A Need for an Old Theater

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES July/ August 2010

Ever since about 500 years before Christ, the most frequent form of drama in the world has been something in the general ballpark of what Aristotle described—a reasonably well defined story involving reasonably apparent relationships of cause and effect with a definite beginning, middle and end, in which fictional people take part in a definite action—not just any old event, but an event that takes place because the various parties involved do things to, for, by and with each other. From the tragedies and comedies of Greece to the theater of China and Japan to the poetry of the Sanskrit drama to the puppets and dancers of Southeast Asia, most plays have a recognizable relationship to that model.

It may not be surprising that this is so; when considering the movement of ideas across the Old World, it is well to remember that one can walk dry-shod from Vladivostok to Dunkirk and from Archangel to Cape Town. The itinerary may be inconvenient, but it is there, and the upscale tour can include travel by water if additional charges are paid. When you add in the factor that ideas like to hop from person to person as well as from place to place on their journeys, while metamorphosing ad libitum and ad infinitum, the possibilities become absolutely endless, and the difficulties of tracing those journeys become incalculable.

Be that as it may, there are exceptions to the rule. The Japanese have noh, in which action as Aristotle understood it can be rarified to the point of vacuum. The Romans had pantomime, in which, as far as we can reconstruct it, the physical grace, beauty and expressiveness of a single performer was far more important than the underlying story used as a substrate for the performance. There have been, always and everywhere, performance forms in which the skill of the performer is paramount—the jugglers, rope walkers, magicians and miscellaneous carnival acts of the world.

One interesting aspect of those exceptions is that they tend to involve a limited cast—often a cast of one. And what do we see on playbills and season announcements across the land, especially at the professional level? The one-person theater event. Sometimes, as in Aldyth Morris’ Damien, the one-person performance seems to embody the elements we mentioned from the dominant model, even though there is only one performer and one character. Sometimes, the dominant model calls for the one performer to play many parts in his or her time with us—though it is hard, and therefore rarely is seen, to really provide those elements with only one body to work with. More and more, though, it seems to this observer that when it comes to the one-person theater event, and even to the theater event for multiple performers, the old model isn’t really what’s wanted, at least not by those who prepare the event, and I think even not so much by those who partake. We’re quite willing to spend somewhere between one and two hours merely listening to actors give us character sketches—long or short, single or multiple, voiced by one person or by many persons. Sometimes the work is one long monologue, like Damien; sometimes the work is multiple monologues, like Joyce Carol Oates’ I Stand Before You Naked. This kind of work is a large and growing portion of the dramaturgical body of the theater of our times.

It is so for a number of reasons. Some are directly practical, such as the lower, indeed irreducible cost of a cast of one. However, I think some are cultural and indeed artistic. We are inundated with stories. Stories cascade into us like rocks rolling down a landslide. We live in a constant barrage of stories, fictional, non-fictional, and a blend of the two, that come to us in print, on the radio, on television, in the movies, via the web, via email, even occasionally in direct speech with each other—at least by cell phone. In the long trail of the centuries that straggle along behind us, when literacy was not so common and ideas traveled at the speed of a walking horse, we needed theater to tell us the stories we needed to hear. Not so now. Now we need something to thin out the deluge of stories that threatens to drown us.

Perhaps our theater is reacting to this. Could it not be that theater artists respond to our world, as they have ever done, by trying to give us what we crave and cannot find? Once upon a time, that was coherent stories revealing an action. Now, perhaps, it is moments of honest and emotionally rich direct address. The common factor of the waterfall of stories washing over us is that they are not direct. They come to us out of screens and out of speakers, not from living lips. They cannot transgress the space around us and come close to us, emotionally if not indeed physically, approaching if not indeed touching us. Perhaps we hunger for this, the direct presence of a living speaker. Perhaps we no longer ask the performer in our living presence to tell us a story; perhaps, now, in our hour of great need for direct human contact, the most powerful thing the performer can do in living presence before us is just to speak to us, in the mask of character or not. Perhaps by making that basic human contact, the theater gives us, as it has always done, something we cannot get in any other way.

Bethune website: www.freshwaterseas.com