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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Tuesday, August 08, 2006 ::

Reader Meets Author

Strange days on the Whatsonstage.com messageboards, usually one of the best discussion sites on theatre, where a well-informed and articulate group of regulars go at their theatregoing experiences with blood and fire. A recent scalping of the National's Market Boy by 'Carl Linden' (it transpires that this is a pseudonym) for stereotyping and inauthenticity of the working-class traders of Romford market brought the author himself, David Eldridge (pictured), into the fray. Eldridge defended the authentic basis of the play, while insisting that it was never intended to be a documentary. His cheeky sign-off accused 'Carl' of 'bitterness and bile' which provoked a flurry of aggrieved replies from this critic, who added to his accusation of inauthenticity the assertion that it was 'a complete mess as a play' and accused the whole of being the one-dimensional world seen by the 'Liberal elite'. So, clearly handbags at dawn. Eldridge returned to the battle less to defend his play as to condemn the attitude of his would-be critic. Things spiral out of control fairly quickly as 'Carl' compares Eldridge to Pol Pot (how did we get here from there?).

It's refreshing to see a playwright answering his critics, and there's no reason for believing critics should not be held to account whoever they are. But it's also not easy to see who gains by this. As in the Guardian's (
rather pompously fanfared) 'right of reply' section, no matter how dignified the expression, restrained the style, even-handed and fair-minded the approach, answering a critic back so easily seems like special pleading. Eldridge is rigorously restrained and dignified, well certainly in his first posting, but somehow he still seems to lessen himself. Now, his case is more complicated, because it seems that 'Carl Linden' is the pseudonym for a playwright, or ex-playwright, who does not identify him or herself. (Nothing wrong with anonymity; at Encore, we're quite partial to it ourselves.) Debate between theatre workers is usually more productive than debate between theatre workers and critics, though even here the intelligent and sensitive David Eldridge seems to get dragged into a conflict from which there can be no winners.

The opportunity to respond that the Guardian offers has been taken up almost exclusively by theatre workers. There are a couple of film makers, a dance impresario, a curator and a composer, but two-thirds of all the replies are by theatre makers. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: theatre shows usually have limited runs and the temptation to draw the poison of a bad review quickly is very strong. If we get our rebuttal in before the weekend, it seems to say, we can neutralise the impact of that two-star notice. The reason why no novelist has written a rebuttal for The Guardian is that they know their book has a couple of years to make its impact.
It's less obvious why it never works. But here's Encore's view. Is it perhaps because it feels beneath an artist's dignity to engage with a critic? Of course we know that reviews are very important, but why are they important? I think we all yearn for a critical response that recognises the nature of the creative work you're engaged in, the context you're responding to, a response that can genuinely open up a debate that feels interior to the project of work. But critics hardly ever supply that, especially in their - let's be fair - one hour deadline and 400 words. Responding genuinely and openly to creative work is very difficult, which is why many critics don't bother and either review something else, like Billington (pictured) forever turning plays into sociology, or allow personal judgments to harden into a bunker mentality. It can be aggravating when the critics - en masse - misunderstand a show and set its reputation off in quite the wrong direction, causing puzzlement to audiences who've read the papers and creating the conditions for the backlash later on. But there is usually time for that impression to be changed, and it is pointless trying to shift that view within three days of the press night.

The truth is that the critics' only practical significance is that they get the word out, more effectively than most advertising, that the play is on. Anyone who's worked in theatre knows the strange phenomenon that even after quite poor reviews, audiences generally go up. Engaging with what they say, therefore, is simply giving the critics more significance than they deserve. And because of that, when you see that an artist has bothered respond, the reader thinks, 'they must be desperate', which demeans the artist and gives curious credence to the original criticism. So the right of reply never works.

When we're there, on a first night, watching the critics filing in, don't most of us think, 'if I just met you at a party, I wouldn't like you; I don't respect your opinions, nor your ability to articulate them; why should I care what you think'? Let them write their reviews, but please, please, let's not waste time answering them back.

In answering them back, is there the hope that this will create more publicity (which as you point out is one of the functions of the critic for a theatre worker) ?

Or, in your opinion, is the loss of dignity not worth the possible extra publicity...

And is there any ever hope of creating a "critical dialogue" or is this a bit of a bogus idea?

Your, in the past, 2* Guardian review writer, who probably wouldn't get round to answering criticism even if he wanted to.
It's a good point. Maybe the publicity works regardless of the loss of face. I don't know - never having tried to reply to the critics in that way.

Critical dialogue shouldn't be a bogus idea. The idea of a critic who cares enough about the theatre to follow it wherever it goes (and at the risk of surprising themselves, looking foolish, getting in above their heads) would be a thing to cherish. And we do have critics like that. I've had mixed reviews from Lyn Gardner but I think she takes these kinds of risks to find new work; Maddy Costa's on the side of the angels; at times, James Christophers, and a couple of others.

But even these writers have so little space to express their views that they never end up saying enough to really engage with. And, as you know, some critics evidently have no other object than to strike positions, phrasemake, and be witty at the expense of someone's efforts. 400 words isn't ever going to be much of a basis for critical dialogue, unless you can write fucking well. And how many of our critics can write fucking well? Tynan's one of the few exceptions to the rule, though he only lasted a decade as a critic.

Maybe the error is looking for critical dialogue in the newspapers. What do you think?
would you think less of stoppard if he dropped in some comments in response to your thoughts on his work?
i think we know that's going to remain a hypothetical situation.
I wouldn't think less of him exactly, just as I don't actually think less of David Eldridge for taking on his critic on that messageboard. But I do think it would make Stoppard look as if he were worried, no matter how insouciant he contrived to appear. (And insouciance is a mode he is well-practised in.) And if you look worried by the criticism, doesn't it suggest that they've hit a nerve?

Also, the articles here are usually a bit longer than reviews and more directly 'debating' so there's more to engage with.

That said, I agree with you that the prospect is remote that we'll ever be able to test this out.
I haven't read the correspondence between this allusive blogger and Eldridge, but it sounds like at some level he did strike a nerve in that Eldridge knew what he wanted to do with Market Boy but it didn't really work out. The more he defends his play, the more desperate he starts to sound. If he were confident that the play could speak for itself, he wouldn't need to bother. What's interesting is the difference between his defence of Market Boy and his defence of Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness. The latter was also a rebuttal to Billington's ridiculous rant about the length of plays at the Royal Court (the man gives new meaning to pedestrian) and it appeared BEFORE the play opened. Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness was an astonishingly daring, assured, humane piece of work. It needed no defence. Market Boy, on the other hand, cannot speak for itself because it'sshallow and flimsy, whatever the reasons are.
There are number of entangled issues that have ranged across this blog, Stephen Sharkey’s blog and the whatsonstage discussion boards – about anonymity and debating plays.

The reason why I’ve joined in on discussions on previously Festen and Market Boy is to try and inform the debate. People always love and hate plays – and are of course entitled to their view. After ten years writing them one would have to be pretty thin-skinned to still be upset by any critics, reviewers or now bloggers. You always hope that reviews in the press are good so that more people go and see your work but that’s about it. Like almost everyone with internet access in the gossipy sometimes bitchy small world of theatre I enjoy the discussion of plays and blogs so why shouldn’t I join in? It seems mad that unless we adopt the guise of anonymity or post under an assumed name that writers and artists who make plays and theatre are excluded from the debate swirling around their show.

Most visitors to blogs and boards are enthusiasts and are interested in some of the thinking that lies behind a show. That’s why I posted on Festen in 2004 and Market Boy now. If anyone had started threads discussing M.A.D or Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness I would have joined in on those too. It’s not a matter of defending the play really… Both ‘Festen’ and ‘Market Boy’ have been big hit shows of which I’m enormously proud. What is there for me to defend especially? I know how hard I work and how much I put in to my plays. Some people hate those plays. Some people love them. Anyone who visits the whatsonstage discussion board and is interested in the thinking behind the show can read my post on the ‘New Plays in the Olivier thread’. But really so what? Actually I’ve been more preoccupied in recent weeks with a new play I’m working on with Robert Holman & Simon Stephens – and the small matter of my wedding.

Re ‘Carl Linden’ and his postings on the whatsonstage board as I’ve said elsewhere I felt did deserve a reply. The matter of his false claims about the attitude of the management at the NT or his bone-headed attempts to prove the show lacks authenticity are small beer compared to the matter that he is himself a playwright – once of some promise. Over many months actually I’d been disturbed by the tone of bitterness that shot through his discussion of almost all theatre he’d seen. It’s incredibly hard to write plays – let alone a good one – and I felt it was just worth saying to a fellow playwright (of some talent) that he ought to expunge the bile. And if he lightened up a bit and concentrated on more generous virtues then those plays he claimed to be giving up on in favour of screenplays or ‘cultural terrorism’ might come a little easier…

It’s not possible to have a debate in news print in the way you can on line. Personally I’d love to see Tom Stoppard, the Royal Court and David Hare join in the debate!

Glad you’re back Encore – have missed your blog hugely…
Leave me alone, you bastards.
It's true that some people are going to love certain plays and some people are going to hate them, but if that's all there is to it, then what is the point of discussing plays?

Personally, I was deeply shocked and disappointed when I went to see Market Boy, having read Serving It Up, Summer Begins and MAD and seen Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness, Festen and the staged reading of Under the Blue Sky at the Court. I had come to expect nuanced, emotionally truthful, often very funny plays. I found it difficult to believe that Market Boy was written by the same person. It seemed to be nothing but a brash spectacle with very little in the way of plot, that made its thematic and political points with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The jokes weren't funny, the characters weren't sympathetic and often they verged towards stereotyping. What a chasm between the scene in MAD when the young boy overhears an argument of apolocalyptic proportions between his parents and the scene in Market Boy when the Boy discovers his Mum shagging his boss! One was heart-breaking, the other entirely laughable.

What worried me about Market Boy when I saw it at previews was that it would set the campaign to get living playwrights out of black boxes back in a serious way, but luckily it hasn't. The main reason for this, I think, is that the critics thought they'd missed something and didn't want to seem like spoilsports so they gave it good reviews. I am pleased this is the case, though I really don't think the play deserved.

I am sure you will go on to write more fantastic plays like MAD, Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness and Under the Blue Sky and I hope that one day, you will write a great play for a stage like the Olivier, but, in my opinion, Market Boy was far from that.
Long time lurker, first time wader-in here, hi.

Last comment here raises the very interesting question: what is the point of discussing plays? Of course, there are many reasons for doing so, and they vary massively between playwright, critic, student, teacher, performer, agent, gossip and so on.

I kind of think, David, you are getting your fingers burnt on the blogosphere a bit, but it's not your fault when the individuals you're dealing with are all clubbing under the really vague agenda of 'blogger'. (Or: it sort of is your fault if you encourage them, I suppose is what I'm saying. No offence.)

To the anonymice and the theatre workers: I'd go further than David. Judgements are completely devalued by not knowing who the judges are. This is not to encourage 'ad hominems', of course, (or naivete of the this-is-a-blog-nobody-will-see-my-indiscretion) but it's really difficult to get anything constructive out of this when you have such presumptive commentary without knowing where the presumptions are coming from. I liked Market Boy, I laughed a lot, I enjoyed myself. I also thought MAD was rather good, and also thought the scene that previous commenter is referring to was cracking. But at the same time, I thought that the corresponding scene in Market Boy was funny (and thus laughable?) and affecting. The context for both was radically different and my big clue for that was the number of people in the room with me. Outside of a stale literary idea of theatre, you can't interchange the two. How the fuck are you going get a transit van in the Bush for a start?

Where's your comparison coming from? What should a play do? How should we judge them? What is the point of discussing them? Rather than writing and producing more of them? Are you in a position to do that? Are you in a position to produce any of mine? Have I really fucked up here?

The critics are indeed a royal pain in the arse, but they are the critics we deserve - and the pure, simple qualification they have to do it is that they do it every night. I personally think it's a deeply weird and abnormal way to spend your time, but a lot of people think that about writing plays too, I'm sure. Point is, they put their name on the top so you can have something to spit out with the blood, or so you can avoid sitting next to them at weddings. Whatever. I do think responding to them in print is a bit of a waste of time in the very literal sense of... oh. Hang on. What was I meant to be doing this afternoon?

Look, I think Encore is great, and really pleased to see it going again. But please no misconceptions about its usefulness until names are named. To post an anonymous piece about how useless it is for David or anybody else to be answering back to 'Carl Linden' on whatsonstage...? My brain does backflips. Anonymity gives you freedom in the same way helium gives you a squeaky voice if this is what you're going to focus your prodigious talents on...
Like anonymous, there are aspects of some of David Eldridge's other plays that I like a great deal, wheras in comparison I found Market Boy to be a bit coarse and empty-headed. The question is: does it have to lose those qualities - and gain supposedly big populist ones - because it's written for a vast stage?

I heard a brilliant talk given by Nicholas Wright at a monsterist conference where he suggested that interseting plays were surprisingly adaptable, that he hadn't thought that Edmund would work in a space like the Olivier but it resonated just as much with an audience there as it had done at the Court. Curiously, I think that a revival of David Eldridge's A Week With Tony - originally performed in a tiny pub space - would still work in the Lyttleton because of its narrative impetus (towards a climax of a bankrupt wedding) and expansive canvas of distinctive characters - rather better than Market Boy seems to work in the Olivier, anyway.

It would be interesting to see if there are any other ostensibly small-scale plays by living dramatists that other Encore readers think might work on these big stages. If ever any literary manager decides to re-stage Robert Holman's Other Worlds, then I'll know that we live in a world where dramatic virtue and imagination is properly rewarded.
I am not sure I fully understand the importance of knowing whose opinions are being expressed, except for the obvious fact that we are all people who care enough about theatre to spend our Saturday mornings, for example, writing comments and blogs! I wrote the second and third anonymous postings on this page to which David Eldridge and Glynn Cannon have responded with great eloquence. My name will mean nothing to you. I am a 25 year old playwright at the beginning of my career and I do an office job during the day which means I get to spend a lot of time in front of a computer and while I can't write plays at work, I can occasionally blog.

I was disappointed by Market Boy because David Eldridge is one of the members of a slightly older generation of playwrights that I admire the most. I was disappointed by it because I was so excited when I first heard about it. I was disappointed by it because Under the Blue Sky made me cry, while Market Boy left me entirely baffled. Maybe I just missed the point of the whole thing. Maybe that scene with the Boy discovering his mother getting it on with the stall owner was just supposed to be very funny and I was wrongly expecting the main character to go on an emotional journey. Maybe it wasn't a play and I missed the point entirely.

I would also like to point out that I do not write this out of bitterness. Like many others, I enjoy going to see plays by writers I admire. I look forward to seeing what developments their dramaturgy might take. I look forward to them surprising me and teaching me something about myself I didn't know. It was Market Boy's failure to do this, that disappointed me so much. I kept on thinking "It'll get better, it'll get better". The people I was with left at the interval because they disliked it so much, but I stayed, certain that things would improve in the second act but they didn't. If anything they got worst.

I mean no offence to David in any of this. As I have said already, I greatly admire his work and I wish him all the best with his new play. What I am offering here is my reaction to seeing Market Boy on one particular evening. So there we have it.
"once of some promise"???

Shame on you, Mr Eldridge. I have no idea who you're writing about, but your patronising tone does you no favours.

Nobody is arguing with your talents as a writer, and I am sure you work hard, but you have also been extraordinarily lucky. There are several writers who are at least your equal who have not had the opportunities for production that you have had. You know well enough that the selection of plays for production is not a process that depends only, or even chiefly, on the merit of the play. You should also remember that 'Market Boy' swallowed up public funding that might have paid for five or six smaller productions of new work. We hoped it would be extraordinary, and it wasn't. It was bright and funny, and well-observed, to a degree, but terribly superficial, with little intellectual coherence or emotional resonance. It's good to see something big and brash and comic - but the best comedy brings unwelcome truths to light, and has urgency, and attitude and anger and bite. This felt like a half-hearted celebration with an even more half-hearted morality tale tacked on to ease the guilt. It felt as though it was written to fill a commission and a space. It was fun, and sporadically engaging, but I can get that experience watching TV at home. If I'm bothering to go out to see a play, I want to watch something that shakes me up a bit (intellecutally, emotionally, in a good way, or a bad way..) . This was way, way too tame, and safe, and anodyne.

You should also realise that labelling playwrights as 'promising' is part of the problem of top-down control masquerading as support that we should all be trying to solve together, rather than reinforcing -

So please, Mr Eldrige, you're welcome to defend your work, but a little humility wouldn't come amiss. Luck can change. Perhaps some day someone doing well will talk of you, in public, as 'once of some promise'. I sincerely hope it doesn't happen, but you should allow yourself to understand how it would feel if they did.
Blimey, this one's kicked off. We're grateful to David Eldridge for taking the trouble to contribute to this discussion and we should be clear that the article was in no way intended to criticise your actions. We were talking about how rarely we felt it worked when artists tried some comeback to a critic, and the bloody thing snowballed from there.

Responding to Glyn's comments, we disagree (obviously) that 'judgements are completely devalued by not knowing who the judges are'. It depends on the judgment; if I announce that Michael Frayn has a headache, the value of that claim is devalued unless I am Michael Frayn. But if I announce that Michael Frayn earned £2m last year and draw your attention to his public accounts, does it matter to the judgement who I am? You might start wondering why someone would want to reveal Frayn's financial situation. But you might also wonder that if I named myself. Of course, this is a matter of facts but judgments about plays are also public. Artistic judgment is not a completely private thing - otherwise we couldn't debate about it. If artistic preference were 100% personal then staying up all night debating about the merits of some actor, some theatre, some play or playwright, the directorial decisions taken, the set designer's vision, etc., would be as crazy as staying up all night debating whether or not I have a headache.

So the debates are public. But you're right of course: some of us work or have worked, or hope to work, in the institutions we criticise, or have relationships of different kinds with people on whose work we comment. It's not cowardice but a chance to make those comments disentangled from those personal ties.

I can't say that Encore has never slagged off a personal enemy or bigged up a friend because we get submissions from people who are anonymous to us, so it's not always possible to monitor. All we can do is look at the piece and decide whether or not to post it based on how clearly, reasonably and interestingly (even provocatively) the argument is put. We founded this thing on the basis that we wanted to create another forum for public debate, and perhaps take a lead in suggesting a style and tone for talking intelligently and sympathetically about theatre, from the perspective of theatre workers who also go and see a lot of stuff, think about it, talk about it. We were struck that the conversations you have about plays after you've seen them can be really great and somehow worth preserving, in all the passion, wide reference, strength of feeling and varying levels of articulacy. Even that David Hare piece - having a go at Amy's View - contains, in amongst the bile, some serious commentary on the shortcomings of the play.

Commentators on our articles are free to be anonymous - there's nothing we can do about it, even if we wanted to, because that's how the software works - but anyway we think that's a good thing. People can read a public argument and decide for themselves whether it's valid without having to check who is speaking.

After all, we don't know that it really is Glyn Cannon (of On Blindness, Gone, etc.). But does it really make a difference? You may be as much Glyn as the correspondent two back from you is really Tom Stoppard; but we can respond to your argument and isn't it more important that we engage with each other's ideas than our reputations?

Yours with a squeaky voice

Theatre Worker
Thanks for taking time to reply.

I don't see what's patronising about describing 'Carl Linden' as a once promising dramtist? I know his real identity and thats exactly what he is.

And by comparison as Encore point out I've treated him with restraint and respect!

I've had a good few years and I'm sure I'll have bad few years along with way as well. Such is the nature of theatre. Writers go in and out of fashion - and sometimes they just write less well.

When (and if) that happens to me all I want to do is keep my sense of humour - to try and write well - and to get on my with life. Whatever it is I'm doing whether I'm pulling pints - driving a black cab - or simply pouring all my energy into a play no-one wants to do - I certainly won't be consumed with bitterness and bile.

I'm hurt Anonymous thinks I'm lacking in humility and should be ashamed. But i stand by what I say - actually written with love. The easy thing would be just to dismiss 'Carl Linden' as a tosser. But I didn't because I think plays and the people who make them are worth taking seriously.

Thanks to William Drew for your thoughtful reply - and to Simon Hench yes - Other Worlds is a masterpiece.
regarding 'emerging', 'promising', etc:

Theatre Worker: I agree, ideas more than reputations. We disagree about how to do that, though. I just think reputations are better slapped down on the table rather than fiddled with underneath it. If you don't author your comments, your comments lack authority. You use the moniker 'Theatre Worker' rather than just anonymous for certain good reasons...

'Anonymous' just keeps your comments even more weightless up in the blogosphere (carrying on my helium theme...) - such as the strange attack by Anonymous No. X on David's humility (!). And if you anonymously point out Michael Frayn's public accounts you think I'm not going to wonder who you are and why you're doing it?

But look: your game, your rules. There are often very good reasons for anonymity and censorship is far worse than any of what we're talking about. I love the blog, keep on keeping on.

And I'm not that Glyn Cannon. He's rubbish. I'm this one.


Michael Frayn's Head-Achy Brain
Ha ha! Fantastic! Who knew there was a website called Testosterone Nation?

As you were, Sergeant.

I'm suggesting that for a writer to refer to another as 'once promising' shows a certain lack of humility. What's strange about that?

Why are you so keen to judge an argument by its author, rather than by its own integrity? Why should it need weight and authority behind it? Why should we have to slap it down on the table (particularly those of us with nothing to slap..)? Enough testosterone, already. It only gives us ad hominem and flame wars.. I'm sticking to my squeaky voice. If my arguments are good enough they'll have wings -

Yours weightlessly

Anonymouse X
Would David Eldridge refer to himself as a "promising" playwright? If so, then there's nothing wrong with his pompous-ass assessment of another writer's promise or lack thereof. Interesting, though, that he doesn't see how condescending it is, given his own lack of theatrical chops (give it another, oh, 15 years, David), to make such pronouncements about others.

As for the ludicrous "name the names" v. anonymity debate... well, Glyn Cannon, just you wait until you become someone whose opinions offend our backstabbing little theatre world before you demand to know who's speaking to whom. As if that matters. As another glorious anonymousarian has noted, substance rather than package is da bomb here at encore.
How can you be anonymous and glorious?
I’ve realised this debate has just taken off in a completely different tangent but I thought I’d just reply to TW’s reply.

Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. The off-line world has been intruding.

I think you are right that the newspapers are probably not the place for a critical dialogue. Space is too limited and the newspaper agenda not easily aligned (ultimately, it’s about selling papers / advertising?).

On the other hand I do think most critics care – their care may be misplaced – but for instance, regardless of agreeing or violently disagreeing with Michael Billington, I do read the sense that he cares passionately about theatre (or his version of theatre at least). Maybe I am wrong.

Where do you think we should try and gain critical dialogue? Blogs?

And on the publicity note, people seem to say no publicity is bad publicity but I think the loss of face can be hard. I think I read once that Chekhov said “people strive not to be embarrassed” and I can think of some who’s life work is probably just trying to avoid embarrassment…..



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