No. 44 A Stirring Opening
To those actors and actresses, designers, directors, playwrights and theatre technicians who as artists or students (and often in both capacities) have given me the benefit of their experience and friendship. -- Dedication in “A History of the Theatre” by Glynne Wickham
This photo is of a quote that has been hanging in my kitchen for nearly 20 years. For me, as a theatre artist, these words have always been a call to action. As I embark on a new theatre producing adventure, I turn to the opening chapter of Wickham’s seminal theatre history book for inspiration and, not surprisingly, found it in abundance. In today’s hostile climate toward creative souls, I hope you find inspiration in it as well.
From the prologue:
Theatre is the most dangerous of all arts.
Band throughout Christian Europe for centuries following the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in AD 410, dramatic art was suppressed in India for nearly twice as long after the Islamic conquest of the 10th and the 11th century A.D. It was banned again for nearly 20 years in Britain by Act of Parliament, even while memories of Shakespearean first nights were still the subject of parental reminiscence. In America too it was banned by the founding fathers throughout all of the New England states in the north until after the revolution; and in Soviet Russia, since 1934, it has been tolerated only under strict censorship and state control until very recently. The theater has thus been a constant source of anxiety the world over to leaders of church and state alike. This is a central fact of this story.
Actors and actresses, on whom the dynamic and provocative art relies for the breath of life, emerge from world history in no better state. Worshipped at times like gods and royalty, and frequently transmuted into icons of physical beauty and sexual allure, they have nevertheless been despised and scorned at other times as parasites, whores and vagabonds. They have usually eclipse painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, and poets in the degrees of love, envy or hatred which their profession and conduct have aroused in society: only their professional relatives – singers and dancers – can claim to have been their serious rivals in these respects. In Asian countries, as in the west, while some actors and actresses could be welcomed into temple precincts and into princely households and then mass private fortunes, The majority have always been required to reside in the red light district of the towns in which they sought to work.
This ambiguity and social attitudes towards actors has, not surprisingly, colored public attitudes towards dramatic art itself. Even supposedly rational men of letters have quarreled over drama, allowing only its strictly literary values to possess much merit, and frequently dismissing all forms of theatrical action and spectacle as irrelevant or, if that charge cannot be made to stick, as ephemeral. Plato banished actors and acting from his ideal Republic in the fifth century BC; so did Alaric the Visigoth in the real world of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. only in the 1980s have film actors and playwrights been trusted to assume the duties of a head of state - Vaclav Havel.
These incontestable facts should warn us against approaching the story of theater as if it consisted merely of a role of honor of distinguished dramatic poets or some classroom reading list of prescribed text: for if that were true, the dramatic art could not have provoked government so frequently into taking action against it: nor could churchman and academics have consistently adopted such an austerely cautious (if not positively hostile) attitude towards it. Even the public has been fickle, sometimes risking the penalties of absenteeism -- like football fans today -- to be sure of the seat, and sometimes permitting management to face bankruptcy for lack of their support.
To understand these conflicting stances, we must constantly remind ourselves that theater is essentially a social art enhancing and reflecting religious and political beliefs and moral and social concerns as well as literature, music, painting, and dance. Indeed, so wide are its terms of reference that theater has often been used as a metaphor for life itself.
As such, the theater is itself a language, coupling verbal and visual images, which assists humanity to understand itself – to define its culture – rather than a craft for the gifted few or recreation for the privileged elite.
Where then should we begin? With dramatists? With actors? Or with audiences? Theater's origins are wrapped in mystery. Like all mysteries, this one is capable of a variety of solutions, all of them speculative and hypothetical; none of them subject to proof.