Monday, January 4, 2016

Ways of Seeing (1997)

Theatre Review from the July 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Closer by Patrick Marber

Becoming a socialist is an educational experience. It is about discovery and knowledge; and the experience changes people.

Once people know and understand the essence of the socialist case—that various historical "epochs" are characterised by different kinds of class relationships (landowners and serfs in feudal societies, capitalists and workers in capitalist societies, etc.); that history is a record of class struggle; and that the economic system is prime, so that nowadays the interests of the capitalist class determine the dominant ideas and values in society—they will use this body of knowledge in analysing and responding to the world around them. Knowledge of the socialist case is. like other knowledge, internalised. It affects the way that people think and behave; it changes the very essence of their thoughts and feelings. In a very real way, once people have been persuaded of the essence of the socialist case, they will never be the same again. They will bring their newfound knowledge to the task of understanding the world in which they operate, including the behaviour of characters in a play. Other people, with different worldviews, bring a different set of analytical perspectives with them when they go to the theatre. Or. as increasingly seems to be the case, they bring only their ignorance of such matters. When I saw Patrick Marber's new play, Closer, in preview. I reached a set of judgments about it; judgments informed by my historical and sociological knowledge. I imagined that other critics, especially those working professionally (sic) for the national, newspapers, would reach a different set of conclusions. How right I was.

Like his first play, Dealer's Choice which has been hugely successful world-wide since its opening in 1994, Closer (Cottesloe). is marvellously well crafted. Marber's story line is full of surprises, yet at the same time it has a convincing inevitability, given the apparent “natures" of the four characters who meet as the story unfolds, and whose lives become horribly enmeshed. Dan meets Alice and they start to live together. Dan meets Anna and proposes a liaison. Anna resists. Dan, in revenge, surfs the Internet and affecting to be Anna (who he impersonates as a wildly salacious nymphomaniac) dupes Larry into a meeting. Larry meets Anna, discovers he has been set-up. but manages, nevertheless, to persuade her to live with him. Dan, having discovered that his deception has backfired continues to pursue Anna. Eventually Anna capitulates. Alice distraught takes a job as a "hostess" and meets a drunken, miserable Larry in a strip joint. United in adversity they begin to see one another. Dan hears of their relationship and decides that he is really in love with Alice and returns to her. Etc.. etc.

Told in this way the plot sounds like the worst kind of populist soap; a kind of wearisome episode of some Islington-based EastEnders lookalike. But Marber writes wonderfully convincing dialogue with a serious voice. And he seems genuinely concerned with the fate of his four characters whose lives he suggests are, given the nature of life in the 1990s, almost capriciously out-of-control. (My partner suggests that Marber, whose first play, Dealer’s Choice, was about playing poker, is really interested in games playing, and that Closer might be seen as a game of sexual poker. It seems a productive insight, but it was apparently lost on the critics.) The three newspaper critics whose reviews I consulted were wildly enthusiastic. They saw it as a play "about love and passion", which was "very much in the spirit of the time". They lauded Marber's "realism" and "humour".

But they offered no comment about the behaviour of the four protagonists. They failed to consider that love might need to be differentiated, significantly, from sexual passion, and whether being in love with someone carried with it certain obligations. They had nothing to say about why people in the 1990s seem so unable to form lasting relationships, why—at least superficially— some people are seemingly disposed to "throw away" relationships with as much thought as they might give to getting rid of an old sock, and whether this might have anything to do with our throwaway economic behaviour in a society which prizes newness as though it was one of the four virtues. Yet these things were at the heart of the play for me. I am not surprised when people, responding to economic imperatives which put making money and looking after oneself as prime, treat other human beings with the same contempt as they treat other "things" in our throwaway society. But the critics who wrote about the play in the three so-called quality papers which I consulted were either unable or unprepared to locate the behaviour of the four characters by reference to such perspectives. In consequence their reviews were glib and superficial. Perhaps it is consciously part of the process of "dumbing down" which is apparent in most contemporary criticism. And in education, too, where the diet offered to students must be as vocationally relevant and as intellectual barren as possible. But that's another matter.
Michael Gill

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