If there is a norm for theatre in the last decade of the previous century -- and indeed still today -- it is the mega-musical. A sign of the times is that currently 20 (out of 41 West End theatres are occupied with musicals, no less than four of these being long-running hits by Andrew Lloyd-Webber; and the vogue is world-wide. Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables are playing from Sydney to Toronto in productions that exactly reproduce each other: indeed in Toronto out of the eight major theatres, six are filled by musicals.
As Pirandello's six characters famously found, the author has traditionally been absent from the theatre -- at best taking a shy curtain call to receive applause (or abuse, and sometimes rotten tomatoes) from a first-night audience. While performershave long been favorite dramatic personae, whether Hamlet's expert actors or incompetent thespians like Bottom and his crew from A Midsummer Night's Dream, up until very recently no playwright put a writer in the spotlight.
A term such as "cultural flow" tends to be used like a broad angle lens, which encompasses the movement of migrants or refugees across borders, or the network of the world-wide-web, or the uniform business practices of a multinational firm, as well as the spread of meanings and images. In fact with the appropriation of the word "culture" by sociologists and anthropologists the traditional artistic usage is almost always overlooked -- yet looking at "cultural flow" through the far narrower focus of art can raise interesting questions, and perhaps offer useful models.
Normally we think of theatre as simply the reflection of society, "holding the mirror up to life" as Hamlet put it -- and if theatre influences the political scene, changes people's lives, or promotes cultural developments, then it's due to its emotional or intellectual effect on individuals, working as a purely mental catalyst. And while a performance may (in just the right circumstances, as with Clifford Odets' classical agitprop, Waiting for Lefty) incite the spectators to a specific and immediate action, any longer-term impact is subliminal, and almost impossible to trace.
Canada and the West Indies are very different societies: geographically, economically, racially and culturally. Yet in two important aspects they share comparable problems. Each has a colonial history, as well as a highly diverse and ethnically mixed population; and in each almost all the present population comes from elsewhere. Over the last three decades both have been preoccupied with creating a distinctive "national" culture, distanced from previous dependency on the literary tradition of the imperial power -- and in formulating this, the stage has played a significant role.
Rumours of Craig's death are greatly exaggerated. There's a whole line of modern theatre that's the contemporary realization of Craig's most central concepts: those that were dismissed as impracticable or even as anti-theatrical during Craig's lifetime. Specifically these include the performance pieces of Robert Wilson, of Josef Svoboda, of Robert Lepage.
Lepage often seems sui generis, a unique theatrical phenomenon: both an outsider (defining himself specifically as a gay artist) and as a completely self-sufficient performer, an auteur, combining the functions of director, designer, lighting-engineer, lead actor, and even dramatist. Yet he is a part of the avant-garde movement that runs from Peter Brook through Robert Wilson.
We have recently passed the canonical year 2,000; and for anyone living in North America in 1999 the fact that they were in the last decade of the millennium was glaringly obvious. The siege and slaughter at Waco, Texas, was both fuelled (and in a sense fulfilled) by the belief that the Kingdom of God awaited those of the faithful, who had the firepower to survive a coming Armageddon.
Two main lines in Shakespeare production have emerged during the century, which are antithetical in their approach and even vision of Shakespeare. These can be categorized (à la Polonious) as the Archeological-Restorative-Prototypical, and the Contemporaneous-Topical-Relevant. Each is essentially scholarly in inspiration, and both feed into commercial theatre. The first, beginning with William Poel and the English Stage Society, has given birth -- via Tyrone Guthrie -- to current reconstructions of the Globe Theatre.
In hindsight the search for a new form of theatre-language can be seen as one of the defining elements for the theatrical avant-garde as a whole. Indeed even the earliest practitioners were preoccupied by the problematic nature of spoken words on the stage; and this can be traced to some of the basic modernist principles.
The Kiss of Death: that may sound a pretty melodramatic label to stick on drama studies. But I believe it could also be applied to literary criticism, and indeed the Humanities in general. Consider what it is that makes us "university" people, and how we operate. In any Arts subject it's ideas that matter. We don't deal with facts, but with values; and as one might expect, these are self-justifying. Prizing intellect, we promote the characteristic qualities of abstraction, complexity, subjectivism.
The relationship between practice and theory has always bedevilled drama departments. All too often the two elements are implicitly concieved as polar opposites: performing versus criticism, doing as distinct from thinking, body versus mind -- but, put like that, the practice / theory question reproduces the dualism that characterizes Western civilization as a whole. So perhaps the split merely mirrors our cultural conditioning, in which case the debate is unresolvable as long as our social context remains unchanged.
MODERN THEATRE IN CONTEXT is an interactive chronology.
It includes facts and commentary about plays and performances, as well as biographies, information about genres and movements, headlines and news items illustrating Political, Artistic and Scientific developments through each decade.