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Esslin - Field of Drama

Esslin - Field of Drama

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Published by uwpeers
2 chapters on nature of drama, and a third one discussing, amongst others, Midsummer Night's Dream.
2 chapters on nature of drama, and a third one discussing, amongst others, Midsummer Night's Dream.

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Published by: uwpeers on Sep 22, 2008
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08/18/2011

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II
The Field of Drama
'... I have heardThat guilty creatures, sitting at a playHave by the very cunning of the sceneBeen struck so to the soul that presentlyThey have
proclaim'd
their
malefactions
...'
 Hamlet,
II, iiThe 'scene', the 'play', the whole gamut of staged events thatfall under the description of 'drama' can, indeed, not only helpus to pass the time agreeably but provide us with strong emo-tional experiences, 'strike us to our soul' and produce powerfuleffects upon our lives, our thinking, our behaviour.How, by what devices, by what methods,
does
the sceneexercise its cunning? How does drama exert its impact upon thecreatures - guilty or innocent - who come to be entertained ormoved by what Hamlet calls
'but...
a fiction, ... a dream of passion': a dramatic performance?It is a question that has exercised theorists and critics of drama for almost three millennia and has evoked a wide varietyof answers, more or less valid, more or less applicable in the fluxof ever-changing cultural, social and
technological
conditionsunder which drama has been produced and performed.That is why the question must be re-formulated and posedagain. The conditions under which drama is presented havebeen radically transformed in the last hundred years by a verit-able flood of technological innovation: on the stage itself, andlater by the introduction of mechanical and electronic diffu-sion.
The Field of Drama
23
What is drama and where are the boundaries of its field?Rigid definitions of highly variable and constantly develop-ing, organically growing and decaying, human activities of thisnature are dangerous. As Wittgenstein puts it:'many words... . don't have a strict meaning. But this isno defect. To think it is would be like saying that the lightof my reading lamp is not a real light because it has nosharp boundary.'
1
Definitions of concepts like 'drama' should, therefore, never betreated as normative, but as merely outlining the somewhatfluid boundaries of a given field. Whenever narrow, normativedefinitions dominated the practice of drama, they invariablytended to have a cramping and deadening impact.The history of drama (which for so long was almost synony-mous with the history of theatre) is rich in examples of such anegative effect of over-rigid definitions. Like Wittgenstein'slight, the concept of 'drama' has an obvious, immediately rec-ognised, central core, which can, if not defined, be describedand circumscribed, but will always be surrounded by a penum-bra of events and activities which, while partaking of some of itscharacteristics, will to some extent lack others. Thus mime, thecircus, street theatre, opera, music hall, cabaret, 'happenings',performance art fall within the boundaries of the dramaticwhile lacking some of the elements of stricter definitions of drama. The boundaries of the term will always be fluid, thedifferent related fields will always tend to overlap. Neverthelessthe concept has a centre that is common to all its multifariousoverlapping manifestations. How can we delimit it? We use theterms 'drama' and 'dramatic' in a multitude of contexts: afootball match, a race, a riot, an assassination are 'dramatic'because they contain the elements of heightened intensity of incident and emotion that are one of the essential ingredients of 
1
Wittgenstein,
The Blue and Brown Books,
Oxford:
Blackwell,
1958,
p. 27.
 
The Field of Drama
drama. What distinguishes them from drama in its proper senseis that they are 'real' rather than fictional. So the element of thefictional is an essential element of drama? Only up to a point,for there is also 'documentary drama', based on 'real' events.The essential element here is that the documentary drama're-enacts' past events, that is: puts them before an audience asthough they were happening before them at that very moment.This brings out one of the essential aspects of drama: theaspect of 'acting'. Drama simulates, enacts or re-enacts eventsthat have, or may be imagined to have, happened in the 'real' orin an imagined world. What these different types of representa-tion have in common is that they are all 'mimetic action'.A dramatic text is a blueprint for such mimetic action, it isnot yet itself, in the full sense, drama. A dramatic text, unper-formed, is literature. It can be read as a story. This is the areawhere the fields of narrative fiction, epic poetry, and dramaoverlap. The element which distinguishes drama from thesetypes of fiction is, precisely, that of 'performance',
enactment.
Dickens giving readings from his novels, in some sense actedthem out, and thus transformed them into drama. Clearly hisvocal characterisation of his fruity and highly individualisedcharacters amounted to 'acting'. And as to the purely narrative,descriptive, dialogue-free portions of the text: Dickens, inreading these, in a highly emotional and subtly differentiatedvoice that painted the mood and the scenery, was still an actor:he acted the role of the character 'Charles Dickens', the com-pulsive story-teller; he played an obsessed individual who, likethe Ancient Mariner, grabs his listener and does not let himescape from the telling of his tale. Such narrations, acted out incharacter, have always been an important ingredient of drama.The messengers of Greek tragedy, after all, were also merely
narrating
events, describing them as a novelist would, though'in character'. And, indeed, the bard who sang his heroic poemsat the table of Homeric princes (including Homer himself, nodoubt) gave a dramatic performance. And it was out of such
The Field of Drama
25enacted epic narrations inserted into choral religious song thatdrama proper seems to have originated and evolved in ancientGreece.Dramatic reading of narrative texts has revived in our time onradio and in cassette recordings. And probably under the influ-ence of such dramatic readings on radio the acted performanceof narrative material on the stage has become popular andwidespread: the American forms of 'story theatre' fall underthis heading, so do the numerous solo performances by star-actors of the works of writers of narrative, diaries or letters.
Emlyn
Williams re-enacted Dickens reading from his novels;Roy Dotrice transformed Aubrey's
Brief Lives
into a charactercameo of that quirky old eccentric telling his anecdotes. Thegenre has become ubiquitous. What this demonstrates is theessential difference between the narrative and the dramaticmode: the narrative, when read is perceived as lying in
the past,
the dramatic, as Goethe and Schiller pointed out in their classicdiscussion of the matter, creates an
eternal
present:
in this case anarrator present in the room telling his story here and nowbecomes - re-enacts himself as - a character.In the case of the modern novel, where the omniscient narra-tor has been replaced by an individualised character who tellsthe story from his viewpoint, the dividing line between adramatic text and narrative fiction has become equally tenuous:Beckett's 'novels' are in fact dramatic monologues that differonly very slightly from the dramatic monologues that are pub-lished as his 'plays'. They can be performed without changingthe words.At the other end of the spectrum there is the novel thatreduces the narrator to a minimum and is mainly composed of dialogues, like the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Such novelscan also be 'performed' with minimal changes of their text.And, if we approach the fluid boundary between narrativefiction and drama from the opposite direction: there is Brecht's'epic theatre' which endeavours to import the detachment, the
 
26
The Field of Drama
critical, 'historical' viewpoint of the epic poem and the novelinto dramatic performance, so that the audience should beenabled to see the action with the detachment, the distancedanalytical eye and critical mind of the reader of a novel, orhistorical narrative, as though it was
not 
happening 'here andnow' but 'there and then'.If the boundaries between fiction and 'mimesis' are fluid,they are equally so at the other end of the spectrum, that of non-fictional 'action' or 'events': Renaissance
triomfi;
elaborateCorpus Christi processions in Bavaria, Austria or Belgium,involving huge puppets parading through the streets (and re-vived by Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet theatre); carnivalprocessions and parades with floats depicting scenes and char-acters; pageants; masked balls in which individuals are cos-tumed as Nubian slaves or pirates; the circus with animal acts, jugglers, high-wire and trapeze artistes and clowns, glitter andcostume, evoking the excitement of intense emotion are all veryclosely akin to that of drama more rigidly defined. Pageantry of all kinds involves the highly dramatic element
of
spectacle:
themilitary parade or religious procession is something to belooked at in awe and wonder - gorgeous uniforms, spectacularvestments share with drama 'proper' the element of costumeand spectacular grouping of characters; religious processionsand
triomfi
also used 'floats' which can be regarded as mobilestages on which 'tableaux' of mythological or religious charac-ter were displayed (as do contemporary carnival processions orthe London 'Lord Mayor's parade'). Masked balls are oftenheld in halls that have been turned into elaborate stage sets andthe participants are not only costumed as 'characters' they alsotend to want to improvise dialogue and actions appropriate totheir dress - in other words turn themselves into 'actors'. Circusartists (such as bare-back-riders, jugglers, trapeze artistes, acro-bats, tight-rope-walkers) do not appear as 'fictional' characters,yet their glittering costumes make them figures of fantasy; normust one forget that the display of physical skills and physical
The Field of Drama
27beauty is an important part of dramatic performance itself -great actors often excel by their beauty and physical prowess aswell as by other qualities.(And, indeed, circus and theatre have frequently overlapped:the English pantomime includes jugglers and other circus-likeelements; plays and films have occasionally relied on the spec-tacular feats of trained animals: Goethe relinquished his post asthe director of the Weimar theatre in
1817
because he objectedto the court's insistence that he put on a play that included thefeats of a trained poodle
2
, a forerunner of the cinema's Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie; the early cinema also derived much of itsattraction from the really or seemingly dangerous feats of dar-ing rough riders and actors who
jumped
from moving trains, orhung suspended from sky-scrapers like Harold Lloyd.)Contemporary avant-garde performance art, environmentaltheatre, 'happenings' and similar experimental works derive inmany ways from these traditions of pageantry: here too oftenthe performers remain themselves, or do not attempt to turnthemselves into fictional characters, yet the 'images' they cre-ate, or the way in which they transform the audience intoparticipants of improvised dialogue are clearly well within theboundaries of the 'dramatic'. One need only mention practi-tioners like the 'Living Theatre' of the sixties and seventies,Robert Wilson, Ariane Mnouchkine, Luca Ronconi in thiscontext.And then, at yet another boundary of the field of drama,there are the highly ritualised spectacular ceremonials involv-ing kings and queens and other political figure-heads, like the'Trooping of the Colour' in Britain, the vast military parades infront of Lenin's tomb, the inauguration of the President of theUnited States.
2
The play was a French thriller
Der Hund des Aubri de Mont-Didier 
with which the Viennese actor Karsten was touring Germany. SeeMarvin Carlson,
Goethe and the Weimar Theatre,
Ithaca and London:Cornell University Press,
1978,
p. 288 ff.

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