Monday, 7 April 2008

Unknown unknowns

In the comments section under my recent Guardian blog wondering why science fiction seemed to be largely absent from theatre as a genre, a couple of the commenters accused me of having no sense of theatre history, which prompted a fair bit of soul-searching. What follows isn't really intended as a defence against the accusations – although I do think “no sense of theatre history whatsoever” is a bit strong – so much as a ramble through the musings on the subject to which the accusations gave rise. (And hopefully the spelling will all be okay this time).

I should start by saying I don't have automatic contempt or dislike for plays (or productions, or work) over ten years old, and, while I don't have any academic qualifications on theatre (although I did several Theatre modules at university) I have actually read a fair few books on the subject, several of which have covered pre-1956 theatre.

In fact, I found the accusation that I had no sense of theatre history quite ironic since at this year's National Student Drama Festival I'd been saying much the same about some of the students there ten to fifteen years my junior. It was also notable this year that virtually all the extant texts selected had been written within the last ten years. Only Pinter's The Dumb Waiter (1960), and Berkoff's Metamorphosis (1969), were older, and both are by writers who have also written plays recently. I know it is a source of continual consternation to NSDF board chairman and Sunday Times drama critic Robert Hewison that older and rarer plays don't seem to be getting through. Similarly, I'd love it if students actually brought plays to the festival that I either hadn't seen before, or hadn't heard of. In the event, both Metamorphosis and what must be the millionth student production of 4.48 Psychosis proved to be the week's two biggest revelations. York Uni's Berkoff totally destroyed received wisdoms about students doing Berkoff, while Emma Waslin's performance in 4.48 was pretty much the best I saw at the festival. But this is getting away from the point.

In the wake of the festival, getting called on my sense of theatre history actually came as something of a useful wake-up call. Being told I came across as someone with contempt for anything older than a decade, while not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear, was also a very useful and timely heads-up. While I don't think it's especially true, and could have happily lived without the contemptuous phrasing, it seems unlikely that either commenter would have made the accusation up. So I wondered what it was about my writing and/or criticism that gave this impression.

My first instinct is that it is partially a matter of taste. If I'm honest, a lot of my favourite work is contemporary (although a longer version of contemporary than just the last ten years. Let's say 1953 onward). Not all of it by a long stretch of the imagination, but still a significant proportion. I tend to prefer, let's say, Martin Crimp to George Bernard Shaw as a playwright, although obviously a bad production of a Crimp is infinitely less preferable to the excellent Shaw revivals London has been enjoying recently.

Similarly, as a critic, one is largely focused on new work. Pretty much every night one goes to the first nights of plays opening across the capital. That many of these openings are of new work further compounds one's sense of theatre as being very much of-the-moment. For this reason it often feels like the most fruitful comparisons between works is between one recent play and another. It is almost part of the game of spot-the-growing-trend that keeps journalists amused, frustrates playwrights and ultimately informs the 'second draft of history' written in academia. After all, perceived movements are much easier to write about than vast numbers of discrete entities. Look at the way, for example, that Aleks Sierz's In-Yer-Face umbrella has informed the historical view of nineties theatre – works that don't quite fit the thesis often feel like they exist outside the era precisely because they don't conform to the school that defines the decade.

There is also the question of both relevance and, again, taste. Much though I admire and am jealous of critics with thirty or forty years' play-going experience, who seem to have seen pretty much every production of every play and every new play ever written (although there will always be some startling gaps), there is also a sense that a lot of readers sometimes wonder whether they need to be told that a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't quite as good as one that a critic saw back in 1968. Of course it depends on the way that the comparison is drawn. If it sheds light on a particular aspect of the new production, or illuminates something about the way in which theatre or the world has changed in the intervening period then obviously it is an observation worth making. If the comparison goes unqualified, however, just namechecking one's own theatre-going credentials feels a bit like indulging in a fruitless pissing contest. Whose experience of this play goes furthest back, they wonder. Yes, there's something to be said for reassuring a readership about one's credentials, but after a while, surely it can be taken for granted that a senior theatre critic has seen more than one Othello.

I was also interested by the time-frame mentioned. One commenter put it at ten years. That is, give or take, pretty much how long I've seriously been going to the theatre. Not nearly as solidly as a professional critic for much of it – possibly still not, compared to many - but probably a good deal more than all but the most hardened theatre-lover, thanks to having access to numerous press tickets through my work for CultureWars. So, ten years is how it apparently reads; and pretty much ten years is what it is.

This made me wonder if there is really any way one can have a sense of theatre that existed before one started going? I can read as many plays as I like, or as many histories of both the British and foreign stage, but the whole point about theatre is being there. It is about attending the event. I can read Michael Billington's collected reviews, but I wonder how much of a sense of theatre history they will actually communicate. Richard Eyre's Changing Stages told me plenty, but not much I didn't know, and very little that makes me feel like I've been there. It's one thing to know the facts, even to have an in-depth knowledge of a particular playwright's work, or a specific period of theatre's long, long past, but it's nothing like the same as seeing a play performed.

None of this means I'm blameless or infallible. The real shock of being pulled up on my lack of a sense of theatre's history was the inevitable self-doubt it prompted. I was having a conversation recently with a friend about the concept of things that you don't even know you don't know. Stuff that hasn't even registered on your radar. Unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld once memorably called them. These are pretty horrifying to contemplate when one is ostensibly selling oneself in the “knowledge economy”, where – although never half so much as prose style and angle – what you know pretty much defines how much you are worth. I was pretty shocked a few years ago at the NSDF, for example, when the then 16-year-old Imogen Walford brought a production of Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789 to the festival. My 26-year-old self had never consciously come across the name in my life. I daresay I had, and had forgotten it, but it was by no means part of my mental furniture. And it's never nice to have gaps in one's knowledge pointed out to one by a sixth former.

Beyond the Unknown unknowns, there are of course the Known unknowns. I know, for example, that my knowledge of the contents of Alan Ayckborn's massive oeuvre is pretty limited. For one reason or another, I've seen only a few of his plays on stage, another few in Alain Resnais's Smoking/No Smoking and have maybe read one or two. That probably leaves fifty or sixty. As a critic, is it my job to know what's in all of them? Would I remember if I did read them all? And what other potentially useful stuff might such a massive programme of reading dislodge from my mind. And when would I find the time? And that's just Ayckborn. Then there's all that Edgar I've not read. Or Shaw. Or Wing-Pinero (none whatsoever so far, in the latter case – should I read some?). Harley Granville-Barker seems to have written a lot, judging by the shelves of Waterstones – should I be reading those? When am I going to have time to go to the theatre? There's just yards of the bloody stuff. It sometimes feels like it's pretty hard to keep up with everything that's coming out at the moment. Adding to that the need to work up an exhaustive knowledge of everything past as well, and it starts to look like an impossible task.

So this is something of a mea culpa. I'm not admitting to knowing nothing by any means. There's some stuff I definitely do know. Hopefully quite a bit, in fact. But there are what schools tactfully describe as “areas for development”. At the same time, there is a sense that such learning, while interesting, is mere gloss. It might be useful to know performance histories and myriad anecdotes, but unless is it relevant to the play at hand, all that information could turn out to be just so much window dressing. While a sense of history is important, a personal history can be just as crucial. It is the age old play-off between knowledge and experience. What can be taught/learned compared to what must be felt/seen/heard. Granted, Experience is enriched by Knowledge, but Knowledge can only really operate on Experience.

In conclusion: I should probably read more books and keep going to the theatre as often as possible, while at the same time trying to wear all the knowledge lightly when it comes to writing up for fear of missing the show in amongst all the referencing.

Thoughts? (and reading lists)


TRPW said...

As one of the people that pointed out some sci-fi plays that you hadn't mentioned (not too rudely I hope) I suspect you don't need to read more (I own a couple of guides to theatre and that's about it) but need to widen you focus slightly and have more curiosity about things outside your field of interest.

For example in my comment I alluded to We Will Rock You, the Queen musical, which is set in a dystopian future rescued by the rediscovery of Brian May's Guitar. Now I dislike musicals, have never seen and hope never to see this one and I certainly don't want to read it but I know its approximate plot because I was curious about it when it started.
I think it is a question of knowing something about the 'hot' plays (not necessarily the critics choices) being seen by most people.

Also I get quite a bit of knowledge from reading the programmes of plays fairly throroughly. This means that the biographical notes on the author (the theatre) and the cast CVs give me an idea of what are considered to be the authors' or actors' greatest hits. If, as often happens, my interest is piqued I am anal enough to check further.

Of course it depends on your theatre going habits. I tend to go to Off-West-End and subsidised theatres with occasional forays into the fringe or the West End. This tends to mean that I'm seeing actors and playwrights that are more established and have interesting biographies. It is unlikely to be true for you, if you are concentrating your playgoing most on young actors and new playwrights.

Andrew Haydon said...

To be honest, I did know the plot of We Will Rock You (such as it is). I think Ian Shuttleworth explained it to me in tones of no small incredulity straight after he saw it, but I may be misremembering. Certainly I read a couple of reviews that were at pains to spell it out - not least because it was the source of much hand-wringing over the terrible punsome way in which Elton had made songs fit circumstances by giving the circumstances preposterous names. I was faintly mindful of both it and Return to the Forbidden Planet when writing the initial blog. I almost put in a sentence or two about "the future" not being such a problem for musicals, citing the two.

But yes, this is off the point slightly. I am working on widening my interests. I've just started reading a book on Edwardian theatre, in fact, and already it's making me more curious to see more of what would now be seen as mainstream stuff (Shaw and the like). Interesting how knowing more of the back story gives a whole new dimension to a thing. Am worried, however, that carrying on too much like this will lead me to become Michael Billington and that I'll start using my reviews and blogs to barrage the National with demands for a Galsworthy revival and more J.M. Barrie plays.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Two things:

1) Don't worry about Ayckbourn. I don't mean he's not important or worthwhile - I'm a big fan (now) - but his output is deceptive. A while back, when I was asked to interview him for his 60th birthday, my first thought was exactly like yours - "But I've seen hardly any of his plays" - then I sat down and totted up and it came to about 15. OK, so that was still only a quarter of his oeuvre even then, but you encounter it everywhere. And I think that's a testimony to him as well - becoming part of the fabric might be argued to mean that you're not especially distinctive, but it also means that you're hard-wearing and of versatile utility.

2) As Gwendolen in "Earnest" would put it, I am happy to say that I have never seen We Will Rock You! :)