Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Transparent to Transcendence

Today was the last lecture in my History of Theatre I course, and I wanted to do something that would tie 2000 years of theatre history together in some way that was portable, and in some way might have some inspirational value. This is what I said:

The birth of theatre is said to have occurred when Thespis stepped from the dithyramb chorus and declared “I am Dionysus!” This is the birth of the embodied metaphor that is what theatre is all about.

The difference between a simile and a metaphor is important to understand in this context. Simile: He eats like a pig; Metaphor: He IS a pig. One is descriptive, narrative; the other is transformative, a metamorphosis

Aristotle made this distinction between epic and drama, and it centered on mimesis. Epic – like Homer’s poems – were narrated, and the narrator shifted between characters and also maintained a presence as a storyteller outside the action. But drama is mimetic: an imitation of nature, a kind of impersonation.

The word impersonate comes from the word persona: a mask. From the Greek “per” meaning “through” and “sona” which means “sound.” Some have said this means “ that through which the actor speaks,” in other words the mask is something through which the actor speaks. I think it is more accurate to say that the persona is that through which the character speaks, through which the actor is spoken.

The mask brings the metaphor to life. “I AM Dionysus,” Thespis says, but without the mask, the magic doesn’t occur. Without the mask, he is a simile, LIKE Dionysus, because his face, the REAL Thespis that most everyone in the audience would know, undermines the declaration. But wearing the mask, Thespis is possessed.

Keith Johnstone in his book Impro (which I strongly urge each and every one of you to read – it is funny, powerful, and profound) talks about “Masks and Trance” and about masks having a powerful life of their own.

We had a Mask that had a thick droopy nose and angry eyebrows. It was a deep, congested red in colour, and it liked to pick up sticks and hit people. It was quite safe so long as the teacher knew this and said 'Take the Mask off!' sharply at the critical moment. Someone borrowed it once—Pauline Melville, who had taken over my classes at Morley College. Next day she returned the Masks and said that some­one had been hit on the arm. I had to explain that it was my fault for not warning her. (And I pointed to the Mask that hit people.) I once saw three similar droopy-nosed Masks—they were Kabuki Masks, and they were on the hanamichi (the platform that runs through the audience) and yes, they had sticks and were threatening people. Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off sideways. Shay Gorman created the character. I took the Mask along to a course I gave in Hampshire. The students were entering from behind a screen and suddenly I heard Mr Parks's laughter. It entered with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted, and looked up as if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept sitting on the extreme edge of a chair as if it wanted to fall off. For­tunately it didn't, because the wearer wasn't very athletic. It really makes no sense that a Mask should be able to transmit that sort of information to its wearer. Once students begin to observe for themselves the way that Masks compel certain sorts of behaviour, then they really begin to feel the presence of'spirits'. I remember a Mask I'd just made. A student tried it out and turned into a hunched, twisted, gurgling creature. Then a latecomer arrived, picked up the same Mask, and the identical creature appeared.”

So the theatre is a process of invocation: “To call upon a god or goddess to ask for their presence.” And also invocation is a form of possession which I’m using in its neutral form to mean "a state in which an individual's normal personality is replaced by another.” Plato writes about poetic inspiration in his dialogue Ion: "God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself.”

Wearing a mask, the actor as an individual is erased and replaced by that of another. This is important to understand, because it is an orientation that informs all of the arts that we have studied this semester (Greeks to Spanish Golden Age) And it is the orientation that is most difficult for us, as modern artists, to get our heads around. The play, the performance, is not about the artist themselves. The artist is a conduit through which a story is spoken. In other words, it’s not about you.Whether you are an actor or a playwright, it’s not about you. You are a conduit, a vessel through which the gods speak. Your job is to make yourself transparent, to offer no resistance to this possession.

The great scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell late in his life discovered a German philosopher named Karlfriend Durckheim, who said that the whole problem of life is to become “transparent to transcendence; so that you realize that you yourself are a manifestation of this. That you live the myth. That you live the divine life that is within you. Yourself as a vehicle; not as the final term but as the vehicle of consciousness and life. “Transparent to transcendence.” When that came into my vocabulary it just seemed to be the only thing necessary. My definition of myth now is: a metaphor transparent to transcendence.” And theatre, I would say, is “an embodied metaphor transparent to transendance.” We look through it.

The mask embodies this idea – it erases the individual and replaces him with another. Aside from Thespis, we have very little information about the actors in Greek theatre – their names have been lost, perhaps because they were unimportant – it wasn’t about them. Shakespeare didn’t publish his plays in his lifetime – why? Some say because he didn’t value them, but like the artists through the Italian Renaissance who didn’t sign their work, he may have seen himself as a conduit through which a story was told, one that existed in the moment of performance on only partially, and deadly, on the page. Without the persona of the actors through which his characters spoke, they did not exist.

The Greeks wore masks. The Romans wore masks (and when they didn’t, as the mimes didn’t, the morality of their work quickly deteriorated). The medieval mystery actors wore masks (at least some of them), and they very much invoked God and the people of the Bible to possess them. It wasn’t about them as artists. The plays were written by “Anonymous.” The actors were townspeople through whom the Bible stories were spoken. It was an act of worship to be so possessed, to be able to lend your face and body to Adam and Eve, to Jesus, to Abraham and Isaac, even to Satan.

And this erasure, this transparency to transcendence, extended to the theatre space as well. The spaces were neutral. They were a conduit whose identity as theatre was to be invisible so that other places could be invoked. At the beginning of Twelfth Night, the dialogue goes: VIOLA: What country, friends, is this? / Captain: This is Illyria, lady. And boom! We are there! Illyria has been invoked and has appeared. King Lear, mad and raging on the heath in a terrible thunderstorm, wasn’t provided with special lighting effects and sound effects. Instead, he said:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world,
Crack Nature's moulds, all germains spill at once, 1685
That makes ingrateful man!

The first line of the Second Shepherd’s Play is “Lord, but this weather is cold!” No mounds of snow necessary; no steam from the character’s mouth; just a place being invoked. The first line of The Oresteia is “You Gods in heaven – You have watched me here on this tower all night, every night, for twelve month.” The words are the mask that covers the literal face of the theatre with something else, someplace else.

The place – whether it is the theatre at Epidaurus, or a cart being dragged through a medieval town, or the Globe just outside of London, or a Corrale in a courtyard in Spain – is built to become transparent to transcendence. To not attract attention to itself.

The famous English director Peter Brook starts his wonderful book The Empty Space (another book that I wish every one of you would read) with these lines: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." That is the faith of the first 2000 years of theatre history: the filling of an empty space through magic.

In every aspect of performance throughout the 2000 years that we have studied this semester there is a sense of humility, of being humble, that is the opposite of our current “look at me – I’m an artist” theatre scene. We still invoke the gods, but we refuse to become transparent. The theatre spaces are now filled with stuff, no longer trusting that an invocation will work. The thunderstorms must be created, the craggy mountains must be built, the snow must be on the ground. And the actors no longer cover their face to allow for possession by the character. Now, when a “star” makes his or her first entrance in a Broadway show, the audience applauds. They’re not applauding the character, they’re applauding the actor as actor, the actor as personality, the actor as icon.

Perhaps, as Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale: “It is required You do awake your faith.” Your faith, as artists, in being transparent. Your faith, as artists, that magic can be invoked. Your faith, as artists, that it’s not about you, but about something much, much bigger than you.

For a long time in theatre history, and for all of the time we have studied this semester, its artists and its places were servants to something larger. To Dionysus, to Bacchus, to God. And their reward was transcendence. Perhaps if we learn the lesson of those who have gone before, we as artists can invoke them, we can renew the magic, can reveal the god speaking through the mask, the place speaking through the empty space.

Maybe that’s why we study theatre history – to remind us of things we’ve forgotten and purposes we’ve lost. To remember that once we served what was highest in humanity, and embodied what was deepest. Maybe, by seeing that again, we can lose ourselves in something much larger than we are. I hope so.


Mike said...

Thanks. This is great.

Brian (Director) said...

I totally dig this. Good lecture.

Austin Barrow said...

Do you use a text in your class? I am teaching this same course in two semesters for the first time and have no idea where to start. I am sure the crit and history books I used in grad school would be of little use in a general course for Freshmen and Sophomore college students. Thanks for any advice.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Mike and Brian.

Austin: The only text I use are plays. What I have found is that the theatre history material found in, say, Brockett for the most part is now available on-line -- at least enough to use as a starting point. So part of my class is the creation of an "on-line textbook" gathering links and synthesizing information.

Good luck!

aNYanimus said...

As a theater goer, this post gives me a new and deeper insight into the magic that is theater, and the arts in general: Great art parallels the Zen saying, "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is."

Thanks for helping to illuminate the machinery so we can see beyond it.

Austin Barrow said...

Brockett! Yes that name brings back memories of undergrad. Thanks! This will give me a good starting point. I like your idea about utilizing the internet as an information source. I just setup two blogs for two courses I am teaching in the summer and fall sessions that will be utilized as class journals. Utilizing the internet in this additional way should slide easily into that model. Thanks.

Scott Walters said...

Austin -- Teach your students how to use a wiki ( It is the perfect way for them to gather and synthesize information. Also, introduce them to Diigo (, which is a social bookmarking program that allows them to bookmark webpages, highlight portions, make notes, and alert everyone else in the class or their group.

Tony Adams said...

I think Brockett was very helpful for me too find starting points to jump off when reading. But not as a master, you will know everything, history.

Also I think that to say it was only to be a servant for something larger doesn't really jibe all the way. The Ancient Greek version of the director was a highly sought after and revered position. At times it was a year round gig.

Doesn't really alter what you've written about the primary focus; however serving something larger was never the sole purpose.

Hell, in the medieval era, the pagent stagings were as much about one guild one-up-ing the other as they were about celebrating God.

--also got this on twitter via @dramagirl

Reading The Big List of OpenCourseWare Resources: The folks at have provided ..

May be of interest.

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- You'll need to provide me with some more details, because my understanding was that the Greek playwrights directed their own plays, and none of them were professional playwrights or directors. There were a few "professional" pageant masters during the medieval period, but nonetheless the mass of effort was by the populace.

Anything human will engage in human competition, but that does not mean that the primary motivation wasn't worshipful. Yes, guilds took pride in their contributions, but still they were working in service to the story, the Bible, the Church. Please don't introduce contemporary cynicism into the faith of another era.

Thanks for the links!

Tony Adams said...

I'll try to get more specific resources for you asap. Moving tomorrow so may not be till Monday.

For the record, I'm not introducing contemporary cynicism. It was very much alive then. I know the medieval period well, it was my main study for a long time and if I hadn't fallen into theatre, I would still be doing that. (Not that it would have paid any better.)

I'm not talking out my backside to say that for many involved in the medieval era, the church and their faith was often not a primary concern in putting up plays.

It does everyone a disservice to misread historical eras in service of a point.

Scott Walters said...

As I said in my comment, whenever there are humans involved, less than admirable motivations creep in. That said, the point I was trying to make is that some sort of medieval stardom was not a primary concern, but rather service to something larger, and also, at the same time, something local. I am not asserting that the first 2000 years of theatre history were filled with pure altruism and nothing but. What I am saying is that, unlike the period that will follow, the artist was a conduit, not a star. In fact, they were treated as craftsmen just like bricklayers -- thus the title playWRIGHT, for instance, like wheelwright.

Freeman said...

I've responded to this on my blog.

Shari said...

This is truly beautiful. I hope someday I'll be giving lectures like this. I just delivered my first 50 minute long lecture to a large class ... it was fun. Hopefully, though, someday I can be an inspirational teacher.

Scott Walters said...

Shari -- Yay! Lecturing can be very enjoyable. I do it sporadically, preferring Socratic discussion. However, it seems to me that the key is finding a connection to student aspirations today, and not being afraid to add emotion to the content. Good luck!