Der Zuschauer

A Journal of Essays and Reportage on Drama, History, and Literature

A Seat On The Aisle

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Zuschauerkunst from a Seat on the Aisle

They already sit there; calm with raised eyebrows and would like to be astonished.
The director in Faust

The effect of an artistic performance on the spectator is not independent of the effects of the spectator on the artist. In theatre, the audience regulates the performance.
Brecht, Arbeitsjournal

I have always asked for a seat on the aisle in the theatre. It is not merely that I have long legs; my place in the “historical catalogue of the way audiences have been placed in performances spaces” is problematic. Although being tall and large in a playhouse is a question of the body, which I must address, it is not the essential reason. It is that I need to escape, that I must establish a way to quickly get out of the theatre before I can sit with comfort in it. Brecht, you will remember, in his house on the island near Stockholm spoke of the four doors for escape. This is not always the mind moving the great bulk out of auditoria in great umbrage at incompetence witnessed, nor travesty endured; often enough it is because I need to pee, to go and have a slash, and address the wall, and talk to myself while the body concurrently is taking care of other business.i
This urinary matter happens more often however when I am in the cinema, which I love, but do not take so seriously as I do the theatre. It is also true I am much more apt to walk out of the theatre than the cinema, another indication of increased expectations and if these expectations are mental, interpretive, analytical, they are as well spontaneous and apt to produce immediate physical reactions. I do not need to shake a ladder in order to bolt out of an aisle in the third act of an especially tedious Merchant of Venice.
Asking for an aisle seat means quite often one ends up in the last row of the theatre as well. This happens repeatedly to me in both the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Lyttleton in London, and this helps the spectator in any forced march exit the mind demands of the body. This brings us to another essential question: that of the mind to the body. Is the mind, in fact, a Leichenräuber, or body snatcher?
I must take issue with the idea that “the actor’s presence is, first and foremost, a physical one.” Surely the body animated with intention, conflict, contradiction and intelligence is the presence one responds to. Also, surely, the actors, addressing us through their bodies’ “process of ostentation and encoding” cannot be denied the human voice and its consequent semantic meaning. So posit the actor’s body onstage, yes; robust, failing, magnificent, erotic, dryasdust, and with it of course, mental animation. Just as I posit the spectator in the seat on the aisle in the last row: recumbent, motionless, expectant, hopeless; the mind lit up, house on fire, or tut tut tedious and bound to bolt out of the building.
There will be no value to discussing the body sans intellect onstage or in audition. The dead do not live. They do not walk about in the dark. Theatre is not voodoo. I do not arrange for a seat on the aisle to hear ventriloquism.
Now, côté cour or côté jardin, a look into Patrice Pavis’ discussion of the actor’s body in his Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis may help decide the question of Leichenräuber as it relates to actor and spectator.ii In his section on the body (corps, körper) he writes “Within the range of acting styles, the actor’s body is situated somewhere between spontaneity and total control, between a natural spontaneous body and a puppet-like body whose strings are held and manipulated by its subject or spiritual procreator, the director (34/5).” Note that the author or text is mentioned obliquely (the subject) and equated with the puppet-authority of the “spiritual procreator, the director.” Pavis’ advocacy lies with neither.
Pavis posits two schools of thought on the body of the actor in theatrical space. “The body is only a transmitter or bearer of the theatrical creation, which is situated elsewhere—in the text or the fiction performed.” The body subordination is further delineated. “The body is totally subordinated to a psychological, intellectual or moral meaning, it is self-effaced when confronted with dramatic truth, playing only a mediating role in the theatrical ceremony. The bodies’ gestures are typically illustrative and only reinforce words (34/5).” The use of the term “theatrical ceremony” is both surprising and worrisome.
The flip side of transmitter is material. “The body is self-referential material. The dualism of idea and expression are replaced by the monism of body production.” Pavis cites Grotowski: “The actor must not illustrate but accomplish an ‘act of soul’ by means of his own organism (34/5).” This business of body production and act of soul reminds one of Alt’s admonitions to the others in Bruckner’s Krankheit der Jugend to “take your soul to the toilet.”iii Pavis in stating that gestures are creative and original parenthetically remarks “or at least appear to be.” Finally he writes, “Actor’s exercises consist of producing emotions through the mastery and handling of the body (34/5).”
Now my question, sitting there in the dark on the aisle, Links vom Zuschauer, is why either/or, ying/yang, merely transmitter or simply material? Because there is a Leichenräuber in every actor and writer and spectator. And I am not, my body and I, sitting in the theatre to watch actor’s exercise or to identify through fantasy with the actor’s body, but to hear a play, to watch situation, human dilemma and choice. I have my legs in the aisle. My coat is folded up on my lap with my teddy-bear book on top (What is it? Canetti’s Masse und Macht? Or Cibber’s Apology?) and I am ready to go, ready to go with the play, with the fiction (ever how flickering and fragmented a suspension of—disbelief) or out the door, my body in concert with, in full agreement, with my Leichenräuber.

Saying “no” to Wedekind’s Lulu

When one confesses, often one’s body is on its knees. I have a grave problem with kneeling because of an ice-skating accident many years ago. I do need to confess that I shouted out loud once in a theatre during a performance. This is of course appalling behavior and has been since Herr Wagner dimmed the lights some time ago. This open immediate articulation of the mind’s distress and the body’s unease is precisely however the sort of crowd behavior, deemed appropriate in Leo Hughes’ The Drama’s Patrons: A Study of the Eighteenth-Century London Audience. He quotes Garrick approvingly.
With more than pow’r of parliament you sit,
Despotic representatives of wit!
For in a moment, and without much pother,
You can dissolve this piece, and call another!iv

We of course do not act like that, hence my confession. We are a very well behaved theatre audience.
The play I shouted out at was Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Wedekind’s Lulu 1913, staged by Lee Breur at the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Center in the early 1980s. It was a robust ‘revisioning’ of Wedekind’s play with a cast on roller skates using those television stick-mikes to sound pornographic in voice-over. Lulu was a statuesque African-American woman with a well-displayed and exciting figure. In Pavis’ section in the dictionary on body language and body expression he writes, “The actor’s body becomes the ‘conducting body’ that the spectator desires, fantasizes about and identifies (by identifying with it).” He states as well “Today, it is the notion of the body as material that predominates in staging practice, at least in experimental theatre (35).”
Pointedly, when the rock band rose out of the orchestra pit to stage level and Lulu along with everyone else in the cast was dancing and she shouted out “Is everybody having a good time?” I shouted out “No!” and others in the audience then also shouted “No” and there was a smattering of applause but crowd reaction has little force in a theatre with a rock band rocking, and surely the smattering of real response was seen by Breur and Artistic Director Brustein as a success on their part, i.e., to wake up a sedentary audience, reactionary as well as reactive. Here too is the idea of the single individual being taken as part of the faceless crowd.
Pavis writes, “The actor’s speaking and acting body invites the spectator to join the dance and adopt to synchronous interaction (35).” Why did I not toss my folded coat on the floor and Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik as well, and go up there and dance with Lulu? “The actor’s body is not only perceived visually by the spectator, but also kinesthetically; it calls up the spectator’s corporal memory, and motor and body awareness (35).” The actor’s body is perceived by the spectator not only visually and kinesthetically but also intellectually and historically. I had gone into the Loeb wanting to see Wedekind’s historically specific play. Hot stuff in a circus outfit did not get the job done. Jack the Ripper was in the rest room.

I wish I was in the land of cotton

Now in remembering Brecht’s remark that “the audience regulates the performance” I ask myself is this really so? Daphna Ben Chaim writes in Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response “Dramatic theorists and theatre practitioners characterize distance in the theatre in a variety of ways, though nearly all assume that it concerns the spectator’s psychological relation to the theatrical event. Concern with the state of mind, or mode of perception, of the spectator is perhaps the single unvarying feature in the entire history of the idea.”v The body squirms when the mind is agitated. One leans forward when one is engaged. One leans back, sprawls in dismay. Finally one humps forward and endures—praying for the interval.
Or, one leaps up at the end of acts and plays and applauds robustly. But one does not interfere or interrupt. I have not broken out into umbrage since Lulu’s question. I have walked out of many theatrical performances.
Robert Wilson’s necessarily truncated version of Civil Wars, presented again at ART in Cambridge, replete with prologues, epilogues, knee plays, and speeches from Heiner Müller, all put together in “a conjunction of things mutually irrelevant”vi sent people fleeing to exits, politely, after the opening segment (under an hour) playfully referred to by wags on the dramaturgical staff as “Rin Tin Tin on Darvon.” This preposterous, over-extended epic exercise in self-regarding incoherence was more than the ART audience could handle at the time. They had not yet been trained to be good Germans, glad to be bored by Bildung. The Wilson/Müller Quartet held audience more effectively than Civil Wars if that is the appropriate expression. But walk out of Civil Wars they did, expeditiously.
What is going on in that “hydra-headed monster” that Samuel Johnson mentions in his “Prologue for the opening of Drury Lane, September 1747”:
The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give,
For we that live to please, must please to live.vii

For we grumble and slump in our seats when now we are not pleased. We go quietly when we are appalled, bored, saddened. I regularly bark at cinema in film houses. I berate and harangue my public radio station at home. But except for that one outburst I stay quiet in the theatre.
Watching the “Rin Tin Tin on Darvon” sequence of Civil Wars (a wagon of Union Civil War soldiers taking a solid forty-five minutes to move onstage) I at least had a complicated relationship to the American Civil War as a Southerner which most people in the audience did not have. “The North was completely right, the South totally wrong, move along.” Still the body was restless. Because the effect of the theatrical presentation was not working on any level, my derrière become discordant, surly, was assertive in a manner often described in the various chapters on audiences in the five volume (140 years) of The London Stage, 1660-1700. Not unlike an archaeological ghoul at a Henry Irving Shakespeare production I stayed through out the fragmentation of Civil Wars and its discourse, humming “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and fortifying myself in the intermissions with coup de rouge.ix

Reportage a la Pepys 3/4/01

I went last night to the theatre, to see David Wheeler’s production of Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at ART, a play I was not familiar with. Besides David Wheeler, whose work with actors I particularly admire, members of the cast included Jeremy Geidt, Ken Cheeseman, Will LeBow, Alvin Epstein and Sean Dugan. The play was scheduled for 7 PM and began on time. The house was not full. A great snowstorm had been predicted. I sat on the aisle in Q 11. I came alone. The two seats to my left were empty. I had a greatcoat on, a loose heavy sweater, jeans over the ankle boots. I had no tie or jacket. The book I brought with me was John Lough’s Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.x
There was an intermission between acts two and three, it being a five act play. The other act breaks were denoted by a dimming of lights. The Doctor’s Dilemma was presented in 3/4 thrust with great screens and painted backdrops forcing a wall at the proscenium arch. All action was played before this and the audience of course surrounded the action. The Loeb can be a quite intimate space in this configuration.
I made a point of observing the audience, something I rarely do. At one point in the play it occurred to me that there might be a great many doctors in the auditorium. A woman behind me clearly had never heard of Shaw and joked that she’d been told it was a comedy. I was swiped across the face by a man’s parka. He did not apologize.
There were Ashkenazi. There were Russian émigrés. There were short, stocky women with expensive and atrocious clothes. There were the young, artistic men with either long hair or flamboyant beards. There were the beautiful young women, interns all. I had a glass of red wine at the bar and read my book standing. It is clear no one in America drinks anything ever except raspberry-guava soda.
It occurred to me in Q 11 that I had more than enough room for my legs. In fact the seat dimensions are exactly those of the Lyttleton where I have been conscious of space before. Nonetheless I sit there on the aisle as well.
I tried to consider how much of a presence we were as the audience, individually and collectively. We certainly were there for the actors, surrounding them. Laughing not only at Shaw’s eerily contemporary play but also at beloved actors whom we have been watching for many years, Geidt, Epstein, and Will LeBow. It was a well-acted play. David Wheeler is an actor’s director. He is not a German wunderkind. I am always surprised that Brustein employs him in his theatre.
I noted that the program for Shaw has more dramaturgical substance than that for Mother Courage staged by János Szász (currently in rep at ART). This makes sense, as it is clear that one director, Wheeler, wanted to make sense. I couldn’t help but be struck by the following note of Shaw in the program: “It is the mind that makes the body and not the body the mind.”
Sitting on the aisle one must take in the social graces. Older women in fur coats simply stand before one without a murmur waiting for one to stand and let them pass. Not a word afterwards. More obviously suburban types are politer. In the theatre as elsewhere American men are extremely shy or reluctant to even acknowledge other men. How can women of any class or culture wear fur coats? They remind me of the Flintstones.
Reading John Lough’s chapter on “The Age of Alexandre Hardy,” which I thought a funny idea to begin with, made me conscious of the social composition of the audience at ART on this evening or rather the difficulty of making individual assumptions, much less assumptions about the ‘body politic’ of the audience. Certainly it is not a young audience. There are the interns, ingénues and enfants terrible, but primarily they are all—God! —my age, or older, canes in abundance, agonies of ambulation to respectfully walk behind. There are many bearded professionals with their sturdy wives. It seems to me as well a socially self-conscious audience pointedly with all of the conventional business of costume and dress no longer in place. So one is left looking out for Robert Pinsky, Brustein, that Russian historian Pipes, etc.
My body was comfortable. I eat well these days and drink almost nothing at all. I was not sleepy or jumpy or howling-wolf rapacious. I meant to be quiet, thoughtful, and attentive.
The lobby experience is quite a trying one. I usually find a nook or cranny and read. Last night I stood and observed. I have been told I have a way of “looming” in a room. This is to say I am tall and able to simply stand in a large room full of people without being uncomfortable or desperate for any conversation of any kind. I did notice one man in his 50s, slightly shabby, but brave face on, who was obviously a lobby-intermission hustler. I saw he had cornered at least two different people he didn’t know, one man and one woman. He was buttonholing them about the chairs onstage and the design. He was a great fan of the Huntington Theatre productions, presumably even when there.
Now this question of the spectator’s body in relationship to the actors onstage was settled somewhat for me last night as it was a production whose intentions I respected and so was not distracted by polemical matters. Thus, also, it was actors’ theatre in a quite intimate if large setting and the principles were actors I’ve seen play for a very long time in a variety of venues. And Shaw’s play invites that quality of actors’ theatre with its doctors’ professionalism and congeniality. This was not a production wherein to consider my capacity for fantasy, sexual or otherwise. I found myself imagining what the weather was like outside in the scenes of the play.
The costumes for the women in the play were atrocious. In particular there was a choker on the character, Jennifer Dubedat, which made me quite dislike her. I realized this was irrational but sensuously derived. In fact I was unable to take the character of Mrs. Dubedat seriously as a femme fatal or femme remarquable. This was directly due to my response to the actor Rachel Warren. That the plot of the play is set in motion by her character’s allure and driven by her possibility meant that I had to substitute in her place an imaginary woman of real dimension for me. This happens often enough in Ibsen plays as well (Nora, Hedda, Rebecca West) where one is expected to take the essential female character as ravishing as well as interesting simply as a human personality. I find this difficult to do. I find much more personality in male actors on the American stage than female. This is not the case for me in European theatres where I think female actors more than hold their own.
Relating the terms kinesics (according to Pavis: “Science of communication by gesture and facial expression), and kinesthetics (Pavis writes: “According to Barba’s theatre anthropology a spectator is affected physically by the pre-expression level of the actor’s body and the performance), to the production last night I found myself thinking of how age has affected Geidt, Epstein, and LeBow. I was delighted that Geidt and Epstein were still capable of real character delineation and that the faces and bodies of all three men have gotten so much more interesting with age. LeBow is jowlly, Epstein fragile and subtle, always well thought out. As to the astute connection of theory to practice perhaps A Doctor’s Dilemma is not the play to study in performance in this direction.
Proxemics, which “studies the organization of human spaces; types of space, distance observed between people, organizations of habitat, organization of space in a building or room,” might seem more prudently applied to last night’s experience. Pavis lists eight variants of proxemic behavior: 1) overall body attitude (based on gender); 2) angle of orientation of partners; 3) body distance defined by arms, etc; 4) body contact, by form and intensity; 5) eye behavior; 6) sensation of warmth; 7) olfactory perception; and 8) voice. Pavis goes on to say, “When applied to the theatre, these categories would enable us to observe the kind of space between actants, between actors onstage and objects or between stage and audience (290)”. All of which is true and quite interesting. When faced with the application of theory to practice (praxis) however it can be daunting. Regarding #6, sensation of warmth, I can say I felt warm, physically it’s-snowing-outside warmth, and I felt warmth in the interaction of the male actors playing doctors, particularly that of LeBow and Geidt. There was warmth in their playing. There is as well warmth in the Shaw itself but perhaps this is not proxemics.
What can I say of #5, eye contact? There was none between any actor and myself. Nor do I think there was any in general between actors and spectators. It was a play directed and performed as a fourth wall play even though presented in 3/4 thrust.
Such questions as #1, overall body attitude; #3, body distance defined by arms, etc; or, #4, body contact, by form and intensity; would require photographic analysis. The best bit of non-textual business was none the less verbal. LeBow when greeting or taking leave of Geidt would always start that “hurumph, hurumph, blah blah blah” that men do when using language without genuine meaning. It was quite funny and the audience got this immediately.
#7, olfactory perception seems to have no part in the aesthetics of last night’s performance. #8, voice intensity, is an aspect of performance I am quite interested in. It was a quality completely ignored by János Szász, but last night one might say there was voice intensity simply because good actors were focusing on clarity of expression and, especially in the case of Epstein, careful delineation of a character. A Doctor’s Dilemma is a drawing room play. It does not call for escalation of voice, for pitching out. Any play whose basis for actor interpretation is charm is bound to be a warm, cozy work vocally, certainly not the sort of voice focus one hopes for when Edmund comes onstage for his bastard speech in King Lear.
Wheeler did not create the most fantastic bit of mise en scene last night so far as I know. At the end of the performance I and others fell in behind an amazing old man, tall, stooped, in his 80s, in an astonishingly tacky plaid suit (something straight out of Carnaby Street), and as I said he was tall and rickety, with a great mane of white-yellow hair, and taking forever to get to the lobby door and I remember trying desperately to relate his movement to either the Prague structuralists or Russian formalists and getting nowhere at all. The raucous “Marcia” movement in Paul Dessau’s In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht was rattling and knocking in my head. Finally there was the exit.
On my way home the blizzard had not yet begun. I stopped in at Out of Town News and bought Friday editions of Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Dressing up for the theatre

Anna Akhmatova was struck by Mikhail Bulgakov’s “sublime contempt” when defending himself and his play, The White Guard, in a public forum in the late 1920s in Moscow. He certainly dressed well for the theatre. Evening dress, shirt-front and cuffs pressed and starched, bow tie, cigarette jauntily present—even a monocle. Definitely no proletarian-aping leather jacket such as the unfortunate Meyerhold would adopt. Everything about Bulgakov’s attire as he walked into the Moscow Art Theatre or the Bolshoi would have radiated “extraordinary man,” “special event”—“the stars twinkle for us.” This from an unrepentant orthodox Christian who claimed that Bolshevism meant you could no longer leave your galoshes in the foyer in the evening and assume you’d find them in the morning, a man who believed sudden outbreaks of torrential rain were directly connected to his destiny—a man who could write Joseph Stalin and demand a proper job in the theatre.
While he was a dramatist, director, actor, librettist, he also knew how to be a spectator. This meant dressing for the occasion and if we dress down now even at the opera and adopt semi-somnambulant postures in the darkened auditorium it was not Bulgakov’s idea of how to conduct oneself.
If we are hoping to lose ourselves in dramatic fiction, to swoon away into situation or plot, to fantasize over Mark Antony’s thighs or Juliet’s heaving chest, it might be better to dress in a bulky sweater and lose fitting jeans. Starch and collars, bustier, or proper boots over the ankle might have a distancing effect. Yet let us assume that Bulgakov is right, that we need match the esprit de jeu of a night in theatre with our own panache and brio. It will be the elan vital of our accoutrements that will allow us to command Tartuffe performed brilliantly, Faust sung splendidly, or Hamlet coherently played.

One button more or living in truth

In 1983 I saw Vaclav Havel’s A Private View at Joe Pap’s Public Theatre in New York. Havel was in prison writing letters to Olga and I was not on the aisle. I was seated two rows from the stage in the center with a companion. Onstage and directed at a furious pace were Havel’s three little plays about living in the absurd land that was Czechoslovakia under the communists. One of the plays concerned an intellectual who is forced to work as a janitor in a beer factory. His boss was one of those proletarian ruling class types who really wanted to talk to dissidents. I was very much a young man of ideas at that point and my body was irrelevant. However, the actor playing Havel’s Hanswurst was a spitter, a serious spitter, and my friend and I squirmed strategically to avoid precipitation.
This episode having established a very direct relationship between the actors, and myself, the next one act was absolutely riveting. The Havel character in this play, an intellectual in internal exile is having drinks in the apartment of two ‘collaborators.’ A couple who are having a wild and crazy time or at least a better time (foreign travel, real scotch) because of their willingness to go along with the government.
The spitter, in a new part, is spraying the set with single malt and his wife, is playing records and dancing about the room in a very tight fitting blouse without a bra on. There are three buttons. There are more drinks. A button pops and lands on the stage with a pop, pop, pop. More discussion goes on with the Havel character, modestly earnestly making his points about living in truth. The spitter says, “be sensible.” A second button pops and bounces across the floor. The audience is riveted. I am riveted. The Havel character is avoiding the smug piety of the happy martyr. He is no hero but he does want to change the world. The actress with the remaining one button is quite well endowed and also well aware of her dilemma and our dilemma. She is a good actor and playing a very physical part and she is not holding back and we, the audience are all going crazy. We have stopped squirming, the scotch is rain, we are riveted. I am a young man of ideas. I smell like a drunk. I am worried, physically worried about this actor and her breasts.
The button holds. The scene ends. The applause is tumultuous. It is thunderous. The actress takes her bow with a pullover sweater on. Her breasts are still there. Havel’s character is there too. One button against the totalitarian state, Havel’s character in the play, and Havel’s character. I want to vigorously shake his hand. I don’t know what I want to do with that actor’s breasts. I leave the Public Theatre even more excited than I was the first time I saw Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Theatre can be intense.

Other Acts of Resistance

Samuel Pepys would go see a play he liked several times in a row. We also know he walked out of plays because we know he and his friends would go from one playhouse to another. Think about that: an act of Otway, Settle, Lee, Dryden, and then Shadwell. Why not? How is this related to our own time and our unwillingness to disturb the aura, the homage, and the genuflection? We wait for intermission.
William Charles Macready once fell under a table dead in a scene from a melodrama and had his outstretched hand stepped on by his fellow thespian. At this Macready sat bolt upright and chewed out the villain. This drew great applause. Macready stood, bowed, and left the stage. Surely our theatre would be better if it could withstand the implications of this behavior.
I last remember walking out on a play during performance in New York at the Public Theatre in the late 1980s. I had gone to see a play by David Hare, a dramatist I genuinely admire. However, inexplicably, The Knife was a point of departure for him. Its subject matter was tedious enough. It was a theatrical piece about a man who decides to have a sex change operation. It was also not a straight play; a form one could argue Hare excels in. The Knife was a sung-through musical play with no dialogue at all. I had no idea of any of this and was stricken with exit, retreat, bolt for the door. Fortunately I was on the aisle and I quietly made my way up it and saw a man in the last row, vaguely familiar, watching the play and now watching me. We established eye contact proxemically. We nodded. I walked out and in the lobby of the Public realized the man was David Hare. At that point I would have gladly walked into the last half of a Wally Shawn play.

Spectateur, Zuschauer

The discussion of the spectator in the Dictionary of the Theatre is complex and well organized. Pavis writes, “It is not an easy matter to grasp all the implications of the fact that the spectator cannot be separated as individual from the audience as a collective agent.” All astute commentators on the phenomenon make similar observations. “Each individual spectator contains within him the ideological and psychological codes of several groups, while, on the other hand, the audience sometimes forms a single entity, a group that reacts en mass (participation).”
Pavis describes several approaches to the matter. He states that “the sociological approach generally confines itself to the composition and sociocultural origins of the audiences, their tastes, and reactions.” This is clearly relevant to group research and inquiry. The semiological “is concerned with the way the spectator builds meaning on the basis of the series of performance signs, of the conveyances and discrepancies among the various signifieds (348).” This potential individual or group approach posits an entirely reactive position for the spectators and does not assume intervention or positive direction of performance by the spectator.
Pavis describes reception aesthetics as looking for “an implicit or ideal spectator. It is based on the principle (albeit a very debatable one) that the staging must be received and understood in a single right way and that everything is arranged according to that all powerful receiver.” Reception theory gives creative power to the spectator. “…In theatre the spectator is conscious of the conventions (the fourth wall, the character, dramaturgy); he remains the chief manipulator, the stage hand for his own emotions, the craftsman of the theatrical event.” This is to overstate the case but surely there is considerable substance to this argument. It certainly suggests we not underestimate the spectator and audience either as a member of it ourselves or as theatre practitioner. Pavis also offers an answer to our question of why modern audiences are so seemingly passive. “In the theatre, the spectator can (theoretically) intervene onstage, be a troublemaker, applaud or whistle; in fact, he internalizes such intervention rites without disturbing the ceremony staged so painstakingly by the artists (349).” This is to put a good face on the matter but it is a plausible argument.

A claque of one: laughing before anyone else does

How can one individual affect “the integration of mental and physical space represented by the actor’s presence?” Especially if that one individual’s body is cloaked in darkness, hidden by the glare of lights from the actor? Also, too, the single spectator may not be in accord with others as regards reading, interpreting, responding to the play. Brecht states that “complex seeing must be practiced.” This implies different levels of audience reception going on at any performance. He writes, “I must add that the transformation of the greatest possible number of spectators or readers into experts is desirable—and is in fact going on all the time.”xi Actors refer to a dead audience, a bad house.
Surely the single spectator cannot have a negative effect on the playing onstage unless he shouts out but he might have a positive effect. What if he laughs when others do not? What if he gets things more quickly and more sure-footedly than others do? Suddenly his/her critical acumen and jeu d’esprit and concomitant facility of expression picks up other minds, establishes further areas for insightful hilarity and an actor has his appreciative wind to sail with or against. One sharp bark, a phalange of titters, an extended coronet of hooting and an actor and a hat become a field day. This is a way the naturally gifted spectator can hold sway, can help the performers establish theatrical provenance.
The claque had an origin in critical pointing, which by the time Antoine had worked in its name at the Comédie Française, was an accretion of intent and convention, a terminal moraine. “Applause is sometimes literally staged. From the beginning, theatre entrepreneurs have paid professional clappers to encourage the audience to appreciate the show (Pavis, 28).”
The claque of one is that creative, improvisational single spectator who drives an audience much as a collie does sheep. He/she may not even be so vain and self-conscious as Oscar Wilde would be in the parterre but rather simply follows the jeu at speed, responds, allows jeu more room, deeper breath, and then jeu is all a cart rushing down hill, the audience with it. Then it is the player or the text only, which can bring the ripple of effect, the breach of expressed delight and opinion to a caesura, or a complete halt. The claque of one has done his business.

Zuschauerkunst or Spectator Art

In his examination of the exchange between stage and audience Pavis states that “there are psychological and social relationships between stage and audience that reflect the aim of performance (351).” This seems right enough and somewhat obvious. He goes on to discuss four explanatory categories of this exchange.
The first is identification. “The picture-frame stage requires the spectator to identify with the fiction by projection. The stage then supposedly reproduces the structure of the audience, which is supposed to give in en masse to the actors-illusionists (351).” It should be pointed out that Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble used a lovely picture frame stage to develop the critical distance to be considered shortly. Also, I question the completeness of the reproduction or the completeness of identification by projection. If one thinks of the Restoration audience for Otway and Lee’s Roman plays and relates them to the politics of succession this does not mean completeness of either aspect mentioned above. In fact it would be intriguing to look at critical distance achieved by Otway and Lee in light of Brecht’s work on Coriolanus or Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, Brecht’s version of that being Trumpets and Drums.
Describing the second category, critical distance, Pavis states, “The Brechtian stage, on the other hand, widens the gap between stage and audience, prevents the interest from being ‘displaced’ from the audience to the stage, produces a critical distance and divides the audience through the play (351).” Now it is somewhat notorious that while critical distance is sometimes achieved in the Aufnahme, or reception, of Brecht’s work, so to is it the case that audience identification and emotional empathy takes place in regard to both central characters (Mother Courage herself) and specific scenes (when Mother Courage must deny her son when presented with his dead body). Even with the incoherence by design (semantic meaning is a sham; coherence of personality is sentimentality) of János Szász’s production, the play has real moments of emotional depth, the result of interest being ‘displaced’ from the audience to the stage and through the audience’s no doubt continued divisions. There was emotional empathy taking place. None of which is to suggest Pavis is making the wrong points or that Brecht’s achievement in developing in theory and practice, critical distance, is not significant. One can, after Brecht, go find critical distance everywhere as Jocelyn Powell did in Restoration theatre production.xii
The third category reflects the lack of functional stability in the first two. “Some directors…attempt to establish a variable relationship between stage and audience, closeness and distance, uniqueness and reception. This new kind of relationship appears intended to transcend the identification/alienation opposition (351).” I’m not sure how transcendence works but the opposition exists in any attempt at identification or alienation. Brecht surely would agree it is a question of emphasis.
Pavis’ fourth category addresses modification of the fiction-reality relationship. “Theatre plays at modifying the relationship between the playing area (fiction) and the audience (reality). By breaking the framework of the traditional stage, it attempts to use fiction to encroach upon the spectator’s real space, to question the security of that place where one may watch without getting involved.” This of course makes me quite nervous. Even a whiff of trying to “integrate the spectator’s gaze into the fiction [and] destroy the barrier between stage and audience” is reason enough to leave the building. Pavis does go on to remark “All such attempts…must contend with the spectator’s gaze, which immediately establishes the division between his own real world and the fictional universe (351).”
Which is to say that the theoretical categories will not hold. In practice the intention or effect is not stable. Pavis argues, “…the distance between stage and audience has widened, is even the hallmark of theatrical performance.” Has it? Is The Measures Taken that different in theatrical method from a pageant play? Pavis is correct in stating “…whether the relationship is frontal, lateral or all-encompassing, the rule of duality applies to performance (352).” Here though I would substitute general complexity for the rule of duality and perhaps it is at this point that we should move away from the Dictionary and the attempt at categories.
Here is Pavis one last time: “When faced directly with the aesthetic object, the spectator is literally plunged into a sea of images and sounds. Whether the performance remains external or encompasses him, involves or attacks him, reception poses a problem of aesthetics and warrants the term, coined by Brecht of ‘spectator art.’ This inverts the traditional perspective of aesthetics which seeks out the structures of meaning in the play and onstage, neglecting the audience’s mental and sociological structure and its role in establishing meaning…(304/5).”
I will remind you that Brecht said “complex seeing must be practiced (179)” and that “the transformation of the greatest possible number of spectators or readers into experts is desirable…(178).” It would be fascinating to see someone argue Brecht’s points on literarisation of the theatre in the present day. “Literarisation means putting across ideas through actions, interspersing the performed with the formulated.” This is why I go to the theatre. If one reads drama as drama in production as I think Brecht intended the following statement becomes quite electrifying. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up (179).”
This idea is offered with the impish smile. It is not intended as a categorical remark. The suggestions of Brecht for a “spectator’s art” are not based on categories. “In reading the projections on the boards [the footnote signs in Threepenny Opera] the spectator takes up the attitude of one who smokes at ease and watches. By such an attitude the spectator immediately forces from the actor a better and fairer performance; for it is hopeless to attempt to ‘spellbind’ a man who is smoking and who is therefore pretty well occupied with himself (179/80).” Let’s repeat that last expression: “pretty well occupied with himself.” This is an idea categorical theorists and post-modernist directors might take into account.
Of course we can’t smoke anymore in the theatre and the playhouse itself does not resemble very much a boxing ring and its surrounding uproar. But it is certainly worth thinking about, this attitude of one who smokes. “By this means we would very quickly have a theatre full of experts, just as there are sports arenas full of experts.” Imagine an assumption of expertise on the part of spectators, with their racing forms of sustained feuilleton writing in various independent dailies. “It would be impossible for the actors to fob off such an audience with the few wretched bits of attitudinizing that are put on ‘any old how’ nowadays, with a minimum of rehearsals and without the least thought.” Nor would the actors want to necessarily do so. “Never would the public accept the actor’s material in such a raw state and so unfinished.” In case there was or is a fear of wishful thinking, one more hopeful, happy idea, Brecht concludes “Unfortunately, it is to be feared that captions and permission to smoke will not suffice entirely to bring the public to a more productive use of the theatre (180).”

To close: me and my shadow

When I watch a theatre piece that works for me (Bulgakov’s Flight at the National in London or Conor McPherson’s The Weir at the Royal Court) I am transfixed, absorbed. I am disembodied, not completely of course. I have my coat in my lap. The woman next to me is a stranger. My wife is an aisle back to the left. But I am following a ghost story in The Weir and when I hear that the voice on the phone is that of a girl long since dead and that the girl is frightened and upset that her mother has left her alone, I am distressed. I am disturbed beyond words. I know it is just an old story, an Irish yarn, a ghost story by a drunk in a pub, but I am distressed and outside or beyond my body. My body doesn’t matter much just now unless I could leap up and help that little girl.
Thus it always is with me and my cadaver. I know who I speak to in the dark. I am the Leichenräuber.

Stanley Richardson

All editorial material is copyright by the authors and/or Guam Battalions, Intellectual and Various, 2008. All Rights Reserved

i To explain or excuse such a subjective beginning to a scholarly paper please see Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1981), 1, and also J. Aram Veeser’s comments on its opening section in his introductory remarks to The New Historicism (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), ix.
ii See Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Translated by Christine Shantz, (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 34/5.
iii See Bruckner’s Pains of Youth, translated by Daphne Moore, (London: Absolute Classics, 1989).
iv See Hughes’ The Drama’s Patrons: A Study of the Eighteenth-Century London Audience, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 4.
v See Daphna Ben Chaim’s Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984), 1.
vi Satayana cited by Jonas Barish in his The Anti-theatrical Prejudice, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 365.
vii Hughes, epigraph.
viii See The London Stage, A Critical Introduction, in 5 vols. Edited by Avery, Scouten et al. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).
Henry Irving’s dates are of course 1838-1905.
x See John Lough’s Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, (London: Oxford University Press, 1957.
xi See Brecht’s “Notes to The Threepenny Opera” in Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Volume 1, (London: Methuen, 1972), 178/9.
xiiSee Powell’s Restoration Theatre Production, (London: Routledge&Kegan Paul, 1984). One might also look at Eisenstein’s essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today” and note a similar phenomenon with montage. The essay can be found in Eisenstein’s Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Translated by Jay Leyda, (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1949).

Written by herrdramaturg

May 4, 2008 at 8:46 pm

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