THEATRE: THE ART OF SURVIVAL
© April 2008. Foundation for Progressive Playwrights. Donald Freed.
The Prophetic, “Political,” Theatre – the narrative of the human race,
the storytelling of our survival and our salvation
– is under mortal attack at this hour, by the propaganda of Power.
The Theatre is Revolutionary – Organize the Theatre!
Why is every great and potentially great play and playwright of such constant and abiding interest to the secret police? Aristophanes to Beckett, Euripides to Pinter; Vaclav Havel to Arthur Miller to Trevor Griffiths; Odets, Bond, Osborne; from Sophocles to Shakespeare, to Bert Brecht to Dario Fo: Why?
Or rather ask why it should be that policemen and censors of every stripe should be riveted and obsessed by the deepest storytellers in each generation, while at the same time the cultural elites relegate the oldest and most potent of the arts to the bottom of the list for national support? Except, that is, for Athens before her destruction; Shakespeare’s London before the Civil War; and modern Germany after the Holocaust.
A new theatre changes history.
The “Theatre” in all its forms and masks is a creation of Nature. Human Nature. The age old enemy of this human nature is the culture of phallic power that arose out of the new wealth and inventory of the Agricultural Revolution, only some eight thousand years ago.
Before that, nature and culture were not at each others throats. Homo sapien were hard wired for the song and dance (“in the dreaming”) of our survival that would become first ritual and then theatre. Nature was the creator, Power the censor; the official censor, the creature of the State, and the Church; and then there was that other invisible censor in the Market Place. The Artist, the Creator, against the Censor in an unequal but mighty struggle; signalling through the flames – “the Shock and the Awe” – the old story of our rise and our fall and our rise. This struggle is the libido of the theatre, the narrative that connects the living to the dead and the unborn in each age: the actual audience of great theatre – all the faces that we will never see.
We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads
And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all.
“The Theatre of Cruelty”
Before theatre was “Theatre” it was the ritual celebration of our endurance as a species. We were Homo symbolicus, the talking animal, telling ourselves who we were – under the moon on the Dancing Ground, then, later, after the Fire Revolution by the light of the flame. The old stone age flame of our saga has never been completely extinguished. The one and only story of our million year theatre/ritual is and has always been the epiphany of how we shall be saved. The story of the hunt and the kill, the eating and the rebirth and resurrection of these “beasts” that we called Mother and Father – the worship of the large totem animals that our nomadic forebears followed season after season for more than a million years: this was and is our song line, followed time out of mind until the ice began to melt and there took place a paradigm shift that changed the fate of the symbolic animal forever: the Agricultural Revolution.
The condition of millions in every country
… is now far worse than if they had been born before civilization began.
Trevor Griffiths, quoting Tom Paine,
I n his epic “These are the Times.”
In old Sumer, where modern day Iraq burns, nature was conquered by culture. This is what the new ur-
The Neolithic Gemeinshaft with its dancing ground and its song lines is subsumed into the propaganda of ur-
The one omnipotent great male God rewrites history, or his scribes and priests do, and the Temple, the Church, and the Mosque become the temporal theatre of power. Yet the flame of the old song lines still raced, hidden and underground, beneath the sacred text of Church and State, to erupt like a volcano in another time and place where the one and only God of the Holy Land had not yet triumphed: Athens, five hundred years before Christ.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
For a historical moment, fifty some years, Athens was all democracy and drama. Then the Democratic Party became the War Party. Euripides, at the age of seventy four, was driven into exile with a price on his head, and his friend Socrates was murdered. Their crime? Telling their countrymen that their leaders were not Gods (“Ye tearers down of cities… yourselves so soon to die…”). This is the age old “crime” of the prophetic, progressive, political theatre. This subversion of power in the text and in the subtext of every serious play from Gilgamesh to Godot (“they give birth astride of a grave…”).
The young Plato immortalises his teacher, Socrates. Athens becomes a torture democracy and commits suicide. Plato grows old and in his philosophy condemns to death, again, the poet and the playwright, along with the memory of the great gadfly of power, Socrates that he had loved of yore.
The Greek drama tried to stop the political show with a chilling message: Not only are we not Gods, but not yet even human beings! Hubris, Hamarteia. Euripides in The Trojan Women sets war, the great wrong of our race, to music, as it were, and rips off the death mask of Patriotic Democracy; just as Shakespeare will speak, through Falstaff’s red orifice, or Brecht through the snarling charm of Mack the Knife.
When the Greek colonels overthrew their native democracy in the 1960s their first act of repression was to ban any performance of any play by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides—let alone Beckett or Pinter. No, the colonels knew.
After the Athenean catastrophe, 2500 years ago, the theatre runs scared, driven back underground into Myth and Religion. Yet the deep human Narrative of Nature with its rebellion against the Culture of Power continues, from the Garden of Eden to Gethsemene. Thus, the spirit of Sophocles and Euripides is reborn in the Nazarene Gospels; and Jesus goes the way of Euripides and Socrates to his torture and death.
The Church Militant, the silence of the “Dark Ages”, lies like a giant hair shirt over human culture, but the spark of the theatre burns on among the Folk into the “Middle Ages.” And, then, the spark flares up brighter then ever: La Commedia!
Here’s fine revolution and we had the trick to see it…
“Hamlet”, William Shakespeare
A linguistic messiah enters world history. William Shakespeare reinvents the great narrative wheel of fire. And he is not alone, he is part of a renaissance that will crest and break on the English Civil War, then speed across Europe in the eighteenth century, and flood into the new medium of the novel in the nineteenth, under the signatures of Dickens and Dostoyevsky.
All the while, the censors, the priests and the spies, were there watching – watching us, the artists in the theatre – for we are, as Shakespeare clept us, “ … the brief abstract and chronicles of the time …”
You’re only dead if you don’t take root in other people.
Trevor Griffiths, in “These are the Times”
Ritual, after the advent of writing, was overpowered by Religion. But the Greek Tragedies broke free for a breathtaking moment. Then silence. Then the Commedia, Shakespeare and his Age – the Renaissance – and its offspring Romanticism and Enlightenment: down to our Revolutionary hour. Many masks, yet underneath one human face, voice, story: the invincible struggle of our own narrative art, our Nature, against the culture of Power – the story, the Limit Situation, that Edward Bond calls “the crises in the human species”.
If Euripides came back and sat in the National today, he’d say this is rubbish.
Then came the Revolution, that Chekhov and the Russian and the European storytelling geniuses had imagined and foretold. The official censorship against these new voices was absolute. The theatre became a “filthy lazar house” to the compact English critical establishment. Still, the narrative of the “Modern” was unstoppable. The story, itself, created a new theatre: the Q, the Independent; the Libre; the Freibuhne; the Moscow Art Theatre; down to the Group, and the U.S. Federal Theatre; to the Berliner Ensemble, to Joan Littlewood, to our day and its Theatres of Fact and Cruelty, and this hour.
The arts have been hidden from the people.
Artistic Director, York Theatre Royal
Today, the mighty Wurlitzer of turbo-
Over against this new nihilism there is only the age old rebellion of the Theatre, the timeless narrative of William Faulkner’s “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Dear President Bush, I’m sure you’ll be having a nice little tea
party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash
the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood.
Let us face the “facts.” The Plot of Power: “The Free World” is sworn to a life and death struggle, a “War of Civilizations,” against an ever changing “Axis of Evil.” Because the “American Dream” triumphed over “Godless Materialism” in the twentieth century, we now live at “the end of History.” Therefore the dialectic is dead. The Theatre as “social” or “political” cathartic drama is dead. The “Market” has spoken, “Entertainment Lives!”
I wrote my play Theresa under the compulsion of an unassuaged anger engendered by the apathetic amnesia almost universally encountered among British people in regard to the adoption into a British territory’s legal system during the Second World War of the Nuremburg Race Laws, with their inevitable consequence of stark horror for those to whom they applied.
From “The Case of Theresa: Guernsey, The Holocaust And Theatre Censorship in the 1990s”
EUROPEAN STUDIES, Professor Mary Luckhurst.
Silence. Then a new war – and, suddenly, torn out of “the dreaming,” from the old Stone Age comes the call of the counter myth. From our African genesis; from the Fire Starters and the Bull Roarers; to the priests of Dionysus and the Attic chorus – the song of human freedom finds its voice. Until, finally, Hamlet and the First Clown, the old gravedigger, share a flask in that prison graveyard called Elsinore. Singing an old anonymous folk rune that absolutely no-
Julius Caesar dead and turned to clay
might stop a wall to keep the wind away
O that that name which kept the world in awe
might patch a wall t’expell the winter’s flaw.
And Alexander “stopping a bung hole”!
At last, the Theatre teaches us that we are not gods; that, in Kazantzakis’ words, we are the creatures that have been called human beings too soon. In this cathartic instant, Nietzsche declared, we the audience are released to “overcome our stupid, neurotic personalities and to rub shoulders with the human race”. Then and only then are we truly human.
This catharsis, this truth of our own existence, is unrivalled in its power, but it is brief. Brief, transient. Cathartic insight cannot be abstracted or bottled or prescribed. Catharsis, the purgation of the terror and pity of false consciousness – of false power – can only be found in one place: in a Theatre. And it, catharsis, lasts only for a few days (though forever in memory) and must be constantly recreated and resurrected.
Thus the unequal struggle: The State is a machine; a conveyer belt of corpses and mythomaniacs, of alienation and violence. The Theatre is only the oldest art. An ancient story gathering dust until it is again revived in public by living people for a living audience. But then breaks through the sudden glory of our nature – Lear’s “unaccommodated man…the thing itself!” And when that happens, and only then, and only in a Theatre of some kind – when that tragic joy sweeps everything before it, then, and only then – do Alexander and Julius Caesar die and turn to clay. Then and only then do the myths and monsters of power return to dust. To dust. To dust, and we to life.
The word “drama” in the old language meant To Make. Let us make it, and reconnect the old true narrative before our voice is completely co-
Euripides went into exile and the theatre of Dionysus is ruined
Shakespeare took to drink and his theatre was pulled down
Molière was persecuted and the royal theatres of France are empty
And in our time playwrights and others who work in theatres have been shot, imprisoned, exiled and silenced
But what was first said on their stages is still said in our homes and in public places
The stage is a footprint made by history…
Theatre is the house of hostages: we go there to fight for our lives—never doubt it
Honour the city that founds a theatre
On its stages say what you are forbidden to say when the times are dark.
Friends: Please send comments and suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks, Donald Freed.
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