Pperformers work with sounds, bodies and movement, while the writer’s only tool is language. Writing about the performing arts is therefore a challenge: how can one art form convey the essence of another? How can we use language to capture performance accurately, when performance speaks a language of its own?
It’s a challenge that writers have always been drawn to, in part, I imagine, because the performers — who willingly expose themselves to risk and scrutiny — create such compelling characters.
In my early twenties, I studied voice at a music school in London, and my novel, A very nice girl, draws on my own experiences as a performer. It tells the story of Anna, a 24-year-old soprano training to become an opera singer at a London-based conservatory. She lives a life of sacrifice, discipline and self-doubt, all for the fleeting pinnacle of performance. In her off-stage life, she is anxious, unsure of the role she should play, both with her opinionated friends, and also with Max, the enigmatic older man she meets one evening while singing jazz.
Books that include scenes from musical or theatrical performance often explore ideas of performance in a broader sense – how we try out different identities or perform to conceal aspects of ourselves. The following 10 are some of my favorites.
1. The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
Erika, a failed concert pianist, teaches at the Vienna Conservatory while living under the thumb of her overbearing mother. Her days are spent playing classical music, while her nights are spent visiting porn shows all over town. Jelinek emphasizes the performer’s body when writing to music, using the language of pain, domination and control, and drawing a parallel between Erika’s musical discipline and her fantasies. violent sex. In the relationship between Erika and her student, Walter, she explores the blurred lines between performance and reality, as the sadomasochistic “script” that Erika wants Walter to perform begins to spin out of her control.
2. At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
A novel that bemoans the possibility that good acting is a dying art, Chez Freddie is full of brilliant details about the world of theater. Freddie’s, a theater school for child actors in the 1960s, is at risk of closing because its formidable owner fails to prepare its students for television. Fitzgerald mixes storytelling with theatricality – the boys “imitate silence”, the little actors “play nervous actors”, and child actor Jonathan totally confuses Mr. Blatt, a potential investor, by quoting Dombey and Son (“‘What is money?’ asked Jonathan. ‘Now look here, my son,’ said Blatt, ‘you know what money is.'”) In his heart, however , At Freddie’s is a book about authenticity – a woman wanting to protect the integrity of her performers against the encroaching demands of capitalism.
3. Between the Acts of Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s latest novel, by contrast, questions the power and purpose of art in a collapsing world. Set in a country house on a day in June 1939, the title alludes to an impending “second act” of World War I, and the novel is heavy with a sense of impending doom. It describes the performance of an annual show, a show that traces human history from the Middle Ages to the 1930s. The performance seems to suggest continuity, but there is also a sense of chaos and fragmentation in its use of disparate quotes. of the history of literature and in the confused response of the public.
4. The Inconsoles by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ryder, a famous pianist, arrives in an unnamed European city to give a concert he doesn’t remember agreeing to. He’s supposed to follow a strict schedule of obligations, but has misguided it, and the narrative unfolds with the bizarre logic of a dream; everyone he meets harasses him, divulging their secrets and asking for his help, while he pretends to understand what is going on. Ishiguro explores the social performance of politeness, how it prevents us from speaking or acting on our wishes – and the desire for connection that lies beneath.
5. Naguib Mahfouz wedding song
“A play is just a play. Nothing more,” the Cairo theater producer says in Mahfouz’s 1981 novel. But the theater’s latest play, written by Abbas, appears to be based on real events, implicating Abbas himself in the murder of his wife. . The play was a huge hit, and night after night the actors played fictional versions of themselves or people they knew. Meanwhile, Abbas has disappeared, leaving a suicide note, just like the hero of his play. Following an innovative four-part structure, with each section depicting overlapping events told by a different character, Mahfouz examines the relationship between art and life, challenging the idea of objective truth.
6. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
One piece feels a bit like a cheat for this list, but it seems impossible not to mention Hamlet, a work equally obsessed with performance and reality. From Hamlet’s anger at deceptive appearances, to his own adoption of an “antique disposition”, Shakespeare continually points to the slippery boundaries between what is on the surface and what is real. But the most striking performance in Hamlet is The Murder of Gonzago – the play within the play – which Hamlet uses to “catch the king’s conscience”, confronting Claudius with a theatrical version of his crime in the hopes that it will trigger a confession. .
7. The artificial silk girl by Irmgard Keun
A novel that also explores the theatricality of identity, it was a bestseller in Weimar Germany when it appeared in 1932, before it was banned by the Nazis. It’s about Doris, a young secretary who dreams of being an actress. After a brief stint in the theater – a wonderful display of bitchy and narcissistic performers – Doris flees to Berlin, hoping to become a movie star. Instead, she relies on her performing skills in a different way, manipulating men to survive.
8. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This gripping family saga filled with tropes of acting and disguise, explores the relationship between identity and performance. In the 1950s, Stella and Desiree – twins from Mallard, a town established for light-skinned black people – elope in New Orleans. Fourteen years later, Désirée returns home, fleeing an abusive relationship. Stella, meanwhile, is gone – she married a white man, and lives her life as a performance, secretly posing as white. His daughter later becomes an actress – a job in which “you only show people what you want”.
9. The Little Gypsies by Eimear McBride
Eily, 18, left Ireland to attend drama school in London, where she met Stephen, a 38-year-old established actor. Their relationship quickly goes from casual sex to intense love. McBride writes brilliantly about life as a performer and the role of performance for Eily and Stephen in dealing with trauma. Discussions of roles, scripts, and character creation suggest that growing up is a creative process.
ten. Alan Warner’s The Sopranos
Warner also explores the performative aspects of the construction of identity, in his hilarious and irreverent portrayal of Scottish teenagers going wild. Taking place over one day, The Sopranos follows a group of Catholic schoolgirls who travel to a big city for a choir competition. But performance is the last thing on their minds. Temporarily freed from the constraints of small-town life, the girls see the trip as an opportunity to dress up, get drunk to death, and try fucking. Beneath their performative posture, however, they are vulnerable: one has terminal cancer, another struggles with his sexuality, another lives in extreme poverty. And then there’s the ubiquitous Catholic performance of Morality and Purity – a show determined to cover up the reality of girls’ lives.