Thursday, 2 June 2011

I'd Skip this One, if I Were You

Most of the time, I call myself a Platonist  - which makes those frequent comments by women that they would like to remain “platonic friends” all the more ironic. In reality, this means that I once read The Republic and got over-excited by the deconstruction of ideas: in practice, I wander about shouting that we are all living under a delusion enforced by the tyranny of television, which Plato clearly predicted in his parable of the cave.
Quite how this impacts on theatre criticism is open to question. Apart from those difficult paragraphs where Plato explicitly rejects the presence of actors in his perfect state - luckily, I think he was joking most of the time – Plato didn’t set out a specific approach to performance. It is a far cry from his jilted student Aristotle, who ruined theatre criticism by insisting on all sorts of perfections and strictures, mainly to get back at Plato for dismissing theatre, but also to justify his subjective opinion that Oedipus Rex is the best play ever written.

Oedipus is a great play, but there is no need to make up an entire system of analysis to prove it. Sadly for Aristotle, he couldn’t get a gig writing reviews for The Scotsman and his opinions needed to be made of sterner stuff before they could irredeemably influence generations of makers and audiences. Slapping down “the unities” of time, place and plot, and slicing the possible plots into moral categories is fine for an afternoon’s drinking conversation, but there is no reason for playwrights or critics – or teachers of Classical Civilisation – to take it seriously.

Perhaps the reason that Plato didn’t spend time deciding how to analyse and undermine theatre is that he was a bit touchy about his past. It says on the internet somewhere that Plato had been an unsuccessful playwright before meeting Socrates, who tried to cheer him up by taking him to a party. Given that he went on to write most of his philosophy as dialogues – so similar to the central scene in most Greek tragedies where the competing visions fight it out before someone’s mother rips their head off – and that his writing is littered with allusion to poetry and tragedy, it’s not unreasonable to think that Plato’s anti-drama stance is more notional than serious. Frankly, it is just a relief that Plato didn’t leave us with a huge body of dogmatic opinion to test performance.

The little Plato that I read in the Beginner’s Guide, however, is instructive. He does blather about the age-old battle between poetry and philosophy every so often, but that seems to me an unnecessary division between genres - the sort of thing Aristotle was far better at, anyway. His most famous pronouncement, that he would ban theatre from his ideal state, mostly on the grounds that it is a lie, deserves a little investigation.

First of all, Plato explicitly admits that the actor is a skilled professional: he even goes so far as to say that he would praise them before booting them out of the city. He then acknowledges that the theatre’s threat is in the impact it might have on the citizens, what with its portrayal of good men being done over by the gods, or the promulgation of ideas that don’t fit in the proto-totalitarian machine that he appears to be advocating.
Since he said all this in the context of defining his perfect society – and contradicting himself from chapter to chapter on everything from women’s rights to the right place for dancing girls at a dinner party – it strikes me that Plato took theatre far more seriously than most modern political thinkers. I checked out most of the manifestos at the last election, and they contained platitudes about the necessity of state support. Assuming that we can count politicians as “thinkers” in any meaningful respect, they accept the liberal idea that “art is a good thing”. They probably have some theory that it can be used to promulgate social cohesion.

I’ve watched a great deal of performance, had a few tragedies in my life, and agree with Plato. Art is fucking dangerous. Music persuades youngsters that rebellion is a good idea. Pop music sells shoddy consumer products. If art had no impact on our behaviour, there would not be adverts in the cinema. The very environment of art makes us vulnerable to persuasion.

As it goes, I don’t believe Plato wanted to kick the artists out: even if he did, his ideal government is pretty much the model for complete state control, so we can reject many of his conclusions. If he hated tragedians so much, he wouldn’t have quoted them so often, and imitated their style. It is better to think of him as a satirist than a philosopher, and have the salt handy. I think that this passage is more a melodramatic allegory, emphasising the importance of art in shaping opinion, and also its potential as a counter-cultural force.
So this is where my Big Theory comes in. When I taught Plato – once, in a last minute panic revision session at a Masonic School in Hertfordshire – my students suggested that the “Noble Lie” is the clue to Plato’s entire philosophy. I was drinking wine in a cloister, watching the sunset and surrounded by occult symbolism cast in stone: the perfect moment to adopt a teenager’s hunch as a foundation for my entire belief system.

Having spent most of The Republic detailing the hierarchies of a super state, based on reason, Plato slips in this little cheat. Social cohesion will not be developed through rationality. Instead, he makes up a major bullshit, something to do with DNA and precious metals, and some character having a daytrip to the afterlife.
Never mind that the story is less plausible, and open to less amusing jokes, that the ones about Zeus seducing women disguised as a golden shower: Plato has just undermined his entire project for a rational state. If a philosopher did that these days, he’d get a bad review in The Guardian, get an article in the Daily Mail with the headline EXPERT SAYS THINKING INCREASES CANCER RISK and end up as a MEP for UKIP. Back in the day, it meant that thousands of earnest men in bed sheets built their world view around it, ignoring Plato’s early invention of surrealism.

Reading Plato is like having a big argument with a dead man. You can’t negotiate details, push him on finer points and, after a while, it starts to stink. The Republic is an infuriating mess of contradictions, all of which are internally coherent. It makes you think.

And that, I contest, was his point. The Republic isn’t a handbook for the ideal state – even Plato mistook it, had a little political adventure and nearly ended up dead. It is a text-book for teaching dialectic – resolving problems through argument. Frankly, the dialectic in the book is terrible: Socrates and a bunch of cheerleaders. It’s the dialectic in the mind of the reader that is the point.

So that’s it. Platonic criticism is about a dialogue. I needed a thousand words to say this, claim a heavy duty precedent just to prove I am not a moron. And a Platonic Performance Criticism engages with the relationship between form and function, grapples with the issues of a Performance not its relative quality – which is why I either ignore things like “good direction” or get names wrong – and exists in the point of contact between audience and event.


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