In Defense of “Boring” Theatre (a riposte to Anthony Neilson’s 2007 piece)

Truly there is no talk cheaper than that of the established artist prating in public to his younger colleagues with vaguely patronizing (& unfailingly vague) advice about how to make their work better, or giving some haughty lecture on how to accrue audience attention, as if the world hadn’t changed in the 10, 20, 30+ years these guys have been working, as if funding structures adjusted to inflation, as if money for public works like the arts hasn’t been slowly siphoned into the evermore cash-hungry maw of the military-industrial complex. If it isn’t Kurt Vonnegut parroting Orwell, it’s Elmore Leonard or somebody shifting the $100 bills off his or her keyboard to tell us: “Leave out the part readers tend to skip.”  Well gee, thanks awfully.

Now I see this 2007 article from Scottish-born playwright Anthony Neilson swimming around social media, descending like some aesthetic afflatus to deliver the first (& only) Commandment of the Theatre: “Thou shalt not bore.” (Or, actually, THOU SHALT NOT BORE, for reasons unclear). It’s been getting a lot of attention lately, & I think it’s emblematic of serious flaws in thinking about the theatre today.

There’s little doubt that the theatre as a medium plays a marginal role in the shaping of the culture these days. The problem apparently is, to quote Mr. Neilson, “that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement.” I don’t know whether or not this is true (&, not being clairvoyant, presumably, neither does Mr. Neilson) – in fact, given what people actually say when they’re asked this question, it seems that cost is much larger factor, but even assuming Mr. Neilson’s claim is correct: I beg you to think of that sentence for more than the five seconds it takes to nod in agreement with affected angry-young-man-type disdain for the moral/political “Man” who wants to, like, reinforce societal norms by making you watch, like, Shakespeare n’ shit.

Think: is it really a problem that people think of the theatre – or any art – as self-improvement? As something which deepens & enhances their experience of the world? As something which elevates the mind, makes one think, or just generally makes one a better-rounded & more interesting person?

Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Neilson & the army of straw men he’s gleefully gunned down. According to him,

Many critics still believe theatre has a quasi-educational/political role; that a play posits an argument that the playwright then proves or disproves. It is in a critic’s interest to propagate this idea because it makes criticism easier; one can agree or disagree with what they perceive to be the author’s conclusion. It is not that a play cannot be quasi-educational, or even overtly political – just that debate should organically arise out of narrative. But this reductive notion persists and has infected playwriting root and branch

Never mind the whole bit of free association off the top (who are the “many critics” who believe this? Names please?), let’s just look at the phrase: “debate should organically arise out of narrative.” The use of the word “should” is remarkable, since he provides no reasons why they should, as is the use of the word “narrative.” Actually, so is “organically.” I mean, what’s the alternative, here? Debate arising artificially? What would that even mean? Ought a playwright to be expected to provoke debate by accident only?

Let’s remind ourselves of what, exactly, the word “narrative” means. It is a “spoken or written account of connected events” according to the OED. It is, in short, the plot of a work, the events which happen on stage. Does it make any kind of serious sense to say that debate arises solely out of the events of a play (or ought to?), as opposed to arising from what  the characters say, how they behave, or even from the formal aesthetic scheme of a play? Why indeed must a play have “characters” at all?

Are we seriously going to suggest that a play like the ulta-controversial Conte d’Amour provokes debate because of its plot? Does it even have a plot? & in case you think that’s an outlier, let’s take the oft-debated Oleanna. Debates about that play often focus on sexism & patriarchy, about the power dynamics between men & women & what lengths are justifiable to balance them. But none of these issues are intrinsic to the events of Oleanna – they don’t come from the narrative; if anything, the narrative comes from them. The event of John hitting Carol has no meaning on its own – its meaning relies on an interior explosion of associative content which has nothing at all to do with the action, & everything to do with the prejudices & beliefs of the individual spectator.

Neilson then proceeds to pull straight from his arse this example of a fictitious playwright, whose problem, apparently, is wanting to write a play about “racism”:

You can be fairly sure the play, should it ever be finished, will conclude that racism is a bad thing. The writer is not interested in exploring the traces of racism that may lie dormant within their psyche, nor in making the case for selective racism (just to be “provocative”). This is the writer using the play to project their preferred image of themselves; the ego intruding on art; the kind of literary posing that is fed by the idea of debate-led theatre.

I can’t be the only one to find this paragraph baffling. Neilson’s starts with the premise that wanting to write a play to “posit an argument” is bad, then proceeds to complain that his straw-man young playwright is failing to posit  an argument – how else can we interpret “nor in making the case for selective racism (just to be “provocative”)”? Neilson demands narrative, but none of these criticisms have anything to do with narrative – what actual reason is there that one needs a work with some kind of clear “plot” to explore traces of racism within one’s own psyche? Neilson offers no answers, because he clearly isn’t even certain of his own premise.

Of course, he gives his hand away entirely in the next paragraph, when he just comes right out & says, “Newspapers, or news programmes, are the places for debates, not the theatre.” I won’t dwell on the fact that Neilson literally just complained that the fictitious straw man playwright wasn’t making a particular kind of argument (honestly…). It is enough to recognize that Neilson’s view of the theatre is clearly cynical – we’re there only “to entertain”, he says. Anything else is an “intrusion” of the “ego.”

This view – that the theatre is only entertainment & oughtn’t to demand work or effort on the part of the audience – is one of the most vicious, destructive, & frankly crass notions every to gain currency in modern-day theatre. It is the triumph of the mediocre. The sheer lunacy of “making story our god” (to quote Neilson) is to essentially spit in the face of the works of not only Shakespeare (who, let’s be honest, didn’t care much about plot at all & stole them wherever he could), but also Beckett & Robert Wilson & Peter Brook & Sarah Kane & Caryl Churchill & many more.

Boredom, effort, work – these things have a vital role to play in our experiences of the theatre & all art. Let me give you just one example:

In Robert Wilson’s monumental Einstein on the Beach –widely considered to be one of the landmark productions of the 20th century – there is a scene which lasts god only knows how long (probably 20 minutes but feels longer) consisting only of a black stage with a long bar of light. The bar of light slowly –agonizingly, excruciatingly slowly – turns on its end & rises up out of the stage.

This scene is boring. It’s painfully boring. It’s so boring, so full of nothing to watch or stimulate except that the monotonous, predictable voyage of the light-bar, that it actually made me feel anxious & nervous & slightly claustrophobic. It made time seem to stand still.

In other words, it was a perfect demonstration – even an expression – of Einsteinian relativity . A much more perfect & immediate expression than could ever have been accomplished though a straightforward, fourth-wall reality play. In fact, I’m unsure of whether such an experience could even have been possible in the kind of theatre for which Neilson advocates. & it was only made possible by being interminably dull & boring.

Neilson’s insistence that plays be “accessible” is to deny that there are real, beautiful, & deeply profound experiences to be had in works of art that demand our effort, which place burdens & expectations on our minds & bodies. Where we have to work for it.

He complains: “To this day, I still leave plays wondering what on earth they were about. I used to feel stupid for not “getting it”, but not any more [sic], because this I know: it’s the artist’s failure, not mine.” But so what? According to what criteria is this a failure? Why should an artist be ashamed of making a work that is complex & rich, or even abstruse? Why must everything be reduced enough to be translated into easily digestible sound-bites? Why indeed do we need “get” anything at all? Why is intellection, as opposed to imagination, the most important part of a theatrical experience?

Little Red Riding Hood is completely understandable to five-year olds and yet academics are still writing papers on its deeper meanings. This profound simplicity is what all playwrights should aspire to. Not only does it render a play accessible (on at least a narrative level) to an inexperienced theatregoer, it also encourages the widest possible scope for interpretation.

All playwrights should aspire to write plays simplistic enough to be understandable to five-year-olds? Can he be serious? Good-bye,   Marat/Sade. Sayonara 4.48 Psychosis. I have a hard time believing that Mr. Neilson himself actually holds the propositions he’s making here. It seems almost self-evidently bogus. Sure, academics write papers on Little Red Riding Hood – but they also write papers on the poetry of Anne Carson, the plays of Kleist & Goethe, the novels of William H. Gass. Could these be understood by a five-year old? Are they really less available for interpretation than a Grimm fairy tale? Can Mr. Neilson possibly be prepared to defend such a proposition?

This recurring trend of endlessly sneering at artist for being too smart, too complex, for challenging popular aesthetics – it is truly the stuff of nightmares. It begins in childhood – our schools have become so evaluative in nature, so obsessed with success & failure that a child who doesn’t apprehend a concept or idea near-instantaneously becomes “slow,” or “struggling.” Children are taught early on to be distrustful of things they don’t understand, to fear them as “obstacles” or “challenges” which will translate into worse grades. & worse grades of course means admission to less prestigious universities, which means less well-paying jobs. Instead of teaching them that the unknown & the complex are fascinating playgrounds for the mind & spirit, we teach them they are only a sign of the child’s own stupidity.

In other words, we’re teaching generations of children to hate what they don’t understand as threats to their very livelihoods.

Things we don’t “get,” things that aren’t “accessible” – these should championed as triumphs of human intellect & creativity. An audience member who doesn’t “get” a show should be encouraged to turn it over her mind, to pull it up apart – to enjoy not knowing.

But we’ve become so addicted to being entertained. How many of us can sit in a room & listen to a symphony, all the way through, without keeping our hands busy with 2048 on our computer? How many of us turn away from a film because it has – gasp – subtitles?

Anthony Neilson’s reductive, cynical take on what theatre must become in order to “survive” is a sad comment on how the role of art is changing in the world. It is by now not much of a controversial statement to say: the culture is getting dumber, more crass, more hungry for the Victorian Freakshow of reality TV & computer-generated four-chord pop. Neilson’s solution: make the theatre dumb enough to match it. “Profound simplicity”? I call bullshit on that.

I say: learn to hate the word “pretentious.” It is the word the bewildered & fearful like to hurl at the things they don’t understand.  I say: it’s time to realize that sometimes important things aren’t entertaining – & that includes works of art. Sometimes effort, work, confrontation, & yes, boredom are critical for deepening & enhancing one’s experience of the world.

Unless of course, you just care about money. Then, probably, you’ll find Mr. Neilson’s advice somewhat useful. But then, of course, your plays might as well just be peepshows.

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