Sunday, April 22, 2007

On not giving away the plot

I've just been reading Alison Croggon's stunning review of the current Melbourne production of The History Boys and thinking about some differences: between the 1950s and the 1980s; between England and Australia; and, most of all, between reviewing theatre and reviewing fiction.

What this last difference seems to come down to is that you only 'review' a novel when it's new. And what that means is that part of your unbreakable contract with the reader (to say nothing of the publication for which you're writing) is that you must not give away the plot.

Anyone who's ever studied literature knows that there are some thumping big differences between literary reviewing and literary criticism. The main one is that in literary criticism you are not only free to discuss every aspect of the plot in question but pretty much required to do so. Fiction reviewing, on the other hand, is a bit like foreplay; the pleasures of reading narrative lie mainly in its unknowing, in the way that narrative desire lures and drags you forwards through the story, lustfully wondering what will happen next, revelling in the deferred pleasures of finding out.

So unless it's a new play (and in Australia it relatively rarely is), the theatre reviewier has a shared understanding with her/his readers that (almost) everyone knows more or less what happens in it. The artifact of the play's text is a given, and the reviewer is therefore not only free but, again, required to discuss aspects of the play as a whole thing, entire and intact: structure, characterisations, plot, meaning, ideology. What's being discussed is not just the text, but also the latest onstage interpretation of the text.

With book and theatre reviewing for MSM publication, obviously both are subject to the strictures of publication: in both cases, if you're writing for a newspaper you've got a non-negotiable and usually small word limit, and an editorial requirement that your ideas and language will remain punter-friendly. But on a blog you are freed up to write at a greater level of complexity and at as much length as you like. You can insert spoiler warnings, which is a rather good way of getting around the strictures on giving away the plot, though with fiction as with film reviews this can be frustrating for the reader.

But Alison's review of The History Boys seems to me to be one of those blog posts that demonstrate the possibilities of what blogs at their best can do. It's an ideal medium for reviewing theatre. Theatre reviews are by their nature ephemeral and need to appear straight away; theatre productions are 'news', in that they quickly get old, in the way that books are not. And there's certainly no publication in this country that would run a theatre review of even a quarter this length and complexity -- probably at all, much less in time for potential punters or recent audiences to read it.

In the blogosphere and freed from the cash nexus, though, it becomes possible for someone like Alison to share with her readership the expression of what she thinks and knows, without having to withhold any information or dumb anything down; to share it while it's still current and breathing; and to elevate the level of cultural discussion, among people who find it interesting and important, to far greater heights than anything in the MSM infrastructure could possibly allow.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla


elsewhere said...

Yes, she writes some great reviews, doesn't she? They fill me with longing -- the longing of being at a distance from things.

Anonymous said...

Can't agree. I think it's a review loaded with carried baggage. She condemns Bennett for not writing the play she thinks he should have written. Mysogynist ? The man who wrote The Lady in the Van ? Not just wrote it but lived it. And so he didn't mention Hopkins or Eliot or Pound. If Alison wants Hopkins in a play perhaps she should write her own. But he does use another more homebound English school, one that ignored or gave up on politics and ideology. I think Alison's review encapsulates all that is wearying about so much present-day Australian theatre. Shaped by the old totalitarian misogynist Brecht it puts theatre in the service of politics. So we don't understand that there was once a time when a teacher fondling boys on the back of a motorbike was not a matter to be aired publicly, was not talked about openly. The possibilty that this might have traumatised the boys concerned was not recognised. There's a lot more to be said but I wish I could see the Melbourne production. It does sound interesting and would be good to compare with the Richard Griifiths version of Hector which I saw elsewhere.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well, anon, I think we're (you and me, I mean) talking about two different things. I didn't mean that I agreed with everything Alison said, and (being a fan of Bennett's myself and therefore inclined to defend him, though the attitude embodied in the play to feeling up little boys is very disturbing, I think) would probably agree to disagree about a few things here and there in the review. But that to me is a side issue and was not what my post was about.

When I said it was a stunning review, what I meant was that it was knowledgeable and passionate and beautifully written, that the observation was detailed, fine-drawn and brilliantly expressed, that the analysis was well-informed and being conducted at a high intellectual level, and that Alison was doing what I think people should do when they're talking about art, which is examine what it's saying about the world: the messages it carries, the beliefs it implies and supports, and the ways in which it does so. These are all qualitatively different questions from whether or not one agrees with the opinions being expressed.

I doubt you could show me any review of anything anywhere and prove to me that it is not "loaded with carried baggage" (by which I assume you mean the reviewer's own view of the world) -- if only by virtue of what the reviewer has chosen to leave out.

Anonymous said...

Now THIS is a good review !