Skewing the Horizon: Theatres Versus the City
October 13, 2016
LUCIE DAWKINS (Director MFA ’18, School of Drama)
‘The evil and the cruelty of the world are the stories of the theatre. We force audiences to interpret this material without offering a moral horizon, and this is a radical political act.’
Thomas Ostermeier: Artistic Director of The Schaubühne, Berlin
Sometime in early March, 458 BC, 17,000 Athenians sat in the open air on the slopes of the Acropolis, in the Theatre of Dionysus. Three elements made up the stage before them; a semi-circular playing space, a low wooden building for actors’ entrances and exits, and behind that, the skyline of Athens itself. It was an anxious time for the watchers; alongside theatre, they had recently invented democracy, and it was not going smoothly. Ephialtes, a democratic visionary, had just attempted to reform Athens’ justice system, transferring power away from the conservative aristocracy and giving it to elected officials. The only thing he left to the aristocrats was control of the homicide courts. In an ironic move, they murdered him a couple of months later. Political assassination was a hot topic for the audience that morning, and the play they were about to see was intended to hit a nerve.
The performance was the premier of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a blood-thirsty trilogy with a synopsis that would fill a season of The Sopranos. In short: a powerful family tears itself apart over the course of three generations through a series of revenge killings. It’s a juicy story, with body parts served in pies, a hallucinating princess, and a horse-drawn chariot arriving onstage. Eventually, the youngest member of the family, Orestes, murders his mother in revenge for the assassination of his father. His case is put to trial before the gods, who must choose whether to let the demons of retribution, the Furies, torture him for eternity, or end the family’s gory cycle of revenge by acquitting him.
For the Athenian audience, this bloodthirsty crime-thriller-meets-courtroom-drama was an old favourite. Orestes’ delinquent family were protagonists of an epic tradition going back centuries before theatre was even invented. Aeschylus’ task was to subvert his audience’s expectations; and the way he did so on that March morning changed Western theatre for millennia to come.
Aeschylus’ stroke of genius was to bring the fairy-tale of the Oresteia crashing into the real world of his audience. The first two parts of the trilogy were set in the mythical past in the family’s palace in the city of Argos. The characters constantly refer to the mythical city around them, turning the backdrop of Athens into a stage set. So far, so according to the expectation of the punters.
Then, Aeschylus unveiled his coup-de-theatre. In the third play, he suddenly transposed the action to modern Athens, where the goddess Athena hands Orestes’ trial over to a jury of Athenian citizens, resembling the very homicide court which had been the cause of so much recent controversy. This was a revolutionary move. Not only had he just invented the scene-change, but no previous version of the story had taken place at Athens, or included a mortal jury. Aeschylus demanded that his audience suddenly re-conceive the city behind the stage, which for the last two hours they had imagined as Argos, and decode the action of the play in relation to the real space of Athens. In the course of the trilogy, he had reinvented the horizon line. He had plucked the story out of the distant world of myth and dumped it in his audience’s laps, demanding that they consider the moral question at the heart of the story. He did not offer them any guidance; in the play, the jury votes 50:50 about whether to acquit or condemn Orestes, and Athena is forced to make the final decision based on personal preference rather than justice.
Like Thomas Ostermeier, Aeschylus presented acts of terrible cruelty to his audience, but removed the moral horizon. By placing the action of his play in dramatic conflict with the real horizon line of the city which was in view of his audience, he forced them to engage personally with the revolutionary politics of their community. The Oresteia posed the ethical question at the heart of the democratic experiment; whether it is better for an individual to act freely, according to their own moral code, or subsume their freedom to a democratic justice system in the hope of a peaceful civil society. Thrillingly, what the Oresteia did not offer was an answer. Through theatre, the audience was encouraged to interrogate the infrastructure of their community.
Aeschylus’ reinvented the theatrical event by disorienting his spectators, through placing the physical space of the theatre in conflict with the architecture of the city. He introduced a recurring theme in European history, of theatres designed to be in architectural tension with the city-scape around them, thus demarcating the space as liminal, a container for radical political conversations.
For example, the Globe Theatre was built for Londoners at a moment in time when their understanding of their own globe had just exploded. With Copernicus’ recent proposition of a heliocentric universe, and Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, Shakespeare’s audience no longer thought that the universe revolved around them, and they no longer understood the limits of the earth they stood on. The psyche of the city was so wrapped up with this new conception of the planet, that at the time the Globe Theatre was built in 1599, Londoners could buy a world map, but not a map of their own city. At the very moment that London was grappling with how to place itself in a rapidly expanding global geography, Shakespeare’s company placed a metaphorical globe within the city-scape.
The Globe was not unique among Elizabethan theatres for its circular design; however, it was unusual for actively comparing this circle to the planet. There were stars painted on the underside of the stage roof, and the trap room below the stage floor represented hell. The actors and audience existed in the elliptical world in between, a globe hovering within a representation of the cosmos. Supposedly, the original motto for the Globe was totus mundus agit histrionem: ‘the whole world is a playhouse’. This theatre’s success depended a playwright whose work constantly reinforced this metaphor, declaring ‘all the world’s a stage’ (As You Like It, Act II, Scene 5). Shakespeare’s company invited their audience into a building which evoked the expansion of the horizon of their world view. In this liminal space, Shakespeare presented experiences which, like the Oresteia, interrogated the social structures of his audience’s community; indeed, in the epilogue to Henry VIII, he openly acknowledges that audiences expected to come to the Globe ‘to hear the city abused extremely’.
Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Ostermeier are three great European writer-directors united in the act of creating spatial tension between the physical design of their theatre and the city in order to promote a critical discourse about the socio-political system of their audiences. They communicate through architectural disorientation.
Many great theatre makers share a belief that they are true rebels, whose function is to hold the system to account. The irony of this conviction is that peaceful civil societies tend to be those which encourage and therefore normalise radical political discourse within the mechanism of the state. Aeschylus presented the Oresteia with money assigned to him by a democratic tax system, during a state-organized religious festival; Shakespeare’s company was funded by the Lord Admiral, a key part of Elizabeth I’s court; and Ostermeier’s theatre, the Schaubühne, is supported by the German government. These theatres do disrupt the design of a city; they do offer a space for rebellion. However, these disorienting spaces are in fact cogs in the machine of a stable state, a healthy outlet for variations in opinion. They offer a catharsis from dissension. By skewing the horizon, theatres keep the radical in check.