Sunday 30 June 2013

Abstract texts: a defence

[something I wrote a month ago]

Four hypothetical statements:

[Kill Your Darlings by Fabian Hinrichs] is a very open text, clearly allowing for huge amounts of directorial creativity.

It is unembarrassed about acknowledging the presence of the stage, the auditorium, the cast, the audience - the experience of theatre.

It is actually quite bad, in my opinion.

“At their worst German playwrights have been so castrated by the power of the director that they kind of stop writing anything at all and just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all.

After a brief email exchange, where I asked [our old friend, the taken-out-of-context Straw Man] if he’d mind me writing a bit of a come-back, he closed: “I would love to hear your thoughts on a comparison between playwriting in German and English speaking countries. Are they REALLY any good???

Now, I know next to zip about most German playwrights. Thinking about it, I didn't see all that many New Plays when I lived in Berlin; although I did see quite a lot of New Work – a distinction I’m loathe to resurrect. Those plays I did see, I don’t think I understood nearly well enough to make any comment on; primarily because my German isn’t nearly good enough. I wrote about hardly any of them because it would have felt so futile – if you’re reviewing a new play, and you can’t really assess the immediacy of the text (but instead have the bits you didn’t catch explained afterwards), then surely you’re covering less than half the experience.

My argument against the provocation is partially a variant on another proposal – Simon Stephens’s proposition that “language is noise,” which he most famously tabled as part of his speech Skydiving Blindfolded: Five Things I Learnt From Sebastian Nüblingat the Stückemarkt of Theatertreffen'11 (the text of which itself seems to contradict much of the proposal above). And partly it’s a simple objection to the enormous leap from “I don’t like” to “they are castrated”.


But before getting onto defending Germany, I’d just like to make a couple of possible observations about British playwriting, the culture that surrounds it, and what we often characterise as Britain’s “Writer’s Theatre”.

Let us imagine a hypothetical New British Play, by a much fêted Young British Playwright, which opens to a spread of unbelievably positive reviews.

Then let us imagine that I happened to see the piece in an early preview. Apparently what the press saw was considerably cut and altered from what I had seen. And both things are pretty different from the text that “went to print before rehearsals finished”. And all three of these versions are different again from the seven or eight drafts that the playwright wrote in the half-year or so between the first auditions and press night.

[It might also perhaps be amusing imagine that in their writer’s note, the playwright first says they spent six years writing the play – although during that period also wrote more or less every other play in their oeuvre, and a bunch of episodes for TV – and then goes on to thank most of all the director for their “rigorous dramaturgy”...]

And they say we “privilege the writer”.

It strikes me that maybe we just overwork the writer. By which I mean, I think the changes that the hypothetical writer was having to go home and make could easily have been made by a dramaturg or a director – indeed, we could imagine that many of the changes were being suggested by several such figures – but instead the changes are “made by the writer” (who might have been asked to make them at gunpoint for all we know) to ensure the “integrity” of the script – of the writer’s vision – in this “Writer’s Theatre” of ours.

Obviously that’s all fine if the writer and director and whomsoever else in their organisation that has a say are all well into the spirit of this sort of close collaboration. [Let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that it is a lot of executive voices above the director asking said director to mediate their requests through the director to the playwright, but that the playwright is perfectly happy to trust this advice].

It strikes me as funny, given the above, that we still say we have a “writer's theatre”, and that the Germans have a “director's theatre”, when in Germany the writer agrees a final version of their play with their publisher that directors can then take, pay for, and make whatever changes they want themselves, rather than keeping on sending the writer back to their laptop to kill more of their darlings.

It is also ironic to think - given our play-publishing culture and our sanctification of The Text – that the version of Hypothetical New Play, which got, perhaps, five stars from Michael Billington, is not the exact play which has been printed, and most likely never will be (unless the final versions are what will go into Hypothetical Playwright: Plays 1). And so, all future productions based on this published script will be treating-as-sacred a version of the play that was never actually performed. One which is actually quite a long way from the play as performed – the published, sacred text is one that was deemed “still a bit too long/unclear/in need of revisions”.

In this British process, there are also the poor actors – who keep having to learn new versions of the script right up until the third-to-last preview – to consider. Might they not wind up feeling nervy, exposed, and more deserving of our sympathy than anything else on press night? It seems a big ask to only have a final script two days before opening, to say the least.

As such, it strikes me that the British system could be seen to be equally, if not more brutal to writers, than the German one. And in a way that might ultimately be more tiring and demoralising for the writer, whose original concept/text is now just a file on their laptop called “Final Draft version 1”, which will never see the light of day. Compare this with Germany, where the writer’s preferred version is still the definitive version, in the possession of their publisher. A version with which any director may fiddle, but none can permanently change.

Beyond this, I might briefly add note that given Germany’s preference for “Directors’ Versions” of plays, the same text by a writer can frequently open in more than one theatre in its first year of production. It could remain in rep in those theatres at the same time. It is, by contrast, rare for any play in Britain to even get a second production. Let alone a second and third in the year the first opened. Which, quite apart from any artistic rewards, is simply more lucrative for the playwright.

In this scenario, which country’s playwrights are really being “castrated by the director”?


Anyway, to return to the Straw Man’s initial decontextualised proposition/s:

a) It is actually quite bad. In my opinion.

I've only read about half of the text [of Kill Your Darlings], but I already don't think I agree (although, since the subjectivity is carefully foregrounded here, I can’t say I believe the statement is *wrong*, not that I would. But I do disagree). I’ll try to explain:

I read Kill Your Darlings in the café of the Lyric, half reading and half re-formatting the sodding thing so it was readable. I just re-read the first half that I formatted again now [Sunday, 2 June], and had several thoughts. The thought I was having in the Lyric café inspired by Skydiving Blindfolded was this: language isn't only noise: each language is quite a specific set of noises. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take the lyrics of, say, Search and Destroy by The Stooges:
I'm a street walking cheetah
With a heart full of napalm
I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb
I am a world's forgotten boy
The one who searches and destroys
Honey gotta help me please
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby detonates for me
Look out honey, 'cause I'm using technology
Ain't got time to make no apology
Soul radiation in the dead of night
Love in the middle of a fire fight
Honey gotta strike me blind
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby penetrates my mind
And I'm the world's forgotten boy
The one who's searchin', searchin' to destroy
And honey I'm the world's forgotten boy
The one who's searchin', searchin' to destroy
Forgotten boy, forgotten boy
Forgotten boy said
Hey forgotten boy
On paper they (arguably) look like some of the worst writing there is. But would we say Iggy Pop was “so castrated by the power of the music that he kind of stopped writing anything at all and just evoked vague images and left gaps”? And “The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all”? I think we could say that. We could probably say it very easily. And be “right”. But the fact remains that Search and Destroy is basically awesome, and, more crucially, works perfectly. I'd be just as happy to substitute Eliot's The Waste Land here. Pretty much the same principle applies. (Also, crucially, isn’t what happens in the gaps in the text (drums, bass, guitar) as important as the text?)

In fact, quite a lot of my favourite music and poetry could be described as “the evocation of vague images and left gaps”. Here language isn’t just noise, it’s also the deployment of words which connote, imply and resonate. There is sense beyond the senselessness that anyone with a shared cultural understanding grasps intuitively. We understand exactly why “napalm” and “A-bomb” and “radiation” in a song which is basically just a plea for someone/anyone to fuck (although someone else can write the PhD “Iggy and the Stooges: Cold-War Paranoia and Vietnam as Come-on”).


Another component of both Search and Destroy and The Waste Land is “language as noise”; the inexplicable rightness of two words sat next to each other. The crackle of consonant on consonant. The music generated by word-sounds.

The main thing I learnt directing Hamletmaschine was that if you get a poetic text that sounds *really great* in German then, well, it doesn't in English. The words aren't the same. Sure, English can be made to sound brilliant if you’re starting from a point of being allowed to choose whatever English words you like. However, if you're trapped by the fact of having to translate word-meaning from a poem written in German into English then you're at a severe disadvantage. The right-meaning-words don't even begin to spark off each other or nestle together in the same way at all.

We could reasonably assume that any translation of an obviously poetic text - especially in a literal translation – is probably going to lose so much in translation, so simply saying “it’s actually quite bad” – while a reasonable assessment of the thing in front of you – is perhaps making a bit of a leap to call it an assessment of the thing itself.

I’d feel happier saying: “With the information available, it is impossible to tell”.


There’s also the question of context to consider. Kill Your Darlings (henceforth KYD) was apparently written by Fabian Hinrichs specifically for, and after a month of conversation with, director René Pollesch (who usually writes his own texts). In the same way that Search and Destroy was written specifically by and for Iggy and The Stooges. On some levels, that too is an open text – I would contend all texts are open – but, at the same time, the initial point of destination for Search and Destroy was known. As was KYD’s. Indeed, the script for KYD that we’ve got includes what are pretty much stage-manager’s notes of who’s doing what, where, and when. It’s got more stage directions than a Mike Bartlett play, zum bespiel. Therefore, as with Search and Destroy, it perhaps does the text a slight disservice to imagine – in the manner of a British theatre critic – that the text should operate its full level of sense without all the other elements intended for its completion (a stage, actors, concept, direction, dramaturgy, design), or even to analyse it as text at all.


For all these reasons (for a start), it then seems an especially big leap to then say:

b) At their worst German playwrights have been so castrated by the power of the director that they kind of stop writing anything at all. And just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all.

[Well, firstly, see the bit about Hypothetical New Play for a different sort of “castration” (although, I wonder if castration isn’t an inappropriately male image. Is playwriting all about having balls? Different question. Back to the point...)]

Secondly, see all the prior bits of defence of images and gaps above.

Another difficult thing I learnt about the German language is that its poetry works in a different way to English poetry (I learnt this when someone explained to me that the poetry in Baal was actually very beautiful. I'd always thought, from reading translations, that it was a play about a lousy poet).

Compare Brecht’s Den Nachtgeborenen:

Future Generations 
I confess this:
I have no hope
The blind talk about an escape.
I see.
When the errors are consumed
The nothing will sit next to us
as our last companion.
Ich gestehe es:
Ich habe keine Hoffnung
Die Blinden reden von einem Ausweg.
Ich Sehe.
Wenn die Irrtümer verbraucht sind
Sitzt als letzter Gesellschafter
Uns das nichts gegenüber
(Just read the last one outloud to yourself). Very statementy in English. In German, much more lyrical and stark (“stark” in both English and German meanings, thinking about it). Added to this is the fact that culturally, being statementy is more allowed and admired as poetry in German [probably not the best example, but the internet wasn't being very helpful. Will see if I can find a better example].

But let’s move on to the charge that guilty German texts...:

just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all”.

Well, boring first question: does a text-for-theatre itself have to “say” something? Moreover, can it ever say “nothing”?

Also: don’t gaps speak as eloquently as dense wording? More eloquently sometimes. Can a gap ever say “nothing” on a stage? Can a gap even be a gap on stage without also being something else?

To quote the opening of my review of Simon Stephens’s play Wastwater:
‘Debussy once said “music is the space between the notes”. This is how Wastwater works. Through the vast spaces between and within three tangentially connected dialogues it paints a picture of the world on an enormous scale.’
Then: is it really possible to say that this piece does “not actually say anything at all” when it says:
We saw choirs of the workers,
We saw choirs of the proletariat
And Communist comrades,
But we have not seen a choir
Representing capitalism, but with the
We are doing,
With the
(Ok, those last few lines really seem to suffer from the translation, but I think the intent is clear enough).

Surely this is the opposite of saying nothing. This is making a precise statement. It is a straight-forward, out-and-out musing on the difference between the parades of the former-DDR and the trendy capitalist net-cafés of Mitte, Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg. (Probably)

Or this bit:
Jean Ziegler calls but numbers:
“Every 5 seconds last year and now,
A child dies under 5 years.
100,000 people die of hunger,
100,000 per day. 923 million;
3 years ago 854 million in 3 years to nearly 100 million.
2,700 kilocalories adult individual per day without problem, 12 billion people, we are 6,3 - or twice”
Jean Ziegler calls but numbers, but that does not reach us.
And numbers that can not reach us, who are not political.
That is us here tonight. It is not enough that we go together tonight here eat pizza
That is really dangerous.
[Jean Ziegler was the Swiss-born (as Hans Ziegler) UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2000 to 2008 and a member of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council from 2008 to 2012.]

I think that’s also saying stuff. Very specific stuff. Directly. To the audience. About the audience.

Oddly, re-reading it today, it occurred to me that one of the things this style of Kill Your Darlings also reminded me of was Stephanie’s final speech in Morning:
All music is shit
and all art is shit
and all theatre is
shit and all television
is shit and all sport is
shit and all cinema is shit.
The food is shit and
everything is just fucking shit...
And everybody wants
a hopeful ending
and there won't be one.
We have a decade.
And then everything will retract.
Everybody wants a message
and there is none.
Everybody wants hope shining through the darkness
and there isn't any...
There is only terror
There is no hope.
I stuck in some new line breaks for fun, but you see what I mean. (And – given that the specificity of British playwriting is later mentioned in the original email, I’d suggest KYD is frequently specific.)

Except, I guess with Kill Your Darlings, there are no “characters”. So the level (perhaps the most debated and most misunderstood level of New Writing in Britain), the level of the “is this the author or the character speaking?” or the: “is this the author's message?” question, operates in a different way.

[as an aside, I was also reading BruceLaBruce’s Notes on Camp this morning (HAU, 2012) and he had this useful observation to make about irony:
“A critic in Harper’s Bazaar once identified irony as “the ideological white noise of the nineties”: a proclamation that always stuck with me. This wasn’t to say that irony no longer operated as a useful device or sensibility, or that it could no longer be used to subtle or witty effect. It simply meant that irony had itself been normalized and generalized into the default sensibility of the entire popular culture, thereby rendering it more difficult to detect and less effective to use unless expressed very carefully and consciously for a particular effect.”]
Obviously the text is still “authored” and is still written down. And it’s not being spoken by the person who wrote it, but the way that the layers of, well, I guess irony and/or distanciation are different. The trick of non-“character” (postdramatic) theatre perhaps makes the author seem at once more present and more absent?


After writing all the above on 2 June, I then went and discovered the American critic/curator Andy Horwitz’s excellent account of his week at Theatertreffen (it is worth reading in full). In reference to this discussion of new German writing, I was particularly struck by the text of Elfriede Jelinek’s latest stück, Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall (The Road, The City, The Raid), to which he linked.

Jelinek, who I’d not thought of recently, is perhaps the German-language author par excellence, of this sort of text. It is worth clicking the link just to look at the shape of her text. It will adapt to the size of your browser window. There is no measurement to the length of the lines. There is no craft to the setting out of the words in white space. There is only the text. Dense, dense text. No handy line-by-line changes of character or “speaker” (although different speakers are occasionally indicated – one every several feet of text, I think).

You ask, “Are they REALLY any good?” – to which, here, I can point you in the direction of the committee of the Nobel Prize who made her a Laureate for Literature. True, they might have been thinking more of her novels, or her films with Michael Haneke – but in Germany, at least, Jelinek still seems to be pretty much revered (at least in some quarters) in the way that perhaps only Beckett is in Britain. Her texts are open, but give no clue as to how they should be staged. And yet, stagings of her texts are mainstays of the German-speaking stage. To me, this indicates a profoundly different theatre culture, much more than it suggests the castration of its writers.


So, to recap before continuing and (hopefully, please God) concluding:

  • Evoking images and leaving gaps is cool.
  • I disagree that a) the gaps are necessarily there in the way you suggest, and b) that these texts don't “say something”. (although whether they tell us what they say might be a different question. This one sort of seems to, though. Albeit in that way that arguing about capitalism using any postmodernism quickly turns into a zero-sum game, or is like a dog chasing its tail, or like repeating bashing one’s face onto concrete).
  • And I don't think texts like this represent castration of the writer: by the power of the director or anything else.

In fact, if I were feeling argumentative, I’d say that texts of this theoretical-poetic text-for-theatre school represent the sort of challenge to a director (and probably also to a budget) that would defeat most British directors (and buildings, and possibly audiences).

I would also say that, not having seen it, or read it to the end – or in German, because I couldn't – I still have no idea whether KYD is actually any good or not.

Or rather – since “any good” sounds like some sort of objective criteria (and therefore something that doesn't exist) – "any idea whether I’d have enjoyed it or not". I mean, obviously understanding German perfectly would be a start. But then, thinking German seems to be the more necessary boost.


But, to conclude, I want to return to the original point:

It is actually quite bad. In my opinion... Are [German writers-for-theatre] REALLY any good?

I would like first to rephrase your statement slightly to: “I didn’t enjoy this text. Is it ever going to be possible for me to enjoy texts of this sort?”

Throughout, I’ve ducked out of discussing Germany’s more playwrighty current playwrights (Dea Loher, Nis Momme Stockman, David Gieselmann, Marius von Meyerburg, Roland Schimmelpfennig, et al), primarily because I just don’t know enough of their work, but more because I think with your suggestion: “they kind of stop writing anything at all. And just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all” you’d inadvertently described almost an entirely separate strain of German writing-for-theatre. While authors like Schimmelpfennig and von Mayenberg especially enjoy some success in British theatres – not least because their plays are identifiably not unlike some of those written in Britain – writers like Jelinek, Pollesch and even Heiner Muller remain largely obscure, and certainly deemed unlikely by producing theatres to attract a popular British audience.

There is an irony that these above-named writers are considered some of the foremost writers in German theatre. But perhaps this is also possibly the key to their obscurity in Britain. Perhaps they are so German, the points of contact between them and us are all the fewer (this might be why playwrights who seem almost obsessed with their Englishness – anyone called David, basically – tend not to cross the North Sea in the other direction). But I would argue that the key issue here is the issue of language. Jelinek is frequently described as “untranslatable” (in spite of Penny Black’s excellent rendition of Sportstück last year – but then, if you talk to Black, you quickly realise that making a decent translation of a Jelinek is no walk in the park). As I noted above, while Muller is translated, the translations fail to capture the spark of genius in his work, and will mostly fail to popularise him, while the very context-specific nature of his work – its inexorable struggle with European history, literature, and the postwar Communism of the DDR – render it ever more obscure to modern British audiences.

In the case of Pollesch, I wonder if the problem isn’t so much one of linguistic translation as a cultural one. After all, the first production I saw by him was in Warsaw. In Polish. A friend did describe in almost shocked tones how beautifully written she’d found one of his (later) texts, but that was clearly in contrast to his normal (hysterical, camp) style. No. Here, as with Kill Your Darlings, I think the issue the British would have with the text – were a Pollesch to transfer, or one be commissioned here (both, sadly, unlikely) – is the directness. Describing camp, or perhaps irony as “directness” seems counter-intuitive. But the words I always manage to understand without fail during his shows are: “Kommunismus”, “Kapitalismus” and “Sozialismus”. Direct words. The use of these words – even discussions of these concepts – feels like something utterly alien to contemporary British theatre. Perhaps the only way to envisage a René Pollesch show for someone who hasn’t seen one would be imagining Anders Lustgarten’s activism diaries being staged at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern by a stageful of transvestites, with an almost de-rigeur live video feed... (actually, I would totally pay to see that).

Indeed, mention of the RVT kind of neatly makes the segueway for my last thought on this school of writing-for-theatre. That these texts aren’t “proper plays” still seems to put them (issues of translation aside) beyond the comfort zone of the British Theatre Mainstream – the tour of Jelinek’s Sport’s Play went mostly to quite alternative venues (The Chelsea Theatre in London, for example). However, given the way that British Theatre has divided itself taxonomically, such venues a) seem to tend toward a horror of the written playtext – although this itself is a situation in flux – but more crucially, b) tend not to have in-house productions, let alone an ensemble available for long rehearsal processes.

So, at the moment, I think apart from the odd, independent production, we seem doomed never to see this work produced domestically. Perhaps we have our own versions of it, perhaps found in the work of those borderline theatre/Live Art artists (perhaps texts by writers like Tim Etchells or Andy Field might be our equivalent – albeit with the proprietorial controls of their sole production by their authors removed).

But then, the question you didn’t quite ask is “will I ever like it”?

And, well, I admit I too find the density and/or directness difficult sometimes (although often perhaps exacerbated by my watching most of these texts in another language as well). And reading the texts after the event is tricky, precisely because the texts themselves are so dense. So you kind of need the whole stage picture to make sense of the vocal score (as it might also be thought of), so, yes, we’re in a bit of a bind here. Because no British literary manager is going to pick up one of these scripts and say “ooh, yes, good play, stick it on”, and very few directors here would know where to begin with such a text. And, perhaps pessimistically, I don’t think many audiences here would necessarily even want to get a handle on it. Perhaps that last category is untrue, but it would take more struggle than there is for a German audience from whose culture all these elements have sprung.

As such, I dunno. Can we hope that one day we’ll like this sort of thing, or get it properly. I mean, we seem to go nuts for Sarah Kane (and also like Martin Crimp) so perhaps it could work, but any more abstract and or concurrently more direct than that, and I do wonder if a lot of British instincts don’t just go into shut-down.

Which, speaking as someone who has been fascinated by these pieces – this marriage of some of the most amazing stagecraft, and some of the most direct, engaging, provocative political thinking – strikes me as a tragedy, since I think some of this might be exactly the sort of theatre of which we need to see quite a bit more.

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