Attn: Ms Clarissa Oon, Life!
Dear Ms Oon
I received your letter dated 8 January 2001, being a response to my letter dated 29 December 2000.
I read your letter with a certain degree of surprise. Clearly, you were unable to understand the issues presented, or perhaps I did not explain myself with adequate lucidity.
On what I feel are your inadequacies as a theatre reviewer, let me elaborate.
"The Tower of Silence" is an intricate psychological drama. It deals with themes of psychological denial, manipulation, paranoia and voyeurism. In the play we see five characters with varying degrees of mental illness. Through a meeting these five people re-evaluate their relationship to each other, to God and to their ideals of marriage, love and justice in the world. You managed to reduce all these to a few lines that condemn the play to being a teen drama. You accuse us of being overly indulgent and having ‘run out of ideas’. Manifestly, these themes were never dealt with in our former plays.
To my knowledge they have not been covered by other plays locally as well. These points were not missed by the top arts Website in Singapore, myScissors.com website which listed "Tower" as the top play of the year.
How did you manage to miss all these things? My only conclusion was, and again I have to repeat what I said in my previous letter, that you "do not really know the subject nevertheless continue to write articles that explain nothing to the public yet affecting a superior attitude to the artists involved."
You display an intense ignorance about what drama and art is about. Plays that go beyond a certain duration you consider indulgent and in need of ‘editing’. I am truly glad that you were not the reviewer of Dostoyevsky’s novels or American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s plays. No doubt you would have advised Mr Fyodor and Mr O’Neill that their works were indulgent and long winded. Ms Onn, to elucidate a simple point, all great art are indulgent. The paintings of Picasso, the theatre of Artaud, the novels of Dostoyevsky. It is the willingness to commit and to go off totally at a certain tangent that makes art what it is. Your desire for neatness in drama, shows not the inadequacies of our work, but your own desire for neat and safe categories in life.
You must understand that art is unlike journalism where a journalist has to constantly self censor and come up with neat summaries of events due to market considerations. Art is messy, unwieldy and cannot be ‘finished’ just because a critic feels she needs to think less. No less than an open attitude is required of critics who attempts to critique art. For example you argued in your review of our production Vermeiden//a(VOID) that the ‘best thing’ about the play was that it lasted one hour fifteen minutes. Was the length truly such an important consideration for you? Surely in evaluating art we need more criteria than such banal considerations.
You argue that we seem to have run out of ideas for our works because we use an ‘open form’ and therefore it is limited. Whatever that means, in making this statement you have totally ignored the ideas, internal conflict and character development of "Tower".
Could it be that the issues such as the hypocrisy of religion, the dual and contradictory nature of love, the true value of friendship, dealt with in the play was too much for you to handle and as such you avoided the topic totally? As an artist I do not flinch from dealing with these themes, even if an audience or critic wants to avoid them. Perhaps a sheltered (I hazard to guess) existence prevents you from wanting to deal with these issues in a direct and confrontational manner.
On this point, all great drama is confrontational.
As a critic, you should either be willing to let yourself be challenged or you should not be a critic at all. Recognised that yes, plays and writers may be flawed, but also recognise that there may be things beyond your paradigm of considerations.
I should not be the one telling you this but it seems that you truly have entirely missed the point of drama. Drama that attempts to go beyond the banal should aim at much more than that neatness, and that ‘one half hour duration’. Drama looks at the truth, of relationships between people, events, it forces the audience to reexamine notions of life and death. If you have read your Tennessee Williams, your Samual Beckett, your Pirandello well I would have no need to explain this to you.
Williams goes over and over again the same territory of sexual and human degradation. Beckett goes over and over again the ‘navel gazing’ issues of the worthiness or worthlessness of human existence by baring the essential elements in human interaction.
Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello goes over and over again the fragmented and multiplicity of the human consciousness. German film maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films goes over and over again the conflict between love and manipulation.
Williams essentially uses the same lyrical ‘Southern’ American English and melodramatic plots to portray his themes, his heroes and heroines share a common desperation. Beckett uses every time the minimal staging techniques and bare and sparse dialogue. Fassbinder captures time and again the games humans constantly play with each other.
No doubt you would have told them that there are ‘limits as to how far an artist can go’ with their the forms they use. Indeed these artists have been critiqued for their indulgence.
Notably however, these works and not the names of their critics have survived.
You state that our earlier works have impressed you with our ‘integrity and vigour’. I am afraid to say however that your statement does not impress me at all. You use words like integrity and vigour without knowing what they mean. You use them on us in a condescending manner by implying that ‘yes they have integrity and vigour, but they have no craft at all’. In the very same breath we are very often then condemned for our lack of craft.
Please, Ms Oon, save us your condescension.
We have been creating a new theatre language on stage, we have been experimenting with different methods of conflict, types of dialogue, subtext, different theatrical plots and counter-plots or sometimes the total lack of plots. All these have gone by you entirely.
This is not surprising considering your ignorance on the subject. In a former conversation with myself you stated that you had a ear for dialogue. Sometime back I chanced to read one of your early attempts at play writing in an NUS publication. I do not understand what you meant by having ‘a ear for dialogue’. I would suggest you read American playwright David Mamet’s plays to find out what that means. No doubt you would consider his work indulgent in it’s ‘overemphasis’ on dialogue.
You say that it is your role to serve the art and not the artist. I have not and will never expected you to serve me. I would not presume to require such personal service. I would however ask you to re-evaluate what you think is a working knowledge of drama.
In your critique of Eye of the Storm, another Aporia production, you used a Susan Sontag quotation talking about Antonin Artaud to talk about our production. In cases like this, it would surely be more appropriate to quote Artaud himself. But perhaps you have not read his "Theatre and it’s Double". Many have considered it an extreme and indulgent work.
You imply that my response to your column "Cut and Come Again" did not offer a convincing argument nor a coherent case. My entire point however was that your column did not offer any arguments in support of it’s condemnation of Tower as a teen drama. A reader who has not seen the play would have no inkling of the issues involved. As such, how could I offer any counter arguments when no arguments have been presented in the first place?
Lest it be thought that I am being self indulgent in my arguments in this letter, I have attached two e-mail feedback that I have received from the audience during "Tower’s" run. These two persons were unacquainted to me before their respective e-mails. I understand however one of them is a member of the Life! Theatre Awards judging panel and another a local musical director.
I would take pains to state that these criticisms are not personal, rather they pertain the state of the professionalism or unprofessionalism of your criticism. In offering arguments which critiques your critique, I as an artist, am creating the space for discussion. As much as an artist putting his work for public consumption should expect reactions, I would argue that a critic’s public critique is in the same way opened for criticism.
Of course in this, an artist does not have the advantage of being published in the most read English newspaper in Singapore and being paid for it.
However, we do what we can.
Wong Kwang Han
© Aporia Society MMI
© Aporia Society MMI
A Letter To A Critic - 15 Jan 2001