Something very strange has happened. Blogs have taken over. Well, I’m sure you have noticed that and that I might appear in danger of being behind the times (not a first, I must admit).
But this is a slightly different phenomenon. I remember sites like whatsonstage.com when they were in their infancy; now they are quoted in the national press (and it is users’ comments on discussion boards that are quoted!). Is this true democracy? Well, yes. But this can only be a good thing if it fit sits comfortably alongside a formal structure of (professional) critique. (When this works it is fascinating, often delineating stark contrasts between critical and audience reaction to a show, as in Plague Over England or Shunkin.) However, though the UK press seems relatively safe, America newspaper critics are finding themselves out of work in scores. And as the death knell of print sounds chillingly across the plains, the first to be culled are the agents of culture, the critics. A lot of film writers have gone, and also many theatre critics.
Newspapers are turning over less print space to the arts and instead creating online columns. For example, the Guardian’s ‘theatre blog’ has a lot of content very regularly. But quality is an issue; as it has been downgraded from an article or column, to a lowly blog, frequency and intimacy are more favoured than depth or argument. So you get columns talking, oh so entertainingly, about the plays you should have seen but never have. Favourite death scenes. Mamma Mia! How can I resist you? And all that ilk. It is nice, however, to see a range of people invited to make contributions, not just journalists: actors, writers, directors included. Putting your name to an online text is apparently not as committed or final as putting your name to a printed article.
But I do find something rather uneasy about reading the same people’s comments over and over again. Ian Shuttleworth is a professional and well-known theatre critic but seems to have little to do except post comments almost daily on Mark Shenton’s The Stage blog, the Guardian or even on ‘the other side’ (non-professionals’ blogs). Also guilty of this is David Eldridge, apparently one of the nation’s best younger writers, a member of the Monsterists and author of several acclaimed and successful plays. Shouldn’t he be doing more important things than posting amusing notices on the West End Whingers’ blog? Does it lower one’s respect or expectations of him, to see his candid or at any rate, off-the-cuff responses to reviews? Perhaps it is snobbish of me to criticize him for being down-to-earth (and he certainly is, if you have ever heard an interview with him). No, I don’t want to criticize Mr. Eldridge; but I do feel uneasy about the situation. Doubtless the likes of Stoppard and Hare have far too many things to do to even consider reading, let alone writing, blogs – but even in their younger, less established days, would they have been doing this? Of course, not to be patronizing, there wasn’t the internet then, but still, I rather think they wouldn’t have bothered.
There is something glamorous about the aloofness of the solitary writer, an allure. Does he or she spoil that by breaching the fourth wall of the internet and communicating directly with the man on the Clapham omnibus? Why does it feel different to, say, a published memoir or even just a straightforward newspaper interview? It must be something to do with the fallacy that blogs and internet are meant to be from the heart. Blogs, and indeed emails and text messages, even when they are not, feel mostly spontaneous, less prepared, raw.
There is of course something more commercial here. Writers like Fin Kennedy have elaborate whole websites with CVs and news updates, websites where they declare their up-and-coming-ness to the world (‘one of our hottest young dramatists’ emblazons the front page). They even offer advice and tips to other aspiring writers on how to reach their exalted level. One understands the need for theatre companies to have websites (and Japanese writers tend to be attached to [their own] companies) and the need for self-promotion (or just publicity and communication about their new event, which, in the case of Japan, is often a case of preaching to the converted). But a playwright is not the same as a hack, or a freelance designer. They don’t have to show a portfolio to get work, or at least they shouldn’t have to. Their ‘work’ is organic; it is theatre, not tangible and advertise-able. These writers’ blogs are nothing more than navel-gazing.
Of course I am also aware of the fatuousness of a blog entry discussing blog entries. How simulacra is that? Benjamin and Baudrillard would have been proud.
(You might also ask, What has all this got to do with Japanese contemporary theatre? Well, I have already written a little about some of the online resources that are available. There are plenty of blogs as well and there might be some comparisons to be made here, but you’ll have to allow me some more time for investigation…)