Friday, January 06, 2006

Has Anything Changed Since the 1920s?

From Harold Clurman's inspirational book, The Fervent Years:

"I enjoyed seeing plays -- my flesh had a natural hankering for the atmosphere of the theatre, even when the plays were contemptible -- but my mind was left dissatisfied. At that time I might have put it this way: In the books I read, in the painting I see, in the music I hear, in all conversations, I am aware of the presence of the world itself, I detect a feeling for large issues of human concern. In the theatre, these are either absent or diluted, frequently cheapened. The composers and the painters are searching for new words, so to speak, new forms, shapes, meanings. Aaron Copland tellsme he wants to express the present day, he wants to find the musical equivalent for our contemporary tempo and activity. Where is the parallel to all this in the theatre? There are little avant-garde performances here and there; Copeau speaks seriously about the theatre. Of course, the greaest poets of the past wrote for the theatre. Yet, despite all this, what I actually see on the boards lacks the feel of either significant contemporaneity that I get from even the lesser concerts of new music -- not to mention the novels of Gide, Proust, D. H. Lawrence -- or the sense of a permanent contribution to my inner experience that I get from some things at the Louvre, from the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, or even from the simple reading of certain classic dramatists. Where is the best thought of our time in the theatre, the feeling of some true personal significance in any of its works? Either there is something inferior in the theatre per se or there is something wrong about the practical theatre of today that escapes me. I can't live without the theatre, but I can't live with it. The theatre gives itself lofty graces, claims a noble lineage, but has no more dimension than a bordello!"


Anonymous said...

Things have changed very little, I would argue. The following is from an Orson Welles interview, conducted by Peter Bogdanovich in the early 1970s that echoes many of the topics that have come up in this forum, and also Clurman's words:

PB: You once said, "the theatre is a collective experience and the film is the work of one man- the director."

OW: I hope you've got that slightly wrong. A movie, of course, is a collaborative effort. When it's a work of art, then it goes without saying that the collaborators were at the service of a single and unique conception- the film's author. You must have winkled that quote out of one of those foreign interviews conducted in a language that I don't speak fluently.

PB: What about the theatre being a collective experience? Do you want to take that back?

OW: Well, I don't want to take any bows for it, it's so goddamn obvious. The living theatre is alive- it's just that simple. A movie's not only dead, it's not even fresh. It comes in a can. To make a picture- not to just shoot it, but to plan it and then finish it- takes a great deal of time. Because time passe, the very latest film is always bound to be slightly shop-spoiled, subtly old-fashioned. That movie opening next week is last year's movie.

PB: You've been quoted as saying that the theatre is on its last legs-

OW: Sure...

PB: -but that its always been dying.

OW: Everybody's said that, ever since the Greeks. "The Fabulous Invalid," that was what Kaufman and Hart called the theatre. I don't know who they were quoting but they wrote a play with that title, and one of the characters was based on me, I'm proud to say. OK, but first, I hope I didn't seem to be saying that the theatre is finished. Great artists continue to perform in it, but its no longer a powerhouse. Theatre persists as one of those divine anachronisms- like grand opera and classical ballet. The contemporary theatre has turned into a performing art, more than a creative one, a source of joy and wonder, but its no longer a thing of now.


MattJ said...

A director a greatly admire, Vsevolod Meyerhold, was VERY interested in the rhythm of the theatre, and the musical nature of it. To me, this musicality does not just fall on the shoulders of the playwright, it largely falls on the director as well, and the actor of course as a result. American drama after world war II took a turn in a different direction which I think creates interesting intense theatre, but not as much out of the ebbs and flows of musical recitation. Tennessee Williams for example is a beautiful poet and a genius with character and symbolism, but there is not as much of the rhythm there. It's not naturalism, exactly, but it's real 3 dimensional characters - people, in real, 3 dimensional situations.

I love Clurman's comments because music is something that speaks to the soul in an unconscious way through a visceral, subconscious experience. Nodding your head, tapping your foot, desiring tonal progressions to resolve, etc. They speak to something deeper than one can point to in words. But I think that the theatre can be this, and has been this. Often, though, the "organic process" or the need for realism get in the way of creating rhythm on the stage, as well as a perceived larger need to tell something or show something intertextually. Rhythm needs to be weaved into this presentation, and I think, as Clurman notes, that kind of theatre will sit with us more and (a quote that I love!) "get a sense of a permanent contribution to my inner experience."