Friday 28 November 2008

what's sold in the free market of ideas

Alain de Botton finds himself having a little more time for Socrates' defence of cultural censorship as it appears in Plato's Republic. The argument there is that bad ideas can ruin your life.

'It won't escape the notice of any inhabitant of a large city that the thoughts which greet us in public places are overwhelmingly interested in directing our attention to the advantages of consuming deodorants, airline flights and blockbuster films. If we really lived in a free market of ideas, we should expect that we would occasionally hear a public defence of kindness or a paean to the wise aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius, but we don't, for the obvious reason that few gentle Buddhists or stalwart Stoics have the £100,000 necessary to start an effective ad campaign.'
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Thursday 27 November 2008

the great green way

Broadway's taking steps to go green. But Wicked producer David Stone admits, 'The theater community has always been at the forefront of social change, and we have been left behind on this one a little bit.' more ...

Wednesday 26 November 2008

now or later

The most arresting line in David Hare's Gethsemane is a piece of reported speech. The Home Secretary, Meredith, is discussing her daughter Suzette's views, about asylum seekers and refugees, with her political advisor, Lori.

MEREDITH. Suzette says, 'Mum, it isn't a question of "They're poor and we're rich." It's "They're poor because we're rich." And if you can't see that, you can't see anything.'

Meredith doesn't see this, she says she can't see this (she doesn't have time), and the play doesn't pursue the point. But it's this area, the connection between our lives, here, and other lives, elsewhere, that would also be central to any drama that dealt with climate change.

A playwright who has a thrilling sense of how the world is connected is Christopher Shinn . His latest play Now or Later takes place on election night. The central character is John ('20, white') and his father is about to become President of the United States. A story has surfaced on several obscure blogs that John went to a student party dressed as Muhammad. (There were reasons for this.) As the play develops, this gossip spreads across the internet and John's father and his campaign team become increasingly fearful about the backlash in other countries (riots, death threats).

The play takes place in a hotel room, in real time, but it conveys a strong sense of the causal links (the because) that connect actions in one place with consequences in another. In that respect, it offers something of a model.
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Tuesday 25 November 2008

instinct for the times

Philip Pullman has rightly called climate change 'the most important challenge the human race has ever faced'. But the news hasn't reached everyone. Take political playwrights.

Imagine someone in 50 years time trying to understand what people were thinking/feeling about climate change by reading some of the plays that had been staged in 2008. OK, so theatre isn't journalism. There's going to be a time-lag. But nearly 20 years after the first IPCC report, the answer would be: people weren't thinking about it at all. It had barely impinged.

In the Guardian, Michael Billington defends David Hare's Gethsemane, saying 'Hare may not be right about everything. But he has a far greater instinct for the times we live in than most of the critics who so routinely abuse him.'

If only that were the case. Unfortunately, as Pullman's remark makes clear, there are far more pressing political issues today than Gethsemane's plot about party fund-raising and a cabinet minister's daughter sleeping with an Oxbridge journalist. more ...

nine jumbos falling out of the sky

The Financial Times urges it readers to support its seasonal appeal for WaterAid. The article says that (according to Unicef) every day diarrhoea claims the lives of 4,300 children under the age of five.

WaterAid's head of policy says, 'If we had nine jumbo jets falling out of the sky every day, which is the equivalent, there’d be an immediate G8 summit.' more ...

Monday 24 November 2008

'the biggest scam in marketing history'

Bottled water: the more you think about it, the more daft it is.

(Ben Jonson would have smiled.) more ...

show and tell

No Impact Man recommends lifestyle redesign as a kind of political performance art. more ...

the return of thrift

Fay Weldon reviews India Knight's Thrift Book

A distaste for excess crept upon us unaware, pre-dating the credit crunch and the fear for jobs: one day, bottled water seemed normal; the next day not. One day, leaving the computer on all night seemed bold and trusting, a gesture of defiance; the next, it seemed a senseless waste.

If Fay Weldon had been following any of the low-impact blogs linked to on this blog, she might not have been caught unawares. more ...

keeping it in the family

A fortnight ago, this blog listed six reasons why theatres don't touch climate change. Here's another: playwrights only really like stories about families.

Sam Shepard, the American playwright, when asked why he wrote so much about family, answered: 'What else is there?'

As a subject, climate change is about a lot more than the emotional dynamics of individual families. more ...

Sunday 23 November 2008

how quickly plays date

OTTO. In my opinion the people running the country are capable people. The economy's doing well. They know what they're doing. Therefore.

LORI. Therefore what?

OTTO. Explain to me why this government shouldn't be in power for ever.

Gethsemane by David Hare (opened 12 November 2008). more ...

Friday 21 November 2008

missing link

As soon as I read Ian McEwan's piece on Barack Obama, climate change and global poverty, I wondered if Arts and Letters Daily would link to it.

Arts and Letters is the aggregator website that links to many of the most interesting articles that appear online (it has even linked to one of mine). The site's motto is veritas odit moras (truth hates delay). The McEwan piece would seem a natural link.

Here is one of our leading novelists writing about the most pressing issue of the day. The subject is central to his new novel. McEwan is well-informed. The article is excellent.

But there are some truths that editors like more than others. As long-term users of the site know, Arts and Letters doesn't like stuff that sounds at all green. It much prefers the stuff that's boisterously anti-green.

So whatever the Latin tag says about truth and delay, it may not be the place to find a link to McEwan's urgent and elegant article. more ...

Thursday 20 November 2008

the don't knows

'Often my characters don’t know what the issues of the play are.'

David Rabe more ...

Wednesday 19 November 2008

sweet rain of photons

Ian McEwan writes,

An alien landing on our planet and noticing how it was bathed in light would be amazed to learn that we believe ourselves to have an energy problem, that we ever should have thought of overheating or poisoning ourselves by burning fossil fuels or generating plutonium. Sunlight falls on us in a constant stream, a sweet rain of photons beyond counting. more ...

Tuesday 18 November 2008

bunch of eco-terms top list

Runners-up for the Oxford Word of the Year 2008 included frugalista, carrotmobbing, rewilding and staycation.

The winner describes the attempt to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques, or ... hypermiling. more ...

the real thing

The Columbian vice president, Francisco Santos Calderon (left), says anyone who takes cocaine in the UK is responsible for the harm caused by landmines to the Colombian people and for breathtaking damage to the rainforest.

Related. Helen Mirren - Why I stopped taking cocaine. ('I had never grasped the full horrifying structure of what brings coke to our parties in Britain.')

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Sunday 16 November 2008

the master says

'Propaganda is death in the theatre.’ Noel Coward more ...

Saturday 15 November 2008

freighted with inconsistencies

In discussing David Hare's Gethsemane, the Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish makes a point close to the one this blog has been making since it went online (see here, here, here, and here). He writes:

If we want a state-of-the-nation play that goes for broke, what we need, at the very least, is a leading Left-wing playwright prepared to hold a mirror up to the aspirations of his tribe: to confront the awkward fact that maybe it's not that the Left could do better that's the problem, but that the idea of "doing better" itself is freighted with inconsistencies.

It's by exploring these inconsistencies (and collisions and disjunctures) that the richest drama will emerge. The narrowness of the concerns of most political theatre means that it fails to grasp the broader/deeper implications of rising per capita consumption, finite resources and climate change. It isn't answers that are needed here, just awareness. more ...

Wednesday 12 November 2008

why theatres don't touch climate change

The nature of climate change (how it affects other people in other countries and how it will affect other people in other centuries) makes it a unique challenge to theatre.

The impact of individual actions spreads out, very diffusely, across time and place. It's hard to see how this can be addressed within the classical dramaturgical model of cause and effect. It's one reason why no major theatre has staged a play on the subject.

But there are five other reasons why theatres don't touch climate change.

1. Theatres think climate change is about science and so it's going to be extremely technical. But it isn't. It's about drama's core themes: human relationships, the way we live, what we value.

2. Theatres are worried they'll be accused of hypocrisy, so they are going to need to get their house in order first. But this is not a 'them and us' subject where you have to be whiter-than-white before you can talk about it. Everyone's implicated, everyone's involved. Theatres should be open about that.

3. Theatres are holding off engaging with this subject (as one theatre director told me) because they're not sure what they think about it. But not knowing what you think about something is the perfect moment to engage with it.

4. Theatres imagine the plays will either have to be agit-prop or apocalyptic and they don't want to do either. But climate change is driven (as the great American biologist E.O. Wilson has said) by our high levels of per capita consumption: where stuff comes from and where it goes. Climate change is about everyday life.

5. Many of the leading fossil fuel companies are prominent sponsors of the arts. Oh yes, good point.

Updates: Finally, a good play about climate change (9 May 2009); Green shoots of climate-change theatre (22 May 2009). more ...

Tuesday 11 November 2008

left or right isn't the question

The New York Times ran a piece last month which said that nearly all Broadway plays were liberal or left-wing. Last Sunday the Wall Street Journal's theatre critic, Terry Teachout, joined the debate

the problem with today's political theater is that its practitioners see their plays not as works of art but as means to an end. In such tedious exercises in left-wing agitprop as Sam Shepard's The God of Hell, Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and Tim Robbins's Embedded, we are presented with a black-and-white universe of victims and villains, a place where every deck is stacked and never is heard a surprising word.

Teachout didn't welcome the prospect of right-wing versions of issue-driven plays. He quoted Chekhov,

Anyone who says the artist's field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing. . . . It is the duty of the court to formulate the questions correctly, but it is up to each member of the jury to answer them according to his own preference.

The issue today is not whether playwrights are left-wing or right-wing (the terms are too broad to have any real use in this context), but whether playwrights are formulating the right questions correctly.

Climate change has ushered in pressing new ethical dilemmas about our responsibilities to people that we will never meet. These relationships are spatial and temporal: what A does in one country effects B in another; what C does in one century will effect D in another. These aren't easy issues to put on stage.

It's one reason why a major play has still to be written about it.

Teachout's article attacked here. (Ht. Theatre Ideas and Poor Player.) more ...

vegging out

The Blue Peter garden used to be full of tortoises and pretty pointless plants. Now it's going to grow vegetables. more ...

cold toes and driving rain

A fortnight ago this blog mentioned Run for the hills, a blog by Simon Lee, who'd left his job as chief executive of Changeworks and moved to a small croft in the north of Scotland to reduce his carbon footprint.

Lee was flattered, but puzzled, to discover from his Google stats that he was getting visits from this blog and the Ashden Directory.

A blog about theatre and climate change is always going to want to highlight examples about low impact lives and voluntary simplicity, from Diogenes and Wittgenstein to No Impact Man and Crunchy Chicken. Lee's is the latest. Yesterday, he writes, 'the main thing I'm concentrating on is how cold my toes are and just how wild the driving rain sounds against the velux windows.'

See also: blogging the good life. more ...

man and beast

A new play by Wallace Shawn, Grasses of 1000 Colours, opens at the Royal Court on 12 May 2009. Directed by Andre Gregory, Shawn's co-star in My Dinner Wth Andre, the new play stars Shawn and Miranda Richardson. Its theme, says the blurb, is the 'embattled relationship between man and beast'.

See also: Shawn wants Naomi Klein's audience. more ...

Monday 10 November 2008

ear plugs

There's no chance to link to Ian Parker's New Yorker profile for the Nov 10 issue about the new green guru and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (blogged here). The piece requires registration. But the profile - teasing and empathetic - is worth the price of the mag.

With Hot, Flat and Crowded, says Friedman, he has tried to address more than one audience, ('I'm here to speak out of two sides of my mouth.' ) In this respect, he distinguishes himself from the author of An Inconvenient Truth.

The problem with so much of the green argument previously, it spoke not even to half the country. I enormously admire Al Gore, and he's truly a hero of mine, but half the country sees him and plugs their ears, so Al Gore could not carry this thing, you know, on a national scale. more ...

blow ins

Barry Hines' 1968 novel Kes blew into schools, along with Ted Hughes' The Hawk in the Wind (1957) and mixed-ability teaching.

The kestrel and the hawk weren't domestic pets, they weren't cute, and they weren't subject to 'rescue' and operations on TV shows.

Kes is this week's Book at Bedtime. (R4, weekdays, 10.45pm.) more ...

science as he would like it

On Radio 4's Last Word the geneticist Steve Jones said the novelist Michael Crichton, who died last week, went 'beyond the limits of science but that is what science fiction is about'.

But Jones said that in his 2004 novel State of Fear, which attacks the idea that humans contribute to climate change, Crichton took on an anti-science agenda.

'It's science as he would like it rather than science as he imagines it and good science fiction doesn't turn on the science it turns on the imagination.'

(26 mins in.)
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beyond the soundbite

'Even in the age of YouTube and the soundbite,' says the Sunday Times, 'Barack Obama has proved that soaring, sustained oratory still has great power.' Nice, that 'even'.

YouTube was a huge contributing factor. It allowed the public to listen to far more of Obama's speeches at far greater length than any TV network would have allowed. YouTube worked against the soundbite culture. more ...

stop and stay

For a society to change, the stories it tells itself have to change (that's the link between theatre and climate change). Over at Casaubon's Book, Sharon Astyk writes from the U.S. perspective,

We are no longer frontiersmen, pushing the limits, moving on and growing into the next place and the next. Instead, as Wendell Berry puts it, we must remember the counternarrative of those who came and stayed and loved a place. That narrative of stopping and staying must become our central counternarrative to the failed story of eternal growth and “always-more.”
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Sunday 9 November 2008

sea change

'There’s never been a better time to explore the last true wilderness on earth,' says the narrator of Oceans, the BBC's new eight-part series. (BBC2, Wed 8pm.)

'This is plainly untrue,' says the Sunday Times previewer, 'as the rest of the programme goes on to show. Fifty years ago would have been much better.' more ...

austere and monkish

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (left) would not have had to worry about his carbon footprint. His rooms in Cambridge were almost bare of furniture. He didn't mind what he ate (it's said) so long as it was always the same thing. He even became a gardener in an Austrian monastery and slept in a potting shed.

The monkish austerity of his prose style in Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus, writes Terry Eagleton, was (among other things) a reaction against a Viennese world of cream cakes and swollen bodies. more ...

power points

In today's New York Times, Al Gore offers a five-part plan to repower America by producing 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources within 10 years. more ...

change of mind

Seamus Heaney tells the Guardian, 'Environmental issues have to a large extent changed the mind of poetry ... at this stage nobody can have an uncomplicated Hopkinsian trust in the self-refreshing powers of nature.' (ht. gos) more ...

job creation

Seth Godin recommends three new jobs that any online company needs to fill. It might equally apply to theatre companies. 1) Community organiser. 2) Stats fiend. 3) Manager of freelancers. more ...

Saturday 8 November 2008

honey, i shrank the bees

Honeybees aren’t on the edge of going extinct. They're on the edge of not being able to provide all we’ve asked of them. (ht. dd.) more ...

three days in

Now he's got to do the crossword in pen. more ...

just over one per cent

Technorati has identified 133 million blogs. Only 1.5 million had any postings in the last seven days. more ...

the battle of narratives

The Obama camp was thrown by Sarah Palin's appointment, says Ryan Lizza in a New Yorker podcast, but chief strategist David Alexrod told the Obama staff not to worry, the Republicans had spoilt their story, they couldn't attack the Democrats anymore about inexperience. more ...

clips win

People spent 14.5 million hours watching Obama on YouTube. That kind of TV exposure would have cost $47 million, half of what the McCain campaign spent in total. more ...

generation ahead

McCain's chief strategist Steve Schmidt says viral information is now as important as network news. The Democrats were 'a generation ahead'.

Each party develops techniques, usually when they’re out of power, for the purpose of gaining power on the next election — need being the mother of all inventions. You saw Republicans pioneer direct mail in an earlier age. You saw, you know, the use of television advertising pioneered in an earlier age. You saw microtargeting—you know, the overlaying of consumer and consumer data against the voter file, earlier in the decade, to much effect. There’s been a profound leap forward in technology and from a community organizing perspective by the Obama campaign in this election. The Democratic Party is a generation ahead technologically. And the Republican Party is going to have to be competitive to catch up in a world where viral information is just as important as what might be in the network news.
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crunch time

'Unfathomable chains of debt, double-speaking government departments, the robbing of Peter to pay Paul,' writes Rachel Cooke, 'All the themes of this dark autumn are here. Little Dorrit (BBC1) is 'a metaphor for the credit card age'. more ...

tea time

'For most of Top Gear's six million viewers the show is not really about cars at all,' writes Janice Turner, 'We make tea during the technical blah.' more ...


The 44th President-Elect loves Moby Dick, Casablanca and The Wire. And Harry Potter too. more ...

halving the health gap

The links between serious illnesses and poverty are well established, but this is the first time scientists have systematically shown that the health gap between rich and poor can be halved with the help of green spaces. more ...

Friday 7 November 2008

planet teen

Teenagers alone number one billion. more ...


W, Oliver Stone's movie about George W. Bush, opened in the UK today. It runs two hours and 11 minutes. (Extended trailer. W meets Laura here.) There are plenty of personal insights about Dad, Laura, Jeb, Texas, Iraq, oil, beer and baseball. But most revealing of all (about Stone and Bush), there isn't a single reference to climate change. more ...

jump start

The IEA says the oil price will rebound to more than $100 a barrel. 'I sure hope so,' says the Daily Dish, 'Nothing less will jump-start the non-carbon revolution.' more ...

help me

'Good evening,' said legendary theatre director Peter Brook to an audience, 'Now you must help me, because it is impossible to talk without knowing who one’s talking to.' more ...

plane talk

If the economic case for expanding Heathrow is nothing like as compelling as the government pretends, writes the Economist, the environmental arguments against remain as strong as ever. more ...

tolstoyan moment

The Anglo-Saxon model of unrestrained free-market capitalism, says the New Statesman, is fatally flawed

Even Alan Greenspan, the high priest of deregulation, has, like Ivan Ilyich in the famous Tolstoy story, had a moment of startling self-revelation that has left him confused about the purposes of his life's work.

He did not know what he thought he knew. What he thought was so is not the case. 'I have found a flaw,' he said in October, following the bank bailouts, 'I have been very distressed by that fact . . . Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself especially, are in a state of shocked disbelief.'
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president: 1 senators: 0

In electing Obama as president, the country has lost its only black senator. more ...

the in-tray: 2

He faces many challenges, but the novelist Alice Walker tells the President-elect that he has one primary responsibility: 'to cultivate happiness in your own life.' more ...

Thursday 6 November 2008

a bit of obit

Arts and Letters Daily believes that the novelist Michael Crichton, who died yesterday, 'enraged enviomentalists' (sic). The bigger point (not one that A&L chooses to dwell on) is that he enraged scientists. more ...

attacking sophists

A biologist by training, Aristotle attacked the Sophists, such as Antiphon, who believed that there was a big difference between nature and culture. Antiphon thought humans were best served if they followed nature. Aristotle said no: we are naturally designed to live in cities and cultures. more ...

Wednesday 5 November 2008

just knowing

... a president elect has an arts policy document is something. Pdf. more ...

facing up

The first time Barack Obama's name figured on this blog was in May 2007 when the unlikely candidate for the Democratic nomination was quoted as saying that the country that had successfully faced down the tyranny of fascism and communism now had to challenge the tyranny of oil.

To some, this would have seemed a bold, even hyperbolic, remark. The idea that this represents the considered view of the 44th President of the United States is one of many cheering developments. more ...

meeting and mating

Best known as Alan Ayckbourn's home, Scarborough is going to renovate its old 8000-seater outdoor theatre. The head of the Central School of Speech and Drama explains,

If people want comfort they can get that at home. That’s not why they go out. They go out for the social experience – for meeting and mating, eating and dating. more ...

the in-tray

He reminded his audience that they were a nation at war, with an economy in trouble, living on a planet in peril. more ...

cutting through noise

Barack Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod (left), conceived of the campaign in the way a dramatist might conceive of a central character. As the New York Times wrote in April 2007,

Axelrod says that the way to cut through all the noise is to see campaigns as an author might, to understand that you need not just ideas but also a credible and authentic character, a distinct politics rooted in personality. more ...

Tuesday 4 November 2008

what do we do now?

The New York Times picks a movie that faces the morning after. more ...

wrong kind of kool

The obsession with Joe the Plumber suggests McCain has been drinking his own Kool-Aid. more ...

survival mode

The Times article about what a new American President might or might not do for the arts (blogged here) drew this immediate response from a Times reader,

Who CARES?...We are in survival mode right now. Anyone concerned with the President's role in the arts has got to be economically unaffected, or someone whose job is 'arts dependent'. If for one moment you think that the Arts are important enough to even be discussed right now, then get real.

But the opposite argument might also apply. Last week the anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote that during an economic downturn consumers move from 'a surging modality' where 'each purchase is an improvement on the last one' to a 'dwelling' one.

Now the consumer is focused on what is good about what one has. The consumer stops anticipating and starts savoring.

The arts offer plenty to savor. more ...

today's two elections

The Newsweek cover story says the rest of the world sees today's election more clearly than Americans do. 'In the United States, the pundits framed campaign '08 much as they framed the last election, and the one before. It was a small, almost local obsession with the horse race, with battleground states ... Outside of the United States, the election played large and transformational: a 21st-century man with whom the whole world can identify versus an old cold-warrior out of synch with the complex political and economic crises of our age. The election, it seemed, had morphed into a meta-election. If at home, especially as the election neared its end, Obama seemed to be playing down his blackness, his intellect, his eliteness and his progressive ideas, these were the qualities that more and more drew the rest of the world to him.'

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of interest

When novelist Margaret Atwood opened her first bank account at the age of eight she found this thing called interest kept turning up in her account.
'Grown-ups said banks were real and tooth-fairies were unreal, but I wasn't sure that that was true and now it appears that banks too have an illusory quality.'
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Monday 3 November 2008

hope and protest

How would an Obama administration affect the arts? There would be more protest.

The New Yorker's drama critic, John Lahr, says,

Historically, in times when there is change or hope, there is much more protest and wideranging opinion and activity in Broadway's experimental theatres. People feel that someone will listen. What we've had for the past eight years is a kind of torpor and resignation, and that's made theatre lose a lot of heat. I think there will be a lot more political, polemical stuff.
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Sunday 2 November 2008

the context culprit

On a TV chat-show sofa, Richard Dreyfuss considers the threat to democracy, 'Television is the biggest culprit of all because it has destroyed context.' more ...