Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture
Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

Reality.  What a Concept!

“Who’ll you believe – me?  Or your lyin’ eyes?”

The kid caught with his hand still in the cookie jar.  The husband with the mistress in the closet.  The crook with the money bag in his hand.  It’s a cliché that draws its own cartoon.  The politician taking the bribe.

The funny thing is that we don’t always know what we see.  The act of sight isn’t always the best path to truth.  And, indeed, our lyin’ eyes do sometimes lie to us because of our experience.

An old story comes from the early days of film. Someone put a camera on some railroad tracks and captured film of a train coming toward the camera. Unsuspecting audiences watching this film supposedly jumped out of their chairs to prevent being run down by this on-coming train.  We can laugh at these people.  Didn’t they know it’s just a movie?  Well, no. Their eyes had to be trained. Their experience with this new way of seeing images needed to develop.

So we live in the age of Fake News. Certainly people on the Right and Left have reasonable doubts about the veracity of material originated by the opposing tribe.  Our experiences provide the lens through which we assess what we see.

Another school shooting.  Since we have so many of them in the United States these days, I don’t feel a need to specify which one.  In the aftermath of the shooting there has become the expected gabble about thoughts and prayers and the invocations toward the “ought to’s.”  But with little action in the offing, people scrabble around in social media jabbing at each other in mixtures of fear and anger.

The tools they use are the tools of memes.  I am biased myself.  But in my completely unofficial survey, the fake memes tend to come more often from some pro-gun folks.  They make Washington say things that he did not say.  They use poor quality arguments.  Nevertheless, to the people of their tribe they provide the visual metaphors and arguments that bolster their attitudes and beliefs.

Part of this is due to the relative inability for many folks to disentangle form and content.

So, someone makes up a few sentences and puts them on a picture of an American historical plaque – the kind of historical marker that is of a very recognizable type in America.  Voila! All of a sudden George Washington becomes an unwitting spokesman for a point of view he likely didn’t share.  He really didn’t say those words.  And yet because of the visual context of the meme, the image goes viral and becomes another part of the visual landscape.  The form is recognized and normalizes the content.

A development in the 20th century theatre was the separation of form from content.  This separation can present a challenge to the play-reader who only looks at content.  I encounter this whenever I teach a dramatic literature course. 

Take as an example a popular American play like Dark of the Moon by Howard Richardson and William Berney.  For those unfamiliar with the play, the story is set in a mountain village in a kind of fairy-tale world.  John, a witch-boy, goes to Conjure Man to be turned human so he can be with his beloved Barbara Allen.

Now let’s stop right there.

Our main male character – the romantic lead – is a witch-boy.  He goes to a Conjure Man to be transformed into a human.  Presumably Conjure Man possesses the requisite skills/ability/capacity to perform this off-stage miracle.  As it turns out, Conjure Man refuses to perform this transformation, leaving it to Conjure Woman to do the job.  The reader will note that we have now introduced to the story not only a witch-boy, but also a Conjure Couple – whatever that might be.

As fantastical as those story elements are, the form of the story is quite “Realistic.”  That is to say, everything is presented in a form that suggests this is an everyday occurrence in the universe inhabited by this play.

Contrast this story with the masterwork Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. In a documentary about her amazing performance in the lead, Meryl Streep appropriately suggests a connection between the character in the play and women throughout the world who must deal with the thoughtless destruction of war.

Even people only mildly familiar with theatre know there’s something about so-called “Brechtian” theatre – whatever that may be. But certainly, Herr Brecht was not interested in a “realistic” setting for his story.

Often students will say that Dark of the Moon is not realistic because there aren’t witches, and Mother Courage and Her Childrenis realistic because mothers lose sons in wars.

Everything in the theatre is fake.  I once had the unaltered joy of eating a stage “egg” made of an apricot half on top of crustless white bread.  Having spent a couple of hours on a prop table prior to my efforts at digestion, it was disgusting.

In the middle of his seminal study of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Konstantine Rudnitsky includes an essay about условныйtheatre.  Rudnitsky’s thesis is that Meyerhold was an early and influential proponent of this kind of theatre.  The Russian word may be translated as “conditional” or “conventional” theatre.

From Rudnitsky’s essay, I developed this table: 

Условный(Conditional Theatre)

Direct conformity to life Theatre (Illusionistic)



Events – episodic

Events – today here and now

Action – concentrates on significant moments

Action – imitates flow of life


Predetermined score – may or may not be

experienced personally by actor

Personal experience/individual psychology

Sincerity of feeling

Extreme forms – tragedy/farce

Middle genre – ‘play’ or ‘drama’

Ending known (i.e., comedy ends happily) –

Presentation of concentrated events

Ending concealed/presentation of detailed and accurate minutiae

NO 4th wall

4th wall

Direct address

NO direct address

Abstracted settings

Illusionistic settings

 I believe most of the terms are self-explanatory to most readers.

The conundrum of modern drama is that so-called Realistic theatre, is more illusionistic than so-called non-Realistic theatre.  What do I mean?

Take an example from a famous work directed by Meyerhold – Alexander Blok’s Puppets at the Fairground Booth.  In the latter third of the play, a Clown has a fight with a Knight.  The Knight pokes the Clown with his wooden sword.  The Clown calls out, “Help!  Help! I’m bleeding cranberry juice!”  The Clown “dies.”  Then he jumps up, winks at the audience, and runs off.  In this instance, the Clown is describing actual reality.  When characters “die” on stage, they bleed cranberry juice (or stage blood concocted in the prop shop).  That is reality.

But that’s not what we call Realism in the theatre.  What we call Realism is when the lights turn on and we see an actual kitchen with a real refrigerator that has a little light that turns on when the door opens.  But that “reality” is an elaborate illusion.  It’s not a working kitchen – don’t open that cabinet because we couldn’t get enough props to fill all of the cabinets.

In the movies, all of it looks absolutely real.  A woman works in a government installation outside of Baltimore.  Of course there’s an aquatic man who is kept and tortured there. It all looks real.  The stealthy technology of the King of Wakanda – it all looks so real.

We shouldn’t be all that surprised, shocked, or disappointed that people are taken in by fakery.  What evidence, structure, or frame provides folks with the means to adjudicate the avalanche of images and messages that work to bury us every day?

Trying to convince people that the content of their message may be incorrect won’t get you too far. Like my students, a woman losing her children to war can’t be non-realistic.  Thus, a fake meme that makes George Washington say things he didn’t say has to be believable because it appears in an image that looks exactly like an historical marker.  If I’ve never seen a film before, the moving picture of a train coming right toward me will cause me to throw myself from my chair.

We need to learn how to see.  We need to understand that the weird paradoxes caused by manipulating form and content. 

The magician wants you to look over here.  We don’t have to look where he’s pointing.  We can learn to see more than what the magician wants us to see.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2018 Nathan Thomas
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




March 2018

Volume 18 Issue 10

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