Friday, December 22, 2006

Hatfields and McCoys

One frequently hears an argument made about the relevance of the theatre in the modern age, even from rather arcane artists like the director Peter Sellars, to this effect: “it is our responsibility, in our contemporary multi-media society, to do more than move audiences to feel (which a well-produced tv commercial can do in 15 seconds). We must instead move them to some kind of change perhaps even some kind of action.”

I take Sellars’ point about the futility of merely concentrating on invoking emotions. Stimulants of that sort can be had terribly cheaply. Furthermore, living in our sophisticated media-savvy world, many of us have become so used to this sort of manipulation that we are, if not altogether inured to it, at least ready to shrug off emotions within moments—a sort of necessary aphasia for minds overwhelmed by a media-saturated world.

On the other hand, I have my serious doubts about the suggestion that we should undertake to move people to action with the theatre. For if we consider this to be the main purpose of theatre, frankly, there are far better vehicles for doing so. The television or the internet, for example, used deftly, will reach far more people more immediately than any theatrical production. Moreover, even more troubling, to me — and perhaps to others — is the question of whether the director (or playwright, perhaps) must then decide ahead of time what action, exactly, she wants to make people take. If she does, isn't that pretty manipulative? And, in these terms, would that mean that the best production was that which was most lucid in its propagandistic intentions? (Anyone for the Soviet “boy-meets-tractor” plays?) And if she doesn’t, isn’t that pretty irresponsible? (“I shifted people out of their apathy: some of them became missionary doctors and others suicide bombers...”)

Having said that, of course, one must accept that there have been many people who felt, or at least have said that they felt, that this was, indeed, the task of theatre. Bertolt Brecht, for example, seems to suggest this in his theories; and who can doubt that he is one of the Twentieth Century’s most important playwrights? At the same time, we see, ladies and gentleman, in the other corner, wearing the black trunks, the number one contender, Samuel Beckett. If we look into Beckett’s plays with the question of what sort of action they are advocating in mind, we are likely to conclude that he wants nothing from us other than complete inertia. Some of us will not be comfortable resting with such a means of measuring the validity of theatrical work, then. Naturally, others are, and it is perhaps this which has led some commentators to conclude that all theatrical scholars or practitioners had to fall into one of two mutually exclusive camps—the Hatfields and McCoys of twentieth-century theatre: Brechtians or Beckettians.

I, however, repudiate that conclusion, happily having a foot in each camp. But that does rather force me to come up with some answer to the dilemma of how to reconcile Brecht’s (apparent) insistence on action-advocacy with Beckett’s (apparent) complete indifference toward anything of the kind (but cf. his Catastrophe). Well, I think the answer lies in this: what theatre does, better than anything else, better than any other art form, better than any other form of communication, is pose questions about the relation between the individual and society. And it is my belief that this is the crucial imperative facing us theatrical practitioners (and scholars): to identify the questions we want to ask —sometimes very old and yet perennially vital, sometimes very new and startling— about what sort of people we are, what sort of people we want to be and what sort of world we want to share.

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