Viva La Theatre (a lament)
Theatre has been entertaining the aristocratic, Royalty and the great unwashed often in the same room for centuries. Through the rise of court jesters to the Globe, we’ve relied on theatre to examine the human condition and also provide hours of, often less than wholesome, entertainment. As the centuries have worn on, however, theatre has become less important in a country that hates its artists and by a people that are glued to screens. We’ve let slip one of the greatest past times of human history and one of forms of art that’s faced religious persecution for the longest times.
One of the most gripping aspects of the theatre is the rawness that comes with a live performance. We know, of course, that there hundreds of hours that go into preparing and rehearsing for an opening night and the season of a show. But nothing portrays raw human emotion quite like a live performance. Titus Livius Patavinus (better known simply as “Livy”), author of the spectacular history of Rome and its people Ab Urbe Condita Libri, wrote that Romans first experienced theatre in the fourth century BCE. It was performed by the ancient Italian people known as Etruscan.
By the time 1642 had come around, theatre had swept through Greece and given rise to the Tragedies, Comedies and Drama. The time of Shakespeare had come and the man the left the world in almost as much mystery as he’d come in. 1642 however saw a point where the English theatre came to a grinding halt as the Puritans screamed sin and the devil and attempted to force it out of England. Much to their dismay, I’m sure, it made an explosive return when Charles II returned to the throne. Charles, like the Puritan induced smothering, didn’t last long and he died after an epileptic fit on February 2nd 1685. (His almost last words to his brother James were, “be well to Portsmouth and let not poor Nelly starve to death.” Important, I suppose, not to spite the mistresses even in death.)
As evidently thrilling as the theatre’s coming of age story is, there is much more to it than the long history, especially in relation to what we see on stage now. Arguably, a Marilyn Manson show is as much theatre (in the broadest sense of the term) as it is rock concert. Manson has been picketed and protested against by churches across the America. Religious fascism in stage performances is by no means a new conception. Bishop Jeremy Collier (who also happens to have held the title of theatre critic) who published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (March 1698). Was, among other non theatre attendees, convinced that immoral actions on stage, caused immoral audiences.
For centuries theatre has been dealing with all of the sides of life that are inherently ‘evil’. Whether they be lust and betrayal or the controversy of Aestheticism, plays (whether Wilde agreed or not) have been examining and continue to examine human nature and morality. They, much like every other form of art have also been protested by the religious those that have joined the ranks of the sin screaming puritans are none other than the media friendly and excessively irritating West Borough Baptist Church.
To think if something is so much protested, then it must be doing something quite right. Theatre as we’ve seen over the centuries has, and will continue to, challenge everything we’ve perceived about morality and humanity. Given that it was much more powerful in its day, so to speak, theatre has taken a backseat to our beloved TV entertainment and now is almost the preserve of the cultured.
Which is wholly unfortunate when one considers that across both the Western and Eastern worlds it has provided entertainment and social commentary for literally all types of people. In Shakespeare’s day, plays such as Hamlet would run almost four hours and peasants would pay 1 penny to stand the plays duration. Theatre has not only been an exposure of the human evil, but much in the same way entertainment does now, it humanised fears and realities. Plague masks and in fact, plays about the plague humanised and even turned such things into comedy.
Theatre is by no means dead, but it seems, despite its long history, it is being lost incrementally and in a world of free entertainment, its hardly surprising. We’re passing over live performances for streaming TV shows and movies, and hours on a couch. Theatre is a victim to the environment as much as it is of technology. It has always been expensive, when admission was a penny it was still the equivalent of two days work. Now admission prices are out of reach for most people and so, naturally, it loses out to freer, cheaper entertainment.