PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 1-6
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The Director Reborn
The fundamental history of the Western theatre is, with both grandeur and irony, an account of birth, death, and rebirth—all three events brought about by religion. The chronicle is familiar. In Athens 2500 years ago the worship of Dionysus evoked the idea of performance, of plays and actors. The theatre then careered on, in forms that were increasingly secular, through the Greek and the Roman eras, but by the fifth century of the Christian era, it dwindled. High among the causes was the opposition of the Church. Ascendant in power, the Church disliked both the theatre's pagan provenance and its latter-day frankness and satire. Darkness fell on the art until, after another five centuries, came the great paradox. It was the Church itself that, around 950 A.D., brought forth the theatre again, with dramatic tropes on religious subjects, using the power of performance to fortify its communicants. Soon after that rebirth, the theatre once more expanded into secular fields, where, ever since, it has been thriving.
All the above is well known. What is much less well known is that this pattern of birth and death and rebirth is also true of one of the theatre's chief professions—directing. What has gone most astonishingly unremarked is the circumstance of the profession's rebirth. Here I hope at least to draw attention to that neglect.
The director first appeared in ancient Athens. We still gasp at the speed with which the theatre produced some of its greatest dramatists, but we have gasped insufficiently at the fact that those earliest plays were directed by their authors, who sometimes even performed in them. Says the theatre historian Margaret Berthold: "Initially the poet himself was his own choregus [producer], chorus director and leading actor. Both Aeschylus and Euripides often appeared on the stage." Sophocles, too, appeared, though less often. These three men also designed scenic pieces for their plays and directed the dances. Thus, at the very start of our theatre, singleness of artistic vision was integral to it. Each production was as much the work of one man as was possible in the theatre's manifold form.
Soon there arose in Athens a specialized profession, which we would call directing. Tragedies were usually supervised by their authors, but with the growth of comedy, supervision was often turned over to someone else. Still, a single vision of [End Page 1] production—the author's or the director's articulation of it—was the guiding principle. In other Athenian arts, painting and sculpture, works were envisioned by an individual and executed to fulfill that vision. Apparently the Athenian theatre adopted this principle for itself as far as its means permitted.
In the course of centuries, however, that principle was diluted. The ideal of unity became modified and dimmed in post-Athenian, post-Hellenic, post-Roman times. Possibly this change was caused by the general shift of theatre performance from religious occasions to secular ones, and inevitably—in the theatre world especially—once the gods became lesser, human egos became larger. Evidently the ideal of one controlling mind was muffled as each of the theatre's various professions began to be self-promoting, to elbow its way forward.
If we soar now over two millennia of the theatre, we see recurrent attempts at some sort of central control, such as the dominus gregis of the Roman actors' troupe and the pageant master of the fifteenth-century guild plays. But they cannot be equated with either the Athenian director or the modern one. These "intervening" men were superintendents and traffic managers and disciplinarians, which directors are, too, of course, but they did not determine the aesthetic plan of the whole production as directors do.
As we approach the near end of our bi-millennial leap, the director simply doesn't exist. Two quotations shed some light. Here is John Russell Brown (in Free Shakespeare) on the theatre practice of Shakespeare's day: