Friday, 27 September 2013

Aristotle and catharsis...

It's rarely acknowledged - although it is in the essay that I am stealing this passage from (Jacob Bernays Aristotle on the Effect of Tragedy) - that Aristotle slipped the Poetics in at the end of his Politics. Apart from supporting the supposition that the whole aesthetic project is merely a reply to Plato's condemnation of the actor's art - that was slipped into his political work, The Republic - it gives a clear idea of the context of Aristotle's thoughts on drama.

He was thinking about it as part of a social context, not as an art form in isolation: in many ways, I tempted to dismiss his conclusions because they tend to limit tragedy to a social action, a branch of not just literature but further education (or social indoctrination).

Bernays spots that the apparently definitive explanation of tragedy given by Aristotle has been complicated by his interpreters. Even a small word, like toiotoon (translated as 'such') can cause Lessing to get angry at previous interpretations. So, when he gets to the magic word - catharsis - he goes back  The Politics  to get some clarification.

And so, Politics VIII, 7.

We accept the division of melodies... into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate and inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it. But we maintain further that music should be studied, not ... with a view to education, to catharsis.

He then promises to explain the word later, but doesn't. He gets back onto the matter in hand.

In education, the ethical modes are to be preferred... for emotions such as fear and pity, or again enthusiasm, exist very strongly in some souls... Some persons fall into a religious frenzy, whom we see as a result of the sacred melodies... restored as though they had found catharsis or healing. Those who are influenced by fear and pity must have a like experience.

Bernays goes on to say that Aristotle did see theatre as for both the top dogs and the 'vulgar crowd' - unlike Plato who was against complex modern music - and that the element of catharsis should not overwhelm the need to entertain: the lower classes can get their jollies, too. Mind you, the point of the whole thing is still moral education, only sneaked in behind a big load of lower order carrying on...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Isonomia: Getting Distracted Again

I observe the world as a hermeneutical spiral. That is to say, there are events, and their interpretations or iterations. Once upon a time, there was a singularity. Then the universe happened, and all of it is the hermeneutical spiral of that single event.

This is my way of claiming that criticism is as important as the art: the performance is the event, and the criticism makes senses of it.

This inevitably leads me to Fifth Century Athens. The political, social, aesthetic and philosophical evolution of this particular city state at this particular time counts as an even so impressive, it took Western Civilisation nearly two thousand years to get over it. Up until the 1970s, Classics was still crucial in the curriculum (with Greek generally regarded as the best bit). It took the combined forces of post-modernism, which fractured the ideal of a grand guiding narrative, and (sort of) socialist educational theory, which considered practical education better than immersing students in the stories of Grand Old White Males, to edge Classics out of the secondary class room.

I might have been one of the last generation who got Latin slapped into their timetable as a matter of course. By the time I came to teach Classics, we weren't able to pretend that it was relevant - even Glasgow University had abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement.

Forgive my sentimentality: I am researching the Fifth Century today, and it feels like a personal journey.

Yes, say The Kids. But what has this to do with us?

Right at the start of the period, the Athenian legal system came up with the idea of equality before the law. Now, there is plenty of boasting about how they started off democracy - and the complaint that this democracy excluded women and foreign residents. There's a pride in the growth of Tragedy (and comedy, but since that involves values that might make Jim Davidson blush, I'll ignore that). But I think that the equality before the law was the real breakthrough.

Wikipedia gives me two quotes on the ancient Greek attitude to equality before the law - without giving me the word in Greek, which is what I was looking for. Apparently, Aristotle reckoned that whoever controlled the law courts controlled the state. And Pericles thought it was so great, he mentioned it in his famous funeral oration in 431: it was the defining characteristic of the Athenian State.

The word is isonomia. Recently, Adam Scarborough suggested that Sortition, the allotment of responsibility by lottery, might make an alternative to the current nightmare of representative democracy. This sortition was used in ancient courts to select juries and councils - and depends on the idea of equality of all.

Quite clearly, I have become distracted again. I intended to write a timeline of Fifth Century Athens, and ended up taking potshots at modern politics. To be continued...

Thomas Hobbins takes a ride... I leave Nethy Bridge...

Thomas Hobbins made my legs ache just by watching his Land's End. Admittedly, he spends most of the performance cycling - bringing back memories of the route between Nethy Bridge and Aviemore - pausing only in recollection of idyllic childhood adventures. But the energy he brings to the story, and his natural charisma, makes the mix and match of Lord of the Rings and a spontaneous attempt to cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats ('is he a giant?' ponders Hobbins) both charming and resonant.

The simple set - a signpost and a bike fixed on a stand - is evocative of Hobbins' themes: the sense of freedom and excitement, and the loneliness and exhaustion, that come with an open road. Unlike my trip from Nethy Bridge, Hobbins' journey was spontaneous and accompanied. While I spent much of the time staring out at the surrounding countryside, before arriving in an Aviemore that feels more like a seaside resort than a lonely outpost in the Highlands, Hobbins was in earnest conversation with his travelling companion (the Sam to his Frodo, in the extended comparisons to the hobbits quest to Mordor).

Hobbins highlights his own impulsive enthusiasm - the story begins with a flashback to childhood, when LotR inspired him to cycle off to the local power station, with only a bottle of fizz and a packet of Monster Munch for rations - and the tensions of travelling long distances with a close friend. His honesty about his lack of preparation, and the conflicts between the duo, is disarming. His rendition of Blackberry Way - a song that bears resemblance to The Beatles' Penny Lane but of a darker bent - captures both the hopelessness of the long distance journey and the vague sense of togetherness that it encourages.

The constant cycling - Hobbins makes his hour long monologue into an act of endurance by whizzing the wheels around as he talks - provides a humming soundtrack to the episodic dramas. When the lights dim - the dynamic duo get lost at night - the buzz of the wheels is sinister. When he scoots into John O'Groats, it becomes triumphant. Yet all the way through the bike does not move - a startling symbol of the ambiguity of travel: however far we go, somethings never change...

It is as if Hobbins is in flight from himself, but unable to escape...

The train that went past me, an old vintage steam engine, faster than my cycle over uneven ground....

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Mainliner @ 13th Note

And that is enough Aristotle for one day. This blog needs to party - and what better way than through heavy riffs and ferocious drumming? It's time to review MAINLINER, starring the one out of Acid Mothers Temple...

It took me a while to get into the groove - I blame my bad leg, and sitting at the back. Mainliner's approach is deceptively simple. They take a tough riff - the sort of powerful, thrusting motif that Black Sabbath would have liked in the 1970s - and push it. Steve Reich might think he knows about repetition, but Mainliner have it down pat. For the first few songs, I am disorientated by the bass throb to such an extent that I am not sure whether it is just the same bass riff.

Sat down at the back, I don't get an impression of the drumming. I have heard that Mainliner have a connection to free jazz, but the bass controls both beat and thrust. I can hear the rattle of snares and a kick, but it is as if the rest of the band are simply dressing the bass, adding ornamentation to the repetition and hiding the basic attack with curlicues of detail.

Gradually, Kawabata Makoto's guitar begins to emerge, chasing fragments of distorted melody and groaning against the roar. I make my way to the front, and things become clearer: drummer Koji Shimura is oddly unperturbed by the racket, but leaping out from the rigid beat to make ecstatic runs over the kit's full range. The bassist, Kawabe Taigen, moans and the voice is ethereal against the masculine pulse of the beat... a human presence sucked into a void, not quite a howl, undespairing, almost unheard...

I vaguely think that this is what metal sounds like to metal fans. The groove is undeniable, I am lost somewhere in the sound and here, at last, the progression of jazz rock that doesn't want to be progressive.

Aristotle Poetics (Part 5-6)

Part V
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain. 

Blah Blah Blah. You know how the mad monk in The Name of the Rose ate Aristotle's lost work on comedy? Good. I have cut out the next bit because it is Aristotle saying he does not know how comedy took its current form. 

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry. 

Seriously, Aristotle: the big difference between Epic Poetry and Tragic Drama is THAT ONE OF THEM IS PERFORMED ON A STAGE WITH ALL ACTORS AND MASKS AND PROPS. I don't even think the time span is right (The Oresteia is over a long period of time, longer than The Iliad even), and the condensing of time in most plays is a matter of aesthetics, not time limit. The changes of fortune in even Oedipus come after characters have been on some fairly long trips (Creon to Delphi et c). This must be where the Unity of Time comes from: and that is not my favourite Unity. 

Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem. 

See my previous comment...

Part VI
Of the poetry which imitates in hexameter verse, and of Comedy, we will speak hereafter. Let us now discuss Tragedy, resuming its formal definition, as resulting from what has been already said.

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. By 'language embellished,' I mean language into which rhythm, 'harmony' and song enter. By 'the several kinds in separate parts,' I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song. 

This definition makes no statement about the performance aspect of tragedy, unless 'the imitation of an action' is about the live event. 

Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily follows in the first place, that Spectacular equipment will be a part of Tragedy. Next, Song and Diction, for these are the media of imitation. By 'Diction' I mean the mere metrical arrangement of the words: as for 'Song,' it is a term whose sense every one understands. 

I might want to wait before ranting. He gets to it here - but the plot is higher on the list than performance. 

Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents. By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities to the agents. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated. Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the objects of imitation. And these complete the fist. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well as Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought. 

I have a headache. This is going to need another post....

Aristotle: Poetics Part 2 - 4

Part II
Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life. 

Hack, hack, hack. I'll take his word for the three artists mentioned. 

Now it is evident that each of the modes of imitation above mentioned will exhibit these differences, and become a distinct kind in imitating objects that are thus distinct. Such diversities may be found even in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in language, whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music. Homer, for example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse than they are. The same thing holds good of Dithyrambs and Nomes; here too one may portray different types, as Timotheus and Philoxenus differed in representing their Cyclopes. The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life. 

Finally: he talks about the content of comedy and tragedy. I am not entirely sure that the 'better' idea stands up: most of the characters in tragedy reach levels of naughtiness rarely attained in real life. The worst that the average ned can do is twock a car and burn it out in the woods. Oedipus does some incest, Medea kills all her kids, Orestes knacks his mother (who did his dad...). These actions are not impossible but they are outstanding. 

He also needs comedy as an opposite: the idea that tragic heroes are better than real life depends on sitting them next to comic heroes. He must mean 'more grand' for 'better,' which I can accept. Larger than life, symbolic representatives of a type: although I am not sure that Euripides or Sophocles was interested in this... in fact, I like Sophocles for his psychological realism.

Furthermore, he is looking at representation rather than content. And character, which I believe is less important than plot...
Part III

There is still a third difference- the manner in which each of these objects may be imitated. For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration- in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged- or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us.

These, then, as we said at the beginning, are the three differences which distinguish artistic imitation- the medium, the objects, and the manner. So that from one point of view, Sophocles is an imitator of the same kind as Homer- for both imitate higher types of character; from another point of view, of the same kind as Aristophanes- for both imitate persons acting and doing. 

That was my problem with the earlier assertion, too, honest. The content of tragedy is no different to Epic poetry.

Hence, some say, the name of 'drama' is given to such poems, as representing action. For the same reason the Dorians claim the invention both of Tragedy and Comedy. The claim to Comedy is put forward by the Megarians- not only by those of Greece proper, who allege that it originated under their democracy, but also by the Megarians of Sicily, for the poet Epicharmus, who is much earlier than Chionides and Magnes, belonged to that country. Tragedy too is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. In each case they appeal to the evidence of language. The outlying villages, they say, are by them called komai, by the Athenians demoi: and they assume that comedians were so named not from komazein, 'to revel,' but because they wandered from village to village (kata komas), being excluded contemptuously from the city. They add also that the Dorian word for 'doing' is dran, and the Athenian, prattein. 

Frankly, I do not care at all who invented it: the only interesting thing is that Aristotle doesn't know, and this is a few years - maybe a century or so - after the scene blew up. Already lost in the mists of time. And etymology - the research of the autodidact, who never recognises that language shifts meanings according to use. Malcolm X was into etymology, and that was the least impressive part of his autobiography.

This may suffice as to the number and nature of the various modes of imitation.

Part IV

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Is mimesis rooted in our nature - childhood play suggesting the high arts in embryo? And we learn through copying. This could make a strong defence for theatre as a moral force, against Plato's objections (and I am reading this as a response to Plato's anti-drama sentiments).

We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.

Wait a minute - isn't David Cameron trying to ban that sort of mimesis?

The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such other cause. 

Pleasure is caused by the exercise of critical faculties: a chance to be judgemental. 

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry. 

We like things to be harmonic - to resolve. That doesn't explain why I went to that Mainliner gig last night: it didn't so much resolve as repeat the heaviest riffs again and again. And Lea Cumming's set: it resolved into shouting. I don't think Aristotle would like Noise Poetry.

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances can be cited- his own Margites, for example, and other similar compositions. The appropriate meter was also here introduced; hence the measure is still called the iambic or lampooning measure, being that in which people lampooned one another. Thus the older poets were distinguished as writers of heroic or of lampooning verse. 

An association of certain poetic styles with the nature of the content: this might reveal how little material Aristotle had to consider. The association of content with form is intriguing

As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same relation to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy. But when Tragedy and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets still followed their natural bent: the lampooners became writers of Comedy, and the Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama was a larger and higher form of art. 

Again, the line from Epic to Tragedy, the close association of the two forms of poetry... tragedy is an evolution of the epic poem because of the content. Now, I thought that the first plays emerged from dithyrambs, or hymns. I know they had the same content, even intent as epic (big subject, religious awe) but they were about the performance...

Yes, I know Homer is part of an oral tradition, but the oral tradition was just a guy telling a story. A dithramb needed to be composed, to have a tune, and maybe choreography. They don't come from a literary, or 'verbal' tradition. 
Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and whether it is to be judged in itself, or in relation also to the audience- this raises another question. Be that as it may, Tragedy- as also Comedy- was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped. 

Ah, the optimism of the philosopher: Tragedy has found its natural form, and the rest of history will involve variations on a theme. Riiiiight. 

Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. Moreover, it was not till late that the short plot was discarded for one of greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the earlier satyric form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic measure then replaced the trochaic tetrameter, which was originally employed when the poetry was of the satyric order, and had greater with dancing. 

Once dialogue had come in, Nature herself discovered the appropriate measure. For the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial we see it in the fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently than into any other kind of verse; rarely into hexameters, and only when we drop the colloquial intonation. The additions to the number of 'episodes' or acts, and the other accessories of which tradition tells, must be taken as already described; for to discuss them in detail would, doubtless, be a large undertaking.

Aristotle: The Poetics (part 1)

I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.

Note: it is all of poetry that is under consideration, not just theatre. So theatre is, before we even start, just a bit of a genre - and that is literature, not performance.

There is this bit, right, in Aristophanes, when Dionysus is reading a play on a boat. He is supposed to be in the army, but he is slacking off. He decides he wants some Euripides, so nips down to Hades to get him back. But when he arrives there, he finds that while Euripides might read better, it is Aeschylus who is the master of the art. 

So Aristophanes knew that reading and watching were very different. I'll bear that in mind when I read on.
Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three respects- the medium, the objects, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.

Here's the broader categorisation: all very Aristotlean. Imitation here is 'mimesis.' That harks back to Plato, I think: the imitation of the pure form that resides in some heavenly, metaphysical zone.

For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, imitate and represent various objects through the medium of colour and form, or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken as a whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or 'harmony,' either singly or combined.

Thus in the music of the flute and of the lyre, 'harmony' and rhythm alone are employed; also in other arts, such as that of the shepherd's pipe, which are essentially similar to these. In dancing, rhythm alone is used without 'harmony'; for even dancing imitates character, emotion, and action, by rhythmical movement. 

Aha! At least Aristotle acknowledges the idea of physical theatre and a more abstracted version of mimesis. 

There is another art which imitates by means of language alone, and that either in prose or verse- which verse, again, may either combine different meters or consist of but one kind- but this has hitherto been without a name. For there is no common term we could apply to the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues on the one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic, elegiac, or any similar meter. People do, indeed, add the word 'maker' or 'poet' to the name of the meter, and speak of elegiac poets, or epic (that is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all to the name. Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather than poet. On the same principle, even if a writer in his poetic imitation were to combine all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur, which is a medley composed of meters of all kinds, we should bring him too under the general term poet. 

In other words, poetry is not just defined by having a metre: it is the content that is crucial. Let's see what content is appropriate for tragedy.

So much then for these distinctions. 

There are, again, some arts which employ all the means above mentioned- namely, rhythm, tune, and meter. Such are Dithyrambic and Nomic poetry, and also Tragedy and Comedy; but between them originally the difference is, that in the first two cases these means are all employed in combination, in the latter, now one means is employed, now another.

Such, then, are the differences of the arts with respect to the medium of imitation

The National Galleries of Scotland are excited to announce Halloween: By Night.

The National Galleries of Scotland are excited to announce Halloween: By Night, the third event in the 2013 By Night series, inspired by Witches & Wicked Bodies and headlined by The Eccentronic Research Council ft Maxine Peake.

The Eccentronic Research Council are a self-styled collective of artists, sound designers, experimental pop performers led primarily by Sheffield musicians Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer (formerly of The All Seeing I). The band have performed at various venues across the UK are we are very excited to see them add the National Galleries to their list of performance spaces.

The gig at the Scottish National Gallery on 31 October 2013 will include a performance, in full, of the ERC’s 2012 record 1612 Underture. The 14-track collaboration with British actress Maxine Peake is inspired by the tale of the Pendle witch trials and compliments the thematic Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art show, Witches & Wicked Bodies, which charts 500 years of the depiction of witches in art. The narration on the album performed by Peake, which will be reinterpreted for the Halloween performance, is based around a (part fictional) account of a psycho-geographical trip taken by a priest and a nun from Salford to Pendle to learn more about the town's most notorious daughters.

Maxine Peake is well known for her extensive work across British Film and TV. From the first series of Shameless alongside James McAvoy and Anne Marie Duff to Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies. Peake’s recent TV work includes the BBC crime series Silk and STV’s The Village.

The event, in the form of all By Night events, will provide a unique opportunity to explore the Gallery in a new light, after hours, with bars, music and performers. There will be poetry readings by Blake Morrison, rediscovering his work on the Pendle witches, alongside Tarot readings, DJ Fudge Fingas and the film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Other Halloween happenings are to be confirmed.

Halloween: By Night 
Tickets are £12
31 October 2013, 7.15pm – 10pm at the Gardens entrance of the Scottish National Gallery.

By Night from the National Galleries of Scotland
Listen to ‘Maxine’s Dream’ from 1612 Underture.
Maxine Peake and the ERC on the Culture Show February 2013.

Plato versus Aristotle

Ladies and Gentleman, It's The Throwdown Of The Ages. The One Size Fits All Battle Of Minds In Which Everyone Must Take A Side. We Have Seen Them Fight Over Theology, The Ideal State, The Nature of The Ideal And Just About Every Other Topic That Would Define Western Civilisation: The Individual Blows Of Their Fights Have Become The Paths Of Western Philosophy. Against These Two Men's Epic Ruckus, Aquinas's Entire Corpus Is Merely A Kick In The Balls Of Monism. Betrand Russell's Complete Works Become a Sneaky Punch In The Ribs.

In this specially arranged amphitheatre, modelled on Herod Atticus' patch up job on the one at the bottom of the Athenian Acropolis, these titans of though meet to sort it all out for all time.

In the red corner, carrying the weight of Abstract Ideals and a City State of Philosopher Kings on those broad shoulders, heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee's PLATO.

And in the blue corner, dragging along the categorisation of everything he could get his hands on, the late tutor to the Great Alexander: iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt's ARISTOTLE.

Plato saunters to the centre of the ring, nonchalant yet determined. He fixes his eyes upon his opponent and begins to speak, slowly and carefully.

"Why is it exactly that we are fighting?"

Aristotle looks at his feet. "In The Republic, you make the claim that the actor is a dangerous character. In your ideal society, a man who changes his roles at will upsets the balance of the state, in which everyone has their predetermined place. However, you do say that you'd be happy to hear a counter argument, since theatre remains pretty popular. I've got your answer."

Plato is nonplussed, but keeps his tone even. "It could be that," he drawls. "Or maybe Vile is messing about again, reluctant to actually do his essay."

"Interesting split infinitive there," Aristotle counters. "From the man who is acclaimed for his prose elegance."

"I split my infinitives far less than you split the entire Universe into categories."

"And it is just like you to get metaphysical about the battle, rather than look at the cold, hard material facts."

"Here's another characteristic of my thought." Plato chuckles. "I'll ask the questions. Why did you slip The Poetics onto the end of your Politics?"

"You started it. Your condemnation of theatre comes as part of a description of the perfect society. I am following your lead, and examining the social impact of theatre. Neither of us has a particular interest in pure aesthetics."

"Probably because the discipline doesn't turn up until Kant has a crack at it. His idea of the sublime - perhaps followed by Heideigger's interest in the uncanny - goes some way to account for the popularity of theatre that neither of us could acknowledge."

"You claim that the theatre has two weaknesses, two dangers. One is that it presents the gods as doing bad stuff, the other the problem of the actor's art. The first applies as much to Homer, Epic Poetry: you rememdy that by making up your own myths whenever you need them. That suggests a rather pragmatic attitude to religious narrative, especially for a philosopher who frequently invokes the divine."

"Neither of us had much time for the state religion. I was burned when they killed Socrates for 'corrupting the young' and encouraging belief in strange gods. You ended up running away from Athens to tutor a barbarian prince."

"Abstractions, again. Back to the fight. Where you argue that drama is a form of mimesis, an imitation, you make it bad by definition. Since you are already claiming that the physical universe is a mimesis of a pure form, an artistic copy is a further remove from the truth. I make a few strikes against that."

"So, the man who loves biology so much makes a stand for lies?"

"Not lies. Drama - and this goes for poetry in general - can use the myth to get away from the specifics of history, the detail, and look for more general patterns: the universal. A good play -  and I mean Sophocles' Oedipus Rex  - doesn't tell the history of a particular mother-loving monarch, but suggests how such a matter could play out."

"For most of us, contrary to a line in the play itself, sleeping with mummy isn't a concern. Are you making these mythological stories some kind of psychological drama?"

"I am not that interested in the content of the stories: it is more the structure that intrigues me. The way that Sophocles works through the process of revelation. That is universal."

"Let's hear about the complex plot, then."

"That's when two ingredients are added to the catastrophe - which every tragedy needs. The 'reversal of intention' (peripeteia) and the recognition (anagnorisis)."

"If we stick with Oedipus, I guess  the peripeteia is when Oedipus tries to get information about his past: he thinks it will clear his name, but it goes a little wrong... then he recognises who he is. That's why the play is so good: it is essential a horror story, and the climax is when the hero looks in the mirror, and realises that he was the villain all along."


"And this is the best way of doing it? The protagonist - the hero - experiences reversal and recognition? Where does that fit into Medea?"

"Er... well, Theseus intends to reconcile with his ex-wife and it goes wrong?"

"He's the antagonist. What about The Oresteia?"

"It's a trilogy."

"Yet it has something at the end that fits your description.It resolves various plot threads in a coherent manner."

End of Round One. A victory on points to Plato.

Aristotle: A Double Tragedy. The prologue

Menander, who was a New Comedy playwright, was once asked whether he's finished his latest work. He answered that he's done the hard bit, and now he just had to write it down. The joke being that Menander was big on plot and short on jokes. In fact, that zinger is probably his best line. Consequently, Aristophanes remains the schoolboy's favourite Athenian comedian. He did dick gags.
And so is the opposite, Vile

However, I am wondering whether McManus has taught me enough to write a life of Aristotle as a tragic plot.

First of all - the beginning. Let's see: Aristotle liked the use of myths, and allowed the author to fiddle with the detail. I am going to use the example of Aeschylus' Persians, and take historical fact and treat it like mythology.

Footnote: Aristotle doesn't rate Aeschylus. David Wiles reckons that Aeschylus was too heavy on the sound of language rather than clarity of its meaning (AE Housman nails my memories of translating the bloody Oresteia), and had too much time for both gods (Athena and Apollo sort out the mess at the end of the trilogy) and Athenian patriotism.

The beginning - or, to involve Frankie Howerd, The Prologue. We need a scene that shows the effects of the cause, without over-egging the cause. I've got it.

The Prologue: A watchman on the walls of Athens. He is staring out at a big army of Macedonians, with Alexander the Great pacing in front of them. Shouts of 'you are going down' float across the walls. The watchman gets us up to speed: demagoguery has encouraged the Athenians to square up with the barbarian invaders, and in about fifteen minutes, Athens is going to be pwned.

Interestingly, Aristotle does not divide his plot structure into the noticeable parts of the extant tragedies, but I think this bit is called the parados. The chorus comes on stage. They are going to be poor Athenian citizens (because both Plato and Aristotle had a suspicion of democracy - Aristotle nipped off from Athens during the age of Alexander, as we shall see). The throw down with some tunes and dancing (although spectacle and melody are at the end of Aristotle's list of Tragic Ingredients). They bemoan the sophists who have taught the democratic assembly rhetoric, which has led to the speakers being able to convince the people to have a disastrous battle with the Macedonians.

Footnote: Plato would like that: he had a moan about sophists, and wasn't that keen on the whole Athenian political process. What with them killing his hero Socrates, he wrote this big book called The Republic, which suggested a better political system. I am not sure whether the whole thing is a joke, but he did spend a bit too much time trying to persuade a tyrant in Sicily to act a bit more philosophical.

Hang on, I am not sure my beginning has generated the subsequent plot. I've just stated the situation. This is harder than I thought. Wait... I'll bring on my protagonist. It's Aristotle. With a cheery 'hiya pals,' he bounces on stage and makes a speech about how Cinderella is a very special girl but... sorry, how Plato is a special philosopher but he has got it wrong about drama, and it can be part of a moral education.

Footnote: Casting must be crucial here. Gerard Kelly would have been perfect.

I am struggling to make this particular scenario universal rather than a series of ill-judged pokes at Aristotle.

I am going to race onto the middle: the climax. Again, Aristotle doesn't seem to be that interested in the formal aspects of Greek tragedy, and the middle bit was often an 'agon,' or big row between protagonist and antagonist. Somehow, I am going to have to make this agon between Plato and Aristotle...

Barbara McManus on Aristotle

Back in 1999, Barbara McManus did all the hard work for me, by creating a webpage that explained tragedy. The notes on this page are a dialogue between her definitions and my my responses.
Flowers won't excuse plagiarism, Vile

You can spot my replies as they are in italics and usually trite and petulant.

Definition of Tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” (translation by S. H. Butchet)
The treatise we call the Poetics was composed at least 50 years after the death of Sophocles. Aristotle was a great admirer of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, considering it the perfect tragedy, and not surprisingly, his analysis fits that play most perfectly.

It's a strong start: Aristotle is already up to his usual tricks of breaking down an object into its parts (he says something about 'the soul of tragedy being plot' somewhere, a typical example of how he gives metaphysical concepts a grounded function). There is a problem with using Oedipus as an object-lesson: since part of Aristotle's aim was to show how to write a good tragedy (David Wiles, Aristotle's Poetics and Ancient Dramatic Theory), I reckon he was trying to get playwrights to copy his favourite work.
I wonder whether Aristotle's six parts are already in a hierarchy, with plot at the the top and melody (music) at the bottom. As I remember, he didn't like the Chorus much (too much God business for a materialist like Aristotle), so slapping their contributions down would make sense.
We also get katharsis mentioned. It's a shame that the meaning of this word is not clear to me. It might mean ritual purification - in line with the religious foundations of drama - or simply puking up unwanted emotions. 

Tragedy is the “imitation of an action” (mimesis) according to “the law of probability or necessity.” Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative; tragedy “shows” rather than “tells.” According to Aristotle, tragedy is higher and more philosophical than history because history simply relates what has happened while tragedy dramatizes what may happen, “what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.”
 History thus deals with the particular, and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others.
 Tragedy, however, is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain.

So, problem one, for me: history isn't as good as tragedy, because it is factual (and the more something is like philosophy, the better it is. Hmmm). This doesn't necessarily fit in with what I Know of Aristotle elsewhere: he is the biologist who likes to arrange things into particular groups. I detect the influence of the Mighty Plato here - no bad thing in itself, since I like Plato better (big ideas and allegories, and plenty of comedy as his hero Socrates takes down other thinkers in the dialogues). But it doesn't feel as if Aristotle is being himself. He is answering Plato's complaints about theatre (of which more, I am sure, anon) by using a Platonic position. 

Plot is the “first principle,” the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents”: i.e. not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. According to Aristotle, tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Plots that meet this criterion will have the following qualities.

 See Freytag's Triangle for a diagram that illustrates Aristotle's ideal plot structure.

I wonder whether the speech from Anouilh's Antigone says the same thing, only in Occupied France...

The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job. Anything will set it going: a glance at a girl who happens to be lifting her arms to her hair as you go by; a feeling when you wake up on a fine morning that you'd like a little respect paid to you today, as if it were as easy to order as a second cup of coffee; one question too many, idly thrown out over a friendly drink--and the tragedy is on.

The rest is automatic. You don't need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled since time began, and it runs without friction. Death, treason, and sorrow are on the march; and they move in the wake of storm, of tears, of stillness. Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner's axe goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when, at the beginning of the play, the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner--so that you think of a film without a soundtrack, mouths agape and no sound coming out of them, a clamor that is no more than a picture; and you, the victor, already vanquished, alone in your desert of silence. That is tragedy.

Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama--with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That makes for tranquility. There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy: he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed: it's all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is shout. Don't mistake me: I said 'shout': I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get at all those things said that you never dared say--or never even knew till then. And you don't say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake; you say them because you learn a lot from

In melodrama, you argue and struggle in the hope of escape. That is vulgar; it's practical. but in tragedy, where there is no temptation to try to escape, argument is gratuitous; it's kingly.

The plot must be “a whole,” with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, called by modern critics the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are downplayed but its effects are stressed).
 The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i.e., its causes and effects are stressed).
 The end, or resolution, must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed); the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive moment.
 Aristotle calls the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis), in modern terminology the complication. He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the resolution the “unravelling” (lusis), in modern terminology the dénouement.

Bloody hell: McManus does a good job of tugging out Aristotle's meaning here.I think he is essentially saying that the plot should not rely too much on events outside of the script - the stuff in Oedipus that leads up to the tragedy - and the aftermath - ought to be mentioned, but not pivotal. 

This reads like straight observation though: I am struggling to think of how, say, in the introduction the causes can be overplayed and the effects underplayed. The effects are what we see on stage, so will naturally be stressed... maybe the beginning of the Oresteia provides this, where the Watchman and Clytemnestra bang on about the Trojan War and the waiting for the men to come home?

The plot must be “complete,” having “unity of action.” By this Aristotle means that the plot must be structurally self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus ex machina.

That is a swipe at Euripides - he loved having the gods turn up and sort shit out. Sometimes a mortal gets to have a shot on the God Machine (Medea), or the Discouri turn up and explain divine will (Helen).

 According to Aristotle, the worst kinds of plots are “‘episodic,’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”; the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the same person.

Beckett gets the bum's rush over two thousand years before his birth.

 Playwrights should exclude coincidences from their plots; if some coincidence is required, it should “have an air of design,” i.e., seem to have a fated connection to the events of the play.

And Les Miserables... well. I can give that a nod of approval...

 Similarly, the poet should exclude the irrational or at least keep it “outside the scope of the tragedy,” i.e., reported rather than dramatized. While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his plots, he “ought to show invention of his own and skilfully handle the traditional materials” to create unity of action in his plot.
The plot must be “of a certain magnitude,” both quantitatively (length, complexity) and qualitatively (“seriousness” and universal significance). Aristotle argues that plots should not be too brief; the more incidents and themes that the playwright can bring together in an organic unity, the greater the artistic value and richness of the play. Also, the more universal and significant the meaning of the play, the more the playwright can catch and hold the emotions of the audience, the better the play will be.
The plot may be either simple or complex, although complex is better. Simple plots have only a “change of fortune” (catastrophe). Complex plots have both “reversal of intention” (peripeteia) and “recognition” (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe. Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon surprise.
 Aristotle explains that a peripeteia occurs when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he intended to produce, while an anagnorisis “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” He argues that the best plots combine these two as part of their cause-and-effect chain (i.e., the peripeteia leads directly to the anagnorisis); this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the final “scene of suffering”.
Unsurprisingly, the complex plot has a moral dimension, I'd say. That fits in with the general idea of Aristotle's intentions, I guess.

I think that will do for the moment. I have to put my hands up and say that McManus did all the hard work here (although actually reading Aristotle is hard enough... and I am giving another link to her page as some sort of thanks...)

Monday, 23 September 2013


I'll be rushing through the Radio Hour tonight: I have a vital appointment on the other side of town. Back in the day, when I was still a Latin teacher and wore a suit for twelve hours of the day, I decided that I wanted to see a band called Acid Mothers Temple. Perhaps it was the name that pulled me in - maybe it was just the chance to remind myself that once upon a time, I used to be down with contemporary music.

Although they clearly came from a psychedelic heritage that was far from my own enthusiasms for post-punk austerity, AMT won me over before they even hit one of their massive riffs. The ambient introduction - that would eventually mutate into their 'classical' track Pink Lady Lemonade - was enough to transport me.

When I became a critic, AMT dragged me around the country. I went to see their various incarnations in Dundee, Birmingham, Glasgow: I even saw their Japanese 'new music festival' (which was pretty much them and their mates having fun in a variety of combinations).

Tonight, AMT artistic director Kawabata Makoto is in town, with his old band, Mainliner. Never mind that this band were started in 1995, and Makoto has been a restless soul since (his AMT work is brash, ferocious; his solo work is poetic, spiritual without being insipid): Mainliner make a timeless racket, based around free jazz drumming and Makoto's appetite for raw rock energy.

(For the record, I am delighted to see that support comes from Los Tentakills and a new Lea Cummings action - he is teaming up with Sarah Glass from the Fnords.)

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Odd Pasts

Afternoons like this remind me both of why I loved the Classics and why I gave up teaching it. Although I am not sure whether Cicero had any knowledge of Aristotle's ideas (at least not in the form that we received them - they turn up in the Eastern branch of the Roman Empire in the tenth century, via Arab sources), he has the same habit as the master. He can't help putting everything into categories, making 'poetry' a subdivision of rhetoric (already a division of moral education and... and...).

Even Horace, whom I love to distraction because it is never clear whether he is trying to be a good citizen of Augustan Rome or a cheeky subversive - gets in on the act when he discourses on poetry. It's all divided up.

I claim to be a Platonist simply because I get frustrated at all the tick-boxes the ancients indulged. I do get quite confused when they start enumerating the ways that a subject can be dissected. I also find it ironic that writers use a system that is easier to communicate through illustration. My notes on the position of poetry are more comprehensible than the original texts, just because I did them as a spider map.

So - the love is that the world that the Romans saw was obviously so different. That Cicero could try and put poetry under rhetoric and that Horace squeezed it in under grammar tells me more about how they regarded the written word. I can roughly switch the terms (Cicero had poetry as a moral matter, Horace made if formal), but that's not exact. The entire Matrix of the Roman world, even as it shifted from Republic to Empire, is fundamentally different to mine and the twenty-first century's version. That's not just a matter of adding time and ideas. The foundations are different.

And that's why I didn't like to teach it. I am not sure that's entirely useful but...

Howerd and Horace Go Live

When Carlson talks about Roman theories of theatre, he gets into comedy. Since I don't like comedy theatre that much, the work of an unknown fan of Aristotle, which delineates the structure and characters of comedy drama, was bound to drive me frantic. Carlson is probably looking at comedy because Latin only really produced any worthwhile playwrights in this genre and, as he notes, both Terence and Plautus would use their prologues to make a few points about the nature of the art.

Later, Frankie Howerd would use the prologue for a weekly laugh on his acclaimed hist-com, Up Pompeii. And in the same way that Howerd made a living out of ripping Plautus for undemanding 1970s TV audiences, Carlson is quick to remind the reader that Rome owed a great deal to the Greeks. Even when he gets onto Cicero (who had a few opinions on comedy, in the context of how to give a good speech), he suggests that Cicero's deft summing up of the genre - 'an imitation of life, a mirror of custom and an image of truth' - probably has a Greek source.

I doubt that. The meaninglessness of the words, which could apply to any performance, even the Live Art Happenings that passed for rhetoric in Cicero's time and the use of a tricolon makes this sound very much like the sort of thing a Roman would say. Especially one who was a master of the smoke and mirrors school of legal speech like The Big C.

When Carlson gets onto Horace, he observes that it is unlikely that the early Romans had read Aristotle. I envy them that, and wonder how it reflects on the works of Seneca. But there are bigger problems using Horace and Cicero as sources:  they are talking broadly about poetry. The idea of the text is being foregrounded. The actual performance, the theatricality, is being ignored.

I am also a little bit of a snob about comedy, too.

One of Aristotle's Lot Liked Jim Davidson

I'm jumping past Aristotle in Theories of the Theatre. I have had enough of The Unities and All That Jazz for the moment. When I taught Classics, it was assumed that Aristotle would be taught before the students were even allowed to look at an actual play. Never mind that his theories fail to hold up to the closest inspection. It's like being nagged until you admit that you love Oedipus more than he loved his mother.

So, onto the Romans: I love Latin literature, but they don't have any great playwrights. The consensus is that they basked in the Glory that was Greece. I reckon they had a choice - lions eating Christians or theatre. And lions eating Christians had more bang for the buck. It's the same problem for contemporary theatre when it comes up against Iron Man III.

My opposition to Aristotle is such that I was on the side of the bad guys in The Name of The Rose (they were trying to destroy Aristotle's lost work on comedy). Now it turns out that a late manuscript called the Tractatus Coislinuianus comes from the Roman era, and might even be that very text - more likely to have been a fanzine, though.

Aristotle's ponderous analysis is totally evident, alas: poetry is divided into the mimetic and the non-mimetic. The mimetic into narrative and dramatic... and so on. Comedy gets the definition it really needed.

Comedy is an imitation of an action that is imperfect and ludicrous... through pleasure and laughter effecting the purgation of the like emotions.

If that isn't the best justification for a Jim Davidson marathon, I am not sure I'll ever find a reason to buy the complete series of Big Break. And I mean it: Jimbo is certainly ludicrous and imperfect, and by laughing at his jokes, I am purging the emotions that they appeal to. It's obvious: all those jokes about Chalky were cleansing the United Kingdom of racism.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Beethoven Weekend In Glasgow

There are few things that I enjoy more than trying to explain art as if I know what I am talking about. Sadly, I do have an idea of what I am talking about when it comes to theatre (an idea - not necessarily a good one, but I have something). A weekend of Beethoven, however, is a little out of my range. My music collection is okay until about 1500, then takes a few centuries holiday until 1913 and The Rite of Spring got my attention. 

Then again, I have learnt to trust Sven Brown, who is behind this mini-festival. After three years of Minimal at the City Halls, I know he can programme forty eight hours of fun. He has even made it easy for me by kicking off with Beethoven: An Introduction Lecture by John Deathridge (Thu 26 September, 8pm).

Press Release Begins...City Halls, Recital Room
John Deathridge is one of the world’s leading Beethoven experts. To open this first Beethoven festival in Glasgow, he offers an insight and overview of the works we will hear, linking the music with events in Beethoven’s life, and considering its impact on Beethoven’s contemporaries.

Vile adds...

Plus, this one is free... and is followed by another chat and play session the next day. Brown's structure provides me not just with tunes to hum but ideas to pilfer for my blog.

Press Release Resumes...
Getting to the Heart of the ‘Harp’ QuartetFri 27 September, 6:15pm
Free to ticket holders of the 7:30pm concert
City Halls, Grand Hall
Spend 45 minutes with the Elias Quartet taking a close-up look at Beethoven’s 10th Quartet (Op.74), and discovering it from the inside – from the point of view of the performers.

The Tempest and The HarpFri 27 September, 7:30pm
City Halls, Grand Hall
Each of the concerts this weekend focuses on a different period of Beethoven’s life: early, middle and late. The music here all comes from the 1800s when Beethoven was in his 30s and the period when he moved centre stage in Vienna.

Getting to the Heart of the ‘Waldstein’Sat 28 September, 6:15pm
Free to ticket holders of the 7:30pm concert
City Halls, Grand Hall
Svend Brown joins Llyr Williams at the piano to look in depth at this fiery, radical piece of music and consider its place in the total cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Waldstein and RasumovskySat 28 September, 7:30pm
City Halls, Grand Hall
Here Beethoven challenges everything that meant ‘music’ in his own time. Performers, instruments and listeners are pushed to extremes in exhilarating, demanding music that leaves you breathless and transported. Arguably more powerful and extraordinary than his symphonies.

Getting to the Heart of Op.132Sun 29 September, 2pm
Free to ticket holders of the 3.15pm and 4.30pm concerts
City Halls, Grand Hall
T.S. Eliot called Op.132 ‘inexhaustible to study’ and envied Beethoven’s achievement in this piece. The Elias Quartet consider the piece’s emotional and technical complexities ahead of the afternoon’s final concert. 

Vile pipes up...

TS Eliot has got a cheek calling anything 'inexhaustible to study.' He had to give The Wasteland footnotes himself, thereby ruining the fun of certain A Level Students in the 1990s who wanted to pretend they got all his references. For anyone confused by the nomenclature of classical music, it's a string quartet. I looked it up on wikipedia. 

Hang on, I can go to YouTube.

Press Release Resumes...

Beethoven’s Distant BelovedSun 29 September, 3:15pm
City Halls, Recital Room
Beethoven’s lyrical song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte is a miniature delight – the first proper song-cycle of the 19th century, paving the way for Schubert and Schumann, among others. Stephan Loges places it amidst songs by Beethoven’s contemporaries and admirers, including Schubert.

Beethoven: Closing ConcertSun 29 September, 4:30pm
City Halls, Grand Hall
Bringing works from three decades together, this programme opens with Beethoven turning 30 and ends with one of the very greatest ‘Late’ Quartets, dating from 1825. A tumultuous and enrapturing finale.

Vile concludes...

With the range of compositions being played, it is interest to notice how Beethoven's music was influenced by his life circumstances. It's funny how he stops using high notes in his mid-career but seems to bring them back towards the end, an intriguing fact I noticed the last time I perused a selection of his scores.

SMHAFF: Three Films at the GFT

At the risk of sounding like somebody who thinks about the consequences of what he says before he says them, I have always had a concern about the representation of mental health issues within art. My beloved theatre is a special offender: 'madness,' even in the hands of the most capable writers and directors, frequently becomes a generic craziness, more important for moving the plot forward than addressing the challenges of mental health disorders.

When Shakespeare uses it like this in King Lear, it's like theatre has permission to throw the lunatic on stage with no worries about how this representation influences the audience's perception of, say, bi-polar.

This means I like the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF). I find their brochure impossible to navigate, and the mixture of professional performance and community workshops is bundled together. It's so big, so comprehensive, but somewhere there is some important theatre that does understand why theatre can't keep on caricaturing the 'crazy.'

I know that Barrowland Ballet are presenting Tiger as part of the festival, but it is probably better to redirect readers to the website. Until I get a better handle on the events, I'll just slap up a few selected highlights as I receive press releases.

The mighty GFT is hosting a few films: ' three cutting-edge documentaries on the theme of reality.' The subject matter took me by surprise: Alzheimer’s disease (First Cousin Once Removed),  and I Am Breathing which looks at 'the final few months of the life of Motor Neurone disease sufferer Neil Platt.'

The surprise is that I don't especially associate these illnesses with mental health. Yes, I am ignorant: I am glad the festival is making the obvious connection. It pulls away from the usual idea that mental health is all about that difficult illnesses that have psychiatric textbook symptoms (and hog the headlines whenever mental health is discussed).

This is why I like the SMHAFF - it challenges my lazy expectations. Plus there's a film about Mariel Hemmingway, and I have had a crush on her since I first saw Manhattan at the age of twelve.

Press Release Begins:

Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival:
Sunday 6 – Sunday 20 October
The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival returns to GFT for 2013 with three cutting-edge documentaries on the theme of reality.
Alan Berliner makes a deeply personal statement with his latest film First Cousin Once Removed (Sunday 6 October, 17.30), a portrait of his friend and mentor, the poet Edwin Honig who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Berliner, an experimental documentary filmmaker whose films have received awards at many major international film festivals, will host a master class at GMAC at 13.30 on Sunday 6 October and then take part in a Q&A after the screening at GFT.
The final few months of the life of Motor Neurone disease sufferer Neil Platt are recorded in powerful documentary I Am Breathing (Monday 14 October, 18.00), which will be followed by a discussion that asks: who cares for the carers?

Double Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple brings us Running from Crazy (Sunday 20 October, 19.45), an insightful documentary about Mariel Hemingway, the actress and grand-daughter of writer Ernest Hemingway, and her struggles to understand her family’s history with mental health issues. 

We hope to be joined by Barbara Kopple for a Q&A following the screening.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Notes from Carlson (Theories of Theatre - the bit about the Greeks)

So - the earliest theories of theatre appear to be found in Aristophanes. It's not the best start: nice and early (the Big Three of Athenian tragedy have already done their thing, but it is close enough to the beginning to make it a prime source), but from the pen of a comedian. Sure, Aristophanes wrote plays, but I don't trust him. Look at the hatchet job he did on Socrates in The Clouds.

There are a few places where Aristophanes explores the idea of theatre: The Acharnians, Peace, The Frogs... most of the time, he is having a crack at his contemporary, Euripides. He is more sympathetic to Aeschylus, an earlier, now dead, author (in The Frogs, he wins what Carlson claims to be the most serious discussion debate about the function of drama). It fits in with Aristophanes' socially conservative attitude. Aeschylus had a genuine vision of Athens as a the locus of an inclusive, just society (The Oresteia is like an advert for Athenian jury duty) and was part of the generation who kicked the Persians out of Greece in a moment of panhellenic enthusiasm.

Marner goes on to connect Aristophanes' critique of Euripides to Plato's notorious joke in The Republic (when he says that he's kick actors out of his ideal city. Notice he is going to kick them out after they have done the performance...). Both Plato and Aristophanes express concern at the impact of 'poetry' (that is roughly equivalent to drama, at least as far as this study goes) on the moral character of the city. For Aristophanes, this means liking Aeschylus better than Euripides - prescribing the correct sort of theatre. For Plato, it means watching the plays, thanking the actors, then sending them off to another city.

Sorry, I can't take either of these critiques seriously. First of all, Aristophanes is chiefly known in the twenty-first century as the author of a bunch of plays about sex. There have been attempts to claim that his Lysistrata is some kind of feminist classic, but the main scene involves a striptease routine outside a temple. It is a bit like Benny Hill pausing as he chases his Angels around a park in their skids, turning to the camera, and reminding the audience that they better not cheat on their wives.

As for Plato - didn't he start his career as a playwright? Then a wrestler (or vice-versa)... and have you noticed the format of his dialogues? Very familiar to anyone who has read a play. While there is a more serious explanation for Plato's fundamental dishonesty that invokes his concept of the Noble Lie, the nature of dialectic and the form of The Republic itself, I'm happy enough to say that the quality of Plato's prose, as well as his persistent use of allegory, would get him kicked out of his ideal state.

To be honest, although I am a big fan of Plato, I don't have much interest in his aesthetics, such as they are. He is subsuming a genuine discussion about the nature of poetry to his broader agenda - and slips in critiques of contemporary pagan religion to bolster his attempt to get a rise out of the reader. The same for Aristophanes - he is playing to the crowd.

Like everyone else, I have to start with Aristotle. But, as Carlin points out, that's a pain too. The text we have is a mess (all those books of Aristotle are pretty much notes by his students - and looking at the way I take notes, we are lucky that he doesn't have a few more chapters that repeat 'I am so bored' in different font sizes). I also think that Aristotle was just trying to argue with Plato, and make a case for the 'morality' of drama.

It's not that I don't think the Greeks are worth reading (well, Aristophanes and Plato are)... it is more that I don't think these are serious attempts to grapple with theatre. But I shall recite the Aristotle theories in my next post, for the sake of form...

Sculpture Beneath the Giants