Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Music, Theatre, and the Continuing Debate

A.C. Douglas has engaged! He's begged for more! So don't blame me for what happens now!

Narrative thinker that I am, I feel like we've got to reproduce the sequence of events here to make the appropriate points.

As you'll undoubtedly recall, ACD started it. He asked George Hunka: "Why should live theater survive as an art form today when film seems better able to do a play justice?".

He then got myriad responses, which, in his inimitably voluble, and somewhat aggressive, writing style, he took to task for failing to answer his question, because instead of discussing what he called the "artwork" itself, the play text, the responders pondered the interpretative aspects of live performance versus film. To Mr. Douglas, this was irrelevant, even -- get ready to cringe in pity at his cruelty -- "humanist."

After insulting him for failing to engage with those who'd attempted to address the issue by disagreeing with its premise, I asked Mr. Douglas a question: "Do you go to see live music, even though the studio can do it 'better'? If so, why?"

He sent me an email with a link to an article he posted last August, which I then claimed answered his original question as well as anyone else had.

But Mr. Douglas will not be satisfied with his own genius, and he posted his response.

There are now two, inter-connected discussions going on. One has to do with the comparison of music versus theatre, and their similarities and differences. The other has to do with the comparison of theatre versus film, specifically as it relates to plays being done as films. The two strains are highly related to each other because I, and others, argue that the recording of classical music and the filming of theatre are similar. Mr. Douglas disagrees.

"I suggest to Mr. Oxman that he apply consistently his own formula in my above quoted graf. If he does, just how will he make the appropriate theatrical substitution for "music" in, say, the sentence that reads: "One hears music differently in a live performance, and that hearing simply cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good the reproduction may be...."? Would he then say, "One hears the text differently in a live performance, and that hearing simply cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good the reproduction may be...."?"

Yes, I would say that. How? I would say "one experiences drama differently in a live performance... no matter how good the filming may be...." Give me a moment. I'll expand on that in a bit.

Mr. Douglas then separates music from theatre by saying that theatre is made up of text, and therefore the two forms speak to different parts of the brain.

"When heard recorded versus live, a certain portion of the music's fundamental sense as music (as opposed to nuances and subtleties of interpretation) is in some degree altered, or even lost.... With a play, however, its fundamental sense determined as it is by a series of ordered words, which is to say, it's text [sic], the fundamental sense of that text remains precisely the same whether heard live in the theater or recorded in a film, and the words and sentences retain their exact same fundamental sense and meaning as language in both mediums. The fundamental sense and meaning of the word-order 'To be or not to be' is precisely the same whether spoken live on stage or reproduced in film (or read on the page, for that matter).

"Although music is commonly referred to metaphorically as a language, it's a language of a unique sort that by its very nature bypasses the intellectual processing centers of our brains, and speaks directly to our centers of feeling where the gestalt of its fundamental sense and meaning as music (again, as opposed to nuances and subtleties of performance and interpretation) is first 'understood,' instantly and all at once."

You're a quibbler, Mr. D., and I'm concerned to take this on too much. First, because I am not a music expert. More importantly, because I think you'll take the opportunity to make the argument about the metaphor rather than the real subject, the fact that theatre is not so easily transported to celluloid.

That said, I still don't see the difference. You say that theatre can be recorded without changing the artwork because "To be or not to be" will still be the same words and in the same order -- therefore, the "artwork" isn't changed. But isn't that also true of music? The notes will still be the same, and in the same order. The experience of the listener is different, but the underlying "artwork" -- the notes themselves -- is unchanged.

I'll return to the subject, because this goes to the heart of what I see as your misunderstanding of theatre, but please allow me a digression. Thank you for your patience.

This is not an easy conversation to have, in part because we theatre-lovers are a defensive lot, betrothed to a form that reigned in a previous era but which now faces the constant accusation of irrelevancy when compared to mass media, and, even worse, an economic reality that means the form itself is reduced so often to one-person bio-confessionals (Oy, could I make a list!) and two-person formula plays that really would be better off as Hallmark TV movies but aren't good enough (a gay man gets community service for a driving violation and is forced to care for an elderly Jewish man -- that's the set-up of a play called "Visiting Mr. Green," and it's all-too-typical).

It's also hard because the topic is simply too big, demanding answers to questions like: what is theatre? how does it differ from film? what's the "artwork," the play text or the performance or some imagined performance in the head of the playwright who writes the text? Now, I appreciate the ambition of all this, and am willing to tackle it a bit, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking we're going to solve the perennial puzzle that has been left unsolved despite the best efforts of people far more insightful than myself. Like, say, Antonin Artaud.

It's hard to describe why theatre matters to people, what makes it such a special art form, particularly when there are other thriving, far more popular forms -- film and TV -- that can deal in similar narrative structure. But those who love theatre know that it starts with the basic premise that it is different. We've experienced its difference, felt it in our bodies and known it in our minds, even though we often have difficulty articulating it (I'm not saying we shouldn't try to, just that it's tough.)

Before Mr. Douglas accuses me of sentimentality and, heaven forfend, humanism, by saying that we feel the difference, let me point out that Mr. Douglas seems to have just as much difficulty describing why classical music can only fully be appreciated live.

From his piece last August:

"[A] recorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert."

"I mean the two experiences are two different musical experiences. One hears music differently in a live performance, and that hearing simply cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good the reproduction may be in both recording and playback."

"I'll not pretend to know why it is that one hears and experiences music differently live versus recorded, or in what, precisely, in physical and psychological terms, the difference consists. I know only that the difference exists, and that it's meaningful musically. "

And from his most recent response to me:

"For when I said in my above quoted graf that one hears (classical) music differently in a live versus recorded performance, I meant one hears the music differently qua music. When heard recorded versus live, a certain portion of the music's fundamental sense as music (as opposed to nuances and subtleties of interpretation) is in some degree altered, or even lost...."

I've been searching for a more lucid explanation, but instead all I find is his passionate belief that this is so. By the way, I believe him, I just think that he has yet to express this difference in words, and was particularly unfair to those who tried to express similar passionate beliefs about the theatre. When theatre is filmed it is no longer theatre, a play loses its fundamental sense as theatre. It may still work as "narrative," and depending on the play and how the film was directed, it may on occasion even be "better," but the "artwork" itself is different.

I have a practical musical question for you, A.C. When a recording is made of, say, a string quartet, do the musicians play the music in the studio the same way they would in a live concert? At the same volume? Do they have to completely re-interpret the music to adjust? If they do, I'm sure you would say that matters "musically," correct, not just as a "nuance" of interpretation?

Well, in the adaptation of theatre to film, the adjustment is drastic. The pitch of the dialogue must be reduced significantly: the volume with which actors speak must be totally recalibrated.

But even that doesn't begin to touch on the more meaningful differences.

First and foremost, Mr. Douglas's view of theatre is myopic. He has now taken opera and removed it from the equation because it contains classical music and therefore isn't as good recorded as live. So opera doesn't count, and I suppose any theatre that contains music could thus also be removed.

His argument also doesn't apply at all to theatre that is not based on text or contains any elements of improvisation. Cirque du Soleil is a type of theatre -- probably the most popular theatre in today's world (I've blogged on it before, and have been meaning to do so again for months). There's no text, and it's not a "play," but it is theatre. And the video version of the Cirque shows -- blech! they're terrible! they don't capture any of the environmental mood that's so essential.

Now, before Mr. Douglas simply dismisses those by saying, in essence, that he was talking about plays and not musicals or circuses or non-textual theatre, I believe even text-based theatre -- and I have to qualify this and say quality text-based theatre, not the "Visiting Mr. Green"s of the world -- has its own musicality and creates its own environment.

The basic point here is that Mr. Douglas's idea of theatre as a compilation of dialogue that speaks solely to the intellectual processing portion of our brains displays a fundamental ignorance of the art form. What's often important in a play is what is "written" in the silences, what the playwright has designed to be "happening" between the characters and the emotional impact the events are designed to have on the audience. To completely separate out the "experience" from the "artwork,", as Mr. Douglas has attempted to do, is impossible, because it's one way in which a playwright structures the art to begin with, thinking about how it builds, how it creates suspense, releases tension, etc. These things aren't written in the dialogue or stage directions, but they're there. And doing these things in the theatre is often extremely different than doing them on film.

Finally, while theatre might have "less" to work with than film, the limitations are part of what makes imagination emerge. Compare the stampede in the film of "The Lion King" and the stampede as created by director Julie Taymor onstage, and you can see how a less "realistic," more "theatrical" approach can be better.

So as not to rely on a musical as compared to an animated film, I'll also suggest something more obscure as an example. In 1987, those old enough will likely recall the film "Wall Street." There was also that same year a play by the great Caryl Churchill, called "Serious Money," set in the London equivalent of Wall Street. You've never heard of it because when they replaced the London cast (which originally included Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina) with Americans, the production apparently didn't work in New York and bombed. I saw it in London and it was spectacular. It couldn't possibly be put on film, because it was so stylized. But it captured the frenzied feeling of being on the trading floor way better than "Wall Street" did. Could the text be recaptured on film? Sure. But the "play" couldn't be. The artwork was designed to create an environment -- a sensation. Film can show you the reality better, but done well, theatre can give you the greater truth. Provide that particular play with an actual on-site location, instead of just a bare space with chairs and tables, and you've ruined it. Record it and watch it on video, and I assure you it won't even resemble what it was like to see it performed.

By the way, it was in verse. And it spoke to more than the rational part of my brain.

It was theatre. And it was beautiful.