So here’s what I expected from Elizabeth Avery Scott:
‘Dear David. In response to your request that I respond to your ‘review’ of my play Lies, Love and Hitler: I found nothing coherent or intelligent to respond to. I have no interest in engaging with a juvenile internet screed, nor am I convinced that you would act in good faith in reproducing my response on your site. Yours, Elizabeth Avery Scott.’
She didn’t write that. That’s what I would’ve written, and it would have been an adequate response. Alternatively, she could have copped to the fact that a good portion of her script was a semi-coherent anti-feminist slur and she hadn’t intended to offend anyone or write anything so palpably misogynist. Imagine that: a writer acknowledging their mistakes. I would’ve taken my hat off to her for that.
Alternatively, she could have backed up the weird characterisation of women in the script – maybe it was intended to be ‘satire’ (usually the first defence that leaps to mind if I’ve written something unjustifiably offensive) or maybe Scott genuinely believes that the rise of feminism, sexual harassment officers and the whole notion of gender theory is actually a negative thing (a distraction from the important business of men being chivalrous and making all the decisions all the time). Whatever her excuse, Scott could have stepped up and said ‘My script, which tens of artists have spent hundreds of hours producing, which hundreds of people spent collectively thousands of dollars and hours on, was not an objectionable waste of time.’ That’s almost the least you can do, really, if you don’t want all those people to feel cheated for having ever dedicated part of their lives to your work.
Instead, Scott said nothing. Not because she didn’t read the review; my efforts to bring it to her attention were unnecessary, as it turns out – she started researching me on Monday morning, just a few hours after the review was posted and before most of you read it. And not because she felt it was insignificant – at time of writing, more than twice as many people have read my review as saw the play (and the season sold out – nice work, team). So what precisely was gained by silence? The lasting impression is not of a writer who is too mature to get involved in internet drama, but of a writer too ashamed of their work to speak out on its behalf.
So what have we learned? Two things I can think of. First, if you make a statement in the public domain – by writing a play, for instance – which draws certain parallels or makes certain claims about the world, you may get called out on it. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and if several hundred people sit through a play white-washing sexual harassment, there’s a chance that some of them will be offended. If you haven’t considered that your play might be seen by people who don’t share your values, consider it.
The second point follows the first: if you write something which is going in the public domain, you need to be ready to back it up. If you can’t stand behind it: don’t write it.
Now, the really interesting question is: what effect will this have on Scott’s next play? Will she think twice before inserting high-handed gender stereotypes into her scripts? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.
There’s an episode of Extras where the characters receive the reviews for their new TV show. The critics universally describe the show as bad, but Stephen Merchant’s character makes sure to distinguish the bad they mean: ‘Not evil, just poor. Shit. A shit show.’
Lies, Love and Hitler, on at the Street Theatre over the next week or two, is both poor and evil. Playwright Elizabeth Avery Scott has written a dreary two-act play which seeks to ‘explore ethical questions’, but which fails to meet any ethical standards in its presentation. It’s a distorted polemic which picks its side early on and then attempts to bolster it by any means available.
It’s depressing, as always, to see a work like this elevated beyond its worth by a good production. Director PJ Williams, set designer Imogen Keen, lighting designer Gillian Schwab and the trio of performers wrestle with the script to try and strangle some kind of value out of it. Scott’s script wins, but the production doesn’t go down without a fight – in fact there were moments where I found myself legitimately entertained. In the end, though, you can’t counter the drag factor of a play that is both unethical in its aims and incompetant in its execution.
The setting is a university: Theology professor Paul Langley is teaching a course on ethics, centering on German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who became a double-agent trying to undermine Nazi Germany, and who was eventually arrested and executed for being part of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In the present day, the 39 year-old Langley gets into an illicit relationship with his student, 25 year-old Hannah Summer. While they are afraid of being found out, Langley discovers that Hannah is currently pursuing a sexual harrassment complaint against another of her professors. Bonhoeffer’s ghost appears to both Langley and his student girlfriend, spicing up their lives with his witty repartee and giving them advice from his own life experiences. Cartoonish scenes from Bonhoeffer’s life are interspersed throughout the story as tawdry melodramatic interludes.
Fifteen seconds into the play (which up until then has been churning along like an unremarkably trite piece of bad theatre) Scott introduces her first ‘ethical conundrum’, and straightaway the play’s claim to be an ‘exploration of ethics’ falls over and catches fire. The play opens during one of Langley’s Theology lectures, as he presents Bonhoeffer’s story: Here was a man whose pacifist beliefs prevented him from committing violence, yet willing to perpetrate violence on Hitler; a man who was dedicated to the truth, yet willing to lie to help bring down Nazi Germany. How could a godfearing minister betray his principles in this way?
The answer, to most of us, is obvious: the ends justify the means. It’s a canonical example of a case where most people would agree that violence and lying is justified. (Check out Fred Clark’s Slacktivist post on this topic for a more detailed discussion) In certain evangelical subcultures, this is known as ‘situational ethics’, a vaguely defined paradigm meaning roughly the opposite of ‘moral absolutes’. For most of us, the idea of a moral code which is at least slightly flexible and adaptable in extreme circumstances is something we take for granted.
It would have been interesting if Scott had asked ‘Is it right to abandon your pacifism to kill Hitler?’ and put forward an example of someone who said ‘No.’ That would have been challenging, confronting, and alien. Bonhoeffer’s answer of ‘Yes’, while commendable, is not in any way incomprehensible – or, in fact, very interesting. In order to drag out the conundrum for long enough to satisfy the press release’s claim that it would be a major feature of the play, Scott’s protagonist Langley is forced to take the weird and unrealistic position that the ends never justify the means. Over the 2.75 hours of Lies, Love and Hitler, he learns that the ends justify the means when it suits him personally.
In one of the play’s early scenes you see Langley and his eager student (a decade and a half his junior) reveal a mututal attraction for one another. Over a series of increasingly creepy and bizarre scenes, their cringeworthy flirtation graduates into an illegal semi-sexual relationship. Here is where Scott crosses the line from pointless and poorly-expressed moral commentary into unacceptably amoral writing: Langley’s decision to lie about his illegal relationship with a student is equated to Bonhoeffer’s decision to undertake counter-espionage to help bring down the Nazis. Every gutless, selfish move that Langley makes to protect his career and his predatory relationship is linked to Bonhoeffer’s long struggle as part of the German resistance. The comparisons here range from the tacky – the zany, wisecracking ghost of Bonhoeffer coaching Langley on how to keep his cool under interrogation – to the stomach-turning – the representation of the University’s Sexual Harrassment officer as a Gestapo officer.
Which brings us to Scott’s other indefensible misstep: her incoherent and insulting attacks on Feminism – or rather, on the boogyman she invents and labels as Feminism. At the beginning of the play, Hannah is presented as a ‘feminist’, though we see no evidence of this in her simpering deferrence to her male lecturer and her pathetic eagerness to please. Halfway through the play, Hannah reads a collection of love letters and is ‘cured’ of her Feminist leanings. I’m not shitting you, this is what she says: ‘I’m supposed to be a feminist – an intellectual – but I can’t tear myself away from you!’ From this point on, Hannah becomes theatre’s traditional subserviant female character, taking her lead from the men and interjecting phrases like ‘So what should we do?’ and ‘I can’t believe I’m having this conversation!’ into their monologues.
Scott’s dismissive ignorance of anything Feminism is demonstrated by her inability to find anything remotely related to Feminism for her ‘feminist’ character to say. She is forced to resort to the stock-standard ‘I don’t want men opening doors for me,’ stereotype, and then having put that inane bullshit in Hannah’s mouth, needs to kick her while she’s down by creating a theatrical setup where the door needs to be opened by the man. Those silly women, they can’t even open doors for themselves! and so on.
Scott’s straw-man depiction of the feminist stereotype reaches its nadir with Hermione Linton, the University Sexual Harrassment Officer. Linton is presented as a severe, sexless monster, using a network of spies and surveillance cameras to try and crush Langley’s blossoming love affair with a student 14 years his junior.
I’ve fortunately never had to deal with a Sexual Harrassment officer on campus, but I feel as if it would be a tough duty – a serious, draining job providing a close-up view into sexual and emotional abuse of all kinds – and I frankly take umbrage at Scott’s depiction of Hermione Linton as being more invested in ‘protecting the institution’ than in the victims she is working on behalf of. Either way, the ‘interrogation’ scene, in which Langley successfully avoids confessing to his illegal relationship under Linton’s questioning, is framed by Scott as a heroic battle between the plucky underdog and the repressive authorities. Instead, it comes off as pathetic: two men congratulating each other for concealing a crime and outwitting a woman trying to do her job. As well as being obnoxious and uninformed, this tangent of the play is completely irrelevant to either of the stories Scott thinks she is trying to tell – but it stands out from all the other irrelevant nonsense in the script by its petty virulence.
In the end, Langley makes the decision to quit his job in order to pursue a relationship with Hannah. In one of the most beautiful examples I’ve ever seen of a playwright’s creations getting away from them, Scott’s characters cannot help betraying the holes in this fairytale ending. Hannah shows glimpses of doubt – a man 14 years her senior with whom she has been involved with for a few weeks throws away his entire career in order to focus exclusively on her, and she is understandably creeped out. His emotional immaturity is matched by his stunted sexuality – when Hannah complains that Langley has never noticed her boobs, he awkwardly stammers ‘I’ve… noticed… them.’ A 39-year old man with no sexual experience and a set of Christian hang-ups around purity: not looking promising for a great sex-life, I’m afraid. Even the barrage of feeble quips that conclude the play cannot shake the realisation that this relationship is doomed, and that it will not take long for Hannah to get bored with Langley’s uninspiring dependance.
I’ve been critical of Scott’s technique throughout this review, but what really irked me were the ethics of this work, which I think are absolutely unacceptable.
Dear Elizabeth – in one of the articles promoting this production, you said that you wanted to provoke discussion around these topics. I would love to hear your response to this criticism. Let me advise you first of all that I have lost every argument I’ve ever been in, and I’m quite prepared to back down and retract any accusation you convincingly refute. You can tear into me with vitriol or icily demolish my points one by one, but I don’t think you can ignore this. That would be like saying you don’t care enough about your art to fight for it, and I don’t believe that for a second. I know you poured your blood, sweat and tears into this script, and you didn’t do it just to upset me.
Email anything you want to blind_dragonfly at uymail dot com and I will post it – unedited – and that will be the end of it. You wrote the play, you get the last word. So. Go.
I 100% do not understand what this poster is trying to tell me.
PS. It’s probably worth mentioning that the Australian Stage Online review had a, um, different take to mine. On the one hand, I’m right and they’re wrong, but on the other hand, they have more readers and their website is called Australian Stage Online: who are you going to trust?
THE PAST: just spent the week in Sydney with The Masters of Space and Time, producing their show Swamped: Up to your Arse in Alligators at the Australian Museum. Commissioned by the Crack Theatre Festival in partnership with the Aust Mus and the Council of Australian Museum Directors as part of the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity. It was beautiful – Stu Roberts’ razor-sharp Victorian farce in the Skeletons Gallery after work with drinks, food and a 150 year old stuffed agouti. Nickamc came up from Melbourne to do lights and sound, and also performed a gorgeous live DJ set of biodiverse tunes: Syd Barrett’s Effervescing Elephant + Boards of Canada’s Peacock Tail makes me happy.
Star of the show, the Brazilian agouti. Image by MOSAT.
Anyway, back in the Cancers and about to get to grips with my next big project (producing a festival in Canberra in March 2011 in the lead-up to the 2013 Canberra Centenary), but first: some scriptage.
Working with MOSAT as commissioner/producer for Swamped, and now getting my teeth into the glorious world of Epidemiology for my February 2011 show with barb barnett and Gillian Schwab This Is Patient Zero: A Christian Guide to Sexual Intimacy, I have been enjoying the experience of creating theatre around science topics. In honour of that impulse, I want to post up a few pieces of script which tackle science in different forms. Maybe these should all be gathered together into some kind of compendium: The Compendium of Some Scripts about Science. But for now, here they are as separate animals.
image by frosty.
world creates itself.doc
This is a short monologue which describes how the earth and the moon first met. This was never meant to be a stand-alone piece, but I tore it out of my notebook during a tie-breaker situation with Omar Musa at the 2008 ACT Poetry Slam, and it worked well enough to get me through to the National Finals. I’ve since performed it as a part of solar system play with Finnigan and Brother live on FBI Radio’s Sunday Night at the Movies – but here it is in raw, distilled form. AND IT’S ALL TRUE. Top that. 1 performer, 5-6 mins.
An experiment in applying the tools and techniques of Network Theory to live theatre. 5 nodes are mapped out on the stage. The audience select two nodes to connect, and the link between them is a scene. There are 10 links in total, and the audience help to determine the order in which they occur, unraveling the tale of a kidnapping as they go. 3 performers, 15-20 mins.
petrol station play: the tower of generate and test.doc
Late at night, the lone attendant of a petrol station is unaware that a pair of bloodthirsty vampires are preparing to ambush and murder him. However, rather than just attacking the station directly, Manson and Bekken use the opportunity to discuss and demonstrate the key concepts behind philosopher Daniel Dennett’s ‘Tower of Generate and Test’, a thought experiment which explains some of the features of nature’s more complex and sophisticated organisms. One of the more fascinating ramifications of Darwinian natural selection represented by an undead assault on an innocent young man: two great tastes that taste great together. 3 performers, 15-20 mins.
In the Sydney YHA the other week, Jackal and I saw a lass with a tattoo on one shoulderblade which read ‘You work your whole life for something beautiful and someone can just take it away from you’.
On a completely unrelated note, Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Glyn Roberts invented a brand new Writers Theatre in Melbourne entitled the MKA Richmond. As well as being awesome, this new venue opened with a season of 25 playreadings by playwrights including my self. Vedrana Klepica’s JATO was on the cards for production next year. It basically doesn’t get any better than that if you’re a person who likes good things. Oh, but
So within two days of opening, the theatre was shut down by Council, on the basis that it is on a part of the street that is zoned as Residential (there is a brothel on the same street within arm’s reach (yes, I checked), but it exudes some kind of non-Residential forcefield around it) and there were pre-emptive complaints from other residents about ‘too much foot traffic’.
At first that seemed unreasonable to me, given that the MKA Richmond is a 44-seat theatre, but then upon further consideration it makes good sense. The street is presumably not rated for upwards of 40 pedestrians, and it could well buckle under the load. And even if the suburb of Richmond somehow avoids caving in whenever Toby and Glyn hold a playreading, there’s the noise to consider – 44 theatre artists murmuring their appreciation for an extraordinary piece of new writing would easily drown out the sound of the FUCKING FOOTBALL STADIUM ACROSS THE ROAD.
It’s weird because I’d find it harder to get to sleep at night knowing that a large portion of the nation’s arts community is in discussions about what a petty jerk I was.
Personal opinions aside, as a practising playwright and co-director of the 2009-10 Crack Theatre Festival, I am disgusted that this extraordinary venture has been treated so poorly by the Council.
Back to personal opinions – Toby and Glyn moved the reading of my 22 Short Plays to a gallery across the road and it was fucking rad, and they went to great lengths to make it happen despite the shit hitting the fan at the same time. They are radical and I offer up my sincere thanks.