Drew Milne, ‘What was it like for you?’: being there and performance

Carolee Schneeman, More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings, Ed. Bruce R. McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 1997), 0-929701-54-2, £27.50 / $35.00
Ed. Mary Bryden, Samuel Beckett and Music (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), pp. 267, ISBN 0-19-818427-1 (hbk) £40.00 / $75.00
Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the contemporary past (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 0-415-07325-1 (hbk) £50.00, 0-415-07326-X (pbk) £14.99 / $20.99

These three useful and interesting books exemplify a range of problems which go beyond the explicit concerns of their subjects. Taken together, their differences reveal symptoms in the current state of research. The artists exemplify three main strands. Carolee Schneeman represents the avant-garde of performance art which emerged in the 1960s, but which has remained marginal to the art world and to the academic practices of art history, theatre studies and performance research. Beckett represents the modernist performance writer whose status warrants detailed scholarly discussion of his tangential influence on other artists, here musicians, with a level of attention rarely given to other contemporary modes of performance. Meanwhile the Shakespeare industry props up the bank of academia and offshoots of global media inc.

The market for Schneeman’s work may be too distinct for a more academic press. Independently produced, this is a reissue of a book first produced in 1979. Schneeman’s work is presented with some sympathy for its avant-garde spirit and the book suggests an open relation to possible readers, somewhere between the coffee table and the study. Shorn of academic propriety or solemnity, More Than Meat Joy presents a diversity of photographs, scripts, archival material, writings and bibliography, to enable an extended encounter with Schneeman’s work in book form. Samuel Beckett and Music is published with Clarendon’s particular academic standards and gravity, with generous musical illustrations. The book assumes familiarity with Beckett’s work and makes few concessions to those unused to reading contemporary musical scores. As such, it is a book for libraries. Performing Nostalgia, by contrast, seems designed for class-rooms in need of rough guides on how to process Shakespeare through contemporary theory. A familiar moral tone begs questions of race, class and sexuality but remains introductory and brief with empirical materials, while eager to restate mantras of gender, historicism and the post-colonial body.

What makes this diversity intriguing is the appropriation of performance for specific critical agendas. As site-specific art has often shown, context can over-determine the critical aspirations of a text or performance. These books perform the institutionalisation of their materials in ways which owe as much to their publishers as to their editors and writers: institutional transgressions are domesticated by the respective house styles. Routledge’s anthology of Split Britches (1996), edited by Sue-Ellen Case, provides a model for the presentation of performance texts, photographs and critical notes, but such books remain unusual despite the overlap of interests between feminist theatre and critical theory. More Than Meat Joy, however, has a very different feel and sense of purpose. The legitimation of performance has not been helped by the paucity of written representations, but this is circular, a reflection of the marginality of ‘performance’ as a market and subject of study. Theatre and theatre studies are similarly afflicted. But the history of theatre and the availability of dramatic texts has made it easier to legitimate theatre as a subject for critical study, vocational teaching and arts funding. More Than Meat Joy suggests some of what is inevitably lost in the struggle to sanitise the wilder pleasures and provocations of Schneeman’s work. But even if performance’s significance is its resistance to textual representation and institutionalisation, performance cannot rely on anecdote for legitimation. Much British avant-garde performance work, for example, risks being over-determined by American interests, not least in publishing practices. British students can study Robert Wilson or Split Britches because there are materials that make this possible, even without being able to see their work in the flesh. Comparable British work is neglected, and there are few useful materials for those who were not there first time round. Much ‘live’ art thematizes what it means to be present at a performance as a question of the historicity of performance. This opens out the category of ‘experience’ in relation to performance, not least because the critical vocabulary of performance so often depends on performances which preexist the present or which took place before those who are now interested in ‘live’ art were born. The folk memory of Dada somehow persists while the wagon wheels of performance are continually reinvented.

What emerges, then, is the difficulty of producing books which make performance archives available while enabling analysis of the critical challenges for other modes of thought and representation. If Schneeman, Beckett and Shakespeare resist the appropriation of their work by the culture industry, then performance books need to articulate the tensions between description and evaluation to allow performance to be understood and developed critically. What, then, does it mean to translate performance into new kinds of critical text? While these books do not always succeed in resolving such problems, they succeed in dramatising the critical difficulties and offering provocations.

The provocation I experienced reading these books is the question of ‘being there’ for the difference between textual representations of performance and the ‘live’ experience of such performances. Performances tend to over-spill the way they are prefigured in scores and scripts and a literary bias towards performance texts is evidently limited and limiting. It can take time to figure out whether a production photograph is really a publicity still, a rehearsal photograph or a posed moment supplementing the parameters of a performance. However flawed the archive, the more residues the better for most attempts to assess what a performance was like. The experience of a particular performance, however, is not unique or immediate, but a reflection of the horizons of expectation and lived experience which in turn are mediated by the experience or memory of other performances. The jargon of ‘skills’ often applied to ‘performance’ with regard to ‘performance skills’ is shown up by the false functionality of attempting to define ‘audience skills’. The capacities within an audience, like those of a performer, vary considerably. From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. The experience of ‘being there’, then, opens out not just the problem of what is ‘live’ in performance, but also the experience and historicity brought to performance and then subsequently shaped as part of that which remains alive in the mind.

Memories of performance are difficult to analyse, however, requiring some of that narrative finesse and caution associated with dream analysis. Often what lives in the mind never quite happened, but was part of an imaginative relation to a performance only remembered because you recall the performance you wished you had seen, or because of the people you were with. Proust’s descriptions of the intermingling of desires in the experience of theatre and music are perhaps the most nuanced. And as Proust suggests, seeing the same piece performed again, or many times, dissolves boundaries of perception. The memory of performance works not so much as a recording instrument, but as an affair of the heart which the flesh is heir to. Even with repetition, however, ephemerality is one of the pleasures of performance, not least where a moment, once performed, cannot be the same again. If a performance does not live in the mind, what afterlife can it have, especially for those who were never there?

Significant performances tend to acquire a collective memory and resonance, but the initial aesthetic sifting of performances is often too quick. What now seems vital may be passed over initially and left unrecorded. Surviving residues are often too sketchy to reveal the critical and imaginative possibilities revealed by past performances. But what motivates and shapes the desire to capture the past for analysis? Is nostalgia the inevitable risk of any attempt to develop a critical culture of performance? Experience suggests that important aspects of perception and memory are now mediated by film and information technology. In the midst of live performance I have caught myself reaching for the rewind button. The construction of events by various media can alter the temporal experience of live events and the ways in which they are designed to be repeated and remembered. And yet, as so often emerges in discussions after a performance, it is rare that anyone agrees about what it was like to be there.

These questions arise with some vigour in More Than Meat Joy, since the spirit of representation involves a range of archive materials and photographs which give a sense of what it might have been like to experience such works. The aesthetic is one of documenting process rather than of representing performance as text. As Bruce McPherson’s introduction explains, ‘We wanted to get at the feeling of action in space and time that defines a performative event; we wanted also to make “reading” about this work a process akin to its creation.’ (p.iv) Schneeman emerges as an important but awkwardly idiosyncratic pioneer whose work dramatises feminist questions about the status of the body in art. McPherson argues that ‘all of her work is rooted in formal training in gestural abstraction’ (p. v) and that she needs to be understood ‘as a visual thinker, a philosopher of the actualÖ’ (p. v). One way of focussing such differences is to recognise that although Schneeman’s outrageousness seems to mark a break with older avant-garde traditions, her work nevertheless emerges out of formative friendships with figures as diverse as Edgar Varèse, Louis Zukofsky, Joseph Cornell, Charles Olson, and John Cage. As someone who read the first edition of this book many years ago but couldn’t then buy a copy, I’m delighted that this book is back in circulation. This is an exemplary and friendly documentation of a performance artist’s work and a book for both personal and institutional libraries.

Samuel Beckett and Music locates Beckett within comparable circles of friends and avant-garde artists. Music was evidently of primary significance in Beckett’s work, especially his dramatic works, informing a range of formal analogies and structural principles, along with a more distinctive sense of the meaning of music for experience as such. Just as music works both as a critical motif and as an emotional index in Proust’s work, so with Beckett. This book focusses less on the presence of music in Beckett’s work than on the relation to Beckett’s work developed by a number of musicians. The twenty or so essays collected here lay out a range of approaches and examples, from diverse disciplines and European backgrounds, including helpful surveys and memoirs. Beckett’s correspondence with Thomas MacGreevy reveals that Beckett responded positively to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern as early as 1949, and the book suggests the range of Beckett’s collaboration with various modernist art practices. The tension between text and music nevertheless afflicts most of the connections developed here, revealing important problems of competence in the differences between textual and musical analysis. The parallels drawn are often more suggestive than convincing and rarely address the qualities of performance in music which are so movingly articulated by Beckett’s work. Beckett’s careful sense of media specificity is transgressed to generalise artistic conditions rather than to explore the reasons why Beckett’s work resists musical adaptation.

The tendency is to underestimate the politics of sentiment in Beckett’s preference for music-hall performance over classical concert performance aesthetics. Beckett is domesticated within the more ‘serious’ concerns of serial and post-serial music. Thus it is refreshing to come across Beckett’s own comments on fudged combinations of words and music: ‘by definition, opera is a hideous corruptionÖ opera is less complete than vaudeville, which at least inaugurates the comedy of an exhaustive enumerationÖ’ (p. 174). In this spirit, it is entertaining to be told that Beckett disliked the inexorable purposefulness of Bach. But for all the engaging array of materials provided, Beckett’s lightness of avant-garde spirit is lost in the ponderousness of documentation. His influence on performance art of various kinds is pervasive, but the smell of the museum and the study suggests that the politics of Beckett’s distinctive and critical populism needs reassessment. In many respects, however, this book represents a serious step forward in the materials available for thinking about Beckett. Although good for libraries, this book nevertheless neutralises those more social and political aspects of performance that make Beckett so elusive and resonant.

If Samuel Beckett and Music lacks a sense of the dynamics of performance practice, Susan Bennett’s Performing Nostalgia attempts a comparable shift, by trying to move Shakespeare out of performance studies into current theoretical debates. The central thesis about the mummification of Shakespeare in heritage industry nostalgia is timely. Numerous attempts have been made to return Shakespeare to original instrument performance aesthetics rather than developing Shakespeare as a dynamic resource for creative vandalism and performance poetry. Shakespeare evidently needs to be reinvented for the performance of the present. But the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London suggests just how tricky this can be. The Globe combines a theme park tourist Shakespeare with new populist performance dynamics while pretending to reconstruct original conditions, mobile phones and all. Bennett’s central thesis about the conservative dynamics of nostalgia is thus contradicted by the Globe, since the experience of being there tends to dramatise new and as yet barely understood audience dynamics. Nostalgia often has double-edged political ambiguities and the politics of historicity in performance are not quite so easily divided into left and right. Bennett’s book predates the impact of the new Globe, but the problem of nostalgia is of more general interest.

Bennett’s primary object is the history of British performances of Shakespeare. Although she acknowledges the difficulty of placing such radically unstable ‘texts’ within academic criticism, her approach relies primarily on published reviews of productions. Perhaps Bennett’s most significant claim is made in a footnote: ‘I do not propose any of these reviews (or others cited in the following pages) as “objective” readings of any of the performances. Merely they enter, in what is a particularly privileged public discourse for and of the arts, a trajectory of “the past” which can be, like the performance itself, an agent in the process of “shifting”.’ (p. 163) The syntax here is characteristically awkward. While the privileged discourses of performance require analysis, Bennett’s approach has more to say about reviewing than about the agency and historicity of performance. The theatrical review is an ideologically significant component of the memorialisation of live art, but Bennett tends to reproach the conservative agendas of newspaper criticism with a rather broad brush. A more probing analysis might be more sceptical about the way reviews are symptomatic of the difficulty of discussing performance. I was most struck by this in remembering some of the performances analysed here and the strong sense that Bennett must have been at very different performances, or more simply has relied on reviews rather than personal experience.

A public culture of performance criticism inevitably relies on reviews, documents and retrospective representations. But each of these materials need to understood as its own kind of performance. Thus when Bennett berates my friend Randall Stevenson’s review of the Kathakali King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival as being grounded in ‘monoculturalism’, I’m moved to differ. One response is to observe that Bennett doesn’t quite allow for the violence of print culture or for the international dynamics of the Edinburgh Festival and the multi-cultural tensions within Britain, and between London and Edinburgh. Shakespeare looks different in Scotland, and everywhere else for that matter, but most of the records are printed in London. Memorable performances from Deborah Warner’s Kick Theatre appear here, for example, without a sense of why such performances impressed those who saw them, myself included. Similar problems vitiate Bennett’s account of Red Shift’s production of The Duchess of Malfi, which I also remember with some pleasure. Bennett observes that Red Shift productions succeeded in attracting audiences despite their lack of critical success with newspaper reviewers, but comments rather patronisingly on the audience interests involved. In the 1980s many theatre groups had to remove the word ‘Red’ from their names or add ‘Royal’, notably the National Theatre. The politics of such gestures were widely understood by audiences in ways that print media barely understands. The misrepresentation of dance and club culture is perhaps the clearest evidence of this. Plays in Britain regularly attract audiences in ways which suggest that reviews are not the principal means of generating audiences. Widespread scepticism about reviews also suggests that the experience of being there involves different qualities of attention. Given Bennett’s arguments for the emancipation of the spectator in her book Theatre Audiences, her characterisation of audience dynamics is peculiarly prescriptive.

Where Bennett attempts to apply cultural materialist and new historicist readings the gulf between iterary critical rethinking and the historicity of existing performance practices is no less problematic. Bennett acknowledges this difficulty: ‘For almost every moment of performance to which it refers, the study erases the processes which have made that movement, gesture, utterance possible.’ (p. 153) But what emerges is a reading of London Theatre Record rather than new modes of analysis aware of such problems. The attempt to shift Shakespeare out of the existing agendas of theatre practice and criticism fails, while the dynamics of performance are reduced to textual residues. The theoretical resources brought to bear on performance are often less sophisticated than the performances discussed. In short Bennett’s discussion has more to say about the textual residues of performance, and in so doing reduces the history of performance to occasions for class room introductions to ideology critique.

Bennett provokes doubts about any analysis of the experience of ‘being there’ in understanding the historicity of performance, and in this sense the book performs a central difficulty in performance studies. More Meat Than Joy provides a more challenging and suggestive sense of the problems involved, partly because the gulf between presentation and qualitative critical discussion is left open. All three books reveal the extent to which the movement from description to performance critique remains awkward and fragile.


Copyright 2009, Drew Milne