May 3, 2007

The Duty of a Playwright?

Judith Dale          posted 16 Mar 2007, 12:53 PM / edited 17 Mar 2007, 03:26 PM

Torture in Lebanon via a Toronto Stage: The duty of an artist is to place art on a higher level than history. Robert Fisk wrote this recently in The Independent Online, 10 March 2007: “The duty of an artist, I have always thought, is to place imagination on a higher level than history, to frame real events – if he or she must – to fit the interpretation that an author or playwright chooses to reveal about life.” Whaddya reckon?

For the context in which I initially wanted to reference this article, see the Forum entry “Rothwell and Mainstream.”  For all of it, see

neil furby             posted 16 Mar 2007, 04:36 PM / edited 4 May 2007, 10:31 AM

“‘History,’ Stephen said, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.'” James Joyce

As agree with this quote from Joyce about history I believe the statement “The duty of an artist, I have always thought, is to place imagination on a higher level than history ” is quite off beam.

Judith Dale          posted 17 Mar 2007, 02:27 PM / edited 23 Mar 2007, 01:05 PM

Neil, doesn’t Robert Fisk’s statement want to give us the same message as Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus does, in the statement you quote?  Fisk has none of Stephen’s youthful cynicism. But aside from that, Robert Fisk has certainly proven his active commitment to trying to awaken us from the nightmare that is history, and especially history-in-the-making (see the full article).

It is precisely *because* history is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awake, that *therefore* the function of art, and the duty of the playwright, and of all artists, is to place imagination on a higher level than history.

By the end Stephen says he intends to become an artist, too; Joyce’s book is called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, after all.

Michael Smythe                posted 18 Mar 2007, 04:49 PM / edited 4 May 2007, 10:31 AM

God save artists from externally imposed duty!

History, for me, is a continuum of experience and myth making from which I can learn much about humanity. Art, for me, is myth making and experiences from which I can learn much about humanity. Why try to place one on a higher plane than the other?

neil furby             posted 22 Mar 2007, 11:49 AM / edited 22 Mar 2007, 03:14 PM


If a suicide bomber intent on death and destruction interrupted your shopping trip to Pack And Save or that your favourite tramp through the bush was laid with land mines, perhaps your reply to this forum would not have been so flippant

Humanity is usually associated with benevolence so your premise that you learn much about humanity from history is puzzling

World History is full of violent acts and mayhem with very little benevolence shown by human kind.

Politicians and religious leaders have used myths to enhance their own power bases for centuries through organised propagation and religious dogma.

It’s not the putting of imagination on a higher plain than history, but for me the arts are about the creation of “another place ” where all the senses are heightened and vivid and far removed from the everyday mundane.

Seems that lately the Wellington theatre scene has distorted this “other place” into something quite bleak with what I call reality theatre that contains personal therapeutic personal life stories and political kitchen sink dramas.

If art is mimicking life here what an unhappy place it is, or is it that the benevolent and happy are deemed to boring to bring to stage??

Michael Smythe                posted 22 Mar 2007, 12:24 PM / edited 4 May 2007, 10:33 AM

I used ‘humanity’ as: “1 a the human race  b human beings collectively  c the fact or condition of being a human being” and not as benevolence. I was not being flippant. For me, the key questions arising from Judith’s original post are:

Should artists accept external commands regarding their duty? I say no – they must be free to question and challenge.

Can imagination and history be seen as separate? I say no – each is informed by the other.

Katrina Chandra                posted 3 May 2007, 04:26 PM / edited 3 May 2007, 08:54 PM

Does/should an artist (in this case a playwright) have a ‘duty’ at all? I would think that their only duty is to be true to themselves (and to write what they want to write rather than what they think they should write or feel they have to write). Why should parameters of duty (or history or reality – all mutable terms) be imposed on artists? Surely if there is a ‘duty’ it should be from the practitioners who make a conscious decision to put their own effort into bringing a work to fruition and the audience which attends (reads/hears/sees/takes part in/whatever) a work.

This also may apply to the whole ‘devised’ thread: the duty of professional practitioners to consider the question of rights themselves; for audiences the duty of not going to or walking out of something they don’t want to be at (with the visual arts and in most cases of performance art it is up to the audience when they arrive, how long they stay). I wonder if the word duty could more aptly be replaced with the word ‘responsibility’ in this case (which may imply less of an outside imperative). However, there is still the question of a prescriptiveness here which is essentially individualised. My view is that duty and responsibility are collective terms as are history and reality – they are all formed by a group as opposed to an individual, so why should an individual have to shoulder the burden?

Fisk (of whom I am a big fan) says: “After watching Scorched, I went backstage to meet the actors and actresses – one of them gives a frighteningly accurate portrayal of a jazz-crazed sniper – only to find they had no idea that they were, in some cases, playing real people. They didn’t even know that Israel had farmed out Khiam’s torturers to western countries as “refugees” who would be killed if they returned to Lebanon. The Israelis, of course, didn’t mention their role in Khiam’s horrors – which is why, several years ago, two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police turned up at my home to ask if I could identify any torturers who might have been given asylum in Canada. I told them that their names were now written on the gates of Khiam prison. But I do know that one of the torturers – who, of course, appears in Scorched as Nawal’s rapist – is believed to have found guilty sanctuary in Toronto where he has set up in business. In other words, he probably lives less than three miles from the Tarragon Theatre in Bridgman Avenue. And who knows, maybe he will drop by for a ticket this month, just to enjoy the suffering he caused in a faraway land to which he will never dare to return. Would that be history? Tragedy? Or art?”

But I question whether this knowledge of history/reality is necessary to perform or watch the play? Indeed further research by the playwright might have made for a different play (I’d like to see the play where the torturer goes to see Scorched) but then again, maybe the playwright was trying to engage the kind of audience response which Fisk contributed. I guess what I’m trying to say is if there is a duty then maybe it is for both artists and audiences alike to realise that the proffering of art is only half of a whole work, the other half is the reception of and response to that work?

neil furby             posted 3 May 2007, 05:46 PM / edited 3 May 2007, 08:55 PM

Michelangelo said, “Art lives on constraint and dies of freedom.” Katrina you write that a play wrights duty is “to be true to themselves (and to write what they want to write rather than what they think they should write or feel they have to write.” So if the ” proffering of art is only half of a whole work, the other half is the reception of and response to that work” and the playwrights duty is to themselves alone it seems wondrous that that theatrical magic is woven at all.

John Smythe      posted 3 May 2007, 09:22 PM / edited 4 May 2007, 10:30 AM

Responsible = able to respond. So when good theatre happens everyone is excercising response-ability, personal, collective, either or both. And yes, responding to constrains can generate excellent work; having no constraints can lead to no thing: no artefact. (Thanks Katrina and Neil for provoking this response.)

Anon     posted 3 May 2007, 10:38 PM


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