Life and Death
By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
“We abolish the stage and the auditorium and replace them by a single site, without partition or barrier of any kind, which will become the theater of the action. A direct communication will be re-established between the spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectator, from the fact that the spectator, placed in the middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it.”
So spoke Antonin Artaud in the 1930’s, and was considered a madman for it. Artaud was considered a visionary, an enfant terrible, an utterly impractical man of the theatre, a sort of voice crying out in the wilderness to which everyone listened, nodded sagely, and went on their way without making the cardinal mistake of ever letting anything they heard change what they did. Do you say, “No, no, he had enormous influence, even though he himself was not able to do very much production.”? Well, it might be said that a large river has a large effect on the ocean, since the fresh water that pours from it can be found several miles out from the river’s mouth, but just go out a few miles further and you find that the sea is still as salty as ever. Artaud’s writing and ideas have certainly impressed many people over the generations since he wrote, but go out a few years and you find the effect highly diluted.
Yet what was so extraordinary? It’s really very simple. Avoid having architectural or visual obstructions between the audience and the living presence of the actor. In other words, make it easy on yourself. Don’t make yourself have to push your performance across an inconvenient, though (pace Wagner) possibly mystic chasm. Just get right out there and mix it up with the crowd. Be close to them. Let them feel your presence, and vice versa.
Of course, doing that raises the stakes considerably. Even so simple an act as lighting up a pipe becomes a much more high-pressure sort of affair when the person watching you does it (and, inevitably, wondering if you will succeed) is only three or four feet away. It’s a challenge from the other side too. Watch the audience members when they realize that the actors just an arm’s-length or two away from them are about to do something intense, especially something with sexual or aggressive significance. They take a deep breath and brace themselves for impact, as if their seats were about to crash into a wall. In a sense it’s true; they’re on a roller-coaster ride and they aren’t really in control; the play is coming at them, possibly at great speed, and a smash-up looks highly possible.
But isn’t that precisely what our acting teachers all tell us to do? “Raise the stakes! Make it meaningful to you! Make it a matter of life and death!” If life and death draw fans to NASCAR, why wouldn’t life and death be rewarding in the theater? Indeed, blood was the theme of Artaud’s only major production. Well, we may look askance at blood, especially if we are the insurance company writing the liability policy for the theater, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of putting on a production, or you’re going to go to the trouble to attend one, it might as well be for something distinctly worthwhile, something distinctly important, something that will stick with you for a long, long time. Being planted in the midst of the action just might be conducive to that; making sure that the encounter with the living presence of the actor yields rich fruit is a very good idea, as Artaud knew in the 30’s, and as we could do a better job of today.