Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Lesson from Classical Music

I'm back, I'm reasonably rested, let's get this thing humming again...

Over at "About Last Night," Terry Teachout is responding to reader who is attacking an idea he expressed in a recent column. Teachout writes:

"Of course there is no "last word" on Beethoven, or any other composer—but after a lifetime of listening to multiple interpretations of the classics, I'm simply not interested in the Latest Version of anything. What I care about is the piece itself, far more than the way any one particular artist happens to play it, and now that each and every piece of standard-rep music has been recorded in multiple versions of very high quality, I find I have very little motivation to go out and hear Op. 111 done in yet another way, however “different” or “original” it might happen to be. Yes, the experience of hearing classical music in live performance is in and of itself worthwhile, but when the environment in which one consumes it has been degraded, I'm not so sure it's cost-effective (speaking from an aesthetic point of view) to put up with the distractions.
This, by the way, is an unintended consequence of the invention of recording that nobody foresaw a century ago: that it might eventually make public performance obsolete, or at least moribund."

While I agree with him about the unintended consequences associated with high quality recordings, there is something else here that pertains to theatre. To my mind, classical music is the ultimate "fourth wall" performance. Save for the occasional bow, nobody on the stage at a classical concert acknowledges the presence of the audience, and the audience is supposed to try really hard to remain invisible and inaudible: don't applaud in the wrong place, don't cough, don't even move. Result? If you have a good stereo system, why shell out lots of money to squeeze into an uncomfortable seat and be plagued by people who clap in the wrong places and are getting over a bad chest cold? Why not just stay home, as Teachout is inclined to do, and listen to it on a high-quality CD that you bought for around twenty bucks?

How does that relate to the theatre? In a time of TV and DVDs, fourth-wall plays are redundant. If an audience wants to be ignored, they can easily do it in the comfort of their killer DVD system, and much, much cheaper -- how much is a Netflix subscription now? If we really believe that theatre is about the circulation of energy between performer and spectator, it might be a good idea to write plays that allow that circulation to occur! I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the recent Broadway run of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which I thought was brilliant. But at $100 for my ticket, was my experience of being ignored by Philip Seymour Hoffman that much superior to being ignored by Jason Robards? Not really.

Am I making a universal rule? No. But when a man who loves music as much as Terry Teachout announces his lack of interest in live performance because of his CD collection, you've got to sit up and take notice!


Anonymous said...

This is a big, bold, dangerous statement about theatre, and a tremendously important one. On the one hand, I agree completely and am starving for the kind of visceral experience we all want theatre to provide. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that a traditional, fourth-wall play can't make that kind of connection. Some of my favorite experiences in the theatre have been plays in which the actors never broke the fourth wall but still found a way to connect with the audience.

Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Scott Walters said...

Wow! Big, bold, and dangerous -- I feel all Samuel Jackson all of a sudden. You made my day, anonymous!

Lucas Krech said...

No one gets pissed off when Les Demoiselles d'Avignon don't stoop down to wink at you. Or are stiff when they bow. I always find it silly when an audience gets upset about how a professional artist does their job. If you think the job should be done differently do it yourself. If you don't have the courage to get on stage in front of thousands of people and bare your soul, stop complaining and buy a CD. Talk is not action is not change.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was me posting anonymously by accident.

I'd love to hear you elaborate on what you mean when you say you want playwrights to write plays that allow "the circulation of energy between performer and spectator" to occur. This can mean all sorts of things, yeah?

RB Ripley said...

"If we really believe that theatre is about the circulation of energy between performer and spectator, it might be a good idea to write plays that allow that circulation to occur!"

Hmmm. Seems a bit of an overgeneralization to say that "fourth-wall plays are redundant" which implies that all of them are. Not so from my seat in the audience.

The connection with the audience is one that must be earned through a confluence of script, direction, set, lighting, sound and performance.

With all of those factors needing to be satisfied and complete the circuit that allows the circulation of the energy (your example!), it's no wonder that every or even a majority of plays don't achieve this laudible goal.

But for my theatre-going experience, more of these plays have done so far more often than plays where I was directly challenged.

But hey, at the end of the day this debate sits on a subjective foundation so, to each her/his own.

Scott Walters said...

I believe in my original post I said that I was not making a general rule, and that fourth wall realism is good for some things.

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