Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










Where are the missing meta texts of theatre?

In 1967, Richard Burton made a movie of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Apart from the over-bloated and pompous performance from Burton and the absurd and embarrassing display by Elizabeth Taylor, the film was doomed by a lack of any acknowledgement of a meta text. It completely lacked a sense of grounding in any reality other than the vanity and technical skills of the actors. The exception to this was the insightful performance by Andreus Teuber as Mephistopheles.

While Burton's obvious love of the text, its rhythms and sounds, made the auditory aspects almost bearable, there was nothing other than a certain academic interest to compel any viewing. This can probably also be said of virtually all of the BBC productions of Shakespeare's work. We see clever actors indulging their skills in enunciating classic texts. This is all very well if we don't care a fig about the meaning and insights contained in the works themselves. Apart from being excellent wordsmiths, Marlowe and Shakespeare et al displayed stunning insights into human behaviour from both psychological and cultural/historical/sociological standpoints.

And here we see the defining point that divides and separates theatre practice into two clearly defined groups:

the Literalists,


the Meta-textualists.

Like Burton in Doctor Faustus, the Literalist sees the problem of creating theatre performance as:

getting the words right

finding correct pronunciations

finding appropriate movements to support literal interpretations of text

getting the right costumes

researching obscure points of order concerning what is known about the original producing of the play

placing the performance within the "correct" tradition of presentation

reciting the words "as written" (uncertain what this actually means)

producing works as isolated entities devoid of and in spite of any contemporary cultural contexts.

The Literalist takes pride in being true to the work and not messing with it. Any "messing" with the original is seen as "trying to improve on ..." whoever! The Literalist seems to have a romantic view of some past perfect form of theatre that we do best to try and recreate rather than re-interpret or re-examine.

At their best, Literalist presentations can be very useful by providing a kind of skeleton presentation of a text as a starting point for re-examination. In this way, the BBC Shakespeare productions have a place ... especially in an age where reading skills are becoming more limited. Academic departments at Universities sometimes encourage museum recreations in known styles advocated by writers being studied. These also provide excellent starting points for mining theatrical works that contain artistic and social insights that warrant further investigation.

The main problem with Literalist interpretations is that there is a still a meta-textual basis within the work of which the presenter is often ignorant. Burton's seeming literalist approach to Doctor Faustus, for instance, becomes overwhelmed by an undertone of some personal meta text that existed between he and Elizabeth Taylor.

However, for the purpose of this argument, a Meta-textualist approach might involve all or some of the following:

gaining subjective impressions from a first reading of the text

encouragement of diverse reactions to the text from all involved in its development into production

consideration of historical relationship between text and society and culture

identifying what is universal in the text

doing a structural analysis

But most importantly:

discovering how the text relates to personal perceptions, tastes, concerns and the very lives of the participants

identifying parallel contemporary situations, plots, contents, themes that might inform ways of understanding and viewing of the text in production

abstracting an over-riding sense of cultural/social/political purpose for presenting the text in performance

For a different take on the same issue, Eugenio Barba's On Directing and Dramaturgy: Burning the House (2010) provides an excellent discourse using three dramaturgies which are organic, narrative and evocative. He further discusses the particular dramaturgies that concern the people who participate in the creation and moment of presentation. Barba (note this link is both in Italian and English) places a huge emphasis on the silent world of the actor or director or whoever is creating a stage performance. This silent world is tapped in order to bring a more organic life to stage presentation. More will be written about his work in the February Trinculo's Shadow.

More discussions on meta textural approaches can be found in Script Into Performance: A Structuralist Approach by Richard Hornby (1977). While Hornby would not support the kind of suggestions we make here, his work is essential for effective directing of both classical and contemporary works; though it is fair to say, its strength lies in considerations for works by Chekhov, Ibsen and that ilk. His discussion on meta-modes is as good as it gets for any director.

For better illustration of this, read the Jefferson Lindquist & Frank Foster essay on how Hornby's work was incorporated into a metatextual / structuralist approach to producing Ibsen's Little Eyolf.

But we need to look wider than simply interpreting of script, character and situation. Our very reason for doing is important and critical ... and it is a meta-textual consideration.

Essentially, any work needs ONE ultimate creator ... not a committee of creators designing camels for the moon or the Antarctic! One creator! This means the writer / director / designer / producer or whoever is the instigator of a project involving presentation of theatre MUST have ultimate say and control over what is presented. And the buck must come back to this person ... either in millions of dollars (huh) or as criticism, condemnation, praise etc.

Theatre is in danger of becoming a camel created by so many collaborators as to be irrelevant and ho hum ... who cares! Provided the participants talk in suitable tones of the right nuance to convince peers of the worthiness or otherwise, then all is acceptable.

But we must ask questoins such as "Why the hell did such and such do a Chekhov OR Ibsen OR Williamson etc? WHY?" Is the answer because it might sell ... It might capture an audience! It might put arseholes (ie. bums) on seats! It might provide opportunities for hack actors with hammy potential and no-talent pretentious directors to put unsuspecting though critical students OFF THEATRE for the rest of their lives ... having been forced by their well meaning school teachers to come and see the energy challenged and artistically NULL version of dear old Chekhov ... or WHOEVER happens to be flavour of the months ... How many people do you know who were put off theatre or Shakespeare or whatever for the rest of their lives because of the crap they were given at school by well-meaning English teachers?

In the school where I work, I have heard the comment by particular members of the staff that they wouldn't come to see our Shakespeare productions because they were so turned off Shakespeare at school! And this is from staff at an educational centre! What about people from the general community! It seems the result of so much effort being put into teaching classic theatre, like Shakespeare, has backfired. Instead of encouraging interest, it seems to have largely had the opposite effect. With friends like English Departments throughout the nation, does Theatre need enemies? Or does it need more of the same literalists who enjoy the killing of audience participation in theatrical adventure?

Efforts of Bell Shakespeare to reverse this situation seem to be having some effect. And, from anechdotal observation, this success is precisely because of the company's willingness to explore the meta-textural universe surrounding the plays that it produces.

Unfortunately, many students of theatre wanting their sticky gold stars to further their careers will attend Bell productions and read the likes of Hornby and Brook and Barba ... maybe ... but then they they most likely take more notice of the reviews by critics of some amateur wank or the theatre foyer comments of high campery. So at the community level, where most theatre is actually produced, where is the evidence of any meta-textual understanding in the productions of theatre we see by so-called "up and coming" presentations? What is it about the work that really says something of importance for the communities the theatre might reflect or serve?

At this level it is unfortunate that when there is a glimpse of some excitement, some touch of the magic that can be evoked when the silence is broken into disorder by some mindful execution by an unlikely creation, what do we see? Some tunnel visioned agenderist critic destroys the credibility of the creators and thus leading them gently into the mediocre cinders of what remains of true meta-textual exploration ...

For those that do seem to have considered some of this, Trinculo's Shadow reserves a special place ... as does SCREAM. But you have caught me with one or two sparkling bubblies too many and I despair the missing meta texts in most of our theatre ... and especially in the young ... and youthful ...

Joe W

PS. Get yourself a copy of On Directing and Dramaturgy; Burning the House (Routledge 2010) by Eugenio Barba
It's a must have for any serious student or practitioner of theatre.  JW

In April 2010 a group of students from The Daramalan Theatre Company went to Caloola Farm surrounded by the idyllic mountains south of Canberra. Here they set about relating the texts of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Goethe's Faust to their own lives and world as they experience it. This led to the beginnings of a kind of meta text through which they questioned the generally accepted realities of life and social construction. A presentation was given over two nights in June for an invited audience. Now the work is being revisited and shaped into a theatrical event that reflects the discoveries and explorations from the initial Caloola Farm camp.

Presented by Shadow House PITS in association with Daramalan Theatre Company, the production challenges the notion of theatre as being a reproduction of dead ideas and long resolved controversies. Rather it seeks to weave great works of mystery and insight into the tapestry of the present.

For more information email Joe Woodward at:

HERE at Canberra Ticketing