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Theatre: Can theater still do its job?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Winter 2014

We all know, and have heard endlessly, that theater, once a primary art form and powerful cultural force, is no longer either of those things. A theatrical production once had an excellent chance of catching the eye and ear of people who mattered, who had the access and the power to respond in real, broadly efficacious, publicly visible ways to what that theatrical production conveyed to them. That is no more, and has not been for a very long time.

We point our fingers at various causes—the movies, TV, short attention spans, the economics of the art form, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Have we missed the point?

As Shakespeare pointed out so pithily, it is and has always been the job of theater to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. But can it do its job?

It is not reasonable to expect someone or something to do its job if the conditions under which it must work no longer permit successful job performance. No matter what the purpose of a thing may be, it requires certain external conditions to exist in order to function.

Theater, to exist at all, must establish a direct, personal connection between performer and audience, existing in the same space, breathing the same air, exchanging physical, mental, and emotional responses directly. Nor can theater, as a medium of communication, convey all things to all people. The medium is suited to conveying dynamic interactions and relationships at a personal level, between known individuals and small groups who exist, usually fictionally, in the same space and time, within physical reach of each other. Even mass enactments, such as Olympic opening ceremonies or the mass performances done in Germany in the thirties and forties, place the participants and audience in the same space. As soon as we lose that physical presence—as when a theatrical performance is broadcast—we are not present at a theatrical event; we are merely watching TV.

Theater communicates at this direct, personal level because it deals in the direct and personal. The individual experience, the personal relationship, the dynamics between individuals and among small groups. In every age up to the present—taking the present as approximately the last 150 years---personal interactions were the primary stuff of life. Urban centers were small and dense. Most people did not live in such centers anyway; most people lived in small, rural, agricultural communities; across whole nations, far and away the dominant occupation was farming. ; In such communities, whether urban or rural, direct personal experience lay at the heart of life.

That is no longer true. The modern world developed systems of transportation and communication, as well as systems of logistics and administration, that supported, even forced, the development of communities—if one can call them that—at extremely large scales. Between 1810 and the present, the world went from one city of at least one million people to over 300 of them. In that same time, the overall population of any given area on earth increased dramatically; communities at every level got bigger and bigger, and did so rapidly.

Along with that came a change in the way the world works. The decisions and dynamics that affect our lives no longer occur at personal levels that can be expressed in the dynamics between performers and audience in a shared space. They are impersonal both in size and nature, based on processes that occur far from us, carried out by people unknown to us. Even in politics, where there is a layer of known names and faces, our relationships to those names and faces are not personal. In other areas of life, we cannot even name the names or know the places; decisions taken by currency traders in Tokyo or bankers in Shanghai or economists in Brussels or investment bankers in New York affect us profoundly without our knowledge and beyond the range of our voices.

Theater cannot deal with such a world. Theater cannot deal with impersonal, faceless processes carried out at immense distances and unknown directions. The only strategy available to it—to find a way to portray some element of such a world at a personal level—simply misses the point.

That is why theater has slid to the margins of our culture. It can’t do its job any more. The only job it can do remains somewhat interesting, but fundamentally marginal—showing us not the form and pressure of the time, but what individual lives are like in an age when individual lives just don’t matter much anymore, and neither do performances of them.

Our worlds have outgrown our arts.

 

Bethune website: www.freshwaterseas.com