Thursday 4 October 2007

Guest writer - comment on The Racial Papers

Today’s entry is a piece which has just been posted at the bottom of the string of comments on an
article I wrote about racial representations about a month ago. Since that article is now archived, this comment would perhaps not receive the attention its eloquent and passionate argument deserves if it were just left on that thread, so I have taken the liberty of re-posting it here in its entirety.

Pali said...

I’ll keep my comments general. If there is such a thing as Asian theatre in this country, a theatre that can be roughly aggregated as plays with themes relating to the British South Asian experience, written by British Asians, it seems to me to exist in a kind of soft tyranny, in which Arts Council ledgers are used as the benchmark for production, and a similarity of theme and form has become the stunting, stultifying norm.

The numbing sub-mediocrity of naturalism, social realism all integral to the thrust of what is proffered (without irony) as ‘authenticity’. It demands obeisance, despite its self-righteousness, obviousness, banality, cliché, contempt for imagination. Theatre as an adjunct to social work, theatre that has a kind of strange Marxist-like insistence on its own innate righteousness. Theatre that is complicit in its own co-option by a section of the mainstream theatre establishment (see David Edgar) which is terrified of its own impotence and irrelevance, and crass in its hunger for controversy and ‘importance’. A theatre that seems incapable of how to address the innate ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ implications of the form when writing for white people --- absolute falsity of language and situation, a bowing and scraping and prurient theatre, rejoicing in its own tokenism and serving up slop and pandering to the prejudices and ignorance of that audience. A self-satisfied, pompous theatre heady on its own imagined importance, eye-glazing in its predictability and utterly oblivious to itself.

When plays full of rumbustious dance and the broadest comedy come along, despite their vulgarisms, I rejoice a little because at least it has a sign of impudent life, and is not written with a wagging instructive finger, and knows its froth is froth. But at least things are not too bad when you can identify what you have identified in this blog entry --- at least I know I am not imagining things, the judgments I have made are not based on some innate bias I have, and amongst other things (I hate to bring ethnicity into this), white theatre critics sometimes seem unable to make the judgments and say the things you have said here. You have no idea how good it was to read this post of yours.


This is a debate which needs bringing much further out into the open. But it is extraordinarily heartening to read such an acute appraisal of the potential damage some Arts Council policy may be doing.


Alison Croggon said...

Somehow I missed your original post. Race has recently been a hot topic here, with fingers pointed at so-called naturalism too as a Big Problem. (Here's it's a naturalism/nationalism nexus, to do with our colonial history). I always think it's not naturalism per se, but what people think naturalism is. I really like Ibsen, but I think he's a poet.

I've never been able to bear issue-based theatre, which is a slightly separate issue. I think it's largely had its day here. I hope so.

Interval Drinks said...

An interesting comment. I wish I had read it before I saw Pure Gold at Soho earlier this week, as it resonates with some of what I felt after watching that play.

OK, I have less of a problem with what I see we're calling issue-based theatre than many who comment here, I like to be told stories, and I don't always thirst for innovation, but I really dislike it when the mechanics of the writing are so obvious. I thought Michael Bhim's play delivered some incredibly taut scenes of domestic discord, tense and inspired, but because this is a play about a poor black family it seemed as if he almost felt obliged to feature a series of set things to convey 'authenticity.' These jarred wildly with the heart of the story, and did neither writer nor audience any favours.

It was fascinating though to read the play text and see what had been omitted for the stage version, including an epilogue that would have changed the whole tone of the ending.

Sorry, I'm digressing, and I suspect rather over-simplifying this whole discussion. I should come back with some better-formed thoughts...

Bad Case said...

I was under the impression that literary and theatrical naturalism were essentially issue-driven - and sort of single-issue at that. They're realism plus biological determinism. Or "pessimistic materialistic determinism," in George Becker's "famous and much-annotated and contested phrase". Love that internet.

How does it tie in with nationalism?

Anonymous said...

All arguments regarding the kind of theatre and art produced by Arts Council subsidy often meet with a few standard responses – I provide some examples followed by some thoughts on them.

(a)Do you want ‘Asian voices’ to be snubbed out completely and marginalized?

-- Well, it’s interesting that this communal feeling is invoked, because so often, much is made of how the plays should be judged as the result of individual voices, and criticisms should not be made of plays or writers on the basis of whether what they write reflects or answers to the British Asian experience in all its varieties, and is criticized or evaluated in relation to that. It also creates a psychology of dependance, contextualises us as being remedials subsisting entirely on a master's largesse. This will become debilitating at some point, this attitude.

(b) We are here to ‘represent’ Asian life to white people to foster ‘understanding’.

-- This directly contradicts all claims that it is about individual life and voice, and abrogates to this theatre the position of ‘social mediator’. It therefore proclaims itself as possessing a social power it simply cannot live up to, and leads to a theatre of exhibitionism and pandering, and insults and patronises white people as much as does Asians by making this proclamation. After all, why should white audiences need to be spoon fed anthropology as theatre? It sets up a division that is not always there, it assumes all white people are unaware or innately unsympathetic to or have only an attenuated or chauvinistic attitude and knowlege of the British Asian experience, and is also incredibly trite. It is, I believe, the most pernicious of the effects of the Arts Council ideology in Asian theatre. According to it, theatre has to have a direct, intervening social purpose; tangible, quantifiable. Making a pitch for funding on the basis of being some kind of social and racial enabler is dishonest, freights theatre with more responsibility than it can hold, produces deformed work, engenders only a narrow kind of theatre, and seeks out narrow types of plays and a certain kind of mechanistic and worthy writer.

(c) We have a responsibility to reflect social issues.

-- This is related to point (b), but Andrew highlights in his original post ‘The Racial Papers’, the kind of rigidity of form and theme this produces, as well as the influence of the David Edgar tendency, where an impotent and listless establishment wants to have relevance and feel virile, producing a kind of confessional, self righteous pornography of suffering. ‘Authenticity’ is the thing to be striven for, without reflection, or understanding of what this actually means. (Authentic to whom? In what way?) It’s also dishonest, because as much as it does not want to accept connection with wider society, it thinks that its lofty and worthy purpose negates any criticism of it as theatre, or that the social issues it engages with are self evidently righteous, and so must the artistic reception and appreciation be. Yasmin Whittaker Khan’s ‘Bells’ was a strange play – strange for how it was written, with an eye for easy exoticisation (they dance! In their saris!), and how it was sold, as a play about ‘Asian brothels’. It’s not so much theatre that seeks to convey in a narrative the seedy and secret world, as much as a theatre that projects all aspects of Asian life as innately seedy and sordid, and does so with a nod and a wink to the white audiences it wants to pander to, patronizing them in the process.


These are just three points I can think of from various scattered thoughts in my head. I take what I can these days. At another point I might write about some of the Asian theatrical productions I liked recently. There may be something good being done in terms of music and dance, and I have some thoughts on how Asian theatre may offer new horizons and ideas for the form and experience. Not all is dark. But plenty is stagnant.


danbye said...

"self-righteous pornography of suffering" is one of the best phrases i've come across in theatrical criticism for ages, and says more than most reviews. It's a horrible phenomenon and not restricted to ethnic minority writing. Yet when a piece comes along that presents working class life, for example, as something other than bleak, that's done down as patronising along the "those funny northerners" line. I mean, I ask you!

Anonymous said...

'Self righteous pornography of suffering' was a phrase I lifted from Andrew's original comments in 'The Racial Papers' when he dislodged from my mind much of what I've just said. He coins good phrases:


"these writers frequently appear to be encouraged to produce what amounts to emotional pornography - moreover: authentic, “urban” or exotic emotional pornography"


'Exotic' is an important identification here too.

Anonymous said...

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