Fields of Play in Modern Drama

Fields of Play in Modern Drama

by Thomas R. Whitaker


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Starting from the assumption that all theater is at least implicitly participatory, Professor Whitaker approaches thirteen plays, from Ibsen's Rosmersholm to Beckett's Endgame and Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He asks the reader to commit himself to a variety of points of view—those of witnesses, actors, directors, and characters—as a series of "critical fictions" lead him toward the experience of each play in performance.

The author supplies detailed readings of the plays in various modes. The styles of the chapters vary according to the issues dominant in the plays discussed, and the reader experiences simultaneously a sense of approaching the meaning of performance and of gaining a deeper understanding of the play through a subtle and allusive commentary.

Originally published in 1977.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691607726
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1672
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 202
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Fields of Play in Modern Drama

By Thomas R. Whitaker


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06333-1



I want to speak here of the playing that is implied by some important modern scripts, and I must begin by confessing agreement with two rather bold convictions. One has been voiced by Don Quixote: "Nothing, in fact, more truly portrays us as we are and as we would be than the play and the players." And the other by Schiller: "Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing." But what can such convictions mean today? What is this playing that calls itself Man?

Perhaps modern drama has been most centrally a posing of just that question. And the answer at which it often seems to have arrived is rather unsettling: Playing is the mask of nothing at all. In the nineteenth century, of course, Hazlitt could praise Shakespeare by saying, "He is nothing in himself." And a few decades later Bernard Shaw, the self-declared rival of that supreme actor-playwright, could say with characteristic modesty, "I understand everything and everyone and I am nothing and no one." But the distinctively modern nuance may become audible in such pronouncements only when they have been quoted by Jorge Luis Borges, or when that labyrinthine ironist begins a parable on Shakespeare with the quiet assertion: "There was no one in him...."

Among modern writers Borges is far from alone in suspecting that the actor-playwright may perceive and live a truth against which most of us defend ourselves through willed ignorance. In Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Prologue to Brecht's Baal," an actor who is playing himself finds occasion to declare: "The actor is the amoeba among all living things and therefore he is the symbolic man." In the year of that prologue, 1926, Brecht himself wrote: "The notion of a continuous I is a myth. Man is a constantly disintegrating and self-renewing atom." And Pirandello, of course, had dramatized a good many permutations of exactly this predicament. Such instances point to what must become in this essay not only my theme but also my field of action. For I can speak of our problematic playing only from within the predicament it explores. Where else, in truth, could I — or any "I" — possibly be? Those who seem to stand outside the contemporary situation and write with objectivity about drama as a cultural phenomenon — well, what are they but rhetorical personae, players made up for the occasion? I prefer to admit the histrionic nature of any self-proclaimed "I" — and so acknowledge the seriousness of the plays in which I participate.

Participate? I who am neither "actor" nor "director" by profession? Of course. How could we ever begin to understand a play by remaining entirely outside it? And where would that "outside" be? A play is no external object. It does not "make a statement" about a human condition from which it has somehow withdrawn. Nor does it merely "imitate" an action. A play is a present action, a form of attentive playing, and its full meaning must therefore include the fact of our participation in it. We always participate through two mutually inclusive modes. When we act, we present ourselves to witnesses. When we witness, we attend to actors. But every actor is also an implicit witness, every witness an implicit actor. From such reciprocity, each moment in a play is shaped. The whole play is therefore the form of our shared acting and witnessing, a distinctive field of playing that we compose within the intersubjective field of play that makes it possible.

Perhaps we could easily enough begin to speak of certain forms of acting and witnessing that we have experienced in the theater — though I haven't seen this attempted in any sustained way. But should the criticism of drama be limited to accounts of actual performances? Scripts, like musical scores, are normative invitations. And though a major script leaves open a wide range of directorial choices and audience responses, it implies with some precision not only the "objectives" and "subtexts" of the dramatis personae but also the lines of action and sequences of perception to be shared by the implied participants. In doing so, it establishes a web of relations between the action "imitated" or performed and our present action of performance in the theater. Can these forms of playing be elucidated prior to — or at least apart from — the specific choices, contingencies, and experiences of an actual performance? And can "I" begin to elucidate them without evading the ways in which they call into question any identity that "I" may assume?

Dramatic criticism of the usual kind may not be quite suited to this task. Despite any liveliness of "personal" style, it posits a critic who is a fixed identity and a play that is external to the critic and to everyone else. But what is the alternative? Without presuming to know the answer, I want to risk here what might turn out to be a suitably playful procedure. I propose that we move through a sequence of notes, commentaries, dialogues, and fictions that will allow speech to proceed from a locus that can shift, multiply, or dissolve in response to some of the challenges offered by various plays. We might well begin with some notes on the reflexive theatricality that now dominates our stage. Perhaps we could reach some hypotheses as to how the major plays of our time have focused our predicament as players. In later chapters we might test those hypotheses against ten or twelve plays from Ibsen to the present. But any testing of hypotheses (as Michael Polanyi has noted) is a double process: as we learn about the field into which we are inquiring, we simultaneously unfold the implications of the definitions and assumptions that underlie our inquiry. Perhaps, then, our double process of interrogating some major plays and disclosing the implications of "our shared acting and witnessing" can lead toward some reinterpretation of modern drama. We might even find that the most problematic of modern scripts tacitly recognize playing to be not just the futile activity of a histrionic self or the mask of an empty nothing but a manifestation of that nothing or Act to which we may open ourselves when ceasing to claim an objectified identity.

In sketching this possible movement, I must say "we" because several voices will no doubt ask to be heard within "me" — and because you who read are necessarily speaking these lines, too. If I can't be single, we are not irreducibly double — and happily enough, "for a We seems to me finer," as Hofmannsthal wrote to Martin Buber in December of 1926, "than this doubtful I." Such dialogical puzzles must already complicate any talk of testing hypotheses because they are among the conditions of all talk, as of all play. Language itself is a participatory act. Even when mediated by print, our meanings inhabit a field that cannot finally be reduced to a collection of determinate objects. Indeed, Maurice Merleau-Ponty has argued that the "order of instructive spontaneity," which is "inaccessible to psychologism and historicism no less than to dogmatic metaphysics," is best revealed to us by the phenomenology of speech:

When I speak or understand, I experience that presence of others in myself or of myself in others which is the stumbling-block of the theory of intersubjectivity. I experience that presence of what is represented which is the stumbling-block of the theory of time, and I finally understand what is meant by Husserl's enigmatic statement, "Transcendental subjectivity is intersubjectivity." To the extent that what I say has meaning, I am a different "other" for myself when I am speaking; and to the extent that I understand, I no longer know who is speaking and who is listening.

Such puzzles may also warn us that speakers who enter the "order of instructive spontaneity" or the fields of play had better not try to predict their own future in great detail. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke's alter-ego has written: "Let us be honest about it, then; we have no theatre, any more than we have a God: for this, community is needed." In the hope of undermining such a temptingly desperate conclusion, I propose a way of inquiry into our shared acting-and-witnessing. But if "I" propose, who disposes? And if "you" resist being included in what may seem a rather free-wheeling "we"? In our moments of doubt, let that Salzburg Angel remind us: "Play the part...."



Is it possible that modern drama, which has been so plural, such a tricky shape-shifter, has a central direction and meaning? Let these notes at least play with a hunch.

* * *

Perhaps we know today what Hamlet meant to tell the Player. The purpose of playing, both at the first and now, was and is to hold the mirror up to playing. For what else can "nature" mean? We find ourselves playing. Reflecting on our condition, we begin to play the player.

Or so it must seem, more than a century after Peer Gynt first peeled his onion. Since then we've had mirrors of all shapes and sizes. In Rosmersholm and Three Sisters the fictions of realism probe the self-deceptive fictions that we are. In Heartbreak House, where Hector and Hesione play Get the Guests and Peel the Label many years before Albee's George and Martha heard of those games, a bolder rhetoric exposes our rhetorical masks. Such various mirrors-within-mirrors as The Ghost Sonata, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Balcony, and Waiting for Godot all bring into focus our onion-skin identity. And many lesser plays — like Molnar's Play's the Thing, which affectionately burlesques what Shaw called Sardoodledom, or Shepard's Tooth of Crime, which pays such ambivalent tribute to the kingdom of rock — hold the mirror up to the commercial theater as an image of our off-stage theatricality. Indeed, what purpose other than that of playing the player has so completely informed the kaleidoscopic variety of our dramatic styles — from The Importance of BeingEarnest and King Ubu to What the Butler Saw and The King Must Die!

A striking number of modern plays and productions also owe their life to a decision to play with an earlier script. At one extreme is Brecht's Roundheads and the Peakheads, which sustains our interest today primarily as an ingenious response to Measure for Measure. As we witness the translation of one ethos into another, we hear Brecht's dry pronouncement: "... wir können Shakespeare ändern, wenn wir ihn ändern können." Remake the master if you're man enough! And even Bernard Sobel's politically committed production in 1973 for the Ensemble Theatral de Gennevilliers couldn't resist bringing the Viceroy on stage at the end in Elizabethan costume. At the other extreme are such collages as Charles Marowitz's Hamlet or Tadashi Suzuki's On the Dramatic Passions II. Composed for the actress Kayako Shiraishi and the Waseda Shogekijo, Suzuki's sequence of extracts from popular theater and fiction is an evocation and exorcism of the demonic life of the collective imagination and a brilliant "re-reading" of Kabuki style. And the broad middle range of such playing with plays — adaptation, confrontation, sardonic commentary, or wry burlesque — may be suggested by Hofmannsthal's Tower, Grotowski's Constant Prince, Dürrenmatt's Play Strindberg, Ionesco's Macbett, and Stoppard's Travesties.

Directors today can hardly resist adding further histrionic perspectives to plays that in themselves may be complex studies of role-playing — as in John Barton's Troilus and Cressida of 1968 and Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream of 1971. The recent Molière tercentenary occasioned some no less symptomatic productions. Jean-Louis Barrault's Bourgeois Gentilhomme gradually overwhelmed the conservative elocutionary style of the sponsoring Comédie Francaise with the director's personal idiom of dionysiac celebration. In Jean-Louis Thamin's production of L'Étourdi at the Théâtre National of Strasbourg, the carnival-players within the play were transformed into players who present the play — and the stock figures of the main plot accordingly became their puppets. It's not surprising that in this American bicentennial year Alan Arkin should choose to revive Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine, with the rehearsal scenes updated by the cast's own improvisations. Anderson's play, as Arkin told a reporter, is really "about both Joan and the theater."

Even a social statement now seems to want chiefly to mirror histrionic behavior — as in Dürrenmatt's Physicists, Fugard's Boesman and Lena, Kopit's Indians, or Dorst's Great Curse Before the City Walls. Kenneth Brown has rather predictably moved from the routines of The Brig to those of The Green Room, a play that suggests Wilder's Our Town reincarnate in the Living Théâtre, a community of actors who are always acting. It is almost inevitable that Ariane Mnouchkine's co-operative Théâtre du Soleil, when asking in 1971 and 1972 the meaning of the French Revolution, should find itself playing the playing of those historical events: first as carnival players who celebrate the recent events of 1789 and then as more naively histrionic citizens (living behind the self-conscious glitter of the prologue's operatic stage) who tell of their participation in the events of 1793. And it's no accident that Marchands de Ville, a composition of 1972 by the Théâtre de l'Aquarium which attacks speculative urban renewal, should find its liveliest moments in scenes dominated by the wheeler-dealer Volcani and the triple-top-hatted and triple-frock-coated triumvirate of the Banque Talbin, who caricature the financial-governmental complex.

But if the stage now seems to want to be everywhere, perhaps that's because it already is. Environmental theater arises in a theatrical environment. Courses in acting use texts by Eric Berne on gamesmanship. Viet Rock improvised a question within the public relations script that was selling the destruction of Viet Nam. Is our entire culture an ominous god out of the machine? America Hurrah. "Life itself," Abbie Hoffman could shout as he ran into the streets on TV, "is theater!" But wouldn't our obsession astonish even that Richard II who so knowingly smashed his own mirror? Or that Perkin Warbeck who refused to let the scaffold itself frighten him out of his role as pretender? Aware that life is a question of playing, Hamlet now becomes a nameless man who condemns himself to play Henry IV forever. Or else a Hamm who yawns to himself in a bare shelter after the devastation of the world: "Me — to play."

* * *

All right: let that stand as a first impression of where we are. The modern theme, I suppose, is consciousness of consciousness. As our late romanticism gives another twist to the baroque, every point of view tends to include an insistence that it is only a point of view. Every medium becomes its own most important subject. We paint painting. We make poems about poetry, fictions about fiction, films about film. And we play the player.

But something is wrong with that formula. What is playing? Is it pretending? deceiving? manipulating? imitating? exploring? performing? participating? frolicking? celebrating? Is it the deliberate histrionic madness of Pirandello's nameless man who plays Henry IV, or the world's more self-deceptive and murderous form of that madness? And what about the playing through which we discover that nameless man? Is "playing the player" just an irresponsible equivocation, a bit of fashionable fraudulence? Or does the phrase point to an inescapable ambiguity?


Excerpted from Fields of Play in Modern Drama by Thomas R. Whitaker. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • A Retrospective Word, pg. 1
  • One: Speaking of Playing, pg. 5
  • Two: Playing the Player, pg. 9
  • Three: Killing Ourselves, pg. 35
  • Four: Seeing the Hidden, pg. 58
  • Five: Dreaming the Music, pg. 79
  • Six: Undoing, pg. 102
  • Seven: Bearing Witness, pg. 126
  • Some Texts Behind the Text, pg. 179
  • Index, pg. 189

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