Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










SCREAM No. 70 : June 2015


It seems a long time since it was almost a norm to have a sense of optimism about human potential that could change the world for the better ... an essential anarchism without anarchy ... a libertarian social bargain based on self-management and responsibility derived from knowledge ...

    The world is certainly becoming odd, strange ... a regressive place. I remember when I was a young man and how I expected the world was progressing from a state of barbarous superstition and ignorance into a world of enlightened understanding with new thresholds of potential ... essentially human potential . . . a potential for creative organization with a new political mandate resulting from a revolution that would re-order outmoded traditions and the tyranny of social controls of the kind envisaged in Orwell's "1984" and practiced by Australian Governments in the form of conscription into the military to fight wars on other continents. Social control and authority in general were questionable and things worthy of our constant suspicion and scrutiny. The primacy of human thought was seen as a basis for all action. The enemy got us killed; the enemy being the "establishment" and its lackey, "the Government". Without proclaiming "Anarchism" as the necessary outcome of such thinking, the Anarcho-syndicalism examples from Spain in the 1920s /30s were in the mix along with radical leftist and new left writing with their origins in Marxism. The libertarian stream was compatible with Marx's own brief writings on "alienation" especially in early publications of The German Ideology. It never really rang any bells that right wing "libertarian" thought was the natural bi-product of this thinking that extolled individual freedoms.

    However, theatre allows the potential for the kind of anarchism that explodes the semantics of oligarchy that guide our political / social establishment. The patriarchal tendency in most viable political systems thinking drawn from ancient religious viewpoints can be seen in the public adoration of heroes and masculine power at all levels from popular music to military might. It should never be a surprise that religious writing from the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran all prescribe an essentially patriarchal social structure. Only since the late Enlightenment period and the re-thinking of religious doctrines in the nineteenth century has religious thinking at times tried to re-interpret the texts to suit new historical circumstances. Such influences can't be said to emanate from the religions but were forced on them from atheist and non-western religious non-theist thinking (eg. from Buddhism). In the case of Islam, such recent tendencies have been all but obliterated. The concept of individual freedom is a threat to all forms of organization. The fear of freedom is ever present.

    Erich Fromm posed these questions:

      "What is freedom as a human experience? Is the desire for freedom something inherent in human nature? Is it an identical experience regardless of what kind of culture a person lives in, or is it something different according to the degree of individualism reached in a particular society? Is freedom only the absence of external pressure or is it also the presence of something--and if so, of what? What are the social and economic factors in society that make for the striving for freedom? Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? Why then is it that freedom is for many a cherished goal and for others a threat?" (Erich Fromm: THE FEAR OF FREEDOM, UK, Routledge and Kegan Paul,1942)

    The notion that freedom is not a natural or given state opens up the question of either / or! Either we seek freedom or we seek to prevent it. Given a choice, human beings almost always prevent it; citing reasons of social control or subjugation to god or some universal plan or collective responsibility. Original Sin has left man in a banished state from freedom. Kharma has pre-determined one's station in life; and that allows for following a plan with little room for individual freedom. Materialist theory suggests no freedom is possible without over-throwing and taking control of the means for production. In this sense, freedom is a meaningless facade without such action and resultant control. Astute politicians all know that to allow a loosening of social control is suicide. The public will always choose a strong patriarchic vision where clear threats and reasons for fears are clearly articulated. Fear of death and fear of god being two of the most prominent fears that allow for the usurpation of freedom! Ancient books that proscribed certain freedoms did so with a threat of damnation more terrifying than anything imaginable on earth. The establishment of daily rituals and constant seemingly arbitrary requirements became the tools for reinforcement of abandonment of freedom. Prayer rituals, eating rituals, dress rituals, group rituals and political / social rituals are effective ways to separate into cultural grouping to control social order and ward off evil and prevent dilution of the ideal. The distraction by fear is perhaps the single-most potent means for abandoning any goals of freedom.

    The optimism of the idealistic sixties was thus a dream; a dream forged by unrealistic understandings and a consciousness that looked inwards rather seeking to tackle the need for revolution that would change human nature. The cultural revolution in China with its disastrous consequences tried to do just this. The seemingly democratic communes which began as ideal anarcho-syndicalist styled self-managed communities soon gave way to violence and unscrupulous little Stalins who manipulated the seemingly weak-willed idealists who hoped and craved for a better humanity.

    In today's world, the lack of optimism has resulted in a turning back to some kind of Hermetic belief system that suggested humankind lost contact or fell out with the Divine in some ancient time and now had to try and recapture it. Such assumptions are not only linked to New Age thinking but also to radical Islam and even post-modern sceptics who admonish the Modern tendencies of rationalism and ideals of progress and emancipation from superstition. Where there is no trust in community or humankind as a whole, then there is no way to evaluate one bullshit ideology or world-view over another. The turning back has resulted in surprising conversions and adherents of all kinds of belief structuring.

    An inversion of William Golding's pig's head on a stick attracting flies seems appropriately analogous for our current situation. Rather than the dead pig's head being the evil within each of us, it becomes the source of wisdom for the innocent people like Simon in the novel. That Simon hears a truth from the dead pig's head on a stick created by another human to control his followers might well be interpreted as an experience of the archetypical fearsome god of fear striking terror into adherents of a particular world view. And once we control people's psyche, we control their actions. The hallucinogen of religious belief is extremely powerful. The nonsensical post-modern view that all religions are essentially the same is easily debunked when one considers the totally contradictory claims made by each. Only the moderate high priests and controllers of the religions really allow such thinking to proliferate because they have much to loose once the pigs' heads become seen as simply decapitated animals . . . though tell this to Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants of the 1970s or to the Shia and Sunni Muslims today in the Middle East or to Pol Pot's Communists and to the North Vietnamese Communists of the late 1970s . . . Slight differences in world views and belief systems can be the cause of essentially extreme violence. The harmony of supposed inter-belief respect is a particular product of the Enlightenment thinking which the same adherents are largely rejecting and so variants of the Lord of the Flies proliferate and demand and call for respect . . . under pain of death if not given due reverence (ask the dead Charlie Hebdo!)!

    There can be no freedom when the cultural psyche shaping the individual engagement with the self and with others is so geared to irrational controls dominated by patriarchal guardians in virtually all major cultural groupings. Short term victories for Freedom soon give way to a thousand pin pricks bleeding even the semblance of freedom. Whole cultures, nations and civilizations are enslaved within global structuring of entrenched controls. Even the freedom I exercise in writing this essay is at the expence of another in another part of the world as I draw upon energy resources which will ultimately cause the destruction of another. And I can write this and virtually anything I wish, because it will not ultimately make any difference.

    When speaking of freedom it takes on a totally different meaning if we apply it to a person living in extreme poverty or born into an alienated barbarism that inflicts itself on to the female population and makes them internalize the separateness of gender; the subjugation of one sex to another. It takes on a totally different meaning when our pious concerns for welfare and human rights are dependent on what is expedient or in line with a particular ideology. When a smug post-modern society berates honour killing of women while turning a blind eye to domestic violence causing death of women in our own neighborhood, we must acknowledge the cultural blindness that spreads like disease.

    So . . . that naive joke of freedom, that I once felt was not only possible but inevitable, is dead and all writing that pretends otherwise is likewise a joke or simply a distraction like a mechanism for bread and circuses. Like Gloucester in Shakespeare's King Lear, audiences have to be metaphorically blinded in order to see reality. Edmund's characterizing of his father's foolish and superstitious view of the world is summed up by this beautifully succinct text:

      if we were villains by necessity; fools by
      heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
      treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
      liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
      planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
      by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
      of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
      disposition to the charge of a star!"
      (Edmund, King Lear, Act 1 Scene 2)

    Edmund is theatre; providing that essential crack in the psyche of acceptable culture! His fearless challenge to the norm is amoral and yet revealing of false moralities. Edgar is the ultimate beneficiary of Edmund's actions. Yet we wonder if Edgar will ever have the insight into the fallacious nature of the universe that destroyed his father and the kingdom of Lear. It seems Edgar can only clutch momentarily at freedom and he will have to accept it's tragic repercussions. It was earned through violence and subjugation to obligations and a sense of restoration which can only be ephermoral. There is nothing optimistic in Edgar's victory; only some lessons in hindsight!

    The popular thought that bums-on-seats in theatre depend on uplifting optimistic themes is essentially anti-theatre! It has its basis in marketing programs for product placement and cultural ennui. The success of Disney and other theatrical efforts that suggest audiences are passive viewers wanting escape into fantasy is used to justify a commercial theatre that is being destroyed by its unfavourable comparison with film and television. The hero's journey is not always successful and could be inspirational for failure as much as for artificial success . . . There is more to theatre than Lion Kings and Spider Men or Les Miserables. Shakespeare and his more realistic outlook on the world and people's interactions within it gives a greater sense of what theatre can still be while not making artificial assumptions about its role within society.

    The struggle and tension within the goal of freedom and the fear of freedom is at the heart of theatre as a means of revealing cracks in the psyche of culture. Ultimately it must strike a bargain with its audiences to momentarily close off the outside world and to reveal something of what is behind the shadows and silhouettes of the everyday world that lives in each individual member. Optimism simply affirms what one already KNOWS ... or at least, FALSE OPTIMISM as created via the well-made-play is of little use. Theatre is one of the few places where challenge to the tunnel vision of belief systems and world views is potentially possible; and especially possible when it provides a pattern of challenge being reflected in multi-performances of different and diverse productions. Once seen as a sanctioned place for challenge and having an "all licensed fool" role in society, theatre may well fulfill a role beyond optimism and become a focal point for creating new awareness and small rips in the fabric of culture.

    Theatre is one place where the ideal of freedom can be revealed and experienced as if through a form of anarchism. The body of culture with its embedded belief systems can be obliterated and re-assembled as Artaud might have suggested. And perhaps the destruction of idealism can be just as liberating as the prescription of idealism through unchallenged cultural edicts . . .

    Joe Woodward
    PS. Click on the image below to listen to a song that catches some of the inspirations that
    are contained in the article above . . . at least, listening to the song repeatedly helped in the writing.
    Play it over and over . . . and buy the album . . .

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