Monday, February 06, 2006

An Ethics of Theatre

Yesterday, I was one of 18 people reading from the works of African-American authors as part of the 17th National African-American Read-In Chain. As I sat there listening to each person, it occurred to me that here was an example of the kind of artist-audience relationship I have been speaking about. We were in a meeting space that was comfortable, with a fire burning in the fireplace behind the speakers. There was a small spread of food provided that we all snacked from, and before the reading we talked together in small groups. The readings were inspiring, because each person chose a piece that meant something to them, and explained that connection. There were some harsh and ugly things read, things that made me, as a white person, feel uncomfortable in my skin. That was good. (Contrary to popular interpretation, I am not against feeling uncomfortable.) And there were some things that made my heart want to sing. That was good, too.

The thing that struck me, though, was that no matter how harsh the words were, the overall attitude was open, giving. The people had come to share something important to them, and those who were listening were open to hearing it. I could fully open my heart and listen to what was being said, because I didn't have to worry about being ambushed, objectified, and attacked. Those in the hall knew me, and respected my humanity. They weren't going to grab me by the scruff of the neck and yell in my face. Because it was a safe space, and I trusted those who were there, I could experience more powerfully the pain and the joys that were presented to me. I didn't have to be guarded, my defenses up. I knew the spirit in which the readings were offered. I could try to understand, rather than just react. Or duck.

Several of you have taken me to task for not talking about specific plays that are considered In-Yer-Face Theatre. I was not reacting to the plays themselves, but rather Sierz's theorizing of a new "style," in the same way that many, many critics responded to Martin Esslin's "creation" of the Theatre of the Absurd. When I read his website, I perceived a certain glee about the prospect of grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck, forcing them to see things they didn't want to see, and invading their space. It is the nasty attitude that Sierz displays toward the audience that disturbs me, and that I have called adolescent.

I am not suggesting, when I condemn such an attitude, that artists and audiences come together to make cookies. I appreciate, for instance, the plays of Franz Xaver Kroetz. In his plays, "onstage, characters take showers, use the toilet, eat meals, wash dishes, shop, picnic, make love, work, and tell dirty jokes. Of this early work, his most successful play is probably Farmyard which tells the story of a love affair between a retarded teenage girl and a farm worker four times her age." But Kroetz, it seems to me, empathizes with his characters, and doesn't use them as projectiles to be hurled into the audience's face. The audience may be uncomfortable and disturbed, but I think it isn't the purpose of his writing but a side-effect. I might react to the work of Sarah Kane in the same way, I don't know -- I need to get a copy of her plays.

Sierz, unlike Kroetz (and perhaps Kane), seems to get off on transgression as an end in itself. His writing on the website, it seems to me, has the excited quality of someone who has just set a bag oif shit on fire on his hated teacher's doorstep. Your mileage may differ, but that's what I felt when I read the website.

Rousseau, in Emile (I think), wrote when talking about educating a young person: "Let him see, let him feel the human calamities. Unsettle and frighten his imagination with the perils by which every human being is constantly surrounded. Let him see around him all these abysses, and hearing you describe the, hold on to you for fear of falling into them." [ital mine.] My sense was that Siertz would not only show the audience the abysses, but throw them into it to boot!

Matha Nussbaum, in her marvelous book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, writes with approval about Wayne Booth's book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. She writes: "Booth proposes a valuable metaphor for the interaction of reader with a literary work. A literary work, he writes, is, during the time one reads it, a friend with whom one has chosen to spend one's time. The question now is, what does this friendship do to my mind? What does this new friend ask me to notice, to desire, to care about? How does he or she invite me to view my fellow human beings? Some novels, he argues, promote a cheap cynicism about human beings and lead us to see our fellow citizens with disdain. Some lead us to cultivate cheap sensationalistic forms of pleasure and excitement that debase human dignity. Others, by contrast, show what might be called respect before a soul -- in the way the text itself depicts the variety of human goals and motives, and also, it may be, in the interaction among the characters it displays."

What I call for is the artist to respect the soul of his friend, the theatre spectator, and to avoid creating art that debases human dignity and promotes a cheap cynicism, both on and off the stage. My anger toward Siertz, admittedly a bit extreme, was based in a sense that he didn't respect the soul of the spectator, only the soul of the artist.


Anonymous said...

Are you really a drama professor? Staggered that you haven't read Kane.

oldphort said...

not sure wtf THAT means.

Scott Walters said...

It's an anonymous insult, suggesting that I have not kept up with my reading. I love anonymous insults -- so gutsy.

Freeman said...

Anyhow (and I know this will get some backlash) but Kane is a very new voice, and her "Theatre of Exhuberant Suicide" not exactly required reading yet.

That's not to disparage her work (which most people think is amazing) or to say that keeping up with the latest isn't important. It's just a silly thing to think that a Drama Professor needs to have read Sarah Kane, when he clearly knows his Sophocles and Shakespeare and Pinter.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I'm surprised that Scott hasn't read Kane, but I'm also aware that my aesthetic topologies are sometimes quite different from other people. In any case, there's a treat in store for you, Scott. I think she's the most exciting thing to come out of Britain in the past decade.

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