Monday, 9 January 2017

Why Dramaturgy Matters: Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was a character in a pilot for a situation comedy. I kept telling the other characters that the show had potential, but we had to get back control of the dramaturgy: otherwise, we'd be at the mercy of the executives. And they'd turn us into a generic narrative. 

Then I woke up and discovered someone had sent me this article.

The Drama of Politics: Enacting Trump's Presidential Self

Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje say some nice things about the potential of the theatre critic ('Good theatre criticism, carried out by qualified analysts, can help peel back the theatrical facade and offer citizens a real glimpse into what it takes to campaign effectively and win votes in modern America'). They identify Trump as a 'performer' rather than a politician and reference a comment made by a former aide to Ted Cruz that Trump was turning the USA's election into a reality show.

They also point out that 'theatrics' are often ignored, and that
from Trumpageddon, Simon Jay
Robert Brown has encouraged the use of dramaturgy (following my old pal Goffman) in the analysis of political behaviour. Chou and Ondaatje do conflate the use of dramaturgy as a sociological tool and a theatrical discipline - something I have realised right now is not necessarily correct - but the argument is consistent. The democratic process has become similar to a theatrical performance, and can helpfully be examined like a play.

They go on to explain how dramaturgy operates as a critical tool, before exposing the dramaturgy of The Donald. Apparently, Trump maintained a consistent character throughout the election, drawing on a stock type ('the anti-politician'), leaving space to allow the audience (the media and the electorate) enough space to ponder the relationship between Trump's persona on the campaign and his 'real' self.

Written before Trump's victory, it attempts to explain how he became an attractive candidate through the use of a narrative and character development. It's also a strong argument for the use of the theatre critic as a commentator on political events.

Since I am so wishy-washy, I am not going to state that, as student and critic, I could be the greatest political commentator of the modern age. I would argue, however, that the process of theatre studies is, in this context, an important aspect of educating the citizen. It's not some liberal luxury, but a vital study that enables intelligent engagement with the activities of the political classes.

I might even go further: theatre itself becomes a place where the audience can practice the kind of thinking that encourages a way of interpreting the world. The ability to critique performance can be applied to other events, to see beneath the facade, and be aware of the manipulation enacted by both media and politicians (any anyone else who is acting up). 

In other words, my research into dramaturgy is the most important research being done in the whole world ever. Not in the sense that knowing how Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison fit into the history of Brechtian theory, or whether Lessing was a religious rather than a rationalist thinker, but in that it introduces a way of reading behaviour. 

Other research is available and is probably more interesting, though. I'd point to Carl Lavery, Dee Heedon and Anselm Heinrich, because Glasgow University. But how often do they start an article discussing a weird dream, eh?

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