Once upon a time, Not so long ago

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a presumption that humanity was so vastly superior to all other species that inhabit this planet that we obviously had the right of rule and should dominate over all that we could see. Now we know that what we used to believe were unique qualities of humankind—tools, communication, social structure and abstract thinking—are not so unique. Perhaps the difference between us and the other species of this world has more to do with evolution than with innate intelligence.

The great advantage we seem to have over other creatures is our ability to pass complex knowledge from one generation to the next. How did this happen? How did we advance past the basic instincts that all animals have to instruct their young, to value the practice of intergenerational non-familial communication? The first time that one man told a story and that story was retold to another not present at the first telling, was the beginning of culture, and it was the beginning of theatre.

In a very real sense, every conversation we have is theatre. Every presentation, every instruction, every sales pitch, every bit of communication is theatre. As a result, we have developed the skills to evaluate that theatre. How willing are we to accept a new idea, a new lesson or a new product if the presentation is inadequate? Every time we judge the quality of a communication, we participate in a theatrical tradition, review and critique and accept or reject the proposal.

So why then do we need to attend theatre, when our lives are inundated with theatrical presentation. When the national debate on any topic is given to hyperbole and dramatic posturing. when world attention is now drawn to any story that seems to have dramatic value and then is exposed to every level of absurdity possible.

When the Greeks formalized theatre, they did so with a passion for the illumination of the gods and their wants. We can only assume their motivations, but one goal certainly could have been that in bringing both the sublime and the absurd into sharp focus, the audience would exert their own judgment, and through their newly embraced democracy, a greater civility would be accomplished.

As with all great inventions, the original intent is often subverted, and the more cunning and devious amongst us developed theatrical propaganda and dogmatic religiosity. After all, the principal works: bring in the crowds, tell them a “truth” and the result is control of peoples with their acquiescence.

In times, actual Theatre has been denigrated as mere “entertainment.” Often, theatre has been banned for its subversive possibilities, theatre has been reviled for its pedestrian nature, shunned for its vulgarity and marginalized because, well, it’s just not big enough to matter.

But the real and lasting power of theatre is exemplified by how its processes have been co-opted and distorted by other fields. Theatre relies on you to put away your preconceptions and suspend your disbelief at first but ultimately asks you to question the validity of the premise and make a judgment. When we go to a political rally, the case is made in exactly the same way initially, with the crucial difference that there is no instruction that the information you are about to receive is flawed; in fact the assertion is that the crafted message is absolute truth, and you are asked to judge based upon misinformation. The result, presenting a good case without evidence, is the stock and trade of politics.

When we go to a religious service, regardless of denomination, the process can be even more dangerous. A story is told through ritual presentation, a conclusion is preached (as in the homily-sermon), and we the participants are to go forth acting upon the instructions given. Once again, assertions of fact are made but not challenged, and the opportunity to reach your own conclusion is revoked by invoking the need for faith.

Theatre is so vital, so essential, so absolutely germane to modern culture precisely because in every show you see, you are offered the same opportunity that the citizens of Greece were given 3500 years ago; you are asked to draw a conclusion based upon facts you know are skewed, and then to go out and act with your best judgment for the best effect on yourself and society at large. Theatre is the ultimate empowerment of civil responsibility and human civility.

How do we condemn our neighbor if we understand his plight? How do we ignore the human condition when we see it before our eyes? How do we presume to act only for ourselves when we see that we are only a small part of the great human story?

Theatre is the place where you know that you are being led by the nose, and that knowledge empowers you to seek your own reasonable judgment. How much more civility can we have than that? Theatre grants us access to the full measure of human experience. The intimacy of theatre assures we participate in the moment, and the democracy of theatre engages us to act selflessly.

Is there some reason to think that there’s some correlation between the importance of theatre in a culture and the civility of the society? Does the density of population that go to theatre and the frequency of attendance have some relationship to how well the society functions? These are questions for the statisticians, but theatre is much like Chicken Soup: it may not help, but it certainly won’t hurt.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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