Hamlet and Design

Hamlet, Design and Credible Activity in Shakespeare

Context and the contemporary metaphor:

These days one hears of female Hamlets, homosexual Hamlets, mentally ill Hamlets and so on. Nothing wrong with these ideas and their capacity to reflect the totality of human experience and diversity, other than the fact that in many cases they are the sum total of the idea: there is no metaphorical overhang, no overriding vision, and no immensity of connectivity with contemporary thought – beyond what some would describe as a gimmick or an exercise in zeitgeist tapping. It may trouble some readers for gender, sexuality, and mental illness to be associated with gimmickry. However, if Hamlet’s homosexuality, for example, is played out as an isolated feature within a contemporary adaptation, it is insufficient in the same way that arbitrarily altering the setting is insufficient, or superimposing by force the political context of the day. By all means contemporise the setting, provided that the idea is strong enough to structurally effect design, rehearsal, and all facets of the performance. Hamlet’s homosexuality, if it is to be considered, needs to ask questions that transcend sexuality itself.

Moreover, realising credible, plausible, and practical activity is an easier task if the world of the play and the world of the present are linked and supported through a sustained idea or metaphor.

A question worth asking before teaching or directing a play, particularly of this scale, is: what are the participants of the play doing that parallel the behaviour or trends of contemporary society? Such a question is designed to shape the play in a unique but universal way, to make it your investigation and, optimistically, to find something of the zeitgeist. Doing less will likely result in the performance, reading, directing, or examination of someone else’s thoughts based on another person’s production. For Hamlet, one could respond to this question in numerous ways: they are exercising power, they are trying to survive, they are engaging in a family crisis, they are attempting to make crucial decisions, they are experiencing trauma, etc. Although factually considered, these ideas are somewhat nebulous and abstract, are likely to reflect the views and values of the main players, and by extension do not present a unified idea of the whole. Drawing on a political feud, such as the Rudd/Gillard example in Australian politics to contemporise Richard II is a likely idea, but how does the superimposition of a contemporary political story treat its less prominent participants, and how are they combined with the smaller players in Shakespeare’s history? In the same way, believing that you have successfully contemporised Much Ado purely by catapulting it into the rock ‘n roll era is an equally inadequate design mentality. Bits and pieces may just work (though these highlights are probably owing to both script and performance rather than any salient design feature), but without a sustained idea or metaphor; it cannot work as a whole. Returning to Hamlet, the question at the beginning of this paragraph must therefore pertain to Claudius and Marcellus, occupants of contrasting positions on the spectrum of status, in equal measure.

Since the advent of the Internet three decades ago and with it the technology of social media, society has found itself in an age where validation and communication have become, if not, synonymous then closely paralleled. Part of the validation process involves the capturing or quantification of the experience in the first place. The capturing and holding of the experience in time has been simplified, made accessible, and accessorised through the fashionable functionality of telecommunications, the rise to blue-chip investment status of data storage companies, and the well-sold idea of their indispensability. Never before have we sought so much validation from third parties. Validation may come from checking our inbox, sending photographs of a yearlong sabbatical in Catania from iphone to work colleagues, transmitting optimistic and far-reaching party invitations to Facebook associates, zooming in on our home address through Google Earth, dropping self-serving and egotistical Linkedin posts or by posting frivolous videos on YouTube just because we can (the Internet has also turned many of us into amateur spies). In short, the business of validation is thriving, as the methods and mediums of quantifying our experiences, no matter how benign, have never been more attainable, intuitive, immediate, and irresistible.

So what does any of this have to do with Hamlet and, more immediately Claudius and Marcellus? The grand parallel is that Hamlet, the character, is preoccupied with time, death, and posterity, and that all the players show a willingness to validate their existence. Indeed, it can be argued that the play exists out of one man’s desire to self-validate through usurping a higher status, and to quantify his life not as someone’s brother, but as a country’s king. The idea of unearned validation and quantification through questionable means coincides with today’s popular/celebrity culture and the, often dubious, talents therein. The question of Claudius’ worth and worthiness connects the world of the play with the world of the audience. Equally, in a play that strongly considers the theme of existentialism, the concern is one of non-existence; hence, the obsession with measurement, quantification, and certainty. The concern over ‘non-existence’ is fear-based: contemplate the fears of an old man, Polonius, waning in life and power, literally disappearing. Apparent, too, is the fact that in our world the captured experience is not always the real one. Think of all the gigabytes taken up on our hard drives and mobile devices of non-essential moments. It is interesting therefore to juxtapose the fact that Claudius is materially present but not real (as in worthy or authentic) with the idea that the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is immaterially present, yet quite real. The key driver of material action is a non-material manifestation, and in many ways the desire for quantification and validation of existence is undone by the ethereal presence.

It is not a new idea to suggest that Horatio is the narrator of this family tragedy, not in the traditional sense of that word but in what he is shown and to what he has access. For example, in the first scene he is shown a ghost: here he is trusted by low-status guards, in the same way that in act IV, sc. v the king entrusts him with the task of following and watching the despairing Ophelia. Further, Horatio has access to many private exchanges with Hamlet, and is urged by the dying prince to ‘…report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied’ (V.ii.332) – the obligation of which extends him beyond the play through the testimony of bloody events he offers the triumphant Fortinbras (V.ii.365-379).  If anyone could be said to hold objective facts, it is Horatio. We also know that he is a scholar. Let’s, for a moment, consider what this could mean in the only sense that matters: in the sense of the play’s practical manifestation of action and activity. Imagine that he is a scholar of history, and that part of his study involves documenting the life and times of Denmark’s royal family. He may even be a writer or journalist. In this sense, Denmark’s relationship to Horatio is similar to a number of contemporary organisations that allow open access to selected media representatives. In such exchanges there is mutual benefit: Horatio benefits from exclusive access, and those who create the access thrive in the validation of being captured or recorded in the certainty of time.

To test the worth of an attempted motif or overarching metaphor – apply it to the smaller fish. Extending this quantification idea to the guards, consider the following internal monologue: ‘I am a lowly guard; I quantify my existence by seeing, observing, and protecting the surrounds from threats that exist and which are material. If I perceive a threat from an exceptional, non-material visage, what an exceptional guard I am!’ What a marvellous opportunity it is for Marcellus to call upon the services of higher-status Horatio, the scholar, to quantify his suspicions about the ghost. It would depend on the temporal context of a production, among other factors; but imagine the opening exchange with Bernado and Francisco, stationed on the castle’s ramparts with tripod and camera, approached by Horatio and Marcellus – the latter with a larger, more powerful lens and flash. To quantify the ghost by measuring and capturing it visually is to validate their existence. A choice such as this also increases the scene’s dramatic potential by adding a competitive element between Bernardo and Marcellus: the haste to validate oneself is certainly a contemporary phenomenon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern operate in a similar way: their haste for self-promotion and validation amongst the higher echelon sees them spying for the king – an act which costs them a friendship and eventually their lives. Similarly, to appease and impress a prince, the players are prepared to alter script and performance.

The idea of quantifying the experience and validating oneself in a coercive, or less than admirable way is also linked to lineage and the usurpation and retention of power – strong subjects in the play. Claudius’ speech that opens the second scene offers the potential to explore this idea through the in-authenticity of stage-management and public relations. It is a speech that attempts a multitude of contradictions: it threatens and unites, it recognises Denmark’s strength but manipulates with the suggestion of instability, it is self-serving, but appears generous and self-effacing. In short, Claudius’ ranging tactics reflect the difficulty of his sell. He must be careful. Off the text you might imagine a politician in serious preparation. It is his debut press conference, and it could go quite wrong. Imagine a dress rehearsal of the speech – with nobody present, or perhaps one advisor. Imagine Claudius redrafting the speech after breaking off in error. Imagine, then, that he is ready. Horatio enters up the back, slightly late, perhaps tired and wide-eyed from the previous night’s experience. He is the writer, the freelance journalist who attempts to be everywhere (this need not upset his greeting with Hamlet in I.ii.159). Perhaps due to the formal occasion that is I.ii he doesn’t get a chance to greet his friend until the formalities are over.

At any rate, it is not impossible to imagine Horatio breaking from Marcellus and Bernardo and arriving to hear the new king’s speech ahead of the guards. He will even observe Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.ii.129-158), unbeknownst to the prince: rising to greet his friend from the back of the room – or from within the audience – at the departure of the king et al, on line 128, and sitting uncomfortably as Hamlet, not noticing his friend, unleashes torrents of pain in what he thinks is a private moment. Imagine the tension in the room when Horatio resumes his seat in the audience, as an audience member, watching and taking notes as Hamlet contemplates the ‘too too sallied flesh.’ It certainly fits with the surveillance motif and of quantifying the experience. It also reinforces the idea of the play’s ‘performative’ aspect: that many people are performing roles, (or are manipulated by others in this tragedy), and he – along with the king’s handpicked retinue – is necessary to give the impression of openness and accessibility. Such in-authenticity is then filmed, recorded, annotated, and captured. Parts of the speech are applauded. To further explore the juxtaposition of authentic/immaterial former king with the idea of inauthentic/material present king, it might be possible to express Claudius through a TV monitor. Those present would resemble a studio audience. The depiction of Claudius as a live studio presence and a screen presence suggests the two-faced nature of the usurper king. Although the broadcast could conceivably end with the departure of Voltimand and Cornelius, accompanied by the retinue of Lords and attendants, allowing the camera to run in the presence of Horatio and the royal family maintains the dual image of Claudius, foreshadowing his duplicity.

Hamlet’s distance in this scene may be depicted by him exercising some sort of interruption, by offering a play for attention, or by the fact that he enters the speech at its halfway point. In this way, Hamlet, too is quantifying his existence through the expression of opposition. Let’s imagine that Hamlet enters this studio environment with a camera (non-digital, of course), disrupts the scene by switching off the cosmetic studio lights in favour of the house lights, and starts taking photographs of Claudius. It is an odd gesture, in keeping with his need to capture the experience, to probe and to problem-solve, and to document this moment in time for his own purpose or wellbeing in dealing with the trauma of his dead father. Moreover, it presages his antic disposition. Remember: the prospect of a ghost merely confirms Hamlet’s suspicions later in the scene. ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’ conveys his misgiving from the start. We can view this as a typically intelligent and cryptic play-on-words. However, we need to be aware that it is the first line he utters. The concise belief that Claudius ‘is claiming an excess of kinship in designating himself father as well as uncle while acting in a way which could be construed as ‘unkind’ or unnatural’ (Arden, p.170) is evidence that Hamlet brings a sharp and loaded mind to the scene, with the alacrity to offer the perfect summation of his feelings about the usurper – although the strong consonants at the end of both clauses do indicate a man attempting to control the expression of vowels and to thus suppress emotion.

I’ve often been amazed at the amount of productions in which this crucial introduction to Hamlet only distinguishes him through moping, slumping, mooching, and generalised displays of teenage attitude. These sluggish ideas contradict the swiftness, zeal, and elusive quality of his opening line. Imagine the conflict from Claudius’ point of view. He will interpret Hamlet’s interruption and obsessive photography as some sort of power play. Disarming him takes on a whole new meaning; but he cannot make a show of his annoyance or disquiet at this troubled and perplexing youth due to the context and the participants in the scene. It makes for an interesting subversion of status form the off: a newly crowned king subtly attempting to remove a camera from a troubled adolescent. As for Hamlet: point of view is a dangerous thing. It is the point of view of those present that Hamlet is disturbed by the loss of his father and by the hasty marriage of his mother. Depictions of Hamlet, almost invariably, take their cue from this point of view. However, by taking the point of view of Hamlet himself and by asking what he could be doing in the scene, we can see that disturbance, depression, disquiet, sorrow or anger clearly need not be sluggish. The point is to distinguish Hamlet through action and activity rather than through generalised mood or assumed behaviour.

It is intriguing that Hamlet is so much in awe of actors, and expresses a theoretical knowledge of their craft: that they act without reason or emotional connection, ‘in a fiction, in a dream of passion’ that is a conceit; yet possessing a genuine motive he cannot: ‘Yet I, / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, / And can say nothing. No, not for a king / Upon whose property and most dear life / A damned defeat was made’ (II.ii.501-506). The nature and sheer suddenness of losing a loved one can impair the ritual of loss, sullying and extending the grieving process. Part of the function of ritual is to quantify the experience – of a birthday, a religious date, or in this case a death. Ritual may also prepare us for grief impending. In many ways this is Hamlet’s problem: dealing with loss is difficult enough, but to be denied a clear pathway into acceptance by not knowing the precise details of his father’s death is understandably unsettling. Hamlet’s desire to test his theory by re-enacting the death of his father through the The Murder of Gonzago. (III.ii), while designed to ‘catch the conscience of a King’, is also an attempt to complete the ritual process. By firstly resurrecting his father then capturing a large-scale action shot of his murder, Hamlet is attempting to quantify and experience a retrospective moment in time as evidence of proof.

Here, it is possible to move Hamlet away from keen observer, of play and King, to active participant as a means of further validating his cause in opposition to the attacks against order and nature (and against his imprisonment within the diseased organism) – perhaps through a role in direction, stage-management, or as lighting-technician. His knowledge of the craft of acting, shown at the beginning of the scene, qualifies him in this innovation. Perhaps Horatio is filming the performance. It might also be fitting for Hamlet to perform as the murderer, Lucianus. One can imagine Hamlet replaying the tape of Claudius’ response to the staging of the murderer’s method. Having Hamlet as performer is also a way to insinuate his ambition – after all, there are numerous ways of perceiving his statement to Rosencrantz: ‘Sir, I lack advancement’ (III.ii.331), and a more competitive interpretation of his ensuing reference to starving and growing stale. Also possible is that he is manifesting his unconscious understanding of the state that he wishes not to become. Regardless, the player king should resemble old King Hamlet as much as possible – that is, armoured, like the garb worn by the ghost. Elevating Hamlet to a more active role in the in-authenticity of performance is an effective juxtaposition to his real life stasis. The fact that he can only quantify a sense of order and control according to a replication means that his revenge is theoretical, and although it confirms in his mind Claudius’ guilt concerning the death of his father, it doesn’t lead to clear action.

There is a growing understanding among contemporary directors for the need to do more with the well-worn sections of a famous text that happen to house some of the most spoken words in the English language. To offer stand and deliver ‘To be’ speeches is increasingly passé, and reflects the type of production from which this essayist is attempting to distance himself. Equally, it is no longer an act of sacrilege to alter the temporal order of one of Shakespeare’s plays. The famous soliloquy in question (III.i), for example, given its subject matter and contemplative aspect could appear in a number of places in a production (consider Maxine Peake’s 2014 Hamlet performance at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, in which the soliloquy in question, according to Michael Billington, comes ‘so late in the evening that one thought someone might have mislaid it’). In many ways the challenge, rather than to underscore such anticipated moments, is to offer them with subtlety or with new exploration and vision. Paradoxically, to have the soliloquies performed just as they are (heightened text on a page) is becoming increasingly anti-climactic and archaic. They are the expected chorus of an ancient song, and despite the build-up they often flop. Anecdotally, discerning audiences and directors of today are demanding a more progressive gesture.

Suicide, a deeply progressive subject at the time of performance and utterly controversial to original audiences, eventually taken up by Ophelia (or so it would seem), is nonetheless on Hamlet’s mind from the start of the play: ‘Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His Canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God…’ (I.ii.131). The irony is that many suicide victims quantify themselves and their life at the very end by leaving a note. One treatment for Hamlet’s (III.i) soliloquy, and continuing the idea of quantifying, validating, and capturing the experience of time, is to consider the credible prospect of it being a suicide note. Scholars, critics, and editors, although divided on Hamlet’s question after centuries, nonetheless agree that suicide is one of three possibilities for the speech (Arden, p.284). The link to act one certainly makes the idea highly plausible. Additionally, the speech is full of doubt, entrapment, and self-recrimination over failed action.

Critics of this will contend that the re-crimination over failed action amounts to a fear of death itself. Purists may contend that the speech amounts to an aspect of Hamlet’s antic disposition, arguing for his consciousness of a present and attentive Claudius in the scene. However, the speech that we know is incomplete – interrupted as it is by Ophelia – and the extent of Hamlet’s awareness of the setup (or the point that he becomes aware) is open to debate. Let’s take the idea of incompletion and return to our scene two example of Claudius drafting his maiden speech. Imagine that Hamlet is offstage, reciting, drafting, and calling aloud what we know today to be a very famous soliloquy. Imagine, too, that Horatio is quietly present (initially unseen by the hidden Claudius and Polonius), transcribing as per his role as narrator and historian. Imagine, now, that Hamlet appears from time to time to make corrections. Nicholls (2014), extends the idea of Hamlet drafting his suicide note by having him correct Shakespeare’s first quarto offering: ‘To be, or not to be – I, there’s the point.’ This intimate pairing of Hamlet and Horatio need not be completed in one sitting: it may be extended to reflect a universal pondering of the mysteries of life, death, morality, action, cause and effect over the course of the play. As far as communicating a clear image, the activity of drafting is a mirror linking uncle and nephew. Ophelia’s interruption in act three offers the prospect of there being other interruptions and repeats of what is an evolving draft. In short, the soliloquy that we know can be considered in episodes. Perhaps, controversially, Hamlet fails to complete the soliloquy as a final draft, as a symbolic failure to quantify profound feelings concerning his existence and the subject of existentialism itself – in the same way that, like the perfectionist archer, he fails to take the fatal shot of stabbing Claudius (III.iii), delaying until the impossibly perfect clarity of opportunity, circumstance, and morality presents itself.

‘Madness’ is an often-abused term, even today, often applied to matters or conditions little understood. It is possible to interpret Ophelia’s transformation in a manner befitting logic and psychology, and in accordance with the course of her trajectory in the play. The first image we have of her is that of a girl caught between two men: brother and father, both urging her away from a third (Hamlet), and teaching her to fear. This is her beginning. Despite her grief concerning the death of her father, paradoxically, her trajectory into death is in many ways the failure to deal with the freedom of fear removed. Father, brother (to France), and potential lover leave her in a state that is without all guidance. She is un-held for the first time. From valuable and disempowered article, pawn in men’s devices, and object of Hamlet’s sexual derision – Ophelia is, like many women throughout history and literature, shunted into a restrictive typecast. Prior to her transformation it is difficult to recall a point in the play in which we see a public display of her self. Gently, albeit privately, chiding her brother against hypocrisy is perhaps the exception (I.III.45-51). The ‘madness’ of Ophelia may be likened to a form of regression: a defence mechanism that returns her to a point of fixation (upon security) within the primitive child state. By extension, her suicide ensures that her life is essentially captured in childhood: she is not ready for the adult world and is denied access to it through the male gatekeepers of her life and, ultimately, through the death that she orchestrates.

Instead of offering flowers (IV.v), imagine that Ophelia is attempting to capture the experience by offering beautifully crafted formal invitations to what proves to be her suicide (with flowers attached). A macabre sense of control and purpose would be brought to Ophelia’s thwarted life, and an act of validation: as if quantifying herself at the death – before time runs out. Shakespeare has provided us with a stunning character transformation. Underscoring this moment for Ophelia is important precisely because she is so chastened earlier. Her release, in turn, must chasten – for it is the type of release she has hitherto not experienced. Furthermore, although such a powerful close might look like a distraction in the life of this Elizabethan tragedy (and what a withering indictment on the paternal world of the play that a young woman can only feel validated through these means), it is nonetheless a perfectly ironic contrast to Hamlet’s failure of purpose.

Gertrude, being the only other female presence in the play and with a sense of sisterhood, empathises with Ophelia’s entrapment and loss. Logically, she is the only one who can make sense of the invitations: ‘Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss’ (IV.v.18), and anticipates the suicide to the point that she bears witness to it. Here we must imagine that Horatio, in spite of Claudius’ command to ‘follow her close; (and) give her good watch’, cannot find her; it is Gertrude who is finally taking responsibility and ownership for capturing the action of events. One assumes that she is powerless to prevent Ophelia’s death, but of interest is the possibility that she allows it to happen, or is somehow more actively involved. We know that she is feeling guilty for Ophelia’s plight: ‘So full of artless jealousy is guilt, / It spills itself in fearing to be spilt’ (IV.v.19-20), and is reluctant even to admit her at the start of this scene. Crucially, though, it is the length of what can only be an eyewitness account of Ophelia’s death that gives her away (IV.vii.168-185). In it she makes reference to a precise location and to the precise species and colours of the flowers that Ophelia has chosen. Clearly, Gertrude is close enough to bear such meticulous detail, even hearing the girl sing.

There will always be speculation about the nature of Ophelia’s death, but the fact that she becomes like a ‘creature native and indued’ and is reportedly without struggle, suggests a surrendering ‘unto that element.’ Additionally, there is consternation as to her worthiness for Christian burial. Sadly, for Gertrude, it is a truth that relaying the description of Ophelia’s watery death represents her most authoritative public display of the play. Logging the death in such forensic detail shows an ordering of the mind, and perhaps a profound identification with Ophelia’s demise. There is power in knowing – and she is validated by her expert statement. Ophelia’s death is rarely, if ever, captured; but perhaps in a world punctuated with spying and eavesdropping, it can be – on CCTV (the more callous option of capturing the experience of death on iphone certainly fits with the trend in contemporary society that sees a reduced ability to sensitively discern essence from triviality; voyeurism from privacy). Perhaps, too, Gertrude’s eyewitness statement is a simple poem read during the playback – as a sign of guilt and as a mark of respect.

Hamlet, Design and Credible Activity in Shakespeare: A Summary

Credible activity within the plays of Shakespeare is in many ways an unwritten state of flux, largely imperceptible to participants, but always present. The major function of this resource is to encourage thought as to the possibility of activity in complex heightened texts. When participants can perceive that the speaking character is not merely standing in an unidentifiable space and offering difficult or archaic language, they are better positioned to respond positively to what the dramatic text has to offer. Many of the aforementioned suggestions concerning credible activity can and will be challenged. The point is not necessarily that they are the right choices, but that the principle of imagining credible activities is the right process because it connects characters to the world of the play (or brings Shakespeare forward to the contemporary world) and enables them to be better identified, perceived, imagined, and understood. Further, visualising credible and plausible activity can add necessary layers of meaning to a difficult text. Examining scenes from heightened works, particularly lengthy textual moments within the plays of Shakespeare, can therefore be enhanced and made more accessible with the examination of a small question: what could the character/s be doing in this scene by way of credible activity based on the verbal and non-verbal textual evidence presented, in conjunction with the given circumstances?

Bibliography:

Billington, M. (2014, September 17). Hamlet review – Maxine Peake stresses character with a caustic, spry prince. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com.

Shakespeare, W., Proudfoot, R., Thompson, A., Kastan, D. S., & Woudhuysen, H.R. (2006). Hamlet. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2022

Malthouse Theatre and the Creativity Crisis

I have a confession to make. While I appreciate that there are many reasons why people go to the theatre, and many genres and spectrums, tastes and predilections within the sphere of artistic judgement and participation; I go to the theatre to look at good scripts in action – scripts that spring from a vivid ear for language and dialogue tempo, with storylines that derive from an imagination that goes beyond the reproduction of the wholly verifiable. I feel that the script has to be at the centre of things. (I’m an old fool like that!) It’s kind of a basic standard or benchmark for a range of different theatre styles, manifestations, and definitions. After all – doesn’t a decent musical still require a good script? Doesn’t some of the most ‘unscripted’ content still require scripted ideas that facilitate quality control and dramatic potential? Even good improv has scripted boundaries, conditions or ‘rules’. But is the ‘good script’ what’s being offered on Melbourne’s biggest stages, such as Malthouse Theatre? And is it even a priority?

‘What a great script.’

‘I really liked the script.’

‘The script was excellent!’

You don’t hear these refrains too often anymore. Praising the script as an immediate or automatic response to a piece of theatre appears to have fallen down the pecking order of critique – and I have a theory as to why.

It’s because we’ve long moved away from a ‘script’ culture in favour of a ‘proposal’ culture, and our responses to theatre have been conditioned or re-programmed as a consequence.

Take one recent example from Malthouse Theatre. The question to ask is not whether Looking for Alibrandi was good or bad theatre; the right questions to ask are why it eventuated in the first place and what that process looked like.

A proposal culture often ensures a theatre proposal for a well-known novel, film, identifiable piece of literature, or zeitgeist opportunity. In other words, in too many instances, the starting point for writer and theatre company is not at ground zero, idea inception, or point of originality. That would be far too risky.

No-one’s heard of Looking for Daphne.

This concept is then transferred or translated to an event on the stage, the motivation being that people will recall (in this case) the novel or film and an instant clientele of support will transfer to a transient, but immediate, theatre audience.

One of the many problems with this process is that it is one in which there is no discernible basis in ensuring a good script, or rather – the need for it to be a good script is secondary, or tertiary. People attend the show on the basis of familiarity with the original source material – not the adapted script. Such marketing stratagems are commonplace and are designed to facilitate the goodwill of patrons who will likely embark on a generous assumption i.e. in this case, that the theatrical production will match the novel from 1992 or the film version of 2000.

The ‘proposal’ is then judged according to ticket sales. A ‘good’ proposal will equate identifiability among patrons, which transfers to profit.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The role of profit for a theatre company creates a paradox by ensuring that a theatre company cannot produce art – when it is driven to profiteer from the proposal culture that is, in turn, wired-in to the matrix of the zeitgeist of issues-based opportunism, identity politics, and populism – if the strictest of Wildean definitions are applied; given that profit is entirely functional, and ‘all art is quite useless.’

In the contemporary world of main-stage theatre, this means that programming decisions have never been more unrelated to actual quality of theatrical expression of an original idea.

For those who are less familiar with Oscar Wilde’s preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the writer reasons that creative expression fails the definition test of art if it flies too close to offering a discernible function. In this respect, all issues-based theatre or that which dogmatically seizes upon an overt zeitgeist opportunity would also fail the Wildean definition, being as such works tend to push an overtly authored opinion, with the resultant tendency – to paraphrase and transpose another of Wilde’s maxims – of revealing the artist and concealing art.

(As a poignant aside, if there’s any truth to the claim that the function of so-called Woke Inc is not to primarily promote visibility and social justice for minority participants, but to profit from them or to ensure the sustainability of third parties, as some moderate voices from such backgrounds, including indigenous cultures, do substantiate; then the most famous homosexual in the history of art would also have a thing or two to say about that, perhaps offering something along the lines of: the hand that thrusts an entity to the limelight of the free market, does so with an acute eye upon self-interest. The following, deliciously paradoxical quote from Wilde’s, The Soul of Man Under Socialism goes further: ‘The arts that have escaped [uniformity] best are the arts in which the public take no interest… We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it.’)

It’s not that the recent expression of adaptation at Malthouse Theatre, one of Melbourne’s largest stages, was or was not good; it’s that the mechanism of societal and economic forces that created it and the priorities that reside therein are preoccupied with creating a marketing hook – indeed an entire apparatus, the function of which has little to do with creating that which is ‘good’, much less that which is enduring.

The mistake that a great many people make in this space is to assume that because something premieres at a place like Malthouse Theatre, it somehow deserves all manner of abstract accolades – such as good, strong, successful, important…

It is not, by reason of its premiere and the public perception of the four-walls that houses it, any such thing necessarily or by assumption; in many instances it is a mere commodity, and will soon be overtaken by the next season of commodities. Such a course appears irresistible and sadly pre-destined in the contemporary landscape of what might generally be termed creative development or entertainment. We are fed a globally and (to some extent) pandemic inspired sugar-hit of comfort culture that metastasises the creativity crisis, in which the past is looped and consumers seem trapped within it or conditioned to the cookie cut creed by risk-averse entities that too often capitalise on the low bar of ‘what works’ by offering peak-optimisation and on-trend dreck. Ironically, both the creative team and the theatre company’s desire for relevance, immediacy, identifiability and profitability, and their lack of imagination in bringing the development of that which is so verifiable, so located, and so utterly determined to be about something, renders Looking for Alibrandi and like projects not only redundant at season’s end, but also entirely consumed.

Malthouse Theatre's Looking for Alibrandi, according to Oscar Wilde's quote, fails the definition of art, given that its familiarity among a pre-fabricated audience is geared to the function of profit.
Bike lock on metal pole without the bike
(black and white, i-phone, circa 2022)

or

‘All art is quite useless’

People will say that the greats always resorted to populism and had a keen ear for the zeitgeist, and that adaptation has essentially always occurred. To the latter point first: simply that it is limiting and deeply problematic when adaptation, sequel, and prequel become the go-to for artistic ‘product’ or definition, cultural output or vision. I doubt this warrants further explanation. The now deceased and somewhat famous Australian crime writer once ruefully opined: ‘We live in a semi-literate country.’ The proposal culture exacerbates this problem because it doesn’t promote (perhaps no longer understands) dramatic literature from source, often o’erleaping the unopened script in favour of the pre-packaged concept.

As to the point about populism, let’s consider a couple of random subjects from history. The Tempest, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, is not wholly an ‘issue play’ or one for the masses; if it merely ticked these boxes, it would have been forgotten. It would have been consumed at the time of inception. Like all great works, it touches on the immediate and goes beyond it. It doesn’t ‘locate’ or create ‘relevance’ too overtly. In other words, it transcends function, which has ensured its immortality. Pinter wrote about mental illness, trauma, and abuse without labelling or signposting to the effect of ‘Here is my new play about mental illness, trauma, and abuse.’ (see La Mama, Stevie, 2022). Look at the people in The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, along with many of his other works. He elevates story, character, dialogue, situation – not zeitgeist or dominant pathology. Such zeitgeist ‘tapping’ is a by-product. TBP was indeed a flop that changed everything. Pinter railed against ‘verification’ till his dying day, and revelled in ambiguity.

If these plays were written – here – today, they wouldn’t feature on main stages.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, the conditioning process of the proposal culture that we see enshrined in mainstream stages like Malthouse Theatre (for that is what it is) ensures that a great many people are not attending theatre shows for a new experience; they are attending the theatre for a shot of comfort, in which the outcome is a known or trusted commodity, and the economic risks associated with generating curiosity in the original and unknown can be side-stepped. The known is the raison d’etre of the pre-fabricated audience; it’s what such an audience craves; indeed, this is what the pre-fabricated audience is designed for. The greatest theatre experiences of my life have been those in which, instead of knowing, I leant forward in a transfixed state of not knowing. This state of wonderment, in which one suspends the need to know – absolutely – is akin, I imagine, to what some describe as divine bliss. McCann’s tearing of the newspaper to open the second act of The Birthday Party is a seminal example.

My London professor once told me to have sufficient respect for an audience in order to demand more from it; to be partially unrecognisable to the present (unlike Macbeth, I haven’t killed a king), yet oddly or un-demonstrably triggering aspects of present and immediate lives at the same time (Duncan’s murder signals the death of the Macbeth’s relationship, a trauma that most adults have experienced). The highest complement a writer/director can receive from a random punter, indeed a stranger, is not, ‘Wow, it was great because I absolutely understood everything.’ Rather, it is:

That was one of the best things I’ve seen, even though I can’t claim to have understood it entirely.

With the latter claim, the punter is responding favourably to a work that has transcended empiricism and the absolute, something that has perhaps transcended time and place, something that excites through its intangibility. Something more…

For those who enjoyed encountering Looking for Alibrandi at Malthouse Theatre, at least consider the possibility that we deserve more, far more; that the brand-new-second-hand mindset that brought it to fruition is deeply limited, one that is lock-step with the current creativity crisis, one that is paranoid about risk, and one that fails to understand the famous maxim about art: ‘There are no lattes in the desert.’ For those who were bitterly disappointed by their experience of Alibrandi at Malthouse Theatre, perhaps understand that because of the socio-cultural, political, psychological, and economic conditions, motivations and priorities outlined in this post, this assessment might have been assumed from the off.

An old man yelling at clouds? Of course! And what’s wrong with a bit of money for a sector whose participants die young? Nothing. Profit as the by-product of a creative endeavour is all well and good; but as the great Oscar Wilde himself long ago attested: function, in this case profit, that motivates, underpins, and is baked into the cornerstone of inception of a creative endeavour must logically preclude art itself.

Art, if it is to be so defined, will endure by its quality or capacity to transcend function.

So here’s hoping for Looking for Daphne sometime soon. No idea what it’s about – but I’ve heard it’s a stonking script!

What’s Wrong With Theatre? Proposal Vs Script Culture – A State of Play Snapshot

Click here and scroll down for interview


Cameron Sievers is a London trained theatre director, playwright, and novelist, and will stage his sixteenth production, The Gist, at Bard’s Apothecary, 24 Crossley Street (Melbourne CBD), in November ’22; at which time he will resume the war against the proposal culture and present both antidote and anathema to the creativity crisis. He posts once or twice a year, and thinks that this is a rule of thumb to which more people should subscribe.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2022

Macbeth, Stage Direction & the Dramatic Situation

“Never underestimate or disregard location: as one of the givens in the play; it is there for a purpose.”

– Patsy Rodenburg

Understanding the geography of a scene and the signposts of meaning has arguably never been more of a challenge for actors, theatre directors, educators and learners due to the sheer weight of images that are immediate, unearned and accessible in today’s world. Through the analysis of a scene from Macbeth, I propose that the world of a play, the plot elements within it, and its thematic concerns can be entirely understood through stage direction. To be able to accurately ‘predict’ a play based on a handful of lines is a useful skill for time poor participants. As a society, we are hungrier than ever for ‘relevance’ and immediate access to a text; so the ability to perceive foreshadowing is invaluable. Given the attention that the narrative text receives, it is understandable that the role of geography and stage direction is less clear in this paradigm.

Shakespeare, stage direction and drama in Macbeth, Act I vii:

To continue the analysis of the objectively dramatic situation, and the theory of presence and absence in drama, it will be important to challenge conventional wisdom and the strict idea of soliloquy in Shakespearean texts.

When Shakespeare offers us clear stage direction, particularly in the scene introduction, it is important to acknowledge its impact:

The same. A room in the Castle.

Hautboys and torches. Enter, and

pass over the Stage, a Sewer, and

divers Servants with dishes and

service.

Then enter Macbeth.

The stage direction tells us, foremost, that this is a public space; indeed, a thoroughfare in which musicians, servants carrying food, even a food-taster or chief butler are duty-bound to be intermittently present, as they move to and from the banquet held in honour of King Duncan. In short, the low-status characters must play a crucial role if this scene is to be effective in carrying out the objective function of drama.

It is clear that Macbeth has left the banquet. How long, conceivably, can a host maintain his absence in such a protocol setting that a king’s presence demands? He proceeds to deliver a speech of nearly thirty lines, stretching the tension that his absence has created (remembering that he is also absent from the greeting scene, previous).

Most productions leave it here, having audience members suspend their disbelief that a person in Macbeth’s shoes would happily belt out such contentious information, in what has been established to be a public space. There is a deliberate reason why Shakespeare has enabled Macbeth to speak in this part of the castle (remember: it is Macbeth’s castle and he has chosen this part of it, at this time, in which to raise the subjects of regicide, ambition and conscience).

The reason is a dramatic one because it ensures the physical juxtaposition of low-status servants and high-status king-aspirant. This allows Macbeth’s words to become more than a private and passive communication with the audience. Suddenly, the words become dangerous; they are potentially incriminating. The tension between presence and absence – of Macbeth, due to his guilty conscience, knowing that he cannot be absent from the king for too long; but cannot bear to be present with the man he will soon murder – jolts the audience from passive listening to actively anticipating when the scene will be disrupted or interrupted, and if the protagonist will incriminate himself with loose words.

In short, the public-private tension that the low-status characters bring to the scene, through the stage direction, raises the stakes in the scene itself and the audience’s investment in it. To what extent do the low-status characters, in turn, become conscious of Macbeth’s ruminations? To what extent do they, themselves, become conflicted by the tension between presence and absence? Their master is obviously attempting a private moment; yet the given and physical circumstances demand that they, as servants and underlings, be present.

This scene from Macbeth, therefore, falls short of becoming a dramatic situation if the servants do not appear intermittently, or if their ‘clamour’ (dishes, etc.) is not heard. Unfortunately, most productions ignore them or treat their presence as a cosmetic ‘starter’ for the scene, ignoring the crucial – and equal – role they play in the establishment of drama.

If a sense of danger, that challenges the physical existence of both high and low-status characters, is not established in Shakespearean tragedy, then something is not working. The literal and deliberately irregular upstaging of the high-status by the low-status, evidenced in the stage direction, plays a crucial role in the escalation of the objectively dramatic situation in this scene, even after the advent of Lady Macbeth. This will aggravate some readers, but to sum up: Macbeth’s speech is not the drama in this scene; it is one element of the dramatic situation. It is the desires and fears that the speech houses, weighed against the prospect, in the scene itself, that said desires will be exposed via the three-dimensional and ongoing world of the play in operation, that completes the objectively dramatic situation. The laws of soliloquy enable a great speech to be heard in the back row; but adhering to the stage direction enables drama itself.

Drama is the tension between presence and absence.

Macbeth, Stage Direction & the Dramatic Situation – a Summary:

The feature of all great plays is that they involve key moments of meaningful and logical change and transformation that are transferred viscerally. There is inhalation and exhalation, expansion and subtraction, movement and retreat on a physical and visual scale. They are human accounts of evolution and devolution, and they are live. The great play is as vibrant today as it was four hundred years ago, or in times of antiquity.

The apparatus, scaffolding, or code by which these immense stories are guided and illuminated, and through which such meaningful change and transformation can be grounded is the compressed language that conveys the geography of the play’s dramatic world, and the direction of those within it. In this respect, a play’s extant non-verbal, physical, and metaphorical features provide a gateway for the verbal and the textual.

To put it another way: understanding the context of place – the principle of where we are – will complement and clarify meaning for all participants. As actors and directors see the world of a play and absorb language in the body by doing, so will all participants stand a better chance of perceiving textual information by exploring the symbolic, non-verbal relationship between people and properties occupying a space and the material constructs that bind them together.

Many participants will be inexperienced in the art of perceiving the language of geography and stage direction that so often foreshadows theme, meaning, and character in a dramatic text. In spite of time constraints in the contemporary world, preliminary lessons on the symbolism in stage direction and other visual cues in the geography of a dramatic text should form a crucial part of the exploration, and will save time in the long run.

Bibliography:

Rodenburg, P. (2002) Speaking Shakespeare. London: Methuen.

Shakespeare, S. (1988) Macbeth. Toronto: HBJ.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2021

La Mama Funding Cuts: Crisis & Opportunity

This was written hours prior to the fire that destroyed La Mama HQ in 2018, and long before the recent Australia Council funding cuts. To say that it has been peer reviewed since that time would be a stretch. However, it has been read and endorsed by a number of experienced theatre arts participants, including key stakeholders. (‘Current’ in the context of this blog is intended to mean the period before both fire and Australia Council funding cuts).

Context:

La Mama Theatre is the only effective unsolicited script-house in Australia’s second-largest city. The way the arts process works in relation to theatre in a weak arts culture (i.e. an under-funded-arts environment) is that it becomes closed and insular. This may not be deliberate, for there is the pragmatic economic concern dictating that the bulk of opportunities for writers are contingent on third-party agents.

In short, strong arts cultures spend more on arts and have far greater opportunities for unsolicited scripts. Moreover, they are transparent. The Royal Court (epicentre of UK script-houses for six decades), The Bush, Theatre 503, etc. are able to offer generous windows for writers due to a far more generous funding model, and a culture that acknowledges strong writing as volatile and that which often derives from unpredictable and remote sources. Furthermore, strong arts cultures actively seek new writing through these unsolicited and often year round opportunities.

Distinctiveness:

Many of these points are interrelated, but La Mama’s ‘Summer Program’ and ‘Winter Program’ are arbitrary and therefore quite meaningless program titles, other than to those already acquainted with the venue. Contrastingly, the Exploration Season communicates a clear message: it is a season for developing and predominantly young theatre makers. The distinctiveness of this message needs to be applied to the entire programming calendar. As it stands, La Mama Theatre has an Exploration Season of 6-8 weeks and a generic season that spans the rest of the calendar. This is certainly the perception. Greater segmentation invites greater clarity of definition (and the perception of more): a three-week season of physical theatre, for example, juxtaposed with a three-week season of very tight, well-scripted, two-handers. In short: control and communicate the programming narrative more vigorously.

Identity:

La Mama Theatre cannot effectively assist with the development of mid-career playwrights in its current form. The perception of La Mama Theatre is that it’s a place for experimentation, from which artists move on to a ‘bigger or better’ environment (or fizzle out). In absence of an effective theatre for new writing in Australia (as per the UK models listed), La Mama is nonetheless the nearest thing to a script-house. This message needs to be communicated in a way that ensures greater quality control. It has the market cornered in Melbourne, but this idea isn’t fully realised due to many of the above points.

By implementing a clear program for mid-career playwrights, of 9-12 weeks of the calendar, La Mama Theatre will again become a destination theatre company with strong brand integrity – rather than a too isolated and largely developmental one that is often inundated with submissions because of venue scarcity. In an environment of the sternest, coldest economic rationalism, moving with the times will mean that the venue may not be able to support 10-15 theatre genres and many works that are essentially incomplete.

Opportunity:

3-4 experienced playwrights per year are given a three-week season. The gate ratio may be changed to a 50-50 split to account for the risk. Put simply, many new plays cannot be staged by La Mama Theatre in its current form, meaning that the intention to support the strongest new theatre is not being realised. Actors are motivated by longer seasons and challenging works of substance. Such works are more extensive technically and developmentally, and often warrant longer runs. This initiative is an act of the utmost purpose and distinctiveness. It will help to re-position La Mama Theatre and challenge the perception that it is a place for first drafts. Internally, this will create a three-tiered system, with each level inspired to grow beyond itself. This need not invite elitism.

La Mama Theatre funding cuts
Despite the funding cuts at La Mama theatre, a terrific opportunity awaits…

Other initiatives:

  • Playwriting competitions, not unlike the one offered by Griffin Theatre Company. Prize money would be offset by an application fee. There might be three of these per year, for writers at different stages of development. An objective such as this will achieve many positive linkages to the arts community, and help to cultivate year-round interest in the venue.
  • Selective commercial and artistic flexibility: the consideration of offering three-week seasons if an independent theatre company provides some of the financial heft. Two week seasons often fail to provide presence for artists.
  • The submission policy must be more focussed, in order to move away from a ‘proposal’ culture – a feature that often generates or replicates issues-based theatre and ‘verification’ as opposed to art.
  • Improved technology at both venues.
  • Anonymous submissions: this is in line with international best-practice for theatre companies and competitions, and is the surest way to negate nepotism and improve programming.
  • Quality control improvements in digital communication, proofing, marketing output and related staff training and professionalism.
  • Draw new patrons (and revenue) to the site through the licensed bar (4-6 days out of 7). i.e. make it a permanent idea for the general public; not just an incidental idea for theatre-goers.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2018

Twelfth Night Blog: Directing Masterclass

Twelfth Night Callback: How to Create Drama…

‘Twelfth Night Callback’ scenario:

Female actor is successful in her Twelfth Night audition and has been called back to meet with a senior member of the theatre company; but there’s a significant catch…

Questions to ask of any scene:

Broadly: Who are you? Where are you? What do you want?

More nuanced questions should include: What are the forces that are keeping the participants in the room? How is the dynamic sustained? In other words: is there mutual investment? If the scene lacks mutual investment, one of the characters (assuming a two-hander, as in the above) will merely be a wooden vehicle for the other. 

In ‘Twelfth Night Callback,’ we see that it is essential for both participants (high and low-status) to be absolutely present. Nothing wooden or constructed here.

What is the collision? The significant catch presented is effectively the devil’s bargain, in which the actor is given exactly what she wants (and more); but has something of great value taken from her (in this case, her dog). What will she do? What would you do?

The theory of three masks – a note on not playing subtext:

Mask one: ‘As the boss of the outfit and a fellow creative, I have to present a level of ease – to distinguish myself from my junior colleague and to convey the presence of experience, expertise and maturity. The growing hostility I feel towards my underling must be remedied with congenial authority because under no circumstances can I show my negativity for her in front of the client. My position is everything. Control is everything.’ Mantra: Smile.

Mask two: ‘I don’t understand this person at all; therefore, I’m going to play things very cool. I’ll withhold judgment; I may attempt to use my status over him to take charge; I’ll study him; my tone will be inquiring and one of equanimity (this is verdict unresolved) because under no circumstances can I reveal that I don’t get the joke.’ Mantra: Restraint appears professional.

Mask three: ‘This is massive for me; it’s my most important moment as an artist. I will wear the face of optimism, even under the direst inquisition – because I cannot countenance rejection. My enthusiasm will appear warm and engaging – a sure mark of a secure, trusting and balanced person. I must try to please.’ Mantra: Defensiveness is death.

In ‘Twelfth Night Callback,’ the actor is playing the third mask; while the high status member of the theatre company is playing the first mask.

The dramatic situation is best served when:

The most extraordinary optimism and goodwill collides with the most offensive behaviour; yet the offensive behaviour has to be navigated, examined, investigated, inspected, queried, interpreted, studied; even digested, consumed and processed – rather than challenged, judged or rebuffed due to the status relationship and the protocol setting. Judgment in acting performance is often a default or binary that encourages judgment in the audience / viewer. This, in turn, kills dramatic potential. In the above improvisation, the ‘successful’ actor never judges her insensitive counterpart. We watch, in large part, because we are wondering when such judgment will eventuate. ‘When will the actor break?’ The suspension or restraint of judgment in circumstances that might otherwise demand it – the crucial masking of criticism – is the foundation of a great many dramatic situations and comic scenes worldwide.

Click here to read John Cleese’s article: ‘How to write the perfect farce.’

When actors play their mask and not the subtext, they exacerbate the mask wearing in others. In so doing, they propel the objective dramatic situation, in which they cannot leave but find it difficult to remain. Their mask is indeed the tool that enables them to remain or endure.

When actors play the subtext, they kill the viewer’s access to the drama and become quite dull. The above scene, for example, wouldn’t work if the actor became immediately aggressive towards the senior member of the theatre company; a company to which the young actor aspires. At any rate, in the scenario presented (given the stakes), it would be unrealistic for the actor to respond in a manner other than with restrained shock. 

This may seem surprising to some, but is entirely the point: the effective dramatic situation suspends the participant (and audience) between hope and dread; between the desired and the despised, to the point where presence and absence are in conflict.

Twelfth Night Callback
A bit like ‘Twelfth Night Callback’

Click here to enquire about The Sticking Place Acting Masterclasses!

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: the meaning of stage direction

Theme, Opposition and Sensory Analysis through stage direction in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

“Never underestimate or disregard location: as one of the givens in the play; it is there for a purpose.”

Patsy Rodenburg


Understanding the geography of a scene and the signposts of meaning has arguably never been more of a challenge due to the sheer weight of images that are immediate, unearned and accessible in today’s world. I propose that the world of a play, the plot elements within it, and its thematic concerns can be entirely understood through stage direction. To be able to accurately ‘predict’ a play based on a handful of lines is a useful skill for time poor participants. As a society, we are hungrier than ever for ‘relevance’ and immediate access to a text; so the ability to perceive foreshadowing is invaluable. Given the attention that the narrative text receives, it is understandable that the role of geography and stage direction is less clear in this paradigm.

Act 1, Sc. 1:

The extensive stage direction and setting notes in Ray Lawlor’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll provide innumerable clues about the play’s subjects and its trajectory.

Writing at the time of publication in the mid 1950s that the ‘house of the play is situated in Carlton, a now scruffy but once fashionable suburb of Melbourne,’ the playwright is alerting us to an important subject: ideas, dreams, relationships, buildings, and even entire facades fade. Colours also fade, and the pale pink of the house’s interior is an ironic choice in that pink is said to pacify through its association with the maternal. Nonetheless, the fecund shrubbery, the wild garden, and the collection of ferns do suggest the vibrancy of life and the idea of the urban oasis.

Participants need to develop a clear mental image of the entrances so that scene arrivals and departures, and the crucial meaning that they often bring, can be understood in the context of space. In the case of this play: ‘Narrow-leaf French windows give entrance to the room from the back veranda, and a front door lets on to the other.’

The piano gives the impression that the room is known for its communal warmth, although the presence of the sixteen dolls is perhaps incongruous: a public space displaying, throughout, a peculiar private collection. The themes of youth fixation and of hoarding the past are strongly depicted in this design. Emma’s image in act three of her daughter crying over the seventeenth doll is telling. It is also curious that the room houses stuffed birds and images of tropical butterflies: representations of flight and flight curtailed, perhaps coinciding with the life of Olive and the idea of the life unlived.

As the first scene begins the playwright informs us that ‘The room of the play has a dressed up look that is complementary to, and yet extending beyond, the usual decorative scheme,’ and that a table ‘is heavily set for the big meal of the week.’ The dramatic point in such an opening is that it suggests the idea of peaking too early, of trying too hard, and of a façade that will inevitably be breached. Linking to character, it might be said that Barney, as a man, peaked too early from which point (with the ensuing female attention and popularity that such a young man evidently received) he had not developed the intellectual or emotional capacity to adjust to the leaner times that age can bring. These notes from the beginning of the scene indicating the room’s cosmetic or artificial qualities also warn of the dangers of expectation and anticipation, and how hope itself can lead to distortions in reality.

Act 1, sc. 2:

While it is common for additional scenes within acts to provide fewer references to geography than what is contained in the opening, given that the geography of a traditional Aristotelian drama is set, the stage direction to begin scene two nonetheless advances the story with further clues and crucial layers of meaning in a mere seven and a half lines.

The writer informs us that it is the following morning. In this instance the transition of days has not brought the freshness of dawn, but has instead brought a new dawn signifying decay and disruption: ‘The room has a stale, used look; the remnants of last night’s meal still clutter the table; empty glasses and bottles are scattered about…’ Significantly, the audience meets this uninhabited holocaust so that comparisons to the preparatory and puffed up stage direction of the previous scene can be adequately made. There is an incomplete aspect to the scene: it will have to be remade again if we are to move on from the spectre of antecedent joys, historic triumphs, and interpersonal glories of the past. The wrapping paper suggests that the gift is now worn; that it can never be what it was, and that its best days – as a symbol of giving, renewal, and love – are behind it. Furthermore, the unveiling of a gift and the remnant wrapping paper help to foreshadow the significance of shedding and de-layering as important avenues to growth through uncovering truth.

Emma, Olive’s mother, enters and is immediately associated with the act of cleansing – entering from the kitchen ‘with a floor rug which she takes on to the front veranda and hangs over the wrought iron rail.’ Her action of looking at the weather and sniffing the air captures the old-school cunning and common sense of a bygone age. A change is in the air. Clearly, Emma is far more than the cranky antithesis that we might choose to ridicule or ignore. Despite her caustic persona, Emma has wisdom and compassion, and proves a good judge of character. Her entrance to this scene may seem obvious or heavy-handed, but it’s worth remembering that the non-verbal is no less significant than the verbal when it comes to the formation of meaning.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Black clouds gather in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Act 2, sc. 1:

Quite often, stage direction introducing a scene will house the incongruity to be explored thereafter. In the case of this scene, given the context of New Year’s Eve, it is the incongruity of mood.

The writer informs us that it is a warm summer night: ‘Inside the room it is an electric, sweat-reflecting pink.’ Although lighting design differs from production to production, the playwright is clearly intending to maximise the perception of heat and irritability – along with distance, stillness, tension, and a sense of exhaustion. Observe the state of the French windows – or any showpiece design element: in this scene they are open; but offer little assistance, given the lack of breeze. Olive and Roo are playing cards, in what is perhaps an unconscious bid to normalise their lack of communication through non-verbal, socially acceptable combativeness. It is hardly the type of celebration that Olive had been promising. Furthermore, there is no sense of occasion in their attire: she in a dirndyl – everyday dress, native to Bavaria, historically worn by older women – perhaps as incongruous as the mood, and slippers; he in ‘drab shirt and pants.’

In a wonderful show of irony, it is Pearl who makes the effort here. The playwright informs us that she has blossomed ‘from the suspicious, tentative approach’ she held previously; yet, she again proves to be at odds with herself and her environment: her attempt at youth and life through a bright outfit sees her camped, knitting in a rocking chair; while her daring ‘dominant note of red’ clashes with the claustrophobic pink of the walls. Barney, too, is wonderfully drawn against the grain of our perception: sitting in silent self-control, dressed in silk and, almost unbelievably, writing a letter!

Audience members or readers who have bought into the drama on account of the first act, and with it the central and consistent setting of the house, must now face the subversion of a writer who, by offering an anti-climactic opening to the scene, is perhaps establishing the idea that the action or life (or central setting) is somewhere else entirely. In this respect, distance is a crucial element in the scene’s establishment – not least between the four individuals, but also carried by the ‘distant and various sounds of New Year’s revelry.’ Even the ‘drawn out cries of children’ reference a remote location to which the adults no longer have access.

Act 2, sc. 2:

Fading sunlight is an image that could be said to sum up the play, suggesting the eventual twilight of lives, dreams, and bonds – even illusions. The fact that the sun takes on a ‘deep blood tinge’ as the scene progresses signifies the rage that concludes it. The playwright again makes mention of the French windows – their closure in this scene changes the audience’s relationship to space and the idea of access. Participants need to be aware that such geographical alterations are usually the result of something beyond the merely practical or functional. While a door closed against the impending night depicts nothing exceptional, the greater inference here is that access is being denied and that what once was open is now blocked. If open doors can have the effect of enlarging space, their closure minimises or confines. It is amid this reduction that we find Roo: himself reduced by the fatigue of his new identity. For such a man to be asleep ‘sprawled on the sofa’ so early in a public part of the house is an admission that things are not well and that he is not himself. His paint-bespattered shirt reinforces this idea, indicating that Roo’s life has grown messy and that he is now, in symbolic terms, the victim of some practical joke or abuse.

Act 3:

Apart from setting up the confrontation between Olive and Pearl, the stage direction at the opening of the final act is the visual equivalent of the purpose of tragedy: the stage is not merely deserted, tidied, and neat; the removal of the dolls and souvenirs signifies that it is cleansed of the impurities of illusion – foreshadowing the sacrifice of essential good in Roo and Olive’s relationship. The sparseness in the conclusion of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll insinuates the future for each of the characters, and Pearl’s stance of ‘imminent departure’ with suitcase is made more poignant by her funereal black. 

Bibliography:

Lawlor, R. (1988) Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Sydney: Currency Press. Rodenburg, P. (2002) Speaking Shakespeare. London: Methuen.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019

Death of a Salesman: 6 reasons to storyboard a play

Textual storyboarding Death of a Salesman – a vital skill for actors and theatre directors

Six reasons for storyboarding a play:

Textual storyboarding involves dividing the dramatic text into beats of action:

  • Manageability: participants often see a wall of text, or a sea of arbitrary scenes and acts. Storyboarding a script into components of action provides a much-needed sense of manageability.
  • Juxtaposition: changes in action often demand a change of colour and tempo. Without the slightest regard to a play’s chapters is to risk monotony. Designating components of action can be a way to observe contrast and juxtaposition in the text.
  • Focus: storyboarding textual components enables meaning to be focussed in a way that allows the micro-elements to complement the macro.
  • Action: textual storyboarding, perhaps above all, is about joining meaningful episodes of action together.
  • Identification: the arbitrariness of, for example, act I, sc iii means little to actors other than a rigid or abstract division. Naming each division provides a visual and physical code to the text.
  • Investment: it is essential that participants invest in the story of each component of action. Collaboratively naming each physical and visual episode greatly focuses participants on what the scene is really about. This can go a long way in shaping the entire look of a scene or play, and saves a lot of time in rehearsal.

From storyboarding components of action and aptly naming them, one develops not only a physical picture of each scene; but is directed into the deeper layers of character and conflict, enabling one to challenge binary perspectives and stereotypical treatments of dramatic texts, and to more incisively explore the complexity that lies beyond simple hero/villain polarisations.

Death of a Salesman:

Act One:

Let’s read the first part of the play. I would draw the first component of action at Linda’s departure, after she takes Willy’s jacket. Arthur Miller makes the distinction of action in this play quite straightforward.

I have named the first textual component Swiss Cheese. This is a strong image taken from the scene. What do we know about Swiss cheese – it has holes!

  • The family unit has holes (the ratio of chairs to family members).
  • The image of the workingman has holes, and the all-American worker, at that.
  • The image of Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, is full of holes.
  • The image of the competent husband is full of holes: ‘It’s all right. I came back’, suggests an air of expectation that he may not have done.
  • The image of prosperous post-war America is in holes (look at the sparsely filled house and the man’s sense of exhaustion).
  • Willy’s façade as a man with a contention, as a man with purpose is in holes. He often contradicts himself: ‘There’s one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy.’ This also applies to his authority and his hypocrisy as a man: he chooses Swiss cheese over American, in ‘the greatest country in the world.’
  • Holes signify the emptiness in Willy’s life and/or the emptiness of the American Dream as suggested by the playwright. There is also a link to the holes in Linda’s stockings.
  • Swiss cheese is harder than American cheese, an idea linked to the hardness of Willy defined by his reluctance to change.

These are signposts for greater holes, character flaws, and conflicts. Swiss cheese is a memorable, concrete image that introduces us to the play’s central problem of illusion.

Simonizing is a term Willy uses on a regular basis. It means to polish a car with wax. If you look at the scene, this is what all three are doing, metaphorically. After expressing concern about Willy’s eyesight they leave the discussion with Happy’s: ‘…he’s got the finest eye for colour in the business.’ In so doing they gloss over a very important detail about the degeneration of their father.

After conveying disgust at the idea of working indoors for someone in shipping, sales, or business, Biff concludes the scene with the idea of seeing Bill Oliver – a wealthy businessman. He glosses over his contempt for a system that his father ostensibly champions, in order to progress with the dream, however genuine, of owning a ranch. One feels that this dream is more of a desperate alternative to the life that Willy has led. The idea here is that by addressing the surface, gaining $10000, Biff feels that his problems will be solved.

Happy, though less conscious than Biff, and more settled according to the values of post-war America and those of workingman Willy, nonetheless expresses self-disgust at his lifestyle and those in his employ who sit above him. He is, in many ways, the product of a consumer society that we see today: he has money, and a surface respectability, but his soul is questionable. He takes his frustration out on women, consuming them in a manner he hopes will fill the void. He is repulsed by, yet reveres his job, and cannot leave it until he shows ‘those pompous, self-important executives that [he] can make the grade.’ In this respect, he shows deep concern for how he is perceived in a masculine business environment. His focus lies on the surface. In many ways Happy is the ultimate simonized human: all surface, all show, and very little substance. He typifies many of the automobiles of the 1950s and 1960s: all chrome, not much engineering, and faux sophistication.

Willy is interesting in this scene, and it is perhaps forgivable to overlook his contribution as the ramblings of a tired man. However, his continued reference to the red Chevvy that Biff simonized to the point of deceiving the car dealer is perhaps the quintessential image of the play. In this respect, Willy is also simonizing the past. His other contributions to the scene: ‘You gonna wash the engine, Biff?’ and ‘Don’t get your sweater dirty, Biff!’ also suggest an obsession with the superficial, and the importance of maintaining image, appearance and status. Moreover, it brings to mind Willy’s aspirational crisis, and his misguided belief concerning wealth and material success. Such laser-guided storyboarding of textual components can direct participants into a richer understanding of action and meaning. This particular component of action ends when the light on the boys’ room fades and the focus returns to Willy in the kitchen.

In the third scene, up to the advent of Bernard, Willy is intoxicated on images of masculine health and virility, harmony, and promise from the past. In this fantastical springtime fantasy Willy is impressed by the fact that Biff, his finest, is attracting female attention. It allows him to pontificate with unchecked fatherly authority on the subject of women, the correct simonizing technique, manual physical chores, sports such as boxing, the nature of people, the qualities needed for success, American towns and cities, and the world in general. In this reality, Willy is adored and elevated: his sons dance about vying for his attention, hanging on his every word. His boasts are devoured with awe and relish. He is a god who, in a bid to trump Happy’s positive reference to ascendant Uncle Charley, recounts a meeting with the Mayor of Providence. It is an exaggerated memory of invincibility, the apex of which is the image of father and son united in a kiss. It comes before the calamity, before the fall of his virile and popular football-playing son, before the irreparable schism. It is the feeling one gets at the early point of an alcohol-fuelled evening, before reality sinks in, before the embarrassing truth is exposed and, in many cases, before the physical collapse. It is a visage accessed through Beer Goggles, in which everything is totally awesome, and life is a fun game.

The Hangover is Bernard’s entry and his tugging on the arm of the ecstatic dreamer. His presence signals the foothold that reality must eventually gain against such inebriation. Young Biff and Bernard could not be more contrasted: the former is physical, sporty, confident, manipulative, and popular; the latter is earnest and worried, and associated with a vigilant study ethic and a penchant for math. In Biff we are presented with the mistake of youth: unchecked, irresponsible, and peaking too early; while Bernard’s growing presence in the scene reflects an approach to life that honours the long game, hanging in despite the ridicule he receives from the Loman males.

Willy’s wife, Linda, enters, and for a time completes the false sense of perfection in Death of a Salesman. Upon turning the conversation to the pragmatism of earning a living, however, Willy’s façade begins to peel away from the surface: from ‘sellin’ thousands and thousands’ Linda is able to whittle down his fabrications to a mere ‘seventy dollars and some pennies.’ Compounding the problem is the reality of how far seventy dollars and some pennies will last: after expenses for the refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, roof, and the carburettor there is seventeen dollars and fifty cents remaining.

Perhaps the quintessential image of transition between fantasy and reality relates to the Chevrolet, superficially potent in red, paradigm of American post-war productivity and energy, symbol of the Dream. After praising it as the ‘greatest car ever built’ Willy, a mere two pages later, condemns ‘That goddam Chevrolet’, declaring a desire to prohibit its manufacture. Willy’s economic reality leads to serious introspection and guilt. He starts to question himself in manner and appearance. He is emasculated. He compares himself unfavourably to friend and neighbour, Charley. The hangover is upon him. Wife, Linda, boosts him as a man, bringing forth the memory of The Woman and his Boston transgression, and eventually – with the association of the stockings – his shame and guilt. Reality closes in on Willy upon Bernard’s return: an exasperated presence that signals the prospect of failure in his great hope, Biff. The scene climaxes in an explosion of denial from Willy, resulting in Linda’s devastated exit.

Death of a Salesman
Fertility is a key idea in Death of a Salesman…

Act Two:

The heartrending climax to Death of a Salesman is memorable for the catharsis that it brings, from ‘Where the hell is that seed?’ to ‘That boy – that boy is going to be magnificent.’ Biff and Willy’s relationship is linked to seeds, fertility, and Willy’s inability to grow his vegetable garden and his vision of life. The fertility metaphor reinforces the significant role that geography and non-verbal action play in the life of a dramatic text. In this scene Willy moves from the darkness of his yard to the light of the meals area indoors. He is moved from an old vision to a new insight. His son, Biff, loves him, and the fertility aspect is sustained with the idea that Willy really did plant something successful – Biff.

Through Biff, the seed, the family is doing something that it has never done before. He is the catalyst for growth, future, change and truth. Biff’s final line in the component of action (‘Put him – put him to bed’) is telling in that it transposes father and son, adult and child: the son now growing, the father diminishing – letting go of the pain. Importantly, Biff’s final line in the play, ‘Let’s go, Mom’ is future orientated, suggestive of imminent progress. The blockage is removed and there are signs that the organism will move into the next zone of experience. In this respect the opening line to this component of action is also ironic: ‘Where the hell is that seed?’

He was right beside Willy all along.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2014 All Rights Reserved

How to Win Elections

Ever wondered why the centre left doesn’t know how to win elections? In this essay, titled ‘Battles and Causes’; I address the ongoing failure of the ALP.

The Immediate:

I’m not suggesting that Bill Shorten lost the election on the back of his performance on 7.30 two weeks prior to the 2019 election. It turns out that he had perhaps already lost. I acknowledge the many causes and moving parts to victory and defeat. I am suggesting, however, that his performance was fundamentally weak and summed up an unchecked approach to media work that, since his inception as opposition leader, was never going to bring the ultimate success of an election victory.

I am also suggesting that, to the question on costings for the ALP’s climate policy, the line:

‘It will cost a lot less than the cost of inaction’ can only be trotted out once (perhaps twice) during an election campaign. It’s not a bad line. You can use it in doorways as you depart a press conference. It’s a sharp departing rebuke.

But when you’re in the studio sitting opposite Leigh Sales, the exit is a long way off. And when you’re asked the inevitable question on climate policy costings on prime-time television, you need to have an answer that either deals with the question or turns the situation in your favour. If you are responding with:

‘It will cost a lot less than the cost of inaction’, you are failing to understand the room you’re in because you are present on prime-time television to engage. This line was deliberately penned to avoid engagement, as I said: in doorways or closing stages of press conferences.

When you’re sitting opposite Leigh Sales in an ABC studio and you’re an aspiring prime minister, you need to understand why you’re there. You are there to engage, and if you don’t engage with Australia’s premier current affairs host and journalist two weeks out from an election, you insult her and the Australian people.

And then you get defensive. And then the interview turns to pot. And when a person gets defensive, they show (for better or worse) their true selves.

So, when Mr Shorten showed his true self in this interview and started using words like ‘bugger-all’ live on prime-time television, many people were moved to ask: ‘Why weren’t you real at the start of the interview; it might have gone a lot better?’

Less forgiving people might have assumed that Mr Shorten was rattled.

How to Win Elections – The Cultural Problem for the Centre-left:

Mr Shorten’s problem in failing to quantify his climate policy, or turn this ‘how long is a piece of string’ inquiry to his favour, derived from poor advice. The eternal problem of the ALP, indeed the eternal problem for the Left or Centre Left globally, is its proclivity to assume that a diverse range of people are aligned with its causes.

The art of persuasion is to bring the neutrals and moderate hostiles to the table. They simply won’t accept a moral or ethical crusade as a justifiable reason for doing X or a plausible reason for doing Y.

By failing to connect in a meaningful way, the neutrals and particularly the moderate hostiles can only see how such a policy hurts them financially.

To criticise self-centredness, as many are, is unhelpful because self-interest is nothing new.

The failure of the political left is a failure of psychology.

To not attempt a valid answer to the unerring question on climate policy costing is, if nothing else, sadly naïve because the respondent is essentially saying: ‘The cause is enough.’

But the cause is never enough to people who are not already with you. They need you to address the battle because the battle is for the mind.

Never assume you have their hearts.

The Solution: If you Want to Sell Nuclear Power, talk about the Golden Gate Bridge

When primitive humans discovered fire, they didn’t say: “Ouch! Gee, that’s hot. Put that stuff away! It’s dangerous.” In a similar vein, the thousands who travel across the Golden Gate Bridge each day are neither holding their breath nor muttering prayers. The Golden Gate Bridge represents an enormous architectural nose thumbing to earth-quake fault lines and danger. It is a celebration of humankind’s triumph over the natural world. If humankind was not overtly adventurous in this way we’d have never stood upright, we’d have never eaten meat and our brains would not have put on the growth spurt that they did…

In other words: the pursuit of nuclear power, like the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, is an extension of the human spirit.

This diversionary tactic is designed to move the conversation towards positive imagery and human inspiration. Consider it a metaphor for shifting the discussion away from the negative logos of measurement, such as the number of deaths at Fukushima (or the cost of a climate policy in the debate at hand), towards a positive ethos, hope, possibility and future orientation.

To continue the metaphor: to dwell solely in a head-to-head discussion on nuclear power without the positive imagery is a road to oblivion.

Bear with me.

The word ‘reform’ has a negative connotation; yet the word ‘superannuation’ has a positive association.

They are one and the same thing.

Yet, the workers of QLD didn’t vote Labor.

The workers of QLD didn’t vote for the party that made superannuation compulsory.

The workers of QLD didn’t vote for the party that made superannuation compulsory – for all workers.

I’m spelling it out in this fashion because the party that devised this reform assumes that we all know this.

The party that implemented this reform doesn’t mention it anymore because they do not have a sense of the psychological battle they’re in. They won the cause on superannuation but fail to realise that this universally popular cause can become the centre-piece of future battles.

If people don’t know their history then it is up to the ALP to remind them that compulsory superannuation for all employees was an immensely challenging nation-building exercise.

It didn’t just happen.

There was a battle to make it happen. There was a battle to ensure that it extended to all Australians.

There was a battle to communicate the ideology of investment and to expel the primitive associations of cost.


Returning to the question:

‘So, what will your climate change policy cost the Australian tax-payer, Mr Shorten?’

Avoidance is disastrous for many obvious reasons and one reason that is less apparent.

A politician should always see hostile situations as opportunities. If they can only see threats, they are not very effective politicians.

The tactical failure of the ALP for decades is its inability to communicate (indeed eradicate) the word ‘expenditure’ from the lexicon.

If you look up a competent undergraduate text book on economics, you’ll see a definition that fits the ALP: expansionist. It has an expansionist fiscal policy that is aligned with generating greater equality in society.

Says nothing about costs.

To answer a question such as this head-on is problematic but avoidance is worse because it communicates that ‘cost’ is a dirty word.

Is your super fund that has perhaps trebled over a period of six to ten years also a dirty word?

No. It is an investment in your future.

And all of society appreciates the ALP’s investments over time. In thirty years, a statue will be erected of Mr Daniel Andrews: ‘The Infrastructure Premier’ will be the inscription.

It won’t be erected today, because today you and many other people are sitting in a traffic jam on account of road infrastructure works across Melbourne.

Returning to the response that Mr Shorten might have made to the above question:

‘Leigh: you know, and the Australian people know and many of the children of Australian miners (appeal to moderate hostiles) know, based on anecdotal evidence of student climate action protests across the country, that this is a massive investment in the future of all Australians. Like superannuation and universal healthcare before it (humanising appeal to all parties), nation-building policies of investment infrastructure that were challenging at their inception stage, we simply don’t accept the simplistic labelling of ‘cost’ because ultimately it’s about improving productivity, future-proofing the nation and confronting the fact that there is a global de-investment in fossil fuels. The world is transitioning. Pension funds are transitioning. All we’re really doing is keeping up with the world (normalise and globalise the decision-making) and many of our business partners who have already transitioned to cleaner energy sources. It’s like when your computer can no longer upgrade to the latest version of Google Chrome: it’s time for a new model (light-hearted appeal to youth and modernity).’

Deal with the issue of quantification head-on by admitting that it will be an investment of billions over time:

Ask me a nebulous question about the length of a certain piece of string. If I answer it in a nebulous but broadly quantified way, you can’t accuse me of not answering the question and you certainly can’t accuse me of not dealing with the brutal matter of measurement.

Put the issue to bed as soon as possible in the election campaign, spin cost into investment and return fire with this question to the Conservatives:

‘I say this to the Coalition: stop deceiving the Australian people! Explain to them what the cost of inaction will be? (now you can use the word ‘cost’ in its rightful place). You run with the mantra of sound economic management – yet you cannot explain to the Australian people how your failure to future-proof this nation will sacrifice the very wealth that you claim to be building. Your failure to explain to the Australian people, and particularly its youth, the cost of your unwillingness to cooperate with the clever countries of the world on climate policy is a swindle and you know it!’

By vocally playing the same rhetorical game as the Conservatives, you remain engaged and on the offensive in the battle; by avoiding the question, you are assuming that cause is enough.

Why didn’t we hear this?

This is a lot better than what Mr Shorten came up with that night on 7.30 – and he has political advisors.

As an extension, raise the subject of the NBN in relation to infrastructure projects and the fallacy of financial prudence – an inherent feature of visionless contractionist fiscal policy – that will see the network patched and amended over decades at a cost far greater than the ALP’s initial outlay. Who could possibly put their hand up and claim that Australia has world-class broadband?

By linking the discussion of investment on climate action to such populist themes characterises the political opponent negatively and demythologises the idea that the Conservatives manage money effectively. Furthermore, it reinforces the perception that the Conservatives are bereft of vision by linking the debate to visible and identifiable self-interest. Remember: the speed of one’s broadband is a tangible idea; whereas, for many people, climate change remains an abstract notion. The logical appeal is that if you want a policy to work, you must invest now.

Finally, at the 101 level, the long answer eats up precious and finite interview time, while the short answer: ‘It will cost a lot less than the cost of inaction’ invites further scrutiny and frustration from the interviewee and the Australian public.

A Side Note on Measurement:

Always use the language of quantification to your advantage. Equivocation is effectively death. The Labour party in the UK makes the same mistake. It imagines that avoidance wins. The ALP lost on a policy of equivocation in relation to Adani. In other words, its equivocation was seen as a decisive negative in the relevant QLD seats. Imagine if the ALP had summoned the courage to address the issue head on, as in: ‘The Adani mine, due to its mechanisation, is unlikely to be a sustainable source of employment in the short to medium term.’ It’s true, we did hear this voice, but not from the ALP.

Such an unequivocal position may have yielded the same or similar result, but it may have also drawn strength from elsewhere. By addressing the issue of sustainability in terms of the metrics of employment, you can avoid a discussion on the environment altogether, in this instance, thereby avoiding an attack on the ethics of the participants and removing the prospect of engendering a sense of guilt among them. The guilty retaliate by rage-voting against you because they seek comfort in the known. They are frightened. By returning the discussion to the language of quantification that deals with basic security needs (i.e. the Adani mine will only provide X jobs and won’t provide for you or your family in the medium term and will do little to address the high rate of youth unemployment in QLD) is to understand that such people are desperate and will be prepared to cling to grass while drowning.

What occurred, or rather, what was implied with this aspect of the campaign (and the notional alignment with Bob Brown) is therefore typical of ALP campaigning. In plain terms, the assumption of a morally superior cause was a factor that crushed any hope of victory in battle.

How to win elections

How to Win Elections – The Conclusion:

The tragedy of Kevin Rudd is now laid bare. Hubris does indeed beget nemesis.

The election result in 2007 was not a landslide. To have claimed eighty-three seats is not an enormous majority; but it was the powerful spirit of change at the time that should have ensured two further majority election victories for the ALP.

Perhaps three when you consider that the ALP would like its chances of holding up to ten or twelve seats in QLD with a QLD PM.

The climate war would have been run and won. It would have been, like superannuation and universal healthcare, normalised, in spite of the kicking and the screaming. The Overton Window would have shifted appreciably.

Now, of course, this is all a fiction.

Looking at the results of the 2019 election, we can surmise the difficulty that the ALP has in Queensland through a sharper lens. Though favoured to win the 2019 election, their seat count in that state is almost identical to the number they held there in the landslide defeat of 2004.

This is a debacle.

Given the external circumstances of this election in relation to the support for minor parties – in particular, the behaviour of the UAP that could well become the norm – unless the ALP embarks on a fundamental change in psychology; unless it engages more effectively in the battle over the cause, it is unlikely to ever govern this nation again.

This applies to centre-left parties across the globe. Moving further to the left, while an understandable response, is to entrench the failure.

Mr Albanese – take note: Tories will vote for Starmer; I know them personally.

For Corporate Workshops on Messaging, Audience & Persuasion, Click Here!

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019

Hamlet Characters

Hamlet Characters: Shakespeare and the art of persuasion.

Those who study Shakespeare will know that the resemblance that many of his characters have to contemporary leaders is uncanny. In this blog we will tackle Claudius, one of the shadier characters in Hamlet, who nonetheless presents us with a gift: a significant insight into the modern politician. Let’s take a close look at his speech from the second scene. 


Act I, scene ii

A room of state in the castle.

Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, HAMLET, POLONIUS, LAERTES, VOLTIMAND, CORNELIUS, Lords, and Attendants

CLAUDIUS
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,

Consider how the use of metaphor, imagery, and other language devices are designed to generate a sombre and compassionate tone of unity. What is the effect this might have on the audience?

Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him

The alliteration, here, plays to the idea of the importance of sound. Don’t underestimate the sonorous nature of certain sounds, in relation to the role they play in persuading and soothing a potentially hostile crowd. Don’t ignore the iambic perfection (that it has ten-syllables) of the line, and how the musical component of iambic pentameter verse structure can be used to endear an audience to a speaker. Placing such sound devices in alignment with the inherent inclusivity of ‘we’ and the appeal to wisdom (or the characterisation of Denmark as, in fact, possessing wisdom) is deeply complimentary of the audience and therefore likely to massage and mollify. Consider the usage of a compassionate or benevolent tone.

Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state ,
Have we—as ’twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole—
Taken to wife.

In his vindication of his union with “sometime sister” Gertrude, Claudius is careful to convey a sense of equanimity with his people in suffering and to distance himself from the joy of his marriage. Notice how he again uses the royal “we.” In this, he is Denmark and so are the people. It is a useful ploy that attempts to devoid him from taking personal responsibility for the marriage. There is even an air of benevolence. The active and personal initiative of matrimony is reduced to a passive and public gesture for a state in mourning. Consider how active and passive voice can be used to persuade: to illuminate and distance information and control the audience’s gaze.

Sometimes the justification of the questionable is aided through strong imagery. In this case, ‘warlike state’ plays upon the values of the people to whom it is directed.

Nor have we herein barred
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along.

Such a generalisation, or sweeping statement, may well appeal to commonly, or even somewhat, held beliefs. However, the tactic is clearly designed to manipulate those in the room into feeling that their opposition to the marriage is the minority view. Generalisations often have the power of stifling or simplifying debate and of moving the conversation forward. Consider the brisk nature of the remark and alliteration of the Ws.

                                     For all, our thanks.
Now follows that you know. Young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth
Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleaguèd with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not failed to pester us with message
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.

The anecdote now shared with the people of Denmark is timely, for it positions the audience to see Claudius as a strong and decisive leader, who is in charge of the affairs of state and is a man of authority, who has intimate and first-hand knowledge. Moreover, he raises the valour, glory and gains of the dead King Hamlet – whom the people are presently mourning – as being in jeopardy, thus generating opposition to the upstart Norwegian. In a further attempt to unify, Claudius appeals to nationhood, patriotism, and justice by drawing reference to the threat from Norway and, more specifically, Fortinbras. Don’t ignore the emotive language in this section. What effect does it have on the audience? Consider how it operates to shape the idea in the audience’s mind that it is in the process of being wronged or usurped in some way; or that a great injustice is being conveyed at its expense. Despite all the inclusive language and attempts at unity, he appeals to fear and the threat of disunity.

Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras—
Who, impotent and bedrid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew’s purpose—to suppress
His further gait herein, in that the levies,
The lists, and full proportions are all made
Out of his subject; and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltemand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway,
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king more than the scope
Of these dilated articles allow. (gives them a paper)
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.

Claudius’ reference to haste and duty is a further appeal to national security and loyalty, and stifles debate and a more protracted public moment. He is able to execute his role by carrying a commanding tone.

Hamlet Characters

Hamlet Characters – A Summary:

The characters in Hamlet are, at times, confronted with a difficult sell; and newly crowned Claudius is no exception: acutely aware of how he rose to power he must show the required level of grief for the death of his brother, normalise his marriage to his dead brother’s wife, and offer the state of Denmark hope in strength at a time of leadership transition.

When politicians are behind in the polls they will often crave a new war, or victory in an existent one – particularly if that war is in distant lands or provinces. Wars focus the populace away from local issues and offer the statesman (no matter how incompetent, impotent, or simply ignorant of the issue they happen to be) the opportunity to be statesmanlike. Claudius’ guilt, as yet unknown to the audience, nonetheless features in his opening speech. In this respect he is aware of being behind in the polls.

He begins dutifully, as expected, with words that mourn the death of his brother and the former king; but it doesn’t take him long to warm up. His: “To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom / To be contracted in one brow of woe” is a common ploy of the politically minded, as it seeks to use the situation to unite. How many politicians have milked grief to offer the paternal hand to a people? The crucial aspect to Claudius’ opening seven lines is his use of inclusive language together with images of solidarity: “our dear brother’s death”, “it us befitted”, “bear our hearts”, “our whole kingdom”, “contracted in one brow”, “together”.

The insidious aspect to the speech is that he attempts to massage, engineer, and temper the people’s grief in order to justify his own behaviour. “Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature / That with wisest sorrow think on him, / Together with remembrance of ourselves.” Here, the royal “we” implies that this sentiment or reaction from the people of being measured in grief is self-evident. It reads: you will have discretion and not allow your emotions to get the better of you, and it is a fait accompli that we will all move on and not abandon ourselves and the future. He is also suggesting that something more urgent is at stake – the nation itself.

It is in this vein that Claudius attempts to normalise his marriage to Gertrude, and to justify the inevitability of moving forward: “Have we, as ’twere with defeated joy, – / With one auspicious and a dropping eye, / With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, / In equal scale weighing delight and dole, – Taken to wife…” In his vindication of his union with “sometime sister” Gertrude, Claudius is careful to convey a sense of equanimity with his people in suffering and to distance himself from the joy of his marriage. Notice how he again uses the royal “we.” In this, he is Denmark and so are the people. It is a useful ploy that attempts to devoid him from taking personal responsibility for the marriage. There is even an air of benevolence: our nation has taken a wife, and aren’t we all the better for it. The active and personal initiative of matrimony is reduced to a passive and public gesture for a state in mourning. Consider how active and passive voice can be used to persuade: to illuminate and distance information and control the audience’s gaze.

Politicians seem to understand Nietzsche’s principle: “People believe in the truth of all that is strongly believed in.” It rarely pays for a political leader to admit fault, weakness, or blemish. Claudius knows that not all of his subjects could possibly approve of such a hasty marriage – that indeed they haven’t “freely gone with this affair along.” This kind of well-delivered, belligerent and deliberate self-deception is not only designed to stare down unpleasant truths, but it puts in the mind of those listening in opposition that perhaps it is they who are in the minority.

Having delicately taken care of local business Claudius, in a further attempt to unify, appeals to nationhood, patriotism, and national security by drawing reference to the threat from Norway and, more specifically, upstart Fortinbras (lines 17-25). In: “Or thinking, by our late dear brother’s death / Our state to be disjoint and out of frame” Claudius is again vindicating his marriage and ascension to the throne by linking these personal triumphs to the necessity of providing the perception of strength and stability to local rivals.

Claudius’ response to Fortinbras, nephew to the King of Norway, is particularly interesting. Norway and Denmark share a similar fate in the transition and lineage of kings: brothers have succeeded instead of sons. Here, he offers a kind of doublespeak: he motivates and inspires the people of Denmark through a show of strength by offering to “suppress [Fortinbras’] further gait herein” (thus taking their mind away from local events), and at the same time delivers a veiled threat or warning against the one person in the audience who will hear it – the young Prince Hamlet, his nephew. To achieve a hit without landing a blow, or to strategically marginalise a potential foe by preaching unity and strength is the forte of the politically minded.  After all – who else in that room could thereafter assert that the newly crowned king Claudius is nothing if not benevolent, strong, decisive, and kind to the masses? In this respect, he’s one of the characters in Hamlet that, like our present-day politicians, must be seriously watched.


Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019

Lady Macbeth and the divine comedy of the sleepwalking scene: an objectively dramatic situation

In the famous sleepwalking scene (V, i) of Macbeth, the examination of status, through Lady Macbeth, could hardly be more intriguing. It is to be assumed that a doctor, although superior to the gentlewoman, is no match for an ostensible monarch when it comes to the question of status. It is of course the state in which Lady Macbeth enters the scene that alters the status relationship. Deferring to royalty by language, gesture, and proximity is now redundant, and the lower status participants are free to challenge these conventions by being themselves.

Lady Macbeth

A number of performances simply have Lady Macbeth inactively observed by the doctor and gentlewoman. This is to underutilise the scene’s potential by some margin, as it is an interpretation that fails to consider the stakes of the lower status characters. The health of Lady Macbeth is very much in the interests of her appointed doctor. She is no ordinary patient. Furthermore, her husband, the tyrannical king, has appointed him. The king will demand a report on the nature of his wife’s physical health. Although mental illness is a new phenomenon in the world of the play, the doctor has observed the condition of sleepwalking (lines 54-56). It is the malady that presents itself on this occasion that is the cause for such alarm. It will be deeply problematic, therefore, perhaps incriminating, for the doctor to deliver an account of his patient’s mental illness, with its associations of guilt. Equally unpalatable is the prospect of the doctor’s public admission of professional failure, or worse: the failure to prevent the queen from self-harm or suicide.

The conflict for the doctor can be condensed into a single sentence: how does he successfully conduct his appointed duty? To help Lady Macbeth in her current state is to learn too much – yet it will be tempting for the doctor to protract the scene for this very purpose. Then again, to merely protract the scene for the sake of eavesdropping is to fail in his appointed duty. In a similar vein, the livelihood of the gentlewoman hinges on the life of the monarch. She is an invested participant, and her role in the scene cannot be passive. She may even have an emotional investment in Lady Macbeth, the person. It is clear that Shakespeare has presented the perfect conundrum, the model idea of a captivating situation, and the complete conflict: in which status ebbs and flows and is rarely fixed or binary in the exchange. By extension, it should be made known to participants that the scene is an exemplar for all good writing: that the difficulty or lack of a convenient resolution, the heightened stakes and investment in the scene’s central problem, and the concern with ordinary people make it a fascinating investigation. Contrast the sheer impossibility of the scene (that the problem is insoluble, yet the participants must remain within it) with the simplistic understanding of situation, conflict, and resolution that is often demonstrated.

The question, then, of how the doctor and gentlewoman might actively participate can be considered by addressing the complex relationship between self-preservation and selfless action. The doctor may well fail in his ability to cure Lady Macbeth of her malady, but he will do what he can to prevent the woman’s physical death, or injury – in spite of what she seems to be confessing. How close, for example, is she to burning herself with the candle? What is the geography of the scene? How familiar is Lady Macbeth with said geography given that she and her husband have only recently moved to Dunsinane from Inverness? How dark is it? The extent of the doctor and gentlewoman’s involvement will be determined by a number of factors. One might imagine the doctor paying special consideration to the proximity of flame, face, and hair, while the gentlewoman frantically clears a path by moving aside furniture, and chairs, etc – then having to move them again when Lady Macbeth changes direction. The scene, performed in this way, very much conveys the assumed status relationship between the three participants, and shows how in many cases high status is conferred. If Lady Macbeth unconsciously threatens to walk into a wall or well-lit candelabra and the doctor and gentlewoman are impelled to use physical force to usher her on a different path or direction – the status relationship is challenged, with the taboo of touching a monarch broken.

Extending this idea might consider the question of avoidance, in which the objectives of self-preservation and selfless action are perhaps confused. What if, for example, the doctor and gentlewoman are guiding Lady Macbeth away from the proximity of her husband – who happens to be in the adjoining room, or nearby? We are told that he is on the battlements; yet, given the nature and emotional state of the protagonist, this may not be wholly relied upon. By now, Dunsinane is awash with fear. Let’s not forget: Macbeth has murdered sleep and is rendered an insomniac by his acts of murder. Perhaps he will also know that his wife is a threat from having heard her somnolent confessions. Might he have her killed? By separating the self-preservation component, there is the sense that the inferior subjects have the power to save the life of a queen, in part by saving her from herself. There is also the argument that knowledge is power, and that any successful attempt at saving her in this scenario will result in them learning more about Macbeth’s gruesome deeds. However, if they fail in their attempt, and Lady Macbeth is exposed to the king in this way, the mutual discovery of her confession will be disastrous. Ironically, it is in this immediate action, despite her mental state and in spite of being disempowered by sleep – indeed, despite her very illness – that Lady Macbeth’s status will trump all, threatening to expose both king and underlings, demonstrating that great scenes from great writers will often contain a fluidity of status, and that the idea of antithesis, in this case expressed by an individual who has no control of her actions or external senses, is a powerful dramatic principle that can challenge our assumptions about a scene.

When performed in this way the scene becomes, as it should – for this is the intention of great playwrights – objectively dramatic, in which each character finds the situation difficult to endure, yet cannot avoid. Moreover, with effective exploration, as shown, the scene becomes more than ‘the sleepwalking scene.’ The problem with simplistic labels of this kind, is that they reduce the scope to a single character; thereby negating the prospect of drama created by the tension between the presence and absence of multiple (and varied) participants. To put it another way: if the scene merely shows the observation of a vulnerable woman sleepwalking from the perspective of two disengaged participants, as many funded professional productions have it, there can be no prospect of drama because the observation of behaviour is not, in itself, dramatic. For drama to occur in this scene, all participants must become vulnerable, as demonstrated.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019