Monday, October 16, 2006

Richard Foreman and the Impenetrable Mystery of Language

Over at Superfluities (see blogroll), George Hunka draws our attention to the welcome arrival of Richard Foreman to the theatre blogosphere. Drawing our attention to a portion of Foreman's first post entitled "4 Keys I Offer: Which Open Doors I Hope to Open," George notes #3 as particularly inspiring:

"3) Each on stage item as provocation. Provoke, like the mysterious seductive one who withdraws into silence, and beckons -- like a door to another world..."

Nice image. I have always admired Foreman's images. One of the most riveting productions I have ever seen was Foreman's production of Moliere's Don Juan at the Guthrie with a title character played by John Seitz, who created an eery and disorienting character by spending the entire play walking like a crab: always at right angles, never diagonally. And Roy Brocksmith played a hilarious Sganerelle. And I have seen several of Foreman's original works as well when I lived in NYC and worked at Performing Arts Journal. In fact, after one such performance, I spent a few hours drinking with Foreman and my bosses, Bonnie Maranca and Guatum Dasgupta (George knows them -- he had the same job a few years before I did), and I found Foreman an interesting combination of charming and morose.

So I am not a Foreman basher. But my literal mind balks at #3 above. Why? A trip to the American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition of "provocation:"

1.the act of provoking.
2.something that incites, instigates, angers, or irritates.
3.Criminal Law. words or conduct leading to killing in hot passion and without deliberation.

The word comes from the Latin meaning "a challenging."
Synonyms include: "affront, annoyance, bothering, brickbat*, casus belli, cause, challenge, dare, defy, grabber*, grievance, grounds, harassment, incentive, indignity, inducement, injury, instigation, insult, irking, justification, motivation, offense, provoking, reason, stimulus, taunt, vexation, vexing."

Flipping over to "provoke":
  1. To incite to anger or resentment.
  2. To stir to action or feeling.
  3. To give rise to; evoke: provoke laughter.
  4. To bring about deliberately; induce: provoke a fight.
What does this have to do with a seductive figure who beckons in silence? I am baffled. Synonyms for "provoke" include: "irk, annoy, aggravate, exacerbate, infuriate." Surely we could agree that the connotations of "provoke" and "provocation" are fairly aggressive in whatever form they take. Or perhaps we are using "provoke" in the sense of "provocative": "exciting sexual desire; "her gestures and postures became more wanton and provocative." So each on stage item is something that excites sexual desire? Isn't that the definition of pornography? Surely that can't be what Foreman means, especially if you've ever seen one of his productions. But what does he mean?

Suddenly, the root of all the arguments on this blog about theatre that "provokes" becomes clear: all the provocateurs are using the word "provoke" to mean...well, what? Seduce? Tease? Coax? And here I was thinking that "provoke" means...well, what the dictionary says it means. Dopey me!

Foreman follows this statement with key #4: "Language as the impenetrable mystery." I guess it becomes particularly impenetrable and mysterious when you ignore the meanings of words and make them mean...whatever you want them to mean!