Theatre in Wales

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Theatre and Music’s Interface: "Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes"

Theatre Critic Book

Edited by David Roesner and Matthias Rebstock , Intellect Books , June-06-12
Theatre Critic Book by Edited by David Roesner and Matthias Rebstock Mid-Wales Chamber Orchestra performed “The Soldier’s Tale” in Brecon and Aberystwyth this March. By timely coincidence that memorable production coincides with Intellect Books’ weighty survey of the genre to which Stravinsky’s masterly 1918 work belongs.

Matthias Rebstock of Hildesheim University succinctly places in it in context as a historical milestone in repudiation of the concept of the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. Instead of all the elements of opera focusing on the figure of the singer, Stravinsky’s narrator, actors and musicians occupy separate but equal parts of the stage. The Wagnerian through-composed form is replaced with single numbers that are free-standing. “The Soldier’s Tale” prefigures the Weill and Brecht collaborations of the decade to come.

“Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes” is a dense exploration of a strand of theatre not greatly known in Britain. Although sparked by Exeter University’s Drama Department it leans heavily towards Germany. Ten out of the fourteen contributors are German. The objects of its study, Schoenberg and John Cage apart, are not overly familiar names to a British audience. The 367 page book is handsomely produced by Scots company Bell and Bain. The pictures range from illustrative music scores, to canvases by Kandinsky and Malevich, to numerous stage sets and actions as examples that complement the text.

The book comprises five parts: context and criticism of the genre as an entity, seven contributions from artists themselves, individual critical pieces, transcription of two twelve-party discussions and a concluding summary.

The first chapter provides a stimulating description of the genre’s roots from the generation of Schlemmer, Moholy-Nagy and Hugo Ball to Boulez and Artaud. Some of the defining works are given precise description. John Cage is to be seen up a ladder reading from Meister Eckhardt while a Robert Rauschenberg hangs from the ceiling. In 1956 Stockhausen is placing groups of loudspeakers around the audience which permit sound’s migration across the space. Georges Aperghis in “Zeugen” uses hand puppets by Klee to texts by Robert Walser.

This range of contributors is inevitably going to include material that is ripe for debate. Semiotics is akin to theology. It brings a rich and deep perspective but is better a starting point for aesthetic judgement than a culmination in itself. “The composition of a picture starts with the establishing of a point of focus away from the centre, leading to the counterbalancing focus on the other side.” This is asserted without evidence, and assertion cannot be the true stuff of scholarship. “Within a picture” says one contributor “there are elements of reference that do not reach to the outside.” This is not so; all elements are available to the observing eye.

Art is here elevated as a spur to action. Its contemplation “gives us a glimpse of the world as it is should be, perhaps emboldening us to resume the task of ordering things and to take control of our lives.” Out of the myriad cultures that span the globe this could only originate from protestant Europe. Aesthetic pleasure is aesthetic pleasure. Art does not need to be a guilty extension of the self-help industry. But then arts commentary, like all statement, is rooted in culture. The current differences on the Euro between Berlin and London are a restatement of Hegel and Schelling versus Hume and Locke.

Arts commentary has a tendency to get in a muddle over metaphor. The metaphor of “the fourth wall” in theatre is regularly reified and then finds itself extrapolated as a ground for shallow musings. Erwin Strauss is cited “In seeing we detect the skeleton of things, in hearing them the pulse.” The commentator writes that Strauss has “formulated this precisely.” Not so; he has employed an imaginative, evocative and communicative figure of speech.

The muddle of the metaphors pops up again in a rambling sentence that seeks, without success, to argue that the difference between conventional theatre and Composed Theatre is in rhythmic variation. But rhythm in an Ibsen play is a figure of speech that seeks to explain the director’s intervention. But these debates do not matter; the function of criticism is to be less judgement than to open up scope for discussion..

“Trust the tale, not the teller” was a maxim of D H Lawrence. The statements from artists on their own work cover a broad span of insight. Odin Teatret’s Eugenio Barba is quoted on improvisations “I did not worry about meaning. I wanted to arrange a dance of sensory stimuli which had an effect on my nervous system”. That is as close to performance’s aesthetic heart as any.

The Academy has always historically tended towards critical orthodoxy. There is here the familiar over-concern with classification. If a critic’s description of the individual work is close-up and rich, that in itself will generate correspondences that are meaningful. Sentences in the writing have a tendency to grow and grow. When a noun-clause separates from its verb by a long distance, it is not just the reader who is lost but I suspect the writer too. George Orwell found some fine examples for his essay “Politics and the English Language”. He wrote it in 1946 and it is just as relevant today. One sixty-five word behemoth of a sentence loses all point.

There is a curious swing between assertion, in the absence of evidence, and a timidity of personal view. An expression like “I would suggest” should be struck out by the editor in the way that my A level teacher struck out mine. This school of commentary likes to appropriate its audience and tell us how the listener or viewer experiences the work. Thus, one “rhyzomatic work…is only be perceived…in relationship to the process that gave it so.” Not so; a work is not contained within the intention of the maker. It will be perceived as it will be perceived.

This book is distinctively German with that great culture’s reverence for Idea. Thus the concepts of a composer alone will “lead to an experience of self that is diametrically opposed to the dissipating, desensitising tendency of public passages.” I do not know which public passages these are but it over-values the effect of pure idea. When a composer opts to write about himself Kant is invoked to justify “the means by which a discipline examines the grounds of its own possibility.” This is bogus anthropomorphisation. Criticism is undertaken by humans, singly or in collaboration. To write about yourself is to write about yourself. The solipsistic posture is epistemologically bound to be inferior to a view from outside.

For all the critical variation and the odd linguistic lapse- the word “symptom” is wrongly used by an author when he intends to mean “characteristics”- this is a significant, stimulating introduction to a strand of theatre that is bound to move more centre-field.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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