are the missing meta texts of theatre?
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.
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
here we see the defining point that divides and separates theatre
practice into two clearly defined groups:
Burton in Doctor Faustus, the Literalist sees the problem of
creating theatre performance as:
the words right
appropriate movements to support literal interpretations of text
the right costumes
obscure points of order concerning what is known about the original
producing of the play
the performance within the "correct" tradition of presentation
the words "as written" (uncertain what this actually means)
works as isolated entities devoid of and in spite of any
contemporary cultural contexts.
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.
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.
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.
for the purpose of this argument, a Meta-textualist approach might
involve all or some of the following:
subjective impressions from a first reading of the text
of diverse reactions to the text from all involved in its
development into production
of historical relationship between text and society and culture
what is universal in the text
a structural analysis
how the text relates to personal perceptions, tastes, concerns and
the very lives of the participants
parallel contemporary situations, plots, contents, themes that might
inform ways of understanding and viewing of the text in production
an over-riding sense of cultural/social/political purpose for
presenting the text in performance
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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
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 ...
Get yourself a copy of On
Directing and Dramaturgy; Burning the House
(Routledge 2010) by Eugenio Barba
a must have for any serious student or practitioner of theatre.