Do the words “drama” and “theater” imply the same thing or not? This has been in debate for a fairly long time.
It is more or less agreed upon in academic circles that “theater” points at the live communication between the performer and the audience and the environment where the communication takes place.
When it comes to “drama,” some consider it to cover the entire process of conventional theatre production, beginning with the writing of the playscript and ending at the last second of its performance. That is, they see live performance (theater) as one of the several steps of the process. And others think that drama ends and theater begins when the performance begins. So, the scope of drama constitutes the topic of the argument. (Elam, 2-3)
At first glance this looks like an unproductive terminological quarrel, but I think it can be used as a key in exploring the ideas behind modernization in the performing arts.
Let us begin by tracking the standard process:
In accustomed practice the dramatic process begins with the writing of the playscript by a person called “playwright” or “dramatist.” S/he writes the text on paper or computer, just like any writer of fiction or poetry. In other words, s/he records his/her thoughts on a physical intermediary to be perceived by others later on (see “Direct and Indirect Arts”).
The playscripts tend to be different in format from other literary works. The playwright imagines certain persons as well as developments stemming from the relationships between them. The vast majority of the text consists of monologues and dialogues, uttered by the imagined persons. The rest of the text includes directions indicating the manner the words need to be delivered in, the points of entry and exit for the actors, the points when the lights go on or off, etc. The format shows that the text is written to be performed rather than read.
When the time comes to “stage” the play, the process is carried out by a crowd with well-defined divisions of labor among the participants: actors, a director, assistant(s), a dramaturg, costume, set and accessory designers, light and sound designers and technicians, make-up artists, etc. These people carry out the process following the “manual” (the playscript). The main concern throughout the process is to be able to “read” the intentions of the playwright correctly and to decide on the degree of freedom they can allow themselves in executing the instructions (i.e. “interpretation”).
At the end of the production process, the play gets performed. The performers appear directly before the audience for a certain period of time. At this stage all other people involved in the process disappear. The presentation (what is seen and heard) is designed to hide the process behind the live performance as much as possible. It tries to hide the fact that the characters are actors, that there is a director who has decided how the actors should move and talk, that they have rehearsed for a period of time, that the actors are uttering the words they have memorized, written by a playwright, and so forth. The better the production hides these, the more successful it is considered to be. Success is usually declared with the word “convincing.”
Now let’s go back to the beginning: Conventionally, dramatic text is taken to be the fundamental, essential base of “drama” (sometimes the word drama is used directly to mean playscript). The view that performance (theater) is only a part of the dramatic package sees the dramatic text as an indispensable prerequisite in theater.
For more than a hundred years, avant-garde theater practitioners have been trying in various ways to rescue theater from the grip of drama and to let it be left alone with its audience. This is because they do not think that drama and theater are consolidated. To the contrary, they think that text-based drama and action-based live theater belong to separate and incompatible realities:
Objection to the controlling force of the dramatic text in theater means objection to the rule of the “word.” It does not mean opposition to the use of words; it is opposition to the determination of the performance’s timeline by the text. I am basically talking about the syntax formed by the words chosen and arranged by the playwright. (There are very few playscripts without words, consisting of only the descriptions of the action and visual compositions imagined by the playwright (example: Quad by Samuel Beckett)).
Syntax governs the timeline, at least mechanically, even in texts that don’t tell a story, that don’t intend to be “true to life,” that don’t have a linear structure (as in “stream of consciousness” style). We can liken this syntax to the consecutive notes of a melody. Yet, words are not sounds only, they are symbolic signs which refer to a code system (language). Almost all action in a conventional theater performance takes place according to the meanings transmitted through words, all aspects of the performance are determined and controlled by the text.
The playscript is produced in the mind of the writer in a different time and place, not on-site. It belongs to a medium different from that of the presentation. It is prepared in a literary environment to be performed in theatrical environment.
Literary communication is indirect, with an intermediary object in between, like paper, where thoughts are recorded. The writer writes his/her text wherever, whenever s/he wants and the reader reads the “letter” wherever, whenever s/he wants. The reader can read the whole thing in one sitting or in portions at different times, can read a section several times, can stop and think, can read quickly, can read slowly, etc. There is no real-time interaction between the presenter and the perceiver.
Another characteristic of the literary text is that it is written for the individual to read, not for two or more people to read it simultaneously, affecting each other’s perception.
On the other hand, the most distinctive characteristic of the live performance environment, where there is no intermediary object involved, is the simultaneity of presentation and perception. It is an environment where communication proceeds (at least is expected and assumed to proceed) through interaction among all participants.
The conventional theater does not refute this crucial fact; it just pretends that the environment is “live” by concealing its textuality. The memorized text is delivered as if it were not memorized, as if the dialogues were thought up spontaneously and interactively. The textual origin of the spoken word is expected to be disguised and the actor who can manage to do this well, through the use of intonation, timing and gestures, is considered to be “true-to-life,” therefore, “convincing,” and, therefore, successful.
From this point of view, one can say that the traditional theater is essentially the reading of the writer’s text to the audience, that the writer uses the performer as “live paper,” and that every performance is basically a play-reading. (Bennett, 20-21) (Antonin Artaud was the first person to assert out loud that theater should be emancipated from literary text in the early 1930s but his thoughts drew attention only in the 1960s).
The term “history of theater” basically refers to the chronological list of the least theatrical part of drama, the playscripts. The majority of theoretical writings on theater or drama consist of the analysis and criticism of these texts. Theoretical drama or theater studies in schools focus on the literary analyses of playscripts.
This is mainly due to the fact that, for centuries, the only recordable and recorded component of theater has been the playscript. The other aspects, naturally, could not be recorded. Recording of performances on film and video are very new developments (and they cannot duplicate the live environment anyway). Additionally, for practical reasons, the number of readers of a published dramatic text tends to be greater than the number of viewers of its performance.
As a result, the playwright structures his/her text according to literary criteria. Traditional prerequisites in literature such as having a main subject matter, unity, introduction-body-conclusion structure get transferred to theater. When one looks at theater not as the “re-enactment” of the text but as an environment of live communication through visual and aural elements, then the literary criteria become irrelevant.
Most of the playwrights write their scripts with standard proscenium stages, rows of seats, lights hanging from the ceiling, etc. in mind. This is normal since the writer’s utmost goal is to have his/her play staged and since most of the available theater spaces are still in this standard layout. Can the playwright indicate in his directions that the play must be performed in open air, next to a well, for an audience of at most twenty? S/he certainly can but that would leave almost no prospect of a staging.
A playwright who intends to come up with a novel idea can try it mainly in his/her subject matter. Yet, modernization in theater has been determined by how the subject matter is dealt with, not by what the subject matter is. For example, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is considered to be the first play to deal with women’s unequal and repressed position in traditional family. The play’s having a progressive topic that was never mentioned before does not represent an act of modernization in theater: it constitutes a novelty in the canon of dramatic literature.
One may say that the playwright can initiate different staging and acting techniques by composing his/her play in unconventional ways. To go back to Ibsen, his refusal to use traditional tirades, soliloquies, etc. and his adoption of dialogues true to daily communication have required more realistic acting styles. Bertolt Brecht’s designation of the performer both as actor and commentator necessitated performance techniques which formed alternatives to realistic acting. Yet, formal attempts at modernization by the writer, who remains outside of the theatrical environment, are almost never forceful enough to change the standard pattern. Aspects such as dependency on the verbal syntax, interpretation of the text according to literary criteria, character enactment, memorization, the standardized stages of production and so forth do not change. In fact, it may be said that texts which knowingly or unknowingly have not conformed to conventions, written in ambiguous, undefinable formats had more significant contributions to modern theater.
When we look at the modernist achievements in theater, we see that the vast majority of them stem from directors, designers and the physical conditions where the production takes place. As I tried to summarize above, dramatic text has largely lost its defining role in contemporary theater and has been brought down to the same status as the other components of a performance. Numerous practitioners who think that it is imperative to base the timeline on a text seem to prefer working with formats like novels, stories, essays or poems, instead of playscripts, to allow themselves more freedom and flexibility.
Many of those involved in the modern performing arts identify their work as “performance,” “performance theater,” “dance theater,” as opposed to “theater.” This usually does not mean that they think their work is not theater, they mainly want to indicate that they are not doing the conventional theater, which is still in existence. Many of these practitioners can quite easily argue that what they do is theater proper.