Anonymous, by anonymous

There’s an interesting two-part exchange under the last Bruntwood Readers’ Blog post, “The Feminist Gaze,” by Meg Vaughan. In it, below-the-line, “James Wang” asserts:

“A playwriting competition owes it to the world to review and present plays on their own terms. Nothing else. Playwrights don’t have to write articles or manifestos. Don’t judge plays on how they treat women, or whether there are enough ethnic/gender/psycho diverse people in them. Don’t judge them on how they explore particular social issues. Definitely don’t judge them for how they make white people think about their whiteness. Judge them for artistic value. Otherwise a playwriting competition, uniquely placed to judge plays on their merits, will completely miss the vital point it could play in a world so dominated with identity politics.”

It’s a classic encapsulation of the Conservative view of art. That there is “the Art,” and anyone who judges it “on political terms” is somehow violating a sacred safe-space for artists to imagine whatever they like, and for the results to not be judged in relation to the actual world. Or something. If I summarise it badly, it’s because I’ve never fully understood how it’s meant to work. Especially when Conservatives seem all too ready to criticise the content of plays that they understand to be “left wing”. (A good example is contemporary Poland, where theatre makers are noting that this Conservative injunction to “not judge art on political terms” soon became “don’t make art ‘with political content’” (i.e. Art with which the government disagrees) as soon as their far-right, Catholic Nationalist government was elected. (Polish theatremakers say, without hesitation, that their present “democratic” government is infinitely more interventionist than the old Communist one.) See also: President Donald John Trump’s claim that “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”)

What I find fascinating, though, is that neither Vaughan nor Wang mention the thing that I’ve always found to be one of the two the most salient, fascinating, and impossible parts of reading for the Bruntwood: that readers don’t know who the authors are. (The other is that you don’t know what the production’s going to be like.) [Usually: much, much worse than I’ve imagined, in my experience. But that’s theatre for you.]

As Wang puts it, we live in “ a world so dominated with identity politics.” Which is the condescending, Conservative formulation to describe a nonetheless unmistakable cultural shift that has taken place over the past decade or so in terms of how people choose to define themselves, apparently driven by social media and the internet.

The point is, in the Bruntwood there are no identities beyond the pseudonyms that writers choose to give themselves. Writers, can easily change their gender, adopt a name which appears to point to a particular ethnicity, or even erase any sort of human/cultural clue by signing themselves “Anonymous”.

There are positives and negatives to this. Particularly now, after Brexit, after Trump, when a lot of playwrights seem keen to tackle the idea of “political correctness.” At a point in history when such a lot of emphasis is placed on one’s “identity,” and the way this affects how what you say is perceived, it feels almost farcical being asked to judge anonymous works. Stripped of the context of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. how can we judge their standpoint according to modern standards? In a culture where identity and authenticity appear to constitute so much of a work’s meaning, how can we poor readers tell if such-and-such an author “has the right” to write what they’re writing? What happens if a play turns out to be cultural appropriation? What happens if a play that seems sexist is in fact a brilliant, ironic, feminist deconstruction of sexism? What happens if the play that I would ordinarily write off as irredeemably Islamophobic was actually written by a pissed-off Muslim?

[I should say at this point that these examples (and indeed my possible positions on them) are all completely hypothetical]

At the same time, there’s something refreshing about having these biases removed. Without the usual information about who the writer is, you initially approach the work without preconception. And can never be fully sure of the position from which it is coming.

Of course, in an ideal world, all this information would be academic, since the proof of the play would be in a director’s critical production of it. Although, my God! imagine if both playwright and director were anonymous when the production were actually staged! Although that would make planning to see their next thing annoyingly difficult, I suppose; and writing about their body of work impossible…

I’ve asked that my name be taken off this piece so you have some idea of just how frustrating it is to read a piece written by “anonymous”. Do you agree? Do you think you know who wrote it? Do you at least think you know what race or gender I am? Or might I be writing in a way that deliberately disguises my true identity? Might I have tried to write from a completely different perspective from my own, or are these the things I really think and believe? Difficult, isn’t it? Or perhaps you don’t think so.

5 Sep 2017

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  1. I agree with this. However I have also seen left-wing writers and artists constantly portray right wing people as bigots, liars, charlatans and racists. I would like to see a left wing political theatre which aims to get under the skin of conservative people more, empathise with them, seek to explain their motives and desires.

    James Graham’s new play “Ink” is a great example of the kind of political theatre we should be aspiring to. As much as we may despise Rupert Murdoch, Graham seeks to humanise him and steps away from making any judgement

    by Anonymous
    11:10 am, 8 Sep 2017
  2. I don’t think we need to aspire to political theatre. What we should aspire to is good drama, without prescription. The death of drama is when people tell you what drama should be–that is a kind of aesthetic dictatorship. This ties in to the recent post about dead white men. Do we dismiss O’Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee? Of course theatre should be open to every voice from every background (ideally) but a kind of cultural PC dominated inclusion can be as dogmatic and elitist as that which it is trying to displace. Great drama has a mysterious force which moves people and which they instinctively recognise–so please stop telling us what it should be and just…let it be…

    by HICKY
    9:04 pm, 10 Sep 2017
  3. I agree with Hicky.

    Firstly, I am not a conservative – even less a Conservative. I don’t recognise judging art on its own terms as a conservative idea. Conservative implies a desire to conserve in the face of radical change. I’m not sure how you could read that into the idea that art should be judged on its own terms. Neither do I consider conservative people to be alien or different. People who voted Conservative are not oddities to be considered or examined like animals in a zoo. It’s worth remembering that Conservative voters in the last election were largely drawn from working class communities. The idea that we need more plays examining how ‘they’ think only supports the idea that theatre is becoming a radically shrinking liberal echo chamber.

    Of course art should not be censured for being political. Thankfully that is not really part of the discussion in the UK. Both the Polish government and Donald Trump are utterly wrong to say that theatre should be any kind of ‘safe space’. By the same token, art should not be judged on the basis of what it says politically. What this post discusses as well as the previous one is not judging art at all. It’s about judging the politics of the author. It decides that because someone portrays women or ethnic minorities in a certain way that they, the author, hold a particular political attitude towards particular people. This is simply wrong.

    In fact, this post goes even further. It suggests a play could be qualitively different based on the identity of the person wrote it. It is suggested that a sexist play written by a man could be biting satire written by a woman. Islamophobia by a non-Muslim could be something else by a Muslim. How can this be right? Is it really true that the identity of the author can change the content of a play? It may change the author’s perception of the content, but that is with the author, not with the play itself. After all, how far should this go? Can Asian writers write black characters? Are black characters written by non-black people less believable because of the identity of the author? Can poor writers write wealthy characters? Which aspects of an author’s identity matter and which don’t? It is hardly surprising that the writer of this post finds themselves actively policing the backgrounds of the writers they are reading. It is worth remembering that the Stalinist secret police did the same thing.

    Consider how patronising this approach is to writers of non-white backgrounds. It says that the value of the work lies in who they are – not in what their play says. It actively encourages readers to think about a writer’s race or religion. This is an inversion of what so many radical left-wing writers fought for in the past. Art has always been a means of challenging racial categories. Now we use art to enforce and entrench racial identity. This is a step backwards for progressive politics and for progressive artists.

    We forget all too quickly that all art involves cultural appropriation. Artists of all ethnic backgrounds have always borrowed and adapted parts of other cultures to make art. Today, it is like we want to put writers back into neat, identify defined boxes. This is anything but left wing. I know this is unfashionable to suggest but what happens if a middle class, white man writes a great play? Can it not be a great play unless it somehow acknowledges the ‘privilege’ of the author? That’s horse sh!t, pure and simple.

    Chinua Achebe once said: ‘Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him’. What better expression of the universalising power of art could there be.If identity really is so central to art then anonymising the process really is pointless. But the identity of the artist should be irrelevant to art. Art is about the universal transcending the particular. It’s about finding a truth that is deeper than our skin colour, our gender or any other aspect of our individual identity. An anonymous playwriting prize allows for plays to be judged completely on their own terms. Long may it continue.

    by James Wang
    1:19 pm, 11 Sep 2017
  4. I’m not sure what the the original complaint is here. There’s no such thing as ‘art on its own terms’. Audiences won’t experience any piece of art in a vacuum. They’ll bring their own lives directly into the story / frame / room, just as any reader will to the page. There’s never going to be impartiality of any kind; even the most ascetic academic has an agenda, even someone solely concerned with craft and form has a prescription for success or failure that someone else is going to disagree with. Meg’s is just one viewpoint among the many that Bruntwood readers will bring to the process.

    The only alternative is some kind of automatic scoring system, point by point; does the script do x? Does it do y? And sure enough, that would also be a completely prescriptive set of parameters. Meg’s blog was demonstrably her own opinion. So… what is there to complain about?

    by Tim X Atack
    8:56 am, 13 Sep 2017
  5. I’m aware I’m not really engaging with the debate here but I get a little bit annoyed by the Brentwood Prize’s constant boasting of anonymity, largely because it feels disingenuous. I’m sure in theory anonymity is a good idea but I simply don’t believe that the Royal Exchange hasn’t already read a good number of the top 100 scripts before and it doesn’t take much to google a title to find out a play’s development history and indeed the name, gender and details of the writer.

    by Anonymous
    2:53 pm, 13 Sep 2017
    1. Hi

      Thanks for your comment, you are right in that maintaining anonymity in the age of Google can be difficult. However the anonymity really is at the heart of the Prize and has defined it since its inception in 2005. As one of the first theatre prizes to go anonymous we put in a lot of work to make sure only the writer’s script is judged.

      I, as the Bruntwood Prize Co-ordinator, don’t judge the scripts but oversee the mammoth task of ensuring the smooth running of the 5 phase reading process. I check titles and then contact the writer to ask them to alter the title if needed so that the script can not be identified by readers. Also all readers sign a contract to ensure that if they know or have come across a script before (and therefore anonymity may be compromised) they have to reassign the script to another reader. Yes, it’s difficult in this industry to guarantee you never know but we do everything we can to maintain anonymity and always state a conflict of interest if we do know the script and therefore the writer.

      To be honest, it’s part of the joy of the competition – when we get to ring up the shortlist and say “I have absolutely no idea who you are but you are on the shortlist” – it’s a real honour to be able to do that and we wouldn’t want to spoil that enjoyment!

      Chloe

      by Chloe Smith
      4:58 pm, 13 Sep 2017
  6. I’m not sure what the the original complaint is here. There’s no such thing as ‘art on its own terms’.
    My original post was a response to a comment that suggested that plays must be political or at least the implication that plays should aspire to direct social comment (unless I misunderstood post–quite possible!) A play about two people sitting in a room talking about their personal lives can be just as relevant (on a human level) than a play that has an obviously polemical/didactic slant. I worry that plays that have an obvious surface level social ‘relevance’ are looked upon more favourably (which is why Terence Rattigan was thrown aside in favour of the angry young men and women of the late 1950s–until his recent revival) Plays that are issue led do not always make for the best theatre. Of course even of you are ‘apolitical’ your work will still have political/social implications–but I think it is an interesting point to raise.

    by HICKY
    3:01 pm, 14 Sep 2017