The Playgoer: new Walter Davis essay

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Friday, March 24, 2006

new Walter Davis essay

I heartily recommend Walter Davis's new essay (a follow-up to his earlier Counterpunch piece) "Mendacity: The Prospects of Progressive Theater Under Capitalism" available here. It is a thorough political analysis of all that has transpired in the last month in the battle for accountability and political courage in our corporate-funded theatres (profit and non-, alike).

Plus, Davis has read, and cites, the play!

To those who doubt the significance of this story I suggest that it is one of the first "test cases" of free speech in the American theatre in the post-9/11 world. (If not the test case?)


Scott Walters said...

You know, this is the kind of statement that really burns me. Do you believe that "free speech" equates with "anyone who makes a decision that leads to an artist's play not being done"? Because the last I checked, theatre around the world don't produce every play they read. Furthermore, theatres regularly cancel plays for a variety of reasons, many not even as defensible as Nicola's and Moffett's. To the best of my knowledge -- and you're the new expert on all things Rachel Corrie, so please correct me if I am wrong -- there is no legal reason that the play cannot be produced by another theatre who wants to bring it, the Royal Court still owns the rights. The government has not banned the play.

So what has happened: a single theatre has decided they didn't want to deal with the controversy that seemed likely to be provoked by the play. Wimpy? Sure. But a test case of free speech? Puh-lease. Can we save such words for real violations?

Anonymous said...

Scott, you are now reiterating the same point over and over, which basically is: this is not a big deal, get over it. I suggest you read Davis's article to see why some of us feel it truly is a big deal, not a simple act of postponement but the revelation of the "gangsterism towards the arts" Shanley speaks about -- now being perpetrated by the very institutions meant to serve art!

Anonymous said...

Walters' essay is admirably detailed and thoughtful (and so damn long), but I object to his condescending tone. He's strenuously trying to stay ahead of the ideological curve (not to mention the news cycle), by now claiming that "I Am Rachel Corrie" is a flawed work that somehow represents and/or enables liberal complacency about a true theater of ideas. I need to more fully digest this doorstop of an essay, but I bristle a bit at the contrarian-at-any-cost, pox-on-both-your-houses tone. Anyway, has anyone argued that this play is great art? Or even a searing political drama? Walters seems to think that everyone thinks it is. I just want to see a good play and have a healthy argument after.

Anonymous said...

I hardly think publishing an essay that didn't even make it to Counterpunch can be accused of "trying to stay ahead of the ideological curve (not to mention the news cycle)." It's an honest attempt to look at the issues, and the point of view is extreme. To answer your question: yes, many have indeed argued that this is great art. The Royal Court's website will show you long excerpts of many glowing reviews from well-respected critics.

Why is it "contrarian at any cost" to have an opinion that the left is also blinkered by ideology, and the art works on a deeper register? The essay is a "doorstop" (well, according to you -- it takes less than an hour to read, it's no longer than a New Yorker Malcolm "Blink" Gladwell piece) in order to develop these very complex ideas. You say you "need to more fully digest this... essay" -- I agree!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anon. #1 about one point; the wearily patronizing tone of this piece does not make it easier to get through, or more credible. I'm weary of essayists this Olympian; in Davis' view, absolutely everyone involved in any corner of this discussion is either part of the problem, part of the corrupt system, sheeplike, or simply incapable of understanding what's really going on. Leaving it all, of course, to him. (Oh, wait: He does have something nice to say about Shakespeare. So that makes two.)

There's a certain vogue right now in cultural criticism that leads to positioning yourself as so unconstricted by ideology and cant that you can see with laser clarity the idiocies, hypocrisies and vanities of all sides. That in itself has become an ideology, and not one that flatters the author. I prefer cultural critics who can occasionally be awed by something or someone; I trust a cultural critic who is willing to say he doesn't know something. And I don't buy cultural criticism from someone who so clearly thinks theatergoers are stupid.

Anonymous said...

Damien, this isn't fair. Davis cites a number of playwrights of the past besides Shakespeare as examples of political drama that doesn't succumb to ideological simplicity. He refrains from naming contemporary plays that move him, claiming that each reader of the article can supply his or her own plays. Yes, his point of view is both passionate and extreme, but he is trying to enliven a discussion, not shut one down, as you seem to be doing.

I've enjoyed your posts and would like very much to see you engage with Davis's issues -- especially since you object to the way he frames the problem. And I am sure if you email the author, he will be glad to engage with you as well.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps my post was too dismissive. I very much appreciate Mr. Davis' close and thoughtful reading of the play. But he begins this essay by creating a false enemy against which to argue: The "PC" (his phrase) throng that is insisting the play must be "daring and remarkable" simply because it was canceled. I think that so far, this monthlong discussion has been remarkable for the degree to which many who have been commenting on it have been able to separate the issue at stake from the quality of the play itself. Many people have made eloquent arguments that the problem with the way NYTW handled this is a clear issue of allowing outside interests, board forces, or political pressure (or worse, inventing any of those as reasons) to lead to the cancellation of a play--a good play, a bad play, doesn't matter, since the quality of the piece has never been raised as a factor in the decision. That's not PC; it's intelligent and insightful.

Davis seems to feel that PC axiom will later be expressed by the audience that Davis feels certain will see the play and foolishly leave "feeling that one has experienced precisely the kind of thing that progressive theatre is all about." Why? Because they won't be capable of reading the play as skillfully as Davis has? Because Tony Kushner "helped them know what they thought" by following the "party line"? Because they can't think for themselves? Because of our "collective blinding"? A little less smirking at "progressive" thinking (his quotes) and "leftist" bona fides (again, his quotes) would have allowed him not to miss the forest for the trees. To say that Kushner or Oskar Eustis have "rallied around" Nicola, presumably by buying into the great fiction that NYTW is "progressive, liberal, cutting-edge, daring, etc." both ignores the fact that they have, in unmistakable language, opposed him in a moment of public and painful discord that one almost never sees in theater. But Davis' framing of the argument leaves open a vast question: Does Davis believe that no genuinely progressive or cutting-edge theater has EVER been seen at the workshop? Or that Rachel Corrie is exactly the same in quality as everything the Workshop, the Public and the vast faux-progressive-opoly that he opposes has ever produced? Or that the principle at stake is meaningless if the play is minor? His reading of the play is fascinating and (to one who has not read it) convincing; his reading of the controversy around it is, to me, neither.

Anonymous said...

These are interesting points and I suggest you email them directly to Davis. I also think he addresses some of your concerns in his earlier essay, on Counterpunch, linked above.

Anonymous said...

Having seen the play and having gone through the script several times now, I think Davis's analysis of the play is far better than any of the reviews or articles which came out at the time of the play's first two London runs. His critique does go a bit farther than it needs to. Viner and Rickman aren't Beckett and Ionesco. Their goals were somewhat modest, and it that context, Davis's lofty (somebody above used "Olympian") essay seems to take them to task more than necessary for not knowing what they were about.

His take on the controversy makes me want to put away my copy of the play and pull out my copy of Harry G. Frankfurt's _On Bullshit_, which is only slightly longer than Davis's wordy piece. Weiss's "Nation" article remains the best coverage on the crisis.

Scott Walters said...

Davis is shifting the focus of the argument from the NYTW to the play itself. I haven't read the play, so I can't evaluate the validity of his interpretation. But I can say that his assertion that the play does what so many other political plays do -- wallow in sentimentality and Manichaen melodrama to the almost total exclusion of complexity (by which I mean, along with Lionel Trilling, that there might be more than a simple, unified view of an issue -- resonates with me. "Rachel Corrie" is fast becoming what Robert Brustein once called "Plays You're Not Allowed to Hate." And the magnification of the issue surrounding its cancellation to epic proportions, despite the "feelings" that it is important buys into the sentimentality that seems to comprise the play itself. And I apologize for my apparent redundancy, while at the same time confessing to being a bit baffled why the reiteration of a contrary viewpoint is different than the constant repetition of the views of Playgoer and others in the blogging world -- goose, gander. To my mind, the case has not been made that this is a "free speech" or "censorship" issue, no matter how many times the words are repeated. Create the arguments, including definitions and evidence, rather than simply making assertions. Of course, that would require time and space, and might result in the creation of an almost inconceivable 14-page essay such as that written by David -- good Lord, the thought of it! By the way, I don't think Davis's essay supports the importance of this issue -- his essay seems to say that this play ain't worth fighting over.

Anonymous said...

I've sent a lengthy email to Mr Davis. Here I only post the last but one paragraph because I wonder what other people think about the conclusion I came to. I read his last couple of pages over and over again, but came to the same conclusion every time. Do you think I'm right, or can anyone tell me where I went wrong?

"In your conclusion you seem to contradict yourself. You’ve come to the result that neither MNIRC nor the NYTW are progressive. You also say that that so-called progressive theatres like the NYTW succumb to ideology and reject plays that are truly progressive, challenge the system and might ruffle the feathers of the theatre’s sponsors. Why then did the NYTW reject a non-progressive play like MNIRC? How did an ideology that suppresses progressive ideas prevent James Nicola from fully seeing a non-progressive play? According to your argumentation, the NYTW should have been delighted to come across a play that doesn’t present any threat at all to anyone’s beliefs."


Anonymous said...

This is a good point, Veradee. I would give a simple answer: what's so frightening about NYTW's fear of Rachel Corrie is that a play as ideologically inoffensive as Rachel Corrie is now deemed too controversial to produce in the East Village of New York City!

Please let us know if you hear from Davis.

Anonymous said...

I've read the Davis piece once and haven't yet digested his argument entirely, but want to leave the following observations:

1. According to Katharine Viner, the intent of the play was to show Ms. Corrie as something other than the villain that had been constructed on the right-wing websites (the posts that seem to have frightened James Nicola). I think it unlikely that Rickman/Viner intended to write/edit/whatever one of the Great Radical Plays of our time. So far as I can tell, their intent was far more modest.

2. A quick internet search netted me very little on their politics individually or collectively (although I admit that I was unwilling to sift through all of the Alan Rickman sites), but I think that they're probably Labour Party liberals. I don't see them as likely to be either artistic or political radicals, for whatever that's worth.

3. The quality of the play itself is not nearly the point. The point is that it is very likely that the NYTW was threatened with loss of funding for producing the play here. That the play is probably politically/artistically innocuous makes the decision to cancel it worse, not better! In fact,it's pathetic.

It would have been a quite different issue if Nicola had read it and concluded that it was a bunch of sentimental claptrap. But that's not what happened.

4. Davis does not address what I think is the most important issue in the Nation article, which is the discussion of the occupation of the Palestinian Territories by Israel and the response of Americans generally, and American Jews in particular, to that occupation. While that may not make the play artistically radical, or even important, it may raise issues that go far beyond the play itself.

5. Interestingly, few people have raised the parallels between the occupation of Palestine and the US/British occupation of Iraq. A few days ago it was reported that US soldiers may have executed an entire Iraqi family (including several children). We might be forced to confront the nature of occupation itself -- the dehumanization of the occupied people, such that killing them either by accident or design is acceptable, the nature of the resistance to occupation, the downward spiral to greater and greater violence on both sides -- and look at what we have/might become.

Anonymous said...

anon directly above queried under item 5 "[i]nterestingly, few people have raised the parallels between the occupation of Palestine and the US/British occupation of Iraq......." and so on.

A very good point, but not accurate as far as art about Corrie in general. I've collected and also created art which directly addresses her since late March, 2003. Many songs and poems do just what you wish had been done in this play. That would have been hard to do in the play, given that she was killed in the week just prior to the war's onset.

At the risk of being once again chastised by Mr. Eisler, I'll quote from a talk I gave April 8, 2004 about a musical setting about Corrie I had created. The movement from a seven-movement work I'm describing was about a pathological Israeli bulldozer driver named Moshe Nissum.

"Is the acceptance of Nissum’s sociopathy indicitive of the present state of the Israeli Defense Forces? I think not, but anyone studying the varying records in the occupied territories from one unit or one sector or one checkpoint to another, knows some units are simply loose cannon, or to direct the analogy more closely, loose gigantic blades, cutting swaths through peaceful areas about four feet wider than the alleys the bulldozers enter generally are.

"During composition, I felt uncomfortable when reading Nissum’s statement, worried that American forces in Iraq, as the situation would inevitably deteriorate, would undergo their own degradation of morale, morality and effective command and control. Sure enough, Yahoo carried a report on April 3, 2004 of Marines preparing revenge missions to Fallujah. Tank barrels in Baghdad are embellished with slogans like “bloodlust” and “kill them all” as our troops prepare for the next stage in our efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East."

There are other examples which tie the two conflicts or treat them as parts of the same set of events. Some of the art is quite compelling.

freespeechlover said...

I heard Corrie's emails read at the event, and yes, it even surprised me, but, yes, they do make for good theater, not just political theater but good theater. THAT'S why the NYTW had to postpone. I also thought that I might be politically sympathetic to Corrie but think her emails were sentimental. Reading them to oneself, they could sound that way, but not read from the stage.

There is something about hearing them from a voice on stage that makes for very powerful art. I thought Viner had maybe exaggerated in the debate with Nicola and Moffat, but I have to eat my silent hat, and recognize that Rachel was a good writer, but more importantly, her emails make for good theater. Period.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I was afraid I might have totally misconstrued Davis' essay.

I already received a reply. As I said my email was much longer, but he didn't really address any of the points I made. He wrote he thought I missed that fact that he didn't think that the NYTW was a progressive theatre. As you can see from my first comment, I most certainly didn't miss that.

Anonymous said...

I did not intend to suggest in my point 5 above that MNiRC should address (or could have, given the nature of the source material) the parallels between the Palestine and Iraq occupations, but that people seeing the play might draw those parallels themselves. Sorry for my lack of clarity.

Anonymous said...

"I hardly think publishing an essay that didn't even make it to Counterpunch"

Hummm, I think you don't know about MWC News ( the web site who published this)

Counter punch has long way to get there.

Moreover, as you may noticed shorter version of this has made to Counterpunch and if they too had abilty to publish a long article in several pages, I bet the would.

Anonymous said...

Seems I press send too fast, beside the typo, I was going to add
Vanessa Redgrave comment on this

That too did not make it to counterpunch, but made it to Democracy Now instead.

Anonymous said...

In the meantime, Mr Davis send me another email and explained that contradiction I mentioned earlier.

He, indeed, says that neither MNIRC nor NYTW are progressive, but adds that James Nicola regards both the play and his theatre as progressive.

I now see what he's getting at with the last couple of pages of his essay. Indeed, it's sad when a theatre that claims to be progressive rejects a play that it regards as progressive as well.

Alison Croggon said...

I think what Davis is pinpointing is something I've long argued against in left wing theatre here (Australia) and in Britain: an aesthetic conservatism which in the end only leads to the affirmation of a previously held convictions, rather than a work which challenges and perhaps dismantles all preconceived notions. If one thinks that radical art is about challenging the preconceived matrices of ideology, then this left wing art (I'm speaking of art like David Hare's recent work, Australian playwrights like Hannie Rayson and David Williamson, The Tricycle Theatre's documentary theatre (Road to Guantanamo, etc), all of which would characterise itself as "progressive": and RC certainly fits in that tradition) is, ultimately, conservative art that confirms rather than disrupts received ideologies. The works Davis points to as radical are things like Marat/Sade. I recently watched the dvd of Brook' s production; well might we long for intelligently subversive work like that.

It suggests a certain lack of fit between what might be called "progressive" ideology and radical aesthetic. A long and honourable and even fertile dissonance, I'd argue...

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Davis's essay, but my first reaction to Playgoer's post was similar to Scott Walters's. I can't help but think that, in the present context, phrases such as "test case" and "free speech" and "censorship" are metaphors, figures of speech. There is no legal action underway which would serve as a test of principles and precedents; the American Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech is not being abridged; no agent of the state has banned the production of this play. I don't mean to say that we're discussing unimportant issues, only that we don't seem to have found exact terms in which to phrase them.

A few other thoughts:

1. Just as freedom of the press is guaranteed to anyone who owns a press, so freedom of theatrical expression belongs to those who run theaters.

2: Regarding the question of whether there's any sentimentality in the play, I notice that the cover of the not-yet-released script as it's offered by Amazon features a charming picture of a young girl, presumably Rachel Corrie herself as a child. Certainly there's something sentimental about this.

Playgoer said...

Many valid comments here, but let me respond to John Branch first:

re: "Just as freedom of the press is guaranteed to anyone who owns a press, so freedom of theatrical expression belongs to those who run theaters." All I can reply is--too bad our theatres are not USING that freedom. And when financial/political pressures make them cower into renoucing that right, we are right to sit up and take notice.

(I'm aware some aren't buying the censorship/free speech issues here at all , and I do plan a more thoughtful, extensive post this week)

2) As for "sentimentality" I concur that I too get that whiff from the piece. But I admit I have not read or seen it. And I still maintain this is not over how "good" or "bad" a play this is. Even if YOU think it's not worth doing anyway, and so NYTW should be left alone--that sure isn't what THEY're saying.

freespeechlover said...

Of course, they're going to market the book with "sentimentality." Yes, of course, the relationship of capitalism and aesthetics has something to do with this fiasco. But I somehow doubt that the book will be reviewed in the New York Times and become an overnight best seller. In fact, it may not sell many copies at all, because controversies tend to come and go under late capitalism, although I have to say in this case, the "normalizers" like Brian Lehrer are doing a very strange dance about this production.

Theories are themselves stories and some have thicker plots than others. I just don't think everything about this incident boils down to economic relations and the role of religion in contemporary American political culture. Also, to equate Muslims in Europe with what were likely one or two Jewish friends of Nicola's is a bit of a stretch from a sociological perspective.

No, I don't think that freedom of speech does not extend to theater directors. Of course it does. There is no evidence in this case to support your contention that this was bad theater that Moffat and Nicola then wanted to dump. If that was their point of view, they could and would have said just that. We know that theater directors have freedom of speech by the number of plays being produced, some of which are utterly boring.