Wednesday, November 21, 2007 and now, friends, here and now (part one)...

theatre is theatre and not something else because it is taking place in the here and now.

it is a sharing of that here and now that can take us beyond that here and now.

beyond even the wider here and now of our lives hereish and nowish.

it is a commonsensicle cliche to say that it does so by constructing a fictional not-here and not-now.

Distrust commonsense. And cliches.

Beyond: what if the here and nowness of theatre is itself a fiction?


...can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Prologue, Henry V

And this is me talking. This is really me talking to you now.
Dad, bedbound, Enda Walsh

There exists a place where all the contrarieties are true
William Blake

Theatre offers the promise of a "here i am" on the part of the performer that goes far beyond the "here i am" of everyday life. In a sense it embodies nothing less than a desire to say "hello", an act which asserts the hereness of both myself and yourself. This desire in itself can be seen as a reaction against the inevitable experience of disembodiment encountered when something comes forth from within us - something like the voice. My voice is mine but it's not me. It leaves me.

Children, until they are told they shouldn't, often begin their stories with "Hello". As the voice is removed from even its origin in the body by written text, this "Hello" crystallises the pretence - the "i am not me", the "Hello. I am a lion." - of fiction which is a retreat from the self, we find a simultaneous counter-urge:

"Hello, here I am."

"I am a lion."

There are drama forms in which a character's first act is to introduce himself.

Ego sum Alpha et nouissimus.
I am gracyus and grete, God withoutyn begynnyng,
I am maker vnmade, all mighte es in me;
I am lyfe and way vnto welth-wynnyng,
I am formaste and fyrste, als I byd sall it be.

First lines of the York Mystery Cycle

(Hello God!)

There's a word for this but i can't remember it. Anyway, there's a lot of it, and to consider it unsophisticated is to miss the point that the Big Hello happens every time an actor steps into view.

Of course, we're not really talking to God. God isn't here. It's just an actor. "Hello God!" is a ridiculous thing to think. More so to say, because he can't hear you.

Oh, hang on.

It makes everything a lot easier if you've got an omniscient deity watching over the processes of representation which uneasily clunk around in between me and you. "Hello God!" we think and God hears even what's inaudible. "Hello" i say to you and god legitimates me and you by knowing that i'm here and you're there and he heard you hearing me and understanding me.

But we don't got that now, at least not at the heart of our metaphysics, so we're going to have to try again...

The "Here" in the "Hello, here I am" of the actor's entrance has at least two meanings. It's the here of this stage here, and the here of not-this-stage, maybe the "vasty fields of France", maybe a field with a single tree in it. To speak of the second "here" as a lie and the first as a truth is to ignore the special status of the theatre space. In other words, that first "here" enables the second. I can say "Hello, here i am. In France." And if i'm onstage, i won't get the response i will get if i say it in Tesco in Holburn: "No you're not." The audience allows it. The theatre is not a lie that tells the truth; the stage is what allows theatre to transcends the true/false binary. This is why we can talk about the "magic of theatre" - but this magic, unlike other magics, need not hide its workings. It's magical even as you see the pocket that the rabbit's kept in, even as it exposes to you its secrets.

But all the world's a stage ne c'est pas? Well, peut-etre, but if that's the case then where does the audience sit? For all that identity and its constituents may be a performance, they don't (always) take place in a theatre and so they don't get to bail out from the true/false party. On stage, being theatrical is mandatory. Elsewhere it's another way of saying you're being a dick.

Who or what gives the theatre this magical special status? A stage is not a stage because it's in a theatre, it does not need to be blessed like a temple or launched like a ship in order to come into being.

"You see that space there?"


"It's a stage."

"No it isn't."

"Well, ok, let's pretend it is."

Perhaps the contract between performer and audience goes no further than this: we agree on the fiction that this here is a stage.
update: as Paul Burgess has a really interesting piece in the same kind of area here (go to notebook and scroll down to november 10th)


Lily E said...

I like this post.

There is also the double consciousness of theatre that is, it operates in a liminal space between the here and now, and not in the here and now. It is always between two states. Which also relates to the idea of theatre being a lie - as the performer is 'not me, not not me' - it's a false dichotomy.

Which allows all sorts of exciting things to happen that could not occur outside of this space...

Um, that is all.

Lily E said...

... and the other thing about an actor saying, 'Hello, here I am' is that really, an audience is free to say, 'Hello, so you are, how are you up there, looks a bit hot under those lights, would you like a Malteser?' It is a communal, collective event that allows dialogue, even if it does not always encourage it.

Ok, I'm going now.

Lily E said...

Also, I am aware that you have said all these things. I'm just agreeing with you.

That's really it now. Sorry.

sarah p said...

I really really really like this post. I like the fact that I had never really thought about the fact that children start their stories 'hello' before, and what that means, and how it works. I like it when you make me think about something very obvious all over again.

hurrah for Alex.

alexf said...

here's a comment that Paul Burgess made elsewhere:

Yeah, like it a lot. I've been looking at a similar issue over on the Daedalus website (the Daedalus Notebook page) on why I feel what we're doing is theatre not live art. It's something to do with the nature of the 'contract'. (That and all the accumulated baggage of the centuries which just means we kinda know when something's theatre, just cos...)

Also like your point about God. Am just struggling to get my head round some Lacan... I maybe interpreting according to my own agenda (and so what if I am?) but maybe there's an interesting idea that your actor/God/audience thing still holds because a belief system or even an imagined God/Other here fulfils the same role as a genuinely believed in God.

What about actor = social crusader, God = idea of social justice, audience = Michael Billington? That's definitely a religious relationship!

alexf said...

and thanks everyone.

lily e - Chocolate? During the performance?

sarah - did you used to do the "Hello" thing when you were a kid too? Lil says she didn't and that she's never seen it, so i was wondering if it was just me...

Paul - re God - yeah, that's interesting. It's notable the number of practitioners who talk about theatre in religious terms even as they and their work are secular (Brook) or even actively anti-religious (Artaud, Grotowski). For them (and i think for some of us who work in theatre) the theatre itself gets raised up as a kind of quasi-deity. It's interesting how Shakespeare's late plays resound with religious experiences (resurrections, conversions - by which i mean complete revelations of belief systems brought about by a specific event/encounter -, redemption and so on) and even agents (imogen, portia, some others i can't remember) are consistently described in religious/divine terms, even as the plays are set in ancient, polytheistic worlds and the deus ex machina[pl?] do a lot of huffing and puffing without any effect. What else is Prospero but the god of the island? What else? He's a stage-manager engineering a miracle (or a series of miracles). In other words the miracles are achieved not through faith or religion or divinty but through theatre.

But i'm drifting away from the here and now of the stage space and the nature of the representations thereon, and no doubt i could drift interminably on, ever further from the point were it not friday evening. Nonetheless - i'd maintain that the stage is a space which enables transcendence of various kinds, not least the dialectical true/false one outlined above. The (quasi-?)religious nature of this is nicely captured by your idea of an "imagined God/Other"

alexf said...

with the proviso that the imagined God/Other doesn't act to stabilise the transmission of meaning. Perhaps the most it can do is sanctify the shared presence or hereness of audience and performer.

wilko said...

Just out of interest, what do you mean by describing Brook's work as secular? I don't really doubt it is, but when I met him (KKKKKKKKKKKKKLANG!!!!!!!!!!!) he struck being just a bit of a crazy old mystic.

sarah p said...

ah, but isn't Brook's God and the focus-of-his-mysticism theatre? I think Alex is right that theatre becomes religion for its practitioners. I have a theory (not very fleshed out just yet) that church/temple/mosque attendance is good prep for becoming a theatre practitioner. all that ritual and crowd response and (in the case of my childhood) very camp costumes. excellent indoctrination.

Alex - I don't remember whether or not I wrote 'Hello' but I have definitely seen it on children's stories - seem to remember that some of the 7yearolds I taught in my gap year did it.

Paul Burgess said...

I hope that the theatre isn't the object of its own religious tendencies, though I'd be struggling to defend our industry against any accusations of institutional narcissism. However, I think it's interesting how theatre has often blossomed at periods when the human animal is being called to replace God, to some extent. For example, Greek drama's questioning of the gods' moral authority or the Renaissance placing 'man' at the metaphysical centre of things. Or Beckett's post-war, semi-existentialist take on the sheer bleakness of a Godless world. A lot of great canonical drama dramatises a sense of humanity's transcendent possibility being wrecked against our actual powerlessness and weakness. And plays like The Tempest dramatize the equally important wish-fulfilment of an impossible escape from the tragic, where we can either manage to be god-like, or a real god turns up to set things straight. Obviously I'm being ridiculously generalised here. But I'm trying to make sense of my instinct that theatre's religious tendencies are to do with what the actor represents as a kind of Everyman: that it's not quasi-religious per se but that it's good at responding to a basic psychological/metaphysical need: putting mankind under a spotlight and stripping it to the basics, a need that's perhaps generated by the loss of total religious conviction. (Incidentally, even Everyman, a religiously conservative play, allows for the possibility of man tragically replacing God before restoring order. Even more incidentally, I directed Everyman in a chapel a long time ago, and we stole the first lines of the York Mystery Cycle as a way of God introducing himself (saying hello) to a probably quite non-Christian audience.)