Theatre in Wales

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Theatre, no longer needing to be a mirror to society"

Theatre History

Christopher B Balme “The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies” , Cambridge University Press , December 18, 2018
Theatre History by Christopher B Balme “The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies” An observer of performance of Wales cannot leave the critical stage with Theatre Studies left unmentioned. They have been of influence here, to small advantage, in a way that Scotland and England have been, to a greater extent, immune.

To the history: if I lean leftward from my place of writing a mini-roundabout comes into view. Remarkably for a county with only a 72,000 population, the road west leads 14 miles to a university, and the road north 16 miles to another university. At the turn of the century the first had a Professor of Theology and the second a Professor of Drama. I was friendly enough to exchange words with both when our paths crossed. Both these professional titles have now gone, their successors holding Chairs in Religious Studies and Theatre Studies. Their concerns are different, the objects of their scholarship pivoted elsewhere.

Theology and drama were for long historically much the same thing. Their interests are not so far apart, grace, destiny, teleology, conscience among other things. The divine was a force in the foundational dramas, present still in three of the national company's inaugural Year of 13.

These are domains where Theatre Studies do not like to travel. In fact its consideration of theatre, which is an aesthetic phenomenon, is skewedly non-aesthetic. Page 12 Professor Balme, himself of Munich University, refers to Richard Schechner. (This is not intended in denigration of a scholar who is of the highest standing.) “Schechner demonstrated in numerous publications the interdisciplinary potential of such a concept, and emphasised its status as a social science rather than as a branch of the humanities. The definition of performance within the broader parameters of the social sciences implied a departure from aesthetic and historical paradigms.”

Performance criticism becomes then a rational-evaluative activity. But it cannot sit comfortably with the social sciences. They are, as the title says, sciences. Their method is based on rigour, experimental design and practice on a foundation of statistical discipline. These methods are not applicable to criticism because performance remains an aesthetic phenomenon.

The second point of rebuttal is derived from neuroaesthetics. Attendance at performance is a sensorial and not just an upper cortical activity. It really is the almond and the seahorse. An evaluative approach that avoids this is lacking in fullness.

Theatre Studies, nobly ambitious in its origin, has diverged into various currents. One contains an inherent loftiness, and daftness. Thus a Theatre Studies lecturer can declare “A piece of performance art and cultural nourishment can not be satisfactorily explained in common words.” This is false. It is description, evocation and evaluation. “It's impossible to accurately convey the texture, aroma and... inspiration behind each piece of reflective work. Such crude and simplistic descriptions are better suited to the right wing populist drivel beloved by the masses.”

I care little for this tone, and even less its extension: “Theatre, no longer needing to be a mirror to society and realistic, a job better done on a global scale by television, has now developed into an art form in which the theatre space becomes the exhibiting gallery, its audiences an informed few.”

Whether this is a widely held view among the scholars of theatre is known only to themselves.

By way of a seasonal item:

Question: How many Theatre Studies lecturers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Interrogation into those elements of the illuminatory act, that are qualitatively dimensional- necessarily to be understood as always provisional, temporal, capable of reverse- by definition refers to relation, the act itself being refutation of any Kantian an sich selbst restriction, given that the act is dependent on the co-presence of a space that necessitates illumination.

The very necessity of that three way contextualised interdependence- the space that in its preliminary condition requires illumination, the source of illumination itself, and the intermediating action, itself expression of human agency- engenders consideration of possibilities that this is less an issue of “switch the blooming light on, will ya?” than a tentative adumbration, calibration, encirculation of the considered potentialities that the act may entail elements with potent overtones of performative complexity.

An opening enquiry must look to these situational hermeneutics, not least to issues of identity- who is the human actor seeking the benefits of illumination, and is that beneficiary to be automatically understood as consistent, or variant, from the human identity that is intended to execute the performative illuminative act? Walter Benjamin- and it is significant that his editors entitled his essays “Illuminations”- offers insight to these inherent tensions between actor and potential acted-upon.

If this is to privilege the actor, the agent acting upon the “switch”, an understanding from a Debordian perspective is corrective. But these considerations are in themselves subordinate to a cultural overview, that the presupposing requirement for illumination is itself dependent on a culturally determined defining that one condition be initially categorised as “dark”, with the second condition, resonant of a Lacanian “mirror”, that a declared “light” be pre-understood as remedial, reparative, ameliorative.

Thus, from a Bourdiau-ian perspective, the very act of request that the light be changed becomes itself indicator of a hegemonic privileging, even prior to the questioning of the process of tacitly constructed metaphorisation whereby a product of mass manufacture becomes acquiror of characteristics from the natural world, endowed by the signifier “bulb.” This in turn raises deeper questions, addressed by Baudrillard, although first Saussure’s crucial distinction of signification asserts itself…

(Now we’re all in the dark.)

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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