in the APG, for example, or the feminist theatre of the '70s - to which I could, frustratingly, find little or no reference in the histories and overviews I consulted. Meyrick mentions how whole swathes of experience - that of older actors trained in the "Anglo" tradition of theatre, who remember the Tiv and music hall - have been forgotten, and how much poorer we are for this loss. The commonly accepted story is how this kind of theatre, colonial and hidebound, was swept aside in the larrikin "New Wave" of the late 60s and early '70s, when Australian theatre, as the myth goes, first found its "voice". These other, overshadowed histories made the prevailing myth - which is, of course, not entirely inaccurate - both more interesting and more complex.

As Meyrick says, "Australian theatre is an art form in wilful ignorance of its own past, and the upshot is an industry that appears less interesting than in fact it is... the truth is fabulous, intriguing, high coloured, a story of titanic struggles, colossal achievements, massive defeats, murderous betrayals..." Which, if it recalls one of those thrillers with raised gold lettering so prominent in airport bookshops, has the virtue of sounding more exciting than the usual unquestioning narratives of nationalism vs. colonialism.

Although he focuses on generational change and, in particular, on the disastrous dominance of Playbox Theatre in the recent development of new Australian work, the true value of Meyrick's paper resides elsewhere. Meyrick does claim that a generation of theatre artists who are now in prominent positions through Australian theatre are, deliberately or not, stifling innovation in the art. But he says this is the result of a fracture that occurred when the New Wave first appeared, polarising the culture - on the one side, the conservative, authoritarian model, on the other the brash, questioning, anti-authoritarian Vietnam protesters - and the twain ne'er met anywhere. And he claims that the lack of a perception of a common ground - a recognition that, whatever their differences, they were pursuing to their best abilities a mutual passion for an abstract but real thing called "Australian theatre" - led to an impoverishment of theatre culture that is now having disastrous consequences for younger artists.

"The real problem," says Meyrick, glancing over the tangle of spats and rivalries which characterise the discourse, "is that the 'debate' is founded on such a fierce determination not to understand other points of view that any intellectual gain from the sparring of competing minds is lost."

Bravo, Mr Meyrick: that's the underlying problem in a nutshell. What he is describing is a pervasive anti-intellectualism that has been the bane of Australian theatre on all sides, and a lack of disinterested commitment to theatre itself. As much as reducing discourse to pitched battles and skirmishes between rival interests, this often expresses itself in a puzzling incuriosity about theatre as an art form. Most bizarrely, given its often nationalistic dress, it manifests as a condition of cultural cringe which very often marginalises new or original Australian voices which (as they should) challenge prevailing mores. Meyrick, whose main concern is with what he calls "verbal drama" (aka plays), correctly questions where that leaves new playwrights and other emerging theatre artists.

There is, in fact, a surprising number of young and engaged theatre writers; but as things stand, their outlook is fairly bleak. As Meyrick says, the lack of a well-supported middle sector of theatre, between co-op fringe productions and the major state institutions, means that it is extremely difficult for new artists, and especially new playwrights, to evolve. He fields some depressing statistics, courtesy of Geoffrey Milne, about the shrinkage in contemporary theatre. Between 1986 and 2003, the number of new productions by state theatre companies declined from 49 to 29.8 - a drastic fall approaching almost 50 per cent. And, even worse, the production of new plays by local and overseas writers in alternative companies has declined by 30 per cent in twenty years.

This situation is in part a result of the withdrawal of funding for the middle tier companies - Anthill, The Church, Theatreworks, the Red Shed and others - which actively commissioned and produced new works. Australian theatre has never recovered from this policy-driven act of cultural vandalism. In Victoria, Playbox Theatre was supposed to pick up the slack, providing a greenhouse for the tender young shoots of new work; but Playbox's devastatingly poor audience figures reflect the failure of this policy. It is neither possible nor desirable to replace what was once the province of many alternative theatres with a single, corporatised entity: like all ecosystems, theatre needs diversity to survive. And it is a measure of theatre's ill-health that its diversity has been declining in both absolute and generic terms over the past two decades. Not only are fewer plays being produced, but fewer kinds of plays.

All the same, in the general atmosphere of gloom one shouldn't overlook the energies and vitalities that do exist. Out of the vacuum have sprung many small, independent companies which produce new plays, both Australian and international, with minimal or no funding. And one should not forget La Mama either, a unique treasure which actively supports the notion of an open and diverse theatre culture. Yet the fact remains that, however hard-working and imaginative they may be, these independent companies struggle with a paucity of resources that severely limits what they are able to achieve. The genius of Australian theatre has so often lain with "poor theatre": great things have happened there. But as a default policy, it is no way to grow a vibrant and stimulating culture. There is a point where companies, simply, need money to make the art they should.

There's no getting away from the fact that part of the many-faceted crisis facing Australian theatre is the increasingly tight availability of funds, a complex issue in itself bedevilled by the whole problem of arts advocacy. Meyrick often refers to the "theatre industry"; a common enough phrase, but a symptom of a deeper problem. As I said in an essay last year, picking up on Donald Horne's observations on the "economisation" of the arts:

I can remember when people started talking about the "arts industry", back in the early '90s. I thought at the time it was a harbinger of doom. The argument used to lobby for arts funding was almost exclusively economic: the arts created employment, generated tourism, and so on. (There was, I think, a little discussion about social capital.) This focus seems to have modelled almost all subsequent advocacy for the arts. And what we have created is a monster, to which all the arts must now pay tribute: the arts industry is here to stay, and arts companies are expected to function like other economic entities, and to justify their existences by making a profit for their "stakeholders"....

Given its devastating impact ... it is not surprising that the idea of the "arts industry" has been attacked recently by several eminent Australians, including Donald Horne. Horne says the "economisation of culture" is a fundamentalist creed. "It's not supported by public stonings or beheadings but its effect can be pretty ruthless," he said in a speech in 2002. "It's the kind of language that turns our society into 'the economy', our citizens into 'the consumers' and our public funds into 'taxpayers' money'." He described the phrase "the arts industry" and the adoption by arts advocates of the vogue-ish terminology of the markets as a Trojan horse. "How is it, "he asks, "that people concerned with speaking up for 'the arts' and other cultural activities have been reduced to that kind of twaddle?"

Yes, we need another phrase. But that aside, Meyrick's main claim is that theatre practitioners need to overcome their distaste of the nationalistic connotations of the term "Australian theatre", and to regain a concept of a "whole" Australian theatre, a sense of common endeavour and generosity which admits difference (and history). Which raises two questions for me, neither of them rhetorical: when was this golden age, before we lost this sense of "over-arching identity"? Might it not rather be an imaginary Eden that now must be, to mix my metaphors, forged fresh in the smithy of our souls? And, secondly, do we need the term "Australian" at all, or could this sense of identity be found simply in the term "theatre"? It sometimes seems to me that the term "Australian" is so vexed that often the idea of "theatre" gets elided altogether.

This is not to ignore, but rather to embrace, Meyrick's point about specific Australian traditions. To think of a common practice of theatre is to enfold these traditions into a wider and richer context which includes all theatre, in all times and all languages. Australian theatre is still overwhelmingly Anglophone, looking over its shoulder towards London and New York - even the name of this series, Platform Papers, is taken from a National Theatre initiative. And I would suggest that this linguistic parochialism is one of its problems, and one reason why such a narrow range of aesthetic is admitted into mainstream discussion.

With the Anglophone bias goes the traditional Anglo suspicion of "intellectuals". Meyrick digs up some classic artist-bashing, of the kind made familiar by such pundits as Andrew Bolt; but what is less easy to see and, I think, ultimately more damaging, is the anti-intellectualism within the artform itself. I remember speaking to a distinguished literary critic, then reviewing theatre, who told me airily that he never read new plays as they weren't "literary", something that astonished me. What is sadder is that playwrights themselves, mistaking "literary" for meaning "prosaic" or "untheatrical", often have a similar idea about their own work. At one stroke, this removes the art of writing plays from the entirety of experiment and argument that is imaginative and critical literature, and places it - where? In an isolated playpen with crayons and dolls?

A result of this is that much theatrical experiment in Australia has been confined to "non-verbal drama" of various kinds, out of a feeling that "verbal drama" is aesthetically limiting, and the writing of plays itself has desiccated into a hidebound naturalism. It is common to hear "text-based theatre" spoken of in a dismissive way, as the conservative wing of theatrical artistry. This is inaccurate in terms of wider history, where writing has been the engine for most innovations in modern theatre, but here it has a certain self-fulfilling truth. And this raises a crucial issue, which is the lack of a critical discourse which can discuss aesthetic qualities in any useful manner. In the absence of this, no amount of structural institutional analysis - useful and necessary though it is - can make any sense. The mere presence of new Australian work is no guarantee of cultural health; it has to be Australian work that matters. But how one determines what makes it matter is another, and even thornier, question.


Currency House
SMH - Talking 'Bout Another Revolution
The Age - Getting Bums on Seats


Anonymous said...

As the consumate outsider, unaware of Australia's theater scene I am curious how revolutionary playwrights have been received. Has anyone performed Ionesco or Kushner? How much is/was Esslin read?

To read about "stifled innovation" in an art form so close to the people is disturbing to say the least. Plays are about situations and story where real people impact audience from a meager distance, unlike the glossy chasms that exist between viewers and screens. If a moving connection between audience and actor does not exist a great cultural loss is occuring.

Why are the community theaters falling apart when they should be picking up the slack from the decline in state productions? Grassroots is the greatest means of revolution. Jesus and Shakespeare emerged out of the wilderness in their early thirties. Out of the darkness comes the light, are there no little communities with artistic identities?

Reading about the paucity of funds and meager dialogue is depressing. Someone needs to go the universities and build an audience. Someone has to make zines and magazines to create dialogue that isn't restrained to backstage.

One thing that I have been able to experience in the US is a thriving scene for small troupes who travel to schools and teach about situations. These troupes improv about drug use, sex, loving-kindness, etc. after receiving prompts from the audience or patrticipating audience members. This type of performance art is anything but non-verbal and teaches large numbers of people the importance of "play" and "story" can play in their lives. Relevance is always an important tool to driving interest. I've seen these troupes in cities and quaint towns, they are a driving force in my generations realationship to theater.

When I stand up in front of an audience and tell them that people are dying and suffering and that I am going to talk about real people not dehumanizing photographs taken from a distance, they feel and think themselves into the compare and contrast. I take pride in being a minor poet and actor (I mostly do spoken word these days). What is being done to feed the people who are willing to be small fish with big hearts? Not everyone gets the media spotlight on the big stage but we're all on the big stage nonetheless.

You and Mr. Horne have identified much of the problem, I was curious as to what steps are being taken to resurrect Hamlet.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jason

Kushner was done some years ago by the State companies, and many innovative and new playwrights are done here, if generally in small productions. If you read this blog, you'll see reviews of productions of Kane and Barker and other contemporary European, English and American playwrights.

We do have many Theatre in Education programs and, indeed, grassroots theatre and communities of many kinds (I mentioned some in the article). The problem for us is that they need places to develop, to work with more resources, in order to further develop their work. Unlike the US, we have state funding for the arts; unlike the US, we don't have a long tradition of private patronage. A thriving indigenous theatre culture in a small country like ours depends crucially on government patronage.

There are various moves underfoot at the moment, which I'll be watching with interest this year - Playbox has revamped as the Malthouse under a new director, and is already developing a most interesting program, including some of these small, independent companies that are producing new work. And the Currency House Platform Papers series, to which I was responding, is another encouraging signal that people want to talk and think about our current situation.