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Theatre: Why?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2012

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the 19th-century German critic, drama theorist and dramatist—author of Nathan the Wise and Minna von Barnhelm, two plays that still hold the stage in the German-speaking world—once wrote, "To what end the hard work of dramatic form? Why build a theatre, disguise men and women, torture their memories, invite the whole town to assemble at one place if I intend to produce nothing more with my work and its representation, than some of those emotions that would be produced as well by any good story that every one could read by his chimney-corner at home?"

It was a damn good question back then, before the invention of cinema, and it's an even better question now.

René Wellek observes, "This strange complaint overlooks the existence and attraction of comedy, and ignores the simple fact that actors don't torture their memories but like to learn their roles and that people love to disguise themselves and to assemble in one place." This observation totally begs the question, which is the question, "Why?" It also betrays that René Wellek apparently never tried to memorize lines! Which is, or can be, torture of the most refined and prolonged kind.


That is the key question—whether 'tis nobler on the stage to suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous public, or just head off to Hollywood and make movies, or to the privacy of your own home to write novels, both of which pay far better, when any of the three pay at all.

For years, I've answered that question by focusing my attention on the one great feature of live theater that does distinguish it from cinema, which is the living encounter of actors and audience, all breathing the same air in the same space. I still think this is the fundamental value of the art form, the fundamental event that gives it special and unique energy and life. However, I have a harder and harder time with that idea, because for some reason, theater, as broadly practiced at all levels—community, educational, professional—does not often wrap its collective head around that idea.

Consider the response of painting to the invention of photography. Photography took root and took off around the middle of the 19th century; by the end of the century, it was established as a standard way of creating images and was becoming recognized as an art form. Painters responded rather quickly; by the 1870's, artists in France were offering the approach we know as Impressionism, and other approaches soon emerged that shared a fundamental aspect: trying to base the art on its own key fundamentals, which the artists correctly realized was not the superficially accurate representation of visual reality, but the emotional, physical and intellectual effect of pigment on surface. Accurate representation could be left to the camera; the brush was free to follow its own nature.

Now consider the response of theater to the invention of cinema. Confronted with a mechanical means of presenting a time-based experience of reality in great detail and with enormous spectacular power, what did theater do? Despite struggles and efforts to find its own nature, theater fundamental decided to compete with cinema on cinema's own grounds, and lost, badly. At least as far as theater as broadly practiced on all levels in the English-speaking world is concerned. To this day, the ordinary straight play as presented in the ordinary theater is a piece of realism that tries to do what cinema can do better, instead of trying to do what it is uniquely able to do.

Why bother? The ordinary production as done in the ordinary theater does not answer that question, nor will it, until theater artists—not just the striking exceptions, the ones who have founded all sorts of styles and schools which have run their course and faded away, but the ordinary people doing ordinary plays for ordinary people across the country—find out how to do theater that is first-rate theater, not third-rate cinema.

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