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  • Theatre Symposium 24 Closing RemarksSunday, April 12, 2015
  • Marvin Carlson (bio)

As far as summing up the conference, this is of course a formidable task, because so much ground has been covered. Let me remind you that historically we have gone from classic Greek, not just to the present productions that are running right now, like Then She Fell and Blue Man Group, but also things that go on into the future. We have heard about positive things like the Ottawa Arts Center, or, more negatively, surveillance, which is going to be even more part of our world in the future. We’ve hit the Renaissance, the nineteenth century, and so on. The historical range has been great; so, of course, has been the geographical range. We have had papers all the way from the West—California, to New York, and so on, to India, to the Chinese theatre, to the wonderful survey of cultural shows, to Southeast Asia and the theatre in Vietnam. It’s been a real world tour. And obviously it’s ranged very, very broadly in topics and approaches. Many of the major theorists and theoretical structures have been nicely illuminated during the discussions. We’ve had papers that had to do with a particular analysis of a particular text, and then going on out from the text into productions and production analysis, and on out from productions into places of theatre within the community—the social implications and political implications of theatre. That’s my introduction.

[Laughter from the symposium participants]

As I say, it’s a major task to put all this together. But let me go back through a person who’s been quoted as recently as about an hour ago: Peter Brook’s Empty Space. As many of you know, I have taken strong issue with it. But I want again to repeat the quotation from this morning that Peter Brook has famously said: “I can take an empty space and [End Page 129] call it a stage.” And people have often picked up and built upon, reasonably, that idea of the theatre being called into existence—what you might call the appellation of theatre. But the citation this morning also noted that Peter Brook goes on to say that in the process of taking that empty space and calling it a theatre, you need to bring somebody in to accept that and look at it. And that really takes us back through Peter Brook to an earlier period of theatrical theory—the early 1960s—when we were all in the grip, or coming into the grip, of high modernism. And one of the great questions for all the arts in high modernism was: What is the essence of this art? What is the essence of drama? What is the essence of music? What is the essence of —? And of course that then leads us in art to various kinds of minimalist art.

There were a number of statements in the sixties about [theatre]—strip everything else away, what is theatre? What is essential to theatre? And there were two quite famous statements about that, which overlap to a certain extent. Particularly, I want to talk about Eric Bentley’s idea in The Life of the Drama, where he said, if you really want to take theatre down to its essence— and people have quoted this with a lot of different variations—what Bentley actually said was: “A imitates B while C watches.” That’s the essence of theatre. A person almost equally well known then, who has faded some, although Bentley has also faded as time has passed, is Richard Southern and his book The Seven Ages of Theatre, which came out in ‘61; Bentley was ‘64. Southern said, if we start taking things away—and the seven ages, each age another thing has been added to the theatre—costumes, scenery, and so on. When he gets back to the very beginnings of theatre, he says what we have is the performer and the observer. You split those apart, and theatre doesn’t exist anymore.

Now, those two statements, of course, are rather similar. Neither one of them, notice, unlike...


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