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.