Theatre and the archives: Directing as erotohistoriography

by Alyson Campbell
Eugenia Falleni, alias Harry Crawford, special photograph number 234, Central Police Station, Sydney, 1920

In 2006, at ‘City of Shadows’, an exhibition in Sydney of images found in the basement of a police station, the playwright Lachlan Philpott was drawn to one image in particular: Eugenia Fallenia, who lived as Harry Crawford in early 1900s Sydney and was put on trial as ‘the man-woman murderer’, accused of killing their wife Annie Birkett. It is a striking image; and Philpott’s response –‘struck’ by it – is a powerful example of Barthes’ punctum at work, where the viewer is punctured or ‘wounded’ by the affect or ‘detail’ in a photograph beyond its enculturated signification, or studium. In short, something leaps out of the image and arrests us (1993). In response, Lachlan set about researching Falleni/Crawford’s life and writing a play that became The Trouble with Harry (TTWH, premiered The MAC, Belfast 2013).

The process of making TTWH brings up two huge and interwoven questions: ethics and aesthetics. One responds to the other. The first begs a fundamental question: who has the right to tell whose stories? And the second suggests that the dramaturgical decisions we make as artists are in constant dialogue with that question of ethics. 

Lachlan and I started collaborating as writer and director 20 years ago this June. I am a ‘slow’ director: unprolific and more interested in the long process of development of a new work than directing lots of already written scripts. Creating TTWH – quite rightly – caused us to question our right to make the work over the 7 or so years it took to go from that puncture to performance. What drives us to make this work? What is it that makes us feel that (our) theatre is a vital way to encounter this story; indeed, that it somehow – despite dramaturgical decisions designed precisely to draw attention to our own presence in creating a ‘version’ of this story and not giving access to some ‘truth’  of a life we cannot know – can offer something that gives access to the past in a way that other historiographical modes cannot?  For me, it comes down to its affective capacity to work on the body of the spectator and the creation of a kind of community in that live, shared space of viewing that theatre offers (something we have lost for the moment, and we might be feeling that loss very deeply). Steve Farrier and I write about this in our introduction to Queer Dramaturgies: Where Performance Leads Queer (2015), where we suggest that ‘the affective, experiential, transgressive power of performance is what is most attractive to queer performance-makers; it is a way of giving access to experience, or ‘telling stories’, that offers something in excess of the logic of language’. 

Theatre directing/making as what Elizabeth Freeman calls ‘erotohistoriography’

In working through the ethical dilemmas of making TTWH, the work of Elizabeth Freeman was a guiding light. In an essay on the process of directing TTWH  I set this out: 

In her concept of ‘erotohistoriography’ Freeman draws on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s idea of ‘affective histories,’ which engage hermeneutic methods to produce ‘a loving grasp of detail in search of an understanding of the diversity of life worlds’ (xix-xx, citing Chakrabarty, 2000). Chakrabarty himself credits Homi Bhabha with the term ‘affective histories’, and in his postcolonial critique he links affective histories with the local, suggesting that analytic social science ‘tends to evacuate the local by assimilating it to some abstract universal’ while ‘the hermeneutic tradition … finds thought intimately tied to place and to particular forms of life’ (2007: 18). Thus Chakrabarty, and the hermeneutic endeavour that is an affective historiography, opens up a way ‘history’ in performance allows the material, the local, to be conjured up and ‘felt’. Freeman elaborates: 

to take seriously that “a loving grasp of detail … produces affective histories” entails thinking that a bodily motion (a grasp, a clutch, a refusal to let go) might have something to do with knowing and making history – with continuities, contacts and contradictions among past, present, and future – through both physical sensation and emotional response. (xx)

Elizabeth Freeman

This lovely, liberating writing offers a powerful frame for theatre-makers investigating what is happening when we place a play dealing with female masculinity and possible same-sex female desire in a long-past moment in Australia in front of contemporary (Australian or other) audiences. Drawing from my previous work on affect (2009; 2011; 2012), what emerges from affect theories is the need for attention to the identification and articulation of the specific corporeal-material experience produced by individual written/performance dramaturgies. The strength and specificity of the experience will affect how the spectator makes meaning in the end (Campbell 2012). 

In the theatre encounter the materiality of the body of the performer insists on its presence, forcing its way past historical distance and theoretical ‘evacuation’ to enable a performer/‘character’ hybrid to look out, to speak, to move: to ‘live’. Picking up from Freeman, I suggest  that theatre directing/making is a mode of erotohistoriography: it is a way of ‘doing history’ (2010: xvii), with its particular strength lying in its embodied and affective methods of engaging live bodies collectively in (self-evidently local) spaces together. Key to this argument is that performance offers a different encounter with history than more traditional forms of historiographical research.

From Campbell, A. ‘Taking an Affective Approach to ‘Doing’ Queer Histories in Performance: Queer Dramaturgy as a Reparative Practice of ‘Erotohistoriography’, in Campbell and Farrier, S. (eds) Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance leads Queer. London: Palgrave, pp. 223-243.

The Trouble with Harry (by Lachlan Philpott, Melbourne International Arts Festival, dir. Alyson Campbell).

I write in detail about the dramaturgical decisions – both Lachlan’s as writer, and mine as director – in that chapter, and look forward to discussions in person (we hope!) next year in Manchester. But, to finish, I offer some nascent musings on where this might take us in the present moment – something I am sure we will be wrangling with for some time.

Viral dramaturgies 

This affective ‘excess’ beyond the logic of language at the theatre is largely down to our experience of being together, of assembling, of sharing air and space. Dirk Gindt and I have written about this in our book on HIV and AIDS in performance as ‘viral dramaturgies’ and it seems appropriate to think about it now in time of COVID-19:

The term is indebted to sexuality and English studies scholar Tim Dean’s study of barebacking culture in which he conceives material and metaphoric ‘viral consanguinity’ as a new, experimental form of (gay) kinship that turn ‘strangers into relatives’ (2009: 91). We suggest that the affective potential of live performance might also be thought of as a mode of turning ‘strangers into relatives’: dramaturgically, performance works like a virus as it moves initially into the individual body’s system, producing change at a physiological level, such as shifts in body temperature, hairs standing on end or an increase in heartbeat, as theatre phenomenologists and affect theorists would argue (Gilbert 2004; Massumi 2002; States 1985, 2007). Theatre phenomenologist Stanton B. Garner calls this the ‘lived bodiliness’ of the spectator (1994: 28); the body is not separate to a brain making cognitive sense of something. At the same time, we draw on the work of queer and feminist performance scholars Jill Dolan (2001, 2005) and José Esteban Muñoz (1999, 2009) to assert that live performance works not only on this individual lived bodiliness but also has an impact at a community level through affect—less risky than barebacking, but still producing an embodied form of kinship. In most cases, live performance is encountered as, and shared by, a group of people—audiences and artists—who become affective communities through their shared experience. 

Our argument to think of dramaturgies as viral also builds on philosophers, performance scholars and artists who have productively invoked infection, contagion and virus as metaphors to think about the way that culture and art can transmit ideas, knowledge and feeling (see, amongst many others, Aristotle 1996; Artaud 2013; Fischer-Lichte 2010). This is not a new idea: Plato (1966) influentially warned of the dangerous effects of art on society when people gathered together and were moved emotionally. 

As with artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ resistant ‘viral strategy’ (Chambers-Letson, 2010: 560), spectators at live performances carry the experience of both the performance and the affective communities they became part of out into the world. Further, when performance is recorded, documented, talked about or written about, this experience proliferates and ripples further outwards. This might happen through reviewing processes, scholarly analysis and, more organically, through conversations with friends; in the twenty-first century the spread of this conversation is increased exponentially through social media. Again, we might argue that all performance works ‘virally’, however, our use of this term sets out to draw attention simultaneously to both the viral nature of performance (form) and the existence of the (HIV)Virus (content). 

(Viral Dramaturgies, 2018, pp. 8-11)

The need for theatre when we emerge from the height of the CV-19 moment. 

Needless to say, this resonates strongly in our current times, when to be gathered as affective communities at the theatre is impossible. Artistic material is raging virally in digital form, but that lived bodiliness and kinship is excruciatingly on hold, as it must be, in a measured response to a pandemic. And it is impossible not to compare, not to grieve and rage at the difference in global responses to HIV and COVID-19. 

What is the extent of our loss in encountering history and the archives if we cannot gather in spaces together? I’m feeling more and more the loss of teaching and learning as affective space too. We can transmit the knowledge – the studium –  but the loss of everything else that is part of the affective space of androgogy is becoming more and more palpable. We are miraculously together online for Sexuality Summer School … and I am grateful. But I long for the company and community in the future.

And I wonder what viral dramaturgies will emerge from COVID-19.

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  • The Trouble with Harry, (2013, 2014) Theatre performance. Writer Lachlan Philpott, dir. Alyson Campbell. The MAC, Belfast, November 2013, prod. TheatreofplucK; Northcote Town Hall, for Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct/Nov 2014 prod. MKA. The development of this work was made possible by a commission from Focus Theatre, Sydney, and Australia Council.

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