"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Theatre–In Search Of The Visceral

Ibsen, Strindberg,and Chekhov are playwrights who were masters of realism but whose characters, themes, and preoccupations could not have been more different. What they shared was a commitment to principles, and they created characters although engaging and often compelling rarely elicit more visceral, emotional reactions.  The playgoer leaves the theatre with a better understanding of human nature,  the dynamics of power, or the imponderable weight of the past, but without any empathy, love, or hate for the characters.  They challenge our assumptions and demand that we reconsider our lives, but give us little in the way of emotional or spiritual satisfaction.

Ibsen and Strindberg created characters who represented principles; and although one is attracted by the willfulness of Hedda Gabler or Laura (The Father), the satisfaction is intellectual rather than emotional. One admires Hedda, Hilde Wangel, Laura, and Rebekka West for their indomitable strength and willful pursuit of power.  All three women understand how control of the destiny of another is the ultimate realization of human potential.  The only validation of life, said Nietzsche, is the expression of individual will and the rejection of traditional concepts of good and evil – riding above the herd.

Looked at in conventional terms Hedda and Laura are reprehensible women who dispassionately, amorally, and cynically destroy anyone and anything that blunts their fierce ambition; but from a more philosophical perspective, they are admirable, for in their defiance of convention, they are heroic. They symbolize the raw, acquisitive, demanding, and insatiable human nature that drives all of us.

Rebekka West (Rosmersholm) is a more nuanced figure, one with political values and whose goal is the establishment of a new social order.  To do this, she insinuates herself into the Rosmer household, the estate of an old, aristocratic, and wealthy family whose patriarch can help to legitimize her cause.  She manipulates Rosmer, encouraging him to denounce his class and his religion, thus making him the perfect spokesman for the new liberal order.  Rebekka drives Rosmer’s wife to suicide and she will stop at nothing to achieve her ends.

Hilde Wangel appears to Solness (The Master Builder) after twelve years to fulfill a vision she has kept since childhood.  She wants Solness to build her castle in the air, realize her fantasy, and create a world of pure will and individual greatness. He will build her castle, defy God, and love her; and by encouraging him to climb to the top of the tower, she has become his master and the master of all.

In all the major plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, the characters stand for something.  They represent will, the primacy of individual expression, and the achievement of superhuman goals.

Ibsen and Strindberg, however, did not create one-dimensional characters; and both were influenced by Freud. Guilt is an important theme in both Rosmersholm and The Master Builder; and the sexual, gender-bending dynamics of Miss Julie owe much to him. Rosmer is consumed by the guilt he feels for his wife’s suicide, although it is Rebekka who has provoked her to her death.  Rebekka herself, not at all purely Nietzschean woman, cannot expunge the guilt she feels for an earlier incestuous relationship.  Solness feels responsible for his wife’s madness and she has attached Freudian symbolism to her house, her dolls, and her children.

Yet, we feel little for these characters.  We learn more about the nature of human impulses and their struggles to harmonize character and morality with ambition and commitment; but we don’t like them. Even though we recognize much of the characters in ourselves – ambition, desire, guilt, and will – we are still removed from their efforts.  Even empathy is difficult because we don’t like them.

It is even harder to like Chekhov’s characters, many of whom are windy intellectuals and whiny complainers who are mired in inaction, irresolution, and indecision. We feel empathy and sympathy for Masha, Olga, and Irina, the main characters in Three Sisters because we understand the nature of longing for things past, the frustration and isolation of being consigned to a foreign and inhospitable place, and the desires for love and intimacy; but we don’t like them.  Their anxiety and concerns are too diffuse and symbolic.

We want Astrov, Tuzenbach, Vershinin, and Trofimov to stop talking and get on with life.  We want them to do something passionate or simply energetic.  Yet the soldiers depart for another posting, leaving the three sisters alone again and desperate.

We admire Mme. Ranevsky (The Cherry Orchard) because she is one of the few more approachable and human characters in Chekhov.  She has run a way with a bad boy to France, and despite his deception and dishonor, goes back to him.  She is emotionally attached to the cherry orchard and defiantly refuses the reasonable suggestions of Lopakhin to sell it to developers, thereby keeping her family estate. We like her up to a point; but she is still a character who represents something rather than is someone,

Most of the characters in Uncle Vanya are unlikeable.  Vanya himself is a self-deceiving weakling.  The Professor is arrogant and dismissive.  Helen has spunk and will, but she is little more than a catalyst in the family drama. The play is about work, inertia, and ambition; and we remember it more for what it has taught than what we have felt.

Tennessee Williams, however, creates characters for whom one feels. At the end of Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, or Eccentricities of a Nightingale we are emotionally bound to Blanche, Laura, and Alma. The tragedy of Laura is palpable, visceral, and unforgettable.  She, on the edge of madness, has been afraid to live in any other world than that of her glass menagerie – let alone the real, harsh world outside her home. When she finally finds the courage to step out and meet her Gentleman Caller, all her dreams and fantasies of a normal life with a boy are destroyed.  She retreats back into the universe of her crystal animals, and we know that she will be there for life. It is impossible to forget her, alone in her room, desperately unhappy, alone, and afraid.

Alma (Eccentricities of a Nightingale) has led a dour, limited, and passionless life at home with her severe pastor father.  She, like Laura, lives in a world of fantasy where love is supposed to blossom into intimacy and passion; and she, like Laura, has no idea of what the real world is like or what love is.  Alma is disappointed by the boy next door, and after a chilling, unsuccessful rendezvous in a cheap hotel room, she retreats into her own world of tormented fantasy and becomes a prostitute. Once again, the hotel scene is unforgettable, for it is the decisive emotional moment in Alma’s life.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a powerful, emotional play, and the character of Blanche is more complex and profound than either Alma or Laura.  She relates her past in Belle Reve, the family estate – a place of romantic memories but also pain and suffering.  She berates her sister Stella for abandoning her and leaving her with her dying family and in an eloquent, lyrical passage tells of the emotional turmoil of those years. From Stanley we learn that Blanche’s life was far different.  She was unhinged, he says, then as she is now, and had a reputation of sleeping indiscriminately with sailors.

For Blanche there is no real truth, but only that which she invents.  Her love for a boy, her ties to her aristocratic home in Mississippi, her fatal attraction to Stanley, and her desires for a normal life are not real, but fantasy.  It is impossible to forget Blanche who, like Laura will be consigned forever to a life of loneliness, isolation, and unhappiness.

Anyone who reads Shakespeare’s plays cannot help but be awed at their virtuosity, their language, insights, and historical relevance.  Yet his most memorable characters – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear among many others – although complex in nature, ambition, and motivation, are still less visceral than any of Tennessee Williams. One is endlessly fascinated and troubled by Hamlet and why he did not kill the king.  Every actor, director, and critic has a different interpretation.  We cannot look away from this troubled, complicated man; and for four acts we want him to get it over with, kill the king, avenge his father, and restore order.  But do we remember him like we do Blanche, Alma, or Laura? Do we want to cry for him as we do for them?

There are many superficial similarities between Streetcar and Miss Julie.  In both the main characters are drawn to sexually vital, virile men beneath them in social class.  Both abhor the thought but cannot rid themselves of it.  We are fascinated by Miss Julie’s upbringing – ‘half man, half woman’, as she describes it – and see her actions through this sharp Freudian lens.  Yet we feel no real sympathy for her or for her suicide. We simply have learned about the complexities of social class, sexuality, and the emotional boundaries to action.

On the contrary, we feel nothing but sympathy for Blanche.  Williams, through his lyricism, and understanding of life on the edge of madness, has created a character who is more human than any of us. Mme. Ranevsky was also sexually unconventional, passionate, and determined; but we understand her rather than love her.

I began my long re-immersion into the works of Shakespeare five years ago.  I felt that he would have far more answers to why the world is the way it is than the hundreds of historians, political philosophers, and social anthropologists I had read; and far more than the experience of living and working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and studying these societies first hand.  I had come to an impasse.  Things were all looking the same.  People seemed to behave in exactly the same way no matter where I travelled.

Reading Shakespeare’s Histories laid end to end displays all the individual variations of human activity within the context of the ineluctable and irresistible forces of human nature. Kings, emperors, popes, and peasants are all driven by the same inevitable and very human impulses.   Shakespeare celebrates the infinite variety of human expression while at the same time placing it on the predictable and repetitive wheel of history.  I learned much, loved little.

What does one look for in drama, therefore? I remember who did what to whom in even the lesser plays of Shakespeare. I can recite passages from Cymbeline and Pericles.  I can trace English history from Henry II to Henry VIII; but I think about Blanche, Alma, Laura, Lady, and Maggie all the time.

Literature will always be in part intellectual (the Post-Modernists have done more than their share of objectifying if not neutralizing individual creativity in favor of deconstruction into socially relevant pieces) ; part lyrical; part symbolic; and part representative. The best literature is transformative, reaching the reader at some deep, visceral level – in his most private and interior rooms. Like Absalom, Absalom. Like The Glass Menagerie. Like A Streetcar Named Desire.

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