On Doubt

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“Christmas Morning,” Andrew Wyeth (1944)

Zadie Smith’s essays are so great. They’re collected in a book called Changing My Mind, a phrase that beautifully captures the tentative quality of the essay form: a literary gamble, an attempt, child of the French word essayer, “to try.” I’ve spent a year and a half essaying, on this website and sometimes elsewhere, and I’ve never changed my mind so often or been so full of doubt.

In the spring of 2014, I launched a dangerous little experiment on this inch of online real estate: I began to write long-form critical essays about dramatic art and mainly about the work of my own theatre community in Toronto. Soon after I started the project, I decided to package those essays as open letters to the theatre artists about whom I wrote, with the guiding principle that I’d include in the essays only such thoughts as I might otherwise share with those artists directly and privately — over e-mail, say. The letters would be overheard speech, governed by roughly the same social rules, the same codes of omission and inclusion, that mark any frank but respectful conversation with a peer.

Though the initial public reaction to the project was largely positive, in the spring of 2015, almost exactly a year in, it received a fundamental critique from a local artist who argued that it, and I, as a straight white man, take up too much space in the Canadian theatre landscape. That critique, which took the form of a discussion of the aesthetics and ethics of one of my own plays, positioned me at a distinct point along a spectrum of ideas about the politics of identity. The critique staked out political territory, drew a line, and located me on the other side of it. To be fair, it did invite me to reform my views and switch camps. But in the process it established, by implication, that there were camps, and that I was, at least for the moment, in the wrong one.

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