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Why do actors get stage fright? What is so embarrassing about joining in? Why not work with animals and children, and why is it so hard not to collapse into helpless laughter when things go wrong? In trying to answer these questions - usually ignored by theatre scholarship but of enduring interest to theatre professionals and audiences alike - Nicholas Ridout attempts to explain the relationship between these apparently unwanted and anomalous phenomena and the wider social and political meanings of the modern theatre. This book focuses on the theatrical encounter - those events in which actor and audience come face to face in a strangely compromised and alienated intimacy - arguing that the modern theatre has become a place where we entertain ourselves by experimenting with our feelings about work, social relations and about feelings themselves.
About the Author
Nicholas Ridout is Lecturer in Performance at the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London.
Read an Excerpt
Cambridge University Press
0521852080 - Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems - by Nicholas Ridout
The boy Marcel, narrator of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, goes to the theatre for the first time. He is to see a performance of Racine's Phèdre, given by Berma, the greatest actress of the day.
Alas! That first matinée was to prove a bitter disappointment.
But as the day of the performance dawnshis joyful excitement at the prospect ahead of him overwhelms his anxiety, and he is full of pleasurable sensations. His pleasure increases once he has taken his seat. The theatre itself, the fact that he enjoys an unobscured view, the sounds of last minute preparations behind the lowered curtains all contribute to this pleasure. Even once the curtain has risen to reveal ‘a writing desk and a fireplace’ he continues to enjoy the experience. But what happens next induces a feeling of ‘momentary uneasiness’. Two men appear on stage and start arguing loudly, and only gradually does Marcel realise that ‘these insolent fellows were the actors’.
The experience of this theatre-goer, then, is one in which anticipation gives way to disappointment, in which pleasure is bound up with anxiety and even perhaps pain and illness, in which acting is confused with a vulgar interruption, in which the transcendent possibilities of the world's greatest dramatic poetry appear to pass by almost unnoticed in a ‘deliberate monotone’, and success appears as dependent upon the audience as it is upon the artistic capability of the actor. Yet for all this, for all the confusion, anxiety and disappointment, it is an experience which he cannot bear to bring to an end, and to which he will repeatedly seek to return.
Nevertheless, when the curtain had fallen for the last time, I was disappointed that the pleasure for which I had so longed had not been greater, but at the same time I felt the need to prolong it, not to relinquish for ever, by leaving the auditorium, this strange life of the theatre which for a few hours had been mine, and from which I would have torn myself away as though I were being dragged into exile by going straight home, had I not hoped there to learn a great deal more about Berma from her admirer M. de Norpois, to whom I was indebted already for having been permitted to go to Phèdre.
It is this confusion – of attraction and repulsion, compulsion and disappointment – experienced in the modern theatre, that is the principal subject of this book. I offer Marcel's experience of the modern theatre as emblematic of a more general and familiar experience of theatre in modernity. By modernity here I am referring to the phase in our history inaugurated by the industrial revolution in Europe, characterised by technological progress at the service of capitalist growth, in which the city is the centre of economic and political power. It is a modernity in which the theatre is shaped by new patterns of economic production, and, in particular, by the organised and pervasive division between work and leisure. As a place where work and leisure meet – in the forms of the actor and the audience – the theatre is perhaps inevitably going to be a place where there is a little doubt as to what is supposed to happen when producers and consumers come face to face.
Marcel's experience of this encounter is one of pleasure attended by pain, of uncertain satisfactions and contradictory impulses: an experience, in short, of what Jonas Barish calls – in a book dedicated to the theory and practice of theatre-hating – an ‘ontological queasiness’
This ambivalence certainly characterises my own relationship with the theatre. Theatre, being queasy, makes me queasy. That such queasiness is widespread, that we find theatre uncomfortable, compromised, boring, conventional, bourgeois, overpriced and unsatisfactory most of the time, is I think not only generally accepted as true, but also generally accepted as part and parcel of the whole business. Theatre's failure, when theatre fails, is not anomalous, but somehow, perhaps constitutive. What I want to argue here is that it is precisely in theatre's failure, our discomfort with it, its embeddedness in capitalist leisure, its status as a bourgeois pastime that its political value is to be found.
Theatre is a privileged place for the actual experience of a failure to evade or transcend capital. A performance of Racine's Phèdre, for example, fails to transport the spectator from the reality of his modern life, because it is, of course, part of modern life, part of capital. It is for this reason, above all, that the theoretical and artistic practices that have developed in a critical relationship to the theatre, often linked to the profession of performance, while of enormous value to an artistic and critical thinking that seeks to oppose or resist capital, neither can nor should leave behind altogether the practice and the institutions of theatre. If the promise of performance is to have redemptive force in this context, it has it only in so far as it remains in dialectical tension with the theatre that it constantly seeks to transcend. If performance and performance studies are committed – to varying degrees – to acts of ideological critique within capitalism, their claim as regards theatre is largely that they are more effective, that the challenge they offer to prevailing codes, values and oppressions is fiercer, more immediate and ultimately, more of a challenge.
What theatre perhaps does, within the formulation I am sketching out here, is to hide and to reveal both the oppressions and the challenges. It is in the imperfections (several of which are the key topics of this study) of its miming of the ideological structures of a given social organisation that theatre, perhaps, almost inadvertently, or with a coy slyness, discloses the weaknesses and blind spots in its own structures. Theatre is guilty, and knows it, while performance still makes some claim to innocence. In the decrepit, marginal, artificial and commodified institution that is the modern theatre you perhaps have to look much harder and with greater ingenuity for your resistance or your challenge, than you do in the more explicitly oppositional, self-consciously antibourgeois terrain of performance. Part of the thesis of this book is that such hard looking and ingenuity may be rewarding, and that the disclosure of guilty secrets in the theatre is an important complement to the invention of new public truths in performance. I therefore hope to show, in the section that follows, how a theoretical approach to theatre might be reconstituted from the heart of a discourse – the discourse of performance – that appears to promise that it might be possible to move beyond it.
From the promise of performance to the return of theatre
This promise of performance appears to have had three almost simultaneous foundational moments. If performance has developed its own historiography it almost certainly rests upon the theoretical assumption that these three moments may be understood as part of the same project. The first moment might be broadly defined as the emergence of theatrical or other practices that explicitly reject, oppose, expose or move beyond the framework of theatre – the term ‘performance art’ is often used to name these practices. The second would then be the moment at which these and other practices (from snake rituals to park ranger presentations, via the Brooklyn Academy of Music) start to be addressed from the interdisciplinary perspectives of performance studies, and no longer from within categories developed for appreciation of autonomous aesthetic production such as painting or drama. The term ‘performance studies’ is often used to describe these critical approaches. A third moment may be located in the emergence of ‘theatricality’ as a key (and negative) term in the understanding of certain post-modern art practices.
If this third moment has become inextricably (and perhaps accidentally) linked to the name Michael Fried,
If we are seeking to explain what is wrong with theatre, some avenues offer more fruitful exploration than others, and the focus of the present study reflects this. As I have suggested above, the disciplinary formation of performance studies, the ‘Schechner’ moment, makes no claim to address this problem at all directly, mainly because in its inclusion of theatre within the (arguably) broader category of performance, it seeks to address, in its own disciplinary interests, those things which link the various practices and institutions that constitute its field. Any investigation that looked too closely at what might be specific to theatre itself would risk undermining the viability of the field's self-definition, which depends upon knowing what theatre is like rather than what it might be in itself, in what its ‘ontological queasiness’ might consist. That is not to say that the consideration of theatre as such in the anthropological terms proposed by performance studies, especially in its inaugural ‘Schechner’ moment, does not yield considerable understanding. However, in seeking to establish what is wrong with theatre, a more historically and culturally specific approach is required, one which speaks of theatre at a particular moment and as a cultural institution in a particular historical and geographical location.
The present study concerns itself primarily with what we routinely understand theatre to be, in Western industrial or post-industrial modernity: a modernity in which Proust's Paris, ‘the capital of the nineteenth century’,
Part of the argument advanced here is to suggest that what is wrong with theatre is most intensely and obviously wrong with this theatre and its sense of its own history; that aspects of theatre that have enjoyed, at least in their historiography, continued service from Athens in the fifth century B.C. to the present day, may have always been wrong, but certainly appear more wrong now. Indeed, this suggestion is in effect the condition of the present work's possibility, in that the wrongness of theatre is currently taking shape in a form that can be understood in terms of a specific relationship with the present historical moment. While it is hard to determine, for example, whatever one's suspicions, whether the meta-theatricality of Shakespeare, Corneille or Calderon might be a symptom of this wrongness or, rather, a signal that the theatre is (becoming) aware of something wrong with itself, it is possible to argue with some credibility that modern work articulating anxiety about its own form as its central subject matter (from Handke's Offending the Audience to Forced Entertainment's First Night) puts the question of theatrical undoing squarely on the table. Martin Puchner has done enormously valuable work on the aesthetic history of this tendency within modern theatre, showing convincingly that modernist theatre (from Wagner, through Joyce, Yeats and Stein, to Brecht and Beckett) offers a sustained ‘resistance’ to theatre and to theatricality as a value, and that in doing so, it performs acts of reform and rehabilitation in which theatre's ‘wrongness’ becomes the motive for experimental theatrical production.
It is therefore to two significant texts that both make use of the term ‘theatricality’, but which are frequently used in support of the discourse of performance, that I now turn. Firstly, there are aspects of Michael Fried's arguments over literalist art that require elaboration. A second line of argument, Josette Féral's, more clearly associated with the emergence of performance as such, will complement and enlarge upon the opening made by Fried. What I am seeking to do in relation to both Fried's text and my subsequent discussion of Féral's essay, is to locate, somewhat against the apparent grain of these texts, an identification of theatre with a certain kind of unease, and, in that unease, a possible ‘ontology’ of theatre that might permit its reinstatement as a fruitful area of theoretical and political inquiry in spite of, if not because of, the cases made against it or the alternatives to it offered by the discourses of performance.
As generally understood, Fried's concerns over the work of artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris centre upon the fact that the work in question is not self-sufficient. It does not, as Fried claims the modernist painting he espouses does, absorb the viewer, permit her a moment of self-transcendence in contemplation of the work. Instead it forces the spectator to acknowledge what Robert Morris calls ‘the entire situation’,
The proxemics are inducing discomfort. Someone is too close or too far away, in a ‘darkened’ space, too. Where first Fried suggests that it is the awareness of oneself, of one's own body or body as part of ‘the entire situation’ that disrupts one's encounter with the work, it is now hinted that it is the intimation of an encounter with a ‘silent’ other that is ‘disquieting’. This seems, wonderfully, to go right to the heart of the theatrical setup, where, one is tempted now to suggest, the encounter with another person, in the dark, in the absence of communication, is also an encounter with the self, and thus the occasion for all sorts of anxieties, anxieties that one might begin to discuss under headings such as narcissism, embarrassment or shame (as Chapters 1do). What Fried objects to in the objects of Judd and Morris seems to be the way in which they subjectivise the spectator, turn the spectator into an audience that thinks too much of itself, that exposes itself somehow to its own gaze, that puts itself, improperly, upon the stage, in place of the work that was supposed to have engineered the transcendence of such categories altogether. The objects turn themselves into you, and you into them, and instead of a plenitude in oneness experienced in the moment of absorption, comes a constant to and fro, an unbecoming becoming, in which the action takes place in a kind of in-between, neither onstage nor off, accompanied by the rattle and clatter of unseemly machinery in the wings. In modernist abstraction, there are, of course, no wings.
In fact, being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person; the experience of coming upon literalist objects unexpectedly – for example, in somewhat darkened rooms – can be strongly, if momentarily, disquieting in just this way.
Although this account of theatricality might seem, at first sight, to be the very antithesis of the theatrical set-up, in which the distinction between onstage and offstage, the work and its audience is supposed to be clear cut, in reality, because the people who are co-present to each other in the theatrical set-up are always alive, this kind of interchange, however embarrassing, however much we seek to avoid it, is always already there, built into the structure of ‘the entire situation’. In this sense, then, Fried offers an account of theatricality that stresses distantiation and interaction over illusion and absorption, suggesting, I think very helpfully (and in almost complete accordance with the thinking of Bertolt Brecht), that the prevalent notion that theatricality can subsist under conditions of illusionism is an historical misunderstanding of the form. One implication of Fried's account of theatricality that does not seem to have been followed through in this context is the possibility that the absorption he sees in modernist painting is the partner (rather than some kind of paradigmatic replacement) of theatrical realism. By this account, both modernist projects (realism and American abstract painting) seek to eliminate the spectator from the set-up, to hide the full extent of ‘the entire situation’, in both the phenomenological sense intended by Fried and a further political sense (that economic and other power relations in the relationship between artist and audience are hidden by both realism and abstraction). It is in the tension between the pictorial values of illusionism (sustained by conditions of spectatorship in which the darkened auditorium becomes the norm) and the co-presence that had previously underpinned theatricality, that many of the present day symptoms of theatre's ‘wrongness’ manifest themselves. This is especially true in the case of stage fright, a modern phenomenon that will be examined in detail in Chapter 1embarrassment and shame in Chapter 2‘stage presence’ Fried is sparing himself the fear and blushing that it invariably brings with it. At the same time he starts to offer a model of theatricality that begins to sound like plausible grounds for ‘ontological queasiness’.
© Cambridge University Press
Table of Contents
From the promise of performance to the return of theatre
Kleist's Uber das Marionettentheater
From an ethics of performance to an affective politics of theatre
Stage fright: the predicament of the actor 35
In an 'awful hole'
A very 'modern' hole
Into the hole and out: diagnosis and cure
Abject hole: first 'blow-back'
Face your fear
Embarrassment: the predicament of the audience 70
Please don't look at me
What is embarrassment?
Towards a politics of shame
The animal on stage 96
Mouse in the house
Signs of labour
Mutual predicaments: corpsing and fiasco 129
Lyotard on theatre: last 'blow-back'