What is real and what is true?

Two articles were at the center of our class discussion this past Tuesday night: Peter Weiss‘ “The Materials and the Methods” (1968; Theater Quarterly 1971) and Carol Martin‘s “Bodies of Evidence” (TDR 2006). Two questions also dominated:

What is “documentary theater”?

Why write/perform “documentary theater” versus a “regular” play?

Since Weiss’ Theatre Quarterly article was a reprint of a piece he delivered at the Brecht-Dialogue in East Berlin in 1968 and published in Theatre Heaute that same year, I we should start by remembering the global upheavals of that year, for example:

  • protests by students and workers spread across Eastern European countries like Yugoslavia and Poland and are clamped down by Communist leaders. The culmination of these repressions comes with the brutal ending of a rare thaw of rights and privileges enjoyed during the “Prague Spring” by the Russian invasion of (then) Czechoslovakia,
  • chaos erupts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where anti-Vietnam War demonstrators clash with delegates and politicians in front of live television cameras
  • Civil Rights actions are met with violence, particularly across the American South, culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, TN and President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, just a week after.
  • a spring of general strikes and protests in France precipitates the collapse of the government of Charles de Gaulle; student groups and labor unions also joing forces in Italy and Argentina to protest government policies regarding wages, employment and education.

The history lesson was a lead-in to highlighting the wave of transformations happening in the theater world around the same time. Again, just a few examples.

  • The abolition of UK theater censorship with the passage of the 1968 Theatres Act and the dismantling of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.
  • The rise of directors like Peter Brook, whose book The Empty Space is published in 1968 and whose 1970 production of A Midsummers’ Night Dream will forever change stagings of Shakespeare in the UK and beyond.
  • The debut of Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre in Britain and the publication of his manifesto Towards a Poor Theater extends Brecht’s notion of a utilitarian approach to performance but to make the actor the center of the production’s world.
  • The Broadway premiere of Hair and the explosion of off-Broadway and experimental companies in the US like The Living Theatre, whose controversial, groundbreaking production of Paradise Now dissolved the boundaries between performer and audience, The Open Theater, and La MaMa (whose founder Ellen Stewart just passed away).
  • In a 1965 issue of The [Tulane] Drama Review, scholar Richard Schechner edited articles that explored/explained the new trend towards “happenings” and environmental theater, where expected rules of text, acting, and reception were shattered:

The profoundest political implications of Happenings are their rejection of packaging, not by parody, which is the Absurdist technique, but by forcing on the receiver the job of doing the work usually done by the artist/educator/propagandist. Thesis play and figurative painting give way to a set of messages which the receiver must decipher; indeed the “messages” are often random impulses which the receiver may construct into messages or leave alone, depending upon his attitude.   — Schechner, “Happenings,” pg. 231

Not only were American theater artists embracing new ways of making and presenting performances, but the very notion that theater was happening off-stage, in daily life or that daily life could be explored as performance, would open the doors to an expansion of theatrical forms and topics that could be rendered by dramatists, directors, actors, and academics.

Weiss himself followed up his critically acclaimed Marat/Sade (which under the direction of Peter Book won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1966) with The Investigation, a documentary drama about the 1963-1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. The Auschwitz trials were lesser known proceedings compared with the Nurenberg trials (1945-1947). In contrast to docudrama representations of the Allied forces prosecution of Nazi war criminals, such as Stanley Kramer’s Oscar winning 1961 Judgment at Nurenberg, Weiss was adamant that The Investigation avoid a courtroom setting. While he used the Auschwitz trial transcript with scrupulous felicity, Weiss resisted realism in favor of a poetic mediation about the reach of evil from Nazi officers and soldiers to “ordinary” Germans who did nothing in the face of the genocide. Interestingly, one of the most acclaimed productions of Weiss’ The Investigation in recent years was staged by Rwandan pharmacist turn theater artist Dorcy Rugamba and performed in French by a company of Rwandan and Congolese actors. These performers do not change a word of the text, but the entire context for the trial dramatized in the script shifts from Auschwitz to Rwanda.

In his manifesto about documentary theater, Weiss seems to acknowledge both the worldwide unrest and the theater’s particular place in addressing social issues. The documentary form allows theater to drawn on factual sources, sources overlooked or glossed by mass media, and bring particular theatrical tools of storytelling to transform an audience’s understanding of present-day events as well as the history that has brought us to a particular moment in time. This theater should never be mistaken, however, for political action.

In the manifesto, Weiss makes somewhat contradictory assertions. Documentary theater should never alter its sources only condense, select, and edit. But distillation and selection are not benign actions. Documentary theater is a reaction against distortions, against one-sided arguments, but must be unapologetic in taking sides, especially in the face of political/government repression, military aggression, and economic deprivation. Documentary theater insists that reality is knowable and thus capable of being changed through action. However, that same documentary theater should press the representational boundaries and interrupt linear time, craft dialogue that reflect everyday speech but in heightened and rhythmic ways, and work environmentally, letting dramaturgical structure emerge from the material.

The question quickly arose about the effectiveness of theater created for strictly, primarily political purposes. If a “fiction” play provides a window onto the “real” world, even though it does not trace its origin to archival material, who is to say that it is any less political than a play based on “facts”? Why does a great deal of documentary theater pass out of theatrical repertoire? (How many recent productions of Waiting for Lefty or even Twilight: Los Angeles do we see on American stages?) What are the risks of tying a script too closely to a particular historical moment or event? Once a text is fixed or finalized for production, does it risk losing the interrogatory power it had in its creation — the ability to tie the here and now with the there and then? What is it about plays like The Laramie Project that enjoy an active production life? Are they simply “good” plays that happen to be documentary plays? Shouldn’t the universal standard of “good” or “affecting” be a playwright or theater company’s goal that might override whether a play is based on real events or wholly fictional?

While we raised more questions than we answered, these concerns were indicative of the central questions driving Carol Martin’s article. [FYI, Carol Martin will be a special guest respondent and visiting scholar for our first week of performances in April.] Martin examines the post 9/11 documentary theater era as one characterized by a similiar paradox as the documentary theater Weiss describes. It is a theater that “strategically deploys the appearance of truth, while inventing its own particular truth through elaborate aesthetic devices, …” (10). While documentary theater, unlike other forms of performance, has the “capacity to stage historiography,” to show the very process of constructing truth through a combination of ethnography and archival research, it can also fall prey to the same kind of grand narratives and uncritical faith in documents that it wishes to critique. “Documentary theatre emphasizes certain kinds of memory and buries others” (11). While the desire to “set the record straight” is an admirable and important goal motivating documentary theater artists, they must remember that “There is no ‘really real’ anywhere in the world of representation” (14).

This strand of class discussion had to end as we shifted our attention to a read-through of Acts 2 and 3 of Laramie; however, we concluded by returning to one of Martin’s most provocative and productive tensions, a tension that we see dramatized both in the script and, in the coming weeks, in the staging process of our “version” of Laramie:

[W]hat is real and what is true are not necessarily the same. A text can be fictional yet true. A text can be nonfictional yet untrue. Documentary theatre is an imperfect answer that needs our obsessive analytical attention especially since, in ways unlike any other form of theatre, it claims to have bodies of evidence (15).

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