The Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture
Delivered at the Merlyn theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne.
It’s a genuine honour to be asked to deliver this lecture and I thank the Malthouse for the invitation. But I must admit that I’m rather nervous about delivering it. I spend most of my days writing things that are meant to be said; but I never have to say them myself. I hide inside the voices of the actors. I suffer a kind of vicarious stage fright. Now I’ve got the real thing. But I’ll try to be brave.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews (13 . 2)
We must not fall into the error . . . of judging a people by the politicians who happen to be in power.
Rex Cramphorn was someone that I never knew. I never saw any of his work. That meeting simply didn’t happen. I heard of him, of course, from actors who were inspired by working with him and from people who had seen his productions and couldn’t forget them. But no, I wasn’t there; and I’m certain that I’m the poorer for not having experienced his work. That’s the thing about theatre: you have to experience it, you have to be there when it happens.
Of course Rex Cramphorn’s ideas, his vision of the theatre, still exist. But you won’t necessarily find these things written down in books. You might be more likely to find them in the way that an actor moves on stage, in the way in which an ensemble chooses to work together or in the attitude of a director towards a text. Rex Cramphorn’s work as a director continues, transmitted through the work of those he influenced. He is still there when it happens.
This is not unusual in the theatre; the living always share the stage with the dead. Because the theatre is a place of both memory and presence.
In the Kabuki theatre of Japan, an actor can be given the name of a famous predecessor. This is considered a great honour and is celebrated by a special performance, a shumei. In this way, Kabuki actors’ names are handed down from generation to generation. The actor who takes on the name of an illustrious predecessor also takes on a responsibility; he is keeping alive the work of that predecessor, and his own work will be judged in the light of his predecessor’s achievements.
Throughout the performance of a Kabuki play that I attended last year in Tokyo, the audience voiced their approval of an actor’s work by shouting his name. This happened several times during the play, whenever the actor (playing the lead role in a traditional, well known play) did something that demonstrated his skill, his command of the stage, his courage, his energy. The name they were shouting – Kanzaburo – had been recently given to the actor; he was Kanzaburo XVIII. The name was generations old. Each time his name was shouted a palpable thrill went through the audience. This joy, this excitement was generated not only by what was happening on stage, but by what had happened before, perhaps generations ago, when a previous Kanzaburo had graced the stage, delighting the audience. It was an extraordinary experience.
Here in Australia, we are a little more reticent in our expressions of approval of an actor’s performance. But for me, every Sally Banner that appears on the stage with a clap of thunder carries with her the memories of all the Sallys that have stood in The Chapel Perilous before her. When Sonya promises Vanya that the two of them will one day find rest from their labours, she is speaking with and for the generations of Sonyas that have despaired and loved and hoped. She is a new Sonya, a different one, but she is the same.
I may seem to be confusing the actor with the role she plays. They are of course different things. Sally Banner was imagined and created by Dorothy Hewett: she is a character out of literature. But she is also a character of the theatre. Theatre has its own language, of which literature is an important part. But that language is not limited to literature. As Jean Cocteau once stated, he was dead against poetry in the theatre, but all for a poetry of the theatre.
Theatre is not merely the recitation of a given text. For Sonya’s words to move us she must be embodied by the actor playing her, she must live and breathe on the stage. When we remember a Sonya we have seen we remember two things: the character created by Chekhov and the actor who played her, who took on the burdens of her grief and the radiance of her hopes, whose voice trembled with love or despair, who touched the hand of Vanya to comfort him.
We have on the one hand, the permanence of Chekhov’s creation, the text, and on the other we have its ephemeral manifestation, the performance of the actor. One is fixed in time, the other is, as it were, sculpted out of time: each moment is created in front of us in time and space, never to be repeated in exactly the same way, never able to be captured except by what about it persists in the memory, which can never be the entirety of the performance, but only those moments, those gestures, that certain rise and fall of the voice that touch us deeply enough to be retained within our hearts. And Chekhov is there when that happens.
We can in fact perceive two views of history in this situation: one that is the guardian of the past and speaks of the changeless; the other that speaks of constant impermanence and never ceasing change.
The first kind of history is one that a state might like to write for itself (a clear narrative of its achievements) because it is almost invariably a history that confers power on those who write it, it confirms their permanent place in the world; it is a history of the supposedly inevitable. It is a history of the powerful for the powerful.
The second kind of history is a constant reminder of our ephemerality, it is a history that embraces our mortality. It cannot confer nor confirm power. It is a history in which all human beings are equally fragile. Or comic. Or guilty. Or lost.
I am chiefly interested in the kind of theatre that embraces change and is a reminder of our mortality; theatre that does not confirm power, but rather admits fragility, acknowledges failure, that recognizes tragedy and is disrespectful enough to create comedy. That’s the theatre that I keep imagining and that I write for. I write for it in order to create it. A playwright must do this; the play that he or she writes is always a new proposal for the theatre. It is an imaginative act that suggests something beyond the play itself and contains the possibility for new forms of theatre. It does this because the content of a play demands the clearest expression possible. This clarity is necessary because of the nature of the theatre event itself: it is ephemeral. It happens before our eyes and then it is gone. The performance of a play must present its comedy, its tragedy, its life, in the time during which it is created on stage in front of the audience. It can do nothing else. Each time it does this, it is particular, it is unique; in this it is theatre created anew, and within that fact lies the possibility of a new kind of theatre. At least this is what I imagine. I imagine the kind of theatre where it might be possible to capture what is immanent or nascent in a society and not only that which already exists in apparent permanence; it might confront unpleasant memories, it might stare catastrophe in the face and not be afraid, it might take arms against a sea of troubles, it might find secret joys buried in the solid walls of a joyless conformity, it might scratch words in a diary that must not be kept, or be the place where a man transformed into a beetle might lament his fate. It might be wilful and perhaps mutinous. It might be the kind of theatre that asks difficult questions or makes remarkable promises; the kind of theatre that does not forget the past, yet refuses to accept the lie of permanence created by those who demand the ownership of power.
It seems to me that at present the powerful have very little to teach us, except how to cope with their failures and crimes, and absolutely nothing to teach the future.
I am of course assuming that I’m speaking to the powerless. I assume this because I am standing in a theatre. To step into a theatre is to accept a certain kind of equality. The actors on stage and the audience in the stalls are each the master of one another, each the servant. For a short time, the audience places their fate, metaphorically at least, into the hands of the actors, who in turn do the same; their fate also depends on the audience. Both the audience and the actors are about to go on a small journey together. When the play sets sail, everyone on board hopes for a good outcome, that when the curtain falls they will have landed on a distant shore richer for their journey together. When the actors bow in thanks at the end of a play, the applause that they receive is the applause of equals, which is the most meaningful kind of all.
A theatre, for me, is a kind of common, an open space, a town square, circle of stones. Here is where we gather, to discuss the day’s news, to share our gossip, to hatch our plots, to lament, to celebrate, to be idle, to display ourselves, to remember, to dream and to demand; an empty space that offers a freedom available to all.
If we are to defend our right to this empty space, and I think that, unfortunately, we need to, then we must be clear about what we are defending, what we are demanding.
When a place like La Mama Theatre is under threat of losing its federal funding, you know that something is drastically wrong. The threat that hangs over it is an act of corporate vandalism disguised as cultural restructuring; in other words, it’s cost cutting which demonstrates an ignorance of La Mama’s fundamental importance to Melbourne theatre, and a prejudice against any act of theatre that cannot be treated as a commodity. La Mama is the very embodiment of that democratic public space that theatre can be; it central focus is on the making of theatre, on creating those ephemeral constructions of desire that theatre artists are determined to make. La Mama doesn’t have a ‘house style’. It isn’t restricted to any one type of event. It thrives on difference, as all democracies do; that’s how they both sustain and renew themselves.
It is not nostalgia for what La Mama has achieved in the past that fuels the anger over its current uncertain position; it is the outrage felt by people who consider the act of making, of all kinds, the crucial thing.
To make is to manifest a possibility; to propose a different arrangement of reality, to introduce the never before into what has always been, to stretch the imagination. It’s a disturbance. There was theatre before Hibberd’s Monk O’Neill. Since he crawled on stage on all fours, Australian theatre hasn’t been the same. There was theatre before Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, that unnerving black diamond that cuts to the spiritual quick. That play changed the theatrical landscape. To make these things, to make anything for the theatre, requires labour and skill; these things are born out of anger, or joy, or love or despair. And it’s their making that matters. Especially now, in a time when we seem to be surrounded by destruction, the urge to make, to add to the world’s store of beauty rather than to reduce it, whether that beauty makes us weep or laugh, seems to me of terrible urgency and importance.
What do we want to make? Why do we want to make it? Since human beings tumbled into consciousness from silent hunger and sleep we have told stories, sung songs, lamented our losses and celebrated or loves. We have done these useless things whose only purpose is to make us more aware of who we are, to console us beneath the void of eternity, to bring us joys difficult to name but without which we would be adrift on the sea of existence without understanding its depth, its dangers or its beauty.
We crave to know who we are and what it is possible for us to be. But we must be prepared for the possibility that the answers to these questions may be further questions, ambiguities and inscrutable puzzles. We may have to welcome unanswerable questions, and love the beauty that refuses to flatter us.
I have never believed that theatre is merely a mirror held up to society, as if its sole purpose was to satisfy some monstrous vanity in the audience, as if its only justification was that it show us what we already know or are prepared to accept about ourselves. If this was its only purpose it could never really question, never actually oppose, never openly suggest an alternative to what already exists; it could never offer anything new; it would be safe. It would be culture’s Fast Food. It would be deadly. It would almost invariably be a narrow and nationalistic reflection, trapped within its borders both real and fearfully imagined, unable to admit difference and forever wary of strangers.
On the other hand, the theatre might be considered a lens through which certain propositions can be observed, propositions about reality; a place where a negotiation takes place, between everyday perceptions and imagination, between what obvious and what is hidden; between what has been forgotten and what persists in the memory, between fear and recognition. It would be a place without borders, that welcomed strangers without fear, a place where a truth could be told that was not the accepted truth. It could offer alternatives.
It could be a place of wilful, mutinous separation, which is the meaning of the Latin word seditio, which is the root of the word sedition.
This possible theatre that I am suggesting does not depend only on the courage and skill of writers. Writers, when they enter the theatre, and they must enter it, must learn how it works, and how it may fail, must enter it humbly. Their texts, those marks made on the blank field of paper that they face each day, are only where theatre begins. Their texts are not where theatre ends.
To create theatre is to practice an art that is always pragmatic, always collaborative. It requires people, time, money. It has to be made from what is available. And the people making it must eat, they will probably argue, they need to take a piss, they have forgotten their lines, they arrive late, they have personal problems, they have lost their wallet, they don’t understand the designer’s drawings, they think the writer has made a mistake, they smoke in the stairwell, they refuse to change a line of the text, they are worried that people won’t come to the performance, they are tired, they are terrified when they realise that the play opens next Thursday. More often than not, they get there in the end. The audience take their seats, thinking everything is under control. The lights go down. The stage is lit. The audience place a couple of hours of their lives in the hands of the artists who have made something that they want the audience to see.
I think that’s a completely wonderful thing, a very particular and very human meeting of risk and certainty, of labour and hope. It’s all a little bit uncertain, but it can often be a beautiful occasion. You have to be there when it happens.
But no, the theatre is not a museum that merely preserves the labour of writers. Theatre can be created without writers. Anyone who writes for the theatre should understand that, and it should be both a warning and an invitation. What they write should be something impossible to achieve without them. Because the theatre is a place of extremes. Something has to happen in the theatre that cannot happen anywhere else and at no other time. That’s why the audience comes to the theatre in the first place.
To write for the theatre is a task that is imprisoned by the theatre’s technical limitations and illuminated by its metaphorical possibilities. Language might be able to sing in the theatre, but it cannot explain; explanations are too slow. Theatre has no footnotes. In the theatre, language must happen, it must be an event. To quote Jean Cocteau again: it must be like the rigging of a great ship, visible from a distance.
To write for the theatre requires a shipbuilder’s skill and a poet’s imagination.
Theatre is not an artefact, not a dead thing on display. It is not a pork chop or a pop-up toaster, It is not, and can never be honestly considered to be the product of any that you might call an industry. It is too chaotic, and too insistent on its chaos, too individual and all too human. It depends on chaos. Industry depends on the opposite. As Baudelaire once famously said: a poem must be a debacle of the intellect. An act of theatre is a poem. The initial impact of a poem is never on the intellect. It isn’t something that needs to be wrestled into submission before you can admit to understanding it. It’s something that you have to experience before you can possibly comprehend it. Perhaps it’s like love, but who would dare say that? Theatre can do very similar things to poetry; it can disturb our vision of the world, it can happily disappoint the literalists, and it can confound the critics (as it often does) who understand theatre as nothing more than the evidence of social engineering, as merely a reaction rather than a creation. Theatre can drag us into the funny or the tragic worlds of imaginary people; people who may be so unlike us that it is impossible to say that they are not the same as us. Theatre can be disturbing in that way. It can brighten the path through the darkness of conformity and fear that has been so carefully laid out for us, that reduces us to predictable numbers. Neither comfortable nor relaxed, theatre can be quite frantic; alert and also very alarmed. It can be quite dangerous, seditious in fact; wilfully mutinous, suggesting a separation from the accepted norm. It can offer another way of looking at things. Perhaps.
In Australia, a few centuries ago, artists of all kinds swallowed the then current notion of the arts being an ‘industry’ they were employed in, rather than something that they freely practiced. It was a very bad mistake. It allowed the powers that be to treat the arts as a product of society’s labour rather than an expression of society’s desires. Desires make no profit. They cannot be entered in the ledger; they are neither debit nor credit. And they may be wilful, they may disagree with the truth chosen by the powerful as the only truth.
Of course it costs money to make theatre. The money spent to create it is always in the form of a wager, a risk. Basically, will people turn up? Will tickets be sold? I think it’s always a risk worth taking. But of course I would think that. A percentage of the money a play earns puts food on my table.
It’s also possible to think of the money spent on the creation of theatre as an investment, not in material things, and without the expectation of a material return. There are certain things within a society whose solvency, whose sustainability, are questions of spirit and not of finance. Their profit might be a deeper understanding of compassion, a small hope generated, a truth better understood or a grief or a love more lightly borne. These kinds of things have no material value, they won’t make headlines, they can’t be accounted for. But to quote William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
While arts funding consistently remains at the absolute bare minimum required to sustain an at least credible amount of artistic activity, corporate fundamentalists seem to be deciding the policies that govern those activities. It almost seems as if they are actively opposed to them; they are the appointed receivers to the governments cultural and moral bankruptcy. That democratic public space that the theatre represents must always return a profit. It is a profit not defined in human terms. Humans are too chaotic. Humans are too unreliable; they insist on remembering, they insist on telling stories and singing songs, on doing useless things, they insist on counting their dead.
I’m being theatrical, yes. I’m exaggerating, yes. I have even on occasion, I admit, stooped to using metaphors, which are a wilful and mutinous separation from the accepted or imposed reality. So they may soon be banned, I’m sure of it. Yes, I’m being mutinous. I’m poking fun. I’m having the time of my life. And I’m quite serious about all of it. I’m making the riggings of a ship, one that I think should set sail as soon as possible. I’m being naïve. I’m wishing for things to be as they were, when Australia was a different place, before we were needlessly involved in wars of aggression, when we had a union movement that could defend the rights of workers, when student unions were empowered to defend and express the rights and desires of students, when we didn’t turn away the refugees that came to us, when we didn’t allow shiploads of desperate people to drown off our coastline, when past wrongs were admitted and we were graced with forgiveness, when their spiritual birthrights were restored to our indigenous peoples, when we defended the rights of our citizens imprisoned by foreign governments, when we didn’t foster and support corruption to ensure our balance of trade, when we lived in a country whose reality wasn’t created solely by current political reality but by the unchanging reality of its citizens’ desires, when we didn’t live in the shadow of fears created to enslave us but faced the fears that actually existed with courage and determination.
When was that? you might ask. It was never really. It was in an imaginary time, when we were lost in the myth of ourselves, guided by aspirations, not driven by fears. With respect to indigenous peoples, it was a time of dreaming, when we were making our world, not dismantling it to fit the moment’s political contingencies or the market’s greed. It was a dream.
This notion of dreaming is crucial to the theatre. The theatre is where we come to dream in public. None of us can decide what we dream. But here in this room is where what is unconscious, collectively and individually, can be made visible, can be heard, can frighten or delight us, can remind us of our hidden griefs or awaken our secret joys. Here the mysterious is made welcome, here the stranger in us all can be embraced.
Against this possibility is the growing pressure to conform; to all dream the same dream. From school children being required to salute the flag (flying from a government approved ‘working’ flagpole) to citizenship tests that propose to measure the patriotism of those seeking to make their lives here, this pressure to conform is driven, as it is always driven, by fear, fear of the stranger, the outsider, the other.
That common ground I mentioned is being classified ‘Australians Only’ while the definition of what it means to be an Australian grows narrower and narrower.
Those appalling bumper stickers of the Australian flag with the words ‘love it or leave it’ printed beside it might as well say ‘Big Brother is watching you’. I’m talking about Orwell’s Big Brother, not a television show. Both ‘love it or leave it’ and ‘Big Brother is watching’ carry the same threat: you must conform. To criticize is to do so at your peril.
You cannot tell human beings what to love; but you can teach them what to hate.
That town square that I mentioned can also be a place where people are ridiculed, where difference might lead to violence, where the worst instincts of human beings can be unleashed.
But on that town square, I believe that our differences can unite us. We are, most of us, a nation of immigrants, of boat people. We walk on land that has been held sacred by peoples who have been wiser and perhaps gentler than we late comers in their care of it. Now they too are often treated as strangers, refugees on their own soil.
It is difference that unites us; not differences of nationality, which are ultimately superficial, but our individual differences, which are obvious and infinite. In the theatre, perhaps more than in any other place, it is possible to celebrate difference, to honour it with our labour and our attention.
I wrote some parts of this lecture sitting under a tree on the banks of the Yarra. While doing this I understood, not for the first time, but with a new clarity, how much I love this city where I was born. This feeling was all the stronger because I also began to understand how much I demand from it, how much I want it to give me. Freedom, certainly, and peace; a safe home for my family. And I want it to be brave. I want its artists to be courageous in their endeavours, fearing no failure but failure of heart, I want audiences to be open and curious; not uncritical, but willing to take risks. I want these things because I think they are possible here. They are difficult as well, of course, and sometimes bloody impossible. But even failure can be useful. Success, after all, teaches us nothing. I want this city I live in to not be afraid of difference, to welcome strangers so that it might perhaps be blessed by angels. Because there are as many kinds of theatre as there are people determined to make it. That’s what’s astonishing about it. And the only thing that keeps theatre alive is curiosity, curiosity and hunger, a hunger to see, to know what lies just outside our everyday experience, what lingers just beyond our reach. The immense sadness of existence or perhaps its exhilarating possibilities.
This public space I keep talking about, is an open invitation to participate in the life of a society, and it is crucial for a particular reason; it creates in the mind and the heart of the person who uses it the ideas of freedom and belonging. This freedom is what Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 risked everything to have. It was this space inside that Winston was desperate for; a place where he could know that 2 + 2 = 4, that war was not peace, where he could be free to be, if he had to be, a minority of one.
I have to confess, yes, this late in the piece, that I’m never happy theorising, talking in abstracts. It’s out of my depth. My correct depth is just under the skin of the characters I invent. I don’t mean that I hide beneath their skin (although of course I do) but rather that I abide there for a while. I inhabit their world and they inhabit mine. It is a peculiar symbiosis that I cannot exactly explain. But while I am writing a play, the characters in it become my companions for a time, sometimes for only a few weeks, sometimes for months. Once the play is finished, we part. I will never experience their presence again, not in the same way as I did during their creation. Once a play is finished, the characters in it no longer belong to me. They exist, there on the page, waiting for the breath and the body of an actor to bring them to life. I meet them again when they are on the stage. They are old friends of mine; they have changed, they are no longer as I imagined them, and they can never be. They exist for an audience in a form which is never the form in which they existed for me. In this there is a loss, a certain grief, but there is also much more than this. There is the knowledge that they are free of me, that they have escaped my perceptions of them; now they belong to the actors who play them and to the audience which witnesses them. They will remain in the actor’s memory of his or her performance. They will remain in the memories of certain members of the audience perhaps. By others they will be forgotten. That’s as it should be. No one is obliged to like, to understand, to feel compassion for or to be amused by the characters that I invent. They are offered to the audience in the hope that they will be embraced by the kindness of strangers, that they will add something to the sum of an audience member’s experience, that they will seem to be real. It is all seeming to be in the theatre, it is all pretending, all illusion. These things are, for me, necessary things. They are the beautiful and unique collusion of the real and the imagined, and sometimes of the wished for and the lost.
The stage is always shared by the living and the dead. We are everything the dead are not. We are what is for them impossible. They are, for us, what is inevitable. The impossible. The inevitable. Yes, that’s what I mean about theatre. Theatre is what connects these two things; theatre is where our lives are stretched tight across this gap, a gap as narrow as a fingernail, as broad as an ocean. And when our lives are struck, by the footfall of an actor, or by the applause of an audience, it makes a sound ‘like the distant sound of a string breaking, as if in the sky, a dying melancholy sound’ as happens at the end of a comedy both sad and funny.
Yes, Chekhov again. I don’t know why I return to him so often, but I find myself constantly doing so. He called The Cherry Orchard a comedy; perhaps because, like Oscar Wilde, he thought life too important to take seriously.
As a theatre artist I know the importance of collaboration. I know what it demands, which is always too much; and why it fails; because it demands the wrong things. I have been mostly fortunate in my collaborations. Those that have not worked have been painful, as failure always is. The guiding principal behind collaborations that succeed must be that each person involved works alone, but in the company of others. This is a delicate balance to strike. It depends on the acknowledgement and the active encouragement of difference, a constant insistence on retaining the integrity of the individual.
It is this integrity that must be defended, this right for the individual to speak his or her mind, to make what she will make, to respond as he will to the beauty or the tragedy of our lives.
I think that in Melbourne theatre at the moment a generational change is taking place, a shifting of the cultural plates. This is as it should be. New theatre artists are emerging who are articulate, dedicated and skilled; their references are broad, their practice ambitious. Many of them have been nurtured by artists who have been marginalised, who have had to wait for this new generation to confirm the boldness of their original work. These new artists are driven by curiosity and a hunger for new forms. They are not caged in the trap of parochialism. They are immediate and local, their work happens here, now. But their work is also larger than that. They are not simply reflecting the current state of this particular society, as if theatre’s only justification was that it be a record of social conditions and attitudes in the society in which it was created. If it were only that it would be nothing more than a kind of journalistic panto, whose only value would be as a reminder, a reference to something more important. Theatre itself is important, it is more than the sum of its parts, it expresses more than the current state of affairs (which of course it may do, which may be what it does necessarily, no matter what form it takes). To think of the theatre only as a kind of litmus paper dipped into the soup of society is too crude and too narrow a view. There are of course plays that do nothing more than repeat what can be read in a newspaper, or record what dinner guests spoke about over their crab claws and dry white. These are the deadly plays that have been boring audiences stupid for a long time, or stroking the vanity of those it apes, eliciting the hollow laughter of identification without the shock of recognition.
But Melbourne’s theatre culture grows far richer than that. The pity seems to be that the companies and individuals who make it rich grow poorer. As theatre practitioners become more skilled, more ambitious and daring, their capacity to realize their work diminishes. In real terms, there has been a fall of 24% in Federal funding for small to middle size theatre companies since 1998. As one thing grows, the other shrinks, as if there is a limit to how much creative energy there is allowed to be.
Of course, if you train artists to be articulate, then you create the possibility of articulate dissent. I keep coming back to this idea of dissent. I keep coming back to it because I cannot avoid it.
I approached the writing of this lecture as I approach all of my work: with a blank sheet of paper. I decided nothing before I sat down to write. I wanted to see what emerged, and I would follow that. I had to trust myself. I have been working in the theatre and thinking about the theatre for almost thirty years. But I seldom speak about it; I don’t make statements. This lecture was a chance to make a statement, but I wanted that statement to emerge from what had accumulated in my thought, what rose to the surface, what seemed necessary to say.
I suppose that I hoped to talk about what is brilliant and brave and essential about theatre, but I kept worrying about attitudes that seem determined to stifle these things; that is, that are determined to stamp out difference. I kept coming up against the fear of dissent, as if this society was so fragile that it cannot be questioned, as if our culture was so weak it cannot be challenged, as if the artistic forms that now exists cannot admit the creation of new forms. All of this is about fear.
The sedition laws are laws created by fear. Any law that is created by fear is a dangerous law, and it will create more fear. But perhaps that’s the point: if people are kept afraid then they are kept quiet, they are kept in their place, they will offer no threat to the powers that have created that fear. There will be no need to censor them; they will censor themselves.
That is the real danger of the sedition laws. If it is unlikely that artists will be prosecuted under those laws, it is almost certain that they will be too afraid to test them.
The sedition laws fall over the arts as a whole like a terrible shadow. Their purpose is too vague to allow us any comfort. No one is safe from them, especially people who support and create difference.
There are those who insist that there is such a thing as a ‘central culture of our time’. The films of Antonioni for example, or the music of Brahms. These things exist, yes, and they are vibrant, they speak clearly and strongly, they have meaning. They are also secured safely in the past; because they have been chained there by those who insist that culture is fixed and unchanging, challenges nothing, and that it is part of a clear narrative of achievement. But when these things were first made, this film, this music, they were quite different to what had gone before. They created unease. They were perhaps considered mutinous, they were not well received in some circles. Their life in the present can be either as cultural monuments, objects of a fetish blind to their context, unchanging ossified artefacts existing only to delight collectors of such cultural commodities, or they can be rediscovered in the light of what they have made possible, in the radiance of those things created by their rude inheritors. The suggestion that anything that exists outside of these permanent manifestations of a ‘central culture’ is to be considered marginal, is to deny the arts their life and to set culture in concrete. I don’t particularly want to live in a museum, or in a prison, no matter how interesting the bars might be. I don’t want to be that safe. I don’t want cultural policemen guarding the cell of my experience. I don’t think that new artists and the forms that they create, with all of their disruptions and frankly disturbing ideas, should be locked in a box labelled marginal. Or seditious.
What an artist is always trying to do is to make something that has never been made before; and as Alberto Giacometti once said ‘that it succeeds, that it fails, after all, is secondary’.
Those who make can’t be ignored, safely or otherwise. Because they are very stubborn people.
It is the making that matters. The making of new stories, the retelling and reinterpreting of old ones, the bringing into the light, out of the shadows of the old forms, new ways of seeing the world, other perspectives, new blessings and gifts. We must try to be open to these things, we must be ready to embrace them if they move us, to question them if they ensnare us in the traps of false security or the lies of power. We must ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’. Both makers of theatre and those who choose to witness it. Now is the time to be brave, to make what we will, to respond as out hearts tell us to, freely and without fear. It is the time to insist on our right to that common space, that town square, that circle of stones where each of us may arrive as we are, not as we must be, where we can show our faces to each other without fear or shame masking them; it is time for a theatre of difference.
To quote Les Murray, from his poem, The Breach:
now I’ve said my ideals
And to close, again with something from Mister Chekhov, who still sits in my heart, not as a reminder of the past, but as an urge to continue breaking the rules that he created by breaking the rules that he encountered:
It’s Nina speaking, approaching the end of The Seagull. She says:
‘In what we do – whether we act on the stage or write – the most important thing isn’t fame or glory or anything I used to dream about – but the ability to endure. To know how to bear your cross and have faith. I have faith, and my pain is less, and when I think about my vocation I’m not afraid of life.’