Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2021

The Performance, by Claire Thomas

Until today, I had never heard of theatre-fiction.  It’s a genre of fiction that

… refers to novels and short-stories that focus on theatre. Characters often include actors, playwrights, directors, prompters, understudies, set designers, critics, or casting agents. Common settings may include theatre auditoriums, dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, or other places in which theatre is created and performed. Theatre-fiction may engage with and represent many different varieties of theatre, from performances of Shakespearean tragedy to Kabuki theatre to pantomime or marionette shows. (Wikipedia)

So Actress, by Anne Enright, which I read and reviewed last year, is a piece of theatre-fiction. I’m sure we can think of other examples, yes?

That definition, however, omits the most crucial element of theatre—the audience!  Well, now we have a novel focussed on the theatre audience…

The Performance, the second novel of Melbourne author Claire Thomas, explores the preoccupations of three generations of women watching a performance of Beckett’s play, Happy Days (1961).  (Which is not a happy play at all.  You don’t need to know anything about this play to enjoy the novel, but you may find it interesting to visit Wikipedia’s page about it.)

The three women watching the performance in the intimacy of the theatre are:

  • Margot, a successful professor of literature, who is fending off pressure for her to retire to make room for younger academics.  She loves her work and takes pride in remembering all her students so she has no intention of being moved on.  But life is becoming difficult: her husband of many years has dementia and he has started hitting her. She’s been hiding the bruises with long sleeves, but it’s 40° in Melbourne on this stifling summer night, and she’s worn a sleeveless dress, expecting that within the anonymity of the theatre, no one will pay any attention to her.
  • Ivy, a wealthy philanthropist, who is watching with a friend of hers.  She’s been given two free tickets that she could easily afford to buy, and will be attending a function afterwards at which she and other philanthropists will be charmed into granting the theatre some of her money.  She is more alert to the nuances of this charade than one might expect: she actually had a very deprived childhood and came by her wealth through a fortuitous inheritance that she was not expecting at all.
  • Summer, an usher, who is working to pay her way through her drama course.  The perk of the job is that she gets to see drama for free, but she nearly always misses the first act because she has to stay outside to deal with the latecomers.  Tonight, however, her anxiety overwhelms her: her partner April has parents up in the hills on the urban fringe, where the bushfires are burning out of control.  She knows April will want to help her parents, and she is frantic because she doesn’t know where April is right now.

All three of these women respond to moments of dialogue in the play with their own preoccupations.  Winnie, marooned on stage in a mound of earth up to her waist, prattles to her taciturn husband Willie as she works her way through her daily routine,  She takes items out of her capacious handbag, which are aides-mémoire to her life.  But life, like the mound of earth that constricts her, is closing in, and she will be buried up to her neck after the interval, so Winnie has to work hard to maintain her optimism with poignant references to happy times in the past.  This dialogue impacts on the audience in different ways, triggering thoughts and memories both banal and significant.

Margot, for example, muses about her own body when Winnie puts aside her hairbrush and spectacles, saying Old things. Old eyes.

She is pleased she hasn’t lost her ankles, that they haven’t thickened with age.  Thin ankles are a high-quality feature for the young and old.  Combined with shapely calves and slim knees, her legs were finely turned, as John [her husband] used to say.  (p.18)

But like the play itself and its meanings deeper than Winnie’s chatter, the musings of these three women have more significance than mere contemplation of ankles. Margot is also worried about her work, her husband, and her relationship with her adult son.  Ivy reflects on a traumatic incident in her earlier life and the joys and satisfactions of late motherhood.  She’s also concerned about whether the philanthropic choices she makes are the right ones.  After an awkward encounter during the interval, she reflects on the appropriateness of her own behaviour and her assumptions about people.  And on this night Summer will also have an unexpected reminder of her uncertain identity.  Her mother won’t discuss who her father was, but the colour of her own skin tells her that he wasn’t white.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.  The structure is clever, especially the artful insertion of a play script for the period of the interval, and the resonances with the Beckett play are thoughtful and sometimes wise.  But I felt vaguely discontented by another book about the interior lives of women.  This was encapsulated for me in Ivy’s thoughts about a school reunion:

…Ivy was horrified by the middle-agedness of her former classmates.  There was a woman who had been intimidatingly hip at school, and Ivy only recognised her because of the name tag she had on her chest.  Her face had fallen into hound-like dewlaps and there were sun splotches and creases all over her décolletage. She had lank boring hair and was (un-ironically) dressed in an unflattering long-sleeved blouse with bad jeans.  Very bad jeans.  And there was an inflection in her voice that was almost satirically pompous.  Ivy felt angry with her for ageing so badly.  Did you have to become so daggy? she wanted to say.  I’m very disappointed. (p.272)

I can do without the interior thoughts of women like this. I found myself liking a daggy woman who had learned that women being preoccupied with their appearance and judging that of others is stupid.

The Performance was also reviewed at The Guardian.

Author: Claire Thomas
Title: The Performance
Cover design by Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Hachette, 2021
ISBN: 9780733644542, pbk., 292 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 

 


Responses

  1. This is interesting sounding. I had not heard of theatre fiction either. I will now recognise it as such when I see it, lol. I must work it into my conversation. Last night at book club we were talking about The Octopus and I and body image, etc. I know you reviewed this book. We thought maybe the younger crowd would care more about the body issues in that book and discuss it more than all of us retired women in the room. I agree, I really hate it when a woman is judged on her clothes. Sets me right off.

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    • There’s another piece of theatre fiction hovering at the edge of my consciousness, but #SoAnnoying I can’t remember what it is. Hopefully someone will think of it for me!
      Yes, I’m really not sure what point the author is trying to make with this judgemental character. It’s certainly unpleasant to be thinking that other women are judging appearances in this shallow way. I remember, some years ago now when in work meetings I was often the only woman present, I had read something about how men were always imagining what was underneath our clothes. For a while I felt really self-conscious in those meetings because of what I was imagining they were imagining. And then I got over myself: they were thinking about what the meeting was about, not about me and I should have known to be wary of sweeping statements that conveyed that all men behaved in a certain way.

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  2. ‘I can do without the interior thoughts of women like this. I found myself liking a daggy woman who had learned that women being preoccupied with their appearance and judging that of others is stupid.’

    I liked the book better than you did, Lisa, but I am sitting here agreeing with your comment (above). And I have just, thank you, learned of the label ‘theatre fiction’.

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    • Ah! I’ve just remembered the book that belongs in the theatre fiction category… it was a Russian detective novel called All the World’s a Stage (Erast Fandorin Mysteries), by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield. And I’ve also remember The Phantom of the Opera.
      I’m sure once we get started we can find all kinds of examples. It’s like campus fiction and occupation novels, once I start looking, I find them everywhere.

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      • Would we count Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as a theatre-novel? It’s not Miss P who’s an actress, but then she ‘performs’ her role all day long.

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  3. I’ve heard so many great things about this one. A friend who works for Hachette in the UK ages ago tipped me off about it but my request for a review copy seems to have fallen on deaf ears. But now I’m not too fussed about reading it 🤷🏻‍♀️ I’m sick of interior thoughts, too, and I’m beginning to HATE first person present tense fiction. It’s just so wearing.

    As for theatre fiction, Joseph O’Connor’s BRILLIANT and much overlooked Shadowplay is a must read. His earlier novel Ghostlight is also about an actress, so that would qualify too. I think many of Jennifer Johnston’s novels feature actresses etc (her father was a playwright)

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    • I don’t mind so much of the interior thoughts are about something that’s significant. But these women, with the exception of Summer who has to grapple with her mother’s refusal to clarify her mixed-race identity, are so First World…There’s far too much about one of them resenting a man hogging the armrest and then there’s other audience members resenting one of them coughing and her Fisherman’s Friend solution, I kid you not. And although yes, they have interior thoughts of some significance along with the banal, we don’t learn anything new about anything. You’d have to be under a rock or ignored Rosie Batty altogether not to know that women often hide it when their husbands hit them whether it’s caused by dementia or not; I’ve lost count of the books I’ve read that go on about academics being pressured out of their jobs. I can’t say that I’ve ever had enough money to worry much about whether I’m donating my millions to the right charity—but even Summer’s anxiety is something that’s familiar to us all. If anyone thinks that living in the city makes us immune to catastrophic bushfires, they haven’t lived it, glued to the CFA app that’s tracking fires near the people we love. So what are we seeing here in this book, that women spend some time thinking about these things while they’re at the theatre?? If the novel weren’t hitching a ride with Beckett, it would be common-or-garden women’s commercial fiction, unless there’s some existential aspect that I’m missing here…
      The other book that I reviewed today, A Million Aunties, has characters whose interior thoughts range far and wide, and are not always about themselves and their immediate concerns. I think the underlying reason why The Performance leaves me discontented is because I was expecting more.
      But if your friend at Hachette is right, LOL it will probably take home some major prize and I’ll have to eat my words.

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  4. Station Eleven would be another example of theatre-fiction.

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  5. Hmmm, after this year I care even less about appearances, and much more about reconnecting with old friends and seeing if we still can share ideas, opinions and stories without falling out. But I do know a lot of people who are that judgemental and that’s why they dread high school reunions… They are not necessarily the most interesting people to write novels about, I guess.

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    • It’s a strange thing… some authors can write novels about the most ordinary of people or people who are seriously flawed and make a brilliant novel of it, and then there are others where I think, hmm, why I did I spend my time on this.
      The Performance is not quite in that category because of its connection to Beckett and I love the way Beckett makes me think and feel, but by the same token, the Beckett connection raises expectations.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting! I’m aware of the Beckett play and that’s quite a clever conceit to have the women responding to it in the book. However, I agree about the internal musings of the women – they do sound very judgemental and I would be looking to something which has moved on from this.

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  7. I’ve seen Endgame and Waiting for Godot, but not this one. But I think that having seen the other two means that I know what a Beckett play is like so, yes, it’s a clever conceit and that aspect of the novel works well.
    *chuckle* I suppose it probably *is* true that we are more judgemental in our heads than we tend to express. (Except for keyboard warriors). But my head is too full of interesting things to be judgemental about stuff that doesn’t matter like appearances and hogging the armrest. Especially at a Beckett play.

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  8. I know that I’ve read detective fiction set in theatres, but names …? There’s a Phryne Fisher, and the Fergus Hume I reviewed last month, Madame Midas, and even Miles Franklin’s Bring the Monkey

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    • I’d forgotten the Fergus Hume. Thanks!

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  9. “Queen of Crime” Dame Ngaio Marsh was very involved in the theatre and set many of her Roderick Alleyn mysteries in various theatre settings.

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    • Actually… now I think of it (but handicapped by now having read all that much in the way of crime novels)… a theatre makes a good setting for a crime, because of costumes, disguises and sets, plus an audience sitting in the dark!

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  10. The book I’m reading now for the 1936 Club contains an element of theatre fiction because the main characters put on a professional play in London, but it is a minor part of the novel: A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge. Many of Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books involve shows of one sort or another and one I particularly enjoyed was Party Frock (also known as Party Shoes), where the children put on a pageant. The real classic is The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. There’s also a German children’s book by Cornelia Funke, translated as The Thief Lord, where a gang of children is hiding out in an abandoned theatre in Venice. It’s wonderful! The only other adult fiction I can think of at the moment, triggered by your comment on a theatre being a good place for a crime, is the novella The Chase by Alejo Carpentier, in which a man feverishly buys a ticket to enter the theatre at the start. The rest of the novella explains how he got to be there, then returns to the theatre for the climax. It strikes me that amateur dramatics also provides a fertile ground for farce and sitcom, but I can’t think of any novels about it, though it’s one of the mainstays for The Archers on the radio: drama galore!

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    • Thanks for this, what a wonderful contribution!
      Lurking in the back of my mind is a book in which the adult children put on a play and the parents come home and raise hell about it. I cannot remember what book it is!

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      • Mansfield Park?

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        • The one I’m thinking of is more recent than that…

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    • Please ignore the emoji that my phone inserted there!
      My book blog: https://marketgardenreader.wordpress.com

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      • I’ve taken it out for you.
        (Yes, I hate the way our keyboards think they know better than we do!!)

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I didn’t love this. I thought the schema was a bit too obvious and I just wasn’t convinced by the ending. For me Beckett’s words were the best part.

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    • LOL Gert, you’ve said exactly what I thought in under 30 words!

      Liked by 1 person


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