George Hunka over at Superfluities (see blogroll) has responded to my post below entitled "Formal Inertia" with his own arguments apocalyptically titled "The Totalitarian Narrative."
First, let me say that I did not quote Aristotle as an appeal to the ultimate authority -- yes, all theatre people seem to be agnostics when it comes to any and all past thinkers, and I am no different -- but rather, I referred to him as an august elder statesman whose words show that the concept of narrative, of plot and story, is as old as the theatre itself. While I don't think that old things should be believed simply because they are old (nor, on the other hand, rejected simply because they are old), the fact that an idea has been held for centuries deserves respect, it seems to me. Aristotle is a grizzled survivor of the millenia, and not to be casually dismissed.
George seems to see the fact that people are "trapped in our own consciousness" as a failing we all share, as if anything short of omniscience were an artistic weakness. Because we can only see the world through our own eyes, and thus tend to represent the world from that vantage point, artists "force" upon the audience a single "ideology" (our own). Recognizing this "totalitarian" inclination "exposes the repressive risk of shoehorning arbitrary events into a one-size-fits-all story, that exposes the oppression of narrativity itself."
"Totalitarian," ""force," "repressive," "oppression" -- them's fightin' words, I'm thinkin'...
I agree that we are "trapped in our own consciousness," but I tend to see that as something that leads to wonder, not condemnation. Because of the arts, I have an opportunity to experience the world from another vantage point, which strengthens my imagination, increases my powers of empathy, and expands my understanding. Good God, what purpose would the arts have at all if we could each slip from mind to mind, or worse yet, could watch the world from a distant standpoint of omniscience. In fact, as a definition of art, I think it would be difficult to beat the idea that the arts are life filtered through a personality.
Narrative allows us to try on other viewpoints for size, experience things we would never want to experience in reality, and argue with view to boot! A narrative presents a solid surface that I can use as a jumping-off place for my own thoughts, a means of questioning and reflecting on my own beliefs and attitudes. "Openness" (and I really need a definition of this word, as well as an example of it in action) provides no resistance, no viewpoint about which I can ask "Is it true? Is it true for me?"
The reference to Scribe baffles me. Scribe created a very specific formula, one that placed dramatic elements in a specific order and pattern (and one that still works very well, by the way, as anyone who has directed All My Sons or even Proof can tell you). But it is not the norm today by any means, and plays written on this model are just as likely to be critically condemned as "creaky" as appreciated for "tightness."
I would agree with George that "there's very little in the work of our contemporary playwrights that suggests even a familiarity with the innovations of modern theater over the past 150 years, let alone a coming-to-terms with them. Lip service to innovators is not the same thing as examining their work in detail or trying to see what that work means to the individual artistic perspective..." Alas, as I see every day in my classes, people who seem themselves as theatre practitioners rarely see the value of studying the past. Most are proponents of what I call Nike Theatre: Just Do It. Consequently, there is a whole lotta wheel inventing goin' on. That said, I think there is considerable evidence that a playwright such as Tony Kushner is pretty damned knowledgeable about the theatrical past, as well as the philosophical and historical past. I doubt he is alone, but he is in the minority, I fear.
I must confess to being totally hornswaggled by the following sentence: "Personally, I see the next major project of theater (at least, of the kind of theater I want to see) is the reintegration of the lyrical, minimalist text with the Grotowskian body, to reintroduce eroticism and tragedy into a dramatic form desiccated by facile irony, totalitarian ideology of the left and right, and absurdism." The wha? Each one of those words individually I have a pretty strong grasp of, but placed end to end I am left with a question mark in my mind instead of an image. I keep remembering an old George Carlin routine where he imitated a "commie fag pinko junkie" with a funny voice saying "Workers of the world unite." As an academic, I ought to be able to parse this sentence, but I find myself without a clue. Help us out with a concrete example. Is Beckett and example of the kind of theatre you call for? It seems to me that his plays are pretty narrative (and his estate is pretty totalitarian as far as directorial liberties are concerned).
Truth be told, Matt Freeman seems as baffled as I am in his post entitled "Inovation for Inovation's Sake." He insists that the success of a form is dependent on the technique of the one using it. Fair enough. He also takes a view of form as organic (a Romantic view), writing: "The best innovation comes when we want to make a particular kind of statement, and find ourselves unable to with what we have available to us. Innovation based on rebellion in generally hollow. Innovation based on necessity is built on something far more firm." Of course, it is a 200-year-old idea, so I suppose it is suspect. Nevertheless, I think that Matt is right. George clearly has something he wants to say that cannot be said using current theatrical forms. Good enough -- what is new is usually rejected by those of us who lack the imagination or inspiration to see the possibilities (I run into this all the time). Me? I'll retire to my study and reread Aristotle's Poetics...