From the archives ~ theatre notes

Saturday, August 12, 2006

From the archives

Today, for a couple of reasons, I was going through some old work, and I found this essay. I don't think it has ever been published, and some of you might find it interesting. Among other things, it outlines how my brilliant career at the Bulletin went bung, and gives a snapshot of how I saw things in 1997. And it also articulates many of the reasons why I started this blog. Those who regularly read Theatre Notes will know that I feel rather more hopeful about Melbourne theatre now than I did then, and of course my views have evolved considerably. But of course there is the other argument, that the more things change, the more they remain the same...

Little Alison and her battle against the eunuchs

VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer rat!
ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

EVERYONE loves to hate critics. All too often, they make it easy. No matter how much you believe in the importance of public debate, no matter how passionately you argue that a vigorous, informed critical culture is essential to the health of a democratic society, some pompous ignoramus will prove to the world in the Saturday supplements that critics are on the bottom rung of intelligent life forms. Nevertheless, one must fight the good fight. This is the story of part of my personal battle, the three years I spent as a theatre critic for the Bulletin and the absurd results of my high-minded crusade to get cultural debate happening in Australian theatre. It is all, like all comedies, tragically illuminating.

In considering the contemporary disappearance of the moral authority of the critic, Hans Magnus Enzensberger comments:

... it seems that the appearance of the critic is related to the rise of bourgeois society, as if he had dominated this society for just as long as this society held on to the idea that the public discussion of cultural norms is something essential: that is, crudely put, from Boileau to Sartre, from Samuel Johnson to Edmund Wilson, from Lessing to Benjamin, from Belinsky to Shlovsky. What characterises these fabulous intellectual beasts? Legend has it, and it is confirmed by reading the works they left behind, that they were writers who wrote about the books of other writers. Further, these critics are said to have been independent people, who owed their significance solely to their work, not to an institution or an industry, at whose service they had placed themselves. Apparently the essay was their preferred form, the journal their favoured medium. They are said to have known what they wanted - obstinate, uncomfortable spirits, looking to long-term results instead of quick turnover.

Enzensberger concludes the days of the critic are over, that what remains are the mouthpieces of an industrial machine. I think he is correct, but at least he has the privilege of speaking out of European culture. Australians might well yearn for such a dilemma. Here, in a culture scarred by colonial insularity, there has never been the cultural curiosity that permitted serious public discussion of literature or art or anything else. Now that snappy advertising allows us to delude ourselves that we are a serious culture, we can catch up breathlessly with the ruins of Europe - a culture polluted by fashion, public relations and the imperatives of the culture industry.

Unlike Germany, we do not have several centuries of brilliant public thinking to shore up at least the idea of critical thought. In a country that has an insecure sense of its place in the world, the merest whiff of criticism is enough to send the so-called aesthetes screaming towards the courts of special pleading. No one thinks of donning their armour for a pyrotechnic bout of intellectual fencing for the delight and illumination of anyone who cares to watch. At best we get a bit of mud slinging, with all its attendant crudity and mess. At worst, we have the edifying anthropological spectacle of tribal groups of cultural heavies licking each other’s bottoms.

It is no accident that some of our most famous exports - Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James - are all critics. Nor that they all appear to be singularly isolated talents. One can only speculate what might have happened had they chosen to remain here. The grim guess is, not much. The impregnable fog of stupidity would have stifled them in the end. But this can only be fantastic speculation. There was nothing to keep them here in the first place.

One of our fondest myths is that everything has changed since the dull daze of Menzies. My suspicion is that, despite a glittering cosmopolitan veneer, things are probably worse. At least then it was obvious how bad things were. Australia has proved to be a good breeding ground for brilliant, isolated talents - among them a disproportionate number of extraordinary poets - the only kind tough enough to survive the death by a thousand cuts that is the lot of the artist working in Australia. Nothing is as deadening as apathy. Nothing is as savage as pettiness called to question. Nothing is as unanswerable as wilful ignorance.

I came to theatre reviewing by accident. The first job I was offered as a freelance journalist after I resigned from the Melbourne Herald in 1985, was to write the theatre pages for TV Scene, an execrable tabloid that met its unlamented demise when Rupert Murdoch bought the Herald and Weekly Times. My job for the Bulletin came about because the publicity person for the Melbourne Theatre Company suggested my name to James Hall, then the Bulletin’s art editor, when his incumbent critic couldn’t cover a play. I have no doubt my name was suggested because it was expected that, out of gratitude for the chance to move up the career ladder, I would write glowing quotes for the PR blurbs.

However, I was naive enough to take the job seriously: the chance to write something of substance had come my way rarely as a journalist. The production was Hedda Gabler. I read the play closely, mugged up on Ibsen, went to see the show and was disappointed. I said so, and why, in my review. The publicity lady was grossly offended and the director didn’t speak to me for two years. Invitations to MTC opening nights mysteriously stopped arriving, although this made me perversely ensure I went along anyway. In my beginning, as Eliot was wont to say, was my end.

Two months later James Hall offered me the position of Melbourne reviewer for the Bulletin, a post I held for the next three years. I was, in most ways, a fairly typical reviewer. I had, at best, a sketchy and local knowledge of theatre: I knew only a little of its history, its theory and its techniques and almost nothing at all about contemporary theatre elsewhere. However, in other ways I was not typical.

One was a sound intuition that, in order to write well about theatre, I had to watch it. I wanted to abandon the privileged role of “critic” and participate in the theatre as a member of the audience. I never took notes; I found that if I did this I couldn’t watch the stage. I thought note-taking accounted for the fact that many reviews seemed to be about a completely different play to the one I had seen. I found that with concentration and practice my memory served me very well. I also, whenever possible, read the plays I reviewed, especially if they were new work.

I used the style of tabloid journalism in order to write seriously about art, for two reasons. One was to destabilise the privileged art-speak that dismissed an audience as stupid. I wanted to demonstrate to the people who read my reviews that the audience, also, has a vital place in the theatre, that it isn’t there merely to worship at the hallowed shrine of culture, which is often more accurately the hollow shrine of money and cultural status.

The other reason was pragmatic. Newspaper and magazine editors believe that reviews serve two purposes: to tell their readers where, when and how a production is on, and to act as a consumer guide. To talk about art is considered a wank, as art in itself is not considered interesting. I think art by itself is interesting and wanted to talk about it: and this technique was one way of subverting the formalities of a newspaper review and getting serious ideas in, as it were, under the door.

My ideas about art were informed by the belief that, as Trotsky said, true art is truly revolutionary. I don’t mean that art exists as a form of social engineering - it is ultimately too private an act for such grandiose designs, too complex for ideologies - but that true art can shatter the comfortable constructions we all build within our lives, privately and publicly, and force us to a radical reappraisal of ourselves and our world. “A book,” said Franz Kafka, “must be the axe to break the ice within.”

Theatre can offer such radical experiences. Australian theatre usually doesn’t, because theatre is by its nature a social act. One person cannot make theatre on her own and repressions, conscious and unconscious, operate at almost every level of its production and reception. A major repression is the fear of ridicule and dislike. Our theatrical institutions ensure that the work they produce is acceptable to its audience. This is not a problem confined to Australia; in every Western culture, theatre producers face the bogey of the subscription audience, which is too often the death of theatrical courage. Everything is carefully airbrushed to a nice beige, in order not to offend anyone, and younger artists, rebelling as they must against the prevailing order, produce a lot of radical - beige. It is worth remembering that Patrick White, one of our really great writers, became a monster, a popular cultural icon of artistic nastiness who fulfilled public expectations of his behaviour most obligingly. It is difficult not to suspect that a source of his corrosive anger was the need to assert within himself the validity of excellence in the face of the indiscriminate acceptance of mediocrity.

My own critical practice was largely shaped by my practice as a poet. My work had always been informed by astute and rigorous criticism from other people. I learnt early to distinguish between what I thought of as “useful” and “useless” criticism. Useful criticism was specific, attuned to the ambitions of the work, honest and carefully argued; useless criticism was characterised by generalised statements that responded to a nimbus of preconceptions surrounding the work rather than the work itself. Useful criticism stimulated me to heighten my own critical faculties: it raised questions that forced me to scrutinise my work and evaluate what I was doing there. Useless criticism, positive or negative, stimulated nothing. Perhaps the most important aspect of useful criticism is its implicit love of the art form it interrogates. Useless criticism is devoid of love; it is at best indifferent to art’s imperatives.

I wanted, first of all, to be a useful critic. I saw that theatre and criticism have a dialectical relationship and I wrote my reviews as part of the dialogue, or polylogue, of a continuum called theatre. I never believed they bore the imprimatur of irrefutable judgement: I wrote them to stimulate discussion, to raise questions, to disturb assumptions. I never saw any point in denying my subjectivity, because I thought subjectivity was an essential admission. I worked to make my subjectivity informed, to understand as much as I could of the techniques, histories and ideas that make theatre what it is. In this aim, I was influenced particularly by David Mamet’s passionate address to critics in Writing in Restaurants. I wanted to be a critic like that. I don’t believe I achieved my ambition. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The more I reviewed, the more clearly I understood the fraudulence of what often passes for art and arts commentary in our culture. Art in Australia is massively beauracratised and stupidly written about in our mass media: and these things conspire to ensure that art as a genuinely radical dynamic is all but invisible. All art, interesting or not, is blurred into a sludge called culture, an industry which mainly exists to employ mediators who ensure that the “products” are passively consumed. The essentially uncommodifiable quality of aesthetic is pushed off the agenda.

As a substitute we have celebrity, watered-down social issues and the odd trite controversy. The effect is the creation of an “official” culture, well-oiled by public relations, which keeps in place a number of cherished assumptions and careers by the simple expedient of appearing to be challenging, cutting edge, exciting and everything else a culture is supposed to be, without any of the substance. This hypocrisy is endemic in all of our arts and is reflected in the repression of dissenting voices.

While I was reviewing, I was the only critic I knew who regarded it as a full-time job. Most critics worked part-time, having other jobs in academia and journalism, because otherwise they would have been as poor as I was. The media is not interested in having good critics: a mediocre critic serves its purposes just as well and is far less trouble. And there’s no doubt I was troublesome. The Bulletin copped a law suit over one review and many angry letters from outraged recipients of my altruism. I was only 25 when I started, so my innocence is perhaps excusable: I was amazed that people became so angry with me, because I thought it was obvious that everything I said stemmed from my love of theatre, and didn’t they love theatre too?

The major row during my time with the Bulletin was with the Playbox theatre. Contrary to the wisdom of gossip, that harassment didn’t get me sacked. But perhaps it is only from this distance that I recognise with clarity how extensive, malicious and unremitting it was.

The facts are simple and petty. When, during the season of 1990, the Playbox Theatre’s first in its swish new Malthouse Theatre, I reviewed awful play after awful play, Carillo Gantner, who was then artistic director, decided that I was a blot on the landscape that had to be removed for the good of Australian culture. He started with a series of phone calls to the arts editor, Diana Simmonds, in which he suggested it may be a good idea to sack me. When that failed, he tried the Bulletin’s editor, James Hall. When that also failed, he started a smear campaign that attacked my credibility. It included a highly libellous letter to the Victorian Council for the Arts that asked for their help in getting me sacked for my alleged campaign against Playbox caused by my “psychotic” personality (there could be no other reason why I found the plays below par). Finally, he banned me from the theatre for “unprofessional conduct” after an unspecified “incident in the foyer”. James Hall rang me and asked what I had done: had I drunkenly abused the actor involved, or what?

The “incident” bears some examination. Then, as now, I had many friends who worked in the theatre. One day, an old friend, an actor then employed in a Playbox production, rang me and asked me out for a coffee because he was troubled. He told me that the day before, he had been called into Gantner’s office and cross-examined because he had been seen talking to me in the foyer at the Malthouse on the opening night of the play. Our conversation had been, briefly, about the play: I hadn’t liked it and had apologised to him, in advance, for the review.

It was after this that James Hall rang me about Gantner's complaint. Clearly, my speaking to my friend was the “incident”, given some considerable spin by the Playbox machine. I couldn’t ask the actor concerned to stand up for me in public: he would probably never have been able to work in Melbourne again. I had no recourse against this gross slander except to say it wasn’t true. Argument was reduced to the level of the pre-school sand pit - “Did so!” “Did not!” “Did so!” - in which the loudest always wins.

Gantner’s strategy transparently sidestepped the censorship at the root of his actions; he claimed that my banning from Playbox was nothing to do with what he called my “vitriolic” and “personally abusive” reviews. I wrote a letter passionately arguing against the censorship of debate, pointing out how damaging such censorship was to the arts and to the culture. (I have a thick file of the correspondence between the Bulletin, myself and Gantner which is probably most notable now for its absurd comedy.) I even attempted to explain that to criticise someone’s work was not the same as a personal attack. I was making a fundamental mistake: although even Gantner was forced to concede that my reviews were accurate, what was at stake was Playbox’s funding and stature, which he claimed I was directly threatening. The larger arguments of artistic quality, the only questions with which I was concerned, were pushed aside and remained unanswered. It began to dawn on me that some artistic organisations are interested in anything but art.

When it became obvious even to Gantner that he was making a fool of himself, the whole fracas sank into a silent pool of embarrassment. It was tacitly agreed that everyone should just get on with their jobs. By then I was exhausted and sick of the whole affair and its attendant notoriety. I wondered why I had worked so hard, for so little money, for such trivial results. If I had “played the game”, if I had refused to have any thoughts of my own and had simply followed the line of least resistance, no doubt I would still be attending opening nights and dozing my way through reviews. But why would I want to do that? Life’s too short.

Shortly afterwards, on the strength of the free publicity I had given the Bulletin, I wrote and asked for the retainer that I had been promised for two years. I had already decided that if I was to live in abject poverty, it would be more profitable to resign from journalism and concentrate on my real work, poetry. Unfortunately, at the Bulletin my old mate James Hall had been replaced as editor. (The media is a volatile profession). The new editor impolitely told me to go jump. So, impolitely, I did. I think it is no coincidence that I resigned at the same time that I finally felt I knew enough to do the job properly.

It was a most unedifying affair. It did teach me a lot about pettiness, dishonesty and why Australian theatre is peculiarly insulated from ideas.

There is one crucial aspect of theatre that doesn’t apply to most other arts: its temporality. A poem can be read five hundred years later, a film can be watched fifteen times. But if you’re not there at the theatre, you’ve missed it. This means that theatre criticism has another function: as a record. Our theatre history is seriously compromised by our theatre criticism.

I’ll cite one example: former Age critic Leonard Radic’s 1991 book The State of Play. Anyone looking for an informed and stimulating discussion of the past 25 years of Australian theatre will be disappointed. The book is a cliche-ridden, limp regurgitation of received wisdom, written with the false objectivity that masks an entrenched subjective smugness. What it tells you is what we all know: that David Williamson, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd et al started at the Pram Factory and La Mama and thus was Australian theatre born. Williamson scores a whole chapter to himself, and a cringing, crawling summation it is.

There is only the briefest mention, for instance, of the work that was occurring simultaneously in the early 70s and which helped to make that time so exciting: the productions of work by European playwrights like Arabal, Handke, and others, some of which was the first to be performed in English anywhere in the world, or the work by women such as Sue Ingleton. There is no critical intelligence exploring, except in the crudest nationalistic terms, the political agendas that were operating within the theatre. Radic, whose analysis of plays only approaches that of an intelligent high school student, is simply not up to it. The history of the Pram Factory in the early 70s has yet to be written. All the ferment, all the excitement, all the variousness, is pared down to the level of a press release: and now, for a student like me, it may as well not exist.

This uninteresting book wouldn’t matter if other useful critical commentaries were easily available: but they’re not. There is a scrappily researched history produced by Currency Press, but that is as useless. Nowhere do we have, for instance, books like Michael Billington’s One Night Stands or Kenneth Tynan’s collected reviews of British theatre, that can tell you what it was like to be there, why it mattered, why it was exciting.

Radic was the senior theatre reviewer in Melbourne for more than two decades. I have no doubt that in that time he caused immeasurable damage to Melbourne’s theatre culture, by sins of omission as well as commission. For 20 years he told audiences that theatre’s greatest aim was to be “warm hearted” and informed theatre practitioners that the only thing that counted was box office approbation. The theatre of ideas, of imagination, of spiritual and intellectual struggle, of beauty and tragedy, of vulgar comedy and robust protest, the theatre that bore Shakespeare and Aeschylus and Beckett, simply did not exist for him. And Melbourne theatre slowly went into a disenchanted sleep, from which no prince’s kiss has yet awakened it.

Amid the snores, I haven’t been able to rid myself of the desire to write about my responses to art. I do so when I am asked and sometimes when I’m not, for my own reasons. I do not expect any real debate to result from my work. The work, and the rewards, are purely private. I’m quite aware of how ridiculous a position it is since, unlike almost any other literary mode, criticism is primarily a public act. Theatre reviewing remains as dull and ill-informed as it ever was - perhaps a little duller, since no doubt other reviewers took note of what happened to me and took more care not to think. The theatre has, sadly, the critics it deserves: the critics have the theatre they deserve. Who is cheated? Theatre’s audience, and any artist attempting serious work. And most of all, theatre itself.

Melbourne 1997
From a lecture delivered to students at the
Victorian College of the Arts in 1993


Anonymous said...

Marvellous post, Alison. Thanks for bringing this back from the dregs of your past.

I wasn't a part of US theater in the 1990s for very long, though it sounds as if the situation here was not quite as desperate. The same period saw the maturity of talents like Maria Irene Fornes, Wallace Shawn, Len Jenkin and Mac Wellman in writing; Liz LeCompte, Robert Wilson, Lee Breuer and Richard Foreman in directing. Nor was criticism, or history, as bad; Performing Arts Journal back-issues from those years provide a continuing history of the development of the provocative avant-garde form.

As far as the role of criticism, well, it's hard for me to say. Most American theater artists, critics and academics suffer from that classic American disease, the Willy Loman Syndrome: so desperately wishing to be liked, figuring that material success will follow. It's not a disease that seems to have affected quite as badly either older cultures like Europe or newer cultures that grew from European settlement, like Australia. The US was born at the height of the Enlightenment, in the shadow of the French Revolution, swinging into existence with Adam Smith and the Protestant work ethic that makes Ben Franklin one of our most representative figures. Ben had little time for theater or art. It explains the late development of our theater (and apart from Buchner, European theater of the 19th century itself has much less to recommend it than the European theater of the 17th or the 20th centuries, just to be fair; one can name twenty playwrights of the 1600s whose work remains on our stages now, few from the 1800s). Ironically it was the nineteenth century that saw the emergence of all those social perfectionist schemes, Marx and the social Darwinists and the compassionate Capitalists among them. The most attention to the improvement of society: the worst theater. And, in its schemes of social engineering, the most disastrous consequences for the race.

And a part of the critic's role to point this out, of course: which means broader knowledge, not only of the theater, but the social and critical thinking surrounding it, so that we don't make the same mistake twice. And to stand up for what we believe in. Even, as if in the New York Times, we have to slip it in between the lines of our work.

Anonymous said...

I misspoke in my second paragraph: I refer to theater of the period 1980-1985 in New York. The 1990s were more desperate.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Alison. Great address, wish I could have heard you deliver it. I kept forgetting you were talking about Australia since your words describe so well the evolution of Canadian criticism and Canadian theatre as well as the present scene. Your parting of the ways with the Bulletin is even mirrored in the departure some years ago of the one decent critic in the city, his leave-taking orchestrated by the city's largest theatre company unhappy with his reviews.
Again, thanks.

Anonymous said...

What a compelling essay--thank you for posting it. I've just discovered your blog and been whiling away a good deal of time reading through the posts. It's such engaging material, and very educational as well to someone like me who knows virtually nothing of Australian theatre. The way you evoke the shows that excite you makes me wish I could hop a transporter beam across the Pacific Ocean for a couple days to check them out; lacking the technology for that adventure, I think I'll be visiting this site frequently. . .

Anonymous said...

Stunning! As an oft-reviewed playwright, I have often despaired the complete lack of insight in reviews and how, from my experience in Melbourne, the potential audience for my work was uniformly duped by unfounded opinion masquerading as criticism.
I am so pleased to have discovered your blog ... and have lived through this period of your life with you, I am especially pleased that you continue to startle me with your insight.
Brava! Geoffrey Williams, Sydney

Theatre Worker said...

Thanks for that, Alison. You've probably seen that we've recently had an article up on Encore about how to respond the critics (which has stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest).

Reading your piece is a salutory reminder that theatres can sometimes behave even more crassly than the crassest of reviewers. Your site is a bit of a beacon for what intelligent, sympathetic and knowledgeable theatre commentary can be.

Aaron Paterson said...

I think I've fallen in love...


The Librarian said...

"It began to dawn on me that some artistic organisations are interested in anything but art.

This would probably explain why the most 'important' Australian playwrights, film-makers, etc never, ever, ever get commercial or mainstream 'airtime'.

Subsequently, "we're" on blogs and youtube, and/or languishing at the back of Bourke with our notes being blown to Perth under the tracks of a road train.

I can only hope that 50 years from now, when this hyper-commercial 'culture' kills most of us off, what remains of the rock art, and the notes, survives long enough for an alien race to say 'ahh so there WAS intelligent life on earth'