It’s that time of year when I write two plays in four days and rehearse each one for eight hours. This is the annual performance project at Wimbledon College of Art, where I teach, from time to time, in the Theatre School, which delivers one of the most respected theatre and screen design courses in the country. I have written about my endeavours there before in Strength Weekly. Working with the design students is an annual lark with an extremely permissive writing brief and a design team that invariably rises to the occasion with great energy and imagination.
When I write performances for a paying public – outside the haven of Wimbledon – I feel a certain caution with regard to matters of coherence. I have no desire to be utterly incoherent but I am very absorbed in the possibilities of experimenting with the conventions and established forms of theatre and this, in turn, can lead to the production of unfamiliar forms. My plays generally have rather slender narratives and are barely concerned with story-telling. My characters lack character though I like to think they are replete with psychology. When the opportunity arises to play to an in-house audience I feel I can push these aspects further and test their limits. At the moment I find myself drifting steadily further and further away from even the most tenuous narrrative continuity. I get irritated when I read, transcribed from the volubilities of an earnest playwright, that ‘story-telling is a healing process’. Why would you want to be healed? Nobody else is. Furthermore, if it does work, how long does it last? Two days? Then you have to see another one. I’ll stop there before I go off on one.
The idea that, in a world of rubble, theatre has an ‘urgent duty’ to shape and articulate ‘as never before’ is hopelessly redundant. All I want to do is make work that takes note of the irreversible fractures and reflects them, possibly offering a modicum of poignancy in the process. It’s much too late for instructive and consolatory models. Oops, I went off on one.
Anyway, since the fall of the Towers, the rise of consumerised psychic deracination, the consolidation of permanent war (this book is excellent on the latter) and the rapid descent into the shitter of all known ecological systems, I have felt a strong desire to write shows that, at the level of what you see and hear, are as disconnected as a snake over which a railway train has recently passed.
The idea that you might write a scene in which some people want something then either get it or do not get it strikes me as luxurious. Surely it makes more sense, in the sense of not making sense because it’s not an appropriate response anymore, to write a scene in which some people want something then some other people come in and start something that has nothing remotely to do with the first people’s desires or fears, to the extent that the first people go away and you never see them again. Now that’s what I call theatre.
This is all very well, I am finding. It’s very hard to shake off the temptation to make one scene somehow modify the one before it and set up, in a coherent way, expectations for its successor. One of the delicious playlets I have just written, ‘In the Bosom of Roy’, was intended to be as connected as a rat and a raincoat, to the extent that I started writing deliberately at great speed without planning, piling up short scenes that, I thought, were as complementary as syndiotactic polypropylene and Celine Dion. Then damn me, on an interim read through, if I didn’t find I’d written a story but with the scenes in the wrong order. (I’m aware that I’ve contradicted this claim elsewhere in Strength Weekly, and should note that while I thought that ‘I’d written a story’, many audience members did not share this view. Ed. (2019)) Having noticed this I was subsequently unable to resist completing the story so that all the people in it who wanted something did or didn’t get it. Blimey. Clearly, the West End beckons.
I have to say I really love ‘In the Bosom of Roy’. It marked a change of gear in my writing and I loved watching it being performed by the actors. Around that time I wrote here about my impatience with theatre whose form was inappropriately coherent, given the lack of coherence in our everyday early 21st century experience. As a counter to this, I had in my mind an elusive vision of a theatre of fragments that ultimately hung together insofar as they would contribute to a fragmented whole. Themes would be apparent but the parts would remain discontinuous. The fragments would not just be a collection of any old random bits but represented the decomposing of many of the systems and beliefs that had once made us feel we were consistent subjects in a reliable environment.
Over the preceding forty years I had seen a great deal of experimental performance and I was familiar with many varieties of performative fragmentation. Much of the British progressive work was designed to find alternatives to narrative strategies found in mainstream performance and the novel. This work tended to favour a multi- or cross-disciplinarity enhanced by an increasingly sophisticated articulation of alienation, disenchantment and unstable identity. But times changed. If the work was to maintain currency it would have to take into account a complex of factors that had irreversibly metastasised from the local to the global. Tall order.
‘In the Bosom of Roy’ was, I think, the first piece I wrote that featured loud trance music introduced at the wrong moments. Most of my long and short plays had used music but invariably in order to intensify or complement mood. When electronic dance music began to emerge I found in it some of the most exhilarating experiences I had had since punk. I picked up scores of trance and hardcore CDs at charity shops and, as the century turned, amassed them in my very exciting iPod Classic, a white device closely resembling, in shape and size, what the portable wireless telephone would evolve into six years later.
I noticed that when I listened to the right kind of dance music I would sometimes see streams of performance imagery in my mind’s eye. Increasingly and perhaps not surprisingly, the images featured actors dancing as well as acting. While I am not a choreographer I do know what I like. I like watching just about anybody dance but there’s something about heavy pounding that brings out the best in many who consider themselves only modestly equipped in terms of a repertoire of shapes. The pounding attacks the body directly and solves, for some, the problem of making thoughtful aesthetic movement choices. On a good day the body will be taken care of.
Rather than use the dance music to energise a scene I envisaged the abrupt and uncomfortable eruption into a scene of music played so loud that nothing else could be heard. This would not discommode the performers so much as compel them immediately to break out of the acting mode in order to demonstrate their moves. The figures seen dancing were not dancing as previously established fictional characters. They had seceded from fiction but neither were they actors being themselves. They would stand downstage in a line abreast, a few feet from the front row, facing towards the audience, not acknowledging each other, just demonstrating dance.
This mode of demonstration could, I thought, be extended to the acting style. Instead of authenticity, along with its tiresome baggage of purported healing power, the actors would present actors presenting examples of acting. It would be possible to open up the seams that welded actor to character so that a small but disconcerting gap could be seen. Not so large a gap that the effect could be dismissed as bad acting but one which afforded a glimpse of artifice. This would not be a Brechtian effect but one which reflected the new styles of alienation burgeoning in a successful consumer society that supported the consciously performed presence rather than a less self-conscious version. The actors I was working with regularly on both short and long plays – Lydia Ayers, Jude Barrington, Gerard Bell, Gareth Brierley, Abigail Davies, Christine Entwisle, Martin Gent, Amanda Hadingue, Chris Newland, Barney Power, Mary Roscoe and Bernadette Russell – all acquired a distinctive declamatory style that simultaneously expressed the role and demonstrated it as a role.
The spectacle of actors dancing hard in your face with the volume up to 11 was, I found, intoxicating and moving. I found it so intoxicating and moving that I used it over and over. It suggested a world in which few experiences were not truncated by others, in which the personal was urgently and unpredictably invaded by forces that both erased it and defined it. The eruption of hard thumping and ecstatic breaks gave a context to the ‘drama’ that located it in a relentless, repetitive, machinic, merciless place. This was a place that was fundamentally frantic and panicked and could only offer a deliverance that was itself possessed of a transcendence that was superb to a fault.
Underway: the early stages of a seven month long programme of short plays to be written, produced and presented at the rate of one a month, culminating in an omnibus edition in the seventh month.
Dash Dash Dash will open at the Battersea Arts Centre in London on October 15th. I will write a 25 minute play, direct it, open it, watch it then write another one. I will do this six times. The plays will stand alone, they will not be episodes in a serial but when joined together they will be greater than the sum of their parts. (Their parts will be okay too.)
In an earlier post, ‘I, Healer‘, I suggested that theatre performance composed in an incoherent language might be suitable for the depiction of an incoherent world. When narrative in the real world comes to be viewed with the suspicion that it’s a cover-up of some sort, the alternatives are stark: nostalgic reversal or the homeopathic dose. While the strategy of the dilute dose is risible in its ‘medical’ context, there is something to be said for its application to the business of artistic representation. Just what might it constitute? A paradox begins to arise wherein we find ourselves effortlessly edging towards naturalism and mimesis again: the depiction of disorder by a vocabulary of disorder.
If all is disordered then the disordered depiction of it amounts to naturalism. Or it does if all that is to be presented is the appearance of disorder. If a vocabulary of disorder is employed then it will, by definition, be framed within an aesthetic of disorder – this is the language of the action movie or a play about war or tempestuous marriage. It will be perfectly recognisable. On the other hand, if a disordered vocabulary is used then there might be a chance.
The problem is that it’s seething, pervasive disorder that requires attention rather than the intermittent disruption of otherwise serviceable narratives. The current panoramic disorder is not there to be faithfully reproduced. It compels a reassessment of the means whereby it is to be represented. The imposition, for example, of narrative onto such fracture and confusion seems at best rather sweet and at worst forlornly misjudged.
Audiences are not gagging for these hot new fragments and fractures of which we speak. The unassailable popularity of bonneted drama and humiliating competitions on the television suggests, in both cases, that a subterranean current of hysteria is a must-have component of contemporary cultural consumption. Were the conventions of the bonnet and the rules of the competitions dissolved then the hystericised mechanisms beneath would be revealed and, presumably, found irresistible. In my dreams.
The avant-gardes have been here before, of course. In 1961, Martin Esslin in his book ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ wrote about a new sort of theatre that he had identified: ‘If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterisation and motivation, these are often without recognisable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning or an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manner and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.’
Esslin indicts the usual suspects in his analysis: the decline of religion, the collapse of faith in ‘progress, nationalism, and various totalitarian fallacies’ in the aftermath of the Second World War. He quotes Camus: ‘A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.’
Almost forty years later, in 1999, Hans-Thies Lehmann published ‘Postdramatic Theatre’, seen in some circles as framing the theatrical products of our new century as convincingly as Esslin had for postwar drama up to the 60s. Among the many characteristics of the new theatre that Lehmann examines is a decentring of the text, wherein it is no longer the sole determinant of the expressive elements around it. He also comments on the intermittent, deliberate suspension of the closed fictive world of the performance that allows some element of ‘the real’ to break into the experience.
In the Dash Dash Dash shows I shall attempt to carry on the good work by insisting that six short shows, unrelated in terms of narrative, setting, milieu, pace, tone or style can somehow constitute the parts of a whole. We’ll see.
This post is part of a series. Please start reading at ‘Stage & Screen 1’ below.
In his editorial introduction to the January 1968 special edition of ‘Scalebor’ mental hospital magazine, price sixpence, 24 year old ‘schizophrenic’ inmate Patrick Schofield refers to “the hundreds of men and women who find themselves living and working” in the hospital and states “We have tried to make the magazine an expression of their real suffering, their conflicts and their pain. We hoped to include their hopes, but we did not think it right to invent them for you.”
These words are the preface to an essay stapled at irregular intervals between the variously coloured and crudely reproduced A4 sheets of the DIY publication. Perhaps Patrick thought that his incendiary critique would be less easy to rip out if he packaged it thus. The essay is titled ‘Strange Admissions: the fear of madness and the madness of fear.” Shortly after publication, Patrick was thrown out of the loony bin and sought help from the radical shrinks of the Philadelphia Association (see ‘Stage & Screen 2’).
Here are some excerpts: ” Within Scalebor there are three main types of job: you can be a psychiatrist or therapist, a nurse or a patient. But these words are nothing more than labels. Many people at Scalebor take this labelling so seriously they completely lose sight of the fact these labels are only very approximate indications of the tasks people do. It is only when we are nearing the verge of madness that someone can claim that the staff are superior to the patients because they are staff and the patients only patients.
It might be useful to look at what is happening inside Scalebor in terms of games theory and transactional analysis. The game is called ‘Mental Hospital’; there are two sides opposing one another within the hospital, one called ‘staff’ and the other ‘patients’. At the moment we shall confine ourselves to the game between nursing staff and patients; the ‘psychiatrists’ play it rather differently than the nurses.
That there is ceaseless conflict between nurses and patients is quite obvious; the game itself is far more complex. The patients are merely the counters with which it is played; anyone who wants to develop this can find themselves hours of amusement in following the daily struggles between nursing, administrative, psychology department and medical staff; how they play one another off, stab each other in the back, shift the blame and the responsibility. What is important here is the prize; and the prize to be fought for is power. That is, power over the patients. This can be exercised directly (nursing staff on the ward) or by gaining control of all the other sectors of control.
These battles are so heated that the supposed reason for the hospital’s existence – the welfare of the patients – has become merely the issue around which the feuds and vendettas are fought.
Let us focus on the major outline of the staff’s game. Its object is clearly to control the patients so that they may be maximally exploited (‘cured’) before they are ejected back into the outside world. If the staff as a whole can frustrate and nullify everything the patients try to do, this will make their task extremely violent but quite easy. It is therefore their aim to ensure that nothing, absolutely nothing happens. This would of course be impossible unless extremely violent techniques were brought to bear. It is these techniques that effect and maintain that terrible feeling of silent murder that pervades the hospital.
The only counterploy available to those who find themselves cast as patients (they are the only group in the hospital who are on the receiving end all the time) is to get clear of the place as soon as they can. If the patient goes along with the staff’s idea of what a good patient ought to be, he must wreak the most awful violation upon himself. If he feels that he must not do this then he must break with the passivity he is ordered to realise. But within the game there is no room for an active patient. It is enormously threatening to the staff’s attempt to keep control, for a patient that argues, criticises and does things of his or her own initiative gives the lie to the staff’s belief that the patient is purely an object-animal.
The only organisation that Scalebor manifests is that of permanent mobilisation against the patients. The staff cannot bear to look at the chaos within themselves so they project this out onto the patients and try to abolish it out there. “
Patrick Schofield’s essay continues in this manner. It dissects and analyses the relationships between all the contending groups in the loony bin and produces a compelling picture of the patients as a group of hapless, useful ‘object-animals’ who serve to dynamise the submerged but psychotic objectives of cabals of incarcerated professional healers.
Towards the beginning of the excerpts Patrick turns the propositions of ‘game theory’ against those who vie to heal him. These useful concepts – premised on an inescapable performative alienation at the very heart of ‘everyday behaviour’ – hark back to 50s transactional analysis (and probably, in Patrick’s case, to Eric Berne’s book ‘Games People Play‘ (1964)) but draw attention to the scripting and role playing that are generally unacknowledged in everyday life. They are, of course, taken for granted in the performing arts.
Vaulting blithely over the intervening decades I will, in the next post, offer some comments on two movies that straddle the millennium: ‘The Truman Show’ (1998) and ‘Synecdoche New York’ (2008). Ten years apart, they demonstrate the shifts in ownership that have come about with regard to matters of theatricality as the latter have corroded the notion of unpremeditated and unselfconscious behaviour.
When I began writing for performance in 1972 I was keen to avoid the rhythms and cadences of so-called ‘naturalistic speech’. I noticed that in most plays the characters would talk to each other a few lines at a time and that they would often articulate insights into their situation quite at odds with their character, as if the playwright wanted to say important things yet was not able to make speech show rather than tell. The idea that, in theatre, only speech can show or tell reflects, of course, the novelistic model that informs much British theatre. The latter, in turn, can often be characterised as ‘radio theatre’ insofar as it it is not essential to be able to see what is being performed.
I determined that, since I was not concerned to reproduce the appearances of everyday life, it would be silly to attempt to simulate ‘the way people talked’. I decided that my ‘characters’ would only be allowed one line at a time. Sometimes speeches of an unlikely length would be permitted (see, for example, ‘Natural Born Lear‘). Nothing in between. The characters should not, furthermore, be articulate. Unless the non-credibility of their articulateness could be used in a way that constructively heightened the artificiality of the occasion.
I further felt that live theatre, of whatever persuasion, is a strange and unnatural affair and that language for theatre should somehow reflect that strangeness.
I have maintained this approach for 35 years. In the course of writing the full-length ‘Vanity Play’ (2006), I noticed that a small number of speeches (no more than five) of medium length had been given to certain ‘characters’. This was an indulgence and I have no desire to extend it beyond the current project. I would like to assure those who like my work that this is not the thin end of a wedge. If anything I find that I want to write increasingly fragmented and nonconsequential work. I have written of this aspiration elsewhere on the site.
In the delicious playlet ‘Popeye‘ the constraints outlined above and their underlying aesthetic principles are rigidly observed. Well, quite rigidly.
The characters in the playlet all derive from counterparts in the original. I can’t remember the plot elements I was appropriating but the text seems to read well enough without having to know who was who and what they did.
On reflection I can see that the previous paragraph is truculent so I will do some research (this research was not carried out – Ed. 2019) that will enable me to relate all the delicious playlets as closely as possible to their sources. I haven’t got time to do that today.