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BrockettPt1 - Chapter 1 THE THEATRE as AN ART FORM It has...

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Unformatted text preview: Chapter 1 THE THEATRE as AN ART FORM It has been said that the theatre dies every night only to be reborn each day, for it exists whenever actors perform before an audience. The ephemeral nature of the theatre makes it difficult to recapture a per— formance after it has ended, since unlike a novel, painting, or statue, each of which remains relatively unchanged, a theatrical production exists only during a performance. Then it is gone and lives only in the play script, program, pictures, reviews, and memories of those who were present. Although the theatre is the most ephemeral of the arts —- after music _ it is one of the most powerful, for while an audience watches, human beings perform scenes which interpret experience as though it were happening at that very instant. In this way, the theatre approximates life as it is lived and felt moment by moment. As in life, each episode is expe- rienced and then immediately becomes part of the past. The theatre is also the most objective of the arts, since characteris— tically it presents both outer and inner experience through speech and action. As in life, it is through listening and watching that we come to know individuals both externally and internally. What we learn about their minds, personalities, and motivations comes from what they say and do, and from what others tell us about them. The novel may deal at length with the unspoken thoughts and unexpressed feelings of its char- acters, but the'dramatist can indicate these inner stirrings only through external signs. This limitation, however, serves to give the theatre a life- likeness which other arts cannot match. The theatre is also the most complex of the arts, since it requires many creators —the actor, the playwright, the director, the scene designer, the costumer, the light designer, the choreographer, the musician. This 3 BASIC PROBLEMS complexity has led many to cali the theatre a mixed art since it usually combines the written word of the literary artist, the visual background of the architect and painter, the speech and movement of the actor, the music of the composer, and the dance patterns of the choreographer. Others have called it an impure art because it is not the product of a sin- gle creator. These labels imply that several artists cannot achieve a uni— fied result and that the theatre therefore is imperfect and inferior. Cer- tainly the theatre can rarely achieve the purity of form possible in a novel, a poem, or a painting, but it has its own kind of unity. In its very complexity lies much of the theatre’s strength, for its varied appeals— action, speech, music, dance, painting-combine in one art product the charms of all the other arts, although in a new and distinctive form. The number of artists involved in a single production varies widely. In the earliest theatrical performances all artistic functions were served by ' one person; gradually specialists emerged and the various theatre arts were separated. The actor and the playwright attained recognition first, probably because their functions are basic and closely allied. Since drama tells its story and presents its conflicts entirely through the speeches and actions of characters, it assumes the existence of actors who will lend their bodies, voices, and actions for the time needed to play out the drama. The actor and the playwright are by necessity complementary, since each needs the other for the completion of his art. The actor may practice his profession without the aid of the playwright, for he may improvise his speech and action~that is, he may become his own dramatist—but unless his improvisation achieves a high degree of excellence, it will not long command attention. To hold interest, a performance must, as a rule, he organized so as to tell a story, to reveal a character, or to illustrate an idea. As the length of the performance increases, so does the need to interweave story, character, and ideas. As these demands are met suc- cessfully, the actor approaches more and more the function of the play- wright. On the other hand, the person best able to construct an interest- ing series of events is not necessarily the one most able to enact these events for an audience. Thus, the specialized demands made upon the actor and the playwright have led to separate, though closely related, professions. The history of the theatre is often treated as though it were synony- mous with the history of drama. Although it may distort the truth, such an approach is partially justified, for it is through the written drama that we gain our clearest impressions of the theatre of the past. It is the play script which comes down to us unchanged; we know the other theatre arts only through such secondhand accounts as descriptions of the act- ing or pictures of single scenes. The history of the theatre is usually constructed around drama for still another important reason: the play script forms a bridge between our values and those of the past. We are able to appreciate and understand other eras only when we find in them ideas and attitudes which have meaning today, for we remain untouched by that which has no relevance to ourselves. The theatre arts of the past, when viewed in isolation from 6 Asketch by PhilippeJacques de Loutherbourg for the battle scenes in Shakespeare's Rich- ard HI. This sketch was made about 1775 when the noted landscape. marine, and battle painter was engaged by David Garrick to superintend scene painting at the Drury Lane Theatre. drama, may seem totally disconnected from the present, but the great plays of other times create points of contact with the feelings, the thought, the life of these periods. This common bond can then serve as a bridge to understanding the other theatre arts. But while the drama may be a key to understanding what should or did happen in presentation, plays are written to be performed and are not complete until they are filled out by actors, costumes, and scenic background. The interdependence of the playwright and the actor is clear, but these artists also benefit from the assistance of directors, designers, musi- cians, and dancers. The need for the director arises as soon as more than one actor is involved, for someone must mediate the differences of opin- ion which arise as to positions on stage, correct line readings, or interpre» tations of meaning. But the director is more than a mediator. it is his responsibility to design, edit, and coordinate stage action with the visual background, costumes, lights, music, and dance. The various elements which go into a production are usually provided by separate artists. The visual background, for “example, is the work of the set, lighting, and costume designers, who seek to interpret the quali- ties found in the script through visual means. The scenic designer not only indicates place and historical period, he supplies the architectural forms, light and shadow, colors, line, and composition which add to and reflect the drama’s action. In like manner, the costumer, the fighting dew signer, and the choreographer seek to embody the mood and spirit of a play through visual means. It is the interdependent workings of the various arts comprising the \ . a theatre which will be pursued in this book. 8 THE THEATRE As AN ART FORM In the preceding discussion the theatre has been referred to repeatedly as an art form. But what is art? Probably no term has been so widely dis- cussed with so little clear definition. . Until the eighteenth century the term art was used almost exclusively to designate a systematic application of knowledge or skills to achieve a desired result. The word is stili used in this sense when we speak of the art (or craft) of medicine. During the eighteenth century it became cus~ ternary to divide the arts into two groups, “useful” and “fine.” Into the latter category were placed literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and dance. At the same time, the idea arose that, while the useful arts may easily be learned, the fine arts, as products of genius, could not be reduced to rules or principles which could be taught. As a result, since about 1800 art has often been considered too lofty and esoteric to be fully comprehended and too elusive for close examination. Although it is perhaps true that no universally accepted explanation of art exists, its nature can be suggested by examining its relationship to other human activities. First of all, and most broadly, art is an aid in understanding the world. As such, it may be compared to history, philos~ ophy, or science, which attempt to discover and record patterns in man’s experience. Art may deal with the same subject matter as other apw preaches, and may even use some of the same methods. For example, history seeks to record the facts of man’s past but, since it cannot report everything, it selects those events which seem significant and which WHAT IS ART? A wandering troupe of German players in the eighteenth cen- tury. The actors are preparing for a performance. Courtesy Bild-Archivs der Osierreichi» schen Nationalbibliothek. BASIC PROBLEMS appear to compose a pattern of cause and effect. Thus, history, like art, selects, arranges, and gives emphasis to its materials. Philosophy seeks to find the truths and principles underlying all being and to relate them to human existence. A play also may suggest answers to this quest. Such branches of science as psychology and sociology seek to determine the causes and probabilities of certain kinds of behavior; a play, too, has some of these concerns. Each approach to man‘s experiv ence attempts to discover and to put into a communicable form concluw sions about man and the world in which he lives. There are, however, significant differences in the methods used in the various approaches. The historian, philosopher, and scientist attempt to set their conclusions down in logical expository prose: a point of view is expressed, and proof is marshaled to support that view and to gain its acceptance. They direct their appeals principally to the intellect. The artist, on the other hand, works primarily through direct involve- ment of the audience’s emotions, imagination, and intellect, and by evoking responses more directly. A play, consequently, shows events as though occurring before our eyes; we absorb them in the way we absorb life itself—through their direct operation upon our senses. Art differs from life by stripping away irrelevant details and organizing events so that they compose a significant, connected pattern. Thus, a play illumi— nates and comments on human experience at the same time that it ap- pears to create it. Another distinguishing characteristic of art is its manipulation of imagination. Although it may draw upon actual experience, art clearly differs from life. Even historical drama is an imaginative recreation of events; the characters’ motivations and dialogue usually must be invent- ed, and certainly the audience knows that what it is seeing is not the his- torical event itself but a fictional version of it. Just as we do not mistake a statue for a real person, we do not mistake stage action for reality. Rather, we usually view a play with what Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.” By this he meant that, while we know that the events of a play are not real, we agree for the moment not to disbelieve in their reality. One important qualification must be added, however: we are not moved to immediate action by what we see on the stage as we would be by a real event. We watch one man kill another, but we make no attempt to rescue the victim or to call the police. This is a vican’ous expe- rience, one we can enter into without the demand for either decision or action. We watch in a kind of suspended animation, a state sometimes called esthetic distance, since we seem to be sufficiently removed from the event to view it semiobj ectively. At the same time, however, the distance must not be so great as to in- duce indifference. Therefore, while a degree of detachment is necessary, involvement is of equal importance. This feeling of kinship is sometimes called empathy. Thus, we watch a play with a double sense of concern and detachment, of entering into the experience but without any need for active participation on our part. It is both a removed and an intensi- iied reaction of a kind seldom possible outside an esthetic experience. i 10 Hindu dancer. A thirteenth—cen- tury carving on a temple in Mysore. Courtesy information Service of india. Thus f ar we have been concerned with art principally as it is embodied in drama. Along with other types of literature, however, drama is the art most apt to have an intellectual content which relates it to areas of knowledge such as history, philosophy, and science. But what of other , art forms in which the content is more abstract? a Each art form uses different means and consequently each can best deal with a particular aspect of human experience. Music, for example, makes its appeal through the ear. Using rhythm, melody, and harmony, it organizes sound and time into patterns which can be traced to basic 1 subliminal sensations and feelings. Thus, the universal appeal of music ‘ can partially be explained by its rhythmic qualities. Aristotle stated that i E 11 BASIC PROBLEMS a sense of rhythm is natural to man; other writers have related all art to the rhythmic patterns of life itself: birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death; the cycle of the year; and the heartbeat. In these ways, the rhythmic element in music is probably related to some of man’s most elemental experiences, and the sense of order and harmony which it produces probably stems from its fulfillment of unconscious needs. The structure of music is also a source of satisfaction. Both melody and rhythm are patterns. Some sound combinations seem harmonious while others seem inharmonious or dissonant: we are pained when un- pleasant combinations strike our ears. Each composition has its own pat- ternswthe longer we listen, the clearer the patterns become and the more definite grow our expectations. If a musical phrase is broken off in the middle, we desire to have it completed and sense satisfaction when it is. Thus, structural patterns are an important part of music’s effect. They create expectations, which lead to frustrations when interrupted, and to satisfaction when completed. ‘ We value music not so much for what it “says” but for what it “does” to us. It may calm or excite. Whenever it engages our attention, we are bound up in it and respond to its rhythmic patterns. The more completely our attention is engaged, the less we are conscious of other factors out- side of the musical experience. While listening we may work or dance without being aware of effort; our energies seem released and we have a sense of freedom and pOWer—of inner harmony. it is only after the music has stopped that we become aware of fatigue and frustration, for during the musical experience, states of feeling, created by organized time and sound, have become the center of our existence. Painting makes its appeal through the eye, formalizing man’s relation- ship to space. It uses line, mass, and color to create pleasing composi— tions which are expressive both of order and harmony, of emotions and perceptions. It may represent real objects or it may be totally abstract. Though recognizable subject matter can add another source of pleasure, the appeal of painting does not depend upon its ability to produce exact likeness. Rather, it allows man to experience and understand spatial re- lationships esthetically. Each art makes its own distinctive appeal to different senses and through differing means. All art expresses and organizes our perceptions about feeling, emotion, growth, and movementmabout life itself. Each art form selects, arranges, and gives emphasis to its elements. Out of this organization, or form, significance emerges. Significance is a many-faceted concept, however, for it is comprised of all that is communicated or expressed by an art work. Some aspects might be called intellectual significance; others are more closely in- volved with feelings and emotions. Intellectual significance may be illustrated by turning once more to drama. In King Lear, for example, Lear divides his kingdom between two of his three daughters and gives up all power as ruler. The two daughters cast him out; eventually the formerly great king becomes vir- tually a beggar and 'a madman, and further events bring about his death. 12. From this series of occurrences we may reach certain conclusions about the relationship of parents to children, about ingratitude, emotional blindness, and so on. Such conclusions are largely intellectual, for they are based upon our perception of a seemingly logical connection between a series of events. The same sequence, however, has emotional significance of consider- able complexity. As the events transpire, expectations, hopes, fears, in— dignation, and other emotions are aroused; these are thwarted, satisfied, or transformed. With the end of the play comes a feeling of completion, 3. sense of fulfillment. Although this kind of significance is dependent in part upon the subject matter, it also results from the tempo, rhythm, and structure of the play. ‘ The 1968 dress rehearsal. Act l, of Giacomo Puccini's opera Tosca. based on Viciorien Sar» clou‘s drama La Tosca. Birgit Nilsson—Tosca: Franco Corelli —Cavaradossi; Gabriel Bacquier —Scarpia (left). Conductor— Francesco Molina ri-P radelli; sets and costumes—Rudolf Heinrich. Photograph—P. A. Noa. Cour- tesy of the Metropolitan Opera. Lincoln Center. THE PROBLEM OF VALUE IN ART BASIC PROBLEMS The total significance of any work of art is difficult to evaluate. It ap« peals in varying degrees to difi'erent persons, and what the spectator gleans from a work of art depends in part upon his own background and his own sensitivity to emotions and ideas. Art, then, is one way of ordering, clarifying, and understanding experi- ence. Each art form uses its own special techniques, but each offers both significance and pleasure simultaneously. Of all the arts, the theatre is probably the one most closely related to the patterns of normal experi— ence. It is the art form that most nearly encompasses all of the other arts. Art may not appear to be useful. It does not produce the obvious benefits offered by medicine or engineering; it does not promise any advances for civilization; it may seem impractical when compared with business. Its purpose, thus, is vague for most persons; many think of it as a pleasant kind of distraction without fundamental importance. The financially successful artist frequently is honored not because he is effective but because he is successful in the business sense. Since everyone does not agree upon the worth of individual works of art, many persons question the value of art itself. Even those who pro» fess to like art frequently cast doubt upon its worth; those of conserva- tive taste accuse “modern” art of being an elaborate hoax, while the admirers of modern art reply that conventional forms are shallow and outmoded. Under such a cross fire of argument it is hardly surprising that the general public may develop doubts about art itself. Furthermore, many persons distrust anything that appeals openly to the emotions. Americans have long been suspicious of their emotional reactions, while the appeal to logic and intelligence has been stressed,if .not always followed. Activities that emphasize rationality have been valued, therefore, over those eliciting emotional responses. To many, the display of feeling suggests a lack of control. There has also been a tendency during the past century to use “art” as a term of praise rather than as a classification. Thus we hear people say, “It may be good theatre, but it isn’t art." Not only is such a division of doubtful value, since it fails to clarify ad...
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