Monday, 8 September 2014

On theatre, magic and faith

A talk I gave on Saturday at the Emerging Writers' Festival in Adelaide. I spoke alongside playwright Phillip Kavanagh and critic Jane Howard, who chaired the subsequent panel discussion.

A good friend of mine who is a theatre director confided in me recently – he wasn’t sure if he liked theatre or not. He’s still very young, younger than me, and I think I’d asked him whether or not he wanted to keep on directing plays. I was taken aback at first – where was his commitment, his passion, his undying belief in the transformative power of the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd? And then I remembered – I’d heard this sort of thing before. In hushed tones in theatre foyers mainly, but also on university campuses, in rehearsal rooms and bars. 

The same sentiment popped up in a recent essay by Back to Back Theatre’s Bruce Gladwin and in a book I’d started to read, Darren O’Donnell’s Social Acupuncture. Gladwin, to be clear, loves making theatre – he was reflecting on people he had worked with who apparently do not. Then there is the case of one of Australia’s most important playwrights, Patrick White. Andrew Fuhrmann wrote of White in an essay for the Australian Book Review last year that: “as a playwright he offers that intriguing combination of profoundly felt obsession and frustration with the stage.” Another 20th century literary light, Dennis Potter, was so frustrated by the stage that he never bothered to write for it at all. The loss was, undoubtedly, the theatre’s.

But there must have been a reason White continued to write for the stage, even as his plays continued to be met with puzzlement and indifference by critics and audiences. Playwrights, it seems to me, are uniquely bad at articulating what it is about their chosen form of expression that makes them want to keep doing it. I’ve never heard a novelist say that they doubt whether a novel can change the world, or a filmmaker say that they suspect the cinema can’t tell the sorts of stories they want to tell. If anything, arts makers in other fields seem to have an inflated sense of the value of what they do. 

In his essay, Fuhrmann wrote that what White wanted from theatre was “magic and dreams and, where the magic was potent enough, love, the kind of world-consuming love that exceeds the scope of the stage and justifies the theatre as a place of worship and enlightenment: a place to nurture faith and the inner life, and a place to renew our vision of the world.”  White expressed this himself in a monologue from his virtually forgotten play Shepherd on the Rocks: “Are you for magic? I am. Inadmissible when we are taught to believe in science or nothing. Nothing is better. Science may explode in our faces. So I am for magic. For dream. For love.”

Would it be somehow sacrilegious, then, to think about where our love for theatre comes from – the science, if you will, behind our dazzlement in the face of its enchantments? Human beings have always been attracted to magical explanations but it seems to me that theatre makers fail themselves, the art form and the culture if we cannot or will not communicate its distinctive pull. Yes, the bad plays and professional disappointments wear us down. That’s the easy bit. They are the excuses that are always close at hand. But just as good criticism must always have more to do with love than hate, even when its subject is the most flawed art, so the act, the ritual of making theatre demands that we think the world of it and that it, in turn, may deliver us as much. You have got to be for magic.

“Playwrights,” the critic Alison Croggon has said, “differ from other writers because the demands of their form are different. Writing a play requires another kind of imagination to that of a novel: a precise sense of the spatial dynamics of a stage, a musical intuition for the rhythms of spoken language, a certain fondness for the necessary vulgarities and strict limitations of theatre. Above all, a playwright is a writer who collaborates.”

Croggon also reminds us of a neglected point of difference between playwrights and other kinds of writers: their literariness. In the hands of White’s detractors the word was a weapon but it need not have been. Text-based theatre makes the stage a uniquely concentrated and gymnastic site for the written word – playwrights should not be afraid to say so. If I was asked to remind myself of why I still want to write for the stage I would perhaps think of one of those many moments I’ve sat in a dark, bare theatre and watched a world be born in front of me: Aston’s monologue in Pinter’s Caretaker, those weird harmonies of interweaving lines in Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, Mark Antony’s wrenching eulogy for Caesar by Shakespeare. Yes, such moments are group efforts – writer, director, actor, designer all contribute – but it is the words that light the fire that wards off the darkness.

It is moments like these that I think theatre makers have to get better at articulating, or at least acknowledging. They intoxicate in a way that, for me at least, is unique, and never fails to send me drunkenly back to the keyboard to do better. When I think of these moments, the question of why anybody would still want to make theatre starts to seem less like a question than an evasion. What else is there?

For all the ways theatre frustrates those who make it – the realpolitik it cannot seem to change, those ‘necessary vulgarities and strict limitations’ it cannot seem to free itself from – there is a nakedness to it, an almost gladiatorial way of being exposed that makes it a special proving ground for writers. The rewards, when they come, are received by the audience as much as by the playwright. Only a play has ever made me want to run screaming into the street outside from some terrifyingly but brilliantly revealed truth. Hold onto moments like those and you’ll never forget why you always seem to end up back in the auditorium, waiting for the lights to go down and the magic to begin again. 

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