Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Paradox of Stage Performance

Chris Vitiello has been thinking about stage performance lately, which has inspired me to articulate a paradox that I have not yet completely understood.

Like all paradoxes, one might argue that the problem is artificial and contrived: that so long as it is never raised it does not demand a solution. Indeed, I am not suggesting that stage performers lose any sleep over the existence of the paradox I want to present. Still, I believe that just as solving (or dissolving) linguistic paradoxes teaches us something about language so, too, might the solution to this paradox teach us something about the essence of the stage.

Let me begin by imagining a series of unparadoxical experiments in staging plays. I will then end rather abruptly with the paradox, hoping for comments, and with the promise of taking it up again soon.

Imagine, first, a one act play set in the living room of a house. It is the story of a party, a failed romance, and a murder. The play opens with several characters in the room. People come and go through a door at the back of the set, which we understand to lead to a kitchen. Naturally, much of the dramatic tension depends on who is in the room to witness what happens there (and which the audience sees) and on what might be happening in the kitchen (and which the audience does not see). All in all, a very ordinary play.

But suppose, now, that we construct a theatre such that two independent audiences might be witness to this same play. Note that, according to the script, any given character is either in the living room or in the kitchen and nowhere else. We can therefore imagine two plays, one called "The Kitchen Party" and the other called simply "The Party". Given a sufficiently agile playwright, these two plays might each be very entertaining on their own. Our experimental theatre simply offers its customers an additional bonus: having seen the "The Kitchen Party" one night, they can return the next night to see "The Party", or vice versa. If this is done right, the entertainment value would come immediately from the story being presented (available to anyone who saw only one of the plays) and from the little extra details of the plot that would emerge to one who had seen it from both sides.

Now, this experimental theatre company, having had its first success would want to apply and extend this concept in future seasons. Obviously, the setting of the play(s) it shows is arbitrary, as is the plot, and one day someone hits on the obvious "meta-theatrical" gimmick: it is possible to set a play backstage at a play. So the new season has them putting on, say, "Hamlet" on one stage and "Shall We Have a Play?" (a play about the backstage antics of a company of Shakespearean actors during a performance of Hamlet). All the exits in "Hamlet" are entrances in "Shall We?", and vice versa. Everythings depends on the writing of "Shall We" and, of course, on the director's cunning, but this is entirely possible and even a little promising (if also a bit, like I say, gimmicky).

Since each play has to be independently valid as a work of art (according to the ambitions of the company we are imagining) and since the plot is arbitrary, the company now has a way of putting on almost anything they like. If before they had to think of stories that transpired in two specific locations and nowhere else, they now only have to think of any ordinary sort of play, and its correlated backstage. What happens to the characters in the ordinary play is one thing, what happens to the "actors" in the other play is quite another.

The real actors are of course simply never really off stage. The lights come on on both stages and all they do is pass from one stage, where they are in character as a character of the ordinary play, to another, where they are in character as the actor playing the aforementioned character. This is perhaps interesting, even confusing, but still by no means paradoxical.

The plot, to repeat, is arbitrary. We can imagine a romantic comedy on one stage and we can imagine a murder mystery on the other stage (a murder mystery set backstage at the romantic comedy, i.e., an actor who kills an actress for reasons independent of the love his character has for hers on the other stage). Each can be entirely self-supporting stories, but there may be all sorts of extra perks for the member of the audience who knows what is happening on the other stage in its details (i.e., who saw it the night before). When the gun passes from the inside pocket to the desk drawer, or when the prop gun is exchanged for a real gun, certain things make sense, perhaps in a new way. Indeed, one could imagine that the plot itself comes to look very different on each sitting, as our ideal audience member returns to the theatre, night after night, seeing first one side, then the other, the first one again, then other, and so on. (This would be a variant of the sort of movie you have to see two or three times before you "really" get it, but which was very good even the first time.)

There is still no paradox. It is because the plot is arbitrary, however, that we can imagine a further complication that, I think, is dramatically impossible, i.e., a paradox. Recall that you can easily have a play, in any ordinary theatre, that is set backstage. The audience is witness to the sorts of equipment and events you would see backstage, and the actors come "on" and go "off" in order to play their characters, who just happen to be actors. Well, such a play would have a real backstage, where the real actors would go when they are not playing the actors hanging around a fictional backstage. So why couldn't that backstage serve as the setting of the second play of our experimental theatre company?

While I am sure that it can't, I'm still not quite sure why. My clue to the fact that it can't is simple: what would the costumes look like?


Jay said...

I'm afraid I'm having a bit of trouble seeing the paradox. I think my difficulty hinges on what you're referring to by "the second play" when you say "So why couldn't that backstage serve as the setting of the second play of our experimental theatre company?"

If we call your unparadoxical setup a "double play", then do you mean that after you've the double play going, you take a step back and treat the double play as one half of a new double? E.g., if we represent the double play as


then the double-double play could be represented as something like



If so, is c the second play, or is the entire ((a|b)|c) the second play?

Or am I way off the mark all together?

Thomas Basbøll said...

As always, your questions are my answers. Or in this case, only a first tentative indication of one. Your suggestion to formalize the problem is wonderful.

The essence of a paradox is probably that if you look very closely at it you can't see it. In principle, as Wittgenstein notes (at T3.333) a paradox cannot be formalized because a function would then have to serve as its own argument.

In this case, we have two plays each of which, in a sense, is a function that the takes the same larger story as its argument. (Note: Claudius asks "Have you read the argument? Is there no offense in it?")

THE story is that a group of actors is performing a play. We can then see these actors as they behave on stage, in character, and in costume, and we can see how they behave backstage, out of character, and between costumes.

While the "plot" of the two plays are arbitrarily related to each other, the "action" is not (since each exit is the other's entrance, and vice versa.)

Since an ordinary play can be set backstage at a play that is only posited (imagined) to be going on somewhere else, and since it on the face of it makes sense for the plot of that play to be in principle any possible ordinary play, we can imagine that they are going off to play actors sitting around backstage. Of course, as they go off (to go on to the imagined stage) the REALLY WILL go somewhere to sit around backstage, and all I'm really doing is imagining that we put an audience there to abserve the intrigues that go on between actors. Of course, that was the plot of the "ordinary" play I constructed as a point of departure, but this plot is, again, arbitrary and could, in principle, be replaced with a romantic comedy.

Suppose we DON'T replace it. Suppose we are given the task of writing two scripts, each of which must stand alone as a play about being back stage, with the sole twist that the play that is (otherwise imagined to be) going on on (the otherwise imagined) stage is simply the other, perfectly respectable, stand alone play.

Since we cannot imagine what the actors would then be wearing, we have a real problem, a paradox I would argue: sense is the costume that a proposition wears.

The conclusion is that a play can never be completely formal or procedural. It must baldly introduce a fiction, insist on some level of conventionality. That is, the signs must have content.

An actor must play a role. An actor can play an actor who is playing a role.

An actor can even play an actor who is playing an actor who is playing a role.

But he cannot play an actor who is playing an actor as such.

Simon said...

There was a play in New York that did this; the audience was invited to walk between the two "sets". I guess the paradox -- to simply what you're saying here -- is that somehow we've eliminated the "backstage"? That having a backstage is a crucial part of the sense of a play and that somehow our paradox has tricked us into thinking (or trying to think) about a play w/o a backstage?

Jay said...

The essence of a paradox is probably that if you look very closely at it you can't see it.

Thank you for that.

I want to play the devil's advocate here (though I'm probably standing on a foundation of sand) and say that your paradox holds only insofar as we presuppose a clear distinction between acting/non-acting performance/non-performance, etc., and so on. Or rather, the paradox becomes "softer" the more we blur these distinctions. Let's suppose for example that, e.g., acting/non-acting are two ends of a contiuum. If we expand (or "relax") our working definition of theatre to include non-theatrical elements, then why couldn't we imagine -- or even write into the script -- the actors showing up for the backstage play in whatever they happen to be wearing that day? The issue that I think you'd raise with this is that we can't visualize what they would wear "a priori". We don't know what those clothes will look like until the actor shows up in them. (Suddenly I'm thinking of some reading I've been doing about Kripke's rigid designators . . . but I'll have to do some more work/reading here to be able to say more about it). But does that mean that our scriptural indication that the actors show up in their "everyday clothes" is without any sense whatsoever? I'd assert (though I'm uncertain of my grounds for doing so) that the sense of may be vauge and "fuzzy", but that it still has some sense.

We've touched on Borges before, but I find myself imagining a Borges-like setting for your theatrical paradox. A play about the backstage of a theatre is taking place. Backstage to that play another one is taking place, with another audience -- which doesn't know about the first play. Backstage to this second play, another is taking place -- and it looks a little more like "real life" than the play of which it represents the backstage -- with a wider audience that is a little less "audience-like". People come and go, some know they're watching a play, others aren't sure. Sometimes audience members even become cast members and visa-versa. And backstage to that one, there's another, more "life-like" play, with an even wider and more diffuse audience. And so on, extending all the way out to the limits of the world as such . . . somewhere in the story would have to be a group of spiritual seekers/actors who are seeking the innermost possible play, the only truly "real" one.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Simon and Jay. I don't have time to do your comments justice, but it will be in my next post.

Here are some quick jottings.

First, Simon, please describe this play in greater detail. Keep in mind that by saying it is a "paradox" I'm really claiming that "a play that did this" is a logical impossibility. So if you've SEEN it then what "it" is is of course very interesting to me.

This also goes for what Jay is able to imagine and advocate. The Borgesian play you propose is nice in its way. Buy it is not an intimation of paradox: it is an infinite regress.

That is precisely the force of your blurred and fuzzy distinction between acting and non-acting. Anything is possible if that distinction is blurred . . . and that distidnction IS blurry, so anything IS possible . . . but not for the sake of my argument.

A paradox like this one depends on a tight distinction between the ACTOR and the PART. And the paradox arises because he is playing the part of an actor.

But it would not be a paradox if he were JUST doing that (we see it all the time). In a sense, your regress of plays suggests that that's what life may all about: we're all actors playing actors playing actors. . .

But we're not actors playing the actors who are playing US.

That's where the water starts flowing down the ramp to the waterfall above it, etc.

And the reason for that, I'd argue, is that we simply don't know how to dress THAT part.

The question is not so much, "What are they wearing backstage?" which may well be their "street clothes" (since they could be out of costume). The question is: what are they wearing when they go "on stage", i.e., when they pass through the back wall?

What corresponds to the tights the actor playing Hamlet would be wearing?

". . .somewhere in the story would have to be a group of spiritual seekers/actors who are seeking the innermost possible play, the only truly "real" one."

Thank YOU for that, Jay. They are of course absolutely insane.