The trouble with Craven ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The trouble with Craven

The National Times - aka Fairfax's op-ed pages - yesterday hosted a Peter Craven polemic which purported to analyse "the trouble with Australian theatre". I feel I ought to point to it (and to the anger which it has provoked): but is it possible to argue with a critic who, although he writes with an air of impenetrable entitlement, clearly knows so little about theatre?

It's the old wrestling matches - "naturalism" vs "non-naturalism", "writers" vs "directors" - a divide which, it seems, must be preserved at all costs, even if it illuminates nothing about the contemporary scene. In the "Naturalism" corner are Hannie Rayson and David Williamson, playwrights who in fact write television for the stage and have as much to do with naturalism as McDonalds has with haute cuisine. But this is not surprising in an intellectual world in which Robert Wilson makes "mime-oriented experimentalism"; in which a "naturalistic and muted" production of a Tennessee Williams play is a good idea (try reading the playwright himself on what he thought his work should be); in which the desolating Barrie Kosky adaptation of Euripides' The Women of Troy is simply about "standing a play on its head until its teeth rattle to see if it's alive" or the most notable features of the revelatory STC production of The Season at Sarsaparilla were "Peter Carroll in drag and a Big Brother-style camera".

In short, this is Australian theatre criticism as we know and loathe it: ignorant, incurious, self-satisfied and parochial. It's an intellectual world defended by empty rhetoric rather than reasoned argument, claiming to be defending "emotional truth" when in reality such truth is the last thing it's interested in, making spurious claims towards theatrical "cutting edge" and "tradition" while calling for a theatre that has neither. Its sole interest is the boulevard stages of the middle brow.

It's a world with carefully policed borders that stop at the Australian coastline, where we all stand and wave, with a proper deference, at the West End and Broadway. These borders have to be policed because otherwise the absurd implicit claim that Williamson and Rayson could "take their place with Pirandello and the Greeks" would fall apart in the two seconds it takes to write it. They have to be policed because otherwise one would be ashamed to write such insupportable tosh about Robert Wilson or Tennessee Williams. They have to be policed because the only thing that permits such claims to be sustained is a total incuriosity about the arts and traditions of theatre. Can you argue with that? No. In fact, you can't.


James Waites said...

Peter Craven was a moron in the 1980s (I have kept articles he wrote for the Independent Monthly with dozens of phrases circled that deserved to be torn apart. And here he does again - absolute rubbish from beginning to end. I am not arguing against his case - he has no case. This 'essay' is so lacking in sustained logic it makes me cry that this is what the once mighty National Times (the print version in the 1980s) has sunk to.

Christine B said...

Yeah, I struggled to see the point he was trying to make, apart from having a whinge - incoherent nonsense.

Anonymous said...

well said. craven is really out of his depth and has nothing interesting to say here

Jana said...

What worries me more is that his argument, to a person who knows less about the state of the Australian theatre, Craven's argument appears perfectly coherent and logical. I had to decode every single keyword to my breakfast date ('emotional truth', 'text', 'Racine'), to justify why I was getting so worked up I never finished that breakfast. On the surface, it is a perfectly coherent-sounding argument. I could see The Age readers nodding and wondering why anyone would want to stand Euripides on his head.

Anonymous said...

Man, its weird. With all the football around lately when we get some art news, then we all spit chips.

But having said that, like his lightweight brethren Cameron Woodhouse, the man is a meagre intellect dressed up with a plummy voice.

At the end of the day, to use the word Racine (please explain) just shows the man to be completely unconnected from anything. The age readers would only nod sagely because they don't know either who Racine is/was/might be.

I am not a dumb person, but geez I hate wankers who use dumb stuff to sound important.

It's like the old Pauline Hanson 'are you a xenophobe?' question. Don't know about you, but I still am a bit unsure what a xenophobe is. But basically, just the spasticity with which she answered the question is the issue. The normal person would simply ask 'what is a xenophobe I do not know that word" but loser brains red knob says something dumb.

The point is, when Craven makes arguments, but makes them using standards of intellectual unattainability, then that to me is the problem.

And this my friends is the wider issue. Articles like this, make the wider world steer well clear of theatre/the arts...purely because it intimidates them.

So thank you Peter, you have made everyone's life a bit less happy now. Why don't you go and see like 5 shows a week and read like 5 novels a week, review each of them, and never ever ever ever ever make anything creative yourself. Go on, that's what Cam does.

Peter: FAIL

Signed: you can probably figure out who I am, given my history with the honourable Cameron Woodhouse, so are they all, all honourable Cameron Woodhouses.

PS: Notice how I played the man and not the ball? Get it now Pete?

Alison Croggon said...

Craven mentions Racine because Joanna Murray-Smith is just like a 17th century French classicist who writes in alexandrines. (Joking). Maybe he mentions Racine because George Steiner thinks Racine is very cool, and he likes to think he's like Steiner. I always figured Steiner liked Racine because he can read him in French, when his legendary style is said to be visible. In English, Racine's always sent me to sleep. (Oh, I see...)

Yeah, I'm a wanker too. But I don't think knowledge is unattainable or exclusionary. If you want to know something, you just find it out. Craven speaks for people who like their theatre digestible, who want their art to mark their social status, and who resent being forced to think. All they require is a few easy put-downs to keep the fences high, and everyone's happy.

Re: Hanson. Puzzling comparison. Hanson got a hard time in the press not only because she was a rampant racist and economic troglodyte, but because of her class and sex. Craven uses his class to exclude people like Hanson from the magic circle. It's a mutual resentment that maybe sums up Australian cultural relations, and yes, they both need each other.

the anvil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the anvil said...

i'm a bit late to this one, but here's my detailed response to this article:

I note that the 'counter-article' a few days later on the National Times has a similar level of shallowness of insight... *sigh*