Narcissism is always problematic for theatre and art generally. With contemporary emphasis on art for cultural and personal self esteem, it is often easier to be blinded by the reflection of one’s own ego and sense of significance than to seek artistic insights that challenge and explode the brittle exterior of contained perception.

How often do we hear “theatre is dead” or in “decay”? Or that it is irrelevant in a world with the internet, cinema and Andrew Lloyd Webber?

I remember a public review of youth arts being conducted in the early 1990s by an accountancy firm, Ernst and Young. Theatre’s very existence as a medium of communication was the central issue. With its worldview created and dominated by marketing and accounts managers for large corporations, it is no wonder Ernst and Young equated youth arts with fashion and fads. In this sense, cultural events become marketing tools to sell products.

It is only logical that culture be subsumed by corporate share holders. Cultural outcomes become measured in terms of profit to share holders and return on investment. The semantics of corporate culture intimidate and subordinate the language, practises and aspirations of theatre workers. So measured in terms of cultural outcomes, theatre for young people was shown to be on very slippery ground. As is theatre generally!

No wonder theatre workers become Quixotic figures tilting at the windmills of public attention, seeking a begrudging respect and some attachment to acceptable vessels of economic and intellectual power.

The Disease of Cultural and Personal Narcissism

In this scenario, only insofar as theatre product can be measured in terms of OTHER quantifiable criteria can it claim some cultural legitimacy. So we see the current phenomena of theatre as a source of public health (promoting health issues of the day to receive funding); or theatre as therapy; or theatre for minority ethnic identity; or theatre for the advancement of some moral or social issue (usually at the bequest of some social lobby or special interest group); or theatre for affirmation (whether of the status quo or some would-be status quo or minority); or theatre as academically sanctioned intellectual property.

Each of these forms of theatre suffers from the disease of cultural and personal narcissism. Such is its focus on the object of its attention that it sees only the reflection of its own predisposition. Like a small child still in its ego-centric phase of development, it sees only itself. It commends itself for being relevant and important. It is applauded for being the voice and identity of its audience. It is held up as the antidote to cultural / corporate imperialism. It is the justification for public funding and its own very existence.

But Theatre of Narcissism is betrayal. It is personal betrayal of the artist by the artist. It is cultural betrayal by those entrusted with custodianship of the human story; the social dramas comprising the everlasting struggle for love, perfection, purpose, connectedness and relationship. Theatre of Narcissism is betrayal of truth within the story by supplanting its organic action with an overlay of imposed cultural baggage. Theatre of Narcissism is bigoted and intolerant of divergence from its own personal or cultural admiration.

No matter how worthy the idea or justification, such imposition propounds the lie and so becomes propaganda, prostitution or, at the least, personal deception. And in so doing, theatre becomes corrupt. Turns in on itself. Implodes. And we witness this phenomenon: seeing the very cause of its destruction being hailed as its saviour.

But we need only find our personal courage as theatre workers, writers and artists to challenge this destruction and breathe a new vitality into theatre creation.

To even attempt such a challenge is frightening … if not terrifying. To deliberately set out to follow the contradictory ideas, perceptions and hunches, is the writer’s and artist’s challenge. It cannot be dictated to by the demands of ideology, political affiliation, cultural inheritance, nor the current demands of the marketing agencies trained in accountancy and public relations.

Narcissism is always problematic for theatre and art generally. With contemporary emphasis on art for cultural and personal self esteem, it is often easier to be blinded by the reflection of one’s own ego and sense of significance than to seek artistic insights that challenge and explode the brittle exterior of contained perception.

Plays for Political Attention

Plays about worthy subjects simply needing publicity for political attention are promotions and propaganda and not drama … unless they comply with the basic demand to challenge the artist’s own perceptions about the nature of the issue and be open to the contradictions facing the protagonists. Rarely do the outcomes of any drama match the ideology or point of view of any particular side of an issue. Plays that conveniently do so may receive public support and recognition, but in the longer term are part of the decaying process of theatre and cultural presentation.

This may seem a heartless thing to say: given that many, if not most, plays are and were conceived in a passion about some issue worthy of the author’s commitment to expose or communicate. But if theatre is to have any real value it needs to provide more than pre-established precepts of social observation or, as Jerzy Grotowski once called it, “stereotypes of vision”.

Drama demands a life of its own: drawn from carefully constructed foundations in story, ritual and transformations. Drama is the essential element in theatre. Theatre needs to claim back its drama; its very essence. It must claim back its own identity separated from the binds of issues promotion, cultural esteem, academic leeching, elitism, snobbery and marketing plans. Theatre workers must keep their own dramatic integrity and work with adherence to the demands of the art form (the drama) rather than subservience to political, religious and social beliefs … regardless of the initial motivations for starting.

Narcissism and Theatre Criticism

Finally, reviewers and critics need to re-access their own narcissism. They also betray theatre and audiences: making a very significant contribution to theatre’s decay. Too often, critics become Narcissus, looking into and admiring their own reflected views on what or how things should be on the stage before them. The phrase “what I would like to see” is imposed over what is actually taking place on the stage. So unless reviewers are buffeted by decades of academic discussion and analysis of a particular work, they are too often lost within their own narcissism to assess a new work.

A former editor of The Canberra Times once described to me the critic’s role as a dual function: (1) to confirm or challenge the views and judgements of audiences who saw the production; and (2) to brief future potential audiences on the nature and value of the production. To do this requires some dramaturgical willingness to actually see beyond one’s own reflection. The reviewer is no ordinary audience member reacting on how they feel at the time. The reviewer’s function is just as important as that of the playwright, director, performers, designer etc.

Unless this happens, theatre’s cultural identity becomes corrupted, without integrity and devoid of credibility beyond its coterie of devotees. Without an adequate identity of its own, theatre is a mere appendage to cultural and social forces intent on using it for their own purposes of propaganda, profit and self promotion. An essential step in maintaining and building identity is for theatre workers, critics and reviewers to cast aside the illusions of Narcissus. To reject the party line. To seek a totally new universe with every play that is performed. To recognize the deceptions in the personal and cultural mirrors before us.

Theatre, because of its live and interactive potential, is probably the best placed of any artform to do this. It can do more than simply hold up a cultural and social mirror to audiences. Theatre can shatter the mirror: exposing the myriad of universes beyond. And like Alice through the looking glass, we become exposed to the dark recesses of our dreams, aspirations, motivations, love, our aloneness and our connectedness with each other … both past and present. An entity that can do this will always be relevant and alive.

Joe Woodward
(This article is published in full from an initial Shadow House PITS “scream” from October 1999 … and I feel it is just as relevant now. JW).