David Hume - Of Tragedy

Was reading this dissertation by David Hume (originally published in 1757) for some essay preparation. Hume's overall position is rather Aristotelian, which makes sense for his time; he sees tragedy as an imitation of an action which evokes pity and fear. But Hume adds to the conversation on this subject, by investigating how this pity and fear is evoked. His main question is to do with why tragedy has an impact on us, and in investigating this he engages with previous thinkers on the subject. His conclusion is that eloquence is the key; the way the poet (playwright) presents the text, particularly the violent or damaging incidents which cause passion in the reader or audience (pity & fear, if you want to be Aristotelian) and is the cause of the passions elicited. Further to this point, he notes that there is (as many before him have posited) a pleasure derived from this, emphasizing that eloquence is the key to this pleasure. If the violence is not presented in a beautiful way, harmonized within itself as a work of art, we will only have experienced the passions of pity and fear, and pleasure is not possible. He argues that this, then, is not cannot be distinguished from any daily occurrence of violence in the world.

Although I'm not much of an Aristotelian purist, I have to agree with Hume's assertion about eloquence. When we think of the pieces that really move us; Othello, Hamlet, The Duchess of Malfi, and more recently Beckett, Kane, Bond...what causes them to work, cause our passion to be aroused, and most importantly, to make us think, is eloquence. The beauty of presentation of these horrific acts.

Something to keep in mind for presenting violence in theatre.

Do I even know that many words?

Just feel the need to actually put this in writing. In the next 3 weeks, we have:
- 8000 word portfolio of my work in Scene Study
- Create and prepare a performance of/in response to The Duchess of Malfi.
- 4000 word essay and 1000 or so word questionnaire in Theorizing The Contemporary

Sometimes it is important to say it. HOLY CRAP THAT IS A LOT!!!

Now that that's over.

We spent several hours working through a reading party in preparation for our Malfi presentation. We have opted to focus on The Duchess and Antonio's relationship, and the various ways it may exist, both in what we specifically see in the text, and in what we don't necessarily see. We are pulling from other scenes in Malfi, but specifically focussing on the Marriage scene in act 1. In addition, we're pulling from other similar relationships in texts like Top Girls, Venus and Adonis, The Dog In The Manger, Boston Marriage, and Something Unspoken. We are also looking at the stage as a "dirty" space, in response to an article we found in The Guardian about a photographer who went to Rwanda and photographed the sites of horrible atrocities during the genocide, but 10 years later...looking at what remains after. This all sounds great...but is a lot. We need to have a script draft to Tom by Tuesday. Woo!

Brief rehearsal for our acting space class, working on the scene from Three Sisters. I had an "aha" moment while working on it, realizing some shifts on when Andrij is or isn't paying attention or speaking to Ferapont. We present these scenes in class tomorrow, and then we'll see where Brian takes them from there.

Scene Study at Birkbeck today focused on Violence again, a fitting theme for the seeming violence going on in my brain right now over all this workload. Looking at Oedipus, we discussed the act of rendering himself blind, the level of violence in this...and also at ideas like Justice. I had some great points in the class about the function of the violence and the blinding...and also on the subject of the concept of justice as the Greeks saw it; not as individual justice as we see it now (justice as fairness). Rather, justice for the Greeks was justice for the collective. Oedipus' punishment isn't to match his actions or responsibility, but to mete out the impact his actions have had on the larger society.

Finally we looked at some performances of Greek Tragedy or responses to it (Oedipus directed by Tyrone Guthrie, and Mouth Full of Birds) and discussed whether it is possible and/or effective to stage Greek Tragedy in an "authentic" way...and if we do if it is still tragedy. I really strongly feel that the plays and ideas themselves are tragic, however if we try to present them realistically, they lose their impact and become a museum piece, or a piece of comedy. The way we can engage now with the violence to make it truly meaningful is to distance our audience (and possibly even the characters) from it. Expressionism first comes to mind as a means to this, however things like media can also be a way to stage the violence and make it still shock and inform us.

Ideas are flowing....

Our Theorizing and Scene Study classes this week have in a way merged into one for me. Theorizing spent time looking at the impact of scenography (design elements; costumes, set, props, sound, light, space) on our understanding of a play, specifically to do with ideology. We used mainly a structuralist approach to deconstruct scenes and look at what was going on in them. What really stood out for me was the role of power and ideology...looking at HamletMachine the assertion was made that this play is about the absence of ideology, the failure of signs. I disagree with this; the very nature of this play Mueller gives us is subversive, staunchly democratic in the strict communist world he is creating for. The fact that the play has no clarity for how it should be presented, what is or is not to be said or shown, is a rally against the dogmatism of the communist regime.

Onward and upward...Scene study was intended to be a focus on Violence in Greek theatre, with a guest speaker from King's College, expert in Greek history and theatre. His presentation was really fun and engaging, and got ideas flowing for me about not only greek theatre, but theatre in general:
- theatre as a space of citizen decision making
- violence represented through beauty/as beauty or art
- violence at the heart of the practice of theatre
- what is it about plays (art/objects) that engages us, even 2000 years along?
- does our current society really resist violence?
- tragedy as a vital forum for democracy

I think the biggest thing for me to come out of this class is the ideology, the re-inforcement of the status quo that we see through the emblems in the Greek theatre. In The Bacchae, women are invested with male acts; congregation, sex for pleasure, war/violence...and madness ensues. Dionysus represents both sides: male/female, order/disorder....and Euripides' message reinforces the social structure, and the balance necessary with this god.


Act 4 of The Duchess of Malfi presents all sorts of difficulties for directors/actors, and for the audience. Webster has been plodding along in a heightened, but relatively "normal" place of lies and deceit. Then we get to act 4 and all hell breaks loose. It has been said that Strindberg takes a moment that in a naturalistic play would be a minute and makes the whole play of it. Webster has done this in act 4...for all intents and purposes, really, we could just see the duchess be strangled, having heard of the torture. Instead, Webster gives us these gloriously juicy scenes with Ferdinand offering her a severed hand, madmen in her chamber singing and dancing, a disguised Bosola, executioners, coffins, and two deaths. Not to mention the marathon speeches of Bosola and Ferdinand at the end of the act. So given all on EARTH do you put this on stage?

For yesterday's class, my group was charged with preparing act 4 scene 2. We were all agreed that there is a need to step outside of a naturalistic approach; first, because there are a ton of characters and we only had 5 people, and second because we needed to make the violence real, shocking, and not silly for a modern audience. We played around quite a lot, trying out ideas, working collaboratively on what might work. We ended with the idea to be influenced a bit by plays like Marat/Sade and have this scene located in a common room of an insane asylum. All chairs were placed around the full playing space, mostly single chairs, but the odd pairing...each facing different directions toward the front of the room, where the duchess sat alone, facing out to the crowd. All other performers were placed amongst the crowd as their neutral madmen, and popped in and out of the scene as various characters, contributing to the Duchess' terror. Our goal was to really help the audience feel her resignation, feel uneasy about what was coming at them, and ensure that everyone had a different perspective of what occurred in the scene, some seeing things that others missed and so on. The action moved around the space so sometimes audience members from certain places could only hear the text, not see the actor. This worked quite well in presentation, most comments indicated that this had really worked for them, the cacaphony of sound and position of the text distanced over the large space helped with the sense of the time and place.

Our second issue was all of the violence in this scene. Two strangulations, some dead babies. We opted to make the strangulations highly expressionistic; the executioner for the Duchess and later for Cariola faced away from the audience, never touching the victim, but doing a gesture of strangulation which was mirrored by the person dying. From here, Bosola's directions would snap us back to the madhouse and the "executioner" would return to their chair. Again with the children, we made use of the madmen; the scarf that one madman had worn was left at a chair, and became a baby to indicate the dead children.

Overall this premise worked quite well, and would be good to investigate further. Might it be possible to stage the play in this way in its entirety?

Sarah Kane - Blasted

"No God. No Father Christmas. No Fairies. No Narnia. No fucking nothing." And yet in a twisted way, what remains is hope.

This play is brilliant. Beginning with a "normal" setting of two real people, in a real place, it quickly departs normalcy and drives ever toward the absurd. Yet strangely the events and relationships get starkly more real, despite the world almost literally falling apart around the characters. The use of our most base human desires and needs as tools to demonstrate our animalism is not shocking, but truthful; in fact the ability of the characters to abuse one another as they do shows us just how civilized we really are (not).

Kane's language appears sparse on the page but is fiery beyond the imagination, with remarkably few words to incite such images of violence. Not simply violence of action, but violence of spirit.

The surreal nature of the play causes the actions of these characters to become more than they are on the surface; somehow we aren't shocked by the sex because it takes on not the act of sex itself, but the impregnation of the disease of thought in us all in today's media-saturated society. Layers upon layers of shit sliding down hill.