A common symptom of the theatre we watch/read/experience today is that it has come to resemble television or film. This comes as no surprise. We live in a society where film and television have become dominant forms of popular culture theatre is a much smaller, self-selected group – and for the majority of people is more a novelty act than anything else. It pains me to write that, but it is the sad truth. We have to come to terms with the fact that theatre, in this society, is worthless.
That is not to say that I will stop doing it, or that it is not important and necessary. Its very worthlessness beckons its necessity. In a society run by exchange-value, where art succeeds on its market rather than its merit, something worthless is indeed quite valuable.
To become worthless is also quite terrifying if you want to make a living in this world, Think of all the ways we ascribe value to ourselves and our form. Could you imagine all of that being worth nothing? The hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, the unpaid internships, all the pro-bono work. Yet, the worthlessness of art was once its true value. Kant knew this: “There can be no objective rule of taste, no rule of taste that determines by concepts what is beautiful,” (Critique of Judgment, § 17). Though that point of view is present even in Clement Greenberg’s Abstract Expressionism, there is an objective rule of survival that has the capacity to overrule every rule of taste – artists have to eat. For that there is the rule of the markets and that, governs everything. The problem, in that in theatre there is less of a product to be sold. It cannot be sold and resold and exchanged the way that film and television and even visual art do. Yet, in spite of this, or even because of this, television and film have become our dominant cultural forms. A dominant cultural narrative must embody the forms that it seeks to imitate. What better vehicles for late-capitalism than multi-million dollar, corporation-driven works of art?
Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle sees this relationship between cultural products and societal structures very clearly. For Debord, : “the spectacle is the main production of present-day society,” (Debord, 15) – which is to say that the products of spectacle are those self-same products that make this society works, which is to say, our entertainment and our society both function under a narrative-driven capitalism.
The problem of course is the fact that theatre does not live in a silo, though it may sometimes act like it does, and when we realize that our work is worthless, we suddenly panic, and try what we can to ascribe value to it. Rather than embrace its sheer worthlessness, theatre reduces itself by trying to imitate what is actively successful and tries to inflate itself as a similar kind of narrative-driven capitalism. When it does so, it becomes novelty, and instead of becoming theatrical it becomes a version of the other more successful forms, just with “real-live” people instead of screens. If anything it shows its creases more, and creates the only “worthy” things within the piece those which theatre can do nothing for.
When Equus sells out Broadway seats it becomes more about a teenage infatuation of seeing a popular movie star naked rather than Peter Sheaffer’s writing or even the director’s vision. But theatre, or what is left of it, is a business, and that business requires capital. When the television show “Smash” uses the plotline of a movie star replacing the “worthier” actresses, it demonstrates a futile perspective, but also the inability for that model of theatre to bemoan itself without literally turning itself into what it is critiquing.
But unlike television and film theatre does not have to be constricted by million dollar budgets. It has the capacity to be immediate, and to be done, seen and available to anyone in a public space.
When theatre embraces its own worthlessness it embraces theatricality. The non-product of theatre is its most powerful tool. Think about how much you can get away with when no one is watching, when there are less systems of control. The only things that restrict us from making work are the logical red-flags that a market-driven society ascribes to worthless behavior. But rather than resign ourselves to walking that same line, let’s walk the other line and see how we can make theater possible from nothing. Not just a theater of poverty but a theatre of incapacity, a theatre that looks like our broken infrastructure instead of a theater that woefully tries to cover up for its impossibility. In the end isn’t it more interesting to see the corrugated cardboard held by duct tape and the chipping paint on the other side of the gilded frame?
The internet unglued these dominant forms and really finished the job they started, by completely individualizing themselves they function as what is most necessary in this society, it acts IN PLACE of the individual. It directs the gaze, and in some ways, fills in the blanks of experience.
The theatrical came first -and it was an event, with a structured gaze, but not a directed one. You can look where you want. You can get up and leave, and if you so choose, can destroy the performance. That danger is what makes theatre theatre, that tenuous relationship. But that’s also what makes it an awful product. You can never get the same thing twice, and you’re never guaranteed anything. You can’t exchange an experience.
Then film – and in film you have a gaze that becomes directed. The camera watches for us. All of a sudden we are all seeing the same thing. And the thing is always the same, no matter where you are. Suddenly you can exchange this, suddenly you can keep it. Suddenly it becomes a commodity.
Then television, and the film comes into our lives. It occupies a place in our home, and in doing so it begins to restrict not just our gaze but to act for us as well. We are told when to laugh. We begin to live the lives of characters, driven to obsess over them, celebrating their weddings, beginning fashions and becoming our topics of conversation.
In film, the CINEMATIC is what makes it film: montages, close ups, pans – these are ways of seeing that become unique to film. We begin to see what we otherwise cannot see. We can see as people we aren’t, as objects, as the voyeurs we secretly wish to be. In doing so, we entrust our ability to see to a reproducible kind of art. A universal camera, overtakes our own, more imperfect eyes.
In television the TELEVISUAL is what is originally to its form, the “laugh-tracks”, the “cliffhangers”, the things that perform us, that make us follow it and lead our lives to it. Reality TV of course is the full realization of this, “the confessional”, we even have “real” characters spill their guts out to us, in some way being relieved of even the need to confess our own sins. So we inherit the narrative of these characters and mold ourselves literally in (or against) their image.
Within all this, what becomes THEATRICAL? The theatrical is what nobody can see – unless they’re there. It’s the excessive, it’s the rabble, it’s the chewing too loudly, it’s the uniqueness of the experience. It’s the fervor of the political event. It’s what happens one time and never again. It’s worthless as a product, but it’s essential to societies, it constructs the narrative not of just one story, but of our human event; a collapsed grand narrative that has led to an obsession of anything but that narrative, but it is THAT story that we have to keep telling.
And the goal of critique, moreso than to accumulate the value of a show (to go or not to go), is to continue this task, to document the theatrical within a piece, to excavate the most worthless elements and hold treat the rest like the debris.
Time to sift through our trashcans and see what we come up with.