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.