Off again ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 31, 2005

Off again

Yes, your indefatigable blogger is off to the States for the next month, to do some poetry readings and a couple of appearances as a Fantasy Author in Los Angeles - those interested can find the details on my diary. I will be, believe it or not, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Southern California (yes, that's Doctor Croggon to you...) Wish me luck in the halls of academe - I promise not to turn into a flower child or a starlet harlot, and I'll be back in early December.

Before my departure, I am obliged to award the coveted Golden Knob Award for Services to Performing Arts Criticism during the Melbourne Festival. You can check into the Knob-Jockey Awards ceremony and presentation by clicking through to Critic Watch.

In the meantime, you can meditate on the trenchant criticism of critics in a recent Guardian article, in which Michael Coveney discusses the death of British theatre criticism: "Great critics are rare birds; rare birds need a welcoming aviary and the zookeepers are not on the lookout for such special and specialist breeds of plumage any more...The long, slow haul of a career as a critic, with its period of apprenticeship, dedication and accumulation of wisdom and experience ... is suddenly becoming a thing of the past."

The sad thing is, I'm not sure that it was ever a thing of the present in this culture. Theatre culture in the 1980s and 90s was hugely influenced by critics like Katherine Brisbane, whose credo was largely extra-curricular: "I began to see," says Brisbane, speaking about her early days as a critic, "that my role as a reporter was more important than what I thought of as my role as a critic.… I very quickly realised that to write reviews concentrating on the various nuances of the production wouldn't really interest the reader."

Wow. Can she really mean this? To Brisbane (and, she assumed, her readers), it wasn't theatre itself that was interesting, but what it represented as "an instrument of showing us where we are going and why we are as we are". (This is where instrumental attitudes to art begin to be, in essence, profoundly philistine - I suddenly want to quote Sontag's essay Against Interpretation and argue for an erotics of art, which has the virtue of not obscuring the art itself in favour of some interpreted "meaning").

This attitude accounts, perhaps, for Brisbane's comment about the new work presently stirring at those lengendary grass roots, the best of which has a rather broader view of theatre than its role as a tool of nationalistic expression: "I am not all that optimistic, really, about the theatre being as exciting as it was before." Because, as she laments elsewhere, it is no longer "an expression of our national character".

It depends, I suppose, on what one means by "exciting". And "national character". And "theatre". But I'll leave you all to mull over these interesting questions. I have to go pack.

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