Unmasking theater's many faces

Rooted in ancient storytelling, plays both amuse and plumb the depths.

Theater is alive, despite the vicious rumors of the past 50 years.

In fact, its "live-ness" is one of its most attractive characteristics. Theater may be an ancient creature now, but it continues to grow and evolve.

"One thing that distinguishes the theater from most other artistic experiences is that it is about live experience," says John Osburn, a former theater critic who has taught drama at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and at New York University.

"It is the commonality of experience - the live actor is a mediator who enables you to share an emotional experience with the other audience members."

Theater's roots are in storytelling as much as in ritual. Theater has always told the "tales of the tribe" and does to this day. From the stories of the hunt to the legends, myths, and allegories of a people, it reflected the values, beliefs, and problems of communities across the globe.

As theater evolved, it began to focus more on real human beings - yarns of lords and ladies, and even stories of ordinary folk. The theater expressed insights of individual authors and did it all through "mimesis" - one person playing the role of another.

To put on the persona of another is to wear a kind of mask. The mask exaggerates and stylizes the features of people, heroes, and gods. But the mask does not hide expression.

The mask was part of early ritual, and ritual became theatricalized long ago. There were dramatic plays in Egypt 4,600 years ago, as part of religious pageantry, and priests wore animal masks to represent gods.

Masks are used for similar purposes in non-Western cultures all over the world to this day. In Korea, Japan, Africa, and among native Americans, stylized advanced theater forms use masks of different kinds.

Masks show up in contemporary theater's revivals of the Greeks or in entertainments like the hugely popular "The Lion King," mounted by Julie Taymor. Masks remind us of cultures and periods of time when religious beliefs were inseparable from artistic expression.

Medieval times had plenty of entertainments, but theater was meant to have moral merit first.

A thousand years ago in Europe, theater pieces (stories from the Bible, allegories of the church) were told on moving stages - pageant wagons - among the jongleurs and the animal acts, the storytellers and the troubadours. Or spaces were set aside in the most communal area of a town, before the church or in the square, for enactments of the many passion plays, miracle plays, and morality plays linked to church holidays all over Europe.

The Renaissance brought with it a revival of humanistic ideals - a return to classical aesthetic principles. The theater experienced a rebirth in Italy - which mushroomed with activity. There the commedia dell'arte (the origin of terms like "slapstick" and "zany") was born. Ancient texts were rediscovered. Scene design, acting techniques, the proscenium (picture frame) stage, and theatrical vocabulary were all brought forth in abundance. France, Germany, and Spain, too, saw theatrical innovation.

With the Protestant Reformation in England came a new emphasis on the secular world. The enclosed courtyards of inns made promising theater spaces, and theaters evolved out of them with the addition of apron stages - an open stage with a backstage area.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whom many consider to be the man of the millennium, was an actor and producer as well as writer. No other playwright in the English language has plumbed the depths of human consciousness and character as he did, nor has any uttered more profound truths about the human condition. His language has filtered down to us, and his insights are still fresh. He was a playwright of his time, and a poet for all time.

In France, Molire (1622-1673) was soon to appear and produce great comedies that almost do for French letters what Shakespeare's comedies did for English. Though Molire lacked Shakespeare's insight into the human heart, he understood its follies. And his plays still speak to us.

Meanwhile in Japan, Kabuki was developing out of the Noh drama, Bunraku (puppet theater), and Kyogen plays, as a prosperous mercantile class became fed up with feudalism. To this day, no women take part in Kabuki - female parts are played by men, called onnagata - just as there were no women on stage in Shakespeare's theater.

Japan's own Shakespeare appeared in the early 1600s - Monzaemon Chikamatsu - who fed the ever-increasing appetite for puppet theater.

Back in England, Charles I - that rascal! - closed theaters (for the sake of public order, he said). And though some continued to operate illegally, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell kept the doors shut while he ruled (1653-58). They were opened again only with the Restoration - the return of Charles II (1660) to the throne. Reflecting the new king's libertine ways, Restoration comedy offered acute social commentary on the superficiality of the times.

The next big changes in Western theater came in the modern era. Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) made social commentary part of theater's ongoing responsibility to the community.

The immense contribution of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) to Russian and world literature and theater was accompanied by the equally earthshaking contributions of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), who wrote "An Actor Prepares," from which the American "method" of acting was derived. And George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) made philosophy and social responsibility part of the currency of the times.

In the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht gave hard-hitting political theater a new form. Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty" influenced experimental theater throughout the century, and Samuel Beckett described the absurdities of the modern world with compassion for the human. Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams rediscovered serious drama in an American context.

Today, the highly moral and socio-allegorical dramas of Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet contribute to the social conscience of the world, and Horton Foote's quiet poetry of ordinary American life has extended the meaning of empathy.

American musical theater, born in the 19th century and developed in the 20th, cheers us with catchy tunes and comedy.

Though theater changes every day, it still exults in its distinguished history.

It gives us insight into the lives of those in distant cultures. New theatermakers like Anne Bogart and Peter Sellers are drawing inspiration from African and Asian sources. Indonesian shadow-puppets, Balinese dancers, and Chinese acrobatics have influenced Cirque du Soleil.

And the theater does it all, live.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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