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State of the Theatre

February 21st, 2008 1 comment

Recently, on the Neohiopal listserve, an article was circulating, which, I’m sure, has made its way around everywhere else as well. The article, by Mike Daisey, is about “How Theater Failed America.”

First, I thought I would comment on it just because the language, the passion, the intensity of the article was so powerful and convincing that I was just impressed…overcome by it. Then, of course, the diatribe against the failure of regional theatres to serve the artists in the theatres, a reality with which I’m not so familiar (in terms of personal investment and time) but am seeing now first hand has convinced me to throw my own two cents into the mix.

First, as I mentioned, there is the writing: “I abandoned the garage theaters and local arts scene and friends and colleagues—because I was a coward;” or “We survive because we’re nimble, we break rules, and when simple dumb luck happens upon us, we’re ready for it.” There is no hedging in this piece. There is no tip-toeing around the subject. Daisey is angry, and so brutal. Blunt. “Their [actor–Equity, no less] reward is years of being paid as close to nothing as possible in a career with no job security whatsoever, performing for overwhelmingly wealthy audiences whose rounding errors exceed the weekly pittance that trickles down to them.”

Ouch. This is a pissed off fellow. And after reading his article a few times, I agree: he should be.

I guess the reason that this article moved me so much has to do with where I’m at now: working with a young, small theatre driven by a visionary artistic director who flatly wishes to have two things: a successful theatre; a troupe of actors, technicians, and playwrights who can make a living doing what they love. This is what regional theatres were supposed to do. According to Daisey “The movement that gave birth to [the theatres in Seattle] tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year—the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.” But, as Daisey continues, “That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show.”

In Cleveland, I know from general conversations that the above matches what was happening at the Cleveland Play House. Conversations among actors always turned to the fact that they had post-office boxes in New York to handle their resumes because they got a response from auditions that way–that is to say, they got no response as actors from Cleveland: despite a mission statement dedicated to “our community.” I think this is less true of Cleveland Public Theatre–which is truly the theatre of Cleveland. The Play House may as well be on another planet. But the facts that Daisey outlines remain, the theatres stand, but the people (who make the theatres work) are constantly changing–and not out of choice.

I am also more acutely aware of the problem as I am switching from an MBA program to an MNO program (Master of Nonprofit Organization). This educational emphasis places me directly in line with the practices of modern regional theatres: namely, the professionalization of things unrelated to the activities of theatre itself: that is, putting up plays by company actors. Perhaps Daisey’s article is just this, a bemoaning of the professionalization of how theatres are run. Afterall, virtually all organizations today have undergone something similar to this: colleges and universities can’t run in old models, they’ve had to hire marketing departments and development departments and masses of people dedicated solely to making the school succeed in the community financially and socially. The same is true of hospitals, sports organizations, museums, and other non-profits. But does this make it right? Daisey writes, “Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew.” And this is precisely what I have described, and what I fear about my own role in modern theatre is–that is, beyond the playwriting I hope to do.’

The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that “institution” is a nice word for “nonprofit corporation,” and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.

One of the more troubling things that Daisey brings up (as if the whole thing isn’t troubling enough to begin with) for playwrights is the following: “Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work.” It is almost an off-hand comment. But the implication for playwrights is this: more workshops, more staged readings, less real productions. Further, works like “On Golden Pond” find “revivals” at the Play House, while new, vital work relevant to our time and our psyche right now (by vital new playwrights) is left out. As Daisey drolly points out, “It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater.”

Daisey’s cynicism hits rock bottom when he writes, “Better to invest in another “educational” youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.” For me, there is a big NO SHIT here. How many “educational” and “youth programs” do you see now? But really, who is to blame for this? The arts organizations or the funders? My bitterness on this subject is acute, as a relatively new technology award program for which my university program just applied was rejected in favor of dozens of awards for “educational” and “youth programs.” What a sham. It’s hard to tell nowadays whether the organization’s started the programs to make money or made money because of the programs; but I think the reality is the former. And where does the cycle end?

Every time a regional theater produces Nickel and Dimed, the play based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the working poor in America, I keep hoping the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they’re directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem. I keep hoping it will pierce their mantle of smug invulnerability and their specious whining about how television, iPods, Reagan, the NEA, short attention spans, the folly of youth, and a million other things have destroyed American theater.

The solutions are somewhat obvious, though not easy: if a regional theatre appeals to and raises a good portion of its budget from “grey hairs” and appeals to and raises the rest of its money from children, the overtly apparent question is “what happens to all the people in the middle?” After all, a bell curve is a bell curve for a reason: the middle is where it’s at, not the ends. Strange that theatres uniformally run against logic. But, as Daisey points out, moving toward this middle means several things, the most daunting of which is change. No more hobknobbing with wealthy white greys or controllable drooling puppet-lovers. Further, you’ll actually have to work and think about what you put up: no more standard musicals, or “on golden ponds,” or “midsummer night dreaming.” Now you’ll have to move toward interactivity, multimedia, content that is aggressive and that challenges the audience. Theatres will have to enter the uncomfortable realm of questioning their communities, their society, their culture–and not just leeching off it. You’ll have to ditch the old standards and take risks, something that artistic directors beholden to boards and ticket sales are afraid to do–after all, look what happens in modern sports. Two bad seasons and you’re done.

There are clear steps theaters could take. For example, they could radically reduce ticket prices across the board. Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a “luxury” item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome. The current audience, while small and shrinking, demands almost nothing—they’re practically comatose, which makes them docile and easy to handle.

Better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now. Better to do whatever was off Broadway 18 months ago and pretend that it’s relevant to this community at this time. Better to talk and wish for change, but when the rubber hits the road, sit on your hands and think about the security of your office, the pleasure of a small, constant paycheck, the relief of being cared for if you get sick: the things you will lose if you stop working at this corporation.

So what does this mean? It means that you need to support what is new, what is original, what is alive: not the lumbering death that is the proscenium stage and tired old plays. Don’t settle for what the corporate theatres dish out for you–seek out what is new, what is alive, vital. Find theatres like convergence-continuum and support them. Hold on to them for dear life. For as Daisey writes:

Corporations make shitty theater. This is because theater, the ineffable part of the experience that comes in rare and random bursts, is not a commodity, and corporations suck at understanding the noncommodifiable. Corporations don’t understand theater. Only people, real people, understand theater. Audiences, technicians, actors, playwrights, costumers, designers—all of them give their time and energy to this thing for a reason, and that dream is not quantifiable on any spreadsheet.

Discovering Theatre — A Spring-board discussion

November 17th, 2007 No comments

I tried approaching the question of “what is theatre” from several different points of view: what is theatre, why is theatre important, etc., all to no effect: the articles seemed boring or redundant, definitely uninteresting: academic. This changed for me when I found Eugene Ionesco’s article “Discovering the Theatre” in a 1959 issue of The Tulane Drama Review. The article shocked me. At first, it shocked me because I was appalled by what Ionesco was saying about theatre. Then, I was shocked because I was agreeing with him. Finally, I found myself mentally applying the points he was discussing against the play I wrote most recently and identifying what was right and what was wrong with it—and I knew that what Ionesco was saying was correct. Being thus overwhelmed by the article, I have decided to use it as a spring-board for my discussion of theatre: not so much to make any vain attempt at providing any objective truth about what theatre is, nor to even create a framework by which works may be tagged as theatrical or not; but instead to come to some definition of what theatre is to me: that I may work out of strength regarding my suppositions at this point in time.

To begin the discussion, I’ll highlight one of the comments that Ionesco makes late in his essay which, although it may seem confounding, is precise and elucidating:

The theatre can only be theatre, even though for certain contemporary doctors of “theatrology” this identity with itself is charged with tautology, or considered false, an attitude which strikes me as the most incredible and amazing of paradoxes. / For these doctors, the theatre, being something other than theatre, is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. This is as aberrant as if one were to claim that music should be archeology, or painting, physics and mathematics. (Ionesco and Pronko 16)

The point is so critical that I will no doubt make a fool of myself here articulating it clearly, redundantly, to myself: theatre is theatre. Well, what does that mean, precisely? It certainly begs a question. It begs a question that I want to avoid like the plague; a question that you, my good reader, should want me to avoid like the plague as well. But, as it is pushing up from underneath, swelling my tongue to be spoken, pressing my patience at every turn, I will ask it: If theatre is theatre, what then is theatre?

In his essay defending poetry, Shelley begins with a discussion of reason and imagination and the actions of mental processes on the individual and society. I will not presume to be so lofty. I will instead attempt to identify, of my own accord, those elements that make theatre unique. That is, what is it about theatre that makes it theatre? What makes theatre different from poetry, or different from screenplays, or what is unique when it is compared against the novel? To do this, I’ll begin with questions: Is theatre simply a physical space in which an action takes place? Is theatre the notion of seeing an action or event enacted? Or is theatre a glib sneer for practices that are intentionally dramatic and unnecessarily emotional—red herrings drawing attention from something more important? This question ‘what is theatre’ is likely has old as theatre itself and, despite my attempts, it not likely to be any nearer an answer than theatre is near its end. Perhaps theatre can be defined using the words of Potter Stewart, the Associate Justice of the United States, who, in articulating a definition of pornography said, simply, “I know it when I see it.” But if that’s the case, then it begs the willful suspension of disbelief: a phrase that not only irritates some but is a statement whose precise spirit led Eugene Ionesco to write his essay in the first place: namely, that theatre had become dishonest and embarrassingly false. (Ionesco and Pronko 3-18) The complicated fact is that theatre is all of those things mentioned above: a space, an action, and, unfortunately, a diversion. Theatre is many different things to many different people: to children, it is Bread and Puppet Theater or guignol; to subscribers at the Cleveland Play House, it is On Golden Pond; and for more sophisticated palates, it is the productions of experimental theatres such as convergence-continuum or the more extreme performance art of Karen Finley. In the introduction to his book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, Michael Wright, talks about plays in a way that can be generalized to theatre, saying:

…there is no longer any meaningful single definition of a play that applies across the spectrum of what is being created around the world, beyond saying that a play is a (largely) live event that takes place in a space that all involved have agreed is a “stage.” And in the end Wright concludes that “there is little reason to believe that theatre will retreat to the well-made play or to some rigid Aristotelian framework. Theatre is far more likely to continue its expansion of form, subject matter, language, use of space, and so on…theatre continues to evolve in an open and free manner. (Wright xiv)

If this is so, then how can one define it? Worse still, how can one judge what is good theatre and what is not good? Is good theatre a full evening of theatre? Is it an hour? Ten minutes? Is it theatre that makes you laugh and feel good—or should it make your heart break? Or should it come right out and punch you in face and scream “hey, buddy, wake up and take a look around you?”

Let’s go back to Michael Wright, who has several ideas regarding what is important about theatre: first, it is a witnessed present, that is, the event that happens in real time; second, it is immediate: there is no filter or interpreter. To Wright, theatre is a ‘witnessed present’ that is “the problems of the characters are being worked out in front of us, right here and now,” and this, whether the play was written “today or in 504 B.C.” (Wright 6-7) And further, Wright notes, that “since the play needs this ‘us’ in order to exist, it’s our present at the same instant, because the problems of the characters reflect on our own lives.” More precisely, “the play is a present event—a play needs real time in which to occur and is put on by real people in front of other real people. Humans are watching humans…when we watch a play, the people performing in the play are right there, we are aware of them and they of us. And this means that thinking theatrically is also rooted in this awareness of the existence of the other.” (Wright 7) The theatre provides a sense of immediacy unlike other forms, “there is no filter between you and what’s acting upon your sensory receptors: we listen, watch, and feel the human struggles on the stage directly.” (Wright 8 ) Wright gives the example that, “we know without hearing a word that the couple over there is arguing, or the man sitting to our left is really nervous. We read these things in the behavior of people, but we also feel these things because we are in the same environment.” (Wright 7)

Aristotle in his Poetics states that theatre’s object is imitation, “Since those who imitate imitate men in action, and these must necessarily be either worthwhile or worthless people.” (Aristotle and Else 17) He then goes on to describe the elements that create good imitations and what they may be categorized as (comedy, tragedy, epic) and of what attributes they must consist. It is of note that the categorizations and attributes that Aristotle outlined where rebranded later as principles and eventually became a form of dogma in Europe that controlled what was and, more importantly, what was not produced for centuries.

Augusto Boal in his book Theatre of the Oppressed suggests that Aristotle’s Poetics presents a coercive structure who’s plain intent was to glorify the powerful and to dissuade those who would challenge them: seeking to elevate one moral sense (that of the patron) above another (that of the viewer) and disenfranchise the “worthless people” mentioned above. (Boal 3 ) Boal defiantly states that theatre is a means to political action and a means of creating political action and a political consciousness. For his trouble he was run out of Brazil.

William Henderson in his article “Why Theatre?” raises possibilities that are both similar to those raised by Michael Wright and yet different, identifying elements important to both those participating in the creation and those viewing it. Henderson is unique in including in his consideration of theatre the aesthetic elements attendant to all aspects of theatre: both inside and out, both actor and audience member. Specifically, Henderson points to the adrenalin of performance and the never-to-be-repeated moments of sheer astonishment; the sensual “pleasure of entering unfamiliar and strange ramshackle buildings, or coming upon an entirely new spatial configuration…the simultaneous danger and allure of performers’ bodies in the space around us”; in true Bakhtinian form, “the multiplicity of dialogues that exist—between performers and audience; between the various technological media at work; amongst the performers themselves; and between them and the technological forces employed—create the possibility of an intellectual engagement at a level which purely electronic media can only gesture at.” Henderson comments that “Theatre is also and always, the circus…is a high-wire event through time with the constant risk of falling off and never being able to recover…”; and that “the frailty of the performance…the very real vulnerability of the performer, the artist; and here, possibly, the real truth…the question not of our power to woo and entertain and audience but of our weakness…the sheer vulnerability of the human being in front of us surely confronts us with our own…the real sense that in our vulnerability and weakness we are fully human and thus fully connected with those around us…” (Henderson 11/08/2007)

In his article, “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers”, Craig Stewart Walker quotes Rick Salutin, a Canadian novelist and playwright, who bluntly states, “anything that brings people together in a communalizing way is valuable.” (Walker 55)

So, to sum things up (to this point), theatre is a physical space (that may or may not be dangerous to get to or strangely configured) in which actors (who may be dangerous or alluring or both at the same time) intentionally imitate (or enact) dramatic and emotional actions (that may or may not be politically coercive) which take place before us in real time (and thus will never be precisely repeated again) allowing no filter or intermediary interpreter (so we have to figure things out ourselves) which exposes the vulnerability and weakness of all present and may demonstrate the truth of our human condition (as weak and vulnerable) in a communal environment such that a dialogue is created, connecting all of us.
Ionesco would be quick to point out, I think, that what is missing (and it should be missing) from the summation I provided above is that which is contained in the latter part of the opening quote I took from him, namely that misapprehension that theater “is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. “ That is, nowhere in the summation I provided is there any mention of the content of the theatre (okay, there’s one mention)—nor is there any attempt to explain theatre in terms of something else: something that it is not. It is precisely Ionesco’s point that theatre should not be ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essay or literature, for these forms already exist and do perfectly well on their own. So, theatre should be theatre.

But the confluence of many of these elements into theatre had a damaging (and still does have a damaging) effect on the experience of theatre, leading Ionesco to write that:

I derived no pleasure from [theatre]…The playing of the actors disturbed me: I was embarrassed for them…there was something false in it all…it seemed to me that the actor was doing something inadmissible, censurable. He was renouncing himself, abandoning himself, changing skin…It seemed painful to me, and somehow dishonest…To go to the theatre meant for me to go and see apparently serious people make a spectacle of themselves. (Ionesco and Pronko 3)

Ionesco points out that novels did not have this effect on him, nor did music, nor films, and, in fact, the actors in films did not disturb him at all—whereas the playing of actors in a theatre did:

Why could I not accept theatrical reality? Why did its truth appear false to me? And why did the false seem to want to parade as true, substitute for truth?…[The actor’s] material presence destroyed the fiction. It was as though there were present two levels of reality, the concrete reality, impoverished, empty, limited, of these banal living men, moving and speaking upon the stage, and the reality of the imagination. And these two realities faced each other, unmasked, irreconcilable: two antagonistic universes which could not succeed in unifying and blending. (Ionesco and Pronko 4)

That is, some might argue, it was a failure of the willful suspension of disbelief. Ionesco concludes, however, that “it was with a sort of desacralized awareness that I attended the theatre, and that is why I did not like it, feel it, or believe in it.” (Ionesco and Pronko 4)

Novel, music, painting, these are pure fiction, containing no heterogeneous elements; that is why they stand alone, and are admissible. The cinema itself can stand alone, since it is a series of images; it also is pure, whereas the theatre seemed to me essentially impure: fiction was mingled with elements foreign to it; it was imperfectly fiction, a raw material which had not undergone an indispensable transformation, a mutation…I saw no way out, no way to reconcile freshness, spontaneity, naïveté, that is to say, creative authenticity, with theatrical thought, with preconceived ideas, dogmatic and stifling. (Ionesco and Pronko 5)

So, apparently what ruined theatre for Ionesco was not only his inability to suspend his disbelief and overlook the two realities present in front of him, but it was the impurity of theatre in this same regard: that it had fictional events enacted by real people, and that it also mixed its media: that is, theatre could contain elements not, perhaps, native to it: music, painting, etc. It is also possible that Ionesco felt that he should not need to suspend anything in order to believe, but I am jumping ahead of myself.

Ionesco doesn’t stop at performance, though, taking on directly the texts of plays. He states that he found some worthwhile: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare—and some by Kleist and Buchner. But these texts, he found, were exciting to him for their literary merits and not necessarily their theatrical merits. His problem with most texts is that they are not theatrical:

Strindberg seemed insufficient and clumsy. Moliere himself bored me…What do these stories of people matter to me, or these characters and customs seen in such a narrow perspective? Shakespeare questions the totality of the condition and destiny of man. The problems of Moliere seemed to me…relatively secondary, sometimes sad…but never tragic: for they can all be resolved. There is no solution to the intolerable, and only that which is intolerable is truly theatrical. (Ionesco and Pronko 6)

Theatricality is a tricky one. What is theatrical? On my blog, (Hayes 11/16/2007) I write that:

To me, writing theatricality means grasping space as you write. It means apprehending not only the characters and events that you mean to portray, but the physical environment in which they exist; how that physical environment affects your characters and events—and then using this apprehension creatively to your advantage—or more specifically, passing the three-dimensional world of the play that you are creating on to the audience and thereby making that world actively interesting, engaging, and unique to the meaning and content of your play.

But theatricality is more than just a comprehension of space and how it can be used. Going back to Michael Wright, theatricality is also dialog and it is behavior—and very often, it is the way these two elements play against one another. For example, take one of your encounters with people in the morning at work.

Take 1:
You: “Hi, Bob, how are you today?”
Bob: (Smiles) “I’m fine.”

Take 2:
You: “Hi, Bob, how are you today?”
Bob: (Scowls) “I’m fine.”

Subtext is in behavior. With regards to behavior, is your character flighty? Is she clumsy? Is she hysterical? How do any of these behaviors play out in a scene? What do they reveal about the character—without that character ever saying a word? That is, theatre is about providing your audience with something to see and figure out—making them discern what a character is about based on what that character does and letting them judge if what the character says jibes with what the character does. (Wright 8 )

For Ionesco, though, theatricality drives a bit deeper still:

The spectacle of the guignol held me there, stupefied by the sight of these puppets who spoke, who moved, and bludgeoned each other. It was the spectacle of life itself which, strange, improbable, but truer than truth itself, was being presented to me in an infinitely simplified and caricatured form, as though to underline the grotesque and brutal truth. (Ionesco and Pronko 6)

And this is a point that becomes increasingly important to Ionesco and one with which I whole-heartedly agree: art must aspire to the universal. It must find the archetypes, the forms that stand beyond all forms, and therefore reach all humans. Going back to Ionesco’s consideration of Moliere above on page seven, Ionesco writes, “What do these stories of people matter to me, or these characters and customs seen in such a narrow perspective?” Or, to reverse the perspective here and to look at it from the point of view of Robert McKee, author of numerous ‘how to’ works on writing screenplays:

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities. (McKee 4)

Ionesco’s essay, so critical of the theatre to this point, begins to slowly articulate a theatre that he can bear, one that drives at what is universal and holds human (and hence, artistic) truth. “It is true that all authors have wanted to propagandize. The great ones are those who failed, who, consciously or not, arrived at more profound and general truths.” (Ionesco and Pronko 8 ) He goes on,

If one counted the dramatists which can still move the public, one would find through the centuries about twenty, or thirty at the most. But the pictures, the poems and the novels which still speak to us can be counted by the thousands. The naïveté necessary for a work of art is lacking in the theatre…I mean a lucid naïveté, springing from the profound sources of being, revealing them, revealing to ourselves, restoring to us our naïveté, our secret being. (Ionesco and Pronko 9)

And at this point, Ionesco lashes out a many forms of theatre, especially those that are political in nature or the “vehicle of ideologies.” Such theatre, Ionesco contends, diminishes the art, finally ridiculing those who believe that the “play should be a sort of presentation of a thesis, whose solution appears upon the stage.” Such theater, Ionesco contends, is stuck forever between being true art, in the sense outlined briefly above, and rhetoric: again, a (to him) dreadful mixing of forms, a falling away from purity.

I’ll step away from this line of thought for a moment to expand the discussion, namely, I’ve considered through various voices (as well as my own) what theatre is, or can be considered, but I have not properly addressed why it is important—and so many of the sources I’ve quoted thus far have had as their title ‘why theatre’—some asking a question and some not.

In his book Millennial Stages, Robert Brustein writes, in his essay entitled “Does Theatre Matter?”:

Who needs theatre. Does theatre matter. In the past such questions would have seemed absurd. Theatre mattered a lot to the citizens of Periclean Athens who went to see plays the way Christians go to churches and Muslims go to mosques, for spiritual sustenance through sustaining myths. It mattered a lot in medieval Europe whose church services included a theatrical Quem Quaeritis, trope that evolved into adaptations of the Old Testament and the synoptic gospels called Miracle and Morality plays, and then evolved in to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. It mattered enormously to Londoners of all classes in Elizabethan England, who followed the fortunes of Falstaff from play to play the way people today follow the fortunes of Tony Soprano from episode to episode. It mattered enough to the Puritans and Anabaptists that in 1642 they shut down the playhouses the moment they had cut off the head of the English king. It mattered in Golden Age Spain, and in France during the reign of Louis XIV, when people of all classes would no more think of missing a new play by Lope or Molière than skipping their evening meal. (Brustein 12)

There is much in this paragraph that Brustein points to that is important with regards to theatre: that it had its origin in religion and certainly in religious sentiment; that it was one of the first widely followed and communal forms of entertainment and education; and that it was politically dangerous.

There is not enough time to go into the lengthy history of the theatre here, but all evidence points to its origin, somewhere back in the vast deep dark, in the religious practices of a community. Religious ceremonies from so-called primitive tribes or cultures that are extant today have revealed that the ceremonies are enactments of the mythological age—the mythological (i.e. religious to them) landscape of their people. That is, a ceremony is an eternal moment in which the gods and forces and mysteries of the world are demonstrated to the people of a community in real time, in real presence. In his essay, “The Shadows of the Gods,” Arthur Miller draws similar comparisons. In this essay he comments that he was ’shaped’ as a person by the Great Depression and that the time period gave him “a sense of an invisible world” that:

The hidden laws of fate lurked not only in the characters of people, but equally if not more imperiously in the world beyond the family parlor. Out there were the big gods, the ones whose disfavor could turn a proud and prosperous and dignified man into a frightened shell of a man whatever he thought of himself, and whatever he decided or didn’t decide to do…There was an invisible world of cause and effect, mysterious, full of surprises, implacable in its course. (Miller 36-7)

Theatre brings people together. As with the ceremonies mentioned above, and as pointed out by Michael Wright earlier and even Aristotle, people gather together in the dark to witness an event or to see an imitation of an original action. Brunstein remarks that theatre provides “as sense of community, and…a penetrating spiritual experience.” (Brustein 13) And as with a religious ceremony, where drums and chants and other effects work to create a shared environment in which all present are experiencing the same sensations, so does theatre take advantage of this effect. Michael Wright chose the following example to explain it:

When I lived in New York, I rode the subways nearly every day. A crowd of strangers, totally oblivious to one another, would become an electrified and connected group instantly if somebody abnormal or scary got on the train. Without any effort to communicate, we would all know to watch out and be careful: this person is sending out hostile or crazy energy. If that person subsequently left the car, you would immediately feel the flood of relief all around you, and sometimes there would even be eye contact between passengers (usually verboten on subways), accompanied by smiles or those ironic headshakes that make life in New York bearable. (Wright 7)

The use of theatre for Miracle and Morality plays shows that the theatre is often used as an instrument of education and instruction: the Everyman plays demonstrating how to avoid the seven deadly sins and find paradise. And finally, Brustein’s quote demonstrates the power that theatre has to activate and unite people. Theatre is not only a place where ideas are expressed, but acted out: that is, as Aristotle notes, the actions of man are imitated. And further, as Augusto Boal showed, theatre can be used to demonstrate clearly how one can change one’s environment and life through action. It is no accident that Roundheads shut down the theatres; that Louis the XVI banned Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro; or that Boal was run out of Brazil. But Brunstein’s quote also points to an opposite power: to divide and confront people:

…in the 19th century, serious theatre began to develop an adversary role in regard to its audience—something I discussed in a book called The Theatre of Revolt. Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht—none of these could any longer be called “popular” playwrights devoted to providing the audience with consoling myths. They were often messianic, provocative, bleak…The title of one of Peter Handke’s plays, Offending the Audience, pretty much summed up the tensions that had grown between the stage and the auditorium. 12 (Brustein 12)

But for the most part theatre still brings people together. Brustein states that theatre is among a very few kinds of activities—churchgoing, concerts, sports events—that still bring Americans into contact with one another, one of the last shreds of evidence that we are a people and not just an isolated mass of fantasists, barricaded in our homes, seeking safety from a sinister and threatening world through canned and recorded images, whether on tape, disc, or celluloid. (Brustein 13)

True to form, Ionesco has something to say regarding the place of theatre:

Theatre is one of the most ancient arts. I think that we cannot do without it. We cannot help giving in to the desire to place upon the stage living characters which are at once both real and invented. We cannot resist this need to make them speak and live before us. To incarnate phantoms, to give life is a prodigious and irreplaceable adventure, so much so that I was fascinated when, at the rehearsals of my first play, I saw suddenly moving about the stage of the Noctambules characters which had come out of me. I was frightened. By what right had I done that? Was it permitted? …It was almost diabolical…It was only when I wrote for the theatre entirely by chance and with the intention of ridiculing it, that I began to love it, to rediscover it in myself, to understand it and to be fascinated by it; and I understood what my role would be.(Ionesco and Pronko 10)

And yet, it was precisely through this process that Ionesco came to his vision of what theatre should be; that it should not be a theatre that used the “language of philosophical treatises;” and that when theatre used “too many subtleties and nuances, it was at once both too much and not enough;” and that while the “deplorable enlarging of nuances” disturbed him, in the end “it was simply that the magnification was insufficient. The too great was not great enough, the too slightly nuanced, was too nuanced.” (Ionesco and Pronko 3-18) All of which led Ionesco to what would become his mode of operation in the theatre:

If then the essence of the theatre was in this enlarging of effects, it was necessary to exaggerate even more, to underline and accentuate them to the maximum. To push the theatre beyond that intermediate zone which is neither theatre nor literature, is to restore it to its proper frame, to its natural limits. It was necessary not to hide the strings, but to make them even more visible, deliberately evident, to go all the way in the grotesque, in caricature, beyond the pale irony of witty drawing room comedies. Not drawing room comedies, but farce, an extreme burlesque exaggeration…A hard comedy…A return to the intolerable. Push everything to a state of paroxysm, there where the sources of tragedy lie. Create a theatre of violence: violently comic, violently dramatic. (Ionesco and Pronko 10)

In this, I have learned from Ionesco. In my most recent work, A Howl in the Woods, which just received a reading at Cleveland Public Theatre, there was much in the play that was exactly what Ionesco has described: my play is a play from the unconscious, it is out of the zone of literature and is theatre in a pure state, things are pushed to a state of paroxysm. And yet, during the re-writing, something went wrong. Drastically wrong. There are many ways to characterize the nature of the defect, and on my blog I have discussed one in particular: the intervention of the conscious mind: the intervention of the mind that thinks it knows what the play “is about” and knows “which direction” the play should go. It is what another blogger I often read refers to as the “Editor’s Mind”—the internal critic, the internal censor. What entered into my play is that which Ionesco derided above, this notion that a “play should be a sort of presentation of a thesis, whose solution appears upon the stage.” This notion so engrained in me and ingrained in many a fellow playwright I see around me, ruined the play: destroyed it as surely as if I put the printed text to flame. Instead of forcing my characters to articulate themselves, I should have driven the piece to greater exaggeration, I should have known to, as Ionesco advises, “Avoid psychology, or rather give it a metaphysical dimension.” (Ionesco and Pronko 11) Or rather, in my case, I should have continued on the path I started, explored what was uneasy and frightening rather than falling back on what was safe, banal, and boring.

Ionesco continues, driving hard:

If…the actors bothered me because they appeared too unnatural, it is perhaps because they also wanted to be too natural: by renouncing this, they become natural perhaps in another way. They must not be afraid of being unnatural. / To tear ourselves away from the everyday, from habit, from mental laziness which hides from us the strangeness of reality, we must receive something like a real bludgeon blow. Without a new virginity of spirit, without a purified outlook on existential reality, there is not theatre; there is no art either; we must effect a dislocation of the real, which must precede its reintegration. (Ionesco and Pronko 11)

Ionesco then begins suggesting methods for achieving this result, and in many ways the essay takes on the practicality of a guide or handbook—one that I likely will use to correct the faults in my most recent effort. Ionesco discusses, in cursory fashion, many of his plays, which he refers to as “anti-plays,” “comical dramas,” “pseudo-dramas,” and “tragical farces.” But the contradictions inherent in these references are central to the thesis of his essay and his proposal for a new theatre: that “the contradictory principles” are necessary and “constitute the bases of…theatrical construction.” So, it is by contradictory alignments and exaggeration that the effect described above will, for Ionesco, be achieved:

If one believes that the theatre is only a theatre of words, it is difficult to admit that I can have its own language. It can only be dependent upon other forms of thought which are expressed by words: philosophy or ethics…words constitute only one of the elements of theatrical shock…by using them with ferocious exaggeration in order to give to the theatre its true measure, which is lack of measure, the Word itself should be strained to its limits, language should almost explode, or destroy itself, in its impossibility to contain meanings. / But there are more than words: the theatre is a tale which is lived, beginning again at each performance, and it is also a tale which one sees being lived. The theatre is visual as much as it is auditory…/ Everything is permitted in the theatre: to incarnate characters but also to materialize anguish, inner presences. It is therefore not only permitted, but it is recommended, to make props act, and objects live, to breathe life into the settings, to make the symbols concrete. (Ionesco and Pronko 13)

And all of this confirms me in how my play began and in many of the theatrical choices that I made—barring the dismal choices I made later: to have my characters explain themselves. The mere reflection on this process makes me cringe and now I know why, as my reading drew closer, I began to feel sick: it is because I had so damaged my play by the “thesis-oriented” choices I made that it had become repellant. Aligned with Ionesco’s ideals, as stated immediately above, the muffins in my play wept, the surrounding set howled to the men trapped inside their campsite, the characters were unnatural: straining against the societal constructs that tried to pin them down. In reflection, so much is right with this play, and Ionesco is pointing the way for how it can be cleaned, purified, made right again.

So where does all this tend? Ionesco writes:

When some morning, touched by grace, I wake not only from my nocturnal slumber but also from my accustomed mental slumber, and become suddenly aware of my existence, and of the universal presence, when all appears strange to me and yet familiar, when the wonder of being overcomes me; this feeling, this intuition belongs to any man, to any time. This state of mind, one can find expressed in almost the same words by poets, mystics, philosophers, who feel it exactly as I feel it, and as all men have certainly felt it…In that eternal moment, shoemaker and philosopher, “slave” and “master,” priest and layman meet, and become identified with each other. (Ionesco and Pronko 13-14)

That is, it all tends toward the universal. It tends toward the universal via the naïveté Ionesco described above. It tends toward the universal by way of helping people to see the world, again, in all its strangeness. Art is a way of seeing the world. The great artist allows others to see the amazement that he or she sees and in the way that he or she sees it. Ionesco, through the process that he outlines, and which I have very briefly touched, shares in this essay a way of seeing and a way of creating theatre that make it possible for others to see similarly. And this, for me, not just through Ionesco, but through a process of which I have become increasingly aware, is what theatre is about: exposing the unconscious forms and casting them upon the stage; revealing in these strange shapes and behaviors the truths that are universal to us as humans; to jar our way of seeing the world from the sleepy and the banal and re-awaken the sense of wonder that was everywhere present in our lives as children: the wonder that I see in the eyes and on the face of my own two-year-old daughter: resplendent, unveiled, the startling joy of being alive.

As Ionesco puts it, through the lens of Shakespeare’s Richard II:

When Richard II, fallen from power, is alone imprisoned in his cell, it is not Richard II that I see, but all the fallen kings of the earth; and not only all the fallen kings, but also our beliefs, our values, our desacralized truths, corrupted, worn out, our civilizations which disappear, our destiny. When Richard II dies, it is what I hold most dear that I see die; it is I who die with Richard II…in the final analysis it is not history that Shakespeare is writing, although he is using history; it is not a history that he presents me, but my history, our history, my truth beyond time, through showing me a time which goes beyond time and joins universal philosophic truth. / The theatre is that eternal living presence; it answers without doubt, to the essential structures of tragic truth, and of theatrical reality; its truth has nothing to do with the precarious truths of ideologies, nor with the so-called theatre of ideas: in this play we see theatrical archetypes, the essence of theatre, and theatrical language. (Ionesco and Pronko 14-15)

To reach what is universal, what allows people to see the world anew, to restore or reinvent the old, Ionesco contends that we must return to “primary truths” for these “are precisely what we lose sight of, what we forget.” (Ionesco and Pronko 16) For Ionesco these primary truths consist of what has been described above, and “spontaneity.” For he feels that “artistic creation is spontaneous,” and that it is by this method that the “instinctive and permanent schemas of the objective reality of the theatre…the essence of theatre,” will be discovered: given direct knowledge, and for Ionesco “nothing is true for the artist except what he does not borrow from others.” (Ionesco and Pronko 16)

Works Cited

Aristotle, and Gerald Frank Else. Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1993.

Brustein, Robert Sanford. Millennial Stages :Essays and Reviews, 2001-2005. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. October (2007): 11/16/2007.

Henderson, William. “Why Theatre?” Craft Culture. September (2006): 11/08/2007.

Ionesco, Eugene, and Leonard C. Pronko. “Discovering the Theatre.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.1 (1959): 3-18.

McKee, Robert. Story :Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1st ed. New York: ReganBooks, 1997.

Miller, Arthur. “The Shadows of the Gods: A Critical View of the American Theater.” Harper’s Magazine 217 (1958): 35-43.

Walker, Craig Stewart. “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers.” Canadian Theatre Review Spring.86 (1996): 55.

Wright, Michael. Playwriting-in-Process : Thinking and Working Theatrically. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

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