On theatre and human performance

The ability to imagine is a necessary human faculty. We need metaphors in order to comprehend and absorb the actualities of life. It isn’t that we can’t bear too much reality. We can understand reality only by way of language.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
19 August 2014

The Globe. Flickr/Steeljam. Some rights reserved.

By the time I became aware of Kenneth Tynan his best work was behind him. He was writing for The New Yorker, but the glory days of his famous reviews and his controversial time at the National Theatre were behind him. It was difficult to see where the high reputation came from until I read the collected reviews. The collection began: ‘Olivier’s Richard [III] eats into the memory like acid into metal.’ Well, these days he looks more like a pantomime devil after Pacino’s and McKellen’s radical reworkings, but Tynan’s simile retains its power. Tynan was worth the adulation. He was astute in many ways. The tragedy is that he never did write the hoped-for major work that would ensure his fame. He is destined to be, not forgotten, but to be the Leigh Hunt of his day, rather than the Hazlitt his contemporaries supposed him to be.

How was he astute? When he accepted Olivier’s invitation to join the National, Tynan said that there was no question that he become part of the Establishment. It was impossible to think of himself, or to be thought of, as the dissentient outsider. That phase had passed. Except that Tynan didn’t fit in. He made bold moves, and he really did look out for obscure new talent worth promoting. But his political instincts were truth-telling without the nuances of things understood. ‘Don’t mention the War’ was never his way.

There is a chilling scene in David Hare’s Plenty when the central character, a disillusioned former war heroine, promises a distinguished gathering that she will not mention the betrayal and the deception of the Suez War. She will not mention, she says, how governments lie. And so on. She is heard in silence. People simply don’t do that sort of thing. It’s bad behaviour. It’s a sign of breakdown, of the inability to cope with the web of corruption that society can be in times of moral crisis. She is heard in the silence of condemnation. No-one defends himself because they all know Susan Traherne is powerless, and is going mad with the hopelessness of her situation. She believed in something worth fighting for, only to see the idea of empire masquerading  as the ideals of democracy.

Plenty was first seen at the National, on the stage that Tynan’s behind-the-scenes presence had vacated a few years before. Without Tynan it is questionable whether plays like Hare’s would have found their way to the South Bank. Perhaps yes. But it took an equally determined, if more adept, operator to keep up the momentum. Of course Peter Hall was, and is, a bold, imaginative and generous cultural force. He is also clearly and admirably skilled at not treading on toes. The Kenneth Tynans of this world are less adept. But without them the scene is the paler.

Hall’s generosity was evident in his decision to include Peter Brook in the newly created Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961. [It may have been the inspiration for Olivier’s invitation to Tynan two years later.] Hall is clearly not one of those who jealously guards his position against his rivals. Brook’s eventual decision to remain permanently in Paris was a loss of talent that our culture can ill afford. Asked why he stayed away Brook has pointed inevitably to the political climate. More to the point he has given a deeper reason: a certain kind of audience with an attitude of unthinking acceptance. He cites attitudes to Stoppard. The objection is in no way to the playwright himself, but rather to attitudes toward him.

Theatre can do many things. One thing it ought to do is present challenges. Complacent assumptions, of any kind, need to be examined. Pinter’s genius lay in his ability to present life without the surface layer. The rawness beneath the superficial civilities was revealed in that curious language so seemingly realist, yet so deeply absurdist. He is not a political writer like Brecht. Pinter is a poet of emotions rationalised in social terms. Pinter comes after the politics have done their worst and life returns to a supposed but false normality.

In that false normality an audience can laugh like automatons at a Stoppard play because they expect Stoppard to be brilliantly witty even when he is being deadly serious. They laugh at fairly amusing ironies as if they were outrageously farcical jokes. They laugh at every line, written with such care, and they go away saying, ‘My dear, you simply must see the new Stoppard.’ You can tell it’s false because they laugh from the first line. That’s not how it works. It takes time for the mood to establish itself and for the comedy to build up. At first there is expectation. Perhaps there are one or two forced titters. Then comes that first real laugh. By the end everything is screamingly funny.

Realising the potential responses of an audience is the task of the performers. The interpretations are varied if the play has depth. Brook’s perception that there is ‘a play behind the play’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream marked for him a mid-career embarkation into the mysteries from which theatre has grown. Brook began to search for an international language of theatre, a common root of all the enactments that have become too familiar to us in our dramatized world.

In the Eighties we had an actor in the White House and a playwright in the Vatican. The breaking down of the Berlin Wall was a gigantic act of popular theatre. Another playwright was acclaimed as leader in post-Stalinist Prague. The play behind the play is one of the latent realities released by the trauma of conflict. Susan Sontag sought to heal the wounds of conflict in the Balkans by staging a play. There have been, and there remain, a number of scenarios in the political world. We tend to confuse the actual with the inevitable. The possibilities are rehearsed before the executive producers determine the course of action.

Everything now is filmed. So much our social life is available on security cameras or social media. The distinction between reality and its performance is blurring. At the pathological extreme we have a killer on the London streets posing, weapons in hand, for the camera of a passer-by. Children who kill other children sincerely believe they are playing a version of a video game.

In the mainstream of society we may witness a milder confusion between reality and performance. This is especially so with technologies that are the theatre of everyday domesticity. Placed in people’s living space these images are an intimate part of people’s lives. Fictional locations and imaginary characters are in some sense real and reachable. People visit locations apparently half-expecting to see those imaginary characters in situ.

In part it’s a tribute to the high standards of acting we have. Perhaps we take them for granted. Seeing archive material from Fifties television and, honestly, it’s a joke. You know they’re not nurses and postmen. But now you can be fooled into thinking they really are. And audiences that don’t have a background of going to the theatre are especially vulnerable to the confusion between the screen in the corner and the window onto the street.

The fourth wall is there for a reason. It is the imagined distancing between audience and stage, the necessary objectifier of the experience. What is taking place succeeds by not being mistaken for actuality. Traditionally there was a curtain. But that served to mask the objective presence of the performance which became a courtly game, a masque of mannequins rather than an enactment of serious emotions. The distance required is the distance where imagination and intellect can respond to what they see.

The task now may be to regain that distance. Theatre works by its objectivity, by not being something casual. Artifice is the essence of performance. The words are written by another. The action is determined by another. The self on stage is not the true self. Every gesture is carefully prepared in advance. What we see enacted is a distillation of reality, a metaphor of reality. We see ourselves and others through the filter of ritual performances that have the nature of sacrifice and of the sacred even in their profanity.

Voice and gesture are to some measure stylized. Stylised speech renders dignity to the performance, unless, as in clown roles, a lack of dignity is required. The great actors are those who seem most natural when they are within the constraints of style. They make the carefully rehearsed appear spontaneous. The emotions are not actually felt. The hysterical shriek, the angry laugh, the tender kiss – they are all the result of careful rehearsal. They are controlled actions mimicking feelings that performers know but do not share at the moment of performance.

The ability to imagine is a necessary human faculty. We need metaphors in order to comprehend and absorb the actualities of life. It isn’t that we can’t bear too much reality. We can understand reality only by way of language, and language is a system of symbols where a thing is represented by another thing. If I compare thee to a summer’s day it is to appreciate thee the more, my sweet. Take the imaginative faculty away and what we have is the lesser. We have the thing itself as an isolated object without the chain of meanings which make sense of it.

If everything is a movie starring me then there is no communication. In the real world we recognise ourselves as attendant lords. Even the greatest have that humility because an area of humility (an awareness that it could be other) is a mark of greatness. The great actors can play ordinary people with lives so utterly different from their own because the great actors are communicating not their stardom but their empathy, their humanity. And that ought to encourage all of us to enact something more than ourselves.

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