Friday, June 19, 2015

We are our symbols...

To quote the theologian Tom Driver, I find myself in a state like that of mourning.  My beloved country, that which Lincoln called "the last best hope of man on earth,"is failing.

The recent attack in Charleston, SC, is yet another event in a long string of systemic violence and oppression against black America.  It is, in a word, terrorism.  An armed thug went into a church and killed a bunch of black people because he felt that he could.  He felt that he was justified.  If reports of his words are correct, he felt that he had to do it. He had to do it because black Americans either "had to go" or had to be frightened back into knowing their place.

I am so sorry.

In front of the South Carolina state house, the Confederate battle flag flies.  It flies, ostensibly, as a symbol of the state's "heritage."  And yet, what is this heritage?  It depends on who you ask, I guess.

I've lived in the South for about 10 years now.  First in Texas, then in Georgia, and then in North Carolina.  During my time in Savannah, Georgia, I worked for a group called the Coastal Heritage Society, which operates a number of historic sites round the city.  Included among this collection is Old Fort Jackson, which is operated as a Civil War history center.

During my time there, I worked as a historical interpreter, doing programs for visitors and school groups.  They were mainly about what life at the Fort was like, daily routines, etc.  Very much in the frame of "history is a foreign country and this is how we do things there."  However, it always felt very strange raising the Stars & Bars (the actual 1st Confederate National, not the Southern Cross) over the fort every morning.

Through most of my time there, I stuck to a Union blue wool uniform.  I was never comfortable in the grey.  I also refused or avoided participating in Confederate Memorial Day, until finally I was told that I had no choice or I could look for another job.  And so, not having another income, I fired gun salutes to Jefferson Davis and the "lost cause."

You will hear things like "states rights," "tariffs," and "exclusionism" bandied about when the Civil War is discussed in such circles.  Friends of mine at work would insist that the War had not been concerned with race.  And yet, I cannot help but feel that it goes back to Alexander Stephens' Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

We are our symbols.  We continue to fly a symbol of the heritage of hate in our public spaces.  I was once asked by a man for directions to "West Broad Street" in Savannah.  Not being familiar with the road (and I know my way around Savannah), I ran a quick google to find that he was referring to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd (it had been renamed)... when I told him about his mistake he simply shook his head and said "Oh, I don't say that name."

I have somehow made this post about me.  I set out to do something else, though.  

There is something deeply wrong with America that we as a people are not condemning this violence with one voice.  Hemming and hawing has already begun, and people have expressed shock and disbelief that such a thing could happen.  Fox News has even gone so far as to suggest these attacks were part of America's persecution of Christians.

White America is focusing on the individual because we have always had that privilege.  We are seeking already to spin and explain, to distance ourselves.  Hashtags like #NotAllWhites and #AllLivesMatter have sprung up like deceptive mushrooms after a rain.

We as a people are our symbols.  And the idea of American individualism and "heritage," etc, is rooted in a white ideology that at least passively promotes supremacy when it does not outright enforce it.

As an American theatre practitioner, as a symbol maker, I cannot help but think that we have failed our country.

I'm sorry.

I'm listening.

What can I do?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thoughts on the Crisis of American Acting: Class, Economics, & Transatlantic Fetishism

The British are coming! The British are coming!

It is the second British invasion.  As noted recently in Entertainment weekly, many American films are currently dominated by British-heavy casts.  In both Selma and 12 Years A Slave, the lead players are overwhelmingly European.  Indeed, we even turned to a Brit (Daniel Day Lewis) to play that most American of presidents, Abraham Lincoln.  "What gives," cry writers (along with casting directors).  Why are the so many Brits (with the occasional Australian) playing seminal American figures.  In 12 Years a Slave, the top billed American (Brad Pitt) played a Canadian.

So what are we to make of this?  It isn't as if Brits playing Americans (or vice versa) is a new phenomena.  Vivien Leigh ring a bell?  However, there does seem to be a marked uptick among British leads playing American characters.  As it was pointed out, your accent does not guarantee you a role (except when it does).  Is America suddenly more Anglophilic than ever?

Or is it that American actors just aren't as good as British ones (as an aggregate)?  Is it something in the water?  Our diets?  Not really.  According to Charlie Sandlan, it can all be chalked up to the fact that American actors are lazy.

Mr. Sandlan takes the time to roundly decry the lack of training among young American actors today.  Instead of seriously studying their technique, they instead seek to dive directly in to the industry in the hopes of "making it big."  And it is training and work ethic that causes British Actors to outstrip their American competitors.

This call to "seriousness" is common among the acting conservatories in and around New York.  Maggie Flanagan Studios, where Sandlan is a senior faculty member, strongly advises its students to refrain from auditioning during their time at the studio.  Indeed, other conservatories, such as HB Studios (which teaches the technique of Uta Hagen) and Neighborhood Playhouse (a bastion of Meisner Technique) openly forbid their young charges from auditioning for or accepting roles while they are studying.

So the need is training!  Well, I am sure that Mr. Sandlan would be more than willing to help provide that, for a fee.  Of course!  Now, the Maggie Flanagan Studio, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and HB Studios are not so gauche as to publish their fee structure up front.  However, they do assure prospective applicants that there are some forms of financial aid available.  A few scholarships, but mainly work-study programs.  The Adler Studio does publish its fee structure, and it ranges from 5-10k per semester, depending on the program you are working on.  A quick google search of acting classes will show you what you get for this!
Most of the images for acting classes that I found consist of some teacher (Mr. Sandlan is up there in the left-hand corner) sitting in front of a very serious (and often ill-lit) group of people.  Uta Hagen's master classes, which are available on DVD, are also of a similar vein.  1-2 people get up there and work in front of an otherwise seated class.  I am not the only one to note this.  Improvisatory technique teacher Stephen Book also mentions this in his Book on Acting.

Which leads me to ask, is it proper that we charge young artists (hopeful, gallant naifs that they are) through the nose (while often forbidding them from working) to sit in a room and act once per moon's turn?  Oh, and they need housing in one of the most expensive cities in the world.  They should probably feed themselves as well.

And here we come to the crux of the matter.  Money.  Firstly, a large portion of the more successful British actors come from an upper or upper-middle class background and were educated at private schools like Eton and Harrow.  Scottish actor James McAvoy pointed this out in an interview with the
Herald of Scotland.  Many of these top-shelf talents had the money and resources to get through drama school.  But even McAvoy himself, from a working-class background, managed to work his way through the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Though the class restrictions of the American theatre are nothing new (indeed, our beloved art form seems content to steadily price itself out of reach for the majority of Americans), McAvoy's example points to another part of the issue.  He worked his way through school.  Prices were such that he could afford to do so.  And yet, I cannot think of a part-time job capable of procuring anything beyond a sardine can in New York, even with roommates.  We are, after all, talking about a city where if you rent storage space, you have to agree not to try and live in it.

Quite simply, American actors cannot generally afford the kind of training that is standard in Britain.  When Mr. Sandlan decries booking a “'six-week camera class', or a 'scene study' with some unemployed actor," I cannot, firstly, help but wonder how he manages to keep himself out of that category and, secondly, how he expects them to afford more than this.  Even many Britons cannot afford the kind of training that is standard in Britain.

I would submit that it is not laziness but money that keeps many actors from pursuing in-depth training.  Money is becoming more and more of a bar to entry and a fetish of success in the American theatre.  And this is actively harming our actors.

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than the prospect of the internship or assistantship or whatever you want to call it, or even intensives or short term classes.  This is the model of much of theatre education.

The goal of these classes or internships is often to allow people to "get their foot in the door" with a company, or a casting director, or whatever.  This is the world of the "professional showcase" where casting directors send Augie the Intern to watch some newly minted MFAs/BFAs/Certificate Holders/People who paid the fee strut their stuff for consideration.  The training, or the art, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  It is designed to make the actor more marketable.

Increasing marketability can also be referred to as liquidity.  Liquidity, economically speaking, is how easily something can be converted into cash.  In other words, much of the theatrical education system in this country is trying to turn students into money.  Increasing liquidity means an uncoupling from commitments, and an ability to be infinitely changeable.  It is, as Rob Horning points out in The New Inquiry, a quintessentially antisocial flexibility and unwillingness to commit.

Theatre, as we have discussed before, is an inherently social activity.  Yet this tension between the mindset created in acting students and the integral nature of the art is slowly choking the American theatre in a number of ways.  It isn't that Americans are lazy, it is that the system is put together to dehumanize them.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Turning a New Page

Esteemed Readers, those of you who are still out there, your Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg is turning a new page in his life.  It seems not so long ago that I was closing up shop on The Savannah Dramaturgy and packing up to begin my teaching career in North Carolina.  Well, in case you haven't yet heard, I am relocating once again.  This time, I am headed to eastern Ohio to take up an Assistant Professorship at Kent State University's Trumbull Campus.

So your Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg will be headed to a new neighborhood.  But he plans on keeping up his writing!  Don't despair on that.

However, I am thinking on making some changes.  When I wrote The Savannah Dramaturgy, I felt a solid connection with an active readership, coupled with a desire to write!  This has cooled over time with the Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg (at least partially due to an overabundance of work-related obligations and some nasty personal problems), and so in the coming weeks, I am going to be taking a look at what helped make the Savannah Dramaturgy tick so well and what the FNTurg has been lacking.  So stay tuned for the travails of a clueless young director/dramaturg on the tenure track at a big university.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Austin and Milwaukee: Dr. Carrasco Rides Again

"...a man who carries his sense of self-importance as if he were afraid of breaking it."
--Dale Wasserman on Dr. Sanson Carrasco

Evidently it is busy times in the world of art.  Yesterday, this email came across my desk.
Evidently, last month, while touring a General Electric plant near Milwaukee, President Obama made a flippant remark about art history.  In regards to technical and vocational training, he pointed out that “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”  Which is, at the base, completely true.  It is also completely germain to the discussion of technical education.  However, the President hedged his bets by follow with the point that there was also nothing wrong with an art history degree.

Cue the outrage.  Artists of various stripe came sliding down the slick trench that is internet outrage to weigh in and a petition was sent along with a note from an art history professor who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.  It was pointed out to president Obama that art history majors learn to think and write critically.  Because, you know, that is totally what he was talking about at the time.

Following the president's handwritten apology, (which was referred to as grovelling in the UK's Daily Mail) where he was sure to shore up the fact that he truly loves art history, cue the celebrations.  "Advocacy," (whatever the hell that is... since it seems to cover everything) has won the day and made the mean man apologize for his flippant remark!

And as I sat, coffee in hand, and stared at this brouhaha... all I could think was "What in the ring-tailed rambling hell is wrong with American artists today?"  We have gone from figures like Hurston, Hughes, Bukowski, and Kerouac to stomping our foot and demanding respect when a minor joke is made about one of our disciplines.  Vonnegut encouraged us to go into the arts because it was a wonderful way to live a human life.  Garisson Keillor pointed to the students at University of Minnesota yearning to become scholars as pure free-enterprise.  Artists and intellectuals have almost always stood at the fringes of society in order to comment on it.

So why all the fear?  Why must we scramble for an apology like this?  Is our sense of self, and the sense of worth of what we are doing, so fragile that we tremble with fear and demand redress is someone is less than complimentary?  What is this feeling of wolves at the door, and when did American Arts and Letters become so toothless.

Art history (or theatre, etc) generally doesn't pay as well as a skilled trade.  But that's not the point of them in the first place.  Like many educated North Carolinians, I bristled a little when governor Pat McCrory suggested steep cuts to the liberal arts.  But lets believe in their value inherently, not because politicians say nice things about them.  If we have to continually defend what we do in such petty ways (and cloak it as advocacy, no less!) then perhaps we should reassess the real value that it has.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Enclosure: Toward a New Understanding of Antitheatrical Prejudice

From inception to modern day, dramatic poetry has faced criticism from numerous philosophical, religious, and political authorities.  Around 534 BCE, Solon castigated Thespis for telling falsehoods in a public venue while in 1990 John Frohnmayer of the National Endowment for the Arts vetoed proposed grants based on subject matter.  Though the controversy is still alive, it is by no means a young one. Yet among theatre's detractors, Plato and the English Puritans are especially prominent for their thoroughness as well as the sheer level of their vitriol. Socrates, as he appears in Plato's Republic, banishes the poets as a threat to the state. Puritan theologian William Prynne assembles a mountain of antitheatrical invective from sources ranging from Cicero to St. Augustine in his book Histrio-mastix, a work for which Prynne lost his ears when King Charles II took exception to it. However, both the Puritans and Plato would make seemingly hypocritical allowances for dramatic activity, such as encouraging its use in education. This paper will trace the antitheatrical arguments of the Puritans and Plato to their roots in the hopes of finding the core of this inconsistency. By first examining the nature of their critiques and then examining the inconsistencies therein, it will outline the antagonistic relationship between the stage and its opponents. The argument will then turn to the structural nature of dramatic poetry as compared to the works of Plato and the Puritans, establishing it within the tradition of Nietzsche's Eternal Return of the Same.  By comparing these, it finds that Platonic and Puritanical antitheatrical prejudice amounts to a profound ressentiment against the act of cultural enclosure constituted by the professionalization of the dramatic arts.

Though much has been written on the subject of Plato's antitheatrical stance and the Puritans' hatred of the stage, none of it seeks to trace out the roots of the conflict. Jonas Barish's exhaustive book, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, lays out the history of the antitheatrical argument in great detail. The book offers a comprehensive catalog of the arguments but does not go into depth with any of them. Though the book is an excellent place to start in understanding the antitheatrical prejudice, one must begin pulling the arguments apart if one wishes to find the root cause of said prejudice. Historically speaking, Puritan antagonism is taken as a given, being mentioned in most theatre history textbooks without extensive comment or examination of the arguments themselves.

Also, scholars have lavished much attention on Nietzsche's idea of the Eternal Return of the Same, sometimes called Eternal Recurrence. However, the majority of the material seems to focus on either the cosmological truth of the idea or the precise role it plays in Nietzsche's philosophy. Aside from Alexander Nehemas' article, "The Eternal Recurrence," there seems to be little attention paid to the question of what effects the idea has or how it may be realized in practice. Even in this article, however, Nehemas' identification of fictional characters as avatars of the Eternal Recurrence is insufficient.

Plato's attack on poetry, including the dramatic arts, in Book III of Republic begins with a stricture regarding what mimetic-- i.e. dramatic-- poets and actors are permitted to imitate. At this point his objections are a matter of content. When Plato's Socrates discusses educating the guardians, or rulers, of his perfect hypothetical "City in Speech," he states that only those things which are laudable should be imitated in the poetic arts. "Then we must assume a control over the narrators of this class of tales... and beg them not simply to revile, but rather to commend the world below."1 Note that his concerns, cloaked as they are in terms of the good of the state, are here about the content of the art. This follows an acknowledgment that imitative art forms the backbone of early education, hence Socrates' concern over the content. This form of control amounts to simple censorship and is neither more nor less than the actions of any authoritarian regime. Socrates even playfully suggests that, should the poet be able to give an amusing defense, all would be forgiven. Here, Plato's Socrates is no more inherently antitheatrical in his attitude than the Brazilian bureaucrat described, anecdotally, by Augusto Boal. The bureaucrat approves of the beauty and form of Antigone, but would very much like to work something out with the author's agent too see if some of the objectionable content can be excised.2 In essence, the content of the imitative arts must be controlled in order to properly educate the guardians of the perfect city. Plato's argument is less antitheatrical at this point and more a call to use this powerful tool-- drama-- to further the mission of the perfect city's regime.

However, Plato's Socrates strengthens his attack on poetry in Book X of Republic by making a surprising assertion regarding mimetic poetry's banishment from the City in Speech. "The rejection of imitative poetry... I see far more clearly now..." Socrates now believes that poetry should be not only censored but banned entirely. His students react in surprise to this statement and are too dumbfounded to challenge it. Their confusion is justified, as poetry has not received much substantive attention since Book III, and even then the discussion focused on restricting poetry for political ends as opposed to outright abolition. Socrates goes on to justify his ban on mimetic poetry by explaining its removal from the Truth. "Then the imitator... is a long way off the truth and can do all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image."3 In essence, poetry imitates the natural world, which is itself merely imitation of the perfect world of the forms, which is also the highest good. This valuation of the Truth leads to a rejection of anything which is mere appearance. At this point, the content of the artwork becomes immaterial. It would matter little to Plato's Socrates whether the play were Everyman or Vampire Lesbians of Sodom; the very fact that they are plays, and therefor imitations of imitations, condemns them to exclusion from the City in Speech. Mimetic poetry simply cannot be healthy for the soul due to its distance from philosophical Truth.

Though Plato's Socrates eventually comes to banish poetry from the City in Speech during the course of Book X, he also acknowledges the importance of mimetic poetry in the initial stages of education, particularly in the education of the guardians, those tools by which he will realize his perfect city. "We begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious."4 One can also note that guardians are the only class permitted to tell lies-- for the good of the state. In essence, restricted poetry has a role in education but is not appropriate for general consumption or idle show. Poetry, then, is to be treated as something dangerous but potentially useful. Plato prefers Truth and actual experience to simple appearance. However, the guardian, equipped with philosophical understanding, is free to look upon mere appearance in safety. Though poetry needs be banished from the Platonic city, it is a necessity for the education of those who would transcend the very dangers presented by it.

Plato's belief that poetry has some usefulness as an educational tool could offer some level of explanation as to why he made extensive use of the mimetic form in the advancement of his philosophical ideas, which strikes one as inconsistent. Republic is written in poetic, almost dramatic, form. Indeed, the dialogue is the staple of Plato's writing. That Plato should decry the influence of poetical forms only to realize his vision in those same poetical forms seems fallacious if not hypocritical or careless; furthermore, his ideal of Truth as the highest good necessitates a regime founded upon a lie. "How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?"5 He finds a solution in the so-called Noble Lie: people were to be told that they had metal in their souls, and that the type of metal in an individual's soul would determine his or her place in society. This would ensure that people did what was required of them, whether that were horseshoeing or ruling. As Jonas Barish puts it, “The ideal city may exile the poets, but it does so in order to become all the more a poem itself, a beautiful and harmonious totality, every particle of which contributes to the total order.”6  The City in Speech does not seem, necessarily, to exist for the good of its citizens, but instead to be a perfectly unified and just city. Similarly, Oedipus Tyrannos doesn't exist for the good of the characters which constitute it, but instead as an aesthetic and effective totality. Plato's focus on that harmonious totality, as explained by Barish, makes the project a poetical one as opposed to austerely philosophical one. A cursory examination of Plato's rhetoric and practice reveals inconsistency on even the most basic issues in regards to the dramatic arts. Mimetic poetry is first to be restricted and then banned on the grounds of its status as mere appearance. However, the city from which it is banned is founded upon a falsehood and is structurally more poetic than philosophical. This complex relationship between Platonic philosophy and the dramatic arts, seemingly inconsistent and hypocritical, comprises an attempted distancing from the poetical arts, due to their pernicious influence, while simultaneously embracing those elements which are most useful and powerful.

The Puritan antitheatricalists not only echo Platonic objections, but also add numerous complaints which are unrelated to the imitative nature of dramatic poetry. They focus their additional critique on the potential ill effect that the institution of the stage could have on morality. Stephen Gosson echoes William Prynne's objections in his pamphlet "School of Abuse," pointing specifically to the degeneration of English fortitude amid the flourishing of the theatrical arts.
Our wrestling at arms is turned to wallowing in ladies laps, our courage to cowardice, our cunning to riot, our bows to bowls, and our darts to dishes. We have robbed Greece of gluttony, Italy of wantonness, Spain of pride, France of deceit, and Dutchland of quaffing.
As one examines Gosson's assertions regarding English character, one is struck by the brutal efficiency of his historical Englishman. Alas, all this is lost to the theatre! Gosson goes on to illustrate the behavior of the English theatrical spectator, comparing it unfavorably with that of earlier Britons.

We Englishmen could suffer watching and labor, hunger and thirst, and bear all storms with head and shoulders; they fed upon roots and barks of trees; they would stand up to the chin many days in marshes without victuals, and they had a kind of sustenance in time of need, of which they had taken but the quantity of a bean or weight of a pea they did neither gape after meat nor long for the cup a great while after.7

Though one may be tempted to dismiss this sort of complaint as Puritanical asceticism, one should keep in mind that the Puritans were not quite ascetics. They did believe in recreation and the good things of this world.8 Their objection was primarily to the dissolute entertainments, those entertainments that bore, in their eyes, a causal relationship to the descent in fortitude and virtue. And though this descent could be caused by excess of any recreation, the theatre was viewed as particularly tainted in all that it did. Even if the material it presented were of a sacred nature, as in a religious play, it was not redeemed based on content. John Northbrooke, in his “A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes,” roundly decries religious plays, citing dire results if they should be practiced. "And will God suffer them unpunished that with impure and wicked manners and doings do use and handle upon God's divine mysteries with such unreverentness and irreligiousness?"9 Though the Puritans take issue with a great deal of what is presented onstage, it is the very fact of it being onstage that causes degeneracy.

The vices that surround the theatre are decried by Prynne and Gosson, while John Northbrooke adds his voice on this count. Gosson and Prynne both point out that prostitutes would often work to drum up business in the theatres. "For they that lack customers all the week, either because their haunt is unknown, or the constables and officers of their parish watch them so narrowly that they dear not queach, to celebrate the Sabbath flock to theatres and there keep a general market of bawdry."10 And yet, other places where these ladies might ply their trade are left unmolested by antitheatrical authors. Though one cannot  deny that the theatres of Elizabethan and Caroline England had their share of vice, it would seem that they have been unduly singled out for scrutiny, and there is little that can be done to satisfy their critics. The traditional practice in Shakespeare's era of female roles being played by boys raised concerns about emasculation and homosexual temptation in the theatre. Female actors, however fared no better. "When a play was staged at Black-Friars in 1629, with a French girl taking one of the women's roles, the innovation was denounced as another Italian import, and Prynne was at pains to point out that temptations to whoredom and adultery were no more tolerable than temptations to sodomy."11 As for those who went just for the shows--who sought entertainment and had no interest in lascivious pastimes-- our authors upbraid them for pride, citing biblical examples. "David (saith he) was sort hurt in beholding Bathsheba, and Thinkest thou to escape? Thou beholdest them in an open theatre, a place where the soul of the wise is snared and condemned. Art thou wiser, stronger, holier than David?"12

The Puritans also reach for historical examples, a number of them tenuous at best, which point to theatrical iniquity. The rape of the Sabines provides fodder in the first case, drawn from Tertullian and used extensively by Gosson. Tertullian, as cited by Gosson, points out that it was in a theatrical building, the Consualia, that this rape was planned.13 Nor is this sort of argumentation limited to Gosson. Northbrooke and Prynne produce similar arguments against the theatre. "How did the Benjamites overcome and take away the daughters of Israel but in watching them in a special open place where they were accustomed upon the festival days to sport and dance most idly and wantonly?"14 These arguments can be easily disposed of in and of themselves-- after all, are not churches also large open spaces of meeting? However, the arguments are mentioned here for their significance. These arguments are significant in that they demonstrate the lengths to which the Puritans and their antitheatrical allies go in order to disparage the dramatic arts. In some cases, it seems that any thing, no matter how inconsequential, can be used in order to halt the spread of the theatre. Indeed, many of these arguments come to the point of grasping for straws. The significance lies in the level of antipathy between these authors and the institution of the theatre.

The essential thrust of the Puritan argument, where it does not overlap with Plato's, is that theatre has a harmful influence upon the formerly virtuous English. Emasculation, lust, and myriad other vices are laid out as endemic to the theatre. However, as has been pointed out previously, the Puritans were not total ascetics. Even Prynne approved of plays and poetry for recreational reading, going so far as to recommend Sophocles and Menander for their excellence.15 He particularly recommends this practice for young men who are learning Latin in school. It seems strange, given his worries over theatrically-inspired licentiousness, that Prynne should approve drama for use by the very demographic that is generally considered most at risk of falling prey to decadence. Indeed, dramatic corruption of youth was the first complaint  mentioned in the Lord Mayor of London's 1587 letter to the Privy Council. “They are a speaciall cause of corrupting their Youth, conteninge nothinge but vnchaste matters.”16 Thus it makes little sense that allowances should be granted for the reading of dramatic literature, regardless of how useful it may be found for the study of language. Gosson even lauds a few scripts which he views as containing virtuous materials, though one should note that he is the author of at least one of them. "And as some of the players are far from abuse, so some of their plays are without rebuke, which are easily remembered, as quickly reckoned."17 He would go on to laud them as Maximus Tyrius lauded Homer's works, as the most beautiful and worthy to be sung by gods themselves.  Note that this assertion of great beauty, self-interest on the part of Gosson set aside for the moment, seems reliant on the virtuous content of the work itself as opposed to any assessment of the actual poetical form. Thus it is not written drama to which the Puritans object, but the act of performing theatre, and Gosson is even willing to allow this in certain cases, should he deem the content of the play to be sufficiently virtuous. Thus Northbrooke condemns performance regardless of content while Gosson allows for the performance of agreeable content and Prynne encourages the reading of drama for recreation.  Yet, in these same treatises, drama and theatre are condemned in the the strongest language available.  Indeed, Gosson calls the theatre "a whore's fair for whores."18

Despite decrying the toxicity of the dramatic arts, Plato and his antitheatrical compatriots among English Puritans readily make use of dramatic techniques for their own purposes. They find uses for it even among those who are generally considered to be most at risk of corruption by the theatre. In the same treatises, they banish, condemn, and castigate those very arts.  Their opposition is cloaked in terms of philosophy, theology, and moralistic concerns for the welfare of their fellow citizens.  However, though they decry and lament dramatics, they also make allowances for them and seek to use them to further their own, apparently contradictory, aims.  This inconsistency strikes one as possibly careless or hypocritical on cursory examination, one finds reconciliation by tracing the complaint further back to the very nature of drama itself. Uncovering the reason for this specific concern, however, requires closer examination of theatre's most basic nature.

The Puritan and Platonic prejudice against theatre could be chalked up to either carelessness or hypocrisy. However, to level such charges at Plato, Prynne, and their associates is too simplistic an explanation.  Though on the surface Plato and the Puritans oppose the theatre purely on moralistic, philosophical, and theological terms, their opposition is weakened by its internal inconsistencies such as the poetical construction of the City in Speech or Puritan allowances for dramatics among those most vulnerable to temptation.  In essence, though antitheatrical writers claim wholesale rejection of dramatics, carefully parsing out the structure of their arguments reveals their resistance to be far less zealous. Also, to assume overt hypocrisy assumes a knowledge of their intentions that their readers cannot have. Other explanations for these inconsistencies must be found. Instead of being willful, these inconsistencies are an expression of profound ressentiment, where those who oppose the dramatic arts do not fully understand the nature of their complaint.

Ressentiment, defined as misapplied hostility to the cause of one's frustration, is key. Plato and other antitheatrical writers ascribe an antagonistic and degenerate nature to the poets, much like Nietzsche's lambs do to the birds from the Genealogy of Morals:
That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no grounds for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves: "these birds of prey are evil.." there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might view it a little ironically.19
Nietzsche goes on to demonstrate how the ideal set out by the lambs misunderstands the real nature of the birds of prey. The birds have no interest in harming the lambs per se; they are simply doing what they must to survive. To ascribe evil, or directly malicious, behavior to the birds is to quite simply misunderstand them. Similarly, Plato and the Puritans misunderstand dramatic artists when they accuse the theatre of being an enemy to society. As Barish points out, Plato ascribes a motivation to the poets of compensation for their own deficiencies of character and compensation for their own worthlessness.20 Platonic and Puritanical inconsistencies indicate that though they might speak of the poets as insecure degenerates, they do not truly understand the real nature of their frustrations.  Due to ressentiment, they simply file poetry under the heading of "evil." However, poetry actually shares many of its aims with philosophy and religion. Though philosophy, religion, and poetry all attempt to create values, poetry does so most efficiently because it is the soundest embodiment of Nietzsche's Eternal Return of the Same.

The question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?21
The concept of Eternal Return is often tied up in debates regarding metaphysics and cosmology, but it is best understood as a moral argument. Whether or not the universe actually recurs is immaterial if one recognizes the psychological and philosophical ramifications of embracing the concept as if it were true. Nietzsche does not wait for cosmological proof of the Eternal Return of the Same, but presents it to the readers as a moral hypothetical. The cultural force of this idea is immense, as pointed out by novelist Milan Kundera. "That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht)."22 That which recurs has weight, importance, and value. That which never repeats lacks weight. That which has ceased to repeat has died and fossilized. Nietzsche's notes, compiled under the title Will to Power, make the point that something coming to a final state, an end to becoming, is at its end.23 Nietzsche also alludes to this in two passages in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "On Three Metamorphoses" and "One Thousand One Goals." "Praiseworthy is whatever seems difficult to a people; whatever seems indispensable and difficult is called good."24 One repeats those actions which one considers indispensable. It is in the repetition, the eternal becoming, that value is created because one repeats that which is valuable.

Alexander Nehemas posits that fictional characters are the embodiment of Eternal Return. However, this assertion is far too broad. In his article, "Capek On Eternal Recurrence," philosopher Bas C. Van Frassen states that when addressing Eternal Return of the Same, it becomes necessary to speak of discrete, specific moments in coherent terms.25 One must ask: when does War and Peace recur? Is it whenever it is read? Whenever a reader thinks about the characters? Is it a metaphysical recurrence as the printing press rolls? To broadly define fictional characters as embodiments of Eternal Return lacks specificity. However, dramatic characters pass this test of precision. As the play is performed each night, events recur. Unlike novels, drama possesses discrete literal, chronological moments of which one can speak. Hamlet will die the same way each night. So, too, will Hedda Gabler. Their nightly sacrifices, repeated eternally, become things of value through repetition. "[The recurring moment] lives on itself: its excrements are its food."26 Because it is repeated, without change, the process becomes more important than any end product; it is Nietzsche's eternal becoming. Thus through theatre, through repetition, mankind can begin to deal effectively with that which is transcendent in its experience.  The continual living drama, that which continues to be repeated, helps to form the “tablet” which each people in “One Thousand One Goals” hangs over itself.

Recurrence is how culture is made. Terry Eagleton, citing Shakespeare's Tempest, equates the process to Sebastian's swim from the foundering ship.27 The artist not only navigates the medium, but also creates the current that sustains him. Should the swimmer stop swimming, he would sink and die. This is the structural difference between Platonic philosophy and Puritan theology, and dramatic poetry. The two former practices, assuming a pursuit of absolute Truth, seek an eventual end. For this reason, they are not life-sustaining. Existence, viewed through these lenses, cannot be said to repeat eternally but happens only once. As such, both Platonic philosophy and Puritan theology are structurally opposed to the Eternal Return, and thus are less well-disposed to life. Both would trade the living of life for an ideal end.

However, this conflict, in itself, does not account for the level of hostility in the antitheatrical debate. One cannot help but note that those who lambast theatrical activity make allowances for it, or even engage in it. It is specifically the professional, dedicated dramatic art that raises the most ire.  Reading ribald Menander or Plautus is considered laudable for young men learning Greek or Latin, despite despairing for the boys' virtue. Plato poetically founds a city from which he then banishes the poets.  "And therefor when any of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us... we will fall down and worship him... but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist."28 In the City in Speech, each person must go about their appointed task, and the structural nature of dramatic poetry dictates that the poet and player will perform a number of different types of business in the course of their profession.  Further, Edmund Morgan, pointing out that the Puritan attack on the theatre was historically the most successful as well as intense and sustained, finds it interesting that this attack followed directly on the heels of the golden age of English drama, the age of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson.29 Natural economic laws such as the division of labor, particularly as outlined by thinkers like Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville, suggest that the professionalization of the poetic arts is a natural course of events, the arguments suggest that development is not without its problematic aspects. The professional artist, through his or her talent and dedication, lays exclusive claim to the Eternal Return of the Same: the domain which is most well-disposed to life and will.  As they are most capable of performing quality work in an efficient manner, the suggestion is that poetry and performance should be left to the experts. This claim is, essentially, an act of aggressive enclosure on the part of the artist, fencing off an activity that was once communal property and everyone's right. "In the history of civilization the right of authorship has slowly devolved from God and His prophets and priest to everyone."30 The poetical impulse, the creation of values through the repetition of stories, once belonged to all people. By professionalizing the art, the dedicated dramatic poet begins to build fences around this impulse. The non artist is left with only his purchasing power, the money for admission to the playhouse, to continue their engagement with the art most closely attuned to the Eternal Return. This fencing-off leads to the ressentiment of Plato and the Puritans.

Close examination of the antitheatrical rhetoric of Plato and the Puritans not only shows inconsistency on their part, but a lack of understanding regarding their own frustrations. To refer to something as vicious, degenerate, and evil does not seem a ringing endorsement of techniques that will then be used to further the thinker's own project. This ressentiment, channeled into accusations of evil and lewdness, is truly anger at the professional dramatic artist's act of enclosure around a formerly communal property. That the anger should be so intense is understandable. Dramatic poetry is capable of wielding great power, particularly in light of the value-creating process of the Eternal Return of the Same. Given the often divisive nature of debates over the dramatic arts today, particularly in terms of access and funding, it may behoove contemporary artists to keep the true nature of antitheatrical prejudice in mind, and perhaps reopen the circle to the community. After all, the fact that birds of prey don't actively hate lambs doesn't mean that the lambs don't have good reason to resent them.


1    Plato.  “Republic.” The Republic and Other Works. Benjamin Jowett, trans. (New York: Anchor Books, 1973): 71.

2    Augusto Boal. “Augusto Boal at The Green Room, Manchester, 17 January 1995.” In Contact With the Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre. eds. Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996): 11.

3    Plato, 288.

4    Plato, 291.

5    Plato, 104.

6    Jonas Barish. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981): 14.

7    Stephen Gosson.  “The School of Abuse.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. ed. Bernard F. Dukore. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1974): 163.

8    Edmund Morgan.  “Puritan Hostility to the Theatre.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 110, no.5 (1966): 341.

9    John Northbrooke. “A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. ed. Bernard F. Dukore. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1974): 161.

10  Gosson, 163-164.


11  Morgan, 342.


12  Northbrooke, 160.


13  Tertullian.  “On The Spectacles.” Dramatic Theory and Criticism. ed. Bernard F. Dukore. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1974): 87.

14  Northbrooke, 160.


15  Morgan, 341.

16  Richard Saltonstall.  “Indicting the Theater on Four Counts.” A Source Book In Theatrical History. ed. A.M. Nagler (New York: Dover, 1952):115.

17  Gosson, 165.

18  Gosson, 162.


19  Friedrich Nietzsche. “The Genealogy of Morals.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. (New York: Modern Library, 2000):480-481.

20  Barish, 9.

21  Friedrich Nietzsche. “The Gay Science.” The Portable Nietzsche. (New York: Viking Press, 1982): 102.


22  Milan Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990): 5.

23  Friedrich Nietzsche. The Will to Power. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968): 549.

24  Friedrich Nietzsche. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” The Portable Nietzsche. (New York: Viking Press, 1982): 170.

25  Bas C. Van Fraassen.  “Capek on Eternal Recurrence.” The Journal of Philosophy 59, no. 15 (1962): 373

26  Nietzsche. The Will to Power. 548

27  Terry Eagleton. The Idea of Culture. (London: Blackwell, 2000): 3.

28  Plato, 86.

29  Morgan, 340.

30  E.L. Doctorow. “Address to the Students of the Tisch School for the Arts, New York University, September 14, 2001.” Artistic Citizenship. (New York: Routledge. 2006): 53.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hump Day Reader #3





Happy Holidays!  I know we're a day late, but hump day fell on a holiday this week.  But we hope you enjoy nonetheless.

Very Serious Populists by David A. Banks- For The New Inquiry, Banks examines the effects of voting in a democracy as well as the effects on modern social networking.

How Theaters Can Combat the Stay-at-Home Mindset by Terry Teachout- In the Wall Street Journal, Teachout looks at how we can get butts in the seats, an issue that is near and dear to our heart here at the Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ready to Rumble? The Fear of the Fearless.


 That sounds like angry bees is not an unseasonable swarm approaching from the south.  It is the perennial. the perpetual, argument over the ownership of text in the theatre.  This is something we here at the Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg have touched on in the past, and even been embroiled (albeit unwillingly) in as a part of various production activities.  And it usually gets nasty.  Apropos of a question, I've been told how I have no respect for playwrights and people like me were what is wrong with the American theatre today.  So it goes.



This time, the "cow that kicked the lantern" was a teacher from a Maryland college inquiring about the ethics and legalities of college students deconstructing elements from Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer."  Within two days, those who veer towards the playwriting end of the discussion were screaming "piracy" while those with a directorial auteur bent lambasted them for being servile and promoting "censorship."  They fired appeals back and forth, calling upon the law, and upon the sacred nature of art, and of collegial respect, and the dissident/outlaw mythos.


I have to jump in here: "Such censoring is the result some legal construct same as copyright is."  Yes, in a sense only fully embraced by the rankest of sophists - all law is a construct.  But worse, you're attempting to morally equate fraud prevention with Apartheid, fascism, and other onerous censorship regimes.

As a consumer, I have the right to know if the stuff in the box marked "Neil Simon's The Odd Couple" is in fact made of 94% pure Odd Couple flakes, or in fact is some copyright or trademark theft.  I am paying for the experience offered by the playwright.  If you want to "experiment" with the text, fair use offers you considerable leeway to experiment with the work - use it if you must, but if you're going to steal in the name of art, you're not an artist - you're something else, and if I tell you what you are, then some government may try to ban me.

Do what thou wilt, indeed.  Fooey. (A)*

As a delinquent, my friends and I would go joyriding.  Fast and furious until the vehicle ran out of gas.  

If we got caught, the charge would be Grand Theft Auto.  

But that court was of a different world, so even if we were arrested there, we never accepted the stigma of "thief" they tried jail us within.  We stayed in our world of joyriding; perfecting our art form.  We made our own laws and established our own jury of peers.  

No one can touch us now.  We travel freely across all borders, inventing new contracts and allegiances on the fly.  We are no longer delinquent.  We are the new law.  We are fast and furious until this vehicle runs out of gas. (B)*
From there, pedantic stories began to blossom like mushrooms after a rain.   The exchange, running to 75 emails as of this writing, would be fascinating reading if it could be collated cleanly and disseminated.  But I have to wonder, what is the root of this rancor?

Let us take a second and dispose of legality.  If a work is under copyright, then changes must be approved by the author or his/her estate.  Period.  To do otherwise is illegal and you can find yourself holding the bag for serious damage claims.  Though some nations are more flexible on their copyright laws (Poland, for example, seems to allow any sort of directorial vision if it is placed under the heading of satire) it is generally as inescapable as death and taxes.  The community theatre down the street from my house makes regular use of plays that they have no license to perform and generally do not seem to pay royalties.  Their actions are illegal, questions of right and wrong do not really enter into it.

Lets us now, independent of legality, turn to the question of right and wrong, the question of ethics.  Is it right or wrong to "use" an author's text to realize your own, possibly contradictory) vision as a director?  Or as a performance ensemble?  Are the "deliquents" above truly doing something wrong in their joyriding?  Or is copyright protection merely a form of censorship?  These are your own questions to answer, and many will gladly go to the mattress to stick up for what they feel is right.

And we still haven't even touched the issue of whether such regimes are sustainable or not (though Ira Gamerman has been through this on Howlround).  There's another can of worms as well.

What has always shocked me about this debate (which is a perennial one, coming around every year or so) is the sheer level of rancor that it is capable of generating.  Playwrights will howl that major changes "disrespect the playwright" and directors will screech that they are being "held down."  And, the issue of royalties aside, each side of the debate will do their best to ascend themselves to martyrdom over the issue of "respect."  One, after all, cannot let a diss go unanswered.

Which is where I am really going with this.  Are we as artists so brittle that we must engage in rancorous email exchanges with ourselves?  Must we always fight for "respect" with one another?  I have read new plays from playwrights that were barely worth the paper on which they were printed.  They said nothing and sought to please the widest possible audience.  There was no joy, there was no pathos.  There was no conflict to speak of.  Similarly, I have seen directors direct uninspired, listless pieces that also say nothing and, in one memorably dull evening,  took a firebomb of a play and reduced it to a wet squib.  But later, in discussion and debate, I have seen those same two artists transform into rhetorical firebrands, passionately fighting for "respect."

At the end of the day, the American theatre is fighting for its relevancy.  Our audience is shrinking and theatre without an audience is masturbation.  We are speaking to a narrower and narrower cross-section of the well-fed while trading our professionalism and insight for the privilege to do so.  We fight for this "respect" amongst ourselves beneath the shadows of mount doom.  We are afraid and, at times, that makes us turn on ourselves to make sure we're not the first branch pruned.  This is survivalist thinking.

I cannot say I know the answer, but I feel, deep down, that our readiness to rumble is rooted in fear. Art made from fear doesn't work well.

 *Please note that I have withheld full attribution due to these messages being posted on a semi-closed forum.  If the authors would rather I give full credit, please let me know.