- Bearing Witness and Taking Action: Audiences and Morality in Renaissance Tragedy and Activist Street Theater
The first time I realized I was an actor in an interactive drama was during a Palm Sunday Mass the year I was preparing for my First Communion. My fellow parishioners and I were instructed to participate in the reading of the Gospel by reciting the lines of the crowd that called for Barabbas’s freedom and condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion. The guilt I experienced in this performance, however briefly it lasted, was profound. I realized how Mass had the potential to be a transformative event rather than just an hour of contemplation. Although the Gospel readings can be uneventful, when imbued with such an interactive element, the Church manages to make parishioners, their voluntarily captive audience, bear witness to the ethical and spiritual elements of the Passion and its central characters. By blurring the lines between actor and audience, the performance becomes visceral, intimate, and personal in a way that compels the audience to be active agents in the moral drama in which they are now participants.
I begin with this childhood memory to underscore the thrust of my argument about how drama that ruptures the symbolic and physical distance between actor and audience can make viewers agents for positive moral change in their lives and those of others. By focusing on the didactic ethical, social, and political elements of plays in both Renaissance tragedy and postmodern street theater, we can understand how the interactive elements of street theater from political groups such as ACT UP are indebted to and follow the same ideological drive of the more understated interactive elements of Renaissance-era English plays such as Thomas [End Page 39] Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in calling audience members to bear witness and respond to the themes explored in the spectacles before them. While the writers and performers of both eras take different approaches to metadramatic moments and breaking the fourth wall, their underlying purpose revolves around an ethical charge to provide provocative, uplifting, and life-changing inspiration to an audience that can be disinterested, uninformed, jaded, and/or reluctant about the issue at hand.
In her study of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, Meg Pearson asserts that to “term a spectator a witness is to draw attention to the moments in a play when the viewer engages not only with the play before them but with the contemporary discourses surrounding the judicial practices of the period and the lively debates surrounding the significance and credibility of vision and watching.”1 I am utilizing this interpretation of “witness” as both a noun and a verb. After all, without an audience a play is in some vegetative state bereft of its revolutionary power to transform the lives of its viewers. The performances discussed in this essay ask the audience to bear witness to the human condition through metatheatrical tools both subtle and explicit, depending on the historical moment and limits imposed on the social negotiations with which the playwright can invite the audience to respond. After all, drama, perhaps out of all forms of literature, is the epitome of a communication structure that ruptures a sender-receiver binary that posits the latter as passive. Live theater is corporeal. Whether the audience laughs, boos, cheers, claps, or remains silent, the presence and absence of sound is a form of dialogic, symbiotic communication. The actors and playwright, if present, can detect whether audience members sympathize, empathize, or recoil from the characters and the emotions played before them. All such interactions, auditory or not, are dependent on a shared set of experiences, values, and beliefs. When the audience is asked to bear witness, they must contemplate. When they become involved, they must make decisions.
Drama that includes explicitly interactive elements may sound like a relatively recent invention to many people. But its genesis in Western theater is far older. Not even the creative fecundity and influential creativity of Renaissance-era plays can lay claim to such a development. Medieval religious drama must be recognized as the post-classical [End Page 40] source for metadramatic elements we...