Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Death of Dramaturgy: Strike One (comic)

The Death of Dramaturgy: Don't Be Absurd.

While Brecht was giving it the Bob the Builder routine, another bunch of playwrights had noticed that, actually, the USA had dropped a nuclear bomb and, as Dr Carl Lavery will tell you, the environment itself had gone deadly. The absurdists went all emo, sat in the corner and whispered that all this fuss about existence was meaningless. The universe is absurd, nothing is solid, nothing has worth and the best bet is just... whatever.

After World War II, in Germany, the absurdists made a great deal of sense. Interestingly, Waiting for Godot was big hit in America's prisons. Futility, boredom, chaos (but not the fun chaos the Romantics spotted in a thunderstorm) were self-evident. Having a message - like in Brecht's parable plays - was straight up dishonest. The only message possible was that there is no message.

Beckett is a great example for this. While dramaturgy pays attention to the structure and form of a production, and places it at the service of the content, Waiting for Godot has no concern about what happens: it's the structure that matters, and the structure is telling the audience that life just goes on and on in a big pointless circle. Endgame's another: half the time, the characters are pointing out that this is a play. The content is placed at the service of the form, and the form is empty. This is an anti-dramaturgy. Reason can just piss off. And as for political engagement... well...

Left-wing critic and the first man to say 'fuck' on TV, Kenneth Tynan, had a square go with Ionesco, accusing him of ignoring the political potential of theatre. Ionesco was like, no. The existential condition trumps the political. Tynan said that buying cigarettes was a political action, before smoking himself into an early grave. Ionesco nearly wrote a play for Tommy Cooper. Is that true? Does it matter? Not in the context of the universe's complete lack of interest in Mankind. 

The absurdists didn't kill dramaturgy, they just negated its ambition. Naturalistic touches were out, reason was just another way of wasting time and as for political theatre... 

In all of this, dramaturgy (meaning 'strategies for producing theatre') did not die. But the Lessing-Diderot vision was being occluded. But let's jump forward to 1992, Atlanta. Then we can really kill the beast.

The Death of Dramaturgy: It Lives!

But maybe the genius didn't kill dramaturgy. Maybe it was more like that time in Sleeping Beauty, when the prick was not death but simply a long snooze. Sometime around the late nineteenth century, dramaturgy's concerns with reason were re-awakened: the kiss came not from a prince, but celebrity playwright and mutton-chops George Bernard Shaw.

Before he became a playwright, GBS was a critic. It's frankly difficult to tell whether he liked a play or not from his reviews, but it is clear that he liked himself quite a bit. He's got a touch of the Lessings about him: the subject composedly under considerable is just a platform for a long leap into whatever had GBS' attention. 

Between mocking Shakespeare, GBS championed Ibsen. He liked the naturalism. When he got around to writing his own plays, GBS majored on 'the play of ideas'. A ghostly Diderot would have given his thumbs up, although he might have found the speeches a bit ponderous. Never mind: reason and political engagement were back on the menu.

But, of course, it's Brecht who really revives dramaturgy. He used dramaturges in his Berlin company (although they did everything from get Bertie's suits from the cleaners to writing the damn plays), and even wrote about a new kind of theatre - the epic - that challenged tragedy on the grounds that it presents events as inevitable. His alternative, which led to things like forum theatre, regarded the theatre not only as a locus for public discussion but as the place where change could happen. Sometimes, like at the end of The Beggar's Opera, he'd even point out why the play was not like real life.

Whether or not anyone was actually reading Diderot - and in the UK, the answer was probably no, as he has never been taken that seriously in theatre studies until I came along - dramaturgy in its full rationalist, engaged and revolutionary glory. And it didn't hurt that GBS and Brecht are thought of as geniuses (if we still think about the mutton-chops at all, that is...). 

The chat about dramaturgy these days comes mostly from this revival. Brecht is so influential that you'd think he invented audience participation (actually, pantomimes did that about half a century earlier) and his 'alienation effect' (reminding the audience that they weren't watching reality but a play, usually by having a stage-hand wander across the stage every so often) gave permission to subsequent generations not to worry about scenography too much. 

The Death of Dramaturgy: Strike One

Let's kill this thing, already.

Brief note: the point of the Enlightenment dramaturgy was to focus attention on the event, not the script, to politicise theatre towards a bourgeois agenda and escape the tyranny of neoclassicism.

It could be argued that any political performance - take Blow Off as an example - is a resurrection of this dramaturgical dream. Reports of its death are deliberately exaggerated to make a point.


Any respectable study of the Enlightenment will end with a chapter on the French Revolution, and ask whether the Enlightenment has to take responsibility for the displacement of the monarchy, the terror and the rise of the Napoleonic Empire. By pointing out that Rousseau, a big player in the whole Enlightenment Project, was made practically a saint after 1789, and how his suggestions for huge civic parades were taken up by the revolutionaries - and citing the rather paranoid thoughts of a Jesuit in the nineteenth century - it can be claimed that the age of revolutions is the consequence of the Enlightenment project.

A real genius, though


A brief survey of Napoleon's attitude towards theatre reveals that he banned anything that could be read as political, reverting to the kind of neoclassicism that had the support of the now-dethroned (and dead) monarchy. Earlier, n 1792, the Comedie-Francais adopted Diderot's idea of the tableau and, at the climax of an appropriate show, did a tableau vivant of a popular painting by David. It was a statement of sympathy with the revolution's aims, the crowd went wild and the actors, who were suspected of having aristocratic sympathies, were embraced by the mob. 

Yet a couple of years later, the actors were booted off the production of a national parade - the favoured medium of performance for the revolutionaries - for messing about. The artificiality of theatre was deemed inappropriate for this kind of event, which was all about seriousness and celebrating the real achievements of the revolution. The theatre itself was suspect, let alone the kind of engaged dramaturgy that Diderot imagined.

Diva or genius?

So much for France... what about Germany?

It didn't take long for the Romantics to pick up on the idea of genius, ignore the rest of Enlightenment dramaturgy, and start making over-emotional plays (known as the sturm und drang). These tended to be about some individual who felt so hacked off with society that their main interests were making a fuss and committing suicide. Everyone has heard of the Romantic poets, the Romantic composers like Beethoven: the genius expressing their innate genius became the only game in town. When Goethe wrote something like Gotz, he was following the dramaturgical pattern, but this was quickly submerged beneath a flood of Romantic dramas. Less than a century later, Zola moaned that the shift from neoclassical to romanticism was simply a costume change. 

The genius was an excuse for playwrights and productions to ignore structure and privilege self-expression over engagement with ideas. Dramaturgy was dead before it had even gotten started. 

The Death of Dramaturgy: Genius (comic)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Death of Dramaturgy: Genius

 At this point, I'd like to pause. It seems odd that 'thinking about plays' and taking the performance of a play as the basis for study are especially bold steps. But they were. Before the Enlightenment, theatre was discussed either as scripts or subjects for censorship. Like, did you know that plays about religious subjects were more or less banned from 1600 onward in France and Britain? Racine did  a few, but they were just for school productions. Those Passion Plays that were all the rage in medieval times were seen as an anarchic occupation of the Easter story. You'd think they'd be fine in Christian societies, but no.

I suppose the death of dramaturgy was bound to happen: as soon as performance becomes the focus, there are all sorts of ways to study it. It is easier to talk about dramaturgies these days - all different ways of thinking about, or making, theatre. So trying to hold a field of study that is so open was always going to be a tough call. If the Big Idea is... thinking. Well, that's blowing the whole thing wide open.

But this isn't what killed dramaturgy. The problems really start when they invent the idea of the genius. Like I said, the challenge was always going to be Shakespeare. How on earth can theory account for a talent like that?

Both Lessing and Diderot sussed this, and included a 'get out of jail' card. Diderot gave a good description of the genius. Basically, he said, certain people were too cool for school, and could do all sorts of stuff not imagined in your philosophy, Horatio. And Lessing agreed. The rules were handy for a hack, but the genius could really swing.

Before Diderot, genius was a spirit or something: the word comes from a Latin god, and they'd descend on an artistic for a bit, give them the good stuff, then disappear. The Enlightenment wasn't that keen on metaphysical fairies, so Diderot turned it into a personality type. It was someone who combined an extreme sensitivity with the ability to contemplate with detachment, who loved a bit of nature but knew how to communicate.  

The idea of the genius turned out to be very popular with artists -even if it suffered a bit in the translation. And this is what did for dramaturgy... at least the first time. 

Almost immediately, the status of the artist went right up. In 1700, Bach was a jobbing composer with a few good tunes. By 1802, he had a biography that treated him like a saint, including anecdotes about his mastery of the keyboard. 

The Death of Dramaturgy: Performance (comic)

The Death of Dramaturgy: Performances

Okay, the problem with the Enlightenment dramaturgy is that it's a big pick'n'mix counter: neither Diderot nor Lessing ever get down to basics, hitting the subject in media res. Diderot slips all his fancy ideas into a Platonic dialogue between himself and Dorval (a character in his play), and Lessing's essays are responses to the events at the National Theatre. They never develop their dramaturgy from first principles.

But pulling together their various thoughts does reveal that the emphasis in on the theatre-as-event, not theatre-as-a-script. For example, Diderot's Paradox of the Actor, which didn't get published until long after his death, goes into some detail about the skills of the performer. It accounts for the transfer of emotion from stage to audience, and speculates on how the actor can do it. And each of Lessing's essays take a production as their starting point, before he gets wandered. 

If I push it, I might be able to argue that this new interest reflects an Enlightenment appreciation of time and space. Let's see: one of the big shifts in the eighteenth century was the recognition of geological time, rather than Biblical time. If you use the Bible as the basic for your chronology, you get a 'young Earth' - history isn't that long. But with all the Earth sciences going on (although the results weren't in until the nineteenth century), the Enlightenment philosophers did know that the planet was really old. Like millions of years.

This more scientific notion of time is part of a shift in thinking about change. The whole point of absolutist monarchy and, Brecht would later point out, classical tragedy is to demonstrate that change doesn't happen and what does happen is inevitable. Take Oedipus. There was no way that boy could escape ending up in his mother's bed. Or Orestes: he had to knock his mother off (as opposed to knock up, see Oedipus). 

Aristotle and his laws of tragedy realised that inevitably made for exciting drama. Getting rid of the idea that everything was fixed, predetermined, was a strong statement that the old order had to go. Structure of plays, their manifestation as objects in real time: this is all very scientific and realistic. 

I think that part of the thing with the Enlightenment was a desire to use a scientific approach to everything. Newton was the big hero, and he came up with gravity. By taking an object in the 'real world' and not a text (which could be seen as a bit like scripture), the philosophers could act like they were being scientific. 

Dramaturgy is Torture: Louise Quinn @ Mayfesto

18th, 19th & 20th May - Tron Theatre, Glasgow
25th, 26th & 27th May -  Traverse, Edinburgh
1st June - Eden Court, Inverness
Running Time: 60 mins | Suitable for 14+
A new piece of darkly comic, gig-theatre, cuts deep into what it is to ‘sell out’ and how we respond to global events. 

MUSIC IS TORTURE is a dark comedy set in Limbo Recording Studios featuring live music and new songs by Glasgow Art-poppers ‘A Band Called Quinn’ who appear in the show as the band Dawnings.
This new piece of gig theatre tells the story of a struggling music producer, Jake, who discovers that his music is being used to torture political prisoners and charts his ensuing moral dilemma. Essentially this is a show about selling out – but it also looks at how people respond to global conflict; how people respond to fear of terrorism. 
Music Is Torture was written by singer/ songwriter Louise Quinn and directed by Grid Iron’s Co-Artistic Director Ben Harrison. The piece is inspired by the research of Berlin-based Scottish musicologist Dr. M. J. Grant into the use of music to promote, facilitate and accompany violent response to conflict.

Ah - starting off - this is a tough subject to be dealing with! I'm talking about for myself, really: it strikes me that you've taken a relevant and contemporary topic, but found a way to relate it to the form of your work. And that might be the place to start... having seen Biding Time, is there much in terms of the way that this show is being presented that will be familiar to me? Is it going to be an example of 'gig-theatre' in the same way?

Music Is Torture, whilst still being 'gig-theatre', is much more of a straight ahead play; because the play is set in a recording studio the music is completely immersed into the narrative of the story.

The action takes place in Limbo Recording studios where we see our protagonist Jake struggling to maintain a sense of self worth having spent the past fifteen years recording the same album by the same band (Dawnings, played by A Band Called Quinn). 

It's a bit of a sequel to Biding Time (remix); what happens to someone after they've been signed and dropped by a major record label, when all they really have left is their soul.

The band are characters in the story but also act as a chorus reflecting and commenting on Jake's moral dilemma as he is offered the chance to benefit financially from the use of his music to torture political prisoners. 

I have also noticed that there is a promise of 'humour' in the production. Was that hard to find, given the subject matter?

I didn't want to write a worthy didactic piece on human rights. The style we have developed with our work is darkly comic and surreal; in a way this highlights the horror of music torture without being too literal. Dr Grant says she sometimes finds it hard to engage people in the subject with academic presentations but the moment she plays a clip from a Billy Wilder film of a character being subjected to a song on repeat, they get it. 

Then there is the musicologist. I am always excited to see influences coming from unexpected sources (although maybe a musicologist is less surprising for you, and I am thinking of the more general theatre community). How did Dr Grant's work inspire you, and is it possible to see traces of the musicological analysis in the show?

Dr Grant is my cousin(!) We grew up in Lanarkshire and as children we would make up stories and put on little performances for our parents. I've always been interested in Morag's work as a musician and admired her involvement in human rights activism. When Morag told me about her work on music torture we were making Biding Time (remix) at the time. I found it hard to comprehend music being used in such a way. I started reading about the songs which had been used and the way their creators had responded when they found out something they had created was being used to psychologically torture political prisoners. 

We have given Robert (Henderson - our trumpet player) a speech which draws upon Morag's musicological analysis (a highlight for me!) and consulted with Morag on the script and performance.

As for the question of selling out: that seems to have been a theme in your work, and I am wonder how far it is possible to draw comparisons with a general complicity with the financial demands of capitalism and the specifics of the case where music is used as a a way of torturing...

For me it was like taking the art vs commerce battle depicted in Biding Time (remix) and dropping it into the much bigger picture of human rights. I think it's a reflection of what's happening in the world today; there are huge sections of society who are disenfranchised and feel justified in choosing to pursue self interest over morality and support the views of the likes of Trump and Farage. It was important for me that the characters were from working class backgrounds as most people who are successful and can afford to pursue a career in the arts are from more privileged backgrounds.

The show depicts how the political can relate to the personal; how global events can impact on a persons life; how interconnected the world is. I saw an anti-trump demonstrator in Edinburgh being interviewed on the news recently who said 'If we don't do something we're complicit'. 

Actually, on that note, I was watching The Men who Stare at Goats, and that suggests that the music-torture technique was kind of the 'dark side' of an attempt to find non-violent ways to fight wars... is there some about the nature of music that puts it in a marginal space in which it can be used for good or evil? and, if so, how do you keep on the side of the light?

As Morag's research demonstrates, the use of music to torture political prisoners effectively breaks the victim down psychologically to the point where they would rather suffer physical torture than be subjected to endlessly repeated music. Sometimes the music torture is accompanied by strobe lighting, stress potions and other physical abuse. 
Torture, and by extension music torture, has been proven to be ineffective at gathering intelligence. Most musicians (for example, David Gray who's song Babylon was used by US interrogators in Iraq) are opposed to their music being used in such a way. Other artists like Metallica and Bob Singleton who wrote the Barney The Dinosaur theme aren't that concerned; other artists like Drowning Pool consider it an honour. 

The character I play in the show is called Evie Phanuel after the archangel who offers hope to those in the depths of despair and I believe music has the power to do this. I think if you put your heart and soul into writing a song, someone somewhere will identify with it and not feel so alone.  

As artists we also use music in a therapeutic manner with community groups and in educational settings; the complete opposite to music torture! 

And on a more theatrical note: what's it like working with Ben Harrison? He is a familiar presence in your productions... does he have an attitude that suits your approach to performance?

Ben is a long term collaborator, mentor and friend. He understands our vision and knows how to achieve it in the form without being restricted by it.

Musicologist Dr. M. J. Grant:

“It can be difficult to get the message out about the reality of torture, especially when it comes to forms such as music torture that to the uninitiated might seem like a joke. This is why artistic treatments of the subject are so important: they can convey much that is important without the whole thing becoming voyeuristic or unduly harrowing. 

I’m excited about this show not just because of the way it explores the psychological mechanisms of torture in a subtle but effective way, but because it draws attention to our own responsibility for the continued use of torture in today’s world.”
Playwright Louise Quinn:
“When Morag told me about her research we were working on Biding Time (remix) which raised issues about art versus commerce. As an artist I found it hard to comprehend music being used in such a way and when I researched artist’s responses to their music being used to torture political prisoners, I got an idea for a script. 

Every day it seems to be more relevant and reflective of what’s happening in the world today; a disenfranchised protagonist who is torn between morality and self interest.”   
Director Ben Harrison added:
“Music is Torture interrogates our complicity in acts of torture but does so in the most shockingly comic way. The Faustian dilemna at the heart of the piece- should I benefit directly from the sufferings of others - is presented with great wit and dark humour making parallels between the metaphorically torturous act of creation and the real torture of political prisoners. 

The live room as a metaphor for the torture chamber is a powerful and resonant image, articulating our globalised and hyper-connected world, made all the more resonant as the show is based on real events.”

Company Information:
Ben Harrison -  Director
Andy Clark -  Actor  TBC
Stephen McCole - Actor TBC
Robert Henderson - Trumpet/ Keys
Steven Westwater - bass
Louise Quinn - singing/ guitar
Bal Cooke - drums
Dani Rae - Producer
Camilla O'Neill - Production manager
Kate Bonney - Lighting Design
Tim Reid - AV
Emily James - Set and Costume Design
Bal Cooke - Sound Design/ Musical Direction
Funded by Creative Scotland.  A Co-production with Tron Theatre. 

A Band Called Quinn are an artpop band from Glasgow, Scotland, formed by Louise Quinn (songwriting & vocals) & Bal Cooke (production & drums). Other members are: Robert Henderson (trumpet & keys - also plays with Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat) and Steve Westwater (bass). They have worked with Kid Loco (produced Luss, their 2nd album), Alex Kapranos (played on their début, Inbetween Worlds), The Pastels (whose releases Bal’s produced / engineered) and Bill Wells. Their music has been used in films, by award-winning directors David McKenzie & Penny Woolcock.

Their album, The Beggar’s Opera, featured songs from award winning theatre company Vanishing Point’s show in which the band toured late 2009 & has sleevenotes by Scottish crimewriter Ian Rankin.

Ben Harrison is the Co-Artistic Director of Grid Iron. He joined the company in 1996, since when the company has won 27 awards for its work. Since 2004 he has been a Director of the Dutch theatre company MUZtheater. Recent work includes Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens for PW Productions and The Tailor of Inverness for Dogstar.

For Grid Iron: Tryst, Yarn, Once Upon A Dragon; Roam (Grid Iron/NTS/BAA Edinburgh International Airport; The Story of the Death of Najib Brax (Grid Iron/ British Council in Beirut); The Devil’s Larder; Naw Nader Men Al Houb (Grid Iron/British Council in Amman); Those Eyes, That Mouth; Variety; Fermentation; Decky Does A Bronco; Monumental; Gargantua; The Bloody Chamber and Clearance.

Tromolo Productions was formed in 2012 by founder members of A Band Called Quinn, Bal Cooke & Louise Quinn. Since then they have produced the award winning multimedia production Biding Time (Remix) which was part of Made In Scotland 2014, toured to Brazil in 2015 & won the Arts & Business Award for Digital Innovation 2015.
They also produced five times nominated short film Oh Jackie based around a duet between Kid Loco & Louise Quinn which screened at Cannes.

Tromolo Productions have also delivered songwriting projects for Platform working with socially isolated individuals with mental health issues resulting in recordings & performances at the Headspace festival.

Music Is Torture from Tromolo Productions on Vimeo.

Dr Morag J Grant studied music and musicology in Glasgow, London and Berlin. She received her doctorate from King’s College London in 1999, for a dissertation on European serial music in the 1950s. In 2005 she was awarded a DFG stipend to pursue research on the cultural history of the Scots song “Auld Lang Syne”. From 2008-2014 she was junior professor of social musicology at the University of Göttingen and leader of the research group “Music, Conflict and the State”, which explored the use of music to promote, facilitate and accompany violent responses to conflict.

Dr. Grant has previously taught at the Humboldt-Universität and at the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin. From November 2014 to September 2015, she was Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture”.

The Death of Dramaturgy: Give me a reason (comic)

The Death of Dramaturgy: give me a reason...

Typically for Enlightenment philosophers, Lessing and Diderot had a variety of interests: both wrote their most famous plays during a time when other avenues of expression had been blocked. Diderot had been banged up for the anti-religious tone of his Letter on the Blind, been warned about the Encyclopedia and was keeping a low profile: Lessing had been to told to give his theological arguments a rest and so returned to the stage with Nathan the Wise

However, whatever they were discussing, Lessing and Diderot identified with 'the age of reason'. As far as dramaturgy goes, this meant the rejection of assumed values, handed down from Aristotle and, at least in France, through the Académie française. Diderot's outburst that critics need the legitimacy of precedent to approve a performance, and Lessing's declaration that the Dramaturgy would help audiences understand what good theatre was all about, stand as statements of intent in opposition to tried and tested and approved theatricality. 

Content became a particular bone of contention. Lessing would mock one author for setting a play in the crusades (while later setting Nathan the Wise in pretty much the same period) while spending ages explaining why historical inaccuracy wasn't the big deal that Voltaire thought it was. Diderot argued that 'the conditions' of an individual were more important than their character, on the grounds that character type, rather than personality, enabled an audience to identify with a protagonist. 

More than anything, the pair wanted to get away from the classical tragic model, in which important events (like accidentally having sex with your mum) happened to important people (kings and nobles). They wanted to see 'real people' (the bourgeoisie) on stage in 'real situations' (like not having sex by mistake with your sister). For Diderot, the play could be a place for the discussion of ideas, relevant ideas. Like, what's the point of the father these days, anyway?

Reason also encouraged an interest in tidying up a few of the messier aspects of the theatre building. Diderot was all for kicking the aristocrats off the stage (previously, they had got seats on the stage, and probably spent the show trying to flirt with actresses). Voltaire was big on that too, mainly because that one time when he copied Shakespeare, the ghost was obstructed by the on-stage audience, and everyone laughed at him. 

Within plays, Diderot imagined reason appearing as a sort of naturalism, both in the content and the scripting. He recommended, instead of all that fancy poetry Racine reckoned was so tragic, the author ought to leave moments of high passion to the actor, who could stutter their way through it in a facsimile of 'real emotion'. But he also took a few cues from visual art, pleading for the 'tableau' - a kind of physical theatre interlude that carries meaning through the visual image, like in a painting. 

Lessing had had a think about this kind of thing earlier - in Laocoon, he invented semiotics a century early to explain why poetry is, actually, different to painting (the neo-classic opinion had been ut pictura, poesis). By the time he gets to the Dramaturgy, he has gone full Enlightenment. He even tried to apply reason to the performance of the actors, only they told him to fuck right off (after essay twenty-five, he goes silent on this matter). 

Dance of the Magnetic Ballerina - Andrea Miltnerová 

The Death of Dramaturgy: Begins again (comic)

The Death of Dramaturgy: Begins Again

The story so far: dramaturgy was invented in the 18th Century as a reaction to the dominance of neo-classical drama. 

dramaturgy will save drama!

Going back to the origins of a word isn't always the best way to find out what it means: 'epic poetry', for example, has evolved through the generations as new authors give it a twist (Homer to Virgil to Dante and Milton...). However, in the case of Lessing, the publication of Hamburg Dramaturgy does mark a defining moment in theatre history, in which the emphasis moved from literary to phenomenological study. Diderot's thoughts on theatre, meanwhile, were determined to put the arts at the service of a specific political agenda. Neo-classical drama, in France, was the adored medium of the absolutist monarchy, and Diderot saw the potential of a new drama that could promote bourgeois culture. And while the pair of them never get too systematic, both Lessing and Diderot noticed that the form of an art could define its impact as much as the content. 

a tableau, beloved of Diderot

The Enlightenment dramaturgy is a big deal, a revolution in the way that theatre was considered. Following on from Diderot's ideas, a new form of theatre did emerge - all be it briefly. The Marriage of Figaro became a cause célèbre for its attack on aristocratic values, and the 'weeping play' became a thing. Lessing wrote one or two of these himself. Although the content of these plays - which Diderot imagined as a hybrid of comedy and tragedy - was important in presenting bourgeois values, the rejection of Aristotle as an absolute measure and the five act format revealed the revolutionary intentions as clearly as all the commentary on the role of father or the lover or whatever.

got beef with the aristocracy?

At the first, dramaturgy isn't just a neutral term to describe an area of study: it is an expression of Enlightenment values that are bourgeois, anti-authority (as embodied in a monarchy) and liberal. Lessing would later write Nathan the Wise, a morality play that promotes inclusivity and reason over religion. Diderot's plays took on family relationships and performed virtue for the masses. 

Some days, the whole invention of dramaturgy seems to come down to a single question: given that tragedy is supposed to conform to Aristotle's laws about unity and so on, why is Shakespeare so successful? That's not just a throwaway: when Voltaire visited London (he was in trouble for his opinions in France), he encountered British theatre. And, despite himself, he quite liked it. He wasn't alone: before we messed it up with Brexit, UKIP and sundry other arrogance, the British were loved in Europe. Anglophilia was a thing in the 1700s. 

Eventually, Voltaire would decide that 'too much Englishness' in theatre (blood, extreme emotions, anything that broke good taste, really) was a bad thing. But he did introduce a few Shakespearian aspects to his scripts (including the ghost of a father, which did not end that well). And Shakespeare was introduced to the continent, and the Europeans loved him. In fact, the Germans liked to say that Shakespeare was a German.

they conspired to make theatre great and relevant

If Shakespeare, who seemed to do whatever he liked in his scripts, was so good, the old standards, set by Aristotle and enshrined by the neo-classicists like Racine, clearly failed to describe what makes for a good show. The lack of a complete system - the series of fragmented ideas - probably reflects the reluctance of the Enlightenment dramaturgy gang to rely on fixed rules. They made suggestions. They allowed for genius.

This was their eventual downfall. 

what is next?

In the next episode: the three pillars of dramaturgy...

The Death of Dramaturgy: Begins (Comic)

The Death of Dramaturgy: Begins.

Given the way that dramaturgy gets discussed, it's surprisingly easy to find a point of historical departure. Back in the eighteenth century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, dramaturgy was introduced to the world by G.E. Lessing. His Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767-69) was written as a critical guide to the programme of the German National Theatre in Hamburg, and covered a wide variety of theatrical concerns, including the performance of the actors, the quality of the scripts and the debates raging around theatre in France. Before this point, the debates about theatre relied on Aristotle's Poetics, and tended to consider the script rather than the production.

cool French theatre

The subsequent definitions of dramaturgy have made the subject more complicated - sometimes it refers to the specific strategies employed by an artist in production, sometimes it is dumped for the discipline of 'performance studies'. However, its foundations within the Enlightenment project reveal an interest in the theatre as a phenomenological experience rather than a literary one. In other words, dramaturgy recognises theatre as an event in real time and not a text to be read. Aristotle, for all his virtues, looked at theatre as a form of poetry rather than performance: when he listed the importance of the elements of theatre, 'spectacle' comes in last.

Although there are plenty of specific issues addressed in Lessing's dramaturgy - best of all, his frequent snarky comments on the arrogance of Voltaire - the Enlightenment Dramaturgy focuses on three specific areas. Appropriately for the era, the application of reason is key; then there's an enthusiasm for performance (ranging from notes on the training of the actor to the response of the audience; finally, the notion of  genius. That last one will come back to haunt theatre, and was probably introduced as a get-out clause for those elements of theatre that can't be resolved by the application of reason.

uncool British theatre

Lessing's Dramaturgy is a strange read. He's almost always referenced in studies of theatre, but rarely read. My evidence for this is anecdotal. There is only a single copy in translation held by Glasgow University library, and I've had it out for over a year, with no recalls. I tried to buy it  but the Dover Thrift Edition (published in the 1960s as a cheap copy) comes it at £600 (second hand). For such an influential document, the lack of reprints is... fascinating. 

It does contain moments of superb analysis - his analysis of why audiences mistake shoddy acting for brilliance is, itself, brilliant. However, he gets a bit wandered now and again. He'd make a great blogger: he's not above discussing a tiny point of detail across nine essays. I see him as an inspiration.

Mind you, reading the Hamburg Dramaturgy is like standing waist-deep in a flood of warm water, trying to catch flakes of ice. 

if I might interject...

Between slagging off French theatre - both for its reliance on neo-classical formalism, and the French belief in their cultural superiority - Lessing quotes the philosopher Diderot. Editor of The Encyclopedia, an attempt to categorise all knowledge ever and put it at the service of reason against tradition, social butterfly and occasional playwright, Diderot set out his earliest thoughts on theatre in his erotic novel, The Indiscreet Jewels. Lessing quotes this at length - after apologising for it 'NSFW' content. Lessing also translated Diderot's two plays into German, and calls Diderot 'the equal of Aristotle'. 

Enlightenment dramaturgy could be called the 'Diderot-Lessing dramaturgy', since the key features result from the conversation between these two thinkers. They certainly share an interest in the potential of theatre as a medium for the discussion of ideas, a distaste for the neo-classical drama's reliance on authority, a respect for the genius and a fascination with the on-stage business of performance, rejecting the overly literary language of tragedy and even making suggestions towards a physical theatre. 

Coming Soon: How The Enlightenment Dramaturgy coded its own inevitable death into its theories of theatre...

Monday, 24 April 2017

Are We Asking the Right Questions? (Introduction)

The following provocation does not necessarily represent the views of the views of TheVileArts, let alone Gareth K Vile. They are an attempt to sketch the boundaries of an argument, to question and question and question, until I find the question I want to ask.

It seems far easier to write a manifesto about what criticism ought to do than write criticism that actually does it. I'm pondering the link between my emotional response to a performance - let's take David Leddy's Coriolanus Vanishes and VOID In Situ and the intellectual substance of the review. In theory, the review ought to be an elaboration of the headline or star-rating, an explanation of how the event worked to generate the emotional response.

Star ratings, and catchy descriptions, are sometimes the bane of a critic's life. Well, this critic, at least: having crafted a notice that engages with the work in question, displays my knowledge and argues a clear line, I wake up to see it condensed into a single slogan. And that's my lot: I gave it four stars, who cares why?

Or worse: I gave it three stars and everyone just ignores the review. 

But, slowly, I am trying to draw together some ideas about quality. All that 'Enlightenment' chatter: that's what I am going after. A system that explains why things work...

What is the point, again?

There's sudden bursts of energy, then they abruptly stop. Short, sharp shocks and incoherent statements that lead nowhere. What's he trying to do, doctor?

It's a reaction to information overload, and the inability to resolve the tension between emotional and cerebral response. He knows what he feels. He's trying to justify it.

So these outbursts are fragments of a systematic process?

Not yet, at least, I don't think so. But it is a processing of raw information, and an attempt to draw that information into line, making standards for analysis.

But where's it going to end?

Okay, I can pull together some of the threads. Here: he believes - knows, even - that the 'art' happens when the object meets the audience. Following Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he sees quality as the experience of an object. In other words, the aesthetic moment defines the nature of the engagement.

I'm sorry, that isn't clear.

Sure: when an observer experiences an event, that point of contact is, at first, emotion. The observer makes an aesthetic response.

Like when I taste fish and either like it or don't?

That might work as a short term example. Let's see. All subsequent appreciation of the art object flows from that initial experience. Let's call it the star rating.

And all this further discussion is an attempt to explain the star rating?

Yes, what we call the review is actually the analysis of the initial opinion. But he can convince himself to like something by the application of standards. You can't enjoy the fish once you've spat it out...

More Ladies

Returning to my thoughts on Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, fans of the show have directed me to a variety of positive reviews that do grapple with the meaning and importance of the NTS' production. Most explicitly, in a short critique, Melanie Reid of The Times commented...

Our Ladies... is about how the most sordid circumstances of our lives are the conditions of our deliverance, because they belong to us.

It's a beautiful sentiment, and one that the play does present: in a late scene, the ladies collectively sing Bob Marley in a moment that captures the feeling of tired, resigned celebration that follows a hectic night out. 

Adding in something about the way that music
Manuel Harlan
provides the catalyst for the transformation of despair into acceptance and even triumph would clarify how the show expresses this (throughout the script, music lends depth and immediacy to the school girls' experience (exactly in the way that the Catholic school probably hoped it would (although perhaps not with the same songs taught by the school))).

But this review, from The Times (despite a rather snarky comment about Scottish accents), gives an example of how criticism can advance the discussion around theatre. Identifying a core message, and passing it on: the usual critical function of assessing the play is placed at the service of further discussion about an idea. The quality of the performances, the direction, the musical choices, are subsumed to the theatrical mission of sharing experience.

I'm not sure that I'd call the adventures of Our Ladies sordid, mind. They are just a bunch of teenagers out on the razz. The script makes a point about accidental pregnancy (not all teenage mums have a limited horizon), the dangers of old perverts and having too much to drink (and spewing over yourself at a prestigious choir competition). But this isn't sordid, especially. 

It's being a teenager. 

And there's the rub: my teenage self was a bit busy reading Latin and getting obsessive about 'cool music' (not ELO, who provide the songs). As a former teacher, I know what teenagers these days get up to (have to love my patronising tone, there). I do recognise the redemption, and the irony that it is the same school that our ladies rebel against that has given them the redemptive power of music. 

The Three Ages of Dramatrurgy

Schechner's notion of performance studies expands the boundaries of theatre studies by emphasising performance as an event in time and prioritizing the relationship between the object and the audience. The example of a painting (more obviously a subject for art history) suggests that a single, static object can provides a series of different performances, which emerge from the interaction between audience, location, time span (and so on).

Before the Atlanta Speech (1992), theatre studies might have been construed as the study of behaviour on-stage: before the Enlightenment, theatre studies might have been construed as the study of the script and associated philosophical writing. 

This suggests a trinity of theatre studies... 

The Dramaturgy of the Father
Before the Enlightenment, theatre was studied as a literary form, and authority (of the classics, and in particular Aristotle) determined the value of the art. Like the 'father' of monotheistic religion, this period depended on tradition, assumed authority and a dogmatic description of 'the good'.  The abstractions of ARISTOTLE were carved into rock.

The Dramaturgy of the Son
With the Enlightenment, theatre was incarnated as an event and not a text. Rather like the doctrine of Christianity, where God becomes Man and flesh and located not in the heavens but in the present moment.

The Dramaturgy of the Holy Spirit
From 1992, the drama has escaped the stage and exists in the interaction between performers and audience, all of whom are performing. 

More on Schechner and Performance Studies

There is plenty to dislike in Schechner's introduction to
Performance Studies (second edition, 2006): the way he presents himself as 'a Jewish Hindu Buddhist atheist', carefully avoiding mention of his whiteness, his American citizenship and his maleness; his refusal of citations and, by implication, the authority of academic writing; his suggestion that 'performance studies is so broad-ranging' that it doesn't really need a limiting definition. The switch into third person when he offers his biography, and the division of performance into the dualism of 'Western' and 'non-western' when the latter could be subdivided into African, Asian, et cetera et cetera... 

However, his definition of performance is adorable.

Performances are actions... performance studies scholars... their dedicated focus is on the "repertory", namely, what people do in their activity of doing it. Second, artistic practice is a big part of the performance studies project... the challenge is is to become as aware as possible of one's own stances in relation to the positions of others.

(page 1- 2)

It's here that performance studies shows its debt to dramaturgy, and the dramaturgy designed by Diderot and the Enlightenment. Both labels include the study of performance as phenomenology, as events and not documents or literary texts. 

Sites and Spectacles

Richard Schechner's 1992 speech in Atlanta is one of those melodramatic moments in theatre history, when a professor delivered a speech intended to change the path of theatre studies. It's the birth of 'performance theory', a rhetorical plea for the expansion of the subject, an advertisement for Schechner's department disguised as a polemic against conservatism and Eurocentrism. 

Despite its optimism - theatre studies could be the way to address the problems of multi-culturalism - and ahead-of-its-time interest in intersectionality, the Atlanta Speech extends the colonial reach of the academy into minority, non-Western and popular performances. The assumption that both 'healing' and 'ritual' are performance forms is unsupported and suspect: the enthusiasm for the plethora of popular performances lumps religion and wrestling into a shared category, and the weakness of existing (USA) drama programmes justifies Schechner's call for radical rather than qualitative change. 

Schechner does makes a series of trenchant points: he observes that multiculturalism in the arts disguises the focus of political power in a monocultural elite; he recognises the exclusion of rich philosophies from outside the Western tradition; he worries about the emphasis given to vocational training within the academy, and the easy elision of art and science training. 

Yet these points only disguise the colonial land-grab Schechter achieves. Not only does his NYU faculty set itself up as the moral and intellectual arbiter of theatre studies, it incorporates all manner of 'performances' into some vague championing of 'intercultural' inspiration. He invites experts from their fields to come teach and learn with him, but suggests parity between 'hot gospel' and kabuki warrior codes without having any apparent knowledge in depth. 

The intention and the consequences were revolutionary.  

Let there be More!

...fortunately, the development of Critculous' thought is easy to follow, despite his vacillation between a cod-mystical and a cod-academic style. His earlier championing of 'the bi-theism' of stripper and clown (Epistles 2, 3, 5) gives way to a 'travesty of trinitarianism' (ibid) in which the addition of the drag artist offers a transitional persona between the 'Moon Goddess' and 'The Horned God'.

Quite how seriously he intended this theology is still controversial. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

O critics, narrow minds, men of little sense! Again

Moliere was not above writing it, and that says everything. But even if Moliere had not written it, would another have been wrong to think of it? O critics, narrow minds, men of little sense, how long will you refuse to judge something for itself, and not approve or disapprove of it only in relation to what exists!

This is frustrating: it works as a strong guide for critical response, but struggles as a dramaturgical statement. Admittedly, Diderot is condemning the failure of critics to address a performance on its own terms, rather than suggesting that 'past performance does not guarantee future returns', but it praises a theoretical assertion over the value of experience.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

David Leddy is Spider-Man

So, it's one of those things that comic fans say to justify the bulging collection of superhero trade paperbacks that are weighing down the shelves... the superhero is a contemporary mythology and they have the same kind of status that the old Greek legends used to have... a familiar set of narratives in which ideas can be explored, a series of symbols freighted with meaning, embedded in the popular consciousness...

I have many things to say about David Leddy's Coriolanus Vanishes, but most of them can wait until after I have submitted my review to The List. But the one scene that I can't resist...

Leddy's protagonist Chris recites justifications for his abominable profession beneath a Spider-Man duvet (a rare splash of vivid colour in a show that revels in lighting and austere shades).

And what is Spider-Man's catchphrase? With great power, comes great responsibility.

And what is Chris doing beneath the duvet? He's absolving himself of responsibility. 

I'd just like to thank David Leddy for knowing his comics and using Spider-Man as an ironic symbol of heroic integrity.