Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Theatre and Religion and Wasting Time

Every so often, I have the anxiety that theatre is a complete waste of time. I mean, it keeps me out of the house, but those evenings when I am not running off to Edinburgh to catch a show tend to be filled with reading more theory in the hope of staving off existential dread. That's okay when it's the Classics - Plato has plenty of metaphysical fantasy - but give me three minutes of Barthes or thirty seconds of Derrida and reality is a fiction and sciences is scattered over the floor like a bad Lego kit.

Most of what passes for theatre criticism is theology, anyway. Peter Brook draws on a Jungian collective consciousness to postulate that there are 'universal' experiences: back in the early 1970s, he got Ted Hughes to imagine a language in which words corresponded with the things that they described. It seems that he thought this was working when Hughes came up with a sound that was actually the-word-for-the-thing in Farsi. 

Aristotle reckoned that theatre was better than history because it isn't true (the description of actual events being too specific). And Freud invented a bunch of neurosis by reading Sophocles and super-imposing them on the emotional problems of his patients.

Philip Auslander has a crack at this theological criticism in two of his essays. One's about the 'holy theatre' (Brook again) and catharsis, and how a bunch of theatre-makers decided that performance was capable of healing social and personal wounds. The other is more contrary, and tries to expand Derrida's fear of logocentrism to include devised and Brechtian drama. 

Logocentrism is a belief that words are at the centre of things: Derrida sees this as a form of religious thinking that claims order when there is only the void. 

All of this seems to come down to a belief that behaviour in the theatre can be differentiated from behaviour on a Saturday night in Sauciehall Street. Notions of a 'sacred space', or a social good embodied in theatre, or a radical confrontation with the essentials of human nature, or the encouragement to be a better person: theatre is ascribed with the values of religion. 

Religion isn't cool anymore, so these discussions aren't going to resolve the problem of dwindling audiences, or even make much contemporary sense. Auslander's collection of essays was published in 1997, but it already reads like an ancient document. The foundations of theatre are placed on metaphysics. While metaphysics can't be discarded as easily as the positivists hoped, it doesn't provide a strong basis for developing a theory of what makes a performance good.

The kind of things that Brook - or Artaud - imagine theatre can do are properly the domain of a religious life: and religion is more consistent at doing them. There's communal experience (as in the Mass), there is moral teaching, there are entertaining stories. It's in the telling that theatre can steal a march on religion, I guess. But a good reading of a Hindu scripture might be as exciting as a dour Shakespeare. Especially if there's a bit of Carnatic music thrown in.

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