A Tissue of Quotations: Theatre & Authorship

To state that theatre is an essentially ephemeral art form would seem to be a reiteration of the obvious. The distinct nature of performance lies in its liveness, its specific relationship with a specific set of audience members at a specific moment in time, none of which can ever quite be replicated. At a less specific level, each production is a crystallized present moment, an entity that exists only for the length of its run and is determined by a very particular set of choices and aesthetics. Theatre is, at its heart, a fleeting phenomenon.

Yet we remain, at least in British theatre culture, obsessed with preservation, with legacy, and with the rigidly hierarchical process of pinning a production down to a single authoritative source for the purposes of that preservation. Hence the primacy of the “author”. And I was, initially, as unquestioningly compliant with this notion of authorship as anyone else; it is, after all, easier for the purposes of a review to assume that the content of the piece has been born from the mind of the writer and to conflate all connecting themes, threads and resonances with the intention of the playwright. But such assumptions have been bracingly unsettled by the recent focus on British theatre’s false dichotomy between “new writing” and “new work”, a dichotomy which I would argue has deeply ingrained notions of authorship at its core.

There are many perceived differences underlying this opposition between what has been loosely referred to as text-based and non-text-based theatre, differences connected with narrative, character, aesthetic etc., but it seems to me that the unifying aspect at their centre is the presence or absence of a single author. Text-based work is typically associated with naturalism, linear narrative and a coherent driving “message” because it is supposed to be the creation of one dominant creator, one authorial “voice”, with all other elements of the production harnessed to serve the vision outlined in the text. Non-text-based work, by contrast, is seen as eschewing all of these notions of linearity and coherence because it has been conceived by a devising ensemble and consists of a multiplicity of voices.

Of course, such assumptions are often not the case in practice, but while the moment of performative realisation may be more democratic, it is the author whose name will remain attached to the work long after its production. For this reason, as Kat Joyce eloquently argues in her guest column over at Exeunt, work that does not have a clear hierarchy of authorship and that explicitly depends upon the nature of its liveness risks being obliterated by the very text-based process of historicising, thus perpetuating the supremacy of scripted work. In Joyce’s words:

“At its deepest level, does a system which fixates on individuals and playtexts also radically undervalue the potentials and possibilities of live performance in all its unfixed, unstable, temporary glory?”

It is clear – at least to me – that we need to rethink our rigid definition of authorship if we are not to devalue the moment of performance and neglect a huge swathe of this country’s theatrical output. But this isn’t just about recognising the work of devising companies, because recognition alone does not necessarily smash down the persistent divide between text-based and non-text-based work (undeniably reductive and misleading labels, but ones which are handy for the purposes of this piece). Negotiating that divide and the reasons behind it is much trickier.

It boils down, I think, to an idea of authorship that extends beyond the realm of theatre and performance. We are part of a literary culture which is, as Roland Barthes put it in his seminal essay “The Death of the Author”, “tyrannically centred on the author”. Throughout secondary school, students are encouraged to interrogate texts in order to unveil their “meaning”, as if reading was one long act of detective work, with the author’s intention enshrined at its centre. While university courses in literature explore a much more nuanced approach to textual analysis, there is a general subscription to the prominence of the author in all text-based art forms, an approach that has insidiously crept into understandings of theatre.

Because such an author-centred approach is key to our culture, much talk in theatre has been given over to “serving the text”, “serving the writer”, “staying true to the writer’s intention” etc. Within such a model, all other elements of a production become tools to illuminate the writer’s purpose and the other creatives involved are viewed as little more than vehicles to convey an overarching authorial “message”.

The problems and contradictions inherent in this model can be illustrated by a couple of examples drawn from conversations I’ve had with theatremakers, examples which I’m sure are not unique. Discussing feedback that she’d received about her interpretation of Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, Greyscale’s Selma Dimitrijevic told me that audiences seemed outraged about certain directorial choices that she had made (the most discussed of these being her decision to cast male actors as women) until they became aware that she had also written the play. Apparently directorial interpretation is only acceptable when it originates from the writer. On a slightly different note, Thomas Eccleshare expressed his frustration with the fact that, despite creating work for two years with his company Dancing Brick, it was only when he won the Verity Bargate Award that he earned the label of “writer”, with devised work remaining stubbornly excluded from the narrow category of new writing.

Joyce’s column, which draws partly from her own experiences as the co-artistic director of physical theatre ensemble tangled feet, again expands on the difficulties posed by a culture which places a disproportionate value on the written text, while Hannah Silva has blogged on numerous occasions about the restrictive definition of new writing that prevails in this country and the difficulties of negotiating that definition (I can’t track down the exact piece that I have filed away at the back of my mind, but read her blog for some fantastic reflections and provocations about writing for theatre).

There’s much more to say about how the divide between text-based and non-text-based theatre has been reinforced, particularly through the Arts Council funded new writing drives referred to in Alex Chisholm’s essay for Exeunt, but I’d like to remain focused on this central notion of authorship, its complexities and how it might be reconfigured. Barthes, who I have already quoted, provides one answer to how the false idol of the author might be displaced. He describes the text as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In other words, no piece of writing is truly original and all writers are continually quoting their antecedents.

If we accept Barthes’ definition of the text, authorship is at best an act of curation and interpretation – not, really, all that different from directing. In a staunch defence of the writer’s intention in his essay “Interpretation – To Impose or Explain”, playwright Arnold Wesker posited this argument in order to deride it, laughing at the possibility of “interpreting an interpretation”. I would contest, however, that this is not such a ridiculous idea. Not only might a writer produce an interpretation rather than an utterly original source text, but that interpretation might be jointly (re)interpreted by director, performers and entire creative team in collaboration with the writer (or writers), acknowledging that theatre is an emphatically collaborative art form.

It is also worth briefly interrogating the term “text”, which I’ve been carelessly throwing around as if it had one single, fixed meaning. This term is generally interpreted to mean the written text in the form of a conventional script, but it can – and perhaps should – be expanded to include the entire dramatic text, encompassing all elements of a production and its reception, acknowledging a circuit that is completed by the audience. I’m reminded of another discussion with Selma Dimitrijevic, in which there was some consideration of the similarly unstable word “play”; Selma said that she typically interprets this to refer exclusively to the written script, but it is used interchangeably by critics, at some times indicating the script and at other times the whole production.

Bringing critics into the mix flags up their (our?) role in this binary. There is a tendency, conscious or not, to write separately about all the individual elements of a production, isolating writing, direction, design and performance in a sort of criticism by numbers that I know I’ve been guilty of employing. This is often a case of convenience and is to an extent inevitable; without having observed the process, which is another debate entirely, it’s impossible to know who was responsible for each and every creative choice. Yet there is a danger, because criticism again holds a certain lasting currency by virtue of its written format, that a failure by critics to acknowledge the collaborative nature of work will perpetuate the schism. I’m not yet entirely sure how this danger can be overcome, but it’s worth considering.

Having scratched away a little, if only fairly superficially, at the notion of authorship, how might it be possible to rethink the format of the legacising theatrical (written) text? To answer this question, it’s also necessary to answer the question of what a playtext is for. Physical theatre company Square Peg summed it up nicely in a response on Twitter: “Is the script the beginning or the end of a process? A document or an instruction? Can it not be both?” I’d agree that the written element of theatre has a dual role, acting as a (non-fixed) jumping off point and as a form of preservation, though both of these twin roles are slippery.

Some intriguing questions were asked via a recent conversation on Twitter between Bryony Kimmings and Oberon Books, with contributions from others, which was one of the catalysts for nailing down these thoughts. As later blogged by Kimmings, she wanted to explore whether the kind of art she creates could be published as a script, and if so what form that might take. She asked: “How does a live artist that plays in the Cabaret space at Soho Theatre and just did her first stand up gig get her work published … does she need to?”

The need could be quite persuasively argued as a form of documentation and legacy, a way of recording live art in the same way as text-based theatre. The question of format, however, is less easily answered. Would it be a script detailing the original performance, or a DIY kit allowing space for interpretation? It all depends, of course, on whether a work is intended to be produced again. At the risk of banging on about it yet again, here I think it’s interesting to bring in the example of Three Kingdoms (which also, though I won’t discuss it here, provides an interesting challenge to British theatre’s text bias, possibly offering a way to bridge the gap). Here is a playscript that differs so dramatically from Sebastian Nübling’s production that they are really two different texts. Were anyone brave enough to attempt another production, would they start from Simon Stephens’ script or from its collective realisation on stage?

Much more could be written on this thorny issue, but for now I’d just like to bring in one final example that complicates matters even further. In the absence of a space at Edinburgh this year, Forest Fringe have made the fascinating decision to “create a performance space built not of bricks and mortar but paper and ink”. Paper Stages is a book co-authored (again destabilising the concept of a single voice of authority) by a wide range of Forest Fringe artists and made available for festival-goers to perform themselves. There will as a result be multiple dramatic texts, many performed in the absence of audiences and without documentation, giving fluid meaning to ideas of authorship, performance, reception and collaboration.

A script is not fixed or indeed finished until the moment of performance and reception, but perhaps a performance’s documentation is equally unfixed. To come full circle, theatre is ephemeral. While preservation remains an important concern for artists attempting to secure their place within a text-biased culture, there is an argument that to resist the uniqueness of live performance is essentially futile. We should be celebrating liveness, not attempting to solidify it.


Why So Shocked? The Art of Unsettling

A nightly explosion is taking place on the stage of Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. As Greenhouse Theatre Company’s performance of Mercury Fur enters its devastating, loud and bloody conclusion, audience members alternately lean forwards and recoil; heaving, audible sobs echo around the intimate, claustrophobic space; a couple of theatregoers seem on the verge of complete breakdown. Never have I felt an audience so unified in tension, shock and emotional release.

The visceral punch of Mercury Fur is nothing new. When the play premiered in 2005, it was quickly labelled as Philip Ridley’s most controversial work to date, and Faber and Faber famously refused to publish the playscript on the grounds of its shocking content. It was a reaction that continues to infuriate Ridley. Speaking in an interview with Exeunt’s Tom Wicker, the playwright says, perhaps flippantly but nonetheless incisively, “if I’d reinvented Mercury Fur as a lost Greek tragedy and set it in Thebes, no one would have batted an eyelid”.

It only takes a cursory glance at the canon of Greek tragedy to prove Ridley’s point; Medea, for instance, kills her own children, while Oedipus famously sleeps with his mother and plucks out his own eyes. The significant fact to remember about Greek drama, however, is its origin in myth. The theatre of Ancient Greece was born as a way of exploring the contemporary problems and issues ailing the Athenians, but through a medium that was divorced from the citizens’ everyday lives. We might ask ourselves how much has really changed since the days of Sophocles and Euripides. Do we continue to be more comfortable with depictions of human cruelty when they are one step removed from our immediate experience?

In order to investigate the unique fascination and repulsion provoked by “shock theatre”, as we might label it for the purposes of this blog, it may be helpful to consider this within the wider context of other cultural mediums that also deal with acts of human brutality and the uncomfortable themes of death and decay. Two such genres that seem particularly relevant at present are dystopian fiction and film, which have seen an extraordinary resurgence in the teenage market, and the confrontational art that emerged in the 1990s and is exemplified by Damien Hirst’s current retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Firstly, dystopian fiction may be nothing new, but it is undoubtedly experiencing a fresh renaissance and a new legion of fans. This can in part be attributed to the ubiquity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of books, now also a box office smashing film franchise, although this is only part of a larger, thriving teenage market for dystopian narratives. Of course, as proved by the enduring popularity of novels such as 1984 and more recent hits like The Road, it is not only the youngsters with a taste for the post-apocalyptic, but it is the hunger of the young adult market for this challenging fare that has brought dystopia right back to the forefront of the literary marketplace.

In her article for the New Yorker, Laura Miller argues that the appeal of dystopian fiction for younger readers derives from the way in which these novels, however far-fetched, identify with the realities of teenage experience. Miller also points out that the major way in which dystopian fiction differs from its older sibling is in its conclusion: young adult dystopias favour salvation and catharsis, whereas the grown-up version typically ends in crushing despair. But in either case, no matter how gruesome – The Hunger Games hinges around children fighting to the death for public entertainment; in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel The Road, a baby is roasted on a spit – readers and viewers, young and old alike, happily gobble it up.

The work of the media-dubbed Young British Artists of the 1990s, meanwhile, is similarly gruesome and provocative, though not as easily accepted. When Hirst first unleashed his formaldehyde creations on the world, the art establishment did not know what to make of them, initiating a stunned disgust that would accompany the rise of Hirst and his peers. There are, in fact, many parallels that can be drawn between the work of these artists and the In-Yer-Face theatre movement that surfaced at the same time and was characterised by the plays of writers such as Ridley, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, parallels that are helpfully highlighted in Stewart Pringle’s excellent essay for Exeunt. The art, however, has seemingly mellowed with age in a way that the theatre has not, at least in the eyes of onlookers.

As Pringle ultimately argues, the output of the likes of Hirst and Tracey Emin has lost its shock and the “theatrical frisson” that made its name. Visual works of art are crystallized, static, trapped within the moment of their creation, and as such the shock of their reception is dulled by the passing of the years. This is something that Ridley, himself a visual artist as well as a writer, is acutely aware of. As he puts it in the interview with Wicker, “young audiences, families, will go to the Tate Modern and happily walk through sliced up sheep, pickled sharks and unmade beds with tampons on them. But do something like that in a stage play and people are outraged and you’re a ‘shockmaster’.”

It is clear, then, that theatre is still capable of ruffling critical feathers. The most striking recent example of this was Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts’ outraged diatribe against the provocative output of subsidised theatres, which he depicted as profane “gobblers” of public money. Expressing his opinion is one thing, and is after all what he is paid to do, but Letts was also allegedly involved in some shocking behaviour of his own. According to playwright Dan Rebellato, the critic tried to persuade the Lyric Hammersmith’s private donors to withdraw their money after the theatre staged a revival of Edward Bond’s seminal post-war play Saved.

If true, Letts’ actions are disgraceful, but that is a rant for another time, and one that Rebellato articulates far more eloquently than I could hope to. Placing this to one side, it is worth considering just what made Letts so incensed. The critic expresses concern about the decline of “communal decency” and distaste for the prevalence of bad language and violence, both of which are no doubt considered offensive by some theatregoers, in which case they have the choice not to buy a ticket or to leave before the end. We are, like Letts, all entitled to our own opinions and tastes.

Yet Letts’ argument seems to hinge on boredom. He admits that he fell victim to a “huge yawn” during the baby stoning scene in Saved, and states that in today’s theatre, “rape, murder, nudity and profanity have lost their shock value”, becoming “almost de rigueur”. However, his actions, as Rebellato points out, tell a different story. Likewise, the collective reaction to the denouement of Mercury Fur – a reaction which, by all accounts, was typical of the entire run – stands as testimony that the play has lost none of its vicious sting. Theatre such as this has the same bruising impact as it always has, and this is what Letts, beneath his affectation of ennui, seems to object to.

The answer to why theatre retains the ability to shock and to provoke such vehement reactions would appear to lie in the nature of its liveness and immediacy. Or, as Pringle puts it, plays such as Mercury Fur are “revived through the living, in a living space which has grown out of its own era”. It is perhaps not what is actually being portrayed that we struggle to accept as much as the proximity – both physical and psychological. Whether safely enclosed within the pages of a book or behind a cinema screen, or set in a comfortingly distant dystopian wasteland or mythical Greek realm, we can swallow our dose of cruelty when its side-effects seem not to touch us. It is only when these dark imaginings are diagnosed as a very real presence in human nature within today’s society that the cultural arbiters of that society shun it, deride it, even condemn it. Theatre should, in the words of Hamlet, “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”, but apparently only when that reflection is not an ugly one.

Reflection is something that Letts also seems to have a problem with in his article. He asks whether we should “take the view that, like Shakespearean court jesters, subsidised thespians are there to hold a mirror to our failings”. The answer, it seems to me even if not to Letts, is yes. Great theatre can also, as Letts suggests it might, aspire to change society in some way, but his belief that theatre makers should “use their power to mend our country instead of simply ‘reflecting’ it” feels like backward logic. Only once we have made the diagnosis can we turn our minds to finding a cure.

As depressing as it may sound, there seems to me little doubt that this shock theatre does reflect a buried, ugly side of human nature. Who was not, like Narcissus, both intrigued and enchanted by their own image when first viewing it in a mirror? I suspect that what disgusts and repels us about disturbing works of art is also what attracts us; we see something of ourselves, or at least of the human condition, in what is presented before us. Dystopian narratives and shock theatre alike speak to an aspect of human nature that is as unsettling as it is irrefutable.

While Elliot’s recollection of riots on the streets in Mercury Fur feels chillingly prescient in the light of the events of last summer, the issues dealt with by this and similar plays are not, as their critics seem to think they are, exclusive to this particular moment in time. Society may currently feel particularly broken, but these are universal, timeless concerns; as director Paul Davies says in reference to A Clockwork Orange – another controversial, dystopian narrative – “civilisation is a veneer”. All that the likes of Ridley are doing is chipping away at that veneer to expose the darkness beneath. And that darkness, as made clear by our ongoing fascination with works of art such as those discussed above, has always been there.