In theater, the word “mimetic” implies imitation, representation and, particularly, simulation (hinting at pretence and deception).
[“Mimesis” is a broad concept that has been discussed for centuries in different fields and contexts. My use of the word in this section will be limited to its meaning in theater.]
The terms “conventional,” “standard,” “dramatic” in theater jargon generally bring to mind the plays intended to simulate the events from real life, known as “realistic/naturalistic theater” (now some call it “classical theater” as well). The goal has almost always been to show (ostention) a fictional “there” to those watching in a real physical environment, “here,” as opposed to narrative communication. “The distinction is, indeed, implicit in Aristotle’s differentiation of representational modes, namely diegesis (narrative description) versus mimesis (direct imitation).” (Elam, 110-111)
In “realistic representations” the intention is to make the members of the audience forget the fact that they are sitting and looking at a stage on which actors move and talk and to enable them to be “absorbed” by the fictional “there.” The success of the undertaking is measured by its degree of “believability.” The most basic theme of opposition directed at realistic theater is this intention to create illusion or mystification.
Mostly due to practical reasons, worrying about the believability of simulations has subsided in modern times. To create Browns’ bedroom, a bed and a lamp have become sufficient, without the walls and the doors and the windows with curtains as in the old days. And episodic structure in playscripts has become almost commonplace, in contrast to sequential narratives.
However, two aspects of the mimetic theater have not changed much: (1) Actors still act: they imitate, act out, impersonate, enact fictional or real characters, as opposed to appearing as themselves. (2) The audiences are still sitting and peeping through the dark, mostly participating in the illusion by pretending that they are not in the room.
It has been pointed out that imitation of another being, even deception by itself are primal instincts. We know that imitation has been in theater since the very beginnings. Yet, mimesis in antiquity primarily consisted of actors’ vocalization of words assigned to different characters. We also know that tools to help personification, such as costumes, masks, make-up, were used. There didn’t seem to be a desire to create a full representation of reality on stage as we know it until rather late, mainly due to lack of technological means.
For instance, we know that playscripts were staged in the afternoons, in open air, in fairground-like facilities during the Elizabethan period in England. This was not a suitable situation to create convincing simulations. The practice of “simulation of reality” started awkwardly around the mid-eighteenth century in Western Europe (some mark David Garrick’s becoming the head of Drury Lane Theater in 1747 as the turning point).
With the bourgeoisification of Europe, theater began to move to closed spaces and to present formulaic, melodramatic plays (“well-made play”). The performances were lit with candles, oil lamps and, starting in the 1850s, limelight. Those interested in the history of theater should keep in mind that the first light bulb was made in the 1880s. Its use in theater began in the 1890s (16 watt bulbs) and the 1000 watt spot light appeared in theaters only in the 1920s. Illusions in theater, that is, could not be that believable in the absence of electricity to power the lights, sound systems, electrical devices, etc.
In the section “Drama and Theater” I explained that the twentieth century avant-garde theater practitioners primarily objected to the conventional dramatic playscripts. As the 1960s arrived, we began to see objections to the performers’ imitation of someone else and to theater’s manufacturing of illusions and mystifications.
The formation of these objections to theatrical conventions was certainly triggered by many developments following the two devastating world wars, including skepticism about established norms, intensification in analytical thinking and the questioning of even the most basic concepts. One can say that desire to see things going on “behind closed doors” and resentment over deception and manipulation found their place in the world of theater as well.
This question sits at the core of the arguments in modern theater: Is it a must to transmit meaning in forms that employ mimetic methods for the realization of a theatrical performance?
Here is a rough summary of the views of those whose reply has been “no” to the question above:
Theater can use all existing forms of communication. According to the established codes and “social frames,” any aural and visual sign during the course of a performance is perceived as a “theatrical sign” by the audience. An element does not need a symbolic attribute to become a theatrical sign.
A theatrical performance is not the “giving” of a package of information about a certain topic to the audience, it is an event by itself. The event consists of the timeline assembled through the sequence of presented, perceived and exchanged signs.
The event should take place in the “now,” in “living present,” as opposed to a fictional time and space. If illusive transmission is deemed necessary for some reason, then, logically, film or video, with more fitting capabilities and language, should undertake that (indeed, cinema has been doing that for about a hundred years).
The performer’s hiding of his/her identity, personality and body behind a “play character” is not a requisite for the realization of a theatrical performance. Theatricality can be achieved without mimesis.
Cramming theatre into a narrow definition (dramatic-text-based mimesis) and concentration of the academic studies on text have disconnected theater from other social activities, including folklore and popular culture. Since theater can make use of all communicative means, it can incorporate the material of other social activities and the new means offered by the developing technologies.
The audience should be seen as an active, thinking and responding party in the communication, not as passive peepers. In that respect, a theatrical performance playfully open to contingencies, change, participation and sharing should be preferred over the planned, controlled, predictable and formulaic. (Carlson, 21)
As I indicated before, 1960s’ “performance art” and works labeled as “dance theater,” “performance theater,” “stage performance,” or just as “performance” have appeared primarily in response to dramatic/mimetic theater conventions. Practitioners of these works thought that they were doing theater as it is supposed to be, but, to show their opposition to and difference from the ongoing conventional theater, they had to use different and inclusive labels. Such theater activities seen as “alternative” actually represent the historical development of the avant-garde theater in the twentieth century. (Carlson, 84)