Thursday, 27 August 2015

A letter from an imaginary female critic


O, Michael,

Dear Michael,

I’m not sure you should have told people about me. But, now the cat is out of the bag, I feel it is important that I set the record straight. I know I’m just invented, but godammit I still have my dignity. And now that confounded book of yours is going to come out and my reputation will be in tatters.

You invented me, you say, to “offset any built-in male bias”. But, Michael, you have made it look like I didn’t put up much of a fight, haven’t you? I know I’m only a few months old, but you did at least have the good grace to invent me with precisely the same life story as yourself, didn’t you? Except in my case, I happened to be female.

Was I there with you, back when we were sixteen, and neither of us were critics yet, and we both sneaked out of school and get a train to London to watch that performance of Look Back in Anger?
[Why am I also a critic, by the way, Michael? I never really got that. Hell, I don’t even understand why I had to be a female critic to question your choices about the gender of playwrights (not to mention race, bloody hell...). But, what do I know? I’m just a feebly ventriloquised literary device, even here.]
Did I feel the exact same level of excitement as you watching Look Back in Anger? Even despite my feeling, even back then, that Osborne didn’t really seem to understand or care much about me? That this brave new world of kitchen sink drama still seemed quite keen to keep women at said sink (and ironing board), while the Angry Young Men thought their angry young thoughts. Half the time, they didn’t even really seem angry about very much at all beyond the fact that my gender weren’t putting out for their gender...

Yes, I am glad my unconscious influence steered you away from including Look Back in Anger in your book, but really I think it’s a shame that you chose to include Osborne at all. Because it’s disingenuous, isn’t it, Michael? You say I’m here to “offset any built-in male bias”, but I don’t remember you even talking to me about John Osborne. Sure, he represents a special point in time for you, Michael. But is The Entertainer really even all that good? Better than I thought A Taste of Honey or Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven were?

I mean, I do get that you aren’t really all that serious about the title – The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present. I do see that it’s is just pure mischief on your part. In fact – and I think you’ll be surprised to hear this coming from me, Michael – I don’t mind you having 101 favourite plays. I don’t even mind you playing the tabletop general and arranging all your favourite plays in a long line and saying that they represent the whole history of theatre. I really don’t. And I know you know you’re being subjective, Michael; not least because you keep saying so.

I think it might be more honest if you’d called the book “My 101 Favourite Plays...”, but then it wouldn’t have this crackle of controversy about it. You wouldn’t have to write spurious articles “defending your choices”, and most of all, you wouldn’t have had to invent me.

But since you have, let’s have another one of our chats. You say: “I can only say in my defence that I felt it would be patronising to start allowing questions of gender and ethnicity to dictate my choice.”

Well, yes and no, Michael.

It would indeed be disingenuous of you to include plays you liked less just because they were written by a woman, or “an ethnicity” – I notice you didn’t bother even trying to imagine a black critic (either or both genders), or any critics from China or Japan, or Mongolia, or India, or Israel, or Palestine, or Iraq, or Iran, or Nigeria, or Rwanda, or... well, let’s not do the whole list now – who might also take issue with your choices.

But – and this is a very big but, Michael – it is equally disingenuous of you to mistake “personal favourites” for “Greatest”. Or, if not “personal favourites”, then “plays which accord with my impression of how theatre and history work and with what things are important”. An impression which cannot help but be informed by your identity as a white, upper-middle-class man, born in the heart of the British Empire when it was still occupying India (for example). You know your perspective would be different if you had been born in France, or Germany, or Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia, or America, or Australia, or the Soviet Union, or Greece, or Italy; let alone outside the Western World, that you later admit is your only subject. And you know your perspective would have been different if you had not been white. And you know your perspective would have been different if you had not been male.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice list as much as the next woman, and I’m crazy interested to see another one written by a privileged white male. There have been so few, after all. But I do resent being conjured into existence just to be ignored. That does seem a bit much. I could cope, I think, with the experience of my gender being largely immaterial to your experience of the world – although, as you might have noticed, I am gently trying to achieve some level of parity for my own experiences. What irritates me, Michael, is that you don’t really listen to me when I try to explain all this.

It’s a bit like those panels you’ve taken part in lately, which you claim have “argued the future lies with group creation rather than the solo author”. It’s funny; when I was with you at those panel discussions, that isn’t what I heard those people say at all.

Yes, some artists/groups-of-artists make theatre a different way. And you ignoring them, and/or misrepresenting them, is your right. This isn’t even about me, but I do think that claiming “passionate advocates of the devised play assume that democratising the work process automatically leads to work of radical intent” is untrue. “Assume” and “automatically” aren’t things I’ve ever heard them say. And I think you know you’re also disingenuously conflating devised work with the work of directors who also author meaning. WE ALL KNOW that you “cherish an obstinate belief in the subversive voice of the individual dramatist”, but, my God Michael, we all also know that THEATRE is different to PLAYS*. I am willing to bet you two years of my imaginary salary that you have seen terrible productions of most of these PLAYS you claim are GREATEST. In short: plays cannot exist without theatre, but theatre can exist without plays. Even if you don’t much care for the results.

But we’re getting side-tracked by something else we’ve never really seen eye to eye about.

To sum up:

No one really minds that your favourite scripts are mostly by people who share your class, ethnicity, and gender. I imagine some of us might even concede it’s probably inevitable.

I guess a few more of us look askance at the fact that, having listed your favourite scripts, you’ve chosen to categorise the work of your class, your gender, and your ethnicity as “Greatest”.

But, Christ on a bike, Michael, don’t make me up, and then expect me to be quiet. Having favourite things is fine. Inventing me as proof that you’re somehow objectively in the right is a ludicrous and unfathomable insult to my gender.  

*Especially leaving aside the fact that, in the case of the Greeks, what you are essentially including in your book of Greatest... is the libretto for a day-long opera(-kinda-thing), and almost every production of those plays that we’ve enjoyed has been AN ADAPTATION of that “playwright”’s original intent... Even leaving that aside, without a production you’re just talking about a weird sort of narrative poem or dialogue-heavy novel.

1 comment:

Katy Darby said...

PWNED. Write on, imaginary female critic!