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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


So, in the midst of the scuttlebutt about the Pulitizer Prize, the Supreme Court acting like very much like a Bush Machine, and Richard Nelson's "Fix What's Broken" plea... I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed.

So here's something a bit more fun I've been thinking about...

What makes something, or someone, Pretentious?

Currently, I'm developing a piece for the Pretentious Festival called "An Interview with the Author" which is an interview with myself about my work, more or less. In an effort to crack open what the content of the piece will truly be, Kyle and I sat down and said "Well... what makes this deserve a place in this particular festival?"

My first instinct: Speaking of my own work and life as if they are unique and important is somehow comical. Kyle challenged that notion. His thought was that while it was, of course, self-aggrandizing... it's also not that uncommon in contemporary society to assume one's own life is worthy of public display. In fact, it's the very center of whatever's driving the new media culture. It's hard to appear pretentious when you are aping the same impulse as everyone who's on myspace.

Is pretention simply inflated self-importance? Or is it something else? We bandied about the idea that pretentiousness is the assumption that your own knowledge is somehow inaccessible to the audience. Or that your own views, while common, have a weight that could not be understood by others simply because of some secret, self-prescribed pact you have with a certain "truth." Is it the assumption that your taste and insight have more depth than that of your peers or audience?

Or is it just wearing black?

Or is it writing poems about how hard it is to have a Dad that doesn't understand you?

Anyhow... what does it really mean when we call someone or something pretentious? Is it just a dismissal of someone who we find intimidating? Is it something quantifiable? Or is it just like pornography ("I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it" - David Johnston)? Have you any stories that might illuminate it...someone you found especially pretentious is your life or reading?

Is being pretentious...having a blog?


Jaime said...

I associate pretension (which, in the right context, I love) with being enamored of your own intelligence/superiority. An awareness of, and indulgence in, your own high-falutinness. It's related to snobbery - taking pleasure in being better (smarter, fancier, weirder) than someone else. It doesn't necessarily exclude the audience - you can be pretentious for other pretentious people. Also integral, perhaps especially for your piece, is an awareness of your own importance. Ooh, and you can be pretentious about secret knowledge, like trends - hipster pretension comes into play there. And it’s unnecessary. I think that’s important, too – there’s smart & fancy, but when it gets unnecessary, then it’s pretensious. Or at least, that’s a factor.

There's something indulgent about pretension I really enjoy. The full commitment to your sense of greatness. And this is also the former too-smart-for-her-own-good little girl in me talking, who enjoys being able to enjoy being smart. I'm looking forward to this pretentious piece of yours. It better be *really* pretentious - I have high, exacting standards.

Anonymous said...

Pretension I think involves both a certain flair for self-aggrandizement and a belief that your inscrutability is a virtue. I think you need both to come off as pretentious - people who are merely self-aggrandizing come off as pompous, whereas people who enjoy being inscrutable are simply eccentric. Put 'em together though, and hoo-boy, you're in for the Pretension Rodeo.

DL said...

I think being pretentious, as the root would suggest is also being " in pretense."
ie, self congratulating oneself for achievements that perhaps were not our own, or not only our own.
I think it's being out of truth. Out of authenticity with oneself. I also think of pretentious people as being terrible listeners. They are more busy listening for where people are praising them then listening for communication and intimacy.
They always seem like they have 10 walls all around them. They are their own tower.
To be with what is , you have to drop prentense and pretentious people have a hard time being with their own humanity.
That takes a lot of covering up of stuff.
I think it often comes from a deep lack of self confidence and people cover it by acting mightier than thou.
Mmm, maybe i'll have more later.

Scott Walters said...

I think pretension is having a very low-falutin idea (hey, if there is high-falutin', there must be low-falutin', right?), but treating it (through language and attitude) as if it were a high-falutin' idea. It is pretending to a higher status than you deserve.

Zack Calhoon said...

I think this is an interesting question given the fact that cultural elitism has been so alienated by the G.O.P. Being smart and educated has become a strike against you in this day and age.

However, if I were to think of what would be considered pretentious, I think it is grandiloquence in all it's forms. And I really hate when people correct pronunciation or grammar of others in public. There is some disempowering about it. Come to think of it, pretentiousness can be quite vicious and snarky.

Alison Croggon said...

Dorothy and Scott seem to me to be on the mark here. Pretension is funny in the theatre because what's visible to an audience is the gap between a character's self estimation and the reality. The kind of stuff The Office exploited so brilliantly (the English version, the American series is unspeakable). Or Moliere, for that matter.

Cat* said...

I have a weird superstition about making first comments - so I'm glad I waited and mulled... In general I think there is no "one right way" to be pretentious. Any comment can be pretentious in any situation if the intent behind the coment/posture/action is insincere and designed purely for showcasing one's "bettertude"... ie, my Tuesday rehearsal; pretension is stepping into a period piece, obviously doing a quick wiki-search and then when the director asks you a simple question about intention you spout off about Tammany Hall for about 7 minutes although it's clear you know absolutely nothing about the machine that once was...

Anonymous said...

I don't have a fully-formed definition (I suppose I fall into the "I know it when I see it" camp) but usually when I find a piece of theatre pretentious, it is when there seems to that the artist or group of artists are so proud of themselves for coming up with a certain idea or concept that they don't bother putting the effort into exploring or crafting the communication of that idea. Pretention, to me, tends to be having so much confidence in a choice you've made that you think it is objectively good and stage-worthy, despite any evidence to the contrary.