DFLP, The Deadly Theatre Reading

I don’t think I have ever seen a proper theatre performance. Coming from a small city in India, for most of my life I have lived with the understanding that theatre is something that happens in Mumbai, the Hollywood of India. It never came to my city and I never went to Mumbai. So the connection never really happened. Although I have worked in a couple of “skits” here and there in my school or college, but that’s the extent of it. Coming from this background and reading a piece that analyzes the intricate details of what differentiates between great and dull theatre, was to be honest, quite a jump for me. It was like reading the do’s and don’t of performing a heart surgery. I understand the words and intuitively agree with their meaning, but I am sure I will only be able to fully appreciate them when I actually put them to practice.

Having said that, I really enjoyed reading “The Deadly Theatre”. I think I get the message, every theatre performance is unique and every group of performers has to reinvent their performance for the specific audience they are performing for. This is really new information for me. I knew doing theatre was more difficult than movies, performing live always is, but then to bear this added burden of improvisation is truly remarkable. Another thing that strikes me is that this essay was written in 1968. So the author’s thoughts have had time to play out within the theatre community for years. Which makes me wonder, what is the sequel to this essay, what would the author say now? Will he still find the same elements of deadly theatre or are there new ones, or has the categories completely changed and looking at contemporary theatre in the four categories he defined in the essay is wrong or inadequate.

The portion of the reading that I enjoyed most is when the author explains why “it cannot be played the way it is written”. This was a really counter intuitive thought for me. A great play or a story, I thought, should remain timeless. In other words, the story is sacrosanct and should be independent of the time in which it is being told. But the author explains that playing what is written is (a) an impossible task and (b) a wrong idea. It is impossible because, he says and I quote:

“There are no records, no tapes—only experts, but not one of them, of course, has firsthand knowledge. The real antiques have all gone— only some imitations have survived, in the shape of traditional actors, who continue to play in a traditional way, drawing their inspiration not from real sources, but from imaginary ones, such as the memory of the sound an older actor once made—a sound that in turn was a memory of a predecessor’s way. “

“It is vain to pretend that the words we apply to classical plays like ‘musical,’ ‘poetic,’ ‘larger than life,’ ‘noble,’ ‘heroic,’ ‘romantic,’ have any absolute meaning. They are the reflections of a critical attitude of a particular period, and to attempt to build a performance today to conform to these canons is the most certain road to deadly theatre— deadly theatre of a respectability that makes it pass as living truth.”

Which is fair. But what is more interesting is point (b), even if it was possible, it is a wrong ideal to seek. The way the story is being told must keep in mind the context in which it is happening. What contextual cues need to be brought in, is a debate that every group of performers must have on their own before every performance.

“In a living theatre, we would each day approach the rehearsal putting yesterday’s discoveries to the test, ready to believe that the true play has once again escaped us. But the Deadly Theatre approaches the classics from the viewpoint that somewhere, someone has found out and defined how the play should be done.”

Here are some other direct quotes from the author to this effect:

“theatre is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind”

“In the theatre, every form once born is mortal; every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of all the influences that surround it.”

“The deadly trap is to divide the eternal truths from the superficial variations; this is a subtle form of snobbery and it is fatal. For instance, it is accepted that scenery, costumes, music are fair game for directors and designers, and must in fact be renewed. When it comes to attitudes and behaviour we are much more confused, and tend to believe that these elements if true in the writing can continue to express themselves in similar ways.”

In the end the author elaborates on what causes deadly theatre. Sticking to tradition is not the only reason according to the author. There are other causes such as:

  • The cultural set-up
  • Our inherited artistic values
  • The economic framework
  • The actor’s life
  • The critic’s function

Each of these can contribute to the deadly theatre.

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