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The Illegitimate Theater

The Antitheatrical Prejudice

by Jonas Barish
University of California Press, 499 pp., $24.50

The subject of Jonas Barish’s large book is what he calls “antitheatricality”—a state of mind that ranges from a cold dislike of the stage to a furious desire to burn every theater to the ground and dispatch all actors to the flaming underworld. “These pages… propose no polemical thesis,” Professor Barish writes, but the fact that not a single antitheatrical writer from Plato to Yvor Winters is allowed to express himself without being taken apart by Professor Barish gives a polemical flavor to every page of the book. The author half admits this when he says in his peculiar prose: “Sometimes I have temerariously engaged in debate with authors dangerous to disagree with.”

The usefulness of the professor’s book lies in his classification of objections to the theater. By way of these objections, he shows clearly the ways in which morality varies according to the culture from which it comes and makes this truism seem new by staging it, so to speak, instead of confining it to prose. When he speaks of the theater he almost always means the actors in it—they having drawn the fire, he believes, of all antitheatricalists from time immemorial—and thus has the advantage over other academic writers of a subject that is like an echo of his own words.

When Plato objects to the theater and refuses to include it in his dismal Republic, his reasons are ones that seem very strange today. They rest on his belief that there was once a world in which every man was a very decent chap, wedded, one can only suppose, to a jolly virtuous girl—all very P.G. Wodehouse but without a Jeeves. Only the basic necessities of life were demanded then, and pleasure was not one of them. But time passed, and people began to feel that a bit of fun, even gaiety, couldn’t do them any harm; so before long there was a drift toward “hunters, painters, musicians, poets, recitants, players, dancers, barbers, dressmakers, swineherds….” Even types known as “soldiers” appeared on the scene—warfare’s pros, replacing the stalwart hams of a citizens’ corps.

All such would be forbidden in tomorrow’s Utopia. The prime sin of most of them is make-believe, by way of uniforms, dresses, hairdos, false excitement, and antisocial fantasies. It is thanks to such persons that even the gods have come to seem degenerate, bursting into loud laughter, getting tight, wearing disguises, castrating father, and dining off baby. Should such things be taught to kids? God forbid! Imitation is a mighty power for good or bad, and censorship will see to it that only the very best is open to imitation.

Plato’s Republic has always seemed more like a subject for black comedy than solemn reflection; and though Professor Barish is not like God—who can discuss anything without laughing—he keeps his pen under decent control. What he might well have provided is a fuller picture of the Greek theater and the respect it inspired in the majority of Greeks. But it is a weakness of the book throughout that we never really go to the theater in any period of its history. We only meet the actors and their enemies.

That antitheatricality should have flourished in imperial Rome almost goes without saying. Professor Barish, who would say it was “a compensatory countersyndrome,” concentrates on two of its great Christian enemies, Tertullian and St. Augustine. The first is a pushover for the critical inquisitor: for Tertullian, even the shaving of an actor’s beard was a sin against the Creator’s conception of manhood, while the pretense of being somebody else was a sinful imposture, loathsome to God. Here we have, as Barish says, an antitheatrical type who cannot even believe that there is such a thing as fiction. This is a strain that recurs again and again among the stupid.

But Augustine is a test case and Barish meets it so well that his section on this complicated saint is almost the best in the book. Here is an intellectual whose bequest to his church is responsible, probably, for more human misery than any other Christian has managed to provide, but who has done so with so much charm, affection, and depth of feeling (to say nothing of good prose) that the separating of the monster from the kindly teacher is unspeakably difficult.

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” the Gospel of St. Matthew advises us—with all the innocent good nature that marks the beginning of Christianity. But 400 years later, when Augustine takes the stage, the very notion of human perfection seems scandalous. It is Augustine we have to thank for the torments of Calvin, Knox, and thousands of lesser Puritans, all engaged in proving that we are utterly unworthy of salvation, totally dependent on the grace of God, and quite incapable of making ourselves better than the worms we are. That Augustine should be antitheatrical need surprise nobody; “anti” is the prefix to his whole life. Where he differs from Plato is in heaping all his condemnations upon himself: he is not so much antitheatrical as anti the Augustine he used to be—a happy fellow who loved going to the theater and whom only grace can save now from having derived amusement from anything at all. Professor Barish treats him with sympathetic understanding—rather too much, perhaps, considering how little interest the saint, up to the neck in his own pain, took in the agonies suffered by the unfortunate ones in the Roman arena.

There follows what can only be described as the happy theatrical days of the Dark and Middle Ages. Inspired by God knows what, the Church itself became a theater. Professor Barish comes his closest at this point to what he would call “living theater”; his description of priests, friars, and acolytes staging the miracle and mystery plays of Christianity inside the churches with the pious congregation for audience and the furniture, down to the very altar itself, for props—this is one of the few parts of the book which make one wish that the professor had said more. But religious gaiety of this sort is bound to create antitheatricalism eventually; and when the Lollards and Puritans arrive to restore the gloomy status quo, they write finis forever to the world of a theatrical church.

The rest is common history and common knowledge. The theater enters into its greatest revival since the Greeks but returns to exactly the outcast position it occupied in Rome, becoming simultaneously the most popular of attractions and the most dreaded of corruptions. And once the ladies take the stage in the seventeenth century, the antitheatricalist’s muster of vices becomes complete and runs on unchanged up to the present century.

Antitheatricalism then, as described by Professor Barish, takes two forms. In its more common, less interesting, form it concerns chiefly the morals of the players, rather than the nature of the plays they are in. But the more interesting form is a purely aesthetic one, and it is in respect to this that Professor Barish must be seen as a vigorous polemicist, as narrow in his own way as Tertullian was in his.

He believes that a play must be staged in order to become a play. “For only the physical stage, whatever its shortcomings, can be the true site of performance. The theater of the mind is no substitute…the script must be incarnated by live actors, or it remains impalpable and wraithlike, subject to every misunderstanding and distortion of which readers are capable.”

This is precisely the opinion of all owners of theaters, all theater managers, all producers, all directors, all actors and actresses, all stage managers, and presumably all stagehands who have ever considered the matter. All would agree with Professor Barish that a play which is in print or manuscript and is read quietly under a reading lamp is only what the professor calls “closet drama”—an ugly name for an aborted thing.

The only people who can never swallow this pill are, unfortunately, the people who write the plays. It is their belief that, but for them, all the people listed above would not exist. It the authors refused to write the plays, there would be no directors to cut pieces out of the plays and change their meanings, no actors to spoil the lines, no electricians to spot the leading lady, no costumes to distract attention from the work. Only the text is real, the authors say, and when the theater folk play their trump card by saying (as Professor Barish does), “Shakespeare himself was an honored member [of the theatrical profession] and active participant,” the authors can retort that Shakespeare’s feelings about the theater are completely unknown. They could also echo Gordon Craig’s strong words about the “theater of the mind”:

But when we read, we ride with Shakespeare upon the sightless couriers of the air. Pity, like a naked new-born babe, hangs in the air before us; we see the terrifying figure of “wither’d murder” with Tarquin’s ravishing strides passing before us…. We hear the bell which…rings the knell at the death of Duncan…. Later, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” Round our room, outside our window, above us in the room over our head, creeps continually the tomorrow and tomorrow; and so, losing all this in the theater, we are great losers.

We are losers, as Craig explains, because it is “not people and things, but ideas which so surround and possess us as we sit and read.”

Professor Barish numbers Craig among the antitheatricals, which is the opposite of the truth. Craig was a revolutionary who dreamed of a new theater which would be dominated by the visibly spectacular instead of by texts and “ideas.” It might be correct to say that both he and Professor Barish polemicize on the basis of a half-truth—which the reader may test easily enough for himself. “People and things” surround us too in Shakespeare; for example, the speech in The Merchant of Venice beginning “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!” is surely better played than read. It is to an audience, over the heads of the actors, that Antony declaims his great speech over Caesar’s body: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now” are words written for an actor with a full house rather than a reader in an armchair. “See what a rent the envious Casca made” only calls for the right prop; it asks little of the imagination.

But Professor Barish demands all or nothing, and the quality of his argument becomes very poor in consequence. Why did Byron hate the theater? Only for personal reasons: he was snubbed by the great actor of his day, Edmund Kean. Why did Lamb bleat? Because he was opposed to realism. What made Chekhov run? He only gets one evasive paragraph, so we never find out. Why did Shaw attack the theater? Because in his day it refused to “return to the honest realities of life as lived outside the theater.” But can anyone imagine Shaw’s believing that “honest realities” were a feature of our lives?

Verdi deserves special attention. His biographer writes: “With an unsurpassed instinct for the theater, he hated everything the theater stood for, just as he despised the race of singers while rating the human voice as the most potent means of human expression.” How can this be explained?

Professor Barish gives us the correct explanation but wriggles around it at the same time. Verdi, he admits, spent his life at odds with a certain corruption in the theater. But this was a very good thing. The “endless struggle” brought out the best in Verdi. That is why the theater is good even when it is bad. It arouses in the strong artist the “simple integrity to which we all at heart aspire” and to which “the antitheatrical prejudice will continue to pay its wry tribute.”

It is here that one feels most painfully that Professor Barish’s theater exists largely in his own mind. So long as his antitheatricals are philosophers and theologians, preoccupied with the fictions of the theater and the make-believe of the players, the question of what a theater is really like is of relatively little importance. But once the opinions of those who write for the theater, or those who judge it aesthetically, are brought in, nothing they say can make any sense if we are not shown the enemy they have to fight and told what there is about it that makes them hate its power.

A theater is a business, in the first place. It has something called a “box office” which depends for its profits on everything that is not aesthetic. Its principal inhabitants are the actors with whom Professor Barish is so greatly concerned; but the director who leads them where he will and shapes the play according to his own views never gets into the book at all, though he is often the reason for antitheatricalism at its most violent and indignant. Finally, acting is an art. It is not a collection of people, except to the sociologist and the moralist. If Joseph Conrad prefers marionettes, it is for artistic reasons, not because they are “without life, without the soiling passions and ugly malice of real people.”

Professor Barish explains his own preference for “real people” in the intellectual dream he lays before us in conclusion. This begins with what he calls “the disintegration of personality that forms so marked a feature of twentieth-century culture.” The old superego that once governed us has faded away, leaving us “adrift in a sea of identity.” Thanks to this “identity dispersal,” we have not only drawn closer to the fictions of the theater but become addicted in our own lives to “a reckless transformationism that threatens to dissolve all boundaries of identity altogether.” We have become our own theater, in ourselves, and the theatrical “as it invades our daily lives, as it insinuates itself into our relations with our friends, our wives, our children … becomes a substitution of what is arresting and exciting for what is true.” What’s more, we long to be seen in action on our private stage and to play our false parts well enough to bring the house down.

Antitheatricalism, then, Professor Barish winds up, has little to do with the theater proper. It is our disapproval of our own theatrical way of life—“a form of self-disgust brought on by our conflicted longing to occupy the center of the stage. …” This is the position we occupied on the day we were born; since then we have had to attempt many parts in the hope of getting it back.

It sounds as if Professor Barish has been reading too many contemporary books. They have led him astray by providing him with words and phrases that make his subject matter seem far more in tune with the times than it really is. It is impossible to write a good book about the theater if one believes it to consist solely of actors and actresses; but it is possible to write a bad book about human behavior from the same point of view.

Finally, the need for simplification, for cutting, for avoiding painfully long words, for letting one example do the work of a dozen is evident in every page—along with the feeling that so long as there are foundations ready to support the writing of such books, their authors will never feel the need to bring them to an end. Barish’s “vast undertaking” (as a friendly puff calls it in the blurb) has been ten years in the making, which means that a bad book has ruined what might have been a good essay.

Letters

On Stage May 13, 1982

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