Canadian Playwrights Need to Renew Their Library Cards

Daniel Karasik argues for more anxiety of influence on the Canadian stage

 Daniel Karasik. Photo courtesy of the author. 

Daniel Karasik. Photo courtesy of the author. 

EARLIER THIS YEAR, I staged a play I’d written. The process ate so many hours, involved such a daily hail of detail-sweating emails, that I was left with no time to read books. Ideas and arguments about major issues vacated my mind; grinding logistics took their place. All of this is quite normal, of course: the days of most working-age people are occupied more by necessary transactions than by learning. But while I’m glad I produced that play, and the slog of it was a practical education, I fear the pause in my reading means my next play will be at least a little stupider than it might’ve been.

Alas, my situation isn’t unique: most theatre writing in Canada is the product of people who don’t have the time or, in some cases, the curiosity to read widely and deeply. There are exceptions. Recent Trillium Book Award winner Hannah Moscovitch researches her plays in depth, grounds their often far-flung situations with credible detail; books are involved, no doubt. The latest collaboration from Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre and Montreal’s Porte Parole, The Watershed, is the remarkable product of full-on investigative journalizing into the federal government’s alleged animus towards environment protections and related research in Canada. Chris Abraham and Annabel Soutar, the project’s co-creators, are clearly people who read books—artists animated by a spirit of inquiry, not just an instinct for assertion. Political wit Michael Healey also belongs to that club. Young writers like Zoe Erwin-Longstaff and Alexander Offord have an intellectual restlessness and verbal felicity that outpace most of their elders’; they’ll write interesting plays, if they keep writing plays. There are others like them.

But they seem awfully rare, in the theatre, in Canada—much rarer than their counterparts among poets, say. Perhaps part of the reason is that since poets can be sure they won’t make a living from poetry, they often pursue careers in the monetized knowledge production and dissemination sector. Despite the contractive changes to that sector, owing to the need to remain competitive in the global economy—the disappearance of tenure, etc.—many poets abide there. They don’t have time to read all that many books, because of the gruelling demands of the knowledge dissemination economy, but perhaps a greenhouse effect exists whereby the presence of books in the office makes the poet feel she must be somehow accountable to them. (I have only a shaky understanding of greenhouses.)

Theatre writers, on the other hand, have been psychologically, symbolically, and economically annexed to the region of sub-Netflix bourgeois diversion that is “live entertainment,” which exerts a dumbwards pressure even on such work as may have pretensions to intellectual complexity. The dumbwards pressure is imposed in part through an administrative burden. Most theatre artists in Canada, and young playwrights almost without exception, are in business. They’re publicists. They’re experts on how to shape byzantine project grant applications. To get noticed by what passes for an institutional theatre scene, which has a monopoly on the portion of public subsidy that can offer artists a living wage, they’re obliged to commit their capital and speculative labour to mounting their plays independently on expensive ramshackle stages. A majority of these artists work other jobs to feed themselves while they publicize and spreadsheetify their art. All of this involves a lot more hustling than thinking; the hustling really doesn’t require much interesting thinking. And it takes loads of time away from reading books.

Which is a problem, since it seems to me that an artist has just two basic avenues of inspiration: the world and books. Books probably aren’t superior to the world, and their claims need to be tested by experience, but the best books can reveal a broader world than the one that offers itself to the individual’s direct perception. It strikes me as pretty arrogant, and therefore something I’ve done a lot, to assume that your lived experience is enough in itself to give your art a public value. There are plenty of important phenomena, all compelling subjects for art, that aren’t deducible from lived experience alone: the facts of climate change, the meanings of military conflict, the reasons for global differences in social equality, any historical event or pattern, etc.

Lived experience, with all its feels and intuitions, needs to be interpreted. The strongest literary interpreters reconstitute experience in ways that are instructive, mature, fresh. It seems to me that such interpretative power, achieved over time, is what distinguishes an artist who deserves subsidy and audiences’ attention from, say, some dude with opinions on Twitter. And I don’t see much evidence that a person can develop that ability without a high level of intellectual training, whether at a university or a public library.

The pause in my reading means my next play will be at least a little stupider than it might’ve been.

Perhaps because we Canadian playwrights are busy pretending to be businesspeople, perhaps because our art form has (counting generously) few national masters to whom we might look with equal parts irreverence and awe, perhaps because we lack a healthy spirit of intellectual competition that might create a greenhouse effect (remembering here my benightedness re: all things greenhouse), perhaps because we don’t read enough plays from abroad or because plenty of foreign plays are similarly afflicted, it’s difficult to get the news from plays north of Buffalo. When you attend the theatre in Canada, you can’t reasonably expect you’ll leave with a deeper sense of history, statecraft, religion, the social contract, your democracy, threats to it real and imagined, how to live. Not most of the time. You may be “moved,” might learn something about “the human passions”—people tell me that theatre has to do with those, and there’s this line about how some theatre produces “pity and fear” that’s credited to Greek Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, if memory serves—but really: the passions? It was important to your life to see art that's about how hard it is to be a person and have passions? Considered in a political vacuum?

I’ve got this weird idea, probably also traceable to Tsipras or his finance minister Sophocles, that the theatre can be an essential democratic forum, the marketplace of ideas made flesh. I have this quite radical notion that demagoguery is not the only way the public may be addressed—and most of what’s onstage at Canadian theatres is plenty demagoguerish, in effect if not in intent: stripped of disruptive political ideas to placate the right, or loaded with progressive platitudes to stroke the left. The audience for Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky and John Ralston Saul in Canada (to speak only of writers whom left-liberals find generally non-villainous) could also be its audience for theatre, if this country were to produce theatre writers with the profundity of a Žižek or a Chomsky or a Saul.

But for that to happen, parochial arrogance based on the primacy of lived experience—“I have a story to tell and it’s important because it’s mine, because I’m me, because I’m me in such-and-such a historical context”—would need to give way to the humble arrogance born of the encounter with the literary: where you’re daunted by another writer’s masterful standard of thought and expression, but compelled nevertheless to try to rise to it.

That kind of aspiration belongs to a culture where the playwright is a public intellectual with a genius for self-contradiction, a bard who sings the civic body electric, and not just a self-affirming emblem of difference or a cut-rate screenwriter without a camera crew.

DANIEL KARASIK's latest produced play, Little Death, is published by BookThug and is mostly about the passions.

WHAT TO READ NEXT: “A former state terrorist drives to work at his law office every day across a bridge named for one of his victims in a car whose license plate bears the motto ‘Je me souviens.’”