Looking for the wind
“For I have come to the theatre to see a play, not to see the work done on a play.” Robert Edmond Jones, The Dramatic Imagination
In one of his podcasts, sex advice columnist Dan Savage fielded a call from a 38-year-old pregnant woman who was dealing with her husband's erratic bedroom performance. During a somewhat-recent “engagement,” the caller had inadvertently critiqued her husband's technique more harshly than she meant, and the “engagements” since had all ended prematurely, whether through loss of erection or his coming too quickly. Added to all this was the caller's unexpected boost in libido; her pregnancy had actually increased her perceptions of her own sexiness, which only amplified the chasm between her desires and his new hangups. Conversations about possible work-stress and baby-stress were had, doctors appointments had been scheduled, and she closed her call, “I would love to hear what you have to say about this.”
Dan Savage responded, “uh, I'm thinking your really don't want to hear what I have to say about this, actually...” Work-stress and baby-stress were possible culprits, some sort of medical action couldn't be entirely ruled out, but Savage put his money behind a far simpler explanation: the caller's pregnancy, that hormonal and biological Pandora's Box that had imbued her with new-found sexiness, wasn't actually all that sexy from the outside. No matter how hard she tried, or how “honestly” she felt them, her emotions were not able to sympathetically graft over her husband's feelings.
How often do we, as performers, fall into the same trap when trying to wrap our minds around Aristotle’s concept of theatrical catharsis? We want to believe that the audience will feel what we feel, so entire structures of theater education and theater appreciation have been built around what the actor feels and how to amplify and project that feeling into space. In order for the audience to be emotionally transformed and purged, something in the actor must also be emotionally transformed and purged.
Too bad it's all bunk.
I imagine the confusion begins as audience members. Future theater artists see a really fantastic play - usually in grade school, maybe in college - and it rattles their cages in a wholly new way. They walk back out into the world emotionally moved by what they have seen onstage, and they pledge to emotionally move other people in equally profound and unique ways. And with that simple vocabulary strictly limited to the emotional, they set to building the master's house with the master's tools.
Theater, as a whole, needs to return to a physical logos, a physical education, and a physical appreciation. The conception may be intellectual, the deception may be psychological, the reception may be emotional, but it is the actions performed within the time and space of the stage that make theater, theater. There is a reason why you have asked me to sit here in the same room as you, to breathe the same air as you, to hear and smell and see you unmediated, and to not simply watch the film version of your play, or to podcast the radio version, or to just read the damn thing. Each of those would be far more convenient (and probably cheaper) that trudging out to the theater; the physical gives the art form its unique value.
Joan Schirle, former School Director of Dell'Arte International, was one of a myriad of theater artists tapped for a series of short viral promotional videos for Theatre Communications Group. In her snippet, Schirle says that emotion onstage is like the wind: we can only know the thing by its effect on its environment. We (literally) can't see the wind, we see the leaves rustle and we come to understand the elemental force “wind.” We (literally) don't see anger, joy, or heartbreak on the stage, we see what anger, joy, or heartbreak drive otherwise-normal people to do - glimpsing, perhaps, the new limits of our own potential - and we come to understand how we can love better, how we can hate hotter, how the world can no longer rotate around the sun but can instead rotate around us.
So thanks, Antigone - now who are the brothers of my life that the state is refusing a full ceremonial burial? Mad props, Hamlet - now what are the spoon-fed conspiracies of my life which only an antic disposition can unravel? I'm in your debt Levene, Williamson, Roma, et al. - now how do I identify the Mitches and Murrays of my life, and how does that change how I deal with my coworkers?
This is what Aristotle was gunning at: a civic argument is proposed, the two sides enfleshed by larger-than-life characters, they collide, they spar, one is victorious, the other is defeated, and a great and irreversible consequence ensues. The audience's sense of “justice” either has or has not been served, and either a catharsis of societal maladies or an agitation of societal apathies sweeps over the assemblage.
Tragic narrative is not unique to the theatre, and the same stories of our favorite plays can also be found in literature, film, and, arguably, music. But literature, film, and music do not use the human body as their paint, nor time and space as their canvas. No other art form can claim to wield concrete reality as theater does, and nothing is more real than when we step out of our front door and deal with neighbors, coworkers, lovers, strangers; these vaguely familiar creatures who wonderfully, beautifully live outside of our brains and with whom we can only engage physically. That's true for all of us, and the audience's identification of that fundamental struggle is where a performer's physical action becomes an emotional response.
So, pregnant women of the world: stop “feeling” sexy, and start taking desired actions sexily. Dejected actors of the world: stop “feeling” your character, and start doing shit. And may God bless you with a brilliant director when a bad playwright hands you a monologue.