Blind Man with a Pistol

The Play’s the Thing™

Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, author of Lion in the Streets (1991) and Perfect Pie (2000), has been commissioned to produce a play by Dove as a part of the soap producer’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” advertising strategy. From the Globe & Mail:

The production [entitled Body and Soul], which features 12 “real women,” that is to say, non-actors 45 to 78 years old, telling an interwoven tale of their real-life experiences, was commissioned by soap producer Dove as part of the company’s Campaign for Real Beauty (an award-winning ad campaign) and bears a prominent corporate stamp that is bound to inspire skepticism in theatre purists.

Thompson, 53, remains undaunted by potential detractors and has gone so far as to call the production “the most gratifying and illuminating creative work I have done in my 30-year career” – no mean claim, given her two Governor-General’s Awards for drama and her status as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

“It’s obvious that theatre has always had sponsorship. Shakespeare was sponsored by the monarchy. When you read his plays, there’s clearly pandering, because he had to pander to them so that his theatre would survive. There’s no pandering here,” she said.

Well, if Shakespeare did it, it must be all right then, I suppose. After all, his plays turned out fine. I wonder, however, if Thompson has heard of Thomas Carew’s Coelum Britannicum, a Caroline masque sponsored by King Charles I (grand-nephew to Queen Elizabeth):

MERCURY. From the high Senate of the Gods, to You
Bright glorious Twins of Love and Majesty
Before whose Throne three warlike nations bend
Their willing knees, on whose Imperial brows
The Regal Circle prints no awful frowns
To fright your subjects, but whose calmer eyes
Shed joy and safety on their melting hearts
That flow with cheerful loyal reverence (1-8, spelling modernized)

It goes on like that. Charles I also liked to take part in these masques he sponsored, along with other members of his court and professional actors. In fact, he likely played a staged version of himself when Carew’s masque was performed at Whitehall Palace in 1634. And Carew was sponsored by Kings. You can imagine the quality of work sponsored by lesser nobles in private courts. Unfortunately for the legacy of sponsorship in the arts, Shakespeare’s sponsored works (along with Ben Jonson’s and Edmund Spenser’s) represented the exception, not the rule.

Judith Thompson is a wonderful artist; Canada is lucky to have her. I have friends involved in Canadian theatre and publishing, and making a living as an artist is not easy (especially considering the Harper government’s recent cuts to the National Gallery of Canada). But as skdadl at Bread n’ Roses points out, regardless of the quality and integrity of Thompson’s production, it nevertheless runs the risk of undermining the already fragile structure of Arts funding in Canada.

Thompson insists that she won’t “pander” to Dove, and I admit that I believe her. But it is difficult to make the argument that art will remain unaffected by such corporate sponsorship when the content of the play is identical to the content of an ad campaign. Should I then write a novel based on the woeful soap-opera that played out on Taster’s Choice commercials in the 1990s? (Irony alert: Susan Moody beat me to it.) As Rick Miller, artistic director of WYRD Productions in Toronto, rightfully cautions in the Globe article above,

“I am very nervous about this. I’m not sure this is the production that actually crosses the line, but I think that it’s not far off. I think this sort of invasion of the theatre could happen very quickly if we don’t pay attention,” he said…

“Dove tells us to talk to our daughters before the beauty industry does. Well, they are the beauty industry.”

Miller is right. Dove is owned by Unilever who also owns Axe (Lynx) body spray and counts Johnny Vegas as one if its spokespersons. With these kinds of mixed messages, it’s difficult to justify the integrity of what Thompson identifies as Dove’s motive: “for women to feel good about aging.” It is a big step in artistic sponsorship when corporations move from “simply” attaching their logo to the title of plays (Ford presents Mambo Italiano) and proceeds to dictate theme or content.

Dove’s tactics become especially problematic when you consider what theatre is meant to accomplish. The theatre is a space of play. This latest step in the commodification of theatre does not promote real beauty, whatever that is, but Dove’s trademark of “Real Beauty”: an image of beauty and identity with a product on the market. It reifies a dramatic conceit that should be organic. Dove has made the play the thing.  Do we really want “Real Beauty” to become a trademark owned by Unilever? As Antonin Artaud writes in The Theatre and its Double (Trans. 1958), the object of theatre

is not to resolve social or psychological conflicts, to serve as battlefield for moral passions, but to express objectively certain secret truths, to bring to light of day by means of active gestures certain aspects of truth that have been buried under forms in their encounters with Becoming.

Becoming. Not the commodified image. This sounds a lot more like the “real beauty” I want to believe in. And Becoming’s struggle against stagnation is a concept that Shakespeare knew a thing or two about:

I am ashamed: does not the stone rebuke me
For being more stone than it? O royal piece,
There’s magic in thy majesty, which has
My evils conjured to remembrance and
From thy admiring daughter took the spirits,
Standing like stone with thee.

The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.43-8

h-t to Zastrozzi at Bn’R.

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for this post. I find this kind of corporate sponsorship of the arts very troubling. The line between arts and commerce is already quite blurred when it comes to television, film and magazines. I would hate to see this precedent leach into the performing arts. It also sets the stage (no pun intended) for further cuts to public funding through arms length arts councils.

Comment by Beijing York

Unilever and Dove can bite me. I haven’t bought their toxic smelling crap products for years, and some play pandering to my ageing skin isn’t going to make me start. Their relationship with Johnny Vegas really clinched it for me, not that it needed clinching.

Comment by Prole

Beijing: You’re right about the line between art and commerce becoming blurred. I’m not even sure if sponsorship is the right word. We already have corporate sponsorship for the arts, but this is something more. It’s effectively a full-blown advertisement, however well written, masquerading as art.

Prole: There’s certainly something unsettling about how all the “Real Beauty” advertisements still have the harp and flute music, the soft white light and the eerily shiny skin of typical cosmetic commercials. Here’s a collection of links from shamelessmag that looks at how problematic (if not downright hypocritical) Dove’s “Campaign For Real Beauty” really is.

Comment by catchfire

The Play’s the Thing™ | Blind Man with a Pistol

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