Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Life Is A Dream (Theatre is Unrelenting Torment)

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There’s not a lot to be said about this theatre production which I saw at the Store Room Theatre in North Fitzroy last Sunday.

The play is supposedly about the horrors of repression and the unbridled dictatorship of some Polish king or other at some time but reading the programme notes gives the false impression the show has a plot.

We were subjected to a stuffy half-demolished room in which a team of actors sat around having half-mumbled arguments with each other that eventually escalated into violence and blood-shed in a gradually increasing series of crescendos interspersed with boring lulls. The play had obviously been choreographed at great length so that there was constant movement and overlapping action which was mildly diverting for about 20 minutes but given the show was 1hr and 20 min long, attention soon waned.

I don’t want to go into this show in any more detail – mainly because it was meaningless anyway (it’s one of those post-modern productions in which lots of weird shit happens and ‘anyone’s entitled to their opinion’ as to what the heck any of it means). But I do want to ask why we subject ourselves and our audiences to such demoralizing works?

The works are all the same – one-set plays in which miserable characters sit around tormenting each other in one way or another and then it ends without anything having happened. (I have a theory that it’s all about economics – it’s nice and cheap to make one-set shows where nothing much happens and it poses very few writing or acting challenges either.)

The show was definitely ‘affecting’ – in that one is inclined to think about it later – but so is a car accident. In other words, the trauma was moving but I could have done without it thank you. I have to ask why we subject ourselves to such harrowing experiences and call it ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. I cannot see any benefits brought about by such an experience.

You could say it is ‘catharsis’ – “purging of emotion” – but catharsis is a misunderstood concept. Catharsis is not simply expressing or engendering in the audience some emotion for its own sake. We don’t need to be “purged of emotion”. (The modern pop-psychology-basis for this theory is Freud’s outdated and naive theories no longer supported by most practicing psychologists but still touted out by artists who like fanciful melodrama.) If we needed to be “purged of emotion” we could all just go in for a good spanking every week and purge ourselves of all that pent-up subjection or whatnot. Every story has conflict – indeed the power of a drama is found in the grave and universal problem at its core – but what about the reprieve? How do our characters escape their torments? The valient fight of our hero expresses pure unbridled humanity. There is none of this here.

In tragedy of course our characters often do not escape their torments but instead they and we achieve a state of catharsis. When all else fails, how do you hang on – how do you keep living? Strangely (for logic/political theorists), when all else fails, something beyond logic opens up – a void into nothing – a force beyond the opposites of time. The hero learns that the secret cause of all his problems has been himself, that, astoundingly, Fate was leading him here the whole time. This Fate engenders wonder and astonished awe. This is what catharsis is – astonished awe and wonder is a profoundly healthy experience.

Now compare shows such as this one. No character stands out as doing or experiencing anything but torment and disinterestedness. We, as audience, are subjected to anguish and emotional torments but not in aid of cleansing awe – no character experiences an epiphany; no character even reflects (no one is sure what is going on!). We are subjected to torment and then we gratefully escape the theatre. We are chagrined and disheartened, firstly, because someone has told us basically, “Life is meaningless, pointless and tormenting”, which is an oversimplified narrow-minded lie; secondly, we barely even reflect on the unlovable characters or heartless events but instead feel a sense of anger and blame at the unlovable and heartless actors and producers that tormented us, the audience, and took our money for the sake of such a worthless exercise.

The experience conditions theatre audiences not to come back.

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Written by tomtomrant

5 December 2009 at 10:19 pm

Posted in the arts

Tagged with , ,

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