Wednesday, 17 September 2014

No Emotions, Please: We're Actors

In an intriguing commentary on Ubu and The Truth Commission (Handspring, EIF 2014), Joyce McMillan champions Brecht's insistence on a theatre that plays to the mind, not the emotions. Recognising that Brecht overdoes it a bit (in theory, at least), she is suspicious of those performances at the Fringe that provoked tears - even worrying that emotionalism has become the gold standard of theatrical quality.

McMillan's manifesto is not about promoting cerebral theatre over the emotive: rather, she draws a contrast between those plays that seem to offer a personal, emotional catharsis and others which hint at the possibility of social change. While her analysis of Ubu emphasises the performance's use of alienation (the characters are too unpleasant to encourage identification), she allies the production to political theatre that suggests change is possible.

Of course. there is a context to this contrast: like the Pope and the Queen, McMillan is careful not to be explicit, but the Referendum (c) is lurking in everything these days. The preference for cerebral theatre is an appeal to reason as a higher virtue than emotion. That she ignores political plays that are emotive - or indeed, the dynamic emotionalism of Full Tilt ('Angie Darcy, as Janis, so brilliant and intense both musically and dramatically that it lifts the hairs on the back of the neck') which expertly captured the fury of Janis Joplin's rock rebellion - is not to decry their value, but state that theatre is a place for discussion and reflection. 

Brecht's ideals for 'epic' theatre were an designed antagonism to Aristotle's 'tragic' theatre - the previous gold standard (lasting around two and a half thousand years, through various interpretations). Aristotle is difficult to interpret clearly (first of all, he probably didn't write his Poetics, but they were notes made at his lectures by students), but his notion of katharsis  is all about 'purging' emotions. The odd bit of classical theatre criticism left, aside from Aristotle suggests audience did get worked up (the anonymous Life of Aeschylus says that women miscarried when the Furies came on in The Eumenides), and Brecht's resistance to sympathetic characters was an original approach.

As McMillan points out, Brecht failed, anyway: Mother Courage is often produced as a meditation on either the bravery of Courage's daughter (when she alerts a village to approaching troops at the cost of her own life) or Courage's indefatigable energy. 

Even if there is something austere about rejecting emotional responses - Presbyterian even  - McMillan's thesis does challenge models of theatre that reject the intellect in favour of easy targets...


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