“Effective Dreaming” is how the psychiatrist in Ursula Le Guin’s “Lathe of Heaven” describes the nightmares of his patient. The patient, Orr, believes that his dreams all come true, and subtly and terribly change the world in order to do so. This being a great science fiction novel, Orr turns out to be right.
“Effective Day Dreaming” is what I now tell myself I’m doing when to any independent observer I might appear to be staring out of the window with my mouth open.
Since our very successful and stimulating launch event at the Storytelling Centre a couple of weeks ago, I’ve both been soberly continuing to read and research…and secretly panicking that being able to talk a good game at a public discussion is not the same thing as being able to come up with a structure for a play that actually works. This disquiet was heightened by some of the responses I got at the party afterwards…people telling me how important it was that I testify to the experience of the Late Totalitarian Experience…and how connected they felt that our current security state and public nihilism are, in their minds, to that experience of the Cold War on the other side of the wall.
Among other things I’ve been reading Vaclav Havel’s essays written in the 1970s. His open letter to Dr Husak and “The Power of the Powerless” and thinking to myself, “My God this is so well written…this represents such depths of thought and feeling, what on earth do I think I’m DOING?”
It’s a very strange place to be when working on a new idea. It becomes almost a discipline in itself not to make decisions , not to find oneself spooked into committing oneself to characters or a situation prematurely, simply as a response to anxiety. This is true of every job, from adapting a novel with a cast size and stage language already established by precedent (as I did with Robin Jenkin’s “Cone-Gatherers” recently…) to something like this where I am faced with an embarrassment of possibilities.
Notoriously writers are haunted, like Ahab, by whiteness…not of the whale, but of the page. But white in both cases represents something like the infinite, hence its faceless, bottomless, non-negotiable horror. The setting down of any word on any blank sheet, like any actor walking onto any empty stage and performing any action, has the effect, among other things, of limiting the possibilities of what might happen next. Like any note in any musical score implies the next note…and then the next, so any word spoken or written, any action, implies its own setting , its own history and its own sequel. A perfect work of art, in the ear, on the page or on the stage is one in which one starts with infinite possibility that gradually narrows down to the moment when any other action or note would be superfluous, at which point the art ends…and at the same time becomes a made thing, an artefact.
Like at the beginning of Stingray, when Commander Shore announces that “Anything Can Happen in the Next Half Hour”, it is the mark of good art that the very first brushstroke goes as far as to contradicting the information content of such a statement as fully as it endorses its promise. A great opening…like at the beginning of Anna Karenina or Moby Dick may seem to be a promise of uncertainty and excitement, but in fact propels you directly into the centre of the matter to be explored. The very first thing a work of art has to do is to define its own limits.
It may well be that there are some writers who can genuinely write a first sentence, or have a character speak a first line with no very clear idea of what world that spoken or written word is propelling us into. I am assuredly not one of them. Additional to this complication is that I am currently caught between temptations. One aspect of the vanished world of Eastern European Theatre under the Communist Dictatorships that is positively a matter of nostalgic yearning among theatre makers of a certain age (this conformed by a brief chat I happened to have at the Citizens Theatre last week with Giles Havergal) is the fact that censorship, fear, constant surveillance and expectation of betrayal aside, there were some things about it that were pretty good…especially for those of us who interacted with it at a safe distance; the size and longevity of the ensemble companies; the seemingly infinite State Support that sustained a continuity and intensity of work on productions that in the right hands produced results of incomparable depth and richness. These seemed to those of us in the West who simply saw the shows performed by the Berliner Ensemble, or the Maly Theatre of Leningrad to be things of envy and wonder. We knew about the difficulties, of course, about the spies and the tribunals and the broken lives…but my God wasn’t that a TERRIFIC show?!
(There is something profoundly amoral and Darwinian about watching and making theatre, I think. You don’t care, or at least, not ALL of you cares what went into this…good or bad faith. A bit of you is either thrilled or not…in an entirely visceral, animal way. Plays are like sausages. Good or bad, you don’t really think about what went into them)
Part of me is tempted, then, to write a play that I might submit to such an ensemble as if such a thing still existed. But I know from my brief that a practical concern for how I, in Scotland right now, with whatever conditional access I may have to the means of theatrical production, distribution and exchange, might actually put a show on, or at least write a script that has a chance of being produced, is an important part of this project. This almost certainly means a cast of not more than five. The ensemble I want to write about is already to be indicated, rather than actual.
And so, for all my blank pieces of paper and daydreaming, the criterion of effectiveness has always to be on my mind…for all I might long for a moment like in the Maly Theatre’s production of Brothers and Sisters, the ghosts of the Red Army marched through the auditorium towards the Karelian village on stage…and their costumes were perfect, their marching immaculate…and they marched onto the stage and into the wings…and your heart stopped….because you had just seen the soldiers who were never coming home…
Unfortunately, we can never see that again, in St Petersburg or anywhere else. Such are the paradoxes. But such are the contradictions that can be explored in memories…and it may be that it is the paradoxes of memory, of the different meanings of the past…that my play “Ensemble” might be able to explore. Especially on our trip to Germany in December to explore some of those memories with the people whose memories they actually are.
Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse me…I have some Vaclav Havel to think about while staring out of the window with my mouth open.