Features Guest Column Published 31 August 2012

Crisis of Naturalism

Writer and performer Hannah Silva discusses the barriers to formal and linguistic experimentation.
Hannah Silva

Just a word on the page, and there is the drama.

Wrote Sarah Kane in 4:48 Psychosis, “and a very frustrated literary manager”, joked my director friend.

Kane’s plays made me realise I could be a playwright. But liking her work seems to have become a bit of a cliché for any female writer interested in language and form. I blame her. If Kane hadn’t committed suicide she would have kept writing, and she would have proved that her interrogation of form, content and language could have gone further. Mel Kenyon has said that Kane’s “body of work was absolutely complete”, and I can understand why, but it encourages a view that shuts down this field for future writers.

Because Kane can’t talk back, she made herself into the exception that proves the rule, the blip in the system. And now theatres do everything they can to prevent another such embarrassment.

I went to speak with her.
But the jaws of her halls were uplocked tightly
to a coquelicot like me. So I threw
stones in the lake in the forest, innocently.

Saw black trouteyes quietlooking at the stars.

She is Philomela, daughter of Pandion.
Rubicon, goneagain, I circle her ceaselessly. (Joanna Laurens, The Three Birds)

But sometimes, despite their best efforts, they fail. At the same time as Joanna Laurens’ first play The Three Birds was on at The Gate to critical acclaim, she was sent rejections from all the other theatres that had received it: “A reader at Soho sent me a lengthy feedback sheet, thanked me for my submission but concluded that Soho would not pursue the play further, because the language was not dramatic and would not work on stage”. (Laurens, Make it Up, The Guardian)

Nobody got it but I knew what it was
got it but I knew what it was
it but I knew what it was
but I knew what it was
I knew what it was
knew what it was
what it was
it was

It is not easy to know whether this kind of language will work dramatically; it depends what you do with it. Often what on the page looks like something literary, something poetic, something undramatic, in fact only works in performance.

Strugglepause. Hold. Release. (Laurens, The Three Birds – stage direction)

Laurens’ next two plays didn’t please the critics. Charles Spencer asked in The Telegraph: “could she now do us all a favour by taking a prolonged vow of silence?”

His wish was granted. Laurens disappeared. Another writer stopped talking back.

I heard your name inside the rain – somewhere between the drops – I saw falling letters. Each letter of your name – I began to translate. (Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice)

K k no relation. K name k John k k? K k k Tommy k k John. K k k dead k k k believe a word. K k Derek. (Caryl Churchill, Blue Kettle)

The negative reaction to contemporary plays that play with form often seems out of proportion to the “crime”. Kane lists Beckett, Barker, Pinter and Bond as playwrights who have been criticised not so much for the content of their work, but “because they use non-naturalistic forms that elude simplistic interpretation”. (Kane in Saunders, About Kane)

She thinks / you know I think / poetry is not made but crushed / crushed out of extremity / the poet therefore / how hard this is to say to you / must perish / must perish as a consequence of his own / “¦ (Howard Barker, BLOK/EKO)

Strangely enough – given his reaction to recent work such as Three Kingdoms, his initial response to Blasted, and his general wish to put back together anything non-naturalistic – it was Michael Billington who was the gentlest on Laurens, albeit in a rather patronising way. In his review of Five Gold Rings for The Guardian, he wrote that seeing as “we sanction all kinds of wild physical theatre, it seems only right that we should find room for linguistic experiment”.

Oop scoopa diddly bop, iago scoopa bop da-wow! [I don’t want a little book, I want a big book.] (David Ives, The Universal Language)

We talk a lot about “diversity” in theatre. Diversity should not only be about ensuring we hear voices from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures on our stages, but all kinds of minority voices. Writers creating “linguistically innovative” work are a minority. As Laurens warned in The Guardian, “for as long as we dare put only naturalism on our stages, writers will dare write only naturalistic plays”.

No, words are useless. I’ve always known what I write doesn’t say what I mean so when I get praised I feel ashamed. (Churchill, Dreamplay)

Language play in the theatre seems to be more readily accepted when it has evident roots in naturalism and a recognisable – real, rather than invented – culture.

In an interview with Aleks Sierz, debbie tucker green explained how her repetitious dialogue has its origins in the way people speak. She has observed the ways in which young people loop the same statements and she transforms this characteristic into her own form of poetic dialogue. She demonstrates: “It’s hot outside; it’s really hot, innit? I bet it’s really hot.” So “suddenly you’ve got half a page of dialogue”.

Her play with words is always rooted in the rhythms of natural speech. Her play random creates poetry from Jamaican patois:

I want mi dawta. Here.
Them –
offer them mobile
I look fe mi landline
can’t dial –
husband do –
he can’t say”¦
I so – only”¦
‘Come home.
‘Come home now.’

So why is her form of language play more acceptable to our current theatres and critics? Talking to Lyn Gardner in The Guardian, tucker green comments: “It makes me laugh when I walk into theatres and people are tripping over themselves because I am a black playwright. If you’re black and working in a shop nobody trips over themselves.”

Critics have compared tucker green to Kane, but tucker green believes this is down to their lack of reference points. Perhaps the comparison also reveals how few playwrights with such distinctive voices there have been in this country. Even if their work has different influences, Gardner suggests that tucker green is fighting the same battle as Laurens and Kane before her: “when I hear people saying about green’s Generations: ‘Oh, it’s very interesting, but it’s not really a play, is it?’ I know that we’ve still got a long way to go before women’s experiments in form are accepted without qualification”.

It’s a contrick. I did one last week that was an abstract picture of the street, blue for the buses, yellow for the flats, red for the leaves, grey for the sky. Nobody got it but I knew what it was. (Churchill, Blue Kettle)

As young critics at the Edinburgh Fringe have recently demonstrated, the main reference point for any work that plays with form and language tends to be limited to “Dada”. The standard criticisms rolled out are “self-indulgent” “fragmented” “self-conscious” “clever” – and what in Shakespeare’s time would have been a compliment: “poetic”.

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language. (Shakespeare, The Tempest)

But perhaps fractured narratives are more representative of our lives than kitchen sink naturalism. Our days are fragmented: we write half a line, read a tweet, respond, retweet, start to email, Google and finish the initial line. Playwright Dan Rebellato seems to be constantly on Twitter. Perhaps he writes his dialogue between tweets. Perhaps these new ways of engaging with words will feed into the form and language of our theatre. As Churchill said in 1960: “fuller use of form should make plays not less but more true to life”. (Cited in Roberts, About Churchill)

And now it’s gone
now it’s gone
it’s gone
no one

You can help me clean up in the morning. (Churchill, Far Away)

Perhaps one of the challenges is that it is not possible to teach writers how to write a play that breaks the rules. We currently have an oversized industry of people being paid to tell unpaid writers how to write. There’s not much uncertainty in playwriting workshops, but in fact the good writers tend not to know how they do it.

You don’t discover anything if you have a map. You’ve got to sail into the night and risk shipwrecks to find an island no one’s seen before. (Philip Ridley, cited Goldman, The No Rules Handbook for Writers)

There are many voices telling us what they want us to write, how they want us to write it, how they want us to re-write it, and exactly what will happen to it if we get all of that right. As a poet I know which journals will publish my poetry and which ones will always refuse it. As a playwright I’ve discovered there is no other place to send this work.

“Produce it yourself”, you might say. Which is precisely what I’m doing. Many others do too, but not all writers are also able to act as fundraiser, producer, director and often performer. Keeping playwrights who write differently out of the “new writing” camp is too easy a way to end this debate.

As a tail it is not completely convincing. (Mac Wellman, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field – stage direction)

The new writing / new work divide will not dissolve easily. Too many people will not let go of the idea that their “writer centric” processes are good for writers, too many are too in love with their tried and tested development pathways to be willing to invent a different model for each writer.

Quite right. Often the authors themselves aren’t sure. They simply don’t know such precision from their mother tongue. (Vaclav Havel, The Memorandum)

I’ve quoted the playwrights that give me courage. But even the ones still writing now are hard to access and talk about their work very little. I think that if we want things to change, perhaps it is not the directors, literary managers and critics that will make the difference, but the playwrights themselves. Next time I Google words like “form” “language” “innovation” “playwriting”, it would be nice to get a few more results.

A question is framed.

A question is raised.

(A question is ignored.) (Mac Wellman, Speculations: An essay on the Theater)

Hannah Silva is a writer, performer and theatremaker who is currently touring with her production Opposition. She also regularly blogs on her website.


Hannah Silva is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.