On March 30, the Theatre Centre released a weird document written by one Charles C. Smith, in which the poet/essayist rendered a kind of meta-commentary on the reviews of the Theatre Centre’s November production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present…, to the effect that Toronto’s establishment theatre critics had been “limited by a ‘gaze’ that left them short-sighted when it came to Black and White bodies on stage.” The doc’s weird for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it was released three months since the production closed and the reviews themselves vanished from public memory (perceptive readers will observe that this essay is itself several months late; well, I write for free and make a living serving food to rich people for marginally above the minimum wage. This will stand as an excuse). That in itself is a shame, because anyone who’s ever taken pains to read the output of Toronto’s critical elite knows that it only occasionally rises above the level of the average term paper, and certainly warrants a good old-fashioned meta-ing (I myself have never encountered a meta-anything I haven’t liked).
If critical analyses of mainstream theatre reviews are wanted and needed, then you can perhaps understand my bitter disappointment that we didn’t get a better one than the one we got. Which isn’t to say that there’s exactly nothing redeeming or worthwhile about Mr. Smith’s essay – just that there’s also a great deal wrong and confusing and also just dumb about it. I’m referring mostly to Mr. Smith’s neurotic obsession with authors and their specific (and, apparently, knowable) intentions with respect to their plays’ meanings, and his totally unfounded implicit assumption that there exists some causal link between those intentions and those meanings. In the parlance, this is called the “Intentional Fallacy,” which phrase was coined in a 1946 essay co-authored by the aesthetic philosopher Monroe C. Beardsley and someone named William K. Wimsatt who’s remembered somewhat less.
All of which is to say that, despite the machinations of history, the Cult of the Author is evidently alive and well in the Torontonian theatre scene, our stages awash in the blood of sacrificial ungulates like so many gleaming ziggurats. Like the Mormonism, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon; like Scientology, it’s extremely silly. Like the superstitions of certain other reactionary monotheisms whose names I won’t mention, its arguments have been shown to be patently fallacious, repeatedly, yet still it won’t go away.
Thank you for your missive of September the 10th, re: the Unofficial, Unauthorized Conservative Party of Canada’s Policy Position on the Arts. It was an absorbing read, and, typical of the CPC’s remarks on such issues more generally, rather dazzling in the sheer volume of misremembered facts and obfuscated issues. In this, your party is truly Canada’s leader.
This is not to say that there is nothing of value or truth in the letter; far from it. I myself have long complained of artists’ general complacency in terms of advocacy or activism. It is certainly true that the artistic community at large has alienated itself from the political process for a long time. We have not made our case to the Canadian population with anywhere near the necessary urgency or verve. We do not pay attention to the key elections that can have the most meaningful long-term influence on the Canadian art scene – school trusteeship. In fact, the absence of artists who run for school board trustee positions is doubly glaring; it’s a well-paid, part-time job, after all, and who would say there’s abundance of those?
I concede that general point. It isn’t a small concession on my part. Nevertheless, the ensuing bouts of free-association in the, say, latter 3/4 of your statement require my attention as a Canadian citizen. Though I did not vote for your party, I feel an unfamiliar – if not unwelcome – stirring of patriotism in my gut, and believe it is my Canadianly duty to correct you on certain points with respect to the existing facts. My hope is that this will improve your governance overall.
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.
Given the massive and probably somewhat brand-destroying lacuna between my last blog post and this one, and given the fact that I’ve spent some of the past hour washing my dishes and sort of muttering softly under my breath about god only knows, I’ve decided to take this occasion as an excuse to get back to blogging.
One of the realities of writing about theatre in the blogosphere is that generally speaking, most of the people doing it have political affinities which are remarkably similar to my own, and while this experience can at times be veritably cockle-warming and sort of affirming, emotionally, it doesn’t always yield the most exciting or useful debates when it comes to politics and theatre. One of the characterizing features of theatre-thinking in this country is that it is dishearteningly echo-chamber-like, especially online. Yeah, we get the odd Twitter conversation about Factory Theatre’s decision to delay the invite to critics, or Kelly Nestruck’s recent (and interesting) article about Equity – but these are concerns about particularities; what’s missing (or at least marginalized), it seems to me, is any kind of fundamental disagreement about what, how, or why theatre is, or ought to be.
I don’t pretend to offer a total paradigm-shift here. But I’ve been thinking a lot about, specifically, the influence of the Internet and the proliferation of a post-New Left vocabulary on theatre artists (at least in Canada), and how these otherwise mostly positive forces might be having a negative effect on not only our artistic practice, but on our ability to talk sensibly about systemic and cultural deficiencies in Canadian theatre.
A warning: this is going to be long, and circuitous. I’m nothing if not verbose. Bear with me – I promise I’m going somewhere with this.
Last month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a group of 50 or so prominent Scottish cultural figures signed an open letter demanding that one of the Festival’s venues – the Underbelly – cancel a programmed run of an Israeli play. Their reasons were admirably explicit:
The current, brutal assault by Israel upon the people of Gaza, which is an appalling collective punishment, underlines the seriousness of this error in co-operating with a company which is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the State of Israel.
The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation. Some brave and principled Israeli artists oppose the Israeli state’s cynical attempts to use them for propaganda purposes.
The show was shut down soon thereafter (though, the influence of the letter per se is somewhat dubious).
There are many lines of argumentation at play here, some more sound than others, & all of which deserve rich consideration. I will say without further ado that I disagree entirely with the “Cultural Boycott”’s intent, though not necessarily its spirit – that, I promise you, is as discursive I’m willing to be with my own opinion w/r/t to the current situation in Israel & Gaza. This is a blog about theatre; anyone interested in my half-baked opinions on world affairs is welcome to buy me a drink at their leisure – around the third martini or so, my eloquence is unmatched.
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.
(Note: this piece contains massive spoilers for my show Potosí – there are still three shows left, so if you intend to see any of them & do not wish your experience to be coloured by these remarks, desist reading immediately. Otherwise, carry on.)
I didn’t know Potosí was particularly violent until people started telling me it was. Other than the British avant-garde tradition of the 60s & 70s, the theatrical lineage of which I think of myself as being a part must include the 90s of Sarah Kane, the novels of Cormac McCarthy & William H. Gass, all of whom wrote brilliant & impassioned – & controversial – studies in violence. Of these, the most salient is doubtlessly Kane; Blasted was by the far the work most on my mind as I wrote what would become the final drafts of Potosí.
Set against such a backdrop, my own opus seemed somewhat tame & toothless; even no less a mainstream Toronto theatre than Buddies in Bad Times had recently staged the relentlessly violent Pig, & there seemed to be a vogue in the intellectual culture for artistic discussion of what constitutes violence, sexual or otherwise (q.v. for example the success of Kat Sandler’s recent Cockfight, which was itself more-or-less about the inherent violence of males). When the reviews for Potosí began coming out last week, it was a surprise then, that critics appeared to be deeply struck not only by the darkness of its subject matter – all of which is based on true events – but also the graphicness of the physical violence put on stage. In part this is contextual – after all, the Fringe has not historically been the most conducive venue for dark or challenging subject matter – but it may very well evince hubris on my part.
A few years ago this April I found myself on the sidewalk across the street from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in the pissing rain, dressed in a Banana Republic trench coat and far-too-expensive-to-admit Ray Ban glasses with ever-so-nerdy-chic thick black frames, feeling very out of place in a crowd of veteran anti-mining activists, all of whom clearly had thought ahead and checked the weather report, and were comfortably dressed in rainslickers and Blundstones.
We were there protesting the Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, whose worldwide campaign of oppression, murder, environmental atrocity, exploitation, and more I won’t précis here. We spent the day there, until the leather of my shoes began to fall apart and I couldn’t see through my glasses anymore.
Can I possibly be correct in assuming that I can write a piece about the state of art criticism today without seriously fearing for the future of my career? As in, should I be prepared for a cut-away to a cigar-chomping & mysteriously Brooklyn-accented Richard Ouzounian slamming the screen of his laptop shut & shouting “Offord’ll never work in this town again!”? Like, what is this? Hollywood of the ’40s?
Except that it’s a real fear & not to be considered lightly (although, it does seem to say a lot about me as a writer that I tend to begin all my posts with some variation of bashful apology). I don’t want to overstate the power of critics in the theatre community – I’m generally distrustful of those who do – but credit given where credit due & all that. The negotiations of the weird relationship between artist & critic have always been murky & at worst openly hostile. Where terms are good, the artist risks accusations of “selling-out,” & the critic of favouritism. But if the worth or merit of a play can be discussed in critical terms, surely what’s good for the goose is good for the whatever, no? After all, though I’ve taken issue with particular modes of criticism & feel little compunction in calling out individuals by name, I can’t possibly be accused of “attacking” anyone, exactly, can I? I have no interest in writing broadsides, & the code-of-conduct to which I enjoin my blog’s comment-section (to little avail, unfortunately) is the same for my posts: snark is fine. Who doesn’t like a good snarkfest? But rudeness, vindictiveness, & general derision: not for me, thanks. I leave that stuff to the pros.