In part 2 (“Thinking Theatre Inside Out”) of his essay “The Poetics of Thinking,” George Quasha begins his discussion of the theatre by inviting us into the physical space of the theatre:
“You enter the place called theatre or playhouse to see the play; you find your place there; then the play takes place. You yourself also come here to play, at least in your own mind, knowing that the play also takes place inside you. What’s out there is also in here.” (P.11)
This got me thinking about the theatre and its relation to poetry—to the poetics of poetry and the poetics of theatre, which are now so different, so distinct, from the time when Aristotle was able to use the term to cover everything.
The word theatre is multidimensional. It is at once a place (the theatre/playhouse), a discipline, a genre, an act of performance, an ideology, a collaboration, and even an attitude. So much is contained within that word and its many uses. I contend that it is also a contract, an agreement between the creators (playwrights, actors, directors) and the audience. As a contract, it is built upon a set of expectations, a give and take between or among its participants. In this sense, I think that we can understand a critical divergence from poetry, which is sometimes like a contract only signed by one party, unfinished, incomplete. But before we discuss this idea of poetry, we must understand the contract within the theatre.
It is important that the theatre begins with a space, for it is in that space, a space set aside, that we enter in—enter into the experience of theatre. When we walk into the space of a theatre, we know to expect something; the theatre space tells us (actors, directors, playwrights as well as the audience) that something happens here, something will happen—something important, something meaningful. No matter how much the contemporary theatre practitioner or performance artist attempts to transgress this fundamental aspect of the theatre, it remains—we know the theatre, we have always known it: it is the place where things happen.
Theatre has always existed within the space if physical reality—within the architecture of the community. From an historical point of view, all culture flows from it; from an aesthetic point of view, all culture, all cultural and artistic impulses flow into it: poetry, religious ritual, music, dance, art.
Who can imagine the purpose of the cave paintings of Lascaux as anything other than theatre?
This seems to me the root of the crisis of poetry. Unlike the theatre, which has a poetics of spectation (and expectation) built into the physical reality of its spaces. Theatre has a place. Theatre is a place.
(Perhaps this is why street mimes quickly became a nuisance, then a joke; without a space where we expected them, they were less theatre and more disturbance. They usurped the contract of place; they took themselves out of the environment of our expectation, our willing participation and placed themselves out of context, out of contract.)
Quasha speaks of Camillo’s Teatro della Memoria, the Theatre of Memory, which both for Camillo in the sixteenth century, and for us in the twenty-first, asks how the theatre is an encounter between the past and the future. Central to this experience is the physical space we call the theatre, because it is within this space, set aside, waiting, there is an understanding that within the physical architecture of the theatre, something has happened, something is happening, and something will happen when you next enter within its confines. No matter how much theatre artists attempt to transgress this function, it remains. When the theatre removes itself from its fixed space, when it goes on a field trip and creates itself in environmental forms, guerilla forms, on the street, in spaces where we do not expect it, it still must negotiate the invitation that the space of the physical theatre affords us: “Come in—something special is happening here.” The theatre operates on this premise, this invitation. We know the theatre. We have always known it. Without having to think about it, we remember it.
This does not seem to be the case for poetry. Once, poetry had a place: a physical location in which an audience was expecting it. It might have been the Greek agora where Homer sang the Iliad and Odyssey, or perhaps the longhouse, where the Norse skalds told of the gods and heroes, or the medieval court, where Troubadours sang of love. It might have been the theatre, or the pulpit, or more private spaces like balconies, or salons where one might pass a sonnet to a lover or poetic rival. In our (old) oral culture, poetry had many places, and we knew this. One could say that poem still have spaces: coffee shops, lecture halls. The Dodge Poetry Festival comes to mind, as well as places like St. Mark’s. But they seem to be of one or another extreme: one a place for amateurs, and the other for professionals whose poems are beyond any kind of critical give and take. (When was the last time anyone gave a poetry reading a bad review? Any review?)
One might say that the written poem has a home in magazines and books, but this space seems more like a bus station than a home—a transactional spot on the way to somewhere else. I suppose that one of the legacies of the New Critics is the belief that poems are secrets, and must be decoded, dissected, “dissertated.” That the place for poetry is the university. One might say that this concept has certainly exerted an influence on much of the poetry of the last 50 years; after all, the university will pay you to be a poet, and students are a large audience for poetry. This argument I leave for another day.
If we think back to a time when poetry operated in a kind of dynamic that theatre does, one of place, of memory, of expectation, then we must think of a time when poetry (like theatre) was a primarily oral event. Poetry was, essentially, someone saying something. Even when poetry was stretching its boundaries as a written form, there was always something of the oral about it, so that the reading of it was, if not “out loud,” then some sort of memory of the “out loud” – some understanding of a voice, somewhere, saying something. The “space” of the poem was our ear. (And the world of that ear was full of sounds: conversations, sermons, speeches, radio broadcasts—we lived in a world of words, vibrating in the air.)
Without that space, where do we now enter the space of the poem? What do we expect of it? What do we remember about what it is? Artaud decried the theatre of his near contemporaries as dead, desolate, because it did not move anyone. It had become a cultural vacuity, a ritual without meaning, without magic. For him, the theatre of his day lacked ghosts, those creatures who live in the limits of our understanding, or collective memory. The theatre, the space of the theatre, had lost its function, it had lost its memory. The power of its invitation was gone, replaced by empty postures.
Is where we are today with poetry?
In “The Poetics of Thinking,” Quasha addresses this problem—not within the poem, but within the mind—both of the maker and the audience. In the theatre, the audience has a poetics built into the physical space they are meant to occupy; one enters a space, set aside for an important event, the space of the theatre is like a pre-overture, reminding the audience that something is about to occur. In poetry, we have no building, no overture; a poem can come at us in any number of ways, in a book, in a magazine, on the internet. In some ways, what happens with a poem is the opposite of what happens in the theatre—the poem is turned by the space it occupies—it is one thing in a book, another in a magazine, something else entirely in a classroom. The spaces in which we encounter poetry almost always serve some other function, and too often the poem is suborned to that function. Everyone got quiet when it was time for the skald to sing; now, not so much.
If we’ve lost the magic, how do we get it back? That’s hard to say. Artaud and those who followed him tried just about everything in the last 100 years to rescue the theatre from an army of overdressed Babbitts and other fashion victims; some of it has worked, some not. Perhaps, we just begin by remembering…