Issue No: 121 World Theatre Day seems an appropriate moment to reflect on why we do theatre. Of course, people have been reflecting on why we do theatre for a lot longer than 1961, when the World Theatre day was initiated. So it only seems fair to put a spin on the usual motivational tone of why we labour in the service of the theatre. And so, as we take a break from our tireless service in the name of all things theatrical I ask you to consider a few dramaturgical perspectives!
If you were a citizen of ancient Athens, the theatre was first and foremost about ritual. This might involve lots of wine drinking, bad behaviour and riotous activities. (As you can see, we carry on this ritual even to this day as part of our cast parties.) The theatre was the site of great festivals to propitiate the gods. The act of going to the theatre was the participation in this act of social solidarity. The interrupted ritual remains a popular motif in much dramatic work that operates in this tradition. In this motif, some act of omission, lapse, or transgression results in tragedy for the individual or society – think Oedipus Rex or Antigone. It is the completion of the ritual that sets things right again and allows the restoration of peace. A lot of Aristotelian dramaturgy still derives from this basic premise.
What if the theatre was not about the act of solidarity, but about participation in a spectacle? Here another tradition takes off, one that finds equal expression in the ancient circus and the modern blockbuster disaster movie. Here the theatre is less about making sure people get along, as it is about keeping the masses distracted from upsetting the peace. As long as we are wowed and amazed by the spectacle we are less likely to be out on the streets challenging authority! At least that’s the idea, since the modern spectacle can take on many different forms, including big sporting events (dare I mention cricket, football and F1?), and even all those alien invasion movies. This tradition sees the spectacle of theatre as performing an important role in the preservation of order. However the problem is, who’s order and on what terms? From this strain of theatre and its associated dramaturgy, we derive the various distancing effects used to push the audience out from a banal engagement with the content, and towards the various hidden forms of oppression operating in society, and as shown in the performance. This theatre is the theatre of protest, of resistance and of agitation.
Then there’s a quieter perspective. Here the theatre is an engagement with the body, the mind, and the emotions. In this kind of theatre, it is the pursuit of refinement that is the shared goal of audience and performers alike. The aesthetic codes of this kind of theatre demand mastery of the emotions in order to render a performance. Here the audience experiences a transformation, as much as the performer. In the rhythms of a Noh performance, or in the eye movements of the Kutiyattam performer we see a profound engagement with craft. It is this dedication that we celebrate, and it is through this selflessness that we are uplifted and transported. Here we are instructed of and through the sensorial experience of the self, the loss of it in the performance, and the mastery that occurs when we exit the other side!
Finally, there’s the theatre that harks back not to the circus, but to the carnival. In this theatre, the normal everyday conventions we are accustomed to seeing and experiencing are inverted, subverted and thrown out the window. In this dramaturgical strain, the theatre is not a reflection of the everyday but its mirror opposite. It is not the noble truths or hard politics of the king, but the looney logic of the court jester. What remains important however, is that the jester was given sanction to say things that were otherwise taboo. This was always a game of cat and mouse, since too much truth spoken to power would often end quite badly for the jester. However, the best court jesters complemented the ruler, and by extension the rule. The ability to poke fun at something, remains and ought to remain a very important part of the theatre. Just imagine a society without humour!
So what is it? Ritual? Resistance? Refinement? Or… randomness?
Today is World Theatre Day and perhaps it is only fitting that we say that it is all of the above that we celebrate. For theatre is best described as all of the above and none of the above. It is more and less than everything that I have described! It is each one of these traditions, each with its own rich and vibrant history.
So today on World Theatre Day, perhaps we can take a moment to reflect on this mystery. This enigma that enraptures, frustrates, uplifts and amazes us!
Ram Ganesh Kamatham is co-editor of e-Rang. He is a playwright and director with the Actors Ensemble India Forum.