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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Chapter 2a) Belief, Bias and Common Humanity.  A meditation on playwriting in the Age of Untruth.  Apollo and Dionysius.

The authentic narrative is a sensory explosion occurring within an intellectual context.  We know it when we feel it as acutely as we feel a kick on the shins at a chess match.

So can theatre, the greatest illusion of all, articulate anything meaningful about combatting trickery and fraud?   In other words: is it possible to create a plausible, authentic narrative within all that fakery? I’m going to stick my neck right out here and say that is exactly what theatre it is for and what it was first invented to do. 

Playwrights control and guide the emotional journey.  The audience experiences something different from what they know, thereby empathising and understanding at a deep, visceral level.

I’ll come back to the mechanics of theatre and writing for it in a later chapter But I also want to explain how I feel theatre has become side-tracked away from its primary function.  The desire for an instant gratification has reduced many forms of theatre to spectacle.  Exciting and thrilling funny and even emotionally engaging it may be but in the end, hollow and without heart.  That is not to decry the theatre of spectacle but it loses so much more that it could be doing.  Theatre may not be able to change the world but it can certainly set out to engage and challenge.

At the core of live theatre experience is the fact that each performance is new and different.  No actor can reproduce the exact same circumstances of performance night after night.  He or she brings themselves to it with all their own foibles and disappointments.  And we all know that the audience is different performance by performance.  The reaction to the wild shamen on stage maybe quite different on a wet Thursday afternoon from a joyous Saturday night out.

The actor is key, he or she is living, breathing and sweating.  It is up to the playwright to give the actor the means to create that rank, odorific moment.  And the shape of the play provides the narrative underpinning that will make this more than a moment in time. Plays happen here and now right in front of and, perhaps, in and around the audience.  The actors are constructing and driving characters and their stories right in front of our eyes.  Plays happen to everyone in this room.

Peter Brook, in his seminal work “The Empty Space” decries a form of theatre he terms “Deadly Theatre”.   “A doctor can tell at once between the trace of life and the useless bag of bones that life has left; but we are less practised in observing how an idea, an attitude or a form can pass from the lively to the moribund. It is difficult to define but a child can smell it out.” 

Jerzy Grotowski when he talks about physical theatre, is not talking about empty acrobatics but in the direct, living engagement of the actor with the text.

“Why do we sacrifice so much energy to our art?

Not in order to teach others but to learn with them what our existence, our organism, our personal and repeatable experience have to give us; to learn to break down the barriers which surround us and to free ourselves from the breaks which hold us back, from the lies about ourselves which we manufacture daily for ourselves and for others; to destroy the limitations caused by our ignorance or lack of courage; in short, to fill the emptiness in us: to fulfill ourselves...art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.”
Jerzy Grotowski

Antonin Artaud when he describes a Theatre of Cruelty. “I would like to write a Book which would drive men mad, which would be like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go, in short, a door that opens onto reality.”
Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings

These great thinkers about theatre are all trying to capture is the idea of Authenticity in performance and production. They want genuine commitment to the performance by performers and audiences alike. If a performance does not leave us shaking with emotion, angry, fearful, delighted, in love with the world, then it has failed.  Actor and audience alike should feel challenged, uplifted, crushed, beaten and absolutely shattered.  And, in that communion, a sense of well-being and grace.

On the other hand, apparently, the other great thinker about the role of theatre in the twentieth century, Berthold Brecht, propounded the idea of making the audience less engaged emotionally in a work by proposing an Epic Theatre that stripped the spectator of the need to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her.  He felt it should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage He was concerned that emotional engagement engendered complacency in his audience and he employed what became known as “alienation techniques”. 

  In fact the word “alienation” used in this context is a bit of a red herring. I think the Brecht, like Brook and Grotowski,  was driving at undermining the primly defined conventions of theatre as he saw it.  The Deadly Theatre of the glossy, bourgeois light comedy. He wanted to give the pendulum a push in the opposite direction. He was a man of the theatre and understood the necessity of emotional engagement in his plays even if he didn’t preach it.  Ironically, Brechtian Theatre has become a style of the mainstream.  Contemporary audiences are much less challenged by such techniques than they might have been in the 1930s.  We have absorbed Brecht and his ideas into the mainstream.  Brecht was not trying to undermine theatre as a whole but to “re-function it” and to make it more relevant and challenging.

For me, the key to this is Nietzsche’s idea in “The Birth of Tragedy” that the individual can lose themselves in a collective Dionysian event and thereby undergo an ecstatic transformational experience while recognising the authenticity of the created world and how it coincides with the real.

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of reason and the rational, while Dionysus is the god of the irrational and chaos. The Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals, although often the two deities were entwined by nature.  The Apollonian is based on reason and logical thinking. By contrast, the Dionysian is based on chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts. - Wikipaedia

Thus theatre explores our need for authenticity twice over.  First in the great Apollonian consistent world that that the playwright creates and reports on and secondly in the Dionysian immediacy and transformative power of the event itself.   
Note, that I am not saying what form that authenticity takes, just that the drama needs to have both plausibility and deep engagement with its subject matter.  And that must come from the playwright.  If you like, that predicates a third form of Authenticity, that contained and manifested in the playwright herself.

Nietszche suggests that the only way we can attain any form of enlightenment is by scrupulous self examination.in which we disclose the furthest reaches of ourselves.  By implication he says there is a rich inner life to be explored and that truthfulness in this exploration is the only virtue.  If, as playwrights, we want to observe truth in our work then we must chase down the inner workings of ourselves and thence our characters as if we were the Spanish Inquisition. 

But in this fractured, opinionated world of 2017, which writers have the resources either in time or expertise for this critical examination of themselves and their own writing?     Where are the great works that seek to portray and explain the current divisions in society?  Where are the contemporary “Three Sisters”  “Hedda Gabler”.  Where are the bold playwrights like Aphra Behn or Dario Fo? Sadly, playwrights are losing opportunities to write with such engagement, to construct towering mountains of ideas or to create worlds of experience.  And without those opportunities, the skill withers away. Many of the current ways into playwriting are to blame.  The ten minute sketch or the monologue are excellent introductions to the art but they are not the art.  A ten minute play is really a sketch and while it may be funny, thoughtful, clever, witty it simply does not have the room to construct a proper narrative or to follow characters that are allowed to build and develop.  The ten minute sketch is an art form in itself but it is not playwriting.  And I believe this is where we are losing the skills and sensibilities required in constructing plays.  Writing a play is a marathon not a sprint.  It is a five day test match rather than a T20 Big Bash.  Emerging playwrights ought to be given real incentives to write real plays, and, I suggest, as soon as the plays become big and challenging with room for big ideas then audiences will be enticed back as they always are to the authentic narrative which has no counterpart in the other media..

Many young writers have these important imperatives in their work. They may be dealing with the big subjects but unless there is room for their work to grow in size and scope then they will not be able to create the theatre that is so desperately needed.  At the same time, they hear only the glib quick cut language of film and television making.  They are not sufficiently exposed to the theatrical narrative style which requires time to develop.  Theatre needs to be more contemplative and require exposure over longer periods than the disposable media.

I have suggested before that there ought to be some way for young writers to serve the sort of apprenticeship that I had. I was given opportunities to work alongside established playwrights and directors, to sit in on rehearsals, to stand on the side of the stage and watch actors at work.  I was given the opportunity to handle a few rewrites for other writers and eventually to work with studio companies on my own works.

It is essential that theatre is grabbed back from the accountants and gatekeepers.  And wrested from control of the large commercial funders who would seek to channel the inspiration of the creatives.  We must join forces with like-minded creatives and producers  and write the sort of theatre that needs to be written.

Theatre in its greatest form is like a towering moving crystal ice sculpture loud with trumpets and voices that has the power to drive an audience to the further reaches of their feeling and comprehension.  Today it has become the artform smashed into a million tiny glittering shards, all beautiful in themselves but unable to generate the visceral response that Brook and Grotowski and Artaud were challenging us to provide.  And if we are not careful, if we do not show young writers how to aspire to creating this greater thing, those fragments that are left will melt away altogether leaving us infinitely poorer.

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