Notes on Theatre

By John StepplingDecember 31, 2011

Notes on Theatre

We cannot know what we are doing. We can only know when we are doing it wrong.

Theatre was born of the sermon, and a deep-seated need for audience. A deep-seated need for collective experience. Theatre has always been the target of religious conservatives, for it rivaled the church in its imitation of salvation.

We have to return to salvation. Theatre has to now enfold the language of allegory; that is, it has to provide an experience that entails the spectator: not the autonomous artwork of bourgeois culture, not artwork that reinforces the position of the spectator, of his social position and worth, but theatre. For theatre is inherently collective.

The text creates the space on stage. We see the space after language. A language that is literal or ideological kills that space. To announce a theme and occupy an abstract position is false. It is kitsch. Kitsch, as Greenberg said, is vicarious experience. It is the familiar. It is generalization.

A wheel, if painted indistinctly, appears to be moving. Painted clearly it does not move. Technology, from photography to film to computers, has pushed experience further away. But the ‘object,’ obdurate thing-in-itself, has returned from nowhere. The real, naturalism, realism, are all exactly NOT those things, and they are all exactly NOT the thing itself. They are the end product of that movement that learned from painting the wheel in motion.

Adorno said Beckett put meaning on trial. We’ve moved from method to principles. The inauthentic took different directions, to the new-age empty narcissism of Abramovic, for instance, or to what Andreas Huyssen has called the neo-Wagnerian kitsch of Robert Wilson. To replay old method is to become, quickly, kitsch. For Beckett signaled the end of the modern, and the modern was predicated on its reaction against the increasing conformity of capitalist culture. The spectacle accelerated after Beckett. It swept along language and neutered it. A new grammar for stage space had to be invented.

The concrete is not surface, its an existential fact. Kitsch is based on surface.

Aesthetic judgment is built into art today. Criticism as Elkins said, has became chronicle, judgment has become meditation on judgment. And yet critical judgment cannot accommodate individual works of art that having nothing individual about them (Mira Schorr). Kitsch is hegemonic.

Picasso’s clowns, as someone said, become John Wayne Gacy’s clowns. There are no arguments in kitsch.

Derrida saw Artaud as deconstructing the theatre of representation. The theatre of representation aestheticizes the commodity. Fascism aestheticized politics. Robbed of use-value, everything is advertising. Identity politics, the elevation of simplistic notions of skill, and an aesthetic built on kitsch produces August Wilson. The emancipatory is exploited as a commodity.

And when everything is advertising it expresses only pure domination. Kristeva saw media as the collectivizing of all sign systems, thereby enforcing the tendency already present for total conformity. In a society robbed of the meaning of words, the viewer’s internal narrative erodes. Art no longer provides authentic narrative.

A Mike Smith or Donald Judd sculpture is self-contained, it is a form of the concrete. In theatre the empty stage is never self-contained. For an actor to stand behind a stage flat is not the same as standing off stage. Off stage is the void. The unconscious.

What happens when a play begins? The flat reflects nothing. It can only hide. Today the playwright argues with an audience equipped with a truncated sense of narrative, an audience that has stopped listening, their attention pushed aside today by technological and ideological reproductions of social reality. To gesture behind the flat is not to gesture toward the invisible. To gesture offstage is.

In theatre the text supplies a memory as it goes along. We live in a lens-based media world. Single point perspective technologies. For Lacan, the imaginary is a site of ambivalent affects, including aggression and rivalry. The mirror stage, the first fiction, induces paranoia, provokes anxiety about a non-unified body. The first fiction. In Lacan, the infant is involved in a sacrifice of its own being at the moment it enters language.

The unrepresentable is always movement. It races against inevitable death, and it races toward death.

The act of writing for theatre is always a subtraction. This is a central paradox. The text is added in an effort to subtract. The actor must speak the text in a process of absenting himself. The text, the dialogue, must subtract those layers of identification with petrified shell of bourgeois identity. The actor speaking lines has to allow the speech to stay alive by staying ahead of himself, by sustaining that active margin of space linked to the dream. The actor has to forget his own dream life as he remembers the playwright’s forgetting. Everything in the theatre is in the process of self-dissolution. Writing always adds meanings, but they must at the same time be torn away.

Today’s laughter, in a theatre, is a non-emancipatory laughter: it is nervous and tight and hysterical and its not even the laughter of comedy but of aggression. The anxious quality is from the anxiety of exclusion. The aggression is the masochistic panic of the shrieking cat eating the lizard seconds before the hawk snatches them both.

In the dominant system of representation, the conformist picture of the real, there still remains denied, expelled material – which lurks around the edges as a force for paranoia and schizophrenia. A system of delusion has entrenched itself. The unified world of instrumental reason and perspective also creates anxiety. In Hollywood film, the world is created, the real is sold as satisfactory. A mastered discourse where the individual is confirmed as “real” and the world as belonging to “us”. The bodies on stage, however, are not simulacra, so they are not subject to the illusion of mastery in the way they are in film. Theatre has rejected this representative model, its dialogue there to re-introduce the lost object of desire. The lost encounter. This is an aesthetic, in Margaret Iverson’s words, beyond pleasure.

Childhood trauma is a missed encounter. Childhood sexuality is always missed. The missed encounter of the child must be compulsively repeated in an effort to be rid of it. Or to turn it, magically, into a chapter in the kitsch narration of everyday life. Always there exists a close relationship between the familiar and unfamiliar in awareness of childhood trauma, as it is repeated obsessively. The return of the repressed is a central aspect of theatre and of stage narrative. In Pinter’s The Homecoming, the object of dark desire is not in the room. The tensions are ripe and on the verge of rotting. In Beckett, the plays’ awareness of lost encounters is clear. The plays reflect upon it in obsessive repetition.

The grammar of repetition, of paranoia, and misplacement is the inroad to the death drive. The encounter with a play or artwork, what matters about it, is a discovery of the unsettling and unfamiliar. In dialogue, the caesura or stumble, the pause, creates a gap — a secret treasure map that is without meaning, illegible.

There are so many photos everywhere, everyday, that we cannot see them, and thus there is a real problem in today’s audience with blindness. And with deafness. A failure to listen. If you can’t listen, then you cant see. An authentic theatre must negotiate the fundamental illusion of identity and entrapment, the constant repeating of consumption, the constant reading of meaningless surface, a surface writ in the codes of domination, by a populace that turns away, blind and deaf. Theatre must find a home in absence. A return to our unknown forgotten elemental desires. As Adorno says, for the sake of the possible, thought must grasp its own impossibility. Theatre is the quintessential medium of the impossible.

The bourgeois identity of the artist casts a long shadow of its own exhaustion. The missed encounter is now more crucial to our sanity than anything else. A parody of Michelle Bachman is easy enough, and soon forgotten. How would one interrogate that idea as theatre, a non-ironic staging of what is a very real public dementia? What is the non-identical in this imagined play?

Corporations have blinded and deafened an entire population, who cannot identify their desire. At the start of every play (if it is at least attempting to do something that matters) an “idea” of that play begins to unfold. The idea is not the same as the “ideas” in the play. It’s an obscure desire that begins a journey. Few works today can sustain an idea for very long. One response has been to create codes for which no operating manual exists.

History: that conversation with death, that conversation in the graveyard or mausoleum. We are in history, and the dead are as real and present as we sitting there. Sitting and looking. Derrida is wrong (in his Artaud essay) when he says that, to the degree that it is representable, theatre is life. Theatre is not life. Theatre is death. Then we leave the theatre. Life reforms around us. The mountain is the mountain again.

Jonathan Beller has pointed out how we have a surplus unconscious now. This results from a rupture in the symbolic order, the failure of kitsch to contain repressed material. And with this spilling over of the unconscious comes aggression (fitting well with the cult of militarism). Language loses its potency, and the irrational pours over experience, staining it with an indelible but unreadable image-language and usurping traditional codes of interpretation. The critical faculty is short circuited more and more often — rolling blackouts of consciousness. The dream is now, indeed, dreaming us.

We repeat failure. Endlessly. Such repetition yields residual value. We chip away at the dream, the shrieking ego desiring affirmation. When that is gone, what is left is much closer to desire. That illegible ideogram that has no voicing, because its now “ours”. Artworks demolish identity.

The narrative survives. The theatre is narrative.

It is why we have theatre. Why there is a stage. The smell of the garbage and the marsh, the wet fecund wound just out of sight.

But first is the violence of the word.

The production of an audience, a blind deaf audience, doesn’t change this. What isn’t heard is heard anyway. The idea of theatre is not the idea of theatre. The traumatized child hears a siren song, and it’s coming from offstage.


LARB Contributor

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. 


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