It was quite frequent on the sands for one of the kids to bellow because Punch was too hard to take, and this unfortunate would be carried away by its nurse; but the elder children, when I was one, proud that they could take it, would laugh on till the final hanging of Punch as their Victorian parents had done at the same age. I have been secretly afraid of the theatre ever since, but I feel I know what it is about.Both my undergraduate degree and the subject of my PhD were English Literature/Classics, and in both cases the Classics side was heavily inclined toward the theatrical: my UG dissertation was ‘colour terms in Euripides’ (exciting, no?) and my PhD looked at Robert Browning and (mostly) Aeschylus and Euripides. The thing about the Athenian stage is that it was a holy ritual as well as being the performance of a diverting narrative; and the heart of the holy ritual is fear—a timor divini either elevating or a debilitating, depending on the individual. People gather together and recite their resonant rote-learned lines in church, and in the theatre, and in both venues they do so to ward something off. It’s the thing being warded that scares me, I suspect; though I wouldn’t go so far as Empson in claiming quite so vehemently to know what it is about. The intervening screen (televisual, or cinematic) filters out much of this ancient numinous potency. Indeed, many of our screen texts are dimly aware of this fact, and respond by ramping up the volume. To capture the merest glimmer of the awful wonder of Lear’s pentuplet ‘never’ thousands must die on screen, disaster and catastrophe must be hyperbolically bodied forth in global disaster, city-obliterating explosions and the like. It’s a losing game, of course, and the more cinema increases the intensity the less we feel it. This, incidentally, is an occasion for relief rather than anything else; if we really felt the force of the deaths in Star Wars or The Avengers we'd be catatonic by the end of the performance.
‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]
‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.
There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.
Monday, 29 December 2014
My Secret Fear of the Theatre
I went to a number of plays this year, an observation remarkable only in the context of how rarely I go to the theatre. In part this reflects the restrictions and exigencies of having small children (although, that said, two of our theatre ‘outings’ in 2014 were with the kids in mind: Emile and the Detectives and the Slava Snowsnow, both at the South Bank). Partly it is a bias, or prejudice, by which, my sensibilities having been shaped by cinema and (especially) TV, I prefer my acted drama in screen form. I sometimes joke with my friend Dan Rebellato, Professor of Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London no less, and a man who feels his day incomplete if he doesn’t see three separate avant garde theatrical performances at three different dramatic spaces—that I find his love for the living stage incomprehensible. And he jokes in return that my obsession with science fiction strikes him exactly the same way. But where the joke is, I suspect, close to the truth for him, I’m not really baffled by his love for the Stage. On those rare occasions where I do see a play, and a story is told in the sweat and breath of present actors, I am always struck by the power of the occasion. In fact, it is probably that very power that disinclines me from going to see more live plays. It’s like William Empson says, in his Essays on Renaissance Literature: