The Space of Spectatorship Wrecked

From May 2015

I went to see “Death of a Comedian” by Owen McCafferty at the Soho Theatre on Sunday last at 5pm in the afternoon in the main Studio.

The Guardian says:

It deals with a raw, talented young standup, Steve, who makes a Faustian bargain with fame and, in the process, sells his soul and dilutes his talent.[…] McCafferty shows his protagonist at work. We first see Steve doing abrasive political monologues at a low-rent comedy store with the enthusiastic support of his loyal girlfriend. Under the tutelage of a manipulative agent, Steve is gradually turned into a showbiz success, peddling profitable lies to large audiences. Like Trevor Griffiths in Comedians, McCafferty links the funny business to the wider world by suggesting that rampant capitalism demands a perpetuation of stereotypes and a bland escapism.

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin says:

Meet Steve Johnston. He’s always wrestling with compromises. He’s constantly under the spotlight. He’s a stand-up comedian. As his career takes off, the stages get bigger and the choices get tougher. Will he get everything he wants, or lose everything he has?

thepublicreviews.com says:

The play is in many ways a stand-up comedy performance in itself. When we first encounter the Comedian, Steve Johnston, he is fretting backstage before his latest comedy routine, despite his Girlfriend’s, Maggie, supportive encouragement. We are then treated to the Comedian’s routine, one of a few throughout the play, and it is seriously funny. We understand the Comedian through his comedy, and his acerbic wit and no-holds-bar approach to politicians, breakfast television presenters, and Louis Walsh all received genuine laughs from the audience. But when the Agent approaches the Comedian with an offer he can’t resist, the comedy begins to fade, both from the Comedian’s sets and the play itself. The Comedian wants to make people laugh, but eventually loses himself trying to do so: he becomes the butts of his own jokes, turning into the ‘complete c***’ who runs marathons for poor children in countries he will never do shows in. He becomes an actor, rather than a comedian, and his quest to ‘have it all’ becomes a series of personal sacrifices.

The Irish Independent says:

Owen McCafferty’s new play[..] is a howling, enraged damnation of cynicism and manipulative immorality. In another world and era, it would be described as a mediaeval morality play, with its mental brimstone and blazing demand for retribution.

McCafferty puts the comedian Steve Johnston on an empty stage, with just a succession of backdrops to suggest his ascent from grotty club to high-powered fashionable stadium. He performs his act: always the same act, with the same stories … apparently. Between performances his real life comes into play as his agent and his girlfriend live out their parts in his life.

But as the thrust of the act changes, and the purpose of the comedy changes with it, two things happen. Maggie, previously almost his mind-reader, at one with his anger and loathing of injustice, sees him become a stranger … and leaves. Wright, referred to in the text only as “the agent”, from being a bit of a self-confessed wide-boy, reveals himself as a Mephistopheles, indifferent to truth, and contemptuous of humanity.

The climax comes when he physically strips his client preparatory to one of his gigs and leaves him to emerge from his moral chrysalis in immaculate designer chic, a socially and politically acceptable butterfly without purpose or meaning. The funny ha-ha man has become funny peculiar, a skewed moral outcast floundering in the self-knowledge of his own hypocrisy. And we can only agree, as increasingly frequently he signs off his act with “I’ve been Steve Johnston, good night.” Was; but is no more.

 

I say:

The comedian Steve moves from small time—with a girlfriend that loves, supports and encourages him and constructively critiques his act—to big time, taken up by an agent, who arguably engineers the break up with the girlfriend and Steve’s slide into bland, toothless vacuity – but huge success – as a stand up. The “death” of the title.

The point being: it was hard to see—from the play we are presented with —what would be gripping or authentic or funny about the stand up and his material in the beginning to a real audience in a small venue, before success happened.

This was my train of thought at the end of a play that seemed to be possessed of the same vacuity it was warning us about (but was this part of the plan?) : –

Is McCafferty commenting on the possible dubious substance of his own writing? That it depends on his success, his name, for us to take him seriously?

Do our psyches, our minds and emotions as spectators, depend, like the main character, on an agent and a girlfriend, and the audiences they conjure, metaphorically speaking? To create the right context in which something is nurtured, seen, appreciated, loved and understood?

Does the truth of McCafferty’s observations about entertainment depend on the agents and the girlfriends and the audiences? And on the entertainment industry?

Because some of the dumbfoundingly good press for Mr McCafferty’s play made me wonder if it were not in fact a clever, deathly commentary on his own perceived success as a playwright.

Or on a new-found, Mephistophelean contempt for punters.

And never mind Mephistopheles.

Before that archetype even darkened the stage there was surely something calculated or dumb or opportunistic or naive about a putative comedian – or any real one – that thinks that calling groups of people cunts or dickheads in a comedy routine, as if channelling the proto-political, rebel yell or spirit of somebody on a football stand – or a lovable Harry Enfield impression of someone on a football stand – was enough to a) get a laugh and get work and make a living and to b) embody admirable, lovable, sexy political concern for the little everyman and his soul so worthy of preservation.

He wasnt believable. At least not to this empty, unbelievable, nondescript, un-fleshed-out, textual spectator.

But maybe the play wasnt a comedy, didnt have to be funny, believable, because it was about comedy.

That said, I used to go out with a clothes and lingerie designer who suffered big setbacks in setting her business up and creating new work.

Best advice she ever had, she reckoned, from the dear, sweet-natured architect friend of an ex-boyfriend, that led to her making a new original line of lingerie bought by Coco de Mer, was “make a bad dress”.

What? Something with no substance?

My ex, struggling in the competitive world of fashion, making her bad dress that subsequently led to a beautiful set of creations, and that was also saleable: was her success all about perception? Empty form? Empty narrative that only appeared to have any heft or substance?

Was it all—just like her delight in being seen, desired, appreciated—just about spectatorship?

Was her idea of sexiness, her embodiment, composed of looks?

That woman made clothes, made lingerie that bravely, unabashedly—or naively, as some unkind, or jealous, or exasperated spectator friends of that one-off, eccentric, unique woman might have said—expressed her eroticism and creative soul.

It could be said McCafferty’s play had no substance or soul to lose in the first place.

What about our experience as spectators?

What about me and my gorgeous, smart, psychotherapist date Rebecca? With her thick, black, mascara-laden, spidery eyelashes and full, straw gold hair and full, well-elocuted lips and warmth and unconditional care and attention?

What about our afternoon? Who was watching us – in that void? What were we supposed to do? How were we supposed to perform? For whom? What substance were we supposed to provide, to magic into existence, to dream up, to create?

What obligations were we supposed to be fulfilling?

What vacuum or lacklustre form is it that someone or something might have supposed that we occupied?

I cant stop thinking about the Matrix—which could be said is an empty, portentous scifi confection, that, I’m reliably informed, iterates the trope of Plato’s Cave—in which the supposedly fleshy, live, sensual, bodies of humans provide heat and light and power for the survival of soulless, mechanical, computerised entities.

 

Is McCafferty’s play all about being desired, thought good, attractive, funny, sexy, with no substance, no participation, no contact?

 

Or is watching and thinking ‘contact’, interaction, relation?

 

It is a canard often projected at women, not least by themselves, in jest, that they find their existence dominated by the desire to be desired.

To be wanted, to be thought beautiful.

By strangers as well as friends.

And the obvious problem with this is that it is all about a lack of requited desire, all about appearances, being seen without being touched, fuelling warmth and ideas and fantasies in the spectator, appealing merely to the eye—like any honest, decent, working Hollywood star on film. Appealing merely to the senses at a controlled distance with manufactured appearances, speech, gesture, motion and emotions.

My ex-girlfriend stripped for me.

It was a fantasy of hers. With which I was puritanically, politically correctly, cerebrally, wussily uneasy.

And suspicious at being manipulated.

A stranger in a crowd.

She put on clothes she’d made and vamped like Marilyn Monroe, getting up onto the kitchen chair, and then stepping up onto the dining table of my seventeen hundred and fifty square foot of empty loft space, and making dents with her dark red leather high heels all along the length of the not inexpensive, varnished IKEA pine.

Raucous, sexy, giggling, shrieking, sensual, coquettish – and delighting in my look and her body to the music of The Stones and two bottles of full-bodied Rioja.

It took me a long time to take the compliment she had paid me.

Is McCafferty’s play just desiring to be thought interesting and true despite little substance but as a way of drawing attention to the fact that audiences create value, not the plays themselves?

Is McCafferty’s play a Duchamp readymade? A Warhol screenprint? A complex, technological, but banal construction that takes on significance in the right gallery, in the right theatre of thought and feeling?

And is the question not in fact about whether or not appearances are empty or are in fact necessary to relation?

The play—good or bad, believable or not, a product dependent or not on marketing, on bums on seats, on atmosphere—has produced a storm of activity in me.

Is that relation? Authentic thought about a worthy play? Authentic real criticism with substance?

Or stripping or concealing in a vacuum?

Am I allowed to have big thoughts about an average play?

Or do my big thoughts signal that this play was well above an initially perceived averageness?

What kind of substance is it that a play or a comedian or a play about a comedian is supposed to have? Cerebral substance? Or the substance of true to life character and emotion?

And what kind of substance is an audience supposed to have?

When are we being coerced or seduced—like the audiences for McCafferty’s deathly, empty, virtual comedian and everyman character in a set up reminiscent of Live at the Apollo—into a deluded or shallow fantasy of relation, of goodwill, of shared, true observation of everyday life?

 

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