Category Archives: LITERATURE

Review: Desire, psychoanalysis, and Sappho… in 9 fragments

First on the general qualities of this work. Sappho… in 9 fragments premiered the Stork Hotel in 2007, before getting picked up by the Malthouse, tidied up and restaged by Marion Potts, the incoming AD thereof. A monodrama, written, conceived and performed by the fierce Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a Classics scholar in her own right. It’s not so much a voicing of Sappho, nor a dissection of her work, as it is a performance with the missing poet at its centre. How much do we know with certainty about this highly esteemed poet from Lesbos? Very little, as no reliable historical accounts of her life have survived, and her work in fragments only. Sappho is a sealed safe, but Griffiths gives voice to her nonetheless: her loves, her rage and indignance at various interpretations (always by men), be they pictorial or textual. In her hands, theatre performance becomes an act of reading, thinking, imagining.

Jane Marion Griffiths. Photo credits: Jeff Busby.

Second on its high quality. Sappho… in 9 fragments is first-class theatre, and if there is a show this year that should be seen by a wide audience as a demonstration of what moneyed theatre should do, then this is the one. It is made out of good ideas, of smart solutions. Naked, skin-headed Griffiths emerges from a glass tank filled with ambrosia, which slowly leaks throughout the performance, creating a honey-coloured pond on the floor until all that remains from the glorious poet is a tray of meat. Anna Cordingley and Paul Jackson’s set and lighting design marries absolute minimalism of means with a thorough clarity of signification: it is a high achievement of a design sensibility particular to Australian theatre. Griffiths’s words – combining an original narrative, literary scholarship, historical observations and free translations of Sappho – build a text that is intelligent, witty, full-bodied and highly dramatic. Her physical presence is extraordinary, bringing to life a stage creature that is soft and hard, strong and sensitive, sometimes raging and sometimes completely paralysed.

Third on its aesthetic lineage. Sappho… is a classic work of high post-modernism. Sappho is an author singularly bereft of a voice, and Griffiths’s scholarly dramaturgy revels in weaving and slashing through approaches and interpretations, less and more facetious misreadings. There is no unified Sappho at the end of the show, but this is not a tragedy. Rather, Sappho becomes a mirror to the world. She remains a ghost (angry, desiring, doubting, polite), and despite the stage presence of one undressed woman, her presence is immaterial, her agency only in bringing forth the multiple fragments out of which she is constructed. I have not often seen works of this kind on Melbourne stages, and I suspect it’s because they require deep familiarity with a subject, which can only be attained with time. Our theatre-makers are notoriously young, and dramaturgs, the one profession usually engaged in deep research, are not a frequent presence in our theatre companies.

Fourth on its philosophical lineage, and those interested in a pure review can stop reading now. Sappho… (just like post-modernism itself) echoes many of the psychoanalytical ideas about desire, but also, interestingly, about women. Of all the twentieth-century ideas about women, this may be the most consistently expressed one: woman as a lacuna, as a set of poses to be adopted, roles to be played. The female as the second sex: made, not autochtonous. The woman as the seen, not the seer; the spoken-of, not the speaker. As the object of desire, an empty vessel, to be filled at will. The language, the symbolic order, interprets women rather than letting them speak. Hence the importance of stylisation in the definition of femininity: fashion, make-up, hair, bodily poses. Without them, what is a woman? Is there some sort of primordial femininity behind the dyes and the paints and the frills, just waiting to come out – as some feminists have claimed (the moderate ones)? Or is there no woman to speak of until one becomes one, as other feminists (Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler among the most well-known) have argued? As the object of desire, as the first and foremost object of desire, a woman cannot have a voice, does not exist but as an empty vessel. (This idea is very nicely expressed in Christopher Nolan’s film The Inception, in which Leonardo Di Caprio explains the logic of dreams to Ellen Page, the designer of dreams: “If you create something secure [like a bank vault] the mind automatically fills it with something it wants to protect.” Is the feeling of being loved, but not seen, not immediately recognisable to the reader? For being desired as a projection of the other person’s desires? As a safe for their most intimate thoughts and feelings, but not their own?)

At this point psychoanalysis splinters between being helpful to feminism, and being supremely unhelpful. On the one hand, it is asserted that all seeing is masculine, that all desire is male; women artists explore this status as objects of desire, knowingly. On the other, is this not a consolidation of an ontology which may be universal, but is not necessarily unavoidable? When Germaine Greer bemoans female artists as self-indulgent and even, paradoxically, auto-objectifying, what underlines her critique is the sense that not much is to be gained by insisting on the gender split between those who desire, and those who are desired; that the line is not carved in stone. The interpretative dilemma is real: on the one hand, women are still afflicted by illnesses in which the body acts out what the language (the symbolic) cannot express: hysteria once, anorexia today. On the other hand, there are more varities of female life today than when Freud was compiling his discoveries.

Sappho is a perfect woman as case study: revered, admired, analysed, voiceless. A perfect empty vessel, and precisely for that reason an excellent appearance of a secret, a hole in the centre of the symbolic order (quot Zizek). What interests me in Griffiths’s work is the way the speaking subject is primarily the object of desire, and rarely its owner. When she speaks as Sappho, she is the voice of someone whose subjectivity has undergone torturous interpretative transformation: she is a multitude of analyses, not a voice. When she speaks as Atthis, a young woman object of Sappho’s poems, in a contemporary incarnation as young admirer of a successful actress, her attraction is overwhelmingly the reflection of the actress’s attraction to her. The dramatic resolution of the quandary of Sappho in a self-conscious, awkward character of a young woman desired and then abandoned seems to me the weakest dramaturgical aspect of the work. After an exploration of the missing female subjectivity, we return exactly where we started: to the woman as object of desire. It is as if the entire twentieth century has taught us only to embrace this desire, not to master it for ourselves. In this sense, Sappho… in 9 fragments strikes me as conservative, and unsatisfactory.

I can broadly agree with Greer: there must be something beyond the acceptance of woman as the eternal object, beyond pole dancing, lipstick feminism, Sex and the City. The most striking comment on this came to me from the unlikely source: Judith Butler. Despite her reputation as the philosopher that negates femininity, she often returns to this simple idea that desire is empowering, transformative. In one interview, Butler criticised the notion of political lesbianism:

“I always hated this saying that feminism is the theory and lesbianism must be the practice. It desexualizes lesbians. I became a lesbian at the age of fourteen. And I didn’t know anything about politics. I became a lesbian as I wanted somebody very deeply. “

I remember the effect this statement had on me when I first read it: a woman speaking simply about ‘wanting someone’ was so unlike anything I had heard women say. So much of the feminist project seems to have become about fending off desire, through initiatives against sexual harassment, objectification, pornography, and so forth. Sappho… may be just that: a fending off. What a strange conclusion from a work about a poet who wrote about love herself, who wrote about desire long before women became the ‘hole at the centre of the symbolic order’. (But was it before? Here is that problem with classics: one is never sure. I may be committing just such intellectual violence.) I wished for more, or for something else. Perhaps I wanted to see 9 fragments of Judith Butler.

Sappho…in 9 fragments, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. Staging by Marion Potts, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design Darrin Verghagen. Malthouse Theatre. Runs until August 21.

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Dear David Foster Wallace

“I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent like Leyner’s or serious talent like Daitch’s. Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that love can instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. I don’t know. But it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do–from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or the Pynchon of “Gravity’s Rainbow”–is “give” the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”

-DFW, from the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1993, Volume 13.2, found here

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RW: Elizabeth: Quasi per caso una donna

It is tempting to be extra generous to Michael Kantor in his last year of tenure as the artistic director of the Malthouse. “Elizabeth: Quasi per caso una donna”, a Dario Fo romp with the great Julie Forsyth in the title role, might have indeed been his swan song. Unfortunately, if the rest of his departing 2010 keeps the same tone, Melbourne will remember him as a purveyor of “gratuitous camp”, as Cameron Woodhead so aptly summarized his own opinion of Elizabeth in The Age.

I would like to illustrate the problems of this production by referring you to “Moi… Lolita”, a chart-topping French pop song from 2000. The video depicted the then-14-year-old Alizeée as a country girl in a skin-coloured skimpy dress, taking money from a man, getting a bus with her little sister, dancing in a discotheque surrounded by much older men, while the little sister is having a cocktail in a corner. She sings, very approximately, It’s not my fault if when I’m about to give up I see others, all ready to throw themselves at me’

My question is: how long does the average citoyen d’Australie (or another Anglophone country) last before getting very upset about this sexualisation-of-the-youngest business? I would guess not long. Try. Time yourselves. Let me know.

There is an essential seriousness at the bottom of the Anglo heart, still one foot in Protestantism, that makes it very hard to accept that this is just a pop song for a million kids to dance to all over the world. It is a seriousness about the meaning of life, but also about its semiotics, and it particularly comes to the fore in camp, the most English-speaking of aesthetic sensibilities.

Yes, pace Susan Sontag, camp is aestheticization of life, a kind of artifice, quotation marks around life, and yes it works through attenuation or exaggeration of surface – but, it seems to me, there is a melancholic disavowal at its very heart. Camp is a way of doing something and not doing it at the same time – either because you appear to be achieving the opposite (Sontag notes the camp taste for the androgynous body), or because you are overdoing it so much that you must be just pretending – and if its weighty mannerism completely eclipses its content, it is only because the content is somehow pushed away (too painful, embarrassing, or denied). What is disavowed, of course, is a matter of utmost seriousness. Homosexuality tends towards camp for this reason – it is an unprosecutable version of itself. There is something clumsy and unachieved, unaccomplished at the heart of camp, wrapped in glad-wrap of self-protection from failure. Julian Clary is obviously camp, but so is any Englishman who declares love in every possible way, from the most sarcastic to the most bombastic, without ever doing it simply and directly. Camp revels in the sentimental, notes Sontag, and it seems to me that this sentimentality is an equivalent of the melancholia of disavowal. Sentimentality is not-quite-feeling, just like melancholia: something is idealized, mourned, but never properly felt because it has been lost before it was had. (Judith Butler, if I may interrupt myself learnedly, finds melancholia both in homosexuality and in homophobia: the rage in homophobia is the fact that masculine heterosexuality has had to disavow its own homosexual side.) And the essence of every perfected camp pose is deeply tragic. So if it’s a mannerism, it is a mannerism because what’s at stake is too serious to be addressed directly.

It is a common mistake for the Anglophone to misinterpret any exhibition of wild emotion or manner as camp: but without self-irony of the disavowal, it is not camp even if it looks like it. It is melodrama at times, flamboyance or megalomania, wild farce, etc. There is a morbid darkness at the heart of the Spanish culture that makes its excesses fascist before campy; and a joyfulness at the heart of the Italian culture that makes it illiterate in self-irony. Dali is therefore not camp; neither is Dario Fo.

Can they be campified nonetheless? That one can love a Tiffany lamp or Art Nouveau or Sagrada Familia in a camp way is undisputable; but Elizabeth shows a number of problems that arise when one decides to interpret a play campily, against its grain.

What would “Moi… Lolita” look like in a genuinely English version? We do have a good equivalent already: Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time”. A much less literal rendition of the same, with the 16-year-old nymphet in a schoolgirl uniform, singing something allusive but indirect; textbook camp. But the spelling out of ‘Lolita’, the dancing and the older man giving her money would be too strong elements to keep, precisely because the issue at stake is taken too seriously to be treated so playfully, in such a shamelessly silly way.

Elizabeth is a play in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, which is to say a proto-farce, and the ontological position of every farce is that life is too silly to do anything but laugh with it. There is no seriousness at its bottom: it comes, if it does, as an addition, a U-turn. Dario Fo’s humour, like most Italian humour, is a humour of wild exaggeration, of physical comedy, of whirlwind language, spinning at a vaudeville level at which nothing is sacred. Fo injects satire into it, but this is a cosmic sort of satire: satire of power, masculinity, ego – not of this or that person.

Kantor’s Elizabeth moderates this cosmic silliness into something apparently only marginally different, but what it actually does is weigh the text down, inadmissibly and unforgivably, with the disavowed seriousness of camp. Instead of a joyful romp, it becomes a heavy-handedly melancholy, semiotically weighty thing. The problem is not that there is an interpretation per se: the problem is that it fails as a piece of theatre.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing to say about Michael Kantor is that he seems to be capable of only a very narrow expressive range. Save for the extraordinary Happy Days in 2009, all of his work sticks to the same stew of camp singing, heavily applied Satire, sprinkled with poignancy until we all feel five years old. Too many of his works have looked like an educational poster: this is your FUN, this is your SOCIAL RELEVANCE, and this is your MORAL. Unfortunately for Kantor, the dramatic mechanics of Elizabeth cannot withstand such treatment.

I have rarely seen an English-language production of plays of this kind that understands and honours their lack of seriousness (the most recent was probably The Bourgeois Gentleman, a VCA student work ’09 and a delicious, hyper-silly rendition of Moliere). They tend to turn out pompous, spacious and verbose: the frivolity becomes camp, but they are too long to sustain the effortful artifice of camp without growing tired, boring. Similarly, Elizabeth suffers from too much space between the notes, literally: the silences, the bare stage, the criminal lack of movement (coming back from Europe, it was comparatively mesmerizing how little the actors moved). Lofty room is given to paraphernalia: the dialogue, the words, the plot. As humour withers from Elizabeth, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that a farce has little plot, no characters, no message and neglectable depth. It’s a tragic failure if its chain of events don’t elicit laughter, for it is a form that doesn’t attempt much more (just like “Moi… Lolita” is a pop number, not a call to sexual revolution).

Julie Forsyth realizes a wonderful Elizabeth: old, bogan, energetic and paranoid, she is a beautifully original creation. However, in too many moments she is literally the only thing moving on stage, while some insignificant bit of dialogue is being delivered. It’s telling that the most successful moments in the play (and there are a few, evenly scattered throughout the production), are those in which the stage is animated: the operatic exit of Donna Grozetta, the revolving set. Had there been more simple silliness, the denouement might have actually punched with poignance. Instead, Kantor squanders his seriousness: no moment for a note in minor key is wasted, and almost the entire second act sentimentally elegiac – before the queen has even died! By the time Fo is about to make his one serious point, our ability to empathize with a farce has been so severely wrung that we could comfortably sit through a treatise on Hiroshima, complete with a crying choir of disfigured toddlers, and make mental supermarket lists.

Elizabeth is too long and too inconsequential a text to be camped up like that. By ignoring its farce, Malthouse gets a show full of theatre, but without drama, shiny artifice disguising no serious issue. In my more awake moments, I imagined a provincial Italian theatre running away with the script, making scatological jokes and filling the stage to the brim with business. I even imagined how wonderful the play might have looked in Butterly Club, in a cabaret version. If Elizabeth makes the text look bad, I am still convinced there is a worthwhile play at its bottom. It just requires a production less worried about its meaning.

Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman [Quasi per caso una donna: Elisabetta], by Dario Fo. Translated and freely adapted by Luke Devenish and Louise Fox. Director Michael Kantor. Set and costume designer Anna Cordingley. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Composer Mark Jones. Sound designer Russell Goldsmith. Dramaturge Maryanne Lynch. Apr 3 – 24.

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Pure pulp adventure spirit

There’s a reason people find themselves compulsively hooked on “House,” and it’s little surprise you can build an entire empire on the kicks afforded by a “CSI.” Both have their origins in Sherlock Holmes and his ongoing adventures with his trusted friend, Dr. John Watson. These two characters have been played on film more times by more people than any other literary creations, and the basic formula has been bent and twisted so many times, in so many ways, that most audiences have no idea what the “real” Sherlock Holmes is like. They base their knowledge of the character on a few surface details, and they’ve been quite vocal about how upset they are by the way Guy Ritchie and Joel Silver and Robert Downey Jr. are “ruining” the character.

Only… they’re not.

In fact, I’d say “Sherlock Holmes” represents not a radical reinterpretation of the character, but instead a nearly revolutionary return to the genuine pulp roots of what Doyle originally envisioned. No matter how beloved the stories have become, and no matter how much technical skill Doyle brought to the table (quite a bit, for the record), his stories were pulp adventure that followed a rigorous formula. It’s little wonder they have been adapted or reinterpreted for film so many times, since the rules were so clearly laid out over the course of the stories he wrote, and the archetypes so clearly defined. What’s amazing is how much they changed in what are now thought of as the “classic” film versions, while here, they’ve reverted to the text as much as possible and suddenly it seems to the general public like they’ve reinvented Holmes. I don’t think most audiences will care, though, because what Guy Ritchie has done, working with a small army of screenwriters and a team of dedicated producers, is tap into the pure pulp adventure spirit of the stories in a way that should leave audiences worn out from being entertained.

–Drew McWeeny, Motion Captured

And because a sick person is always deserted – to say anything else would be a gross lie.

2006 © Bostan Alexander

The healthy have never had patience with the sick, nor, of course, have the sick ever had patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten. For naturally the sick make far greater demands than the healthy, who, being healthy, have no need to make such demands. The sick do not understand the healthy and the healthy do not understand the sick. This conflict often proves fatal, because ultimately the sick cannot cope with it, and the healthy naturally cannot cope with it either, with the result that they often become sick themselves. It is not easy to deal with a sick person who suddenly returns to the place from which he was wrenched by sickness, and the healthy usually lack the will to help him: they constantly play at being good Samaritans, without actually being good Samaritans or wanting to be, and because it is only a feint, it merely harms the sick person and does not benefit him. In reality, a sick person is always alone, and whatever help he gets from outside nearly always proves merely vexatious. A sick person needs the most unobtrusive help, the kind of help the healthy cannot give. Through their essentially selfish pretense of helping him they succeed only in harming him and making everything harder for him, not easier. Most of the time the sick are not helped, but merely vexed, by their helpers. When a sick person returns home, however, he cannot afford any vexation. Should he point out that he is being vexed rather than helped, he will at once be rebuffed by those who are ostensibly helping him; he will be accused of arrogance and boundless selfishness when in fact he is only resorting to the ultimate self-defense. When a sick person returns hom, the healthy world receives him with ostensible kindness, ostensible helpfulness, ostensible self-sacrifice, but its kindness, helpfulness, and self-sacrifice, when put to the text, turn out to be a sham, and one does well to forgo them. (…)

The hypocrisy practiced by the healthy toward the sick is extremely common. Basically the healthy want no more to do with the sick, and they are put out if a sick person – one who is gravely sick – suddenly reasserts his claim to health. The healthy always make it particularly difficult for the sick to regain their health, or at least to normalize themselves, to improve their state of health. A healthy person, if he is honest, wants nothing to do with the sick; he does not wish to be reminded of sickness and thereby, inevitably, of death. He wants to stay with his own kind and is basically intolerant of the sick. It has always been made difficult for me to return from the world of the sick to the world of the healthy. While a person is sick, the healthy shun him and cast him off, in obedience to their instinct for self-preservation. Then suddenly this person who has been shed and has meanwhile ceased to matter reappers and claims his rights. Naturally he is at once given to understand that basically he has no rights. As the healthy see it, the sick have forfeited whatever rights they once had. Their sickness has robbed them of their rights and thrown them upon the charity of the healthy. When a sick person, having ceded the place that he once occupied by right, suddenly demands its restitutions, the healthy regard this as an act of monstrous presumption. (…) A gravely sick person who returns home must be treated with gentleness and consideration. But this is difficult, and therefore rare. The healthy immediately make him feel he is an outsider and no longer one of them, and while pretending that this is not so, they do all in their power to repulse him.

– Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Adventures in Pornography

Today, for perhaps the first time really, for the first time in this way, it struck what a waste of resources tertiary education may be. I mean, a total waste of money and manhours on minds too young, and too inexperienced, to genuinely benefit. This even before we factor in the tremendously homogeneous education they receive, and the limited range of experiences they have had, in this country.

I was doing a presentation on Pauline Reage’s The Story of O for a literature class mainly concerned with censorship. The Story of O is one of the major pornographic novels, together with Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and the opus of Marquis de Sade. It’s a work of high modernism, published in France in 1954, and follows, in third person, a woman referred to only as ‘O’, through a series of sadomasochistic escapades. It is unmistakably porn. It is not an erotic novel, but one that graphically depicts a stockstandard range of situations unmistakably drawn from smut. It is not concerned with feelings, with consent, with empowerment, with mutual adoration. It is, also, unmistakably, art.

What makes The Story of O so fascinating is its idiosyncracy. It is both obscene and morbid; superficial and profound; arousing and repulsive. It reads like a nightmare, and has all the allure. O is the typical pornographic heroine, abused by a number of men in a variety of ways; but the book adds psychology to the stereotypical narrative, in a most disconcerting way. O is submitted to torture by her lover, Rene, and yet she both suffers and enjoys her suffering. She submits herself gladly, as a proof of love for Rene. The intensity of her debasement escalates from the cliched, through mildly offensive, to completely morbid: in the last pages of the novel, naked, tattooed, chained and masked, O has lost any trace of individuality and isn’t even spoken to anymore. Yet the narrator points clearly to the deep satisfaction she feels in this renunciation of self, despite the pain she feels. Around the middle of the book, when her psychology is first brought into the light, the narrator even notices that Rene himself doesn’t seem to enjoy O’s ordeal very much, making it conceivable that O is orchestrating the entire show for her own purposes.

It is a very complex book, and shouldn’t at all be read as realist fiction. Susan Sontag has compared it to other modernist works interested in exploring the deepest recesses of the mind (notable surrealist fiction, for example, and Bataille), and to many works of mystic literature. O’s shedding of the layers of the self is comparable to the path of a Zen pupil or Jesuit novice. For other commentators, it is an expression of the deeply rooted human desire “to be free from oneself, to have the gratifications one associates with the self without the obligation of making the choices by which moral character and personality are defined.” From Peter Michelson’s perspective, it’s possible to read The Story of O as an allegory of falling in love. Or as a prolonged rape fantasy akin to those appearing at the beginnings of romance novels. O’s path towards self-obliteration is as extreme as it is familiar; it evokes not only the usual porn plots, but maps mental territory we genuinely cross. It doesn’t normalise sadomasochism; but it delves straight into it.

I was very interested in how other students have reacted to the book, and was not so much surprised, as deeply disappointed, with the narrowness of their reactions. Unlike a one-joke book like American Psycho or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, time hasn’t softened the transgression of The Story of O; students who would quickly defend the right of Wilde, Lawrence or Rushdie to chart difficult territories were more than ready to be shocked by Reage. What surprised me was how few of them understood any of it. They found O sad, pathetic, impossible to understand. They clearly had no direct experience of the death drive, of the self-destructive potential, which made me think that most of them have probably never even been properly in love.

Over and over again, it was called religious, and all these kids distanced themselves from the religious vocabulary they considered removed from their own lives. They couldn’t find a way into self-renunciation. This disturbed me greatly: I brought in the self-negation of a collective experience, but struggled to find anything Australian apart from the sporting event. Finally, I brought up the housewife: living through your husband and children, what a healthy human being would need to do in order to accept such fate, and how the mental mechanism employed wouldn’t differ greatly from O’s self-obliteration for love. “It’s a not a distant, exotic thing you have no contact with,” I was exclaiming at this point, “do you know a woman who has never worked? A stay-at-home mum? Is that a religious experience too?”

There was a genuine break-through at this point. One of the girls said, after a pause, “I think it’s just that it goes against everything we’ve been taught at school about how we should live, and about what love is.” Telling, the notion of being told at school what love is. This is where I realised we cannot discuss something like The Story of O in that class. It was, quite simply, too early for them.

So much knowledge is experiential, and so obvious this becomes when art criticism tries to happen. Brett Easton Ellis was one of the first artists I’ve read who drew the line between youth and formalism. In your twenties, he said, you don’t understand consequentiality: you’ve had only limited life experience, and you don’t have a proper understanding of the consequences of the things you’re doing. As a result, he said, your capacity to tell stories is limited: you cannot match causes and effects. Instead, the young artist is a formalist; and so is the young critic.

I cannot count how many theatre shows I’ve seen recently that had no understanding of the stories they were telling; and how much criticism I have read that showed no understanding of the meaning of the shows it was criticising. The semi-literary discussion surrounding The Story of O was only the last and the most exasperating case. I’ve been very reluctant to write because I’m getting not so much tired of form (form is always there), but tired of this overwhelming lack of understanding of the stories shaped by the form. A little while ago I read a newspaper article on Beautiful Kate, in which Rachel Ward, the scriptwriter and director, was asked about why she portrayed incest with a bit of sympathy. As if the inner side of all art can be reduced to plot plus artist’s message and goddamn sympathy or condemnation.

Someone, somewhere, once defined good literature as that thing you read and go, Yes, that’s exactly how life is! I never thought of it that way, but that’s how things are! In order to recognise that that’s how things are, though, you have to have known the things themselves. No amount of reading can do it instead.

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The Insularity of English

“At a time when everyone is asking why English-language fiction has stalled, why fewer readers buy novels, part of the answer must lie in the decline of translation. Alert readers of Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, among other languages, participate in an international aesthetic conversation; readers and writers of English, condemned to silence by insular fantasies of global artistic relevance, are missing out on the next wave of literature.” – Stephen Henighan, The Insularity of English

STC: Elling & Belvoir: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

I am about to burn all my bridges and praise theatre I have never praised before. But we all grow older and up. Two shows currently playing in Sydney are exemplary for what Sydney likes to do: straight plays, if not television. Things that, we smirk from Melbourne, are not quite theatre.

Indeed, both are adaptations of dubious philosophy. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at Belvoir Downstairs, is Robert Couch’s adaptation of the 1865 short novel of the same title by Nikolai Leskov. The transposition, in this case, is informed by the existence of no less than three film versions, numerous other stage adaptations, and at least one famous opera (by Shostakovich, recently revived by Opera Australia). Elling, at Sydney Theatre Company, is based on a 2001 Norwegian film (!), itself an adaptation of Ingvar Ambjrnsen’s novel. Pamela Rabe is directing a stage adaptation, originally by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Nss, then translated into English by Nicholas Norris and further adapted by Simon Bent (why, it makes you wonder, must the English add another layer of pruning to translated texts?). Suspicious pursuits!

It was already Goethe who complained that, as soon as they read the book, the audience of then wanted to see the play: the transposition of story across mediums, that completely failed to notice that medium was, even then, the message. (Without launching into a rant, that the narrative of Don Quixote was undivorceable from the novel-ness of Don Quixote; that one cannot turn Bukowski’s poetry into a play – although the additional question in this case is: why bother?) In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag raves against the sanctity of content:

…which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

I am a habitual Sontag-disciple in this matter; I believe that the theatre must be theatre first, and say something later. Yet both of these productions, these theatrical mongrels, are terrific, and absolutely worth seeing – something akin to Humphrey Bower and Jess Ipkendanz’s The Kreutzer Sonata at La Mama in 2007, a re-working of Tolstoy’s short story for one voice and two instruments. An adaptation that ought to have miserably failed was instead an astonishing artistic success, one of the finest experiences I have ever had in the theatre.

I am not sure how the formalist in me justifies the tremendous enjoyment to be derived from both Lady Macbeth and Elling, but I suspect it has something to do with story. None of the two are flawless works, but you forgive them even if you notice, because you’re taken along with the narrative. The limitations of the stage, unaddressed as they may be, become invisible as the stage itself vanishes behind the story.

Psychology has made a claim that we human beings love stories because story is the fundamental organisational element of our consciousness. In simple words, we make sense of the world by telling stories to ourselves (and, indeed, the fundamental product of schizophrenia is the inability to construct a coherent narrative of one’s own life). Some artistic forms are better suited to this task, called epic for this very reason: novels, short stories, epic poems. Some not so much: painting, haiku, tragedy. However, human mind is wired to look for a narrative even in the least likely places; and it is comical but not entirely wrong that many works of art are seen to fail when they provide too strong a narrative framework for the viewer, offer too little resistance to the story-telling mind (Jack Vettriano’s painting; pre-Raphaelite didacticism; Bukowski’s poetry; Hollywood movies; the realistic novel – depending on your elitism of choice). In this duel of the urge to narrate with the fickle narcissism of form, victories are sometimes unpredictable. While Aristotle clearly separated dramatic from epic arts, suggesting that theatre is inherently flawed as a story-telling vehicle (and I second that, except in the case of radio play), Brecht has revolutionised theatre by disagreeing. Not too long after, a generation of writers proved that the novel could well exist without telling a story at all.

To return to the matter at hand: the qualities of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk lie in Joseph Couch’s excellent direction of the narrative material. Robert Couch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s slim novel is pruned and stream-lined into a tight, breathless ride through the 19th-century Russia. It is as simple a story as they get: Katerina, an abused country wife, a childless slave in her own house, is seduced by a labourer. A woman who was, until then, resigned to a life of complete misery, she latches onto this unexpected source of bliss, and serially murders her way into freedom, trying to keep this love in her life.

It is interesting to find a character of this sort in the intersection of the work of three men: the novelist, the adaptator, the director. (Joe Couch notes: it is as if Leskov stumbled upon her heroine subconsciously, never understanding her motives.) This production, however, is singularly compassionate, and explores her amour fou with an essayistic clarity of thought. Without a single superfluous line or gesture, Couch builds a picture of Katerina, clutching onto a love affair that has become the sole source of meaning in her life. The macabre second act, in which her lover turns against her, is a tight and astute image of attraction turned rage, devotion turned self-annihilation, and joie de vivre turned madness.

Edwina Ritchard, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley’s many secondary characters build a varied, rich world around the two main characters in the tiny Downstairs space. For once, Russians are not played as English people: all characters possess a rounded, fully-fleshed emotional life. Kersey’s Aksinya is not a cockney maid we have come to expect from less culturally literate productions, but a brisk, yet compassionate, peasant woman. Alice Parkinson is extraordinary as a woman whom life has treated so badly as to reduce her to an animal presence, bare life on stage. She shivers and mutters, groans and sings and dances; yet she is not a caricature, but a tragic character whose actions, however extreme, are always understandable.

What could very easily have been a tedious night out is instead a riveting experience. The theatrical perils are enormous: the entire second act tries to enact a long march across Russia on the minuscule Downstairs stage. In the easy-going, frivolous Australia, the entire point could have been so easily misunderstood. Yet the emotional intelligence of the production completely overcomes the technical obstacles, delivering a gripping, utterly absorbing tale.

Darren Gilshenan & Lachy Hulme in Elling. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

The story with Elling is slightly different. A Norwegian comedy instead of a Russian tragedy. Another worrying adaptation trajectory, yet another success of theatre as straight-forward story-telling. Played by the exquisite Darren Gilshenan and Lachy Hulme, Elling and Kjell Bjorne are two lunatics given a council flat, a chain-smoking social worker, and a couple of months in the real world after a lifetime of confinement. If they screw badly enough, Frank will be only too glad to return them to the mental asylum.

The humour that Elling weaves out of this initial situation is as deliciously Scandinavian as it is un-Australian – which is also what makes its final triumph more interesting. The first thing to keep in mind is that the two characters are genuine, bona fide crazies. Kjell Bjarne is a 40-year-old virgin, constantly masturbating and without a clue about the world outside psychiatric institutions. Elling is a well-spoken agoraphobe who conflates his mother with Virgin Mary, possesses a baroque and complex sense of guilt for having outlived her (unlike Christ), and manages to regularly convince the infinitely more low-brow Kjell in the normality of his particular worldview. Reidun, the pregnant check-out chick from the apartment upstairs who becomes Kjell’s romantic dalliance, and the seedy poet Alfons, who befriends Elling out of aesthetic interest in the mind of a madman, are no more conventional human beings, and certainly not immediately likeable.

In front of the comedy of manners that ensues, Sydney audience looked genuinely confused: reluctant to laugh at insanity, at the intellectual and emotional underdevelopment of a pregnant working-class girl, even at the ruined career of a once-famous poet. The stakes are too high, firstly, and secondly, there is never anyone to laugh with. Indeed, in the entire first act, the only scenes that properly elicited laughter were those in which someone was clearly upholding normality (such as when frustrated Frank forces Elling to overcome his phobia and answer the phone).

Keeping in mind our quest for the coordinates of Australian humour – which is, sadly, looking more and more like textbook bully humour – another rule seems to assert itself: Australian humour shies away from the strange-without-resolution, otherwise known as farcical. Scandinavian humour, like in Elling, thrives on unconventional relationships (compare and contrast Kitchen Stories, exempli gratia), which deepen and grow without either of the characters capitulating in front of the differing opinions or behaviour of the other. Looking at the Sydney audience, trying to put my finger on why their engagement with the comedy was failing, the missing link seemed to be, I am sad to report, acceptance. Not tolerance – one tolerates a rash, tolerance is the ability to ignore, and a person on stage is not there to be tolerated – but acceptance of the unreconcilable difference. The audience seemed unable to get their heads around the fact that Elling was not going to be ridiculed out of his agoraphobia, nor Kjell Bjarne shamed out of public masturbation.

By the second act, however, all was resolved. The laughing curve, which dragged on the floor for most of act one, shot up immediately after the interval, and the play ended as an unqualified success. Yet there is no qualitative difference in the execution between the two acts, nor is the second half any more conventional. Quite the opposite: Elling runs off with an evil plot to become a famous poet by planting poems in sauerkraut packets, all whilst jealously plotting to keep their pregnant neighbour away from Kjell. Yet, it seems, by now the audience has thawed towards these mad people. The climax – in which Reidun goes into labour after a night of drinking and smoking, Frank assures them that a night of drunken debauchery is the normal way to celebrate childbirth, and Alfons opts for friendship at the expense of his writerly fame – is emotionally satisfying without being facile.

Again, Gilshenan and Hulme are supported by terrific supporting performances. Yael Stone, in particular, gives great richness to the range of women Elling and Kjell encounter. Directed confidently, but without frills, Elling is a terrific theatre experience. Just like with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the focus is solely on telling a story. Neither of the two productions does anything to make a case for theatre as something distinct from prose or television. Yet they both confidently assert, in these often narrative-dislexic times, the timeless importance of some plot and characters.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Written by Robert Couch. Adapted from the novella by Nikolai Leskov. Directed by Joseph Couch. With Alice Parkinson, Conrad Coleby, Don Reid, Edwina Ritchard, Celeste Dodwell, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley. Belvoir Downstairs, July 2 – 26.

Elling. Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. Stage adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. Translated by Nicholas Norris. Adapted by Simon Bent. Director Pamela Rabe. Set Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Sound Designer Max Lyandvert. With Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Lachy Hulme, Yael Stone, Frank Whitten. Sydney Theatre Company, May 30 – July 18.

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3xQuestion (rather less rhetorical than they may seem)

1. 1994

The New York Times had an article on the front page asking: why isn’t there class conflict, why aren’t all these people recognizing they have class interests that are being betrayed, lethally betrayed, by Big Business, and why now do people blame government instead of blaming business, and why is the boss never really seen as being the enemy and is rather being seen as a fellow victim? The article laid out in political and sociological terms how much the Right has won and how much the elimination, not even so much of the Soviet system as an alternative – because it never really has been an alternative for us – but of an ideological space marked “alternative”, how the elimination of that has absolutely forced people into simply accepting as a given all the things that are contrary to their own self-interest. You won’t blame the boss because blaming the boss means developing a critique of capitalism as a system and, of course, we all know now that capitalism is the only conceivable system. Look at the destruction of the trade unions, the idea that everybody is downscaling and everybody is being put out of work. No one is getting angry at these corporations anymore because it is simply assumed they will maximize profits at the expense of human beings, and that this is the way that it has to be.
- Tony Kushner interviewed by Carl Weber

2. 2006

How did we get [to the war on terror]? The best place to look for the answer is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before. Examining the cultural mood of the late ’90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.

The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it “changed everything.” But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come—the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.
- Christopher Hayes, The Good War on Terror: How the Greatest Generation helped pave the road to Baghdad

3. yesterday

Nick Dave’s new book The Death of Bunny Munro, about a man who sits in a hotel room and masturbates fantasizing about vaginas (what elese?, you sort of wonder), is due for release in Australia in August. This is the cover. If I knew whether I think it’s problematic or not, it would mean I have found answers to many questions troubling me these days. I haven’t, so I don’t.

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The Monthly strikes again

The locals will know, the un-Australians won’t: after a public and very unflatteringly-viewed sacking of their finest editor to date, because she dared work independently of her board, The Monthly, Australia’s only candidate for an art&politics magazine, has just appointed a new editor. He is 23 years old.

The public discussion has gone two ways: the road of restrained scepticism on the one hand, and the anti-ageism way on the other. The latter say: why couldn’t he be a good editor at that age? I was called young when I started (though I was 28/39/45 at the time)…

Ah, the point ain’t that a 23-year-old cannot be a decent editor of the country’s only pretendent at intelligent political magazine. The point is that he will not be the best possible. One needs experience, those 10,000 hours, one needs to fail before one learns. And, considering the circumstances in which Sally Warhaft lost her position, great skills are required of a Monthly editor if s/he is to be great.

On the other hand, it’s fair to assume there is no real desire to make The Monthly great. Guy Rundle has every right to point out that The Monthly has been content to be rather dull and uninspired where it could have been brilliant and influential. The weight of the magazine lies in what it does, not how it does it. It’s business as usual: we know how little we want, and that means we recognise it immediately. Again we are at the point, so common in this young country, where we proclaim the 20-something as a genius. Again that need not to demand the learning process from others – perhaps because then we would need to demand it from ourselves too?

Pavlov’s Cat, commenting on the issue, quotes T. H. White:

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can’t teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically — she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. … And then … she can go on living — not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She … continues henceforth under the guise of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense … and now she has the seventh one — knowledge of the world.

The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy — this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognised without a cry. We only carry on … riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do. …

I trust 23-year-old boys with very little, on a daily basis. I am 24 years old now: I still don’t know much, but I do know a great deal more than I did a year ago. Those who say that age doesn’t matter perhaps don’t remember what 23 feels like. Or perhaps they’re young themselves, and don’t know how little they know yet. After all, when I was 22, I trusted 23-year-old boys with many things. I am sure Ben Naparstek is among the better 23-year-old boys out there, if not the very best. Still.

On a slightly oblique note: I was on a bit of a mission earlier this year, talking to my older friends about the sort of things they’ve learned with age. I’ve always found that Woody-Allenism, “you don’t learn, you only get older”, troubling and manifestly incorrect. The responses have been interestingly laconic. Some have said you get tougher. Some have said you learn to distinguish types of people. You become less tolerant. Largely, there was a strange quietness at the question, as if they suspected I wouldn’t be able to do much with the information – which was probably right. I see younger people – in my class, or my sister’s teenage friends – and I can see the mistakes they need to make. Like T. H. White points so well, it is an illogical sort of knowledge, an ever-shifting sense of balance. It cannot be taught. What happens, I imagine, is that you learn the world, and you learn yourself.

Roz Hansen, whom I had the great luck to interview in 2008, summarized a woman’s career trajectory this way:

In your twenties you’re treading water, you’re trying things out. In your thirties you know what you’re doing and you’re starting to build your career. In your forties you’re making money. And in your fifties you have the experience, you’re confident, and you do it for love, because it makes you happy.

It’s not a bad thing to have in mind, I suppose.

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