On Theatre and Economics
On Theatre and Economics is second of four essays written in the Summer of 2008 in preparation for The Deal
On Acting and The Deal is the first of the four
Acting and Values is third of the four
Thinking about Space is fourth of the four
On Theatre and Economics
Az Theatre is starting the research for a new project. The Deal is an exploration of contemporary stories. The way we are choosing and treating these stories is from the perspective of fundamental changes that are happening in our world due to modern industrial development. We are interested in adopting a long-term historical view so that we can see the stories, and the communities who live them out, in relation to changes that we perceive happening in our species as a whole.
Human experience is as vast and as variegated as the oceans and it would be an illusion to think that all human beings were experiencing similar feelings at any given time. On the other hand the human species has never been so interdependent and unified. The capability that we have to know and at least have the illusion of being aware of the totality of humanity and of humanity’s relationship to its environment has never been so highly developed. We are now going through a process which is as fundamental as the change human beings went through during the Neolithic revolution when, in a very long drawn out process most of humanity moved from being hunter gatherers to being agriculturalists. As this change is happening we, as a species, are coming into a critical relationship to our environment. Our use of the earth’s resources is substantially changing the ecology of the earth in a way that is unprecedented. The speed of the changes to people’s lives, particularly the displacement of populations and the changed relationship to the land are major features of what we are going through. There is a statistical basis for saying that over the past 20 years a critical turning point has taken place whereby for the first time in human history there is now a majority of people who are living in cities and other urban centres gaining their means of life by ways other than growing food and tending animals.
The transformation we are in the midst of has been heralded by the process of industrialisation which started in Britain 300 years ago. Compared to the modern industrial revolution there are differences and similarities in the way that the Neolithic revolution was communicated and dispersed. New and more productive systems of agriculture were often imposed by military invasion. Interestingly nearly a thousand years ago Britain witnessed one of the most successful of these impositions through the Norman invasion. In other instances the invading powers themselves were transformed by the societies they invaded. Though there are many ways in which the changes are being effected, war and invasion still are still major factors. The encounter is typically between an advanced society and a less technologically developed one. The processes we are talking about are also continuing in countries that have not been invaded or at least not subject to a military invasion. In the past 35 years encompassing the key turning point mentioned above there has been a new factor in the transmission of these key changes. This has been the inception and spread of neo-liberalism. This body of ideas and beliefs has been the main intellectual and ideological accompaniment to the latest, most rapid and most dramatic stage of the modern industrial revolution. It is for this reason that, in searching out contemporary stories through the optic offered by a knowledge of the widescale nature of the changes described above, Az Theatre in The Deal wants to engage with economics.
The imperial enterprises that were the first entities to carry out and disperse the effects of the industrial revolution used economics as a major ideological and technical tool but, in the initial thrust of industrial imperialism, economics was accompanied by a variety of political and religious values and belief systems. It is in this most recent period that the political and religious values have been subsumed by economics producing a more or less coherent body of beliefs and policies. This economic ideology which reached its most articulate expression in the Chicago School is described by a number writers. The best and latest critical survey is in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
The key policy which has been unleashed during this period is privatisation. The key political event has been the collapse of the Soviet Union. The key technical development has been information technology. There were certain trigger events in the early 70s: the growth in the power of OPEC, the coup in Chile and the defeat of the United States of America in the Vietnam war. There has been the growing power of China particularly after 1989 when it found its own particular way of undertaking a modern industrial revolution. In all instances the political state has diminished in power in relation to other economic entities and there has been a tendency for this human institution to regress and express itself in archaic forms, often based on ethnicity and using mass fear as an instrument to draw compliance from its populations. The growing utilisation of information technology has lead to an increased ability to construct models of complex systems which in turn has reinforced the dominance of quantitative analysis within economics. All of these factors have led to an extraordinary tendency for the political and cultural institutions of society to be taken over by neo-liberal economic thinking. Another way of expressing this confusion is to say that the economic space, (the oikia), associated by definition to the allocation of scarce resources in the private domestic realm, has subsumed and effaced the public political space (the polis), associated with the distribution of justice.
All these changes are being accompanied by consequential changes in the prevalent conception of human individuality. The changes in the condition and situation of women both underscores and dwarfs the transformations described above. Looking at the contemporary changes from the point of view of the Neolithic revolution becomes even more enlightening when we take account of the changes in the organisation of human spirituality and gender power which it brought in its train. The birth of the world religions and the institution of monotheism accompanied the move from a matrilineal and matriarchal society. The growth of the power of patriarchy has been sustained throughout the period since then only to be threatened by changes in production and consumption brought about by the modern industrial revolution. It is hardly surprising that some of the dramatic changes occurring in our world are being fought out in terms of religion and the role of women. What might be surprising given the prevailing notions of individuality, is the way in which women’s power has been capable of being contained, incorporated and suppressed.
To look at this contemporary reality, with its specific and individual stories, using the optic of broad historical movement, from the point of view of theatre might seem the wrong way round. Surely it is theatre itself that needs to be observed. Theatre may seem incapable of encompassing an expression of the kind of epic involved in the human journey described here. It is the live transformative act undertaken by the actor and received by the audience that lies at the centre of theatre. The activity, however technology might overcome the communicative difficulties of space, has a human dimension. The theatre is a perceptual apparatus and its object is the human being. Images of the human being are constructed in the theatre in terms of behaviour, motivation and action in broad and particular senses. Economics is also both a way of viewing human behaviour and also must construct itself on the basis of an image of the human.
Let us leave the momentous historical events described above in the background and think about how economics, and particularly neo-liberal economics, is based on, and gives us a view of, the human being both individually and collectively. Since the values and beliefs which are held together, and are generated, by economics have such prevalence in our world this might help us understand what the consequences might be for developing theatre, particularly in the context of the recent developments in the modern industrial revolution. Ultimately it is the question of aesthetics and how theatre can develop that is the aim of our thinking.
Economics is based on the free individual making rational choices to maximise utility. This means that the individual, as viewed by economics, will consume as much of the available resources as they are able. They exert demand on the market mainly through the ability to purchase or exchange and they do so in so far as the supply meets demand. Classically the functioning of the economy is viewed from two interconnected perspectives through micro economic behaviour at the level of the individual or the household or at a macro-economic level at level of the society, the state or the international market. There is a conformity between the basic cell form of the economic structure and its overall structure. The atomic composition of an economy in a macroeconomic sense consists of the microeconomic unit and the overall structure is an accumulation or aggregation of all the activities of the smaller units. Just as individual is conceived in this system as an ideal rational being so the system itself will eventually balance supply and demand in a perfect unison of exchange. In classical liberal economics the imbalances in this natural equivalence of supply and demand are produced by political interference. If all the individuals in a society are free individuals and able to make rational decisions about the disposal of their resources then the whole system will always eventually reach a situation of mutual benefit for all participants. The well-known image taken from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is one of an invisible hand which under ideal conditions will constantly move the economy into a state of equilibrium if all the individuals are free to dispose of their resources as they wish. Different variations are made to the basic equation to adjust for imbalances in the system. One of the main difficulties with the purity of the system is to do with the political state’s control of the supply of money. Another contradiction is the nature of money as both a means of exchange and a store of value. We cannot concern ourselves here with a detailed critique of these principles of measurement and analysis. What mainly concerns us is how this discipline is capable of influencing our view of ourselves and our view of other people.
There are two ways in which this particular fundamentalist version of economics interacts with our sense of our selves. One way is through the increase in commodity production which it advocates and facilitates. The actual working of the economy is based on the idea that there is a potentially limitless demand for commodities. And that at a macroeconomic level success is measured by growth. The presupposition, at a microeconomic level, is that it would be irrational of anyone to diminish their ability to have allocated to them as many of the available resources as possible.
There is an unspoken connection between the limitlessness of this desire and the limited nature of human mortality. This was understood in one of the first written work on economics the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In the dialogue between Maitreyee and her husband Yajnavalkya who in response to her wondering whether immortality can be gained through wealth answers that this is not possible, to which she responds “What should I do with that by which I do not become immortal?” (Amartya Sen quotes this dialogue in Development and Freedom). The basis of rational behaviour must be survival at an individual level. It is an observable truth that commodities are not simple ‘comforts’ against the physical harshness of life, though for the very poor this is more of a truth. The possession of certain objects and spaces have significance in terms of our relationship to oblivion and death. Ownership of certain things or of certain experiences becomes a definition of life itself, the meaning of being alive. These negotiations and processes are culturally specific. A society based on commodity production constantly reaffirms the life-giving properties of the products of what is conceived as its core activity, that of wealth creation.
The view of the human being that is the basis of this system, the rational free individual, is at odds with other understandings. Although there are superficial similarities with the observations of Darwin and of Marx, a much more complex and engaging view emerges when ‘species’, in the former instance and ‘class’, in the latter, are taken into account. The observations that Freud and psychoanalysis make of the human being throws an even more critical light on the one-dimensional and functional unit that lies at the basis of the simplified version of economics. It is true that economists would claim that the basis of their science does not work from the observation of the total human being and addresses human activity in so far as it is engaged in the economy. For economics there are no absolute truths; there are only observable and calculable behaviours. It is when the values and beliefs that underpin these observations engage with political institutions and processes and become operational, reflexive, and determining ideas that they assume the weight of practical truths. It is this interaction which is the other major way in which economics has a bearing on our sense of our selves.
Human beings become who or what they are through a mimetic process. The essence of our interaction lies in the way we make each other. Through a series of roles, projections and introjections we conform to other people’s ideas of who we are or we define ourselves in reaction to these shaping recognitions. The political structures that we live in are held together by these negotiated identities. It is in the public space of politics that these interactive determinations are made. We shape, and are shaped by, the representations that occur within this space. This means that the articulations of this space depend on the dynamic interaction between appearance and reality. Illusions and imagination play a crucial role in political processes. There must be particular circumstances that have come into play in the development of our society over the last 40 years that has made neo-liberal economic thinking dominant in our political structures and institutions.
The huge increase in human productivity which is associated with the period after the second world war and the change that this development has made in our consciousness of our power as a species in relation to our nature and our environment is a key factor. This has been accompanied by a growing sense of our destructive capacity. The detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War marked a significant change. We had discovered and could summon the secret power of the sun. There was now a new specific articulation of the interiorisation of our terror, our fear and our guilt. There was a shift in the power of the state in relation to new corporate economic entities. Economics could be used to argue that the growth in the power of the economy was like a natural phenomenon, a force of nature driven by the aspirations of rational individuals. As Guy Debord commented in his remarkable book The Society of the Spectacle: ‘The economy transforms the world but it transforms it into the world of the economy’. There was a need for the state to appear to be riding this powerful horse and to address its citizens as beneficiaries. The idea of the diminishing role of the public nature of the state was easier to argue if the freedom of the individual could be promoted at the same time; even though this freedom was offered as being primarily freedom from the state itself. This in turn could be used to re-assert the ideal state of nature represented by the economic activities of free individuals. The conflation, built into the classical economic model, of the ‘micro’ level with the ‘macro’ created the illusion of an equivalence between the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the system itself. We find an extraordinary situation where the individual is persuaded of their independence while becoming more deeply dependent. At a certain point in the development of post war Western society it became evident to a critical mass of people that society was, through the immense increase in productivity, capable of satisfying the aspiration for a carefree life for everybody (everybody that is, in the West). At the same time advances of a similar sort were being made in the ‘socialist’ part of the world and colonised people were liberating themselves from colonial rule. It was extremely important for the established political elites to be able to find a strategy to both incorporate and suppress the movements that were taking place. There was a possibility that the system could achieve a promise of the actualisation of a dream. Two actual events helped this process. One was the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact countries in 1968. This set back the development of socialism and made it possible to revive a fear of communism. The other was the ability of the United States to lose the Vietnam War and for this not to lead to a fall of their regime. The response to the demand for ‘Paradise Now’ could be permissive. As Debord points out in the same book as above published in 1968: ‘The absolute denial of life, the shape of a fallacious paradise, is no longer projected into the heavens, but finds its place instead within material life itself’. It is a wonder of social organisation that the power produced by the aggregate work of the masses should itself be capable of being posed as a power over them.
The spectacle for Debord is the creation of capitalism as an image and it ‘subjects living beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway’. As Michel Foucault pointed out in his Preface to Anti Oedipus (by Guattari and Deleuze also published in 1968) when he refers to ‘the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.’ There is a profound mystery about the human creature in its collective form. This mystery can perhaps be deepened by an exploration of the structures and dynamics of human desire. By and large we can see that a consensus has been created by the inculcation of fear and that ‘economic thinking’ has been able to create the illusion of the economy as a natural phenomenon inspiring awe in its participants and has affirmed the constitution of the free rational individual by synchronously creating the fear that this freedom may be lost. This has been managed by the importing of economic values and beliefs into political institutions and processes.
Let’s look at this process from a different perspective in order to understand more about the way these particular ideas, values and beliefs have become current and have become so pervasive. The field is not completely clear because as the institutions of the state have been charged by this economic ideology they have maintained certain key primordial functions. It is these functions which enable the state to be effective as a servant of large economic constituencies. The state’s major function, as a distributor of justice, is linked to its ability to sanctify killing. The maintenance of this sacralised role is a function of its ability to create an adequate balance between consent and fear. Its role in defining territory and its powers of exclusion and protection combine with the foregoing to constantly push the state towards the privileging of the key ethnic group. The means of its control and power are to do with the security it can provide in relation to the alien. It is this totemic power which serves to obscure its failure to rationalise its economic function. Security is offered in the place of the equality that is the apparent logic of the ideological system it has been permeated by. The model of the economy with its free individuals making their rational choices leading to an overall benign and mutually beneficial growth of the system apeears to be based on equality. This appearance – what is described by Debord as being like a map of a territory which is isomorphic with the territory itself – obscures the inequalities of wealth distribution. These underlying factors are given. They are like fate, as magical as the given power of the state over life and death. These social and institutional elements are only capable of being ‘naturalised ‘ or made to appear natural if they resonate with how people feel about them selves. Throughout human history human beings have submitted to the power of their fellow creatures in the interests of peace, social cohesion or in order to simply defend themselves. To some extent this submission to inequality has been based on a recognition of scarcity.
The question still remains how it is that, in a situation of growth and massively increased production urged on by large-scale artificial provocation of consumption, this submission remains possible. Freud believed that social structures and processes derived from the repression of libido. The sublimation and repression of primary drives and desires give form to these structures and processes. The conflicts involved in repression and sublimation are, as it were, absorbed by social structures at the same time as imprinting their peculiar shape and dynamics on them. We see and recognise our selves in the elements that are thus created. Indeed we make ourselves as social beings through this mimetic process. Repression and sublimation are distinct and describe a range of complex processes, including projection and introjection. The idealised figures that arise in the process of creating inner objects, capable of guiding our imaginations and behaviour, are by their nature inwardly perceived but collectively constructed, through cultural processes. How can this idea of repressing desire and appetite be reconciled with a society governed by an economy that needs to constantly expand and provoke human desire in the interests of growth. This need becomes even more compelling if the misfortune of the poor is to be turned into emulative admiration for the necessary displays of wealth by the rich so that the latter’s good fortune can be shared fantastically by those whose lot is blighted or awaits accomplishment. Through a process that has involved the liberalisation of the state, consonant with both the need to create the illusion of individual freedom and the state’s actual declining power in relation to corporate economic entities, crucial reorganisations have taken place to mitigate the authoritarian aspects of the state by the production of democracy. This process reaches its apotheosis in the idea of ‘market democracy’ wherein the operation of the market (free individuals having choice) is conflated with the political process. The illusion of the free development of the individual becomes absolutely rooted in a set of relations formed by consent and fear where the individual is completely tied, through deep bonds of dependence, to the system itself. The state itself becomes more democratic in order to become more authoritarian, more authoritarian in its defence of democracy. Within this framework it is easy to see how the composition of the human individual itself can be re-assembled through cultural, educative, economic and political processes. For example the elements and structures that Freud explored when he sought to understand the dynamic between the Id, the Ego and the Superego have been more recently reviewed. Zizek, elaborating on the ideas developed by the Frankfurt School describes ‘repressive desublimation’ (The Metastases of Enjoyment). The unleashing of desires promised by the ‘permissive’ society with its liberal, democratic state is the perfect complement to the needs of a system dominated by ‘economic thinking’ and the ‘economy’. What is particularly interesting are the lineaments of a transformation of the human species that can be discerned in this reorganisation. Zizek describes this process as a ‘regression’. “…the unexpected, paradoxical condition actualised in our century (is) that of ‘repressive desublimation’, characteristic of ‘post-liberal societies in which ‘the triumphant archaic urges, the victory of the Id over the Ego, live in harmony with the triumph of the society over the individual’ (The quote is from Adorno). He goes on to describe the disappearance of the relative autonomy of the Ego and its regression towards the unconscious and then: “However this repressive, compulsive, blind, ‘automatic’ behaviour, which bears all the signs of the Id, far from liberating us from the pressures of the existing social order, adheres perfectly to the demands of the Superego, and is therefore already enlisted in the service of the social order. As a consequence, the forces of social repression exert a direct control over drives.’
It may be useful to reintroduce the optic of the theatre maker to gain yet another perspective on these remarkable and entangled human processes. It is the idea of regression which is particularly interesting. In the course of human development different aspects of human capability are called forth. In the particular circumstances of specific societies and cultures different characteristics are cultivated, promoted and affirmed. There is a constant interchange between the psychological and social organisation of the human being and with the natural and productive environment. What is distinct about human groups are the values and beliefs which are embodied in their members . The tendencies and proclivities which are therein nurtured are like variations on the general theme of human development. Human beings have shown in the long-term and in specific instances extraordinary powers of adaptation. Different ages in different societies elevate different kinds of people. There is often an element of surprise at how, at certain moments, quite unusually cruel and unhappy people are found in positions of power and influence. Likewise when dreadful communal violence is perpetrated. This consonance or dissonance between the human character and the nature of the times is a constant theme, for example, in Shakespeare’s theatre. In this respect a key process in any society is how its members are moved from childhood to adulthood. When we look at so-called primitive societies these rituals of becoming a person within the terms of that social group always catch and hold our attention. It is evident that one of the key variations through which the diversity of human capabilities is expressed is the relationship between infancy, youth, adulthood and age. There are certainly other key variations such the relationship between masculinity and femininity, between male and female. Certain kinds of physical or intellectual capacities are required in certain situations but are redundant in others. The ability to obey and a love of hierarchic order, the ability to be impervious to the pain and suffering of those around us, the ability additional to this latter to actually inflict physical pain and humiliation on others, the ability to look after the vulnerable young – all these human capacities and many more are more or less validated in different social settings at different times.
When Zizek talks about regression as a process within the individuals of a society we can see that there is a complex relationship between individual development, social development and species development. The idea that as our species advances we are creating societies which actually hold back individual development so that there is a restraint on people attaining full spiritual or intellectual or psychological maturity seems surprising. There is an illusion nurtured by cultural memory and knowledge of history that, as the species moves forward and adapts to the new conditions it has created, individuality in general will develop in accord. Individuality means in this instance the capacity of a person to recognise and develop their potential capabilities in relation to the immediate environment in which they find themselves. This involves an idea of diversity and differentiation and a capacity to move , as an adult away from the simple and basic facts of ones biological and social determinants. The illusion is that of a movement towards freedom in the dialectic between it and fate which living human beings encounter. What is implied by the process of regression in this instance is that a social order is being created that cultivates an arrest in individual development and does so by appropriating the desire for freedom and rendering it as a freedom to be childlike or infantile or at least adolescent, a freedom from the responsibility to be adult, a freedom to make choices about the array of dependencies on offer. The massive increase in human productivity which our species has witnessed produces, as if by magic, the goods and commodities which in their mode of distribution render us amazed and passive. And at the core of the ideological apparatus is a belief system posing as an authoritative science which, through an almost antique alchemical conflation of the microcosm with the macrocosm, is persuading us that to yield to our inestimable desires like omnipotent children is actually, through an invisible and natural process, going to benefit the whole society.
Another attribute of this peculiar human outgrowth relates to a point made earlier about the relationship to our mortality. The regression also involves a cultivated illusion that death can be defied, that the accumulation of commodities will crowd out death and this is a natural corollary of a system that programmatically offers paradise on earth and only bends towards the rigours of godliness when it is undertaking organised murder in defence of its dubious freedoms. The archaic shackles of the past have been replaced by almost intravenous transfusions which succour and invigorate the free rational individual, plastic card at the ready, as it circulates through it that which links it, in dependency and good fortune, to the udder of the wealth creating machine. Within this almost mystical symphony which reiterates the conflations of alchemy in simulating the production of gold to that of the elixir of life there is an appropriation of vitality and life itself.
So the fundamentalist creed which has taken grip is affirmed by the productivity of the system itself. It turns this productivity into a regressive power through its influence on political and social institutions so that it appears to be the common sense of the age. It has accompanied the transformations of human life which have been wrought over the last forty years. This change can also be expressed in terms of human beings’ changing relationship to land and, indeed, the species relationship to the earth. Human beings’ energy extraction began to have a transformative impact on the environment with the destruction of the great forests precipitated by the Neolithic revolution but the effect of more recent developments has led to a quantum leap in this impact. This is also registered in the increase in the world’s population. At an experiential level the displacement and migration of people, often from land where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years, has been a shaping influence on the story of this period. It is, of course, difficult to quantify how this change is experienced but since people less and less have the objects and especially the landscapes around them which embodied their life stories and their experiences the change must have effects on the way human beings tell stories in general. John Berger in Part Two of his book, ‘And our faces, my heart, brief as photos’ where he describes, from the point of view of emigration and in relation to nomadic life, how the vertical and the horizontal cross in the experience of the individual’s sense of space. This is a creative prompt to think about the impact of these changes on aesthetics, on how we make art.
In order to make some observation about how theatre and how the process of acting which lies at its centre, may change it is necessary to set them in a background of general considerations. What people find beautiful and significant changes from culture to culture and from epoch to epoch. How people express their experience of living, their interconnectedness with each other, their sense of awe at the circumambient universe, their sense of the dominant forces in their lives, whether visible or invisible, changes from society to society. The activities of play and ritual and their interrelatedness, the creation of spectacles, objects, depictions consisting of marks, working with light and sound, alterations of time and space, all arise from the presence of human beings at a given time and a given place but also from a transcendence of these co-ordinates. Theatre can at once be considered as an aggregation of institutions and practices, with appropriate buildings and resources linked to other social organisations, with its own accepted practices and parametres, techniques and procedures, promotional structures, standards, values and beliefs. In the modern period these institutions are sanctified by the state through multiple links of patronage not least through the handing out of honours to prestigious members of the artistic establishment who are stupid enough to accept them. All these elements and systems and institutions are forms created around a core activity that may itself, on the one hand, surpass and, on the other, be inhibited, corrupted and constrained by them. Theatre can take many forms but, like any art, cannot really move forward without grasping what is protean and essential in it. This is not necessarily what is stable and remains the same but what is changed and capable of change.
Theatre is the mimesis of an action. The enactment of the action is itself an action. For the action to be represented or imitated it has to be perceived by others who may also be actors, participants or audience in a shared aesthetic space. Insofar as a participant in theatre is enacting the action that is being represented they are an actor; in so far as they sensually perceive the represented action they are a spectator. This distinction need not be absolute; a participant in theatre can oscillate between the role of actor and the role of spectator and even hold within them both roles at the same time in greater or lesser measure. Theatre is a double structure. The aesthetic space of theatre is a combination of the space of the actor (the scene) and the space of the spectator (the theatron). There is the imagined space of the action which is being represented and there is the actual space of the enactment. Here a distinction can be made between theatre and performance. An actor must be a performer but a performer may not be an actor. If a performer is not a conduit for the spectator’s imagination of another space, the space of the represented action, then they are not an actor. In a theatre performance there can be more or less aesthetic attention on the space of the performance or on the space of the action that is being imitated or represented. Analogous to the relationship between the space depicted in a painting and the actual space taken up by the painting itself, theatre can accentuate liveness and can be more performative or can privilege the space of the represented action. In looking at a picture one’s senses can be constantly moving from perceptions of the space depicted to perceptions of the surface textures of the painting itself. This double structure of perception is not so easily applied to music. The human eye is subject to illusion in a way that the ear is not. Though the auditory work in a theatre may have precedence and the eye may be lead by the ear, it is significant that the root of the word theatre describes a place from where something can be seen. Of course there is a choice whether to call the audience spectators or vice versa. In the theatre both description are possible whereas this is not so with a football match or a music concert. This movement of the senses between the eye and the ear is another double structure amongst a multitude of oscillating dynamics that play on the key structures of the theatre like a complex series of variations on a protean theme. Every theatre practitioner must discover, more or less profoundly, the essential primordial core of the art. Of course this has very little to do with their institutional facility which may lead to their promotion within the institutions built to protect, but which so often stifle, the light of creativity. Each exploratory step forward in theatre work seems to have to be accompanied by an exploratory step backwards into its origin and nature.
It is uncertain whether we can trace with any real accuracy what determines the development of styles, methods and tendencies in the history of art. Good comprehensive enlightening critical observations are made but very rarely does an underlying general logic hold true for any length of time. The best expression appears to be that these factors are ‘culturally overdetermined’ and the virtue of this phrase is its fertile obscurity. Why it is that a certain sensibility arises at a particular point in time and why a certain sense of beauty and taste seems to gather towards it the popular acclaim of an age may be to do with the way a given aesthetic holds within it the significant tensions of a particular order where an immediate appearance of unity is given to a diversity of elements. Is there a relationship between the work of Descartes and Shakespeare? How about Einstein and Chekhov? Or Heisenberg and Brecht? We cannot be sure why at a certain point in the history of art in the West a veritable gap opened up between the subject of a work of art, what the work represented, and the means of representation. Critics, especially John Berger has written in an enlightening way about the relationship between cubism and relativity. Some deep question about human significance was provoked by Nietzche’s announcement that god is dead and Saussure’s assertion that the relationship between language, the sign, and the reality it describes, (the signified) is arbitrary and conventional. In our own age the image of the human, our image of our selves, must be shaped by the ruling ideas of the time and described above are some observations about what these ruling ideas might be. Economics ideas and concepts have been transformed as a particular version of economics has become overbearingly influential within the political and social institutions. It has become the dominant ideology of the state and has been the key to the state’s modernisation. This has been a superficial process and has hidden the state’s vestigial and primordial role. The modernising process has enabled the state to maintain its sacralised power. This process of bonding through a modern-seeming archaic mystical fundamentalism has been accompanied by a massive development of technology and productivity which at the same time has dwarfed the power of the state. It is through these political and social institutions that we develop our sense of ourselves at a collective level even if we are excluded or disaffected.
If there is a necessity to change theatre to bring it into accord with the needs of the times, to express the tensions of the epoch this can not be done by focusing alone on its nature. We have to look out side at the changes that are going on in our world and the experiences that people are having and how those experiences are being mediated and negotiated. In the struggle to find an aesthetic our sensibilities need to be open to observing the reality around us. The theatre is not simply a means of expression but it is an instrument of observation. Each work in theatre is an essay in human capability. If the tried and tested ways are relied on and if the usual methods and procedures are automatically deployed there can be no discovery. However we cannot be ignorant about what has worked in the past and what may even survive and stand a chance of working in the present. For millions of individuals the space around them and their spatial connection has been transformed both by displacement and by information technology. A new sensibility, possibly more akin to that of a hunter/gatherer than an agriculturalist, is arising. The image of humanity and its landscape is being transformed. The constitution of the individual is being radically recomposed. New collectivities are being created and affirmed.
At the centre of theatre is the transformative work of the actor. Observations about what methods apply to this work have a kind of rigorous humanistic stability. What seems obvious in the actor’s work reiterates through Aristotle and Stanislavsky but the obvious needs to be called into question. The picture of the human being against a background with which it is in harmony or conflict based on the idea of nature, its own and that which surrounds it, can no longer be held constant at a time when human beings are endangering their immediate environment. The sense of human subjectivity and the relationship between personal time and historical time is open to fluctuation. The connection which human beings have with the movement between synchronic time and diachronic time is being reorganised. People’s sense of a continuity, the flow of the past and the future and their image of their lifetime, their mortality and the their relationship with the dead are being imagined differently. Within a field illuminated with information and knowledge there is the growth of a dark mystery and, at worst, an ignorance. Human beings are in a historic struggle with their own nature at a time when there has been a massive increase of human time being lived on the earth. Phenomenal discoveries have been made about the nature of our planet (particularly the discovery of the tectonic plates in the late 1960s) and yet we cannot as a species find the means to bring these new kinds of knowledge in to a generally effective way of being (existing, surviving and living) here on earth that takes account of continuity. This may not matter in terms of the long-term survival of humanity or the earth but it does have major consequences for how we relate to each other now.
Let’s look a little more closely at the core activity of theatre and discern what images of the human being arise there and let’s try to relate these perceptions to the images of the human which dominate our social and political institutions and which are therefore powerful influences on our sense of ourselves. I have already described how influential neo-liberal economic thinking is on these dominant ideas.
The actor is the conduit from the space of the action which is being imitated to the space in which the imitation or performance is taking place. These two spaces are functions of the relationship between the space in which the actor performs and the space from which the spectator views the action, the scene (or the stage) and the ‘theatron’ (the auditorium). They do not need to be architecturally separated. They can be interspersed. Even the architectural disposition of these two spaces has been an object of study, significantly by Jerzy Grotowski in Poland and by Stephen Joseph in the UK. In modern theatre there are constant experiments with these spatial dispositions. The actor is a determinant of this space and it is not difficult to see that the space of the action which is being imitated is informed (takes its form and realisation) from this configuration. The basis of Stephen Joseph’s work was to understand what configuration of stage to auditorium was true for a modern industrial audience. His development of theatre in the round is significant. This is a return to, and a discovery of a primordial performance space, one which conjures a gathering around a fire in the open air, a place of primitive story telling. This work was complemented by his exploration of the immediate social and political space outside the theatre. The UK’s most popular and prolific theatre writer, Alan Ayckbourne burgeoned from these fertile roots. In the development of theatre aesthetics the changing dynamic in the relationship between the scene and the theatron is crucial.
The relationship between these different spaces, between the space of the imitated action and the actual space of the performance, between the space of the actor and the space of the spectator, between the space of the theatre (the scene and the theatron combined) and the social, economic and political space surrounding the theatre, all interact. The meaning and the aesthetic of theatre is a result of the vibration between all these different spaces. The image of the theatre with which we are most familiar is Shakespeare’s Globe where the concentric circles suggested by the image of the spaces that I have offered is extended to the outer reaches of the universe. It is within this total setting that an image of the human being is grasped. All these ideological and economic and architectural and cultural dispositions harden into institutions, methods, solidifications of artistic and social conceptions, as we can witness in the UK with our contemporary apparatus replete with concrete containers attended by knights of the realm and other flunkeys of the order of the British Empire. In this instance the actor and what the actor does has already for the most part been ordained and determined, literally written in concrete. This institutional spectacle with its attendant idiocy is certainly an example of theatre in the age of globalisation.
It is only by exploring the core, essential activity of theatre that we can really see how an aesthetic can develop which can address our current human situation. This core is the transformative power of the actor. This reduction of theatre to its basic elements is a well-worn path. It was down here that Peter Brook took the empty space as a starting point, that Brecht proposed his metaphor of the reconstruction of a musical instrument from its basic component material (brass); it is down here that the Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega asserted that all that was required was a plank and a passion.
The first elemental movement in acting is the imagination of being in another space. This transposition is accompanied by the pretence of something happening other than that actually happening. This is basic play. The construction of an identity in the fictional space is undertaken by imagining oneself to be another person in it. The depiction of this imagined person or the character can be more or less fragmented or unified. In the Aristotelian and Stanislavskian orthodoxy the point of contact between the actor and the character is the perceived will of the character. It is what the character wants that move them through the narrative or dramatic space of the play or spectacle. The action is the conflict between what the character wants and what counters this movement. In Stanislavki’s system this is expressed as the relationship between the objective and the counter objective or the obstacle. The tension between these two elements is the dilemma. The character can seem like a kind of uncontrollable spontaneous life-like force and may come close to taking over the life of the actor but this illusory state of possession is evidence of a general tendency in human beings. We become who we are by means of an emulative mimetic process and the edges of our being and identity are never completely definite. If the stimulus to act, to imitate an action, is given by means of the worked out and already imagined fictional world of a play, the initial moment of the actor’s work must be a seeking out of likeness and similitude. This must be complemented almost immediately by a discernment of ‘unlikeness’, of differentiation, of dissimilitude. At the same time as this takes place the actor will develop a consciousness of a dynamic between inner movement and outer expression. The orthodox method is to give precedence to the inner movement and exercise deliberate forms of restraint of outer expression. Outer expression is release. The character is a series of complex tensions within the field or world of the play. Just as a child’s imaginative capacity for pretending and play are put to developmental use in the emulative strategies which enable the person to form itself so also are the external roles through which the young human being undertakes activities that are quite unfamiliar challenges to it. The human being, spontaneously or through organised events, makes themselves happily (though sometimes nervously) the centre of attention. So we can see that the elements and skills that an actor deploys, the ability to pretend and the ability to perform, are similar to capacities that we need to become who we are. Theatre is a perceptual act; we do not only do what we do but what we do is watched. The oscillation between likeness and unlikeness, between inner impulse and outer expression, between being and performing is the dynamic of the actor. This is perceived by the spectator whose imagination in activated in a complementary way. This is the movement between pity and fear about which Aristotle speaks in the Poetics. Acting in this sense offers a model of human activity which involves a heightened consciousness. The actor is doing and watching at the same time. A part of his imaginative consciousness is with the spectators. It is for this reason that Augusto Boal in his radical re-thinking and reactivation of theatre calls the participant the ‘spectactor’. Although this is an innovation it is a rethinking of old forms of theatre in which this aspect of theatre was given form. For example in Japanese Noh Theatre there is a formal place on stage where a character sits in ‘witness’ position and the typology of roles relies on this articulation of doing and witnessing. The chorus in Classical Greek theatre has a similar function.
From the moment that the Aristotelian system received its modern reconfirmation in the work of Stanislavski the basic tendencies in it, the precedence of the inner movement and the collateral emphasis on ‘likeness’, have been in contention. Although they had their disagreements Stanislavski and Chekhov’s work together is complementary. The roots of their common sensibility lay in the developing movement of the European novel and the insights it afforded into subjectivity and psychology plus the new ideas about the unconscious associated with Freud and his group. The space in Chekhov’s plays generate a capacity to perceive individuality; the dramatic action can be viewed through the dilemma of any character. This deployment of multiple points of view is, in the world represented in the plays, also a measure of the characters’ isolation from one another. It is this that makes the action a collective event, a kind of aggregate of all the individual dilemmas. Each character is subject to desire or want or will and has their own trajectory within the dramatic space. This space is determined by the countervailing forces of either some internal obstacle or the desires of another character. Though within the world of the play characters will be more or less powerful or influential there is a basic equality in their subjective humanity. Artaud deepened a sense of the collective nature of the unconscious forces at play in the dramatic space and accordingly advocated the ritualisation of the performance, articulating perceptions of the body as a kind of fate. Grotowski similarly searches for a new dynamic between inner impulse and outer expression. Beckett turned Chekhov’s world inside out by creating, most notably in Waiting for Godot a dramatic space with no action. The tendency of modern exploratory practitioners has been to give precedence to outer expression, seen first in the biomechanics of Meyerhold and the bringing of dramatic expression closer to musicality also evidenced in Grotowski’s ideas about the actor’s ‘score’ composed from deep contact with archetypal movements beyond the gestures of behaviour. The emphasis on the performative aspect of acting, cultivated by physical theatre and the link between gymnastics, mimetic corporal activity and acting associated with the work of Jacques Lecoq have developed a heightened consciousness of ‘liveness’ and the game structure of the performance. Both Brecht in his polemical confrontation with the Aristotelian system and Boal with his opposition to it and his aspiration for a theatre producing knowledge, call for a reactivisation of the relationship between the stage and the auditorium. The redefinitions of the line which separates these spaces arises on the basis of a reconception of the actor’s activity.
The image of the human which arises from the orthodox conception of dramatic theatre is of an individual whose equality and identity with other individuals is registered broadly in the facts of their mortality, the body is a kind of fate while the soul the vehicle of desire and will aspires to freedom. The struggle which is undergone is to achieve in the last instance, life and the accomplishment of maximum fulfilment of desires. This is the happiness that Aristotle describes as one of the polarities of the dramatic story. The conception is of certain qualities intrinsic in the human individual as if it was carrying out its life by being true to its nature or having to struggle against it. The background or landscape in this image is nature posed as being separate from the human being and at the same time something within the human being. The image of the human being as being alienated from nature, as distinct from nature, in struggle with nature, loses its power to express anything but a sentimental and nostalgic idea. The central notion in Brecht’s call for a theatre of the scientific age was that ‘man’s fate was man’, thus exposing the struggle between freedom and fate as an ideological trope, as a false problem, the struggle for a solution for which could only lead to pacification.
The optic suggested earlier of looking at human processes in terms of the changes in our development as a species can be undertaken in the theatre only if a theatre practice can break out of the institutional restrictions which reproduce it as a commodity, that link it to a murderous neo monarchical elite and a market system whose overwhelming aim is create desire not satisfy it. The theatre we are looking for, that we are seeking to develop may return to more primitive forms compared to the ‘civilised’ division of the stage from the auditorium; it may be a more participatory space where the potential for human development will include the heightened consciousness of doing and watching at the same time. This will have radical implications for design both of the total theatre space as well as the scenic elements. In the relationship between the development of the individual and the development of the species there are many resonances. When a human individual first learns to stand up it is undertaking a repetition of an evolutionary process. As we develop as a species the development of our humanity, individually and collectively, is not a straight line. We are now abundantly clear about how aspects of our behaviour, mentality and awareness are revisitations from forgotten phases of our coming into being. Theatre can be, as it has been so many times before, in the skills that it develops and evokes and in the framework it offers us for self knowledge, a space for human growth. The actual development of an aesthetic is matter for practice. Good and useful thought can only give us courage to move forward. The view of humanity offered by the dominant ideology based on economic thinking in its neoliberal regressive form is reduces the movement of diversity and plurality which the new productivity can unleash. Amartya Sen’s work has criticised neoliberal orthodoxy from within the discipline of economics. His ideas about the allocation and development of resources based not on utility but on capability have a resonance for a theatre that sees each production, each as an exploration of human desire and capability.