We are a theatre company and we’re about to adapt Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. We’re making it, in part, because it’s a classic, so we decided to have a conversation – via email – about what that means.

Helen

Hi guys,
So I was wondering…
What makes a piece of art ‘a classic’?

Abbi

I think I should probably answer this by saying things like ‘enduring themes’ and ‘what it means to be human’. There’s probably something to do with craft and skill to say as well. I suspect that as a feminist theatre maker I’m supposed to have a complex relationship with ‘the classics’, which contains a love or respect for each individual work and what it has paved the way for, in spite of the fact that they are products of a patriarchal culture that depicts deeply damaging attitudes towards, and stories about, men, women, sex, sexuality, gender, race …

When you say ‘classic’, I think: something that wasn’t made about or for me. I think: something that was made by a man or men. I think: something that I can absolutely enjoy, but only if I turn off my politics/values. I think: something that I should probably see. I think: at some point, if we’re going to make work with more resource and on a bigger stage, we’re going to have to engage with the classics, because that’s the only way to mitigate the risk of putting RashDash in front of a large audience. And I don’t think that I want to have to go through them – those plays and those men – to get to that stage.

I read an article at the weekend about Jude Kelly leaving the Southbank Centre. She said, ‘The reality is, the majority of the canon is created by men, and if the culture keeps on reiterating over and over again this idea that creativity is male, then it permeates absolutely everything else. And you have to do something. Saying you’re a feminist is not enough.’

I’ve written mostly about theatre. But I’m going to add this: a white woman, painted by a white man, based on a story by a white man. The woman is mad and beautiful. The model gets so cold posing in the bath that she gets pneumonia. The model is also a painter, but this painting is the thing she’s known for. That and being the sad, suicidal wife of Dante Rossetti.

What you saying?

Helen

I am saying…

When we describe something as ‘classic’ we promote it to a higher plane. A classic vase, a classic novel, a classic anthem, a classic neckline. The dictionary tells me that ‘classic’ means ‘judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind’. This is such an alarming statement, but also quite funny. Who is judging it? What does high quality mean? Who says what’s ‘good’, let alone outstanding? There is something horribly coded and inaccessible about this selection process.

Someone asked me recently what my most embarrassing gap in cultural knowledge is. I immediately said that I haven’t read enough classic literature. No Dickens, no Hardy, no Brontës even, and barely any Austen. I wish I had spent my youth lapping up these works rather than reading stories about babysitters’ clubs and ballet schools. But I wasn’t interested then and I’m still not sufficiently it seems…

I still find that image of Ophelia so strangely alluring as well as disturbing.

Becky

I wouldn’t be ashamed of having missed vast swathes of the canon. I don’t feel any closer to completing that challenge even after studying English Literature for three years. I read a fair few ‘classics’ at that time, and close together the stories can become pretty repetitive. The Greeks, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Restoration Comedies – and then there were the whole modules dedicated to relatively modern tales of sad, middle-aged, white men – and when the lecturers running the seminars fit this exact description…I’m not sure I read more than five texts by women on that course, out of hundreds.

Saying that, I’ve always had a physical reaction to being in big old buildings full of texts, in a nervous/excited way. I still get that. Being surrounded by that much classical knowledge and possibility in rooms so grand and impressive … And there is human connection to be found there – that people decades and decades ago could feel the way we’re feeling.

Helen

What annoys you most about classic plays?

Abbi

Oh, the inevitable embedded patriarchal values?! Every time a show with mostly male characters, or a show that depicts women as servants or sex objects or nutters, gets done again, it makes it harder for us to move away from those tropes. Not just in culture but in life, too. And they make up so much of the programme in our big theatre institutions. I have no problem with stories written by/for/about white men – I absolutely want to engage with them – but when the majority of classics have been authored by that particular group and classics take up so much space, it limits space for new work made by a more diverse group of people.

And I feel like we have to do one! I might be wrong?! Maybe not everyone has to have a go at making a classic – but it feels like something people do when they want a certain kind of career… And I’m strangely jealous of the theatre-makers that can have an uncomplicated relationship with them! I wouldn’t be able to tackle a classic without dismantling it, without making a version that was about my adaptation of it. And I’m tired of making work in opposition to oppression – I want to make work that doesn’t have to question how my gender shapes me, but can just be about other things. I know I’m speaking from a place of huge privilege when I say that. I’m white and middle class and there’s lots about my experience of life that gets portrayed as universal.

Thinking about the female gaze… I want to gaze out of female eyes and not talk about being female. And not talk about the internalized male gaze. I think that CLASSICS get in the way of that because they are forever showing you the world through a man’s eyes but being labelled as ‘the world’ or ‘truth’ or ‘the universal experience’.

Helen

But do that many people actually go to the theatre in the UK? Do the parts women play and unhelpful tropes that are replicated have that much of an impact on culture for anyone outside a relatively small bubble?

Abbi

Enough people go to the theatre for it to matter, I think. But, hey, everyone keeps saying that theatre is a dying art; maybe that’s because we stage so many plays by dead people?

Helen

So why are you choosing to make The Three Sisters if classics stand in the way of the female gaze?

Abbi

Because I want to make a classic and there are three of us and we all want good parts. How many other classics have that? They’re not even that good – the men get most of the lines.

No. I think history is important and I think culture is important. I want to feel like I belong to it and it to me. I want to wrestle with it until we nd something to say to each other.

Becky

‘My soul is like a wonderful grand piano of which the key has been lost,’ – Chekhov.

Abbi

Oh, the void! The void!

Helen

There is something genuinely enticing in the classics that’s more than just achieving kudos/a bigger platform… something sumptuous… so, am I actually just attracted to wearing a beautiful costume and poncing about, sounding important?

Becky

Maybe, as much as you’re attracted to ripping it apart.

‘Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other,’ – Chekhov

Abbi

Helen

Cock off, Chekhov.

Abbi

I feel we should finish this by saying something that balances the argument. Someone say something about how much they love the poetry of Macbeth…

Helen

Becky

‘He got Colgate on his teeth
And Reebok Classics on his feeeeet’ – M.I.A.

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