Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jim Harrison-The Old Days

In the old days it stayed light until midnight
and rain and snow came up from the ground
rather than down from the sky. Women were easy.
Every time you'd see one, two more would appear,
walking toward you backwards as their clothes dropped.
Money didn't grow in the leaves of trees but around
the trunks in calf's leather money belts
though you could only take twenty bucks a day.
Certain men flew as well as crows while others ran
up trees like chipmunks. Seven Nebraska women
were clocked swimming upstream in the Missouri
faster than the local spotted dolphins. Basenjis
could talk Spanish but all of them chose not to.
A few political leaders were executed for betraying
the public trust and poets were rationed a gallon
of Burgundy a day. People only died on one day
a year and lovely choruses funneled out
of hospital chimneys where every room had a field
stone fireplace. Some fishermen learned to walk
on water and as a boy I trotted down rivers,
my flyrod at the ready. Women who wanted love
needed only to wear pig's ear slippers or garlic
earrings. All dogs and people in free concourse
became medium sized and brown, and on Christmas
everyone won the hundred dollar lottery. God and Jesus
didn't need to come down to earth because they were
already here riding wild horses every night
and children were allowed to stay up late to hear
them galloping by. The best restaurants were churches
with Episcopalians serving Provencial, the Methodists Tuscan,
and so on. In those days the country was an extra
two thousand miles wider, and an additional thousand
miles deep. There were many undiscovered valleys
to walk in where Indian tribes lived undisturbed
though some tribes chose to found new nations
in the heretofore unknown areas between the black
boundary cracks between states. I was married
to a Pawnee girl in a ceremony behind the usual waterfall.
Courts were manned by sleeping bears and birds sang
lucid tales of ancient bird ancestors who now fly
in other worlds. Certain rivers ran too fast
to be usable but were allowed to do so when they consented
not to flood at the Des Moines Conference.
Airliners were similar to airborne ships with multiple
fluttering wings that played a kind of chamber music
in the sky. Pistol barrels grew delphiniums
and everyone was able to select seven days a year
that they were free to repeat but this wasn't a popular
program. In those days the void whirled
with flowers and unknown wild animals attended
country funerals. All the rooftops in cities were flower
and vegetable gardens. The Hudson River was drinkable
and a humpback whale was seen near the 42nd Street
pier, its head full of the blue blood of the sea,
its voice lifting the steps of people
in their traditional anti-march, their harmless disarray.
I could go on but won't. All my evidence
was lost in a fire but not before it was chewed
on by all the dogs that inhabit memory.
One by one they bark at the sun, moon and stars
trying to draw them closer again.

originally published in The New York Times, January 21, 2001

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sam Shepard-Action

"Just because we’re surrounded by four walls and a roof doesn’t mean anything. It’s still dangerous. The chances of something happening are just as great. Anything could happen. Any move is possible. I’ve seen it. You go outside. The world’s quiet. White. Everything resounding. Not a sound of a motor. Not a light. You see into the house. You see the candles. You watch the people. You can see what it’s like inside. The candles draw you. You get a cold feeling being outside. Separated. You have an idea that being inside it’s cosier. Friendlier. Warmth. People. Conversation. Everyone using a language. Then you go inside. It’s a shock. You forget that there even is an outside. The inside is all you know. You hunt for a way of being with everyone. A way of finding how to behave. You find out what’s expected of you. You act yourself out."

"One night there was some moths. A bunch of moths. In the distance they could see a candle. Just one candle in a window of a big house. The moths were tormented by this candle. They longed to be with this candle but none of them understood it or knew what it was. The leader of the moths sent one of them off to the house to bring back some information about this light. The moth returned and reported what he had seen, but the leader told him that he hadn’t understood anything about the candle. So another moth went to the house. He touched the flame with the tip of his wings but the heat drove him off. When he came back and reported, the leader still wasn’t satisfied. So he sent a third moth out. This moth approached the house and saw the candle flickering inside the window. He became filled with love for this candle. He crashed against the glass and finally found a way inside. He threw himself on the flame. With his forelegs he took hold of the flame and united himself joyously with her. He embraced her completely, and his whole body became red as fire. The leader of the moths, who was watching from far off with the other moths, saw that the flame and the moths appeared to be one. He turned to the other moths and said: “He’s learned what he wanted to know, but he’s the only one who understands it.”

from “Action”, first performed in 1975

Friday, November 25, 2011

Harold Pinter-The Echoing Silence

Although he hated explaining his craft, Harold Pinter wrote brilliantly about drama. Here, in an early essay, he describes the fear, pain, boos and pauses that drove his work

I'm not a theorist. I'm not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays, when I can manage it, and that's all. That's the sum of it.

I've had two full-length plays produced in London. The first ran a week, and the second ran a year. Of course, there are differences between the two plays. In The Birthday Party I employed a certain amount of dashes in the text, between phrases. In The Caretaker I cut out the dashes and used dots instead. So that instead of, say, "Look, dash, who, dash, I, dash, dash, dash," the text would read, "Look, dot, dot, dot, who, dot, dot, dot, I, dot, dot, dot, dot." So it's possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes, and that's why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party. The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point. You can't fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot from a dash a mile off, even if they can hear neither.

It took me quite a while to grow used to the fact that critical and public response in the theatre follows a very erratic temperature chart. And the danger for a writer is where he becomes easy prey for the old bugs of apprehension and expectation in this connection. But I think Dusseldorf cleared the air for me. In Dusseldorf about two years ago I took, as is the continental custom, a bow with a German cast of The Caretaker at the end of the play on the first night. I was at once booed violently by what must have been the finest collection of booers in the world. I thought they were using megaphones, but it was pure mouth. The cast was as dogged as the audience, however, and we took 34 curtain calls, all to boos. By the 34th there were only two people left in the house, still booing. I was strangely warmed by all this, and now, whenever I sense a tremor of the old apprehension or expectation, I remember Dusseldorf, and am cured.

The theatre is a large, energetic, public activity. Writing is, for me, a completely private activity; a poem or a play, no difference. These facts are not easy to reconcile. The professional theatre, whatever the virtues it undoubtedly possesses, is a world of false climaxes, calculated tensions, some hysteria and a good deal of inefficiency. And the alarms of this world which I suppose I work in become steadily more widespread and intrusive. But basically my obligation has remained the same. What I write has no obligation to anything other than to itself. My responsibility is not to audiences, critics, producers, directors, actors or to my fellow men in general, but to the play in hand, simply.

I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. The context has always been, for me, concrete and particular, and the characters concrete also. I've never started a play with any kind of abstract idea or theory. Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility of verifying the past. I don't mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?

There is a considerable body of people just now who are asking for some kind of clear and sensible engagement to be evidently disclosed in contemporary plays. They want the playwright to be a prophet. There is certainly a good deal of prophecy indulged in by playwrights these days, in their plays and out of them. Warnings, sermons, admonitions, ideological exhortations, moral judgments, defined problems with built-in solutions; all can camp under the banner of prophecy. The attitude behind this sort of thing might be summed up in one phrase: "I'm telling you!"

If I were to state any moral precept it might be: beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliche.

This kind of writer clearly trusts words absolutely. I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others, the bulk of it a stale, dead terminology. Given this nausea, it's very easy to be overcome by it and step back into paralysis. I imagine most writers know something of this kind of paralysis. But if it is possible to confront this nausea, to follow it to its hilt, to move through it and out of it, then it is possible to say that something has occurred, that something has even been achieved.

Language, under these conditions, is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history. Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration, but which it is compulsory to explore. You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we're inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, obstructive, unwilling. But it's out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.

Given characters who possess a momentum of their own, my job is not to impose upon them, not to subject them to a false articulation. The relationship between author and characters should be a highly respectful one, both ways. And if it's possible to talk of gaining a kind of freedom from writing, it doesn't come by leading one's characters into fixed and calculated postures, but by allowing them to carry their own can, by giving them legitimate elbow-room. This can be extremely painful. It's much easier not to let them live.

I'd like to make quite clear at the same time that I don't regard my own characters as uncontrolled or anarchic. They're not. The function of selection and arrangement is mine. I do all the donkey-work, in fact, and I think I can say I pay meticulous attention to the shape of things, from the shape of a sentence to the overall structure of the play. This shaping is of the first importance. But I think a double thing happens. You arrange and you listen, following the clues you leave for yourself, through the characters. And sometimes a balance is found, where image can freely engender image and where at the same time you are able to keep your sights on the place where the characters are silent and in hiding. It is in the silence that they are most evident to me.

There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smokescreen. When true silence falls, we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase, "failure of communication", and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else's life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.

I am not suggesting that no character in a play can ever say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.

A blank page is both an exciting and a frightening thing. It's what you start from. There follow two further periods in the progress of a play: the rehearsal period and the performance. A dramatist will absorb a great many things of value from an active and intense experience in the theatre, throughout these two periods. But finally, he is again left looking at the blank page. In that page is something or nothing. You don't know until you've covered it. And there's no guarantee that you will know then. But it always remains a chance worth taking ·

This is an edited extract from a speech made at the National Student Drama festival in Bristol, 1962, collected in Harold Pinter Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998, published by Faber.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Peter Brook-The Empty Space

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged. Yet when we talk about theatre this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness, these are all confusedly superimposed in a messy image covered by one all-purpose word. We talk of the cinema killing the theatre, and in that phrase we refer to the theatre as it was when the cinema was born, a theatre of box office, foyer, tip-up seats, footlights, scene changes, intervals, music, as though the theatre was by very definition these and little more.

A word does not start as a word—it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by attitude and behaviour which dictate the need for expression. This process occurs inside the dramatist; it is repeated inside the actor. Both may only be conscious of the words, but both for the author and then for the actor the word is a small visible portion of a gigantic unseen formation. Some writers attempt to nail down their meaning and intentions in stage directions and explanations, yet we cannot help being struck by the fact that the best dramatists explain themselves the least. They recognize that further indications will most probably be useless. They recognize that the only way to find the true path to the speaking of a word is through a process that parallels the original creative one. This can neither be bypassed nor simplified.

The actor searches vainly for the sound of a vanished tradition, and critic and audience follow suit. We have lost all sense of ritual and ceremony—whether it be connected with Christmas, birthdays or funerals—but the words remain with us and old impulses stir in the marrow. We feel we should have rituals, we should do ‘something’ about getting them and we blame the artists for not finding’ them for us. So the artist sometimes attempts to find new rituals with only his imagination as his source: he imitates the outer form of ceremonies, pagan or baroque, unfortunately adding his own trappings—the result is rarely convincing. And after the years and years of weaker and waterier imitations we now find ourselves rejecting the very notion of a holy stage. It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep children good.

There are two ways of speaking about the human condition: there is the process of inspiration—by which all the positive elements of life can be revealed, and there is the process of honest vision—by which the artist bears witness to whatever it is that he has seen. The first process depends on revelation; it can’t be brought about by holy wishes. The second one depends on honesty, and it mustn’t be clouded over by holy wishes.

from "The Empty Space" (1968)

Bertolt Brecht On Theatre

The theater-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I've felt that way, too. That's the way I am. That's life. That's the way it will always be. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him. That's great art — Everything is self-evident. I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. But the theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that. You can't do that. That's very strange, practically unbelievable. That has to stop. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him. That's great art — nothing is self-evident. I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh.

We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.

It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality. Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him. Theater must teach all the pleasures and joys of discovery, all the feelings of triumph associated with liberation.

I have every possibility; but I cannot say that the dramatic writing which I call ‘non-aristotelian’, and the epic style of acting that goes with it, represent the only solution. However, one thing has become quite plain: the present-day world can only be described to present-day people if it is described as capable of transformation.

When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.

For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.

Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Joseph Chaikin-The Presence of the Actor

The joy in theatre comes through discovery and the capacity to discover. What limits the discoveries a person can make is the idea or image he may come to have of himself. The image can come about through his investment in his own reputation, through an involvement with approval and disapproval, or through feelings of nostalgia stemming from his desire to repeat his first discoveries. In any case, when his image becomes fixed, it limits him from going on to further discoveries.

Acting is a demonstration of the self with or without a disguise. Because we live on a level drastically reduced from what we can imagine, acting promises to represent a dynamic expression of the intense life. It is a way of making testimony to what we have witnessed--a declaration of what we know and what we can imagine. One actor in his acting expresses himself and touches nothing outside of himself. Another actor, in expressing himself, touches zones of being which can potentially be recognized by anyone.

There are actors whose main interest in going into the theater is to seek a kind of flattery. This kind of seeking makes the actor, and, through him, the theater itself, vulnerable to the sensibility of the market place. Traditional acting in America has become a blend of that same kind of synthetic "feeling" and sentimentality which characterizes the Fourth of July parade, Muzak, church services, and political campaigns. Traditionally, the actor summons his sadness, anger, or enthusiasm and pumps at it to sustain an involvement with himself which passes for concern with his material. They eyes of this actor are always secretly looking into his own head. He's like a singer being moved by his own voice.

My intention is to make images into theater events, beginning simply with those which have meaning for myself and my collaborators; and at the same time renouncing the theater of critics, box office, real estate, and the conditioned public.

The critic digests the experience and hands it to the spectator to confirm his own conclusion. The spectator, conditioned to be told what to see, sees what he is told, or corrects the critic, but in any case sees in relation to the response of the critic. Unfortunately, none of this has to do with the real work of the artist.

from “The Presence of the Actor” 1972

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Antonin Artaud-The Theatre and its Double

Speech in the Occidental theater is used only to express psychological conflicts particular to man and the daily reality of his life. His conflicts are clearly accessible to spoken language, and whether they remain in the psychological sphere or leave it to enter the social sphere, the interest of the drama will still remain a moral one according to the way in which its conflicts attack and disintegrate the characters. And it will indeed always be a matter of a domain in which the verbal solutions of speech will retain their advantage.

If people are out of the habit of going to the theater, if we have all finally come to think of theater as an inferior art, a means of popular distraction, and to use it as an outlet for our worst instincts, it is because we have learned too well what the theater has been, namely, falsehood and illusion. It is because we have been accustomed for four hundred years, that is since the Renaissance, to a purely descriptive and narrative theater - storytelling psychology; it is because every possible ingenuity has been exerted in bringing to life on the stage plausible but detached beings, with the spectacle on one side, the public on the other - and because the public is no longer shown anything but the mirror of itself.

Shakespeare himself is responsible for this aberration and decline, this disinterested idea of the theater which wishes a theatrical performance to leave the public intact, without setting off one image that will shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar.

To cause spoken language or expression by words to dominate on the stage the objective expression of gestures and of everything which affects the mind by sensuous and spatial means is to turn one's back on the physical necessities of the stage and to rebel against its possibilities.

After sound and light there is action, and the dynamism of action: here the theater, far from copying life, puts itself whenever possible in communication with pure forces . . . [that is,] whatever brings to birth images of energy in the unconscious, and gratuitous crime on the surface.

It is in order to attack the spectator's sensibility on all sides that we advocate a revolving spectacle which, instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectators.
The theater is the only place in the world, the last general means we still possess of directly affecting the organism and, in periods of neurosis and petty sensuality like the one in which we are immersed, of attacking this sensuality by physical means it cannot withstand.

In this spectacle the sonorisation is constant: sounds, noises, cries are chosen first for their vibratory quality, then for what they represent.

It is not a matter of suppressing speech in the theater but of changing its role, and especially of reducing its position, of considering it as something else than a means of conducting human characters to their external ends, since the theatre is concerned only with the way feelings and passions conflict with one another, and man with man, in life.

To change the role of speech in theater is to make use of it in a concrete and spatial sense, combining it with everything in the theater that is spatial and significant in the concrete domain;--to manipulate it like a solid object, one which overturns and disturbs things.

The separation between the analytic theater and the plastic world seems to us a stupidity. One does not separate the mind from the body nor the senses from the intelligence, especially in a domain where the endlessly renewed fatigue of the organs requires intense and sudden shocks to revive our understanding.

Psychology, which works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary, is the cause of the theater's abasement and its fearful loss of energy, which seems to me to have reached its lowest point.

from "The Theatre and its Double"(Le Théâtre et son Double) published in 1938