Features Catherine's Comments Published 9 January 2013

Borrowed Fragments

Acts of cultural kleptomania.

Catherine Love

In the lull between composing “best of” lists from the previous year and rejoining the hectic cycle of press nights and review writing, coming up with a suitable subject for my scribbling is something of a challenge. Unsurprisingly, it becomes problematic to write about theatre when actually seeing very little of it. Which brought to mind that uncomfortable, bile-fuelled notion of the critic as parasite: an individual with no real talent of her own, only able to poisonously feed off the creativity of others. If we were to subscribe to the Platonic argument that artists create representations because they lack the abilities they represent, then critics are at yet another remove from those skills being depicted.

Rather predictably – parasitic is not, after all, an adjective that many people would wish to be associated with – I have certain issues with this notion. Just prior to my usual self-imposed break from theatre over the Christmas period, I briefly abandoned the pantos and tinsel for some meatier festive fare at the Royal Court. In the razor-sharp middle section of Martin Crimp’s new play In the Republic of Happiness, a squirmingly hilarious skewering of the cult of the personality, executed through a long stream of statements and staged something like a TV chat show, one recurring phrase kept snagging. Repeatedly, and with escalating echoes of self-deception, a series of characters (if indeed we can even conceive of them as characters) insist that they write the script of their own lives.

There is, of course, a nice meta-theatrical irony that Crimp is playing with here. In the context of the Royal Court, we’re all aware that these are actors reciting from a script; their words are pointedly not their own. But this sending up of our adamant claims to individuality achieves more than an arch nod to its own conventions. There is also a sense in which none of us are ever speaking our own words, however much we may cling to the conviction that we are scripting our own experience. We’re reframing the words, bending definitions, scribbling in the margins, but the page already exists.

Also over the Christmas period I finally got around to reading Certain Fragments, Tim Etchells’ scattered collection of theory and performance texts outlining, exploring and intersecting with the work of Forced Entertainment. Its form is a direct reflection of content, with everything in scraps and fragments, a magpie-like act of borrowing and assembling that has been at the core of the company’s work. As Etchells explains, “the reconstruction of a narrative from clues, the reconstruction of an event from its objects, the reconstruction of a text from its fragmentary scenes were framed as the objects of our work”. Dialogue parroted from films, images taken from the streets of Sheffield, objects appropriated and transformed into props – this scrapbook method of making has constantly informed the company’s work. But it’s also a process that, in more subtle and often subconscious ways, underpins all methods of making.

Just as Dan Rebellato persuasively argues that all theatrical representation is metaphor – even if the normativity of naturalism has become something of a dead metaphor – it might reasonably be suggested that all creation, whether acknowledged or not, is an act of borrowing; taking something from somewhere else and using it for one’s own devices, perhaps to reveal something new, or more plausibly just a new facet of something old. In a culture that compulsively fetishises novelty, “original” is a prized but frequently abused descriptor. Original is an absolute concept (though they are used, phrases such as “quite original” or “very original” are essentially meaningless, much the same as describing someone as “very dead”), whereas the art that is made today needs an adjective with gradients; perhaps this has been done before, but not by me, not in quite this way, not about this particular thing that is happening right now.

In the same way that recognising all theatre as metaphor loosens the stranglehold of dominant norms such as naturalism, rendering other forms of metaphor equally valid, acknowledging the extent to which we are caught in a trap of borrowing and quotation makes certain unhelpful creative divisions somewhat obsolete. As Etchells tells us, the process undertaken by Forced Entertainment is one “in which no single aspect of the theatrical vocabulary is allowed to lead”. Disrobed of the mantle of “originality”, the often worshipped text is one creative element among many; not devalued, but simply offered equal value to that which surrounds it.

In lieu of traditional New Year’s resolutions, which always seem to involve quitting something – smoking, drinking, overeating – one thing I’ve decided to do in 2013 is to start keeping a scrapbook. Rather than making disparate and easily lost notes of the things that excite, intrigue and inspire me, or simply absorbing them into pieces of writing like this, I want to keep a record, one that I can return to and draw from. Because we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, cultural kleptomaniacs, constantly selecting shiny objects and gleefully putting them to use. Admitting to this is not an effort to place the work of critics on the same plane as that of artists; what we do of course remains different and serves different purposes. But neither is it a question of parasitic exploitation – or if it is, then it’s only to the extent that we’re all cultural parasites.

It’s not the borrowing of creative influence, impetus, inspiration or device that matters so much as what is done with the power lent by these acquisitions; how they are collided together, how they are used to create or subvert a vision of the world. It seems apt – if a little glib – to end on another borrowed fragment, again from Etchells: “Language is always a suit of someone else’s clothes you try on – the fit is not good but there’s power in it”.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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