Sunday 6 September 2009

Où sont les Intellectuels du Publique?

Playwright Steve Waters has written an intriguing piece over at the Guardian blogs which demands a fuller response than the usual 5,000 characters. His question seems to boil down to: “Why don’t public intellectuals talk about the theatre any more?” To throw this question back, I’d counter: what public intellectuals?

Britain has never had many essayists in the tradition of Sontag or Barthes. Or if we did, they were awfully well hidden (or I’m forgetting something very obvious). And of those we arguably have had – and really, who?: Raymond Williams? Roger Scruton? Malcolm Muggeridge? Richard Hoggart? John Berger? John Tusa? Germaine Greer? – none of them, with the possible exception of Berger, hold a candle to the international figures Waters mentions. True, with the exception of Williams, our paltry trickle of “public intellectuals” is pretty silent when it comes to theatre (Greer’s occasional, wilfully uninformed interventions notwithstanding). I’d suggest this is because most of them were primarily engaged – most quite single-mindedly – with another artform. The British tend not to do eclecticism very well. We do specialisms. People who hop about tend to be regarded with suspicion.

If we’ve got even one fully functioning public intellectual today, it’s probably Slavoj Žižek (albeit adoptively) and he’s actually pretty good on the work of, say, Neue Slowenische Kunst, whose output included a lot of Slovenia’s theatre, back when the country was a part of Yugoslavia. But Žižek is perhaps now much more preoccupied by film as it is now a far more dominant artform than theatre was in the ‘50s and ‘60s in the west and up until the demise of communism in the east.

It strikes me that theatre might also get the thinkers it asks for. If you look at our big public plays now – say Gethsemane, England People Very Nice or Seven Jewish Children from the last 12 months – and look at the sort of additional coverage they get beyond their allotted overnight review: comment columns in the press, perhaps a slot on Newsnight Review and acres of blogspace – we see how the content of those commentaries demonstrate why big thinkers (of whom we’ve already established there aren’t [m]any) aren’t urgently addressing British theatre (I’m assuming Waters intended the question to be applied to British theatre, since, despite the fact that his examples from the past are mostly drawn from the US and mainland Europe, he doesn’t appear give any sign of knowing who’s saying what about what theatre on mainland Europe at the moment).

Essentially is it not because our theatre is predominantly a news-led, issue-based form? As such, are the commentaries it gets not by those who are employed to comment on the news, on social issues and on politics? I’m not saying, or meaning to imply this is a bad thing, but it is a different thing. There’s a side issue here – aren’t our “public intellectuals” nowadays people like Simon Jenkins or maybe Mark Lawson? No, neither is in the same league as Sontag, Barthes or Adorno, but then that’s not the bracket they’re aiming for. They tend to concentrate on the concrete rather than the theoretical. It’s a different sort of engagement.

Having established this, the next question is: what would be the point of a post-structuralist analysis of something like, for example, Gethsemane? It wears its issues pretty baldly. We know what it’s about because it flags it up, signposts it, and underlines its themes three times in red. That’s not to say Hare is a bad playwright, it’s just that the thing he’s doing is part of a different conversation. He is concerned with issues of public life, public policy and political probity. He doesn’t think deeply, searchingly hypothetically about the philosophical underpinning of all this, he is happy to take generally agreed social mores as his co-ordinates. It would feel slightly OTT if someone brought massive post-structuralist apparatus to bear on his work. It’d be like using nanotechnology to solve a grazed knee. Sometimes all the thing calls for is a plaster. Of course one could approach Hare as philosopher, post-structuralist, Marxist or aesthete, but surely the result would find the work wanting because that is not the way it invites itself to be read.

Along his way, Waters makes a series of fairly irritating generalisations. “The brisk review is hardly fit for purpose” he suggests. It’s hard to tell if he means the purpose he’s now waving a flag for, or the purpose for which it’s intended – i.e. to be a brisk review. Adorno’s musings on Endgame might well be a good read but I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t help you know what any given specific production was like. Similarly, Sontag mentioning Artaud’s schoolboy manifesto in a much longer piece about all sorts of things might make her writing perky, but it doesn’t tell you if a specific play is – in her opinion – any good. So bashing the review as a form seems misguided – even if we could all wish for longer word-counts. The philosopher’s essay is an entirely different creature. To describe a review as a “view of the marketplace” also seems somewhat unjust, but we’ll let that pass for the time being.

“Who would dare such eclecticism now?” might more properly be framed “Who would commission such eclecticism now?” It’s all well and good to propagandise in favour of a particular sort of thing – even one with virtually no (recent?) history in this country – but there are practicalities to bear in mind and Waters’s polemic seems to be blaming people with specific jobs for not doing other, different work which has no discernable means of transmission on the terms that he seems to desire.

His peevish quest next alights upon: “Have contemporary writers and directors lost that gift or taste for the panoramic?” No. Matt Trueman’s concise reply under the initial piece pretty much covers that line of inquiry, with the additional bonus of pointing up the fact that Waters might not actually know half as much as he makes out. After all, claiming there’s a vast absence of something when there isn’t is a rather elementary mistake, no?

“Good writing on the theatre needs to be as bold and experimental as great theatre” he intones, bringing us neatly back to my initial question of whether this isn’t just so much nanotechnology for a scrape – the “good” (odd choice of word) writing we have on theatre is quite frequently every bit as bold and experimental as the great theatre it’s about – i.e. not terribly bold or experimental at all. Note, please, that I don’t say that such theatre isn’t great. There was nothing at all bold or experimental about Branagh’s Ivanov, for example. I still thought it was great, though. Others may disagree on either ideological grounds or on grounds of taste, but “reactionary” though the staging might have been, I found it moving in pretty much the way I think it wanted to be moving. Anyway.

Waters concludes: “Profound and pertinent reflection yields better work; if we don't do that work, we leave the field vacant to the short-term riposte of the overnight reviews and angry circular blogs.”

Who’s this “we”? Moreover – and this is the terrible elephant in the room throughout this briefest of essays – isn’t Waters response to the lack of “Profound and pertinent reflection” essentially just an “angry circular blog” itself? – well, ok, not *terribly* *angry*, but... Is he part of the “we” he’s expecting to offer this new school of pertinent and profound reflection? On the strength of this article it doesn’t appear that he’s actually proposing to step up to the plate. It is, after all, a short piece on the Guardian Theatre Blog. Guardian blogs offer around 500 words to make one’s point. That’s roughly as long as one of the “brisk” reviews which he criticises for not having enough space to include “profound and pertinent reflection”. Of course. Fine. Sure. It’s an interesting piece for the format that he’s chosen/been allotted, but let’s not let him kid himself that he’s written what he’s exhorting others to write.

At this point, his dismissal of blogs as “angry” and “circular” seems particularly hypocritical. Perhaps he’s seeking to differentiate between “angry, circular” blogs and other, longer, linear, more considered blogs – of which there are many. His initial impulse for this article came, after all, from George Hunka’s blog, which you’d generally be hard pressed to call either angry or circular. Sadly, though, it sounds more like Waters has fallen into the unthinking trap of bunching blogs together as a tool of the uninformed, marginal and “unprofessional” – heaven forefend.

In fact, blogs are pretty much where you frequently do find precisely this form of long-form, more eclectic, more philosophical, more intellectual approach. And you find it on blogs these days precisely because the print media and broadcasting doesn’t appear to have much space for it or interest in it. I’m not sure why Waters writes off blogs in the way that he does – but it seems utterly counterproductive, makes him sound hypocritical in the extreme – given that he’s saying it on a blog – and, worst, makes him again sound like he just hasn’t been looking very hard.

Similarly, his earlier off-hand dismissal of academia seems about as hilariously mistimed as possible. I’m thinking in particular of Palgrave Macmillan’s excellent new pocket-size series of books Theatre &.... It’s a new collection of books on Theatre’s relationship to another area – politics, the city, human rights, etc. all by leading academics like Dan Rebellato, Nicholas Ridout and Joe Kelleher. As well as being wholly accessible and intelligent yet conversational in tone, they also completely scotch the charges of un-panoramicism. Of the three I’ve dipped into so far (...Ethics, ...Globalisation, and ...Politics) there is a dizzying level of eclectic knowledge being lightly bandied around in service of strong central arguments. These books also have the useful and hugely welcome effect of pointing to the longer, weightier books in academia that are leading thinking in theatre at the moment – none of which are studies of the “small print of Restoration aesthetics, Chekhov's punctuation and the ritual implications of the mask” (rather a cheap way of characterising academia). And all of which, quite crucially, “offer the kind of telling and personal engagement with theatre practice as it stands”. Waters suggestion to the contrary suggests someone who doesn’t have the faintest idea what’s being written on theatre by academics at the moment. It also overlooks the fact that several leading academics are also theatre practitioners or critics as well.

A final point. Waters should perhaps be careful what he wishes for. Sadly, I didn’t see his last play, The Contingency Plan, at the Bush, but I did see World Music at the Donmar. And, well, given a long-form free-ranging essay size article to fill, I can’t help wondering what Susan Sontag would have made of some of the most gratuitous and uncomfortable-to-witness stage-toplessness I’ve ever seen on the part of the young actress playing a young, black African (although admittedly this could have been director Josie Rourke’s fault). Or, alternatively, I’d have been fascinated to read what Edward Said made of the fact that a play purporting to be about an African genocide analogous to Rwanda had to have a white, male central character. Or perhaps Žižek could have rehearsed his theory about how this use of an exception means that the work ultimately means precisely the reverse of what he, Waters, might have intended. It’s all well and good to lament in the abstract the absence of hardcore thinkers from the arena of theatre, but what would they find if they did come back? World Music is hardly an Endgame – as far as I remember it was little more than liberal hang-wringing spiced up with ethnic-genocide-porn. Bring any kind of intellectual artillery to bear on that, and you’re looking not at appreciative analysis but wholesale slaughter. Perhaps I’m remember uncharitably, though.

Ironically, given all the above, I do think it would be nice if Britain had some “public intellectuals” – ghastly term, but there we go. It would be nice if they were on telly and the radio, and it would be nice if when they were theatre were an obvious port of call for their cultural references. It’s not like we don’t have a thriving theatre scene – from Tinned Fingers and Melanie Wilson to Rupert Goold and Katie Mitchell; from Tim Crouch and Mike Bartlett to Mark Ravenhill (who should have got a mention earlier as one of our most “public” playwrights since George Bernard Shaw with his Guardian columns and appearances on Newsnight Review), Martin Crimp, Lucy Prebble and Dennis Kelly. The list, if not endless, is certainly bloody long and incredibly cheering. Sure, let’s grumble a bit from time to time, but why be witless with it? It strikes me that while, yes, there are some things that could be better, there’s a hell of a lot that’s already rather wonderful already.

In the interests of eclecticism, today's "cover image" is by Postcards' favourite German painter Gerhard Richter. Expect essays comparing his Cage paintings with the work of Martin Crimp via Martin Heidigger before the week is out...


George Hunka said...

Indeed. At the top of my original post, in fact, I go on at quite some length about where to find this kind of extended thinking and writing about theatre, and it's not hard to find (as you confirm yourself by citing the Routledge series, which is a very good point). The question then becomes, as you note, a question of venue. Perhaps it would be more to the point to direct people to it rather than erroneously suggest that it doesn't exist, as Waters does. And so far as hoping that there is some resurgence of this in the broader media -- well, head, I'd like to introduce you to brick wall. That this conversation has now covered three continents indicates the efficacy of at least this one medium to disseminate the conversation, as dour as it sometimes gets.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the 'social realistic' form used in a lot of British theatre (Hare etc.) is that it is completely normalised. The means of production of the apparent 'reality' we are seeing on stage aim towards invisibility. Thus we are guided to look at the content as opposed to the form. The formal aspects seem 'natural'. It's a clever trick in... Read more that we then either don't question these elements or because they do not flag themselves up we feel that there is nothing of substance there to analyse. But there is plenty there that has been/can be and needs to be analysed precisely because this illusion of 'naturalness' ...

Dan R said...

Great piece. My only question would be whether a post-structuralist might have understood Seven Jewish Children better than most commentators, who seemed to lack any resources for understanding language, in its lacunae, iterability and performativity, all of which seemed to me crucial to what was going on in that show.

In other words, as 'Anonymous' says above, some journalistic critical writing naturalises content and is impatient with form, and poststructuralists are good at patiently looking at how the formal aspects of language and performance can de-nature content.

A poststructural take on Gethsemane might also be interesting, if only to loosen the hold of the present moment, which reifies the content of Hare's work over its form. I don't know if the formal content of the play would repay that work, but without asking the question we never know. He himself has variously commented on the strange way his plays takes on new meanings years later - though he is generally keen to resist this process...