Theatre as Argument


There’s a lot to be said about Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National Theatre. Hell, there are probably people already working on books about it. There’s the introduction of NT Live and the use of new spaces in and around the building; there’s the commercial success of shows such as War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; there’s the NT’s growing association with, for want of a better word, more “experimental” companies creating work beyond its walls. And then there’s the uncomfortable, lingering question about the imbalance of male to female artists, something I’ve written about in the past, which forms part of a much broader set of issues around representation and accessibility – issues of vital importance for a theatre that purports to be “national”.

As fascinated as I am by the narratives that establish themselves around certain theatre institutions and artistic directors, though, I don’t want to go into any of that right now. But what I was struck by yet again reading Michael Billington‘s assessment of the Hytner era (as well as the astonishing statement that the lack of Sheridan revivals is a bigger problem than the under-representation of female writers) was the extent to which theatres in this country are judged by their ability to address “the big issues of the day”. Billington approvingly frames Hytner’s NT as a “forum for debate”, a triumphant statement that is quickly followed by a staggeringly generalised blow to the political credentials of all continental European theatre (“I don’t know of any comparable theatre on the continent […] that feels a need to tackle the crises affecting our daily lives”).

This interests me not just because I instinctively disagree with the narrowness of Billington’s definition of political theatre (more on that later), though I do. It also brings me back to what turned out to be the central question of my MA thesis, which looked at the cultural narratives that have been built around another major, frequently mythologised British theatre: the Royal Court. In that thesis, I suggested that a certain understanding of theatre’s purpose in the world as a (text-based) platform for discussion and debate intersects interestingly with the traditional purpose of theatre criticism, an institution whose history in this country is inextricably tied up, for better or worse, with that of journalism. I wrote that “there is a generally accepted model of writing about new plays, in which the playtext itself is the principal focus of attention and the success of the production rests on the perceived effectiveness of the play’s central ‘argument'”.

I won’t rehearse that whole argument (yes, argument – the irony) again here; it’s in the thesis, for anyone who’s interested, and I’m very open to challenges to my reasoning, as these are ideas that will most likely come into play again later in my PhD. To return to Billington’s article, though, there are two points which are particularly revealing of the role he sees for theatre and for himself as a critic. First is the scepticism and light disdain implicit in his overview of “Hytner’s attempt to redefine what we mean by ‘theatre’,” an endeavour that Billington sums up with the vague, yet also vaguely dismissive, verdict of “artistically mixed”. This is then followed by the observation that two of Hytner’s biggest hits – War Horse and Curious Incident – “have been shows in which text is only one feature of a total theatrical experience”. Erm, doesn’t that essentially describe all theatre?

Secondly, Billington paints the NT’s relationship to the world around it as akin to that of the newspaper or news broadcaster. We have, in line with this idea of the theatre’s role, had shows “about” (I’ll only stop linking to that blog when it stops being relevant) a range of appropriately newsworthy topics: the Iraq War, the financial crisis, climate change, immigration, press corruption. And it’s doubly telling that Billington’s NT article was published by the Guardian just days after Charlotte Higgins‘ long, sprawling piece about political theatre, which departs from some strikingly similar assumptions: “Unlike music, dance and visual art it is theatre’s wordiness – the fact that it likes to place people in a room and have them talk, and disagree – that makes it the artform most closely allied to politics”. Higgins’ article also demonstrates that familiar formulation of theatre as a civic space, pointing back to Athens (where else?) and the central place of theatre in the city-state.

This all points to something that I feel is quite particular to the framing of theatre and its role in the UK. Tom Cornford (who, as an aside, was one of the people I was talking to recently about exactly the kind of narrative-forming that Billington’s article represents) has suggested that most mainstream critics in this country go into shows with “an unthinking expectation of pseudo-realistic form”. I think there’s some truth in that, certainly for some critics, but I’d suggest that it’s even more common for us (and, hands up, I include myself in this) to have the expectation that a piece of theatre will say something; that, explicitly or implicitly, it will articulate some sort of argument, which we will then assess. That’s what we’ve been taught to expect. Those are the terms on which critical discourse has established itself. And if theatre has an argument, that argument is usually expected to spring from the text. It both starts and ends with words.

But performance itself troubles that neat equation. In my current research, which is roughly speaking attempting to theorise the theatre text (emphasis on attempting), I keep encountering this idea of something in performance that is “in excess” of any text. Michael Goldman in On Drama: Boundaries of Genre, Borders of Self, for example, writes that “in drama one finds inevitably an element in excess of what can be semiotically extracted – something that is also neither irrelevant to nor […] completely independent of the text”. Benjamin Bennett, meanwhile, uses the example of Beckett’s famously precise plays in All Theater is Revolutionary Theater to demonstrate that the meaning of the text and the performance – no matter how detailed and prescriptive the former – can never be identical. Unpredictable human bodies and the evident materiality of the stage will always get in the way of that possibility.

This is a much knottier idea than the above paragraph acknowledges, but I won’t attempt to untangle it here. Instead, a pair of examples serve to begin prodding at and problematising that idea of theatre as argument. In my MA thesis, I turned to Katie Mitchell’s production of Ten Billion at the Royal Court in 2012 – an intriguing example, because it’s about as argument-like as theatre gets. After I’d finished writing that thesis, of course, Ten Billion was followed up by 2071, another show about climate change that was seemingly resolute in its lack of theatricality. Billington unsurprisingly offered high praise to both, but I find the terms of that praise really fascinating.

Both Ten Billion and 2071 are explicitly “about” climate change, delivered by scientists (Stephen Emmott and Chris Ripley respectively) and more or less following the format of the lecture. Writing about both shows, Billington acknowledges their questionable relation to theatre in almost identical terms. Reviewing Ten Billion, he writes: “Some will argue this is a lecture, not theatre. But the distinction seems to me nonsensical”. In his review of 2071, he repeats the same point with slightly more force: “Some will argue that this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays”. He adds, in relation to Ten Billion, that “Theatre is whatever we want it to be and gains immeasurably from engaging with momentous political, social or scientific issues”.

While this tells us a lot about what Billington believes theatre’s purpose to be, there’s little in either review that refers to the theatricality of these events. Most of the space is taken up by relaying and assessing the persuasiveness of the argument in question, with only fleeting mentions of its staging. Going by Billington’s analysis, the facts, figures and conclusions provided by Emmott and Rapley might as well be read in a book. Concluding his five-star review of 2071, Billington surmises that “if we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition” – which he clearly does – “the evening succeeds on all counts”. But in what distinct ways does it succeed (or fail, depending on your opinion) as theatre?

Two other views, each more focused on what Ten Billion and 2071 gain or lose as theatre rather than as pure argument, offer an interesting comparison. Contrary to Billington’s entirely text-focused assessment of Ten Billion, Matt Trueman suggests that Katie Mitchell’s production complicates and problematises Emmott’s argument. “What we watch is 100% lecture and 100% theatre at the same time, and it absolutely thrives on the duality,” Trueman argues. He points to the tension between the naturalism of the staging – a form usually associated with illusion – and the hard facts of Emmott’s lecture, concluding that “we are set in a mode of doubting” as an audience. This built-in doubt, according to Trueman, mirrors the doubt we so often express in response to climate change, burying our heads in the sand when confronted with the stark reality of our planet’s plight. Mitchell, in this view, is doing something extremely sophisticated with her staging; “anyone that dismisses Ten Billion as ‘just a lecture’ is ‘just plain wrong'”.

Stewart Pringle‘s review of 2071 similarly concludes that theatre transforms the argument in question, but to wildly differing effect. Despite acknowledging that what Rapley tells us is all important information and that its presence in the Royal Court Downstairs “is itself a vital political statement”, Pringle argues that placing this lecture in a theatre context “has fatally undermined its utility as anything else”. He writes: “2071 brings something unusual to theatre (the monotonal tedium of a lecture), but theatre has brought next to nothing to it”. Having seen 2071 (I missed Ten Billion), I can agree that it was decidedly untheatrical in its presentation and distinctly dull as a result. As Pringle points out, it’s even less theatrical than most lectures.

In different ways, then, the status of Ten Billion and 2071 as theatre undermines – or at least alters – the arguments they present. The unpredictable “excess” of performance complicates matters. In the case of Ten Billion – if we go with Trueman’s opinion, anyway – the conflicting vocabularies of lecture and stage naturalism create a certain tension in our reception of Emmott’s evidence that would not be present were we reading it from the pages of a book. 2071, meanwhile, suffers from its framing as theatre, making a poor case for the necessity of its place on a stage at the same time as thrusting the theatre’s awkward materiality between audience and content. By actually putting arguments on stage, free from the clothing of narrative and metaphor, these two shows (intentionally or not) point up some of the difficulties around that prevalent “theatre as argument” view.

I want to turn again to a point I made in my MA thesis which feels relevant here: “If theatre – rather than any other public forum – is a uniquely powerful civic space, then surely there must be something it offers in its gathering of bodies that cannot be found in text alone; something in its very theatricality which challenges a critical interpretation of it as the straightforward thesis of the playwright.”

In other words, if there is something uniquely political about theatre – the nation’s “debating chamber”, as Higgins’ article has it – then it has to go beyond text. That’s not necessarily to say that only theatrical form, rather than content, can be political, as that can lead to similarly unthinking reproductions of an existing and supposedly radical set of assumptions. (I’m thinking here about certain formal gestures that were genuinely experimental and radical when they first emerged but have since congealed into their own set of tropes.) But if we limit our understanding of argument or politics to the text, then we ignore something vital about what theatre is and what it can do. After all, as Billington himself puts it, “Theatre is whatever we want it to be”.

P.S. As well as itching an intellectual scratch, this blog is something of a tentative experiment in how to connect my academic research with my thinking and writing elsewhere. In practice, of course, my dual existences often overlap, and everything tends to get thrown into a soupy (if frantically colour-coded) mixture of thoughts. But I’m interested in how to share more of my research process with a wider audience, so let me know what aspects of my PhD research you want to hear more about (“none of them” being a completely acceptable answer to that question).

2 thoughts on “Theatre as Argument

  1. hello
    i was just researching around a subject and came across this today and, instead of getting on with what im supposed to be doing, feel the need to scratch an itch of my own, that it has generated.
    I can’t really respond in academic terms and might sound a bit thick but for once i feel like i want to respond, despite that risk.

    It is very gratifying as a maker to have these questions raised which have been the bane of my life as an artist for a long time, and which, amazingly. don’t seem to have moved forward in the last 20 years very much.
    When you’re trying to do new things and not just repeat what is understood already to be good and interesting in the theatre, i feel often that audiences are dissuaded to come by critics who cannot see the work in front of them, because they can only see what is not there.
    And sometimes this criticism can get really spiteful and personal, which always takes me aback a little bit.
    They often express, in their reviews, their frustration that the work is not like other work they have seen before and they describe the absence of the familiar things they believe define good theatre as a fault in the work. This is seen as a demonstration of a lack of understanding of what you are doing, as laziness, and, because the meaning is not expressed in the place they are looking for it (normally the text,) to have no meaning at all and therefore to be shit and empty.
    While it is fine to present theatre with no attention to its theatrical context, if you present a play where its meaning or what it is about, is not expressed directly in the text, or if the text is actually deliberately undercutting or playing with the meaning, that is not ok.

    Rather than a journalistic training, many critics I have encountered have studied English Literature and believe a play can mean the same on the page as it does in a performance space. Words on a page are not so tricky as in the theatre, where multiple simultaneous complex contradictions can exist together with equal weight.
    They believe that good plays should carry meaning and a message explained in the text, demonstrated in the action, illustrated rather manifested and experienced. And written in the press pack.
    There is often no discussion of form as a carrier of meaning
    They believe theatre also requires a narrative ….but that’s a whole different story, and itch.
    For me, if the meaning of a play can be reduced into a few neatly placed sentences, then why would i bother leaving my house. Put them on twitter and i can save myself 30 quid and a whole load of time and hassle. I don’t need the company of actors, i have friends

    I love all theatre, including stuff for which the word is the driving force. But having an argument that can be easily extracted and quotable political standpoint should not be the holy grail to which we all aspire.

    I am often asked to talk to young audiences, who, knowing they have to write an essay about what they have seen, ask first every time ‘what is it about ?’. And they are looking for sound bites, they are looking for the blurb, the line, the meaning expressed in a paragraph.
    If you start to ask ‘what do you think it’s about ?’ and just get them to think and to consider a few simple questions about how and what they have just experienced and their relation to it, then they start to answer themselves. And its not in sound bites or a few neat sentences. It is about all kinds of experience and thoughts and stimuli and ideas and challenges and contradictions and questions and images and politics and magic – both personal and universal, and they get very animated and excited. They just don’t know thats what you re supposed to do in a theatre – to think about it and decide for yourself. They are looking for the line that has the answer, the one point score in the exam, the ‘it’s all secrets and lies’ of what it’s all about, that is in the title and then in the play, which they have been taught in schools to look for and expect. For most people their only experience of theatre is panto and reading it at school, picking out the lines to put in an essay to explain what it’s about.
    You are never taught even the vague possibility that the meaning can only truly exist in performance, that theatre doesn’t have to look like life and have a story like telly, or that you might need to do some of the work yourself and not just be told what to think by the actors.

    And so often the critics reinforce those things that teachers tell you at school . And most people trust that these people do it for a living so they can’t be telling you stuff thats subjective, reductive, reactionary and that they are getting away with it. And they teach you to be spoon fed, to accept what you’re told and not to look for answers yourself, to make sense for yourself.
    And so these expectations frame what we see and don’t see of what has meaning in performance, what is or isn’t political.

    And the one thing they do tell you is that it is ok to be emotionally manipulated into agreeing with a playwrights point of view by making his argument into a story that makes you cry

    So, if a critic in the paper points out to a punter that a show has no story and the words are nonsense, it has no meaning and is therefore shit. This assumes theatre needs meaning expressed literally in words and a good story to be valuable or political or important. If that punter does actually decide to go,( which after reading it’s shit they probably won’t), they will most likely see the same absences of the markers of ‘good theatre’ despite the fact they may have never been to the theatre before…which is a story (which illustrates the argument), words which talk about something important in a very literal way and ‘acting’
    So you may not be bored, you may have a memorable and effecting experience, you may have tons to think and talk about, but the pervasion of the critics personal tastes undermines all of that.
    Instead of trying to help people have a positive experience of the unfamiliar, the experimental, the risk taking and the bold, they seek to undermine it before the punter even steps up to collect their ticket.

    For me this is actually the bread and butter struggle i live with day to day – not a struggle to engage the punters (which is my priority), not to keep happy funders and producers, not to feel i am making work that is important, not to try to explore fundamentals of theatrical experience and push the boundries, not to make work which is not just good enough but the best it can be, not to create value for money for the audience and the arts council (and be aware that this is public money), not even just to put food on the table – it is the struggle to swerve the negativity of critics who think we should all be writing issue based plays that make them cry and have a cogent text based argument at their centre.

    i’m sure this isn’t what you are saying at all
    and i’d better get back on with my admin

    But I just wanted to say that all of this..
    because it’s annoying

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