Playwright as social symptom ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Playwright as social symptom

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post responding to an article about Hilary Glow's new book, Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda, out from Currency Press. In particular, I was puzzled by Glow's observation that theatre had become less political in the Howard era, since it seemed to me that, on the contrary, it has become more so. To quote me:

What's shifted is the idea that theatre is primarily a socio-political document, and primarily the home of naturalism. The focus has moved from issue-based plays to a more multivalent awareness that representation itself, in this media-saturated world, is a deeply political issue, and that it is not nearly enough merely to state the issues. ...Puzzling over the claim that theatre is less political, when it is so manifestly not the case, I suspect that this shift away from naturalistic issue-based plays is the change that Glow notes, and mistakes for a lack of political engagement.

In the ensuing discussion, Ben Ellis, one of the playwrights interviewed for the Power Plays, pointed out, very reasonably, that Glow has every right to set her terms of discussion. "I think," he said, "that Hilary's choices allow her arguments about politics and theatre to be focused." And of course, it was unfair to speculate without having read the book.

Well, now I have read the book: and then I re-read my earlier post and thought, damn right. But I have promised to discuss Power Plays, so I will, though I confess to some reluctance. I should point out at the outset that my response is no reflection on any of the playwrights mentioned in this book; that would be another post.

I tried, Ben, I really tried. It is only fair to read any book on its own terms, and I did make a brave effort. My problems begin with Glow's defining of her choices and her definitions of important terms. Her argument is so muddy, so riven with self-contradiction or received assumption, that it almost makes no sense at all. If you are to argue with something, you need an argument to argue with. I disagree, for example, with Michael Billington on many salient points, but Billington always creates an intellectual structure with which it's possible to disagree. And besides, he's a pleasure to read. I don't feel any such clarity about Glow's book.

My problems with Power Plays are on two levels. On one, I disagree with almost every critical assumption about writing and politics and theatre that Glow makes in this book. On the other, quite aside from my own take on these things, the book makes an argument that is often incoherent, and reaches conclusions that are often, on inspection, disappointingly banal.

It's the kind of critical writing about theatre that makes me deeply depressed. It demonstrates the pedestrian ideological mindset and intellectual shallowness that strangled Australian theatre through the 80s and 90s. It is hard to know how to begin to talk about it, partly because its argument is so unclear; so I thought I'd just briefly pull out some individual points.

Power Plays discusses primarily the work of eight playwrights - Stephen Sewell, Hannie Rayson, Katherine Thompson, Andrew Bovell, Ben Ellis, Reg Cribb, Wesley Enoch and Patricia Cornelius - whom Glow interviewed for the book. But she by no means confines her discussion of political theatre to these playwrights: in fact, there is a dizzying sampling of Australian plays and playwrights discussed in this book, from Richard Frankland to Michael Gurr, from Oriel Grey to Jack Hibberd.

Taking a leaf out of Leonard Radic's Contemporary Australian Drama, Glow approaches theatre primarily as a means of tracking social history: "This book contends," she says, "that the Australian theatre of the last decade has been a good place to find out 'what is really happening'." And she is concerned with plays that, as she puts it, reflect a "critical nationalism", which works "against the grain" of John Howard's vision of "One Australia". The writers of these plays "insist", she says, "that their highest motivation is to provide politically informed debate on key issues in the public domain". She is not writing a history of all political theatre, and she is not writing a history of performance.

The problems begin when she starts to adumbrate her definition of "mainstream". She is concerned with "mainstream" playwrights "whose work is performed in and by the leading state-subsidised theatres in Australia" to "middle-class, aging" audiences. "Mainstream" plays are further defined as naturalistic, character-based dramas: they alone "engage with forums of power" and reach a national audience.

Nothing in the book answers my earlier questions about this definition of "mainstream", which I might as well repeat.

Surely the book is making a self-fulfilling argument in accepting those assumed limitations? The STC has been hosting things like Howard Barker's Victory, or Kosky's The Lost Echo. Benedict Andrews's production of The Season at Sarsaparilla critiqued modes of perception in its design and direction. And the politics in next year's STC program is quite difficult to escape, although at least a third of it eschews the naturalistic model of "unified narrative, psychologically plausible characters and emotional engagement" (although I always hope for emotional engagement). Which at the least brings into question the idea that the formal choice of naturalism has to be observed in order to be programmed.

The mix gets more complex when you look at all the theatre companies supported by the Major Performing Arts Board, which include the Malthouse and Company B, as well as Bell Shakespeare and all the State companies, and if you include the Melbourne Festival.

The examples I've noted seem to me to be quite noticeable eruptions of political critique in mainstream venues that, yes, absolutely have to get those bums on seats, but are still exploring work that reaches beyond the model of dramatic naturalism. Isn't an important part of this discussion that the parameters of the "mainstream" have noticeably been changing over the past few years?

This insistence on a very limited view of "mainstream" theatre - and the associated claims for its political significance, which underlie this book's argument - is a critical weakness. Even on her own terms, Glow uses "mainstream" very loosely: sometimes, as in the introduction, "mainstream" becomes a synonym for "play". It's muddied further by Glow's many discussions of independent theatre or independently produced plays, such as Ilbijerri Theatre, The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project or Melbourne Workers Theatre. Why insist so strongly on the definition of "mainstream" in the first place if, in the body of the book, it means so little? It is hard to see it as anything more than a rhetorical claim.

The definition of "political" is similarly problematic. After some discussion of the difficulty of defining political theatre, Glow accepts that political in this context means "the interrogation of systems of power". This might work if the book were more aware of, and interrogated, the systems of power at work in Australian theatre, but these remain largely unaddressed.

Glow has, for example, some strange ideas about agency: she says several times that writers "choose" to be mainstream playwrights. Hannie Rayson, it seems, "chooses" to have her plays performed at the MTC, rather than, say, at La Mama (oddly, given its noble history of political theatre, not mentioned in this book). Even the briefest consideration suggests that it is the MTC that chooses, otherwise we'd have mainstream playwrights coming out of our ears. No doubt this confusion stems from Glow's conflation of a formal style - naturalistic plays - with her definition of a category of theatre - theatre made in special buildings for middle-class audiences. But it is indicative of a general fuzziness.

Worse, this definition of the political as interrogating systems of power could be applied to almost every play ever written. Glow localises it by bringing in the notion of "critical nationalism": she is concerned with plays that argue against the prevailing nationalism promoted by the Howard Government. The danger of Glow's argument becoming purely reactionary ought to be obvious; especially if, as is widely expected, Howard gets voted out in a couple of weeks.

It is also very parochial: our theatre only counts as political in this purview if it explicitly addresses our "Australianness". There is no discussion of political theatre writing here in any wider context: you will look in vain for any references to Edward Bond, or Howard Brenton, or Augusto Boal, or even Bertolt Brecht. (David Hare gets a couple of mentions, but only because he visited Australia, and Samuel Beckett gets a very small guernsey in a discussion on Ben Ellis). One very serious problem with this book is that, while it might have a lot of breadth in the range of Australian theatre it discusses, it has hardly any depth at all.

There are other strange acrobatics. Glow has already claimed that theatre's highest good is as a public forum for informed political discussion. She has a fair bit of trouble squaring this instrumental view of art with her own objections to the equally instrumentalist economic rationalist model that she objects to from the Howard Government, but solves the contradiction by ignoring it. Instrumentalism is, it seems, ok if in the service of one kind of politics, but not in another.

Likewise, Glow quotes Terry Eagleton on ideology, which he says constructs a "reassuringly pliable" view of the world, and then speaks of theatre's capacity to unsettle ideological frameworks; but she nowhere questions the ideology adumbrated in the book. And this is an avowedly ideological argument, as expressive of a heterodoxy as anything it argues against.

I finished Power Plays with the gloomy thought that this book reduces theatre and art as effectively as any argument by Andrew Bolt: it employs the same parameters of discussion, and merely mirrors the effect - left wing, instead of right. Passion, intellectual play, love, formal curiosity, actual social engagement, the very experience of theatre itself, seem very far away. No wonder "we no longer feel", as Glow says, "that theatre is as important as life itself".

I hope some of you took advantage of Currency's generous offer last month, and bought and read the book. Now I've had my say, I'm fascinated to hear yours.

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