corps de crise, curs de cris, cours de coeurs de cris: notes fragments of Simon Taylor

I was reading Norman Manea’s A Hooligan’s Return, about the exiled writer’s return to Romania.

His book On Clowns remains my favourite. In fact, I quoted from it extensively in a letter advocating state patronage of the arts to Helen Clark in her first term as Prime Minister, in 1999.

I thought, what is it in my circumstances that leads to this strong connection I feel, this sense of affiliation to the work of writers like Norman Manea? Paul Celan, Gregor von Rezzori … and from my earlier reading life, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Josef Skvorecky, Jan Kott, Czeslaw Milosz … ?

They constitute, I thought, a sort of diaspora of the disenchanted. And exiled. And in some cases, the enforced exiles – the banished.

And I was listening to Caetano Veloso’s 1971 album, A Little More Blue, recorded when he was in exile in London.

It was Thursday night, the 31st of October. I was listening for the first time. It moved me to tears. This is shorthand for saying that it did not play on my emotions in a sentimental or nostalgic way; it moved me before I recognised why.

I’ve asked in posts here recently about whether or not theatre belongs in or to New Zealand. Has its time past, as a properly colonial cultural institution?

I had thought this past was one I had in common with my compatriots. I find increasingly that it’s what excludes me.

Theatre does have a problematic relation with colonialism, from the travelling companies to the demise of the Mercury. I would argue that its break away from colonialism was constitutive of and decisive for the development of both a New Zealand tradition and a professional theatre in New Zealand.

This is not a tautology: the arena in which an idea is contested is often that in which it is most clearly articulated. The idea or problem of New Zealand theatre was colonialism. Theatres struggled with that legacy. A break away from colonial theatre could only ever have been the condition for the development of a New Zealand theatrical tradition.

Part of this struggle was to get theatre recognised as a profession. As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of the ways theatre-workers became professional was by forming unions; the same unions were behind strikes in the early 1980s that were devastating for theatres, as institutions, not just employers.

Contrary to what John Smythe writes in Downstage Upfront: The first 40 years of New Zealand’s longest-running professional theatre, it was the decision to take from but break with the colonial tradition which not only confirmed it as its own thing but was generative of, was the germ from which, New Zealand theatre sprang.

I would also argue that what has been engendered in the vacuum left by the loss of state-sponsored community theatres (as fact or idea – and principle), when it was with the complicity of the profession that they were brought down, is a reactionary amateurism. In its wilful rejection of its parochial and colonial past, this brand of amateurism is more parochial, provincial, colonial than ever. (And less theatrical and more literal.)

A certain irony has not escaped you. You are reading this @ Square White World.

Is squareness, whiteness and that these qualities have given rise to something called a ‘world’ here being celebrated? or criticised and contested? satirised and lambasted? or affirmed and held up for emulation?

Do the advertised ‘work pieces by Simon Taylor’ belong to a square white world?

And ultimately is the world from I might claim presently to be in exile square and white or dark and round?

… my sense of a lack of belonging is different.

Mammals don’t belong here. True.

Those travellers who came here first can make a stronger claim to belonging than those who came after. True.

English, my mother tongue tastes like coal and brick-dust in my mouth and does not belong in this green ghetto. Even the language does not belong.

But my sense of not belonging is not because I come from somewhere else. I come from this place. It should therefore be this place, my country, which creates in me this feeling. It isn’t.

I’ve been confusing New Zealand, confusing it in my mind with another country. This ‘other’ New Zealand is the one from which I am truly exiled, in exile, N-exile or n-exile.

Now, I don’t even think they share the same name. One is an ‘N-set’ – acronym for “non-specified enemy territory” – which one, I don’t know. But I can make a guess.

I am sure that you, the reader, whoever you are, will doubt the existence of this ‘other’ NZ. You want to say, It’s the past from which you are in exile. You probably want to tell me I’m dressing up a common sentiment in fancy terms.

After all, how has it happened? How have I come to see myself as n-exile? Is it merely that I am nostalgic for my childhood?

I spent some years living in and around theatre companies, companies which were built on the ensemble principle and which therefore were like large supportive families.

Is it these, my formative years, compelling me to try and recapture them in their sense of belonging? And since this is impossible is it this past, a distinct past, which makes me feel unwelcome in the present?

What is the present apart from what has happened? It is what has happened … in its most contracted form: adamantine!

In pursuing my dream of establishing a small theatre group called T-Cell, writing for it and writing from it – scripts in one end – theory out the other – I’ve been fooling myself, not because to realise such a dream is possible or impossible, but because the conditions which would determine whether the dream were realisable, whether possible or impossible, do not obtain.

Lynn put it to me, and I’ve called attention to it several times here since, that theatre is a colonial thing. As we move away from our colonial past, so there’s less popular support to do theatre.

Is it then a colonial past to which I belong and which I perceive myself to be exiled from in a post-colonial present time? Am I hankering after a bit of drawing-room farce? wanting to brush up my Shakespeare – and for everyone to do the same – so we can all be, in Robert David McDonald’s immortal phrase, those poofs what strut around the stage in tights pretending they’re kings and queens?

Or, in consideration for where it sat, formatively, in the history of NZ theatre, am I wanting to rejoin the angry young men who brought decent plumbing to the stage with indecent aplomb?

These phases or periods in theatre can at least be said to belong, to a shared colonial past, doubtless, but one to which we are the legatees, whether we want to be or not.

The fact that I cannot command the support necessary in order to make theatre, which would be the minimal condition I’d set, has to do with where I come from. The dream comes from the same place.

It must be an N-Set, a “non-specified enemy territory,” for the resistances that pertain to its conditions of realisability:

Creative New Zealand will deem ineligible for funding at the outset any project that has an academic outcome as its object;

the academy, in general, will at present not support a theatre-lab type approach – its does not authorise groupuscules;

corporate funding is not readily available for theatre from N-Set, that is, ‘enemy’ theatre (T-Cell was intended to affirm ‘Terror’-cell as much as ‘Theatre’-cell as much as the creative biological cell);

CNZ turned me down for funding (the application sits here on the left-hand margin) – I hid from them that theatre and theory share the same root – although it’s hardly a secret;

as a group activity – or company, or ensemble – what I would be doing would not be about me – or us, or in the service of any fixed identity, whether national or corporate … the ‘who’ has to come after the ‘how’ … which does not inspire confidence in those who we might like to have dipped into their pockets;

as for a popular resistance, a condition of the art form in question is that it is unpopular, even anti-popular: it is like asking the dominant society to play host to its other. This other may be minor … it is also radically critical of its host. It lives to bite the hand … it is a blight.

Before the 1984 revolution of what has come to be called Rogernomics, whether by popular consent or dint of colonialism, there were seven funded professional theatres in NZ. They were called community theatres. I often mention their existence as if they might explain or account for my exile.

I am nostalgic for a time when statecraft understood its indebtedness to stagecraft and when the state, as is now the case, did not ignore an obligation to support the most vulnerable because least rationalisable or enumerable (or accountable) arts institutions, the theatres. Today the state has become the artist, pitiless, self-absorbed and … suicidal.

The time of community theatres has passed … as a way of speaking. But what separates my country, and my exile, is not so simple, not that beautiful. And if is the past, my country, my N-Set, it is a past that has never happened.