Friday, November 29, 2013

The Politics of Downtown vs Suburbia

I've now seen a few articles centred around the Toronto electoral map for the 2010 election. I post the map below, not to be inflammatory, but to offer a historical context to consider the problematic nature of the Right-wing "populism" in the outlying regions vs Left-wing "elitism" in the city centres.

This is map of the German elections of 1933, in which the Nazis won a majority. Dark brown represents the districts that they won outright; pale beige represents where they lost. Look at Berlin (#2 on the map) vs the surrounding regions. Without wanting to suggest that the actual politics are equivalent (they are decidedly not), I do want to suggest that there is a case to be made that the styles of political discourse seen in that 1933 German election (a decline into grievance- and fear-mongering, name-calling and contempt for reasoning) were comparable to those that have led to the similar looking maps of Suburban Ford Nation vs Downtown Smitherman supporters, or, in many Canadian cities, Downtown Liberals/NDP vs Suburban Conservatives. My point, really, is that an extremely divided electorate is, in aggregate, a stupid and even dangerous electorate. I hate the idea that we must fatalistically accept this situation. I believe that the major political imperative all of us face is to wrest the discourse away from sensationalist and ruthless demagogues, to find a way of acknowledging, articulating and addressing the feelings of grievance that drive many into the hands of those who are being elected on slogans rather than because of soundly-reasoned platforms. It may be infuriating that people vote that way, but they do. Mockery, however well-deserved, will not do the trick of reforming them; nor, evidently, will appeals to pure logic. Patiently reaffirming common interests in order to pull people back into some shared centre may be the best we can do.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Grotowski's lab

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to this clip from a film made in the early seventies about Jerzy Grotowski's theatre lab. Now, I realize that many, if not most people in the world, would dismiss what they see as flaky, but we who come from a theatre background are supposed to be more open-minded than that. And I've tried to be, so watch it with as much of an open mind as you can muster, and then I'll say what I think.

Okay, so here's what I think: First of all, I recognize the value to a performer of feeling expressive vitality throughout the body, but this strikes me---as a lot of Grotowski's stuff always did---as pretentious and obscurantist. "If this precision is absent, then the result is useless..." says the narrator near the end. And yet, it's not clear to me what the intended theatrical "use" of this sort of thing ever was. You could defend it by analogy with theoretical physics, I suppose, but the body is not abstract, so that argument would be straining for validity. Relevance seems a fair issue to ask about. Those hand movements resemble something encountered in Kathakali training; but absent the tradition, what would be the point of such specificity of gesture? Are we really to accept on faith that it is all preparation to convey some aracane code, "signaling through the flames" (Artaud) about some inner truth? The meaning is somehow thrown back on some vague organic feeling of rightness for the performer, but what could it communicate to the greater world? We know (v. the film "My Dinner With Andre," where Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss this at length) that Grotowski ended up turning his back on theatre and channeling his energies into a sort of quasi-religious isolated community---a cult.

Now, there have been plenty of people who have embraced cults, and who have found therein for themselves a tremendous existential sense of purposefulness. But my beef with cults is the same as my beef with any ideology: part of our life is---must be---irrational, but as soon as you exclude rational argument, doubt, and evidence from any project altogether, it becomes a vehicle for our broken, limited selves, and refuses to engage with what we might be.

Moving one's hand into a difficult and painful position can undoubtedly strengthen the hand and even the self; but I feel such acting exercises should never entirely lose communication with rationality. And when I look at this clip, I see Grotowski's lab well on its way down such a path.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Noël Coward’s Private Lives

These are the programme notes for my production of Private Lives, for Plosive Productions at the Gladstone Theatre in Ottawa, play September-October 2013.

David Whiteley and Alix Sideris in a publicity shot for Private Lives. Photo by Andrew Alexander.

“I think that very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

The critic John Lahr once declared Noël Coward’s Private Lives to be the “high-water mark” of “comedies of bad manners.” If we remove the qualification “bad” from Lahr’s memorable description, we will find that Coward’s play is joined by a couple of others, most notably Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Should that observation encourage us to look for a sensibility shared by two writers who created widely celebrated, socially astute personas within a society that rejected their sexuality, we may certainly find evidence of it in the plays. It is undoubtedly true that any society that criminalizes homosexuality must inevitably turn every gay person into a performer of some sort; a select few will become consummate performers whose personas define the style of their eras.

Rather than resting with that one insight, however, we do well to consider some of the other sources of the disengagement Coward felt ⎯ and in turn bestowed upon his characters. As suave as he seemed as a public person, Coward had known humiliating poverty before he finally knew great wealth, and this, along with his status as a “bohemian” artist and agnostic, made him highly conscious of his lack of ease amongst complacent materialist philistines and prudish Pharisees. Many if not most of his comedies are founded on such a conflict: “artistic” types discovering that they are not merely incompatible with, but weirdly incomprehensible to those who complacently identify with social conventionality.

At its darkest, Coward’s indictment of such complacency was expressed in Post Mortem, the work that is chronologically closest to Private Lives and which shows the ghost of a man killed during the Great War returning to find that in the 1930s, people apparently have learned nothing whatever from that debacle: complacency remains the greatest threat to vitality and humanity. At its lightest, of course, we have Private Lives itself, in which glib, impatient irony is the method of deflecting an awareness that might otherwise lead to bleak nihilism. Amanda and Elyot are very witty; but implicitly, “being in on” the joke means one also has to “be in on” something of the raging discontent that seethes beneath the surface of this bad-mannered comedy.

In some respects, it seems impossible to set Private Lives at any time but when Coward conceived it: between the two World Wars. And yet there is very little in the play that obstinately refers to a specific time and place. Amanda’s Paris apartment is, in some ways, out of time: a forest of Arden, an Illyria, an Athenian forest, in which nature and enchantment reveal true selves in suspended time until the clock moves on and the public world must be confronted again. And it is with that in mind that I have taken a few liberties concerning the dates of some songs I have used. It is, from that outlook, simply a dull error of chronology that Rodgers and Hart did not write Elyot and Amanda’s “theme song” ---"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," from Pal Joey (1940)--- in time for the first production of Noël Coward’s play.

Raging discontent haunts idyllic Paris. Photo by Craig Walker.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Great Gatsby

It's been years since I've read The Great Gatsby but it made such a strong impression on me at the time that it continues to haunt me in some ways. With a new feature film based on the novel about to open, there has been a renewed discussion of the book. And, inevitably, in any such discussion of a widely acknowledged classic, there will be some who claim to have discovered that the emperor has no clothes. In The Globe and Mail, books editor Jared Bland posted this article:

Why F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby is anything but great

I wrote the following in response, but since I don't anticipate that the Globe and Mail will publish this in the Letters to the Editor section, I decided to post it here as well:

Jared Bland’s claim that the “emptiness” in the style of The Great Gatsby makes it a bad book is exactly wrong. The passage that he chooses to illustrate his argument is, in fact, a perfect example of how Fitzgerald captures the maddeningly elusive texture of a life that has been founded on delusion and falsehood. Practically every image defeats the reader’s normal expectation of establishing a concrete picture of the world being described, giving us the vertiginous sensation of directly experiencing Gatsby’s existential nullity. I am reminded of those who have criticized the film Citizen Kane, claiming to have discovered something “hollow at its core.” What is hollow at the core of that film is Kane himself; what is hollow at the core of Fitzgerald’s novel is Gatsby, and both have become classics because they so perfectly capture what is hollow at the core of the American Dream.