From the archives: The Poetic of Theatre ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From the archives: The Poetic of Theatre

This really is from the archives. I was looking for something else when I stumbled across this piece, which I have no recollection of writing. It was in a folder that dates from when I was Writer in Residence at Pembroke College in Cambridge, in 2000. It must have been written for a series of workshops I gave there at the time. I'm putting it up here in case it interests any of you. It pretty much sums up what I still think.

THEATRE is a profoundly poetic art.  In the days of classical Greek drama, playwrights were unknown: they were all poets, involved in poeisis, “making”, a word that, like opera, which means “work”, focuses the mind wonderfully on the less ethereal senses of the word.  Poetry has nothing to do with vacant gazing at the moon and a lot more to do with the business of perceiving the world around us and making of that perception – what? something new, something alive, something beautiful.

Beauty is a word very much out of fashion at the moment, except, I think, among physicists.  I believe that if poetry has a function, it is the perception of beauty.  The problem with the word beauty is that in art it has been associated with all sorts of banalities and exclusions, with idealisations and untruths.  Yet artists of every kind have always worked against these perceptions to make new perceptions of beauty, often a beauty which creates dissonance in the minds of those who consider beauty to adhere to certain recognisable conventions.  Beauty smashes these conventions open, although the paradox is that this dissonance all too quickly is neutered, absorbed back into social and aesthetic conventions. 

This is a dilemma every contemporary artist has to acknowledge and deal with, and has no easy solutions, if it has any solution at all.  Howard Barker examined this question directly in his bleak play Scenes from an Execution, in which the work of the rebellious artist is wholly appropriated by the state: the more radical the achievement of the artist, the more the cachet for the state in absorbing it.  He doesn’t leave a way out in this play, and it’s still a question I find myself arguing with.  The clue lies, I believe, in the individual perception of a work of art, and the faith one must have in the nature of this perception: but it requires a certain circumscription of ambition to accept that.  No work of art will change society, but it may prompt a question, set a thought going, in the mind of an individual, and that process, although totally unpredictable, can be profound.

This is how that works of a certain energy and brilliance manage to evade these appropriations and dullings of response.  They embody a certain anarchy, a subversiveness which inheres in the middle of the very concept of beauty itself.  The business of art, as is commonly asserted, is to ask questions, not to find answers.  The more interesting the art, the more difficult the question.  This is why it’s very difficult to take a work of art and make a synthesised interpretation of it, a process which Susan Sontag famously objected to in her essay Against Interpretation: she said that critics should rather look at what a work of art is, and attempt to describe what it its is-ness, if I can use that word, is.  Otherwise, she warned, the art is subject to an ultimately sterile reductiveness, a sterility which ultimately, according to my argument, is agreeable to the mechanisms of authoritarian power rather than the subtler and more immediate understanding of the individual. 

An exemplar of art’s subversiveness is of course Shakespeare.  On the one hand, he can be used as the ultimate symbol of establishment values, but think also how he was used as a tool to express political dissent in 1960s Poland.  Within Shakespeare’s plays is a deep critique of the nature of power which can never be wholly disguised, although it can be made unjustly dull.  His brilliance was in his anarchy, which doesn’t permit the total closing off the contradictions present in his plays.  He creates a disturbing beauty from the contradictions he sets in play, which makes his works fascinating and complex and deeply satisfying expressions of humanity.   But there are many others.  Georg Buchner’s play Woyzcek is as disturbing now as it was 300 years ago. In the 20th century, we have Beckett, who seems to get more and more contemporary every decade after his death, and Brecht, whose amoral and yet uncompromisingly political commitment can only be understood in the terms of the beauty he created.

As the East German playwright Heiner Mueller remarks, the new is always horrible.  The kind of beauty he reveals in his work is often deeply disturbing, and turns the attention to things which are usually described as ugly.  His work is informed, however, by a profound attention to formal qualities, often playing with aesthetic principles from the Greek poets or from Brecht, but dismantling them (although he later eschewed the fragment).  He has been accused of creating ugliness, but, although he would no doubt refuse the word as being too problematic, I would say his work is a revelation of beauty. 

If you’ll forgive me for a moment, I’ll quote myself here, from my novella Navigatio, where I talk about what I think beauty is:

beauty is nothing, sang Rilke, but this terrifying beginning… The terror of beauty is that everything is beautiful.  It is the chaotic self, the chaotic body, the chaotic world, fragmentary, diffuse, unassigned to meaning, against which form, an aesthetic armour, a self by which we understand our given selves, defends itself from the chaos within and without it.  And art contains the terror of obliteration, which inhabits the centre of beauty.  It admits the reality of death, of human finitude and failure, it admits that the world is not us and that we do not control it.  This admission is love: the voluntary renunciation of self-tyranny, the ascension to the place of ordinary beauty, which redeems nothing.

I have spent a little time on this because the poetic and its function – which I have shorthanded as the creation of beauty – are so crucial to understanding theatre.  I am trying to hint at what I said at the beginning cannot be taught, and which you will all have to find out for yourselves.  If you want to make anything, you have to begin to recognise what it is that you think is beautiful.  If you can recognise that, you can begin the arduous task of making something else, something of your own, that is beautiful as well, to make visible your own perception of what is beautiful, which, given the diversity of the human race, will be quite unlike anyone else’s.  If you want to make something truly radical, you must understand that beauty inhabits the realm of feeling, that it is not an objective quality, but a quality of human attention.  I’m not about to untangle feeling from the realm of the sentimental, in which it is usually placed, but I’ll return to this later.

Theatre is inherently metaphorical.  As soon as an actor is standing on a stage in front of an audience, we witness the creation of a metaphor.  Theatre is often equated with film, but this is not accurate.  One way it differs radically is in its poetic – film is an unremittingly literal medium.  Even the most poetic of film makers, like Andrei Tarkovsky for example, have to work with its literalness: a filmed image of a spade is always a spade.  In theatre, a spade can be a spear, a dead body, the wall of a house, a walking stick – whatever it is made to be by the combined imaginings of the performers and the audience.  Film limits imagination – everything is filled in for us.  This is simply not true of theatre, where imagination has to fill in almost everything.

When anything happens on stage, we understand simultaneously that it is not real, while at the same entering the reality – the condition Coleridge described as the “willing suspension of disbelief”.  This is a pact between the performers and the audience, which brings in that other sense of “play” – the more familiar, everyday sense, of playing.  Actors are up on stage pretending to be someone else, so that we can, as an audience, pretend that we believe them.  This pact of the unreal – which leads us into an infinity of other possible realities – occurs in all sorts of writing; it happens when we read a novel we especially enjoy, for example.  But in no other literary art is it as obvious and immediate as it is in theatre.  This is because theatre is related to us through the medium of people, of actors.  They are living and breathing in front of us on stage in, yes, real time.  This is why when theatre is boring it is more excruciating than anything else.  It is also why, when it is exciting, it is more exciting than anything else.

But there is another element in play here.  It is one of relationship.  Through the immediate medium of human communication, between bodies in the same space at the same time, some listening, some speaking, a bond is formed.  There are very many poets who speak of poems as a “meeting place” – in this case, the meeting place is most commonly through the medium of words on a page, and is more abstract, although the sense of meeting can be profound.  In a theatre, the meeting, although in one sense it has more mediators, is much more direct.  It is direct human communication.  And what creates the sense of meeting?  It is, always, a sense of commonality of feeling.  David Mamet describes theatre as “dreaming in public”, which communicates the paradoxical sense that witnessing theatre is a public act, in which we experience something in common with many other people, and intensely private – what we experience is experienced by us alone, in our own heads and bodies.  Arthur Miller said the theatre was an arena for the emotions.  The transmission of human emotion is the great strength of the theatre, because the emotion is transmitted directly through our most commonly used medium – language – from one human being to another.

This introduces that paradox of what is often called “truth” in acting, when of course acting is the reverse of true – someone is pretending to be someone else.  But when I see a performance which moves or touches me, I think of it as true.  What I mean is that it has given me a sense of a feeling which is true.  We might not think that it’s true that Orestes murders his mother and is pursued by the Furies in front of us, but we understand the truths of revenge and guilt. We understand the metaphor, and we each understand it in our way.  But it’s not understood, at least, not at first, and not most profoundly, in a purely cerebral way.  The metaphor is felt, through our emotional responses.  The more intelligently the emotional metaphors are played, the more interesting the experience of the play.

All this is what you might call the deep subtext of the play.  It need not be obvious, but it must be there.  This emotional subtext will be what drives the writing, what makes you want to write at all.  What then happens on top of that depends on the individual demands of what you are writing, and there are infinite variations and, alas, no rules. 

But there are certain things you begin with.  The theatre itself is a metaphor.  As soon as you put an actor on a stage, you have created a metaphor for human existence.  The metaphor exists no matter how far back you strip the illusions of theatre.  The French playwright Marguerite Duras, deeply suspicious of the illusions of theatre, finally had actors simply reading the script on stage.  It was still a metaphor.  This is the first element you start with as a playwright.  The second element is language.

I want to go back to the idea of contrast that I raised last week.  Like a poem, writing for theatre depends heavily on its rhythms - on point and counterpoint, the juxtaposition of opposing or incompatible forces, on fastness and slowness, abruptness and sensual lyricism, as expressed through the superstructure, the placing of scenes, the detail of dialogue.  Through these, symmetries can be made or broken, action can be revealed or hidden.  Language adds to this the quality of image, the written metaphor.  The difference in drama, as opposed to poetry or prose, is that metaphor is realised in a number of ways.  It is not just a written image in relation to other written images.  A metaphor can be a literal object or action which then pulls into the play a universe of abstract ideas by its mere presence.  Remembering, as I said earlier, that the theatre itself is a metaphor.  In Shakespeare’s day it was literally a metaphor of the universe: the theatres were painted with the starred heavens to reinforce this.  When you make a play, you are making a world.

It’s worth looking briefly at some examples of how particular metaphors are used in plays.  An elegant example is Aechylus’s use of a net in Agamemnon.  The net, which is used to trap Agamemnon in his bath, so Clytemnestra can kill him, crops up again and again in the play as an image in dialogue.  The effects of this are interesting.   Its persistence in the dialogue makes its presence at first a foreboding of the crime, hinting at what is to come, and creating subtly its expectation, the sense of inevitability we associate with classic tragedy.  It comes to symbolise Agamemnon’s fate.  But firstly, and crucially, because this is theatre, the net is a literal object crucial to the action of the play: it is the means Clytemnestra uses to murder Agamemnon.  This literalises and makes legible the associated ideas of Agamemnon’s entrapment by Clytemnestra’s deceit, and his own vanity, and how he is entangled and destroyed by Fate.  Another more complex metaphor is Shakespeare’s use of animals in King Lear.  It pervades the play constantly, a recurring motif put through variation after variation.  The two murderous daughters are described as tigers, wolves, serpents and all sorts of other vicious beasts throughout the play, and the metaphor is literalised by their actions – their ruthless seizure of power and driving of Lear to madness.  But the metaphor not only colours the action: it also works at a larger level.  It signals the limits of human reason and conjures a picture of pitiless nature in which all human beings are deeply implicated by being part of it, a devouring and terrifying universe unbound by the human constructions of morality.  What Shakespeare gives us is a picture of a Godless universe.

Samuel Beckett makes theatrical metaphors stripped of almost all associations.  His characters exist in a no-space and no-time which might most accurately be described as a stage, trapped in dustbins or up to their necks in earth.  This releases an enormous imaginative power.  At the other end of the scale is a playwright like Chekhov, whose metaphors are specific: he places his characters in very specific social and historical milleiux.  But both kinds of drama exist absolutely in theatrical reality: each is in fact equally unreal.  Because of their unreality, both can become true, in the sense I was describing earlier, in the minds of an audience: they permit individual members of the audience to respond to the play with the resources of their own experience, their own imagination, their own lives.  Rather than simple empathy, the response which says a particular play was “engaging”, the audience member ideally will feel a disturbance in his or her perception of reality: something is challenged, something is changed.  If the experience is truly memorable, they will carry this change with them for the rest of their lives.  It will make new and indelible connections within their consciousnesses.

As I said earlier, the vehicle for this disturbance is emotional.  The emotions respond much more quickly than the intellect; they operate at physical, visceral levels.  But the last thing you want is a response that remains at that level: if you want people to think about the play you have written, to understand it, they must also, somehow, retain some sense of perspective on their emotions.  Ultimately, I don’t believe that emotion and intellect are different or opposing things: I believe they are different aspects of one movement of consciousness.  To rely simply on emotional manipulation, which is what happens in the worst of mawkish American television dramas, is depressingly insulting to an audience: what is more, we know, watching, that those emotions are untrue.  Brecht, reacting against the mawkish conventions of his own time, insisted on a technique which has been mistranslated as alienation: he wanted to remind people all the time that they were watching theatre, so they could then reflect on the situation he was showing them.  But this by no means implies that he was thereby throwing out the use of feeling: emotional movement and response was as essential to his dramas as it was to Shakespeare.   On the other hand, to rely on dry intellectual argument is, in the terms of the theatre, untrue to the action, which, if it involves human beings, involves feeling.  The difficult thing is to find the way thought synthesises these different aspects of consciousness, and the way to synthesise them is, of course, by using metaphor. 

Writing a play isn’t a matter of following a theme, but of following the logic of the metaphors you are creating.  What matters is getting the metaphor right, so it feels “true”, and so that feeling of trueness can communicate itself into the emotional arena of the theatre.  Metaphor, like emotion, is at once precise and multiple.   It has its own logic, which is worked out through the process of a play.  If you manage that, you have created your own poetic, and your own beauty.


Alan Skinner said...

Very thoughtful and stimulating piece. Some of the conversation made me think back to Eco's reflections in his book, On Beauty, particularly the line,

'The problem with the word beauty is that in art it has been associated with all sorts of banalities and exclusions, with idealisations and untruths.'

And trivialisations. Which, it seems to me, is connected to Geoffrey Hill's awkward phrase, 'oligarchical commodity English' in his reply to Duffy's comments on texting and poetry. An enduring untruth remains because Beauty has commoditised, not only because we treat it like a commodity but because can only describe it as a commodity.

Most of all, this is great.

'Samuel Beckett makes theatrical metaphors stripped of almost all associations.'

Which, on the face of it, is impossible because metaphor without association is an oxymoron. But Beckett manages it because there is just enough seminal reference (emotional and intellectual) to set free the associations in the minds of the audience. But, as you point out further on, Beckett is sufficiently in control of what he writes that watching his plays doesn't become some indulgent and pointless psycho-analytical free-for-all.

Enjoyed this immensely. Thank you.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Alan! I don't know if it's good or bad that my basic thinking has changed so little in 12 years...

Mem Penman said...

Thank you for posting Alison. Really enjoyed this. The thinking has remained for a reason, clearly. The clarity is resonant. And yet funny that it seemed completely new to you on reacquaintance. Freshness of thought after over a decade. Can only be a good thing.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Mem! It's mostly weird because I have no memory at all of writing it. A form of amnesia quite common among writers, I believe. Or perhaps it's encroaching old age. Prefer the former, obviously...

Born Dancin' said...

I love that feeling of jamais vu and think it's very much a writer-centric thing. I wonder if other art forms can have the same effect. I'd sort of imagine that the sheer physicality of making visual art, or acting, or filmmaking would leave something of a body-memory, whereas the corporeality of writing is pretty much the same whatever the project(give or take headaches and back pain).

But yeah, looking back on something and thinking 'where on earth did those words come from?' has a strangely enjoyable whiff of possession about it. Writing in tongues...

Alison Croggon said...

It happens to other writers I've spoken to. I'm sure you're right about the physical memory, although I've wondered too if it's some kind of psychic self-defence. I've often felt envious of those who make tangible work, like visual artists... Mishima talks about the necessity for writers to have some kind of physical grounding, because writing "is a stomach that eats itself". Mind you, I wouldn't recommend his means.