Navigating Theory in Our Lives and Onstage

I just finished plowing my way through Marvin Carlson’s Theories of the Theatre—an impressive but very dense survey of theory from the Greeks to the early 1990s. As I am reflecting on the lens through which I would like to approach my study of theater, I focused especially on his consideration of more recent developments in scholarship.

The sheer amount of material that Carlson is trying to cover, as well as the complexity of the issues presented makes it a tough read (especially if you are trying to really register the distinctions among the theorists as thought evolves over time). But in the last couple pages he hit on something that honestly gave me the chills: the loss of a truly comfortable position through which to evaluate theater and performance.

This is something I’ve addressed before in this blog, both in posts about feminism and posts about race. If you see in the world sets of ideologies  (sometimes competing with each other and sometimes reinforcing each other) and if you see those ideologies as having arisen out of fluctuating negotiations of power—power that manifests as ideologies about identity or race or gender—and if you consider that you yourself are shaped by ideologies no matter how critically you attempt to view the world and its power dynamics, well things start to get confusing.

It turns into questions like what kind of feminist am I? Do I want to celebrate women’s difference or do I want to emphasize women’s equality? Do I want to work with in the structures of the world that surrounds me (i.e. succeed in corporate America on its terms—Leaning In) or change the structures themselves (and maybe somehow have it all?). Is there a middle ground, or perhaps an entirely other ground? On what ground do I stand?

What are my attitudes towards race, conscious or subconscious? Barak Obama’s speech following the Zimmerman verdict challenged all of us to do some real soul searching there. How, as a woman who has been taught to fear violence, who has been through mandatory self defense workshops since middle school, who has been told over and over again that I could be raped, that that is a real and credible threat, who has had this all underscored by the fact that I have had female friends who have been held at gunpoint and told to go inside–how do I walk down the street alone at night? How do I do this in an ideologically responsible way? Maybe if you are man walking behind me and the street is dark I walk faster not because of your race, but because of your clothes, or your size, or your body language. But if you are a man and I am a woman and we are alone on a street I am probably profiling you in some way, racial or not. Because I have been taught to be scared and to be safe. How do I feel about this?

How do I feel about the fact that I am from the south, that I am, because of the history of our country and who has come before me, linked to some truly atrocious crimes. What of that must I own? What is my responsibility to repair that history? What of that history have I unknowingly absorbed? Where are all of my subconscious “micro aggressions”—where do they live in the midst of all the guilt I’m not sure if I should or should not feel? How much responsibility does history have for the world today, and how much of that history must we in the present claim ownership of? Or should we just keep trying to move forward? Is that possible?

These issues are relevant to making theater and to a study of theater. Most plays involve a representation of identity in some way. We have to think about identity and how its structured, conceived of, presented when we think about theater. How then do we navigate our politics with the aesthetics and function of art? Does art have responsibilities there? If so, what are they? And even if art doesn’t, surely we as thoughtful people in the world, as spectators and consumers, have a responsibility to think about these issues as they are reflected in our society’s culture.

I’ll leave you with Carlson’s thoughts because I think he encapsulates this conundrum very well:

The explosion of theory in the late years of the century has been seen as invigorating and challenging by some, confusing and even threatening by others….In this complex situation, with the “identity” of the theorist quite likely as much at stake as the nature and functioning of the phenomenon being analyzed, many writers (and readers) of theory will surely find themselves in sympathy with Jill Dolan, who admits that “there is no comfortable place for me within any single discourse. Theory enables me to describe the differences within me and around me without forcing me to rank my allegiances or my oppressions.” The disappearance of a “comfortable place,” secured by a cultural tradition that authenticated both the self and the system of theoretical (and performance) discourse, has been, not surprisingly, resisted by many. One can of course respond to this disappearance by denying the postmodernist emphasis on the permeability and negotiability of “truth,” and by insisting upon a self, a theatre, and an encapsulating culture devoid of crisis or contradiction. At the very beginning of the romantic era, however, Schiller pointed out, with some nostalgia, that the naïve assumption of a self involved in such unproblematic relationships was no longer possible in the self-conscious modern age. An increasing awareness of the instability of the self and of the complexities and interrelationships of self, culture, and language have distanced us today even further from that world of naïve directness….The materialist recognition that positions of theory, even of identity, are historically and cultural positioned means, as Jill Dolan has argued, that as a theorist she is challenged “to reposition myself constantly, to keep changing my seat in the theatre, and to continually ask: How does it look from over there?” (539-540*)

*Selection from Marvin Carlson’s Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the PresentCornell University Press 1993.

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