I’ve never seen any Kane, and only heard little bits about her career. Before I quit writing them I seldom got to see any plays; now, in my quasi-dotage, I see them, but to no purpose.
A new post today by Alison Croggon, who has dominated my feed these past days, or more properly, given me something to think (and yabber) about. A review of a play by Sarah Kane, which totally makes me wish I could see it.
I’ve never seen any Kane, and only heard little bits about her career. Before I quit writing them I seldom got to see any plays; now, in my quasi-dotage, I see them, but to no purpose.
Her review of a play called Holding the Man showcases a quality that endears Alison Croggon to me:
“There are few more isolating experiences than sitting unmoved in an auditorium that echoes with muffled sobs.”
(Such an experience is not unknown to me in Chicago.)
“I don’t doubt for a moment the reality of the feelings prompted by this show, nor the sincerity of those who made it. And it's clearly struck a chord in a wide audience[.]”
“I... feel that these impassioned responses are less to the play itself than to its subject matter, and are validated by a sense of its authenticity.”
How reminiscent of the first review by Croggon that commanded my attention, which begins, “Theatre has made me well used to what Michael Billington once memorably termed ‘mutinous isolation’: sitting among a rapturously applauding audience as a personal black cloud rains down on my... brow.”
* * *
On YouTube one can find Croggon interviewing Tom Stoppard. I watched a little but I stoppard. Here she gives a very good disquisition of his work entire. I like Stoppard, reservedly, and have not seen his play Rock’n’Roll which prompts the review.
Through Alison Croggon’s blog, I became aware of this symposium held between Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Stanley Kaufmann. Bentley and Brustein formed early guideposts in my theatrical (and more explicitly playwriting) development. Bentley of course was always there with Brecht, an early inspiration; and Brustein’s books of criticism also felt inspirational, though many years later their interest wanes. (I wanted to submit my first plays to American Repertory Theatre which he headed, but the company refused unagented submissions and I had no agent.)
I’ve watched a little more than an hour of the video, and may leave off. But a moment at 50:45 struck home with me, where Roger Copeland (the moderator) mentions the “impoverishing pressure on the young playwright who wants to see his or her work produced” but is met with too many restrictions. Brustein answers, “And if that playwright does produce that play, he or she is told, ‘We’ll give you a reading, we’ll give you a workshop, we’ll give you another reading, we’ll give you another workshop,’ they never get productions.”
At least it clarifies for me my own situation. By 2007 I had fallen away from theater, and the recession of 2008 effectively marked the end of hope, though it is only in retrospect I can see and say that. I missed hearing of this symposium, so far away from the ground my ear was. I had been unable to wrest even a reading (except for one I and some friends pieced together) much less a production, but I didn’t understand the reasons. I refused to restrict myself to four-handers (four character plays à la Mamet), but in Chicago there has been leeway for a larger cast, and that room only expanded during my tenure.
Brustein follows his comment with mention of a famous speech by Richard Nelson, also which I did not hear of at the time but which summarized my central dilemma: the need, and inability to get a production. If I had heard of it, I might have joined the chorus denouncing “the system,” but I was already embroiled in other, more significant turmoils of my own.
August 31st marks the four-year anniversary of my writing on this. It’s mostly got to be ephemera (as does much else lol), but I cannot help reflecting since delving into Croggon lately. Her blog was extant for six years.
What I admire, or I should say enjoy mostly, is reading the comments, more than the actual reviews themselves (including Croggon’s). The plays or performances I never saw or will never see; but the discussion of issues is revealing. If a blog’s comment section is curated Croggon did a magnificent job. Many of the contributors appear on a first-name basis with each other; I suppose theatrics in Australia forms a close-knit community. The level of respectfulness is enviable.
I opted to leave the comment section of this blog off. Possibly I erred. But I had reasons. As a trial-run before establishing my own website I had an anonymous blog at Blogger. My experience was that no one commented, or when they did, it was spam.
I lack the diligence to foster a community, and also what I write about probably excites little interest. Trivial, spur-of-the-moment effusion mostly.
After the last presidential election, my Facebook account went dark for a year. In that time I read novels by the handful. Since I’ve resumed—though not to imply cause—my reading has diminished to barely a drip. Summer tends to be my slow time; winter’s cold forces you indoors, and reading is the perfect pastime. But otherwise, I’ve had to train myself to be a reader, it is not my natural proclivity—to contrast myself with something Alison Croggon says in this pleasant interview (“I’ve always been a word-centered person”).
The point is, I might easily foresee closing off my relationship with the internet altogether, including shutting down this site. (No plans; but certain fees associated with its maintenance might easily be forgotten.) Much of what I have done—self-publishing books, starting a website, learning to write a bit of prose and “indulging” in “criticism,” was done primarily with a view to broadening the exposure of my work. The impulse no longer drives me.
At one time I had hoped that writing might open up (directly or indirectly) a career path that would enable me to do more writing. That never happened. Had I broken into the theatrical community in Chicago, and gotten productions, I would easily have doubled the number of finished plays under my belt; now however—with this last election—conditions for the type of comedy I did have evaporated (essentially a free citizenry), and, as time prolongs the hiatus, I don’t know if I would be able to write another play at all, much less figure out a new mode suitable for new times.
August 31st is not an anniversary I will celebrate. It seems a noteworthy benchmark, however, in that if I follow precedent set, “endarkenment” (to use one of Michael Ventura’s favorite words) should be expected about two years from now.
To address this morning’s post. I had fully intended (see yesterday) to let the Theatre Notes blog go. In a final note before closing it, Croggon informed “After receiving an offer I couldn’t refuse, I am now Performance Critic At Large... for ABC Arts Online.” Taking it that that site would bring me to more recent archives featuring Croggon’s work, I visited, and almost immediately clicked on something referencing the “Bill Henson affair” (my shorthand). Croggon became instrumental in mustering up a public defense of a photographer accused of pornography.
The blog post linked and many subsequent ones carried on the discussion (and at times debate). Individual comments (and of course what Croggon said) aroused my interest, and so I followed, contrary to my intention to leave go of the blog. I still so intend, and would like to find something better (like a book of essays) to give me an inroad into Croggon’s more recent criticism.
Criticism interests me more than the latest manifestation of an art vs. pornography debate which I have lived long enough to see on a multiplicity of occasions. At times I felt like leaping into the fray with comments of my own (though I would have nothing significant to add) but I noted as it devolved Croggon began to close blog threads anyway because of having to deal with a spammer.
Two monks were traveling together. One of them carried a lady across a river despite the fact that contact with a female is forbidden. The other monk reported this to their master, accusing the first monk of harboring erotic thoughts. The master told the second monk that the fact that he is the one dwelling on this indicates he is the one who should rethink himself, not the first monk.
Ugh. I have waded into controversy again.
I will give up scrolling back on Alison Croggon’s blog. If I go any further it will be reading theater reviews a decade old or older. The rewards are few. (’Tis the nature of the beast, not a specific fault.)
What have I seen? There were an interesting ten paragraphs about Brecht, culminating with and only marred by attribution to Brecht of a quote about “grab[bing] them by the balls” that the internet does not support him saying and if he did, isn’t very inspirational or insightful either. The long passage begins: “Fame, so the proverb goes, is a calamity. To be sure, it's the kind of calamity that looks like a privilege, a disaster that masquerades as respect.”
Another entry quotes Croggon’s own essay from elsewhere:
“One of the great attractions of writing about the performing arts is its impossibility. The greater the impact of a work, the more difficult it is to convey accurately what that experience was. The experience is translated from the immediate present where it lives and exists, into a past tense, which makes it what it never was: a complete and finite object, now preserved in the distorting aspic of memory. Theatre is not a recordable experience: its repetition is, even in its crudest forms, not a reproduction so much as an imitation of its earlier performances. Even filming a performance is unsatisfactory: however artfully done, the most essential aspect of the performance, its elusive present-ness, its quality of being created in the moment before an audience, is irretrievably lost.”
As happens periodically in the art world, now and again a controversy erupts. In Croggon’s blog you only get one side of it, and relevant links have been broken, so it is hard—especially for one with little familiarity with the arts in Australia—to get a sense of the factions. A staging of a Pinter play with a primarily aboriginal cast gets Croggon’s review.
The controversy flowers a fortnight later. Even without understanding the parameters of the issues hashed out and aired in the comment section (there are 41 comments), the back-and-forth discussion maintains a tone of friendly courtesy that our highly-charged partisanship nine years later (at least in the US) seems to have forgotten how to offer to the point of incapacity. One anonymous comment strikes with a poignancy and universal relevance that the rest of the debate—and indeed much of the blog—lacks. (To reiterate, the fault lies with the form, not the iteration.) Anonymous declares:
We have a theatre culture that is timid, white, polite, subservient, less brave than just about every abuse victim (read: every single abo there is in this country). You mention writers up there that by and large are so timid, so safe, so fucking private school it is an offense to say they are important writers.
Here endeth my foray into Ye Blogge of Croggon
An affectionate take on Shakespeare:
“An exemplar of art’s subversiveness is of course Shakespeare. On the one hand, he can be used as the ultimate symbol of establishment values, but think also how he was used as a tool to express political dissent in 1960s Poland. Within Shakespeare’s plays is a deep critique of the nature of power which can never be wholly disguised, although it can be made unjustly dull. His brilliance was in his anarchy, which doesn’t permit the total closing off the contradictions present in his plays. He creates a disturbing beauty from the contradictions he sets in play, which makes his works fascinating and complex and deeply satisfying expressions of humanity.”
— “The Poetic of Theatre” by Alison Croggon
A friend — after I linked to Thursday's post on Facebook — followed the links to one of Croggon’s essays, and reported that he found her “a decent writer, what.” (I would hesitate to post someone who was not.) I replied:
“I'm glad you read it. Actually I was thinking of you as I read it and thought you might find it interesting.
“I look forward to seeing Croggon’s future pieces. At least by this archive, I find the older pieces narrower and more restrained — this book of poems reviewed and no more — whereas as she gets accustomed to her metier she seems (as is common) more easy with broad sweeping generalizations, which is when criticism gets really fun for me.”
Alas, the postings from the old blog — absent the recognition of a substantial subject like Churchill — become, as I feared, a tad tedious. Certainly some of mine at this site have aged even more poorly (I went so far as to put some of them in a book), but I save them stand “for posterity,” warts and all, or at least until I let the website lapse, wilfully or through inadvertence.
My reading of Alison Croggon has hit a paywall, alas. Much of her contemporary criticism appears to be available at a website of her own co-creation, and access to all content is not free.
Apparently until about six years ago she blogged—theater reviews mostly as far as I can tell, which tend to have no enduring shelf-life (even the writings of the great Brustein, alas), so I will be “picky and choosy” about entering in.
A review of Caryl Churchill struck my eye—Churchill whom I have assessed as the greatest living playwright of my lifetime (though my exposure is limited). Even Churchill’s plays are seldom staged in Chicago, though that has changed in recent years. I saw Top Girls not long ago and mentioned it in this blog. The production I saw was flawed; but the script held—as you would expect with Churchill. Croggon has this to say:
Churchill exposes... questions with a text that remains formally audacious, and which made me reflect how slight are the ambitions of most contemporary plays. She combines a sense of total formal freedom with an almost icy control of her metaphors. I’ve noticed before that Churchill's work has an odd effect: it's only at the end that everything suddenly slots into place. It's as if she is building an architecturally impossible arch, which may fall down at any moment: and then, in the final moments, she places the keystone, and all at once the structure reveals itself as clear and formally irreproachable. It’s this almost magical reflexiveness, a mixture of complete imaginative freedom and stern dramaturgical and stylistic discipline, that makes her one of the major English language playwrights of the past half century.
Linked in the body of this review was another review of a Churchill play, The Skriker which is the play that put me into Churchill’s camp permanently after a showing at Chicago’s Defiant Theatre company which I saw first by accident then a second time by design, at a time when I had only written a sparse number of plays. When I had the chance—up in Stratford, Ontario, I think—I got to pick up a couple Methuen collections of her plays which I devoured with avidity. I seldom read plays—almost never anymore—but in Churchill’s case there was no option. Had I not already found it years before in Brecht and Pinter, Churchill might well have been my “gateway drug” to theater, to use a metaphor Croggon is fond of.
Actually—there’s been no “gateway drug” to theater for me. Pinter I read for the writing, before I had any sense of the staging of things. (Decades passed before I saw a production.) Brecht pulled me in as literature: initial readings of Galileo and Mother Courage showed me “characters” to rival Shakespeare’s palpably (something Pinter’s never did, obviously, but no one else's either, less obviously, in such plays as I was exposed to in such school readings I had read by assignment).
Still, I found no impetus to playwriting, or even reading of plays, till nearly thirty years of age, when I determined to try to find something which (I hoped) might to lead to a career. It was only after picking up the pen, shirtsleeves rolled up so to speak, that I understood the illusory nature of “persons in the play” or “characters”—something Mamet is clear on though I arrived independently to that conclusion.
Recently I read, and commented on, a review of a play that, but for its shortness, almost felt like a careful (correct and astute) evisceration. The reviewer, Alison Croggon, was unfamiliar to me, though a bit of Googling put me in touch with a trove of articles she did (and possibly ongoing?) for a publication called Overland, which I had only recently seen in another context.
As it turns out, I quite probably had seen one of the pieces there previously, through a Facebook friend’s link, as one of the sentences (quoted below) rung with the familiarity of something heard before. Usually a line makes an impression, and you can never remember where you heard it; but here a circuitous route brought me back.
I know little of the author; only that Alison Croggon, like Elizabeth Alexander the inaugural poet, is almost my exact contemporary. It is always exciting to find a new writer; but to find a peer, even more so, because the yardstick with which to measure—compare and contrast—is so nearly equivalent.
I read a few essays sporadically, then decided to return systematically, and as I did, jotted down a number of quotes, either a sentence or a paragraph, that struck my interest, whether or not I endorsed the sentiment. Here they follow with links to their original source. Because I originally had not intended to make extractions, I have probably omitted some juicy bits. All quotations by Alison Croggon at Overland followed by the (linked) title of the article whence they come:
“Some writers, like the poet Basil Bunting, think of writing as if it’s a kind of masonry. ‘Words! / Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write.’ Something in me admires that manly confidence, the assumption that, once written, the word is there forever. Another part of me feels that it’s an understanding of language that diminishes its power, the equivalent of taking a live butterfly and pinning it to a board.”
“Power is always flexible in its own self-preservation. I often remember the rebel aristocrat Tancredi, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard, advising the Leopard on how to preserve his family’s privilege: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.’ Think, for example, of how the right wing has so successfully adopted the politics of grievance and victimhood, and pushes the prominence of the odd exceptional women to bruit its own denatured version of feminism.”
“The so-called reason that exists without imagination or feeling seems to me to be the opposite of rationality, a maimed thing that substitutes authority for critical thought and that, in its application in the world, can only lead to horrific irrationalities.”
“Kindness is, first of all, an act of solidarity.”
(“On Acts of Solidarity”)
“[M]y egocentricity awakens a dread of solipsism.”
(“On the Black Dog”)
“If art is useful, it’s because it generates meanings.”
(On Art as Therapy")
“The courteous racist insinuates that non-white people are – at the core of their natures – inferior human beings…"
(“On Rude Words”)
“I live in a culture in which literacy is privileged, often savagely, at the expense of other kinds of knowledge.”
(“On Reading Time and Memory")
“Every judgement on art is an impulse towards hierarchy. These judgements may be hotly argued rankings of material or intellectual or aesthetic value; they may be as simple as a person claiming they love one movie and hate another. But these hierarchies are fatally volatile, doomed from the outset to collapse inward on themselves. Aesthetic – the quality most identified with art – is inherently inimical to hierarchy. Judgement is an order that must always be imposed after the fact on an experience that radically destabilises the very existence of authority.”
“Art isn’t moral in itself – it cannot be moral in itself – but it activates and articulates moral thought.”
"In even its most perverse forms, art is radically innocent.”
“Art is a technology for consciousness…"
“When I think about art, I mean freedom.”
“Without public funding, many people would never encounter art at all.”
“[F]or me writing remains, at a profound level, significantly about not having a career.”
(“On Not Having a Career”)
A new poem is always news to the poet.