Monday, 2 October 2017

Moral Theatre

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau kicked off over D'Alembert's article about Geneva in 1757, theatre's purpose was part of the problem. D'Alembert reckoned that the otherwise morally perfect city on a lake could do with a theatre, both for a bit of fun and moral education.  JJ, however, saw theatre as a mere distraction from the good things in life and was sore offended by the suggestion. This caused a split in the ranks of the philosophes who were working on an Encyclopedia (which was intended to challenge the traditional authority of tradition and the Catholic church).

For Tom Stern (Philosophy and Theatre), this dispute becomes a jumping-off for point for a discussion about performance as a 'school for morals'. His conclusion is inconclusive, as most attempts to structure a moral function for theatre flounder when confronted with examples of existing and successful scripts: what kind of morality, he ponders, is present in Athenian tragedy? And how does moral sentiment transfer from the script into the lives of the audience?

 And that's before he gets to condemnations of the actors' dissolute nature. I'll go ahead and ignore that cheeky banter, because it strikes me as a historical curiosity and too associated with the moral attitudes of particular periods, rather than a contemporary debate. I know plenty of performers, and they don't strike me as any more or less dissolute than other groups. They do have pockets of lively banter about being dissolute, though.

It's possible that the whole debate about the morality of theatre is a bit esoteric, anyway: there doesn't seem to be a dynamic internet war going on about whether drama is a force for good or evil... with one exception...

That's an idiot talking: I make it a point of honour not be offended by anything, but this is offensively stupid. Not engaging in that debate, thank you.

But the moral function of theatre feels important to me: I spend so much time watching, it has to mean something. And my enthusiasm for Plato means that I take objections to theatre seriously.

The possible arguments for theatre include the suggestion that it can shape the morality of the audience. Stern takes this to task, pointing out that the admirable characters in Shakespeare are not necessarily the 'good' ones, and that vice is not always punished: Iago often becomes a fascinating focus in Othello, and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex unfolds the downfall of an apparently innocent man. A level of moral ambiguity seems essential to an engaging tragedy. 

Something like The Coolidge Effect makes a case for theatre as a place for sharing ideas. It doesn't draw any hard conclusions, but presents information and perspectives. The ever-wonderful Wild Bore, which has an explicit feminist intention, applies a similar dramaturgy of instruction.

I'm probably safer saying that theatre can be instructional, but that is not intrinsic to its function. 

On the other extreme, the rejection of all moral purpose - to claim theatre is entertainment and not subject to moral examination - feels lazy and a refusal to recognise the implicit morality that exists in everything created. One of my objections to the jukebox musical is that it relies heavily on having a few popular tunes but doesn't really consider what the songs mean. 

There's a quick shout out to Ben Elton for writing a book for the Queen musical that elides any of the context that made Freddy Mercury an intriguing celebrity. 

Like every other writer on theatrical morality, I'll dip my toes in the water and run away screaming that it's too deep. But as a student of dramaturgy, I'd prefer to take each production on its own sense of virtue.

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