Thursday, 25 September 2014

Plato Performance Problem Part Two

Let's apply Plato's objection to two particular plays: Euripides' Bacchae  and Spoiling. One's a classic, the other a recent Fringe First winner from The Traverse.

There's is plenty of mimesis in both of these: actors pretend to be a king and a god, a government minister and a sinister civil servant respectively (the themes of power and corruption are big in both). 

The Bacchae goes into a mythical past - a reality not like the one its audience knows, in which a wine god can get everyone pissed up by magic and soldiers spring from sown teeth: Spoiling is  a mythical future in which Scotland is about to become an independent state (yes, that is still possible...). 

But these are both alternate realities and not the mundane reality of any audience (fifth century Athenians might have had some religious fundamentalists, but we can assume that they knew that they were watching a play).

Okay, that last bit gets close to a tangle. But there is lots of mimesis to spare...

Where Plato is most bold is in saying that the authors do not understand the characters that they represent on stage. Euripides does not know about kings, or gods. Writer John McCann has not ever been a pregnant foreign minister of a fledgling state. The mimesis of these characters must be inaccurate.

That is a tough standard to get past, and worse for a critic. The critic, who might complain that Pentheus doesn't act like a monarch is likely to get hit by the same objection. But even two thousand years after his death, Plato has a point. 

Given that Spoiling  also made a bunch of predictions about the triumph of the YES campaign and the subsequent rise of a woman into power from nowhere, its mimesis is flawed. It is this flaw that makes it less vital after the vote than on the night before, when I saw it.

The Bacchae fares a little better - with no corresponding reality, it is not exposed by history. Plato's more general objection to mythological art - that it represents the gods as a bit naughty - now comes into play. Efforts to the contrary by contemporary directors, The Bacchae has no clear moral... there is the suggestion that Pentheus deserves his punishment, and that it is all about how repressing natural instincts is bad. That's fine, but Dionysus is cruel. Justice is one thing, but wiping out a family is not exactly a moral victory.

To defend both works on this grounds needs something more than an attack on the forms. Plato's statement that art is deceitful wins.

My career is over...

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