Theatre of Narcissism
by Joe Woodward
is always problematic for theatre and art generally.
With contemporary emphasis
on art for cultural and personal self esteem,
it is often easier to be
blinded by the reflection of one's own ego and sense
of significance than to
seek artistic insights that challenge and explode
the brittle exterior of
often do we hear "theatre is dead" or in "decay"?
Or that it is irrelevant in a world with the internet, cinema and
Andrew Lloyd Webber?
a public review of youth arts being conducted in the early 1990s by
an accountancy firm, Ernst and Young. Theatre's very existence as a
medium of communication was the central issue. With its worldview
created and dominated by marketing and accounts managers for large
corporations, it is no wonder Ernst and Young equated youth arts with
fashion and fads. In this sense, cultural events become marketing
tools to sell products.
is only logical that culture be subsumed by corporate share holders.
Cultural outcomes become measured in terms of profit to share holders
and return on investment. The semantics of corporate culture
intimidate and subordinate the language, practises and aspirations of
theatre workers. So measured in terms of cultural outcomes, theatre
for young people was shown to be on very slippery ground. As is
wonder theatre workers become Quixotic figures tilting at the
windmills of public attention, seeking a begrudging respect and some
attachment to acceptable vessels of economic and intellectual power.
this scenario, only insofar as theatre product can be measured in
terms of OTHER quantifiable criteria can it claim some cultural
legitimacy. So we see the current phenomena of theatre as a source of
public health (promoting health issues of the day to receive
funding); or theatre as therapy; or theatre for minority ethnic
identity; or theatre for the advancement of some moral or social
issue (usually at the bequest of some social lobby or special
interest group); or theatre for affirmation (whether of the status
quo or some would-be status quo or minority); or theatre as
academically sanctioned intellectual property.
of these forms of theatre suffers from the disease of cultural and
personal narcissism. Such is its focus on the object of its attention
that it sees only the reflection of its own predisposition. Like a
small child still in its ego-centric phase of development, it sees
only itself. It commends itself for being relevant and important. It
is applauded for being the voice and identity of its audience. It is
held up as the antidote to cultural / corporate imperialism. It is
the justification for public funding and its own very existence.
Theatre of Narcissism is betrayal. It is personal betrayal of the
artist by the artist. It is cultural betrayal by those entrusted with
custodianship of the human story; the social dramas comprising the
everlasting struggle for love, perfection, purpose, connectedness and
relationship. Theatre of Narcissism is betrayal of truth within the
story by supplanting its organic action with an overlay of imposed
cultural baggage. Theatre of Narcissism is bigoted and intolerant of
divergence from its own personal or cultural admiration.
matter how worthy the idea or justification, such imposition
propounds the lie and so becomes propaganda, prostitution or, at the
least, personal deception. And in so doing, theatre becomes corrupt.
Turns in on itself. Implodes. And we witness this phenomenon: seeing
the very cause of its destruction being hailed as its saviour.
we need only find our personal courage as theatre workers, writers
and artists to challenge this destruction and breathe a new vitality
into theatre creation.
even attempt such a challenge is frightening ... if not terrifying.
To deliberately set out to follow the contradictory ideas,
perceptions and hunches, is the writer's and artist's challenge. It
cannot be dictated to by the demands of ideology, political
affiliation, cultural inheritance, nor the current demands of the
marketing agencies trained in accountancy and public relations.
is always problematic for theatre and art generally. With
contemporary emphasis on art for cultural and personal self esteem,
it is often easier to be blinded by the reflection of one's own ego
and sense of significance than to seek artistic insights that
challenge and explode the brittle exterior of contained perception.
about worthy subjects simply needing publicity for political
attention are promotions and propaganda and not drama ... unless they
comply with the basic demand to challenge the artist's own
perceptions about the nature of the issue and be open to the
contradictions facing the protagonists. Rarely do the outcomes of any
drama match the ideology or point of view of any particular side of
an issue. Plays that conveniently do so may receive public support
and recognition, but in the longer term are part of the decaying
process of theatre and cultural presentation.
may seem a heartless thing to say: given that many, if not most,
plays are and were conceived in a passion about some issue worthy of
the author's commitment to expose or communicate. But if theatre is
to have any real value it needs to provide more than pre-established
precepts of social observation or, as Jerzy Grotowski once called it,
"stereotypes of vision".
demands a life of its own: drawn from carefully constructed
foundations in story, ritual and transformations. Drama is the
essential element in theatre. Theatre needs to claim back its drama;
its very essence. It must claim back its own identity separated from
the binds of issues promotion, cultural esteem, academic leeching,
elitism, snobbery and marketing plans. Theatre workers must keep
their own dramatic integrity and work with adherence to the demands
of the art form (the drama) rather than subservience to political,
religious and social beliefs ... regardless of the initial
motivations for starting.
reviewers and critics need to re-access their own narcissism. They
also betray theatre and audiences: making a very significant
contribution to theatre's decay. Too often, critics become Narcissus,
looking into and admiring their own reflected views on what or how
things should be on the stage before them. The phrase "what I
would like to see" is imposed over what is actually taking place
on the stage. So unless reviewers are buffeted by decades of academic
discussion and analysis of a particular work, they are too often lost
within their own narcissism to assess a new work.
editor of The Canberra Times
once described to me the critic's role as a dual function: (1) to
confirm or challenge the views and judgements of audiences who saw
the production; and (2) to brief future potential audiences on the
nature and value of the production. To do this requires some
dramaturgical willingness to actually see beyond one's own
reflection. The reviewer is no ordinary audience member reacting on
how they feel at the time. The reviewer's function is just as
important as that of the playwright, director, performers, designer etc.
this happens, theatre's cultural identity becomes corrupted, without
integrity and devoid of credibility beyond its coterie of devotees.
Without an adequate identity of its own, theatre is a mere appendage
to cultural and social forces intent on using it for their own
purposes of propaganda, profit and self promotion. An essential step
in maintaining and building identity is for theatre workers, critics
and reviewers to cast aside the illusions of Narcissus. To reject the
party line. To seek a totally new universe with every play that is
performed. To recognize the deceptions in the personal and cultural
mirrors before us.
because of its live and interactive potential, is probably the best
placed of any artform to do this. It can do more than simply hold up
a cultural and social mirror to audiences. Theatre can shatter the
mirror: exposing the myriad of universes beyond. And like Alice
through the looking glass, we become exposed to the dark recesses of
our dreams, aspirations, motivations, love, our aloneness and our
connectedness with each other ... both past and present. An entity
that can do this will always be relevant and alive.
NEXT...Paradox and Misery