Friday, November 29, 2013

Richard Nelson on Theater

This is what Richard Nelson says — so eloquently — what theater is all about, and I quote with a deep appreciation.

“The theater has a unique place in the history of societies.  After all, the theater is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression, and hence, carries within itself a very specific view of the world; and that view, in a word, is humanistic.  The individual is a the center of the play, and the world of the play revolves around the individual — that is simply what a play is.  By a play’s very nature, the heart of any play is the individual voices of its characters.  And in times like our own, when human voices seem more disembodied than ever, where words seem pulled from their meanings and turned into rants and weapons, the theater can, I believe, be a necessary home for human talk; that is, a place where human beings talk about their worries, confusions, fears and loves.   And where they also listen.”

Richard Nelson is the playwright of the tetralogy The Apple Family, of which Sweet and Sad, perhaps the most poignant of the four; at an extended lunch, set on September 11, 2011, family members chat around their personal tribulations and familial tensions as they reflect on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11.  Seemingly casual in speech and minutely realistic in performance, the play conceals a remarkable artifice of tight writing by which every simple dialogue is fraught with meaning and emotion. 

Movie is a picture show, the audience looking at an event beyond a glass wall that is the screen even when it comes into our living room in the form of television. In the theater, we are in the living room inhabited by the characters and even though we the audience does not speak we become active participants as listeners.  We are moved breathing the same air as theirs, and we are moved actively, not just vicariously. 

In distinguishing theater from cinema, I don’t disparage movies.  As an art historian I take pictures seriously, especially pictures that narrate as they did in the Western tradition.  So, I also take graphic novels, moving pictures, and talking pictures no less seriously.  But I want to alert to the deep experiential difference between theater and cinema, albeit they both narrate and therefore give an impression that they are alike.  Consider the difference between having been present at a good party and being shown a film footage of it.

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