Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Response to Alison

Since Alison and p'tit boo are double-teaming me over different issues, I think it might be best for me to address them separately, rather than in one long post. First, let me apologize to Alison for misspelling her name -- and I can't guarantee it won't happen again, much like I sometimes accidently type "Issac" instead of Isaac. It isn't meant as an insult.

So what do I really mean, Alison wants to know -- what specific plays am I talking about? While I tend to resist getting down to those sort of specifics, not because I prefer obscurity but because the focus tends to shift from general ideas to arguing about whether Play X is good or not, I'll take a stab.

Someone asked me about Brecht. Let's compare a Brecht play like, say, Good Woman of Setzuan to a Wedekind play like Spring's Awakening. Now, I like both of these plays, and have taught both in the past -- this is not about quality. To my mind, Brecht's relationship to his audience in Good Woman is much more embracing than Wedekind's. It is clear from reading Brecht's play that he believe's in the audience's ability to confront the problem of goodness in a capitalist society that rewards brutality -- if for no other reason than that the play ends with an appeal to them: Shen Te cries out, "Help!" If he did not believe that those in the audience were capable of hearing and responding to that cry, I don't think he would have had her make it. Wedekind, on the other hand, while also wishing to confront an injustice (the destructiveness of repressive attitudes toward sex), does so in a way that, to me, clearly implies he has no faith that his audience is capable of seeing the problem and changing it. His approach, it seems to me, is pure provocation -- scenes meant to leave the audience shaken, but not inspired to change. Both plays are dynamic, even brilliant, but it seems to me that the relationship with the playwright in both is very different. Brecht's play leads to discussion; Wedekind's, to guilt and anger.

Even playwrights change over the course of a career. It seems to me that Brecht's relationship to the audience in Threepenny Opera is different, more Wedekindian, than his relationship in Good Woman or Galileo.

[It is my fervent hope that my comments box will not be filled with people telling me "I never liked Good Woman as much as I liked Mother Courage blah blah blah." That's a different conversation.]

Allison asks me about Offending the Audience, and whether I think this displays hostility toward the audience. Sure it does -- Handke is pretty upfront about it with his title. That said, I think it is pretty tame stuff -- the buttons being pushed are fairly arcane, and once the first performance occurs, and people are tipped off as to what to expect, it's power to provoke is rather small. My opinion is that Handke would have been better off writing an essay rather than a play. Offending the Audience wouldn't be a top example of a playwright attacking.

What about something like Richard Foreman? I am not a big Foreman fan myself, but I find a couple things he does to be very admirable. First, he writes extensively about his plays, and publishes them in the program to help the audience grasp his difficult material -- that shows respect for the audience. In addition, he seems to have made a real effort to create a community around his shows. I don't get the feeling that he as a playwright feels hostility toward those in his audience, and by not talking down to them while at the same time helping them to reach further than they perhaps thought possible -- that seems like respect to me.

As far as the phrase "you are with the audience, or against it," the Bushite echo is unintentional. [A disclaimer: While I'm certain that the positions that I take probably have you all thinking I am a Bushie, you'd be wrong. I'm probably as radical as Alison and p'tit boo. My leftism tends to be based on moral reasoning about the way people should treat each other, and not materialist reasons.] As I said in another response: "When I use "for or against," I do not use it in the same way Bush does. His means: "You either agree with us, or you're our enemy." I use "for" to mean: "Do you, as an artist, respect us as people who share your humanity? Do you consider us as intelligent as you are? Are sensitive? We may disagree, or I may not have thought of things the way you have -- but do you respect my ability to think and to feel, and do you respect my basic right to disagree?" So many (maybe not you) write, "sure I respect them all," but when the rubber meets the road, the attitude is "these people are superficial, exploitative, and unethical human beings," and that's where I flinch. I disagree with many of the actions and attitudes of the middle class, but I think that communication might happen, and as a result change might happen, if we meet each other in mutual respect.

I know I am talking about something that is hard to pin down: attitude. And ultimately I can only infer Wedekind's attitude from his writing, which is, of course, open to interpretation.

I am concerned for our world, which is becoming more and more polarized. This is the Bushie Effect, which has created a situation where people just stake out a position and shoot at each other. Democracy cannot thrive in such an atmosphere. Neither can theatre.

P.S. I hope, when I have any time, to read some Adorno.


Joshua said...

I still stand with what I wrote in my comment on the post below - that if you have freedom of expression, someone is going to be offended and someone is going to be disrespected. It has to happen.

I think it's dangerous to try and regulate taste or expression. Only the channels to which they flow through. By saying we cannot disrespect our audience (which is Fear Factor's whole gameplan) you're saying we cannot express ourselves competely and honestly.

So respectfully, I disagree competely. We had this discussion many times previous, when you took me to task for stating that I grew up in a small town in Iowa full of ignorant redneck backward-ass country fucks. That's where I grew up and my statement to the truth of that still stands (and if my old man in Iowa is by any chance reading this, yeah, that's right, I said it and you're also an idiot for listening to that lying crackhead Rush Limbaugh every day) - you jumped on me by stating that I cannot and should not say something like that.

I can and will. It may be mean and disrespectual, but it's my truth. And I love that I live in a society where I can express my truth freely every day. It's important, that freedom. I may disagree with you, I may say you're fuill of shit, but I'm not going to ever say you don't have the right to spout whatever you want to spout on your blog. Remember?

Freedom, baby.

Joshua James said...

I just reread my post and realized I may have come off a little harsh on you, Scott - so know that I wrote what I wrote with more love and humor than hate - if I really thought you were full of it, I wouldn't spend any time on your blog.

But I do disagree with you on this matter. Respectfully, heh.

MattJ said...

Respect is important. I agree. But even though I respect someone, if I have a message to deliver to them and it's not getting through, I have to employ all tactics necessary to do so, to get my perspective through. I don't think this is imposition, nor cruelty.

In everyday life we often appeal to each other to be more logical or use their common sense when they don't know their not using it. In this society (broader), jam-packed with soundbytes, corporate prostitution, and polarized media, I often feel like we are actively being made to believe certain things, assimilate, not question, and not use common sense. Be we respect each other as individuals.

If my friend, whom I respect, is just not getting it, I might grab his shoulders and shake him "Please, please, just listen!" I might say, "I have something important to tell you, forget everything else for just this one moment." I'm in his face, but I need to be there, because I care for him. I am "for" him, "with" him, and "looking out for" him. The performance-audience dynamic can be the same.

The artists respect the audience, and have their interests in mind, but the tactics they use are just as important as their objective. Otherwise there is no communication, no feedback loop. No theatre as conversation. Because we are conditioned by the conventional theatre model for the actors to exist in a vacuum. But then we lost the conversation. And in a society like we live on today, sometimes more extreme measures are necessary. Respectfully...necessary.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott - a brief note - echoing what Josh and Matt say above (respectfully, as always) - what if what you are responding to - complacency, racism, ignorance - is itself offensive? Does one bow and apologise to that offensiveness? Someone spoke to me while I was in the States of the necessity, if you're Black, to be almost hysterically over-polite, especially if you're dealing with the police. That's so you don't get beaten up, so you don't call up that atavistic White American fear of African Americans, the colonist settler paranoia. Is this the position artists are in, or should we call the offence? I think out duty, if we are really moral, might be to call the offence...

Re Handke, he was part of that whole generation of post-war German playwrights that was questioning the place of culture a la George Steiner (how could Germany, one of the greatest culture in European history, create the Nazis? what was wrong? did culture make any difference at all? etc) And Offending the Audience is part of that continuing exploration of language and preception, the destabilising of convention in the pursuit of something more truthful (My Foot, My Tutor and all his novels as well). So that confrontation, which is also very funny, has serious and to me = legitimate and (at present) even extremely urgent underpinnings. Hardly arcane, I would think, and hardly tame, though it depends how it's done. Btw, WS Sebald has a great essay on Handke, well worth the reading and I think very insightful.

George Hunka said...

BlogSpot somehow ate my previous comment, so if somehow they get their database straightened out and these thoughts appear twice, feel free to delete this one, Scott.

I wanted to follow up on Alison's comment by pointing to an interesting note you make on the difference between mid-to-late period Brecht and Wedekind: "Brecht's play leads to discussion," you say, "Wedekind's, to guilt and anger."

I would submit, like Alison I suppose, that guilt and anger are just as valid responses to a work of theater as an impulse to discuss. This is especially true when the values or worldview expressed, and I do think Wedekind's "Spring's Awakening" and especially the later "Lulu" plays fall into this category, don't seem to be open to discussion: they are recognitions, not problems that can be solved. (I'd have to do some poking around which I'm too lazy to do to confirm this, but I think the initial audience reaction to "Spring's Awakening," that adolescent sexuality was a social problem that could be solved, was rather different than Wedekind's perspective, which was that adolescent sexuality was a social problem that couldn't be solved.)

In the case of the individual member of the audience, he or she may recognize these qualities as parts of themselves, or they may not; what one does is integrate them into the image of the self, a reluctant acceptance of some unpleasant, even ugly, truths. The value here, in this work, is not in discussion, or in presentation of a problem to be solved: it is in knowing, the sheer act of recognition, which may be in some way beyond discussion or solubility. Is this theater less valuable just for that?

For what it's worth, when Brecht tried to address his audience directly with the lehrstucke, the learning plays that were supposed to provoke discussion, his audience ... was only somewhat confused. But Brecht was a poet, fortunately for us, and his failure leaves us with those odd plays, successful in another formal manner if unsuccessful in their social project.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah yes, feeling...

George Hunka said...

Yes, I suppose, a feeling that is commodified when it must be exchanged for its usefulness to the community (hello there, Late Capitalism).

Alison Croggon said...

Actually, I don't think authentic feeling is commodifiable. It's too unpredictable, too subtle, calls up too many disturbing things. Hence the creation of sentimentality, which is a coarsening and falsification of feeling, and is easily packaged.

George Hunka said...

Very much so, I agree: romanticism is a more dangerous and subtle thing than sentimentality, a trait very clear in Sarah Kane's plays, for example: "Cleansed" is a tremendously romantic play, I feel, as far from sentimentality as romance can get. And many of the Jacobean sex tragedies are much the same.

P'tit Boo said...

Do I get a response too George, or are we done ?

Scott Walters said...

Wait for it, p'tit boo, wait for it... ;-)

P'tit Boo said...

Oh right, that thing they call patience...

George Hunka said...

Well, ladies and gents, I had no idea my opinion was so sought after! I am immensely flattered.

I think that many of p'tit boo's points are spot on, and for a number of reasons, primarily that her experience (and those of many others) demonstrates the unique individuality of each life, an experience that resists definitions such as victimhood or privilege. If she (or if I, on the other hand) admits guilt to damning qualities such as sexism and racism in a privileged class, she does so from an extraordinarily complex perspective, one that is also informed by what I've seen is a profound guilt in herself for having participated unwittingly in the system that perpetuated such bigotry. I feel much the same way about myself.

But no amount of being treated as a victim of cultural forces outside myself would ever lead to the perception that I had control over my own consciousness. Indeed, the opposite is the case. To consider oneself as a victim, especially if part of a privileged class, is to consider oneself without volition, without the ability to change the self or the world. (And when I say "change," I mean a profound change of perspective and consciousness, not merely a realignment of sentiments.)

Scott, not too long ago you seemed to find the following a terrible source of victimization: "They [young people, I assume; the antecedent is unclear in this passage] have been programmed, tested, categorized, and controlled. They have been tested in 8th grade and 'tracked' for college, college tech, or labor -- in 8th grade!!! So pick your word. What would you call them? Privileged?" I find this sort of silly, for I myself was programmed, tested, categorized and controlled, tracked in the 8th grade, but would I think myself victimized? Of course not. Privileged? An accident of birth that has little meaning outside the economy, though I still try to correct even this in myself. I think it silly, I think that parents or children who do pay close attention to these scores (there are many of these in this technological society, more's the pity) are tragically narrow-minded. And I know that potential is killed. But the parents kill it, and the students kill it in themselves. But the only escape from it is to deny victimization, to assert one's own identity, if necessary to divorce oneself from the culture. The culture misses out on one more tracked functionary. The freed self flowers.

P'tit Boo said...

Ha ha...
Thanks George...
Can I confess that I meant to write Scott and wrote George ?
I did.


But ... I am glad because then I got this response from George which reads a bit like the review for the solo show that I will write one day.. And I am thankful for that since I was mentioning said solo show last night !...

In the meantime, I'll *patiently*
wait for Scott's retort.

Have I mentioned how excited and stimulated I am by you guys ?

P'tit Boo said...


I should have said "like the review that I would like to receive for the solo show..."

The way I put it there was um a bit too righteous.