first part, called “what is theatre? I,” of a series of ‘letters’ written to you, the reader, towards a book called, theatre | writing

What is theatre?

We don’t at first know. Theatre is not like poetry, since poetry, being a poet, having a written a poem, makes us think: Well, really, have I written a poem? And how many do I need to write before I’m a poet? If that’s what we aspire to be.

If that’s what we aspire to be, poetry provides us with, has inherent in it, an aspirational quality. A quality of uplift, which theatre does not. Poetry asks us to come up to a standard, and it’s up to us whether that’s a standard of the past—taken from a canon of the greats, from whatever period—or a standard of the future, one by which, as Pound said, we Make it New.

To Make it New we may want to drop the standard. Into the unformed or the deformed, to achieve an art, as the Nazis said, that is entartete. Still, there’s a standard from literary modernism and postmodernism for us. A precedent on which we call when we write doggerel and call it poetry. Poetry that is unschooled. Or that is in the language of everyday life, like Lou Reed’s, or that is all quotes, all stolen, not in what in poetry is sometimes called our voice at all. Or that does not use recognisable words or sounds, like Dada poetry and concrete poetry. Or poetry written to achieve an effect of the language itself speaking, the written language, mind you, called Language Poetry.

Theatre too provides us with some canonical understandings but to ask What is theatre? doesn’t seem to rely on them. The answers that are most immediate are most easily set aside, abandoned for not being satisfactory. Can we say the same thing about modern art? art that is modern?

Doesn’t ‘What is art?’ confront us with the same problem? …but we want to, that’s the difference. We want to come up with as many definitions as possible and abandon them as soon we make them. Theatre—not so much.

With art, I want to say, art is for the animals! Not just the outcasts, outsiders, the outsiders cast out inside society, the artists whose art has been institutionalised as Art Brut. No. The actual animals. And other species outside the human men, women and children. Art is to bring down the dream of human exceptionalism!

I mean, you can see this already with painting. Isn’t, since every pigment is at base mineral, dealing at the level of pure pigment a mineral-becoming? Mineral Art, much as we might say Language Poetry.

When I define art to express the non-human, the process of abandonment does at first resemble that that gave us ‘Theatre—not so much.’ For art it’s because of art’s implication in ideology and the politics of gender, race and class. We point to the artistic canon as we do the poetic canon and notice the voices of the excluded. And to champion them, we can’t be going around saying, these excluded voices are non-human, or express the nonhuman. Puncture the dream of human exceptionalism. For the reason it is their inclusion that we want. Diversity. Heterogeneity. Multiplicity. And so on, up to equality and radical democracy. In the arts first, at least.

We don’t rush in with definitions of theatre because … it is political from the start. And this impugns its status as an artform. So first we’d have to lift theatre up, like poetry, raise it to being an artform. Then, taking into account the politics, we’d have to drag it down from its elevated institutional cultural status. Burn down the operahouses, as Boulez said. Cancel culture, as it is now said.

Or like a commentator in New Zealand wrote, the breaking apart of the theatre institutions that occurred from when free-market economic reforms were introduced in New Zealand in 1984 brought about a renaissance of grass-roots activity in theatre. All those voices not previously represented in the big theatres were able to gain support on their own behalf—without the big theatres sucking up the resources—, take the stage, empowering the communities they come from. As the slogan went and has remained: Our stories in our own words.

Do we know that ‘What is theatre?’ is a political question from the first? No. I would say we don’t, but that it is a political question leads us to abandon the definitions we might bring to it, quickly, as Nonhuman leads us to abandon that definition, eventually, for art. Eventually, once we consider the political implications.

Although, I would add there is currently a politics at stake that is exactly nonhuman, a bigger political picture, taking in climate politics. And it is for this reason we might re-designate the Humanities to be the Inhumanities—taking into cognizance also the cultural politics—and art as the art of the nonhuman.

note: source references available on request–these will be part of the book, if it should come to pass.