Part ONE of two.
I am in the middle of the read up for my dissertation, which will look into realistic female characters in crime television shows. One particular theme throughout all that I have read thus far stemmed a series of thoughts of my outlook on theatre, this blog being the first part: a progression of the detective from a superhuman solo figure to a teamwork ethos in search of realistic portrayals.
The first set of thoughts I had were about realism within theatre. That age old phrase about art mirroring life has always bugged me: surely it should not only mirror but amplify? There are two routes with realism: one in the artistic/aesthetic sense, the other social/political commentary. Let’s start with the former.
I adore Ibsen; I find his work fascinating to read. But would I go see, say, Hedda Gabbler live? No. Why? Because in practice it is much harder to pull off outside of the era it was written for, hence why a lot of modern productions choose to physicalise the piece. Ibsen once said that for him his plays were like a goldfish bowl; you could leave, return and the action would be no different – art mirroring life. But that’s just it – in performance it is purely aesthetic. Nothing actually happens in Hedda Gabbler, and when the only really exciting part of the play does happen, it is behind a damn curtain! The action of his work is in the unsaid, the unseen, the subtext and suggestion, which makes a read-through that bit more enchanting.
Admittedly Hedda Gabler is a social commentary of its time. However, like many works that are from a different era, the significance of the issues has to be found in other places. I recently saw The Guid Sisters, a Scots translation of the Quebec play Les Belles Sœurs, and what struck me the most was how little the issues mattered now. The pill, abortion, strip clubs, sex/forced sex, family outcast, religion – in the original production, these topics caused an outcry because it was a commentary on the deeply repressed lives of working-class women. And understandably so.
But 40 odd years on, it is a different audience (granted, the night I was there it was probably the same audience only 40 years older) and a different time. Opinions have changed. Commentaries are of their time; performed outside of it, the meaning has to come from somewhere else. The young girl was scared of getting an abortion, and repeatedly shouts “I’m fear’t.” At the time, abortion’s were not only enough to be disowned for, they were literally life-threatening. So her death, it could be argued, should be where her fear stems from; she is signing her potential suicide-pact. But this is an analytical take; there was no indication of this on stage.
Another example: one of the older ladies is discovered to have been spending evenings in the strip club every so often. At the time, damning; now, not so. The meaning, as I took it, was in her loneliness and want for company, as well as the shallow nature of the rest of the women who cannot seem to comprehend it, because she goes to “the club”. This may seem like a review – it isn’t – but there are many messages in this play which, in the 60s, will have no doubt merged together beautifully and powerfully. Even now, the resonances are still strong, but from the production I saw, it was similar to spinning plates – you either spin some and lose some, or focus your efforts on a few.
What am I left with? Audiences need a shake from time to time, and commentaries are a great way of awakening them to their senses. But they are of their time. I always thought that if I were to do Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (the political allegory of the Nazi rise) my focus would be on the ridiculousness, not the politics. Its message still holds strong today, but to strengthen it further would require adaptation and modernising. I am not a huge fan of commentaries as it is, but there is greater purpose in them than a play with the art for art’s sake motto written all over it. Why would I go see a play about what is on my front door step? I go to the theatre to be entertained, not to witness the ‘real’ reality for 3 hours that I could easily see on a Saturday night down the Cowgate. There has to be more to a commentary than its message alone.
Theatre has always been a completely different world to me; reality is not an option.
Part TWO. Fantasy