Monday, 24 April 2017

Are We Asking the Right Questions? (Introduction)

The following provocation does not necessarily represent the views of the views of TheVileArts, let alone Gareth K Vile. They are an attempt to sketch the boundaries of an argument, to question and question and question, until I find the question I want to ask.

It seems far easier to write a manifesto about what criticism ought to do than write criticism that actually does it. I'm pondering the link between my emotional response to a performance - let's take David Leddy's Coriolanus Vanishes and VOID In Situ and the intellectual substance of the review. In theory, the review ought to be an elaboration of the headline or star-rating, an explanation of how the event worked to generate the emotional response.

Star ratings, and catchy descriptions, are sometimes the bane of a critic's life. Well, this critic, at least: having crafted a notice that engages with the work in question, displays my knowledge and argues a clear line, I wake up to see it condensed into a single slogan. And that's my lot: I gave it four stars, who cares why?

Or worse: I gave it three stars and everyone just ignores the review. 

But, slowly, I am trying to draw together some ideas about quality. All that 'Enlightenment' chatter: that's what I am going after. A system that explains why things work...

What is the point, again?

There's sudden bursts of energy, then they abruptly stop. Short, sharp shocks and incoherent statements that lead nowhere. What's he trying to do, doctor?

It's a reaction to information overload, and the inability to resolve the tension between emotional and cerebral response. He knows what he feels. He's trying to justify it.

So these outbursts are fragments of a systematic process?

Not yet, at least, I don't think so. But it is a processing of raw information, and an attempt to draw that information into line, making standards for analysis.

But where's it going to end?

Okay, I can pull together some of the threads. Here: he believes - knows, even - that the 'art' happens when the object meets the audience. Following Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he sees quality as the experience of an object. In other words, the aesthetic moment defines the nature of the engagement.

I'm sorry, that isn't clear.

Sure: when an observer experiences an event, that point of contact is, at first, emotion. The observer makes an aesthetic response.

Like when I taste fish and either like it or don't?

That might work as a short term example. Let's see. All subsequent appreciation of the art object flows from that initial experience. Let's call it the star rating.

And all this further discussion is an attempt to explain the star rating?

Yes, what we call the review is actually the analysis of the initial opinion. But he can convince himself to like something by the application of standards. You can't enjoy the fish once you've spat it out...

More Ladies

Returning to my thoughts on Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, fans of the show have directed me to a variety of positive reviews that do grapple with the meaning and importance of the NTS' production. Most explicitly, in a short critique, Melanie Reid of The Times commented...

Our Ladies... is about how the most sordid circumstances of our lives are the conditions of our deliverance, because they belong to us.

It's a beautiful sentiment, and one that the play does present: in a late scene, the ladies collectively sing Bob Marley in a moment that captures the feeling of tired, resigned celebration that follows a hectic night out. 

Adding in something about the way that music
Manuel Harlan
provides the catalyst for the transformation of despair into acceptance and even triumph would clarify how the show expresses this (throughout the script, music lends depth and immediacy to the school girls' experience (exactly in the way that the Catholic school probably hoped it would (although perhaps not with the same songs taught by the school))).

But this review, from The Times (despite a rather snarky comment about Scottish accents), gives an example of how criticism can advance the discussion around theatre. Identifying a core message, and passing it on: the usual critical function of assessing the play is placed at the service of further discussion about an idea. The quality of the performances, the direction, the musical choices, are subsumed to the theatrical mission of sharing experience.

I'm not sure that I'd call the adventures of Our Ladies sordid, mind. They are just a bunch of teenagers out on the razz. The script makes a point about accidental pregnancy (not all teenage mums have a limited horizon), the dangers of old perverts and having too much to drink (and spewing over yourself at a prestigious choir competition). But this isn't sordid, especially. 

It's being a teenager. 

And there's the rub: my teenage self was a bit busy reading Latin and getting obsessive about 'cool music' (not ELO, who provide the songs). As a former teacher, I know what teenagers these days get up to (have to love my patronising tone, there). I do recognise the redemption, and the irony that it is the same school that our ladies rebel against that has given them the redemptive power of music. 

The Three Ages of Dramatrurgy

Schechner's notion of performance studies expands the boundaries of theatre studies by emphasising performance as an event in time and prioritizing the relationship between the object and the audience. The example of a painting (more obviously a subject for art history) suggests that a single, static object can provides a series of different performances, which emerge from the interaction between audience, location, time span (and so on).

Before the Atlanta Speech (1992), theatre studies might have been construed as the study of behaviour on-stage: before the Enlightenment, theatre studies might have been construed as the study of the script and associated philosophical writing. 

This suggests a trinity of theatre studies... 

The Dramaturgy of the Father
Before the Enlightenment, theatre was studied as a literary form, and authority (of the classics, and in particular Aristotle) determined the value of the art. Like the 'father' of monotheistic religion, this period depended on tradition, assumed authority and a dogmatic description of 'the good'.  The abstractions of ARISTOTLE were carved into rock.

The Dramaturgy of the Son
With the Enlightenment, theatre was incarnated as an event and not a text. Rather like the doctrine of Christianity, where God becomes Man and flesh and located not in the heavens but in the present moment.

The Dramaturgy of the Holy Spirit
From 1992, the drama has escaped the stage and exists in the interaction between performers and audience, all of whom are performing. 

More on Schechner and Performance Studies

There is plenty to dislike in Schechner's introduction to
Performance Studies (second edition, 2006): the way he presents himself as 'a Jewish Hindu Buddhist atheist', carefully avoiding mention of his whiteness, his American citizenship and his maleness; his refusal of citations and, by implication, the authority of academic writing; his suggestion that 'performance studies is so broad-ranging' that it doesn't really need a limiting definition. The switch into third person when he offers his biography, and the division of performance into the dualism of 'Western' and 'non-western' when the latter could be subdivided into African, Asian, et cetera et cetera... 

However, his definition of performance is adorable.

Performances are actions... performance studies scholars... their dedicated focus is on the "repertory", namely, what people do in their activity of doing it. Second, artistic practice is a big part of the performance studies project... the challenge is is to become as aware as possible of one's own stances in relation to the positions of others.

(page 1- 2)

It's here that performance studies shows its debt to dramaturgy, and the dramaturgy designed by Diderot and the Enlightenment. Both labels include the study of performance as phenomenology, as events and not documents or literary texts.