I was recently very rankled on behalf of my playwriterly friends Down Under because of the appearance of this essay, The Australian Bad Play, by one Jana Perkovic, who amongst other things is a self-described “urbanist,” which is unfair but fun to single out. I was rankled mainly because a quick, superficial gloss of the thing seems to suggest that Australians writing in the mode of the naturalistic play just tend to screw it up pretty badly. It’s an assertion Perkovic makes via critiques of the autodidact model of Australian theatre-learning and of Australian playwrights’s rejection of the forms and conventions of the naturalistic, “well-made play,” forms and conventions that Perkovic argues aren’t merely arbitrary or silly, but deeply informed by history, place etcetera.
Just gunning in from a trigger-happy postcolonial position, I was enraged by the implications an attitude like this has for postcolonial drama in English, which was of course my only point of entry into something called the Australian bad play.
As if, I thought, we don’t already know the well-made play is precisely a historical product, an artifact of late 19th century European culture; as if, I continued, that isn’t good enough grounds to be skeptical of the form’s ability to tell postcolonial stories, or at least for postcolonial artists using those forms to tell their stories to use it in perverse, unsound ways.
(Also, a lot of her critiques on the failures of Australian naturalistic plays I felt would work as piercing critiques of my plays, but more on that later.)
The counter-argument from postcolonial rage still stands, if indeed that’s what’s actually important about the essay, which it kinda is, but isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s written with a deep tone of condescension and mean-spiritedness, and that even though the essay gets very astute and interesting in its later moments, it obviously needn’t have made that grand bitchy overture before getting there.
That said, though, Ms. Perkovic’s critical approach offers a very interesting model with which to think quite broadly about hybrid theatre cultures such as Australia’s and Singapore’s.
I’m specifically taken by one moment in the essay, in which Ms. Perkovic belatedly qualifies everything she’s gone on about the Australian playwrights’s lack of mastery over the naturalistic form by making a really smart and concise connection between a form and its existence in a society that didn’t give rise to it. Read it yourself:
Naturalism may be an unfortunate cultural transplant, driven more by the need for our theatre to appear ‘proper’ than any audience demand. The knowledge of bourgeois drama is not there. The bourgeois theatre history is not there. The bourgeoisie is not there, either. The colonial subject is not the independent human agent of the bourgeois drama. If naturalism fits uneasily in the Australian drama, it may be because its socio-political circumstances never happened.
First of all, the word “transplant” is interesting, and obviously activates a quite ambivalent discussion about the existence of what we’ll now call the “bourgeois play” in alternative (i.e. non-English), English-speaking modernities (by which I guess I mean postcolonial societies of the 20th century).
Secondly, Ms. Perkovic makes the actually-quite-provocative claim that the “socio-political circumstances” of bourgeois drama never happened in Australia, and that therefore the form has a kind of wart-like alienness to it. I think this is provocative because, if it’s in fact true, it asks a very deep question about why the form continues to exist at all, and how it can ever be reconciled with the larger culture. Of course, what the provocation doesn’t do so well is admit that the form could exist in a challenging, hybridised way, which Ms. Perkovic spends the rest of the essay before and after dismissing as almost always poorly done and unbearable. That’s definitely debatable.
Thirdly, “the colonial subject is not the independent human agent of the bourgeois drama” is profoundly accurate. For me, it’s a good way to explain the abrasive relationship that often arises in Singapore theatre between form and subject, between the differing contexts of audiences and plays. But it also opens the discussion to what theatrical forms the (post)colonial subject can be the centre of; vice-versa, what post(colonial) subjects can do with bourgeois drama (apart from suck at it).
So, broadly, this is my question: If the naturalistic play is a cultural transplant– an artifact of colonial history– and if as a result it exists in an odd relationship with the actual social history of its transplant host-culture, then beyond saying that there are no possibilities for the form in that culture, what can (and have?) postcolonial subjects do/done with this bourgeois form? Has the form been co-opted, appropriated, transformed, made relevant; or is the treatment of the form at the hands of postcolonials really just bad and pointless and shoddy?
Let’s just get this out of the way and say that my main interest here regards the implications of these questions for Singapore theatre. And before carrying on, I guess I ought to talk about why these questions interest me.
I’m at a point in my relationship with the theatre where I’ve begun to question why the hell I’m doing it at all, and obviously I’ve begun to doubt my work (which in a Perkovic-style analysis would probably be deemed as BAD).
It also comes at a time when Singapore theatre, in the story it tells to itself, has apparently “come of age,” and has therefore begun to take a slightly more meta, navel-gazing (no negative meanings) posture. Noticeably, there’s a wave of nostalgia for the theatre of 10-20 years ago, and a great deal of interest in the route taken by the theatre today. By route, I mean that we (or, okay maybe just I) have become taken by why people stage what they do. It’s become an important question, though whether or not people are (and ought to be) accountable for what they stage is still up for debate.
Unfortunately, while I think these sentiments definitely exist on the ground, we’re at a moment where there’s a lot to talk about, and a strong desire to talk about it, but no actual conversation, at least not in any critical, culture-inspecting way, certainly nowhere near what Perkovic has done. We quite enthusiastically discuss the heritage of our theatre, because that’s over with, and are moved enough to be nostalgic about it, but for the most part, I get the sense that when it comes to discussing the present, we’ll postpone that conversation for when the scene finally matures. Basically, this means that everyone just minds their own business, more or less, espousing their personal visions for the theatre in what I think is largely a vacuum (Facebook and the Straits Times Life! section).
Rather than engaging in discourse, theatre-makers here, quite understandably, seem content to let their work speak for itself, and that’s probably a good way to start tackling the questions I’ve raised.
I don’t think we’ve been completely unaware that there’s something not-quite-right about the naturalistic play. Some early attempts in the 60s to re-align the colonial subject with the bourgeois play resulted in some ear-achingly painful plays, and I believe a great deal of the work that followed in the 70s and 80s was so indelibly mortified by those attempts that it took on the most extreme and opposite of postures in the form of the avant garde. I have very specific thoughts about this kind of Singapore-made work, its reliance on the intellectualism of European Modernism its genre-bending, breaking-the-back-of-etc-etc kind of approach to drama itself, none of which I’ll share here.
Suffice to say, it’s formed a very established and respected branch of Singapore theatre that I’ll cursorily dub “weird theatre,” which isn’t dismissive, mind, but quite– I think respectfully– descriptive. I guess what I’m saying is that one response in Singapore theatre to the politics of naturalism was and is to throw naturalism itself out of the window, with the kitchen sink, so to speak. I don’t see this as an intervention in naturalism; its proponents seem to have gotten quickly bored of naturalism altogether, dismissed its potential and seized on the radical politics of its Other (since, of course, the historically radical politics of naturalism itself are deemed in this kind of approach to be irrelevant to our needs).
And then at the other extreme is a kind of bear-hug that some theatre-makers here have given to the form. Every year there’re scores and scores of productions of imported well-made plays, classics both actually classical and contemporary.
It used to be that you could almost reliably expect these productions to be obsessed with the authenticity of the source text, but the trend in recent times has been to localise or adapt the work, usually finding some kind of thematic or conceptual handle in the play that’s deemed to have some kind of universal resonance, or, ideally, a specifically Singaporean one.
I think it’s in this field that you can experience, quite viscerally, the conceptual friction that Perkovic outlines between the subject and form of postcolonial attempts at the bourgeois play, even contemporary ones that broaden their textures and contexts to include American sensibilities, and the largely film-and-TV structures and situations that come with that (possible side-point, here, about the new filmic life of bourgeois drama).
I’ve seen quite a number of local adaptations of classics, and have even been involved in one or two myself, and so far I’ve not been convinced by any of them. The connections are always clumsy and tenuous, the one conceptual handle shared between the adaptation and the source text is never enough to fully justify the treatment, and sometimes the transplantation is bizarre and monstrous in that way biological accidents can be. The one exception is probably translations, which work well insofar as the context remains largely ambiguous and placeless, though of course some kinds of energies don’t transfer well across languages.
Even when the treatment doesn’t try to adapt the source text, perhaps especially so, I feel the friction even more. Recently, while watching a pretty competent staging of an American play by a local theatre company, I was struck by how empty the production felt not because it was poorly done, but because, even though it was explicitly set in New York, and even though it revolved around a bunch of 20-somethings discussing very difficult and painful issues pertaining to 20-somethings, it felt so remarkably placeless and empty, as if missing some kind of fundamental spark. Later, discussing it with my friends over drinks, I realised that spark was recognition.
Which is not to say that we, proudly global and well-travelled, didn’t recognise the play, but it was a play (a very bourgeois play) drawn from the life and times and contexts of, to be blunt, rich white people, whose bourgeois culture is in many ways very different from ours, and we didn’t recognise– and I admit this is narcissistic– ourselves in the play. There was something oddly museum like about the performance, as if witnessing something that, no matter how hard the actors tried to involve us, remained behind a glass pane.
In sum, so far, what we have is two broad responses to the weirdness of the naturalistic play in Singapore. On one hand, you have an approach that out-weirds the weirdness and rejects the form altogether, choosing instead to embrace a theoretical and intellectual project that despite its iconoclastic gestures, frankly, is just as ill-fitting and bourgeois as the most colonial of plays (I’ve said somewhere before that the avant-garde seems to be the one place where we can try to eke out a true and radical postcoloniality, but we seem content to recycle old tropes of European Modernism, which is in effect a sort of intellectual colonialism).
On the other hand, we have a theatre perfectly comfortable with naturalism, a theatre that pitches largely to a kind of bourgeoisie in Singapore; but it’s a bourgeoisie that evolved out of very different conditions than the ones represented in these imports. Adaptation and localisation can’t make up for the fact that Singaporean-ised bourgeois drama is in effect a sort of perverse white-face, and that no matter how local the idiom, the well of cultural codes and understanding at the heart of the play– recognition— exists in some other centre.
So what’s left?
The great majority of Singapore theatre seems to lie in between. At least most of the more recent original stuff does. It has to. The great thing about Singapore playwriting is that it hasn’t been shy about its Singaporeanness. Incorporating the local idiom, local places, local situations in drama has become a kind of entry-level expectation for playwrights. And a lot of it is naturalistic too, or at least naturalistic-ish.
And that’s the thing that fascinates me now: are Singapore playwrights actually doing naturalism? If so, are we doing it well? And if not, what are we doing?
I’ll continue asking these questions and coming up with some of my own answers in future TLDR posts.