The Writer, The Theatre, The Play ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Writer, The Theatre, The Play

The conversation on playwrights v. writers for theatre sparked by Edward Albee and continued in various blogospherical spaces is getting progessively more fascinating. I'm enough of a writer to be well versed in the arts of procrastination, and so temporarily abandoned my own very untheatrical writing to catch up on George Hunka's argument with Chris Goode's post on Albee, and Chris's response to that. Not to mention some comments here by playwright Jodi Gallagher and others. Here I'm going to try to summarise the argument without traducing it too much (though you should really read the posts, which is worth the time): this will be long, I expect, so get a cup of tea. Or, if you're not interested, wander off elsewhere.

At issue is the vexed question of what a writer is in the theatre. Part of Chris's first post addressed why he thought conventional playwrights felt at siege in contemporary theatrical culture:

Conventional playwrights (by which I mean, those who produce scripted plays which are to all intents 'complete' before rehearsals begin, though of course they may then be modified by the influence of the staging process) currently feel under attack. I can see why they would feel that, even though nobody ever really seems to attack them as such, which means that the ferocity of (what they consider to be) their counterattack can be surprising -- though not, I think, inexplicable...

Their position glosses, roughly, like this. We who are playwrights, or support and approve of the work of playwrights, are the first to acknowledge that many elements go into the staging of plays -- acting, direction, design, music, perhaps choreography, etc. -- along with the script; and we furthermore acknowledge, with cheerful magnanimity, that theatre is nowadays made in multifarious ways, quite a bit of it privileging these other elements above the specialist craft of the writer. We accept that, and we accept that it sometimes works, and we try hard to say so....But (they would continue) the reciprocity between the "text-based" wing and the "devised" / "physical" / "visual" wing seems lopsided. Why won't they say that what we do as playwrights, with our primary originating acts of script-writing, is also legitimate and valuable in the ecosystem of the big tent? ...

I've come to see that it is this imbalance of cordiality, as it were, that so infuriates the playwrights: so a slow-burn of resentment builds up, as in any off-kilter relationship, until one quiet evening you only have to ask what's for dinner and you get a fork in the eye.

He traces some of the changes in theatre practice which might be responsible for this sense (and that Jodi also alludes to). Chris then makes the obvious, if perhaps tendentious, point that a play text is not theatre. "Not yet, not ever. It can become part of a piece of theatre, but it will never itself be theatrical unless it behaves as do the other elements in a theatrical production (including the other elements in its own production), and disappears."

In order for this to happen, Chris argues, the text has to be "broken": "A play is a little cell of fiction, secluded and complete (for all that it might treat of topical themes). As such it is a game, an ironic procedure, unable to sustain consequences outside of itself... For the play to be made into theatre, that closure has somehow to be breached." Chris posits this as a formal problem, a question of breaking the formal closure that inheres in a completed and autonomous text to permit the necessary "liveness" of theatre.

The formal problem... can be solved only when the play is configured so that its form is compatible with the terms and conditions of theatre: when those distinctive qualities that we associate with theatre are allowed, if not to occupy, then at least to touch, at one point or along one surface, the secluded area of the play. The best -- the least traumatising -- solution is to write for theatre in the first place, to write from the get-go in a way that allows for, and ideally fosters and enjoys, liveness and contingency and unpredictability and ephemerality and, above all, the turbulence of the travel between stage and audience. You can still write articulately, beautifully, rigorously, with all the craft and attention to detail that your literary talent encompasses.

This is where George comes in, with a post pugnaciously objecting to the idea of a play text being "broken":

It's not as if theatricality itself is inherently good or bad, and that a text must necessarily be sacrificed to whatever the hell this vague "theatre" is that they're talking about, any more than performers and conductors "break" a musical score in the service of some ideal of musicality. (I know there will be quibbles that theatre is not music, but both are performing arts, and there is more in common between them than not, as both a theoretical and a practical matter: both revolve around a collaboration between a composer/playwright and the disciplined live performer, and precision is basic to both.)
I am personally a bit chary of comparisons between music and writing, tempting though they are: words are very different phenomena to sound or musical notes. There's the pesky question of "meaning" for a start, which, however you define it, exists in words in a way it just doesn't in music. Chris answers here, pointing out that he and George might have more in common than their differences seem to imply, citing Beckett as, in his view, an exemplary theatre writer.

I think that Chris is quite correct to identify a necessary act of violence in the transition from page to stage. I should make clear that I do not believe that Chris is speaking of the necessity to rip a text to pieces or to ignore its imperatives entirely or even to change the words: I think that he is suggesting something rather more subtle.

The way I see it, in the transition to theatre, something that heretofore exists only as a text is translated into another medium altogether, a medium with very different demands and imperatives: it moves from the past tense of writing into the present tense of theatre. (Before anyone quibbles, I think - from my own experience of writing - that writing is always past tense). This is the case, no matter what theatricalities a writer may embed into his or her text.

There is nothing that makes an event more untheatrical than reverence for the text. (Oh, ok, reverences of other kinds can be equally deadening, but for the meantime, let's talk about writing). In my few forays into theatrical writing, I have sometimes been waylaid by this kind of reverence (also by its complete and distressing opposite, but that's a different story): it can be very difficult to get people to treat a text they consider "poetic" and "beautiful" with disrespect. Directors talk about wanting to preserve the beauty of the language, and actors begin to speak very clearly and in low voices, to fully enunciate the full, sensuous gorgeousness of the words... This, my friends, is death for a text. Suddenly, rather than being an invisible but palpable part of the theatrical experience, it hovers above it: intact, inviolate, and excruciatingly dead.

Or, to speak less personally, think of a reverent production of Shakespeare you might have seen, in which everyone is crouched beneath the text, pointing upwards to the inimitable greatness of the Bard's language, and then think how bored you were.

Where I think Chris is being consciously provocative (and, to be fair, he undermines his own hard line at the end of his post) is where he claims that "productions that emphasize this complex of signs and conditions that we refer to as 'liveness' will inevitably commend themselves more immediately to audiences and secondary commentators alike. A play which hits the bookshelves at the same time as it hits the stage has already forfeited its claim to those attentions."

As the phrase "well-made play" implies, form for playwrights is secondary to content, in other words it's there to serve the content and set it up to its best advantage; this is precisely how it comes about that it's possible to tip the content of The History Boys into different containers and, though some modification is of course required, the essence of the piece remains the same, its qualities, its 'message' (if it will own up to having one, or many). In the work that the university theatre departments now favour, the medium is once again the message, and the question of what the theatre experience is, or can or could be, takes precedence over the surface detail of who says what to whom on what topic.

Of course, I recognise instantly the kind of plays Chris is referring to - or at least I think I do: those plays in which a form is taken as given, most usually a variation on naturalistic norms, and content or "issues" are then poured into the glass. David Williamson is the archetypal local example of that kind of writing. But at the same time, it seems to me that many people who would think of themselves as basically "conventional" playwrights also approach writing a play as, above all, a formal proposition.

I know it's too easy to refer to Daniel Keene, but he's to hand and at the moment too far away to object, and he's a real Playwright; also a Playwright whose work often appears in book form, sometimes before it appears on stage. And I can say confidently, based on years of conversations, that he always approaches writing a play as a formal problem, to the point where the writing of the play is impossible until the problem becomes clear. He is most certainly a playwright who often (but not always) writes plays in the traditional way, grumbling in his study as he attempts to produce a "finished" text which exists luminously in its own right. With such a play - although, again, not in all his collaborations - he expects the actors to speak the words he has written, unless he agrees to change them.

Yet he hasn't a lot of time for the Albee position, which he equates with the "academic" playwrights in France whom French directors are always complaining about; and although he enjoys going to rehearsals, he doesn't believe he has a place there as a writer, except maybe during an inital reading. (He is not a bad director, and sometimes offers suggestions from that capacity). And nothing makes him more frustrated than overly respectful practitioners, or people who think he knows, from his privileged position as the writer, what the play is supposed to be about. How the hell, he demands, is he supposed to know? That's what other people are supposed to find out. For Daniel, meaning is something that is discovered in performance before an audience. Yet he would cheerfully (and honestly) consider himself a conventional playwright.

More interestingly, perhaps, he regards the text as an autonomous object which, when subjected to the pressures and travails of other players in the process, becomes something else. Perhaps this might be illustrated clearly by his recent insistence that the English publication of The Nightwatchman (by Currency Press for the upcoming Sydney production) preserved the original French character names (it was a French commission), although in the Australian production, the names have been Anglicised. The play as written is one thing; the play as performed is entirely another.

At this point, we might seem to be splitting hairs, and simply redefining "playwrights" as "theatre writers". But I'm not so sure: it does seem to me that the idea of the "dramatist" who "sits with the gods" (as I think Mrs O'Neill said of her husband) still has a bit of life in it.


Anonymous said...

Speaking as an actor, there are several elements that are orchestrated into the performance. Even when the performance reaches for clarity and simplicity. Even when a performer stands before the audience crystallised, using this privilege to answer complexity humanely, to again reverse the process of simplification, they arrive with secrets. Perhaps in the same way an audience member may blush when a ‘barrier’ is brokentheir memory, an actor modulates, with the help of technique, these intrusions, this engagement with text and imagination.

The time of blushes for an actor is the rehearsal process, a thing which happens in the spirit of creation. As with all rites, a kind of raw energy is yoked to a kind of formal repetition and laws are revealed, things to go on with. There are moments of illumination followed by times of compromise and imperfection. There are voices to be freed, muscles to be strengthened, people to meet.

An actor trains to do things that everyone can do, if only in their dreams. In order to make use of this knowledge, to harness what might be destructive, the actor needs hands. There are the hands of the theatre itself, the hands of the other actors (and their ears), the hands of the stage management, the show caller, stage assistants, mechanists, engineers and operators. There are the hands of the director who called out once, once helped to stretch, to free. There are the hands of the playwright, quickened to a task behind the work. And those of the audience who represent silence and life.

Life also penetrates the actor, and life has more rites than just theatre to formalise the actor’s search. It is perhaps just that theatre comes closest. An actor may end up with available breath. A playwright may end up with a play. A playwright may paint still-lifes. An actor may read poetry.

If there is no writer, there is no empty chair in the rehearsal room. If there is an absence of language, the stage is not empty. There was never a total art, and the works through time that change us rarely aspire to end the conversation there and then.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Dan, for that beautiful post. Perhaps the imperfection of a glimpse, a brief touch, may - in the most literal, expansive sense - be the most we can hope for.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Dan's inspirational comment AND a magnificent critique of "All My Sons".

I have learned things. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Yes, who is this Dan? Please tell us where we may find more.

His moving post reminded me of a short article I recently read by that brilliant and much undervalued playwright, feminist and thinker extraordinaire Helene Cixous - 'Unmasked', in a collection called 'Stigmata: Escaping Texts'. Cixous (whose 'The Perjured City' I will be making with the VCA Drama School graduating company later this year, about which I am incommunicably excited) writes:

"Here I am at the Theatre [her capitals]. It's not by accident. If I were asked: Is there a social space where the disease of misogyny is not at home? What would I say? Wherever I go it's there, in every public place, schools, universities, parliaments, places where the words of democracy whirl about - they are all stricken with the countless symptoms, stiffness, blindness, treachery, uneasiness, hypocrisy, death and rape drives, denial.
Except the theatre. It is there, in what was once a Temple and which doesn't forget it, in the enclosure where the mysteries take place that are called: rehearsals, acting, mise-en-scene, incarnation - it is there that the incidence of misogyny will be the lowest, or else non-existent.
Because no one can set foot on the sacred planks of the stage, in the hopes of approaching the living heart of the mystery, without having first stripped from head to foot down to one's self: for the aim and the mission of these agents (actors as well as director and author) is to increase the odds of the birth of the You:
I shall speak about the actors. They have arrived.
Undecided, detached, undressed, without any rank, unarmed, without any particularity. Joyously prepared for fate. There are no brothers, there are no wars. He might have been born she. She will perhaps be taken for him tonight. They have come to become unknown...
All of us have once wished in a dark recess of childhood to 'be in the Theatre': to die and be reborn Phaedre or a boy. To experience the frightening thrill of being taken over. And the only reason we didn't do it is that we were afraid of passing over into the other and never coming back. But we've remained on the borders of this dangerous and prophetic curiosity. We remember having had the desire to be You, for a whole lifetime.
That's why we go to the Theatre with the emotion of someone getting ready to be transfigured. Who knows who I shall be, a moment from now, in the fertile night?"

I'm not sure if it's at all relevant to the current debate (which I don't quite have time to get my head around at the moment). But it puts things in perspective for me, as an actor, at least. And Dan's words made me think that all such wondrously, incisively true visions of what we do should be heard and shared regardless.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful words from Dan, anonymous, and Cixous. Thank you for posting these.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks too for the Cixous - to divagate for a moment, I hear that the latest Mnouchkine show is, unlike her other works, unspectacular and intimate. Some people are claiming it's her greatest work, others say she's lost it - myself, it sounds like the kind of thing I'd adore, and dammit, even were I in Paris, it's booked out for months...who knows, maybe it will come to another MIAF? We can only hope.

One thing Cixous's quote raises, and which I have been thinking about in connection with this conversation: it seems to me that people seem to have a lot of problem with the concept of equality. To make equal, to treat with equal respect, from various perspectives becomes instead a claim for superior privilege. (You see this most clearly, or at least I do, in gender arguments - when a woman appears in a board room, suddenly the paranoids claim that women are "taking over").

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, who is this Dan? Please tell us where we may find more.

Unless I'm mistaken, you can find more of Dan here and here.

Anonymous said...

Ah, 'tis Mr Spielman. What a gift that young man is to this country. An inspiration to another young man who wants to have faith that acting can indeed sit alongside writing and thinking and other things. Plus he went to my high school some years before me, so I like to imagine I'm part of some kind of lineage. Dan if you're reading this, Tony and Thorva still speak very fondly of you. Bless 'em.

And Alison, Cixous talks a great deal about the theatre as a space for re-imagining concepts of gender equality, even gender itself, even 'the self' itself. What I, as an actor, love about her approach is that she uses the actor as a both a symbol and an actual example of what is possible here. And she does it, as always, with such courageous poetics and gymnastic wordplay. More from 'Unmasked':

"This sort of abnegation can't be accomplished painlessly [by the actor]. He touches on She. Rubbing of shoulders. Heorshe is someone who for a certain time (hours, days) no longer is. Is no longer self. Let us follow the formidable rite: first He-she is laid bare, stripped, dis-figured, practically to the point of becoming nobody. Now before the mirror Heshe puts on a mask. This is not a metaphor: 'Persona' puts on one of those masks, magic figures that come from Bali or Italy, always the same ones. Perhaps there's only one mask produced by all these masks. The mask is very striking, with big enormous features, a long nose, protruding teeth, bushy eyebrows. This is because the mask must muster all its force to combat the actor's face, chase it away, rapidly impose a totally alien image.
When the person turns hisher mask toward the mirror, heshe no longer recognizes himherself. Heshe doesn't recognize himherself in the mask either. The mask is there to keep the self away from getting its face back. It is apotropaic: it chases the self away. Later the mask might be replaced with serenely beautiful make-up. There is no one endowed with consciousness there in the mirror. The separation is complete. First phase of the child-birth. Next to take place: the magnificent and painful coming-into-the-world. The labor is long. Behind the mask, for the moment, there's the panting absence. The interior space is free for the other. For the coming into being of Henry V, Desdemona or King Lear. Yes: one woman one man or the other, the space is ready to receive them without distinction as to sex, age, race. There is no particularity.
That's the way it is for the outer shell left of Himher, a copious skin subject to the processes of incarnation. What is happening inside this sensitive shell, all ears, still uninhabited? Tense, attentive, it waits. For the character to come. Queen or assassin, anything is possible. Or a combination...
And there's nothing to stop a woman shell from receiving the transfiguration of a male character. For here, in this kingdom that stretches beyond oppositions and exclusions, it is well known, from having had the experience so often, that it's the soul, that is, the heart - and its moods - that makes the face, the voice, the inexplicable and complicated truth of a human creature. May I thus be another woman, another man, who I am not myself? In this human crucible of ours, who would call into doubt 'the equality of the sexes'? Who even thinks it? The creature is. All creatures contain infinite possibilities of being an other. One possibility is just as good as another. If our internal world were reduced to a single self and a single sex, what a boring scene it would be, what sterility.
It's up to us to be peoples and be placed under the spell. But to accomplish this one must have the utmost courage to let go of the ballast of the self, to leave oneself unweighted on the celestial platform. Let go of the weight of the self, but not the memory, or the trace. For heshe becomes not simply quite-other. The most delicate and most precious aspect of that transfiguration, without which there would be neither joy nor learning, is that I-can-be-another (creature)-whom-I-am-not-myself: it is perhaps the most wonderful of experiences to be able to pluck the chance and pleasure of being another person all the while knowing that I am not the other, only the place with the scent of the other, and that me-my-other is taking place. For a little while, at least."

Phew! 'In this human crucible of ours' - !! I cannot wait to perform this woman's text.

My name's Ben by the way. Forgot to put that on the last post. I posted once about 'Translations', but since then have been following this marvellous dialogue (diablogue? I'm completely coining that term right now. There, it's mine.) of yours, with quiet joy. Thanks, and keep it up.

Anonymous said...

After nearly four years drinking at theatrenotes (Officially Thankyou Alison) I’m proud to write that the tea party last night was in honour of me popping my cherry on a blog post.
As Robert De Niro once said: “Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen.”

I naturally questioned the relevance of my post and I think I was trying to talk about authorship. After reading just those pieces linked in Alison's intro, I wanted to contribute to undermining certain orthodoxies, ossifications and general curmudgeonlinesses.

In my experience, a finished text (albeit a beautiful one) is by no means an artifact for research and preservation, rather a coat of muscles. However within it, the actor must remember that on stage (as Cixous suggests) you can be seen. No matter what disguise.

"The imperfection of a glimpse, a brief touch..." to me means there is an imaginal space, a shared potential that is private. With this privilege, this body in this space, the actor’s work can be creative.

And with what the playwright has risked, we, the audience, can engage and also risk.


Alison Croggon said...

Dan - all I can say is, it was worth the wait.

I guess what this whole discussion is revolving around is the question of (various kinds of) authorship and therefore various kinds of authority, however that's defined. Is a performance an inscription? (The moving fingers writes and then moves on...) If so, what and where does it inscribe? Is a text a performance? If the answer to those questions is "yes", how do they differ? Do they meet in that imaginal space?

Which, looking at them, are pretty unanswerable questions, or maybe questions that are addressed in each individual instance of theatre. Ie, impossible, maybe, to generalise.

Anonymous said...

Dear Alison,

I'd like to thank you for providing such a vibrant forum for discussion. I'm an enthusiastic reader of your blog and have difficulty in extracting myself away from it and its links.

I've been working in Australia for the past six years directing contmeporary theatre, and I find the debate prompted by Albee and continued via your blog and that of others (Chris Goode and George Hunka) at the same time edifying and a little perplexing.
Edifying because via your blog and links, it's great to be able to partake in ongoing and considered debate on the art of writing for theatre; a little perplexing because Albee seems to have restricted his discussion to a dualist view of theatre writers - either you're a playwright or you're a writer for theatre, - which in the light of theatre's history over the past 50 years, is pretty reductive, (as Hans-Thies Lehmann's eloquently written "Post Dramatic Thetare" reminds us).

For the past 20 years in theatre, 14 of which I've spent in Europe most especially in France, I've been working with well known contemporary writers be they poets, writers for theatre, playwrights, dramatic authors, novelists, libtettists, screenplay writers, philosophers, translators, poetico-ethnologists..the list goes on..

In Europe at least, the definitions writers have used to define themselves and how that is or has been embraced within the art form of theatre is most often of secondary relevance. Focus is on the material and the materiality of the art form and how it is examined,destroyed, threaded,woven, torn, inverted, subverted, and reinvented by artists working FOR theatre (because for most, the art form is understood as being greater than the sum of its artists be they writers, designers, composers, actors, puppeteers, directors etc.)

Generally everyone undertaking the creative task of developing a work is seeking to reinvent and interpret the meaning of spoken word, sign, symbols and actions in a largely incomprehensible world. The question of whether they're working with a playwright or theatre writer or auteur is of lesser importance than the realising of the "scenic poem".

How this is done - the creative process, is of course particular to each ensemble and each individual within that ensemble. Audiences partake in the poetic transposition that results from this process, the process itself in the main remaining hidden and mysterious.

Unfortunately, I do however have a growing unease that in Australia, many writers who define themselves as 'Playwrights' ultimately seek to have a work produced by mainstream theatre where theatre=architecture or a renown piece of theatre real estate containing a proscenium stage. Compared with one of the greatest theatre privileges and challenges in Europe, which is to create a work for the open air space of la Cour d'Honneur du Palais des Papes in the Avignon International Festival, writing with a view to mainstream proscenium stage production is limiting.

Increasingly, a great part of spoken word in contemporary theatre looks to open a passage of exchange more than sense with audience members, where each word exchanged transmits the mystery of spoken word.
Perhaps if more Australian playwrights undertook their craft as something that exists within the gift of this transmission; as something that exists beyond a stage of a particular architecture and status; where there's a descent into chaos to look at what orders it; where syntax is freed and holds us (creators and audience members alike) suspended and captivated in our incomprehension and wonderment, then playwrights would be at the forefront, leading the way for directors and other theatre artists to explore new territory that engages us in an intense and dynamic dialogue with each other and audiences.

The question:what poetic transposition for what voice? is one that is central to theatre. Theatre opens the world's tomb to engage with its new arrivals.
Albee's discourse unfortunately is not about theatre as a constantly reinvented art form, it's about himself.

Now that feels better -(another rant).
Jude Anderson

Alison Croggon said...

Welcome Jude, and thanks for your comment... I think your point about the materiality of the artform is well made. A question: when you say "exchange more than sense", what do you mean by "sense"? Successful theatre writing, like poetry, seems to me to have always been about the exchange of many things, through the senses.

I fear the binary has been rather made by me, in an attempt to distinguish certain play-dominated attitudes to theatre, as seem to be promulgated by Albee, from other kinds of ways texts might be written for a theatre. I'm not suggesting it as a hard-and-fast distinction, more as a rough rule of thumb that might be useful in some circumstances. Such as, for example, this discussion...

Anonymous said...

In writing "contemporary theatre looks to open a passage of exchange more than sense with audiences", I'm referring to how over the past 50 years, there's been an increasing amount of writing for theatre that allows the 'scenic poem' to be constructed with a view to an exchange with audiences where the sensory, liminal, primal, incoherent, and sublime have precedence over a shared coherent understanding of a dramatic situation and it's resolution.
...sensory rather than a situation that immediately makes sense...complex more so than complicated... writing for a theatre that transmits sensations which, like all forms of research, opens the door on doubt.

A few bits of binary thinking in there to add our rough rule of thumb discussion...
Jude A.

Anonymous said...

Interesting . . . I've thought about it at length and responded on my blog here -

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Joshua - thanks so much for your contribution. I do think that you've misread Dan a little - I can't see anywhere that he is dissing the playwright at all, or making special claims for actors above writers - rather the reverse, finding parallel necessities and risks in very different arts which meet in the theatre. The playwright might write a play or a still life, just as an actor might read a poem.

Of course, it's impossible not to quibble with the Three Rings to Rule Them All, oops, Three Things - Grotowski made theatre without an audience! And would you really truly say that John Cage is "telling a story"? And the puppet (I am a big rap for puppetry, myself) still requires human manipulators. I think some ancient Greek genius invented a wholly mechanical opera, but on the whole, the human gesture is in the middle of the problem. And I'd also wonder about the "theatre" being a kind of package that is "delivered" to an audience, the kind of pouring content into form that I think doesn't quite work with art, where content and form are so difficult to differentiate.

Even so, yes, I'd agree with the generalisation that in theatre something is shared, or experienced in common.