'How is it Played? Genre, Performance and Meaning.'

By Elise Garrison
Associate Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures
Texas A&M University

On October 7 and 8, 1994, Texas A&M University's Department of Modern and Classical Languages, with the support of the Program in Classical Studies and the Department of Speech and Communications, hosted a conference dedicated to an examination of and hands-on experience with the meaning of genre through performance. The conference was designed to promote discussion of new and important questions that ranged from broad theoretical discussions of genre in general to practical application questions concerning text and performance. Our core question was why in all cultures with theatrical traditions, audience, performers and critics have categorized performances, and why, at least in the European tradition, the notions of tragedy and comedy have dominated. We also asked how preconceived notions and expectations regarding the distinction between tragedy and comedy help to mold theatrical performances, and how an awareness of performance practice could help us to interpret so-called 'problem plays' that do not seem to fit well into either genre. The broad questions of genre spawned other important queries. For example, to what extent does gender play a role in the complicated theatrical world, or how does stage interpretation differ from or resemble film interpretation.

The following selection of papers from those presented at the conference manifests the innovative approach the conference engendered, and is representative of the wide range of topics we discussed. Scholars, critics, actors and directors participated, and we were therefore able to expand our usual perceptions and critical approaches to accommodate different ones. Discussions were particularly rich because of the diversity of backgrounds and interests of the presenters and facilitators. Appropriate to the avant- garde nature of the undertaking is the e-publication of the proceedings, and we are grateful to Didaskalia for airing our performances.

Wulf Koepke, Professor of German in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at Texas A&M, set the stage for the proceedings by an introduction that situated the word 'performance' in its multivalent aspects: theatrical, religious, academic and political, and highlighted the didactic justifications for performance. He introduced the notion of the audience and the importance of its participation, and this became a subplot through the entire conference. In addition to remarking on the critic's role, he also initiated discussion of the director's role; namely, understanding genre in all of its complexity, discovering the author's intent, keeping the style of the particular historical era in mind and finally bringing the text to life.

An important component of the conference was the performance of Athol Fugard's Master Harold...and the boys, directed by Roger Schultz of the Theater Arts section of the Speech and Communications Department at Texas A&M and performed by Aggies. Roger presented his thoughts on directing a playwright like Fugard, and suggested that a director's work begins with images, not generic classification. Fugard, in his approach to generic classification, juxtaposes humorous and serious, and succeeds in this by using particular images. One of those images is 'life as a dance' in a 'world without collisions.' The image of a bump-free passage through life seemed especially appropriate as the conference itself proceeded is like manner.

Judith deLuce of Miami University discussed a topic that all theater people grapple with in some way or another: to what extent does live theater have to compete with film or virtual reality? Obviously, the role of the audience in performance is crucial in her discussion because in virtual reality performance results in the effect but not in fact of something. That is to say, whereas theater discourages passivity because the audience is invited to apply its imagination to the performance, in film what looks real on the screen is as far removed from the real as possible. In conjunction with Judith's paper, Lee Horvitz, also of Miami University, examined the question of virtual reality philosophically and showed why virtual reality won't replace theater. Two of the most important functions of performance are symbolic renewal and communitas, both of which require an audience's presence. Virtual reality on the other hand undercuts participation by removing these two important functions.

Jay Malarcher, an actor at Louisiana State University, presented a theoretical colloquy on the actor's role, taking his departure from Aristotle's Poetics. Inasmuch as the actor is as it were the first audience of a play, then his/her primary purpose is textual valuation and evaluation. That is to say, the actor as reader makes choices that lead to criticism in action.

A good deal of the conference was devoted to the ancient Greek and Roman theater. Two papers dealt specifically with the ancient convention of 'male actors only,' and two others treated the problem of genre. Nancy Rabinowitz of Hamilton College proposed that the stage construction of gender which is neither male nor female and its divorce from biology was at the heart of the effect of ancient tragedy. Ancient drama, she argued, created a gap between biology (the male actor) and culture (the female character), and this created a tension within Greek tragedy. Furthermore, she points out, that for the contemporary audience, using male characters to play the female parts could lend sensitivity to the separability of sex and gender. Phillip Ambrose of the University of Vermont, challenged the accepted convention by suggesting that women actually played women in Aristophanes' play, The Thesmophoriazousae, and by that Aristophanes was able to add another dimension to the joke of the play.

Victor Castellani of the University of Denver examined the phenomenon of genre mixing in Euripides' play, The Orestes, and carefully pointed out how the question affects interpretations not only of the whole, but of individual scenes and individual characters. Timothy J. Moore of the University of Texas at Austin discussed the first occurrence of that troublesome word tragicomoedia in Plautus' Amphitruo. He pointed out the close connection between genre and the audience's wishes and expectations, and he concluded that Plautus' purpose was not to show equality between tragedy and comedy, but rather to show how comedy overcomes tragedy at every step of the way.

Perry Gethner of Oklahoma State University discussed the generic phenomena in the Renaissance; particularly in Moliere and Shadwell, and by tracing the character of Don Juan showed how even the terms themselves, i.e. tragedy and comedy, could mean different things in different eras. For Moliere, his comic technique could include parody of other dramatic genres, and the notion of tragicomedy became more precisely heroic comedy. Shadwell's distinction between tragedy and comedy, on the other hand, could be seen as the difference between criminal acts and merely foolish conduct. Joy Sylvester of Texas A&M University sketched how genre can be crossed and confused in a single character; namely, Corneille's Medea. Medea embodies in her person not only the tragic heroine and a psychologically terrifying witch/sorceress, but also is more entertaining and comic in her role as witch.

The presentations, discussions and performance were stimulating, provocative and invigorating, and all participants look forward to further colloquia in the small conference format on this and related issues.

Elise P. Garrison
Texas A&M University