Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |
Nathan Thomas
Another Dichotomy

September 2013

Any prophet of doom knows precisely what to say in such times. 

Egypt and Syria combine to make chaos in a troubled region more likely than less likely.  Detroit, the great engine of America's car culture, has seen the summer dwindle into bankruptcy.  Congress continuously poised to destroy any sane proposal that might be made (not unlike the warring factions that get caught up in a fistfight trying to kidnap Pilate's wife in Monty Python's Life of Brian).

And we have the on-going fun of trying to guess what the next batch of extreme weather brought to us courtesy of the great "hoax" of global climate change.  (Remember the huge laugh we all had when those silly scientists revealed gravity was all a huge joke?  Boy, them scientists sure be funny.  My cheeks are still hurting from the laughter on that one.  heh heh heh heh . . .)

No, a prophet of doom would know what to say and preach a good sermon of clean living and anger and action against the real vampires who greedily devour resources, gain great wealth, and leave chaos,death and waste in their wake for other lesser mortals to clean up.

So, I shall speak of how we look at stories.

All stories have plot holes.  Get over it. 

The amazing thing about so many hours of theatre, film, television, videos and other story-telling media is that we pay so little attention to them.  The vast majority of the time, we don't need to worry about the irrational gaps in logic that get is from point A to point B.  The late, great critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film "Firewall":

    "Need a thriller be plausible in order to be entertaining? One of the most common routines in the filmcrit biz, one I have myself performed many times, involves demolishing the credibility of a plot as if you have therefore demolished the movie. I think there's a sliding scale involved: If the movie is manifestly impossible while you're watching it, then that can be fatal (unless, of course, it is a movie intended to be manifestly impossible, like a James Bond thriller). If however, the movie holds water or at least doesn't leak too quickly, I'm not very concerned about whether you can tear it to pieces after you leave the theater."

Ebert argues that a film (and I would say any story) is intended to create an emotional response.  There are appropriate media for logical arguments on a variety of topics.  The story-telling media that are at the heart of theatre and film and related arts are not those.

One of the things that critics keep looking at is the question of how an audience will "buy" what the story-tellers are selling. Generally whatever criteria get mentioned fall under some umbrella of verisimilitude.  Is there enough of the "shock of recognition" that will allow the audience to join with the story-tellers on the adventure of the story?  And then critics move on to speak of genre considerations.

One of the best ways that I've ever seen to think about genre comes in a little mini-essay by the Russian theatre historian Konstantine Rudnitsky in his landmark study of the Russian director, Meyerhold.

In the chapter about Meyerhold's double life as a director at the imperial Alexandrinsky Theatre and as the experimental Dr. Dapperttutto, Rudnitsky stops to talk about genre.  It starts about pg 120 of the Russian text.

Rudnitsky comments that the knock against Meyerhold is that he originated what Rudnitsky in Russian calls uslovnost theatre – or "conditional" theatre.  Another way to think of this is theatre that is up-front about calling itself theatre.  Today we'd call it "meta" or something like that.  There's an awareness that what we're doing is being done in a theatre and using theatrical conventions to tell a story.  Rudnitsky contrasts conditional theatre with theatre that conforms to the concrete or to the everyday.

Rudnitsky points out that Meyerhold, Craig, Reinhart, and the other early 20th century theatrical directors/designers didn't originate the blatant use of conventions in theatre.  Nor did these directors ignore the theatre of the everyday.

Before continuing, it should be noted that so-called "realistic" theatre is just as illusionistic as any other kind of theatre. However naturalistic one's play is and no matter how well the actors work, the actors are still playing.  No one gets married.  No one dies.  It's still magic.

So, Rudnitsky lists the ways in which the elements of theatre contrast between the "conditional" theatre and the "concrete" theatre.

In conditional theatre, the characters tend to speak in verse and use poetry.  By contrast in the theatre of the everyday, characters tend to speak in prose and try to match the vernacular of everyday folks.  In conditional theatre, the characters tend more to the arch-type. In the theatre of the everyday characters are marked by how well they're influenced by indicia of personal psychology. Sincerity of feeling is prized.

In conditional theatre events tend to be episodic and concentrate on a few significant moments in a character's story. By contrast, the theatre of the everyday focuses on events "here and now," and events flow as they do in life.

Conditional theatre favors extreme forms – tragedy and farce, while the theatre of the everyday favors more moderate forms like "dramady" or just "play."  Of course, with the extreme forms, the ending is known.  At the end of a tragedy there's every likelihood that bodies will pile on the stage.  Things are awful.  No tragedy ends with a happy wedding.  And at the end of a farce all ends happily.  By contrast the moderate forms have a concealed ending.  How will things end?  The audience doesn't know.

The conventions of conditional theatre allow for direct address of the audience and so dispense with a so-called "4th Wall."  The theatre of the everyday ignores that an audience is present, and, as such, needs the concept of the "4th Wall." 

And in terms of design, one allows for great abstraction of settings while the other works to create an illusion of everyday places ("Why, look, Martha!  The light comes on when they open the 'fridge!").

I wish I had come up with this.  I didn't.  This is K. Rudnitsky.  But it makes much sense to me.

And my argument is that most theatre, film, and television slides on the continuum back and forth between these extremes. There are a few examples solely in one camp or the other.  The vast amount of stories slides continually and continuously from one kind of theatre to the other.

Take, for example, a musical like South Pacific.  In its original production, there are scenes between lovers that conform as naturalistically as possible.  Sincerity of feeling and individual psychology appear to flow as it would for any everyday person.  The characters have a complexity that appear like people in the audience might know. For these scenes, the intimacy seems to appear in a very small confine that exists beyond a theatre and the audience just seems to be peeking into some private lives. 

Then, the orchestra strikes up a tune, some guys dance on in a very choreographed way and sing beautifully words that have been constructed into lyric poetry.  And they appear to be doing it directly for the pleasure of the audience.

And we generally have an expectation that most musicals on the Broadway stage will have a certain kind of ending.

So, since reading Rudnitsky, I've given up on calling a play "realistic" or anything else.  I just look to see where a play or film is sliding back and forth between these two poles.  And it helps me in thinking about the story afterward.

So I offer this dichotomy of the conditional theatre and the theatre that conforms to the everyday, to you.

And if you think of it, translate your anger at those who despoil our world for cheap gain into action that helps spread peace and delay climate change.


Theatre that relies on the conventions or conditions that make theatre, theatre (Uslovni)

Theatre that conforms to the concrete or everyday



Events – episodic

Events – today here and now

Action – concentrates on significant moments

Action – imitates flow of life

Predetermined score – may or may not beexperienced 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


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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, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2013 Nathan Thomas
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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September 2013

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