On the controversy surrounding LITTLE DEATH: to Daniel Karasik, Erin Brubacher, and the Canadian theatre

I first read Daniel Karasik’s play Little Death a few years ago. It immediately struck me as a remarkable achievement. On the one hand, it was a dense literary document: a challenging dramatic poem, exciting to read and read again. On the other hand, the script burst at the seams with theatrical possibility: so lean and yet so dense, so subtle, so open, Little Death prescribed nothing but demanded everything. In other words, perhaps Little Death seemed full of theatrical possibility precisely because it was an extraordinary, challenging, carefully conceived literary text. An ideal drama, in a way. In my correspondence with Daniel over the years I loosely followed the script’s development, hearing about various readings and workshops, and I was very excited when Daniel told me it would be mounted as part of the Riser Project. I was so excited, in fact, that I made sure I’d catch the production during a short trip to Toronto last week.

In my encounters with the script, all of which happened strictly on the page until its production at the Theatre Centre, I’d never felt offended by it. It had troubled me in the way challenging literature does: Its formal explorations of restraint, hesitation, scarcity, deprivation, and emotional and sexual self-coercion are juxtaposed with a plot about hunger, satisfaction, and fulfillment – about mostly male, but by no means only male, desire. This complex, paradoxical relationship between form and content is not only affectively reproduced while reading the play, essentially enacting conflict upon its reader, but also creates a space of political, moral, and ethical ambiguity. The play’s form consistently undermines its content and vice versa, creating a space that’s full of political, moral, ethical – and thus theatrical – possibility. Going even further, I’d suggest that the play’s form doubles to reflect the sheer distress and anxiety in the face of its own difficult content and ambiguity. That is to say, on the page, Little Death never made a discernable statement about gender and sexuality, much less a misogynistic one. 

That being said, the recent production of Little Death at the Theatre Centre squashed the play’s complex openness and ambiguity. So yes, I did feel offended by the production, and I have a great deal of sympathy for Erin Brubacher’s reaction, though mine differs somewhat from hers. Knowing the script as I did, I was primarily disappointed in, and frustrated by the lack of a sophisticated theatrical vision for the play that honoured its formal characteristics. This absence of a clear vision resulted in a complete disregard for the play’s dense allegorical and metaphorical qualities, painfully literal representations of outdated female and male archetypes, stylistically uneven performances by some of the country’s most outrageously great actors, a baffling set, clunky blocking, and an uneven dramatic arc, consisting of the oh-so-dreaded “scene-transition-scene” structure without an overall shape. Little Death needed a conceptual approach that took into account the play’s complex relationship between form and content. A vision that translated Little Death’s literary form into theatrical form, engaging with the play’s inherent paradoxes and ambiguities, its discomforts, it challenges, its resistance to provide clear answers. Without deliberate attention to those perhaps unusual characteristics, the play indeed risked “taking a side” and “having a message” of more than questionable and potentially offensive quality – because it deals with challenging issues.

These observations raise two sets of important questions, both of which are also more or less implicitly invoked in Erin Brubacher’s letter.

  1. Who are we talking to? Who are our audiences? Is it politically (and morally and ethically) “progressive” of plays to provide “messages” and answers? Might it be politically (and morally and ethically) “progressive” to withhold answers, to leave us stranded, out in the open?

In his brand new book Theatre of the Unimpressed Jordan Tannahill writes,

Theatre is a place where we collectively go to work things out. Plays create space for us to engage with potentially challenging questions, and the dynamism and unpredictability of doing this with strangers in a room in real time is what gives theatre its potency. It’s also what makes it necessary for us, as audiences to embrace failure from time to time as a natural by-product of this process. Failure suggests a living engagement, not something in which everything has been figured out in advance. The theatre is human and fallible and requires an audience that can be trusted with these vulnerabilities. It’s an artist’s responsibility to acknowledge his or her failures and learn from them.

I very much agree with Jordan: inquiry is key to vitality. Without “potentially challenging questions” any theatrical activity is dead from the outset. Why should we get into a room with others to discuss what we already know? Similarly, nothing makes me more suspicious and resistant than being told what to think – even if I theoretically ideologically sympathize with whatever message I’m subjected to. One might argue that this production of Little Death provoked a discussion, and thus constituted a true theatrical experience in the sense that Jordan suggests above: we’re now “collectively work[ing] something out” online. This may well be true; however, I’d suggest that, if the production had deliberately honoured the play’s complexity, Little Death could, and likely would have provoked a different kind of discussion, one that might have felt less personal and less difficult. Which brings me to my next set of questions:

  1. Who’s to blame? What’s blame worth?

I do think it’s important that we differentiate between the different voices at work in this production. To some extent we must distinguish between the voices of the playwright, the director, the actors, etc., but even more importantly, we have to differentiate between the voice of Daniel Karasik the person, the voice of Daniel Karasik the playwright, the voices of the characters, and the voice of the play as a whole. In other words, I’m interested in separating the voices and opinions of the author from the literary and theatrical voices and opinions in the play.

In her letter to Daniel Karasik Erin Brubacher suggests,

I have the strong sense that you have guided the journey of this piece’s presentation and have been a driving force in how your words played out: The public conversation around your play (including your own posts etc.) suggests that you were the producing engine for this production, and very much a lead artist in the process.

Even if he did, we have to be careful. Consider the following lines from Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author”:  

In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato con- cealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. 

Like Barthes, we too have to wonder “who is speaking” in Little Death, because what he says about literature is true for theatre as well: In discussing and critiquing each other’s work we must distinguish between the creator and her creation – writing, saying, or making something doesn’t automatically imply condoning it. Yes, accountability is important: as Jordan says, “it’s an artist’s responsibility to acknowledge his or her failures and learn from them”. But especially in situations like this one, we must remember that the artist Daniel Karasik is different from the person Daniel Karasik. Without a sense of consciousness around this important – albeit complex – distinction, which so often collapses, particularly in discussions around our work, the creation of challenging work becomes extremely difficult, not to mention less interesting. In order to take those risks that Jordan talks about above – in order to confront “potentially challenging [political, ethical, and moral] questions” – we must be able to find some kind of personal, professional distance from our work.

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

In closing I’d like to briefly suggest that the issues surrounding this production of Little Death point in the direction of some specific deficits of the Canadian new play development machine. In my recent conversations with Daniel I learned that Little Death’s development history included several readings but not a single staging workshop. My suspicion is that the play (and ultimately its production at the Theatre Centre) would have greatly benefited from a couple of those. Particularly plays like Little Death, which are formally challenging, require not only time and space, but also a specific type of engagement that accommodates their search for a theatre that’s located somewhere between page and stage.

This search isn’t new: A few years ago, when I was still much more deeply engaged in literary pursuits, I studied a curious genre called closet drama, which was particularly popular among Romantic poets such as Byron and Shelley. One of the central questions that came up time and time again was

To what extent do we allow plays to find their stage?

As more devised works, performances, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary pieces, and other new theatrical forms continue to emerge, we might start to realize that text isn’t everything. That the physicality of a stage directly influences how a text plays out. That content and form interact. We might look to those new concepts and begin to reconsider the way that straight “plays” are developed in Canada. What do we all have in common? Do genres even still exist? How can we work together and learn from each other?

As I write this, I have an article, a play, and a book by three of Canada’s most exciting theatre makers in front of me. This makes me hopeful, and it makes me excited. Thank you all, Daniel, Erin, and Jordan. 

In publishing the following Tragedies I have only to repeat, that they were not composed with the most remote view to the stage. On the attempt made by the managers in a former instance, the public opinion has been already expressed. With regard to my own private feelings, as it seems that they are to stand for nothing, I shall say nothing. – Lord Byron, Preface to Sardanapalus

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Dear Erin Brubacher (Or, Misogyny and Representation) | Daniel Karasik

  2. Pingback: Nominee Interview Series: Daniel Karasik » My Theatre | My Entertainment World

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