CRITIC WATCH *sigh* Peter Craven

14/10/2009 at 11:53 am Leave a comment

Peter Craven and The Trouble With Post-Modern Tinkering
National Times, 30/9/09

I am a little late to the party on this, having been distracted by an excess of fringe events across NSW, the likes of which might cause Craven to shrivel at the sheer horror of their experimentalism. I feel the various responses from Alison Croggan and (to a more hilarious extent) The Perf are a fair summary in their rolled-eye disdain for the general well of cluelessness that Craven dips his pen into. However there’s just a couple of things I would like to add in condemnation of someone who has clearly missed out on some of the more basic lessons in theatre history.

Craven talks as if he knows about Realism. He talks as if it is the same as Naturalism. He talks as if Realism, Naturalism and ‘Traditional’ theatre are all of the same piece. This is simply so misguided that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let me spell it out:

Realism is a particular theatrical niche borne of the late 19th Century in Northern Europe. It was probably the most experimental, cutting edge movement for over a hundred years and traditionalists of the day took umbrage at the works of Ibsen – who brought a precursor to modernism and influenced everyone from Chekov to Dennis Hopper. So you can’t talk about a ‘traditional theatre’ as if it only applies to Realism and expect to be taken seriously. I might expect similar essays were published in Northern Europe by the Peter Cravens of 1879: “The trouble with theatre is these directors who feel they are above Melodrama’.

Naturalism, on the other hand is a term used to describe an even more niche category of theatre seeking to depict ‘real-life’ as accurately as possible, without the contrivances and symbolism inherent in the work of Ibsen and his acolytes. It’s probably one of the least successful theatre movements in that respect (due to the lack of conventional ‘drama’ audiences love) – however the term also encompasses a style of performance that is hugely influential across film and theatre -in particular the method as popularised in the United States – developed from the work of Stanislavski in the Moscow Art Theatre in such cutting edge productions of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness in 1902. Stanislavski himself talks about the key distinctions between Realism and Naturalism in his autobiography – but that is perhaps a subject for another day.

When Craven talks of a ‘theatre that needs emotional truth’ he’s talking about this approach to acting. He neglects to mention that it is quite feasible for actors to bring emotional truth to their work in the context of any style of production, be it War of The Roses Epic Theatre or the latest David Williamson crowd-pleaser. Such is the power of Stanislavski’s system that it translates across genres – it is because of the emotional truth that the work of Beckett or Ionesco can herald such impact. If Craven was anywhere near hitting the pitch on this call for ‘traditional theatre’ he’d be demanding Shakespeare performed only by men, in the kind of melodramatic declamations audiences would have had to suffer for generations before Naturalism was developed.

So please, Peter, try not to make grand sweeping statements about the ‘trouble with theatre’ of innovation. As it happens – experiment in form is the tradition.

Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.

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