Consider these blurbs from a recent listing of shows here in New York City (I've de-listed the names of the shows and the actors):
In _____________, _________ portrays warlords, militants, oil workers, prostitutes and the American Ambassador to Nigeria, among many others. In this, his third solo show, ________ continues to develop his unique form of journalistic theater.
Taking place during one alcohol laced rehearsal, ____________ rocks hard and breaks hearts. This downtown NYC garage band is on the edge of breaking-up as the lead singer and his boyfriend (also in the band) are, er, breaking-up. With each year that passes that they aren't rock stars the incessant pull of adulthood becomes harder to ignore.
In ________________, the Broadway and film actress whimsically traces the highlights of her life though the music that has carried and nurtured her, both professionally and personally.... A devoted wife and mother, _____ shares the challenges and rewards of balancing a life in music with real life. The result is an entertainment that offers some comfortable memories and more than a few surprises, all delivered with the intimacy and joy of a seasoned performer.
Kiah is an out-of-work actor who uses his savings to produce his dream show: a production of Hamlet where the roles change every night, determined by a drawing of names at random....By the opening of the show-within-a-show, Kiah learns who can be trusted and who can't — but the greatest betrayal won't come from without: it'll come from within.
A famous musician, discovering that he is dying of an incurable illness, has to come to terms simultaneously with his present and past....In the process, Zelman discovers that he can "atone" both in his relationship with a long-dead father who was a victim of Nazi prosecution and a very-much-alive son, through his own understanding of his life and art.
Good news and bad news here. The good news: Each of these theater pieces seems to honor Aristotle's "how-to" about dramatic writing, with reversals, revelations, characters eliciting fear and pity, etc. The bad news: Each of these theater pieces seems to honor Aristotle's "how-to" about dramatic writing....
I state the situation this way because many people hold the mistaken understanding that Aristotle's Poetics describes the compositional methods of the great Greek tragedians, such as Aeschylus and company, and that if we adhere to them, we then borrow from their greatness. However, the Poetics doesn't do this because Aristotle composed his notes long after these writers had finished. Instead, the Poetics describes the state of theatre in his day, which was closer in style, effort, and intention to modern domestic drama and comedy (in fact, the best fulfillment of Aristotle's dictates was not the fifth-century BC tragedies but the upcoming Roman comedies and an entire evening's menu of television dramas and sit-coms).
Aristotle was and is an excellent guide to what I call "what-is" theatre, echoed in the first blurb above as "journalistic theatre." As is often the case in these matters, Howard Barker, the British playwright, pins the condition wriggling to the wall. What follows is an excerpt from an earlier essay I wrote on Barker's Arguments for a Theatre:
Barker's theory of a catastrophic theatre first has to be seen against what he believes is the state of contemporary theatre, which he variously labels as "populist" or "humanist" or "liberal":
The sterility of the contemporary theatre...follows from the theatre's sense of itself as an industry with a market, on the one hand, or a social service with a popular obligation, on the other....Both of these positions require that the dramatist satisfy an audience in its perceived demands — entertainment or education. In attempting to satisfy these demands, the theatre slavishly performs functions more efficiently provided elsewhere and diminishes its particular power, poetry, the spoken voice, the hypnotism of the actor.
To Barker, this kind of "market" theatre is aligned with an authoritarian culture (masked as a democracy) dedicated to making every secret of its populace open and transparent in order to better police them, what he calls "light as a regime." A theatre that seeks to "throw light" on the subjects it engages is, in Barker's analysis, complicit in this social control.
Complicit how? First, by lucidity and clarity. The "dazzled culture [in the regime of light]...requires of art that it is — lucid. And if the text is to be lucid, the production must make its first ambition — clarity." Critics and audiences insist on these "virtues" because they lead to the "elimination of the unhealthy state of not-knowing," that is, a state of darkness, which could also be the home of secrets, sordidness, and "narratives it finds unpalatable." Second, by message. "The liberal theatre wants to give messages" because that is the inevitable pay-off of lucidity and clarity in conception and production. These messages, "redolent of earnestness, responsibility, legislative/poetic romanticism" are a "sort of fake heroism" designed to offer the "great safety and security... of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes" geared to "the spectacle of relentless harmony."
Third, the message delivered by lucidity and clarity must be delivered by means of "the realist discourse," which Barker identifies with naturalism or realism in the theatre (he does not make distinctions between the two). Realism "presupposes a moral weakness in the audience, which must be presented with positive landmarks, like posts in an estuary, if it is not to be dangerously lost in the wastes of imagination." "Real" speech, structured narratives, recognition, mirror held up to nature leading to "instant meaning" — all of these devices and more must be used in order to make sure the audience does not get lost in imagination and comes to the "consensus of conscience and critique" embedded in the drama as required by the regime of light.
When all of these elements are combined, the "Theatre of Conscience," as Barker calls it, "moves inexorably towards an art of anodyne humanism, in which the actors and the audience tacitly collaborate in an act of 'saying' and the theatre diminishes itself in the pursuit of the limited objective of communicating an idea...Behind this lies the notion of the author as a 'good' man or woman, whose trade is principally the dispensing of wisdom and whose vocation is the creation of harmony." The theatre thus created serves the interests of the larger regime by fostering an ersatz sense of moral accord and downplaying or destroying (through criticism and the market) any use of the theatre for moral speculation outside the "consensus."
The mission of "what-is" theatre, then, is replication of the status quo, a way to keep us (and thus our thoughts and emotions) in the places to which we have been taught how to become accustomed to place them. (This makes sense in a such a highly commodified and fetish-making culture like our own.) Each of the story-lines quoted above borrows from the same narrative-telling playbook in order to achieve the same end: resolution, redemption, a complaisant harmony, a comfortable humanity.
But Barker goes on to describe a different approach, what I call "what-if" theatre (and he called the Theatre of Catastrophe — admittedly, a more piquant descriptor). "What-if" is more transgressive than "what-is", not only in the outlaw sense of that word (Barker describes "what-if" as the place where "the imagination is wild and tragic,...its criminality unfettered [and] the unspeakable is spoken") but also simply in the root-sense of that word, to "step across": boundaries, frontiers, expectations, the whole set of corporate-made templates that discipline us to enskin ourselves in a "human nature" acceptable to cultural and political demands.
Of course, given the economic, political, and cultural regimes under which theatre-makers have to make theatre in this country, "what-if" theatre will never gain much of a mass audience, for several reasons. One is its call for "think-good" as opposed to "feel-good" productions. Barker talks about "deliver[ing] the wound" of greater insight where the audience "will endure the wound as a man drawn from a swamp endures the pain of the rope." Clearly, the audience for wound-enduring will be small, given Americans' native desire to avoid pain and to/in order to maximize pleasure as well as a resistance to being "learned" by their entertainment choices. (Not to mention the standing truth about humans that, more often than not, when they think they're thinking, they're simply rearranging their prejudices — having a theatrical "wound" take them out of that practice will not be welcomed or pursued.)
Another reason is the sheer technical difficulty of the challenge: how to compose a theatre that grinds against the grain of every established maxim of the "right" way to "wright" a play. It means inventing new forms, new soundscapes, new choreographies, new topographies — and most of all, a new self, or at least a refurbished way of "selfing," that is, the re-composition of the theatrical creation known as "oneself."
A third reason is that there is no demand from the culture to create a theatre like this. Long gone are the days (if they ever existed) when Americans looked to art and artists for a compass that encompasses what is right and provides a contra-diction to the common diction. We pay lip-service to this desire, of course — every grant request to an arts organization states, small or large, some homage to the outsider and truth-telling role of the artist. But no one really believes it, or at least believes it has any traction in our culture's aesthetic arrangements. So we get, yet once again, confessional monologues and theatricalized journalism and paeans to the healing powers of art, none of it calculated to wound, all of it calculated to please and assuage.
Sour grapes in this? Perhaps a tad, but they're low down on the list. These thoughts come more from a hard-to-articulate but strong disheartenment with the quality of life in the country where I live. Everything feels, and is, coarse and coarsened. The intellectual and emotional thinness of most contemporary entertainment is of a piece with this country's slide into self-pleasuring, historical amnesia, and rejection of the common good as its top three cultural pursuits. Both "what-is" and "what-if" theatre can do little to reverse this — that would require a wholesale re-enchantment of the American populace by qualities it has given up and forgotten: a spirit of disobedience, a remembering of the collective origins of individual freedoms, the virtues of things having a "local habitation" — the list is long. A revitalizing of theatre cannot happen without a revitalizing of everything else — and there seems no chance that this will happen without some disaster greater than Katrina (which seemed to do nothing to shock us out of our facile corruption) that exposes the rot and opens up possibilities to cauterize it.
But, in the meantime (and all of our lives take place in the "meantime"), one has to do something, and creating theatre is as good as anything (though probably less pertinent than building affordable housing and fighting for universal health care). The thing to do is create enough "what-is" theatre to buy some space and time to create the "what-if" theatre that is much more interesting to create, if harder to roll out. And hope the revolution comes soon.