The Performance, the Genre, and the Director

by Wulf Koepke
Department of Modern and Classical Languages
Texas A&M University

'Performance' is a topic whose time has come, a topic that spans many times and disciplines. This conference can only be a beginning, highlighting some of the aspects of this complex of problems. But it is an auspicious beginning, and I am happy to contribute my random remarks, mostly personal, resulting from some decades of academic experience and theatre work in different settings.

One of the major points that a stage director is trying to achieve is the right rhythm for the performance, the 'flow' that enables the audience to participate and stay interested or, at best, excited. When we look at our daily lives, however, and at the way in which they are reflected in the mass media, television in particular, we find a giddy kind of acceleration of the rhythm of life, coupled with the attempt to 'stop the camera' from time to time, and create 'frozen' images that imprint themselves on the viewers' minds: these images may be products for sale in commercials, faces of politicians or other people who need publicity, or the last dramatic moments of self-destructive persons who want to be remembered for an image of suicidal glory. These image-creating moments which can be replayed (sometimes ad nauseam) and thus really be imprinted on a (very short-term) collective memory, remind me of a genre of performance popular in more innocent times, especially during the period of romanticism.

The Germans called it 'lebende Bilder' (living images=pictures), and the performance consisted of a representation of a well-known painting, normally a group of people with background, like Leonardo's 'Last Supper', by real people in costumes before the appropriate stage settings. This could also be performed in one's living room or garden. There could be a twist to the performance, if the persons on stage were supposed to be playing instruments: this would add music and, possibly, some movement. Modern performances of this kind which I saw in Laguna Beach, California, added sophisticated lighting to the music and were able to hold the audience's interest for a whole evening. Beyond the recognition of the painting and the effect of the pleasing picture, the secret is to select pictures that present movement and lively gestures: it is the paradox of the moving image, frozen in time, that engages the attention, and also, in a curious way, bridges the gap between art and life. The 'actors' take the painting out of its frame and bring it closer to the audience, even if they do not break down the barrier between the stage and real life.

Yet the model of the 'lebendes Bild' reminds us of the constant back- and-forth movement between stage and 'reality', between performance and 'real life', to which we are constantly exposed, so that we hardly notice anymore that it is happening.

The trivial statement that we live in an age of role playing and performance gains more substance when we consider that theatrical performance has left the stage as its circumscribed space and invaded the entire social life. While twentieth-century theatre developed many ways to overcome the barrier between stage and life, and wanted to be revitalized with elements of reality, and social reality absorbed more and more aesthetic/theatrical elements, the attempted fusion has created a third state between life and stage whose precise nature still eludes definition, but calls for constant attempts of coming to grips with it.

A corollary of this attempted fusion is that today's stage plays are infused with rhetorical and performance elements foreign to most previous theatre cultures, elements which make it difficult to recognize genres and their representation. This goes hand in hand with the increase in theatricality in other rhetorical communication. While traditionally, the connections between the stage and religious rites or services as well as courtroom 'drama', even political conventions and campaigns, have been evident as part of social life, the relationship between the stage and academic performance is more tenuous and problematic. Instructors and scholars are performers, but they rely mainly on spoken or written words and numbers, using moving or still images largely for illustration, and students or listeners should get the meaning of the presentation primarily from the words and not from facial expressions or gestures. But the electronic age can replace the traditional genres, such as lectures, classroom discussions, luncheon speeches, or conference papers.

We should remind ourselves that 'reading' does not necessarily mean silent reading for oneself; there used to be many forms of group readings and recitations, and there is a gradual transition from a simple every-day dialogue to a theatrical performance. While story telling has largely been reduced to the telling of jokes, and the story- teller or reader of stories to others is only reemerging in the function of bedtime readings for little children, many situations in our lives call for a re-enactment of past events with theatrical elements, such as Bert Brecht saw in the demonstration of a traffic accident. Not only that prepared performances or improvisations for social occasions are still used to enhance the mood of the company and create cohesion, texts, or more precisely: words, are always imbedded in the other elements of performance that communicate one's intentions and personality to the audience.

The academic code of behavior, to return to that particular focus, calls for a particular type of role playing. The academic demeanor is characterized by restraint, rationality, logic, a tendency to ceremonious behavior, and a dominance of reason over emotion. We do not need psychologists, however, to tell us that such emotions may force their way back to the surface with a vengeance, and that academic feuds can be as fierce as or fiercer than those of other professional groups. However, the academy expresses its idea of its own independent space, the campus, with decorum and rituals, requiring solemn attire and serious words and gestures. Scholars are supposed to value 'objectivity', self-effacement, they have ritual formulae of ignorance and imperfection that mask the typical academic weaknesses of arrogance, egocentricity, and inflated egos appearing in all caricatures of outsiders who consider these scholars as pompous and often out of step with reality, making the academic rituals a self-contained game about nothing. Academics profess their adherence to the ideals of enlightenment and tolerance, but, for an outsider, they seem to have little awareness of their appearance and especially of the many involuntary elements of comedy surfacing in academic life.

If this picture is overdrawn and has more similarities with the caricature of the pedantic scholar in the comedic tradition than with real people on campus, it can nevertheless serve to remind us of the peculiarities of our particular topic and project. Stage performance, whatever its origin, has deep roots in fundamental human needs and anxieties, it feeds on magic rites, on rites of passage, on transubstantiation, death and resurrection. It offers liberation from embarrassment and shame, through imitation and exaggeration that causes laughter. It tames the uncanny and permits relief from anxiety and shame. The play, or game, transforms the audience and allows it to participate. The basic Western modes or genres, tragedy and comedy that will always surface, even if their validity is denied, refer back to their archaic origins: archaic in historical terms, but also in a psychological way. Theatre may represent what looks like authentic, even realistic, social configurations, but mythological or magic elements tend to intrude, imposing themselves on the audience which finds relief in the awareness: this is only a play.

No matter which genre of play is performed, the words are only one of many elements of the performance, and the music of the words can be as important as their discursive meaning. There are pantomime, dance, music, masks, costumes, stage lights and sets, and each of these elements, as well as their combination, can arouse deep emotions. But the performance, as a play, both evokes and channels such emotions. Theatre is a needed institution of civilized societies whose nature it is to remain outside the accepted conventions. Actors/actresses have always been regarded as either below or above the rest of society, with special privileges or stigmas and prohibitions attached to their civil status. Theatre was regarded as a regression into an old, forgotten mode of existence, it was needed and fascinating, yet dangerous.

Bert Brecht, writing after the bourgeois period that tried to civilize the stage, wanted to steer his audience away from subconscious reactions into a rational discourse, but as a playwright, he knew better: he had to stir up basic human emotions in the first place, in order to bring about a transformation and an urge for debate in the audience. The audience does not have to identify with particular characters on stage, but with the action as such, and with the world of the stage itself. If the stage is experienced as a different world, and its footlights remain magic, the audience has the freedom to participate and can play its own roles. Caught off guard and 'cleansed' through deep emotions, such as anxiety and pity, the audience, like the actors, can leave their professional or private personae behind, and can be beside or outside themselves. Audiences have the freedom to laugh about punishments inflicted on clumsy or conceited characters, as long as the pain does not invoke empathy and pity rather than satisfaction.

The preferred modern (and postmodern) mode of the grotesque, combining the feeling of pain with laughter, creates uneasiness rather than liberation, and sends the opposite message: this is not only a play. But, traditionally, the stage play communicates freedom from social barriers, from all stumbling stones of daily life, from one's private worries. The liberation is temporary, and is controlled by the rules of the game. The paradoxical interaction between the stage and social reality is predicated on the condition that the stage is permitted to disregard the taboos and conventions, if it remains a play. The audience has to be transported into another region, fascinating, dangerous, yet domesticated in a way so that it may not intrude into the 'normal' social life. This can be compared to the liberating effect of Carnival seasons which are characterized by role playing, transformation of characters, a multitude of theatrical performances, and a general delight in disguises and mistaken identities.

It goes without saying that societies, i.e., their dominating powers, have always tried to use these magic powers of theatrical performances, and the possibility to transform audiences into collective participants, for their own purposes: for religious conversion and fervor, for representations of the ruling powers, for economic gains; and the underdogs have enhanced revolutionary fervor through means of performances. It would be fascinating to study the connection between such performances and crowd behavior. Many times, such religious and political performances want to evoke different emotions from those generated by tragedies or comedies; and it fascinating to see how these elements of tragedy and comedy have a way to resurface under the pomp and decorum of the occasion. This was also the case with the bourgeois theatre of the Western world, and its didactic purposes.

The European middle class appropriated the stage as a vehicle for moral persuasion, as a substitute for the pulpit when the parishioners stopped listening to the sermons. The moral appeal could be predominantly emotional, as in the French comedie larmoyante, or more rational, but it usually demonstrated that solutions for family or societal conflicts could avoid tragic outcomes. Theatre was now a fully integrated public institution, financed by the community. Instead of representing court society or dark regions, it was supposed to contribute to the education of the citizens, providing models of behavior and offering conflicts where the citizens could recognize themselves as citizens. With a canon of recognized classics, municipal theatres and school curricula converged. Comedies for 'family entertainment' offered laughter without obscenity and pain, the anxiety of tragic conflict was overcome by the conviction of a harmonious world.

The newly gained intellectual respectability was evident in the decorum of theatre buildings and stage settings, as well as in the interpretations of older plays that transformed Hamlet into a deep romantic thinker. The obvious danger was that stage plays became boring when everybody and everything was civilized, and thus the stage opened its door more and more to direct social criticism. staged with real-life authenticity and the imitation of social reality, including the clocks on stage running on time. In our own time, this system of a theatre run on the basis of social approval and supervision, with tax money as its financial basis, and the actors integrated as civil servants, is coming to its end, not only for economic reasons.

To be sure, the 'civilized' theatre has never ceased to bite the hand that feeds it, and has always found a way to shock its financial sponsors by falling back into previous modes and transgressing the permitted lines of entertainment and instruction.This also allows a fresh look at the tradition of didactic theatre.

High school and college plays, in their long history, have been justified by their usefulness to acquire certain skills, such as oral competence in foreign languages, to learn social graces, to become familiar with the classics, and/or to internalize moral qualities by acting them out. Such pedagogical purposes were reinforced by plays written by teachers or professors. But educators knew that all these gains and moral improvements, even with plays that contained noble sentiments and ideas, and portrayed noble heroines/heroes, could be offset by the moral dangers for the youngsters in this theatrical world of sensuousness and forbidden license.

Whereas educators, the academic educators included, justified theatrical performance through its moral/political/religious message, and academic criticism has typically been text-oriented, and theoretical, stage performers mostly use the didactic justifications and the 'message' as a pretext for performance. And, indeed, plays have no real life outside performance, they have to be experienced as plays. Drama criticism in the academic classroom deals with a non- academic subject that calls for a non-academic treatment that tends to transgress academic behavior, although the campus may need it as much as society at large.

Theoretically, it is conceivable that this area of tensions at the borderline of academic behavior could be channeled into an introspective 'academic' theatre: the portrayal of the pedantic and conceited professor and the immature and boasting student are but two examples of academic life in the mirror of the comedic tradition. There are a number of reasons that such an academic theatre does not exist, and most probably will not happen in the future. Certainly, the need for theatre arts departments to prove their academic standing, and the lack of inclination in the academic community to question itself, are contributing factors. But most of all, it is questionable whether the academic community would be able to generate the structures of a new type of popular comedy -- since it would have to be a comedy-type genre to begin with.

Comedy is based on popular amusement, and develops generally recognizable character types that become soon conventionalized and determine the composition of theatre ensembles. One of the very practical reasons why genres of stage plays persist through the ages, is that a limited number of players have to be able to perform a large number of plays, with or without masks or recognizable costumes. Even movies and television shows rely on a limited number of character types and situations, trying, however, to make the audience believe that they are direct representations of real life. This is what causes the disturbing effect of such shows, and probably not the examples of sex and violence as such that have, to a point, always been part of stage life. While the television audience knows that this is only a play, a game, it is manipulated to feel and think otherwise. The real-life effects of television viewing that are claimed by critics, may also be attributable to the fact that the stage allows for more active participation by the audience than the mass media that, so far, condemn the audience to passivity -- which then wants to find an outlet.

In any event, the electronic age offers as many opportunities as stumbling blocks for an experimental academic theatre that would begin with a look at the campus itself.

One of the major chances and problems for the future is that today's stage culture depends on the pivotal figure of the director. There has been a debate whether previous ages and other civilizations had stage directors, as we know them, or not. Certainly complex performances need managers, 'producers' who see to it that the costumes and stage sets are ready, that all participants are where they are supposed to be, and that rehearsals take place. But who conducted such rehearsals, and if they involved only the proper pronunciation of the text or gestures and blocking, is quite another matter, and different reports exist from different periods concerning actual rehearsal work. As long as the style of the performance was largely prescribed, since the particular play had to conform to extra- theatrical norms, and as long as plays were repeated as part of religious occasions, like in the Middle Ages, it was necessary to know and transmit the tradition. Stagecraft was then the acquisition of the common knowledge, and its possible modification or innovation within the clearly delineated system.

But we usually do not ask today whether the performance was 'correct', although this can be an issue with plays from other times and continents. A good or convincing performance, for us, is based on a convincing interpretation, and the translation of this conception into a competent and coherent performance by all participants. This has to be created for each production, which is considered to be unique, even for each performance. We attribute such an achievement to the director. In the case of the movies, we tend to call him/her 'film maker'. There is no 'stage play maker' (yet), unless author and director are one and the same person, but the director is supposed to be able to transfuse the entire production with his/her spirit (most directors are male).

The director's achievement is of course also measured by other criteria, such as understanding the genre, the intent of the author, the style of the age, i.e., interpreting the text 'correctly' in terms of stage performance; but primarily, she/he is asked to bring the text to life, to provide a convincing experience. In contrast to many past theatre cultures, there are few restrictions and taboos limiting the freedom of interpretation of the director. In societies with a traditional theatre life, the audience had specific expectations and an expertise of the known repertoire, the spectators knew the meanings of gestures, costumes, particular sounds and words, and who the characters were. Any adventure into new types or genres of plays (and performance) was risky. In our age, the audience wants to be entertained and moved, but each production, sometimes each performance, is a new experiment, is supposed to be unique, the expression of an individual vision, although theatre conventions always survive and keep imposing themselves.

However, we tend to view stage performances as the work of directors, and most of us have little or no direct experience with theatre where the director, if he/she can be called by that name, is only the voice of the normative tradition, the facilitator for fulfilling the required norm. Again, there are, no doubt, many intermediate conditions between these extremes. But we have to keep in mind that we judge performance from a perspective contrary to much of the history of stage performances. We also have the advantage that this allows us the distance of Brecht's 'Verfremdung', alienation, and a sharper gaze at ourselves. While we are eclectic in our taste and our experimentation, we enjoy the freedom from a prescriptive and normative style.

Let me conclude with the genre of the 'lebendes Bild', described at the beginning, as another instrument of alienation: most of our academic analysis of drama and play performance has to 'stop the camera' and divide the movement into individual tableaux, into still pictures. We have a hard time remembering the movement, the rhythm, the flow of the plays that performance conveys, and that transcends the words in the text. Our debate on performance can bring back some idea of the dynamics of drama and stage performance, even if we have to test the limits of academic conventions and restraints. The debate on word and image, on performer and audience, on stage and reality is certainly a concern that connects academics with the life of the entire society around them. I am looking forward to your contributions and our discussions.

Wulf Koepke
Texas A&M University