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.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hump Day Reader #2

Behold!  From out of the west thunders the hooves of the pale horse!  It is the horse that delivers the weekly hump day reader to help you through the end of the week with a little brain food.

Who's Afraid of Edward Albee? by Laura Parker.  I stumbled across this while I was researching a paper on Edward Albee.  Parker discusses Albee's legacy and assesses his dated opinions of play ownership and theatrical collaboration.

Philanthropy, Power, and Perversion by James Waggoner. Over at the Clyde Fitch Report, Waggoner examines the dark side of giving and philanthropy.

The Unsustainable State of Art by A. Nora Long.  Via Howlround, Long issues a clarion call to artists to stop paddling a sinking ship and start trying to salvage.  A strong salvo against the accepted wisdom of the starving artist myth.

Why the Epidaurus Theatre Has Such Amazing Acoustics by Emily Upton.  Here's a little something for folks who are into theatre architecture.  How was it that the Classical Greeks managed such perfection of sound?

Potential, in a Rutter Era at the KC by Peter Marks.  Why is it that the institution originally founded to serve as America's national theatre has had such a disappointing record?  Marks explores this more deeply in the Washington Post.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hump Day Reader #1

It's Wednesday!  To get you through the week, your Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg has put together a reader of mentally stimulating articles on theatre, society, and culture.  Pieces are chosen for their stimulating nature, unique viewpoints, and enjoyable readability.  Happy Hump Day!

Critical Generosity by Jill Dolan.  Jill writes for the inaugural issue of Public:  A Journal for Imagining America about the ability for the intellectual and the artist to give back to their society.

Age-ism, Classism, and the Future of New Play Development of "Watch the Throne" by Ira Gamerman.  Gamerman puts an angry foot forward in Howlround: A Journal of the Theatre Commons to chart the difficulty of early-career artists, particularly playwrights, in dealing with contemporary gatekeepers.

Critical Thinking #4: Daniel Mendelsohn by David Wolf.  Wolf interviews Mendelsohn in Prospect Magazine about the importance of criticism and critics in the arts.

How to Waste a Crisis by Mike Konczal.  Konczal reviews Phillip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.

J. R. R. Tolkien on Fairy Tales, Language, the Psychology of Fantasy, and Why There’s No Such Thing as Writing “For Children” by Maria Popova.  Popova explores Tolkein's concepts of "children's literature" and the importance of fantasy and myth for adults.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Little Holiday Cheer

Here's a little holiday offering from David Sedaris.  Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

And again...

Recently this little gem has been circling the drain that is Facebook.  In it, actor Peter Dinklage expounds on how he doesn't feel particularly lucky and numerous sources have proudly posted it to their walls as one of the Great Truths of theatre in the social media age.

This kind of thing really grinds my gears.  Mr. Dinklage is a talented man.  I have seen a number of his performances (albeit, never in person) and can say that I have enjoyed them.  Further, the consensus of the theatre community is that he is a talented guy who is also a nice person.

Yet at the same time he is unwilling to use the word lucky because it would degrade his hard work and spit on other guys.  And that, quite simply, is bullshit.  It is a narcissistic attitude that gives that one individual sole credit for any success he has.  And that, quite simply, is to operate  in bad faith.  He might've "been true to himself" but there are loads of artists who are doing precisely that and do not have contracts on large HBO series.  It foists the responsibility for "freezing their asses off back in Brooklyn" onto those people.  In essence, by denying that luck has any role, Mr. Dinklage is spitting on those people while claiming not to.

Luck does not negate hard work.  Talent does not replace it.  But lots of hard work will sometimes get you a television show on HBO and sometimes you're still in your tiny Brooklyn apartment.  There is another force involved as well.  Call it fortune if you like, but calling it luck is inherently more honest and requires less spit.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Sticky Wicket: An Issue of Play Ownership

The question regarding the ownership of a dramatic work has been a sticky one since the rise of the director and the increased practice of publishing the play as a literary work.  Figures such as Shakespeare and Moliere were responsible not only for writing their plays, but for the staging and arranging of the entire theatrical event.  Coupled with the fact that, in Elizabethan England, plays were often written collaboratively with numerous company members, and the ownership of the play as an artistic work (intellectual property) was less of an issue than, say, keeping the script itself out of the hands of a rival company.

However, times have changed, and today the theatre must wrestle with the  prospect of who owns a particular show.  Making this situation even more muddy is the declining primacy of the text in a postmodern performance environment.  What is the role of the text?  Is it blueprint?  Is it sacrosanct?  All collaborators are equal, but are some collaborators more equal than others?

Against the backdrop of this confusion comes a conflict between the Perth (Australia) Theatre Company and playwright Lachlan Philpott over a production based off the playwright's script Alienation.  Based off of interviews with people who believed they had been abducted by aliens, artistic differences between the company and the playwright led the playwright to pull his name off the production as well as have a note placed on the seats during opening night that read:
“I would like to acknowledge the people who bravely shared their stories and the actors and creative artists who contributed to this work in good faith.  However, the outcome of this production does not reflect my original scripted or communicated intentions as the playwright."
Q Theatre in Sydney would cancel its 10 day run of the show in solidarity with the playwright.  Other theatres which were planning on hosting the show are waiting to see the outcome of the dispute.  Details of the precise nature of the alteration are sketchy, particularly the differences between the script and the final performance.  Suffice it to be said, he felt that it was no longer the script that he had written, and therefor he removed his name from the project.

Quite simply, things change in collaboration.  And often the playwright is considered a chief authority in the process, the rest being held as collaborators to realize the playwright's vision onstage.  However, this assumes that the playwright knows and can communicate their intentions effectively through the script.  Or that one is capable of knowing such an intention.  Lyn Gardner, writing on the subject for The Guardian, asks why we will readily cut from Shakespeare, Moliere, or Ibsen, but recoil from doing so to Miller, Williams, or Philpott.

We should stop here a moment to recognize that contemporary playwrights enjoy certain protections under copyright law that their older colleagues do not.  However, the question here seems to be much closer to that which is right and ethical as opposed to that which is necessarily legal.  A number of authors are so protective of their works, they will legally stipulate that not a word can be cut or changed ( Edward Albee), while others say "do what you will, please give me proper credit" (Charles Mee). 

Collaboration is a process that requires professional respect and understanding.  Anything less, and you see a situation like that on display in Perth.  Yet it seems the playwright in this case is trying to have things both ways.  I must ask Mr. Philpott, "If it is not your play, what is the purpose of the note?"  Such an event seems like grandstanding, not unlike resigning in protest.  Perhaps I should request the right to leave a note on the seats at my local regional theatre's new production of Clybourne Park.  After all, it isn't the play I wrote.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Showing Its Age: Tradition, Pageantry, and the Lost Colony

This past weekend, your Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg had the opportunity to travel to North Carolina's Outer Banks (that chain of Islands off the Atlantic Coast) and spend some time on Roanoke Island and the town of Manteo.  While there, I also hit up Ft. Raleigh National Park and saw The Lost Colony, a massive outdoor dramatic spectacle that is presented there every summer and is now in its 76th season.

By way of history, Lost Colony is the second oldest outdoor drama in the United States, begun in 1937 with support of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Numerous American thespians are alumni of the program, including Andy Griffith, Terrence Mann, and Ted Tally.  Despite the pressures of the great Depression, Lost Colony lead to a tourist boom in Manteo and the Outer Banks.  In 2013, it was also awarded a Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre.

One of the interesting things about going to the drama, listening to the announcements made as people are getting seated, and flipping through the souvenir program, is that the Lost Colony experience is a combination of past tradition and future progress.  True to it's progressive roots, Lost Colony embraces its community outreach and has been recognized for excellence.  And the house announcements will proudly tell you of this.  Yet at the same time, alongside mentioning the Tony Award (which, I must say, strikes me as the epitome of modesty, I would have glued mine to my forehead), the announcements will proudly tell you about alumni of the show.  This year's director played both the roles of Poor Tom and Sir Walter Raleigh back in the 60's and 70's, one of the actresses has the distinction of being both the youngest and oldest person to play a particular role, etc.  The fact that actors and staff members return to the show repeatedly and in varying capacities seems to be a real source of pride for the production, and the town of Manteo itself.

This is not to say that everything is wonderful.  The script, written in the 1930's, is definitely beginning to show its age.  The treatment of the Roanoke natives is just a little too "heathen savage," complete with Tonto-esque "White-man.. go here.." speech patterns and a propensity for deerskin loincloths.  The treatment of the hostile leader Wanchese seems particularly simplistic, particularly when counterposed to the "pioneer spirit" of the almost completely virtuous colonists (though they do point out that much of the trouble was begun by Englishman Ralph Lane's killing of Algonquin leaders).

Despite this, The Lost Colony embodies much that is good in the tradition of American dramatics (something that the American theatre Wing and I actually agree on... take note, it doesn't happen often).  The establishment of a tradition of excellence and engagement provides a firm foundation for exploration and outreach. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Squirrel that Roared: A Card from the Folks at Howlround

"What if imagination and art are not the frosting at all, but the fountainhead of human experience."
 --Rollo May

That there is your Friendly Neighborhood Dramaturg showing off a card he received from the good folks over at Howlround.  It's awfully nice when we wander off the digital and into the analog realms for a moment or two.  In this increasingly fragmented theatrical word we live in, it behooves us to keep in touch with one another.

No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.
--Hunter S. Thompson

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bad Theatre In Oakland

Bad news on a hot night in the South.  It's not the heat, that's not so bad, but the humidity.  As smothering and unwelcome as an unbathed paramour in your bed, and just as likely to give you diseases.  The air is damp and tempers are short in the wake of the George Zimmerman ruling in Florida.  For those of you just joining us, a neighborhood watchman (Zimmerman) shot and killed a teenage boy by the name of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.  Some gink with a gun ended some kid's life.  The claim was self defense, and under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws, that's all it takes for an acquittal.  Race is an issue here.  I didn't follow the trial, read up and draw your own conclusions.

Of greater interest, at least at the moment, are those short tempers.  Numerous protests, rallies, and petitions have sprung up in the wake of the verdict.  According to sources, protests turned ugly in Oakland, with vandalism and the American flag being burned.  Ye gods!  Folks are even lighting "blunts" in the flames of old glory.  Here lies the Great Society.

It is that flag burning that interests me at the moment, particularly in terms of its theatricality.  What is it to burn the flag of a nation?  In my days with the Boy Scouts, we burned numerous American flags as a form of respectful retirement.  Piled them on the grate and up they went in a hot nylon conflagration.  Melted the grate at one point.  And it always felt strangely subversive.  But somehow, I'm not sure that is what our protestors were getting at here.

Let us also set aside flag burning in a foreign context.  When protestors in Yemen, Hungary, or Canada burn an American flag, it is generally a pretty clear indication of displeasure with American policy.  That's not quite what is at stake here either.

These people burn the flag out of anger.  But I don't think it can be said that they "hate America."  And as much as "patriots" will drape themselves in Old Glory and poo poo these "children" as throwing a "tantrum" or wrinkle their nose in "disgust" and simply dismiss these protestors, they miss the point in a way that few have since the days of Spiro Agnew, or maybe Michael Dukakis.  This rage comes from a feeling that they are no longer (and some would submit never really were) partners in the American project.  They are acting against the symbol because it is the only thing left to act against.  And as for the gentleman lighting the "blunt" in the flames?  Who can blame him?  When the frustration grows enough, just tune out and let the THC take you on a ride, enjoy the colors.

I will not pretend to understand things further than this.  Oppression and privilege exist, institutionally, in this nation.  I'm lily pale, myself... and there are few photos of me outdoors because of the massive lens flair I cause.  But for all that, I benefit.  I cannot say what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin that night.  But I know the system has run its course for better or worse.  But we should not ignore the inherently theatrical act of protest here.

It is bad theatre, to say the least.  Bad vibes.  But it is also the kicking and struggling of a people who feel they do not have a say.  We as a people ignore this at our peril.  It might just be the biggest show of the year.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Kicking and Screaming: Thoughts on Theatre and Social Media

Recently American Theatre Magazine posted a question to their Facebook feed asking readers' opinions regarding the usage of cellular phones (and other communication devices) in the rehearsal hall.
The comments were, if nothing else, deeply illuminating in regards to the American Theatre's status vis a vis the 21st century.  A number of directors, often older, thundered how such devices were roundly banned from usage within their rehearsal halls.  Some even going so far as to announce that they confiscated the phones of their actors while others grudgingly admitted their usefulness in the logistical processes surrounding the show.  It seemed that only Scott Walters (of Creative Insubordination) dissented, wondering aloud when the theatre was going to join the 21st Century.

And I cannot help but concur with Mr. Walters, but also find myself disturbed to the general timbre of the response.  Ban, banish, and forbid all smack of an autocratic outlook on the theatre.  As a director, far be it from me to question too far the institution of directoral sovereignty, but such treatment of one's colleagues quite simply strikes me as paranoid.  Though some respondents may be teachers referring to their students, I still wonder if banishment is the best answer... as these habits can follow them into collegiate and professional situations (recent studies discussed on NPR indicate that collegiate hazing traditions are actually carried up from High School as opposed to being a case of youth emulating their elders).

However, of greater concern to me was the phrasing of the question. "We know about electronic devices at the theatre (bad)..." This question seems to assume a great deal.  At first it assumes that the American theatre is uniformly in agreement on ANY issue, and second it assumes that electronic devices in the theatre are inherently bad.  This seems to be generally agreed upon, with publications lionizing as "heroic" a theatregoer who smashed another person's cell phone, an act which can be considered assault in some jurisdictions.  Now, you will be hard-pressed to find a thespian who has not encountered distractions (cell phones, loud candy wrappers, etc.) and sincerely desired to set the offending person on fire for their crimes.  But is this not approaching it with the wrong attitude?

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, has written eloquently about the importance of the intermission.  It is the epitome of the theatre as a social event.  And yet, disruption (screen glow) aside, are we not just as guilty of locking our audience in as the director who refuses to allow for an interval?  If we, as artists, are losing our audience members, mid show, to the likes of Facebook, are we not doing something wrong?  I would submit that we are.  The busker or masquer, the itinerant commedian, the hawker in the fairground had to fight, hard, for the audience attention.  And I would submit that our loathing of cellular phones is indicative of our current artistic laziness.  It is much easier to protect your moving, poetic scene from distraction by simply banning the electronic devices as opposed to building a moving, poetic scene that connects with the audience to the point that they don't pull it out in the first place.

The mountebanks of the fairground understood this, and played to it.  But we should also keep in mind that the theatre began as a social and communal event.  Social media (the thing that the person on the phone is most likely checking because, well... who actually talks on those things anymore?) would seem to be the natural ally of the quintessential social event, helping to cast its shadow even further than the immediate space in which the play/show/gig/thing is happening.  So much of our current theatre is not structured to handle this, and that is a deficiency on our part.  It is time to stop blaming "thoughtless audience members" or mocking them as philistines.  It is our job to hold attention.  And if your vision cannot do that, then perhaps the problem is you.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Past the Back End of Nowhere: Continued Thoughts on the End of Theatre

Near the beginning of last month, I posed a question to our readers about the end of the theatre.  Quite simply: have we reached it?  If we have:  what next?  If we have: why not?

My friend and colleague, writer/comedian Phil Keeling, posted a thoughtful rant (yes, those exist) on the death of theatre, concluding (rightly) that theatre is with us to stay because "As long as people have imaginations, a desire to perform, and an empty space in their garage, theatre will always exist."  However, he also points out that lamentation on the state of theatre are often the province of grad students who are confused about the low turnout for their semi-obscure production.

Yet aren't we basing the continued survival of an audience-based art form on the continued desires of the practitioners?  In her recent piece for Howlround, Building the Audience Into the Process, Lana Leslie writes that the inclusion of the audience is one of the hallmarks of the process of her company, the Austin-based Rude Mechs.  And, to step even further back, doesn't Peter Brook list the audience as one of the key ingredients in his book The Empty Space?

A while back, I posted a desire to develop a Gonzo Dramaturgy.  A dramaturgy that was inherently political (in the broadest sense of the term) and based in the idea that "Politics is the art of Controlling Your Environment."  We, as artists, should be working to empower the audience to do exactly this:  To Control their environment.

However, through the fog of grading and prescription medications of various flavours, I fear I did not quite phrase the question clearly enough.  I used "end" in the same way that Francis Fukuyama used it in the title of his book The End of History.  In this, Fukuyama postulates that the development of Western-style, liberal democracy has been the dominant historical trend, and that history has now fulfilled this end.  In this case, end is synonymous with "purpose."  So, as opposed to wondering about the death of the theatre, I was instead pondering (or trying to) the purpose of our "fabulous invalid."

I feel the purpose of theatre is to create a powerful, affective, effective communal experience.  To bring them, together, to a liminal state and then through to a new state.  The question is, has the theatre managed to accomplish this?  If it has, then should the purpose, the end, change?  And if it has not, why has it failed to do so?  I look forward to hearing from you down in the comments.