Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Liberations from the literal

DAVID IAN RABEY explains why he writes for the theatre

I write plays in which the stuffed corpse of King Lear starts walking about, witches fall in love, two people in a tunnel find their emotions reflected and questioned by disembodied music, and dead lovers are revived as zombies. Plays in which the imagination, inflamed by desire and spite, is expressed through magic, so that normal relations of time and space can be leapfrogged. I write dark comic strip stories for live performance. And I'll tell you why. It's what theatre does best.

'I enjoyed that, but I didn't fully understand it' is a frequent audience response to my work, just about outnumbering the response 'I didn't enjoy that, I didn't fully understand it'. I usually say, that's all right, I don't fully understand it either: a comment that people find flippant, strange or even offensive. I don't intend it to be any of those things: I'm saying that my work (like the world) continues to interest me whilst it can still surprise me: still prove itself to be not entirely and definitively fathomed, explored, exhausted, reduced to terms other than those which belong primarily to the theatre. When it suggests that so called "real life" is a confidence trick, a pre-rewritten scenario which can't afford to acknowledge its own performative nature, a loser's pact with the devils of self limitation.

Unrealistic claims for a smallscale, old-fashioned, low attendance, ephemeral art form? Sure. But let's check who's defining the terms of "realism", and why. The problem here is in the derogatory associations which those descriptions of this artform implicitly carry. Dominant assumptions (both inside and outside theatre management and funding bodies) expect theatre to validate itself in terms other than its own: primarily, commercial terms in which the artistic experience is a consumer experience (so you buy into an experience that has been safely predetermined); or municipal terms in which a selection of shared meanings is publicly proclaimed and endorsed (so that you celebrate what you know about the present and immediate social situation).

As Aleks Sierz has pointed out, the discussion of art has been debased to the terms of invested: 'Productions are now "product", audiences "consumers" and the main cultural aim "value for money". where once subsidy was defended in terms of traditional values, it is now defended in economic terms (good for local businesses) or social terms (aids inner cities)' (Sierz, 'British Theatre in the 1990s: A Brief Political Economy' in Media, Culture and Society 19, 1997, 461469).

Not that Sierz or I can place any more faith in the 'traditional values', the confident moral superiority of institutionalized provision, than in the confident neo-utilitarian superiority of market populism; they are both ultimately totalitarian ideologies, seeking to include and account for everything, but only on the terms which are serviceable to the perpetuation of those ideologies.

Rationalism is a key component and assumption in both of these divergent ideologies: in their different ways, they both presume that there is a way that things are, a way that things should be in order to move in harmony with this, and that all contingencies should be foreseeable, calculable and easily communicable in order to facilitate this and thereby be taken seriously. This presumption has developed into the modern demand for, and cult of, 'the accessible' in which everything can (and therefore should) be reduced to information which one need only be able to afford the technology in order to enjoy.

A digression: Note how information has passed from the status of the informative (providing us with contexts and predictions in relation to which we might seek to modify our choices of actions) to the enjoyable (an option into which one buys, a provision of gratification through deferment of sustained choice, a mesmerized window-shopping through possibilities of selection rather than of action. Whilst maverick interventions in the provision are fortunately possible, the overwhelming goal of the system is towards predetermination through neo-accesibbility). Rather than a democratic accessibility (as for example one might ideally hope to enjoy regarding the nuances of creation, interpretation and implementation of law but never does), the fetishistic insistence on information reflects the truly decadent elephantiasis of much modern scrutiny through bureaucracy, the ubiquitous "rendering accountable", maintenance of an identifiable terminology which permits economic and expressive control by insisting that the individual be answerable to externally imposed, rather than personally developed, terms.

Theatre, on the other hand, is all about action, and the essential human freedom of playing with terms. It defies predetermination by making present what isn't there, and dissolving the boundaries of conventional, habitual, literal perception (and thereby possibility). It creates manifestations which have an appealing and troubling immediacy, through the very particular physical presences of the performers, which can upset or transform what things usually 'stand for'. For example, if a performer strips naked as part of a theatre performance, s/he is demonstrating an intimate commitment to the possibilities of power of that particular moment in that particular performance space in that particular town with this particular audience: a commitment which calls into question all notions of what s/he and the audience might have invested in this occasion of performance, and, by implication, in other situations of their lives (for one thing, it demonstrates wider senses of the the notion of 'investment' than financial logic will allow). The witnessing of the specific occasion of the actor's imaginative and physical risk, offered to you and your strangely semi-anonymous neighbours in the specific location of this place on this day, is a matter of presence arid action on terms which no prerecorded and projected cinematic images or broadcast televisual signals can compete. The final solution to the problem of theatre ('Art is a problem' Howard Barker, Don't Exaggerate London: Calder, 1985) is to assess it on terms of cinematic closure and televisual neo-realism, and to dismiss it as incomprehensible when it chooses not to justify itself through reference to either: not to reduce itself to the manageable. When critics, directors, and cultural legislators insist that things be made "more accessible" (or "less difficult") for audiences. They are almost invariably appealing to aesthetic (and therefore political) terms and signifiers which would accommodate (reduce) the theatrical experience to mediation by generic associations which reflect those of film, television or both. Theatre is a site not of information but of transformation. As I have written elsewhere on the plays of Greg Cullen:

The magical, or spiritual, realism of drama lies in its demonstration that anything can happen that the imagination permits Marlovve's Dr Faustus is a good example, in the ways it harnesses the energies of the medieval and Elizabethan popular theatrical forms, and imbues them with a spirit of enquiry which problematizes the absolutes of its age. Marlowe's play invites its audience to consider the possibility and appeal of limitless power, and then to dissociate themselves from Faustus because of the limitations and fundamental mediocrity of his ultimately conventional imagination. For in the theatre, imagination becomes the medium of magic, to manifest the invisible and to realize the impossible, as by depicting God; to demonstrate the simultaneity to alternatives, as when the Good and Bad Angels speak; and to explore the entirety of a person, such as Faustus, on-stage, not only in his physical presence, but in his imaginative life and significant past, challenging and rewriting the habitual effects of time. Marlowe permits the audience to enjoy such imaginative range, that any fixed position of orthodoxy is revealed as the limitation of possibility which it fundamentally is.

(Rabey, 'Spiritual Realism and Chaotic Necessity', in State of Play, ed. Hazel Walford Davies, Llandysul: Gomer, 1998, 328)

I would assert that any theatre dramatist worth the name follows Marlowe's example, to distinguish theatre from its more literal sibling media. For, whilst it is certainly possible to depict deities and angels and create magical effects on films and television, these depictions and creations amount to demonstrations of a physical and temporal non-immediacy the shooting can be stopped, restarted with an ingredient relocated, then played through in a fictional continuity, sometimes demonstrating a financial and technological extravagance in the process whereas the theatre has to create its magic in an imminent and continuous present, often with startlingly nonliteral directness (I exclude the technological exhibitionism of megamusicals which subscribe to a fundamentally cinematic ethos of predeterminism dwarfing their audience with their literal extravagance). I would also have to acknowledge that theatre has frequently played into the hands of certain critics, directors, cultural legislators and other careerists by seeking to curry favour and make itself predigestible on these external terms. Sierz suggests 'perhaps what's needed is a new myth about theatre which avoids the cretinism of value for money as well as the outmoded classical values of high culture... If we are to get out of the malaise which emphasizes the discourse of decline, the culture of complaint and chronic victimhood, perhaps a new myth needs to be created. After all, creating myths is what the arts are good at' (op.cit., 468). Ed Thomas has valuably attempted to demonstrate this, and been patronizingly criticized for 'self indulgence' and 'whimsicality' and more directly, for ambition, ambiguity and faith in language by London critics reviewing his recent play Gas Station Angel, which artfully deployed the imagery of the supernatural (see Walford Davies, op. cit., 240-5). Another Welsh dramatist, Simon Harris, has presented his view and experience of the supposed "problem" which is ascribed to emergent writers in Wales: emphasis on the aesthetics of language and character rather than action:

This seems to me to be out of touch and old-fashioned. In one sense, language is action. It is, among other things, the arena wherein power is contended, reverberating between the characters involved and affecting their physical environment. But it is also... a space where a culture of defeat can transform itself into one of self-assertion ... Writers, like myself, wishing to speculate on a fragile sense of identity at the end of the twentieth century find a ready audience in this generation, who are all too aware of the provisional and fluid nature of their experience In life, as in storytelling, there are no givens or universals, nor should there be. All that matters is what works. Sadly, the modern market-driven obsession with presentation and packaging neatness and tidiness has spilled over from America into the arts here, mitigating against distinctiveness and the unorthodox, in favour of other forms of baked goods.
('Wales>Alaska', Planet 128, April/May 1998,2433 [311)
[the full text is available here - keith morris TIW webmaster]

Fortunately for the art form, there seem to be a number of indications that theatre writers are less willing to restrict the terms of their stylistic invention to the Procrustean bed of traditional criteria by which critics, directors and cultural legislators continue to assess them. Unfortunately for the writers, the boldness of their imagination may lead to their being marginalized, dismissed or neglected for being too unruly in their demands (as is the dramatist Gregory Motton). Nevertheless, there might be a confidence, awakening out of creative impatience, that dramatists not just critics, directors and cultural legislators can and should make their own demands . Theatre is a demanding art, for all involved in it. But it is not legislative. A number of critics and audiences persist in the presumption that theatre should "reflect life" depict it in readily recognizable terms ("readily recognizable" usually meaning upper middle-class, white, heterosexual, careerist) and proceed to some rational diagnosis of social contradiction (as in Ibsen) or else affirm the poignancy of inevitable decline of aspiration and inevitable waste of passion's possibilities (as in Chekhov). It's worth pointing out that these formulaic presumptions do Ibsen a disservice, as he was also the author of the wild, supernatural, associatively freewheeling and remorselessly unsentimental anatomy of the modern soul that is Peer Gynt, a marvelously unruly modern myth which Michael Billington conveniently forgets when he regularly yearns for a more 'Ibsenite' British theatre. Theatre is not instruction how to live, because if it were its presumption of a moral infancy in its audience would be offensively authoritarian. Theatre is speculation on possibilities of life, and should therefore be amoral in its explorations, which are ultimately fictional, never purporting or obeying realism: it provides the imaginative space in which such investigations can occur, in order to interrogate and refresh habitual perceptions and conventional assumptions. The laws of gravity need not apply. By analogy, neither need the depressive solemnities nor the dismissive flippancies of "real life".

Beyond Peer Gynt, there are many further examples of the sort of harrowingly poetic, searchingly fantastic drama to kick over the monochrome statues of literalism. I find them most of all in the work of Shakespeare. How ever, it is a sign of cultural decrepitude that this most restless of dramatists has been diminished to a distant icon of literary (rather than theatrical) culture on the one hand, and a pretext for dutiful but artless theatrical repetition and pedagogical instruction on the other. When I write plays, it is the boldness and agility of Shakespeare's work, the mixture of self-proclamation and undercutting, the temporal and geographical leaps, the gradual but ultimately ferocious momentum of the five act structure, which most license my imagination. He is too good an example not to learn from (as Graham Parker commented when compared to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, 'If you're not influenced by genius, you're wasting your time').

Significantly, when my programme notes to my recent play The Battle of the Crows identified my own homage to Shakespeare, a newspaper reviewer evidently unfamiliar with the term presumed an assertion of equivalence, and sought to upbraid my distasteful lack of intimidation (as 'pretentious'). Evidently I shall have to go further and identify myself, humbly but with technical accuracy in terms of my formal models, as something of a Shakespearean dramatist, just for the hell of it. And hope that many more emerge, soon. Alexander Leggatt has noted how Renaissance drama explores 'a world in which old, shared values are collapsing and yet the individual, however compelling he may be, cannot quite emerge as the final reality' and often features 'The solitary hero, poised between excitement and absurdity, who insists on defining the universe in his own terms' (English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration, 1590-1660, Longman: Harlow, 1988, 6, 5). This seems to catch the flavour of our own times, and of significant appropriate responses to them.

Leggatt's words lead me to the other consciously formative influence on my work, which similarly leads me beyond the ideological presumptions of both "high" and "low culture", traditional values and market populism: the existential deconstruction and defiant reconstruction of the modern of which can be discovered in the best work in the field of graphic novels, or, if you prefer, comics: particularly, the work of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Bryan Talbot and (the most self-consciously Shakespearean) Neil Gaiman. I have written before on how these artists' 'responses to imminent social catastrophe' involve deliberately disturbing reworkings of familiar generic motifs and conventional moral categories, in narratives in which renegade protagonists place themselves, through their actions, beyond normality or ideology (Rabey, 'Watching the Watchmen', Planet 73, Feb/Mar 1989, 74-81)
In overt defiance of the trivialising effect of media reportage, the mature comic book's world of 'the conceivable made concrete and the casually miraculous' (Alan Moore) demonstrates salutary imaginative nerve in depicting characters who are compulsive in their essential moral ambivalence, permanently surprising in their painful contradictions, with the effect of erasing the expected overview of a prescribed, preformulated response' (ibid., 80). The best of the comic genre from Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow ' (the Look Back in Anger of comics) in the 1970s to Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in the 80's and Caiman's Sandman in the 90s depict characters shot through by both crippling self consciousness and spectacular defiance, burdened with power but rejecting obedience, strategizing their pain through their willful construction of a superself which simultaneously enhances their capabilities whilst compounding their isolation. I have always found such riven, dialogic selves profoundly moving and intrinsically theatrical. More sophisticated commentators may be embarrassed by such essentially illegitimate energies and prefer to dismiss my work as 'theatrical comic books'; I don't plan to let it stop me. By way of summarizing much of the above, to the contemporary dramatist who has been a major influence on Thomas, Harris and myself, Howard Barker, and the near conclusion of his dramatic poem, Don't Exaggerate:

Art brings chaos into order
The actor must destroy
The writer must demolish
All previously held notions of performance
All previously held notions of reality
All clamour for comfort
The accusation of the cultivated philistine
That the work gave them nothing
It is like love you have to want

A miasma of critics, directors and cultural legislators who only want their own prejudices confirmed might give rise to an audience with similarly repressive restricted appetites. Thankfully, that hasn't yet happened, entirely. I recently heard a comment from an audience member after one of my plays. She said the performance 'released her from literalism'. That'll do, for today.


original source: New Welsh Review
01 December 1998


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