Unfortunately, it is the spirit of risk management in the arts that has corralled the modern playwright into taking photographs from the known world. Rather than holding a mirror to society through the creation of fiction born of fact, modern plays reflect a quality that, more than ever, is too anchored in the rational world and too prone to offering information over drama. Pinter would be turning in his place of rest.
An example is Tricycle Theatre’s response to the riots in Britain in 2011. Such verbatim theatre leaves little for the imagination, despite a keen devotion to pluralism. Moreover, such plays have a limited lifespan, despite currency that gives them gravitas and sales dollars. Plays should be much more than a populist scoop or a disposable act of cultural realignment. For the accountant, sadly, artistic imagination is too terrifying. The issues-based play is the new symphony.
The ideal… a case for Harold Pinter
It’s not a compliment for an illustrator to be compared to a photographer.
This requires great courage on behalf of the modern playwright to not over expose the image (the working title of this essay fragment ‘Pub. 1977. Spring’ is the first note from scene one in Harold Pinter’s work from 1977, ‘Betrayal’. The modern artistic director or script reader would probably demand specificity, or ‘verification’ as Pinter himself would have lamented); but above all it requires patience to not reach for the loudest sound, the most obvious shape, or the most immediately newsworthy idea.
The story of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Hothouse’ is interesting. Written in 1958, he left it alone for more than twenty years until the play premiered in 1980. The ambiguous institution that is the setting for this work and the ensuing bureaucracy stemming from it are clearly adaptable to all eras. It is subject to interpretation: it could be the NHS; it could be an asylum, and a comment about a nation’s treatment of its mentally ill. Ask the full houses that attended the Trafalgar Studios production in Whitehall in 2013 if their experience was lessened by the absence of absolute facts. They seemed to find the language manageable as well, and no less relevant or obscure by the sheer excess of words – that landed like jewels from within a thankfully sparse design.
Indeed, it was often the absence of certainties that transmitted a play to wider levels of interpretation. ‘The Birthday Party’, Pinter again, is a seminal example. In Goldberg and McCann, we happily concede to not absolutely comprehending two of the greatest characters ever written. Naturally, the play was a commercial flop at the time of its premiere in 1958.
The lack of absolute contemporariness is also the key ingredient in a play’s endurance. Shakespeare’s Tempest was ostensibly relevant to a society that was starting to dominate the world. One would have expected its stocks to rise by the fact that the ‘new world’ had recently been discovered. Perhaps human beings of the early seventeenth century genuinely were debating the soul, or the responsibilities of a civil society in relation to the ‘uncivilised’ or indigenous natives of the Americas. However, the play is not specific as to place or geography. It is an island. Somewhere. There is no mention of Bermuda and what that conjures, much less Jamestown, Virginia. The title does not help us either, other than suggesting the significance of a storm.
It is little wonder that ‘The Tempest’ gained little immediate attention – yet, had Shakespeare written an issues-based play drawn from the ethical and rational considerations of Europeans discovering the new world (sans magic), and provided a title that offered greater specificity, we wouldn’t be reading it today. Furthermore, it is the amalgamation of sources that influenced the play – as opposed to a single popular event – that has guaranteed its immortality. Shakespeare certainly understood the long game.
Although I was a privileged theatre-goer during my period of study in London (and in two subsequent trips), where I completed an MA in Theatre Directing, I was also witness to prominent new writing theatre companies programming cabaret, music and dance. My experiences have reinforced the view that the quest for more measurable and immediately consumable subject matter in theatre has made language less prevalent and more linear. It is a war against uncertainty, and from Melbourne to London, the Aristotelian language-based play is under tremendous threat. Language decline is not just a problem for art and theatre. To reduce language jeopardises access and works against equality in society, by limiting the expression of thoughts and ideas.
To the modern playwright: news is for issues. Information is the natural enemy of the dramatic situation. Just because it happened doesn’t make it news; just because it’s of popular significance doesn’t make it drama. Just because we cannot completely unlock a subject has never diminished our capacity to enjoy it.
In far too many cases…
A word on contemporary theatre and the objectively dramatic situation. People often say that they’re doing theatre or that they’re in a theatre show. They become annoyed when I tell them that the show they’re in wasn’t in any way dramatic or that it failed the test of the objectively dramatic situation.
What’s happened to contemporary theatre, particularly in Australia (with its parlous arts funding state and the obvious cultural issues surrounding language-based performance art), is that it has become a mish-mash of styles and genres. This has essentially occurred, not because humankind has developed greater or finer means of artistic expression in the theatre, but because the opposite has occurred, in an age that has never been more accommodating to and inclusive of the mediocre, and more prepared to accelerate or fast-track the incomplete project due to process-based endeavour becoming increasingly, or generationally, unfashionable. It’s cruel to judge some of these projects too harshly: there is precious little assistance provided from above, and many of these projects exist because they are manageable and lack rehearsal and script-based complexity; given the immense pressures that are inherent within a capitalist apparatus that does not comprehend the benefits of artistic subsidy.
In eighteenth century Austria, if you purported to be a violinist, but couldn’t play, you were presented with two choices: starve to death or find a different occupation. However, in a wealthy, semi-literate country, the singular acts of writing, directing, and performing intensely challenging, language-based stories have been rendered less important, culturally, because they are less achievable and/or less attainable by the theatrical participants of the culture. An unconscious morphing or dilution of these artistic processes is the result in so many instances, manifesting as a kind of substitute theatre of not easily discernible artistic identity that seeks to accommodate, and to hide, the aforesaid deficiency. To sustain the above analogy: the contemporary Australian theatre landscape is replete with appalling violinists.
Theatre-makers, writers, directors, and actors: if audience members are leaning back in their chairs (or if they are not suspended in the liminal state between leaning forward and leaning back), it is because you have failed to ask dramatic questions, such as what occurs in the scene above from Macbeth (see above post). What has likely transpired is that you have become so enamoured with a scene or idea; you have said that it is important. The mistake you have made is that sociological importance has never naturally equated dramatic potential. I’ll say that in a different way: we can’t assume that just because something is important, sociologically or historically speaking, that it lends itself to being communicated in an objectively dramatic fashion.
The importance that you have placed upon the scene, moment or idea has likely meant that you have expressed this moment or idea in a way that rather loudly tells the audience. You know it so well. It’s so important. The absolute importance of this idea or moment, as you see it, has meant that you are likely to have killed the discovery by being overly literal. Killing the discovery kills the mutuality between stage and audience. It is probable that your production is some kind of biopic, perhaps a one-person show, or one that, nonetheless, takes advantage of pre-existent literary fame and populism; or one that explores a vital issue in society, or an injustice, in which because of your steadfast devotion to the idea of its importance, you have mistaken it for the collision of physical moments that are driven by credibly motivated dramatic potential.
Perhaps you are involved in the staging of an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, again chosen because of its importance. The mind-set of ‘why this play, why now’ is likely to have escaped you, too, because it is unlikely that you are familiar with any form of pre-production planning rigour. You will justify the staging of Macbeth because it’s important. This cultural absence will see you trot out familiar tropes, and repeat or regurgitate the populism of the Bard, in large part because you are in a see play, do play culture that doesn’t have time or doesn’t understand the important role that time plays in the evolution of vision. Setting the play in 1960s Havana or reaching for some other historical hook or aesthetic is not the same as creating an overarching metaphorical blueprint. It is a cheap cosmetic or distraction that attempts to mask the lack of originality of the production: a trick that only works on the majority.
Or perhaps it wasn’t that bad; perhaps it was merely too profoundly culturally accepted. Either way: you will go to war about the importance of your subject, that was perhaps chosen because you overestimated its shock value or because you anticipated its popular appeal against a range of measurables. You feel that it is a story that has to be told. This makes you particularly self-indulgent (all participants in art are self-indulgent). You say that it’s a deeply moving or emotional devised piece. You assert that the emotions you present on stage are deeply relevant because they are felt by real people who are experiencing things. The possibility that emotional restraint on stage is linked to dramatic potential has quite possibly escaped you. The possibility that withholding emotions, from time to time, when emotions are justified or anticipated, asks a dramatic question that encourages the leaning forward of audience members has also, quite possibly, escaped you. Moreover, it’s a self-driven project because no-one gave you money. However, in telling it, what you have in fact done is to offer up the didactic regurgitation of information and the presentation of behaviour. This is the opposite of drama because it pushes people back in their seats. It is a type of answer; not a question. It makes the audience passive: they begin to wonder if they couldn’t have found this content online. And although it is likely that your sound design is excellent; you’re only fooling the people with the keys in this age, and the subscription or season ticket holders (who need to be fooled).
An old man yelling at clouds? No doubt. But don’t mistake being on the stage for being involved with drama. You are on the stage to play a role in communicating the dramatic situation. Nothing more. If there isn’t a dramatic situation in the work that you are doing, no amount of participation, wellbeing, texture, or singing will change the fact.
Drama is the tension between presence and absence.