Thursday, September 9, 2010

Aristotle

I'm currently reading Leon Lederman's excellent, excellent book: The God Particle. It's a history of particle physics, largely to explain the search for the Higgs Boson particle, which CERN is currently looking for with that big supercollider that has a chance of wiping out the universe (but pretty much won't).

Still reading? Good. This is actually a post about Theater.

Here's what Leon Lederman (Nobel Laureate!) has to say about Aristotle:

When a scientist, say of the British persuasion, is really, really angry at someone and is driven to the extremes of expletives, he will say under his breath, "Bloody Aristotelian." Them's fighting words, and a deadlier insult is hard to imagine. Aristotle is generally credited (probably unreasonably) with holding up the progress of physics for about 2,000 years -- until Galileo had the courage and conviction to call him out... Galileo saved his contempt, not for Aristotle, but for the generations of philosophers who worshiped at Aristotle's temple and accepted his views without question.

I wonder what Lederman would say if he knew that the Aristotelian of tragedy as a catharsis born of empathy is still the core pillar of American theatrical theory? That it formed the center of The Method, and The Method became the center of the American theater? (I bet he'd probably turn up his nose at the idea of any method being called The Method without explicitly dispelling all other methods).

At my university, I was lucky to be exposed to a variety of alternatives to Aristotle: my hero Brecht, my nemeses the post-modern theorists, Antonin Artaud, Grotowski etc.

In the world of particle physics, Lederman holds up the Greek philosopher Democritus as the Ancient Greek father of particle physics; he coined the term 'a-tom' as some building block of the universe too small to be divided. We accidentally attached it to the atom, which unfortunately is cuttable; but nevertheless, Democritus' core insight remains valid.

So, blogosphere and readership: if we threw Aristotle out today (not that I necessarily say that we should) who would you put in his place? Another way of asking is this: what theater theorist would you say hit closest to the truth? What central insight about theater holds true for you?

9 comments:

RVCBard said...

So, blogosphere and readership: if we threw Aristotle out today (not that I necessarily say that we should) who would you put in his place? Another way of asking is this: what theater theorist would you say hit closest to the truth? What central insight about theater holds true for you?

There is no spoon.

CultureFuture said...

That's what I'm looking for: theater that bends the matrix.

RVCBard said...

That was my way of saying that I don't really believe in a centralized truth for all art. I honestly don't think it's healthy.

I'm not against theory in general, but the push for a single authority, or any authority, other than artists and audiences themselves feels . . . off. This imposition of some Platonic ideal of theatre feels like a desperate grasping for a certainty that simply doesn't exist*. Not to mention, the effect has often been to privilege dominant groups by catering to their forms of expression.

All of these phenomena arise in particular circumstances. Even Aristotle. People conveniently forget that a crucial part of his Poetics was a male central character of the ruling class. Bye-bye, Euripedes and Aristophanes! "Death of a Salesman"? Ha! "A Raisin in the Sun"? Ha! August Wilson? Please. And you can forget about Suzan Lori-Parks, Paula Vogel, me, or anybody whose work you enjoy that isn't already part of the theatrical canon (aka, what undergraduate students are required to know).

* The fact that a theist (for lack of a better term) is saying that to an atheist makes this statement intensely amusing, BTW. :D

CultureFuture said...

Oh, I definitely do think there's no centralized truth for all art. But I do think there's room for a shared vocabulary, a theoretical framework.

There are some things which are trapped in circumstance, but there are some things about the nature of a group of people gathering in a certain place, sharing stories which is universal. In the same way that languages are all different from each other, and all historically different, but there's a way of analyzing it which is useful in a bunch of different contexts.

And yes, I don't think there's just one guy who did it. Any more than physics is just what Einstein or Newton said. I was curious as to whether anyone would stick up for a particular theorist.

Ian Thal said...

Aristotle really held back science for 2000 years? More like he founded the natural sciences (and note that he mostly wrote on biology, not physics), the social sciences, and the study of grammar. So what if not all his theories have held up? Newton's aren't perfect either.

As far as theatre theory I don't buy it. I can point to dramaturgical approaches that are important to the canon of particular movements and traditions, and I think it worth respecting them, but much of modern theory is as much of "we don't do that stuff anymore" as it is "we can do this."

Aristotle's poetics were simply about the arts that were practiced in Athens in his time-- and in that sense, they have validity in that he was generalizing based on plays he had seen, and poems he had heard. However, it's not as if we have Sophocles or Aristophanes penned essays on their approach to the stage.

We're technicians, whether we're writers, actors, directors, or designers. There is no dishonor in being a rude mechanical. We don't need theory to ennoble us-- we need mastery of practical skills.

RVCBard said...

We're technicians, whether we're writers, actors, directors, or designers. There is no dishonor in being a rude mechanical. We don't need theory to ennoble us-- we need mastery of practical skills.

Exactly.

I am definitely not against the use of critical analysis to better understand theatre, particularly as a cultural medium.

I am, however, a bit leery of the attempt to shoehorn the practice of theatre into a theoretical model that may or may not be adequate for it.

I'm all for poiesis*, I'm all for strategies and approaches to practicing theatre, but I'm extremely wary when things veer too close to prescriptivism, which reminds me too much of dogmatism and fundamentalism, which are mindsets that reek too much of an essentialist mindset, which is often a key component of perpetuating kyriarchy.

*I know this can seem inconsistent in light of my skepticism toward the Great White Man approach to art, but my defense is that I'm allowed to be contradictory because I am complex.

Ian Thal said...

Wearing my scholarly hat, anyone who comes up with a theory, and then deliberately creates art to fit the theory doesn't actually understand what a theory is.

Aristotle was doing theory because he took a representative sample of the arts that he could have experienced living in Athens, tried to see what they had in common and then determine why some particular artworks were more effective than others.

Of course, he turned out to be wrong, because his theories only work for the arts of classical Athenian civilization, and we know of many instances where there are effective works that don't fit his theory (and it's okay because these pieces were ones he could not have possibly known about.)

The problem is advocating an aesthetic "theory" that excludes works that the "theorist" should know about-- that's not a theory: those are formal proscriptions.

As far as diverse approaches: I am all for them. In my performing and teaching, I am a mime and commedia dell'arte specialist*. As a performer, I value knowing both, but my pedagogy when I teach these each could not be any more different.

*These are not the only idioms in which I work, nor the only ones within which I take great interest, these are only the ones in which I can claim to be a "specialist."

CultureFuture said...

I don't think that espousing a set of theories necessarily closes the door on work. Theory is an attempt to create a conceptual language around work, right? To create a common set of ideas that can be referenced.

To say that theatrical theory necessitates how to make theater would be the same as saying coming up with a theory about language limits how we talk.

The strength of Aristotle is that his Poetics defines a series of extraordinarily useful terms that even if you disagree with Aristotle can be used. Brecht, who largely defined his Epic Theater entirely as a rebellion against Aristotle, still uses the same language of Aristotle to define its negative.

The problem for me is just that the analytical terms that he proposes are too narrow. It's impossible to fully analyze most of our art or culture with the terms that Aristotle put forward.

I agree that no single person should be able to say how we do theater. Adam Smith shouldn't be able to dictate public policy, but The Wealth of Nations still creates the language that every economist uses -- supply and demand, etc.

I'm not asking that this theorist be invincible, or that he foresee everything. I don't think what I'm looking for is impossible.

Ian Thal said...

Right, but Brechts writings on and praxis of Epic Theatre is not a "theory" in any sense that gives the word meaning. It's a set of techniques for writing, directing, and performing the plays he wanted to make-- a number of other artists have made good work by either working within this canon or taking picking and choosing elements from this canon.

I like Brecht's work and admire his contributions to theatre, I'm just saying that what he's doing isn't "theory" no matter how often he says otherwise: it's a paradigm, or a form, but not a theory.