Thursday, 12 October 2017

Wild Bore: why it is good.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wild Bore - a show that is full of surprises - is that it divided the critics. Since it made a claim in the warning outside the theatre that it would offend 'especially if you are you a critic', it appeared to challenge reviewers, but any writer who identifies with the atrocious writing that they selected (and worse, even pointed out that they had been quoted) needs to reconsider their own style. Aside from the wry commentary on the apparent need by some critics to establish their own authority by diminishing the intelligence or craft of theatre-makers, Wild Bore is something precious and rare: the articulation of a form of dramaturgy that is distinctive, playful and suggests an alternative to the over-familiar approaches of masculine performance.

Aristotle 

The earliest theory about theatre comes from the Republic (Plato) and Aristotle's Poetics. Aristotle's comprehensive analysis of Athenian tragedy is often regarded as a response to Plato's suspicion of actors and art: In the Republic, Plato suggests that actors would be banished from the ideal state, because their skills encourage dishonesty. Aristotle counters that poetry - and in particular, tragedy - provide a philosophical purpose by revealing general ideas about human conduct. It's better than history, he says, because it doesn't discuss specific events but explores a more abstract scenario that addresses morality and, famously, encourages catharsis, an emotional purging.

Through Aristotle's study of tragedy, which has been seen as both a handbook for playwrights and an academic examination of a play's constituent parts, the tragic format has been established. Adapted by French playwrights and critics in the seventeenth century, its outlines retain a contemporary relevance. Although 'the unities' (of time, place and plot) have fallen out of fashion, other aspects of the Poetics can be used to understand the form of a play.  

The word 'dramaturgy' does not become common until the eighteenth century - inspired by G.E. Lessing's Hamburg Dramaturgy - and Aristotle takes a primarily literary approach (the 'spectacle' is rated as the least important element of a production), it is possible to describe an 'Aristotelian dramaturgy'. It is this dramaturgy that Wild Bore delights in subverting. 

A basic structure

Between more historically contingent comments - the unities and thoughts on the chorus - Aristotle describes the protagonist - a 'good person' undermined by a 'flaw' - and the 'reversal', which is a catastrophe in the protagonist's life. Most influentially, there is the notion of catharsis.

Classicists and theatre-studies scholars have debated the meaning of catharsis. It's a medical word, often translated as purging. Broadly, however, it refers to the affect on an audience: a purging of extreme emotions, especially fear and pity. By picturing the downfall of the good person - presumably one who has the sympathy of the audience - Aristotle suggests that catharsis has a positive social impact. Through the expurgation of emotion, the audience can be restored to the balance that Aristotle regards as the ideal, and act out of rationality rather than an excess of sentiment.

In the eighteenth century, Diderot advocated for a more familiar protagonist, dismissing the classical protagonist as aristocratic, and the caricatures of comedy as too exaggerated. However, his suggestions reflected the increasing interest of the middle-classes in theatre, and hoped, by making the characters more like the audience, to encourage their emotional engagement and work towards a similar catharsis in their lives. 

Brecht would attack the notion of catharsis itself, regarding it as a way for the ruling class to establish their power and acting as a kind of 'steam valve' for uncomfortable feelings that might challenge the status quo. He also railed against the 'fatalism' of Aristotle's dramaturgy: the protagonist was frequently defeated by a predetermined fate (Oedipus fulfills the family curse, for example) which Brecht, as a Marxist, felt encouraged a sense of helplessness in the audience and discouraged those revolutionary emotions.

By defining tragedy as a precise process, Aristotle influenced subsequent playwrights to follow an ordered and disciplined structured that followed a predictable narrative to its dramatic conclusion. As screenwriter Jack Lothian observed, the basic formula can be resolved into three parts: a protagonist, a catastrophe and a conclusion.

Wild Bore denies this scheme. It replaces the protagonist with a multiplicity of voices: the three primary characters - who do not present themselves as fictional - are in constant conversation, sometimes collaborating and sometimes competing. Rather than working out a story that leads to catastrophe or reversal, they comment on criticism - mostly directed at their previous work - and develop a performance in response to the critiques. The constant refrain of 'dramaturgical design' - provoked by one critic who, having admitted that a certain scene was expressive and eloquence, questioned whether it was a mere accident or by design - draws attention to the process of creation in a manner that evokes Brecht. Not only does the protagonist disappear, but they are simultaneously drawing attention to the fiction that they create and deconstructing the idea of the protagonist as a character. 

Having dispensing with a protagonist, Wild Bore has no need for a conventional plot. Although the negative reviews could be regarded as a reversal which precipitates the conclusion, the reversal has already happened before the play begins. At a stretch, the play itself could be described as a comic resolution of an obstacle - critical disdain - but this breaks the lineal clarity of the Aristotelian design.

Catharsis, meanwhile, is given equally short shrift. The restless conversations on stage don't allow for the kind of moment that evokes an emotional release, rather building on the initial confrontation with criticism in a series of rapid scenes that assess the production in progress and open up multiple interpretations. The arrival of a fourth cast member casts doubt on the honesty of the script, and introduces questions about gender identity and dominant ideologies: frequent parodies of Hamlet jostle with tableaux, skits, arguments and bum jokes. The affect is disorientating and informative: the later stages operate as a brief history of theatre, while statements by critics are deconstructed, ridiculed or turned into a scene which questions its meaning. 

Rather then catharsis, which implies resolution, Wild Bore offers informed confusion. It's this rejection of tradition - even to the inversion of criticism's usual sequence, making it an inspiration for performance rather than a response - that makes Wild Bore something that, far from being an attack on a profession, an assured expression of a distinctive and contemporary dramaturgy.

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