The Greatest Shows on Earth: World Theatre from Peter Brook to the Sydney Olympics

The Greatest Shows on Earth: World Theatre from Peter Brook to the Sydney Olympics

by John Freeman

Written from various perspectives—international actors, directors, playwrights, academics, dancers, and artists—this book examines and celebrates 14 theater events from a dozen countries. As it makes a case for what makes certain theater productions great, this record also offers examples of writing about theater that imbues the analysis with


Written from various perspectives—international actors, directors, playwrights, academics, dancers, and artists—this book examines and celebrates 14 theater events from a dozen countries. As it makes a case for what makes certain theater productions great, this record also offers examples of writing about theater that imbues the analysis with emotion and documentation. From Peter Brook’s King Lear of 1962 through 2010’s Oberammergau Passionsspiele, the performances described are seminal works indeed.

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The Greatest Shows On Earth

World Theatre from Peter Brook to the Sydney Olympics

By John Freeman

Libri Publishing

Copyright © 2011 John Freeman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907471-54-4


The Best Seat in the House

John Freeman

Theatre is not about the flowering fantasy of the artist, it's about the imagination of the audience.

Heiner Goebbels: 'Polyphony or Essential Solitude', February 2010

As the title suggests, this book is about great theatre, about all that is made visible or audible on stage, about mise en scène as an imaginative organisational concept. And, with barely a mention of semiotics, it is a book about a system of signs working together to produce meaning and resonance. In being a book about fourteen performances, described by fifteen contributors, this is also a book that wrestles with the challenge of describing on the page that which exists in time and space and, most significantly, within specific contexts. Published scripts tell us plenty, but even more is left out. Where text is considered in various chapters it is approached primarily in the sense of performance text, as the result of choices made by performers, directors, designers, writers and spectators ... choices that are made concrete in the work's presentation and reception. In this way the book nails its colours cleanly to the mast of performance as an event occuring over time rather than to literary criticism aligned to the object of text as it appears in print. Where Tom McAlindon is suspicious of writing which 'valorises performance rather than substance' (McAlindon, 2004, p.20) this book's prime concern is with the very substance of performance. This is not to discredit the value of the written script (where such exists) so much as to engage with the idea that dramatic text is as likely to be used in the service of performance as vice versa.

Because each chapter will focus on a particular production seen on one or more occasion and at one or more venues, the role of the spectator is made central. This is not as obvious an element of writing about theatre as it may at first appear. Library shelves are heavy with the weight of books written about productions never seen at first hand by the authors and, whilst this form of more distanced and usually historical scholarship is undoubtedly valuable, it is not what The Greatest Shows on Earth is about. For many, the greatest shows on earth are the shows they (we) never saw: those performances that the history books tell us were wonderful – Helene Weigel's 1949 portrayal of the title role in Brecht'sMother Courage; Marlon Brando's sweat-stained swagger onto the 1947 Broadway stage in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire; Trevor Nunn's pared-down Macbeth of 1976 with the electrifying Ian McKellen and Judi Dench; David Hare and Howard Brenton's mid-'80s Pravda, replete with Anthony Hopkins' bravura Lambert Le Roux. Even without having seen these productions live, I find myself dropping easily into the language of borrowed praise, so that the productions function as a barometer to other works' standing, tempering the rapture of immediacy with the measure of critical weight and canonical significance. All of this is true and inevitable, as well as having been hard-earned by the relevant personnel: but it is not what is driving this book. Where The Greatest Shows on Earth drifts (as it surely shall) into hyperbole, then those moments of extravagance and exaggeration are at least harnessed to feelings gained at no further remove than the distance between the seating rake and the stage.

The etymology of 'theatre' is theatron, a place where spectators go to watch. Theatron incorporates both spectacle and contemplation and in this way comprises the location and theory of looking. It is in this meeting of performance as spectacle and spectatorship as a contemplative act that this book functions ... not as an idea of what theatre might be, as some form of cultural medicine, moral good or aestheticised intellectual imperative, but as something made real and made witness in the moment. In this sense and within the context of this book, 'theatre' is a term that is approached inclusively, so that the conventions of theatre, all of those traditions and experimentations, all of theatre's histories and all of its endless potential for change, serve as reference points for a series of chapter-length discussions and departures.

If prostitution is widely held to be the world's oldest profession, closely followed by soldiering, then theatre's long history gives it a noble third place. The first recorded theatrical event is of the myth of Osiris and Isis in 2500 BC in Egypt; and through its subsequent flourishing in Ancient Greece between 550 and 220 BC, our notions of Western theatre have their origins in these faint traces of documentation. Performance scholars such as Ernest T. Kirby (1975), Richard Schechner (1988) and Victor Turner (1985) have suggested earlier understandings of theatre, beginning with the ur-drama of shamanist ritual, where participants took on and portrayed identities other than their own. This is a view that Eli Rozik sees as fallacious on the grounds that it 'overlooks the internal viewpoint of the culture within which the shaman performs ... the shaman is definitely not enacting the character of a spirit, but constitutes a means for its revelation in the human world.' (Rozik, 2003, p.120) Rozik's rebuttal is as emphatic as Schechner et al.'s is suggestive, not least in his determination that to include ritualistic behaviour as part of the history of theatre reflects little more than a postmodern malaise morphing itself into nostalgia. Despite the anthropological appeal of the argument, Rozik is adamant that 'the medium of theatre could not have originated in ritual'. (Ibid., p.139)

It is only on paper and within university seminars that theatre's real or imagined past is ever cause for discussion. In the theatre, everything is in the moment and our own moment can be taken in more ways than one. The recent rise in UK theatre attendance is cause for optimism, as is the fact that at any one time in the last ten years there have been many thousands of undergraduates studying Drama, Theatre or Performance at British universities, alongside an ever-increasing number studying the subjects at GCSE, A Level and BTEC. This growth pattern has so extravagantly over-reached its critical and natural mass that it attracted the Damoclean sword of a government that no longer regards performance study as the provision of a public good largely financed by public funds. It is also true that those same students have made up a vast slice of herded-in audiences, at the same time as they have put a lot of ticks in the box marked 'Audience Development'. Nevertheless, the cries of 'Theatre in Crisis' that were heard throughout the latter part of the 20th century have all but died away. So much so that Matt Wolf's London Evening Standard article, 'Why This is a Great Age of Theatre', appeared neither tongue in cheek nor vainglorious. (Wolf, 2009)

Great age it may be, but the concept of what makes a particular performance great is endlessly contestable and the productions that are left out of this book's chapters will inevitably leave gaps that some readers (and even at times this editor) will surely bemoan. Decisions as to which works to include are unavoidable, despite the certain knowledge that every decision is also a loss. Ultimately, perhaps, the book's value lies as much in its absences as its inclusions, inasmuch as any book that presumes to list the greatest shows on earth is bound to ruffle some feathers. Shakespeare gets an appreciatively learned nod from Colin Chambers, and a number of his plays are listed in the index, but there's no Schiller; there's no Beckett, no Brecht, no Albee or Ayckbourn, no Miller, no Wilde, nor Williams, nor Wooster Group; no Tadeusz Kantor, no Sarah Kane, no Caryl Churchill, no Harold Pinter, no David Mamet: a list of significant others that is itself contentious in the names of the great and the good it excludes. There is no circus, come to that, which seems a remarkable omission given this book's recycling of the 1952 film's title. Shorter chapters would have allowed for more performances to be discussed, but the list of the left out would always be greater than the included. So what we get is an extremely partial view.

The limits of recall have much to do with choice, as does geography, as does my own editorial access to contributors ... informed and decided as it is by my own not-always-consciously-knowing decisions about who to approach and why. Apropos of which it is worth saying that the productions described in these pages were chosen by the contributors. No search was made, for example, for somebody to write about Robert Lepage's The Dragons' Trilogy; rather an approach was made to Jean-Marc Larrue based on respect for his ability to write persuasively about his chosen experiences and about the work that affected him most profoundly at the time he saw it. In this way what international, formal and thematic diversity exists in the stretch from Peter Snow's response to the Sydney 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony to Kevin J. Wetmore's Ipi Zombi? and Kathy Foley's Odalan Bali stems from the diversity of the contributors' interests as much as from any driving editorial desire to encompass such a range of work. In this sense, my approach has been considerably more curatorial than editorial. The standard generosity of spirit that acknowledges all errors as belonging to the editor and all qualities being credited to contributors is added to here by the confession of a shameless desire to build this book on the knowledge of others.

The biographies that come towards the end of this book reveal the international flavour of the contributors no less than the origins of the work they discuss; and this resistance to the usual suspects of Anglo North American theatre in books published in England is further evidenced in the index, where an international eclecticism is not so much a by product of the book as its raison d'être. As the biographies further assert, and as the chapters confirm, many of this book's contributors are employed, at least partly, in academia. Others, such as Guilherme Mendonça and Constantin Chiriac, are significantly not influenced by primarily academic careers; whilst others still – Peter Snow and Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. being perfect cases in point – have succesfully combined university employment with ongoing practical and professional outcomes. Whilst this does not mean that contributors will be writing uniquely informed pieces on their chosen works (in fact, many contributors have opted to write on work that falls beyond their established and/or published areas of expertise), it does mean that productions will be discussed from positions of some authority within the wider fields of performance practice and scholarship and that the chapters will be oftentimes academic in intent if not always in tone. Academic is as academic does: the chapter provided by Anthony Mawson and Ursula Raffalt, for instance, offers a meditation on the craft of performance making that complements the critical spectator-driven focus that informs the bulk of the book; David Jortner's chapter, whilst focusing on a specific performance, sheds as much light on a US sense of Homeland Insecurity as it does on theatre per se; David Mason's analysis of the passion play at Oberammergau tells more about the relationship between religion and performance than the production itself. And so it is and so it goes: the performances covered in this book are very different, and so are the ways in whch they are addressed, and so are each contributor's intentions, agendas and interests.

Central to the conceit of this embrace of difference is the belief that academic writing has to be recognised by more than its abundance of sixty-dollar terms and the erudition-by-demonstration of endless references; by more than the 'nihilism and cynicism that exists and has become accepted as the correct tone', a tone which the celebrated polymath Mike Figgis warns against. (In ten Cate, 1996, p.8) What gives strength to academic writing is its need always to be predicated upon argument, upon an overriding thesis that the writing strives to explore and explain ... on those Big Ideas that secure publication and tenure, and on writing that builds on the kind of constructive bias facilitated in and through a book such as this. Accordingly, subjectivity and its sinister twin, prejudice, will often be foregrounded profoundly in academic writing. Whilst the majority of this book's contributors are also experienced theatre reviewers, the book's drift is away from standard responses suggesting that 'the audience felt this' and towards provocative essays based around 'I felt this'. Accordingly a number of the chapters function as attempts to see if something (a thesis) fits, rather than as seemingly objective appraisals of performance quality.

That said, a key intention of The Greatest Shows on Earth is to dissolve some of the more invidious distinctions between theory and practice, critic and academic, essay and review, so that what binds the chapters together into more than a collection of thoughts is an attempt to do some justice to the ephemerality of performance through the permanence of words on the page. The flipside of ephemerality is memory, and our memories are always also inventions, re-tellings of the past that tell as much about what we would like to have seen and how we would like ourselves to be seen in the subsequent tellings as what we actually saw. As Luis Bunuel saw it, 'Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truth'. (In Zinder, 1980 p.40) If Bunuel is right, then very little objectivity remains, and few claims for such are sought in this book's pages, despite the cultural standing of a great deal of the work under discussion. This is more than mere word play. Subjectivity acknowledges meaning as an act of personal interpretation rather than collective understanding; seeing responses as being generally rooted in a state of mind, whilst objectivity is beyond interpretation, existing instead as something shared to the point of common acceptance. As George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff sees it, in objective art there is nothing indefinite. (In Ouspensky, 1949, pp.295–7) Gurdjieff's statement makes assumptions that take it beyond this first chapter's embrace, which is not to say that all of the book's contributors share my levels of skepticism: a skepcis that does not quite yet amount to a charlatan's total faith in relativism, so much as a championing, in this book if not always elsewhere, of the individual's right to hold his or her views on performance in spite of a dearth of supporting critical commentary. That the individuals holding these views have an obligation to make their case in the light of resistant opinion is axiomatic. Susan Bennett suggests that the act of theatre-going tells us much about what society affords its citizens; (Bennett, 1997, p.vii) and in a similar vein, the responses of theatre goers might tell us something about what it is that successful productions afford spectators.

As is always the case when writing about performance, the transient nature of the moment does battle with both memory and the permanence of print. That which we write may not have happened in precisely the way we remember it, but the way we remember is all we have to give: half- memories and half-hopes of what we think we experienced and what we wish the productions to have been. All of this seems true, and yet responses based significantly on emotional and sometimes idiosyncratic connectedness are seen as problematic in performance despite the fact that every audience member is unique, with different beliefs, value systems, experiences, hopes and expectations. Even knowing this, we slip effortlessly into often-historical discussions of an audience as something collective, as a single being responding to performance with commonality. This has done much to channel students at all levels into the recycling of ideas without evidence, so that we describe Brecht's original productions as having distanced his audiences without ever feeling any pressing need to search for the testimony of individual spectators in support. When John Cage famously responded to the question of what was the best seat in the house by stating that every seat was the best, he was saying more than the obvious fact that the perspective created by spectators' positions in auditoria was at once deliberately distinct and equally valuable; he was reminding us that the perceptual frames we carry inside our heads are stronger determinants in the way we see than the seat we see from. Roland Barthes' ideas of readerly work, which seeks out a common response, and his notions of writerly product, which invites spectators to create their own meanings, add the language of deconstruction to Cage's primarily practice-based and practice-informed suggestions.


Excerpted from The Greatest Shows On Earth by John Freeman. Copyright © 2011 John Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Libri Publishing.
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Meet the Author

John Freeman is a lecturer in performance studies at Curtin University in Australia. He is the author of Blood, Sweat & Theory and has written extensively on theater, art, pedagogy, and research.

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