restricted access "Upon Such Sacrifices": An Ethic of Spectator Risk
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"Upon Such Sacrifices":
An Ethic of Spectator Risk

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells the story of an Algonquin mother and her infant, the only survivors of a winter famine. To live to see spring, the mother must carve up a piece of her thigh to use as fish-bait. This sacrifice allows her to catch her first fish, which itself becomes bait for a winter's worth of food.1 Dillard offers this story as a parable of writing. The writer must, like the mother, risk a bit of herself in her art. Such sacrifice is not a matter of success but of survival. One can find similar notions of risk in modern acting methods. Commenting on the work of Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook writes: "The actor allows a role to 'penetrate' him; at first he is all obstacle to it, but by constant work . . . he can allow the barriers to drop . . . so that the act of performance is an act of sacrifice, of sacrificing what most men prefer to hide—this sacrifice is his gift to the spectator."2 Yet such accounts of risk are one-sided. Note the paternal or even Christological undertone to these metaphors: the mother must sacrifice to bait the hook; her flesh feeds her children, Eucharist-like. The author or actor feeds spectators, children feasting (or perhaps merely subsisting) on art, passively nourished by the pain and loss of another.3 These limited metaphors only illuminate one side of the artistic process, one aspect of artistic risk.

In these pages, I would like to provide the other half, to match Dillard's pound of flesh with a pound of my own. Building on Bruce McConachie's actor/ character conceptual blend and Alvin Goldman's hybrid theory of mindreading, I will argue that spectating involves a blend of perception, empathy, and social theory, a blend that implicates the spectator in the fictional identities of characters. Through the self-conscious use of empathy and critical insight, spectators can become active participants in theatre, risking themselves by using their identities as material for an understanding of performance. I offer here three successive glimpses of this model of spectator risk: a metaphor for the birth of theatre; an analysis of the cognition of spectatorship; and a potential staging of Shakespeare's King Lear that encourages spectator risk. [End Page 91]

The Birth of Theatre

When we are born we cry that we are comeTo this great stage of fools.

—William Shakespeare, King Lear 4.6.178-94

If authors and actors can risk, why can't spectators? Certainly, one can consume art passively. The pride of New Formalism lay in this passive reception of the "text" itself, and perhaps the largest obstacle to television's status as art (and film's as well) is its expectation of a passive spectator. The "ideal" reader and the couch potato risk nothing; their interaction is one-sided, consumption rather than sacrifice. Spectators need not be children. They can be the Algonquin mothers of their own imaginations. Sometimes concepts spring fully clothed from the mind of Zeus. Far more often, they are born through a labor of pain and risk. Spectators do not receive these ideas into their hands, idle onlookers of theatrical birth pains. They are the midwives, laboring alongside the pregnant performance to bring a god to life. Dionysus, not Athena, lives and dies by the theatre.

Despite the Nietzschean language, I am not making any metaphysical claims about drama. Athena and Dionysus are not the twin poles of some paradoxical dualism. They are metaphors of two methods of birth. The birth of Athena is galling in its patriarchy. Wisdom has no mother, no corporeal gestation, no part in the passion of sex and death. Instead, she is a masculine idea, spontaneously generated from a mind withdrawn from the world. Dionysus, however, is emblematic of natural birth, of ideas born of the body rather than the mind: the child of Zeus and Semele, of god and mortal, man and woman, passion (sex) and pain (labor). Indeed, Dionysus' rebirth endlessly repeats this metaphor. This god of the vine, torn apart by the Titans...