We can over-act everywhere but in the theater. On the stage the playwright is forced to show what makes human actions necessary (as in the universe of Aeschylus) and what makes them random (as in the world of Samuel Beckett). But in the real world we can pretend as much as we wish. For we can attribute necessity to whatever suits us: to our self-interest, or to an idea we do not believe in, or to a passion we do not suffer, and act out the play that develops.
In the singular relation between theater and life there is implied an idea not only of the theater, but of the dramatic vision of reality which is at the root of the theater and without which the theater could not exist. This is essentially a way of looking at and judging life. It is the only lucid way, the only way not befogged by ideological bad faith, and the only way that can truly be called dialectic. For instead of claiming to reconcile opposites and reduce them to preestablished absolutes, it points them out and throws light on them.
This way of looking at the theater and the world is brilliantly exemplified in Metatheatre by the critic and playwright Lionel Abel. The book should attract everyone who is curious about new ideas; and young people planning to devote themselves to the theater will discover that the notion of metatheater, as it is developed by the author, will help to clear away many of the prejudices (both of Broadway and off-Broadway) that interfere with the creation of a theater that is genuinely contemporary.
To have an idea of what Abel means by “metatheater” let us start at the same point he does, which is where any serious discussion of the theater must start—at tragedy. According to him, “metatheater” is, in fact, the kind of theater we get when tragedy becomes impossible. Before this happened in the theater, it happened to the world, that is, to our sense of reality.
The difference between tragedy and metatheater is due, Abel argues, to a change in the relation between mind and reality. In tragedy the reality with which the hero clashes is inflexible and simple. In metatheater, reality is experienced as fugitive and ambiguous; instead of the tragic hero, we have the meditative hero, who rebels against the role fate has assigned him because he cannot be convinced that reality is as simple as his father’s ghost would have him believe. Hamlet, all his descendants, and the protagonists of Pirandello and Genet are such heroes.
Hence it is a definition of reality that is at the base of Lionel Abel’s argument. He believes that “the objectivity of the world is maintained not by logic, but, like some fabled treasure which dragons guard, by those monsters to the sensitive and skeptical mind: implacable values.”
It seems to me that the great virtue of this definition is that it transfers the question of realism …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.