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Thursday, December 30, 2004


Theater blogger George Hunka of Superfluities essays an answer to this question of music-and-culture blogger ACD of Sounds & Fury; ACD finds George's answer wanting, and restates the question thus, "When film is an available alternative, what possible aesthetic justification can there be for producing a work live on the stage (i.e., aesthetic justification in terms of the realization of the work itself)?"

As George's answer gets at, a problem with contemporary theater is that it thinks of itself in filmic terms; what George doesn't say is that filmic terms are generally small and intimate when compared to classical theater. (George also correctly IDs the lack of loyalty of many theater artists to the theater-as-theater; I would add that many theater artists -- writers and actors -- appear to view the theater as a "minor leagues" for film. This is a problem.)

The genre conventions of film, by and large, descend from 19th and 20th century "naturalistic" theater, drawing room theater, the theater of "regular life." Film, with its close-ups, is superb at this, and when I see a naturalistic play, even a very good one, I'm hard-pressed to say why it wouldn't be better as a film.

Classical theater, by contrast, has little to do with every day behaviors of everyday people, and what theater can do better than film is what classical Greek theater in particular was charged to do, and that is to bring the gods present among us.

More than 20 years ago I saw Tufts University classics professor Peter Arnott perform his own translation of Euripides' The Bacchae with his own marionette theater, which he built, manipulating the marionettes himself and speaking all the roles. An unforgettable evening of theater, and when Dionysus revealed himself at the end, thrills of awe washed through me. The god was present.

Why this works better in theater than on film has to do with the continuity of scale that theater provides. Film darts in and out, flattens everything onto two dimensions, directs focus here as opposed to there, controls the flow of vision much more than theater, which is continuous and three dimensional. This continuity of scale makes the appearance of the god more powerful by forcing the "larger than life" feeling to come from live, living, life-size figures. It is audience members' senses that enlarge, rather than the artist's camera lenses and sound mixing pots.

Of course, I've had this experience only a few times in my theater-going life. In my friend Jeff Dorchen's play "The Mysticeti and the Mandelbrot Set," when the character of mad, cursed Sweeney of Irish myth slowly flapped his wings while perching, the god was present, and the god's breath blew like a wind through my being. Only a few other times has this happened to me -- Saint Joan's apotheosis in Greek Active Theater's production of the Bernard Shaw play made me cry; instead of Shaw's wordy post-stake-burning epilogue, Greek Active choreographed a dance to Madonna's "Like a Prayer" and Joan appeared, covered in ashes, chomping on a cigar, and grinning ferally, signalling simultaneously her horrible death and spiritual triumph in a way that struck most people as campy and funny but struck me as terrifying and brilliant. (Writer and editor Dan Savage was the director of Greek Active, and as good as he can be as a writer, in my estimation he is more gifted as a theater man; underlining one of George's points, Dan left the theater about the time he started signing book contracts -- that may not have been the reason he left, but that was the timing.)

ACD denigrates the sensual richness of theater and asks for aesthetic justification, but I would urge people to remember that the root of "aesthetic" is "sense perception" (hence an anaesthetic dulls feeling). Without sensuality, there is no perception.

Update: Further thoughts on the matter here.

It seems to me, John, you've not made your case for live theater over film in classic Greek theater, "continuity of scale" (and I'm not at all sure what you mean by that phrase) notwithstanding. Everything you describe can be done in film, and done better than in live theater. You seem to assume an idiot film director who will simply apply the same standard cinema techniques he utilizes for naturalistic drama. Needless to say, such does not have to be the case. There's nothing inherent in the technique of film that either requires or demands that sort of treatment.

Oops. Almost forgot. A Happy New Year! to you.

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