November 19, 2008

How Theatre Works

Let’s face it—theatre is weird. On the one hand, it's totally, often painfully, fake (as in "stagy", “histrionic,” “melodramatic”), yet we still expect it to be deeply moving and compelling (one dictionary even offers as “highly effective” as a definition of “dramatic”!) In fact, this fake/real antinomy seems built into the art form itself. Whereas literature, music, or dance have “honest” materials (i.e., can be appreciated directly as words on the page, or sounds, or movements), theatre seems to rest upon an illusion (character ≠ actor; scenery ≠ real, etc.). And unlike the illusions of trompe l’œil painting, which confer a kind of magic on the object itself (you typically want to touch the surface of a fake that looks real), the magic of the stage, like stage magic, all too easily evokes the cheap and tawdry—mere trickery, making something real seem (as previously noted) fake[1].

When we ask how theatre works, we're really asking about what happens to an audience in the course of watching theatre, which in turns means addressing this hoary old problem of theatrical illusion. To restate, how can an illusion which is so obviously crude—even Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals understand that a stage death is repeatable—be so central to the quality of our experience? And if theatre always involves a more-or-less cruddy illusion, why do we insist that plays (which, again, we know to be mere "play-acting") be "lifelike" in a way that we don’t with stories or pictures? For surely we judge the degree to which we have been caught up in a performance by the strength of that illusion—by the degree to which we find ourselves persuaded that something “real” is really happening. Yet the illusion is always flimsy. It’s never so lifelike that we truly and completely forget we're in a theatre, watching a performance[2].

At this point, you may also agree that teasing out this supposed paradox grows tiresome mighty fast
[3]. Theatre, after all, does involve real people walking and talking and generally behaving as they do in "real life." So the bonehead resolution of the dilemma is that, duh—theatre's sort of like real life (except when it's not), and we all know the difference (even if we can’t explain it). Just because somebody says their name is Hamlet and they live in Denmark, doesn't mean they're fooling you, does it? If you’re over the age of 10, you probably dispense with the so-called paradox of dramatic illusion by restating the obvious: Theatre is just pretending. An actor pretends to be Hamlet, and we pretend to believe him. Which is technically known as Begging the Question, and alas, explains nothing.

So let's come at it another way. How is it that such transparent charades even pass muster at all? What are the minimum requirements for creating a theatrical illusion? In fact, there are several basic criteria for a theatrical performance, all of which may sound boneheaded too, but begin to reveal how the thing actually works:

    B.C. #1: One or more persons have to stand up and claim to be someone they aren't (and we know that they aren't)[4];

    B.C. #2: Their claims have to be mutually consistent (otherwise it just gets messy);

    B.C. #3: These claims have to be sustained over a period of time[5], during which they must go unchallenged and uninterrupted[6];

    B.C. #4: All this bogus claiming activity has to be confined to some clearly defined, physical location in which no other, countervailing activity will be allowed to arise.
Let's unpack this just a bit more: Theatre is about watching other people (has to be![7]), who are all acting as if something is going on that we[8] know really isn't, and who are all doing it over there, while we watch from over here. On its most basic level—imagine how it would look to a Martian, materializing inside a theatre for the first time—there are two groups of people—one in the middle, active and talking, surrounded by a larger (with luck!), silent (ditto) group, watching. Note in passing how difficult it's going to be to explain to your Martian the whole "pretending" thing. But for now, focus on two groups who remain separate, never intermingle, and do not interact (laughter and applause being only responses, not true interactions, as by definition, they cannot be heard by the characters, and are therefore outside the world of the play.) Now focus on what happens at the boundary between the two groups.

Short of erecting a transparent wall between audience and stage (R. Foreman), the physical boundary in a traditional stage house couldn't be more obvious: it is a line, an edge, extending up over the proscenium and around the lip of the stage and further accentuated by a separation of darkness from light. Inside the boundary, all is theatre; outside the boundary nothing is theatre. Ah, you will say—but what about when characters (or do I mean "actors?") venture Pirandello-esquish-ly into the audience? Well, exactly—what indeed? Is the boundary ever truly violated, or is it merely stretched out temporarily, and even more precariously, into audience territory where it doesn't belong? Are these moments, where "characters" and audience supposedly "interact," convincing—or completely phony and more than a little cheesy? What happens when onstage action reaches through the fourth wall (hold on to that term, we'll get back to it, too) and someone in the audience seems to respond, on cue, with their lines? Does it "work" in any real sense, or does it make you wish you'd gone to the movies instead?

So—theatre can never be part of "real life." And when it tries, it just seems stupid and lame. What about the reverse, then? What happens when real life itself—an event which is clearly not in the script—occurs on stage? Something drops, something breaks, someone stumbles or falls or clutches their chest or … OK, just goes up on their lines? The sensation I recall from such moments is a feeling of alarm[9] that hits with an almost physical shock. When real life shatters theatrical illusion, it's far more upsetting than a missed note or a dropped step. It's like watching an accident: the stomach-churning sensation of seeing something go horribly wrong.

These boundary issues arise because theatre has a special problem: Since it can only be made out of the very stuff of everyday life (i.e., human activity, etc), it must have an unambiguous way to differentiate itself from said stuff (otherwise wouldn’t it just be everyday life, and so forth?) Hence the boundary—the so-called "fourth wall." Only an inviolable boundary can finally and permanently differentiate performance from "life itself." Note that the obvious physical boundary of the stagehouse is only delimiting the far more crucial distinction between real and make-believe. And that this fundamental boundary—this distinction, which establishes the realm of make-believe (a/k/a, the Illusion)is entirely conceptual, made not of plaster nor wood nor light, but simply of thought!

Here's the same idea, restated in iambic pentameter:

... can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields ofFrance? or may we cram
Within
this wooden O the very casques
That
did affright the air at Agincourt?
...
Let
us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose
within the girdle of these walls
Are
now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose
high upreared and abutting fronts
The
perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece
out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into
a thousand parts divide one man,
And
make imaginary puissance;
Think
when we talk of horses that you see them
Printing
their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For
'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,


[10]—fancy—a more fundamental perceptual process. Of course, theatre seems lifelike—holds "as 'twere, the mirror up to nature." After all, humans and their activities are its materials. Yet the qualification implicit in "as 'twere" and "life-like" acknowledges a deeper truth. Everything onstage, "in the world of the play," must be assigned a new identity in the stage space to prevent the possibility of confusion with real life. This remapping, whereby Olivier/Burton/Branagh/Joe Blow = Hamlet and a prop skull[11]= Yorick, deploys the same mental equipment and schema we use to construct and navigate the "real" world itself. In other words, theatrical reality—the Illusion--is the result of the very process we use to perceive and understand reality itself, reapplied within a bounded domain. It is a kind of overlay, nested within the conceptual map we automatically[12] use to navigate through and negotiate with everything around us. The weird, spooky magic of theatre is nothing more than a simple recursion of the very process which grounds our everyday experience (and you can see this especially clearly in second-level recursions, e.g. the "play-within-a-play.") That's what makes theatre fascinating[13].
Yet at the same time, remapping violates the underlying continuity of reality, and thus requires an additional, inviolable rule, to wit: Theatre only happens inside the frame, and the only thing that happens inside the frame is theatre[14]. Thus theatre = "what-happens-inside-the-frame" = the remapping process. Incidentally, this also explains why the presence of the live actor is indeed fundamental to theatre, though once again the common-sense understanding (that the living actor somehow makes theatre "more real") gets it precisely backward. In fact (remember Bonehead Criterion #1: the living actor can never actually be whoever they claim to be in the stage-space), it is the presence of a "real" human that forces the remapping.

Finally, it should now be obvious why theatrical illusion can never be perfect, and why the term "illusion" is something of a misnomer. What theatre really is—and has been recognized as being all along—is a model of reality. And while models are created to understand and manipulate reality, they are by definition abstract. Which, in turn, leads to an even more surprising conclusion: theatre, often considered among the most visceral and unmediated art forms, is in fact one of the most abstracted[15]. Note that "abstracted" in this usage has nothing to do with "representational." Music, although wholly non-representational, is not abstracted, since one perceives musical structures for what they are: patterns (mathematical intervals, etc.) of sounds. Theatre on the other hand, while frequently representational, is always abstracted because the things shown are never the things represented. You may think you're watching people, but in fact, you're really following an idea.

Here is a more compact and rigorous restatement of the thesis:

Theatre is a conceptual act in which every real-world element within a bounded domain is remapped to a new role or function as part of a stage-space. It involves two processes (which are really different aspects of the same process):

    (1) Creating and maintaining a conceptual boundary separating one set of real-world elements from all the others; and

    (2) Remapping all the real-world elements within that boundary to a corresponding set of stage-space equivalents.
The key word here is "conceptual." The actual remappings can be relatively arbitrary as long as they're consistent (which turns out to be the real reason for Bonehead Principle #2). In any remapping, the relation between any object and its remapped value is simply assigned or declared. Since the relation is necessarily conceptual (taking the form: "let This stand for That"), the strength of the assignment is largely independent of any actual resemblance between object and referent. (This is what my friend calls her "Magic Prop" theory, meaning that she can use almost any onstage object to represent any other object). In the curious realm of the stage-space, a wooden stick may well be a more convincing pistol than an accurate replica with one detail wrong (e.g., a bright-orange muzzle). Yet that same stick could just as easily be a flashlight or a scepter or a knife—and indeed, even "transformed" into a succession of such objects through a process of re-remapping.

And here, finally, is where the audience comes in. For as everyone suspects, the audience is doing something more than sitting quietly in the dark. The naïve explanation is that the show is for them and in a sense couldn't go on without them. But the work the audience actually does is to sustain the theatrical illusion, which it does by paying attention (and paying attention, (and paying attention)), and it's hard work indeed. Which, incidentally, explains the peculiar problem of boredom in the theatre. Why "peculiar?" Because unlike garden-variety Waiting Room boredom—where nothing happens and sheer lack of stimulus wears you down—Theatrical boredom (variant of Church boredom), arises when something happens that won't stop and doesn't go away and keeps you from thinking about anything else until … it drives you crazy! It's the boredom (more like "infuriation") that comes from an unwanted and persistent demand on your attention.

Hence, the very real concern of theatre artists over the fragility of the theatrical illusion, having (ultimately) little to do with maintaining plausibility[16], and everything to do with minimizing the audience effort required to sustain the remapping. Nobody cares if a couple of elderly gents doze off and snore gently. But once the entire audience loses focus and shifts its attention—let's say, because somebody's cell phone's ringing—the whole stage space collapses. Which is Not a Good Thing.

A lot of practical stagecraft boils down to Inside Baseball: Don't work with children and dogs. Avoid upstaging the action. Always weight the suitcase, etc… But the constraints imposed by the need for constant attention have also shaped the basic principles of dramaturgy:

1) One and only one thing should happen in the stage space at any given time.

2) One thing should follow the next as clearly and simply as possible.

3) Transitions and disjunctions can be introduced—scenes couldn't exist without them—but only within larger conceptual structures (e.g., narratives) that bind the play together.

So far, so good; but while these principles make for clarity, they won't do much to generate excitement. Enter the Greeks[17], who were responsible for one truly nutty idea—the Unities—but also came up with a killer development in the art of narrative: the Closed Form.

Think back, if you will, on Homer (doesn't matter if you haven't read him, you know enough already). Two very long, very shaggy poems. Bunch of guys hacking away at each other, book after book; bunch of guyssailing around the Mediterranean, book after book; then something really big and long expected happens (much gore, death, etc.) and it's over. Which was pretty much the way every long-form work of literature was structured (let's not even mention the Old Testament![18] until the Athenian dramatists. Sophocles, to be precise, batting second in the lineup, whose works suddenly have a Shape: episodes at the beginning influence the ending, the parts of the story fit together, extraneous detail is minimized. All in the service of holding the audience's attention by creating structures in time.

For drama—or at least, Athenian tragedy[19]—had the enormous insight that the effort of paying attention could be made to vanish, as if by magic, simply by introducing expectation. Waiting for a sermon to end is deeply, deeply boring. Waiting for a murder to be committed, for a prophecy to be fulfilled, for a secret to be revealed—now, that's entertainment! In fact, Aristotle's "Drama is the completion of an action" almost doesn't make sense without two implicit provisos

(1) That you will probably have some expectation of what completion will entail, and you may very well be wrong;

(2) That completion will take some time[20] and that there will be interesting complications along the way.

Note the particularly advantages of the closed form in time-based art, since it encourages close attention (lest you miss a tell-tale detail!) and sustains that attention with its promise that all story elements will magically come together at the end[21]. But there's a serious problem. The very qualities that make the closed form so attractive—its visible structure, its predilection for symmetry, its efficiency—work against its being in any way true-to-life. (Definition + apology, too important to relegate to footnote: I'm introducing "true-to-life" to distinguish representational fidelity—overt verisimilitude--from the more general term "lifelike," which still means anything we can accept as being like life itself. E.g., Midsummer Night's Dream is plenty lifelike but not remotely true to life. Sorry.)

The Greeks found two ways to dodge the issue: first, by recycling known stories (meaning that whatever implausibilities may be found in Oedipus belong to the originating myth and are not thus not the fault of any play retelling that myth); and second, by relying heavily on supernatural agencies—predictions, curses, oracles, Fate, etc.—which make coincidence and all sorts of irrational behavior the result of Things Beyond Our Control (You find a fair amount of this even in Shax—Hamlet Sr.'s Ghost, witches, etc.—though it was his genius, e.g. in Othello, to justify implausible causal chains as manifestations of unhealthy obsessions).

For quite a long time, literature happily worked the gray area between the lifelike and the true-to-life. Then the 19th Century novel retooled the closed form into the preferred delivery system for emotional engagement, while at the same time focused with increasing specificity on depicting The Way We Live Now. As theatre followed suit, the relative compression of drama made the incompatibility of closed form with representational fidelity acutely apparent (viz., excessive reliance on devices such as Overheard Conversation, Dropped Letter, etc., as well as famous 1st Act/3rd Act gun of A. Chekhov, awkward deployment of seagull by same, etc.). Said incompatibility was somewhat resolved[22] in the 20th by replacing intricate plot work with extended sequences of character confrontations (as in Williams, Miller, Albee’s V. Woolf, where very little happens in the way of external event and a great deal happens in the way of interpersonal bludgeoning).

Yet it’s important to understand that this whole so-called incompatibility is just another instance of the common fallacy whereby theatre-as-model-of-the-world comes to mean theatre-as-window-on-the-world, based on an insidious confusion over what “lifelike” actually means (especially with respect to "true-to-life!") Take, for example, Greek theatre--with its masks and cothurni and periaktoi and choruses, for heaven's sake!—which is about as unlifelike as possible to us. But we're not Athenian Greeks. There's no reason[23] to think they didn't find those plays lifelike—and not because they were forever coming upon groups of masked citizens roaming the streets, declaiming in unison. (Hence, for them, no problem w/ not being true-to-life).

Or consider puppetry, and specifically, how much can be removed from puppetry without affecting how "lifelike" (or, for that matter, "true-to-life") the puppet show will be. True, there are schools of puppetry—marionettes, Balinese shadow—which rely on mimicry, detail and technical skill to create the performance equivalent of trompe l'oeil. But there's also "Mr. Bill," from the old Saturday Night Live (or for old-timey weirdness, Google Señor Wences, who used to work the Ed Sullivan show with two eyes drawn on the side of his clenched fist, and lipstick around the gap between thumb and forefinger). If all you need to make a puppet "lifelike" is the human voice, more-or-less arbitrarily remapped to some more-or-less interesting object (and reader, I have performed this very trick, using only a crumpled Coke can, before a class at an Ivy League university,) then it should be apparent that theatre needn't be true-to-life in order to seem lifelike. Which is, of course, what this whole long essay has been about.

So, final summation with corollaries:

1) The peculiar fascination of theatre derives from remapping, which is a recursion.

2) The agency of remapping alone—assigning one thing to stand for another—does the heavy lifting and makes the overall illusion seem real.

a) Corollary: Neither object nor referent need be particularly true-to-life.

b) Corollary: As long as the remapping is internally consistent, it does
not have to be particularly true-to-life, either.

3) Hence the spell of the theatre is entirely conceptual, and though it requires sustained attention, yields a pleasure which is, in so many ways, the pure play of mind.

a) Corollary: Nobody who makes theatre needs to worry anymore about making it true-to-life, unless they prefer to.


November 19, 2008




[1] For that matter, why is so important for the actors to remain on stage, "where they belong?" Why is "audience participation" always deeply creepy? What is it about theatre that makes you say "keep that thing away from me?"

[2] Actually, it's even stranger than that, because we only half-forget, we pretend to forget ("willing suspension of disbelief," etc.) and the guilty knowledge that we're faking it right along with the actors is a large part of the cheesiness that makes theatre the Cheap Date of the arts.

[3] See, for example, the whole labored, leaden canon of L. Pirandello.

[4] In other words, the actors cannot appear onstage "as themselves." I.e., if you're Joe Blow, the well known cat-skinner, you can certainly appear as yourself onstage in a hideously un-PC lecture-demo, but you can't be in a play in which you say, "Hello, I'm Joe Blow and tonight I'm gonna skin some cats for you." Since I know you're about to object that, in fact, one could indeed do just that (who's gonna stop you?), let me add that one could—but only through recursion, which will be explained in due time. Coming out on stage "as oneself" is just a more sophisticated way of harnessing the same old illusionistic theatrical double-whammy. All theatre requires everyone on stage (no exceptions) to claim to be someone they aren't. Even if that claim is factually correct, its occurrence within a theatrical context makes the claim provisionally, functionally false. When Spalding Gray introduced himself as "Spalding Gray," there were only three possible explanations (all of which turn out to be true!): (a) "Spalding Gray" is a character in a performance by Spalding Gray; (b) Spalding Gray is giving an autobiographic lecture-demo and therefore is not in character at all; (c)(or the radical/autistic extension of (b)): everything Spalding Gray does, including the performance you are watching, is part of the life of Spalding Gray and therefore there is no theater! All of which is easy enough to work through without heavy-duty analysis, and therefore tedious to analyze.

[5] There must be a good reason why you can't do theatre in, say, 30 seconds, but it doesn't seem germane to my thesis, so I'm not going to nail it down. Still—10 minute plays????

[6] Intermission merely suspends the drama, which doesn't count. We'll get to suspense, interruption and discontinuity later.

[7]
OK—it doesn't, but it does have to be about watching representations of people—e.g., puppets—which we'll also get to later.

[8] Note how such a simple situation—one group watching another—leads quickly to "us" v. "them."

[9] Not to give the whole thing away, but this experience of alarm should be the tip-off. The gut-wrenching sensation we get when we hear or see something unexpected arises because we're suddenly forced to reconfigure the set of mental expectations with which we're orienting ourselves. Obviously, you can startle someone at any time, but it's easiest when the victim is already frantically checking and rechecking their expectations—i.e., because they're nervous. The surprising discovery of anxiety and alarm in the cozy confines of the theatre implies that cognitive processing must be actively ongoing, but we'll cover this more fully too, just a little bit further on.

[10] Shakespeare's argument is actually pretty radical. Starting with the proposition that key elements of his story cannot be represented onstage due to mismatches of scale ("vasty fields of France" > cockpit, problems w/ armies onstage, ditto actual horses, kings, etc.) he proposes to rely on words alone. This of course is ultimately what all plays do, but it is esp. obvious in his case that a "play" is essentially the public recitation of an enormous language structure.

[11] Thinking about this particularprop in its original incarnation, I realized Shax. undoubtedly intended an actual human skull to be used, and to be recognized as such by the audience—a rare and specific instance of using the remapping process as memento mori.

[12] It is far beyond the scope of this essay, and frankly of my expertise, to describe in any detail the extent to which our entire conscious identity, our sense of being in the world, is a cognitive construct. Though the evidence is everywhere—from the influence of mood swings and medication on perception, to the consequences of serious brain disorders—it is only rarely that we recognize that experience itself—being oneself in the here and now—is a mental (perceptual as well as cognitive) process. What we take for simple perception (to the degree that we even take the act of perception into account as anything other than automatic) turns out to be a much richer and more complicated cognitive activity. In fact, the process works so well it's hard to appreciate the degree to which our experience of being in the world is actually the result of "thinking up" the world. The above-mentioned stab of anxiety felt upon suddenly noticing (or better yet, merely apprehending) the presence of something unexpected, or unexpected absence of something expected, is some evidence of our deep dependence on mental maps. Terms like "weird," "uncanny" and "strange" also refer explicitly to the experience of something outside the bounds of the known, i.e., off the map.

[13] Not to undercut the wholeargument thus far, but there's a very different explanation for the slightly disreputable appeal of theatre, having to do with feigned emotion. We know—because we know what theatre is—that every single person onstage is faking their emotions throughout the play. And because we were children once, and learned that we too could fool other people by faking our emotions, and were eventually cautioned very strongly against the practice by people that we hadn't actually fooled at all… watching someone get away with this sort of thing still offers a guilty little thrill. This must have been especially true when theater was primarily a local/village/non-professional activity, and cast members were all known to the audience in their real-life identities. The phenomenon is also found in grade school drama, where kids in the audience often find an onstage classmate's struggle to remain "in character" ludicrous. I haven't pursued this argument because it strikes me as essentially a detail of theatre. The more general case of pretending, which includes not only theatre by many other forms of play, is always about consensual remapping.

[14] This isn't completely accurate. It turns out that anything outside the boundary can be remapped within the play (e.g., audience plant joins action on stage), but if so, must remain thereafter a part of the play (audience plant cannot go back to being "member of the audience.") Nothing can ever escape the remapping process. Whatever escapes (imagine play involving business with actual audience members), was never truly part of the stage-space.

[15] Profound apologies for an infelicitous phrase, necessitated to avoid confusion with "abstract," which has a well-defined, but completely different, meaning in the visual arts. All paintings can be read as an arrangement of colored shapes; when the arrangement can also be read as an image, the painting is representational; it is abstract when it can only be read as an arrangement of shapes.

[16] For if Theatre had to be plausible, Musical Theatre would be impossible.

[17] I cannot pass over the Greeks without mention of D.F. Wallace's exceeding useful insight that their passion for abstraction made them hate chaos in any form, and thus develop a deep, abiding need for boundaries.

[18] Unless you're prepared to wade through Leviticus and Numbers with the inestimable Mary Douglas.

[19] For reasons I once again don't pretend to understand, Athenian comedy managed to drift along as a ramshackle, plot-free, shaggy-dog vaudeville for another 150 years, but eventually shaped up, as the New Comedy, into a set of clockwork operations playing out within a confined space.

[20] There's that minimum time requirement once again. See also my wife's One Minute Seagull joke, which goes:


MEDVIEDENKO: Masha, why do you wear mourning?
MASHA: Constantine Gavrilovich has shot himself.
Curtain

[21] Think how many times you've waited through a mediocre play just to learn how it comes out, and how that expectation presupposes that there will be some eventual resolution, and not just an end point.

[22] Medium-length digression/rant on the practical implications of deploying the closed form for narrative purposes. Every dramatist who has wrestled with the "naturalistic" genre knows how fiendishly difficult it is to cobble together a complicated story where everything "pays off" convincingly at the end. Still, it's worth disassembling the standard representational play to see how unsuitable it is for any kind of faithful depiction of actual experience. The structure starts with a presumed substrate of continuous activity, corresponding to actual experience, but of course the substrate is never presented whole, or "as is." Instead, it is sectioned and shaped into scenes so that only the most salient material remains. Note that when we say that a real-life event feels theatrical, we usually mean that it conforms to the conventions of scene structure: choreographed entrances and exits, foreshadowed confrontations, snappy comebacks and punch-lines, etc. This is already at some considerable distance from real life, yet the scene structure represents only the middle tier of a play. There is, beyond, a macro structure (corresponding roughly to the "Acts") where the overarching themes and patterns of the play become manifest—and in particular, where the manipulations of expectation occur. Note also how the structural hierarchy mirrors the pyramid of disjunctions. Within any scene—that is, within the "flow of events" of the play—it is only necessary that characters and events be separated enough to time out properly. This level of discontinuity is almost imperceptible, except in rare cases, e.g. when someone goes off to eavesdrop or hide, and it's crucial that they come back just in time. The discontinuities between scenes, however, are not only apparent but actually drive the play forward. The information gap between scenes is always perceived as a temporary increase in expectation level: e.g., What will happen next? Within the macro structure of the acts, of course, the disjunctions (which the English actually call "Intervals") are so great that the audience traditionally is expected to gets up and leave the stage space for a while. All this is really exceptionally weird, when you get right down to it, and only makes sense if you understand theatre-going as an extended act of concentrated thought, with the breaks providing essential boundaries and guideposts. Just as the 18th Century used to refer to the narrative arc of the whole play as "The Argument," so each act curtain forms an interstitial summation, recapping what has happened so far, and suggesting what is about to come.

[23] According to an "unreliable" late biography of Aeschylus, the appearance of the Chorus of Furies made children faint, old men pee, and pregnant women go into labor.

8 comments:

John Heimbuch said...

There's an element to mapping that you touch on something a couple times here, but don't fully examine within this essay: specifically, that occasionally the re-mapping process that occurs in theatre (or any other reality-representative entertainment, actually) can map a theatrical signifier out of something that is actually real.

I would argue that this is precisely what occurs in the context of Hamlet's skull. An Elizabethan audience, familiar with the process of mapping mental signifiers (as clearly expounded in Henry 5), will see Yorick's skull in Hamlet later that same year (also written in 1599) and leap to the immediate conclusion that they can dismiss it as a piece of un-real stage trickery. It is a stage, after all, and we all know that everything that occurs up there is fake. Yet, when they are pulled out of the context of the play by this realization (as we all are when we see stage violence, tricks, stage effects, etc.) and think objectively about it, they realize that the object being signified (an actual human skull) and the object representing it (an actual human skull) are in fact the same object. This makes the effect considerably more jarring than it would be if it were simply another signifier, as it momentarily breaks down the audience's understanding of what is real and what is fake onstage.

(It's worth a brief digression here to mention how frequently Shakespeare and other authors did this, more typically in language than with props - but he often plays with the role of signifiers in his plays, or makes casual contextual references that mirror contemporary London life. It was a luxury of living in a relatively small, culturally homogeneous society - the interplay between what the audience knew and what how it was presented onstage was much more palpable then than know, such that even very oblique references could land playwrights in prison without much provocation, because the audience held so many of the signifiers in common.)

This still happens in contemporary contexts, though by nature it has to be more overt when it occurs in order to register on us. The most obvious example of this jarring disconnect I can think of is actually from the South Park Movie (which, being a movie, I know falls outside the scope of your argument, but hear me out), when Saddam pulls out his um ... member. He immediately reveals that it isn't real, it's just a dildo. So the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief. Until you realize that the animators are animating the "dildo" with a magazine cut-out of an actual penis. By changing the signifier of the object from "penis" to "dildo" they manager to make the presence of an actual penis somehow less unsettling. This is clearly a trick of mental re-mapping for the purpose of story, and it's compelling that mental remapping is also capable of working in reverse. In other words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe".

In regard to Spalding Grey, I would argue that it is theatre. When Spalding went onstage, it was because he had crafted a story, including a narrative arc and the characters within it. Circumstantially, he used his narrative to craft a map of signifiers that closely aligned with the actual circumstances of his life. Yet the very act of presenting his narrative in front of an audience necessitates that some amount of theatrical shorthand was being used. The mental map that we the audience received had been crafted for the purposes of our enjoyment - an enjoyment that is accentuated by the overlay of these signifiers with those that we believe to be real, whether or not they are. It is no more nor less "theatre" if Spalding's narrative were nothing but lies. In fact, it's often our disbelief that makes his narrative so compelling. The I-don't-want-to-believe-it-but-it-must-be-true quality that is the stock and trade of all "you're not going to believe what just happened to me" stories. Like an equal and opposite effect to Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief", this willingness to believe the implausibility of reality is what makes Spalding's work inherently theatrical. The audience's process of mentally mapping the narrative is identical, whether the narrative is truth or fiction, and whether the characters align with real people or not. Steven Colbert maybe states this best when he says that he plays a character called Steven Colbert.

Anyway, moments where narrative layers blur between reality and fiction are one of the most important strengths of drama, because they force the audience to question the reality of the situation. I personally believe that it was this quality that is what initially allowed drama to flourish, especially in light of the spiritually transcendental quality that most drama has non-Western culture, and the clear religious significance it once had for Athenians as well. The lines between reality and non-reality was probably much less clear for those early practitioners, hence why the Furies were accounted to have such a powerful effect on the audience. But I digress.

Theatre was much aimed at commenting obliquely on the society it lived in by crafting parallel sets of signifiers - one that existed within the world of the play and one that existed in the world of the audience. This was the mechanism by which comedies have worked from Aristotle to Sheridan. But in the 19th century one of these signifying threads was largely lost - probably due to the increased prevalence of melodrama and its emphasis on scenic effects over narrative form. A tradition that the largely dominant theatrical form of Broadway continues to this day.

Professor Snugglesworth said...

After all, people only watch NASCAR for the crashes.

As for why audience "interaction" comes across as cheesy or creepy or boring, most of it has to do with another point you make, that everyone in the audience is on some level perfectly aware that they are watching a play--that is, they are witnessing a prepared, pre-planned spectacle. So when Jimmy Spillpot walks off the stage and starts talking to everyone who had the bad judgment to take an aisle seat, everyone watching is aware that half of the conversation is cooked up in advance, whether explicitly scripted or just practiced during rehearsals. The other half of that conversation, then, is immaterial. It's a one-way dialogue, because the audience response is decided not to matter much to what Jimmy will say or do next. There's an implicit judgment on the part of the theatre-makers that not only can they predict what you will do, they can also safely disregard it. It's tantamount to poking a finger in their faces and saying, "I got you all figured out."

I recall watching a scene on TV about ten years back in which two characters are in a storeroom filled to the ceiling with boxes of supplies. Neither character can see the other, and we stay focused on just one as he chats idly about his day at work and the contents of the different boxes. After a few minutes, he moves aside a stack to discover that he's been talking to a recording the entire time, prompting the following exchange:

"Am I so predictable that you can record your entire half of the conversation in advance?"
"Yes, you are so predictable that I can record my entire half of the conversation in advance."

It's a clever joke that only works because both of the characters are constructs, with nice, pre-defined edges that can be made to fit together in amusing ways for the sake of spectacle. To attempt the same trick with an audience requires that they be of such a shape that the other pieces of the play fit neatly with them. Every single time. No matter the composition of the audience, the time of day, the day of the week, the current political climate. I hope I never meet the man who knows me that well.

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Lawrence said...

An interesting article. These points may seem nit-picking, but here they are, for what they are worth:


1. Your insistence on the seperation between performance and audience is unjustified, I think. You mention the occasional practice of actors engaging the audience, then dismiss it by calling it cheesey. In the first place, I don't think it always is. Secondly, isn't cheesey theatre still theatre? A Harlequin Romance is still a novel. Also you ignore the entire sub-genere of interactive theatre: plays such as Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, Flanigan's Wake, Mugsy Sent Me etc. Are they not theatre?


2. Why do you insist that an actor can never portray himself? No one objected when Cole Porter played himself in the film version of Kiss Me Kate; to the best of my knowledge he never did so in the stage version, but suppose he had--would that disqualify the production as theatre? Or suppose Malkovich played himself in a stage version of Being John Malkovich?


3. In discussing the principle of "the magic prop" you never state that it is possible to do away with the prop altogether, as in Our Town (or Terence McNally's Love! Valor! Compassion!). A curious omission.


4. You aver that "one and only one" thing can occur on stage at one time; you violate this rule consistantly in your 1979 play Night Coil, a device which in my opinion can work beautifully, when well executed.

I realize that these are minor points. All in all, it is a well presented and well argued article.

Jeffrey M. Jones said...

Responding to Lawrence:

1. You raise an interesting point with Tony & Tina. Let me offer an even clearer example: the standard childrens' theatre moment when the character turns to the audience and asks a question ("Did you kids see where that big rabbit went???")

Obviously this is very much a moment of theatre, and the children would surely be able to explain it, too: "The silly man asked where the rabbit was so we told him--but then he went the wrong way..."

In other words, the performers--in character--have essentially exposed to entire play mechanism to the audience and allowed them to interact with it. Nothing in the base case has been changed except the standard decorum (and in non-White Anglo-Saxon theatre, where the audience comments continually on the live action, such decorum isn't even standard). The performer "plays along" by accepting the audience's instructions to the character--nobody in the audience believes they are actually talking to the performer (except, again, indirectly in that the performer has acknowledged the re-mapping).

Nor do think it's coincidental that such interactive games generally occur in comic plays.

2. In both cases, the actors were playing roles. That the role happened to be "as themselves" doesn't change the fundamental relationship. Quite the contrary, these are the clearest possible examples. They have remapped themselves into the dramatic structure, hence it is the dramatic structure which supports them.

(3) I think I made that point in an earlier draft and then cut it. Of course, it's simply the most elegant proof of my thesis that what you're "looking at" on stage is ultimately an idea. When I say that theatre is abstract, this is exactly what I mean: everything always points to an idea.

(4) Yes, I know. Thank you. But of course Nightcoil was intended as a sustained assault on conventional dramaturgy and theatrical thought.

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