Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture











"In a post modern context, is a publicity stunt any less significant as theatre than say the presentation of a work by Chekov?"

A man has something pressing to say. He is on a mission. He kidnaps a woman. Ties her up. His associate has a video camera. The woman is made to plead. The video captures her desperation. The Kidnapper is now controlling the scene. The horror created by the execution by beheading is predictable and intentional. The video is edited and sent off to major networks. An audience around the world tunes into this live event. Live in the sense that it isn't pre-scripted. But it is structured. It has a beginning, middle and an end. The authors know its structure very well. The act is not directly related to any ill-feeling directed personally at the victim. Rather the act is a calculated media stunt aimed at affirming a cause for some while shocking others. They also know their dual audience well. They know their theme and content. They know the dramaturgy surrounding the production.

At another point in time, a group of men are meeting in a Frankfurt apartment. They play a video of a man screaming as his head is being sawn off by masked figures. They laugh and become very excited. As the screams become more tinged with a hellish fevour and "god is great" becomes the harmonic choir set to counterpoint the condemned man's final prayer, the holy warriors cheer the collapsed head as it is removed. They feel it is the command of the Noble Qur'an and this certainty over-rides any sense of their loss of humanity. After all, the word of god cannot be contradicted.

In another part of the world some months later, Pope Benedict XVI identifies the evils of "relativism" as one of the main targets of his papacy. It is seemingly a strange target. The Pope's certainty rests in his being the conduit for god's word and god's truth. If god's truth should change, then the Pope should be the first to hear about it. Relativism whether as a complete paradigm for thought or as an observable means for interpreting social and cultural reality is a threat to the certainty of god's will. Thus the Islamic terrorist and the Pope are in agreement on this point. The perception of reality from the Relativist point of view allows the observer to see such a bazaar connection between the Pope's and the Terrorist's position. The perception of reality from the certainty of righteous belief denies this possibility.

The murder of somewhere between 50,000 and 3,000,000 people by the dictates of the Inquisition, the organization which the current Pope inherited for many years, alongside the constant murders seen all around the world by Islamic terrorists are justified on the grounds laid out in either the "Bible" or the "Qur'an" and the interpretations of god's conduits: be they Popes, Bishops, Ayatollahs or various lesser receivers of the light.

The Church once executed people for challenging the notion that the world was flat. It devoured even its most ardent practitioners (eg. Joan Of Arc) in the name of church dogma and the dictates of some antiquated book. Others who advanced the notion of a greater universe than that of the biblical cultural cloisters were likewise destroyed. Giordano Bruno perhaps being the most noteworthy victim of Church dogma. Bruno argued:

"This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things."

No wonder he was burnt at the stake by order of the Inquisition in 1600. Although trained as a Priest, Bruno had no time for a restricted sense of god or the personality ascribed by the Church to some notion of the infinite. Yet, paradoxically, relative to Church teachings of the sixteenth century, the Church of Pope Benedict XVI has incorporated humanist and scientific experience into its changing world view. Strange then that the Catholic and Christian Churches are still blinded to the reasons for their own historical blindness based on ecclesiastical or religious teaching and dogma. So when the Pope declares an attack on relativism, he is still continuing to define the grounds for the burning of present day and future Giordano Bruno. In his view, dogma and irrational belief derived in ancient books written for very different societies and cultures over-ride the experience and historical learning that is open to anyone.

On this subject it is worth noting the attacks on Liberation Theology under the direction of The Congregation For The Doctrine of the Faith. Radical Bishops in Latin America found themselves replaced by conservatives supportive of repressive dictatorships. Some clergy, even after their assassination by adherents to conservative and repressive governments, were still denied blessing by the church. The coolness towards the memory of the assassinated Archbishop Romero was a notable case. The fear of Marxist ideas and paradigms for mobilization of the poor and disadvantaged gave rise to a general attack on clergy of the same faith who invoked models from outside of the theocratic structure of the Catholic Church. While the Church has accommodated many humanist ideas and ideals, Communism and a Marxist analysis of class action was not a negotiable area.

The Vatican could not allow the sacred canopy of the Church to be undermined by the competing influences even if those influences appear to conform to Church attitudes to "social justice". Paradoxically, it is the Church's own teachings on this area that gave rise to Liberation Theology. However, a relativist tendency in Liberation Theology may very well lead to a conclusion where the very institution of religion comes under question. The doctrines of faith are the pillars of the institutional church. Any tendency that threatens these pillars must then be eradicated.

Giordano Bruno's wedding of philosophy with scientific discovery in the sixteenth century posed the same threat as do the proponents of Liberation Theology over the past half century or so. But while Liberation Theologists still accepted a god with a moral personality, Bruno in the sixteenth century went further and challenged the personalization of the concept of god. By understanding the universe from the perspective and view point of human experience and continuing observation and analysis, Bruno established a relativist philosophy without a political or social movement supportive of such contention. The isolated Bruno had to accept the loneliness of existence. Without the fabrication of the sacred; without the illusion of a comforting universe, mankind was left vulnerable, adrift, homeless.

Seen in this light, the religions and organized secular belief systems (eg. communism) provide their own fabricated models giving sustenance to the need for belonging and an antidote for ennui and personal and cultural alienation. The clergy and the vanguards of social and political belief systems become tailors weaving the "emperor's new clothes" of certainty; the new clothes abstracted into metaphors and then reconstructed into statements of universal obligation and action; motivating calls to action; guidelines for social discourse and the manufacture of reality.

To challenge the very existence of the new clothes is a very dangerous course. The Christian, the Muslim and the Jew have a God which only those blessed with the right faith can see and hear. This God offers instruction commanding actions of a particular type. The Marxist has an abstracted notion of the "laws of history" or "historical materialism" to mobilize action towards the inevitable creation of a Utopian human existence on earth as opposed to a heavenly after-life.

Each has provided a sacred grounding providing security and certainty. Each provides the basis for meditation and the concentration of the individual and collective mind. Each has allowed the individual to transcend the ordinary and attain an extraordinary even heroic stature. Each has provided a platform for terror justified by the words in a book. Sam Harris in The End Of Faith provides a most provocative and stimulating discussion on this point.

And so for theatre!
Terrorists act on the certainty of their beliefs. They can do whatever is justified in their books and their hierarchy of purveyors. Their minds are rooted in a lush homeland of ideas and beliefs that cause and justify action. Their theatre is focused on a very specific ground for communicating terror. It goes beyond the didactic and into the most extreme form of blurred mixing of art and reality. We ask is it theatre or marketing? Is "theatre" merely the metaphor for describing the enactments by terrorists?

Is this what Artaud meant by shocks? A theatre of cruelty? Is this the ideal theatre with a direct art and life equation?

In some respects post modernism opens up the possibilities to assess such acts as art and such acts as having relevance as art regardless of their anti-human and essentially religious motivations. If there are enough elements to be considered theatre, then it should be considered theatre. In other respects, the acts of terrorists (particularly in relation to the executions by beheading) are simply publicity stunts drawing attention to their cause. But in a post modern context, is a publicity stunt any less significant as theatre than say the presentation of a work by Chekov? Is not the cry of the busker just as significant as the opening of a play on Broadway? Are words of the poets "written on the subway walls?" If we can capture the image of a man with an erect penis, cannot we present this as art? More to the point, can we have it accepted as art? Or a coke bottle? Or a large rock with a face drawn on it squashing a car?

Whatever positives one sees in such works depends on knowledge external to the actual shape and form of the product. Ironies and symbolism usually claimed for the images created determine the meaning. Meaning itself is questioned. In a meaningless universe, how can art be more than a joke of sorts perpetrated on absurd public sensibilities to draw out contradictions in social and cultural perceptions? It is not hard to see the relativist basis of post-modern and modernist works. In popular culture it works best in comedy. The image of Monty Python figures dangling at the crucifixion singing Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life is a most memorable example. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" also contained absurd, mocking and ironical images. But it became the duty of every good Muslim to murder him as a result.

Unlike art which subscribes to an Aristotelian or Platonic ideal where art is an exposition of some innate form, the post modern work negotiates its form and significance. To this end, it is necessary that some marketing dramaturgy be engaged to make it work. A photo of Andy Worhol's image of Elvis Presley hones in on the iconic stature of Elvis Presley in the 1950s and 60s. Through careful compliance of media writers and critics, the work becomes a major piece of contemporary art. Such positioning of the work is far more significant than consideration of the actual merits of the work when considered from a more formal appraisal. The juxtaposition of the image with public perception of the iconic nature of real person and situation is the key to understanding the value of the work.

Is such an act when captured and processed for a world theatre any less art than the terrorist's image manufactured out of the real life public murder of an individual? Will it take long before such an image or a slight variation of one of the Abu Ghraib images becomes viewed as a pivotal work of art symbolizing the world of the first decade of the twenty-first century?

What defines the differences between art, entertainment, advertising and promotion, random selection of images, pornography or Agit-Prop? What of the more controversial works of Robert Mapplethorpe? While the Islamic extremist uses murder and torture as a reality show, Mapplethorpe (and those who profit from his work) use real sexual stimulation. Such is also a trend in some mainstream French film making, especially in works by Catherine Breillat as evidenced in the erections on the male actors.

All use theatre as a means. All require some wider understanding in order to make any sense out of the symbology of the presentation. A culture defined in a relativist way is a homeless culture. As ancient certainties become absurdities, the foundations of certainty provided by the multifarious faiths have led to challenges within the creative processes of art itself. As a result theatre can remain the last bastion of certainty for an essentially conservative audience interested only in being distracted by the confusion of everyday life. Alternatively, theatre can choose to become more akin to the visual arts and adopt a more cultural exploratory and leadership role.

In an unstable and ever increasingly changing cultural and social universe, theatre like the publicist can be a vehicle to draw attention and break the flow of equilibrium in collective thinking and consciousness. Such a notion challenges theatre's more traditional role as story teller.

Theatre as beacon vs theatre as story telling

The homeless mind seeks beacons for direction knowing that such direction is just that: a direction and not the destination. The self contained theatre piece with neat beginning-middle-end story structure provides a closed universe of certainty. Whether the certainty is tragedy or comedy is irrelevant. Theatre as story telling provides reality as completion. Its stage is an illusory universe suggestive of a known universe which can be reflected upon and allowing the viewer to extrapolate his / her own situation from it.

Most of our theatre, even our radical theatre, tends to implement this structure. This isn't a criticism. It's just that its what's-going-to-happen-next structure is a story structure used in most films (other than music videos). Stories work towards completion. But there is an alternative approach that has been proposed by people like Antonin Artaud and practiced by others since. I suggest we look to those groups who are utilizing multifarious technologies and influences beyond the traditional theatre.

A theatre of the homeless mind then does not provide completed beginning-middle-end story structures. Each story can be seen from infinite perspectives. The overarching theories and principles guiding the selection processes for story telling are themselves under challenge. All we can confidently indicate are tendencies and directions in the revelation of partial and fractured realities. Theatre is not alone in this. The most rational of occupations consider the same issues. Science and medicine are also subject to postmodern relativism in ways not always obvious to the observer. Specific knowledge comes under attack while evidence is necessary for all areas of discourse. The paradox of intuition and personal faiths playing increasingly significant roles in individual and cultural action in a relativist post modern world is not lost in theatre. Here the dreams and nightmares of contemporary existence manifest themselves in expressionist concoctions drawing attention to sub-conscious understandings and cultural shadows.

None of this is new. Artaud, Brooke, Brecht and probably all the "absurdists" tended to argue somewhat along these lines although with very different emphases. Theatre as a beacon gives a very different starting point for its creation than theatre as story telling. The terrorist with his sword and the Church with its rituals of transformation and emotional transcendence paradoxically utilize the beacon aspect creating momentum in the direction suggested by their sacred books.

The challenge is for theatre's own work force to understand and utilize possibilities of the beacon effect. While being of a homeless mind itself, such a work force needs to refocus within the cultural milieu to find its own physical beacons and icons suggesting direction and tendency. It needs to embrace the terrifying possibility of a universe that is not moral; comforting; nor understandable beyond isolated moments and infinitely small observable patterns. It needs to find its courage in the face of this to expose the lies of the tailors who weave the clothes of deception giving comfort to the purveyors of the anti-human theatre of terror.

Joe Woodward
May 2005


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