Avant-garde theatre: Britain has lost what little nerve it had

There’s something appealing about the term ‘avant-garde’. Perhaps because it doesn’t evoke a particular form of work. In spite of the clichés mentioned here, for me it doesn’t conjure up eyeball munching, nude dancing or a preoccupation with insulting the audience. It’s more about pushing a form to its limits, making the work you want to make and not caring what anyone else thinks. And it’s a bit retro, it conjures up different times, writers such as Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara, Alfred Jarry – performance that is obsessive and uncompromising and hard. Avant-garde theatre has sharp elbows. Ironically, the term conjures up the old, not the new. But it’s definitely better than ‘experimental’.

The discussion in the Observer by Vanessa Thorpe references recent comments by Mark Ravenhill, who is talking about the avant-garde within playwriting rather than art/theatre in general. I think it’s within the new writing theatres and playwriting that there is the biggest problem – because most writers depend on being spotted by a producing theatre or company to get their work seen. Of course theatres are rejecting brilliant avant-garde plays by unknown writers. They always have and always will. Beckett’s plays weren’t recognised until he was 47.

“I was simply left wondering how such naive tosh managed to scrape past the Court’s normally judicious play-selection committee.” Michael Billington on Blasted

Sarah Kane on Crave:  “I think of it more as a text for performance than as a play” (Kane cited in Saunders)

It was OK for Kane to say that as she was already seen as a playwright by then. But there’s a risk that if you start to say this kind of writing is not playwriting, then it gets kicked out of the canon, out of the new writing theatres and confined to devised theatre companies (who usually don’t want to work with scripts or writers anyway) and student productions. Or in Kane’s case – the rest of the world where it’s performed regularly.

Looking at Howard Barker proves that something is seriously wrong with the theatre and new writing industry in this country. I love Kane’s work, and her attitude and her writing on theatre. She is incredibly important. But as a playwright, Barker is in a different league. As Kane said – in a few hundred years he’ll be like Shakespeare. The fact that his current work is practically ignored in this country is a crime. He may be a nightmare to work with. I don’t know, never met him. But who cares? He’s the best living British playwright.

Mel Kenyon suggested that Kane couldn’t have gone further “the body of work was absolutely complete”. (About Kane: the playwright & the work)

Maybe that’s how Kane felt at the time, she wrote in 4:48 Psychosis:

How can I return to form,
now my formal thought is gone?

But I disagree with Kenyon, I think she would have kept writing and kept experimenting. She was a writer. You can go further. The worst thing about people’s attitude towards ‘avant-garde’ work is that there is some assumption that it’s all been done – so let’s get back to naturalism and story. It’s harder to do it badly.

As well as this plague of TV style naturalism there’s an obsession with story in theatre at the moment. Theatres, playwrights, competitions, everywhere, looking for writers with ‘stories to tell’. ‘Be very clear about what your story is’.

“Narrative is not destroyed by the non-linear, it is merely disguised. Disguised as something else, which is where the poetry comes in” Mac Wellman

Kane on the Bush theatre:

“If I wrote a report saying a play was absolutely dreadful, I could be pretty sure that it was going to be on in six months, and it was always to do with form”

New writing theatres are drowning in story and naturalism while there’s a drought in experimentation with form and language. Language play is seen as a distraction from character and story. Characters speaking in similar voices are seen as proof the writer doesn’t know their craft. But Kane’s don’t. Barker’s don’t. Wellman’s don’t. Churchill’s don’t. Crimp’s don’t. Beckett’s don’t. Sarah Ruhl’s don’t. Marius Von Mayenburg’s don’t. etc. – those writers use language, form, image, theatrical innovation as an integral part of writing, part of theatre, and not as something that is toyed with to the detriment of the quality of the work.

“I genuinely believe you can do anything on stage. For me the language of theatre is image” Sarah Kane

Part of the problem is in the barriers that are placed between performance art, spoken word, new writing, devised theatre, performance art, academia and ‘the real world’ (London). Artists should have a choice regarding what genre they operate within. If they say it’s a play, then it’s a play. It’s too easy to dismiss avant-garde playwriting as ‘performance writing’ or something ‘other’.

Of course avant-garde theatre has small audiences. We need smaller audiences. Peter Brook said ‘oh for empty seats’ – we need theatres and funders willing to support work that won’t reach large numbers of people in the short term. That’s the work that makes an impact in the long term.

We also need theatres, directors and actors who are able to produce the work. Work that doesn’t fit a three week rehearsal period. And into a – character motivation, character journey, what’s at stake, what’s the subtext – kind of analysis.

This tentativeness in approaching and producing avant-garde plays seems to have something to do with how directors and actors train, differences between university and drama school, a narrow therefore inbred route into London theatres and the wall erected between the work of companies such as the Wooster Group and Odin theatre (for instance) and British new writing. A bit of cross-fertilisation would be good.

In moments of desperation I do haphazard google searches:

‘linguistically innovative plays’

‘directors interested in experimental writing’

‘international playwriting’

etc. It’s pretty futile.

I emailed Mac Wellman, and he replied:

– obviously it wd be better if we cd talk in person.  Of course, doing non-naturalistic work is hard nay where; but you shd persist– one never knows; best wishes, Mac Wellman

It was nice of Mac to respond, and maybe we will talk in person some time. That’s just how it is, we’re all busy, we’re all fighting.

8 thoughts on “Avant-garde theatre: Britain has lost what little nerve it had

  1. Hi Hannah,

    Very interesting what you write about the avant-garde. I’ve been thinking a lot about the avant-garde these days and what/how one can participate in an avant-garde that is also relevant to society and/or not hermetic and self-obsessed. I think Opposition is actually a great realisation of that: being both structurally radical and politically engaged.

    For my own work, I’m interested in what an operatic avant-garde could be — particularly since there is a long history of avant-gardism in music which, for the most part of the twentieth century, was coupled with an anti-audience ideology, bordering on the totalitarian. I’m often caught between my desire for something to be radical or difficult or avant-garde and my desire for the pleasurable — not a desire for something to be “pleasant”, but a realisation that some forms are physically satisfying, and that that satisfaction is not in itself shameful.

    I think the most challenging (and interesting) thing is to make avant-garde work that is still accessible in some way. The desire is often to make work that is challenging and uncompromising (as you say yourself) but I do think that sometimes difficulty and opacity are misunderstood to be ends in themselves. It’s always hard to find the balance between work that is difficult (and necessarily accessible to only a few) and work that is accessible to many (and necessarily not particularly difficult).


  2. Hey Patrick,
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Yes – the issue of difficult/accessible/audience is a tricky one.
    And maybe the question of avant-garde opera is even harder to talk about, shall do that another time!

    I think…. when I say above ‘not care what anyone thinks’ that doesn’t mean ‘not give a shit about the audience’ , it perhaps doesn’t refer to the audience specifically, but is the kind of mentality that is necessary when it comes to making work. The importance of not self-censoring before you even begin. Maybe this is a tricky statement to make, I’ll give it a go anyway – I think, real artists are not able to compromise.

    However, all good (real? -tricky word) artists, theatre makers, directors, writers etc, think about their audiences. That’s part of the work. We all want different responses from audiences because we are all making different work. I want an emotional, instinctual response to my play ‘Hunger’ (not produced yet) whereas with ‘Opposition’ I want laughter, and also an intellectual response that happens after the play, when the audience goes home and switches on the news.

    I don’t think about work as being ‘difficult’. I make the work I have to make. When I watched Howard Barker’s Blok/Eko, I wasn’t thinking about it intellectually at all, I didn’t follow the story and my critique on this blog is woefully uninformed, I was just absolutely bowled over by the sound of the language. Watching it, to me it was accessible, it was incredible, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know my Greek poets. I think this work could appeal to larger audiences than is given credit. Audiences shouldn’t be underestimated. I don’t suppose it can ever be described as ‘accessible’. But I certainly found it ‘pleasurable’. Surely we all want pleasure from the theatre?

    What I don’t want is just to think: that was good, that was nice, entertaining, well acted, well directed, well written…..and then forgotten.

    I want to be bowled over, shocked (not in a swear word/nudity kind of way, who does that shock these days anyway?) – but in a – the world is not how I thought it- way….

    I want to get lost in the work, I want to lose my breath, I want a physical response. I want to be changed by the experience…

  3. “Beckett’s plays weren’t recognised until he was 47”

    Perhaps because his first viable play, “Waiting Godot”, wasn’t written until he was 46.

  4. Hi James,
    Thanks for reading and commenting.
    I believe his novel ‘Murphy’ was rejected by over 40 publishers, and ‘Waiting for Godot’, written in 1952 did the rounds before it found Roger Blin, and then took some time before it got the recognition it deserved. In fact Beckett was over 50 and the U.S critics still didn’t get it. After the London showing the reviewer Marya Mannes commented ‘I doubt whether I have seen a worse play. ‘ It took years. I hope that work these days has the same opportunity.
    Thanks again.

  5. Hi Hannah,
    I got here via a reference on the Guardian theatre blog and I’m so pleased I found you – this piece is really inspiring and heartening. I’ve been struggling with the pressure to shoehorn my theatre writing into story and character (and that’s without people still banging on about structures that date back to 19th-century ideas of the well-made play,,,) but I’m starting to realise that what I really want to do is stretch/deform/play with language. I’ve worked with devising/physical/dance theatre companies but as you say, they’re often quite wary of working with text, or don’t know what to do with it. I’m reading Gertrude Stein’s plays at the moment – any thoughts? She’s my latest hero, and it seems to me she belongs firmly in your canon of avant-garde writers, if you can have such a paradoxical thing. I think the whole idea of avant-garde/radical/experimental art is problematic in a hyper-consumerist society where everything new or against the current is swiftly picked up and absorbed by the mainstream so it can be sold back to us as a music video or a viral marketing campaign – maybe that’s a whole ‘nuther debate…

  6. Hi Debbie,
    Thanks for your comment and for reading.
    I’m glad you find it heartening. I guess all we can do is try to hearten each other by getting together to say the same things!

    I’ve also been told by a theatre that the only way they’ll put a play of mine on is if I write something ‘naturalistic’. But of course they don’t want a debate on what ‘naturalism’ is. – See George Hunka’s blog for a good discussion of that…

    I went through that experience of breaking down what I would write, scene by scene, got it approved, sat down to write ….and was bored, I just couldn’t do it, there was no way of bridging the enormous gap that had been set up between the theoretical idea of the play and the intuition needed in the actual writing process. I’m not saying planning an idea and having a sense of structure and scenes before you start writing never works – it’s working for me now with a radio play – but imposing restrictions on the writer in terms of style and voice is just crippling.

    I started out working with text and dancers while I was studying choreography, and have done lots of devised and physical theatre etc, writing in that environment is exciting. There is definitely potential for writers to get more of a role there, but yes, it’s tricky, and it’d be nice to be allowed to just write a play.

    I like Gertrude Stein because she questioned everything. Punctuation, grammar, meaning, everything. Composers who work with texts often use her stuff as it’s so musical and lends itself to composition – Heiner Geobells: http://www.heinergoebbels.com/ for instance.

    Well made plays tied up with a bow are boring. I’m not really in a position to give advice in terms of playwrighting as my plays are yet to be produced (I’m working on it) but anyway, I say – ignore those people who are telling you how to write. Don’t force your writing into a prescribed form and style. Then either keep knocking on the doors for years until someone is willing to take a risk on your work or find a way to produce it yourself…

    ‘I think the whole idea of avant-garde/radical/experimental art is problematic in a hyper-consumerist society where everything new or against the current is swiftly picked up and absorbed by the mainstream’

    – yes, true in a way. But I doubt our work will be absorbed by the mainstream anytime soon, it’s not something I worry about!

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