Thursday, December 14, 2006

Been away for a bit due to a cluster of deadlines, but finally got a moment.

I've noticed there haven't been any takers on the whole should-I-shouldn't-I criticise other people's work issue. At least not judging by the comments box. But I've been thinking about it a lot, especially as I saw yet another play last week which I hated, but which crtitics and bloggers alike seem to be raving about. Now it is within my capabilities to criticise a play constructively, and even to be polite, but unfortunately this particular play (like the two before it) irritated me to a point where I think even that would be beyond me. So I shall take my cue from you, dear readers, and maintain a dignified silence.

However, suffice to say my feelings tap into the whole Literalists vs. Metaphysicalists debate which has been going on here and here and which interests me greatly. This has been on my mind for another reason too, and that is that, this week, I have been working on one of each type of these plays. I'm nearing the end of a first draft of my play Babylon for the Tricycle, about the looting of the Iraq Musuem. Although it's a fictionalised version, inspired by rather than based on real events, it's nevertheless pretty much a Literalist play through and through (apart from a bit with some ghosts at the end which might not survive a re-write anyway). At the same time I have been working on a final rehearsal version of How To Disappear Completely & Never Be Found for Sheffield Crucible, which is Metaphysical to the point of barely existing in this world.

I would say that normally I would consider myself a Literalist, which places me outside the zeitgeist of most of my peers in this business. How To Disappear was my first and only foray into Metaphysical territory. Although it came good in the end and won an award, it was first turned down by pretty much everywhere for 2 years and almost ended my career. So I do have some sympathy with those writers trying to do something a bit different and not getting any breaks.

But I also teach playwrighting a lot, and I used to read a lot of plays on script panels. And I have to say that although I have myself been inspired by the Metaphysical plays of particularly the new writing boom during the 1990s, I still think we're suffering from that hangover and that on balance they have a lot to answer for. Too often I've noticed amongst students of playwrighting that they want to choose either obscurely abstract philosophical subject matter, or a wacky metaphysical form that isn't in any way linked to their subject, or both, simply because they are unduly influenced by other trendy plays that do this. Now I don't have problem with non-naturalism per se, but for me the form must always be born out of the subject matter - it should be the most appropriate way in which to tell that story. It should add to our understanding of the subject in a way that a naturalistic form could not. Otherwise, what is the point? Too often the point is merely a stylistic exercise, which is the playwrighting version of showing off. Or worse, a disjointed abstract form is employed to cover a lack of story, or a lack of any effort to come up with original thought within what story there is.

I'm not saying the Literalists always get it right. I've sat through some terrible Hares and Edgars. But I've also sat through some genuinely inspiring ones where they have addressed burning issues head-on, in a way that mirrors the reality of the real people's lives which have inspired their work. These have been some of my best moments in the theatre, when I've been able to leave the auditorium with a genuine awe-inspiring feeling of 'My God, I had never thought of it in that way before', or 'I had no idea that went on'. In short, I had learned something about the world in which I live, or been shown it in a way I had never seen it before. And (dare I say it) none of these moments took place halfway up a floating sofa, regurgitating the same anti-war facts and figures I'd been reading in the New Statesman every week for the past 3 years. Nor did they involve a huge closing monologue about astrophysics, so sure of its own profundity it had forgotten that it was in a theatre and not a lecture hall.

So, for all their moaning, the Metaphysicalists have had a pretty good year. And for all my moaning, I shall be joining their ranks in March when How To Disappear opens. I only hope their run of undeservedly good press lasts long enough to rub off. I don't begrudge them their success, I just hate feeling like I'm the only one who can see the Emperor's naked butt. Surely there's more to this playwrighting lark than trendy posturing?

And if that's not enough to make you comment, I don't know what is.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

re. "monologue about astrophysics". I thought the character was sure of her own profundity. I thought the point of the scene was at odds with this. The dramatic irony of the situation made the scene (for me). Of course, it might have been a great clunking metaphor.

Fin said...

Well, perhaps. But overall I thought the whole thing showed an appalling lack of stagecraft. A more irritating play with less to say I struggle to recall.

Hope we're talking about the same one!

Anonymous said...

Well, have the good courtesy to name the play you're slagging, my friend, and we'll all be sure...

The Metaphysicalist/Literalist thing is just another pair of big boxes that people who like putting things into boxes want to put things into. Red herring. In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxonomy.

Anonymous said...

Or taxidermy, maybe? Here's to getting stuffed...

Fin said...

Okay Anonymous, here's a deal: Have the good courtesy to reveal your name and i'll name the play.

Quid pro quo, my friend ...

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that I am not the same anonymous figure as either of the above. However, luckily I know exactly what the plays you are talking about are and I think you should maintain your refusal to name them. It's much more elegant a style than most theatre bloggers.

I find it interesting that you complain about the play ending with the astrophysics monologue as having nothing to say. This seems to imply that plays need to have a point. I don't think that play was 'about' what the critics and some audiences thought it was about (this was further encouraged by the marketing and the rent-an-academic programme notes); nor do I think it is necessary for a play to have a point. This is something I often find often off-putting in Hare and Edgar (I would take this back to Keats quoted in Taylor quoted in Eldridge). The final monologue of that play attempted to bring together the rest of the play and end it on a note of hope. So, I understand what it was trying to do and I think it is also possible, as the above post suggested, that the character believes in the profundity of her statement. I liked a lot of the play (especially the dead mouse christmas card scene) but, like you, I disliked that final scene. This was partly to do with what it suggested to me about the writers' conception of the play as a whole. I also couldn't really see even the germ of the void that the character would go on to try filling with rampant consumerism. I also get a tad fed up with these tagged on hopeful endings (see a certain collectively written play playing in West London at the moment).

As to the other play you mention - I was enormously disappointed by it, in fact. I can sort of see what she was trying to do and stylistically, I thought it very brave. But ultimately it was a fairly tedious 45 minutes. It resembled a single scene from Attempts on Her Life dragged out for much longer than it needed. It seemed, to me, to fail as a play about a relationship and as a political play. I thought there was an interesting potential in a sexual relationship defining itself through military language (there's a great play by Naomi Wallace called 'In the Heart of America' that did this about ten years ago), but here it seemed the playwright's anger had prevented her from writing anything dramatically interesting. I prefered it to the one about the Czech rock band though!

Anonymous said...

well, yes, comments

i agree with anonymous above about both the plays you didn't name..

i find your earlier comments (about the ad vacancy at 503) kind of depressing. it's important that writers support each other. we've no economic power, after all. and being divided and ruled is no fun. in fact, there's a good argument for re-constituting a playwrights' union.. we may not have much economic clout, but shouting together is better than shouting individually -

and the risks involved in being honestly critical of other people's work lead to so much fucking mediocrity being accepted as good enough. and when the audiences don't come back, we all suffer -

Brace said...

Glad you didn't dig the Churchill. Small play, big waste of time.

I read the New Statesman too, on and off, and I think it's got proper shit since John Kampfner took over. It's not that I dislike him going populist, which he has, and that's cool and everything, but Shazia Mirza and Julian Clary have NOTHING to say. The worse crime is they're invariably unfunny as well. The guy who does the sport, Hunter whatever, is a Moron. The articles all have the same bleating tone now. I don't know what the Subs spend their time doing. And the recent article about 'Blitcons', Amis et al. Yeah, great, there's a point to be made about it, I too am concerned about the NeoCon tendencies of Marty, Rushdie, McEwan, The Hitch and all that lot, but the argument is barely coherent and so pseudo-academic as to make me think: 'Actually, at least they can write. These guys you hate. At least their polemics aren't scratchy and contrived. Like this dish of shit you've served up.'

I don't even bother reading fucking Darcus Howe anymore, Jesus.

Anyway, it's worth bearing in mind that I'm not your typical internet ranter who loathes everything. I am positive about Kampfner as an author and really like most Churchill plays. But judging by the above, there's clearly been some bile building about the NS for a while!

Fin said...

Thanks for these comments everyone. I'm going to try and address some of the issues that have come up in a new post rather than do it here. But not now. I'm a bit pissed. x

Anonymous said...

i think, when criticising other people's work (especially that of other writers) it's more helpful to be generous. even if a play doesn't do it for you, someone spent those hours putting it together, hoping it would work - and sometimes, you experiment, you can't know you've failed until the thing turns up on stage, and the alchemy you hoped would happen, doesn't.

which is not to say that the critics' genuflections towards lesser work by senior writers shouldn't be criticised, themselves..

Anonymous said...

perhaps an honest, but generous response is more useful than one that papers over what you think

http://akbar.marlboro.edu/~megmott/planweb/Lerman.html