A Bad Review


On Thursday Margeaux and I saw All Our Happy Days Are Stupid at the Harbourfront Centre. Sheila Heti’s play was supposed to be “famously unstageable,” but there was nothing that seemed particularly tricky to me. Nothing beyond the talents of even a semi-competent director. Maybe that is the worth of a talented director—in this case, Jordan Tannahill—to make the difficult seem obvious or even mundane. If there was a problem with the play it was the second act, which seemed unclear or unrealized in tone. Then again, it is often what vexes us at first about a work of art, what appears to be incongruous and wrong, which provides the key to its understanding and appreciation. I don’t mean that in a strictly academic, or cold sense—while it is true that often the bits that seem clumsy unlock a work’s meaning, they also act upon our hearts. What is objectively a defect is often what we like.

What is a play? In this case, a mess of people and title cards, a blinding whiteness that comprised the set and the stage. When they turned the house lights on full I was immediately dazzled, or dazed, because of this brightness, and it took me a good few seconds to find the performer who was singing the first of Destroyer’s songs. A play is what happens on stage but it is also its effect on the audience and the audience itself. Which is not to say that my being dazed or present is as worthy of comment as the play’s action. But it was hard not to be aware of the audience of this play, fans of Sheila Heti and Jordan Tannahill, two artists at the vanguard of their respective fields. Everyone at the Harbourfront Centre was sharing in a cultural moment, perhaps something like that experienced by the first audiences of Brecht. Perhaps, in time, our confusion or disappointment will come to be seen as quaint, like those who booed The Threepenny Opera.

Or perhaps not.

That was Thursday. Today Marcus and I talked about academic writing and how what interests us is not clarifying but elliding. Latching onto an image and making sense of it in—now I might be speaking for him—an oblique way as opposed to a definite. Or building a larger conversation out of lots of little definite objects. I had this conversation with Noor on Friday. Academia pretends that statements made in the past function as evidence for work in the future—that’s the chain of reference that we’re supposed to follow. (I got this idea from an interview Ted Nolan conducts in the upcoming issue of The Puritan). The field of English will change if the followers of Franco Moretti have their way (I’ll admit here I only know him from hearsay). But that will never happen, because literature cannot provide the kind of objective “value” that scientists and materialists alike crave. At most, digital tools are another way of shuffling the deck, of turning the work (as if it was written laid out on a grid) to find new knots or defects to untangle.

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