an essay on failure by angus cameron

in the mirror, darkly by Angus Cameron being read at The Festival of Homer 2016.

When I was much younger I read the Wikipedia page for the Ingmar Bergman film Persona. I identified with it instantly and knew it was going to be one of my favourite films. I had a moment of inspiration and I wrote an idea down in my journal of ideas. It was a film (or play, if that was even possible!) about a male director remaking Persona with two women, one older and one younger, without them knowing — as a comment on misogyny, obviously. As with many, many ideas that were written in my journal, I promptly forgot about it. Nothing from my journal of ideas was turned into an artistic object beyond the perfect product in my mind. I always assumed that one day I would be a famous playwright. But I never factored in the actual writing, working, rewriting, reworking and solitude of it all. I lost the journal. Time passed.

One day I bought the complete collection of Ingmar Bergman films on DVD. I read somewhere that Žižek—or maybe Simon Stone, or both—went away for a couple of years and read a lot of philosophy, the former, or watched a lot of movies, the latter. Through osmosis they became masters of their craft, they said. This seemed eminently plausible, and better yet, achievable, so the purchase was easily justified. Plus, I figured the collection already contained many of my soon-to- be favourite films. So I sat down with an enormous compendium of DVDs and put on Persona.

When I read the synopsis and the ‘themes and interpretations’ sections on the film, I was drawn to its focus on psyche, the Other, language, gender, and queer sexuality; not to mention the grounding in Elektra. The film itself cared little about what I was drawn to and presented me with images, in concatenation and simultaneity, sounds and a psychological thriller of a narrative. Viewing the film was an altogether different experience to what I was expecting; it was a more impenetrable machine than I expected. Not that it’s a difficult film but a demanding one. After it finished, I figured that that was enough Bergman for now. I put the compendium away and don’t remember the last time I saw it.

The film stayed with me. Images. Moments. A sense of unease. It slowly became if not one of my favourite films, one of the most memorable. The film had really burrowed in and my original idea stayed with me for some time, without giving me the impetus to actually write anything. In fact, I had not written anything at all. I assumed that fame and a body of work would just come. This is not the case. One day I realised that people would never consider me a playwright unless I . . . well, unless I wrote a play. This seemed harder than watching movies (which I had somewhat failed at) but it also seemed unavoidable.

My first play was a critical disaster. I left the country and my theatre company. All those years of not writing plays meant that I could not write a play. I was disappointed, to say the least.

The Malthouse Theatre used to run an event called, maybe, Thirty Thursday, where artists were encouraged to come and drink and mingle in the afternoon. One such afternoon, I spent some time talking to a lovely young woman. She told me she had come back from New York, where she worked with the SITI Company, and I nodded as though I knew what she meant. Then I told her about my critical failure. She was very polite and listened to my story.

Soon thereafter, the Malthouse Theatre had a production of Persona, after it had a run at Theatre Works (and maybe Belvoir?). The creator of the show was an up-and-coming star, Adena Jacobs, with whom, it turned out, I had spent a large amount of time talking about myself and not about her or her work at all; although the answer to my question about whether or not Persona could be done on stage was a resounding yes, I had missed an opportunity to find out how this came to happen and it was a rather final nail in the coffin to my idea.

In 2015, midway through a Masters of Writing for Performance, we were set a challenge of writing a play in a weekend; there were no restrictions but it had to include a number of elements: a non-heterosexual love, something falling out, characters with an age difference and a tangerine — there may have been more but they’re largely irrelevant. I failed at this challenge. However, I failed better. I wrote one act of a play. It was about two women brought together by a director to remake Persona. It was called Tangerine. It was well received in the class (as much as a writing exercise can be) and I felt encouraged to write the second act. I gave myself another weekend. The first act set up a situation, the second act tore it down. The lines between the remake and the original blurred. Once it was finished, I rewrote it again, for good measure.

In the back of my mind though I was beginning to reach an impasse. Although one of the aspects that drew me to the text originally was how queer it seemed, I began to see clearly that a man wrote it, and some queer sexualities are a female experience — a ground-breaking revelation. In particular, there is a moving monologue in which one of the characters details a sexual encounter between her, another woman, and two young men, on the beach. There is an undeniable energy to the text; however, there are moments when male authorship is very apparent — the way in which the main interlocutor seems to orgasm immediately upon penetration, for example. My play wanted to interrogate these ideas, subvert them, blur them and so on, so I was coming from a place of wanting to do good. But I started to think, maybe this was not a story for me to rewrite. Perhaps orgasming upon penetration is a common experience (it is not mine), so it’s not out of the realms of possibility but I started to see that there was an insurmountable hurdle to me writing it — no matter how ‘authentic’ my writing was, no matter how many women I spoke to, there is a shortcoming to my ability to write these characters.

Some would dispute this. I spoke to a range of people about my quandary (paying special attention to female responses to the work), many of whom pointed to the number of men who have written good female characters, feminist texts, and said that as long as it’s ‘good’ then it’s okay. While I respect these opinions, the power as author to put words in other people’s mouths still niggled me. My play did not sitting well with my outlook. Of course, all of these fears were compounded by the best of intentions and the desire to write compelling, complex female characters and address the sexism that I could see in the industry. Like Ibsen, when he said he simply wrote the truth when he wrote A Doll’s House I argued that it didn’t matter that I was a man as long as I was writing the truth, and writing the truth well. But still, more than ever, I began to question if this was the right way for me to engage with these ideas; and as I sat at my MacBook I had to ask myself, is my desire to interrogate, also a desire to exploit?

It’s a simple fact that art always fails. It might not fail you, or me, but it will fail someone. Great works of art can speak to myriad peoples, across time; however, there is always going to be someone for whom it does not resonate. That’s why Plato wanted it out of the republic; it is mimetic, too far from the idea of things; it is untruthful. Once a chair is put on stage it comes to represent all chairs, and that becomes problematic when you want to see lots of different representations of chairs. And one piece of art cannot represent all chairs. So, art fails. Cast it out.

Unfortunately for Plato, many of us also recognise that art still serves a function. If we accept that art will fail, then we can turn our attention to how it fails, who enabled it to fail and who else gets a turn at failing. The dilemma of my play became a question not of can I write this play, but should I write this play. Whether or not the play I wrote was ‘good’ is beside the point. Art always fails; and so, we must have many people, many different people, making many different kinds of art so that a multitude of experiences are available to the community. While my engagement with feminism, my writing of complex female characters and all the rest are worthwhile pursuits, my rewriting of Persona to redress gender inequality, explicitly looking at ageism, motherhood, body image, and female queer sexuality, is not really necessary. And that’s okay.

Unfortunately for me, I had told The Festival of Homer that I had a play for them. It was a reworking of Persona, I told them, which definitely touched on the Elektra narrative, and yes, it would most certainly be ready for the festival in late 2016. The truth was, there was no such play that I was comfortable showing to a public.

Sometimes I struggle to see the point of an adaptation. Because I think all theatre is adaptation. Season to season, show to show, moment to moment, a piece of theatre changes to suit its environment and everyone involved; that’s what sets it so firmly apart from cinema. A production of King Lear is different in London, to Istanbul, to Beijing, to rural Australia. And ask anyone who has talked about how different an audience is on a given night and it’s clear that there is something that shifts within the theatrical space. Peter Brook talks about this in The Empty Space, in the chapter on the deadly theatre. This quality curses theatre to struggle within our capitalist paradigm; it is too ephemeral, too costly and too specific to be monetised effectively (there are, of course, incredibly successful shows but by and large, theatre struggles). Moreover, a new play evolves from the mind of the maker, to the page (or straight onto the floor) and constantly remodels itself to suit everyone’s needs and the outcome of the project, finally altering itself when presented to an audience. So, new play or old, for me, it is all adaptation.

And if all theatre is adaptation, isn’t it the point of the theatre maker to adapt a text for performance? What else are they doing? Admittedly some may require more than others but personally, an ‘adaptation’ offers little reward (NB: future theatre companies reading this, I will gladly adapt something for the right price). One day the nuances and pleasures of an adaptation will make themselves known to me and I will completely change my position but today is not that day. Sadly, I was in a position whereby I needed to provide a festival with an adaptation and almost no impetus to do it.

I went back to the theatrical origins of the story and reread Elektra. I read the Sophocles and the Euripides and The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus. I also read Jane Griffith’s introduction to her adaptation of Antigone. In addition, I spoke to her about Elektra, as it’s one of her favourite texts. I even went back further and did some light reading of The Iliad and The Odyssey but time was not on my side. The Wikipedia pages were most helpful.

It became clear that there was a story at the heart of the narrative but there was no one-way of writing it. Various playwrights had drawn out specific themes to illustrate one aspect or other of society but—and I should have listened to my own thoughts on adaptation and taken them to the extreme—there is no singular Elektra. It became a question of figuring out what, to me and to others, makes Elektra ‘Elektra’ and then to use that as a backbone, a model, an idea in my head for the play that I was to write.

By fusing the two ideas in my head, the old play and this new one, I told a story of a famous family—which went a long way to repositioning my focus on ‘women’ to ‘the lengths people will go to for notoriety’—and set about finding a new mode of delivery. The style in which I wrote the play lost its attempts at naturalism and instead adopted an epic register. The Kardashian-esque family was suddenly imbued with tragic speech, which, hopefully, reinvigorated the narrative by fusing the classical story with an invitation for contemporary audiences to connect with it.

The play was presented at the inaugural Festival of Homer, in the Hellenic Museum, in November 2016. The endlessly enthusiastic and supportive Olivia Satchell directed it. Hamish Irvine, Christian Taylor, Cariad Wallace and Marissa O’Reilley acted it. And Keziah Warner, without whom half my 2016 plays wouldn’t exist, was the dramaturg.

No doubt I have failed once again. And yet, with every failure I get closer to producing something that will one day become a Wikipedia page. If someone reads the synopsis and gets an idea, then my job is done. Art is a response, one of many possible responses and one that contains within it even more multiplicities; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and when it’s produced it makes people ask questions. Those questions can become new responses. It’s a cycle. As long as there is equal access then we can all fail together. I can only hope that whoever responds to me fails a bit better.

Angus very kindly allowed his play in the mirror, darkly to serve as a prototype for VIMH’s dinner and a show and, even more generously, offered this essay as a reflection on his experience with this work. 

part three: grief and music

It’s a Sunday night and I’m walking back towards Lygon Street after seeing a friend’s show at La Mama.

There’s a double-bass player busking, still playing from when I’d been heading towards the theatre several hours earlier.

What is he playing? 

Camille Saint-Saëns The Swan.

That fucker.

It is sometimes a terrible thing that sound travels. The song floats after me as I walk towards the Melbourne Uni tram stop.

My grandfather died when I was 15. ‘A good and gentle man’ is written on his headstone.

He was old Labor and taught at the Teachers’ College behind UTS. He had four girls with his wife Jean – Jane, Susan, my mum Anne, and Megan.

His name was Robert Gordon Martin. Bob.

He was one of those men who stopped aging at 50, with the same narrow face, long nose and combed-back hair at 90. There was always a plate of loose change on his bedside table that would be halved between my sister and I when the coins reached its lip. He ate half a paw-paw every morning for breakfast and it smelt disgusting.

I loved him.

The last time I saw him, he’d been moved to the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst. The staff had brought his bed into the family room so we could all fit in with my cello. All his daughters were there. I played every sheet of music that I had with me. When the sheets ran out I continued to play the one piece I knew from memory; Saint-Saëns The Swan. Again and again, like a skipping record. Everyone was crying. I put my cello down and went over to his bed and he whispered ‘You’re a good girl’ in my ear.

I played at his funeral with my cello teacher Clara. A Vivaldi duet. You can still see the stains on my cello from where my tears corroded the varnish. A topography of grief.

It is rare for me to hear The Swan playing on the radio, or on a street in early spring, but if I do I have to walk away.

That music – the cello itself – is too closely knotted with his death to be untied. My ability to play has shut itself off, like a valve in my heart has gently, determinedly, refused to let blood in again. It is no great loss, I do not pretend brilliance – I did not have the skill or natural flair. But I did love to play. There were some rare moments, particularly playing Bach’s Prelude, where it felt like the wood had fused onto my sternum, or the wood and bone had vanished altogether and I was inside the sound and the sound was inside me.

It makes sense to me that we lose parts of ourselves when those we love die. The loss must stamp itself in and if it cannot do it to our bodies then it settles for the mind. We stop playing, or singing, out of respect for the person no longer with us (and because we have tied the euphoria of creating to our love for them).

Part of I sat and waited but you were gone too long examines this relationship between grief and music. The character Ellen is a songwriter but she can no longer sing for other people. The depth which music is embedded in her love for her Mum, who is now gone, is too great. The play considers the circumstances necessary for her to allow herself to sing again – for how we might extricate a sense of betrayal from our ability to create.

Poppy, patiently listening to me explaining my favourite rocks to him.

play twenty three: the seagull

Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1896

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Kostia and his sweetheart Nina put on a show for the local families by the lake at his Uncle Sorin’s estate. Kostia is determined to find a new art form and to impress both his histrionic mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, and her follower Trigorin, a famous writer. The failure of his work pulls a thread that leads to the gradual unravelling of his life.

What moved me: I’m not sure whether it was because Ivanov was written in a fortnight, or whether it was because Checkhov was 27 and it wasn’t until he was 36 when The Seagull was first produced (I don’t even know if this really does make any difference at all) but the development between these two works is like Polyxena’s shooting star wiped across the sky. Between these two plays irritation has been replaced by devastation. Everything has a purpose. Kostia’s botched suicide attempt is emblematic of every character’s aborted desire and false hope. The way in which the seagull reconnects moments in time across years of turmoil that are lived offstage is painful in its simplicity. And that ending. Fuck.

Also, it is interesting to note what has carried across into this work: the presence of a doctor as a key character, and the presence of Hamlet (Ivanov was sickened by his likeness to him; the players in The Seagull cannot help but quote him) and the work of Gogol as key weaves in the play-fabric.