June 30, 2008

Objets trouvés
(in memoriam Milton Rauschenberg)

ROSETTA BROOKS: For some reason, I've always thought that your Combines came about because you had a habit of walking round the block before the trash was picked up in the city, collecting what interested you and taking it back to the studio. Is that true?
RAUSCHENBERG: Yes. That's right. I wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn't a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.
RB: Why a surprise?
RR: To feed my curiosity. The objects uniqueness were what fed my curiosity. They didn't have a choice but to become something new. Then you put them in juxtaposition with something else and you very quickly get a world of surprises.
RB: So by combining junk objects, you were making connections between objects and images that were normally enclosed in different private spaces and you were making new connections. When objects are thrown out as trash, they are also closed down spatially. Your juxtapositions and contrapositions in the Combines opened the space up again to reveal hidden connections in peoples lives, possessions, objects and spirits that had previously remained separate. By the same token, the process you used to create the Combines opened us up to what the street really is and what the city really is. Our perception of both street and city changed. And by extension, the Combines also opened up the studio to its spatial surroundings. Like the street and the city, the studio then became a social gathering point. And your studio has continued to be that way ever since. The idea of the social is a significant factor in all your work, isn't it? Throughout your career, you go through periods where you both surround yourself with junk, and you surround yourself with people.
RR: Its the same thing really, isn't it? They're both full of surprises.

Walking down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope one morning this winter, I came upon a large stack of magazines set out on the sidewalk. They turned out to be back issues of The Drama Review from the mid-Seventies to the early Eighties—a time when ideas seemed to matter in the theatre. So I took a few home to re-read at leisure. Of course they turned out to be dated, and of little interest. But in TDR #72 ( the Theatrical Theory Issue of December, 1976), in an essay by Michael Kirby entitled "Structural Analysis/Structural Theory," I found this, which seemed to inform everything I've written in this blog to date:

Webster defines “analysis” as “a separating or breaking up of any whole into its parts so as to find out their nature, proportion, function, relationship, etc.” “Theory” is defined as “an idea or mental plan of the way to do something.” Thus intellectual analysis involves the creation of a system of ideas by which an existing phenomenon can be “separated” or “broken up” mentally; theory provides an intellectual base for the creation of phenomena. Theatrical analysis examines existing or historical performance; theatrical theory provokes and originates performance.

Since both the analysis and theory of theatre involve more or less coherent systems of ideas, analysis and theory might be thought to be identical or interchangeable. Analytical systems might be expected to be useful for creating performance; theoretical systems might be supposed to function as well for analysis as they do for creation. In fact, interchangeability exists in only a limited fashion. The criteria for analysis and theory are quite different. Although one would like to think that any ideas could become the basis for some act of performance, there is no reason to believe that useful analytical theories are equally useful for creation. Theatrical theory might be tremendously stimulating and fruitful—as Artaud’s, for example, has been—without being comprehensive or coherent enough to apply to the analysis of all performance.

Nor can it be claimed that theory and analysis should be interchangeable or that one intellectual system should serve both functions. It is a possibility, however. One may attempt to make any theatrical theory into an analytical system, any analytical system into theatrical theory. One may test the creative applicability of any analytical system by using it to generate performance; one may try to apply any theoretical ideas to the analysis of performances never considered by the theoretician. It one is interested in innovation, more new ideas may come from the suggestions and indications of an analytical system (where no creative stimulus was intended) than from theatrical theory (where it was). When theory is “borrowed,” the result is usually predictable.

If one is interested in innovative theatre, a possible approach is to develop an analytical system that can later be used as the basis for creating performances. Analysis should be objective and comprehensive. If it is worked out in detail, it should apply to all performance—that which exists, and that which does not yet exist. A complete analytical system should indicate possibilities that have not yet been attempted as well as categorizing those that have. It should point the way to the unusual and the unknown in addition to organizing the familiar and the commonplace.

The problem is that many analytical systems are inductive. They reason from particular theatrical facts or known cases to general conclusions. Thus they may be useful in analyzing existing performance but they offer no lacunae where the unusual or the net-yet-known can be discovered. They reinforce the status quo. They codify tradition and rigidify convention. If turned into theatrical theory and used as a base for creation, these inductive analytical systems only justify more theatre like that which already exists.

A deductive system—one that reasons from a known principle to an unknown one, from the general to the specific, from a premise to a logical conclusion—is one alternative. Another is to use or modify analytical systems set up for other disciplines and other phenomena. In both cases, the result is the same. There is the possibility that the unknown and the uncommon as well as the ordinary will have a place within the system.

Let us consider the analysis of only one aspect of theatrical performance: its structure. Traditional approaches to structural analysis are primarily inductive. They create rules or principles by generalizing from particular examples—classic Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, the “great” plays. Other forms of theatre are ignored. The emphasis on narrative (and on the script rather than on theatrical production) makes theatrical structure similar to literary structure. Line graphs like those that, at least in cartoons, show the fortunes of Wall Street or the health of a hospital patient are proposed as abstract illustration of theatrical structure. Even when such thinking is relevant to the type of drama from which it is derived, it is useless when applied to other forms of theatre—to dance, variety shows, circus, etc. Thus all inductive dramatic structural analysis is, at best, incomplete. It may apply to at least some plays, but it does not consider those aspects of structure that plays share with other forms of theatre.

One approach to establishing a deductive system for the analysis of theatrical structure would be to make the area under consideration as broad as possible and to work, at least in part, from general principles outside the area itself. We are concerned, then, with the structure of theatrical performance, not merely the structure of drama, comedy, ballet, etc. We may look for principles in sciences such as psychology and in other arts such as kinetic sculpture. We are concerned with any and all principles for analyzing the structure of a phenomenon in time and space.

“Structure” is being used to refer to the way the parts of a work relate to each other, how they “fit together” in the mind to form a particular configuration. This fitting together does not happen “out there” in the objective work; it happens in the mind of the spectator. We do not have (or need) equipment such as a microscope or procedures such as chemical analysis in order to understand the structure of theatre. We are not concerned with a mere description or inventory of the elements of a performance, but with a study of what the mind does with those elements. This is subjective. Of course, it may, and probably will, vary from person to person; each person may perceive a somewhat different structure in the same performance. But the same problem has not prevented psychology from attempting to be an objective science. Like the psychologist, we may set down certain general objective structural principles that are concerned with subjective functions.

The distinction between analysis and theory seems especially useful (and for the time being will have to serve, however obliquely, as my response to Gus Schulenberg's post this past February), but if I have set out to do anything here, it is precisely to suggest the possibility of a system for structuring phenomenona in time and space that includes a place for the unknown. Imagine my surprise, then, to find in the same issue a second article ("The Visual Script: Theory and Techniques, by David Cole) with dramatic structures expressed as pictures. Here are some of the most suggestive:

Finally, working on this post, I picked up a program insert from the Playwrights Horizons production of Dead Man's Cellphone this spring, which had been lying under a stack of papers on my desk. It contained a long interview with Sarah Rule, which I hadn't finished reading. When I did, I found this:

SR: “[Mac Wellman] would have you draw the structure of your play and say, ‘ Maybe it looks like a vase and maybe it looks like this,’ and he’d make a strange squiggle.”