Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Some unseasonable thoughts on genre

So, after all the fun of the dramaturgy database,
Blanche & Butch. Credit Birds of Paradise 
here's one of those posts in which I give my big opinion on an important issue. 

And by important issue I mean, of course, something that no-one needs to give too much attention, unless they are a critic trying to work out what their job is supposed to mean.

Genre isn't something most theatre-makers worry about too much: Diderot points out that the artist tends to find a way to express whatever they want, and leave it to theorists to explain how they did it. Academics, and critics, on the other hand, have exhausted themselves in attempts to define the genres of theatre and performance, often following their own pet ideas until they collapse under the pressure of their own contradictions.

Gary Day's The Story of Drama is a case in point. Beginning with Athenian drama, he tries to prove that both comedy and tragedy are founded in ritual sacrifice, and becomes increasingly frustrated by theatre's refusal to express the process of death and rebirth in various historical periods. He blames Christianity for introducing the notion of lineal time, capitalism for financial obsessions and science... and the nuclear bomb for encouraging the absurdists to describe a hostile landscape that no sacrifice can save. He draws on Freud, and pagan religious practice, to give performance a spiritual and social purpose, but becomes frustrated by theatre-makers' refusal to follow the script.

Back in the day - that is, when Aristotle kicked off theatre criticism with his Poetics, there were only two genres: tragedy and comedy. Despite the debates that have lasted for two millennia, the division between them is pretty easy to mark: one's sad, the other is funny. Unfortunately, there are art works that aren't playing for laughs or tears. So other genres had to be invented. Diderot came up with one during the Enlightenment, and called it (with his usual modesty) le drame. It's a bourgeois dramaturgy that can have a happy ending, but it is not full of chuckles. In fact, it is sometimes known as 'the crying theatre', because the characters are always in tears.

Anyway, I think I'll have a crack at defining some genres. Since I'm all about the comic books, I am going to distill them into three panel descriptions. Let's see how that works out for me.

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