A Tidal Poetics

I examine reasons why I write and play with notions of the skin, the mirror, the grotesque and so on – but underlying all of this is a deeper concern. A concern which is perhaps selfish beyond raising some sort of justification for it all – not the reasons of how I write; those drives and aesthetics which propel the pen – but that other dynamic, the failure to find out there a play or a drama which satisfies my own need for theatre. I write nothing but what I have failed to find on the stage. I write what I have always wanted to see onstage and never have – that play I hope to encounter every time I go to the theatre and always miss. So in a sense I am doing nothing more than writing for myself in the end.

Selfish, isn’t it? To write like that and expect anyone to want to see it let alone actually stage it . . .

And yet . . . and yet . . . what other way is there of writing? I suppose in the back of all of this is the idea that I never actually think of the audience except as some displaced echo of myself sitting chorus-like in the auditorium. So I write these odd plays – I mean, a drama set in medieval Spain with King Ferdinand as a giant marquee-like tent effigy? – and perhaps all I am really doing is creating a phantasm stage in my head. I remember one critic years ago writing that my work will never be staged but that was not an issue. He wrote that many plays had been written in the past with no intention of any of them finding the stage (the Romantics, for one) and that I was writing only a story in which drama was the ideal writing medium for that story. Perhaps he was right – who knows?

There is an irony in all of this, though, isn’t there? That the more I fail to find on the stage that play I seem to quest for, the more I retreat into a private solipsistic world of writing using that most public of all forms – the Drama. Ironic – or perverse, perhaps. Then again to write for an audience or even to write with an audience in your head is perhaps self-defeating. It breaks that mirror-skin which holds the drama ever so slightly apart from this world. We write in the world we create – turning into it like antennae gliding towards some nebulous sound. We write as though falling towards something – a world, a character, a sense of something deserving of being told. But do we hesitate in that act and pause as if to weigh up what an audience would think as we pen that line or develop that theme or stage that travesty?

A woman stands stubbornly over the corpse of her sister ready to defend it from thieves who would defile it for nothing more than the clothes it is wrapped up in – and yet she hesitates, uncertain to draw that knife she owns, allowing that the corpse at her feet might still be smiling one last smile of contempt for her alone. And so this sister deliberates before these thieves on her dilemma even as they close in. The scene moves through an inexorable logic – it hangs on her dilemma to both defend that corpse and also reveal it, to expose its mockery for her – in this scene the thieves become an audience but also provoke the action. This woman suffers an awareness forced on her by others.

That perhaps is the closest I get to allowing an audience to intrude into the writing – that in fact in much of what I write one might say that in some ways an audience is already inculcated into the work. Characters struggle almost always in front of others who watch or judge. A woman is imprisoned by her sisters and spends her time tearing herself out of all the books she can find – no matter how obscure or old the reference, it is torn out – all the while being attended upon by mute slaves – until one steps forward to comment upon her actions. An architect elaborates upon the perfect Wall before a jury of Senators, all of whom disparage him despite the ineluctable beauty of his logic. And so on.

This is my bind perhaps – that the more I write for myself and spin these grotesque scenes, the more I internalise an audience into the work itself so that these characters can never hide from being exposed or judged or forced to demonstrate their actions.

Perhaps that is the real irony here. In not thinking about an audience, I have inadvertently taken them with me into the diegesis. I have twisted the mirror about and reflected it back upon themselves as a fiction.

The Murmuring Shore

I remember a few years ago going to the RSAMD to watch a student production of Howard Barker’s The Bite of the Night – it was staged in the Chandler Studio and ran for over 3 hours. There were at least 2 intervals possibly even a 3rd (but I might just be making that last one up to add to the epicness of it all!). The audience stayed for the whole performance and seemed to settle in for the length with a certain degree of enthusiasm. I mention this now because it flies in the face of conventional theatre wisdom – audiences will become restless if made to sit for more than 2 hours without an interval; they should be released around 10.30 at the latest to get the return buses and underground home; a play which starts at 07.30 and finishes after 11.00 will not draw an audience, and so on – and to an extent this is true. It also a self-defeating prophecy, of course. Audiences become habituated to what theatre provides for them.

This audience – myself included – reveled in something else, however. Not the 2nd or even 3rd interval (what a novelty!), not the very late finishing time (after 11.00!), nor even the sense that as an audience we had somehow grown together in the habitual ease of seeing our faces across the playing area (it was staged in the round) like disembodied masks – it was in that strange joy of being allowed to journey with these characters and their torments for longer than we normally were allowed to. I remember walking out of the RSAMD and having to ground myself back in this reality because not only had I been out of it for longer than I was used to in the theatre, I had also spent time with these characters on an almost novelistic level (if only impressionistically).

This was all a few years before I began again to write plays.

That experience has stayed with me in the way Witkacy’s quote has stayed with me (among many other influences). The play itself is a remarkable piece of writing but in a sense it became more than the writing because of the time we journeyed alongside those characters – and that throws up for me a crucial element in my writing now. I am talking about that structural dynamic which underpins playwrighting and which on an almost subconscious level allows us to craft a world and a story already bound in some degree by the conventions of the theatrical apparatus – you all know what I mean: if I write a play with 2 or 3 characters and set it in a small space (a bedroom, a flat, a cell, and so on) it will stand more of a chance of being picked up and staged. The delimitations of this apparatus is not a criticism in itself – indeed it has a self-discipline I am in awe of  to be honest – but there is in this something of a temporal limit also. That the length of the play, the time allowed to these characters, is also part of that apparatus.

A play with only 2 characters and one with only 8 is still woven into that aesthetic in that it generally will have a playing time of less than 2 hours.

Plays which occupy a stage for longer are perhaps deemed old fashioned – even anachronistic, perhaps, as if that length of time allotted to characters is no longer relevant. And yet that night in the RSAMD not only did dozens of characters exist for over 3 hours, we, the audience, accommodated them. I mean, that 3rd interval was almost like having breakfast in a seaside resort at the end of a week.

I think it was that experience which helped me think deeper about character, about delving past conventional psychology, unraveling the surface mannerisms of emotion and action, unpeeling the skin, as it were. It was that depth of time (I know I am mixing synchronic and diachronic here) which unlocked a need in me to write outwith the pale. That meant that these characters of mine were already past that 2 hour or so playing time and still journeying as if only at the begining of their tale. These characters were already played out as it were and only now begining to act.

Hence these strange and grotesque crowds which populate my plays: the torturer who secrets a map inside his face only for a revenger to unpick his stitches while he still lives; a woman who fades into a wardrobe to drown herself in the past; a librarian who defends a burnt-out ruin for no other reason than to resist the advance of history; an architect who walks up an Impossible Staircase only to erase himself out of reality; an archeologist on an alien planet who murders himself  and is condemned to live out the rest of his life on that planet known as Unearth; a Spanish noblewoman who plucks out her own eyes and swallows them even as simulacras of herself  flood about her and replace her; and so on . . .

My mum says I don’t get out much. My friends say I should stay in more.

If that audience is to accommodate a different skin in itself and out there on the stage then I think it can only do that if these characters have already unseamed themselves and are now in the process of stitching on a new map. That is the journey, I think. It is certainly one I seem drawn to as a writer hovering over these blank spaces, these whites skins which have yet to be mapped . . .

The Mirror-Maker

“The I is first and foremost a bodily I; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself a projection of a surface (ie: the I is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those springing from the surface of the body.  It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body . . .).

-Freud, The Ego and Id.

 “ . . . we are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world.  That which makes us consciousness, institutes us by the same token as speculum mundi . . .”

 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

I remember reading a manifesto – in the old traditional sense of what a manifesto should be – by Witkacy years ago. Witkacy, that eccentric genius of the Polish arts between the wars – a painter, a playwright, a photographer, a dabbler in drugs; a man who was an imperial officer in the Tzar’s guard regiment and, come the Revolution, was so popular with his soldiers that he was elected their political commissar – a man who eventually committed suicide in a forest while fleeing the Germans only to learn that the Soviets had also invaded Poland –  his fractured photo is the one I use for my gravatar (what ever the hell that word means) here in WordPress – Witkacy, the madman. In this manifesto – On A New Type Of Play – he rails against conventional psychology and action and argues strongly for a theatre of ‘pure form’. A theatre bound only by the internal logic of the play’s structure. It can be read now as one of a series of struggles that theatre was going through in the early twentieth century to break out of the straightjacket of  middle-class bourgeois dramas set within a living room.

What struck me most in the manifesto or essay though and which has stayed with me through all my writing is a little sentence tucked away near the begining:

‘In the theatre we want to be in an entirely new world in which the fantastic psychology of the characters who are completely implausible in real life, not only in their positive actions but also in their errors, and who are perhaps completely unlike people in real life, produces events . . . not limited by any logic accept the logic of the form itself . . . ‘

It is not a deeply profound quote – and to be honest can sum up much absurdist and surrealist drama in general – however, it struck me for the simple fact that Witkacy had highlighted the errors of these characters (his highlight, not mine in the above text). Now I think he is simply expounding that these characters are not necessarily role-models of behaviour; that, as in Greek tragedy, their failings are as important as their good if nonsensical qualities – but as a writer it sparked something deeper; that in creating characters I had the right and duty to push them into the unknown even if I failed in that push – that indeed they stumbled grotesquely and fell as long as that failing was still outside the pale. The error was both in my own writing and also in these characters’ truncated evolution . . .

Well, it was a spark at least which allowed me to imagine failed characters. What do I mean by that?

Theatre is the last medium in which the imagined written word is rendered flesh. It differs from religion and politics in that dreams are allowed to breathe a little; stories are made manifest; language is given new forms all clothed in a little skin – and this is not a private medium, a soft chair which the reader relaxes back into, no, this is a public domain, a crucible, a demotic space where the limen hovers always uncertainly between affirmation and blasphemy. As such, this medium is privileged – for it allows a single writer’s imagination flight into the public spectacle. Again and again – and even, if you are lucky as a playwright, in different productions and different stages. No other writing medium is close to the uniqueness which theatre has.

As such it gives me the right to imagine outside the pale and struggle with stories which are irregular, bound up in fable, nonsensical, absurd, even. Stories which exist to be told in the public domain. Stories which deserve an audience.

If the above quotes mean anything (they preface The Wracked) they illustrate that eternal dilemma between our sense of discreet self and the public gaze which to some extent determines that self. The body, the flesh, our skin, exists as a battleground, a limen, over which and through which we struggle as a private individual and a public body. We are the actor to our own audience in many ways. It is the skin which marks, is scored by, that internal/external struggle.It is not accidental that the Greek word for the body – soma – derives from their word for the prison . . .

Which leads me back to that question about why should I expect an audience for the plays which I write? These solipsistic dreams I conjure up?  Theatre allows a single nightmare to breathe in front of a crowd, yes, but what does that accomplish? Why not write what I call ‘broom-cupboard’ plays? Plays with one or two characters that might as well be set in a closet for all the scope that allows? Because I passionately believe that watching characters stumble and fail outside that pale – characters who inhabit a fable-like world that bruises them in an act of love – is to invite an audience into a world where their skin is endangered. To watch an actor inhabit an unknowable world is to live beyond the pale failingly among others who also are perhaps stumbling along with you. Of course it is a idle fancy – a whim which that damned Witkacy stoked up in me – but I can’t get it out of my head. That the stage alone deserves the most obscure and opaque stories for no other reason than it exists before that most ancient assembly – the crowd, the public, the spectacle – that mirror we all fear and yearn for.

Tomás   (Alone with Sphincter. He shivers in the dark.) – Still crawling?  Can’t help but admire the desire – huh, rhyming now.  Pathetic, this little scene.  Me here, you here.  Always crawling back.  To what?  (Gabriella’s laughter breezes past.)  Hate that.  Her.  Her endless capacity to provoke an indulgence.  In me.  Us . . . But won’t give in – or yield an inch of this Realm, its endless shift, its gently gliding gardens that enfold you like petals, like blossom . . . Will deny this ‘middle man’ situation, Sphincter.  No choice but . . . The compulsion of denial is more erotic than desire, you see?  Desire is the flight into oblivion, the ecstacy of surrender to another’s divinity . . . Which is rather banal, really.  Results in the prostitution of humanity, the exchange of flesh for spirit . . . But denial is the revenge of flesh, its callow laugh in the face of poetry.  Flesh spits back.  And how joyous it is.  Denying the sublime can only exhalt the salt of my body.  My salt.  My flesh – will not yield it up.  Prefer saliva to wine, see?  Keep the edge of my body, its dirt and hair, intact.  To myself, my self . . . So, no more middle men unravelling into the future.  Or the past . . . Tomás de Torquemada, Dominican Prior of the convent of Segovia, at the Court of Ferdinand of Aragon.  Credo.

(Laughter echoes his words in irony.  Tomás, irritated, scoops Sphincter up and turns to face upstage.  Shapes move drunkenly through the Back Cloth – phantoms which mingle with the folds and rents.  Distant banging can be heard, like a staff pounding upon an iron portal.  It is slow and tedious.  The figures drift downstage, dragging bits of the Back Cloth with them as though caught in a net.  Tomás takes a step backwards and raises the taper over his tonsured head.)

The Makar

When I began this writing just over 3 years ago, I dragged out an old piece written over a decade ago and decided to re-write it completely – a sort of re-apprenticeship, if you will. It was a wonderful opportunity to re-learn the craft of writing and also explore who I was now as a writer. Were the same concerns still itching under my skin, I wondered? What did I think now of character, action, narrative, and so on.

The Wracked emerged from that questing as a serious and committed piece of writing which was also a statement about theatre itself. Total theatre. A stage where events were shaped by the pen which allowed no element to escape from its aesthetic. This was a play in which the set design, the puppets (I know!), the story, the costume, the actions were all bound together as part of the plot. It was a pen which attempted to order and own everything on the stage. It was in the last analysis a piece of monumental theatre in the Polish model. The Wracked was a playwright attempting to claim the high ground of theatre – as if nothing else mattered. Without a playwright, it seemed to say, all theatre is nothing but ghosts and echoes.

In a way, I am still playing out the consequences of that re-write.

The play is set in the moment of the death of Tomas De Torquemada and unravels forwards and backwards through his life and through Spain – so this is not a reality, a history, so much as a phantasm; a landscape of the mind. In The Wracked characters are lost in the sands of time – endless wardrobes are filled with predatory shadows; architects are commissioned to build out the Realm; androgynous babies are eaten and re-born into listless characters; Hidalgos run around in black goggles; a story is told of a man adrift in the desert of a map – and finds his own self mapped as a shawl around a faceless stranger; a pale Youth after murdering his distant ancestor flees back into the future; effigies arise out of the blood-red sand and devour naive Courtiers by pulling out scarlet ribbons for entrails; and so on, and on . . .

It has a cast of hundreds. And did I mention the puppets? Giant puppets on stilts?

What the hell was I thinking? Really?

The makar is an old Scots word – a maker, a poet, an artist of sorts. A creator in the first and last analysis. I think the playwright is a peculiar sort of makar – for we work with the skin as well as the word. We pen for actors and an audience – the body public and the body private, both of whom meet in that tremulous divide we call the stage. We are skin makars (I am labouring the conceit, I know!) and that means that in each play are we not also breaking the skin of drama itself? Of theatre? Are we not really unseaming the flesh of what has been staged to reknit anew in a new place?

Perhaps not. But it turns out I am – for better or worse.

I have written several novels in the past – all set in a Late Roman period and all following the attempts of various doomed individuals to save what little of Rome remains. In this prose world, I write with no great surprises – the narrative is conventional, the battles bloody, the speeches lyrical and mostly fatalistic:

I know now that they are tracking me in the shadows as I ride along the frontier of the Danube towards Augusta Vindelicorum. It is three days’ away but it might as well be Rome itself for all the good it does me. The devastation is all around me and without let. The vengeance of the Alemanni for what we did to their villages has come to visit us, Magister. I fear for Raetia Secunda. I fear for Posthumus Dardanus and the legionaries who remain. I fear for all the simple people who live here in this little province so far from the great cities of our empire. I fear also that you will return too late and see only what I have seen since crossing the Danube.

It is night now and my campfire burns low. I know they will rush me in the night like dogs and I will wait for them to come my sword naked across my lap. Do not mourn for me, Allobich. This is how it was always meant to be. I will stand and throw aside my old military cloak and show them what a Roman is. How a Roman dies. Before that however I will end this epistle and place it into the saddlebags of my horse. I will whisper a few words into her ears and then send her on into the night with a shout of triumph. Perhaps she will survive the night and reach the town and who knows you may yet read these words. The last words of Felix, Tribune of men I know now are all dead across the Barbaricum. This night is cold but peaceful. The stars glitter so. I am in awe of their beauty . . .

Or perhaps:

So these men stand upon the walls of an ancient city itself rooted in myth and epic and wonder on the weave of it all; the long strands of fortune and encounter which brought them all from the wide circle of the empire to this last spot only to taste a bitter dry wind and see the emptiness of all their achievements like mere breath upon a glass. For it is only with broken eyes do men finally see the mockery of it all, and the ancient ages which lie beneath the feet so that no matter what we build it rests merely upon dust and shattered bones.

It is the morning of the day after what will forever be known as the Battle of Hadrianople and upon the walls of that city those who survived the massacre now wait and watch as the rising sun out of the east throws into relief nothing more than their advancing doom while from the south and the unseen shores of the Propontis wafts the delicate scents of Constantinople to mock them with a world they will never see again.

The only issue here is one of the quality of the writing – is it capable of doing justice to the emotional demands of the narrative? The characters themselves and their actions are all bound up within a conventional diegesis – albeit a distant Roman one.

But something happens in my head when I write a play and stare abjectly down at the blank page – that whiteness, that skin, draws out another pen; a making of ink into a world where character is unfettered by psychology or conventional action; where that space becomes not a window into a historical perspective but instead a world that has no conventional boundaries. It is almost as if the smaller the space I am writing for, the greater my imagination can fly. I open up a world into Late Roman history and am constrained by its size. I imagine an empty stage and characters emerge from my pen like nightmares from the dark.

That explains my addiction to writing plays – I manifest an imagination I cannot experience in writing prose.

But to put that in front of an audience? To expect an audience to indulge my imagination for its own sake? What am I thinking?!

The Notes and Thoughts Of A Skinmaker.

Here are few thoughts, some ramblings, and perhaps a manifesto or two.

I mean manifesto in perhaps its strictest sense – that of manifesting, to render present, nothing more. I am not interested in owning some ground or staking out an arena within which I will claim some sort of dramatic ownership. Oh no. It seems to me far too many people are already doing that under the pretense of defining what drama should be. I really don’t want to play that game. In fact, quite the opposite. These ramblings are nothing more than notes to myself as I write and why I write at that particular time. There is no continuity here!

But why write this at all?

The other day I received both an acceptance and a rejection of two different pieces of work all within five minutes of eachother and both from the same theatre. One arrived in an email and the other as a parcel through the post. The acceptance was for a small five minute piece of theatre and the rejection was that of a major work of drama which I had sent away over six months ago. Within those few moments I moved from elation that a piece of mine had (finally) been accepted to utter despair and no little anger that the more important work had been rejected. Now rejection is a writer’s lot. And believe me in the last three years, I have received nothing but rejections – all positive and encouraging but rejections none the less – so why should I be so rattled by that last letter?

Enough to begin this anyway.

The rejection was for a play entitled A Little Winter Love – a dark and chaotic descent into a ruined House the night after it has been cracked open in Civil War. Within this House, theatre, madness and war collide in uneasy and grotesque ways. It is a complex work, drawing on and treading that uneasy divide between our sanity and our need to dream – and asks questions about the cost for both. The characters in it bleed constantly in a metaphorical sense and somehow also strive for love and truth even as the remains of the House collapse about them into a new dark reality.

The rejection letter praised my ‘gusto and care’ in tackling such a complex theme, the use of ‘metaphor and allegory’, the ‘poetic’ use of language and so on – its only criticism was that perhaps some judicial editing might sharpen the drama. Now I don’t want to harp on about the letter as a rejection – quite the opposite – but only that it made me sit down and think (quite literally) about what the hell I am doing writing such stuff and why I should expect an audience to sit through this kind of stuff! To give you another example – in the last three years, I have written seven plays all of which are not what might be labelled easy plays – they are populated by grotesques, by monsters, by characters who are always in some way aware of their own provisionality.

For example, Constantinople, Its Dreams

The play is a series of scenes from a degenerate and ennui-filled City which was once the greatest city in the known world.  In this play, History is both a meditation and an escape – a dream in which the past imagines the present.

Here, in this City, a skinmaker hides an imperial map inside the folds of his own flesh, marionette-makers carve divine  models based upon the newly dead, a senator is lured into a trap by assassin-mimes, a woman spends her days tearing herself out of all the books she can find, a map-maker draws maps only to entomb the living against their own falling sense of loneliness, an architect mocks the weight of the City and yearns to design it again as a mirror to the barbarians who always besiege it, a fading actress is condemned to act out her dying biography, and even in the endless Fall of the City, a willful woman coerces the Turks who have finally broken in to heave the books away to a faint West and herald the Renaissance . . .

Constantinople, Its Dreams is a melancholic landscape in which grotesques survive to render our own world free from depredation.

But why would anyone want to actually sit through this stuff?

That is what I will be using these writings to explore, I think. An affirmation? Perhaps not – but a certain clarity, yes.

The skinmaker is one who unravels the skin of another – to get inside, to understand – and a playwright is perhaps the greatest skinmaker for not only does the playwright unseam characters, they must be sown up again so that actors may inhabit them; so that an audience may slide into them vicariously . . . So perhaps these notes are after all my own dissection into that worn skin I call my imagination.