How’s it going? I know you hear enough from me already, but I’d like to lob a few public thoughts in your direction. Hope you’ll forgive the indulgence.
I think this open-letter project of yours, where you write missives to your theatremaker peers and offer critical responses to their work, is pretty interesting but not without its problems.
It has some upsides. Last Thursday at the opening of Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia’s The Art of Building a Bunker at Factory Theatre (you admired Lazarus’s performance and the play’s excellent final third), you got into a bunch of interesting conversations that had a different tone than the usual at such functions. It was as if people expected you to tell the truth, not just be polite. That was cool.
On the flip side, several people involved with the production urged you to write about it, as a way to contribute to the conversation around the show, and that was flattering, but you also felt two discomfiting, probably inevitable things: 1) that you’d been repositioned as a bona fide “critic” in the minds of some of your peers, and 2) that your written critical perspective, which you’d hoped to offer as an alternative to criticism-as-publicity-sound-bite/product-testing-for-the-consumer, can never actually stand outside that sound-bite/product-testing-for-the-consumer process. It struck you — and how naive not to have understood this fully before — that a positive written response to an artwork, in our culture, will almost always be co-opted to try to sell the artwork.
And why shouldn’t it be? If the art is good, people should see it. We’re overwhelmed with media and “entertainment” options. Artists work hard to make their offerings stand out. That’s fine. Necessary, honourable. Why grumble about it?
You yourself have spent huge amounts of time and energy publicizing your shows. It’s one of the biggest parts of the job, when you’re in production. You know how it feels to try to attract an audience: the content of the work recedes in your mind; the task of “getting it out there,” convincing people to attend, becomes the active one; the content of the work becomes, as it never was when you felt moved to create it, a pitch. You never seem to scruple about this stuff when it’s your own art you want people to see.
That’s not the only hypocrisy your letter-writing project flirts with.
Another: you must admit that you find it incredibly difficult to honour in your own work the political commitments you’ve sometimes called for in your letters to others. You write to Richard Rose that his production of An Enemy of the People is important for the way it confronts its audience with an explicit political problem that touches their own circumstances, and so it is, perhaps. But when has your own art functioned this way? In your play The Innocents? Maybe. Debatable. When else? In your newest writing? That’s what you’re trying for, but the result remains to be seen. You know how unreliable your perspective on your work can be when you’re in the midst of it.
You’ve often tried to make art with a political motive, your plays and fictions have often started from a political consideration, but you know as well as I do that the process of revision has often revealed your work’s political gestures to be superficial. You’ve usually cut them.
You’ve almost always found that your work’s emotional logic — the intuitive logic of characters and scenes — turns out to be more convincing to you (and maybe more revealing about our political situation) than the social “points” your early drafts try to make. You’ve found that work that’s seriously interested in character tends to break down any cogent, unified political message.
What’s more, if you’re honest with yourself, you aren’t convinced that art has to be always and forever offering a radical critique of society. Life is short, there are no utopias, and pleasure is less common than TV commercials suggest. Is it really fair or responsible to devalue completely the pleasure-motive that gets people to the theatre? The desire to have a good time? Must all sex be about making babies?
The weirdest part is, it’s almost as if the act of writing these letters shifts your political commitments in these more radical, socially activist directions. On the one hand, maybe the process of writing just reveals your mind to you, reveals what you already think. On the other, what if the writing itself changes your mind? What if there’s something about writing art criticism that, by its nature, creates the desire for a radical critique to exist in the art — as if criticism wants to impose the function of criticism on art, wants to make art look like itself.
You write these letters, and sometimes this gives you the sense that you’re engaging with your community in a more intellectually honest way than you did before, but you also strongly suspect that the Need To Create has no interest in critical arguments and can’t and shouldn’t. That the Need To Create may use a political or aesthetic argument as a spur to set its human host in motion, but has always its own motives that it asserts quite independent of the artist’s intentions.
And this is amoral. And this is natural. And this is necessary.
What if the essence of the experience of art is religious more than political, and you’re advocating an art of reason when you should be advocating instead an art of pathos and joy?
What if the two are, if not mutually exclusive, in some ambiguous but roughly inverse proportion to one another?
I mean, listen, I’m not saying you should stop writing whatever you want and putting it on the Internet. It’s the Internet. Go nuts. I just thought, as a friend, I’d offer a few prods to this little project you’ve embarked on.
(Get back in the rehearsal hall soon yourself. Don’t be a wanker.)
With both platonic affection and sexual desire for you,