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Brownian Motion

ART TIMES May, 2004

Last month I wrote about the evanescence of the theater, the fact that what we do vanishes into thin air the moment it is done, never to be seen again. Because the theater is evanescent, it is constantly in a state of being re-done. New productions are conceived, financed, staffed, produced, performed and struck the way flowers bloom. No individual flower lasts very long, but there is nevertheless a constant presence of flowers, from the crocuses of February to the last fall wildflowers of November. With global warming coming on apace, those two just might make common acquaintance one of these days.

The evanescence of the theater can be profoundly depressing, as I mentioned last month. Surely there’s a remedy for that in the constant energy, the constant springing into renewed life that makes theater recreate itself as do the flowers? There is, but there can also be a sobering side to the process.

There is a phenomenon in physics and chemistry that occurs when you look closely at large molecules suspended in a liquid. Viewed at high magnifications, the molecules are constantly in motion; they are bombarded from all sides by the small molecules of the liquid around them, but they are small enough that the bombardment isn’t always equal on all sides. As a result, they move constantly, jiggling back and forth as we watch through the microscope, constantly in motion, never going anywhere.

The art of the theater can be like that. To see it that way, we don’t need a microscope; we need a telescope, and we need to look at it through the wrong end. We need to see not this production and that production, but the whole field of all productions — just as we would look from high ground down on a field of flowers. We see the flowers constantly growing up, blooming and fading away to be replaced by other flowers that grow and die in their turn in the same spots, just as we see the molecules of the solution jiggling back and forth, never really moving. To be sure, there is a pulsating life there, but also to be sure, it is pulsating upon itself, endlessly recycling itself within the same field.

I have a great horror of Brownian motion. To me, it is a powerful symbol of one of the ways in which life can be a terrible thing, a mere pulsating mass, constantly in motion, never going anywhere, never coming to an end. Theater can and does display all the qualities of Brownian motion. After 2,500 years, is what we do really so very different from what the Greeks did? To be sure, we don’t perform all-day trilogies, and we don’t stand on cothurni, and we don’t have choruses, and so forth — except when we do their plays, or a few plays that imitate or take inspiration from them. But fundamentally, do we not do as they did — use the living presence of the actor to portray human life and experience? Has anything really changed? Must we continue?

The reason to continue is not the art itself, which is born, grows, dies and is reborn endlessly; it is the function of the art, which is like breath — the endless, essentially unvarying cycle of breath, after all, sustains life. You don’t breathe in order to breathe, you breathe in order to live; your life moves on as your breath cycles. The Brownian motion of the theater can only be endured if we see how it feeds our life, the life of our culture and people generally. It is one of the ways we breathe, and we breathe to live.

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