Thursday, March 23, 2006

On the Fourth Wall

An anonymous reader in my comments blog responded to my post below entitled "A Lesson from Classical Music," in which I suggest, if not the complete abandonment, then at least a de-emphasis on fourth wall plays and an increased prominence for direct communication with the audience. The reader wrote:

"This is a big, bold, dangerous statement about theatre, and a tremendously important one. On the one hand, I agree completely and am starving for the kind of visceral experience we all want theatre to provide. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that a traditional, fourth-wall play can't make that kind of connection. Some of my favorite experiences in the theatre have been plays in which the actors never broke the fourth wall but still found a way to connect with the audience. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater."

I agree that there are certain things that fourth-wall plays do quite well, and I certainly wouldn't argue with the idea that there are powerful fourth-wall plays. Some of my favorite plays are fourth wall plays. But when photography was invented, painting changed because another medium was able to do better what it had been doing up until that point. Realistic painting did not disappear, but it was de-emphasized over the years. I think the same might be true of theatre: film and television are much better are ignoring the audience than a play could ever be (and they're also better at realism than is theatre as well, and that could connect to the posts I've been reading lately about lyricism in the theatre).

Since film and television have become the dominant form of popular entertainment, and the economics of theatre are starting to have a pretty awful effect on theatre's ability to continue breathing, I think it might be a good idea if we started focusing on what theatre can do that film can't. You know -- a market niche. There seems to be general agreement that theatre's "liveness" is something distinctive: the performers and the audience share the same space and time. Which might lead me to consider why we would want to continue to pretend they aren't there. I am not advocating that actors "stoop down to wink at you," as Lucas Krech rather crankily suggests. But up until the mid-1800s, it was pretty much standard that at least one character would communicate directly with the audience through asides, soliloquies, prologues and epilogues, songs (cf Brecht), chorus speeches, or narrative. Over the course of 2400 years of theatre history, these techniques were the norms, not the exceptions. And some contemporary playwrights have begun re-exploring this as well.

I am not suggesting a law -- Theatre Ideas is not the new French Academy -- but I am suggesting that if we are at all concerned about the continuing marginalization of the theatre within our culture, we might want to examine some of our basic assumptions. The fourth wall is one such assumption.

So Josh Costello, these are a few of the things I mean when I suggest we write plays that allow "the circulation of energy between performer and spectator to occur." As I mentioned above, poetic language, metaphor, and abstraction are also things we might think about, since film and television can also do realism much better than the theatre. But that's for another time, or another blog.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Jill Dolan on Shakespeare

I am still gasping about this one -- totally taken aback and surprised. From Jill Dolan's blog, "The Feminist Spectator":

"I’m usually not a fan of Shakespeare productions. The language, instead of seducing me with its complexity and poetry, tends to alienate me, and I take even longer than usual to fall into the rhythms of the play. Gertrude Stein wrote about going to the theatre that in her first few moments of watching every production she experienced “syncopated time.” She fell behind the narrative as she tried to absorb the scene, the atmosphere, the characters, and the experience of being in the world of the audience as well as the world of the play.

My own sense of syncopation at Shakespeare is always attenuated. I’m tripped up not by the lack of naturalism, or by the stinted speech and sometimes awkward dress and the way the actors’ bodies bend themselves into different poses and attitudes as a result; I don’t necessarily need naturalism with my performances to make them mean something. I’m more distracted by how archaic the language sounds, and how hard I have to work to find my way in (to “blast” my way in, as avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman used to say about what spectators needed to do to enter the off-kilter world of his performances). Often, I never make it, because I’m put off, irritated that we continue to venerate a writer who was simply successful in his own day and never meant to be so venerated, but comes to us as canonical through a centuries-long discourse of critical, ideological, and pedagogical insistence."

A Lesson from Classical Music

I'm back, I'm reasonably rested, let's get this thing humming again...

Over at "About Last Night," Terry Teachout is responding to reader who is attacking an idea he expressed in a recent column. Teachout writes:

"Of course there is no "last word" on Beethoven, or any other composer—but after a lifetime of listening to multiple interpretations of the classics, I'm simply not interested in the Latest Version of anything. What I care about is the piece itself, far more than the way any one particular artist happens to play it, and now that each and every piece of standard-rep music has been recorded in multiple versions of very high quality, I find I have very little motivation to go out and hear Op. 111 done in yet another way, however “different” or “original” it might happen to be. Yes, the experience of hearing classical music in live performance is in and of itself worthwhile, but when the environment in which one consumes it has been degraded, I'm not so sure it's cost-effective (speaking from an aesthetic point of view) to put up with the distractions.
This, by the way, is an unintended consequence of the invention of recording that nobody foresaw a century ago: that it might eventually make public performance obsolete, or at least moribund."

While I agree with him about the unintended consequences associated with high quality recordings, there is something else here that pertains to theatre. To my mind, classical music is the ultimate "fourth wall" performance. Save for the occasional bow, nobody on the stage at a classical concert acknowledges the presence of the audience, and the audience is supposed to try really hard to remain invisible and inaudible: don't applaud in the wrong place, don't cough, don't even move. Result? If you have a good stereo system, why shell out lots of money to squeeze into an uncomfortable seat and be plagued by people who clap in the wrong places and are getting over a bad chest cold? Why not just stay home, as Teachout is inclined to do, and listen to it on a high-quality CD that you bought for around twenty bucks?

How does that relate to the theatre? In a time of TV and DVDs, fourth-wall plays are redundant. If an audience wants to be ignored, they can easily do it in the comfort of their killer DVD system, and much, much cheaper -- how much is a Netflix subscription now? If we really believe that theatre is about the circulation of energy between performer and spectator, it might be a good idea to write plays that allow that circulation to occur! I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the recent Broadway run of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which I thought was brilliant. But at $100 for my ticket, was my experience of being ignored by Philip Seymour Hoffman that much superior to being ignored by Jason Robards? Not really.

Am I making a universal rule? No. But when a man who loves music as much as Terry Teachout announces his lack of interest in live performance because of his CD collection, you've got to sit up and take notice!