On Theatre…

Monday Musings for Monday June 3, 2019
Volume IX. No. 22/439


An Essay on Theatre

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon). DLFAPA*

“I developed a passion for stage plays, with the mirror they held up to my
own miseries and the fuel they poured on my flame. How is it that a man
wants to be made sad by the sight of tragic sufferings that he could not bear
in his own person?”

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430): Confessions, Book III, section 2.
Why Theatre?

More than sixteen centuries ago, during antiquity, long before Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fredrick Nietzsche, Freud and psychoanalysis, long before the existentialists Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camu, Saint Augustine of Hippo, having studied Cicero, the Greek playwrights, and the neo-Platonist philosophers, such as Plotinus and Porphyry, intuitively knew that theatre is a powerful medium of “turning inward” (introspection) and learning about one’s self. There are many other historical witnesses both in philosophy and theology who loved and use theatre in their writings and teaching. These include not only Socrates and the prophets, but also Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Origen, Aquinas, Maimonides, Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, and others. They have all written extensively on the value of theater in understanding and search of the self.

We now know that there are four powerful instruments used for introspection and research on self. One can learn about one’s self through psychoanalysis, which is usually very expensive and time consuming. The other tools are studying history, opera and poetry. The last but certainly not the least is theater.

Theatre, a combination of words, acting, and often music, offers us the most comprehensive and potent introspectoscope. Theatre and opera give the viewer an opportunity to become aware of one’s unconscious in dynamic gradation. Do we, as viewers, possess at least some of the evil and sexual identity confusion that eclipses Iago and Othello (in Shakespeare’s play Othello)? Are we endowed with passion that made Don Jose kill Carmen? Are we capable of transcendence that comes with the Zoroastrian parables in Wagner’s Ring Cycles? In order to get to know ourselves better, I believe theatre and opera should be an integral part of every citizen’s cultural and intellectual diet. It is much less expensive that psychoanalysis, and while being intellectually stimulating, it is more enjoyable and entertaining.

A Brief History of Theatre

Theatre has been with us since the Sumerians more than 7000 years ago. Scholars believe that the entire scene of Moses and the burning bush was a dramatic theatrical production for the Lord, Yahweh, to make a point to his chosen people, the Jews. However, at one point in history there was a dearth of theatre. Almost 2000 years separates Sophocles from Shakespeare. The middle ages did not produce much theatre. With Renaissance, there came a flowering of theatre. We have had the theatre of 19th century influenced by Darwinism, and the 20th century by theater of absurd (Le theatre de l’absurde), a term coined by Martin Esslin (in 1962 he wrote a book by this title) depicting the quest of Albert Camu and other playwrights to find the meaning of life. Toward the end of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, we have seen powerful works by Tom Stoppard and others that closely examine social ethics.

Theatre depends on conflict, agon, a Greek word that reflects tension and tug of war. Greek theatre dealt with myth, nature and the minor and major Gods. Renaissance theatre, especially in England the work of Marlowe and Shakespeare, centered around the theme of passing on power from generation to generation, king to king. Shakespeare’s four incomparable tragic plays, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, dealt with complex issues of changing guards, political hegemony and domestic disequilibrium. The theatre of Christian culture depicted and postulated love, charity, guilt, sin and redemption. With Renaissance, the Greco-Roman tradition of theatre was revived. Later, with the birth of Protestantism, reformation and counter-reformation, theatre was used by rulers like Elizabeth and James to make xenophobia an acceptable form of make believe patriotism, very much like what is happening today in America with the immigration issue. Moliere continued that trend in France under Louis XIV.

In modern days, we are dealing with issues that take innovation, courage and erudition that need to be brought on stage. In Raleigh, we have that in Burning Coal Theater which came to Raleigh in 1996. I am told that there were thirteen people in the audience of the first performance (no, I was not there.) It is always good to see a new work or a new artistic enterprise grow legs, even if at the beginning it seems unlikely to become a distant runner. It has been the delight of the region’s theatre lovers to see Burning Coal staging the work horses of theatre, such as Hamlet. In addition, the company also has produced provocative plays, such as David Edgar’s Pentecost, to packed houses. Burning Coal is proving to be a distant runner with huge influence in the artistic world.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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