The Sine Qua Non of Theatre, and the Two Hours I Want Back
During the last half hour of The Goodman’s Camino Real, while I was trying to paper-cut my wrists open with the edges of my program, I was asking myself, “How much of what we consider theatre can you strip away before you can no longer call it theatre?”
Camino Real is the Goodman’s current ultra avante garde adaptation of a surrealist Tennessee Williams play. The entire experience of the show can be encapsulated in one telling moment: at the end of the play, the company of actors took their curtain call to only tepid and polite applause. The cast, showing no sensory acuity whatsoever, decided to take an unsolicited encore bow…probably out of sheer habit, but in that moment it seemed obliviously pretentious.
My wife and I are frequent theatre goers and we both have a good deal of patience for avante garde theatre, provided it ends up having some value or merit. After the hour and forty five minute time limit before the Goodman decided to be merciful and let its audience exit from Camino Real, the only point of debate between us was whether the show literally had no redeeming value, or whether we were not the intended target audience. I typically steel myself from declaring that a show is outright bad because I admit the possibility that I did not understand the point. When I was in college, I saw Ionesco’s The Chairs in New York, and I left the play baffled. It wasn’t until later when I learned more about the context of existentialism and also grew up a little bit that I finally understood the point. The Chairs is an example of a play that would baffle contemporary audiences only to be better appreciated in time, which is a quality that often suggests artistic merit.
We know from the history of theatre that you can strip away many of the elements that are characteristically associated with the genre and still produce high-quality art. We know for example that you do not absolutely need realistic or even eye-catching sets and technical aspects. The best production of Romeo and Juliet I ever saw consisted of five RADA actors and five chairs.
Aristotle‘s Poetics, the Bible of theatre for 2,300 years, mandates some fundamental aspects of theatre that modern directors frequently chuck out, like unity of time and place. Vignette-style plays like the classic Spoon River Anthologies suggest that classic story structures of rising action and story climax are not absolutely necessary. Harold Pinter showed us that you can successfully withhold all notions of background and context from the audience. The respected genre of existentialism, as a matter of fact, does without any coherent plotting whatsoever. There’s a whole genre of theatre known as Brechtian theatre, done and re-done since the 30’s, which tries to remove all of the audience’s emotional involvement from the action. And the whole history of musical theatre stands as proof that worthwhile theatre does not need any socially important statement or theme.
When you get right down to it, you don’t really even need authenticity and chemistry between actors. There is a wide variety of performance genres from operas to telenovelas that are intensely compelling and gratifying to their audiences, yet communicate in a declamatory and less-than-authentic style. Theatre, when you think about it, is a very sturdy form of art. As long as you execute your intent well, you can remove almost any classical element and still have a serviceable product.
Let’s talk for a moment about audience engagement. Here, we get into an area that starts to have relevance to the definition of art. Camino Real used a very drunk characterization of Tennessee Williams as a framing devise. This character had a monologue at the end of the play where he chided those so-called “writers” who wrote for the benefit of their publishers and their audiences, but who were not truly “free.” Art, the character seems to suggest, lives in the vacuum of the artist’s vision. Whether the work proves engaging or unengaging is beside the point. It was created by a man with artistic vision, writing for the sake of expression, and is therefore completely self-justified.
In the same spirit, the director of Camino Real seems to say to us, “I couldn’t care less if my staging means anything to you. If you walk out from boredom, I have succeeded just as much as if you throw roses on the stage at the curtain call. This is a work of art because I – an artist – have created it. It is a vehicle of expression, of which your appreciation is meaningless. In this way, it is pure.”
Many artists, particularly visual artists who experimented at the vanguard of new movements, had their talents completely lost on contemporary audiences. I remember being unimpressed the first time I saw a Rothko, but over time and with learning, that changed. This director, who I’m sure sees himself as such a vanguard artist, must expect that his work will also be lost on the contemporary bourgeois theatre-going crowd. Will this staging of Camino Real likewise stand the test of time, and be heralded by people twenty years from now as meaningful and artistically powerful?
Of course not. It’s a terrible production – the worst I’ve ever seen from the normally sure-footed Goodman Theater. Those choices designed to offend sensibilities offended only the audience’s intelligence. Its explicit depictions of sex and violence, designed to be Mapplethorpean and courageous, might have been that to an audience of the early 90’s. Today’s audiences rolls their eyes and look at their watches. I was reminded of the most banal examples of the performance art craze. At one point, a gigantic illuminated sign spelling out the word “STOP” was lowered in as a backdrop – without any apparent reason or context. It was like being in a Greenwich gallery in 1990, looking at someone standing in the middle of the room naked and saying the word “blood” over and over again.
I’m not sure what exactly has to be removed from theatrical performance before you can no longer call in theatre, although I’m pretty sure I just saw an example of whatever that is. I want desperately to be able to point to something concrete – something that represents this director’s monumental arrogance, ignorance, and lack of respect for audience or storytelling – and say, “There! That’s what I’m talking about! That is the proof to show that all those spineless reviewers should have instantly panned this vomitous mess, instead of insisting that the Emperor has clothes on! This right here is the definitive piece of evidence that we are not looking at an example of art lost on the ignorant masses, but rather irredeemable, narcissistic, self-indulgent crap!” I just can’t conclusively put my finger on it.