Book review: Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism and Love

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The subtitle of Nicholas Ridout’s Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism and Love, and its central argument – “that theater in modern capitalism can help us think afresh about notions of work, time and freedom” – may betray an idea of the work as one of niche interest, useful only to the academic and the geek. But though Ridout’s study is intent on adding to the academic discourse surrounding labour and performance, it also holds wider resonance within present debates about pay and work in the theatrical landscape. By deconstructing notions of leisure, freedom, necessity and community, Passionate Amateurs interrogates liberal and centre-left theatrical ideologies, and in doing so reinvigorates a discussion which has become dormant within the structures of late capitalism.

This is a book about neither community theatre nor communist theatre, though as Ridout observes there are books with the same title to be written about both subjects. Instead, Passionate Amateurs is a quietly but defiantly political work which looks towards a better future, which asks more of theatre than we generally experience in contemporary culture. Where theatre is often seen – in Britain in 2013 – as part of a daily routine of work and leisure, Ridout looks towards cultural theorists and theatrical practitioners to articulate “the very faint possibility and the powerful hope that theatre might offer an image of the unconstrained community of fellow-feeling that might ground a utopian politics”.

Ridout begins, in ‘Theatre and Communism after Athens’, by introducing the figure of “the romantic anti-capitalist”. Rather than seeing romanticism as a traditionalist, nature-loving mindset, he suggests that the movement instead offers us a fervent critique of capitalism. By asking us to switch-on to this mindset, then, Ridout allows us to consider the ways by which “theatre as community” and “relational aesthetics” (whereby we may understand the ways in which we relate to other human around us) may come to be co-opted and subsumed within the capitalist structure. Rather than looking simply at the final product(ion) which, as with Laura Wade’s Posh and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, can turn a radical gesture into a mainstream cash-cow with the simple act of a West End transfer, the book asks whether there is “anything to be found within the practice of theatre that might actualize some of its political potential” [my emphasis].

In the second chapter, Ridout uses the example of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to lay out notions of the rhythms of time pertaining to leisure and work within industrial capitalism. Work, then, “is the labor of self-reproduction”, whereby we must become active – according to industry – in order to continue our own existence. Following this, in the twentieth century, we have the process of “professionalism” and “Taylorization”, which by seeking to improve economic efficiency by breaking it down into easily analyzed chunks seems to legitimate certain processes and creates a structure within itself. In turn, this process has infiltrated the theatrical ecology. Theatre, therefore, is just as much a part of late capitalist doctrine as any other ‘industry’.

Walter Benjamin’s ‘Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theatre’, which acts as a manifesto for the work of the passionate amateur, is the subject of Chapter Three. Here, Ridout suggests that Benjamin’s text challenges conventional wisdom regarding work and creates a scheme which is detached from the normal “working day” in a way which subverts conventional temporal structures. This is a theatre separate from the neoliberal normative, which detaches intrinsic value from labour and looks to the past in order that we may be allowed to stake a claim on the future. Its status as a “children’s” theatre is also important, as the way in which twentieth-century education has become analogous to a factory churning out knowledge and workers undermines any potential the idea of ‘learning’ may hold within it.

‘Of Work, Time and Revolution’ looks at Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise (1967) not, as a many have done, by considering its prescience regarding the ‘Spirit of ‘68’, but as an experiment in the theatricality found between work and action. The film, which focuses on a group of five university students discussing and acting upon their political beliefs, was made during a time when Godard was considering the way in which his processes may be seen as political within themselves, making “visible political possibilities not otherwise available to view”. Ridout’s argument is that the film offers the view “that there is political value in the formation of a revolutionary cell as an end in itself, rather than as a means towards revolution as such… If so, then this value must derive from something other than work”. Here, then, we return to the idea of the ‘passionate amateur’, who finds value beyond monetary reward and thus “must instead invent for herself new modes of living and working, either within or against the logics of capitalist production”. Here, and in following chapter, the book’s central argument really begins to crystallise, as the parallel themes of the work of theatre and the work of revolution begin to converge so that we may ask the question: do we achieve the final ‘product’ (of theatre and of revolution) through work, nonwork, or “not not work”? That is to say: do we labour for wages or for love?

The final chapter, ‘Solitude in Relation’, comes right up to the present day, using Chris Goode’s God/Head to understand theatre as a network of relations of exposure. In this work, Goode depicts and discusses the idea of solitude, which in the context of theatre’s “paradoxical place of revelation” where we are both alone and together throws up complexities surrounding community and individualism. Ridout then inserts himself, the “professional spectator”, into the argument, considering how the feeling of experiencing ‘authentic’ feelings like love and sensory perception “within the realm of necessity – as part of one’s professional activity” may disrupt the relationship between freedom and necessity.

It’d be untruthful to say that Ridout’s arguments are easy to follow for the casual reader, but, as with all good things in life, focus and engagement allows the meaning to rise to the surface. Complex academic ideas are more often than not introduced with useful examples, and Ridout’s coined terms – especially the titular one – are introduced and reintroduced with insight and useful examples. Without wanting to become guilty of indulging neoliberal-industrial rhetoric, this is (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) a necessary, valuable book which forces a re-examination and re-appropriation of existing labour systems, in British theatre and beyond.

The downside to all this is that Passionate Amateurs, as a highly-priced book with an academic tone, is unlikely to reach a very wide readership, meaning its arguments about work and theatre, which have the potential to shake up the way we currently make and watch theatre, will remain confined to smaller circles. As Daniel Bye pointed out in his recent blog on pay in the arts, “Theatres do not thrive in a market economy and so we need to find ways of behaving as though we are somewhere else. Of behaving as though we’re individuals talking to one another within a community, rather than as market nodes seeking to maximise our human capital”. It is this “somewhere else” that Ridout’s book asks us to consider, and by structuring the argument in a way that lays out the cards on the table before turning them over to reveal their image, he allows the reader to see the clear relationship between theatre, work and time. Crucially, it is a book which is unafraid to discuss and contemplate what ‘communism’ may look or feel like in the twenty-first century, which is no easy thing after the traumas of the past. As Ridout himself points out, “It is nearly always easier to speak of love than it is to talk about communism. The trick, here, is almost to do both, somewhat amateurishly.”