Monday, 29 May 2017

Think about the future...

In the early twentieth century (hey, at least I'm not
banging on about the enlightenment again), there were two games in theatrical town. One, perhaps, is best represented by Jacques Copeau who wasn't that keen on theory but did promote the pursuit of beauty. The other can be associated with Futurism (until it threw in with fascism), which had a more political edge. While Copeau got irritated by the sensationalism of the commercial theatre and saw 'great works of the past as models for the future' (Carlson 1993: 339), the Futurists wanted to reflect the speed and smoke of the present moment.

Hegelian dialectic being what it is, these competing ideals didn't always run clear of each other. Filippo Marinetti, having announced his manifesto in appropriately grandiloquent terms (1909), hosted a series of evenings with poetry and more manifesto readings. Aiming to get audiences high off the fumes of theatre, he faced hostile audiences and laid the path for the DADA gang and probably the antics of Artaud. The preoccupation with modernity finds an echo in the Marxist theatre that would appear in Soviet Russian and the various workers' theatres in Europe.

Copeau's attitude - scripts, careful cultivation of tradition and this difficult notion of beauty - was regressive compared to Marinetti's blazing enthusiasm for the now. Marinetti hated the past, and in 1913 pointed to vaudeville and variety for influences. He even suggested that classic art ought to be 'prostituted' (Carlson 1993: 340) on stage, and putting glue on the audience's seat was a clever trick for surprising the audience - an inverted 'keeping them on their toes'.

Shock and awe remains a viable theatrical tradition: Trainspotting rolls up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a fairly regular manner, and Sarah Kane is a favourite of student companies. The desire to disrupt an audience's complacency goes back to Diderot, unsurprisingly enough, who reminds the poet that he has a duty to unsettle his spectators (Discourse on Poetry).

The intention to shock and its execution are different things, however. Tori Amos describes the natural process of the rebel succinctly.

And is it true
That devils end up like you
Something safe for the picture frame.
I get the feeling that Iphigenia in Splott fancied itself as a shocker, describing the journey of a working class woman in broad Welsh vernacular and rolling around in degradation. Of course, its title betrays its indebtedness to the classical tradition - these things are rarely on one side of a dialectic.

The futurist attitude seeped across Europe, and is echoed in contemporary productions like Julia Taudevin's Blow Off, which takes cues from punk rock. Copeau's influence is harder to find, except perhaps in those productions of Shakespeare that try to get back to the eloquence of the script. But Copeau advocated a respect for tradition and discipline, and maybe that was picked up by the Lecoq approach.

Like most attempts to draw a dualism, the conflict between Copeau and Marinetti is a false division: craft and enthusiasm don't have to be at war. But it is a fascinating moment in theatre, when competing theories are juxtaposed and prepare theatre for a series of developments throughout the twentieth century...

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