Saturday 26 April 2008

So much from th' understanding of "himself"...

One of the most interesting posts on this week's Guardian Theatre blogs site was Chris Wilkinson's Noises Off piece looking at the question of blogging and anonymity.

It's not something I'd previously given much thought to, apart from occasional moments where I've wondered if someone popping up in Postcards's comments section to vehemently disagree with something I've written is in fact the very person I've written the thing about.

But, Chris is astute to bring it up. As he notes, in the past couple of weeks it has been a primary bone of contention on both sides of the Atlantic. Our own kerfuffle over anonymity focuses on David Eldridge's sad resignation from the blogosphere. David was already blogging when Postcards... started, and I remember being quite surprised to discover that a writer with David's level of success was writing so candidly about his thoughts. Granted, David strictly observed a rule about not slagging off other playwrights on his blog, and, as he has been at pains to point out, didn't really discuss inside details of the business. However, much of what he did write was a fascinating insight into the working life of a playwright.

Obviously, it is what he felt that he couldn't write about that really interests me. I'm secretly as curious and prurient as the next man, and insider gossip and information is always fascinating. Not least when it sheds light on the reasons why a play or production turned out the way it did. Of course, such information is a bit of a bind for critics. On balance, I think it's probably better not to know that, for example, a director is having an affair with his or her lead actor, prior to writing up as such information will only sit on one's shoulder and colour one's judgement. Look at the write-ups when Trevor Nunn directed his wife Imogen Stubbs's play. Most of them seemed to universally suggest that the only reason he'd gone near such rubbish is that it was by his wife. Now, of course, it appears that he might just have acquired a taste for rubbish in his old age...

The problem here is essentially politics (small p). It would not be politic for David to highlight any problems he might have with a particular director, writer, actor or building. Indeed, it was his initial reaction to a previous Noises Off article's quotation of a comment he made about audiences at the National Theatre on his blog that sparked the long row that seemed to presage his departure. I realised that a similar problem had been growing for me. It's both personal and political (Michael would be thrilled): when I started this blog nearly a year ago, I vowed to myself that I was never going to write about my personal life on it.

Looking back I see that in the early days, I actually referred to stuff that was going on in my life a good deal more than I do now. I also notice Postcards... seems to have been a far more wide ranging creature in those heady, early days commenting not only on theatre, but also the news, newspapers and the personal ads in TheLondonPaper. The reason for this change, I suspect, is that when Postcards... started, no one was paying me anything for writing theatre criticism. I was doing it for free tickets and trying to fit doing so around a 'day job'. Now I am essentially making my living as a freelance theatre critic. In the past year, I've also met a lot more of my fellow critics. As a result, the personal and the political get rather tangled up. There's a strange sort of honour-among-thieves crossed with a kind of Stockholm-syndrome that creeps up on one. The net result of having met people is that it changes the character of writing about their work, while the net result of being employed by various publications is that it utterly alters one's relationship to them.

Now that I write regular posts for the Guardian's Theatre blogs section, I would think twice before laying into something that one of my fellow bloggers had posted, or describing any particular writer's work as a continuous stream of vapid drivel. Or at least, if I felt strongly enough about it, I would probably conduct the attack in a more measured fashion than Postcards... would have done a year ago. At the same time, one critic (you see, one goes all coy about naming one's sources) has a pet thesis that the because the Guardian did so well at picking up so many of the new generation of theatre bloggers, it has effectively strip-mined the blogosphere, because everyone is now writing for them, instead of on their own blogs.

It is telling that, compared to what felt like the febrile activity of last summer and autumn, the Noises Off column now frequently needs to dig through the American theatre blogs because no one in Britain has posted anything all week, except on the Guardian site. I know I'm certainly more guilty of this than anyone. And obviously the Guardian's Theatre blogs have a different character to that which Postcards had when it started up. For a start, this sort of unfocused rambling is wisely discouraged. Sure, I can try to get a few friends to wade through the unedited reams poured from my head onto a keyboard, and use the comments thread to see what people think, but that's hardly good practice on the international website of a globally respected newspaper. At the same time, alongside David Eldgridge's public closure,
Alex Ferguson's ...Unknown Persons... (25.05.07 – 14.01.08),
Dan Bye's Pessimism of the Intellect... (23.05.07 – 15.12.07),
and The Reduced Michael Billington (27.10.06 – 17.09.07)
have all quietly folded for undisclosed reasons. So it goes... The blogosphere, like the universe, after an initial, vastly exciting explosion, seems to have been quietly contracting ever since (I'm no astrophysicist, I could have got that universe analogy completely the wrong way round).

All this gets us quite a long way from the starting point of anonymity. What is interesting about posting at the Guardian is that it removes a certain layer of that anonymity. While I am entirely realistic about the likely number of readers anything I post there may achieve, it does feel slightly more like being on public display than merely tending to a blog in the backwaters of the internet. By the same token, writing for Time Out and (very, very occasionally) the Financial Times, comes with an obligation that one should do anything that lets those publications down. Well, not unless one wants to alienate one's employers and get a reputation for being deeply unprofessional into the bargain. There are also the unwritten codes of the critical cosa nostra to worry about. I remember being mortified reading through AA Gill's rather ludicrous set of charges in his attack on critics last year, thinking – Christ! I don't insist on an aisle seat! I don't not clap or not laugh at jokes during shows! I haven't even been told how many notes it is considered proper to take! I don't even fall asleep during shows! I can't be a proper critic at all.

Then I started looking around me and seeing critics laughing, clapping, not sitting on the aisle seats, and staying awake throughout the shows they were reviewing and started to feel relieved that it seemed unlikely that Gill had been entirely correct in his summations. At the same time, there are the other rules – the not discussing the show with other critics, the adherence to probity, the not sticking around for the free drinks on press night and the most hotly debated – what one does with reviewing the work of people who, by no fault of one's own, one turns out to know to some extent.

I don't think anyone wants to see theatre criticism turn into 'me-journalism'. It has its place, sure – I'm as happy to waste a couple of minutes reading about Sam Leith's World of Warcraft addiction as the next man – but that place isn't in theatre reviews. Even AA Gill's TV reviews are a world away from his restaurant reviews. It seems to me that the ideal critic can foreground themself in a way that remains entirely focused on the work under consideration. Consider the recent reviews of Gone With The Wind – for Michael Billington it was a failure of politics, for Charles Spencer it was a failure of Theatre. I find the way that Billington can so seamlessly make his agenda seem like a definitive judgement absolutely fascinating, but it is Spencer's analysis that seems to nail the problems of the actual production. The problem is, Charles Spencer and I have pretty different tastes, so when reading the problems nailed, one's mind is always cast back to 'problems' of other productions that he has nailed, and remembering that such 'problems' are the elements that one really loved, or vice versa – that he loved most the bits you found most flawed.

So where does all this get us? Yes, we need to know enough of the person to assess where they are coming from. A review or blog should hopefully make this pretty clear (as should any anonymous comment on a blog – after all, from even the position of a given argument, a position should be discernible). As for writing about myself, obviously all the above is about what I think, but doesn't touch on my personal life, and that's how it's going to remain. Thing is, I deeply respect Chris Goode's blog for its candid emotional honesty: cf. here and here for example - the second piece in particular makes a beautiful case for the inclusion of the personal in blogging. I am concerned that part of my rationale for never discussing how I might be feeling is that it feels too much like a giveaway. After all, whatever the point of a critic may be, it certainly isn't to bring all their baggage into a theatre with them. Certainly a couple of critics do foreground a bit of hand luggage; Charles Spencer's recovery from alcoholism being the most obvious example. I'm not really sure how I feel about it. Obviously if Spencer feels it is necessary in the spirit of a “statement of interest”, then he should mention it. On the other hand, should a divorced critic feel the need to admit as much whenever watching a bedroom farce or traumatic break-up drama?

Might it not be better for critics to retain a bit of anonymity, at least until the publication of their scandalous, posthumous diaries and memoirs?


On a not entirely unconnected note – given how personal a selection of subjects the play tackles - on Thursday I saw Suspect Culture and Graeae's production of Dan Rebellato's new play Static. I was reviewing it for the FT, so until they've published or spiked it, I guess I should wait before posting the review here (no doubt with a ream of extra detail that 375 words simply doesn't allow). Suffice it to say, Static is a gorgeous, warm-hearted, funny, intelligent, astute and magical bit of work about love, grief and the fundamental importance of compilation tapes. The production might not be to everyone's taste (much like most compilation tapes), but once gotten used to is blisteringly powerful and nearly reduced the FT to tears every other minute (to which the FT did not admit in its review).

The show also features a neat soundtrack, on which when I do post my review, I might go YouTube-tastic. But, since I've spent a lot of today listening to bits from the show, here's Sonic Youth's Tunic from the show -

The play-in track - Wire's Outdoor Miner:

And lastly, a rather adorable boy-in-his-bedroom painstaking re-creation of How Soon is Now (also from Static), sans vocals – turn it right up and do Morrissey karaoke. Go on, you know you want to...


Anonymous said...

Interesting that here, as on the guardian, when musing on anonymity, identity and pseudonymity, you make no mention of the fact that Andrew Haydon isn't your real name. I know it makes no impact on your critical as distinct from other identity - that's my point. Naming bears a much more complex relationship to identity than many posters on the subject assume. Even if the Guardian hadn't finally sorted a method for me to register with their site in my real name and bypass my mail server repeatedly dumping their confirmation messages as spam, and I were still posting there as RoyWatson, I wouldn't be adopting another persona but no doubt referring as I now do to opinions and experiences of Ian Shuttleworth.

I posted on that Noises Off thread about various factors that may encourage online writing to be more robust and less considered than forms of communication in which the recipient is more identifiably present; I think the same can be said for first-person ingredients. God knows there are far too many breast-baring confessional blogs around already (and I hope to God I've erased the ones I started back in the day), but it's as if, in the absence of a definable Other, there's an impulse to compensate by greater specificity of Self, if you see what I mean.

But then again, I have enough trouble with complexities of interpersonal dynamics in real life, never mind online... oh, look, see what I did there?

danbye said...

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will hasn't so much folded as been extremely busy. Expect a return at some point, but not in the next couple of months...

J. Kelly said...

I'm sorry to see that David Eldridge has left the blogosphere, taking a few shots at my incarnation of Noises Off on the way out.

After the first few weeks of doing that blog round-up, it was indeed difficult to find new material to write about - especially since UK theatre bloggers were being co-opted (I mean that in a good way) left, right and centre by the Guardian.... I guess I shone a spotlight on Eldridge a little too often for his own comfort, but it's own fault for writing interesting entries. There are so few theatre blogs out there, it's a shame to see a good one like his bite the dust...

On the other hand, I don't apologise for writing Noises Off in the chatty, gossipy way that seemed to offend Eldridge. I intended it to be like that. So much theatre writing is earnest and intellectual. That's great, but I wanted to balance it out a bit. After all, theatre is also fun - at least, it is for me. West End Whingers aren't going to put Michael Billington out of business, but they're an enjoyable counterpart.