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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Chapter 2 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity. Lies and more lies.

It’s all just stories - none of us knows the truth about anything. But stories are good. They are what we tell ourselves to keep fear at bay, to make sense of our lives, to see things as we want to see them so everything is skewed really. - Stephen Mangan The Times March 5th 2016.

“There’s always a story.  It’s all stories really.  The sun coming up every day is a story.  Everything’s got a story in it.  Change the story, change the world.”  - Terry Pratchett – A Hat Full of Sky.

 Do you sometimes feel that you’ve turned up in life just after the cop cars and the ambulances and the fire engines have just disappeared round the corner, the smashed glass has been swept away and there is nothing left to see? How much of life is lived just out of sight, just round the corner?  It sometimes feels to me as though I’m listening to the world through cotton wool, touching it with boxing gloves.  All I perceive is the shallow and shaky and occasional fleeting moments of experience instead of those big, defining events that everyone else seems to enjoy.

I guess that’s partly my fault.  My young friend Skidmore would sneer at me on his way to the casino or a day out bungee jumping and say  “You live your life second hand.  What do you expect? You only see the world through Facebook and Twitter, through mediated and filtered web sites. If you’ve got  a problem with the world, it’s your fault. You live in a bubble of shared opinion. You only see the world through a tiny knothole of the rotting woodwork of your front door.”

And yes, all sadly true, Skidders, Old Man.   As a writer I need to indulge in the reality of the world around and to provide an all-embracing experience for my audiences.  I want to record and comment on what it is like to be human.  I do it, not by an exact reproduction of the world around, a one to one scale model, but by observing and adapting what I see so that others may see my vision.  To agree or disagree as they see fit.  But at all events I must understand and report with veracity.  What I need is for my audience to trust me, to believe in the world, the ideas I put before them that they are willing to accompany me on my journey and not keep noticing the hollows and blank spaces I have been unable to fill. Where can I find the authentic, real and plausible in this world of the fakery and sham?

What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer – Francis Bacon

“Anyway, we don’t do Truth anymore.  Truth is so… last year.”  says Skidmore warming in his opinion.

“What in God’s name “do you even mean when you  ramble on about authenticity and vomit up words  like “reality” or “plausibility”?  “Veracity?”  You make up stories.  You’re a professional liar.  What on earth do you know about truth?  What right do you have to criticise other people for not telling the Truth?”

Good point. I’m not a journalist.  I’m not out to record the details of car crashes or bank robberies.  Not the events themselves at any rate but I do believe I’m trying to capture an authentic human response to what’s going on in the world. 

I am, as I might have said to Skidmore if he’s hung around to listen, an observer. Even if I miss the car crash, somehow, I’ve got to observe the way people react to this sort of event. I’ve got to sniff the air and see which way humanity is heading.  And having got some sense of what’s going on I’ve then got to try to interpret and construct a narrative. Not necessarily about the big events and occurrences but about the little details, the way people react, how they change. 

I realise that as an artist, and more particularly as a playwright, I’m wrestling with two sorts of authenticity.  The authenticity of my response to the world around.  In other words, trying to relay what I see with minimum bullshit.  But I’m also faced with the task of providing an emotionally satisfying and gripping first-hand experience for my audiences that will draw them in and cause them to be engaged in the way that I am.

Before I write poetry or  fiction I need to understand what truth is.

“They’re all liars, cheats and fakes” says Skidmore.  “I wouldn’t vote for any of them”  An all too familiar line and largely accurate.   What is worrying, moreover is that these rogues and charlatans have learnt how to manipulate the press and social media and have discovered that lying and cheating is just as efficacious at moving opinion as a reasoned argument used to be.  But by abjuring from voting Skidmore has let the liars and cheats off the hook.  There is no possibility of the world being any different.   Not all politicians are self-serving and mendacious, but those who are will always have louder voices than those who are not. So, why is it when we seek out people of authenticity to be our representatives in government, do we almost always end up with the self-regarding, bullies, liars and cheats?

The culture of celebrity on television, the celebration of mountebanks by news media provide an ecology in which everyone is fake because we expect nothing else. We have lost trust in politicians and people in authority and thereby we have lost trust in humanity as a whole.  People who appear to be decent enough chaps in the pub we find are working for multinational companies and banking corporations.  They defend what they have to do by saying “We are forced into a course of action by our shareholders.  We are legally obliged to consider the interests of our investors first.”  Those at the bar have an uneasy feeling that this equates to “I was only following orders.” And we all know where that led.  Not only are we uncomfortable with this, it seems to require a form of doublethink way beyond mere hypocrisy.  Can we ever accept a pint from someone like this or trust them to drive our kids to school?

Can I as a playwright do anything to reverse that?  How can I show a more authentic view of humanity that would contribute in some small way to restoring everyone’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature without compromising the truth that people are, indeed, venal, grasping, selfish, prone to violence, self-centred and so on and so forth?

We give out medals for a single act of physical prowess.  How do we reward a lifetime of caring?

"Everything is relative. Stories are being made up all the time - there is no such thing as the truth. You can see how that has filtered its way indirectly into post-truth."  A.C. Grayling

At the same time, this yearning for authentic experience drives the apparent hunger for thrill laden activities and dangerous sports.  I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons that Skidmore spends so much of his time in casinos and bars. Or dangling by his feet from an elastic band over a waterfall. Our quotidian existence is so far from feeling any sort of natural engagement with the world that we must seek out experiences that are near to death. Or bankruptcy. We seek the outlandish, the dangerous, the bitter.  But our search for the authentic experience forces us closer and closer to the inauthentic.  We yearn to hike through authentic countryside, we long to eat authentic Mexican food.  And yet, the closer we get to them the less authentic the experience.  In reality the countryside is cold wet and muddy and entirely mundane. It is a working environment for those who live there and residents experience all sorts of discomforts and disadvantages such as non-existent public transport, thirty miles drives to the local hospital, intermittent phone and broadband and village shops, schools and pubs that close down leaving ghost communities.  The countryside is, frankly, tedious. It is no more than a factory floor with bushes. We do not want the authentic countryside, we want convenient car parks and defined footpaths with the brambles trimmed back.  We need easy access to viewpoints where we can look at the scenery for a few moments and let the dogs run after the sheep before driving back down to the authentic village pub run by a chain from London where we can order Authentic Chipotle straight from the freezer and microwave. We settle for a facsimile of the authentic. 

But there is a dissatisfaction in this clearly hollow view of the world.  It has permeated the whole of 21st century existence. And the more we are squeezed economically and socially, the more we demand to satisfy this emptiness.

Those who live their lives in extremis, who feel crushed by poverty or by a world they no longer feel part of, will lash out.  They will follow any narrative that offers them a glimmer of hope.  That narrative may be entirely fictitious.,  It may be a fantasy offering a pot of fairy gold at the end of a rainbow, but for those who have nothing it is everything.

An authentic experience is one validated by our senses.  Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight.  The more senses that are involved the more authentic an experience becomes. It can be brought into even sharper focus by having others experience it with us.  “Did you see that?” we ask and are happy is someone else witnessed it at the same time as we did.  Afterwards, we construct a narrative around the event so that it becomes a reality. It could be an hilarious dinner table story or a heart-stopping drama.  We encompass it and draw delight from the fact that we experienced something truthful at last. But it still doesn’t mean that an experience is true.  Truth, as we are constantly urged to believe, is conditional on context and frames of reference.  It may be possible to say that the authentic experience occurs within space – the here and now while the narrative about it occurs within and over time.  We stand on a clifftop and feel the wind in our face and hear the waves crashing below and smell and taste the salt on the air.  It is the punch in the face, the kick on the shins.  This is a moment of experience.  We need to be absolutely involved in the moment for it to be more than something fleeting and ephemeral. It requires total engagement. And later, the contemplation of that event, the story of that moment, becomes the narrative truth.  We sit in front of a roaring fire and recall that cold, the rain trickling down the back of our necks.  We may laugh about it whatever the shock and discomfort we felt at the time.

But not everyone has the time or the conditioning to go and stand on a clifftop gazing at the ocean waiting for some epiphany of the soul.  And not everyone has the capacity to capture that moment in a form that can be transmitted to others. Sometimes we need an intermediary, a playwright or other artist for instance, to draw our attention to that experience and give us a reason for paying it attention.  If we artists and writers do our job properly we can weave a narrative that carries the audience through the emotional landscape and gives a more accurate, fuller picture of humanity. Fiction or not.

It’s important to be able to understand both the ideas of authenticity of world view and authenticity of experience in order for the playwright to construct a narrative by drawing these two ways of experiencing a moment or an event together. 

Having observed the world and its people the playwright can construct a narrative bringing together elements that would never meet in real life.  Their prime function is to ask the question “What if…?” of the world and the people they observe.  “What if Donald Trump did meet Nelson Mandela?” “What is time travel is possible and we could go back to the beginning of 2016?”  The writer then applies their Imagination.  The creative narrator imagines themselves inside the mind of their character.   She gives it life and credibility and tries to examine what the possible outcome of the question is.  The writer inhabits the multiverse where all outcomes are possible, providing that we apply the rules of humanity and human nature.

John Le Carre, the eminent spy novelist makes a subtle distinction between “authenticity” and “plausibility” meaning, I believe, that merely to present our reality is not enough for a writer.  The world we create may be as far removed from the world we see through our window as we like; what is crucial is that we create a world that is so dense and thought out that the reader or audience never needs to question its veracity.  In just such a way that the work of great scenic designers and directors go unrecognised because they create an all-encompassing  world on the stage of such breadth that we never see round it. By creating such a total world and guiding our audiences through it, we are providing a totally immersive, authentic experience where we can explore issues and ideas that might sit uneasily with our own small experience but which in some way we can describe as True.

Music doesn’t have to be beautiful all the time.    It has to be True. It has to have meaning. It has to articulate something that’s important to be said. -  Natalie Clein Cellist.  BBC Front Row January 12th 2017

Monday, March 21, 2016

Chapter 1. Belief, bias and common humanity. Blood and Bones. Anger and Frustration.

For me, poetry is the distillation of a moment.  A play is the distillation of a life.

There's a lot of weird stuff about.  It's only to be expected, I suppose.  With seven point odd billion individuals in the world dreaming their dreams and thinking their thoughts, a lot of stuff is bound to come out weird.   How is it that someone can invent a rather gruesome bunch of chemicals, pump it up with carbon dioxide and persuade the rest of the world to drink it?  How can they fry some pink animal derived mush, and persuade us to eat it as if it was food?  Perhaps the really weird thing here is how the rest of us let ourselves be persuaded that these things are good to eat and drink when we have much more palatable things on our kitchen shelves? Such as drain cleaner. And isn’t it interesting that the description I have just given could apply equally to a bottle of Dom Perignon as much as one of coca-cola and to a tartare aller-retour at Heston Blumental’s drive by establishment as to a Macdonald’s burger?

We seem to be living in a world completely out of joint. Trump, Brexit, Putin.  This is the age of irrationality; The Great Endarkenment. Reason and truth no longer have any meaning.   This is the world of hyper reality where we convince ourselves that what we know perfectly well to be Untruth is in fact the Truth. The world is mad and we are all mad in it.  And I'm the worst of the lot. Because I'm a writer working in the world of theatre.  A time waster at a useless piece of frippery that merely adds to the madness because it depends upon people pretending to be someone else uttering words they didn't think up in a stuffy black room that we're all kidding ourselves is the deck of a ship or a ballroom in eighteenth century Vienna or the surface of Mars.

So how does this world madness manifest itself to me sitting at my desk overlooking the bay and distracted by kittens in hats on Facebook? I see people running along the clifftop earphones clamped to their ears completely cut off and unaware of some of the most beautiful sights and sounds in the world. I see it in conspiracy theories about chem. trails and faked moon landings on the internet, in an obtuse willingness to believe the unbelievable and in an urge to take unimportant things far too seriously while there is a disengagement from the things that really are important. I see it in our cowering before self aggrandising slobs who have muscle enough to transform gossip and down-right lies into some sort of ugly narrative for a bleak future in which they become the leaders and priests and only those few will have power to rape and pillage the world with impunity and I ask why we do not rise up to take back the world for ourselves? I see it in a totally bizarre world order that places accumulation of stuff before concern for our neighbour. A world where some are enabled and encouraged to accumulate more and more and more while others are screwed down by a form of austerity not seen for a hundred and fifty years. Where this pursuit of accumulation becomes as mindless as sucking on a mouth ulcer and diverts us from the more interesting things we could be doing with the one precious life we have been granted.  And where this pursuit of greed is being promoted to us as a common good in a relentless propaganda storm from those who already have more than enough. Where what we once all owned is being snatched away and sold off to the highest bidder so that we now have to pay some obscenely adipose feline for what is ours by right while the majority of us sink further and further into poverty. Where the whole fabric of our society is being deliberately ripped apart before our uncomprehending eyes.  And I ask myself how does this all relate to our existence as a story-telling, metaphor using species?  How is it, that the very thing that has made the human species rise up and achieve the possibility of a rich and fulfilled life for us all has been subverted through advertising and propaganda and downright lies into a strangulation of the soul to bring riches beyond comprehension to a very few and misery to so many?

And how is it that the people with the greatest influence in the world are the cheap pulp fiction writers like L. Ron Hubbard who I saw with my own eyes ripping off people in Corfu while he lounged on his motor yacht draped with bikini clad lovelies and Ayn Rand whose laughable, totally daft ideas are yet again echoing down the corridors of the White House and Wall Street and whose books are being promoted to shelves of every Republican politician and industrialist in America and, I bet, on many of the fifth formers at Slough Grammar school.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for me to quibble about the work of other writers.  We all need to earn a bob or two and I have written a few pulpy pieces in my time and I do feel a warm glow when people say “Your play made me think differently about the world.” Where it all goes tits up is when this sort of fantasy becomes taken for a philosophy and people who should know better take it as some sort of truth.

When you have barricaded the doors and shuttered the windows against the marauding lawless mob and you sit in front of your smoky fire (You have stuffed up the chimney to avoid grenade attacks) with your arsenal of assault rifles and machine pistols What do you think about?  Who is your friend?  Because you will need a friend to talk to at least.  Perhaps you could find someone in another fortress who could trade you a parrot and you could teach that to recite “There is no such thing as society” over and over as you slowly starve to death. If you don't go mad first.

And we still see this facile fifth form fantasy ideology played out in contemporary politics despite the obvious flaws in the thinking. We cannot, in our crowded world, function alone.  The idea of retreating to a small cabin in the woods with a pile of gold and a shotgun to hold the rest of the world at bay would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. 

This seeping disengagement has caused some of the great human catastrophes of the twentieth century and on into our own, so why is it surprising that we writers should feel we are the ones with a duty to attempt to take back the only thing we still have in common: this language of poetry and metaphor and try and make it a tool for exploring the human experience and place it in a cockpit of the imagination where we can all use it to explore together what it is to be human and how we go about our humanity? In this era of stuff and accumulation of stuff and money for money’s sake and activity for activity’s sake where we yearn to blot out the reality of what is happening in the world with utter mountains of shit and we are so terrified of not having enough we go on accumulating and doing mindlessly until it becomes a habit, a psychosis, it is up to artists to try and cut through this fog of accumulation of junk and try to centre back on people.  Individuals.  Not individuals against the rest of the world- that nasty cut throat world of Ayn Rand or the individuals as mugs to be preyed on that L. Ron Hubbard would have us believe in, but individuals as part of the great interconnected network.  We need to put the spotlight on those individuals and their struggles.  We can use the full force of our imaginations to draw from what we know and place the evidence before our audiences.  We need to help people to speak to people about their hopes and fears, aspirations and disappointments.  We ought to help give a voice to those who are so trodden down by circumstance that they can only lash out in an unreasoned blind fury We need to sweep away all the bullshit of spectacle and superficial soap opera drama and try to explain to the world just what is going on.  We need to use our skills and imaginations to engage our audiences in new worlds of possibilities, new perspectives on this one. Nobody else is going to do it for us.  Not the newspapers or TV.  Not the bizarre world of the internet.  Not even the kittens.  Theatre is fantasy but it is fantasy concerning the real world.

If we writers were as bold as Hubbard and Rand we might be able to help turn the tide against a dreamt up fantasy world order to a more reasoned debate where we seek evidence before we believe and try to accord respect and understanding to our fellow human beings.  Not imposing something that has no basis in the world as it is.

And where once we might have satirised and railed against corrupt and venal governments and officials we now have to take on a great welling black cloud of hate, mistrust, and what I can only describe as a miasma of evil which seems to have no origin but which is suddenly pouring out as if from fissures and cracks in the very normality we see every day and every minute of every day.

Yet I see theatre reduced to an easy spectacle of acrobatics and effects. Somewhere where individuals can be defined only by the issues they represent instead of their inner immutable humanity. It is part of the distraction.  Playwriting has become reduced to the production of endless ten minute pieces for dodgy competitions judged by those who have no idea of what really constitutes theatre.  I see “Theatre makers” lauded who have never had the opportunity to explore and understand the true power of theatre.  The power of theatre that comes down to us in a shaky wavering line from the Greeks of classical antiquity and before that from a deep shamanistic desire to capture the world from our hunter-gatherer forebears.  A theatre that has encompassed Shakepeare, Racine, Behn, Goethe, Ibsen, Chekov. A theatre of Blood and Bones and sinew and Brains.  Big, deep theatre that requires not only an understanding of the world it lives in but, as importantly, a fundamental connection with the craft and skills of the stage and how it is a fundamental coming together of writer, director, technical staff, actor and audience.  It is us speaking together about the world. Theatre is power because it enables us to know things that others do not know and to visit places no one else has been and, because it is fleeting, that knowledge will be between us and no one else. Paradoxically, the illusion of theatre is no illusion. The magic of the theatre is real and enables us to experiment with the very fabric of reality that can only be achieved by those who have committed themselves unequivocally to its dark arts.
As my friend Skidmore would say "If you care that much about it, why don't you get off your arses and do something."