The Word


I was at a fantastic play reading last night: Nicki Bloom’s Tender at the Lawler Studio.

Apparently the play has already done the rounds in Sydney and elsewhere.  But we hadn’t seen it in Melbourne yet.  And, seriously, what a talent.  So young too: she wrote Tender at the tender age of 22, I believe.

Anyway, I was chatting with a mate afterwards about theatre and the like, and it got me thinking.

The essential gist of the conversation went like this:

He said he thinks design is the most important factor in theatre today.  I disagreed and said it is (and always has been) the word. Which, to me, seems to sum up a whole raft of debates that have been going on in theatre (post-theatre, devised theatre etc) for quite some time.

Whether we liked it or not, we both agreed that our present culture is more image than text literate.  For better or worse, there is no going back.  Logos has had its day.

However – and this is where it gets tricky – just because we’re better trained to read images now than text, does that mean that image can (or should) replace the word?

Can image ever be the driving force (or structuring principle) in the theatre?   I think not.  I think – and I am aware this is going to make me sound incredibly conservative and more like a 90 than a 27 year old – that theatre, by definition, is about drama. And drama, in turn, is based on the word.

I can already hear people shouting at their computer screens as they read this.  Surely, they are yelling, theatre has always been a combination of word and image?

Which is true, theatre does include image, movement, and so on.  But a case can be made that these things are non-essential.  By which I mean, theatre can exist without such them.  But theatre cannot exist without drama.  A silent play, for example, must still be dramatic.  (I’m thinking of Beckett’s Act Without Words I & II).  Because no matter how cut-up, fragmented, devised, run backwards, undermined, rough, holy, poor, decaffeinated or otherwise, the audience will still interpret and form the raw material into a narrative pattern, in other words, into a drama.

That’s what I mean by drama; it’s not spoken word, or writing on a page, but the very thing that holds it all together.  It’s a structuring principle that we bring into the theatre with us.  No matter how clever the artist, he or she cannot disarm the audience of this faculty.

Now, I’m not saying we should all immediately stop what we are doing and start making neat, clean, old fashioned drama.  On the contrary, a lot of the best of what I see is pushing at the boundaries of drama, is aware and conscious of these constraints, works within them, subverts them, twists them, turns them upside down, empties them out and puts them back again.  But I do see a lot of shows that seemingly fail to notice the very tradition they are working within, the structure they are standing on, and so are often incredibly yawn-worthy; not because they lack edginess or a great design, or slickness, or prettiness, but because they haven’t yet woken up, are still unconscious.  In other words, it’s not yet theatre.

For me, theatre is closer to poetry than anything else.  It can take on, or borrow from, other forms. But it remains, in essence, an activity that a people do with their ears and mouths.

Design will never replace the word.  A great many people may try (and currently are) but the word will remain central.  Because, to remove the word would mean, by definition, that theatre is no longer theatre.

I welcome interlocutors.


Filed under Theatre, Writing

6 responses to “The Word

  1. I was sorry to miss this reading. I’ve heard about Tender, and read another of her plays when Ms Bloom was a very worthy Patrick White winner this year.

    On the question of language in the theatre, Robert Musil is your man. Check out the 1926 essay Cinema or Theatre (in the collection Precision and Soul). It’s still radically pertinent.

    • Yes it’s a really great piece.

      Thick strains of Pinter slipping through the fingers. Fundamental ambiguity right at the heart of it all (the death of the antagonist). Really enjoyed it; can’t wait to see her new work.

      Thanks for the tip-off about Mr Musil. I’ll do some digging in the SLV. I see Thomas Mann was a big fan, which is a good sign.

  2. Richard

    Andre Bazin (Theatre and Cinema) also has a few interesting points on “presence” as the defining difference between Cinema and Theatre. I think Walter Benjamin also has an interesting comparison of the stage and screen actor in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

    Both raise the point that the actor, not the written word, best defines the stage. There is also a Henri Gouhier article entitled “The Essance of Theatre” which Bazin references.

    But Cinema’s re-questioning of the essance of theatre brings about another question: how do other technologies affect the means by which theatre is received and made?

    My position is that we are entering a state where perception represents the potential for both an absolute truth (if we take the image as an example, through its status as ‘evidence’) and likewise an absolute lie (through its potential to be manipulation, and thus to manipulate the receiver). Design, which has the capacity not to manipulate the content of the message but the way in which it is received (the ‘medium’), becomes powerful in this context, its power borrowed from the spectator’s constant bombardment with and increasing participation in these fora as they increasingly invade his/her lived experience.

    David, I put it to you that if an actor on stage states that “to be, or not to be” in a black space, the statement will likely be taken literally, as a reality unto itself. However, if said actor says “to be, or not to be” and that actor is a holographic image of the dead Laurence Olivier (to take a design extreme), the words are still present but are now being commented on, interregated.

    Literacy is one thing, but ain’t theatre at its best when it can throw words into a frame that exposes them for what they are? Unreal – a construction themselves, not the “be all and end all”.The most rewarding theatre I see is often surprisingly savage towards its source material, whilst at the same time showing an extreme faith because it has asked questions and not merely accepted the words as truth.

    Perhaps this is best bought to light in the example of trying to conceive of a new work, i.e a piece of writing without a stage history. How does one create something dynamic, theatrically valid, whilst leaving the author’s intended message unaltered? And yet as soon as the actor speaks the words, their meaning is in a sense destroyed.

    Williams, in his brief discussion of his feelings towards the Kazan-influenced act three of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, says that “If you don’t want a director’s influence on your play, there are two ways to avoid it, and neither are good. One way is to arrive at an absolutely final draft of your play before you let the director see it, then hand it to him saying, Here it is, take it or leave it! The other way is to select a director who is content to put your play on the stage precisely as you conceived it with no ideas of his own. I said neither is a good way, and I meant it”.

    My point being that perhaps the inevitable writer/director conflict is a good microcosm of the text vs the theatre. The creative act is simultaneously a destructive one to literal reality and good writers understand this, I think.

    I don’t know of too many groups who devise based purely on an image or series of images (Boal’s Newspaper Theatre?), space is a more common inspiration perhaps, but this too could be an interesting case in point.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for the post – a lot to think about there.

      Benjamin does indeed discuss the stage & screen actor: he argues for the privileging of the stage actor because their performance cannot be mechanically reproduced. But central to this is his concept of ‘aura’ (imported from Jewish mysticism) which you would probably take exception to given the explicit historicism of your project?

      I take your point about the need to interrogate the received meaning of the word. And, no doubt, in this regard design is absolutely crucial. However, whether an actor says “To be or not to be” in utter darkness, or with a projection of Olivier behind them, isn’t the key point that they are still working fundamentally with text. It is text that is the ghost in the machine, the spirt, that design is able to shine a fresh light onto.

      Again, with regards to the Steppenwolf example, does it make any difference how the text is presented to an audience member who has never heard of Olivier or, for that matter, Shakespeare? Which simply goes to show that, if we want to interrogate and expose the preconditions of language (or knowledge or power or whatever), we first need to possess a certain level of awareness. As my jazz teacher used to say, “First you learn the scales, then you can break them.”

      Which is why, for me, the key question is not so much authorial intention (writer vs director) but how to best understand the invisible structure that underpins all theatre, which I have called drama.

      In valorising design as a key principle perhaps we are focusing on the egg and not the chicken? With so many theatre makers now image focused, does anyone take the time to attain the sort of theatrical literacy that will, as a prior necessity, enable them to make wise decisions with regards to design?

      I don’t have a problem with theatre that reworks and questions, as you say, savagely. What I have a problem with is theatre that demonstrates its ignorance; that doesn’t know, let alone understand, its source material. In the rush to make something cutting-edge I think a lot of people make theatre that attempts to pass itself as radical but which is fundamentally conservative.

      I strongly believe that imitation is the true cause of all conservatism, whereas classicism more often than not inspires original and inventive thinking:

      “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

      Which makes me think of my other favourite quote: “Why make theatre at all?” Which is surely the first and last question we all need to ask when we enter an empty space.

  3. Richard

    Point taken!

    Isn’t it funny, in that case, that it is the older vanguard who often make the most conservative text-based theatre, and the young-uns who make the reckless stuff? Not only now but historically.

    Good design explores origins of the visual symbolic and does not just employ tropes willy-nilly, just as good text-based theatre attempts to interregate its material rather than just to present.

    Yes imitation is to be stayed away from at all costs, and yet often a great result is achieved from an acute observation, of real life or the stage. True for writing, design, acting… perhaps all facets of theatre. Hence my conceit that “design rulez”, because it has the closest relationship with how we are receiving an increasingly simulated, visual world, increasing devoid of authentic physical interaction of the tactile or communal variety and subsequently alienating.

    There are various arguments against this and for example the work of Peter Brook or Julie Taymor is perhaps specifically targeted at regaining ideas of ritual, instinct and origin in the theatre domain. Directors like Robert Wilson and LePage are more participatory in their approach to visual culture but can still be seen as attempting to find a certain authenticity within the simulated world in which we live, “working from the inside”, maybe. It would be fair to say that all find visual design integral to their respective missions, and I would suggest this has something to do with a particular view of contemporary interactions between human beings, based on the idea that they are in many ways becoming less natural and more mediated.

    Blogging, for example…

    • Blogging. Yes, quite true. We are a bunch of freaks.

      I wonder whether we are more mediated, though, or simply becoming more aware of how mediated everything was all along. If we have fallen from Eden, then perhaps Paradise can be regained? But if ‘nature’ never existed in the first place, we are left with a much grimmer alternative, and we’d best start learning to like the inferno we’re stuck with.

      I dig what you are saying about Brook and Taymor etc. I have huge respect for them. And agree that both text and design work well – in their respective forms – when they interrogate rather than blankly present. No argument there. That’s what I was saying too, though I’m still not sure you’ve taken my point about drama being neither text nor design, but something fundamentally deeper. And that’s the thing that I am interested in, and what I think we are really talking about.

      You’ve got me thinking about something else now: the generational shift. It is (generally) true that each generation forms the crest of a new avant-garde while the older one continues making the theatre they made when they were young (which becomes the new conservatism). This dialectic is driven, I suppose, by the fact that each generation attempts to seek out a space for themselves, which not only means avoiding imitation, but also trying to make art that has yet to be co-opted by the mainstream.

      But I’m not sure that this where we have got to in 2009. I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a minute…

      We both agree that society has changed right? That we have entered radical new phase in which visual stimulus is now the main language. The major effect of this is, as you say (following Marx), alienation. The cause of this rapid increase in visual literacy (image bombardment) and corresponding decrease in textual literacy must be, it follows, the cultural industry and its ultimate master, global capitalism.

      Now, if that much is correct and fair, then we reach a much bigger question. What the hell do we do about it?

      If image saturation is at an all time high, does creating theatre that is image driven add or detract from this? Does irony mean that interrogating images with images will make any difference. Or is it more radical to make conservative text-based theatre? Maybe, in a unique and bizarre twist, we have got to the point where the conservatives and the radicals have swapped places? Having something to say – as opposed to deconstructing what has come before – may be a far more radical position.

      Benjamin’s argument about theatre was that, as an art form, it is one of the few place where the mechanical means of reproduction cannot penetrate because, by definition, theatre is not theatre without its aura. I would agree with that. And I would go further and say that, maybe, just maybe, we are in danger of losing that aura because we no longer understand what it is and where it came from.

      I reckon Sophocles might be able to tell us though?

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