Tony, over at Jay Raskolnikov, has recently written a wonderful post entitled "Entertainment vs Art: Go Big or Go Home?," in which he uses the recent Harry Potter discussions to make his own points about what makes theatre really cook. After reading the post, I think the title doesn't reflect the content. Tony doesn't seem to be putting entertainment and art in opposition, but rather looking back to a day when they were expected to be joined. Tony writes, "Somehow we got the notion that art was different from entertainment; that art, that theatre shouldn't be entertainment, pandering to audiences. No one wants to be bored." Significantly, to my mind, he makes sure to quickly assure everyone that "This does not mean theatre should not challenge ideas, perceptions, beliefs, the status quo." I say significantly, because that is the way so many have come to think about art: if it is entertaining, then it must be pandering; if it is challenging, then it must be boring. If you come out in favor of the importance of entertainment, then you are in danger of having your artistic license revoked. And yet since Aristotle the first commandment of theatre was "to entertain." Horace added "educate" to that first rule, but it did not replace entertainment, but rather added to it.
For many people, Peter Shaffer and a play like Equus represents middlebrow hack work. But I say that play is a great model of what happens when you join entertainment and thought. Using the popular structure of a mystery story with psychiatrist as sleuth, Shaffer adds layers of fairly difficult ideas about religion and society, passion and normalcy. The spectacle is spartan, yet evocative. The story is embodied, not simply discussed. And what is at stake are two peoples' souls. And Shaffer accomplishes this by drawing from the ancient Greeks as well as the popular form of the mystery. And he doesn't shy away from helping the audience to understand the ideas, just like the chorus did in the Greek tragedies, and like Shakespeare's Chorus did in Henry V. He used powerful techniques from the past with contemporary content and language. Artaud would be pleased.
So be sure to read Tony -- great stuff.