Wednesday, 2 January 2008

New year / old debate

Yes, I know it’s been a while. I’ve finally [mostly] got round to posting the ream of reviews from the end of last year - . After seeing those shows, the final week before Christmas got rather chewed up by the threatened Arts Council funding cuts, particularly those to NSDF, combined with an increasingly lethal round of Christmas drinks parties. And then everything stopped. The conversation around theatre seemed to take to its bed and nothing could be done to rouse it for the remainder of the holiday season. As a result, I’ve actually watched some TV and read a few books. Strange to think that there are ways of entertaining oneself that don’t involve leaving the house - or that books needn’t be read solely on public transport.

As if to demonstrate the palpable lack of a new issue to discuss, Dominic Cavendish at the Telegraph has reheated the corpse of “Where are all the right wing plays?” You’ll be pleased to hear that I really can’t be bothered to rehearse those arguments again (or again, or again). Instead, let’s think about trying to move this discussion forward - or at least onto some new territory.

Cavendish’s article is a good starting point for a discussion of the elusive/putative Right Wing Play as it is written without rancour or sneering (unlike some such articles). It does seem to be genuinely interested in finding out what such a thing might be like.

Perhaps the most helpful starting point comes from the artistic director of the Soho Theatre, Lisa Goldman, however. She makes the following startling series of claims and accusations:

“At Soho I am looking for work that flies in the face of received wisdoms. I don’t programme work because I ideologically “agree” with it – sometimes far from it. I programme work that I find provocative and artistically innovative. Yes, most of this work comes from – broadly speaking – the radical Left, but I think that’s because most great art has a rebel heart, a restless search for change. What would a Right-wing play have to offer? Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home? How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place? In my view what theatre needs is not more Right-wing plays but better Left-wing ones.”

What a depressing roll-call of nonsense. It is tempting to rip it apart line by line, but since that would be no fun to read I’ll resist, and will try to avoid making catty comments about the Soho’s utter lack of anything even faintly resembling an artistic policy as it increasingly becomes a receiving house for, well, whatever’s around really, at the same time.

There are two main planks to Goldman’s reductive thesis. The first is that work from “the radical Left” is “provocative and artistically innovative”, which she attributes to her view that “most great art has a rebel heart, a restless search for change”.

This all smacks of someone seriously failing to recognise the extent to which their own prejudices inform their thinking. The most interesting claim is her association of “left” with “rebel”. This is simple sloganeering. Moreover, it is built on some pretty shaky thinking. After all, there is very little about the structures and aims of the left that encourage rebellion (at least no beyond an initial revolution). The left, as I understand it (and, ok, there’s some slightly broad-brush portraiture going on here), is interested in fostering *communities*. Think of the utter disgust at Thatcher’s claim that there was “no such thing as society”. It is about everyone helping each other - at least in the eyes of the left - yes? Hardly the same as everyone being a rebel. If you’re aiming at a society of which you want to be a part, why would one be a rebel?

The problem is, Goldman has bought into that confusing 1950s mythology of The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, which has left an indelible mark on subsequent cultural representations of political positions. And it is a mark which curiously few seem to have tackled since. The central difficulty is that these original rebels were railing against a conservative, straight-laced middle America (or England). However, their mode of rebellion was straight-forwardly individualistic. So there’s a paradox. There’s also the issue that everyone now seems to want to buy into this myth of being the lone rebel. Goldman’s “rebel heart” is reminiscent of everything from the romantic view of lone writers knocking out their angry young plays (John Osbourne is an excellent illustration of the paradox, since he was both rebellious and reactionary) through to, oh, Tom Cruise’s “maverick” behaviour in Top Gun (often cited as one of the most right-wing films ever made). It is worth remembering that George W. Bush’s vision of America is still of a lone cowboy riding into town in the face of insuperable odds (the rest of the world, pretty much: Old Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, the Middle East etc.). And by the same token, elements of the left frequently characterise America’s behaviour as Empire-building or imperial. It’s like global politics reduced to everyone in the schoolyard arguing about who gets to be Luke Skywalker.

The second interesting plank of her argument is how she chooses to characterise the right: “Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home?”

Certainly all these viewpoints have been espoused by one or more right-wingers at some point in history. I refuse to believe that none of them have ever similarly been held by those on the left. Are all right wingers automatically anti-democratic, misogynist bigots? I think not.

At this point in the argument, left wingers and right wingers alike usually start putting distance between themselves and others who are supposedly on their side of the political spectrum with whose views they disagree, while unfairly characterising the views of the other side as more extreme and immutable. It is a stupid way of arguing, and one which leads to no understanding of anything. Since the left (well some of it, anyway) prides itself on its tolerance and understanding, it might do well to actually sit down and talk to its political opponents. From this series of claims, it would appear that Goldman has never even actually met a Conservative, or has been remarkably unlucky in those few that she has met.

Her final question - “How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place?” - is an interesting one, but one which a) only describes a particular form of right-wing thinking: for example, Thatcher was more radical and modernising than, well, *conservative*; Bush and the neo-cons are pretty much entirely forward-looking in their foreign policy - not isolationist or laissez faire. Moreover, b) it forgets history - look at, say, Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and the Italian Futurists. All pretty right-wing, as far as I understand it, and yet creating the diametric opposite of old-fashioned work. Although, from what I remember of Lewis’s journal, Blast!, it was indeed still underscored with nostalgic leanings, alongside its radical futurist manifesto. Indeed, Blast might well serve as the most optimistic model for what right wing theatre might look like. Artistically valid, innovative, experimental and yet undoubtedly political.

The best possible outcome for politically informed theatre that we could hope for this year is the cessation of childish, ill-informed attacks like Lisa Goldman’s. Of course political factions will still disagree with one another, but without this fatuous process of claim and counter claim, the arguments may actually go somewhere, and theatre may even be significantly enriched as a result.


Andrew Field said...

...also, what about someone like William Morris, as a left-wing thinker who was very partial to looking back fondly on a pre-industrial, fragmented and localised society.

In fact - how can looking back at the startling, infinite gamut of history every crystalize any one set of viewpoints?

What a lot of silly, silly nonsense.

I imagine you probably know more than you are letting on about Lisa Goldman's rather fuzzy artistic policy - from people I know at the Soho the main problem at the moment is that no one knows what to bring here as they haven't a clue what she actually wants. Ill-considered and fatuous statements like that seem to do little to help matters.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to wear my anonymity cloak for this one... Cowardly or politic: you be the judge. But for what it's worth - & very much from the left -

Thank you for skewering Lisa Goldman's "politics" (slogans, bluster, prejudice, utter vacuity, all pursued precisely to whatever extent is compatible with her own personal ambition); & thank you both for ventilating the issue of the artistic policy vacuum at Soho and the alarming climate that Goldman seems to be creating there. I'm currently half-in a conversation with Soho and the place seems absolutely paralysed with confusion and not a little fear.

The reason there aren't any worthwhile plays coming from the right is that the left has lost the ability to analyse or critique the liberal consensus, precisely because the generation of playwrights and directors currently reaching maturity grew up at a time when cursory anti-Thatcherite sloganeering was all that was needed to indicate a supposedly leftist engagement. If anybody from the left was creating cogent and argumentative drama, you can bet the right would react. As it is, the prevailing consensus is so soft-right, and most interrogation of it so vapid, why would artists from the right feel moved to speak?

As Andy has rightly noted before, leftist argument would anyway start with a serious analysis of the structural and formal underpinnings of theatre production, but that's as hard an imperative for the left to swallow as for the right.

All of the above is obviously pretty low-resolution stuff but compared with Goldman's self-titillating flummery, it'll do for now.

Nice to have you back! x

TW said...

In what sense was her thesis "reductive" - or are you just using the word without knowing what it means because you think it carries with it some sort of negative connotation ?

Andrew Haydon said...

Do you know, you're absolutely right? How strange. Funny how you can have a perfectly clear idea of what a word means and sometimes be completely wrong - shame, it was really useful the way I'd been using it. Fairly common error, though, isn't it? Possible candidate for a transition of meaning as a result (new meaning - to make small, and not in a good way)?

wilko said...

I dont think there is anything wrong with your use of the word "reductive". It is a word that is commonly used to critise an argument or position for being overly simplistic. Richard Dawkins is often accused of being reductive in his characterisation of religion. In fact, in his introduction to The Blind Watchmaker he parodied this critism by reffering to a "mythical baby-eating reductionist".

Indeed, the word has been coopted by some people as a positive thing - Lewis Wolpert in his introduction to Six Impossible Things before Breakfast descxribes himself as a "reductionist, materialist, atheist".

True both of these examples are from a different field, but nonetheless, the use of the word to describe Lisa Goldman's characterisation if the right is fair in my opinion. Everything she said can be attributed to alot of poepl and institutions on the right (The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, Much of The Tory Partyy, Richard Littlejohn, Simon Heffer, Melanie Phillips) but it clearly totally fails to even begin to provide a coherent account of the whole of 'the right' in this country - let alone elsewhere.

What do you understand the word to mean?

wilko said...

Thinking about it, "selective" or "simplistic" might be slightly better words to characterise Goldman's argument, but I don't think there is much in it. This is a blog aftert all and not a philosophical treatise.

Andrew Haydon said...

Chris, that's exactly what I thought - but I did look it up here and that sense doesn't appear to have found its way to the dictionary. And following TW's stern ticking off, I thought I should acknowledge that.

That said, I am confused, since what you say is precisely how I understand the word. Perhaps we're all labouring under the same delusion?

wilko said...

Well, a google definition search of reductive comes up with:

characterized by or causing diminution or curtailment; "their views of life were reductive and depreciabory" - R.H.Rovere

A google definition search of diminution comes up with:

Reduces the size of something in order that it may be made to appear ridiculous or in order to be examined closely and have its faults seen close up. For example, treating the Canadian Members of Parliament as a squabbling group of little boys is an example of diminution. ...

(Admittedly this is from an australian dictionary aimed at kids...)

So I would say the use of the term is fair: You are accusing Lisa goldman of reducing the size and complexity of right wing thought in order to ridicule it.

That said, the more literal use of the term 'reductive' does refer to the method of seeking to describe or understand a process by looking at the constituent parts of that process (i.e. describing human behaviour by looking at genetics). This is slightly different from the way you used it which was to imply that someone was seeking to devalue a whole way of thinking by reducing it intellectually to its lowest common denominator. this is why I suggested that 'selective' or 'simplistic' might be marginally more accurate term.

Actually, the real problem here is not your very mildly controversial use of the term, but more that this TW guy is being a prick. (Again). TW likes to try to devalue the whole of someones argument by picking up on one tiny detail and trying to discredit it in order to look intellectually superior. The trouble with this approach is that it is transparent, shallow, and - because he never provides any argument of his own which other might criticise - cowardly.

Andrew Haydon said...

Well, to be fair, he/she did pin down that I thought "reductive" was an essentially negative phrase - so I've learnt something useful.

I'm more annoyed that one of my favourite words turns out not to function in the way I'd like it to.

I would change it on the blog, but that would make this whole comments section look mad.

wilko said...

Your word does function in the way you would like it to, just not exclusively. In three years of studying the debate between science and religion the word crops up with that usage all of the time. So don't worry about using it like that again.

TW is almost certainly a 'he'. Internet pedants almost always are.

Chris said...

>> characterized by or causing diminution or curtailment; "their views of life were reductive and depreciabory" - R.H.Rovere

Where is TW? Surely "depreciabory" must be of concern?

wilko said...

Good point!

alexf said...

it's certainly got me worried.

Andrew Field said...

I just learnt the word defenestration. Fucking brilliant.

Dick Pennis said...

the word 'defenestration' has come up a multitude of times this christmas. i don't know why. it must be an up and coming craze with the kids or something.

Chris said...

If you like "defenestration" you'll love "pecorious". But it doesn't come up quite so often, to my infinite regret.

You'll Google in vain for it, though. "Did you mean precarious?" No I bloody didn't.


Nina said...

In reference to Anonymous's comment about the alleged climate of confusion and fear at Soho, I would like to say that I haven't experienced it. Our mission has been articulated with great clarity and mobilised with flexibility, confidence and a commitment to risk. This ethos is enthusiastically shared and supported by the enormous range of artists who work here.

Chris said...

Hi Nina --

I'm glad you're here, it's good to have your perspective on this, and reassuring. I was surprised by the vehemence of Anonymous's contribution, and I'm pleased that there's a balancing voice in the mix.

all best, Chris

Sean said...

I think that what Goldman said was clearly silly and almost willfully ignorant of the realities not only of politics, but the actual nature of her business (mind you it was easy rhetoric and haven’t we all been carried away from time to time? I know I have). The question is what is ‘left’ now in the arts, is that even a useful label now? Is David Hare left wing for example? Are the private school university educated playwrights naturally left wing, or can they be at all? But then my dustman might be a Thatcherite (and in fact is probably more likely to be, openly anyway, than anyone in the creative business). Billington actually makes some interesting points about this in his book...
Anyway, is this simply chaos at the Soho or something genuinely more worrying? From a humble punters point of view I have enjoyed a lot of the recent work presented there (Joe Guy esp), and the forthcoming season has also caught my eye (but they again, I would have booked it anyway if I’m honest). The deeper questions are; what is the Soho for and does it need an overarching artistic policy as such? I mean if it is presenting quality new work form a variety of companies, then where is the problem (and I suppose that is an artistic policy)? If you are against Goldman for purely uttering fuzzy political rhetoric then you’d have to fire much of the arts establishment (but we must break the dictatorship of the pseudo lefties comrades!).
Btw: That Face, a play by a very posh person. Pro traditional family rightwing, or anti capitalist cruelties leftwing? The Family Plays also at the Royal Court Upstairs; eviscerating condemnation of our capitalistic society or a yearning for a simpler family economy (is one of those left wing, or both right wing?). Classifying drama is difficult, all calls for social change are not left wing, as some people seem to have forgotten.