Monday, April 2, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Recently I reviewed for the NZ Listener Matthew Kneale’s Rome, A History in Seven Sackings. Like many pop histories which attempt to cover vast periods of time (approximately 2500 years in this case), it was enjoyably readable but often glib, with the author making comments about past ages which seemed more the language of a slangy TV series than of serious history for adult readers. Even so, I enjoyed it for what it was.

There was one paragraph, however, which jumped out to me and is the genesis of this week’s rant.

Kneale is discussing the deterioration in the quality of theatre in the late Roman empire. Plays became spectacles, spectacles became increasingly crude and violent, and audiences lost the ability to follow complex dialogue. The paragraph in question goes thus:

 “In their determination to impress Romans, the theatres they built were absurdly large. The Theatre of Marcellus held over 20,000 people, most of whom could barely see the actors on the stage, let alone hear them. Plays were adapted, becoming simplified to key quotations that were recited by a chorus, while actors, whose masks and clothes made them instantly recognisable, performed a kind of miming dance. Themes, too, became incrasingly crude: a mother mourning her massacred children or incest between a father and daughter. Highly popular was the story of a wicked brigand names Laureolus, who was eventually caught and executed. Roman drama reached its lowest point in the first century AD when the actor playing Laureolus would be switched shortly before the end of the production and replaced by a condemned criminal who was killed live on stage.” (p.42)

What struck me about this was the modernity of it.

The huge crowd which can hardly see the performers – this immediately puts me in mind of rock concerts now held in vast arenas. Of course large screens and amplified sound allow the massed audience to see and hear the performers; but even so, they are “seeing” and “hearing” them at one remove, through mechanical media – and thus what they are really getting is a canned performance no better than staying at home and listening to a recording. The point is – as anybody who has witnessed a rock concert is aware – that the event is not really about the music and the performers. It’s about getting lost in a crowd and going ape. Like Romans at (human) blood sports.

But stepping back from rock concerts, this description of an ancient theatre-arena is also like modern cinema. I know you and I can go the boutique, art-house cinemas and watch intense drama with grown-up dialogue. I know we can pay for cable television and see similar fare there. But what are the films which grab the mass audience? (Which nowadays means an audience between the ages of 13 and about 35.) The answer is special-effects-laden fantasy of one sort or another, with comic-strip plotlines and characters. And gore. Condemned criminals may not literally be killed in the making of films, but they might as well be. Splatters. Explosions. Chases.

Brainless spectacle rules.

The funny thing is, some “serious” theatre is infected by the same malaise. I have now seen enough live productions of Shakespeare to know that there is often a tacit agreement that the audience isn’t listening to - or understanding -  the dialogue anyway, so they might as well be jollied along by gimmicks and interpolated bits of business. Worst example of this was a production of As You Like It last year (2017) at the Pop-Up Globe here in Auckland. Long, long stretches of interpolated slapstick and camp exaggeration swamped what, at other times, had the makings of a promising production of the play. Leaving the peformance, I overheard one woman in her twenties asking another what she thought of the play. The reply was: “I dunno. I only came for the comedy.” From this it was clear that the slapstick bits were the only bits that meant anything to her, and the rest had gone straight over her head. With such an audience, it’s hardly worthwhile staging the play in the first place.

I am not suggesting that we are heading for a collapse like the fall of the Roman empire, or that bad theatre and inane spectacle mean “the end of the world as we know it” (a phrase now often used sarcastically by those who are annoyed by any valid criticism of pop culture). I am simply pointing out that any culture which chases the mass audience for profit will inevitably assist the deterioration of that culture. Rubbish Roman theatre then. Rubbish rock concerts, movie spectacle and de-brained theatre now. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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