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Monday, December 27, 2010

Is The Theater Dead--Or Is It Killing Us?

It’s good news that Christopher Tierney, the stunt actor who on December 20 fell 30 feet while playing Spider-Man on Broadway is recovering well from his injuries (a hairline skull fracture, four broken ribs, a bruised lung, internal bleeding, and cracks in three lumbar vertebrae). But it’s worrisome that this is actually only one of four injuries that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has inflicted upon its performers, to include a concussion and a broken wrist. They might think of renaming the show, Spider-Man: Dial 9-1-1.

But more worrisome than the physical dangers involved with the show—because it is in the deepest sense the cause of these dangers—is Broadway’s increasing reliance upon spectacle. In his Poetics, written in the late 4th century B.C., Aristotle cautioned playwrights to consider spectacle as the least important ingredient of a well-made tragedy (and presumably any piece of theater). The production of spectacular effects, he wrote, “depends more upon the art of the stage machinist than of the poet.” What should be of chief concern to the “poet,” said Aristotle, was the crafting of plot, a sequence of actions and their consequences that of itself, wholly apart from spectacle, would produce the desired emotional impact on an audience. Spectacle, in short, is at best a supplement to plot.

Broadway producers and their book writers would do well to spend an afternoon with the Poetics. At present, they are looking to economically successful Hollywood films as their main source of safe inspiration. Thus in the past decade or so Broadway musicals have included adaptations of Hollywood films such as Mary Poppins, Shrek, Titanic, The Lion King, Legally Blonde, Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and now Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, whose conception by Julie Taymor, score by U2’s Bono and Edge, 41-member cast, 18 orchestra members, and 27 aerial stunts, including a climactic fight over the heads of the audience, costs about a million dollars a week to stage (meaning, according to one report, that the show will virtually have to sell out for years just to break even).

This emphasis upon adaptation evinces a dire lack of imagination on Broadway. Compared to a movie screen, upon which there are no strictures upon time and place, a theater stage is a confining arena. And yet, this confinement has always been an important part of the magic of the theatrical imagination. Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town were staged with minimal props and scenery, and yet the Forest of Arden and Grover’s Corners have, and will always have, more of a hold upon our imaginations than the stuntman-filled skies over Spider-Man’s metropolis. G.K. Chesterton once said something to the effect that it is the frame as much as the composition that makes a painting what it is. Would that Broadway would better appreciate its frame, rather than trying to break through it by spectacular live renditions of computerized special effects.  

A re-appreciation of the confines of the theatrical stage would force producers and writers back not only upon plot, but also upon what for Aristotle are other important ingredients of a well-crafted tragedy: “character," "thought," and “language.” After finishing the Poetics, folks on Broadway might bone up on the possibilities of these elements by turning to two standard-bearers in the art of musical theater, namely, the team of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the book writer and sometime lyricist P.G. Wodehouse. In refreshing their imaginations at these pools, today’s musical theater impresarios and artists would be reminded of the marvelous way in which structure, character and language grip an audience far more than aerial flights and impressive mobile scenery. This is because while spectacle may momentarily titillate our sense of excitement, it is plot, character, thought and language that make more satisfying and lasting impressions upon the mind.

Alas, as so many of Broadway’s Hollywood adaptations have been successful, it is unlikely that popular musical theater will soon experience an Aristotelian renaissance. But such a renaissance would surely be good for our souls, and judging from the debacles of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Night, it seems it wouldn’t be so bad for the ribs, lungs and skulls of Broadway performers, either.  

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