Why did the Theatre Centre Publish this Terrible “Reviewer’s Gaze” Article?

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.

None of which was lost on Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck, who tweeted about it, and then some other folks tweeted about it, then Theatre Centre general manager Aislinn Rose tweeted a bit before I piped in, the bulk of which exchange I reproduce for you here:

 

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While it’s perhaps good of Rose to defend Smith’s piece (insofar as wilfully ignoring the relevant counterarguments can be justly characterized as a ‘defense’), the sort of quintessentially anti-intellectual quality of her response is a bit worrying to read from the general manager of one of the country’s major theatre institutions (unrelated but also interesting to wonder: did the Theatre Centre pay for Smith’s work? And if so, how did its upper brass justify this particular budgetary indulgence?). Now, I happen to respect Aislinn Rose (enough so that Good Old Neon invited her to participate in a debate we hosted a couple of years ago, to which she was gracious and generous enough to donate her time), and in fairness to her, Twitter is probably the worst possible medium through which to conduct serious intellectual discussion. Nevertheless, a 140-character limit can’t be held responsible for this salient tweet:

Pretty comfortable disregarding 1950s theory to look @ work by black playwrights investigating black lives right now

Now that just isn’t sporting. Though one might not know it from reading the works of, say, Judith Butler, “theory” consists in the describing and explaining of facts, and only assholes ignore facts when they’re inconvenient to one’s point of view.  Admittedly, there is a tradition of Very Serious Theorists whose emblematic works are rife with sentences like —

What plausibility can be given to an account of the Symbolic [sic] that requires a conformity to the Law [sic] that proves impossible to perform and that makes no room for the flexibility of the Law itself, its cultural reformulation in more plastic forms?”

— which I pulled from a page of Gender Trouble literally opened at random.  I blush even to reproduce it.  Nonetheless, the fallacy of authorial intent is not an invention of liberal arts ‘theorists’; it is a truism, a logical observation about the nature of how things come to mean. Take the two statements:

1) I intend artwork to have property p

2) Artwork x has property p

1) is not evidence of 2) in any way, in any known version of the universe. No one is obligated to accept my painting of a chicken as a painting of a dog just because I did an interview with an e-mag three years ago in which I said that I intended it that way.

It is not only patronizing to claim that we need to indulge in fallacious reasoning to “look at work by black playwrights investigating black lives right now,” it’s also just obviously wrong. In fact, by appealing to authors as the oracles of meaning, we rob ourselves of the basic tools needed to conduct criticism – especially arts criticism – with any real probity, and open ourselves up to precisely the kind of lame-ass shit of which criticism should have rid itself long ago,  a point to which we’ll return.

Notice, too, that when Nestruck points out the ridiculous consequences of ignoring the fallacies of authorial intent, Rose backpedals:

 

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There may indeed be such an argument to be made, but it isn’t made in the relevant place – the relevant place being at least within the vicinity of Smith’s actual text, which contains no attempt to make it whatsoever. Anyway, weren’t we supposed to disregard this 1950s theory clap-trap  in order to look at black playwrights investigating black lives now? Which is it?

Rose’s schizophrenia is perhaps forgivable given the paucity of Smith’s thesis. Smith does not condescend to explain what exactly he means by “white gaze” but there are (at least) two possibilities: either he has set out to demonstrate simply that white critics view plays as white people and their perceptions are coloured by the experiences (or lack of them) which that entails – in which case the whole thew of his essay is banality and truism – or, as I think is more likely the case, that this “white gaze” comprises some ignorance of existing facts. Smith’s coda bemoans how “misinformed” these critics are. Well then – misinformed of what? As we shall see, they are primarily misinformed of the intentions of Jackie Sibblies Drury, which Smith has presumably managed to intuit through some form of telepathic channeling, as well as by reading a single interview she did in 2013 with an internet “journal of narrative and experimental history” which no longer exists, in part (I submit) because nobody could figure out what “experimental history” might be, and in which, furthermore, the interviewer is some graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin who says things like, “[Y]ou can tell [We Are Proud to Present… is] a play that’s literally bursting at the edges,” which I know isn’t actually relevant but you have to admit it’s still pretty fucking stupid.

Some of Smith’s errors are more egregious than others, but they’re all of the same fallacious tang; this is disappointing, since Smith has written some significant scholarship in the past and really should know better. He starts by remarking on the “chill” which went down his “spine,” (the self-described “poet” frequently resorts to boring cliches) because director Ravi Jain is not a black man and the play is “by an African American woman with a particular focus on anti-Black racism.” At this point, I may as well just quote the paragraph in full:

I have to confess that a bit of a chill went down my spine when Ravi mentioned to me that the play was by an African American woman with a particular focus on anti-Black racism. Was this going to be about cultural appropriation – a Brown man focusing on Black peoples? This question was quickly resolved for me when I learned that previous productions of this play had been directed by persons of colour who are not Black and who worked closely with Drury.

This has all the logical integrity of “I can’t be racist; I have black friends.” To wit, Smith seems to think that even though X is capable of doing something racist with Y, X will not because Z did something with Y that wasn’t racist. Oh! And it for sure wasn’t racist because Z did it with the blessing of Q, who wrote Y, implying that things are racist or not as Q chooses, more or less by fiat. Remind me who’s wearing the blinders here, chum?

I don’t wish to undermine the points that are actually good and important in the essay, including those about systemic racism in arts and the overwhelming white-anglo-masculine hegemony in theatre criticism (though I do think those points have been better put elsewhere, here for example). I certainly wouldn’t want to rob anyone of an opportunity to point out how stupid mainstream theatre critics can be. But my gorge is raised precisely because these points are obfuscated by bizarre reckonings which are, unfortunately, the essay’s hallmarks.

Consider, for instance, Smith’s umbrage at the use of the word “stereotype” in reviews by Kelly Nestruck and Martin Morrow to describe a white actor’s portrayal of a black grandmother. Smith writes: “It is interesting that these writers wrote this. After all, Drury makes it clear that that is exactly what [these actors] are to do.” Pursuit of Smith’s casual footnote yields an interview with Sibblies Drury in the above-mentioned online magazine (called The Appendix). The relevance of this adduction remains unclear, because Smith does not even attempt to justify it. Here again is a fundamental problem with the fallacy of authorial intent – it assumes its conclusions. Nowhere in the essay does Smith establish any justification for why and how the author’s intention should be taken into consideration, or what it might elucidate or for what it might be helpful– just that not doing so is part of a “white gaze,” or something.

Relevance in general is a problem for Smith. He writes,

…nowhere does Nestruck define what an ‘African stereotype’ is and he further travels down this road in his comment about Jain relying on stereotypic shorthand. Again, there is no pointing to examples from the play to support this statement; nor is there any acknowledgement of the author’s clear intent.

Well that’s true, but so what? Of what is Nestruck’s methodological sloppiness meant to be evidence? How is it proof of “blinders”? Remember what they told you in high school, Charles – show your work. Anyway, how is Nestruck supposed to wrangle up a definition of “stereotype” when even Jackie Sibblies Dury – in the interview Smith himself cites – does not do this? In other words, even if Nestruck had dutifully studied the Author’s sage wisdom he’d still be left with no operational definition of “stereotype.” But I guess it’s only when Nestruck uses the word cavalierly that it becomes symptomatic of “white gaze.”

Writing about all this is doubly frustrating because of Smith’s recurrent failure to actually commit to his own positions. It starts in his thesis, in which he complains of “negative and decidedly non-constructive rhetoric” from critics. Negative in what sense? Non-constructive to whom or what? You sort of have to admire a man who will put a prose poem in place of an argument; since none of these descriptors signify anything in particular, the reader is free to associate them with whatever she chooses. This lack of commitment extends into the body of the essay, which contains the most liberal use of the words “suggest” and “seems” I’ve ever come across in a discursive work. Analogies, sentences, even authors are always “seeming” to be a way without actually being that way. Smith is also more prone to “believe” in things than argue for them (“scenes…enter the play as both, I believe, analogy…”). The technique is worth studying – since Smith avoids overtly disagreeing with specific propositions, he is able to just condemn in general without actually providing the kind of critical analysis we would expect from a Lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough or a ninth-grader. With respect to Martin Morrow’s review:

[Martin Morrow] does not point to anything in the play that gives evidence to his claim of stereotyping. In fact, his rather off-the-cuff reference to Tyler Perry sit-coms, and reference to the ‘waddling’ of a Black grandmother (something Another White Man did not do), suggests that he has brought something into this picture that I suspect may not have been intended by the author.     

Perish the thought! Charitably, I would guess that Smith doesn’t actually believe what he implies here – namely, that the critic’s job is primarily to report on the intentions of the author and not to comment about her own experience of the play.  Uncharitably, I would suggest that Smith doesn’t even know what he’s writing since his premises are so ill-defined and his argumentation is so bizarre. Smith even cops to “not see[ing] the stereotype Morrow thinks he saw,” which, given that Smith has only just told us that Drury intended for the actor to use stereotypes, must surely mean he thinks the actor failed, or what…?

He’s writing himself into pretzels – we’re meant to accept that the white actor’s performance uses stereotypes (since Drury said “that is exactly what they are to do”), but we’re not permitted to experience the performance as too stereotypical (since Drury also “intended” for the actor “to say something very true in that moment”). We’re certainly not allowed to write about the performance in a way that “seems dismissive and pejorative.” Smith doesn’t explain how exactly a sentence can “seem dismissive” (body language?) but certainly makes it clear that critics are not entitled to their own experiences of works of art.

You see, gentle reader, for Charles C. Smith, “writing about racial/racist stereotyping is…a serious business.” This is a jolly generous thing to write about oneself, but faith without works is dead, and all that.  Examples of such “seriousness” must surely include invocations of a “debate on racial dynamics on stage” which Smith describes – in charmingly totalitarian terms – as revolving around the question of “who could conceivably tell whose story – or who should be permitted to do so.” Smith declines to name which particular members of his presumable shadow government will be staffing the Goskomizdat responsible for doing the “permitting.” But I’ll stop making fun of him now, because he’s so very serious.

He asks: “…should Nestruck and Morrow at least provide examples of what they believe supports their assertions about the claims of stereotyping they have made?” To which the answer is obviously yes, because in general essayists ought to provide justification for their assertions, but again, the only thing of which it’s actually proof is that Nestruck and Morrow are somewhat lazy in their methods (or that they’re constrained by idiotically low word limits which don’t apply to either Smith or I). Smith has not meaningfully demonstrated the relationship between this and what he describes as “the pervasiveness of negative and…non-constructive rhetoric informed by writers…claiming authority on matters they were clearly…not knowledgeable of. [sic]”

Which matters these are in particular, or what this knowledge might consist in, is a mystery. The free-association about “negative” and “non-constructive rhetoric” I’ve already touched on. Smith himself provides no basis for this “knowledge” outside the author’s intentions, about which he muses, “…should we not expect [critics] to at least consider the intent of the playwright and director?” To which the answer is obviously no, because no substantive link between a work of art’s meaning and the author’s intentions has ever been made – certainly not by Smith.

Smith also raises the question of “social responsibility” without clarifying what it means in this context, or why or how theatre critics relegated to the Entertainment section of commercial newspapers ought to exercise the same sense of it in a 1000-word pick-and-pan as the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University does in an entire book. Some tag about comparing like terms comes to mind. It is certainly true that Nestruck’s reviews do, in general, fail to evince as much social and political consciousness as social and political histories of racial slurs. But why stop there? I’ve often wondered why Nestruck and Morrow don’t write more  about the economic deficiencies in late feudalism and early capitalism; after all, if Peter Kropotkin can do it in The Conquest of Bread, why can’t they? (I’m also just realizing that I haven’t said anything mean about Judith Butler in a while.)

The middle bit of his essay is where things really begin to get out of hand. There is a marked uptick in this feinting in the general direction of something which only distantly resembles a point; this “seems” trick is in full effect. Dastardly in its design, it inoculates Smith from the responsibility of substantiating specific allegations with direct evidence; what matters is not, apparently, what’s actually written, but what “seems” to be written. A certain amount of bet-hedging with respect to exegesis could be expected if Smith was reviewing a text as opaque as, say, Giving An Account of Oneself (there we go!), but these are Toronto theatre critics: the prose is at least simplistic, if not exactly limpid.

Here there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance for me, since Robert Cushman’s National Post review is exactly the sort of reactionary criticism which helps give Old White Men everywhere a bad name (it comes a distant second to all the oppression and slavery and genocide, but still…). But then what would you expect from a critic working at a newspaper founded by a convicted felon who considers Donald Trump a “centrist”? A paper which employs Christie Blatchford? Whose editor “hates[s] running reviews for the performing arts”? Depressingly, the only infelicity of Cushman’s that Smith chooses rise up against is one which Cushman doesn’t actually commit.

To quote Cushman as Smith does:

The first major glitch comes when Black man accuses the show-in-progress of concentrating on white people’s problems: more precisely, of basing its text on letters sent by German soldiers to their wives back home…White man counters that these letters, which skirt around the subject of slaughter, are the only documentation we have. This struck me as a straw-man conflict, the kind of scene that makes the audience want to bang the characters’ heads together and tell them to stop shouting. There must be some record of the genocide, or nobody would have known it happened.

This must be about as ignorant a thing as has been written about any play, ever, for reasons Smith rightly outlines:

Cushmanavoid[s] the question of how stories of the oppressed are told, of how subordinated groups pass information along to each other without using pen and paper, information that captures vital stuff and may be what leads to a group’s death or survival.

Surely the tension between the quality of history offered by oral accounts and the quality offered by documents is the whole crux of the scene’s conflict. But do Cushman’s remarks really rise to the level of what Smith accuses him? Namely:

They [i.e., Cushman as well as Christopher Hoile and Carly Maga, to whom we’ll come] seem to suggest that we cannot tell our stories how we wish unless it meets their standard of validity and value.

Never mind that Smith’s subject and verb can’t quite manage to agree on what’s supposed to be plural, when. Nowhere in the text does Cushman say or imply that anyone can’t tell their stories how they wish; he’s making an evaluative judgement of the efficacy of a scene as a piece of theatre, given its premises (albeit an ill-considered judgement). That’s his job, such as it is. To characterize this as a denial of the rights of artists to tell stories in the manner they desire is to literally reduce any critique of any play to such a denial. Anyway, Smith neatly sidesteps having to actually defend such a proposition by deploying his “seems to suggest” smokescreen. How can you respond to a man who will not actually commit to an argument?

Smith’s allegation – to the extent that it amounts to one – fares no better against either of its two other targets, blogger Christopher Hoile and Toronto Star critic Carly Maga (or, “Carla Maga,” as he puts it, because apparently no one proofread his essay before publishing it). Hoile’s review is a devotional work of the Author Cult, much like Smith’s, and just as silly. Still, Smith plays dirty. Here is Hoile as Smith quotes him:

But when the workshop finally moves on to depicting the genocide, White Man and Another White Man suddenly adopt American Southern accents and as does Black Man, their main victim. Since, as we discover, the actors are all American, their depiction of the genocide in Africa comes to resemble nothing more than a lynching of a black man in the American South urged on by the other actors both black and white.

In the absence of documentation past history can be interpreted only through analogies to the present which necessarily falsify the original history.

 And then, Hoile’s “patronizing”:

Then, who actually understands a past event best – someone tied by race to the participants or an outsider who can observe it more objectively? Besides this, is it possible to present a past event objectively at all? Will not bias, even unconscious bias, taint a creation? 

The casual reader could be forgiven for thinking these paragraphs are directly connected, or are at least in sequence. The casual reader would be wrong, since in fact the first is actually two full paragraphs up the page, and the second is just one sentence found smack-dab in the middle of an entire thought, followed by the third. Here it is as it actually appears in Hoile’s review:

What makes the lynching scene chilling is that it does originate in obedience to authority, the Director’s, and to mass action, the rhythmic chanting of the other actors.  This scene, and all the strongest scenes of the play, are [sic] those that question the very nature of creating theatre.  It is undemocratic with a central authority, the Director, who determines the hierarchy of the actors – White Man, Another White Man, etc.  In the absence of documentation past history can be interpreted only through analogies to the present which necessarily falsify the original history.  Then, who actually understands a past event best – someone tied by race to the participants or an outsider who can observe it more objectively? Besides this, is it possible to present a past event objectively at all?  Will not bias, even unconscious bias, taint a creation?     

Whereas Smith positions his selections from Hoile’s text as if they were Hoile’s condemnation of a particular scene, in context they’re clearly questions evoked by the action of the play itself – questions which the play was asking of him, not the other way around. Hence it is among the “strongest scenes of the play,” because it “question[s] the very nature of creating theatre.” These questions being the ones Hoile plainly enumerates. For Smith to misrepresent Hoile’s text in this way is pretty unforgivable; it does not even rise to the level of sophistry. In any case, it doesn’t come close to saying what it “seems to suggest” to Smith – that someone can’t tell a story the way they wish.

Finally we come to poor Carly Maga, easily the ablest of the critics Smith either misinterprets or lies about. She is arguably treated with even less fairness – she being the only female critic to whose work Smith pays substantial attention and the only critic whose name he couldn’t be arsed to get right (which error still has not been corrected, despite being pointed out by Maga herself). While he does manage to refrain from tampering with her text in order to better suit his purpose, he once again sets his phasers to “seems” in order to ascribe to her text views which the text itself doesn’t actually express. Here is the passage Smith quotes:

Does the director of the piece, a Black woman…have the authority to tell this story though she has never experienced genocide personally? And can Another White Man…use his grandfather’s traumatic experience in the U.S. Civil War to equalize the trauma of the persecuted? …And, above all, is an extremely Western European theatrical tradition an appropriate vehicle for this kind of story?

The last sentence is about as close as any of these critics come to suggesting “that we cannot tell our stories how we wish.” (Just on a side note, who is this “we” to which Smith keeps referring? It must surely include all black people, but also non-black people adjacently connected to Jackie Sibblies Drury.) But again, the whole thrust of the paragraph has to do with the play within the play. She does not question Ravi Jain’s authority, or Brendan McMurty-Howlett’s – she questions the “director,” Black Woman, and the “actor,” Another White Man. Given this context, it must surely take a poet’s imagination to interpret Maga’s questions as if they are directed to We Are Proud to Present…as an enterprise, rather than the “play” whose creation is the characters’ object. If, as Smith claims, the questions Maga records “pose serious challenges to how such stories can be told by the bodies that are concerned about them” (are the bodies really “concerned about” the stories, Charles? Like, are they fretting about them, emotionally?) then it might also be a good idea to indicate on some basic level what the fuck those serious challenges might be. Maga’s clearly not making a criticism of the play; she’s engaging with very themes the play evidently evokes. If her experience of the play is as invalid/amoral/white-gazey as Smith implies, some attempt – however fumbling – to explain how and why it is that way would be welcome. So: a poet’s imagination – or a significant level of dishonesty or laziness. I leave it for the reader to decide.

But Smith won’t leave it there. Apparently this last question also “suggests” that Maga is “ignoring other forms of theatre and that…theatre, acting, and drama have long histories in other parts of the world based on other aesthetic standards.” This is an astonishing thing to allege, given that the text of the question clearly and explicitly says exactly the opposite.  To reiterate, this is Maga’s question:

…is an extremely Western European theatrical tradition an appropriate vehicle for this kind of story?

Evidently, Smith is as lazy a reader as he is a writer – or at least, when he’s not exerting special energies falsifying his opponents’ views, he is. Maga’s question is specifically – and obviously – an acknowledgement of alternative traditions of theatre which might even be better suited to the material at hand.

This is not even the full of extent of Smith’s calamitous libeling of “Carla Maga.” He goes to some lengths to take issue with her questioning of the “equating [of] the story of Another White Man’s ancestor with that of the Black grandmother[.]” It takes a special sort of cunning to construe the questioning of something as an affirmation of it, since questioning things is in general the opposite of affirming them. Maga is not “declarative” enough for Smith, though he doesn’t actually say this – he says: “one might expect something more declarative,” which is about as declarative as you can possibly be without actually saying anything. In fairness to Smith, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t someone, somewhere, who might – possibly – expect “something” more declarative. Well proved, Charles. Well proved.

Having made this ludicrous non-point,  Smith then quotes that damn interview with Drury again, ostensibly in connection with the Eurocentric theatrical views he’s fabricated on Maga’s behalf, but which actually has nothing to do with absolutely anything, so I’ll cheerfully ignore it. I think this is fair, since Smith himself is obviously satisfied to simply tack it on to the end of an argument without commentary and pay himself the courtesy of assuming it’s made his case.

We come at last to the final third of Smith’s essay which actually does – mercifully – make sense. It is the only part of the essay worth salvaging, really, and certainly the only part worth reading. Smith makes a cogent case for We Are Proud To Present…‘s abrupt and unresolved ending, and even manages to avoid lying about his opponents to do so. I only wish he’d applied the standards of intellect and honesty evinced here more broadly across the essay.

Unfortunately, however, we have not quite exhausted the essay’s core problems, though they have certainly exhausted me. Amazingly, Smith is unable to get the analogies he himself cites to work out in his favor. Not all of these are immediately obvious, since Smith buries them in footnotes – knowing, probably correctly, that few readers would check up on them. But I’m persnickety as well as vindictive, so I did.

There are several that merit a thorough going-over, but I’m going to pick one for the sake of brevity (as if I’ve ever cared about brevity, but whatever), and because it serves as sort of a synecdoche for the key conceptual deficiencies in Smith’s argumentation – especially his reliance on authorial intention. He cites as “context” for his essay the decision made by American actress Tonya Pinkins to leave a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage. It’s a long story, but here it is in short:

The Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company hired Pinkins, a black woman, to play the lead in their production of Mother Courage. Director Brian Kulick had chosen to transplant the play to some vaguely African-themed location, while simultaneously cutting about an hour of run-time from the show’s script. Pinkins’s anger is understandable:

The #CSCMotherCourage poster finds my face plastered on an image of the African Continent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo highlighted.

… 

This production does not include a single vestige of the specific war in the Congo. For me, the cultural misappropriation is unconscionable. Why must Africa, why must blackness itself, be general, a decorative motif, instead of being as specific and infinitely diverse as its reality?

She complains of other, even more overtly racist attitudes in the rehearsal process – but notice, there’s something iffy. The emphases are mine:

Despite Brecht’s title, Mother Courage was not the star of this production. My subordinate position was most clearly communicated to me when I attempted to perform a task Brecht specifically wrote for Mother Courage: snatching a fur coat off an armed soldier’s back. The actor playing the soldier argued, “I’m a man. This is a war. She gotta RESPECT that; I’d have to kill her!” I fired back, “Brecht wrote it. Mother Courage CAN snatch the fur coat and not get killed. Brecht is illustrating her as an ‘Hyena of the war.'” I told the actor I was going to snatch the fur coat, and if he “had to kill me,” the play would have to end seven scenes earlier than Brecht had intended.

I snatched the fur coat at the performance. The actor found a way to continue the play. However, the director said that in future, I couldn’t do it, because, “the actor said he would kill you.” WHAT?!

Mother Courage coddled and reprimanded into submission to patriarchy?

Brecht did not write a delusional woman. He wrote a woman who seizes power at every turn, who forces her way through Hell, and who continues in spite of every opposing force. My Mother Courage was left speechless, powerless, history-less and even cart-less. Why must images of Black women be held hostage in cages of White and/or patriarchal consciousness?

Of course, if we were to follow Smith’s logic, this whole tension could easily be resolved if only Brecht had done more interviews with TheAppendix.net. As it stands, we’re left with a woman making arguments against an etiolated interpretation of a character which would stand perfectly well on their own without constantly referring to Brecht’s hypothetical intentions. The result, predictably, is that the director is able to fire back with this nonsense:

Toward the end of the process I used a very strong word to characterize a potential end point for Mother Courage. The word was “delusional.” This grew out of my reading of Brecht’s notes, where he states over and over again that the point of Mother Courage is that she does not learn from the events of the play. In his notes he tells us…

And then of course he quotes from Brecht’s “notes.”

Smith’s attempt to defend the perspectives of black artists from the “Eurocentric project,” whatever it may be, fails on its own terms precisely because he premises it on the sanctity of authorial intent – a relic of 19th century European romanticism, which is about as quintessentially “Eurocentric” as it gets. (Well, it also fails because the essay is terribly written and frequently dishonest, but never mind). In this way, he reduces the act of creative interpretation to some sort of bullshit historiography, in which the epistemic value of art is superseded by the simple unearthing of relevant documents which may hint at the private beliefs of ordinary men and women, many of whom are dead.

We have been left with, so to speak, an Ouroboros of an argument: the basis on which Smith criticizes Toronto’s theatre critics equally disqualifies him from making those criticisms; after all, his misquotes and distortions “[suggest] that he has brought something into this picture that I suspect may not have been intended by the author. ”

Why put on a play at all when all that there is to say about it can be said in an interview with some grad student from fucking Texas?

 

Post Script.

It’s not generally good form to pick on essayists for their failings in grammar and diction. No published work is totally free from errors, and no doubt I’ve made some of my own. But the prestige of the Theatre Centre’s imprimatur makes the literal incoherence of some of Smith’s sentences worthy, I think, of embarrassment on their part. Consider this gem:

…I became increasingly concerned about some of the issues I noted earlier regarding who judges such work, what is their ‘standpoint’ and their social responsibility to engage in discourse around such difficult issues as racism and how that gets portrayed in performance?

Why is this a question? Was it meant to be a question? It starts out as an ordinary sentence and somehow winds up being a question. This kind of thing is typical in Smith’s essay, and gives us all the more reason to ponder the half-hearted responses its received. No one, so far as I know, has taken occasion to take issue with the piece in any serious way – the Twitter conversation posted supra being the only meaningful public discussion of the essay and its failings. For the most part, public reception of Smith’s work has been a cheerful retweet and the occasional “thank you.”

There can only be three reasons for this:

1. They didn’t actually read it.

2. They read and did not understand it.

3. They read it, understood it, and didn’t care.

Anyone of these reasons is worrying. The possibility that members of our community are more interested in appearing aligned with Smith’s politics than they are in meaningfully engaging with the substance of specific allegations and arguments is very real; it does a disservice not only to the intellectual integrity and rigor of our aesthetico-political discourse, but also to Smith himself, for whom, after all, this is a very serious business.

 

 

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