The Role of the Play
Theatre scripts and plays have had an important role since ancient history. This influence has continued throughout modern history, especially the way in which they have combined orality and literacy and adapted to or incorporated each new technology as it has appeared. Ong mentions several times the importance of theatre and drama, which, since the Greeks, “was composed as a written text and in the west was the first verbal genre, and for centuries was the only verbal genre to be controlled completely by writing” (2002, p.139). Hornbrook also mentions that “Although theatrical events have been a part of human culture since antiquity, prior to the twentieth century, drama was confined to sporadic and occasional bacchanals, festivals, rituals, celebrations and theatre performances,” (1998, p.151) whereas, Cimolino assures us that, “Theatre is one of the surest signs of democracy. Its roots are to be found not in despotism, but rather in ancient democratic Greece, which created the debating forum in order to engender lively thought among a free people” (2006). I believe that while literature has been revered for the impact which it has on academic minds, it is the play and theatre which have the ability to reach out to all of us. Worthen explains “Our understanding of language and knowledge have been forever altered by the impact of print; yet the Western stage remains an important sight for the transformation of writing into the embodied discourses of action, movement and speech” (2003, p.2). Literature is for the elite, whereas plays and theatre have always been for the common man. A play can be dissected by intellectuals, but once it is performed it “is an important device for communities to collectively share stories, to participate in political dialogue, and to break down the increasing exclusion of marginalized groups” (Van Erven. 2000, p.2)
In academic research there is a distinction made between drama in which a play can be analysed in a similar way to literature and theatre, which is considered to be a non academic pursuit. Fortier states that “despite the assimilation of drama into literary studies and despite the attempt to see theatre as non-verbal literature, literary theory ignores those who have made the most profound contributions to a specific theory of theatre: drama and theatre belong to literary theory but theatre theorists do not.” (1997, p.4). In many universities this distinction is made, as it is considered that an academic study of a play in drama can be graded quantitatively, whereas a theatre production can only be graded qualitatively. A possible reason for academics to view theatre as a lesser art is given to us by Ong when he explains that “Analytic explicatory thought has grown out of oral wisdom only gradually, and perhaps is still divesting itself of oral residue” (2002, p.169). In practical terms a student who decides to study drama in an English university is required to study the same number of theoretical hours as a literature student, plus an equal number of practical hours, not counting rehearsals and performances, in order to receive the same number of credits. Another explanation for this discrimination between oral performance and the written script could be that academic life has been gradually setting itself apart from the common people. Van Erven explains that “Community theatre is an important device for communities to collectively share stories, to participate in political dialogue, and to break down the increasing exclusion of marginalized groups.”(2000, p.2)
Hornbrook relates that there have been four major changes in the way that we communicate: spoken language, written language, the printed book and finally electronic forms of communication. He also explains that the “Examination of the contrasts between oral, manuscript, literate, and finally, electronic cultures can generate insights into the biases and proclivities of a culture dominated by one form of communication or another. Interestingly, these moments of transition coincide with pre-eminent periods in theatre history” (1998, p.152). He agrees with Ong that the written script or play has existed since the Greeks, became prolific from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, became a weapon for social change in the twentieth century challenging the social norms of this period and finally its role may well be changing as “Antithetically, naturalistic drama, in the theatre and on television, denies inventive experience to its spectators, ensuring that they are further silenced in an age in which participation and active engagement are not easily come by” (1998, p160).
Rush explains that in the past theatre began as a celebration of public events in which most of the populace took part. Political, religious and cultural aspects were all incorporated into performances and unlike modern audiences the spectators did not “perceive a great difference between participating in a ritual where issues of belief are paramount, and attending a theatrical performance where suspension of disbelief is at issue.”(1994, p.3) The main ontological difference appears to have been the way in which the actors performed. Cimolino proclaims “Shakespeare's work is eternal, universal ... It tells stories of people like you and me -- in our diversity, across time and origin and experience, we share a common humanity. And Shakespeare's genius was that he seemed to predict the challenges that future societies would face.”(2006).
Cartwight tells us that “English drama at the beginning of the sixteenth century was allegorical, didactic, and moralistic; but by the end of the century theatre was censured as emotional and even immoral.” (1999, p.3) Censure has always existed, but the written play has confronted many taboos both in print and in performance. Ibsen was one of the most controversial, modern playwrights. Tans tells us that “A Doll's House, which many consider the first true feminist play, was banned in England for a time. Despite resistance to his work, Ibsen continued to raise awareness for women's rights” (2007, p.93) It was not until well into the twentieth century that Ibsen’s plays were accepted and yet he had a profound influence on other playwrights as Tans mentions “Ibsen found support among his artistic peers, such as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), who was influenced by Ibsen's example to examine social concerns in his own work.”(2007, p.93) Ibsen is an example of how plays, allow us to step out of ourselves and to look at life from someone else’s point of view. Literature tends to be a solitary activity, whereas plays and their public performances allow a playwright’s message to have a much more direct impact on society.
Modern playwrights such as Willy Russell tackle universal social issues such as class stigma. His most famous play Educating Rita started out as a working script which he read to drama students at his ex college in Liverpool to get their feedback. Willy Russell then honed his work and it was then performed at a local theatre where it met with great success as it related so well to local social issues. However, the play was so successful that it gained national attention, from there it caught the attention of the film industry and finally it ended up as an international film. This example shows the power of a play not to be original, (Pygmalion has almost the same plot) but to be in touch with fundamental human issues which have existed and will continue to exist across generations. His plays are written for the everyman instead of the academic elite.
In recent years many education authorities have cut their budgets for the arts in schools. As these subjects are considered less academic it has been felt that children and their education will not be seriously affected. However, there are studies which show that the opposite is true. Catterall in the book “Critical Links” edited by Deasy comments on the work of Goodman and tells us that “dramatic play is a vehicle whereby children can both practice and learn about literary skills and begin to develop “storying skills” which might be used in story writing” (2002, p.37)
Hornbrook warns us that “Now, most of us witness, via television, what would have amounted to several lifetimes of drama for previous generations.”(1998, p.151) This may be true and the play may change its appearance, but I believe it is unlikely that it will disappear. Prenki and Selman explain that “Theatre can say the unsayable. This capacity is perhaps its most central asset. Whether at the individual, group, or public level, theatre gives us ways to express: our dilemmas; our political views, whether conservative or radical; our insights, however tentative; our problems, shortcomings, fears, intentions, complaints, angers, commitments.” (2000, p.101) Theatre, drama and the written play have always been an important part of our lives. They have lived in a constant flux of change and will continue to do so in the future. The recent advances in technology will assure that there will be major upheavals in the way that plays will be written and performed. Oddey and White state that, “it will be shown that the central characteristics of the mediated stage lie in the conceptualization and design of the coalescence between actuality and virtuality, between materiality and immateriality and between physicality and virtuality.” (2006, p.157). Yomiuri (2008) gives us a concrete example of what can be expected in the future in his write up in the “The Yomiuri Shimbun” of how “Robotic technology will enter unfamiliar territory Tuesday when two humanoid robots make their stage acting debut alongside human performers in a play at Osaka University.”
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