In the musical Big River, newly retrofitted on Broadway by way of the American Theatre for the Deaf, a moment occurs which lifts the somewhat saccharine production into the realm of theatre. The core values of the musical can be found in Huck Finn's song "Waiting for the Sun to Shine," a bit of gospelish uplift. But as the refrain comes inevitably around for one more repeat, the entire stage goes silent and every actor up there signs the song in ASL. It is a thrillingly disorienting moment. In a synaesthetic slip, you "hear" the words and music not in your head but through your eyes, through the bodies in motion on stage. No drone, no blab, no clunking wittiness -- just incarnation, the cross-hatching of meat and art and spirit.
My wife, the Marvelous Maria, who says she is not a "theater person" but has all the instincts and grace to be one if she so wanted, has had much good and bad theatre inflicted on her, and she makes a distinction between "radio" theatre and theatre of the Big River-like moments. I call the divide "hearing" theatre and "looking" theatre, but we mean the same thing: theatre for the ear versus theatre for the eye and body.
To me, theatre is mobilized sculpture, that is, it is about putting three-dimensional material bodies into and through "stagespace" (the local habitation of the time/space continuum). Words, if they are used at all (and they are not always necessary), should work as underscoring, as ignition, as coloration -- but they should not be used solely in the service of themselves. The moment the words in the stagespace take the foreground (what a good actor-friend calls when the actors and the writer "settle in" -- the moment when he usually wants to bolt for the door), then we've moved over the border into someplace else, and we're no longer aesthetically in the stagespace.
"But what about Shakespeare?" my straw man sputters out conveniently. "Aren't his plays all about the language?" As any actor well-Shakespeared will attest, the trick to making the language work is to turn the words into body -- to learn its cadences and quirks down to the bone so that what comes out comes out of the whole "instrument" and does not just spill from the mouth. (And we have all heard the Bard done this way, when the actor only recites the language from the mouth rather than speaks the language from the solar plexus -- and how deadly dull that can be.) The muscularity of Shakespeare's language forces the body to conform itself to its syllables; without the body being alchemized by the language, then all we will get are words. They may be beautiful, pithy, etcetera, etcetera -- but they won't be theatre.
"Ear" theatre, on the hand (to mix anatomies) -- well, it's bodies pried into chairs behind music stands turning script pages as we attend yet another evening of "new play development." Or it's "reader's theatre." Or it's an actor gabfest like Stephen Adly Guirgis' Our Lady of 121st Street, which dispenses by and large with plot in favor of having the actors talk and talk and talk and talk. The fact that they move around the stage as they do so does not make it theatre since the movement has no organic relation with words. They only move because the audience expects them to move and the director told them to, not because they feel "moved" to move by what they are saying. To use Maria's terms, they might as well be reading the material on the radio and letting us imagine them for ourselves.
Ear theatre is also "proscenium" in the sense that we listeners are invited to lend an ear and an eye but not much more in order to listen and look through the keyhole of the fourth wall. Ear theatre, then, is voyeuristic, at least in this sense: if we were not there, the activity would still go on anyway unaffected by our absence. And since movement is more or less grafted on to ear theatre, what we see is not organic action but a kind of skimpering diorama, Disney'd animatronics.
And this is why, in ear theatre, it becomes crucial, in terms of criticism, to focus on the quality of the actors' performances, specifically how they embody/incarnate the emotional content of the piece, because there is not much else to pay attention to when cocking the ear against the keyhole. If the actor as actor does not carry the day -- if Vanessa Redgrave does not infect the audience with Mary's morphine addiction -- then we are left with 4-plus hours of lachrymose and grain alcohol'd nattering.
There are many historical reasons why ear predominates over eye in our theatre, but a primary one rests in the supposed engine of Western dramatic action: conflict (itself driven by the notion of an unfulfilled human desire that borders on the pathological in its hunger). As a dramatic engine, conflict, to me, has always felt underpowered because it tries to blend two mostly incompatible cultural impulses: the Hobbesian winner-loser competitiveness at the heart of capitalist consumer culture with our (much-diluted) gospel culture of transformation by redemption. In dramatic conflict, we want the characters to fight and fight but also change, to stand toe-to-toe but also travel a journey that ends them up different from how they started out. And the primary signal of all this sturm-ing and drang-ing is language -- mime, ritual, dance, and other movement forms having been more or less banished as modes of storytelling.
But then something like Lanford Wilson's Rain Dance comes along, and theatre takes a soft but definite turn away from conflict and towards what, to me, is far more dramatically fruitful: struggle, especially struggle to come to terms with something that will not yield itself to easy, or even any, answers. The plays takes place at Los Alamos in 1945 during the hours before the test of the first atomic bomb. Four characters -- a young scientist, an old scientist and his young wife, and a Hopi Army officer, all of them friendly with each other -- try to reconcile what it means to have done what they did and be where they are on the eve of something that will make all the tomorrows utterly and unalterably different. No conflicts between the characters, no "A wants what B will not surrender," no corrosive secrets (there is an affair between the wife and the officer, but it happens with what appears to be the tacit consent of the husband) -- just four humans struggling to find their place in a strange new world.
And what cements the play in place are two actions that embody these personal struggles for meaning. The first is a rain dance done by the officer with the young scientist, which in its simple movement and ululating vocals captures the painful irony of an organic connection with the earth that is already lost to history as the bomb is prepared for detonation. The second, the ending image, is the young scientist scattering around the room in which he stands alone the incense of burning sweet grass, the eagle feather in his hand finally bathing himself with the smoke in a sweet and futile gesture to preserve some measure of sanity and beauty.
By the end of Rain Dance, no one has really changed, nothing has really been resolved. What the audience has witnessed is a struggle that is their struggle, too, about finding a place in a modern world mostly indifferent to them, even though they created it through their technology and ambitions. What we have witnessed is not something so much character-driven as characters driven by an idea of history and what sense of their lives they can make in the wake of a juggernaut. All of it embodied in two dances that enter us through those lower solar-plexus frequencies with which we associate the coming of truth and insight.
This is true looking theatre, that when all is said, then there only remains what is left to be done: to take action, not in order to end the struggle (since it cannot be ended) but to transform the struggler. Struggle is not about endings, resolution, even satisfaction of desire. It is about incomplete failures and successes, about trying to find some purity in a world built on hybrids and alloys. And the redemption that may or may not come from transformation is not about change but about making what is meaningless full of a meaning that gets us and our fellows through the days and nights with a minimum of injury until there are no more days and nights. Conflict may excite our adrenaline, but it is struggle that engages our hearts and tells us stories we can use.
©2003 Michael Bettencourt
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