Mordecai Gorelik, in his New Theatres for Old, tells the story of the founding of AndrÃ© Antoine's ThÃ©Ã¢tre-Libre on March 30, 1887, and how Antoine prevailed upon his mother to borrow the family's dining-room furniture to furnish one of the plays on that evening's bill. Antoine was passionate, Gorelik points out, to create a naturalistic theatre that would take its cue from Emile Zola's call for a revolution in the arts and counter what he saw as the confected theatre practices of his day. Naturalism, with its greasy and rough devotion to telling the truths of life (in a later production, Antoine even had real beef hanging from the stage-set of a butcher's shop), would, in Zola's words, "bring the theatre into closer relation with...truth and experimental science" where there would no longer be any school, formulas, or standards of any sort but simply "life itself, an immense field where each may study and create as he likes."
I understand completely Antoine's impulse because I have the same urge when I look at the kind of plays being done in so many American theatres, except in this case the urge is to smash the furniture and mince the beef because what Antoine loosed (no blame on him, though) has decayed to such a degree that very little that is natural or real rides the boards today.
Oh, "real" stuff walks around up there, to be sure: endless parades of dysfunctional families and dysfunctional relationships, riffs on bourgeois anxieties as if these constituted some universal life's "essence," "diversity" operatics (queer comings-out, lesbian goings-on, Puerto Rican bi-polarity, hip hop/rap from "da street," etcetera) — the rant could go on, but enough. It is not even navel-gazing — that at least might pretend to something like an inward look, a go at being ego-less and self-full. No — all this stuff is about "self-reflection," not as pondering and mulling but as a witness to a witnessing, the mirrored gaze, the narcissus feedback loop, the "mirror mirror on the wall" self-tongued monologue (no more one-person shows, please!!), the mistaking of the echoes of our own voices for the voices of gods. Unless we see ourselves up there, there is nothing really worth seeing — that is what the "real" has been reduced to.
And really, what else can be expected in a culture that commodifies everything for the purpose of profit and limits "the measure of man" to really puny slices of pretty pathetic (and advertisable-to) desires for happiness and satisfaction? And which, artistically, is a culture so tyrannized by genre and precedent (and so ill-educated in a broadly liberal way) that "new" simply means "newly recycled" and the unexpected is reduced to cleverly finding ways to tweak worn-out plots?
I do not have a coherent response to what I see and feel, to the disappointments and angers. Right now, all I have are recurring images, repeating impulses. I have been reading lately the prophets in the Old Testament, barking out from the deserts around them. Desert imagery has filtered into my thoughts, and I understand much better what drove (and drives) people to the desert to find something hard and merciless that instructs by indifference, something completely opposite the cottoned-up and nannified Plato's Cave we call modern culture. I have always had a sneaking admiration for the Puritan divines who took on the wilderness of the New World — not their thirst for theocratic authority but their willingness to decry the moral decrepitude around them and drive a hard edge against the evils of the world. I've been working through Melville's writings, that disappointed idealist whose disappointment is rich with anger and thwarted love. In New York, in this ridiculous city, where self-absorption is played as a contact sport, I have been eyeing people and telling them to stop spitting on the sidewalks and throwing their cigarette butts at my feet and to hold open the goddamn door when they go through it and think of somebody else other than their runty-assed self. Apocalypse has been a word sweetening in my mouth lately.
Antoine's beef was meant as a palate cleanser — no, something bigger, not just an aesthetic re-arrangement but a wholesale shriving. Some intimacy with reality had been lost in the French national theatre, some vital love had been betrayed as practices calcified and performances became mannered and manikinned. The same thing has happened today: we have a theatre that diddles itself for the purpose of seating butts and has nothing to say of any importance about anything important. I do not know what today's equivalent of Antoine's beef is, but it needs to reach for what Melville said well in The Confidence-Man: what we need in our works of art is "more reality than real life itself can show...nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed....It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie."
But it is not just about technique and practices. We need something equivalent to the Reformation catapulted by Martin Luther, some analog to the 95 theses nailed to the door in 1517 — something that shakes the mind awake and begins to teach it how to smash the mirror, forego its selfishness, carbonate itself with a purpose bigger than comfort or acquisition. Antoine's "beef" with the world needs to be our beef as well — no more narcotizing theatre, no more anodynes masquerading as art, a theatre with something to say about the things that need to be said and not this irrelevant pastiche of worn-out formulas, tics, and gimmicks.
I don't mean to be grim about this — I may admire the Puritan divines, but I certainly wouldn't want to be one, and Jeremiah had not the cozy way about him. If the re-forming is not done with love, then it just becomes vandalism or another form of empty performance art. But make no mistake: it is time, it is always time, when it come to loving true theatre, to feel a bit Lutheran, heft the weight of the hammer in one hand and the paper wad of no-longer-can-be-unvoiced outrages in the other, and start pounding away on the cathedral door.