Monday, March 28, 2005

A Paradox of Stage Performance II

In the third act of Hamlet, Shakespeare erects a stage on the stage; the fact that the play enacted there--the poisoning of a king--in some way mirrors the primary play suffices to suggest the possibility of infinite involutions.

Jorge Luis Borges


I'm still struggling with this paradox, and am still not able deal directly with the comments I've received. So I'll deal with them obliquely and reassert the paradox in a less rhetorical, more concrete way. There is more to come.

We imagine a theatre designed to make a particular "meta-theatrical" experience possible. Two stages are constructed "back to back" so that their audiences face each other. A very thick soundproof wall, however, keeps them from being able to see each other and from following the action going on on each other's stages. There is a doorway in this wall, covered with two, again, thick soundproof doors (one for each stage), so that there is a sort of conduit between the two stages, which is the only truly off stage space available to the actors.

In addition to these physical properties of the theatre, we are to imagine two scripts. Both are plays about actors backstage during the performance of a play. As they exit, ostensibly to go "on stage" to play their role, they pass through the conduit, emerging on the other stage, which, then, deposits them in a play about actors who are backstage during the performance of a play. There is only one way to exit and enter the stage. We imagine a classical "fourth wall" between each audience and the stage before them.

My claim is that these plays are impossible to write. But I can only claim that by making formal constraints which, then, are the source of all the trouble. After all, there is one way to do this:

Give all the actors costumes for Hamlet. On one stage, then, we have actors waiting to go on to play Hamlet, Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, etc. When they go on they pass through the door and the story is that they are now on stage playing their part in Hamlet. But what they have "really" (or at least also) done is to go backstage, where their second part--that of an actor playing an actor (who is on stage at Hamlet) waiting backstage to go back on (to play an actor who has just returned from being on stage at Hamlet)--awaits them.

But I want an actor who passes through the door always to walk on to the back stage of the play he just left.

And that, I submit, is impossible. For they would have nothing to wear. And the reason for that, I think, is that there is some sort of connection between being formalisable and performable. Still working on it.

3 comments:

stower said...

Ok... so...

Without the third play, Hamlet or something else, to inform the two (or more) backstage plays, the actors don't know what to wear.

Without propositional content to inform the a sense, a speaker can't express a sense?

Wait, wait!

If there were just the two backstage plays leading into each other, and a third, informing play were never mentioned, the actors could be assigned arbitrary costumes and part of the intrigue of the play(s) would be trying to deduce what the "real" play was. What if I began saying things - senses - without a reference, would I be doing the same thing? You could try to deduce what I "really meant" by my expressions, but I would secretly know that there was no content behind them, like the actors would secretly know that there was no "real" play or stage on the other side of the backstages.

That's just a different kind of manipulation, though, undermining the (necessary?) assumption that a sense has reference and a backstage has a stage.

I think. Still thinking, though.

Backstage is a requirement of stage: performing backstage can only happen when there is performing onstage. The actors need the onstage performance (even imagined) so they know what to wear.

We need formal content (even imagined) so we know in what way to express a sense?

What tells us what sense to use for our expression's costume?

Things have gone awry here in my comment. Thinking more now. Thank you.

Jack said...

Your ongoing pre-speculation on plays within and without plays continues to look promising as both general thought experiment and theater. It would be great to follow up on these productive directions in terms of aesthetics theorizing, but I admit I'm more interested in the theatrical mechanics embedded in your queries regarding fourth walls, soundproof doors, two scripts interfering with one another, etc. In play-going terms, the best dramas, classical and present-day, evoke "'meta theatrical' experience": as the layers of artifice are palpably available for an audience member's duality evinced in her disbelief (analysis) and suspension of same (empathy??), many playwrights and directors take overt advantage of that doubleness through dialog, stage directions, casting, and sets.

A good recent example of this is captured in Campbell Robertson's review in the NY Times of a staging of Jean Genet's "The Maids." The artifice is helped immensely by having the two maids, Claire and Solange, be played by men, something Genet "intended," according to Robertson. But this production engages the audience in the puzzle-making as well, along lines that parallel your concerns about an actor passing through doors. Here is an excerpt.

"...by far the creepiest part of this production has to be the theater itself. Chairs are lined up one-deep against the walls of a long cold room, and watching the maids yell at each other across the room is like being a spectator at some kind of Gothic tennis match. When Solange launches into her raging soliloquy, pacing the rug in the center, she locks eyes with the audience members, who have nowhere to look but across the room at the other audience members, who are looking back. It's voyeuristic and disconcerting in a way Genet would have found irresistible."

I imagine a moment when an 'actor' "locks eyes" with the audience as a theatrical passage of sorts, when the play breaks into multiples of other things we could begin to call plays.

Full, brief review is here.

Regards,

-- Jack
pantaloons.blogspot.com

Jack said...

Your ongoing pre-speculation on plays within and without plays continues to look promising as both general thought experiment and theater. It would be great to follow up on these productive directions in terms of aesthetics theorizing, but I admit I'm more interested in the theatrical mechanics embedded in your queries regarding fourth walls, soundproof doors, two scripts interfering with one another, etc. In play-going terms, the best dramas, classical and present-day, evoke "'meta theatrical' experience": as the layers of artifice are palpably available for an audience member's duality evinced in her disbelief (analysis) and suspension of same (empathy??), many playwrights and directors take overt advantage of that doubleness through dialog, stage directions, casting, and sets.

A good recent example of this is captured in Campbell Robertson's review in the NY Times of a staging of Jean Genet's "The Maids." The artifice is helped immensely by having the two maids, Claire and Solange, be played by men, something Genet "intended," according to Robertson. But this production engages the audience in the puzzle-making as well, along lines that parallel your concerns about an actor passing through doors. Here is an excerpt.

"...by far the creepiest part of this production has to be the theater itself. Chairs are lined up one-deep against the walls of a long cold room, and watching the maids yell at each other across the room is like being a spectator at some kind of Gothic tennis match. When Solange launches into her raging soliloquy, pacing the rug in the center, she locks eyes with the audience members, who have nowhere to look but across the room at the other audience members, who are looking back. It's voyeuristic and disconcerting in a way Genet would have found irresistible."

I imagine a moment when an 'actor' "locks eyes" with the audience as a theatrical passage of sorts, when the play breaks into multiples of other things we could begin to call plays.

Full, brief review is here.

Regards,

-- Jack
pantaloons.blogspot.com