Tuesday, 10 January 2017

He's Alright By Me, Episode One. With Rowan Williams

Today in He's Alright By Me, we have the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Apart from looking a bit like a hipster, before it was cool, Williams is one of those churchmen that atheists don't like to talk about, because he knows stuff and doesn't make stupid videos that try to prove that God exists because bananas. 

In his The Edge of Words, Williams gets all linguistic, and ponders the problems of talking about God. Since he is a member of the Welsh Gorsedd (a group of bards), Williams has a particular angle on langauage, and has even said a few things about Shakespeare. However, it's his comments on performance that makes him alright by me, so let's hear what he has to say...

In contrast to our own narrative about ourselves (a dramatic one)will - if it is a good narrative - be charged with significance moment by moment (whereas our self-narration will have to select from a background of not obviously significant material). Drama shows us what is going on in our self-construction... (page 83, Speech and Time)

Here Williams points out the difference between the kind of 'dramaturgy' employed in everyday life - the sociological model, as promoted by Goffman - and the dramaturgy of a performance. Simply, life is full of boring bits, which are better ignored: a play, on the other hand, is chock-full of moments that have meaning. It's a useful distinction, because after realising that Trump's campaign could be deconstructed dramaturgically, I was beginning to forget that there are two distinct ways of applying dramaturgy. However, he gets onto performance next...

We are hoping (when watching drama) to understand human agency and interaction... why this leads to that and so to become aware of larger possibilities for our own going on movement and transformation. (page 84)

A Bishop and A Buddhist Walk into a bar..

His point here is to give a reason for going to the theatre, and it's not a million miles away from Aristotle, who said that characters in a tragedy represent 'a type' and their behaviour is more 'philosophical' than 'historical'. Then Diderot, that time he wanted more plays about issues concerning 'real life', was suggesting something similar. This is theatre as a kind of mirror, opening up an engagement with the audience that allows them to see what they might be doing.

Moving away from dramaturgy as a way of explaining behaviour, Williams is using drama as a way for humans to consider their own narratives. It's like when I watch Jeremy Kyle and there is the all important lie detector test. I sit there thinking - if I was in that situation, I wouldn't be going on National Television to find out if I'd slept with four people in one night. But I probably would be shouting my head off, having made the call to the producers.

Next up, Williams thinks about ritual - and he has probably done his share of rituals, what with him being a bishop and all. This is something I've been really obsessed with in the recent past, mainly because Performance Studies (thanks to Tricky Dicky's speech in 1992. He wanted rituals to be part of theatre studies). And I have seen some terrible performances that claimed to be ritual - dull, pretentious and missing the entire point that Williams makes about drama, which is that every moment is freighted with significance.

Ritual includes elements of drama, but is not identical with it. Building on definitions offered by Richard Sennett, we could say that ritual is repetitive, transformative and publicly theatrical... it makes ordinary physical stuff (including words and gestures) carry meanings that are not intrinsic to themselves... effective ritual is a matter of holding myself to account, not of retreating to a comforting alternative time-track in which everything is resolved. (pages 84-85)

This gets to the hub of why Williams is on it. The intensity of the theatrical experience, in which each moment, each word and each gesture is full of meaning, allows a resolution - even in the case of examples like Waiting for Godot. Look, the lights are on, the play has ended. Give them a clap. 

He sees ritual as giving an alternative experience which, by repetition and insistence on identifying a 'broad canvas' of narrative beyond the individual, intensifies the mirror effect and forces a different kind of reflection. But there is no resolution. The individual is left pondering their relationship to themselves. 

Okay, I am not quite there with this: I can see how ritual and drama can be used to similar ends and how, like that one Fringe I kept going to see Iona Kewney dance, a performance can be used as a ritual experience. But Williams is checking out some interesting territory, and that makes him Alright By Me.

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