Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Paul Bright's Third Day

At the end of their reconstruction of Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Untitled Projects repeat the familiar myth of Bright's disappearance. The story goes that Bright walked out on the final production of the series, leaving his ambitious project incomplete and his legacy to be erased, gradually, from the annals of Scottish performance. While George Anton, who performed as Bright's 'sinner' (as well as being his close friend), director Stewart Laing and playwright Pamela Carter give him a heart-warming memorial, it doesn't replace the fact that this tidy obituary is simply not true.
Far from freaking out, as most people assume, or even disappearing into some hinterland of mental ill-health, Bright's sabotage of the last performance was premeditated and deliberate. Bright was not just the angry young punk that the archive footage captured, or the man driven by his love of Hogg's seminal Scottish novel. He was also an artist who destroyed the thin line between creation and life. Having shattered the fourth wall by staging the fourth performance as a rave, the finale leapt beyond mere drama and provoked a mystery that was so far beyond the aesthetics of the late 1980s that the theatre community punished it by consigning it to oblivion.

Throughout the monologue, George mentions Bright's disgust at the theatre establishment, and his passion for a 'real' immersive performance. It's no accident that Bright's later years were spent in Belgium - the energy he sought has mostly been found in the theatre coming from Ghent during the past twenty years - but his disgust with Scottish theatre was only intensified by his dalliance with success. Having been given a slot in the Edinburgh International Theatre, he recognised the audience's refusal to grapple with serious issues. When he walked away from Confessions, he consigned himself to the margins because he was not willing to join in the middle-class jamboree of 1990's City of Culture.

It is perhaps the ultimate irony that Bright would have found Untitled's tribute to him repulsive. Intelligent, well structured and moving, it is performed in a venue that Bright would have been the perfect director to inhabit, Tramway. George is compelling in retelling the stories and myths that surround Bright, and Laing's curation of the limited archive is eloquent.

Bright's distaste for the immaculate order that makes the reconstruction so evocative was reflected in both the stagings of the Confessions and the series of pamphlets that he produced in the 1990s. Whether Untitled deliberately ignored these publications, or never came across them is moot - since they were hand distributed and published pseudonymously, they are even more occult than the original plays. Bright turned his back on theatre, and followed the precedent of his hero Hogg. He became a satirist, churning out brief essays on apparently unconnected subjects.

Bright's afterlife would have been more recognisable had it begun in the 2000s - he was effectively a blogger before the internet took hold. Yet unlike the contemporary blogger, his writings held a consistent tone, an agenda. He spent ten years in a form of internal exile, attacking the commodification of culture.

Although I don't have a complete set of his pamphlets - I discovered five of them when I spent some time sorting through Tramway's archive, without realising their importance - three of them directly address his reasons for abandoning theatre. He never explicitly mentions his productions and it is only through watching the reconstruction that I realised how directly he was critiquing his own work.

The first paragraph of the first pamphlet sets out his position immediately, before he makes a series of eerily accurate predictions about the future of Scottish culture. By the second pamphlet that I possess - dated six months later, but possibly not the second publication, he makes a bold rejection of Confessions, the novel.

When I was a child, I saw things as a child. The tempestuous battle between good and evil, and evil's facility for the corruption of the good towards its own ends. I believed it was possible for the symbolic representation of these forces to be shown,that their earthly dominions could be made visible through the blowing of smoke over their invisible forms. The hog's eye view of the world, Satan walking abroad and blocking the divine light, the actors in this cosmic drama... the theology of ages past held good enough if not to lead Men towards the Righteous Dwelling but to retain some sacred meaning.

The portentous tone gradually gave way to more mundane, but incisive criticisms. Having seen a production of Marlowe's Faustus, he would observe the ridiculousness of contemporary theatre trying to use an outdated 'cosmic architecture' to explore modern morality. 'I can even sense Marlowe's own atheism in the burlesque of God and Devil,' he commented. 'Why on earth would an intelligent modern director imagine that this could shed light on the evils of today?'

Across these first two pamphlets, Bright bemoans the shift in contemporary thought that 'so readily abandons the past. The shared beliefs of nations are now reduced to an embarrassed archaeology. Confessions is being taught in schools, but to what end? It provides no moral instruction. The book is about the corruption caused by self-righteous Christianity, hardly a topic unfamiliar to those within and without the kirk. Elevated to the status of natural treasure, it is stripped of its revolutionary power.'

In later pamphlets, Bright points to a new literary hero: the Argentinean short story writer Borges. Following on from his dismissal of Hogg's theology as 'a historical curiosity,' it's unsurprising that he shifted his allegiance to a writer who indulges such curiosities. The third pamphlet (dated five years after the second) begins with what appears to be Bright's enthusiasm for a return to theatre.

In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius I can see the outline of the ultimate performance,' he notes, before describing something that sounds suspiciously like the immersive events of You Me Bum Bum Train. Having already tinkered with blurring the line between actor and performer during Confessions, his ideal was 'to make the audience question whether they were, in fact, reciting lines already written.

By the end of the pamphlet, he has rejected the concept. 'The great rewriting of the world described in the story has already been done,' he complains. 'The creative community of Scotland has never realised that the real creative minds joined the Conservative Party and we are all actors in their drama now. It's a shame that their ambition was so petty.'

The fifth pamphlet is the most incendiary - undated, but referring back to 'previous missives' - and addresses the arts community in a language familiar from the prophet Jeremiah. A series of apparently disconnected paragraphs (most of them beginning with the phrase 'woe to the...'), it is a litany of complaints. He attacks the idea of arts funding ('woe to the artist paid by the state, for their work shall be propaganda'), the critical establishment ('woe to the reviewers, for their words shall be consigned to the rear of the newspaper... removed from the news and an idle entertainment for those who are more sophisticated than intelligent'), science ('woe to the scientist, for their ideas will be spoken by those who understand them not') and the church ('woe to the choir for they are having gay sex and the pastor who abuses women... there had better not be any real believers who would walk with those in trouble, regardless of their sexual orientation or state of intoxication.')

This pamphlet connects most obviously to Bright's attitudes recounted by Anton: the resistance to tame theatre, that hides its colonialist arrogance behind a mock spirituality. It also reveals some degree of humour, and an author happy in his new role. The lines about the church are, in fact, rewritings of a rap song, translated from African American vernacular into something more formal. Bright's rosary of objects are laced together with a delicious irony,and he clearly revels in his prophetic persona. 

This brief survey of Bright's continued work in the 1990s acts as a sort of post-show discussion on Untitled's reconstruction. Although it challenges the conclusions of Laing - the final show is a sort of crucifixion of the artist, and his pamphlets suggest he rose on the third day. It also leads me into a very difficult confession of my own.

Having found these documents, I know that Bright's death in 2010, as described in the play and providing the impetus for Laing's sterling archive investigations, is another fiction. Whether Bright manufactured this is not clear: he hasn't told me. And there's the confession - not only can I claim that Bright is alive, he is a regular reader of my blog. I know that he is reading these words, because he regularly emails me to point out gaps in my understanding of Scottish theatre history.

This opens up another question. While Laing has gone a long way to remind Scotland of this lost genius, there is a danger that so engaging a production will convert Bright's awkwardness into another aspect of Scotland the Brand. In particular, Glasgow has a habit of polishing rough edges into smooth consumer objects, enjoying the edginess but taming them into something safe for the picture frame. If Bright is championed again, he could become another version of No Mean City, supposedly authentic and tough but as dangerous as a Hollywood rebel. 

Bright knows what he wants his legacy to be. He's clear: 'a theatre that is about now. That is not the property of a liberal class, who are entertained by hard ideas but never let them touch them. Don't get the joke. Don't be an insider unless everyone is an insider.'


  1. Boom! ανοιχτή κρατίας / νίκηκρατίας OPEN RULE / THE WINNERS RULE

  2. I've seen the production, some of it seemed a bit suspect but thoroughly enjoyed it! I am a fan of Hogg's works and to see it portrayed in such a way was a real treat, adds another dimension to the story ;). Well, it would be nice to think Paul Bright was still around, would be great if he had turned up to one of Anton's shows. -Sara