Theatre has been an institution of western culture for more than 3000 years. That’s a ton of tradition, and a lot of baggage. While admittedly there have been periods where the art was overshadowed by message, by-in-large the form has held up fairly well. Each age has found a place for this indomitable art, and every era has added to the mystique of what it can all mean.
So when conversations arise whispering the death of theatre, bewailing how audiences dwindle and more sophisticated medium has been developed to replace the venerable stage, I sigh and reflect upon the naiveté and wonder why it is that onlookers are so eager to bury an art form which has endured barbarians and dictators, plagues and natural disaster, religion and every other aberration experienced by man to date.
My guess is that while we live in a world that has become more and more sophisticated in terms of technology and access to information and communication, we are experiencing a sort of retreat from the task of understanding. We have no problem grasping for facts, seeking those details in a rush to curtail discourse. If a conversation is begun where one party asserts that a performer appeared in the film Ben-Hur, there is a general rush to see who can resolve the question quicker (and I admit to being one that reaches for my smart phone).
While our dexterity of access is tested, our ability to pick up that thread of conversation and allow it to wander into the values that fostered the question, are immediately curtailed. The complexity of discourse in many ways has been reduced to the sound byte, the factoid, the Wikipedia definition. This type of process is entirely contrary to the nature of theatre.
We see further evidence of this in the mass media forms of drama, film, and television, where characters are simplified, plot points forgotten, and story lines are so thin that the word transparent is too camouflaging.
Theatre on the other hand, at least good theatre, requires more. Theatre requires some investment by us, the audience. It requires an open mind, a willingness to believe the suppositions of the story. Theatre is more easily understood if there is some awareness of references, be it in history or science or literature. Basically, it means we’re willing to think, feel and process information that is offered to us.
When western theatre was born in ancient Greece, the audience was very familiar with the mythology of their culture. The litany of the gods, their powers and weaknesses were internalized to all that went to attend those early plays. In subsequent generations, additional layers were added, so by the time of Shakespeare, where modern era theatre really kicks off, there were still many mythological references going back as far as the Greeks, but the bard layered his works with the history and mythology of his own times.
Today, the layers have piled up, and admittedly there are times when intellectual access is not as easy as it is for TV or film. But that is one of the beauties of theatre. We are not just entertained, we are illuminated, educated, brought to a higher consciousness. We are offered the opportunity to see the complexity of the human condition and all of the variables that influence even our seemingly mundane choices.
Because we live in an age where the realities of daily existence are available for our perusal, everyone’s daily existence, we tend to forget that there’s profundity in everything. Humanity is the sum of its previous existence. It is not singular moments of reaction to stimulus. The popular forms of mass entertainment don’t and won’t address that. They can’t afford to do so, because they play to (please excuse the expression) the lowest common denominator. That’s not a condemnation, hell I watch more than a small amount of film and television. It’s just a statement of depth.
Theatre gives us not just the intimacy of that moment, but it gives us an understanding of what has lead to that moment, and what has led to the choice in response to the moment. In short, theatre is not just entertainment, though that is its first task. It’s insight, understanding and compassion that we witness and then reflect upon ourselves. In that sense, theatre is today exactly what it was in ancient Greece, an opportunity to measure ourselves against the challenges that may seem insurmountable.