I ♥ Bobby Briggs by Jane E. Thompson

Lynch directs Dana Ashbrook and Madchen Amick in the Twin Peaks pilot

Really, I’ve found the below much harder to write than it should be. Perhaps because I’m still in the midst of working out what the hell it is I’m doing and I’m not yet ready to articulate it. Excuse me as I bumble through. Read on at your own risk!

To put it simply: I’ve taken a section of a play I’ve written previously but never produced and decided to expand upon it. For the more confused, still percolating thoughts, see below:

Things I’m thinking about when I think about this work:

  1. The Narcissism of Small Differences: is the current title of the play and a term coined by Freud to describe the minute (and often exaggerated) differences we find to distinguish ourselves from others in order to maintain a sense of individuality (as individuals), or create and maintain a common enemy (as groups). It’s used to maintain power imbalance and discrimination.
  1. The Phallic Economy: When I write I like to bring an idea back to some kind of theory that maybe I can read in the hope that something else will pop. In the play, the relationship between two lovers (male and female) is infiltrated by a second man who, through jealousy, tradition and whatever else, polices the behaviour of the young woman and colludes with the young man to maintain affiliation with androcentrism.

I see the motivation in the second man in relation to Irigaray’s phallic economy and her essay ‘Women on the Market’ in which she argues that our society, our culture, is based upon the exchange of women. Men are the ones who do the business, and women are the ones exchanged. Society (men) determines her exchange value, and nature, her use value. Spoiler alert: the woman (commodity) is desired for her exchange value:

“There is no such thing as a commodity … so long as there are not at least two men to make the exchange. In order for a product—a woman?—to have value, two men, at least have to invest (in) her” (Irigaray, p. 181, 1985).

  1. The Bourgeois Myth, via Barthes, Žižek and Lynch: The bourgeois myth relies on both the erasure of itself (ex-nomination) by not referring to itself, and what it must allow (inherent transgressions, no matter how immoral, fantastical, hidden or otherwise) in order to present itself as eternal and natural. The very fact that it needs these transgressions means that it is neither eternal nor natural. Despite this, we persevere with the irreconcilable dualities of bourgeois ideology (morality and immorality) with transgressions considered the fault of the individual and not the system itself.
  1. Bobby Briggs (and Sexing Elvis): In one of the later scenes in the play’s current incarnation the young woman says to the young man: “I used to think, god, what talent he has, look at him. They love him. The way you looked, the way you spoke, the way you were, and none of it was about selling anything except yourself. You’re a genius at it. And I couldn’t work out if I wanted you, or wanted to be you.”

Re-watching Twin Peaks in its entirety (most of which I had not seen since the original airing in 1990/1) I was struck by not so much the pervasiveness of Lynch’s exaggerated, self-conscious representation of binary gender (being a long-time fan of his work), but rather the affect it may have had on me as a 12 year-old viewing it for the first time.

Lynch’s female characters have been written about at length by female critics finding the nostalgic conservatism of his aesthetic combined with the violence done to them regressive and ultimately damaging within the context of the violence towards women in the broader society. While I find some of the female representations on the show problematic (and I don’t want to exonerate Lynch entirely), it must be remembered that he not only co-created the show with Mark Frost but also job-shared with a number of writers and directors – especially when he took a long hiatus during the second season to film Wild at Heart and relinquished considerable creative control. (During which time I find the gender representation on the show most problematic, tbh.)      

Anyway, I found my attention drawn in particular to the swaggering braggadocio of Bobby Briggs and I thought, god, how much I loved him —always had— despite his often dodgy ethics. It took me a moment to realise what this was: it was His (the character’s not the actor’s) performance of himself. Bobby Briggs’s construction of himself as the cool, self-assured bad boy of the town is fascinating to me not because of its durability as protective armour, but the opposite— his coolness is constantly being shattered by events and people around him, but he continues nonetheless, the cycle repeating itself, even in the face of James Hurley, one could argue (despite the soap opera) is less constructed (?), less self-conscious (?), more innate? (?)

(…Or simply more boring? *ponders*)  

I realised upon re-watching that I’ve been writing versions of Briggs in my male characters most of my life. That Bobby’s performance of his gender was perhaps more striking to me as a 12 year-old, than say, Audrey’s. Was it an objectification of him? Was it perhaps my way of ‘inhabiting’ him, a construct I felt was unavailable to me at the time? Who knows? But this also struck me reading an essay by Sue Wise on reconsidering her formative years as an Elvis fan; that as a feminist and gay woman, how it was that Elvis (“butch god, sexual folk hero and archetypal macho man”) fit into her life. This led her to question the part of “feminist orthodoxy which, paradoxically, accepts objective and ‘male’ accounts of the world at the expense of personal and subjective experiences” (Wise, p. 13, 1984). How to reconcile her memories of listening to, reading about, scrapbooking and swapping pictures and stories of Elvis with her best friend growing up, with the pervasive (white) male-defined image of him: “the master of the sexual simile, treating his guitar as both phallus and girl, punctuating his lyrics with the animal grunts and groans of the male approaching orgasm. … Rumour had it that into his skin-tight jeans was sewn a lead bar to suggest a weapon of heroic proportions” (Melly, in Wise, p. 14). Perhaps better not to and recognise your own experience as something yours and not some male writer’s version of a moment, an image, an experience which really, is just their subjective experience made objective.

So these are the things I’m thinking about when I think about this work. I suspect I will have to stop thinking about these things in order to actually write it. I hope that happens soon.

In the meantime I thank Liv and Julian for providing the conditions to hear what I have wrought already, out loud, with actors.

Xox j e

Jane E Thompson is a Melbourne-based playwright. She’s has spent the last 20 years in theatre in various roles: actor, playwright, director, costume designer, dramaturg, spectator, sometimes student, sometimes autodidact.

In 2016 she completed a Master of Writing for Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts; and was a recipient of the Besen Family Artist Program Writers’ Development Workshop at the Malthouse Theatre.


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 thirty five: fewer emergencies

fewer emergenciesAuthor: Martin Crimp

Published: 2005

Synopsis: “A group of people sit and tell stories. The first is about a woman who realises her marriage is a mistake but stays, colluding with her husband in living a public lie while wreaking damage and violence behind closed doors. In the second a Dunblane type massacre has occurred; in the third the couple’s child from the first piece is locked in a tower while outside violence apparently rages.” Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

What moved me: I have never encountered a script with so little authorial prescription. There are no characters given by Crimp, just numbered voices. Time is “blank”, as is space. The only directive in the first story is that Voice 1 must be female.

What to make of this ‘blankness’? It allows an inner space to expand that is almost a floating island, free of the specifics of material certainty. It lends itself more to radio drama than the stage. How, then, to translate this into the sheer materiality of a production? How to tie it down with bodies but maintain a sense of the text being a horizon-seeking missile?

It reminded me of Tow Holloway’s work. Both share a sense of a series of screens being lifted one by one as the narrative unfolds, each to reveal a new image that reshapes all you had previously assumed about the playworld.

play thirty four: hippolytus

Phaedra, please.
Phaedra, please.

Author: Euripides

Published: 428BC

Translator: Anne Carson

Synopsis: Aphrodite is furious for Hippolytus’ refusal of her power and his avowal of chastity to the goddess Artemis. She curses him by forcing his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. Phaedra wishes to kill herself to be released from this illicit burden but her nurse is convinced she may swear Hippolytus to secrecy and make him understand. She fails, and Phaedra kills herself when she overhears the disgust of her stepson. She leaves a note claiming to have been raped by Hippolytus so that he may not reveal her desire to his father Theseus. Theseus finds the note and banishes his son, calling on his father Poseidon to kill him. Poseidon does so by calling out a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus’ horses and drag him to his death. Hippolytus’ dying body is brought to Theseus and Artemis appears to reveal Aphrodite’s trick. Theseus seeks his son’s forgiveness as he dies in his arms.

What moved me: What I love about this work is the mortality of its gods. Aphrodite is the queen of sass and Artemis might be a frosty librarian and both are equally governed by human desires. They experience the desire for power over others just as we do and are subject to the pettiness of rivalry, the pangs of longing, and the sweetness and bitterness of grief.