Thursday, 28 October 1999

Vera Mowry Roberts: The Nature of Theatre (1971)

Edition: Harper & Row, 1971
Review number: 374

This book, a description of the forms and development of drama, came out almost thirty years ago, and its age shows, especially in the chapters on cinema and television. Its analysis is very conventional, based around the ideas traditionally associated with Aristotle's Poetics.

Roberts is particularly keen to distance live theatre from cinema and television, partly because there are clear similarities but principally I suspect because she has a somewhat elitist agenda and wants to make the reader feel that theatre is "better" without explicitly saying so. All three are indeed dramatic arts, involving an interaction between actors and audience. It is the nature of that interaction which is different in each one (ignoring the existence of documentary films, news and other non-dramatic forms in television especially). In television and film, a performance is mediated through the screen, allowing the use of techniques such as multiple camera viewpoints and location shooting which cannot readily be utilised in theatre. The almost universal use of recorded material as opposed to live performance is another source of difference, as is the fact that the actor is performing to a host of machines and their operators rather than an audience; both these change the relationship of the actors to their work. The major difference between film and television is the intimacy achieved by the latter with small screens inside the home. In the theatre, the actors and the audience are physically present in the same space, each constantly reacting to the other. This produces a different kind of intimacy, though it makes impossible most of the commonplace effects of film and television.

Having put the relationship between actors and audience at the heart of the theatrical experience, Roberts spends most of the book discussing theatre from a different point of view, the analysis of playscripts. There are several reasons for this. Scripts are permanent, while performances are not. Verbal descriptions of performances can convey little, and even films of a performance cannot communicate all that is happening (which is why watching a video of a stage show taken through one stationary camera is not as satisfying as being present at the performance and seeing it from the same viewpoint). Scripts (together with performing spaces) constitute the raw material from which theatre is made - in almost every case. There is a vast body of criticism already in existence analysing theatre through scripts, from Aristotle onwards, some of which has in turn influenced the writing of plays through the ages. Yet, given where Roberts places the central aspect of the theatrical experience, such a description is rather unsatisfying. It would be interesting and unusual to read an analysis of what passes between actor and audience, though it would be much more difficult to write.

The vast amount and variety of drama means that in a book that attempts a holistic description of theatre the reader can probably find exceptions to almost every generalisation. The conservative nature of Roberts' book makes this even more likely. She doesn't talk about non-Western theatre traditions at all, and religious ritual, out of which Western theatre developed, is only mentioned in the historical survey. Nevertheless, it is an interesting summary within its limitations.

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