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Theatrum Mundi and Contemporary Theater1 Ruby Cohn The theatrum mundi topos differs from the scena vitae by its inclusion of an audience. Though both topoi incorporate world-stage and man-actor imagery, theatrum mundi reaches out to embrace an extramundane audience— the gods of Plato whose plaything is man, or the God of John of Salisbury who “ look[s] down from eternity upon the tragicomic business of the world-stage.” 2 Not until the Renaissance did these metaphors of drama enter the genre of drama. The most memorable expression of scena vitae in drama occurs in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. And the most memorable expression of theatrum mundi in drama is the whole of Calderon’s Gran Teatro del Mundo. Today scena vitae is common currency, but a theocentric theatrum mundi is steadily diminishing as orthodoxy diminishes, and few playwrights have im­ ported the concept into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the least orthodox of contemporary dramatists have worked variations upon the theatrum mundi topos— Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Peter Weiss. They all derive from theatrum mundi in their designation or implication of a role for the audience, but their audiences are plunged from heaven to earth, from theodicy to theater. Bertolt Brecht is classical in his insistence upon the didactic func­ tion of theater. His Lehrstücke are usually translated as “ learning plays,” but the literal “teaching plays” would be more precise. Theo­ retically at least, Brecht adhered to the esthetic of one of his favorite authors, Horace— dulce et utile. Using neither scena vitae nor theatrum mundi images, Brecht insisted instead upon the theatricality of theater. Not a world that is like a stage, but a stage that is like a stage. Theater is theater, and Brecht thought that it should teach by symbolic ex­ ample, as do parables. T o increase the teachability of his audience, Brecht was willing to entertain them, but reluctant to involve them emotionally in the dramatic action. Hence, the celebrated Verfrem­ dungseffekt, to prevent the audience from entering too deeply into the illusion of the drama. Brecht delineated specific techniques to estrange the audience from the actors— projections, narrators, harsh lighting, scanty staging, songs of social significance, and direct address 28 by actor to audience. Through such techniques, the audience was to be sufficiently detached from the action to pronounce moral judg­ ment upon it, as the divinity of the theatrum mundi tradition pro­ nounced moral judgment upon the human action of the drama.3 Brecht designated a judicatory role for his audience, and he was also partial to judgment scenes in his drama, including them in Man is Man, The Measures Taken, The Exception and the Rule, The Trial of Lucullus, The Roundheads and the Pointed Heads, The Visions of Simone Machard, The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Trial of Joan of Arc. Occasionally, Brecht leads his audi­ ence towards a different verdict from the one pronounced on stage. In The Exception and the Rule, for example, a court judges a coolie guilty of threatening to murder his master, even though his quixotic innocence has been made apparent. But judgments are delivered by the rule, admitting of no exceptions, and the rule is class antagonism. Similarly, though Simone Machard is imprisoned for treason, and Joan of Arc is condemned to the stake, Brecht means us to exonerate both heroines, sentenced by corrupt courts. Many of Brecht’s plays pose the problem of traditional virtue in an untraditional world, and in The Good Woman of Setzuan, that problem is underlined through a final court scene, where the would-be good woman appeals to the judge-gods, as Everyman appeals to the Christian judging God. Nearly a decade after writing The Good Woman of Setzuan, Brecht capped this judgment scene with an epilogue, addressed directly to the audience: Change human nature or— the world? Well: which? Believe in bigger, better gods or— none? How can we mortals be both good...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 28-35
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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