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Seduction by Theatre - A Life Raft?

Sept, 2003

COULD BE. THINK of that doctor working today in a small rural Mexican village who finally resorted to theatre — persuaded some of the villagers to role play — in order to convince their midwives and about-to-be-birthing mothers to stop using an ill-advised medicine, showing its deadly results. Next to torture, maybe theatre's art is the most persuasive?

A life raft? It is simply the everydayness, usefulness of the theatre experience, because of its charge to impulse from sensory perception. Experience/existence is a minimal…bare until it is startled! Confrontation. Thence to human expression of life itself. Some inferences call it a contact sport.

In fact, "I have never seen life and art drawn so closely together, interacting side by side" said Joseph Papp of the New York Public Theatre after attending a performance by the Peasant and Indigenous People's Theatre. "They recreate a whole experience while being themselves, and the results are just amazing!" Indeed, members of the company remain attached to their communities and traditional way of life…like the farmer who, although he played the father in Garcia Lorca’s BLOOD WEDDING, he can't read…tried hard, unsuccessfully, in classes; (memorized his lines by listening to the text read to him) said he loves working in the fields as much as working on the stage.

The assumption that the peasants and Chontol Indians who make up the Tobasco Peasant and People's Theatre and Laboratory don't understand Shakespeare and Sophocles and Garcia Lorca, really galls director and founder Maria Alicia Metrano (former psychology major). "They understand better than we do because they live closer to the ground of power, love and fear that are the fount of inspiration for all theatre."

Grand passions. Everyman. Everyman's grand passions…from the betelnutchewing tribesman of the Papua National Theatre, to Tobasco Troupe's Fernando who can't write or read anything except his name, to the Brooks Brothered big wheel of Wall Street.

Consider the summer refreshers in the arts held for years at the Aspen Institute and at Dartmouth College, founded on the premise that the liberal arts are essential to the background of decision-makers in the business world. Picture, as part of a seminar, a top corporate executive in shorts girded with bright colored sash, carrying a broomstick spear, playing the role of a messenger in Sophocles’ ANTIGONE. The stone-hearted Creon before whom the messenger trembles is another corporate executive, and the Greek chorus dressed in green ponchos, represents a spectacular slice of top management elite, as well as aspirants thereto. All of whom for most of the rest of the year have think-time primarily for economic forecasts and the bottom line. Which ANTIGONE performance may well be the crowner following days of intense discussion at Aspen or Dartmouth on, say, Aristotle to "The Federalist Papers"…or relative merits of Adam Smith, John Locke, Plato, Machiavelli. Ponder… Although management by the stonewilled Creon of Sophocles would dry up any bottom line, confrontation with the resilience of Vladimir and Estragon as they wait for Godot could have something to do with taking off those boots and going a long way to come back the short way. (Bet ol' Creon would have buried the Savings and Loan Fiesta, though!)

With all that musing, did Vaclav Havel take the long way around? "Theatre is a living instrument of social self-awareness, one that is lodged in its own time," he wroteto his wife Olga from prison, 1980. Forbidden by the regime to go for university education, in the early 60's Vaclav Havel worked as a stagehand at the Balustrade Theatre in Prague where he rose to become resident playwright. Writer of plays and daring theatre of concern, he was thereby charged as a meddler in his own country. Hence he went to prison and its toll of years and health…to President of Slovakia. Havel has likened it all to theatre experience: a blending of classical drama with theatre of the absurd. Indeed, Havel enthused a world of others — brought an audience to its feet.

As has today's Serbian oppositional theatre DAH TEATAR — Belgrade's most prominent theatre group which is still going strong. Still going strong since their life-giving spirit's first public performances in 1992 protesting the Slobodan Milosevic butchery which passions triggered and ignited the people's courage to stage action on the streets for his resignation. They are heroes in their own drama; inspired by such as Ionesco, Machiavelli, Artaud, Kafkas's THE TRIAL!

Listen to the end of the conflict over the antique and famous dung, which has accumulated over the centuries, N.B. HERCULES AND THE AUGEAN STABLES by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Augean's curtain speech in his garden reads that the dung has made good soil and the garden should not be abandoned. The dare is to face life…enthuse others without aspirations. And that is the heroic Herculean task, he says.

I would say that there is something much bigger in life and death than we have become aware of (or adequately recorded) in our living and dying. I would say that our serious theatre is a search for that something that is not yet successful but is still going on.

Tennessee Williams/Essays

A life line, then. Let the theatre's propaganda worm its way under our skin…its art help us recover the sensation of life (sometimes we laugh, and sometimes we cry, and sometimes we fall on our respective arses) and get lassoed by ideas, while waiting for Godot and going on with our (and Samuel Beckett's) exercising, analyzing, criticizing, justifying, soliloquying. There'll be other waitings along the way. Even if Godot doesn't come, we can listen. Maybe even find the practicality of it all.

(Jane Cox, a sometime contributor to our pages, lives and writes in Port Washington, NY).

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