Michael Gow delivered a poignant Keynote Address for the opening of the National Play Festival 2016 in Melbourne, on Wednesday 27 July at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne.
Watch the Livestream
Michael Gow’s Keynote Address at the 2016 National Play Festival was live streamed by Australian Plays. You can watch it here: http://australianplays.org/npf/2016-festival
Read the Full Transcript Below
THE AGONY AND THE AGONY
When I was a kid back in the 1960s, there was, for a short time, a jokey answer to any question about something you’d done or been through. This answer was the title of a film about the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarotti painting the Sistine Chapel. It stars Charlton Heston.
People, when asked about a spelling test or Christmas with the family or a holiday or work would shrug and say “oh The Agony, the Ecstasy.” The voice in my head still gives that answer when someone asks “how did the show go?” or “how was opening night?” or “how’s the next draft coming?”: “Ugh, The Agony, the Ecstasy.”
The is film was The Agony and the Ecstasy. Some reviewers at the time said that a large dose of the agony in the film was due to Charlton Heston’s acting. The movie depicts not so much Michelangelo’s life but the trials, tribulations and eventual, inevitable triumphs of the Hollywood version of the artist’s career. Years of hardship, suffering (especially at the hands of Rex Harrison’s whiny Pope Julius) and then a final burst of acceptance, applause, fame and a lasting legacy.
Anyone who’s ever been an artist knows this version is a cute wish fulfilment fantasy and nothing like life. To make work out of your own imagination is an invitation to a lot of unforgiving hard slog, failure, satisfaction which doesn’t last long, more failure, discontent, maybe a prize, a bit more satisfaction, self doubt, dissatisfaction, lots more hard work and so on and so on.
But anyone who’s persisted and written something and got to the end and even better had it published or performed learns quickly that the hard slog, the frustrations, the blind alleys and dead ends and scenes that don’t work and great ideas that turn to dust are in fact a big part of the work. The reward for the agony is not the ecstasy of Chuck Heston finishing the Sistine Chapel but still more agony that might also include some kind of not pleasure exactly, maybe a brief, terrible joy.
So that’s the first agony of the title. But the second agony is more than disrupted or subverted expectations, though I think that’s something all artists do. I’ve become obsessed over the last few years with the word agony and how it relates to writing, especially writing plays.
We’re used to the word meaning physical pain, but the history of its usage puts it at the top of that list of foreign words we all know from hearing about how to write a play; denouement, stichomythia, perepeteia, scene obligitoire and the rest.
Maybe not even on the list but at the top of the page in caps. For me it’s more than one more technical term; it’s actually the basis of drama. And not just the writing of plays but the reason plays get written and the place theatre and plays have in the world. I’m going to throw out things I’ve read or seen or heard and favourite plays and writers I admire as prompts to celebrate this term and so smash a metaphorical champagne bottle over the prow of this Festival.
The first prompt is from the big cheese himself; Aristotle. You’ve all heard what he thinks about drama. Drama is the imitation of an action, he declaims with great authority. It’s a fine sounding phrase, but like all fine sounding phrases, its meaning, which is “how do I use it?” is harder to define. What is an action, this thing that drama is?
A common answer is to describe the main event of a play; Hamlet avenges his father, two guys wait for another guy who doesn’t turn up, two canecutters try to have one more summer of unrestrained freedom and so on.
Some suggest the answer lies in The Dramatic Question; will Hamlet avenge his father, will Vladimir and Estragon keep waiting, will Roo and Barney have another summer of sex? But it’s easy to name an event or ask a question and say this is the action of my play, but then what? It’s easy too to say, “conflict is the essence drama” which you hear a lot, but conflict’s just another abstract noun. These answers are too passive to kick off a play.
I love how-to-write books. I collect them. Like I collect self help books. All of these books are rubbish, because a. they’re written after the fact, describing things already written or lives already lived and b. they all have one basic theme which is: turn off the TV, get up off the couch and do something, anything. In my case, write something. The writers of all these books then make money restating this obvious advice. They can only ever act as spurs to stop wasting time.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain maybe at least one useful thought or sentence. And when I read Robert McKee’s Story, which is about screenwriting, I got the answer I’ve always been looking for to the question; what is an action? Drama, he says, retranslating Aristotle, is the description of a struggle.
I only read that maybe fifteen years ago and how I wish I’d read it thirty years ago. All the “describe the event”, “ask the dramatic question” stuff, as well as all you need to start a play is an image, or write a monologue and find a character’s voice are static, they leave out the thing that makes drama happen; the adversary, the opponent.
That flash of aha! led me back to Aristotle and the Greeks and to this word that fascinates me. The word is agon; A.G.O.N. agon. The word comes to us from sport; originally it described an athletic contest, maybe a chariot race, a wrestling or boxing match, a physical contest where athletes of relatively equal skill are pitted against each other.
Drama, as we know, began as ritual, a performed liturgy that included stories from the great store of myth and legend familiar to everyone. At some point a writer or performer, who may have been one and the same person, suggested it might be more interesting, entertaining, if some kind of discussion started up during these, let’s face it, boring rituals.
Tradition says his name was Thespis, hence thespian. Even better there could be a back and forth discussion, maybe even an argument. Another poet, possibly Aeschylus, saw the potential in not one but two individual performers, arguing not just with the chorus but also with each other. Later poets added more.
The discussion, the argument, that took place on stage had the same feel as a physical contest, equally strong points of view given a good airing with the chorus as back up singing about what society at large believed.
The names given to these soloists borrowed the word for contest; agon. The first actor to emerge from the crowd was called the protagonist, the opponents, antagonists, words still in use.
These contenders, these wrestlers were engaged in an agon, that’s to say, a struggle, no longer a physical struggle now, but a verbal, moral, intellectual, spiritual battle.
“Good Hamlet cast thy nighted colour off and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.”
But this is a play. There’s no place for friendship, we want hatred and guilt and revenge, so thankfully Hamlet throws his mother’s invitation in her face and Hamlet and everyone else struggle, with the world’s greatest verse, to the play’s finale of corpses.
And the arguments, the battles rage on, through all of Shakespeare, the Jacobeans, on through the great debates of Shaw, through all the plays that we still read and perform, on up to David Mamet, Caryl Churchill, Patricia Cornelius and everyone else who is writing plays worth performing. And that’s just in English.
Plays about people, arguing, falling out, wrangling, plotting, deceiving, denouncing, avenging; struggling, with each other. It’s no surprise that radical playwright Howard Brenton calls his theatre company The Wrestling School. He got it in one.
And the play needn’t be tragic, it doesn’t have to end in disaster. Comedy is tragedy narrowly avoided says Andre Gide and a good comedy has just as much struggle as Oedipus, so you’ll find people at each other’s throats in Feydeau and Congreve and Coward and Williamson, as much as in Racine and Tennessee Williams.
One of the great themes of Christian art depicts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest, pleading with God to let him off the hook and avoid a terrible death. This subject is called The Agony in the Garden, not because Jesus was physically suffering, although we’re told he sweated blood, but the inner struggle was intense and tormenting. We still hear that someone has to make “an agonizing decision.”
This idea of the inner struggle means the argument in a play, whatever it is, doesn’t need to show people literally at each other’s throats. Struggle with the self is another kind of drama. Hamlet wouldn’t exist without it and since the late nineteenth century drama has been moving away from overt histrionics and burying the arguments characters have beneath a banal surface, even offstage, as in Chekhov or way down deep as in Pinter. But they’re there. Those plays are still full of aggression, whether it’s Olga telling Masha to stop whistling in the first scene of Three Sisters or Ruth and Lenny battling over a glass of water in The Homecoming.
Again, the play doesn’t have to be serious. We see struggle buried in all those great comedies that involve identical twins and mistaken identity or intention and disguise. It’s there in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Twelfth Night and One Man Two Guv’nors and Mrs Doubtfire. We the audience have all the facts, the characters don’t and the wrangling is about what appears real and what we know actually to be the case; that’s called dramatic irony and it’s another description of people struggling and making us wince and laugh.
I said that Aristotle was writing after the fact. The Poetics, which, it seems is a collection of notes probably intended for lectures to students, uses one play above all others as the model for drama. Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, usually Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King, for us.
Aristotle holds this play up as the almost perfect model for writing a serious, or tragic play. The struggle is between a man and the mystery of his own life. It’s still powerful and shocking. But there are other Greek plays that don’t have the same rising anxiety and conflict that is resolved in a horrific catastrophe.
Women of Troy doesn’t follow this pattern, nor does my favourite, Prometheus in Chains. In these plays the catastrophe has already happened, and we share the protagonist’s anguish as he or she deals with their almost unbearable situation. Women of Troy doesn’t really even have one protagonist, Hecuba leads the women’s lamentations, but the other women too share their stories and their grief as their city burns behind them.
In Prometheus in Chains, in one of the most moving scenes all drama, Prometheus, already in chains for disobeying the gods and saving human beings from annihilation listens to the story of Io, a young woman in love with Zeus and, in a case of divine victim blaming, condemned to wander the earth, forever tormented by a gadfly, like a despairing asylum seeker never allowed to come to rest.
In these plays the struggle, the agon, is between the characters and the world as they experience it. Just as a modern masterpiece, Mother Courage and Her Children, shows us a women trapped by, surviving by, the very system that is destroying everything that gives her life meaning. As well as all the petty bickering and bartering that goes on in each scene, that play shows us a woman struggling against an inhuman system.
And speaking of battlers, there’s Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, slowly sinking into the sand, banging on about life and the past and toothpaste as if there were nothing at all wrong and everything is just as it should be. In Beckett’s plays the struggle between characters and an empty, silent universe is extreme and unnerving and never articulated. But it’s there for us to witness all the same.
In the very first play we have, this struggle against something bigger than an individual life is presented to us.
While o’er the fields of Greece the embattled troops
Of Persia march with delegated sway,
We o’er their rich and gold-abounding seats
Hold faithful our firm guard; to this high charge
Xerxes, our royal lord, the imperial son
Of great Darius, chose our honour’d age.
But for the king’s return, and his arm’d host
Blazing with gold, my soul presaging ill
Swells in my tortured breast:
Big picture, there’s a war already raging, the world is in chaos. Up close, there’s already a tortured breast, a fine double dose of agony at the very opening of Aeschylus’ The Persians. And things go savagely, heartbreakingly downhill from there. Written by a poet on the winning side, he was big enough enough, human enough to lament lives lost, wasted, an entire culture destroyed. We’re all descendants of that poet who wrote those dread filled lines. We describe struggles that are experienced in a public space. We depict life in a short space of time and share that with a group of people who have come to see the battles of life, large and small, acted out.
Every scene of a play is an argument of some sort, part of the bigger struggle. David Hare says a scene is a river not a lake; it has to go somewhere. And he’s right. The argument of each individual scene adds to the overall struggle of the play.
If you have a small cast of characters connected to each other and put the scenes in the order of the intensity of struggle, you have a well-made play with rising action, climax and resolution.
If you make each scene a separate small struggle and then move on to start a new argument, one after the other, that’s Brecht’s epic theatre.
When we say a play didn’t work, or was boring or had too many endings, it’s because the writer hasn’t made the argument, the battle, of the play clear, or has chosen a weak or unsustainable argument, or the battle is between characters who have no texture, no reference to life, no remarkable aspects that make them worth investing our interest in. Maybe the struggle is too baldly stated, or unfairly weighted in one direction, maybe the author’s voice is too loud in the arguments on stage, maybe it’s an argument that’s so familiar we don’t need to hear it one more time, or is it a trite argument tritely told that we don’t need to waste our time on?
The style or the form it takes doesn’t matter, as long as I get to watch the struggle. It can be utterly realistic or stylised, as long as there’s struggle. Part of the pleasure of the theatre is for me, watching or reading an argument unfold; enjoying the ways the writer has set it out, whether in familiar forms or in arresting, unthought of structures, the way Caryl Churchill does, pushing the limits with each new play she writes.
The pleasure of reading or watching plays for me is waiting for the struggle to start an watching it play out. Is it George and Martha in Virginia Woolf, going at each other before they come on stage? Or do we have to wait pages watching some low level exposition before Hedda Gabler glides in and turns her scorn on everything in sight? Does it start one sided, like in Shepard’s Buried Child, Hayley upstairs, unseen, haranguing a mumbling guy on a couch watching baseball?
Chekhov, in a letter to his brother, said “the art of good writing consists not so much in writing well but in striking out all that is badly written.” Learning to tell the difference is an important lesson.
I’ve sat in so many meetings with directors and dramaturgs and feedback givers, offering advice about cut this, move this here, swap these, rearrange this. And some of it was interesting and true, but very rarely have those meetings gone down deep to the bedrock and asked what is the struggle? The big struggle and what’s going on right here on this page? I wish they had. I think the play under discussion, whether mine or someone else’s would have been better, faster.
When Tim Roseman asked me to give this speech I dithered for a few days, asking myself; really? Why me? He won me round by telling me that the theme of this Festival, in part at least, was craft, or maybe The Craft. The nuts and bolts stuff. As I said, I’m happy to talk endlessly about those foreign words that are the vocab of playwriting theory.
So I was interested, but still I asked myself why me especially, what do I have to say that might be interesting. Lots of other people have written more plays than me, they’ve had plays performed in more places in the world than me.
I’ve been around awhile, which might be interesting. My first play was read at the 1983 Playwright’s Conference. Because I believe in the work the organisation does I was the interim Chair of Playwriting Australia to get it on its feet. Interesting as well and timely.
Another reason, a big reason, is because I’ve written something that has been designated a classic. That does make you stand out, not necessarily for the right reason. It even says in the marketing materials for this Festival that I’m quote one of Australia’s greatest living playwrights, which I doubt but it’s nice of them to say so. But this statement is based largely on having written this thing that’s become a classic.
In 2009 Macquarie University Press published their Anthology of Australian Literature. I’m in it, which is gratifying. But when I got my copy I did what I suspect everyone who’s in an anthology does, I looked up who else in your field is there. The search was very surprising and unsettling. No Jack Hibberd, no John Romeril, Patrick White and Jack Davis are there but not as playwrights. Dorothy Hewitt thank God, is and of my contemporaries Hannie Rayson and Louis Nowra and David Williamson are but not by their finest, groundbreaking work. Joanna Murray Smith and Daniel Keene among others aren’t.
There was a kerfuffle about these and lots of other omissions. In answer, the editors finally broke cover and said that the anthology was closely allied to teaching and that many of the writers and plays left out were left out because they contained language not appropriate for school kids. I saw their problem, this classic of mine uses the word fuck once and creates an issue for a lot of conservative schools.
But it seemed alarming to me that such a major record of Aust Lit up until 2008-09 was geared towards teaching, with all the discussions of themes and issues and relevance that entails, rather than literary merit. It is called an Anthology, not a study guide. And Michael Dransfield is there, a poet who struggled with heroin but he made it in. What are they telling kids about poetry?
And this play of mine, this classic, is indeed a big Trojan Horse for school teachers and academics. You get to sneak in Shakespeare, Australian history, generational conflict, social history, performance, all hiding inside a play I dashed off in the summer of 85-86 to fill a gap in a theatre company’s season.
Why is drama subject to such restrictions? If Dransfield is ok why not the playwrights I’ve listed? Is it because it also leads to public performance and is therefore dangerous? Why is drama not a category in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards? It says on the website the awards celebrate literary talent. Do we not have any? Is there a view that it has less integrity than poetry or fiction or biography? And then why do some premier’s literary award prizes offer less for drama than for other mediums? Do they think less of it or do they think it’s easier to produce?
Maybe the answer lies in our own view of the work we do. Should we be advocating more for the value of playwrights? I think we do. If The Doll is thought of as a landmark in Australian writing, as well as theatre, it deserves to have successors as much as the other forms.
So my relationship to Away is one almost of a distressed parent seeing a child undergo unnecessary torment. It certainly wasn’t written to drive school kids crazy at exam time and very little of what it’s supposed to be about was actually in my mind when I wrote it. That happens, people interpret.
It does have literary merit, I think. There are some scenes I’m very proud of, because they have great arguments in them that still sound true and that resonate with audiences. But those things are rarely taught to schoolkids. The exam questions are all about themes and relevance and spot the symbol, never what is a play? Rarely, does this play work, if so how, if not, why not? What is the language of the play? What is its form? What are the struggles?
For me it’s a play about death, in fact it’s an AIDS play, though I didn’t know that at the time. But it’s a play about the young dying before their parents and in 1986 there that was an overwhelming reality. That’s moved the first audiences and continues to, along with the baldly stated parallels with Shakespeare and plenty of opportunities for metatheatrical fun and games when the play is staged. But those big adult concepts are never mentioned. Eric Bentley said that themes are an invention of school masters to make art easy to teach and I agree with him.
But whatever anyone thinks of the play, and it is nice that something thirty years old this year still gets done and gives people enjoyment, the play, as well as some good writing where every scene has a clear argument or contest going on, and the overall structure hangs together, has a flaw that I’ve only identified since rethinking this issue about drama being a description of a struggle. Which is why I’ve digressed.
The second half of the play has always felt a bit short, I’ve had a sense that there’s something missing. And there is. After the boy tries to persuade the girl to have sex on the beach and before he performs his play within the play, there’s a short scene where the headmaster’s wife, who’s run away from her husband looking for space ti deal with her grief, finds the boy alone and downcast.
She is hesitant to take part in his play, he bucks her up and off they go. That scene doesn’t work. It shows the danger of not asking “what’s the argument in the scene?” Any scene, no matter how small.
When I look at it now I wish for example, the kid were so downcast he refuses to perform his play. The headmaster’s wife thinks this risk she’s taking, being in a play, won’t even happen, maybe she won’t re enter the world. They should argue about the value of doing the play. But they don’t. They give us a bit of information, tell us where we are so far in the plot and then introduce the next scene.
But the scene itself has no life. Because there’s no struggle. I’ve wrestled with the idea of rewriting it but I can’t. Something about new wine in old bottles or new patches on old clothes. I’m not averse to rewriting plays, I once gave the play a new ending, though without any new dialogue. This change, by the way, caused a lot of outrage because it’s a classic which means a set text and set texts can’t change. But I didn’t have the energy or the insight for this major scene then and the play has to stand or fall, the way it is.
Let it be a warning to all, mere exchange of information is not a scene. You see it a lot in soap opera writing. People say things, information is traded, they agree with each other and off they go to the next non-event. Eventually maybe, it’ll result in confrontation but it takes forever. People agreeing with each is the death of drama. It doesn’t matter how small, how seemingly insignificant the scene, there has to be a struggle.
I’m going to tell you about a playwright who fascinates, because she exists way out beyond the kind of writing, even the most challenging, we are see in this country.
Her name is Elfriede Jelinek. She’s Austrian. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, much to the disgust of many of her fellow Austrians and members of the Swedish Academy, since her work is about the violence of political institutions, especially as directed towards women and the barely concealed fascism still alive in her homeland.
Her texts are landslides of quotes from other writers, the media, advertising, political speeches, all revolving around a central idea.
One of her plays gave me about the most fun I’ve had in the theatre. It was about ten years ago, in one of Germany’s most respected state funded theatres, in Hamburg. The play was called Ulrike Maria Stuart.
In this play she presented, as usual, a blizzard of words with her standard advice to the director, quote “feel free to fuck with my text.” In this play she rewrites Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, which is about Mary Queen of Scots, by fusing Mary and Elizabeth the First with the leading women members of the Baader Meinhof Gang, a German terrorist group active in the 70s.
Schiller’s play, and here’s a digression within a digression, is interesting in itself. Mary was a favourite of the Romantics. She was an outsider, an exile, she spent most of her life in gloomy castles and she had dashing, handsome lovers. But a play about her final days has one big obstacle; Elizabeth the First and Mary Queen of Scots never met. Seeing this huge barrier to his play, Schiller, like a good writer will, just made it up. Out of his imagination he created a non historical meeting between the two queens and wrote one of the great showdowns in German theatre.
This production of Jelinek’s play was one of the best times I’ve had in a theatre. It included the screening of a parody of the German film Downfall about Hitler’s final days, a rock and roll set, two enormous dancing vaginas, two of Germany’s leading actresses performing the big scene, a bad drag act and at one point the audience was handed water bombs and asked to throw them at card board cut-outs of German industrialists, media figures and politicians while shouting “Deutschland is scheisse!”
Another of her plays is called Sport Play and equates international, competitive sport with fascism, a prophetic work given what we know about Sochi and how the poor are treated in any city cursed with the Olympics. A London fringe company performed it during the London Olympics and Jelinek was interviewed by the British playwright Simon Stephens.
He asked her if she was disappointed her work was pretty much unknown in English speaking countries and she answered with great wisdom and insight. She told Stephens that she is from another tradition, the Viennese intellectual tradition of writers and thinkers obsessed, like Thomas Bernhard and Wittgenstein and others with the philosophical implications of language. So no, she was neither surprised nor disappointed by her neglect in the English speaking world.
When I read this interview I was struck by the question “ so what’s my tradition? Do I have one? Do any of us in this country have one? What’s my attitude to it, if there is one?” This question still bothers me.
The Anthology of Aust Lit I mentioned before underlines this issue. If an overview of Australian dramatic literature leaves out major writers what does that do to us? Do we need a tradition? The idea of a canon is somewhat discredited, but I reckon only in the academic world. For writers there is a canon. Probably lots of different lists, but we all have them. And we need them.
The US critic Harold Bloom, who is himself the object of as much scorn as respect, actually uses this word I’ve been talking about. But Bloom inspired Tony Kushner to write Angels in America so I’m always prepared to listen to him.
In his study of James Joyce, Bloom says that Joyce was involved in an agon with Shakespeare. The chapter is worth reading, if you can ignore the purple, ecstatic prose, just to come to grips with the idea of writers struggling with those who went before.
Again, I look at this classic Away, and see Shakespeare and Woolf and Strindberg and The Season at Sarsparilla and lots of moments and motifs from writers that impressed and excited and intimidated a twenty something writer, all wrestled with and parodied and celebrated.
I can see that what excited me most back then, a theatre beyond realism, a story telling, play within the play, location changing, dressing, let’s pretend kind of theatre. And I’m grateful to White and Hewitt and Romeril and Hibberd for letting me know such a theatre is not only possible but part of our sceptical, sarcastic national character.
If anything is taken from this opening event, I hope all of you, writers directors, critics and theatregoers try to answer this question; what is our canon, our tradition? Where are the revivals of Jack’s plays? Or Romeril’s Chicago Chicago, such an out there play that is right on the prophetic money about Democracy in America.
Let’s look at the Keene/Taylor Project plays again, they were thrilling then, and their poetry is becoming reality for far too many people. They matter.
Louis Nowra’s plays have been getting an outing again and they’re proving to be great writing and an opportunity for great theatre, so more please. More acknowledgment and celebration because the work is good and we need to know what went before us, not only on the page, but on stage. We know that Mamet and Shepard owe a huge debt to Pinter, as a young man Beckett taught the plays of Racine and Beckett’s plays all go one better than Racine at leaving out almost everything but the barest bones of drama.
Elfriede Jelinek, this goddess of post modern anti theatre, is also a novelist, poet, and trained concert pianist. There’s a film of her novel The Piano Player with Isabel Huppert if you want a taste of Jelinek’s world.
She’s also a translator. Of comedy. In the German speaking world audiences know the plays of Feydeau and Oscar Wilde in translations by this same writer. From close association with plays, and translating them is about as close as you can get, she knows pretty much everything there is to know about the mechanics of writing plays and then she struggles with that, rejects it, taunts it, mocks it and creates her own amazing work. If you’re a writer and you don’t have a canon, make one up and then get to know how it works, respect it and then pick a fight with it.
I believe the more you know the better the work. But I’m not advocating The Craft as a purely aesthetic skill. My sense is things are going to get slowly, quietly worse. By things I mean politics, the economy, the way we’re persuaded to deal with each other. As well as entertaining I think our job will be to argue, and argue well in this our public forum. Argue against reality as authority or Christine Lagarde wants us to see it. There is no economic miracle over the next hill and maybe that’s just one of struggles we can engage with.
Elfriede Jeklinek again. One of her plays, Death and the Maiden, came under severe criticism from the Polish Government, which is led by the ominously named Law and Justice Party. It was performed by a leading company in Wroclaw. It was confrontational, as you’d expect. It questioned the values of Polish society. The culture minister tried to close it down and withdraw funding. There was a decent outcry and the company is safe for now.
The Hungarian government is using arts funding, either keep it or lose it, to ensure its preferred view of Hungarian life is what the public gets. A German satirist faces prosecution for a poem making fun of the President of Turkey, who himself seeks prosecution under a little used German statute. Hedda Gabler was banned from a theatre festival in Teheran because of it’s depiction of a strong, powerful woman. Last week Israel’s defence minister Avigdol Libermann savagely attacked the Israeli Army’s radio station for broadcasting a program on Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He wants his army broadcasting patriotism, not poetry. And God knows what’s going to happen to writers who dare to argue in Turkey.
And here we’ve seen funding ripped from the Australia Council. Two reasons were given; cronyism in the Australia Council, and the fostering of mediocrity. No evidence has ever been provided on either charge. The minister responsible is still the Attorney General, which isn’t encouraging. In fact it’s pretty scandalous. And it was good for the government to give those clichés of wanker artists moaning over their lattes instead of producing things that people actually want, just to make sure the clichés are still alive and snarling and spitting.
Some of these examples are dramatic and unnerving, some, so far, might seem less so. But they are all about control. And it’s not just conservative governments doing this, not by any means. In this country the Labour party is just as uncomfortable spending money on something as unruly as the arts and twists itself into all sorts of shapes linking the arts with access and education and quality of life and tourism and so on, never, at least since Peter Beattie, brave enough to say we fund them because argument and challenge are good things to encourage. We complain that governments take no notice of the arts but when they don’t like the messages they assume they’re paying for they get very interested.
We’re going to have to be as good as we can to argue, to struggle, whenever it’s needed. That’s why I think mastering the art is so important. We need to be articulate, brilliant, witty, popular and successful sometimes; maybe Playwriting Australia should have a How to Write a Musical stream. The best political theatre I’ve seen for a long time is The Book of Mormon. Before that maybe Keating the Musical. Let’s not be snobs about what we do.
Sometimes we have to cause outrage and know how to deal with outrage. If you think the arts have a right to offend, get ready for pushback. Maybe don’t be surprised if you’re not in a subscription brochure. Those companies have their own battles to stay afloat.
I don’t think money is going to be handed back any time soon to anyone, since there’s this unwillingness to pay for what seems, to those who hand out the money, ingratitude and orneryness. We may need to prepare to be out of pocket yet again, to make work. Innovation is all the rage right now and for us being innovative may mot mean the forms we write in but how we get stuff on. There are discussions about that at this Festival and they might be just as important as talking about writing.
And I am glad Away is called a classic, because the writer of that classic, that is studied by school children year after year, and must therefore be considered acceptable by the establishment, was, for a very brief few months, a long time ago, given a ticket to board the arts gravy train. Or maybe given a brief spot at the funding trough, or whatever ridiculous image they want to use. But I was given a little grant to keep writing after my first play appeared. And I did. And that play, Away, was first performed by a company that was at the time way beyond small to medium, maybe micro to tiny if those designations had been around then. Government support of the arts can lead to something that government and its people approve of, value and enjoy.
That play argues with a lot of things we were supposed to believe and accept back in the sixties. They still haunt us today. That play, a grab bag of techniques and references, was also a public argument against a prevailing world view. “We’re living in a country with one of the highest standards of living on earth” rants the headmaster. The play asks what are those standards, are they worthwhile, do we believe in them, support them, what are we prepared to give up to maintain them?
Struggle; as the reason you write a play; the moment to moment experience of a play; struggle against a hostile world, even against the accepted forms of theatre and literature is what we deal in. It is for me a one word motto.
To get to the end, one more particular struggle, an argument I’ve always been having and which flared up again recently.
I have no problem with, I believe in the importance of, I enjoy, the work of directors who rethink, reinvent, sometimes a bit arrogantly rewrite, plays by others. Usually the classics. But there’s one attitude that gets my goat and I want to share it with you.
The reason I was back at my personal barricade was an interview with the Australian director Simon Stone in the Guardian Online a few months ago. The interviewer asked Stone about the so-called controversy, which it isn’t, over said directors, some would say, tampering with or vandalising classic texts. I was with Simon right up until he said this, quote;
“a theatre text is only a blueprint for a theatre event, not a piece of art in and of itself.”
To which I answer phooey. That’s a self-serving lie and needs to be called out. If on any given night Macbeth is not performed anywhere in the world, it’s still a work of art. Woyzeck waited 100 years to be performed, but every one of those years, it was a work of art. A literary work of art. Plays are first, literature. They have their own history, forms, techniques, as distinguishable as those of epic poetry, lyric, the short story, the novel, the memoir. They can be translated, transmuted into theatrical art, but they’re art before and after that happens.
Allowing this attitude to persist are we talking ourselves down? Do we not have the courage of our convictions and stage directions to stand up for what we do? We need to get some.
Heiner Mueller famously said, Theatre must offer resistance to Literature. He got the relationship in one. He didn’t say Literature must be wiped out, or minimized, or ignored. He understood the agon Theatre and Literature must have. He understood the creative standoff between a completed literary work and the interpretive and aesthetic choices made to stage that work.
The irony of Simon’s attitude is that he and other directors who say this kind of thing, return again and again to these adamantine plays by Ibsen and Strindberg and Shakespeare and Chekhov and all the others that, whatever a particular director does to them, still remain what they are, confident, completed, challenging works of art that are solid in their assurance and that we return to again and again to experience. I’m all for the classics, I think they’re just great, and they’re even greater when they call us on to do our own work.
So let’s have no more of this writing for performance nonsense. No one calls it “writing for solitary, sad people sitting under a tree”. It’s poetry. It’s not called “writing for people with enough time on their hands to sit in an armchair and read.” It’s fiction. We write plays, we’re dramatists.
Plays get rewritten, yes. So do novels. But who would dare suggest novelists merely provide fodder for editors and publishers? The same must go for us.
So if any writer hears a director or dramaturg or literary manager say “well of course a script is just a springboard/blue print/road map/board game/TV guide until it’s put it on, remember it’s your medium, so step into the ring and say, “with respect, that is such bullshit.”
Let’s write plays that are so solid they can inspire the visions of directors, and designers. Let’s be confident enough to write things that are so clear and polished other theatre artists can rethink them, rejig them, show them back to ourselves. Let’s have directors who know their literary history, as well as their theatre history to meet us onstage. Let them reveal a poetry we maybe hadn’t suspected when we first put the words down, always knowing that what we did, our work, will still be there, for someone else to go crazy with. Let’s be strong enough to say “feel free to fuck with my text”, a text that’s so full of life and ideas and struggle, that like the classics, there’s fodder for any number of revisits.
Enjoy the Festival, thanks for listening.
© MICHAEL GOW
When quoting, please credit the writer’s name in full and the event as the Keynote Address at the 2016 National Play Festival.
This text may not be reproduced without the permission of the writer and Playwriting Australia. Please contact 02-8274 0900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Cameron hart