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Defining Theater


Q: What is the definition of theater?

A: It is a process of elucidating the obvious.


When an actor fails, scholars see "impersonation": attention lags, and the man behind the character is seen working. Participation gone, the scholar sees one man pretending to be another, and looking around him sees a room of people deluded into believing that the other is real. He sets himself to analyzing the situation, and without realizing it comes to an understanding not of theater, but of theater that has failed. He writes a history of bad theater.

Theater is real.


In the Indian tradition, dhih is the poet's vision as well as the crystallization of vision, the poem. The dhih, the poem, calls the god to the poet at the same time that it carries the poet towards the god, just as sacrifice brings the gods to earth but simultaneously embues the sacrificers with divinity (with the holy).

We also saw that the extraordinary energy of the holy came to any skilled artisan, that any skill was a proper devotion and an appropriate intersection with the sacred.

We still believe that this is the case, but we use different language. Carl Jung showed at some length that the art and science of alchemy was a playing field of the human mind, in which the archetypes of the collective (and personal) unconscious filled chemical reactions and retorts with meaning. The conscious mind experienced the  dynamic of the unconscious through the medium of physical matter. From another tradition we can say that it is  through the mediation of outside things and actions that my Being manifests itself to me: it sees itself as addressed by an object, and coming to meet the object at the level of Being becomes Me. Who answers and comes at the call depends upon who is addressed.


 All of us know what theater means, but not to define it. It's something so obvious we don't have to examine it.

If we do examine it a funny thing happens. It ceases to be obvious. The closer we look the less certain we are of our boundaries.The first thing we know, dance, religion, story-telling, music-playing and sports are all part of a single category (as they were for the Indo-Europeans). To save the definition of "theater" we must hem it in on all sides with grey areas, areas where it can't be defined as different from some other category. It loses its sharp edges.

As long as theater is defined in terms of the physical world it will remain badly defined. Theater is not a physical entity. It is a realization of Being. When successful it calls us to ourselves. In this it is like alchemy, and like the dhih.

Human being is things as their meaning. Consequently, they inevitably speak of human being the way a track in the snow speaks of an animal, or a cross tells us about Man - through the act of human being which gives them meaning, in the character of taking information from them. Things automatically speak out the information that is placed in them, in a game in which they appear to withhold the information that is subsequently won from them by human inquiry. This game is central to theater as we know it. It is played in the understanding that what appears to be the burgeoning fullness of meaning in things is in fact the fullness and freedom of human being discovering itself in the objects of the world. The game is the hide-n-seek which Man plays with himself in his Being. In directing his attention toward the world Man provides the hidden-ness for which his outward-directed gaze is the corresponding seek. What he finds is always himself, characterized as something out-there. Man is the being that aspires to God - aspires to Being itself, through the mediation of the world. It is this recovery of Self in the fullness of Being that is the intent of theater.


The play - the event "out-there" - calls being, and conveys being. It is a psychopomp. In going to meet the play the play becomes effective for me, I become the subject of the play. This going and coming is the heart of theater.

In our culture we have institutionalized this going, this calling, and this answering. We have placed major restrictions on it. We have limited it in time and space. We have limited the subject-matter. We have sharply defined the rules of the game. All of this is arbitrary, but all of this is precisely the content of the category "theater". It is this set of limits which is the field of theater. In this sense, then, "theater" is not a positive category, but an exclusive one: it is a specific set of rules, determined by a specific point of view on what is an appropriate contact with being, when it is appropriate, and of what aspects of being it is appropriate to become.

Because of these limitations, "theater" is a means the culture has of enacting its paradigmatic reality. It is a means of living the social code or mythology (the program of reality), which then programs itself into the social behavior of the individual, as something the individual has become.

The play is an expression of a culture, and when it is successful I am the subject of the play, because I am the play. Consequently I am the culture: I am shoe, last and cobbler. I meet the play, I become the play, and it becomes me. It mediates my access to myself. Through it, as through a template, I achieve a certain, particular self-awareness. It imprints me, I live myself in the mode of that play.

The play can therefore be considered as a social and socializing event consisting of two essential acts: the call and the answer.

To begin with, I choose to perceive the call as such. I can choose to see a rose as Call, and answer, becoming the subject of the rose; I can do this privately. This need not be a social occasion, except insofar as there is a mediating other, which can be a rose or an actor. In our culture, we limit the situation of 'theater' to a structure of audience-actor.

I choose to recognize the actor. I choose to recognize the limits of the game of theater, which include language, style, masks, costumes, props...everything which, by convention, has meaning and has a certain meaning rather than being meaningless. Together, all of these meaningful acts and things create a world. By understanding their meaning (by giving them meaning) I become a part of the world.

Every world has an object, and intention, a center, and every play posits a world. That object is lived as my object, that intention as my intention, that center as my center.

In the play event, the object is to identify with this world. Through training and experience the actor aims to be this world. The audience - also through training and experience - attempts to become this world. Becoming one with this world, one re-lives it: i.e., one gives it birth again, renews, revitalizes, affirms it. Becoming the world is an act of affirmation which strengthens and perpetuates it. It is a self-affirmation, an affirmation of one possible Self.

In this act of affirmation, one becomes a member of a congregation, all of whom make a similar affirmation. Everyone answers the same call, and each makes the same answer: each becomes the subject in the posited world: in becoming the world, one becomes in the company of others. Thus, it is literally true that the City State that laughs together (or weeps together) stays together. It take unity  to achieve a common laughter, and in common laughter community is born.


Descriptively, a theater is the combination of minds which set aside an area for theater. It is the "neutral space", the Platonic archetype if you will, which they create  (and which comes from a common social pool of possible inter-personal relations). A theater-structure, loosely called a theater, is a physical realization of this mental "structure". Since these "mental systems of inter-personal relation" are derived from possibilities within the culture, the shape and structure of theaters tells us something about the con-structing society.


The play, then, is the dhih which sends a call out to being, to which Being responds. The moment of answer - the ineffable vision-dhih - is theater. Here the dance is the dancer, the actor is playing the moment in character.

The entire apparatus aimed at this moment is 'theater', the category of techniques, beliefs and behaviors. The category itself is an artifact of culture. Its elements are normally what we think of when we think of a history of theater. But there is nothing necessary about their association. Aside from the fact that "theater" is a relatively recent category, the contents of that category have always been fluid and are still changing. This is proven by the change in operational definition just over the past century; E.K. Chambers' definition of theater can no longer serve as an authority.

The explication of anyone's category of theater is an infinite undertaking. The question arises, then: "Why try?"

A fact is always a self-reflection. The reason one tries is that Being, of itself, is sufficient. If we can plunge ourselves into the inner mirror of facts, then we can become the being we are. The field of facts is arbitrary. We could just as well choose alchemy.

Scholars are artisans. A scholar uses intellectual tools for the same reason an actor takes on a character, or a violinist takes up bow and instrument: a tool separates Man from Being-in-the-world in the guise of reaching toward it in order to bridge the separation that Man has thrown up, in the comedy of hiding and seeking, as if he were not already the world he is seeking. The tool is a path between being-toward-the-world and Being-in-the-world, which establishes the frontier between them. It raises the illusion of Objectivity.

We are the Outside World in the mode of "other" as something we have separated from and to which it is possible to return. The dream of absolute separation is the illusion of Objectivity. An attempt to separate ourselves from the outside world is one we play because we are human and it is the game of being-in-the-world. In most of our lives we choose to play the game invisibly, seriously. In sports, in theater - and even in scholarship - we choose to make the game appear.

Human beings are in every moment what they are. We are in every moment what there is to be, not as a brief consciousness on a vast unconscious, but as consciousness through and through. "God" is the belief that there is Other, more, that Man can be added to, and that this more-than-Man is something to aspire to. A revelation of "God" is therefore a revelation of who I am and who I can be beyond my present realization of who I am, always keeping in mind that "who I really am" is a game I play, an I-am-not-that that springs from the hide-n-seek of Me. I am that, in the mode of not-being that.

A revelation is simply a recognition of "that" from the point of view of someone "pretending", or actively working, at being not-that. That it is also something that the not-that can be. I am that, as a possibility.

The revelation is a moment in the game I play (at being human), which says to me: "See, here is more. Here is what I am, here you are as All," as the being-you-are. It lays aside the tool and in the midst of the Experience does away with the Game: one becomes, as one can, what one is; from this arises the belief in the Game, since, when one no longer IS in the mode of being what one IS, one recalls it as a mode of Objectivity when one saw things as they really are. One therefore believes it possible to bridge the distance between ones' self and ones' world, and one devises tools to do so: from a kind of absolute Subjectivity comes the quest for God, and in this Sartre is correct that we are the creature that seeks God. Everything which attempts to bridge the gap between our selves and the world is an attempt to reach God. Or, it is a search for Self, characterized as what we are that we can be, but aren't.

In theater, this drama is played. "God" is always one of her possibilities, because the game of hide-n-seek is played: both as actor and spectator, I am, in the mode of not-being-me, who I am - but self-consciously, i.e., the play-experience brings into play the awareness of the game as a game, and makes a self-play of me.

As an actor I make a tool of my Self, of mind and body. What I achieve is character, which is a possible self that I choose to be as if  it were somebody else, as if the being I am being when I am on stage is not-me. The character I am when I am on stage is one possible mode of my being, it is who I am in the mode of not-having-to-be. The self that I have chosen to be, has a certain craft at acting, so that who-I-am finds his light, opens to the audience, controls the physical apparatus of the body. The character knows these things. When I am in character, I am a character-which-knows-the-stage; the character is always an artisan, be he sailor, lion or king.

A scholar does precisely the same thing. He remains a skill, and he takes on the character of an age (if his field is history). That history, that "age", is a possibility of his being, a character he has sought in the out-there which he can be as if it were not he. He directs himself to be that being, so that - like actor and audience - he is that self voluntarily. He has called it into being. He brings the game of hide-n-seek into play by wresting it from the infinite World and vesting it in a field, like alchemy, where he has the illusion of control and Objectivity - distancing metaphors from the direct being of one's Being, in the character of being an aspiration towards that Being.

For both the actor and scholar the arbiter is Truth - not an objective truth, but the manifestation of Being (the being of Being). It is this Truth that gives life to the products of both - the dhih (vision) of the dhih (poem). It is around this Truth and for its reacquisition that institutions take shape.

If we wish to have a history of theater, therefore, we must acknowledge two distinct undertakings: One is the explication of the Experience of theater, in which case the history is the history of Being - not history as we normally think of it, which follows the train of facts like ants a trail of crumbs, but a story of present being, a direct apprehension of one's own being. Or we must commit to the history of "facts", to the pursuit of Being via the intercession of tools (to prevent a collapse into Being), as-if-it-were-in-the-past. In this history, both pursuer and (consequently) pursued are always changing. Just as theater will never remain the same, nor is the same for any two people, so the history itself will be ever-changing, unstable.

In the history of Being, then, the subject is "theater", that moment of Truth when call meets answer.

In the history of the category "theater", the subject is the present institution, seen from a certain point of view, projected into the past where it is discovered as its own ancestor. This is the history we have done, and challenged, in the essays above. It is the easier of the two, and has a value of its own.

The traditional scholarly view of theater was from the audience and library. More and more frequently, however, studies are being done from the standpoint of someone who has done theater. Academic theater in this country is still relatively young, and as it matures we can look forward to more studies like the present one, which looks at theater from a wider point of view. There will be fewer and fewer studies which identify drama (the literature) with theater (the field), and we can move towards something like an anthropology of theater which analyzes the complete context of theatrical activity, and which examines the techniques and accoutrements of performance in the light of an archeological industry. Such a view will bring down the old prejudices, and open up the whole field of theater history to an all new scrutiny. We will have all the freedom of a new set of prejudices to realize how very little we really know about theater history. I have shown how this newer view can open up our understanding of theater history in the essays above.

The task of the explication of Being, the ineffable, is where it will always be, at the beginning. It is here that we will find the greatest history, the most rewarding study. It is immediately We, now, as we are. It is, I think, part of the old Indo-European concept of life and theater.