Thursday, January 19, 2006

Formal Inertia?

Not long ago, George Hunka over at Superfluities (see blogroll) contributed a post entitled Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe that examined Manet's painting. After an elegant and quite interesting analysis, he concluded:

What does all this have to do with theater and drama? Well, one of the things it points out it is how far our drama is behind the other arts, about 150 years behind painting in this case. Most of our drama is still playing with Victorian narrative form; as much as there are jokes around the edges of it, "playing with form," that form is not abandoned nearly as much as Manet abandoned conventions of narrative and allegory in 19th-century French painting.

I would question whether George's characterization of contemporary theatre is completely fair. If he means by "Victorian narrative form" the well-made play, or even realism, then I would say that many "advances" have occurred. While our playwrights do sometimes use these forms (for instance, a play like Proof), we are just as likely to find a play that does not use those forms (such as Angels in America, or How I Learned to Drive). We have one-person plays such as those by Anna Deavere Smith, or Eric Bogosian, or Lily Tomlin, or Rachel Rosenthal, or Holly Hughes, or Karen Finley. We have wild extravaganzas like The Lion King and Avenue Q. Surely if we are focusing purely on form, then we are not stuck in a Victorian rut.

If, however, what George is rejecting is not simply Victorian narrative form, but all narrative form, all storytelling, then yes, we haven't moved much. However, to condemn our failure to abandon narrative as a failure to advance in theatrical form (if that is what George is saying, and I'm not totally sure that he is) seems to me to be rather churlish. This would be like accusing painters of failing to advance because they had not abandoned paint.

Since Aeschylus, the theatre has been concerned with telling a story. Aristotle named plot as the most important element of the theatre, and imitation of an action as its primary method. While we could distill the theatrical experience down to the presence in the same room of a live artist and a live spectator, there would little to distinguish theatre from dance or music or any live performance. No, a form of storytelling in which an actor impersonates the character is hwo Aristotle described theatre, and I'm not certain there is a way to abandon that without eliminating theatre's unique definition as an art form.

Could there be a theatrical equivalent of, say, action painting? I suppose there could -- in fact, there may have already been in the creation of Happenings and the work of Fluxus in the 60s and 70s. And while these movements were necessary as a means of jolting us out of a rut, I don't think they were very valuable in and of themselves. In many respects, they served the purpose of erasure, of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch to start over.

I teach a course in Modern Drama. I start in 1879 with A Doll's House and extend up to Angels in America. The stylistic experiments are legion: Symbolism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Theatre of Cruelty, Theatricalism, Futurism, Epic Theatre, Absurdism...the list goes on and on. But what characterizes our present moment in time, it seems to me, is the existense of all these forms simultaneously, sometimes in the same play. A playwright like Caryl Churchill brings together epic theatre, realism, magic realism, theatricalism, and expressionism in a single play like Cloud Nine or Top Girls. To me, that's postmodernism -- what the architect and postmodern theorist Charles Jencks called "the presence of the past." To me, that's a change in form, and a serious one at that.

So I can't agree that the theatre has somehow been stuck in a formal rut for 150 years. It seems to me that it has been just as revolutionary as any of the arts, if perhaps a bit slower at times. Now if you wanted to argue that we haven't had an advance in the theatre's means of production since the Victorian era, I'd be with you!


Joshua said...

is not cinema an extension of the dramatic form? film and television do for us what theatre and vaudeville once did, right?

George Hunka said...

Response (dense and extended, as you might expect from me) at my own blog here.

Scott Walters said...

No, film and television are not an extension of the dramatic form. They tell a story through imitation, true, but they are mass media, art reproduced through mechanical means, without the energy exchange that happens only when the performers and the audience shares the same space. They are not extensions in the same way that photography is a new form, and not an extension of painting.

joshua said...

disagree . . .