Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pragmatic Theater: Realism and The Play As A Construct I

Unlike many of my classmates, I spent the spring of my freshman year reading the entire book of translated Brecht essays, rather than the ones that were assigned ("The Modern Theater Is The Epic Theater" and "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting"). Now, I know why those two essays are assigned--in terms of the larger history of theater, those are the two that mark the clearest antithesis to Aristotle's Poetics, but in terms of understanding Brecht (and Brecht is a personal hero for me, the man who forms the very core of my artistic sensibility), I think that those essays are poor representatives.

Brecht was a person who loved to contradict himself. He gets the impression of being a radical, especially because the first of the two essays is quite a radical tract. Actually, he turns out to be quite the moderate, pragmatic thinker. He's not interested in things that don't work. That's why when you read Mother Courage and All Her Children, he's not actually driving out all the emotion--he understands that Mother Courage has to be a pathetic character on some level to be compelling. He pushes the form as far as will work (and, admittedly, sometimes too far).

Late in his life, he began outlining a shift in thinking, creating a theory called the Dialectical Theater that would encapsulate both his Epic Theater and the Aristotilian theater he sought to get away from. That dialectical theater is what I really fell in love with, despite the fact that he never got to really articulate it. But I think it was always present in the contradictions within his work.

At any rate, the one thing that gets said most about Brecht is that he's an anti-realist. Brecht himself noticed that, and he wrote one of my favorite essays by him called "The Popular And The Realistic." In it, he puts forward that his theater isn't anti-realistic. Now, he admits freely that it isn't naturalistic, but in terms of realism, he says:

We must not abstract the one and only realism from certain given works, but shall make a lively use of all means, old and new, tried and untried, deriving from art and deriving from other sources, in order to put living reality in the hands of living people in such a way that it can be mastered.
Later on, he says more succinctly:

Our conception of realism needs to be broad and political, free from aesthetic restrictions and independent and convention. Realist means laying bare society's causal network...
He goes on, listing other benchmarks for the term "realist" all of which come from his own socialist interpretation, and which isn't so applicable to day. But you could reword that last sentence to be "Realist means revealing something about the world today."

That's the Pragmatist, moderate Brecht (I have already dubbed my theater aesthetic the Pragmatic Theater, after the pragmatist philosopher William James). What he's saying is that "realism" isn't a certain style of theater (and he's talking about living-room, fly-on-a-wall Ibsen naturalism), it's the accuracy of the play to reality, and in that pursuit we are allowed to use any aesthetic tools necessary.

The reason I use the capital P Pragmatist to describe this Brecht is because this dovetails beautifully into James' model of how we learn knowledge (I've lent someone that book, so I can't quote directly from it, which is tragic). James describes our system of worldview as being the accumulation of rules-of-thumb that we've tested against reality, and we don't change our worldview until something we test it against makes it fail, and then we make the shortest change possible to keep our worldview. That's why when something minor unexpected happens you don't tear your entire worldview down, and you don't often just suddenly change your worldview unprompted.

That's how our audience views our play: they have their worldview, and they test what we put on the stage against it, and if what we're representing matches the world as they understand it, it feels True to them. That's "Realism."

Should we challenge their worldview? Yes. But that doesn't mean negating it (as much of the combatitive, negativistic art of the 1970s and 1980s did), it means finding a way to make their worldview incompatable with itself. If you can make your audience aware of a sudden, deep contradiction, they'll do the questioning of their own worldview. That's what "subversive" really means; it means that the audience follows the logic every step of the way, until they suddenly find that things don't add up. Stephen Colbert does this very well (I could talk for hours about how Colbert is the third big Pragmatist after Brecht and James).

Now, the one thing that Brecht gave to this "realism," and which he is rightfully remembered for, is the idea that acknowledging the play as a construct can be part of realism. We didn't think it was realism, of course, so we put it in its own category, but that doesn't make it untrue. He tried to lay guidelines for how you can incorporate the play into realism, and not have to pretend (which is the true opposite of realism; pretending and lying).

I was going to get to my own view on the Play as a Construct, but I think that's going to be my next post. Too many words makes the baby go blind.