Review: Jordan Tannahill’s “Theatre of the Unimpressed”

Coach House Books 160 pp.  $14.95 CDN

Coach House Books
160 pp.
$14.95 CDN

 

Too late in Theatre of the Unimpressed does its author offer a defense of his thesis against the charge of hipsterism. By the time it arrives on page 123 of this 149-page essay in a chapter entitled “Beckett’s Children,” we’ve been treated to countless anecdotes of admittedly interesting-sounding performances few of its readers will have had the opportunity (to say nothing of the funds) to see, parties in obscure, Kensington Market bars, and even a few personal tales of sexual adventure. We’ve heard Mr. Tannahill (I’ve met Jordan once, but don’t really know him and doubt he’d recognize or remember me; having staged a show at Videofag, I know his ex-partner, William Ellis, a little better – anyway, I’d prefer in this space to distinguish between “Mr. Tannahill,” the author, and “Jordan,” the very talented and by-all-accounts lovely guy) effuse over the magic of actors who don’t know their lines, and devote several paragraphs to deconstructing what, exactly, makes Driving Miss Daisy a bad play – as if we needed to be told. His chosen title isn’t doing him any favors – “unimpressed” strikes me as definitional synecdoche for the affect of my (and Tannahill’s) generation. I found myself feeling throughout the book that it was not about a theatre of the unimpressed, but rather a theatre for it.

Mr. Tannahill’s protest against the charge is compelling:

I’m not interested in, nor am I articulating, a stylistic trend of the cynical or ironic, which   for me defines the hipster caricature. To the contrary, I find believe the Theatre of Failure is a profoundly optimistic and human proposal, one that reconstitutes failure as a hopeful iconoclasm. (p. 123)

There is a semantic issue to parse here – while “hispterism” as Tannahill chooses to define it does not at all map onto the idea of a “profoundly optimistic and human proposal,” certainly the neo-hipsterism (post-hipsterism?) of McSweeney’s or “New Sincerity” fits the bill. After all, the aesthetic of All Our Happy Days are Stupid had much in common with the light-as-air superficiality of, say, a Wes Anderson movie, complete with the earnest indie-pop songs by an artist too cool for you to have heard of.

I point this out not for invidious reasons but because it’s emblematic of many of the serious problems I had with Theatre of the Unimpressed: that terms are defined with convenience to the Author’s intentions (if they’re defined at all), that concepts are so general they lose real meaning, and – most importantly – that the book has an almost total lack of self-awareness.

What do I mean by self-awareness? I do not, in any way, mean that I need some kind of dumb metatextual bullshit. What I mean is this: Theatre of the Unimpressed positions itself as a critique of a system – a system that has historically (and at present) led to “boring,” stagnant, or otherwise un-“vital” plays. The book’s key failure is that it does not, ever, talk (and therefore, really critique) about the system – it talks within the system.

If that seems like a really weird and vague way of putting things, it’s because it is. I hope that this essay will clarify what, exactly, I mean by it, and why I think it’s such a large problem, not just for putative readers of Theatre of the Unimpressed but for the North American theatre community at large.

Clues to the book’s fundamental deficit is in the nature of the language used supra: “optimistic and human proposal” – “hopeful iconoclasm.” This is the language of theatre criticism, not cultural criticism. As I will argue in this review, Theatre of the Unimpressed locates the cause of the theatre’s decline in aesthetics, failing to confront in any serious way any of the broader cultural declines. In so doing, it also fails to answer the primary question it raises – or to put it another way, it fails to raise the questions it’s supposedly to designed to answer.

Theatre of the Unimpressed is not a bad book. But, as theatre-maker Fannina Waupert de Puiseau wrote in her own excellent review of the book, It is also not a book really meant for people who are used to thinking seriously about theatre qua form or qua institution (I, at least, found little new or surprising about his analysis); rather it is a “popular” book; to quote Fannina:

It’s a book for interested people. For those who want and need to know. And I am so glad for it.  We must push the issues that we’ve heard “1000 times” past the boundaries of our in-group conversations. In order to truly become a political, civic, democratic subject, theatre must re-permeate the popular. In other words, it needs to matter to the populace.

While I wholly agree with Fannina on this crucial point, I would argue that this book can’t make theatre matter to the populace (perhaps, indeed, no book can), because we can’t change the system by working within it – we have to work outside it. Again, these are things I will clarify later on.

None of this is necessarily a criticism of the book as a book. To the extent that Theatre of the Unimpressed is a truly enjoyable and thought-provoking read, it works. To the extent that it offers a laymen’s guide to enjoying non-conventional theatre forms and takes account of the deficits in conventional capital-R Realism, it succeeds. To the extent that it obviously made enough of an impression on me write these 6000 or so words, it is an important book.

One of the things it does not do (or at least, does not do well), is provide what is promised on the book jacket: a “roadmap for vital 20th century theatre.” Tannahill marks the trail, perhaps – but ignores the topography. And a map with no topography is no map at all.

1. What Theatre of the Unimpressed’s about; or at least, what its primary thesis or proposition is, so far as I understand it.

Theatre’s dying (we’re told). Or it’s boring. Or both – or, as Jordan Tannahill argues, it’s dying because it’s boring, and the things which make it boring relate to certain sclerotic aesthetic and institutional trends which have endured since at least the 19th century. He devotes an entire chapter to Scribe, and charts the descent of theatre from its pre-Dramatic origins, filtered through the Well-Made Play, to its stagnant present. The Well-Made Play being:

…a dramatic work in which most of the story takes place before the onstage action, the action itself is a series of plot twists adhering to an Aristotelian narrative arc and the play’s climax comes at the eleventh hour, leaving just enough time for a satisfying catharsis. (p. 35)

The Well-Made Play model works (the extent to which Scribe himself is actually responsible for its metastasis in Western theatre is up for a debate I leave to theatre historians) – indeed, it “is so ubiquitous that the programming of North American regional theatres, for instance, seems to suggest that this is simply what theatre is, how plays are meant to be” (p. 39). The success of the model and its easy assimilation of Stanislavskian and post-Stanislavskian psychologically realist acting methods have created a status quo of Well-Made Plays performed by Well-Trained Actors who deliver Practised, Polished Performances which are more-or-less the same every night.

The missing element, for Tannahill, is the spectre of failure – i.e., the possibility that something in a play, performance, or production could go wrong. Things are too polished, too safe, too – even – professional. Productions which fragment or subvert these traditional narrative structures “seem too risky for our theatrical mainstream” (p. 39) (This begs the question, of course, of what exactly narrative structures have to do with risk and failure, but more on that to come). Tannahill uses the terms “Failure Theatre” or “Theatre of Failure” to describe (well, sort of) the alternatives – a phrase I first came across in Sarah Garton Stanley’s Master’s thesis, but which Tannahill sort of co-opts and reconfigures (while acknowledging Stanley’s work, of course).

I’m going to get to what Theatre of Failure actually is later on, because its description makes up the bulk of the book. In fact, Theatre of the Unimpressed is depressingly light on argumentation. Tannahill’s project seems to have more to do with describing trends and shows and waxing philosophical on how they improve on more traditional modes of theatre. Therefore, identifying a “thesis” is difficult, because theses are designed to be defended, and Tannahill clearly isn’t interested in doing that. Phrases like, “When a piece of theatre doesn’t feel quite alive to me, it’s because…” abound (p. 16).

Tannahill avers that the two main questions of the book are: “What factors were contributing to this Theatre of the Unimpressed [i.e., boring “mainstream” theatre], and what consistent trends could I identify in the theatre I find vital? [emphasis de mois]” (p. 13). I’ll deal more exhaustively with each of his answers in turn.

2. But first, a digression, in which premises are interrogated and old scores are settled, maybe.

Is this a necessary book? Or to put it another way – anecdotal evidence aside (and virtually all of the evidence offered in Theatre of the Unimpressed is anecdotal), should we be worried about the future of theatre in North America?

Numbers and facts have no place in Theatre of the Unimpressed. Tannahill doesn’t use, address, confront, or even seem bothered by them. But the truth of theatre’s decline lives less in griping about staging practices at Soulpepper and more in the political realities of contemporary culture. As research from the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (and others) suggests, gross audience numbers are on a slow but relatively steady dwindle. Theatre of the Unimpressed offers little by way of solution, or even diagnosis. The book’s overwhelming focus on aesthetics echoes a familiar refrain in the theatre community – that interesting, innovating, or otherwise “good” art can reignite the lost flames of theatre audiences.

In my earlier blog post about the #audTO forum, I wrote at length about just how bogus this was; as I said then, “[the decline of audiences] is a political problem that requires political solutions.” For a book which pronounces enthusiastically about rather political theatre, Theatre of the Unimpressed is decidedly apolitical. Tannahill seems to prefer to “see no evil” when it comes to the data, and in so doing, he commits the same crimes as the “sloppy cultural coroners” (p 32) with whom he disagrees. “Theatre is alive and kicking,” he writes,

In fact, more people are seeing theatre than ever before…on the sheer basis of population growth, there are a hell of a lot more people attending theatre today than in Shakespeare’s time (the population of the UK in 1606 – the year the Bard wrote Macbeth and King Lear – was just over 4 million, or just 10 per cent of today’s total annual British theatregoers.) (p. 32)

The breach in logic here surely requires no further comment from me. Moreover, it makes the whole of the ensuing book rather confusing – if theatre is “alive and kicking,” then what problem, exactly, is the book attempting to address?

Let’s not quibble over the semantics of what “dying” might possibly mean in connexion with an art form. Either audiences are declining, or they aren’t. The data says they are. We must now ask, Why? Oddly, Tannahill offers his own answer while denying the validity of the question. It is not for me to make sense of this.

He draws his conclusions from anecdote, rather than the reported data. He attributes audiences’ disaffection with the theatre to the “formative event” of seeing that first, boring play (p. 22). He asks, “[What gives] uninspired plays such power to permanently ward off audiences?” (p 25). Tannahill has a few answers to this latter question, all of which amount to the same thing: that boring plays are “uniquely” boring or unpleasant.

The real answer to this question is that they don’t. Well, maybe they do, for some people, but as a trend, the “formative event” of the First Boring Play is a myth. As I’ve already observed, the research on this clearly identifies two key factors for audiences’ defection: education and cost. Quoting from the TAPA report:

Concerns about cost are a key barrier to attendance. Continued messaging about the affordability of the arts is vital in order to reach those with concerns over spending

The audience is divided into two broad groups by income and, to a lesser extent, age. Those with high household incomes make up a large proportion of TAPA audiences and this group tend to be older and without the time and financial constraints of younger audiences.

The report also observes that 79% of Torontonian theatre-goers have an undergraduate degree or higher, compared to only 29% of the population of Toronto.

When I first published my post addressing this, local theatre-maker Colin B. Anthes wrote a lengthy and thoughtful response on his Facebook page. He attempted to correct me on the education point, but made the same mistake as Tannahill:

The trouble with the education theory is that if it were true, we should have found an exact inversion of the witnessed trend. By standards of public, college, and university education, as    well as by measures of IQ (investigate the fascinating Flynn effect), we are by far the most educated population in human history, and that trend is accelerating with each generation. Moreover, Canada’s labour force has ranked as highly as number one in the world in college and university degrees. Our people might sometimes do stupid things, but they are not stupid. Of course only a small percentage are performing arts majors, but then there are far more of those too, not just at the undergraduate level, but at MA, MFA,PhD, DFA, and I’m fairly certain the INXS levels as well.

One cannot claim that we are “by far the most educated population in human history,” without adequately contextualizing that education in a globalized world, and without exhaustively examining its quality. While it is certainly true that more people can read, do basic maths, and know generally more “facts” about the world now than they did, say in Shakespeare’s time (since that’s the benchmark both Mr. Tannahill and Mr. Anthes use), it does not mean that these skills are necessarily the ones required to instill a love of theatre, or indeed, the arts in general.

The ability to read is not the same as literacy. At least, not really. As the German essayist Hans Magnus Enzenberger writes in a superb essay called “In Praise of Illiteracy,” “…the triumph of popular education in Europe coincides with the maximum development of colonialism.” In other words, standardized popular education has always been designed to shape and redirect the intellectual and political character of the student – usually towards ends that coincide with the State’s.

This process has led, Enzenberger argues, to the creation of the modern-day averagely educated human being: “The Second-Order Illiterate”:

[The Second-Order Illiterate] considers himself well-informed; he can decipher instructions on appliances and tools; he can decode pictograms and checks. And he moves within an environment hermetically sealed against anything that might infect his consciousness. That he might come to grief in this environment is unthinkable. After all, it produced and educated him in order to guarantee its undisturbed continuation. [emphasis added]

A population’s ability to adequately read the instructions on a microwave does not imply that they are well-equipped for the abstract and critical thinking skills, serious introspection, or even possess the attention-spans required for really enjoying or caring about serious theatre. To the extent that theatre can or should be an instrument of political subversion, the current education system is designed to make us hostile to it. Or, to quote Patsy Aldana, co-chair of the National Reading Campaign, “It’s not whether you can read a newspaper; it’s whether you want to read a newspaper” [emphasis added].

Certainly it’s true that the pre-globalized audience was largely illiterate. I can’t speculate as to its ability to think critically or in the abstract. The average attention-span was clearly much broader, and ears and minds had not yet become addicted to the rapid-fire light-show of electronic media. We do know that such education that was available was, in many ways, a lot better than it is now. The school attended by Shakespeare himself, the King’s New School in the Guild Hall in Church Street, was open to any literate male and required that he learn about as much Latin than the average modern-day PhD candidate in the Classics. This included learning, by tedious, mind-numbing wrote, the totality of classic Latin rhetorical techniques – something which, I think you’ll agree, might have come in handy for someone writing all those plays (and should put to rest, I think, the unserious claim that Shakespeare “wasn’t educated enough” to have written them at all, but I digress).

Closer to our own century, look at the Appleton Reader, the common English textbook for schoolchildren throughout America in the 19th century. We can debate about how these books were taught, but nonetheless, children were expected to read and memorize (there were no Sparknotes, remember?) works by Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Defoe, and Longfellow as early as the fourth grade. Unless you think the average nine-year-old is now functionally dumber than she was in 1836, I fail to see how modern-day education has been much improved by the introduction of the internet.

It is in fact a great myth of modern-day institutionalized education that it has brought literacy and learnedness to the masses of society. The historical narrative we’re taught in schools – that pre-twentieth century education was mostly for the noble classes – is an obfuscation. In Norman Ware’s monumental study of early American labour, The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860, the advance of the industrial revolution actually dismantled the worker-led institutions that preserved what we might call “high-culture” among the proletariat. These include autodidactic means of learning such as worker-run newspapers (Chomsky has called this era the time of “the free-est press in American history”). These were sophisticated, dense papers that published on all topics – including running poetry and short stories. You can read some of the issues of one particular paper, the Voice of Industry, at this incredible website.

In Britain, historian Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes sketches the private lives of England’s blue collar around the turn of the century as one that places learning at its very nexus – reading Shaw, listening to classical music, even attending the theatre.

If I sound like an old grump about this (“Ah, this newfangled printing press! Whatever happened to hand-written books???”), it’s because I am. Obviously, I am not advocating a return to pre-Victorian educational practices. But neither Mr. Tannahill nor Mr. Anthes seem to really appreciate the extent to which the human mind has been reshaped by electronic media, and the influence this has had on audiences. While contemporary society might feature a broader and in some respects more inclusive educational system, I see little evidence that this makes our population more educated. (On an anecdotal level, I suspect that anyone who’s ever proofread an undergraduate paper would probably have to say the same.)

Today the picture is pretty stark. According to Gallup, non-readers (i.e., people who haven’t read a single book in a year) have tripled since 1978. Even though the majority of Americans and Canadian do still read at least a book a year, this is nothing compared to the 30 hours a week that Canadians spend watching TV, and the 45 hours a month they spend on the internet. Literature’s share of the average North American’s leisure time has declined. Theatre, if it can be believed, is even worse off.

Why adduce literature in a discussion on the decline of live theatre? Because literature and theatre share one single important quality that almost no other surviving medium possesses: that they must be consumed while not doing anything else. They require that we surrender our attention wholly to one activity – the reading (or the watching.) They require that we commit labour to the activity, to be bored even. Even productions like Sleep No More with all its participatory gimmicks still cannot work unless the audience member chooses to parcel out a percentage of their day’s spare time to doing nothing other than participate.

Like reading, the theatre enjoins us in spending our leisure time not in passively consuming the flickering images on a screen, but willingly expending energy, focus, and intellectual power. It means spending our off hours not relaxing, but working.

Why should this matter? Because the current educational system is not effectively equipping us to read, inquire, introspect, and endure complex, sometimes boring, sometimes arcane texts and information. And if the educational system is not able to get us to pay attention to a fucking play­ ­- what else might it not be preparing us for? Part of being a citizen – of being a part of democracy – means committing labour to aspects of our life that don’t have to do with our daily, boring, difficult jobs. It means that we have to spend the time we want to spend being not-bored, or not-working, being bored and working. We live in an age in which journalism has been reduced to lists no more complex than the assembly instructions on your sofa (“10 things you should know about Bill C-51” [cf. Enzenberger]), in which the average citizen “doesn’t have the time” to read a newspaper, or the text of an important piece of legislation, but somehow manages to squeeze in 30 hours a week of television.

If it’s true that electronic media has effectively decimated our attention spans (and the research seems to indicate that it has), we have to confront very starkly a fundamental question about our experiences at the theatre.

What if – just what if – the theatre isn’t boring?

What if – we are boring?

What if we’re all actually getting dumber?

3. What on earth this has to do with Theatre of the Unimpressed.

Let’s go back to Jordan Tannahill’s first key question:

“What factors are contributing to the Theatre of the Unimpressed?”

In a chapter called “Mental Real Estate”, Tannahill describes the current brick-and-mortar model of the theatre: a physical building, with x number of seats, run by an artistic director who programs a season of plays to appeal to a subscriber base, a model of theatre-as-commodity that has (at least so far) been the most effective at giving theatres enough income to survive.

Broken into simple propositions, Tannahill is essentially saying this:

  1. Theatre of the Unimpressed (i.e., boring theatre) constitutes the majority of what’s on stage at major theatres in North America.
  2. People don’t like to go to the theatre because it’s boring (i.e., it’s Theatre of the Unimpressed)
  3. Artistic Directors are reluctant to program new and exciting works because they won’t sell.

3.1 So they program Theatre of the Unimpressed to attract and keep subscribers.

None of that makes any sense. The logic is completely circular – people don’t like conservative theatre, so in order to attract people to the theatre, Artistic Directors are forced to program conservative work?

Here we get at the fundamental problem with Tannahill’s analysis: by assuming that it the relevant issue is the aesthetics of the work itself and not the broader cultural climate the work abides in, he dooms himself to a merry-go-round of misguided and recursive thinking that always brings him back to where he starts. After all, he begins the chapter by quoting an anonymous AD of a major American theatre:

“Six hundred [seats] in total,” he says. “Tell me, how am I supposed to fill six hundred seats every night? It’s not possible. Not even if we were doing Phantom of the Opera.”  His voice is swallowed up by the vast darkness. (p. 71)

This belies every claim Tannahill has heretofore made: the AD laments that even if he were doing the most crowd-pleasing, dumb-tourist-attracting, big block-buster musical type-thing he could think of, he wouldn’t attract enough to fill a house. The very fact that the AD uses the phrase “even if,” to say nothing of the fact that we implicitly – without even thinking about it – know exactly what he means, is entirely inimical to Tannahill’s thesis.

The simple truth of the matter is that if ADs are programming Theatre of the Unimpressed, it’s because that’s what most people want. Nothing in the economic landscape of the theatre in North America indicates that there is a huddled mass of would-be theatre-goers who are just craving something weird or avant-garde. For many, the only theatre they go to see is the big Broadway Musical – and that’s all they want to see. If this doesn’t have to do with the bigger cultural problems I indicated supra, what else could it have to do with?

This is what I mean by a book that talks within the system, and not about it: theatre can never be the answer to its own problems. It is hubris to think otherwise. And so, rather than being a true critique, Theatre of the Unimpressed is an isomorphism, a vestige of the problems it supposedly counteracts.

It is also why, unlike Fannina or Daniel Karasik, I cannot recommend Theatre of the Unimpressed as “essential reading.” It’s very structure and substance relegates it to the same insularity Tannahill clearly wants to break out of. And while Fannina ends her review with an optimistic GoodReads.com review by a woman who apparently is inspired to “see some plays” because of her reading of the book,  a quick perusal of Sarah SE’s bookshelf reveals that she has already read Tannahill’s collection of plays Age of Minority, as well as a being frequent reader of the literary magazine The Believer. Clearly, she is someone who already has an interest, if limited, in the theatre. A victory? Maybe. But not much of one.

4. Theatre of Failure Fails to Fail at Failing Failure

That being the crux of my beef with Theatre of the Unimpressed and its project, I should like to turn my attention to the aesthetic judgements Mr. Tannahill makes, and treat them as they are. After all, one need not accept the thesis Theatre of the Unimpressed is the cause of theatre’s decline in order to appreciate an attempt to parse the difference between “vital” theatre and its stagnant counterpart.

Theatre of Failure, for Tannahill, starts with Beckett and Brecht (p. 118). He writes, “…in the Theatre of Failure, narrative, performance, and productive elements are revealed to be the dramatic tools they are through the breakdown in their expected function.” (p. 119) This makes sense for Brecht, of course, but for Beckett? Tannahill adduces Happy Days and Not I – where in either of these plays do narrative, performance, and productive elements “break down”? They are weird plays, yes, but they still serve an expected function – the Mouth still speaks, the light still illuminates; the text isn’t a Well Made Play, but of course neither is Herakles. He continues: “Failure reveals the seams between ‘ the real’ and ‘the theatrical.’ It reminds the viewer that the piece is a dramatic construction that is, like the performer who made it, fallible.”

But Beckett’s works are notoriously infallible, as are Brecht’s. By which I mean not that they are perfect, but that they possess their own logic and rules to which their respective authors cling, even from beyond the grave. Vladimir and Estragon can never, legally, be women. God forbid you change the key to a Threepenny song. Beckett’s stage directions are almost tyrannical, which was one of the reasons he was always heavily involved with the direction. Where is the fallibility here? Where is the “spectre of failure”? How can Not I possibly be intended to evoke fallibility when Beckett used to sit for hours with Billie Whitelaw, coaching her on how to perfectly perform the piece? Tannahill’s recounting of Susan Sontag’s production of Godot in Sarajevo (p. 65) has nothing at all to do with the intrinsic qualities of the play- the actors would be starving and performing in candlelight even if they were doing You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.

So what exactly does he mean by “failure”?

As I mentioned in the beginning, Tannahill has a tendency in this book to define and redfine his terms as is convenient. So, Theatre of Failure can both a fragmenting of narrative structure, and/or an incorporation of actual failure into a piece (q.v. his practice of hiring non-professional actors). It can be Beckett and/or Forced Entertainment. It can be Robert Wilson and/or Young Jean Lee. That all of these artists comprise vastly different aesthetics with vastly different approaches to theatre-making is apparently immaterial.

(Robert Wilson is an especially bizarre case to include in a “Theatre of Failure.” His plays are moving pictures – he shows the actors how to move with his own body, down to the smallest hand gesture, and has them mimic him until it’s perfect. Then they repeat those gestures, exactly the same way, every single night of performance. I guarantee you there is far more “fallibility” in that production of Driving Miss Daisy than there ever was in Einstein on the Beach.)

“Failure” seems to mean whatever Tannahill wants it to mean. Consider the anecdote he tells after a performance of his play Concord Floral:

In rehearsals and previews, Sahra’s performance gave me shivers. That is, until opening  night, when it didn’t. What had changed? She’d hit all of the pauses, emphasized all the right words, with tremendous feeling and eye contact. But it was a bit like she was  executing an Olympic skating routine. She’d perfected it, she performed to well, and in so doing she killed what had been so unnerving about it. (p. 126)

“Performed it too well”? So what does this mean, then? She failed at failing? Or succeeded in succeeding, which is a failure? This is like the theatrical equivalent of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Tannahill is trying to make a play that says:

“This play is a failure.”

If the statement is true, then the play is a success – but that makes it a failure. Which in turn makes it a success. And so on.

Obviously, “failure” can mean an infinite number of things depending on the frame of reference of the person making the distinction. But then of what use is it to us as theatre critics? Tannahill gives away his hand altogether when he writes,

Theatre of failure can be seen as a loosely defined movement of disparate contemporary practitioners, but also, more importantly, it’s a state of being that plays or productions, even of the classic and canonical, may occupy or slip in and out of. (p. 128).

If one of your term’s defining characteristics is that it is “loosely defined,” that is probably an indication that the term itself is not of much use. Without something to hold on to, we’re left wondering: what qualities do unify these various and enormously different artists? It seems to me that we already have a perfectly good and elegant way to taxonomize these works – with Hans-Thies Lehmann’s postdramatic theatre.

Plays may indeed “slip in and out of” Theatre of Failure, but the term itself is slipperiest of all.

5. Conclusion and/or apologia.

In his review of Theatre of the Unimpressed in the Globe and Mail, Daniel Karasik writes,

“It’s the complexity, specificity, and relevance of Tannahill’s case-by-case analyses that make Theatre of the Unimpressed essential reading for anybody interested in the state of contemporary theatre and performance, even if the book’s central argument has a bit of a modish rattle.”

I want to make it clear how true this is; as a work of theatre criticism, there are moments of real depth, insight, acumen in Tannahill’s critique of specific works and their specific values as works. Jordan Tannahill is an extremely talented, thoughtful, intelligent writer and artist.

But the book – ha – fails, ultimately, in its bigger project. In many ways, it was doomed to fail. That it was doomed to fail, in fact, was one of the reasons I was compelled to dedicate nearly 6000 words and many hours of my time to it. This idea of trying to save theatre through theatre – it’s hubris. More than that, it’s dangerous.

Playwright Darrah Teitel recently wrote a fantastic #CdnCult article called, “Artists, the Election, and the Poverty that Keeps Them Apart.” In it, she describes her disappointment with a theatre community that is overwhelmingly apolitical. By which she means – not that we aren’t doing political work, but that we are, often by our own choices, alienated from the actual political process.

The theatre community’s myopia is a problem. We think theatre is the answer to everything – it isn’t. It isn’t even the answer to theatre. Our art form is at hazard. Our own minds are at hazard. The world is at hazard. It’s time we really paid attention to which way the wind is blowing.

 

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