Thursday 12 July 2007

Writing what you know

If, as I’m starting to suspect, all blogging is a long game of follow my leader, then, following Mark Ravenhill’s recent Guardian Arts blog post, this week’s hot topic is biographical readings of writers’ work. The subject has already kicked off a heated exchange on David Eldridge’s blog between him and critic Ian Shuttleworth*. Ravenhill’s original post is as fair-minded and witty as it is light, but he raises an interesting point. The most striking passage for me is his admission ‘I'd bump into friends from university and see they were longing to ask: “How long were you actually a rent boy for?” In the end, I decided all this gave me a grungy glamour. Without ever actually lying, I never disabused them of the notion.’

Of course he did. We all wanted to look grungy and glamorous in ’96. But there’s something else going on here. It is David Eldridge who connects it to Max Stafford-Clark, to whom the quotation “all plays are either autobiography or journalism,” is attributed. The way this belief manifested itself in Stafford-Clark’s work with writers has cast an extremely long shadow in its legacy for the Court.

A writer friend of mine, who shall remain nameless – for reasons which shall become clear – once wrote a provocative (and immediately countered) article for Noises Off magazine arguing that Graham Whybrow’s claim that he could identify the work of any Royal Court writer on the strength of a single page of their work was probably predicated on the fact that within the given page there’d either be a character who was a one-legged black lesbian; so it was probably by the Court’s one-legged black lesbian writer, or... so on, and so on.

I wouldn’t go that far, but it seems fair to say that for a while a certain brand of identity politics was at the very least not-discouraged, particularly around the young writers programme. I shall give a biographical example: - a few years ago a (different) writer friend who I knew from university had a play staged as part of the Royal Court’s Young Writer’s festival. I had produced an earlier (first?) play of his at university – it was a Camus-esque, Big Themes play in which six people gradually discover that they are in a lift to hell during some sort of (presciently enough) Islamist holocaust. His piece staged for the young writers’ programme was about growing up in as a Persian (which he was), in Wolverhampton (as he had) and working in one’s father’s corner shop (which he did). Perhaps it is unfair to blame the Royal Court for this – and perhaps it was the stronger play for not being so ambitious – but you can see from where the idea that they didn’t discourage a certain type of biographical authenticity comes.

This idea has turned on Max Stafford-Clark and bitten him on the arse at least once. There is a passage in Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia in which the young Karim (a thinly veiled, wish-fulfillment version of a young Hanif Kureshi, m’lud) is working as a writer (as Kureshi did) with a director of strong left-wing inclinations, who is widely thought to be a thinly veiled version of M S-C (with whom Kureshi did indeed work when he was a young Royal Court playwright). The book contains a scene in which the director, along with his wife, seduces Karim and his girlfriend with the aim of essentially stealing the girlfriend. So much for teaching people to write what they know. This story has an amusing – if wholly apocryphal coda: when filming the excellent BBC adaptation some years later, the set for this (enormously memorable – at least to this impressionable young thing) scene was dressed to exactly resemble M S-C’s house. Shortly after this has been televised – so the apocryphal story goes – M S-C had invited a couple of people back to his house. They arrived at the house, and entered the living room in question.

“So, this is where it all happened, then?” says one of the party, with a knowing look.

Awkward silence descends for the rest of a much-shortened rest-of-evening.

But I digress.

While Ravenhill suggests that it is a little odd to be confused with a character from your play, he then goes on to note the useful critical insights that such a school of criticism can sometimes offer. Eldridge, however, uses the occasion to take some issue with his work being read autobiographically –understandably, given the personal repercussions which he describes. What is fascinating is the fact that he does not comment on the fact that the play has also been reviewed autobiographically. He cites some initial comments from Ian Shuttleworth’s review, but omits to mention the end:

“I come from a similarly sacrificing working-class family, and I keenly feel similar debts to the departed. I could therefore be expected to connect profoundly with Eldridge's play. But not a sausage, I'm afraid.”

As a critic (ha!), not a writer, I find this sort of thing fascinating. Shuttleworth, after all, is giving explicit and personal grounds for the reason that he didn’t like the play. No pretence of objectivity or Olympian judgment here. This is explicitly a man with a history, sitting in a theatre, watching a play about another man with an apparently similar history. While on one hand it suggests it should have been a pushover for the play to have *got* him, it simultaneously admits the possibility that as someone so strongly identifying with the subject matter, he may not be the best judge.

Critics are often criticised for the dual, contradictory sins of both pretended objectivity and excessive of subjectivity. I find it interesting (not to mention brave) how readily Charles Spencer will talk about his position as a recovering alcoholic to contextualise his response to works dealing in similar themes of addiction. Similarly, if you can find a review of a play about Belfast by Ian Shuttleworth in which doesn’t mention his connection to that city, then you’re a better man than I am.

I guess the point of all this is that all writers, not to mention directors, actors, probably sound-designers and lighting designers, and other artists of any stripe you care to mention, will bring something of themselves to their work - both wittingly and unwittingly; and those watching their work, whether writing about it or not, will speculate over it, as much as they will appreciate other elements and the whole. But is it really, as David Eldridge says, “reductive” or “wrong-headed” to speculate? In much the same way as his play pricked the curiosity of his reviewers with its incidental spatial and temporal intersections with his own life, isn’t it precisely these same sorts of starting points that often ambush writers with ideas?

At the same time, I do hope we have gone beyond the era of identity politics into one where “write what you know” is only a helpful suggestion rather than an absolute and final restriction. I don’t want to be party to a culture, which, when faced with two plays on any given issue, will always pick the one written by the person who has the closest personal connection to the issue over the play that is best, irrespective of its author.

So, write what you know. Or don’t. Some part of you will creep in anyway and give your biographers and critics something to agonise over. But, if you are writing about what you know, please don’t do what John le Carré does and forget to tell everyone what it is you know before continuing the story; it makes it almost impossible to understand.

*In the interests of full biographical disclosure, Ian and I have a long personal history; I don’t know Mr Eldridge at all.


danbye said...

Isn't it the case that the extent to which a play is biographical is an interesting curio from the point of view of how the work was created, but ultimately irrelevant to any assessment of the quality of that work?

Andrew Haydon said...

You'd think so. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that "authenticity" is still a much-fetishised concept. I think sme people may well rate a play which uses actual lived-experience far more highly than something with similar (and obviously this is unqunatifiable) levels of dramatic achievement that is simply made up.

It's interesting that Stafford-Clark is credited with saying plays are "autobiography or journalism" - I wonder how much interest Talking To Terrorists would have had if it had all been made up...

S said...

Agree that authenticity is not all that important; the play should be judged on its merits. An ‘authentic’ play can be bad, just like a work more removed from the life of the writer can be. The authenticity or lack of shouldn’t make a difference to the judgment. However, naturally people will speculate about the autobiographical content, that is simply our lust for information about other people, it would be a boring world otherwise.

As for critics, sitting on Mount Olympus and making impartial judgements, critics are people who have experiences just like anyone else, we use this experience (whatever that may be) whenever we read their reviews. Everything we write has something of ourselves in it, but criticism is especially ripe for this. I’m sure Saint Joan tells us something about Shaw, even though the subject was historical and far removed from him.

Unknown said...

Fascinating stuff, Andrew -- thanks particularly for pointing out that piece of David E's.

The impulse to autobiographical reading is of course doubled when the writer and performer are the same person. Even close friends have been shocked by the events I narrate and the feelings I discuss in Kiss of Life and Nine Days Crazy -- they had no idea that I'd done those things, that I felt that way... Which of course I hadn't and don't.

But this whole discussion, particularly from David E's standpoint, is shadowed by (to me) a gripping paradox. Lazy autobiographical readings -- actually, we shouldn't call them lazy, a lot of them are much more strenuous than assuming no such correlation -- are merely a subset of a larger assumption that audiences make, which is that a play is something to be decoded: that it arrives in disguise, and the job of the spectator is to unmask its true meaning and release its interior value; that the writer has a message which, though it may be expanded into a two-hour play, could actually be boiled down to three well-known phrases or sayings. That art, in other words, is essentially decorative.

This assumption is of course applied just as much to the kind of work that I make in ensemble settings, which is avowedly designed to support multiple interpretations or to present unresolvable or insoluble predicaments or to signify uncontrollably at a pre-linguistic or subrational level, as it is to the contemporary well-made play, as it further is to the work of Pinter or Churchill or Sarah Kane somewhere in the middle.

The problem is, what supports and nourishes this unhelpful and interferent set of assumptions is the ongoing canard of sole authorship. Where a piece is collectively made and owned, it sits much more comfortably with the idea that it will contain multiple perspectives, none of which will necessarily dominate. Whereas the single-authored play -- I'm talking just as much about the auteur-driven piece that Eldridge despises as the author-driven work that he unswervingly promotes -- is much more likely to solicit an audience's cross-reading, in which the (distinct) voice of the play is mapped onto the (singular) voice of the playwright, like the out-of-focus stare-through that makes a stereoscopic image yield an illusory depth.

The market for stable 'meaning' (a constellation which I agree absolutely includes the prestige value of 'authenticity') absolutely permeates both our artistic and our critical cultures, even at this hundred-year distance from first-wave modernism. Biographically determined reading is just one facet of that economy, and its circulation is only possible because we cling to the idea that artworks are made by individuals. Which may just about be true of novels or paintings but is utterly, demonstrably, irretrievably fallacious in the case of theatre.

In other words: if Ian Shuttleworth is reading through David Eldridge's work to the real David Eldridge behind it, that's because that's what David Eldridge has taught him to do, by standing conspicuously behind his work with a big sign saying "I am David Eldridge". (Metaphorically.) Compared with the massive, fundamental, politically dubious faultlines of that situation, Shuttleworth's attempt to read biographically is a trifling nuance of etiquette. ...But of course great battles have started over less than that.

alexf said...

Talking to Terrorists would have had less attention if it had been made up, but it also would have had considerably less value - this isn't a question of authenticity but of how evenets in the theatre relate to the world outside that time and space and, particularly, to events outside that time and space. TTT is evidently both journalistic and autobiographical - journalistic because it is reporting events which have happened, and autobiographical because those events are people relating their own stories.

You watch the play with a keen understanding that what you are seeing is representation - it would be a fairly pointless exercise all round if there wasn't an understanding that what you are watching is a repeated performance, but that at some point, someone actually did say those words, and when they did so the relationship they had to those words was very to different to the one that the person who is saying them in front of you has to them.

Interestingly, in the context of TTT the "by" in "by Robin Soames" means something very different to the "by" in, for example, "M.A.D. by David Eldrige", which is a bugger if you've invested too heavily in a market for stable meaning...