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February 28, 2012

Shakespeare, Marx and Theatre: An Interview with Dominic Dromgoole

Dominic Dromgoole is Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Part 2: The relationship of theory and theatre and the role of theatre in social change

This is part 2 of an interview with Dominic Dromgoole. See part 1 here:

Before travelling to interview Dominic Dromgoole, I read his two books, The Full Room and Will and Me.(1) I learned from them that he was not a fan of academics, critics and theory. Even though I work in academia and theory I decided to use this interview as a means to critique what Dromgoole calls “ivory towers-ville”. What I found out was that some of Dromgoole’s critique of theory is actually similar to Marx’s criticism of idealism, and that another part of Dromgoole’s critique of theory keeps him from knowing just how much radical theory agrees with him.

When I asked Dromgoole what were some of the Marxist (dialectical materialist) approaches to theatrical directing and acting that he had come across in his academic and professional career and had these theories been of any guidance to him, he responded:

“This is going to be a short one. It’s sort of none and no. I can’t think of a single professional director who uses a dialectical materialist approach. There’s always a disjunction between quite often what academics think the rehearsal process is and what the rehearsal process is. It is a much more intuitive, contingent, messy human business than it is a constructive academic approach. When I was young, there was a rage sweeping through university institutions, when I was at Cambridge, for a very New Historicist or deconstructivist or dialectical materialist approach to Shakespeare. There was a book called Political Shakespeare, edited by Dollimore. And it’s in black and red and it’s got a splash of red on the front and it was sort of aggressively dull. Some of the prose within it is so agonizingly painfully impossible to read and get your head around it, that it sort of lives in a funny nether world and has very little contact with theatre or Shakespeare or the world. There was a huge battle going on at Cambridge when I had left, because Colin MacCabe was publicly defenestrated because he was too politically radical in his approach to Shakespeare and the old school Shakespeareans were waging war against the new young Turks, and to be honest we all just sort of opted out, we all just thought that this is ivory towers-ville and this doesn’t have much relationship to what goes on between a play and its audience. Since then, I suppose I’ve grown a political sense, vague and personal as it is, and that’s guided me in all of my artistic choices and it becomes something sort of innate within you. But it’s very rare that you sit down and say, ‘how am I going to approach this play in a dialectical materialist manner’.”

It’s too bad that Dromgoole found Political Shakespeare “so agonizingly painfully impossible to read and get [his] head around it”, because he might have found an echo of his thinking in it. In Part 1 of this interview, I report that Dromgoole holds that a Marxist play is one that doesn’t allow positions of power to be taken for granted onstage and that the struggle of opposing forces in history that underlies all Shakespearean plays is necessary for theatre to be successful. In one of Political Shakespeare’s most important essays, Kathleen McLuskie’s ‘The Patriarchal Bard’, the following can be found:

A production of the text which would restore the element of the dialectic, removing the privilege from Lear and from the ideological positions which he dramatises, is crucial to a feminist critique…it can be equally well served by making a text reveal the conditions in which a particular ideology of femininity functions and by both revealing and subverting the hold which such an ideology has for readers both female and male.”(2)

It seems to me that McLuskie and Dromgoole are saying the same thing – crack open the fetishism of privilege, depict the underlying struggle for domination - but one is speaking from theory and the other from theatre.

In The Full Room (3), Dromgoole writes that, “Criticism is a farce.” He rejects “the idea that there is some independent zone of pure judgment where a critic can float above” real world contingencies in the critics’ lives such as “what [they] had for lunch, when they last shagged, where they went to school, when they last bereaved, the school play they failed in [and] their athlete’s foot”. It seems to me that he is here employing a punk Marxist materialist approach against the idealist notion of a form of pure judgement that stands outside our real, lived lives. I might add to his list questions such as: who the critic works for, who the critic votes for and in whose interest is this piece of criticism being written? I asked Dromgoole, what would be an alternative way to view theatre that is more in line with Marx’s method? He replied:

“In an ideal world you don’t have criticism. Shakespeare wrote in that world and the only critics were the public and whether the public continued to want to see the plays and whether they wanted to grow with the plays. And by some sort of miracle he found the ideal audience for what he wanted to do and that audience extended him and emboldened him and took him further than he might have otherwise have done without that audience. There were no critics. There was nobody there to judge. There was nobody there to print some load of cock in a newspaper. And there was no one there to dampen effort and to dampen ambition. Or to do the worst that critics do which is really ask people to write the same thing over and over again. And they’re terrified of novelty and imagination. And that’s Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, is that he wiped the slate so clean after each play and was able to re-imagine formally what theatre could be. That would be best, no critics.

“In the absence of that, you want avowedly personal critics. You want critics who smell of themselves and of their own opinions. And who get sort of down and dirty and passionate. But are always in the act of revealing, as they write, who they are,and their own prejudices…Who are always admitting where they are coming from, which might be that they had a bad curry for lunch or that they might find it hard to write about a play because their wife’s just thrown them out because they smell.

“And what I find entirely bogus about some critics and some academics is that they pretend to live on some sort of plateau above us where they breathe the purer air. And then the pronouncements and the judgments come from that plateau rather than from them. They pretend that they are specially selected priests and they have been given hieratic secrets that the rest of us haven’t been given access to and they come down with commandments and tablets and it’s just rubbish.

“We deal a lot with academics here and they’re fantastic, they’re useful, a wonderful team of researchers who increase our knowledge of that world, massively. Farah [Karim-Cooper] at the forefront. And we deal a lot with an architectural research group who are helping us understand what our indoor theatre should look like and did a lot to do with the old Globe. A lot of whom are fantastic. Some of whom are bewildering in their loftiness. And they can change positions 180 degrees from one meeting to another and be equally adamant holding totally different positions.

What you’ve actually got is not a judgement. You’ve just got a persona that you have been trained into or that universities train into people of effortless superiority, which has nothing to do with what is coming out of their mouths.

Much of Dromgoole’s critique here sounds similar to a materialist critique against idealism (“the purer air”). His accusation that critics ask playwrights to write the same thing over and over again and that they are terrified of novelty and imagination is somewhat echoed by Theodor Adorno in his essay on surrealism:

“What is deadly about the interpretation of art, moreover, even philosophically responsible interpretation, is that in the process of conceptualization it is forced to express what is strange and surprising in terms of what is already familiar and thereby to explain away the only thing that would need explanation. To the extent to which works of art insist on explanation, every one of them, even if against its own intentions, perpetrates a piece of betrayal to conformity.(4)

It seems to me that Adorno and Dromgoole share the same reservations about criticism of art even though they speak from different fields: critical theory and theatre, respectively. It also seems to me that there may an unnecessary gulf of misunderstanding between theory and theatre. Constructing bridges across this chasm would allow both theory and theatre to educate each other.

Finally I asked Dromgoole the following question:

Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach states that, “The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” Do you think that theatre changes the world? Does it have an activist role? What sort of playwriting, acting and directing would make theatre more activist?

Here is his answer:

“There is not a shadow of a doubt that theatre changes the world and there is absolutely no point in working in the theatre if you don’t think that it changes the world. There are quite a few people who don’t think that it changes the world and they work in theatre for the most horrendously pusillanimous and cynical of reasons. And often to display their own talent and often to make cash. Both of which are offensive in different ways.

“It doesn’t have to be an activist role, no. It can be and it can be successfully and theatre can speak to them very directly about their own social problems and about the social problems of the world around them and it can also help to empower people and it can help people to understand their own feelings and their own stresses and what’s wrong in their life in a better way. I think that the most profound thing that theatre can do is re-energize an individual’s sense of their own life and a sense of joy at the lives of others and a sense of the reality of the lives of others. A large proportion of the social problems that we face are due to people not understanding the reality of other people or not respecting the reality of other people. [It’s] a profound lack of empathy. A profound lack of joy. Whether its’ slamming a plane into the Twin Towers. Or merrily reeling off a collection of austerity measures which are going to hideously punish the lives of people you don’t know and never see. All of those problems stem from a lack of empathy/joy/insight into the reality of other people.

“A good theatre experience can intoxicate as to the life you lead but it can also thrill you about being in a world where you are together and where you share the ability through language and through other signifiers to enjoy life. And also this thing about variety is central. You can call it dialectical. I think it’s sort of broader and more confused than dialectical. If you are made aware of the infinite complexity and variety of impulses that go into any single moment, and you can respect the comedy in the sad moment and the light poignancy in a comic moment, and you can respect that your understanding of people is only ever superficial and should always be enhanced, then you can respect the variety in other people. The more that you can respect the variety of people, the healthier the world is.

1. Dominic Dromgoole, The Full House. An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting. London: Methuen. 2002. Dromgoole, Dominic, Will and Me. London: Penguin. 2006.

2. McLuskie. Kathleen. The patriarchal bard. Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1985. 106.

3. Dominic Dromgoole, The Full House. An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting. London: Methuen. 2002. x.

4. Adorno, Theodor. Looking back on surrealism. Notes to Literature. Vol. 1. Trans by Sherry Weber Nicholson. New York: Columbia University Press. 1991. 87.

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