Friday, January 20, 2006

The Totalitarian Narrative Indeed

George Hunka over at Superfluities (see blogroll) has responded to my post below entitled "Formal Inertia" with his own arguments apocalyptically titled "The Totalitarian Narrative."

First, let me say that I did not quote Aristotle as an appeal to the ultimate authority -- yes, all theatre people seem to be agnostics when it comes to any and all past thinkers, and I am no different -- but rather, I referred to him as an august elder statesman whose words show that the concept of narrative, of plot and story, is as old as the theatre itself. While I don't think that old things should be believed simply because they are old (nor, on the other hand, rejected simply because they are old), the fact that an idea has been held for centuries deserves respect, it seems to me. Aristotle is a grizzled survivor of the millenia, and not to be casually dismissed.

George seems to see the fact that people are "trapped in our own consciousness" as a failing we all share, as if anything short of omniscience were an artistic weakness. Because we can only see the world through our own eyes, and thus tend to represent the world from that vantage point, artists "force" upon the audience a single "ideology" (our own). Recognizing this "totalitarian" inclination "exposes the repressive risk of shoehorning arbitrary events into a one-size-fits-all story, that exposes the oppression of narrativity itself."

"Totalitarian," ""force," "repressive," "oppression" -- them's fightin' words, I'm thinkin'...

I agree that we are "trapped in our own consciousness," but I tend to see that as something that leads to wonder, not condemnation. Because of the arts, I have an opportunity to experience the world from another vantage point, which strengthens my imagination, increases my powers of empathy, and expands my understanding. Good God, what purpose would the arts have at all if we could each slip from mind to mind, or worse yet, could watch the world from a distant standpoint of omniscience. In fact, as a definition of art, I think it would be difficult to beat the idea that the arts are life filtered through a personality.

Narrative allows us to try on other viewpoints for size, experience things we would never want to experience in reality, and argue with view to boot! A narrative presents a solid surface that I can use as a jumping-off place for my own thoughts, a means of questioning and reflecting on my own beliefs and attitudes. "Openness" (and I really need a definition of this word, as well as an example of it in action) provides no resistance, no viewpoint about which I can ask "Is it true? Is it true for me?"

The reference to Scribe baffles me. Scribe created a very specific formula, one that placed dramatic elements in a specific order and pattern (and one that still works very well, by the way, as anyone who has directed All My Sons or even Proof can tell you). But it is not the norm today by any means, and plays written on this model are just as likely to be critically condemned as "creaky" as appreciated for "tightness."

I would agree with George that "there's very little in the work of our contemporary playwrights that suggests even a familiarity with the innovations of modern theater over the past 150 years, let alone a coming-to-terms with them. Lip service to innovators is not the same thing as examining their work in detail or trying to see what that work means to the individual artistic perspective..." Alas, as I see every day in my classes, people who seem themselves as theatre practitioners rarely see the value of studying the past. Most are proponents of what I call Nike Theatre: Just Do It. Consequently, there is a whole lotta wheel inventing goin' on. That said, I think there is considerable evidence that a playwright such as Tony Kushner is pretty damned knowledgeable about the theatrical past, as well as the philosophical and historical past. I doubt he is alone, but he is in the minority, I fear.

I must confess to being totally hornswaggled by the following sentence: "Personally, I see the next major project of theater (at least, of the kind of theater I want to see) is the reintegration of the lyrical, minimalist text with the Grotowskian body, to reintroduce eroticism and tragedy into a dramatic form desiccated by facile irony, totalitarian ideology of the left and right, and absurdism." The wha? Each one of those words individually I have a pretty strong grasp of, but placed end to end I am left with a question mark in my mind instead of an image. I keep remembering an old George Carlin routine where he imitated a "commie fag pinko junkie" with a funny voice saying "Workers of the world unite." As an academic, I ought to be able to parse this sentence, but I find myself without a clue. Help us out with a concrete example. Is Beckett and example of the kind of theatre you call for? It seems to me that his plays are pretty narrative (and his estate is pretty totalitarian as far as directorial liberties are concerned).

Truth be told, Matt Freeman seems as baffled as I am in his post entitled "Inovation for Inovation's Sake." He insists that the success of a form is dependent on the technique of the one using it. Fair enough. He also takes a view of form as organic (a Romantic view), writing: "The best innovation comes when we want to make a particular kind of statement, and find ourselves unable to with what we have available to us. Innovation based on rebellion in generally hollow. Innovation based on necessity is built on something far more firm." Of course, it is a 200-year-old idea, so I suppose it is suspect. Nevertheless, I think that Matt is right. George clearly has something he wants to say that cannot be said using current theatrical forms. Good enough -- what is new is usually rejected by those of us who lack the imagination or inspiration to see the possibilities (I run into this all the time). Me? I'll retire to my study and reread Aristotle's Poetics...


George Hunka said...

Scott, really--I've been providing concrete examples on "Superfluities" for more than two years now, both in my reviews and comments on individual shows and in the more theoretical writing, and I don't see any problems in parsing the sentence that seems to bother you so much (maybe because it doesn't easily give rise to an "image" but to a sensibility, though which we process the images that occur to us); I think I've written about these at considerable length, giving concrete examples, in the past.

I'm just a little astonished by the deep emotional responses that you're expressing here, as if you'd somehow been personally attacked. Believe me that was not my intention, but the tone is there. Interestingly, I see similar emotional responses in posts about Foreman's work lately: "He could be a self-indulgent bullshit artist" (Matt Freeman); "repeating himself over and over" (a commenter on Matt's blog); a "charlatan" (I forget where I read this); "I really, really strongly disliked 'Zomboid' on almost every level ... [Foreman] hates people" (someone who will remain nameless). How touchy we're all getting.

I'm reminded of a story about Beckett I recently read: "[Beckett was] recounting a story told to him by a friend [relating] to an American academic saying of Beckett, 'He doesn't give a fuck about people. He's an artist.' At this point Beckett raised his voice above the clatter of afternoon tea and shouted. 'But I do give a fuck about people! I do give a fuck!'" But a defense like this one's own work and person, whether it's Beckett or Foreman, is every bit as futile as it sounds, no matter how true that defense is. It's a cheap ad hominem dismissal of an artist and his work. And look at how we see Beckett now.

George Hunka said...

And so far as "George seems to see the fact that people are 'trapped in our own consciousness' as a failing we all share, as if anything short of omniscience were an artistic weakness" ... how the hell does that follow?

Devilvet said...


Hey there I'm the one who said that Foreman's repeating himself over and over.

Not really meant as a touchy, emotional response. I love Foreman, he's a hero of mine personally. Still, I can say he has sang the same song over and over.

Also, I'm not surprised by hearing such deeply emotional responses from people. After all we are talking about their passion, their bliss. (sidebar...I think the quotes you've picked highlight potential emotional currency on your end as well)

It cant always remain theoretical or academic. I welcome passion so long as we dont get insulting towards one another, which i haven't seen yet.

As for dismissing any artist, I dont see anyone dismissing, what I see is people stuggling to signify how an artist is personally significant to them as specatators.

Your 'dismissal' of those playwrights who you see as intellectually facile extensions of
magic realism and pop culture...your observations are very verbose and erudite, but your conclusions about the value of those artists contributions are extremely subjective and marginal and expose a potential emotional impact upon you as well..

I value your posts and comments. You're a really bright guy, and I agree with almost half of what you say, but it seems to me that you can't blame people for having emotional personal responses on their own blogs...or that emotion and passion some how devalue one validity in this forum. Your arguements are elevated which I appreciate, but we can allow for the subjective onservation as well.

apologies for spelling

Alison Croggon said...

I didn't see George dismissing Aristotle (he just said that playwrights take the bits they like and leave the rest - for that matter, where are the Aristotlean unities in Shakespeare? Didn't Dryden conclude he was a terrible playwright precisely because he didn't adhere to them?) Nor did I see him elevating the omniscient artist: I thought he was doing the opposite. I took it that he was objecting to the kind of narrative that manipulates perception in a narrowly directed way, to funnel an audience to a foregone conclusion held by the playwright (of which there are many examples - Copenhagen was a play I hated for those reasons, but I've seen tons of lesser examples over the years, especially in left-wing theatre).

For the record, I don't think Chekhov works that way, or Shakespeare. Matt was recently looking at Pinter's poetry: the reason that the poetry is awful and they plays are not is that the poetry already knows what it thinks, whereas the plays discover it, and that discovery is complex and subtle and deeply ambiguous, throwing the onus back on the audience to discover what it is that they think and even perceive. Even more so with people who profoundly attack formal and linguistic structure, understanding that language is a means of both shaping and destabilising our realities: Beckett is the exemplary playwright here, but there are many other theatre artists who sought to do just that (Kantor, Brook, Artaud, to cite some other giants). That is, I think (correct me if I'm wrong, George) what George means by "openness".

Also, to return to Scott's post, and Matt's comment "Innovation based on rebellion in generally hollow": I really question this. Innovation is almost always a rebellion against something, some percieved limitation. in fact, thinking about it, I can't think of any real innovation that isn't a profound critique of what went before: creativity is about destruction as much as making. Mere novelty is something else, more to do with fashion, like wearing a Che Guavera t-shirt, but one shouldn't mistake that for the truly new. Revolution and aesthetic innovation are historically very closely linked: think of the Romantics, and Buchner writing The Hessian Courier. And wasn't Chekhov rebelling against the melodramatic theatre of his time? &c

Btw - George seems a pretty passionate blogger to me. How is that incompatible with being intelligent?

George Hunka said...

That's right; that "openness" is equivalent to accepting a destabilization of perspective, or (as Scott himself described it last week), "George perceives of theatre's purpose (if I may use such a loaded word) as being to disorient the spectator; my perception is that it should help reorient the spectator." But that disorientation needs to happen first; otherwise we're only putting new tires on a broken-down car.

I can't speak for my own passion, but if what Alison says is true, then it's the nicest thing anybody's said about me in years. I'll just add that I concur with her list of innovators-as-destabilizers, and would add Gertrude Stein, Grotowski and several others, but am not interested in just making lists of names.

Freeman said...

Whoosh! And so we all get our glorious backs up. Love it.

A few words in my own defense: The entire sentence about Foreman was that he could be a self-indulgent bullshit artist, or he's following a very particular muse. I think Foreman essentially begs for a strong reaction. He can count it as a victory that we are all debating his work so passionately.

Passion is a good thing, and we bring to bear our favorite tools when it rears it's head. George spoke, in a recent post, as if pop culture and irony were personally things he found rather weak and that they made things "easy on playwrights." He doesn't pull his punches, he just makes the punches look pretty.

Also, I'd like to say that when I say that Innovation based on Rebellion is generally hollow, I believe that I make a distinction (perhaps not a perfect one) between angry rebellion ("I don't like doing things the way other people do them so I will invent... theater that goes backwards! Yeah! No one does that!") and innovation based on an inability to communicate without inventing some new method ("I simply can't tell this story if I can't have an actor fly, and since I must tell this story, we will find a way to make the actor fly.")

I'm not saying that rebellion doesn't produce innovation...I just think that innovation based on rebellion doesn't produce something more useful than what amounts to a creative middle finger.

Or something like that.

Now, I will have yet another beer.

George Hunka said...

Well, there's thoughtless, angry rebellion such as that you describe here, Matt, and there's also thoughtful, destructive rebellion that can change a world: a very aesthetic rebellion against a convention that can smother perceptive freedom. Hardly a "creative middle finger," at least to some.

And I realize that rebellion is all too easy to talk about, all too attractive, except when the rebellion is against one's own preconceptions.

Devilvet said...

George (some questions. I hope you can answer them or least aim me toward previous posts of yours that I could read further of your opinions on these matters.)

Is Manet's painting an aesthetic rebellion against a convention that smothers perceptive freedom?

If there is a lack of perceptive freedom in today's playwrighting, is there an entity at whom's feet the blame can be laid?

Is it that playwrights in hopes of financial and critical success are limiting the audience's perceptive freedom by offering producers fewer open, ambigous texts to in turn offer the audience?

Could we say it's the audience's fault for exercising their democratic artistic perrogatives by not opening there pocket books to see non traditonal narratives. And this has happened to such a degree that producing agencies can't afford to produce such open ambigous texts?

Is it probable that, even if not in the majority, there are plenty of playwrights out there with files full of interesting challenging, experiments that are wasting away becuase today's audience and market are apathetic?

Are today's pop audience hostile to innovation, or just apathetic and we as artists view there apathy as hostile?

Rather than change our way of making plays, is it possible to say that you're asking for society to change the way in which the mind works?

Aside from linearity and ambiguity, what other innovative avenues are there for non-traditional story telling?


Anonymous said...

Can anyone comment on the irrelevance and elitism of the theatre as it presently exists in New York and London? Sure, there's fringe theatre, but how many people does it reach; and if it doesn't reach anybody doesn't it become just an academic specialization and hence, irrelevant? Brecht, Artaud, Stanislavski (not to mention Clurman, Strassberg, Crawford, and Kazan) were part of a vital tradition that reached tens of thousands of people. If the theatre cannot exist as a vital and viable form who is it for except academics, rich people, and above all (mainly) white people?

Melissa said...

>>I keep remembering an old George Carlin routine where he imitated a "commie fag pinko junkie" with a funny voice saying "Look at the world tonight..."<<

George Carlin was actually saying, "Workers of the world unite" -- the Socialist motto.