Thursday, May 25, 2006

Be Careful What You Wish For

Forty-two years ago, Robert Brustein published his brilliant book, Theatre of Revolt: Studies in Modern Drama from Ibsen to Genet. [Not Beckett, Genet -- a fact he regretted in the Preface to the Second Edition, but not enough to write a new chapter.] On the first page, Brustein presented two images, one of what he called the Theatre of Communion, which he identified as the "theatre of the past, dominated by Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Racine, where traditional myths were enacted before an audience of believers against a background of a shifting but still coherent universe." The other image was of the Theatre of Revolt, the theatre of the "great insurgent dramatists, where myths of rebellions are enacted before a dwindling number spectators in a flux of vacancy, bafflement, and accident." Here is the image:

[I]magine a perfectly level plain in a desolate land. In the foreground, an uneasy crowd of citiz3ens huddle together on the ruins of an ancient temple. Beyond them, a broken altar, bristling with artifacts. Beyond that, empty space. An emaciated priest in disreputable garments stands before the ruined altar, level with the crowd, glancing into a distorting mirror. He cavorts grotesquely before it, inspecting his own image in several outlandish positions. The crowd mutters ominsouly and partially disperses. The priest turns the mirror on those who remain to reflect them sitting stupidly on subble. They gaze at their images for a moment, painfully transfixed; then, horror-struck, they run away, hurling stones at the altar and angry impreccations at the priest. The priest, shaking with anger, futility, and irony, turns the mirror on the void. He is alone in the void.

Nice writing, huh? Maybe a little purple, but memorable and dramatic. My students really get the Theatre of Revolt from this image. My guess is that a lot of my readers will find this image of the modern dramatist really inspiring. The rebel outsider, the artistic priest in touch with Great Truth of Meaninglessness, the misunderstand and unappreciated loner howling in the wilderness. Self-absorbed, grotesque, angry, ironic, and wielding a distorting mirror. Oh, and significantly: alone.

One hundred and thirty years after A Doll's House, artists have gotten what they've wished for: they're superior and alone. The audience, who used to have few options when it came to narrative experiences, are now awash in them -- they ran away and never came back. Didn't need to -- they had three DVDs being delivered to their mailbox for less than $20 a month; they had millions of books, and audio books, and music available at the touch of a mouse. They had hundreds of channels providing non-stop entertainment for less than half of the price of a Broadway ticket.

If they think about that poorly-dressed and dyspeptic priest, and they rarely do, they give a derisive snort and dismiss him from their minds because they don't trust him or his vision -- they know his mirror is distorted.

Meanwhile, the priest continues to cavort grotesquely, wondering in the back of his mind where everybody went, and rejecting any suggestion that his antics have become irrelevant and his services unneeded.

MattJ, and all the theatre artists still young enough to not have their identity wrapped up in Theatre of Revolt ideology that gets off on "vacancy, bafflement, and accident," I challenge you to shake off this irrelevancy and make theatre something that is truly vibrant, imaginative, meaningful, stimulating, and most importantly, reflective of the 21st century and not the 19th.


P'tit Boo said...

See my responses in my blog !

George Hunka said...

"Irrelevant," really? "Self-absorbed, grotesque, angry, ironic, and wielding a distorting mirror. Oh, and significantly: alone"?

So long as we ask writers to create a theater "truly vibrant, imaginative, meaningful, stimulating, and most importantly, reflective of the 21st century and not the 19th" (and what does that list of theater-ad pullquotes mean, anyway?), dismissing the rest as irrelevant, old-fashioned, no longer to the taste ... well. Brustein provides examples: Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Pirandello, O'Neill, Artaud, Genet ... clearly nothing to learn from them, not for our young tyros. (I think Matt owes you a note of thanks for this helpful advice.) So out of sheer curiosity, what writers in particular did you have in mind?

But with an attitude like this, you've certainly got the "alone" part right, especially following that so extraordinarily generous and insightful characterization of this picture of the artist. Thank you for that. It warms my heart.

Scott Walters said...

George, the point isn't that Ibsen, Strindberg, et al have nothing to teach us, but rather that they use techniques and reflect aesthetic attitudes that are based in a particular time and place and that may not be right for and relevant to today. They should not be taken as a model to be slavishly followed any more than the Greeks and the Elizabethans and what Brustein called the Theatre of Communion. I believe that artists of the past should be held at arm's length and their pockets should be picked for anything that is useful, but useful for today.

I wrote my dissertation on Brustein; I admire Brustein; I think he may have been one of the most important critics of the second half of the 20th century. But I also find his admiration of this priest with his distoring mirror problematic. Theatre is a communal art, not only in its creative process, but in its need for an audience. Unlike, say, a book or painting that can wait for another generation to discover it's value, theatre that is not seen now disappears in the mist of time. The attitudes illustrated in Brustein's portrait, I would contend, do not serve the theatre well.

Devilvet said...


I might feel differently today, but you are Cassandra in this equation. "They" wont listen!