critique of theatre: a representation of theatre as essentially colonial, its crisis

The critique would run like this: the New Zealand theatre is an aspect, a symptom, and an emblem, of colonial culture. In a way, it’s worse than poetry, because it’s expensive. It costs more money for its ephemeral productions than it does to publish the slim volume of poetry that will last even if it does not live forever.

Adonis, hanging for the Globe Theatre London, designed by Dr Raymond Boyce, courtesy Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand

Because the project of New Zealand theatre is essentially colonial, it stands to reason that it was historically in theatre that colonialism was most hotly contested. Since it’s where something is going to be a problem that it’s going to be, it’s got to be, clearly articulated. So in the 1970s we have 7 community theatres and we have a practice which in calling itself New Zealand theatre is analysing its indebtedness to English theatre.

My father, Anthony Taylor, artistic director of Downstage in the late 1970s, named as enemy and obstacle to a specifically local theatre practice the British repertory system. And the star system. When, in 1980, at the behest of the West German government he presented a paper at the Brücke Über Grenzen conference (called by way of a consultation on BRD cultural policy-making), it was entitled: ‘Cultural Colonization: The Dilemma of a Small Nation.’

The paper’s argument ran: New Zealand already has art, literature, theatre; therefore any cultural exchange must be a two-way street and respect our differences from the rest of the world. It asked that larger nations neither assume cultural dominance, nor assume dominating roles and avoid cultural colonization. The colonization here envisaged is not primary and static. It is what contemporary colonizers actively engage in when they send or sell us their art, literature, theatre, film and TV.

This second-wave colonization serves to counter the critique that theatre foundered in New Zealand when the white colonial class lost its hold on cultural production. However, the critique continues: theatre loses traction as the old money disappears. ‘Old money’ implies a class and its values and assumptions.

Old money supports civic life. Its perspective is that the institutions of civic life are worthy of support whether or not they have an ideological function; that is, whether they are critical of old money or not. There is a principle here, noblesse oblige, for sure, but it includes a notion of both economic and political disinterest and a concept of value as genetic and primordial. The fact of theatre existing is seen as good in itself. This goes for other civic institutions, of course.

Why have theatres lost the sort of attention paid them by old money? Has their internal critique been too effective and destroyed the class bases on which they are built? Such class bases would include ideas of colonialism, postcolonialism and neocolonialism. So what about globalization?

Atlas, hanging for the Globe Theatre London, designed by Dr Raymond Boyce, courtesy Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand

The parochial form of civic life goes begging when the new money defines itself as globalized. The global form resembles exactly that “cultural colonization” my father drew the West German government’s attention to in 1980: the domination of the smaller by the larger power.

Note that this dominance is ideological, economic and political. It exists to serve vested interests.

Colonialism becomes like some kind of saurian survivor in a postliberal world, a world in which cultural colonization is actual and ubiquitous. It is the vested interest that would then divest the theatre not only of its critical function – ideologically, politically, economically and socially – but of its value and its self, its internal difference.

It would do this in New Zealand by naturalising the wholesale destruction of civic institutions – that is, saying that it’s natural for this to happen – by claiming that they are redundant on ideological grounds. Colonialism is then an ally of colonization. The charge that vestiges of colonialism might remain in our theatres is enough to put a new generation in charge of old money to flight.

How has this happened? And has this happened because we don’t need the fact that it has explained to us any more? as the critique of the theatre would have it.

Venus, hanging for the Globe Theatre London, designed by Dr Raymond Boyce, courtesy Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand

The current crisis of representation is the mirroring effect of liberalism and postliberalism. The latter uses the former as a disguise simply when it is useful to it to do so. This is the same as the relation between colonialism and colonization I have tried to describe: that cultural colonization we otherwise understand by the term globalization uses the charge of colonialism when it is in its interests so to do.

A real side-effect of this crisis of representation is that it empties out the history from colonialism, its actions in history, the fact that theatres before the 1970s were not fauning. Practitioners here were routinely insulted by their British counterparts: “Oh,” they said, “Do you have theatre out there?” We did. It was further ahead than is now believed. And so the advances of liberalism, its real actions, whether positive or negative, are occluded. In its place we have the cynical manipulation of its reputation, that which represents it as having acted, not as currently acting.

Consensual society poses a threat to vested interests because it connotes the fluidity of uncontrolled populations and their identities. The two-way street is dangerous because it places demands on the the dominant power and questions the culture of dominance.

Hercules, hanging for the Globe Theatre London, designed by Dr Raymond Boyce, courtesy Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand

When we cease to be information consumers – and when our very consumption ceases to be represented as a ‘kind’ of creation – and we begin to create in a consensual environment, at the level of social participation in civic institutions, including theatre, and at the level of global decision-making, then we will have realised this crisis, this dilemma of a small nation.