Category Archives: LITERATURE

Seven Jewish Children (1?)

Melbourne has had its reading of Seven Jewish Children, its donation bucket and panel afterwards, and yet I am a little surprised that no follow-up discussion has appeared, not even among the bloggers. I imagine it has something to do with the supreme lack of time we all seem to profess at the moment. I certainly have many better things I could be doing. However, I wanted to leave a short note, even if only to signpost: was there.

Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is a very beautiful, if tiny, piece of writing, and the biggest failure of the event was quite possibly to use it as a pretext for the panel. I am not sure I would classify it as a political piece, simply. To my reading eye, Children is a text about ethics, community, and conscience, not politics. To those who haven’t read it, it is structured into seven short scenes, in which an unnumbered group of people, with unassigned lines, argue about how to explain seven unnamed moments of recent Israeli history (hiding from the Nazi, the Holocaust – and bear with me when I say ‘Israeli’, I will explain later – moving to Israel, the settlements, the Six Day’s War, the second Intifada, and the most recent attack on Gaza; the references are clear, but left unstated), to an unnamed child, which Churchill stipulates must be absent from the stage. The recurring phrases are: tell her that… – don’t tell her that… – don’t frighten her – don’t tell her THAT.

It is a chilling text to read when, like me, you’ve grown up listening to adults arguing over your head about what you should, and shouldn’t know. Perhaps it is this experience that makes me see Seven Jewish Children as a generous, sympathetic play where many people seem to see blatant anti-Semitism. I asked many questions when I was little, and I remember these conversations exploding into entire family arguments over my little head: tell her this!, tell her that!, don’t tell her that, that’s not true!, and the recurring phrase (one that Churchill leaves out): she is old enough to know. I was old enough to know all sorts of things about how evil the enemy was, how evil the neighbours were, how rotten the state, the continent, the world was. It was a little fight between my parents, and my parents and the world. Parents demarcate their world, their worldviews, their values, through their children, their children signpost a success, an influence. Thus we have vegetarian children, Christian children, Steiner-school children, children who play the violin at the age of three, and children old enough to parrot their parents’ political views.

Just like at my kitchen table, in Seven Jewish Children adults, through parenting advice, are discussing their political views with one another. Yet they are also mounting pressure and breaking down, and this is where Churchill’s extreme rhetorics (David Jays) should not be taken as a condemnation of some cold-blooded, exterminating Zionism or other. The inward-looking worldview of the parent is, here, struggling against the pressure from the disjointed, illogical, terrifying and shameful exterior that cannot be kept outside. As much as, in the face of a terrible world, we would all rather turn Amish than have to teach our children the rules of survival, inwardness cannot be kept forever. (A couple of very interesting films and plays have, since 9/11, focused on this problem of the intruding exterior: most notably The History of Violence and Cache but also, say, Mercury Fur.) The warm, vanilla-scented interior of the community needs to be opened up to the messy, violent exterior that we are responsible for and that contradicts our very values. It is a struggle to keep something complicated simple, for a child, and to protect them without lying, to her but mainly to oneself. And the breaking points happen: one can no longer speak truth because the truth is too unpleasant, or because lies don’t make sense anymore, or because the exterior has gone out of hand. Tell her we kill far more of them is a terrible thing to say, but I’ve heard adults say it over children’s heads, all good people who don’t kill other people, who give small change to the homeless, who hate conflict most of the time; but who are, in that moment, voicing a worldview which exists as legitimately as brotherhood and unity, in their world. They do kill far more of them, or they wish they do, it’s said often enough, she will learn the phrase sooner or later. Parenting becomes an impossible game that needs to be played nonetheless.

So Churchill’s playlet notates the progression of failing rhetoric in the face of a terrible situation; hardly a thing to call anti-Semitic. Yet it is precisely her insistence on making the play political that creates the problems. The text itself is poetic, ambiguous: keeping it free of performance rights, thus encouraging readings and staging worldwide, asking for donations to be made for Gaza and so on, are the external devices that made it into a political play, and it is, I think, a strategic mistake for Churchill. It makes us read a fundamentally literary text in terms of its political use-value, and a number of problems emerge: suddenly every literary gesture needs to stand for either condemnation or justification. To read the text politically ultimately diminishes its value as a work of art, without adding much. But there is a point to make here, too.

More than one person has felt that labeling the children Jewish signposts the dilemma of an entire religious/ethnic group, rather than a nation. It is possible to argue that the Holocaust is a Jewish, not an Israeli tragedy, that it was important to be correct. However, the inclusion of the Holocaust, if anything, tilts the political position (if there is one) of the play towards justifying one kind of violence with another (you see?, strategic mistake). This is exactly the same as the liberal-European position that justifies Islamic terrorism on the grounds of the colonial injustices suffered, or – why not? – Palestinian bombings with the state of Gaza. Yet behind every single nation-state there is the trauma of the preceding displacement: behind the nation-making violence of Yugoslavia was the trauma of the semi-colonial bloodshed of the world wars, just like behind the unification of Germany may be the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, as Zizek points out, there is a foundational violence at the beginning of every nation: there were people living in just about every land before those currently living there arrived. Israel’s peculiarity is that its own foundational violence, the displacement of Palestinians, is too historically close to be conveniently forgotten. The problematic of the play is so universal that it could be transposed to every single country in the world, as long as it was willing to travel into the history: Seven American Children, starting with religious prosecution in Europe and ending with the genocide of the Native Americans; Seven French Children, in which the revolutionary terror spills over into the Napoleonic wars; Seven Australian Children, and so on. It is a universal story of a dishonest history lesson: and who hasn’t ever had one?

The problem with reading the play politically is that all this needs to be taken into account (and more, and more…). If this historical linearity between foundational violence is taken on into the future, if the arbitrary line between distant and recent history is not drawn (the violent and unfair gesture with which we relegate our past crimes to the past, refuse our victims the right to be historically wronged, and pretend nothing has happened), then the past keeps returning as a terrible justification of whatever our present crimes may be.

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However, using this play as a pretext for a discussion on Gaza creates a set of problems much bigger than anything enumerated so far.

I am hoping to be able to continue this. However, I am enormously busy at the moment…
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Jamaica Kincaid on travellers

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day. From day to day, you are a nice person. From day to day, all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do. From day to day, as you walk down a busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live, dismayed, puzzled (a cliche, but only a cliche can explain you) at how alone you feel in this crowd, how awful it is to go unnoticed, how awful it is to go unloved, even as you are surrounded by more people than you could possibly get to know in a lifetime that lasted for millenia, and then out of the corner of your eye you see someone looking at you and absolute pleasure is written all over that person’s face, and then you realise that you are not as revolting a presence as you think you are (for that look just told you so). And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people (people just like you), a person at home in your own skin (sort of; I mean, in a way; I mean, your dismay and puzzlement are natural to you, because people like you just seem to be like that, and so many of the things people like you find admirable about yourselves – the things you think about, the things you think really define you – seem rooted in these feelings): a person at home in your own house (and all its nice house things), with its nice back watd (and its nice back-yard things), at home on your street, your church, in community activities, your job, at home with your family, your relatives, your friends – you are a whole person. But one day, when you are sitting somewhere, alone in that crowd, and that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you, and really, as an ordinary person you are not well equipped to look too far inward and set yourself aright, because being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words “I must get away” do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person lying on some faraway beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marvelling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature.

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

Contemplating Hell

Contemplating Hell by Bertolt Brecht
Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that is
Must be even more like Los Angeles.

Also in Hell,
I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens
With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,
Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless

Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which
Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere.
And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,
Even when inhabited.

Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks.

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RW: Peer Gynt

Somewhere between the eager, calculated ambition of Julien Sorel, and the holy mania of Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, there was Peer Gynt, a provincial boy who wanted to be king. Writing in Italy, between the shaky fervour of his early fame, and the secure wisdom of his mature psychological dramas, recently expatriated Ibsen was waxing uncomfortably personal. The first half, an act of plotting bien fait, realism-however-fanciful, is his past; the second, a phantasmagoric circular nightmare, his imagined future. For five acts, Ibsen makes Peer hop from whim to whim, day-dreaming himself into glorious roles and escaping every moment of existential discomfort, confusing this wild gratification of impulsive desires and learnt ambition with truthfulness to oneself.

In Dante’s Inferno, the antechamber to Hell is reserved for those who drifted through life without ever getting behind a cause of belief. Having gambled morals, principles and relationships away for a life lived fully, Peer is revealed to be merely a self-centred little man, not different from a common small-town butcher. He spends his last dramatic moments chased by the Button Moulder with a big ladle, confronted with the very destiny he fears the most: insignificance; oblivion. Categorically denied the last honour of being a great sinner (“merely average”, quips the Button Moulder), unworthy of Devil’s time, he will be moulded into a button.

A sprawling dramatic poem, Peer Gynt careens freely between social verisimilitude and outrageous flights of fancy. In its psychological externalization, each troll is a momentarily irresistible girl, each nightmare a folktale monster. It was not intended for performance, and Ibsen exuberantly did away with reasonable staging demands: spanning 50 years, two continents, an obscene number of characters, changes of tone, pace and fabular focus, it is as unstageable as a play gets. But it was Heiner Muller who said that only dramatic writing that cannot be realised on stage is of any use for the theatre.

Daniel Schlusser takes the text as the starting point to explore the questions and answers Ibsen posed himself. His Peer Gynt eludes, disappoints, dissonates, amazes, stretches and contracts, and meanwhile disagrees with most of what we see on Australian stages these days: despite occasionally looking it, it is not lyrical, not pretty, not atmospheric, not sentimental, and not unknotting itself with silly humour or cute explanations. lt unravels its threads of inquiry with slow thoroughness of a Hans van den Broeck (not among the C de la B for no reason), and yet the complex performance requires no long-winded explanations before it can be fully felt. Its intellectual rigour is solid enough to allow itself wild playfulness. It is gorgeous, masterful theatre.

It is entirely possible to read this Peer as a satire on conventional naturalism. The establishing scene, that two-minute cliché of actor milling around the stage, unaware of the fourth-wall crowd, is here stretched into an unrelenting, 30-or-so-minute setting up of the performance/wedding stage. A fridge is hauled in, a pool filled with balloons, the actors walk on and off stage wrapped in a visible, but gauze-thin layer of heightened stage presence: bringing the drinks, the beach towels, talking into their phones, conducting barely audible conversations, whispered gossip. The endless wedding implosion that builds up is an opaque enactment of a complex social situation, breaking into mini-conflicts, small seductions, power negotiations in far corners. All a sort of long pout at the audience that wants staged life.

However, it is when the performance breaks into the song and dance of serving-the-play, and the performers build up heightened actorliness, that strangeness sets in. In a wonderful inversion, the text is not a source of truth, but an exclamatory deceit. Once literary faithfulness start showing, it looks incongruous to whatever stage reality has been created. The performers recite Ibsen’s extravagant language and emotions sounding more and more like delusional lunatics. Gynt fornicates in the forest, becomes a troll, abandons lovers, grows old, and the closer the performance follows the plotline, the more it seems to descend into plotless chaos. Aase dies when appropriate, then resumes her stage life the hungover morning after. Supporting characters loiter on stage, or drift off into small games. Off-handedly providing the dramatic arc, the production ends in medias res of psychological carnage, leaving us confused, hovering without catharsis (save for a small burst of soap bubbles).

Katie-Jean Harding, Annie Last, Rebecca Bower, Kyle Baxter and Nikki Shiels inPeer Gynt. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Arbitrating the guilt for this life less lived, Schlusser avoids the easy parallel with our media-fed crave for the semiotics of success rather than success itself (remember teenage Grace in Sally Potter’s YES who, when asked what she wants to be, torpidly sighs: “Famous…”?). In Kyle Baxter’s performance, Peer is not a megalomaniac boy whose unstructured, but violent ambition ruins women, and then himself. He is an extraordinarily passive character instead, prancing on the outskirts of the stage playing with props, being laughed at by the cashed-up bogans and mellowly accepting their ridicule as a sign of belonging. If he is a man-boy, it is because the entire group has a vested interest in keeping him on their own level of existential blindness, and it is his overdeveloped imagination that keeps him losing whatever path he may have, not selfish hunger. Ibsen’s Gynt confuses the symbol for the meaning, hunting solid objects that stand for power: money, ruthlessness, detachment, crowns or roles (he wants to be an emperor, an explorer, a philosopher). Schlusser’s Gynt, a bubble-wrapped boy living on the cusp of the most profligate moment in history, in a wealthy, First-World metropolis, doesn’t ask, but is constantly offered. Rather than spreading his ambition too thinly, he loses himself by not being able to refuse. Aase, the mother who lives through her adored child (beautifully calibrated Edwina Wren), forms an alliance with Solveig, obsessively exchanging stories of their dear boy. And Solveig, the silver-prayer-book docile image of all the 19th-century girl cliches, is in Karen Sibbing’s manically delicate performance shown to be a wilful child, a mind as unformed as Peer’s. If she grows old waiting for her childhood crush to return, it is not God-condoned devotion that keeps her in their hut, but infantile refusal to burst her own bubble of romantic fantasy.

In the setting up, it soon becomes clear that men and women live separate fantasies: while women strut on high heels, drink champagne and throw tantrums over their wedding dreams, men set up their beer and Fußball den at the other end of the stage. Unable to break the chalk circle of the masculine group, Gynt becomes a toy boy for the women, with all the confused disrespect that this powerless subordination breeds. In the interplay of outpours of egocentric affection, everyone uses everyone, and everyone feels a winner, yet everyone also feels virtuous, affectionate, generous. When, in the last minutes of the play, Peer Gynt begs Solveig to tell him who he is, where he is, she glows with giggly joy as she announces: “You live in my head, in my song, in my dreams”. Nobody comes off clean: just like Torvald is himself trapped in the dollhouse he has built for Nora, so are these Gen Y child-women shown to be complicit in the infantilisation of the men that hurt and abandon them. In a particularly morbid observation, Solveig jumps into a noise-making, ridiculing frenzy, trying to get Peer’s attention away from his dying mother. (Whether I share this boy-friendly thesis is not the point: it is rare to see a theatre production intellectually both brave and sound enough to freely disagree with.)

However, this psychological triangle is refracted through so many distancing prisms that one could not know the text and still leave with a headful of thoughts. Ibsen’s poem already opens up conflicting levels of narrative. Is it a socially verosimile fable, or hallucinatory psychological realism? It is a story of a story-teller, a man-onion who lies because he couldn’t find his way out of his own mind. It is, finally, half-autobiography and half-anxiety. Schlusser’s production piles the layers even higher. On the boards, it builds storeys of vertiginous conflicting realities: the play slowly establishes itself as a party cum wedding; the wedding is a rehearsal; the rehearsal collapses under the disagreeing perceptions of the participants’ roles; Gynt’s entire life, fantastic as it is, probably no more than an overnight trip that ensues as the rehearsal descends into drunken shenanigans, and then further into an orgiastic ritual of sacrifice. Georgie Read, a woman in 1920s attire, walks through the set untouched by the bogan mayhem. And yet constantly, as a man with a panama hat runs to fetch the characters that drift out into the courtyard through the door at the back of the stage, there is a subtle feeling that we may be looking at a bunch of asylum crazies biding their time. (The crucial moment in Act IV, in which Peer is crowned the emperor of a mental hospital, is not so much missing as dispersed, both subtly pointed at and self-evident.) All apart from the simple fact that, since the characters make demands on the sound technicians and call the stage manager in to wipe the party mess, we all clearly admit to being in the theatre.

Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer and Kyle Baxter. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Indeed, one of the main concerns of this Peer Gynt is the multiplicity of make-believe , and the disorder that ensues in leakage. While Ibsen remains unclear about how much of a dream the entire story is, Schlusser keeps us wondering whose dream it is. Layering theatricality and anti-theatricality, virtually all stage action is apportioned into multiple collective illusions with varying numbers of participants, and each one looks equally dubious: from the footballer-wife paradise of cheap positional goods, to Peer and Solveig’s romantic idyll. Turning the wedding into a rehearsal, thus, is not just a stylistic device, but a gesture of utmost importance. There is no logic to rehearsing a performative act, except as an anxiety attenuator; yet it absorbs and breathes that same anxiety because it becomes a fragile battleground of dream and reality – just like the theatre turns into the battleground of ideas not because it is a safe space, but because it isn’t; just like one’s fantasies need to be corrected before they result in actions, and why play-acting is not for sissies. As these self-declared bubbles of comfort build up, Schlusser examines the burning violence they create outside. Wars, gangs, social groups, fashion trends and riots are all no more than collective fantasies in action, indoor safety upkept with violence radiating outwards. Thus the boganville, grown heavy and momentuous with alcohol, turns into a gang mutilation of Anitra (Sarah Armanious), the wedding dress-maker and sacrificial wog. Georgie Read, who follows individuals around wide-eyed and curious, mimicking their bacchanalia with utmost seriousness (from stripper dances to senseless violence), as if trying to prevent the friction between the conflicting frenzies by upholding them all, is not merely an ambulant comic relief, but a body that turns every quotidian affectation, every social convention, into deadpan absurdity.

And yet this same theatre never becomes a collective fantasy of its own. With heavily dramatic wasted on nothing truthful nor meaningful, and savagely grotesque endpoints of mundane behaviour played with glassy, anti-spectacular neutrality, the presentation is jarringly anti-empathetic. It betrays expectations with such cold consistency that we walk out feeling anything but lulled. Giddy, rather, and hiccuppy and confused, while the kick is slowly making its way to the gut. Despite its tone, looking all things wrong (lyrical, cute, naive, sentimental, funny), the final portrait is bleak, damning. Peer Gynt is no longer the sad story of one lost boy. Tonight, the tragedy is collective.

Peer Gynt. Based on Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and Costume design Anna Cordingley. Lighting design Kimberly Kwa. Sound designers/composers Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. Stage manager Jo Trevathan. Performed by Kyle Baxter, Edwina Wren, Karen Sibbing, Heloise Jackson, Justin Arnold, Nikki Shiels, Rebecca Bower, Annie Last, Maj Thomsen, Nick Jamieson, Katie-Jean Harding, Georgie Read, Josh Price, Sarah Armanious, Alexander England, Mike Steele, Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer, Kade Greenland. VCA, 26 March – 1 April.

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In other people’s words

1. Confronted with a world configured by the colonizer, the colonized subject is always presumed guilty. The colonized does not accept his guilt, but rather considers it a kind of curse, a sword of Damocles.”

Wounder and Wounded, James Wood

2. “All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.”

One out of Many, V. S. Naipaul

3. They were in some ways well matched. Like him, she was from modest circumstances—her father was a clerk in a lawyer’s office, and the family lived in a two-bedroom flat in a suburb of Birmingham. She was the only girl at her school to win a state scholarship to Oxford. They were both twenty-two when they married, and neither family was notified. But, whereas Naipaul careered from confidence to anxiety (a year after meeting Pat, he told her that “from a purely selfish point of view you are the ideal wife for a future G.O.M.”—Grand Old Man—“of letters”), Pat was stable, supportive, a willing helpmeet. Years later, in one of this biography’s many devastating moments, Naipaul reread his early correspondence with Pat and made notes. He had got too quickly involved with Pat, he wrote; he had been in too deep and could not get out. It would have been better if he had married someone else. Pat “did not attract me sexually at all.” He decided that the relationship, on his side, “was more than half a lie. Based really on need. The letters are shallow & disingenuous.”

Her presence in this biography is a hush around Vidia’s noise; her job is merely to hold the big drum of his ego in the right position, the better for him to strike the vital life rhythm. Naipaul’s sympathy for the political and emotional fragility of his characters did not extend to his wife. Pat’s diaries make for painful reading: “I felt assaulted but I could not defend myself.” “He has been increasingly frenzied and sadly, from my point of view, hating and abusing me.” Pat died of breast cancer in 1996. “It could be said that I had killed her,” Naipaul tells French. “It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

Wounder and Wounded, James Wood

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This week

The last few weeks, in Melbourne, Australia, have clearly been about showing the dogs for the dogs, and the humans for the humans. I have long been suspicious of the Australian habit of back-patting; of praising our courage, our simple and wholesome practical-mindedness and readiness to help in need. Of saying, we have been brought to our knees, but we will stand again. Now, though, I think it may be not at all different from the Croatian method of digesting catastrophe, which is fierce and unforgiving awe at the senseless cruelty of the world. Sense of not so much injustice, but the magnitude of suffering. Because both are, deep down, just different takes on the same basic truth of life. Terrible things happen; people suffer and die; life continues. We learn nothing but the depth and breadth of our own selves.

(As an urban planner, I am able to simultaneously have another angle on the events, one slightly more outcome-oriented. However, that is a different story, and I am not going to bore you with public policy discussion.)

Sad, sober and toughening-up few weeks. The best thing we can do, as always, is show Hemingway’s grace under pressure, in other words courage. Make sure we find out we are humans, not dogs.

It remains a theatre hiatus for me. Instead, I will offer a couple of reading recommendations. Zadie Smith, always the brilliant essayist, writes Speaking in Tongues for the NY Review of Books, a deep and personal meditation on Barack Obama, language, and difference:

It’s amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment. A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.

On the other side of the world, the new edition of Plotki is dedicated to Airports. Among many pieces of striking citizen journalism, it is worth singling out Lucie Dusk’s Leaving Nowhere, on the 100-odd residents of Heathrow, thus temporarily not homeless. In Eurozine, Slavenka Drakulić explains Why she has not returned to Belgrade, discussing personal and political responsibility.

While his speech clearly aimed at evoking sympathy from the audience, I must confess that I did not feel any sympathy at all. I was angry at his anger. Speaking on their behalf he somehow suggested that the new generation does not deserve such a treatment from “Europe”. The implication of his argument was that because they are young they must also be innocent.

Proving that serious writing has not disappeared from Australian mainstream media, Guy Rundle, in Winds of change, discusses the past and the future of our economic crisis:

The entire productive capacity of the West has been hollowed out, largely under the tutelage of an economic theory so oriented to consumption that its value calculations could not distinguish between $1 billion of GDP expressed as a steel mill and the same amount as represented by the sale of pet care products. As long as money was moving around, everything was all right.

Finally, fiction. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Donald Antrim pens Another Manhattan, an exquisite short story that does the most wondrous kind of the short-story magic: changes colour and shape with every paragraph, ending quite a different thing than it began.

But we should always end sad weeks with a music number:

Black Lung: Avast I & Avast II – The Welshman Cometh

I first encountered the Black Lung boys in Rubeville, in a Westgarth garage in 2006. As it often happens on the occasion of Fringe, the original venue had to be abandoned soon after the programs went to print, and I could be seen running up Smith St, having just read the handwritten notice on the ex-venue door, trying to get to a completely different suburb in five minutes. And it was worth every drop of sweat and every curse and kick of the tram door. Rubeville, I remember, was a ramble on the pursuit of money and fame. Some of it was obviously improvised, some of it probably wasn't. Most of the time, one just couldn't be sure. Eloise Mignon overdosed, vomited, and stepped out of character to complain about the gender politics behind her one-woman prostitution and drug abuse, surrounded with male heroes. Gareth Davies plotted to steal the Black Lung till and fly out of the country. Dylan Young offered his body to just about everyone in view. It was unpredictable, self-indulgent, plotless, but it was brilliantly written, fizzing with energy, and incredibly funny. It was brilliant theatre.

Having since missed all sorts of small-format Black Lung, including an intriguing-sounding Short + Sweet 10-minuter, 9 of which Davies spends raping Sacha Bryning (I hear), and Pimms in Fringe 2007, due to another venue catastrophe, it's been a relief to find Black Lung stable, intransient, programmed, unable to escape or collapse or disband or disappear, in the Malthouse Tower, presenting a revival of an old work, Avast, and an original sequel/prequel to it, Avast II. And they are still gorgeous, gorgeous boys.

The Black Lung boys.

Avast is grand and great. As we enter the Tower, completely transformed into a sort of magic shed of early manhood, all vintage porn magazines, rows upon rows of black umbrellas in the ceiling, graffiti on black walls ('Albert Tucker Mother Fucker'), animal skulls on wood panelling, damp Persian rugs on the ground and dead nannas in the corners, my companion smiles like only girls smile, and exclaims excitedly: “It smells like men!” Music is blaring, semi-naked dirty men with bushranger beards are jumping, dancing, and running through the space, and this chaos will seamlessly turn into theatre. Until it seamlessly turns out of theatre again, it will do the same as always: half of it, you will know, must be improvised, but you'll never be sure which half. Props will collapse, actors will seriously injure one another, bad stories will be told and audience members will try to leave only to get shouted at, and I quote: “Sit the fuck down or I'll punch your girlfriend in the face! That's rude!” (finding out that they were planted in the audience almost broke my heart). Among all this, the flimsiest narrative line emerges: two brothers reunited, for one to kill the other.

Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, the Malthouse-generated prequel/sequel, is a more coherent, more narrative-friendly performance. It has some semblance of plot, and is less of a meta-meander than Avast the First. It explains it, however, serving almost like an annotated commentary on the influences: an array of pop artefacts, from graphic novels (Preacher), films (Kill Bill), to cartoons (the Dragonball series). It is a western informed by the samurai Japan, by the gothic, by dungeons & dragons, a loose theme park of duty, family bounds, heroism, frontier mythology, resilience in the face of natural disasters, sword fights. It is a world devoid of women, where all the conflicts are between friends, fathers and sons. The story, if we should bestow such an honour on the ramble, follows an outlaw coming into the city, dragging an outcast, roped by the neck. The found man, nameless, with a hook instead of one hand, is baptised Diego because no-one can die without a name, and their arrival wrecks havoc upon the township, stirring shit in relationships between fathers, sons, friends (as already mentioned), and God. The narrative shifts left to right, following a logic of something other than plot, and music is employed like Melbourne doesn't get enough of it.

Death, and the melodrama of dying, are explored to no end, with Sasha Bryning pouring red paint on the necks of the cast, as they collapse one after another, while Henning, sitting on a couch in a corner, predicts the death of each cast member, from the grotesque (drowning, stabbing) to the mundane (prostate cancer, heart attack). Finally, the closure comes through the deus ex machina of American-accented monologue on the late Beatles and love, all sentimentality and nostalgia. The real content of the delivery is emotional, behind the avoidance of every motif and moment that happened on stage until then, just like male communication is predominantly about not saying anything. The logic of Black Lung is precisely the logic of that last monologue: rambling, elliptic, bursting with suppressed content, standing knee-deep in the murky waters of subconscious logic.

If there is one thing the Avasts are about, it's masculinity, in that primordial sense of strength, impermeable solidity, uncertain aloofness. (It's notable that someone like Christos Tsiolkas, a testosterone writer, an angry man, is an absolute anomaly in Australia although, for example, he would fit easily in the US literary mainstream. There is something repressive in the Australian story-telling, sense-making tradition that blocks not only femininity, but also unbridled masculinity.) All the usual problems of manhood and self-definition are present: from father-son and brotherly relationships, the insecure male sexuality, to the confusion of idols, roles and role models. It brings in boys icons from samurai and Nick Cave to superheroes and Son Goku. Deeply appealing images of freaks, gunmen, knights, strange animals, the lone saviour and the lone outsider are inflated, killed and exhumed, just like the God who descends only to be killed with a shotgun. All done with such irreverent, intelligent negligence for simple logic, that a girl spends the evening in giggles.

There is a rich undercurrent of contemporary mythology that Black Lung draws from, in a way that's openly juvenile, semi-certainly subconscious, but well-processed nonetheless. As stage content, it is glutinously over-the-top, indulgently amassing cultural waste on stage, pictures and phrases and postures and punchlines, letting them collide in montages of nonsense. But this is the over-active subconscious of humanity as refracted through the imbecile prism of pop culture. Just like myths are a drone of masses reduced to the most essential trickle of the most incisive images, stories, so is pop culture a choir of human confusion distilled into key dreams and nightmares. To dedicate one's life to trash, thus, may be a bit boring, lacking in variety, but a small dose is an immediate connection to all that's deeply true about life, without the filter of self-aware censorship.

Thomas Henning is an astonishing writer, and these two are, however strangely, solidly spoken-word pieces, although language is never more than another sign system to be blown up. The dialogue effortlessly shifts register from haute to pulp to slang, wrapping itself into knots of delightful hilarity. Dylan will attack the town preacher, “I'm thinking I might cut you down, like you cut me down and let me outside to rot!”, while the latter will defend himself fiercely: “Not to die, though. Not to die.”, while Johnno, who has changed into a woman midway through Welshman, leads a playful, seductive dialogue with Gareth by asking: “Have you ever killed a dragon?”, to which he deadpans: “Yep.” It goes off on tangents, from attachment to dead mother, dead father, brotherly rivalry, transgender conversation (Sacha Bryning does a feminist stand-up routine, but with an entirely male body language and intonation). Yet the verbosity is paired up with the most exquisite visual sense. A 1930s panama gentleman, a procession of strange animals behind a brotherly conversation, gay jokes, stadium rock, all is raised and dropped onto the text, onto the audience, with such diamond-sharp cohesive logic, that against all odds it feels like a journey, not a train crash.

One of the main qualities of Black Lung is the overwhelming freshness they bring to the theatre experience. The energy with which these guys (particularly Gareth Davies, the Prince Charming) jump across the stage, perfectly comfortable while hopping from silliness into acting into meta and back conveys a strong sense of understanding, agreement within the group. Whatever physical violence happens on stage is real, not clumsily enacted (as is usual); performers burst into giggles; there is enough unexpected, contextless nudity to make one feel that the performers are simply taking the piss. It's consistently uncertain what's structured, and what isn't, as the language and the imagery are constantly destroyed and renewed, in a way that feels sometimes dictated, sometimes improvised, but always purposeful. I don't remember my last theatre performance after which the performers could be heard shouting in the foyer: “No, he didn't really get hurt! It's called theatre, people!” The early, almost child-like thrill of real people, tangible, touchable, approachable, mortal, in the spotlight in front of you, comes alive again.

Black Lung are probably the most significant young company in Melbourne, if not more widely. Hold on to these tickets, boys and girls, they will be collectables soon. Unless, of course, the whole band disbands in a few years, frustrated by lack of funds, poor audiences, and our newspaper critics. (The audiences, for now, have been good, I should acknowledge. The blogosphere is buzzing. The funds are still not desperately needed. They're young.)

Avast and Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, a Malthouse / Black Lung co-presentation. The Black Lung Theatre Company: Sacha Bryning, Gareth Davies, Thomas Henning, Mark Winter, Thomas Wright, Dylan Young. Sound designer / musician: Liam Barton. Lighting designer: Govin Ruben. Stage manager: Eva Tandy. Malthouse Theatre, 12 November – 6 December 2008.

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Some useful ideas.

Dated in the future, but a little bit older than that, Zadie Smith's exquisite article, Two Paths for a Novel, from the New York Review of Books, could be a very fine read for your week. It is a comparative review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainer, and a long essay on the reign, on the best-selling lists and popular taste, of what Smith terms 'lyrical realism', and criticises with merciless, but faultless, precision.

Since most, if not all, of what stands on the bookstore shelves under Australian Fiction falls into that category, and there is little difference between contemporary Australian literary and dramatic writing, there can be no harm in quoting with some breadth:

In Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence, this “translation into another world.” Which is why personal things are so relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language. Lip service is paid to the sanctity of mystery…, but, in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties (“a static turnstile like a monster's unearthed skeleton”) and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry”), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV “dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs.” Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife's lactose intolerance becomes “an unknown hinterland to our marriage”; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror.

Bear with Zadie a little longer:

Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that “fine white thread running, through years and years,” and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world (“I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite”), but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude. At a certain point in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss. Netherland flirts with that idea, too. Not knowing what to do with photographs of his young son, Hans gives them to Chuck's girlfriend, Eliza, who organizes photo albums for a living:

I was thinking of the miserable apprehension we have of even those existences that matter most to us. To witness a life, even in love—even with a camera—was to witness a monstrous crime without noticing the particulars required for justice.

An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesn't really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

Sorry/thank you, dear reader. Having read three quarters of Smith's article, and taken it around with me for my whirlwind week, brought it up in countless conversations (because Australian literature, and Australian dramatic writing, have featured in many conversations lately), it was good to return and find that Smith's article has started a fruitful and articulated discussion on the literary blogs. Proving once again, as a side note, that literary criticism grew up much before all others.

On the one hand, there is the usual conglomerate of the artfully- and/or socially-minded, who uphold the values of a fine turn of phrase and story-telling, and dismiss formal inquiry as esoteric and elitist in ways similar to Anglophone theatre criticism. Dismissing Smith's problematization of a perfect specimen of a genre, (“People are not typically dispirited by dances, cars, movies, or novels because they are “perfect” – if they ever could be.”), Tony Christini on A Pragmatic Policy argues, from a sociological-humanist angle:

It’s so easy, so safe to talk about technique, to hopelessly bemoan or tinker with change in technique to little crucial effect. It’s almost a way of removing art from the humanities, the human realm, and inserting it into severely blinkered conceptual netherworlds.

Christini's critique, however, has depth and complexity, unlike the open traditionalist Nigel Beale's:

If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?

And yet, both seem to conceptualise form as frill on the meaningful content, quite blind to the ideology behind the well-turned phrase. Mark Thwaite, on the other hand, recognises in Smith's lyrical realism his own Establishment Literary Fiction, which parallels rather strongly what we, in theatre, call in turns dramatic, naturalistic or, with a wrinkled nose, 'straight theatre'. ELF is

the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.

If most Australian writing fails, it's primarily because, to echo Thwaite on McEwan, it isn't an investigation into anything. What's commonly perceived as failure is that it isn't even, to echo Thwaite on McEwan again, the laying bare of a meticulous plan. In this sense, it fails both on its own terms and if read subversively. What often gets lost in this search for craft, for stories and characters and phrases turning, to reward and promote and rescue and hold up and praise and wave like the national flag, is everything else. The groundwork overshadows what should be up in the sky. Because certainly it's not inappropriate to view art as a Tower of Babel, and the experience of art as a stretching of the self, an act of violence over our self-validated comfort, in order to bring us closer to the world, to others, to ourselves. At the bottom of it, a pursuit of an answer to a question we may not always know. And, as a result of the strain, strange shapes and colours. Unfamiliar things. As Hemingway said, almost no new classics resemble other previous classics.

Finally, Richard Crary, remembering that we often say Modernism when we mean formal experiment, writes:

For it seems to me that the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, “conventional” ways are simply not suitable, not justified.

This brings it back, very closely, to performance, theatre as an event in time and space and not a timeless/placeless/dis-event, a simulacrum of the perfect unrealisable play. The threads connecting the discussion are too many and too colourful to even start systematising on a sunny spring day full of work and hunger. But shouldn't we keep thinking? If we could write on theatre, particularly in this country, with the articulation, intelligence and passion of literary criticism, it wouldn't hurt us, would it?

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The Masque of the Red Death

Not entirely successful, The Masque of the Red Death stands unsure between presentation and representation, self-awareness and not, always doing things a tad bit too literally. Its starting and ending point is Edgar Allan Poe's short story of one continuous party, closed off from the society ravaged by plague. This is a powerful trope, used since Boccaccio, at the bottom of it our unease about antisocial activities of all kinds, a desire to punish the autonomous outcasts, the death wish behind certain forms of transgressive hedonism; and then the tantalising image of total social breakdown. It is so simple, so resonant, that anything could have been made out of it. Instead, this production doesn't move further than square two. The program notes give it all away: “Daniel Schlusser […] told me about a task he had once set a group of actors: create the last piece of theatre allowed by a government before theatre is entirely banned in the land.” From here to pre-plague hedonism, and from Poe to the free-rolling funfair of a performance, are two very small steps.

The other problem is that Masque swings between describing the last party, and being the party, backing-and-forthing in its interaction with the audience in a way that ultimately isn't very thought-through. The dramatic structure is upheld by the narrative frame of the story, used to insert a range of Poe's writing, most of it in a purely declamatory fashion. The representational middle, a series of one- or two-person acts, draws on the vaudeville more than it tries to explore this imaginary aristocratic party, which in itself would not be a sin had the visual and spiritual clichés of vaudeville not been endlessly over-exploited on every kind of Melbourne stage already. Although the performer-spectator relationship is explored in all sorts of ways: performers sitting in the stalls, the audience sitting on stage, both dispersing into small groups and withdrawing into little rooms; it never feels like there is any higher purpose to these explorations of form than to try another trick. In the end, the two parts are collated quite safely, and our palates should be predictably satisfied: mindless amusement boxed into a safe experience, book-ended by some sense of purpose, explanation.

In certain moments, I had real hope that the performance was leading somewhere other than to the anticipated punishment of privileged antisociability. There appeared to be a slow build-up of acts, performed apparently for us, of greater and more intense transgression: from the bizarre, complexly disturbing image of a girl squatting on a skateboard, to the deliciously trash version of Raven as smut, to the full frontal nudity of a cross-dressing madame Butterfly. And yet, despite these upswings of visual creativity, most of the imagery was intellectually shallow, not doing much more than presenting commonplaces: violence on semi-naked women, glittery cross-dressing, unneeded accents. It was also visually misconceived: with gypsy fortune tellers, clowns and dancers, it was more of a romanticized village fair than the last supper of the medieval condemned. Which, again, would not be a sin had it not been the thousandth time this decade that a faux-Slavic accent was donned by a gypsy fortune teller on Melbourne stage.

The performances are passionate across the board, with each performer given a moment of one-act glory, and this ultimately makes The Masque of the Red Death a rather enjoyable experience. Much more enjoyable to witness, I may add, than think about later. However, perhaps due to the looseness of the direction, one never forgets that one is watching a student production, in serious discrepancy with last year's VCA shows, one of which, YES, could later easily get re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs.

I like tropes, I like clichés, I like common places. I believe in the power of fairy tales, of myths, of rituals. There is intrigue in the commonality of the simple ideas that order human existence across time and space. I would like to see them explored in ways more intelligent that simple declamation of poetry masquerading as provocation.

The Masque of the Red Death. Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by John Bolton. Music: Jo Laing. Set design: Jeminah Reidy. Costumes: Jane Noonan. Lighting design: Kimberly Kwa. Sound design: Timothy Bright. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance. Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, 29 Oct – 7 Nov.

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We will never talk about this.

1. THE SUBMERGED AND THE SAVED

I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion of which I have become conscious little by little, reading the memoirs of others and reading mine at a distance of years. We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who have, those who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return to tell about it, or have returned wordless; but they are the 'Muslims', the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.
– Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati

2. GOOD INTENTIONS

Now, anyone who has sufficient experience of human affairs knows that the distinction (the opposition, a linguist would say) good faith/bad faith is optimistic and illuminist, and is all the more so, and for much greater reason, when applied to men such as those just mentioned. It presupposes a mental clarity which few have, and which even these few immediately lose when, for whatever reason, past or present reality arouses anxiety or discomfort in them.
– Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati

3. MEDUSA

Théodore Géricault – Le Radeau de la Méduse

In mid-afternoon on July 4th, 1816, the French frigate Medusa ran aground on the Arguin Bank, off the west coast of Africa. Without enough lifeboats to evacuate almost 400 travellers, a raft, 20 metres in length and 7 metres in width, was quickly built. On July 5th the evacuation of the frigate started, 146 men and one woman boarding the raft tugged by the lifeboats crammed with the remaining passengers. Even only half-loaded, the raft wasn't buoyant enough, with passengers standing waist-deep in the water. Perhaps because this made it difficult to tow the raft, after about 15 kilometres the ropes were cut, and the raft abandoned, supplied with only little water, little food, and a lot of wine.

Fights rapidly broke out between the officers and passengers on one hand, and the sailors and soldiers on the other. On the first night, 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Dozens died either in fighting to get to the centre of the raft, the only place safe in the stormy weather that ensued, or because they were washed overboard by the waves. Rations dwindled. By the fourth day there were only 67 left alive on the raft, and some resorted to cannibalism. On the eighth day, the fittest began throwing the weak and wounded overboard. When the raft was found by chance on July 19 only 15 of the passengers had remained alive. Five of the survivors died within the next few days.

On August 27, a ship reached the “wreck” of the Medusa. It hadn't sank, and wouldn't sink for another few months.

Méduse's surgeon Henri Savigny and geographer Alexander Corréard released their account (Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse) of the incident in 1817. It went through five editions by 1821 and was also published in an English translation.

4.

He who has seen the truth will forever remain inconsolable. Saved is only he who has never been in danger. A ship might even appear, now, on the horizon, and speed here on the waves to arrive a second before death and take us away, and have us return alive, alive — but this would not save us, really. Even if we ever found ourselves ashore somewhere again, we shall never again be saved.
– Alessandro Baricco, Oceano mare

5. SHAME.

That many (including me) experienced ‘shame,’ that is, a feeling of guilt during the imprisonment and afterward, is an ascertained fact confirmed by numerous testimonies. It is absurd, but it is a fact. […] On a rational plane, there should not have been much to be ashamed of, but shame persisted nevertheless, especially for the few bright examples of those who had the strength and possibility to resist. […] It is a thought that had only touched us then, but that returned later: you too perhaps could have, certainly should have.

Self-accusation is more realistic, or the accusation of having failed in terms of human solidarity. Few survivors feel guilty of having deliberately damaged, robbed, or beaten a companion. Those who did so (the kapos, but not only them) block out the memory. By contrast, however, almost everybody feels guilty of having omitted to offer to help.

Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another? And in particular, of a man more generous, more sensitive, more useful, wiser, worthier of living than you? It is a proposition you cannot exclude: you examine your memories… no, you do not find obvious transgressions, you haven't supplanted anyone, you haven't hit (but would you have had the strength?), you didn't accept duties (but you weren't offered…), you haven't stolen anyone's bread; still, you cannot exclude it. It is no more than a supposition, indeed the shadow of a suspicion: that each man is his brother's Cain, that each one of us (but this time I say 'us' in a much vaster, indeed, universal sense) has usurped his neighbor's place and lived in his stead. It's a supposition, but it gnaws; it's deeply hidden like a moth; you can't see it from outside but it gnaws and bites.

I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is, in fact, killed. The “saved” of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the “gray zone,” the spies. It was not a clear-cut rule (there weren't and aren't any clear-cut rules in human matters), but it was a rule nonetheless. I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died.
– Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati

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