Theatre in Wales

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Summer Theatre Book 2- Scripts Superior to their Commentary

Theatre Critic Book

Edited Anna Fenemore , Intellect Books , September-06-12
Theatre Critic Book by Edited Anna Fenemore Rehearsal has an intrinsic fascination. John Caird devotes forty-eight pages to it in his “Theatre Craft”. Simon Gray in “An Unnatural Pursuit” captures the author’s view in all its excruciation. Once a year a theatre company allows me to sit in on a performance in the making. I watch for the fifteen or twenty minutes that are sufficient reminder that every production is a small miracle of painstaking, collaborative creation.

“The Rehearsal” is title of a theatre trilogy by Pigeon Theatre. The works play with the concept of rehearsal, the actors in character as actors. The trilogy’s subject is one of gravity, the preparations, speculations and practices around death. The texts, which were performed in Manchester in 2007, account for half the book. The remainder is given over to four critical essays. The theatre pieces read as superior by some degree to their commentary.

The pieces for theatre depended on audience engagement. As a result the bare scripts give only an indicator of the theatre experience. That indicator, however, suggests an experience that is thematically important and formally innovative. There is a shade too much knowingness. A character cites Bertrand Russell, another talks of “a proper theatre, not this site-specific nonsense.” But a speech about the death of a fellow school pupil has the ring of authenticity to it.

Of the essays that by Carol Komaromy is succinct and properly written. In tackling the sociology of death she centres on Erving Goffman, draws on some scholarly work, and applies it to one particular instance.

The other essays in “the Rehearsal” are less convincing. The essay that forms the book’s second chapter fails for two reasons that are transparent. Firstly the language has a habit of putting aside normal rules of grammar. This hinders expressiveness and makes the reading quite difficult.

“Majority” and “each” are followed by a plural verb. Parentheses are wrongly used.
The essay’s title contains a (word) in brackets. Inverted commas, instead of being used to denote quotation, are deployed loosely, by the dozen, to “wrap around” metaphors that are commonplace. This gives the writing a feeling of evasiveness and lack of commitment.

Metaphors are selected with small discrimination. An animal that has an adaptive behaviour of mimicking death is claimed to be indulging in “theatre”- the inverted commas are the author’s. As a metaphor it lacks conviction. The writing is plump with redundancy as “I want to emphasise, to underline as it were”, “as I discuss further below”.

The second shortcoming is the reliance on assertion over evidence. Thus it is asserted that human beings imagined the act of dying two million years ago. This may or may not be the case. However, it was the period of Homo Habilis not, as stated, Homo Eerctus. The process of death by epidemic is reported as being prolonged. As Don Taylor’s play “Roses of Eyam” shows death by plague occurs within days. It is the deaths of the post-infection age- cancer, cardiac disease and dementias- that are protracted.

The concept of awareness in psychological terms is one of some complexity. It is asserted “Awareness of death is common among certain insects and fish.” That some within a species are possessed of a higher cognitive function is potentially fascinating. That it comes without reference or elaboration is both authorial and editorial slackness. Poetry says it better: Auden’s “Happy the hare at morning, for she cannot read/ The hunter's waking thoughts." A sentence “It makes good sense to understand death if you want to live longer” has a clumping feel to it. The quality of the writing is a pity because the author has manifestly read deeply in a subject that is important.

The last essay is titled “Death Becomes Us” and has a similar cavalier approach to language’s expressiveness. Common words acquire hyphens and brackets as “Pub (lic)” and “inter-act-ion”. The ghosts of greater writers haunt sentences like “The real (reel?) of anxiety is allayed by the field of language” and “A lack that structures me because I must encounter this lack to in order to ask the question, to ask the question of an other…”

The approach to cognitive issues is amateurish and lackadaisical. “I don’t know if animals have the capacity to spin a yarn, except in the literal sense, I suspect they don’t.” If a writer wishes to comment on mental life in species other than humanity read the literature on the subject. The writer’s attitude to enquiry is revealed in a line like “the origins of the Universe are an almost obsessive trope [sic] in the physical sciences.” Actually, it is known as curiosity to seek to understand the world outside introspective musings. The head of CERN this year attracted an enthralled sell-out audience at the Hay Festival.

He muses that mind might be a function between individuals rather than an atomistic possession of a single human being. He gives no evidence of being read in the psychological literature. The notion of the social nature of cognition goes back at least to the social interactionists; their founder, G H Mead, died in 1931.

The author engages in some speculative art criticism. In just two paragraphs on a visit to Naples he turns “Via” into “via”, follows the verb “was conceived” with “of”, uses commas repeatedly in place of a full stop, uses “base” as an adjective in a nonsensical manner. The word “extimate” does not appear in the dictionary. “”With downcast eyes the illusion…” is a grammatical howler of the misplaced qualifier.

The school of criticism to which this essay belongs suffers from a basic fallacy. It believes art to be principally an embodiment of Idea rather than an actualisation of hard-earned craft and endeavour. This elevation of Idea permits the critic to move, undirected, to other ideas, in place of giving to the work the closeness of attention that it warrants.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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