UNITY OF TIME IN THE AGE OF INTERCULTURALISM,
PERFORMANCE ART, AND FILM:
IMPERFECT ILLUSION IN POSTMODERN DRAMATURGY
A PAPER FOR PRESENTATION AT THE
WHY THEATRE: CHOICES FOR A NEW CENTURY
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE AND THEATRE FESTIVAL
1-5 NOVEMBER 1995
DEPARTMENT OF DRAMATIC ARTS
ST. MARYíS COLLEGE OF MARYLAND
ST. MARYíS CITY, MARYLAND 20686
We meet here [referring to the age of the ancient Greek Tyrants at the end of the seventh century BCE] a completely new conception of art, it is no longer a means toward an end, but an end in itself. . . . And thus art, originally a mere handmaid of magic and ritual, an instrument of propaganda and panegyric, a means to influence gods, spirits, and men, becomes a pure, autonomous, "disinterested" activity to some extent, practised for its own sake and for the beauty it reveals. . . . This abandonment of the old view that art is valuable and intelligible only as a weapon in the struggle for life, in favour of a new attitude which treats it as mere play of line and colour, mere rhythm and harmony, mere imitation or interpretation of reality -- this is the most tremendous change that has ever occurred in the whole history of art.
So states Arnold Hauser in his multi-volume treatise, The Social History of Art. First published over fifty years ago, this comprehensive work is a forerunner of cultural studies, although flawed by its Euro- and andro-centric presumptions, obvious in the citation above. If we appropriately qualify Hauserís statement as an insight into the historical development of white male European arts, it describes a compelling and problematic quality: an exclusivity and preciosity, especially in comparison with the art of other (othered) cultures, that is more troubling today than a cause for celebration. The Eurocentric cultural and canonical valorization of what Hauser subsequently refers to as "inner perfection" has produced an increasing estrangement of its arts, which are now widely viewed (according to college curricula, government funding, audience figures, popular opinion, and so on) as dispensable.
Cultural, feminist, and performance studies scholars have illuminated some of the idiosyncracies of Eurocentric theatrical and dramaturgical practice that have contributed to its exclusivity. Aristotleís preferences, which have functioned to indoctrinate Hauserís description of the peripeteia of [European] arts, concern us not only because of his overtly sexist passages, but also because his criteria for excellence rely on male-identified predilections. Linearity, for example, more closely describes male experience and desire than it does that of women, whose dramaturgy has suffered consequent marginalization and disappearance. Particularly in comparison with seminal aesthetic documents of othered cultures (the Indian Vedas, for example, or Zeamiís writings on the art of Noh), his Poetics attends principally to matters of textual perfection, marginalizing the (contaminating?) interplay of artistic practice and performance situation. The inexorable retreat of European theatre, a history that traces gradual seclusion indoors and behind the proscenium arch, accompanied by a reciprocal diminution of subjects and themes, follows logically from these culturally codified valorizations of internal perfection and omissions of external dimensions of performance. Its trajectory describes a path toward insularity and exclusion, leading to middle class domestic drama, Wagnerís Gesamtkunstwerk, and the (epic) objections of Brecht.
A key distinction of Eurocentric theatrical traditions, as they have developed toward inner perfection since Hauserís historical moment, is the depiction of time. Aristotleís preferences set the standard by idealizing a twenty-four hour maximum as the most effective (credible) duration of tragic action. Despite liberalizing influences during medieval development of folk drama -- and the impact of this latitude on Elizabethan theatre -- classical valuation of temporal unity dominates the history of Eurocentric theatre. Held by successive theorists and authorities to be a crucial component of verisimilitude, unity of time (variously tightened and loosened) prevails conventionally as an aesthetic criterion of good dramaturgy.
Postmodern sensibilities, influenced by cultural appropriation, transculturation, film, and performance art, have assisted the task of identifying time depiction as a cultural construction. The select few who determined merit during the Greek classical period and the hegemonic European cultures that sustained its tastes promoted a world-view that prized the hermetic definitions made possible by the conceits of dualism and hierarchy. Aristotleís aesthetic inclinations helped to codify this view, and his penchant for logic, probability, and closure suited the socio-artistic agendas of powerful groups. [Brechtís critique of Aristotilean "inevitability" issues from his understanding of its effectiveness as a suppressive construct.] Unity of time (whatever its prescribed length), especially when we investigate its effects by comparing them with alternative depictions by othered cultures, facilitates this Eurocentric cultural project by establishing an artifice that not only shifts aesthetic focus onto matters of inner perfectibility, but also stakes the significance of human experience on the refracted legibilities of consolidated, foreshortened narrative. Its tidiness is at once reassuring and alienating, perhaps echoing Thomas Driverís perception that tragedy engages us through provocation of comfort (the world is organized) and despair (but not in a way that we can apprehend).
The cultural advantages and pitfalls of this dramaturgical organization of time are sometimes foregrounded in plays of the European canon. Some brief notes on the operation of time in Oedipus Rex exemplify how unity of time functions to advance these Eurocentric themes. First, Sophoclesís (conventionally suggested?) adoption of a foreshortened time scheme overdetermines his construction of the human condition by locating crisis at its center and arranging dramaturgical components to facilitate this view. The moment of crisis persists as the crucible that orders and illumines everything else. Essentially, this paralactic foreshortening is the tragedy of Oedipus: he confronts epidemic evidence that his lifelong presumptions, based repeatedly on the falsehoods of constrained point-of-view, are damnably erroneous. Sophoclesís achievement is his conversion of dramaturgical orthodoxy into theme: the problematics of foreshortening (i.e. history and situation projected through and refracted by the exigencies of the crisis moment) are replicated in the fate of the hero. Oedipusís clarity and power are mounted on artifice, suggesting a reading of the play that jeopardizes cultural valorization of the rational and the perfect. The traps and tyrannies of unity of time, despite their resonance in the thematic matrices and cultural critiques of the tragedy, go unmarked in canonical readings of the text.
If unity of time privileges certain constructions of reality, including linear sequence, necessary and probable development, climactic structure, and narrative closure, it equally excludes others. Sue-Ellen Case has attributed the historical neglect of Hrotsvit, for example, to this exclusive valorization. Feminist scholars working in the fields of film and performance have noted the need to re-evaluate canonized valuations and for new morphologies that accommodate the marginalized experiences and desires of women. Calls from other marginalized groups have emphasized similar omissions and needs. Apart from Brechtís challenge of Aristotilean dogma, developments in performance art, film, and cultural pluralism have also situated unity of time as a problematic construct. Postmodern performance, drawing on all of these influences, is seeking routes out of the isolated arena of inner perfection.
When we consider conventional depictions of time in the performance traditions of othered cultures, the hermetic functions of unity of time, as well as their cultural causes and effects, become apparent. In Nigeria, for example, Yoruban performance oscillates between suspension and engagement of situational reality. Performances are exposed to a noumenal and phenomenal present that nourishes, rather than detracts from, their power. African arts, generally, have retained their value as efficacious products and have escaped the defining moment that Hauser credits as the commencement of estrangement in Eurocentric arts. Because African world-views envision time and space as cyclical continua, and because constructions of spirituality and existence link all people through Ase or a shared life force, suspensions of performance circumstances (disbelief) differ fundamentally from Eurocentric practice.
In her work on Yoruban performance conventions, Joni T. Jones has identified several distinctive and relevant features. Noting that Yoruba regard performance as instrumental (designed to make something happen), she describes the roles of seriation (loosely linked and sequentially variable episodes), improvisation (provocations of performance circumstances), simultaneity (of past, present, and future, as well as of performance and audience realities), and audience interactivity as salient in this process. Occasional disruptions of enactment, caused by momentarily unmatriced performers or "flaws" in the suspension of time, are customary. Hardly a tradition delimited by compartmentalizing architecture and delusive unities, Yoruban performance engages its audiences (participant-observers) and derives its efficacy precisely because it escapes those matrices. Its circumstantial vulnerability and unsuspended instrumentality have indemnified it against the decorative status of internally perfected Eurocentric arts.
For the most part, the performance traditions of othered cultures are consistent with artistic practices and objectives that strive for efficacy through "flawed" matricing. If Eurocentric arts find their highest achievement in an insular perfection, the arts of othered traditions sometimes promote intentional imperfection as a channel for spiritual animation and fulfillment. Certain African and Native American cultures, for example, deliberately insinuate flaws in textile or weaving patterns in order to promote entry of the divine into the art. Imperfection, along with its vulnerability to intrusion by things extrinsic, is regarded as a source of reciprocal empowerment. The function of unity of time as an insulating deception renders it inappropriate in the performance conventions of these cultures.
Asian performance traditions, while tending toward rarefication, also configure time according to sensibilities that contrast and contextualize Eurocentric ideals of unity. Noh drama, perhaps the extreme example in this respect, entrances its audience, inducing a contemplative state that leads toward nirvana. Like the teachings of Zen, Noh views the phenomenal world as insignificant: a husk overlaying inner truth. The progress of the Noh narrative is driven by revelation, rather than by conflict, and its depiction of time replicates spiritual, rather than empirical, experience. As French playwright Paul Claudel has stated, "in Western drama something happens; in noh, someone appears." Time expands and contracts like a bellows in Asian performance traditions, inflating vertical moments of insight and deflating horizontal passages between them. Sequence is similarly organized by temporally dislocated plumbings of the apparent, eluding familiar Eurocentric orthodoxies of linearity and unity. Considered along with other strategies for foregrounding theatrical artifice that are common in Asian performance traditions, these highly conventionalized depictions of time serve to perforate rather than to harden the perimeters of theatre art: where unity of time is a strategy for immunizing theatrical illusion, conspicuously artistic time configurations, similar to "flawed" time suspensions, effectuate vital recriprocity between audience and staged event.
In its depictions of time, postmodern performance reflects the appropriation not only of these othered cultural models, but also of cinematic montage and performance art. The constructions of time facilitated by film technologies (intercutting, fast-forwarding, rewinding, freeze-framing, spatializing, and so on) have been widely imitated in both staging and dramaturgy, sometimes producing exciting innovations and sometimes jeopardizing live performance by leading it into an aesthetic arena in which film capabilities have clear advantages. Epic narratives have proliferated in the wake of cinemaís achievements. Furthermore, trends toward unmatriced performance, previously championed and codified by Brecht, but amplified through the experimentations of Happenings and Performance Art, have also influenced depictions of time, even in the "mainstream" of recent European dramaturgy.
A prominent group of postmodern (and pre-postmodern?) playwrights fabricate depictions of time that feature both "flawed" and obviously contrived suspensions as means toward increasing the susceptibility of European performance to external contingencies and, thereby, retrieving its lost instrumentality. Although it is possible to identify instances of experimental time depiction
in some earlier Eurocentric scripts, a conspicuous and significant movement from the confines of Aristotilean time occurs in the precursive texts of postmodern dramaturgy. Such scripts revalue poetic uses of time, often by foregrounding and/or perforating the artificial structures that predicate the familiar effects of linear narrative.
In the examples that follow, dramaturgical depictions of time resonate with thematic contingencies that intrigue the various playwrights as poets of the postmodern condition. The world-views, sensibilities, and insights that characterize postmodernism have been nourished by a cultural diet of cinematic constructions of time; habits of mediatization overdetermine our perceptions and codifications of meaning. It is hardly surprising to find that, when playwrights and performers appropriate the temporal conceits of other arts and traditions, these contrivances acquire visibility and fresh significance in the less insidious venues of live performance. Their predisposing of experience becomes thematic in these works.
Because Harold Pinter, like many contemporary dramatists, writes for both stage and screen, his dramaturgy exemplifies appropriation of cinematic time depiction. Especially in his later plays, which show some effect of his experiments with diachronic and synchronic time in his work for the cinema, Pinterís fascination by the noumenal and phenomenal vestiges of the past dominates the action. His screenplay adaptations have become increasingly concerned with the paradoxical presence and absence of the past, but, in translating these themes to the stage, he has generally maintained his use of the stage as a milieu for the static and the claustral. For the most part, Pinterís dramaturgy holds to the traditional unities of time and space, so that his stage plays problematize time in a different manner.
Time in Pinter is suspended and controlled by the domestic game. The game exempts the action from the properties of time; it operates as a device for occupying time without actually evoking or exhausting it. Pinterís plays resemble photographs in both their aesthetic and temporal sensibilities: form provides name, appearance provides substance, and nothing but the speculative exists beneath the masquerade. The frame defines subject and activity, and duration is absent. Particularly in his later plays, where the games are reversible and circular, Pinter views the present as vastly static and unyielding. Walled up against the antagonistic progress of the universe, Pinterís characters confront only the treachery of each other, as they alternately evoke and exhaust time through the commission of language. Although the characters exploit time, by shifting it, revising it, and projecting it, as strategy in their game, its peculiarities arise from the (obfuscated) situation, from a response to the confinements of time and space, rather than from a trick time schema that would potentially weaken the play by releasing it from its hermetic milieu. Thus, Pinterís insular rooms sustain all artificial descriptions of time, but subject them to disputation.
The progress of time in plays by Samuel Beckett and Caryl Churchill is periodically deflated by their qualification as conspicuous performance. Their theatre is akin to performance art, in which the event never entirely transcends itself, collapsing insistently onto its own devices and realities so that time is neither suspended nor referential, ultimately becoming identical with itself. Because performance art or metatheatrical qualities are present not only in their highly contrived stage settings, but also in the tasks that they set for their actors, audiences experience a double-vision in which illusion and reality operate toward intentional significance. The character is inextricably absorbed by the actor, and the illusion insistently evokes an unsuspendable reality. In this manner, time embraces all of its manifestations, literal and figurative, and appropriates them toward opposite effect; empirical time becomes metaphorical, and poetic time becomes material.
Beckett locates the action of his plays in emphatically theatricalized spaces, inscribing time as an astronomical phenomenon that escapes and mocks artificial measurement or definition. Time, along with most other aspects of existence, becomes a prospect for accurate definition by Beckettís characters. Their quest, even when it is successful, accents the counterpointed duality (Godot is and is not God) that typifies Beckettís work. Thus, definition of time or anything else becomes a poetic gesture because it occurs in the context of Beckettís emphatically poetic stage milieux and because it is prized merely as an exercise against boredom. Furthermore, its degree of accuracy varies inversely with its degree of relevance, further estranging signifiers and signifieds. For Beckett, everything is referred to some form of externalized, indifferent scrutiny; the lives of his characters are apostrophic performances, whether directed at some form of "other," "God," or the actual audience. His characters struggle for grace by submitting a quest for accuracy to an uncertain, apparently impervious witness; the prospect of judgment by something omniscient keeps the characters "honest," despite their freedom to act, remember, speculate, and doubt, except insofar as they are limited by physical and biological law.
Caryl Churchill foregrounds the simultaneously artificial, elusive, and despotic qualities of time, along with those of role and structure. Theatrical artifice saturates the whole fabric of her exemplary play, Cloud Nine. Its two acts are separated by a century of time, but Churchill specifies that the characters who recur in Act Two have aged only twenty-five years, thereby suggesting both a figurative continuity and a continued figuration. The specified parade of character-actor incongruities operates, especially in performance, as an insidious critique of the Victorian role models and of the arbitrary nature of role-playing, while it simultaneously proclaims the fake, theatrical basis of situations and choices. In this respect, Cloud Nine sets in motion the same "whirligig of appearances" that Sartre describes in Genetís The Maids: "the reciprocal de-realization of matter by form and of form by matter." However convincing or momentarily transcendant the performances, they are intrinsically exposed as such, so that the audience is confronted by a parallactic spectacle of mutual negation.
To the extent that these playwrights create self-referential performances, vacillations between fictionalized and unfictionalized time acquire a poetic charge, and the cyclical repetitions of theatrical performance become an appropriate metaphoric context for action. In each of these examples, drawn from contemporary "mainstream" dramaturgy, the ideal of "inner perfection," so highly prized by Hauser as the consummate achievement of art, has been replaced by techniques for introduction of external impurities. Alternative depictions of time, as these have emerged from developments in film, performance art, and cultural pluralism, have become leading strategies in postmodern efforts to restore instrumentality to European arts. Increasingly, we have come to regard unmatriced performance, partially the consequence of discarding unity of time, as a route toward salvation of the theatre: as an opening for passage of the divine and the spiritual.
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