Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Artist's Responsibility

Over at Parabasis (see blogroll), Issac Butler presents a very thoughtful post on "Responsibility." This is a topic that I often struggle over as well, especially in my role as a teacher whose job is, at least in part, to help young people discover and clarify their beliefs about their purpose as artists and human beings. I would like to ponder Isaac's questions a bit, and see how others respond, before offering my own thoughts. In the meantime, I hope my readers will click over to Parabasis and see what is happening.

Psychosis 4:48

On Allison Croggon's recommendation, I read Sarah Kane's Psychosis 4:48 last night. I was reminded of a few sentences in Martha Nussbaum's amazing essay "The Narrative Imagination" in Cultivating Humanity:

"Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist's interest -- with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society's refusal of visibility. We come to see how circumstances shape the lives of those who share with us some general goals and projects; and we see that circumstances shape not only people's possibilities for action, but also their aspirations and desires, hopes and fears....[The narrative imagination requires] the ability to imagine what it is like to be in that person's place (what we usually call empathy), and also the ability to stand back and ask whether the person's own judgment has taken the full measure of what has happened."


In the hands of a lesser, and less honest, playwright Psychosis 4:48 could have been a self-indulgent work. But Kane's tone poem of pain, rage, and bewilderment is so thoroughly felt, and also so carefully crafted, that I felt as if I were inside of the head of a severely depressed person.

It is, however, a tone poem more than a work of drama. The conflict is all internal, and the focus is more on the image than the narrative. "This is what it feels like," Kane seems to be saying, "to be constantly in pain." When I say it isn't a "work of drama," I do not mean that as a slight -- the gift of hearing powerful language honed to a slicing knife edge is most welcome in a theatre that is all too often sloppy and pedestrian in its language. But structurally, the piece owes as much to the collage as it does to the drama; as much to James Joyce as it does to Aristotle.

As someone who has had several members of my family struggle with depression (thankfully, not to the extent dramatized by Kane), it gave me a deeper insight inside an experience that many of us will never have ourselves. That is profound.

Thank you, Allison!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Robertson Davies on Theatre

"Is it not delight we seek when we go to the theatre? The delight of comedy, which refreshes and uplifts us, or the delight of tragedy, which carries us deep into ourselves and throws light into corners which are normally dark? We know it as make-believe, and that the actors did it all last night, and will do it again tomorrow night. [But] it is not theatre's task to show us reality....Great theatre makes us feel and believe in passion through poetry....Alchemy in theatre...means something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection, that it offers a glory, an expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been brought into contact with it."

--Robertson Davies, Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre
Tags:theatre audience