in pursuit of art’s big elephant (aase berg, theater, sarah kane, and art’s big elephants)

by on May.15, 2012

Hi. The following started out as a response to Johannes’s post “Take your goddamn class hatred and shove it up your ass”: DN attacks Johan Jönson. But mutated. Became big. An elephant.

“When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick – one never does when a shot goes home – but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant.”

-George Orwell, Shooting An Elephant

“The elephant’s age had led to its adoption by our town a year earlier. When financial problems caused the little private zoo on the edge of town to close its doors, a wildlife dealer found places for other animals in the zoos throughout the country. But all the zoos had plenty of elephants, apparently, and not one of them was willing to take in a feeble old thing that looked as if it might die of a heart attack at any moment.”

-Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes


Some time ago I happened upon Aase Berg’s DN article “Hatet mot teatern gnager i mig” (“The/My hatred for theater nags in me”, nags or bites or tears) by chance, through a response to the article, by Leif Zern, also in DN: “Hatet håller teatern vid liv” (“the hatred keeps theater alive”). The soundbite being that Aase Berg, apparently, hates theater.

She writes, in the beginning of the article:

“This is probably not the right forum to write something like this, but OK: I don’t understand theater. Yes, it has happened that I have used the word “hate”. I have said exactly this in conversations with decently culture-interested people: “I hate theater.””

(Should note that in many instances “culture” is probably more accurately translated as “art”.)

Leif Zern, in turn, informs us that he’s not upset by the hatred, but surprised that a writer and literature critic seems unaware of the history of theater, which sets him up nicely to proceed to educate Berg, and anyone else reading in, about this history. There is a bit on Plato, some Euripides and Christianity in the middle ages, with the obligatory Strindberg thrown in.

Actually, I like what he says about the hatred of theater, which seems to be something of a specialty of his, as connected to a distrust of the body as carrier of information. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have read much further than the first paragraph of Berg’s article or is otherwise not interested in responding to it. Except that he is responding to it, or at least responding to the hatred which he perceives to be there. I find nothing hateful in Berg’s article whatsoever, I might be misreading, except for the phrase “I hate theater”, nor do I find any interest to discuss the history of theater. Instead I see a very subjective expression of a personal experience, with theater, against theater, that is nagging Berg. As the title suggests. A kind of confession. Berg doesn’t get theater, but tries, wants to make it work. Wonders why. Wonders why not. Berg likes to read theater. Theater is an important artistic expression. If anyone can sing, as Caroline af Ugglas says, then surely anyone can learn to appreciate theater? One of her favorite cultural moments, we find out, was reading Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist. Berg questions theater and then questions her own questioning. She seems to not like that she doesn’t get theater. Many voices are voicing themselves.

“For some, maybe many, experimental poetry will seem impenetrable. I don’t feel like being a pedagogical culture-ambassador, just the opposite: Culture is fucking hard. Theater is a challange.”

She goes back and forth, thinking out loud, uncertain. In contrast, there is little that is uncertain about Leif Zern, who nonetheless proclaims that “There is no certain knowledge” while looking to completely swallow Berg’s argument not only from above but from all sides with his knowledge of history:

“When Aase Berg gets in at the end of this 2500 year old line, she doesn’t deserve an anathema but an objective interest. She is after all a footnote in an ancient discussion.”

(Yes, I had to look up the word “anathema” too.)

This “objective interest” brings to mind the adult not indulging the child’s tantrums in order to teach the child a lesson. Berg is having a tantrum about theater and to stoop to that level, and respond, is not constructive. Better then to educate the child. Zern doesn’t have to be upset with Berg’s article because he has already incorporated her “hatred” into his theory of theater.  Theater, Zern argues, feeds on this hatred (of the body as carrier of information, possibly) to find new forms, both an internal and an external hatred, to evolve as art. Seems sensible to me, but why is he then so adamant to make Berg, and her hatred, now severed from all nuances (a wobbly hatred seems utterly useless), as small as possible? This seems to be a reoccuring tactic, also on display in Liljestrand’s article, which Johannes post above discusses, this need to establish opposition not by formulating an actual personal response but by incorporating the argument in a general knowledge system and then, slickly, spit it out, as if performing an illusion trick. History provides a good cushion. I can say that class hatred is bad because I supported the SCUM manifesto. Theatre hatred is neccessary, but in the case of Berg, hardly worth noting.

In fact, Zern appears in his text more and more to mimick what Berg in her text is having a problem with: “uppburna skådisar som mest liknar högvulet orerande klossar”, which could possibly be translated as: “propped-up actors that look like divine orating blocks”.

Taking over where Zern leaves off, Margareta Sörenson, in her article for Aftonbladet, or its blogpsphere, “Aase Berg, teaterhat” (“Aase Berg, theater hatred” ) skips the history lesson and goes straight for the anti-tantrum heart of the matter.

“In DN Kultur’s new plump line (vomit on those who wants to shape public opinion, to diss Strindberg is the worst you can do), an astonishing style selection for a culture department (which makes night tabloids shine as strenuous and analytical in comparison), it is Aase Berg who offers the next head over heels performance in Sunday’s DN Kultur (12/2): she hates the theater. Not without anguish and confessions, but hate it she does and above all theater’s “big elephants.””

(Not sure why google translate translates “pladask” first as “plump” and then with “head over heels” but I like it.)

The I’m-going-to-address-you-from-somewhere-up-in-the-stratosphere rhetoric finds itself curiously inflating the most peculiar details. Berg does mention an elephant, talking about reading that play by Kleist, saying that, since she was encountering it as a text, she didn’t have to witness Lena Endre (popular Swedish actor) first-hand, riding an actual elephant. The elephant, in Sörenson’s article, is not only now what bothers Berg the most, it has become plural, it has become big, and even, amazingly, as if finally granted sainthood by the pope himself, been blessed with quotation marks. Sörenson is visible appalled by Berg’s generalization (at one point she goes into full CAP-mode) about theater while in a single stroke annihilating a whole newspaper industry (one of which she is blogging for). Berg’s ambivalence about theater is summed up in a quick sarcastic fix: “not without anguish and confessions”. She suggests further, if theater is so hard for Berg, that she should begin by going to children’s theater. In the spirit of the tantrum analogy, she sends Berg to her room without her supper. The elephant reoccurs once more here, in Sörenson’s article, because children theater doesn’t have a budget for elephants. Interestingly, Berg has already had one of her voices address the “guilt” problem in her article: “You should be grateful that this country has a free theater at all!”

Sörenson’s call for analytic (and strenuous) critique has no patience for Berg’s anguish and confessions. In extension, no patience for a critique that is self-involved, self-critical. After spending the first four and a half paragraphs of the article being annoyed with Berg she spends a sentence and a half on what she actually likes about theater, disagreeing with Berg’s “Culture is fucking hard”: “Culture is fun, uplifting, liberating, healing, playful, comforting. Theater too, like the other art forms.” Which is followed by a jab in parenthesis: “(To read theater is not theater though. It occurs when people act, direct and perform the words on a stage.)” Sorry, Aase, but reading theater is just not good enough.

What Zern likes about theater is hard to discern, as it is often very hard to know what an educator actually likes, but both he and Sörenson share a similar defense of theater, raising what they like about theater up to an indisputable theater “is”. I find it fascinating that in so doing, one seeks to make Berg and her argument as small as possible, the other big. As if, by making Berg small or big, they get to inhabit the middle, the sensible, rational middle ground, despite that the only one that is voicing any semblance to self-critique is Berg.



the elephant inside


“Sometimes I turn around and catch the smell of you and I cannot go on I cannot fucking go on without expressing this terrible so fucking awful physical aching fucking longing I have for you. And I cannot believe that I can feel this for you and you feel nothing. Do you feel nothing?


Do you feel nothing?


-Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis


I have seen one theater production. Maybe two, or one that seemed like two. I’m not sure. In high school, a high school production. Pretty sure it was The Wizard of Oz but then I remember this scene where a young man was playing some kind of skinhead and was giving this captivating monologue. I remember it because it felt real, like he’d stepped out of the play. I don’t think there are any Nazis in The Wizard of Oz so I must have seen two plays. That is all.

I lived for a number of years in Gothenburg and I’m sure they have some good theater in Gothenburg but I never went. Never thought: “I should go to the theater”. Never accidentally stumbled upon an article about some play that I might would like to see or found myself outside a theater when a production was about to start. I went to the movies. I went to the library. I even went to some museums. I remember going to a Picasso exhibit one time and that it felt weird. What is the appropriate time to spend in front of  a painting? I felt like if I stood there too long the security guards would look at me like I might be one of those people that suddenly pulls out and throws an egg or thrust forward with a pair of scissors to destroy something out of the blue period.

My most memorable museum memory otherwise was going to the museum of natural history. Because it was next door to the museum of technology (or whatever) it was almost always empty and very cheap. All the big families went to the technology museum. Maybe it was a museum of the future, something exciting. In the museum of natural history you didn’t have to stand in line and I think you could get a year’s pass for like 10 bucks. It was nice to walk among all those ancient artifacts but the big hit was the ping-pong table that they’d installed in a corner. It was some kind of commentary on the cold war, with the different important flags of the era painted on the rackets. You could play the Soviet Union against USA. The echo when you smashed in a winner was phenomenal.

Reading poetry to me has always been connected to money in a way. Almost all the poetry books I have are anthologies. I can’t get myself to shell out 20 bucks on a nice and bound and big book of poems. Maybe they suck. And even if they don’t it’ll all be over in an afternoon, unless they’re really good and you end up returning to them, which is rare. It sucks because I really like to read books like that, with a lot of white space around the words. Anthologies are always crammed full, ant-texted, one poem’s ass close to another poem’s mouth. But if I like a poet I want to read everything by that poet and then the way to go is to get a collected works volume. They’re usually better than the anthologies, larger fonts, less like public transportation. It’s funny though because I’m even getting anthologies and collected poetry books at the library. Like the money thing has entered into places where it doesn’t even matter. Also, and it might correspond in some way, I never went to any concerts, I went to festivals, which is like the anthologies of the music world. There’s some kind of alluring quality about so many possibilities, books that you’ll never be able to read from start to end, music festivals where you can’t possibly see and hear everything. Some aspect of the unknown. Or some aspect of paying for something that is large enough, like a dream, or elephant, so that the reality of the transaction is temporarily suspended, the value of money diffused. Some aspect quite unlike going to a Picasso exhibit when you know you’re going to a Picasso exhibit. How much it costs dictating how long you feel you need to stay in there.

In that regard, theater is a big elephant. There’s the thing about living somewhere that has theater productions at all, even bigger places if you have a particular and weird theater interest. Then if you happen to do, and you hear about a play that you know about, odds are you’ve already read it. It’s like going to see a movie about a book you like, it’s most likely going to be disappointing, and if not, you know what the hell’s going to go down. You’ll measure how it goes down against how it goes down in your head. People will die. Most theater is old, and the kind that isn’t is unheard of. Besides, I would be envious. I would want to direct the play. I could write and direct a badass play. The bastards.

Writing is not only cheap and accessible, it’s more or less instantaneous. I get a book at the library and when I come home I don’t want to read it anymore. So I get five. As backup. Something for every mood. I’m pretty sure there is no backup about going to the theater, which I suppose is the point. To be stuck in a room with a bunch of people, in that moment. That doesn’t explain why going to the movies is easier though. Except movies you can now get in your home. There’s the thing about getting a babysitter. Is there some kind of body-shame to it? I don’t know if I suffer from body-shame. Probably. But I don’t find a bunch of actors on a stage scary because its more “real” than a movie. Shit can get pretty real in an elevator too. I’d probably pretty much watch it like I’d watch a movie. I do feel uncomfortable though watching very slow and weird movies with people who don’t like slow and weird movies. Especially if I picked the movie. Once in high school I got my guy friends to watch Polanski’s Repulsion. It was torture, like just the black-and-white-ness of the film was causing them serious physical harm. Afterwards there was still plenty of popcorn left in the bowl.

When we had The New Yorker for a while I liked to read the theater-reviews. I also liked to read the restaurant reviews. Pretend-seeing the play, pretend-eating the food. Like dance and opera and classical music, theater seems to be mostly into interpretation. New works are kind of slowly guided by the hand into the great warm ancient tradition of theater. There’s a lot of tradition that needs to be respected, revived. It makes sense since theater doesn’t leave much of a trace, new generations need their own version of the classics. Still, this, I suppose, strength of theater, is bound to alienate a lot of people because of this confinement. There lurks a kind of tone of educational art, directors who feel it’s their duty to introduce the classics to young people, Shakespeare’s conflicted humanity, and what not. To, in the words of Sörenson, “shape public opinion.” However well intended, you can’t escape the condescension enveloped in such a mission. People are stupid, people are children who, if they only get a glimpse of true and fine art, will give up their obsessive youtube-watching and grow up intellectually.

At the end of Sörenson’s article she mentions a number of playwrights in order to show the diversity of theater. One of the names she mentions is Sarah Kane, whose plays I happen to love. Not a real love, obviously, since I’ve never seen a Sarah Kane play, but a fake love bordering on obsession. I have read her plays on and off for the last ten years, have taken up temporary residence inside these plays, have turned to these plays like someone might turn to a holy text for comfort and nourishment. It is, of course, the collected plays, or in Kane’s case, sadly, the complete plays. In my head I have made many productions. I have furnished the “flat” of “Blasted” sparsely, tastefully. What is it about Kane?

I like how her plays pushes against the confines of theater, in ever wonderfully absurd demands of the plays’ bodies. Bodies and voices. They seem to invite being read, not just seen. Reading the plays chronologically there is a slow, torturous exorcism performed not only on the bodies, mutilation, love, but the very frame of theater. The room gets smaller, the stage dissolves, the identities of the characters fall into each other, losing themselves, become scattered voices of the same mind. Approaching poetry. The last, posthumous play, 4.48 Psychosis, is more poem than play. More bulging angsty diary entry than frame. Like Berg, with her anguish and confessions, the very form of theater is challenged from within. Even the stage directions wants to be poetry, wants to be primary. In Cleansed:

“On the other side of the fence a child sings – Lennon and
McCarthy’s ‘Things We Said Today.’
Carl and Rod listen, rapt.
The child stops singing.
Then begins again.
Carl stands, wobbly.
He begins to dance – a dance of love for Rod.
To dance becomes frenzied, frantic, and Carl makes grunting noises, mingling with the child’s singing.
The dance loses rhythm – Carl jerks and lurches out of time, his feet sticking in the mud, a spasmodic dance of desperate regret.
Tinker is watching.
He forces Carl to the ground and cuts off his feet.
He is gone.
Rod laughs.
The rats carry Carl’s feet away.
The child sings.”

There’s something about the cracks in this disintegration, this floating-together, this “frenzied, frantic” that I find liberating, inhabitable. Like going to a Picasso exhibit but ending up somewhere quite differently, a drag show, Abu Ghraib. A fragmentation, not unlike a drunk and dazed bout at a music festival, which elevates feeling, temporarily, drowning out the sound of cold hard cash. A space, theater’s treasured moment, I feel I can inhabit without the mind’s always humming reservations. A meeting that is not imposed and that doesn’t address me from above, that doesn’t educate,  that opens up, bleeds out, invites not awe but active participation. I’m not in awe of Sarah Kane. Suicide romantic? Yes and no! Both. Why must there be a right and wrong way to engage with art?

Playwright Mark Ravenhill’s article on Sarah Kane for The Guardian from 2005 is titled “Suicide art? She’s better than that”. However personal, and well-intended, there is the reoccurring fear that Art might become art, become small.

“Kane’s work wasn’t just some outpouring of the soul. It was immensely crafted. She wrote the first draft of Blasted while studying in Birmingham. But, she told me one day in her basement flat in south London, that draft was very different. It was full of long, rich sentences, inspired by Howard Barker.”

Ironically, by insisting that Kane’s play was more than just “some outpouring of the soul”, this type of rhetoric makes the play seem exactly what Ravenhill doesn’t want it to seem, small. She wasn’t just some suicide girl writing down shit, she knew craft, and decided against it. The play could have had “long, rich sentences” but as it is, it doesn’t. Don’t read the work with Kane in mind, read the work on its own merits, but read it as larger than what it is, read it with genius in mind. The work is not small, it was inspired by Howard Barker, it knew its traditions. Or David Greig’s introduction to Sarah Kane: Complete Plays (methuen contemporary dramatists):

“Those critics who drew attention to Blasted’s litany of broken taboos missed the fact that the play’s roots were not in the bloodbaths of postmodern cinema but in the Shakespearean anatomies of reduced men. Lear on the heath and Timon in his cave.”

Why must there, in tying a work to a tradition, be an almost obligatory contempt and discard of other interpretations? Why can’t Shakespeare be postmodern bloodbath cinema? Why this need to alienate one reading in favor of another reading? Berg, in her article, gets her information not from the annals of history but from random people she talks to, from books that might or might not be related. It is, in Sörenson’s word, “sloppy”. Why must art, and in the case of this article correspondence, “theater hatred”, be put on a pedestal? Berg herself doesn’t put it on a pedestal. Is it that she is writing for one of Sweden’s major newspapers that elevates everything she says to some general, higher form of expression? In her article she is trying very hard not to. She doesn’t like orating blocks. Does it threaten public opinion making? What if the tantrum doesn’t end, then what? Will the elephants come running through the streets?

In one way it seems as if it’s Berg’s self-indulgent, self-critical element which is the most annoying and not the hatred, as if it disrupts the natural discourse between the high and the low where the high is humored and (pretend?) shocked by the low and the low retaliates by making fun of the high, a kind of mutually flourishing symbiosis. That the self-critical irritates because it engages in a dialogue with itself, not throwing off opinions or establishing knowledge but creating, as it goes along, some semblance of thinking in the act of thinking, which, more often than not, doesn’t culminate in a vibrant punchline but in silence and further questioning, confusion, Art not as “is” but as “to be continued”.

Berg, in her article, gives a brief reading of Kleist’s Penthesilea:

“about the amazon queen who fights on the large scale with her dude Achilles by trying to kill him with fighting dogs and war elephants, who in the end, when they actually try to get along like civilized people, loses control over if she’s kissing, biting or even taking a sneak-cannibalistic bite off his lips.”

Which strikes me as a useful analogy for a different kind of critique, not just because of the war elephants, but because of the taboo-curious and erotic sneak-cannibalistic bite. To lose control in the face of art and devour it, not distance but to become it. An anguish-filled, awkward, and confessional critique, a critique in on-going critique of itself, in a way disqualifies a confrontational response, inviting instead a confessional critique in turn. It seems to be saying: critique can be art too.  It seems to be saying: why are you embarrassed to become art?  It seems to be saying: art is embarrassing, git with it!

But, as many a zoo-keepers are prone to ask: all critics can’t be poets and writers and dancers, can they? Well, why the hell not? Does the shit in front of you move you or not, what does it make you feel, how does it make you feel? Do you feel nothing? What response does it tickle from you as you encounter it? Tickle back. What does it make you think of? Think back. Get on the elephant. It’s OK. It’s big and it’s small at the same time, pink and blue, it eats and it fucks and it shits, OK? Go on. Ride the elephant.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Very astute reading of these criticisms. As you argue, I think the key is how both articles attacking Aase seems to want her criticism to be a conventional criticism, something they can respond to. But Aase’s article suggests she’s not entirely sure about what it is she dislikes. That uncertainty is indeed the thing they don’t seem to want to reply to.

    About Kane I think you’re write: Guardians of Taste constantly want to defend Art against narcissism, megalomania, obsession – these pathologies. And make it about “Craft.” Or something else they can “master.” Even the argument so to speak should be made recognizeable.

    I also want to say that I hate most theater that I see…. But my biggest loves are drama – usually read (as in Shakespeare, Duchess of Malfi, Artaud etc). But once when I was like 14 I watched Genet’s “The Screens” produced at the Guthrie in Mpls. It lasted for hours. The main character spasmed the whole way through the production. The colonial soldiers wore huge platform boots. It was *hard* – for me and for them! But it was stunning. Soon thereafter I think the Guthrie changed directors and started doing utterly boring productions (Death of a Salesman etc). / Johannes


  2. Jared

    Art as messy buildup, clutter, the antonym of science…like that…

  3. James Pate

    Really interesting post…Kane is fascinating, and one of the things I like about her work is how difficult it is to “interpret” and all that…Themes and grand statements dissolve. Meaning itself is challenged. In some ways she reminds me of Beckett too. Everything is the local situation. Mud and bodies and voices…


  4. adam strauss

    I’m cheered to read that a poet I think is terrific is unsure they quite get theatre; theatre–along with cinema–is my ginormo culture blank: I am terrible at reading theatre; I think it ruins me because it’s a text but then it has actual people and actions, so whereas normally a text is a text is a text, the text is the surface, what’s in bass relief, with theatre it’s the script, the words are, sort of, behind, recessed; and there’s nothiong bad about this it just baffles me! And then I do like reading beckett plays and Wilde plays; and why I find that theatre graspable and not much more, mm, no idea.

  5. kim

    Hey, thanks for reading and commenting. Beckett reads well for me too, theater where the stage seems less there, necessary, the text in a kind of non-linear vacuum. Or something. I like the idea of reading theater, as it is not authentic, not real, instead of seeing, having to read, for instance, the stage directions. Think there was a theater group recently who severed and put on just O’Neill’s stage directions.