By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Mar/ Apr 2010

One of the intriguing options offered by the wild wild West of the Internet is the chance to go reading your news from strange sources. In particular, one of the strangest is the English language online edition of Pravda. Remember Pravda? Voice of the Soviet Union? Well, there it is, still spouting a very peculiar line of propaganda, most of it directed against the United States one way or another. The level of fantasy involved in most of those pieces is intense, though not on a par with The National Enquirer’s all-time masterpiece, “Hungry Fishermen Catch And Eat Mermaid.”

However, fiction, which can fail to be as strange as truth, can nevertheless hit home in astonishingly truthful ways. One such piece appeared in Pravda under the title, “USA lost in polythea.” This piece has spread around the Internet quite a bit; running that title through your favorite search engine should pop it up from quite a few places.

The basic idea of the article is that entertainment is replacing reality in the culture. I was about to write “our culture” but it’s not portrayed as a local phenomenon; it’s world-wide in the view of the writer. He sees “polythea” as a pervading presence of theatricalism in social life, media, politics and pretty much everywhere one can look.

He may have a point. Sometimes fantasies point to realities, and so it may be here.

What would one look for to explore this?

In some ways, it may not even be new. Consider the world of fashion as we have known it since at least the days of the troubadours. Self-presentation through costume is the essence of fashion – shaping and controlling the perceptions others have of oneself through careful choice of clothing, makeup and accessories. What could be more theatrical than that? And what do we see as we walk down an ordinary city street? Let alone as we observe an ordinary fashion-show runway. Let alone Project Runway or The Fashion Show. Is there anything more fundamentally theatrical than dressing up? Particular if you dress up as something you’re not? And if you dress to project one “you” on one occasion, and a completely different “you” on another occasion? Just compare your own wardrobe at the office during the week and at the bar on the weekend and you may find yourself wondering just which mirror you’re looking into.

Is there anything less reality-oriented than reality television? Is there anything more entertainment-oriented than television news? Are they not, in a sense, converging? According to at least one survey, a poll done by Time, the most trusted “news anchor” in the US is John Stewart. John Stewart’s achievement is to transform performing as a news anchor into performing as a stand-up (or rather sit-down) comic. In the process, of course, he transforms world events into comedy. Let me see — who would be the first known person to do that? Why, Aristophanes, of course! And in ways that could give Stewart and the bitterly funny old Greek quite a bit to talk about if they could sit down over some wine and olives. Internationally, “The Daily Show” is carried by CNN. Think about that.

Stories, narratives, dramas—these things are fundamental to the way human beings understand the world. Probably because of that, they are also highly engaging in and of themselves. In the theater, we care entirely about the story as story; we do not care about it as reality. We can be as gritty as Ibsen or as fantastical as Barrie; all we care about is the story. Drop the curtain and pick up the newspaper; it is easy to observe that a great deal of what passes as coverage of events is in fact coverage of the narration of events, of the presentation of events as story. A mainstay of today’s reporting is the piece that tells us not what happened, but what this person, the other person, and the next person say about what happened — the stories that they tell. The stories are the news; the stories replace the story. This is especially true in politics, where frequently there is no event — the substance of the story is the story itself; the fact that so-and-so said such-and-such about this-and-that is in itself the event to be reported. In improvisatory theater, the fundamental rule is, you are what others say you are; you are what others make of you. In wide swaths of culture, do we not observe that events become what they are said to be? Is the title of our endlessly renewed performance Reality or Rashomon?

Can we still tell the difference? That’s what our Pravda writer would really like to know. And perhaps we should be asking ourselves the same thing. Has our reality been theatricalized to the point where we can no longer figure out which side of the curtain we are on — or even if there ever was a curtain at all?

Of course, an especially intense irony involved in all of this is that theater, in the narrow sense of that art practiced on two trestles, three boards, and with a passion, is seriously in decline. As theatrical as we may be in life, we’d rather watch TV for our entertainment. And that, my friends, is a very great tale indeed, though quite a different one than we are telling here. Another time, perhaps.

Bethune website: www.freshwaterseas.com