Swans Commentary » swans.com May 23, 2005  



The Current State Of Theatre
A Conversation at the Swans Café...


Martin Epstein, Charles Marowitz & John Steppling






(Swans - May 23, 2005)  Charles, Martin: Many thanks for accepting to join me at the Swans Café for a discussion on theatre. I wanted to begin it by asking both of you how you view the current state of theatre, both in the U.S. and in Europe. I think we probably need to trace this back a ways though, first. The role of theatre historically is a large topic, but it seems relevant to our current situation. Charles can start, and Martin after that.

John Steppling, Krakow, Poland



Martin Epstein, Charles Marowitz, John Steppling:


Charles Marowitz: John,

"The role of theatre historically" is biting off more than can be chewed in a discussion of this kind without nose-diving into polemics, abstractions and primitivism -- so I must decline that one. Describing "the current state of theatre, both in the U.S. and in Europe" is a more viable proposition as we have a mountain of evidence about it on both continents and, sifting that, certain truths become self-evident.

In Europe, the relationship between art and finance is instinctively understood. Most of the culturally enlightened countries of Europe accept the fact that the State should subsidize the theatre and that artists are specially-endowed creatures who deserve to be encouraged, and that the best among them should be resolutely supported for a good portion of their working lives.

Exceptions occasionally arise when subsidized playwrights, directors, and companies proceed to bite the hand that feeds them and engage in harsh attacks against the governments that finance their work. If the artists truly abhor the ideologies of the governments from which they draw support, the honorable thing to do is to reject the subsidy and assert their independence. This rarely happens, and instead you get a situation in which playwrights, directors, and actors abominate the organizations that provide the means for their existence and grandly assume that it is part of some holy bargain that they should tolerate the attacks and abuse to which they are regularly subjected.

The passionate libertarians will declare it is simply an expression of "free speech" to throw brickbats at their governmental patrons and, for the sake of maintaining free expression, they should continue to receive their support. This is, of course, nonsense as it implies a man being beaten to death by a baseball bat is obliged to replace the assailant's bat should it be broken as a result of the clubbing. The most effective subversive theatre companies, which The Group Theatre and The Living Theatre once were, are never supported by the State and are always obliged to find private means of sustaining themselves. When Orson Welles's Mercury Theater, a Federal theatre project, became too outspoken and "leftist," the US government immediately hobbled it. As a result, artists consciously or unconsciously limit the degree to which they are prepared to risk their commercial welfare in order to assert their most deeply-held beliefs.

In America, the notion of generous theatrical subsidies has always appeared (as our new Attorney General might say) "quaint," when it wasn't being savaged as "creeping socialism." The National Endowment For The Arts, a makeshift organization prone to political vicissitudes, doesn't even begin to compare with the subsidies generally bestowed to permanent theatre companies by countries such as France, England, Germany or Scandinavia and, in recent years, has been emasculated to the point of extinction. In America, it is the "Broadway mentality" -- the "hit-or-flop" syndrome -- which reigns throughout the nation and, as a result, repertoires in virtually all the states are rigidly standardized (i.e., re-heating successful Broadway, Chicago or London offerings) on the assumption that once New York has bestowed a jeweled crown upon a play, paste-copies of that tiara may be distributed to less prominent stages throughout the land.

And so the essential difference between European theatre and its American counterpart is that in the former territory, the tradition of respect for the arts is so firmly established that occasionally genuine art -- in the form of new plays or qualitative productions -- actually sprout out of well-fertilized soil, and in the United States, grifters, gamblers, sharpies and "mah'chers" frequently assemble enough investment to mount entertainments that can be effectively recycled throughout the 50 states, albeit with ever-diminishing results.



Martin Epstein: John,

Like Charles, I'd prefer not to speak about how I view the current state of theatre in the U.S. and Europe. Though my sight has proven good enough (just yesterday) to renew my driver's license, I'm legally blind when it comes to theoretical summations of subjects I'm supposed to know something about. I hope this confidence won't disqualify me from the triologue, as I'm excited by the prospect of this kind of exchange. And who knows, by feeling my way between you, I might actually stumble into a few ideas that will hopefully illuminate something.

So I'd like to begin at the other end of the question. Who gives a shit about theatre and why? More to the point: who gives a shit about the kind of theatre we care about? By which I mean our being in the presence of a series of performed moments in which some kind of personal madness overwhelms the collective on stage and the collective in the house, a kind of enchantment in which spells are cast that bind, cripple, kill and release. I hope this doesn't fall under Charles's idea of "primitivism," and if it echoes Artaud, it also brings me to what I like to think of as a personal discovery.

That in order TO DO theatre, MAKE PLAY, a rather crazy condition has to be acknowledged. Namely, that a group of people (collaborators), united in the desire of each to singularly display his or her theatrical mastery, come together to perform the passion/destinies of another group of people (the plays' personae) who are essentially dysfunctional, particularly in their relationship to mastery.

One can, of course, recognize potential masters among a play's characters -- Hamlet, Oedipus, Christy Mahon, Chekhov's Nina, Hamm. If the play is tragic, those with even a tinge of mastery will destroy themselves or be destroyed by the malevolence of the collective. If the play is comic, the threat of annihilation by the collective (variations on a theme of stupidity) will be just as ferocious, but mastery will miraculously win out.

To repeat: a group of artists, theoretically in top form, organize and perform the fortunes of a community of complete fuck-ups. My question: does this inescapable relationship between "opposites" interest you enough to want to discuss its relevance to the culture (the audience) out of which and to who the theatrical event is addressed? If so, can we use this as a possible basis to further (specifically) assess the condition of theatre in the U.S. or Europe?



John Steppling: Charles, Martin,

I think we are circling around a couple topics here. It extends to other mediums too, of course, but the relevance of art is certainly open to question these days.

Charles talks of funding, and the strange dynamic that has evolved between artists and their state patrons. In Goya's time he simply took commissions from patrons, and understood some of what he could and could not do. In a sense the émigré directors to Hollywood -- Lang, Wilder, Ulmer et al. -- had the same sort of commissions in the form of "bad genre" scripts, which they knew they had to execute in a certain way. In both cases something subversive found its way in anyway. Today, the funding apparatus more efficiently marginalizes the artist. The grants or subsidies for artists tend to find their way to "safe" people and companies. The artists themselves, as Charles suggests, self-censor in order to get those grants -- and unlike a Fritz Lang, they forget to try and sneak in something subversive. Also, the funding machinery identifies the recipient as de facto unimportant -- hence in need of funding.

I suspect a healthier society would find little to fear from theatre artists who express criticism. I remember getting one of the NEA grants with a letter attached that I had to sign, promising not to write obscene material that might be found offensive to the community, yada yada yada. I signed it because I desperately needed the money; but then went and wrote "Storyland," a play whose longest monologue is a description of how and what this character loves about pornography. Of course, nobody noticed or cared.

I wonder though if society shouldn't welcome strong criticism from its artists. It seems rather the point of art in a sense. I don't think it's exactly biting the hand that feeds you so much as trying to destroy that whole body to which the hand is attached. That seems a good thing and a reasonable thing to me. Of course societies don't function that way...and if they did, we wouldn't need art.

But back to this question of relevance. I think that, yes, it matters what people do in theatre -- and in theatre more than any other medium actually, the point is civic and social. However, today in the U.S. at least, we have a smaller and smaller audience for theatre and a less sophisticated audience. This leads me to ask: is this really a problem? I often wonder about the knee jerk assumptions of "success" and "big audiences." I think a wide audience for Genet or Foreman is never going to happen, and perhaps that's as it should be. Prehistoric man painted on cave walls inaccessible to almost everyone......why? If Bernini created a sculpture that only one family was ever to see, did that make a less important piece of work? We are in the age of mechanical reproduction (per Benjamin) and so we tend toward assumptions about "consumption" of product. I know I am being simplistic here, and begging the question in a sense, but I think there are real issues surrounding notions of popularity.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment attacked church doctrine in the name of "reason" and progress. In the course of so doing, I suspect they also tossed out the baby of metaphysics (with the bathwater of church authority), and of the mysterious, and probably some of the very "reason" they were championing. Our secular and ultra-rational society tends to distrust that which serves no obvious purpose (business). So Martin is asking about something, an experience, that is almost pre-rational. It is what Artaud spoke about, and it's what (at least in part) a good deal of theatre is supposed to be about.

Adorno said that "natural beauty vanished from aesthetics as a result of the burgeoning domination of the concept of freedom and dignity..."

Meaning, as Bly once put it, when poetry turned from the inclusion of nature to the sole discussion of "man" it was making a disastrous turn. So perhaps I am asking (as I did talking about film with David Walsh) if there isn't a change occurring in how we look at the individual (think of how the individual was seen in the time of Sophocles). Theatre is so mediated by the experience of the audience. More than other art forms, because the audience is there, in a collective, "watching." I want to comment on Martin's mention of "masters" (as he put it), which I've always discussed in terms of characters who know something of the "truth" but are also forces of destruction. Ahab is one, and the Judge in "Blood Meridian"...and it's what I wanted to portray in my play "Dogmouth." To learn you must risk the possibility of destruction. Get too close to the sun and you burn and fall...but to hide in the shade is to learn nothing, and to not grow. I intuitively feel this kind of character is missing these days (although in "Training Day," the Denzel Washington character is a bit like this). Maybe this is what society needs just now, I don't know. The truth is not benign; it's dangerous. One of my comments to students is always that "art is not your friend." It's not therapy, it's not there to give you pleasure, either. It is there for more complex reasons; reasons of awakening and growth and conscience. In a society that now accepts (and endorses) the brutalizing of the "other," the killing of children and the use of depleted uranium, one sees a pronounced incapacity for both compassion and "reason" (at least as Socrates describes it). This is an age of increasing collective delusion, of asking for one's government to lie, and for embracing the most barbaric and bloody of mindsets. So, when I say we need the subversive, I think I am including the wide notions of the political as well as the, for lack of a better word, spiritual.

A wide audience is not crucial; but rigor is. Doing something well, and with discipline will, in a mystical fashion (perhaps), come to matter. Work that demands something, that asks questions and subverts assumptions is important. In Europe, I find, as Charles says, a bit more of a tradition of caring for the arts -- but it is fast disappearing and emulating the American model (in Poland we have devolved a long way from the days of Kantor). So what comes next? What Martin is asking touches on both these things...I think.

Ok, I've gone on long enough. Back to Charles....



Charles Marowitz: Martin, John,

It is always interesting to get a peep into other people's sensibility about theatre; what matters to them; what they think it's for; what it should try to accomplish. It tends to reaffirm one's own values -- or rather, causes one to reformulate them in opposition to others, which I suppose is a healthy pastime.

When Martin, defining the theatrical process, writes: "a group of people (collaborators) united in the desire of each to singularly display his or her theatrical mastery, come together to perform the passion/destinies of another group of people (the plays' personae) who are essentially dysfunctional, particularly in their relationship to mastery," I am invariably drawn to the conclusion that no pat definition of theatre can possibly stand up to close analysis.

Also, that there is a slight whiff of superiority in this definition makes me uneasy. Willy Loman and family are not "dysfunctional;" they are victims of a dysfunctional society which spreads dysfunction among those not perceptive enough to resist the false lures of capitalist philosophy or resourceful enough to try to overthrow it. Where are the "masters" in that play? Even Biff, with his awareness that his father had "the wrong dream," is helpless to change the course of the human meltdown that ultimately hobbles the entire family.

In Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," one could argue that, far from being "dysfunctional," Hedda possesses a dynamic life force which defies the bourgeois restraints which her marriage into the Tesman family would impose upon her. Marrying for money and position and persuading an ex-lover into committing suicide are only proofs of her power; her efficacy in "functioning." There are no "masters" in that play enabling "mastery" to win out.

To take one of Martin's own examples: In "The Seagull," it is Nina's awareness of life's injustice and her own inadequacy in the midst of uncontrollable events that cause Trepleff (who realizes he can never regain what he has lost) to take his own life. You cannot call Trepleff "dysfunctional"; he is a promising young writer who painfully recognizes the futility of life and, by snuffing it out, is rendering the harshest criticism any one can make upon life -- that it's not worth living. Nina, relegated to the sordid life of a struggling provincial actress, is not "dysfunctional." She may be frail and gullible, having been victimized by the wily Triorin, derailed perhaps from a more promising union that might have been -- perhaps with Trepleff -- but to call her "dysfunctional' would be to suggest there is something wicked about naiveté. In the same way, Oedipus is a "victim of circumstances" beyond his ken, not a person whose "dysfunctionality" has brought on his tragedies. And Hamlet functions well enough to survive harassment, intrigue and exile eventually to return and revenge the death of his father by polishing off Claudius.

Martin's notion of "mastery," whether it be among the "collaborators" of the theatrical art or the "characters" that writers employ to exemplify their struggles, seems to me an academic surmise, too broad and unspecific to encapsulate what usually goes on in theatre. But the real point, it seems to me, is that we should not be trying to arrive at formulae of any kind because we should accept that the theatre, like life on which it is parasitic, is too variegated ever to be "battened down" under any single rubric.

I agree with John when he says, "a healthier society would find little to fear from theatre artists who express criticism," but we are living in a blatantly unhealthy society where criticism is construed as a declaration of war, and an irreconcilable polarity divides the entire country. The division is not simply between "red states" and "blue states" but between deeply opposed beliefs about religion, politics, gender, national security and the crumbling vision of the much-touted-now-heavily-assailed American Dream. How can we "reach consensus" in a country in which the "reds and blues" are as divided as the Grays and Blues were in the Civil War, and how do we present artistic viewpoints to a population in which there is no agreement about fundamental human principles? (Compare the intellectual temper of today's audience to the unanimity we are told existed among the ancient Greeks.) It is reassuring to have a coterie of staunch followers who share one's own view of the world's ills -- a diverting avant garde -- but that should not be confused with a "power-bloc" which can influence the outcome of large-scale social and political events that affect large numbers of people.

Brecht believed that the ultimate aim of theatre was to raise consciousness -- to use well-aimed pin-spots to illuminate the shadowy corners of our society. Now, more than ever, that is an imperative of the theatre -- but the rub is, it can no longer be done the way Brecht intended -- by substituting one doctrine for another, one set of social principles to replace another. Theatre artists need to find new means for expressing their critiques and one of the greatest voids today is the lack of newly-wrought artistic means by which to do this. The problem with "the problem play" is that it can no longer be used to solve problems. Today, we honor ambiguity, not certitude -- no matter how persuasive. Naturalism, whether it be psychological or merely mimetic, is not sufficient to deal with the inner paradoxes that now beset us. When the theatre discovered realism, it jettisoned a large vocabulary of bogus conventions which can never be restored. Now realism has begun to lose its efficacy, but the theatre has not found an alternative means of communication. Happenings, Installations, Performance Art, Multi-Media, Computer-Technology -- all of these things are an attempt to come up with a lingo which will deal with the complexity of the present age, but nothing like enough time, thought or money is being spent on revitalizing an art form which desperately needs to be updated. If theatre were Science, we would be investing madly in Research and Development, but because it is an art, our only salvation lies in the occasional emergence of original individual practitioners.

At the advent of Modernism, small avant-garde cliques in Paris and Berlin created alternative art forms which were eventually absorbed into the main stream. Today, we have the MASS MEDIA and we have "theatre," and unless theatre combats the assumptions that underpin the thinking of the mass media, it no longer has a function to perform.

It can be comic or dour, surreal or mundane but it needs to align itself against the larger assumptions that make life miserable in most highly developed countries in the world, particularly in the United States.

The size of one's fighting force has to be related to the size of the enemy's, and one has to understand that the legions ranged against us are formidable. And by "us," I mean those would help unmanacle the "manacled-minds" that confront us on every side; in our politics, our schools, our movies, videos and cable shows, our family, our would-be and would-not-be friends -- the people whom we seduce, harass, are seduced or harassed by, pretend to love, cherish and hope to multiply with.



Martin Epstein: John, Charles,

In answer to Charles's unease over my distinguishing the performers from the performed: I didn't mean to suggest that those with "artistic mastery" are superior to the characters they play, whose potential for mastery (or just living their lives) is often eclipsed by forces that overwhelm them. Nor by calling the play's personae "dysfunctional" do I want to surrender them to therapy or psychological interpretation. What I was trying to bring into focus was not a theory of drama (I begged off that already) but the wonder I feel in thinking about the complex dynamics that are set in motion when one group of people set out to imitate another group of people in front of yet another group of people. "The point," as John says, "is civic and social," but it all takes place under the dominance of "illusion." And I am in thrall to how the theatre uses illusion to make us experience the "civic and social," which would seem, in its obsession with the "real," to regard theatre as a vestigial organ.

Let's go back to "The Seagull," which seems to me to perform, better than any play I know, the contrast between the saving grace (tentative though it is) of artistic mastery and the chaotic vortex that sucks us down. This is a play, in large part, about the making of theatre, the writing of literature. Nina and Trepleff collaborate to put on Trepleff's play, his first, probably, to be performed on his mother Arkadina's lake side estate. Trepleff's play is avant garde, wonderfully ambitious. Breaking all the rules of 19th century bourgeois drama (the kind his mother stars in), Trepleff condenses the entire history of the Earth into a final encounter between The World's Soul (played by Nina, who is also Trepleff's girlfriend, sort of) and The Devil. The play is set two hundred thousand years in the future. All life is over. Nina, in white, sitting on a rock, under a real moon, tells us in a long, lyrical and wildly overwritten monologue, that her encounter with The Devil will determine if everything that has led to this moment will be saved or consigned to oblivion. But the excess in Trepleff's writing, coupled with Nina's terrible performance (it's her first time out as an actress and she later admits she didn't understand a word) produces discomfort: jealously and rudeness in its stage audience, and hilarity in the rest of the house. The performance is a disaster for Trepleff, who stamps his foot and brings the show to a premature close. Sympathize as we may, Trepleff's frustration doesn't stop us from enjoying this fledgling writer's misery. We will experience this mixed emotion again in Act III, when Trepleff, after failing to put a bullet in his head, allows his mother to change his bandage. After a moment of tenderness, mother and son explode. They argue about aesthetics, while entangling and mummifying each other in their oedipal frustration. When Charles writes: "You cannot call Trepleff "dysfunctional," he is a promising young writer who painfully recognizes the futility of life, and, by snuffing it out, is rendering the harshest criticism any one can make upon life. That it's not worth living." True. Trepleff is a promising young writer -- in the course of the two years that pass, he begins to publish (always under a different pseudonym) and his name is getting out there -- but the fact remains, Trepleff's "futility" has its roots in his inability to leave home. He's a mama's boy. His proclaimed love for Nina is bogus, as he can't love anything but his own anguish. Trepleff's suicide -- his judgment against the world -- is jealously motivated by Nina's having "grown up" and become deeply involved with life and her art. Though Trepleff's suicide comes as a shock, the real climax of the play has already occurred when Nina returns and suffers the continued loss of Trigoran's love. Nina describes herself a Seagull, then withdraws the statement, refusing the definition of a dead stuffed thing. Before leaving, she gives a repeat performance from Trepleff's play -- a play he has destroyed and forgotten -- in which she reveals herself as an actress who is finally capable of playing "the world's soul." And this time, when she speaks both Chekhov's and Trepleff's lines, she breaks our hearts. This is what I mean by a character's acquiring "mastery." And the actress who plays Nina has to discover for herself what it means to confront the role and survive. Just as the actor playing Trepleff has to show us Trepleff's despair with a similar luminosity, a mastery that takes him down.

Though Charles and I experience this play differently, I'm in agreement when he writes: "If theatre were Science, we would be investing madly in Research and Development, but because it is an art, our only salvation lies in the occasional emergence of original individual practitioners." If the theatre we want is going to survive, it's going to have to earn its importance one play at a time.



John Steppling: Martin, Charles,

I think I will return to my original question and sort of try to answer it myself, or at least begin to look at what I think is its relevance to what has been written by both of you so far.

David Walsh and I have had this dialogue on film, and the (what we call) crisis in film art. There is a crisis in theatre as well, probably for different but related reasons. Theatre has been marginalized by film and TV, and, in a sense, photography too. I honestly know few theatre artists working today that I would bother to leave home to see. I wonder if this hasn't a little to do with my notion of theatre's civic aspects. Meaning, that in film an artist can make a film in South Africa or Finland, and have it screened all over the world (notwithstanding the monopolies on distribution...but in theory), but in theatre the artist must still travel. If Peter Brook has a new play I guess I would have to go to Paris to see it. I live in Krakow, and there is almost nothing to see here (Lupa does some good work, but nothing beyond that). In Warsaw there are a few things, and in Wroclaw perhaps. Poland is no different than most countries in this sense; theatre is a small blip on the artistic radar. Theatre is still linked to the community in some ways, and since we live in an age of diminishing community we have a diminishing focus on theatre. I think there is a strange paradox at work here, that the very economic and commodified relations that films manifest have also allowed film to break free of those relations -- at least at times -- in a way theatre seems unable to do. This is, obviously, only part of the problem.

In the U.S., theatre has tended to devolve into a kind of feel-good therapeutic exercise for college kids. How many big theatres, either University-based or independent, are run by non-academics? I would say ZERO. I have the impression of endless productions of very mediocre (or outright awful) new plays, commissioned often, and performed for friends and other theatre artists. These plays are liberal and bland, they offer cheap reassurance about the system being able to save us, and they are without much in the way of a musical language. There prevails the idea that theatre is there to help audiences integrate into the system, and to reinforce simplistic bromides about the totally adjusted life, as we find it today in the new Empire.

The entire network of funding and awards and appointments is linked to writing programs at Universities. I think this has helped toward the utter suffocation of the medium. Beyond that, of course, theatre is probably the best barometer for culture in total. Here then is where this discussion becomes interesting for me.

I think Martin is edging close to something quite fascinating in regards to how we deal with theatre today. How does this strange process work now? Charles is right that discussions like this give us a peak at the inner working of others in theatre -- and that is quite valuable. He also mentions "realism," which is a topic I want to come back to. I wonder at Martin's remark about people pretending to be other people performing for strangers. Is that really what actors do? I'm not sure. I think it's important to understand, or to try to, what acting is. What is an actor doing when he or she gets on stage? He or she is NOT duplicating reality, for we in the audience know we are watching a play. The actor is "performing." So what do I mean by performing? I suspect it has to do with ritual in some sense. It also raises a big question about what we mean by "character." I am always confronted with this question when I teach writing at the film school. What does it mean to say a character "works" or doesn't "work"? I wonder, as I've said before, whether our notion of the individual hasn't changed over the last fifty years. In one sense I think people are less and less individual. Technology intercedes here, in a complicated way, but I would think it must be obvious to anyone who works in theatre that TV and film have altered our sense of ourselves...of what an individual is...but has also helped (along with marketing) erode the specific qualities we once thought of as unique to an individual. I find students unable to write characters. They write the outline for a character -- they write "types," or almost clichés of types. They write "behavior" rather than thought, which seems the result of less and less listening. Murray Mednick used to talk (well, he no doubt still does) about really hard listening...about sinking down to listen to something deep inside oneself. This is why language is so important. For me theatre has always been about language (with obvious exceptions, a Richard Foreman for example). Now, as I write this out, I realize I am playing a double game with myself. I say students can't write character...but then I suggest people have less individuality and hence less experience with what a character is -- since, partly, they are and have less character themselves. So, I am brought around again to feeling a change has taken place. The world of mediated faux-reality -- of TV news and huckster sales pitches...24 hours a day -- has tended toward the creation of strange psychic conformism. Has this relevance to Charles's remarks about "realism"? I suspect it does.

Horkheimer, in Eclipse of Reason, says:

"Thus the individual subject of reason tends to become a shrunken ego, captive of an evanescent present, forgetting the use of the intellectual functions by which he was once able to transcend his actual position in reality. These functions are now taken over by the great economic and social forces of the era. The future of the individual depends less and less upon his own prudence and more and more upon the national and international struggles among the colossi of power. Individuality loses its economic basis".

I wonder how pivotal the Enlightenment (and, really, the Reformation) was to our notions of individuality. Where does Shakespeare fit in all of this, and later Beckett? I just did an adaptation of a play by Euripides ("Madness of Herakles") and found that I ended up writing about how this play can't be adapted. Now I hope this adaptation contains other worthwhile things as well (that explore the questions of how this happened, and also war and violence), but the point was that Gods and Heroes, as the Greeks saw them, bear scant resemblance to our notions of identity and the social today. I think it likely that they still did a hundred years ago, at least to a degree. Is our Hamlet the same as Shakespeare's? I doubt it. How is it different? Kafka and Beckett changed notions of identity, I think. Genet, too. Perhaps Pinter as well, a playwright who seems to get better and better, I believe. I am asking questions here, and have few answers. It is clear that the mass media and the culture industry create a strange kind of ersatz reality, a sort of patina of simplified cause and effect inhabited by robots, essentially. The entire society is infected with the reductivism and "sales" assumptions of the mass media. One cannot separate the way theatre has evolved from the production economics. Audiences are educated to be audiences of a certain kind. The logical end result is to witness the absurdity of almost all installation art we see today. This is not to say, as many on the left do, that abstraction somehow subverted the political. That Pollack and Rothko were antagonistic to the political realities (or realism?) of a Picasso or a Rivera. This is nonsense. One always did more than just judge the world represented by realistic depictions. Beckett is not realistic, for example. In fact, one of my issues with Miller was that he wrote a kind of character after Beckett and Kafka and Genet that seemed anachronistic (ok, not literally after but close enough). Willie Loman was a great invention and yet seemed somehow behind the curve.

I am rambling all over the place now, but I think I will leave it in this disorganized form. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and Richard Foreman and Peter Handke, all seem artists straddling the modern and post-modern worlds. The idea of who we are, which is a good part of what art is supposed to help with, remains in flux. Is theatre losing the ability to help with this? I certainly don't see a Tony Kushner or a Suzan Lori-Parks being done in twenty years. I don't see them being done in ten. Who will be done? I suspect artists who insist on examining the very scaffolding of funding and organization that allows them to get produced are going to be the ones who endure. Playwrights who insist on politics and history, and not just thin liberal polemical band-aids... Identity politics has been a virus in theatre for the last twenty years. One longs for real politics and real anger and real vision. One longs for real protest and a serious investigation of the assumptions of the society all around us.

Ok, enough...on to you Charles.



Charles Marowitz: John, Martin,

My fear regarding general discussions of art -- be it theatre, film, painting, music or dance -- is that the intellectual terrain is so full of quicksand, the terms so open to misconstruction, the subjectivities so hardwired, that the chances of arriving at convincing or coherent conclusions are very slim. Although there is much that Martin and John have said that I would dispute -- as well as agree with -- I feel it would only confuse an already highly confused issue to try to articulate where I agreed or disagreed with the points already made. So, I hope I will be excused for making a quantum leap into as clear-cut a declaration on this subject that I am capable of, and leaving it at that.

In America today, the theatre is a quaint alternative to films, videos and DVDs -- many of which deal far more effectively with the rigors of our contemporary life than plays do. The reason the so-called "serious play" is an endangered species in our country (especially on Broadway) is because there is an implicit belief that music, dance, parody, merriment and escape have become medicinal necessities in our lives. They ward off alienation more effectively than plays that deal with the anguish, edginess and frustration which consume us on an almost daily basis. But the irony is, the theatre's way of dealing with the horrors of modern life is merely to restate them through art -- not to delve so deeply into their causes that we may discover a remedial course of action.

In an age where politics swamp both our private and public lives, where we can no sooner escape the consequences of our government's actions than we can the effects of global warming or the outbreak of a deadly virus, theatre, whose role, according to Chekhov, was to "ask questions," should, in fact, begin to provide answers. Not by re-dramatizing events that no art form can possibly duplicate without indulging in crass mimicry (viz. TV reconstructions which replay the turmoils of Charles and Diana, the hypocrisies of Cardinal Bernard Law and the Catholic scandals, the 9/11 atrocity as seen from the standpoint of the firefighters, etc.) but metaphors for all of these things which, couched in poetic and philosophic terms, enable us to "see through" events to the hidden truths beneath. I am postulating an Art which does not "hold a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" but art which, using a powerful MRI, reveals the mendacity that passes for "virtue," the irrationality that so often underlies "scorn" and the orchestrated duplicity behind the times which gives them a trumped-up, utterly artificial "form and pressure."

In other words, theatre used as an omnipotent learning tool which causes scales to fall from our eyes and lies to disintegrate due to the heat of reason. Occasionally, we experience this kind of mind laundering in journalism, particularly in pieces that appear in heterodox books and maverick journals. But the place to experience it fully and efficaciously is in the theatre. To achieve that, we have to stop using the art form as if it were a fashion plate, where the latest trends in self-righteousness and moral indignation can be put on show or where we simply indulge ourselves in theatrical recycling of previous artifacts (usually films).

Most straight plays are declarations of playwrights' positions on certain social or moral issues. They are standing up to be counted. But there are multitudes who already share those positions and theatre shouldn't be in the business of merely tallying votes.

What we should be looking for are artifacts whose implications and effects lead us away from the Obvious and the Mundane, the Apparent and the Quotidian; that take us past the surface and into the bedrock of the personal and metaphysical dilemmas we all experience every day of our lives and in the darkest labyrinths of our most troubling dreams. The revelations of the theatre shouldn't be who-did-what-to-whom? Who is "guilty," who is "wrongly accused?" Who are the heroes, who, the villains? But what are the vital and underlying factors that churn our anguish, dash our hopes, and diminish our earthly happiness.

To achieve this, we don't need a different batch of playwrights but a radically changed perspective from the ones we already have. To achieve that, the public has to be more demanding of our artists and criticism more robust in what it rejects. In this age where "Special Effects" are often the way we calibrate our entertainment, we have to strive for that most "special" of all "Special Effects": a theatre where pleasure comes from enlightenment and not "surprise," from comprehension and not simply denouement.

A tall order? Perhaps. But what's to be gained by filling short ones?



Martin Epstein: Charles, John,

Since we are wrapping up, I'd like to address John's question: "What is an actor doing when he or she gets on a stage?" An actor is doing a few things, I think. To begin with I don't think of the actor as "getting on" a stage so much as "taking" the stage. The difference has to do with the applied courage, aggression, and near-to-fainting will to overcome the dangerous and transforming passage from one world to another. The actor, waiting alone in the dark, is about to open a door into a flood of focused lights, not to mention the gaze of a darkened house full of strangers. Without speaking a word, the actor is suddenly there, with all the attendant emotions of an unpredictable homecoming.

The actor may be said to have cheated, though. He or she has seemingly rehearsed a lifetime for this apparently spontaneous moment. The actor knows exactly what has to be said and done, and knows it so deeply he or she is going to make the performance look like it's happening for the first time. The actor, in this trajectory of ritualized illusion, is going to show us the truth. And like the Gods, who alone know the past, present and future, the actor is going to experience a powerful rush. This is an academic way of describing what all of us, from childhood on, know when we take to mimicking someone we admire or who has power over us. Mimicry being an act akin to cannibalism, we take our models prisoner. With a few words and gestures, we put our models on, acquire their power, and do them in all at once. And if we get it right, our audience recognizes, laughs, applauds, leaving us free to become our newly heroic diminished selves again. But having once experienced the rush of mimicking one's boss, is it any wonder "the happy few" would want to extend the histrionic pleasure to ever larger and paying audiences by playing Oedipus, Hamlet, or Nina? Even performing the foppish servility of an Osric, or the predictable roles that are often the hallmark of our Pulitzer Prize plays, give actors (and audience) a sense of intensity that isn't that available in everyday life.

I leave how any of this applies to John's discussion of "character" (an enormously important subject) for another time. Except to say that Charles's question: "Who are the heroes? Who the villains?" as addressed to our own playwrights, may be paramount to the theatre's rediscovery (and recovery) of Character. From my own troubled playwright's POV, I'd say Aeschylus, whose theatrical space still fills the civil and social void like no other, is still a hero. While TV, boxed-in, glassy-eyed, pacifying and flat (with the possible exception of sports?), can't help being a villain.

In closing, I'd like to invoke Zeami's description of the origins of Japanese Noh. "Some say Noh was created for the security of the world. Others say Noh was created for the entertainment of the masses." Though I have no idea what Zeami (1363-1443) means by "the security of the world," I would like to think it relates to Charles's desire to encounter a theatre that takes on "the anguish, edginess and frustration which consume us on an almost daily basis," and then transposes this "consummation" into its opposite: something that gives us courage, and renews our lives.

At the same time, I'm suspicious of a theatre that insists (or even suggests) we leave the performance feeling like we have somehow failed ourselves, and the world, by not having the desire or capacity to change things. I love Brecht, but with the exception (in the 1970s) of a college production of "The Good Woman of Setzuan," I've never seen a Brecht play in which the glaring opulence of the audience didn't eclipse the political fervor and turn the play into an entertainment for the masses. What made this Stanford production so special was the organized innocence of the actress who played Shen-Te. I no longer remember her name, but she made me feel I was in the presence of a believer whose every word and gesture shimmered with a resonance from one of Brecht's last poems: That you'll go down if you don't stand up for yourselves / surely you see that.

Otherwise, it seems to me what the theatre really changes are the lives and sensibilities of those who work in it. A discussion, here, of our various ideas about and experiences of the role of "the audience" feels essential to an understanding of the future of theatre. I have the memory of a theatre performance (the Wooster Group's revival of "Routes 1 & 9"), where the audience didn't want to leave when the play was over. The performance was essentially a revision of "Our Town" combined with a minstrel show: possibly racist, wildly funny, deeply disturbing and ultimately Dionysian in its celebration of the body. What kept us in the theatre afterward may have been our not wanting to return to the old ways. We had, in effect, bonded, become a community, a family, a small town. Appreciative, we lingered on, then slowly and reluctantly dispersed.

Coda: A Hungarian friend, a film writer and teacher, who has seen a good deal of the 20th century up close, told me of meeting one of Hungary's great poets, Pilinski, in a Budapest café when she was 18. His first words to her, as he parked his crutches and sat down:

"Shall I tell you my theory of drama?"


"Drama has only to do with those problems in life that are irreconcilable. Everything else belongs to The Fire Department and The Red Cross."


John Steppling: Charles, Martin,

I will have the last word on this one, I guess.

I think the clear agreement here, expressed in different ways, is that theatre needs to reclaim some kind of relevance. How and why it has lost relevance is a huge subject we have only pointed to in adumbrated ways. Charles says most straight plays are the declarations of playwrights on certain positions and issues. This is, likely, true, and ergo, part of the problem. The Pilinski anecdote at the end of Martin's note is telling in this respect. The irreconcilable is now avoided. More than that, as I tried to express earlier, those big and metaphysical and historical problems are just not seen as having anything to do with art. That isn't to say there aren't exceptions -- there always are -- but that theatre is (like film) in the business of distraction and entertainment. It no longer seems interested in the "unknown." Martin also talks about community, and I think this is crucial for theatre. I wonder at the future of theatre in this respect, as I fear community and the traditional links of society have all been eradicated in a sea of consumerism and militarized destruction, and global corporate criminality. What community is left? We leave the theatre and disperse, and we never see most of those who sat with us again. Was it always so? (Again, Martin's remark on the Wooster Group production is quite worth noting, and I am reminded of the Padua Hills Festival and its outdoor setting and how it took the entire evening for the whole series of plays to be performed. Combined with the various locations, it meant the audience, de facto, became a brief and transitory community.) I doubt one could find a more atomized and alienated populace than Western society, today. I think I may well be highly simplistic about this notion of "community," in the same way I often am about "myth." This would all lead us, eventually, into a discussion of things like the "sublime" -- in Schiller's terms anyway, or Kleist's. Adorno (and Broch, Bloch, and others, even a Lyotard) have spoken of kitsch as the desire only for the "beautiful." The beautiful becomes, in art, a means to contain the more frightening and irrational aspects of history. The sublime is, I would argue, a political category as much as anything else. The beautiful is a normalizing aesthetic, and today's theatrical output, mostly created by liberals, is nothing if not normalizing. The longing for "community" is there even when community itself is absent. Somehow theatre no longer addresses this.

We seem stuck in the predatory phase of social evolution; and over the last one hundred years the explosion in population and the increasing inequality, as well as the increased density of urban populations have left us in a dynamic of loathing and fear of the society we live in. That society is the enemy was most clearly represented by Beckett (and to some degree by Genet, Kroetz, and Pinter). Theatre is then, not even mentioning the technologies of film and TV, left without its traditional foundations. A civic art form where there is no "civic" (as it were). The rapacious and irrational forces of destruction keep growing, and for real revolution to occur one probably has to look for a cultural revolution as well. Today's "popular" entertainment reflects this loathing, but in unsatisfactory ways.

How are actors and acting connected to this state of affairs? The ritual of performance is complex and I wish we had time for a deeper discussion about this. How we portray ourselves to ourselves is a really profound question. It is in theatre that this question is most resonant. What is left of our notion of the individual? Today it seems to be represented as a "purchasing cyborg"...a machine-like professional who finds meaning in obeying authority (the state, usually) and in buying things. Leisure time is for consumption (even if it means consuming nature or "others"). Performance also is connected to narrative -- even if in strangely oblique ways. The very shape of narrative is influenced by character -- by how we perceive "character," and how we identify the markers of an individual. The post-modern moment falls in line with this eradication of character. The current crop of playwrights seems less and less able to describe character, and this is, I think, because of the debasement of language (among other things). People have lost touch with the deeper structures of meaning that words convey, and so only the simply mechanistic relations and surface outlines remain.

Charles mentions the need for serious criticism. I couldn't agree more. Critics are now like restaurant reviewers. They are consumer advocates. Rarely does one find a critic in either theatre or film who asks meaningful questions about what he or she has seen. Most seem not to take the medium seriously, though they do seem to take their job seriously...and who can blame them -- jobs are hard to come by. I like Charles's description of an MRI close reading of our inner selves. How has that impulse disappeared? Neil LaButte and McDonagh -- this is not serious writing. Why does it get accepted as serious? Again, probably too complex a question for this forum...

Theatre seems to me, in the end, to be about language. It's about the alchemy of language, which connects to history and politics. Almost all theatre (and maybe all art) will be found to contain history in one sense or another. I suspect part of what we all find so dispiriting about today's work is that it lacks those connections to history. The language seems cleansed of real resonance, cleansed of protest and the political (meaning history), and weirdly contains almost no music. It also seems desperate to pander to notions of entertainment. The cheap, almost hysterical laughter, that is so endlessly pimped off, is all that counts. This kind of humor, often parodic, feels like a disease of the soul. The nervous sweating laughter that comes from a Saturday Night Live audience, frankly gives me the creeps. It has the sound of our collective unhealthiness. Plays and directors look desperate for approval of any kind. The more superficial the better, for the superficial response raises no issues, and asks for nothing in return. The superficial will not pursue the "sublime." After decades of this trivializing, the intended audience has been, if it wasn't there to begin with, invented. The assumptions about going to the "theatre" now include ideas of "just having fun." This kind of "entertainment" ideology, for that is what it is, is intrinsically connected to authority. To enter a theatre as if it were a temple, with respect for the insights and the uncanny experiences to follow, is simply too threatening. The authority structure demands we find in it, always, parody or irony, and that we act like children. For entertainment, or popular art, the notion of identification is utmost. Perhaps this is how one can separate high art from low (though I mostly refuse to make this distinction). Popular art, at least today, is simply a way to "identify" with very basic representations of people and place. At its best, it touches on certain archetypes -- and then responds to conditions around it. At worst, it is all about clichés and a kind of initiation into the defined roles of domination. With rare exceptions, it always resists a demand for change. Deeper narrative carries us beyond identification. And what is beyond identification? The unknown.

The audience for mass entertainment is the creation of advanced capitalism, to some degree. I think, historically, theatre has always been the most subversive art form, and hence the one most often censored. Has this to do with its foundations in community and the presence of the living actor? I don't know. Individuality is lost when all a human does to identify himself is to purchase something -- a car, a cell phone, a pair of trainers, or a new hair cut. The standardized human, a product of standardized education and the conformist culture industry, is less and less able to discern his own feelings or form real opinions, or know his own desires.

There will come a change I am sure, though it may not come soon enough. Who knows? Audiences no longer even know that there is a word like "discrimination," let alone are they able to practice it. Martin and Charles are both friends of mine, and both have produced outstanding work that flies in the face of the trends I am describing. I hope the influence of artists like them will not be lost in the great growing maw of globalized trivialization and nihilism.



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Internal Resources

Wearing Two Hats: The Director Takes On The Critic - Charles Marowitz

Conversations at Swans Café

Art & Culture on Swans


About the Authors

Martin Epstein has been writing plays for a long time. A Playwright-in-Residence with The Magic Theatre of San Francisco and The Padua Playwrights Summer Festival in Los Angeles, his work has been produced by The Actor's Theatre of Louisville, The Round House in Washington, D.C., The Detroit Repertory Theatre, The New Theatre of Brooklyn and many regional theatres and colleges in the U.S. His work has also been produced in Sao Paulo. Epstein is a Rockefeller Grant Recipient and teaches in the Dramatic Writing and Graduate Musical Theatre Programs at The Tisch School of the Arts (NYU).

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).
John Steppling on Swans (with bio).



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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/jsmecm.html
Published May 23, 2005