Sunday 7 December 2008

It's All About Me

Yup, it's been another month-long gap between posts. And, yes, the absence includes another trip to a mainland European festival and no other discernable good excuses for the lack of writing other than a prolonged dose of keyboardphobia, writer's block and an increasing sense that I might have said everything I've ever thought that was appropriate to say about theatre. Or at least that hasn't been said better by someone else elsewhere.


In short, I was getting a bit worried that by banging on repeatedly about Europe and postdramatic theatre, and worried I was starting to paint myself into a professional corner and at the same time was starting to repeat myself. And don't a lot of writers go through periods of inertia where anything that doesn't have a specific deadline just gets put off, or, if it doesn't *have* to be written, it doesn't get written? Hence the fact that I've managed to file a whole bunch of Time Out reviews, and did at least type for what felt like hours on end in Slovenia, but haven't thought of a suitable Guardian blog post since I got back from Slovenia or written anything here.

I also seem to have been going to the theatre less. Partly this is due to a lack of organisation, partly it's been because I've been visiting my parents, and partly because I get a bit theatred-out (and written-out) after these European jaunts. It's a shame, not least because I feel like I should be writing about all the stuff I see there, if only because it feels like I'm practically the only Brit who is seeing it and people might be interested to hear what it's like, but thanks to the concern about marginalising myself here and the tiredness, it doesn't seem to happen. So, I'll tempt fate and say that it is at least my intention to try to cover some of the stuff currently missing in action in the next couple of weeks.

Personal life

Beyond this, as I've mentioned before, I tend to be wary of letting too much of my personal life spill into Postcards..., and in the absence of many theatre visits and seemingly little discussion on the blogosphere, the last month has - by virtue of technical necessity - been mostly personal life: seeing friends; pottering around. You know, life. At the same time, as I've also said before, while I greatly admire Chris Goode's candour about his emotional life, and while I think that level of honesty works well for him as an artist, I'm not sure it would be the best policy for a critic. That probably says something about my view of how critics should be seen, and is probably wrong since Kenneth Tynan is both probably the most famous theatre critic and the one about whose private life we know most. On the other hand, Harold Hobson probably comes a close second in terms of fame and, as far as I know, his private life is just that. Private. Moreover, pretty much all of what we know of Tynan's private life comes from the posthumous publication of his diaries (edited), rather than from a weekly blow-by-blow (no pun intended) account.

On the other hand, in spite of regular readers being given access to a fairly wide variety of information about his private life, Charles Spencer still doesn't seem to be as highly regarded a critic as Michael Billington in terms of authority, even if many consider him to be the more entertaining writer. I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that this could in part be down to the fact that alongside reviewing, Billington has written two big books on theatre (his Pinter biog and State of the Nation) while Charles Spencer has knocked up some detective novels (in which Will Benson - cuckolded, overweight and in career meltdown, is at his lowest ebb, attempting to concentrate on his column in the shambolic trade rag, Theatre World, through a fog of lunchtime drinking - solves crimes. Brilliant! For the record, they're perfectly good detective fiction, even if the character of Will Benson is pretty much the most authorially self-lacerating creation since any number of characters called Keith by Martin Amis).


How much it is desirable to know about the private lives of critics is an interesting question. And one which has become more interesting and relevant with the explosion of the blogosphere. After all, part of the point of the blogosphere is the licence for a more personalised approach, as well as the increased word-count, which is limited only by the expected tolerance of one's readers (and, yes, sorry about this one, it's too long). Mark Shenton has written on the subject a number of times and Ian Shuttleworth also deals with the question in a recent Theatre Record editorial. After all, a review merely gives a personal opinion/report/interpretation of a play. Blog entries (or ,er, Theatre Record editorials) being freer, tend to announce, even if indirectly, the blogger's more personal agendas and obsessions.

Of course reviews can do that too, one only has to search how many times Michael Billington tells us he left a show feeling pleased to be “better informed” about a subject to get a picture of what it is that he's after from a play. Similarly, my increasingly self-parodic attempts to get the term “postdramatic” into everyday use (see my Time Out review of Station House Opera's Mind Out for the latest example), probably say a bit too much about my theatrical preferences. But knowing someone's taste in theatre isn't really the same thing as knowing about their string of mistresses, their depression or their alcoholism.

Turning “professional”

This all feeds into the wider question about a) how much a person's circumstances inform their work, and b) questions of “full disclosure”. Over a year ago, before I started being paid for any reviewing or blogging, I wrote an alarmingly candid piece about my concerns about being friends with people who made theatre. Since “turning professional” (hollow laugh), I've been more guarded about this, and about my personal life in general. I suppose being paid has made me much more “establishment” than “anti-establishment”. Sure there are things I disagree with that co-writers say, but now I'm not “on the outside”, it seems more unfair to start throwing stones at others in the same, er, boat (good use of mixed metaphor, well done). Especially when my position is still very much on the periphery of things.

Similarly, I think I've gradually restricted my musings. For example, calling another Guardian blogger an idiot publicly, is essentially to question my editor's judgement, now. At the same time, I think I tend to be less flippant on Postcards... on the few occasions I actually get around to writing anything at all. After all, short though they be, I realise that my Time Out reviews of some fringe shows are going to be nigh on the only press they get, and I don't want to undermine that review either by sounding like an ass elsewhere, or by saying something about my private life that makes them mistrust the review (for the record, they shouldn't mistrust the review, I am as scrupulous as humanly possible), but I wouldn't want to cause uncertainty or compromise Time Out's integrity.

The rules of attraction

I'm also interested by the way that blogging feeds into the wider sense of what has been called the rise of the “Me generation”. As I note in the piece I tagged above, “I was taught [I'd now suggest “told”] (by Robert Hewison, theatre critic of the Sunday Times) that egotism and personality-based grandstanding was to be avoided at all costs. His simple formulation: ‘Don’t say "I think". God knows it should be apparent enough to everyone that it is what you think because you’re writing it. Remember that the play is the subject of the review, not you.’” This seems to be fast-becoming untrue. Sure, saying 'I think' remains “bad writing” (don't go back through and count them. Please), but “personality-based grandstanding”? Is it really avoided so much now? Aren't critics increasingly being asked by editors to put more of themselves into reviews?

Is it not the case now that pretty much every editor would adore it if their theatre critics were a bit more like AA Gill and a bit less interested in theatre? Look at the size of byline photos these days. I can't remember what paper it was that I opened recently and was surprised to see a large selection of their writers with almost full-length body shots. What extra information is this supposed to communicate? Are we soon to enter an era where one's knowledge of one's subject is secondary to how buff you are and how much you're willing to disclose about a rock'n'roll personal life in snappy prose? Part of me can't help hoping so, the other 99% is utterly depressed by the whole notion.

All this also feeds back into the question about “full disclosure”. It's as if papers believe that their readers demand a picture of the person who has written the piece they're reading in order to scrutinise the critic's face to see if they like the look of them or not. Do they have shifty eyes? Are they attractive enough for their opinion to even matter, or conversely, are they a bit too attractive to be clever? Should theatre critics aim to look like wise professors, suave gentlemen, yummy mummies or reliable librarians? Can we use old photos from when we were younger and prettier? Please?


Sorry, I've rambled. All this is an elaborate way of saying I've been a bit up myself recently, and a bit too self-involved to do any writing. No doubt it'll happen again some time, but hopefully not before Christmas.

In the meantime, you should all go and start assiduously reading Matt Trueman's dynamic new blog, the fancifully named Carousel of Fantasies. It talks about the sort of thing this blog used to talk about, and with the same erstwhile productivity, and in better prose, and with more insight. You can't tell I'm jealous, can you?

Nice to see you again, though. If you've managed to pick any kind of train of thought through the above, do comment below and let me know what it is.

Until next time...


Alison Croggon said...

Heh heh. I do wish you'd blog more often, Andrew.

Speaking personally (pause for appropriate smiley), it's difficult for me to avoid personal disclosure, being married to a playwright and having long-standing connections in the local theatre world from my various adventures as a theatre writer. So I'm just upfront about it. It's made me vulnerable to various kinds of shit-throwing, but I guess that's how it is. There are always swings and roundabouts.

I cope with the rest by inventing an outrageous fiction called a crrritic. I actually think my private life is private. And not that interesting, frankly (though I hear gossip which makes me sound very interesting indeed...

Anonymous said...

Your posts are always eagerly anticipated, Andrew, and you put the finger on why: you are the only English-writing person that sees a lot of the mainland-European theatre and understands. Do you write about it anywhere? Does it get published anywhere, in any language?

(That said, with the flurry of festivals in Europe, it's all too easy to burn out. I'm sure everyone feels sympathy and sympathy only.)

I get an impression things are less structured in Australia, where media aren't restricted to a particular night, one inevitably makes friends, and friends then invite blog criticism quite freely. For many, as you say, it may be the only critical response, and blogs have become a serious source of theatre information down here. It makes one less flippant, but that cannot be a bad thing. I've found my own criticism has become more rounder, more considerate, more aware.

I tend to agree with certain academics that the semblance of objectivity is misleading, and it's better to be upfront about your own subjectivity instead (declare your taste, preferences, friendships). It makes one more accountable. This parallels the ongoing move within academia from anonymous peer reviews (which can easily camouflage viciousness, especially in small academic communities where voices are easily recognisable) to signed commentary. Becoming a theatre personality may be at the end of that road, but it's certainly not impossible to stay anchored in the safe middle, between the űberhuman objectivity and AA Gill?