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 to the only realm where it has meaning—the moral realm: “moral” signifying something sustained by the mores, by custom, by tradition, by a common way of living. And this implies, of course, a common set of beliefs.
But Abel’s definition is extremely illuminating even if we limit it to the theater. Applied to tragedy, it leads us to the simple but by no means obvious or commonly accepted conclusion that tragic action can exist only when implacable (or, as our author says more aptly elsewhere, “inflexible”) values are at work; and we can never have a tragic hero without violation, transgression, or intransigent affirmation of a law that is felt to be absolutely real and absolutely superior to any human contingency.
Thus, the tragic hero is the individual who is capable of wanting something absolutely. In Greek thought he who relentlessly pursues a goal, and runs the risk of violating the cosmic order, is guilty of hubris, and is exposed to the punishment that hubris entails. When his aim is actually achieved, and the limit overstepped, the hero is justly struck down by the offending gods, who are the agents of imperturbable moira.
The pages on hubris are among the shrewdest in the book. Hubris, Abel observes, is an essentially ambiguous sin; and to reduce it to “insolence” or “excess,” as the traditional writers on tragedy have done, is to give a moralistic tone. It is also, I should add, not very Greek. Oedipus the King, foolishly sure that he is invulnerable to Fate, is guilty of hubris; but the aged and dying Oedipus at Colonus, having paid the penalty of his hubris, has become a “daemon,” the semi-divine being into which Apollo transforms him. Creon, too, with his sinister pretension of being absolutely in the right, is guilty of hubris, and the gods strike him down at the very moment he has carried out his purpose to its conclusion. Antigone is also guilty of hubris; yet her transgression raises her above the human condition. “Hubris then is a claim to a certain kind of divinity,” Abel concludes, “which may or may not be granted.” Or, to put it differently, the man who is guilty of hubris deserves punishment, but the man who is incapable of it is worthless.
In this sense Oedipus, Antigone, Clytemnestra, and Orestes are tragic heroes; so is Macbeth. But not Hamlet. In an essay which gives new life to an old discussion, Abel describes Hamlet as the eponymous hero of metatheater. He cannot be a tragic character because his personal drama is not that he has to carry out an extreme act, but that he refuses to accept the role Destiny seems to have assigned him: he wants to be the author of his own drama, not just an actor in it. In other words, because he regards the situation that has fallen to his lot as inacceptable melodrama, Hamlet comes to think of himself as a character in a play, and the world becomes a stage to him. He considers “reality” an object of ironical and melancholy meditation, which has meaning only in the rare moments that it becomes convincing drama.
At the end, Abel says, Hamlet “yields to the appeal of the one dramatist whose script, like tragedy, involves necessity and places one beyond chance. This dramatist is death. In turning toward death Hamlet is turning toward something outside the play, not fated by the plot as in tragedy, or forced on the plot as in melodrama…not as the fate likely to overtake him because of his particular situation, but as that fate which must overtake anyone, no matter what situation he be in. Death…in whose script all must act, Hamlet appeals to as an ultimate form. To a modern consciousness is not death equal to the immortal gods?”
Abel suggests that with Hamlet where, “for the first time in the history of drama the problem of the protagonist is that he has a playwright’s consciousness,” a play totally different from the Greek play was born. This new kind of play, being essentially intellectual in character, is always “a play within a play”; that is, it is always based on the ambiguous interchange of fiction and reality. Its fundamental postulates are Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” and Calderon’s “Life is a dream and our dreaming is of dreams.” A third one, on which these two actually depend, should be added: death is the sole inflexible reality. It is death that renders unreal the roles assigned by fate, and makes the world a stage, and life a dream.
Abel deals with many other subjects in this subtle and brilliant book: Racine’s sense of the tragic, Tartuffe as a meta-character, Genet, Beckett, Gelber. There is also an essay on Bertolt Brecht which, in my opinion, gets to the very core of the matter.
Though I agree with the thesis of Methatheatre, one question lingers in my mind. Could it be that with the extreme degree of self-consciousness reached by playwrights like Pirandello and Beckett metatheater has run its course? In any case, does not metatheater reveal the need for a theater based, if not on “implacable values.” then on a recognition that the ultimate reality of life can be found elsewhere than in death?
October 31, 1963