Beauty in theatre is often found in the grotesque. Think of Beckett, Ionesco, Lyndsey Kemp, Butoh, Berkoff, Artaud and even Brecht and Shakespeare ... Let alone much contemporary theatre expression! Culture is at its basic core a closed system of repeated affirmation of myths and routine rituals that solidify all knowledge and all that could possibly be known and understood. It is the sanctification of the seemingly obvious and the cult of morality enforcement that accompanies all authority vested in the protectors and definers of cultural propriety. It is the grounding that human beings seem to need in order to face and negotiate the terror of oblivion and total disorder. It provides the structural straitjacketing of human desire, lust, ambition and delusion that forms one's identity. Theatre and culture are thus often at odds as theatre becomes the provocation operation (PO as de Bono suggests). Theatre is in fact, historically and logically, then a force for change and a challenge to stereotypical thinking and enforced cultural hegemony. In short, it is a vital component in the education and platforming for societal and cultural critical and creative thinking and action that goes back a long time: perhaps preceding even the Ancient Greek experience! So perhaps our educational and cultural managers need to embrace the grotesque that is often found in theatre as a reminder of the necessity of the Elizabethan "All Licensed Fool" that reminded Queen Elizabeth 1 of the illusion of her own power!
Political Drama from the Left and Right
The "New York Times" recently published "It’s Getting Hard to Stage a School Play Without Political Drama". (Michael Paulson, July 4, 2023 Updated July 5, 2023). You need to be a subscriber to read the full article. But it pointed to the growing use of agenda politics in the US to silence the voice of theatre expression. I might suggest it points to the silencing of the "all licensed fool" that might point to the delusional life within agendas of cultures and sub-cultures. The vested interests in the social constructions of various realities is becoming the cynical and a savage playground of the shapers of thought and viewpoints.
Social constructivism can be interpreted in many different ways. However, the recognition that belief and perceived reality is a social phenomena separated from normative considerations has a strong hold on twenty-first century thinking. So there is a tendency for controllers of public perception to go out of their way to restrict all forms of counter suggestions that might defer or deter people from deviating from the sanctioned agenda and correct viewpoints of thinking and attitude. Both the ultra-left and ultra-right recognize this need to shape and control the construction and advancement of particular realities. This effectively straitjackets people; preventing consideration and exploration of the unknown and of alternatives. So is this relevant for our theatre?
The Social Construction of Reality
Berger and Berger's "The Social Construction of Reality" (Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann, 1966 Garden City, NY: Anchor Books) might well have taken unforeseen directions in the decades since publication. Lev Vigotsky's (Vygotsky, Lev, 1978 Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press) advanced Piaget's theories of cognitive development pointing to the role context and social development had on cognitive growth. Perhaps, drawing on this idea and that of similar theorists, it isn't too large a leap to suggest then that personal belief systems and ways of interacting with the world are socially constructed. One's very cognitive development is thus interlaced with culture.
To greater understand and confirm how belief systems actually shape culture and one's interaction with it, have a look at this simple video: "How Belief Systems Work". Just click on the image.
Artaud and the Challenge for Theatre and Education
While some would argue that belief systems are not only necessary but are in fact inescapable facets of the human being, our programming is such that it is impossible to escape from some world view and some belief system without replacing it with another. Our very means for perceiving the world and ourselves depends on it. Antonin Artaud recognized this essential point and suggested a radical view that theatre could challenge one's very belief system with shocks to the personal perception that an audience might have.
While it is debatable whether Artaud's view ever was even partially realized, his "Theatre Of Cruelty" and the grotesque avenues it inspired has had a very significant influence on both stage and screen presentations. The ability to challenge and break through the straitjacket of conventional thinking and experience has certainly been a major part of Artaud's legacy.
The timid child being psychologically smothered by their parents into a frightened and self-conscious being with low self-esteem or, in reverse, with an over-bloated ego so devoid of the ability to engage, is at once shocked into leaping from the boiling water just as the boiling frog was forced to leap away when thrown into the death trap of 100 degree water that would have killed it. Yet most of life is in tepid territory protected by the straitjacket of cultural and familial certainty. Currently, our younger generations are being bled of their ability for resilience by the immersion into tepid social settings that shield them from any challenge to their cultural and social upbringing.
The theatre, both as presentation and as a process for participants, is one area of experiential engagement that offers a challenge to this impending destruction. So when the controllers of social construction use their power to censor and restrict theatrical exploration and presentation, we need to recognize it for what it is: ie. nullification of what it is to be human; a blanketing of curiosity, empathy and challenge!
Nullification of Challenge and Growth
Without the Licensed Fool of theatre being able to express unfettered observations, reflections and responses from within the closed system of culture, one's very reality is likely to implode or be obliterated from existence. The neurotic adherence to delusions and the whims of charlatans from the political and social domains means that the limitations of restricted experience and opportunities for thinking will result in personal stagnation and social restriction.
The NAZI extolling of the beautiful in art and culture was a lie and a façade covering the most hideous of sanctified action by a ruling elite. Such art practice tolerated no challenge to its aesthetic. Today, there is a growing tendency in Western cultures to limit and destroy artistic practice in theatre that counters the bland art of distraction. This is particularly evident in education. The New York Times article reflects just the tip of the ice berg. Self-censorship and the slide into shying away from sensitive and essentially challenging theatre subjects in schools is ensuring the strengthening of the hold cultural straitjacketing has on its subjects.
As teachers, directors, writers and artists of all kinds, there is an onus on us to lead by example in a mission to rejuvenate cultural connection, artistic courage and life-long engagement with processes of creativity and design. The grotesque must be embraced; there lies the seeds of beauty. With the challenges offered by mind-numbing social media propaganda, the task of becoming the licensed fool is ever more necessary for both individual and societal sanity. We live in a mirror maze of narcissistic obsession. The real question for our theatre is how to break out from it! The actions of state and self censorship as indicated in the New York Times article makes this ability to escape so much more difficult. This then is the prime task of our arts and theatre in this country to ensure nothing of that scale ever is encountered on our shores.
See other essays on similar topics:
Theatre Songs of Protest
The Blistering Cold of Left-over Tears
Exploring Oceans or Just Following Drain Pimes in Teaching Drama
See the movie: "Under the Light"