Monday, 22 September 2014

Plato's Performance Problem

It is pretty easy to just ignore Plato's thoughts on theatre. Both the printing revolution - which brought his works to international attention - and the internet - which allows clowns like me to give their opinions on them - could be regarded as having changed the relationship between the self and the world to such an extent that Plato's understanding of consciousness belongs to an earlier, and defunct paradigm.

Equally, there are plenty of tricks to get past his objections to theatre: made in his Republic, they are related to his metaphysics of Perfect Forms, a system that has been rejected. Instinctive rejection aside, it is possible to deconstruct the Ideas Realm Plato develops as a foundation for knowledge (I think I am right in calling it an epistemology, a system of understanding) on Plato's own terms. This is a battle that I don't have the correct weapons to wage (like a sharp understanding of Plato's dialectic), but I shall take the possibility on faith.

However, as a theatre critic and someone with a sympathy for Plato's majestic project and ambition (I won't call myself a Platonist, lacking the necessary appreciation of his complex thought), I can't just leave it. It bothers me that Plato, while respecting the skill of the actors, and knowing plenty of the the great classical dramatists' work, would banish them from his ideal state... even if his ideal state is one I would not fancy inhabiting.

Tom Stern identifies three objections to theatre. 

In one: as a work of art, they are detached from the Forms and are just not good enough. If the Form of a chair is the perfect version beyond understanding, the chair made by a carpenter is an imitation - but at least you can sit in it. The chair in a painting, or a poem, or a king in a tragedy, doesn't even fulfil the purpose it was intended for.

In two (and one can be dismissed as a consequence of Plato's metaphysics, which no-one uses anymore): the artist doesn't really know about what they describe, except on the surface.  So they are giving false information.

For bully's special prize: people are stupid and use the arts to define their understanding of life. It's a bit like those people who copy soap opera characters.  Theatre can be a bad influence.

I don't think Plato can be ignored for being a spoilsport. His worry about humans mistaking the surface for depth are consistent in The Republic, and if his belief in truth is a bit old fashioned, it calls to a high respect for human potential. His distrust of theatre is a distrust of distraction - and just like his famous cave story predicts television (sort of), his worries about theatre as deception are trenchant in an era when surface often trumps depth.

On one level, I can imagine Plato's opinions on Strictly Come Dancing. All the celebrity nonsense, the voting, the pairing up of acts, the tacky choreography and the objectification of the dancers would drive him to a rage. He'd hate the false 'liveness' of the weekly event, and decry the artificiality of the project.

But he would be more than a disappointed contemporary dance fan (or, to switch to X-Factor, a fan of Eric Clapton bemoaning the product line of modern pop). He is questioning the notion of authenticity itself itself - and finding it absent in the material plane.
It is a simple step from Platonism to a gnostic vision of reality, in which materiality itself is suspect.

So Plato isn't just picking on theatre: it is a symbol of a problem
with all arts (you can't get off with Botticelli's Venus) and, from here, reality itself. And he is taking theatre seriously: it does change people's minds. In this sense, he respects art more than those defenders of video games who argue that playing Grand Theft Auto doesn't turn players into wannabe gangsters.

The problem is mimesis: theatre is an impersonation of the real. Mimesis - again, as Stern describes - is tough to translate, but includes the ideas of copying and imagination. And Plato is quite correct: the king in a tragedy is not fit for purpose, and can tell the audience nothing.

No comments :

Post a Comment