Oscar Wilde Got It Wrong
‘I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human’ (Oscar Wilde).
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a hand on heart theatre fan. Wholeheartedly. It’s what I write, how I connect with the world; a play is my chosen form but to call it ‘the greatest of all art forms’, ‘the most immediate way in which a human being can share’, I’m not so sure…
I will never forget being in the audience of the first professional performance of ‘Topology of Tears’, a play I wrote in 2002 on the theme of fathers and daughters (something I was dealing with a lot at the time). I can remember what it felt like when I saw my characters embodied and magicked into life by the actors chosen to portray my characters. It’s forever etched in my mind and heart. The feeling of seeing my words transformed through breath, tongue and movement into a full blown person/character was extraordinary. I stood bedazzled in awe of how theatre and the directed, rehearsed performance of that work could transmogrify something that had been previously static on the page; to all intents and purposes ‘dead in my head’. The wonder I felt is the same sort of wonder an audience feels when they watch a play for themselves and see all the performance elements coalesce.
Indeed, theatre has a very specific power. Across the proscenium arch, reaching out to you in real time, to you sitting in your seat, is not only the hand of the actor, but also the intention of the playwright and the interpretation of the director. It’s not just one person’s mind your engaging with; not just one person’s intention but a a fine structure of individual, lithe intents. A whole ball of signifiers for you to interpret. With theatre you have to be up to the challenge, to pay attention. There’s work to be done. You can’t skim a line or turn a page. Words created by a playwright are mystically communicated, physicalised and interpreted immediately in real-time right before your eyes. Physicalised, unlike no other form other than maybe sculpture. In order to accept what we see, the artifice, we have to suspend our disbelief, become alienated from the reality of our surroundings and immerse ourselves in that moment of performance, of all those intents. And if we don’t pay attention it’s gone. In real time. There’s no going back.
So up until this point Oscar and I agree. There’s nothing like theatre for living, breathing, audible, moving immediate communication. Nothing. But where we part ways is in his belief that it’s ‘the most immediate way a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human’. I think Oscar’s wrong here. Totally. Other forms do that too in an equally challenging manner. It’s just a different working through of the same sensibility. Theatre just happens to re-enact it for you. That’s the difference. I happen to love that enactment. It’s a personal taste matter; what ‘floats your boat’. Shared, communicated humanity exists in all forms. No better. No worse.
But it is the enactment that draws me back each time to drama. Somebody breathing words and interpreting what you’ve created; doing so mystically under the glow of the spotlight, from down-stage-upped.
So why haven’t I been to the theatre for years? Literally years when writing plays, rehearsing and directing plays was what I did best in the world, what I absolutely loved the most and how I communicated what it was like for me to be a human being. My ‘share with another’. Why did I stop going? Is it the fact that it costs so much to go? (Maybe) Is it because I’m denying myself something I love deliberately? (I actually think not..but..) or is it because I can’t be bothered? (..too much to do..excuse, excuse, excuse.)
In real terms there is actually no excuse because it would thrill me to go, because it always reminds me of why I started writing plays in the first place, and it might well seed the idea whereby I ‘share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being’ again. I could write a play right now. (Maybe) There’s really no defence if it matters. It all can be scheduled in, if I want to tap right back into what matters to me; my unique individual expressive way.
A play is different from novel writing or poetry because the form becomes physically alive before you. It moves out into the light and doesn’t just move from page to mind to imagination. It’s there, POW, right before your eyes. Amazing performances. Crap performances. But a huge, great big living beast of a creation before your eyes. And theatre’s potency is also that it is a shared experience; an individual connection shared. It’s not like the cinema where you sit, isolated, munching; engaged, but actually passive never-the-less. Only really ever viewing because nothing is alive before you, a beautiful piece of pixelated artifice. Not ALIVE.
John Lahr, the New Yorker theatre critic says ‘Plays are metaphors and metaphors are meant to be interpreted’. He says ‘the actors and playwrights don’t necessarily know what they’ve made’ and it’s the audience that is the missing link within the interpretive process. This speaks to Oscar’s call to ‘share’. It’s the audience’s engagement with what they see before them and the event itself, that makes the connection, that creates a space for interpretation. It was only when I sat as a member of the audience watching my work embodied before me that I actually realised what I’d made. That it worked; that it was a part of humanity, a humane structure. Is that what a performance poet feels when they orate their own work? I don’t know? In that moment, shared, I could see the whole thing, fleshed out, the depth and the surface. A shared, human experience.
And as I review what I’ve written I feel a little writerly fluttering within me; a subtle writerly wing-beat that wants to be released, that wants to breathe life into characters again and heart into substance- the plot. Maybe today I’ll cross the Proscenium Arch sit in front of my computer and words will form and a play might begin to shape itself out.
“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
― P.S. Baber, Cassie Draws the Universe