Wed, 5th Feb 2020

Theatre, It’s Not Mere Entertainment

Text by: 

Franciszek Bryk

Photo by: 
Fatih Kılıç on Unsplash

‘A brilliant show’; ‘a great production’; ‘true entertainment’. These expressions may come naturally to a cinema-goer after a Marvel screening, but in a theatre critic’s piece they should be seen as a profanation of a sacred space. Show, production, entertainment, theatre: cross-out one word.

‘Entertainment’ signifies an escape, a pastime pursued after one is done with the business of ‘real life’. Sentencing art to such a detached form inhibits its potential to incite change. Calling theatre ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘art’ negates (or even ridicules) the problems it seeks to explore by reducing it to a product, by connoting it to something that exists solely to please rather than challenge or provide food for thought.

Arguably, not all art is political, but all art wants to produce an impact. How do you treat words spoken by an entertainer or a clown? Do you treat them seriously? Humour is an artistic device; there is something serious underneath. Discard ‘entertainment’, let ‘art’ in. Forget the word ‘production’, that conjures the mass-produced G.I. Joe figures in a toy factory.

By labelling theatre performances as ‘productions’, one poses a danger to the art in theatre. The word ‘production’ normalises and justifies the director’s secondary role to the producer: subordination of the one who masters the artistic quality to the one who ensures marketability.

When an artist’s work undergoes adjustment to the wants and needs of the audience, the ‘proper relationship’ is reversed. When the viewers tells the artist what to do, it is difficult for the artist to bring up a message that is contrary to the popular opinion (that questions it, rather than solely pleases the populace). A dramatical actor should not resemble a court jester, speaking no more than what the royal house wants to hear. The latter’s art is hollow: there is form, but no meaning.

Is it possible to talk about theatre in a different way? In my native language, Polish, theatre performances are not shows, but spektakle, a word reserved almost solely for this context. The phrase pure entertainment is used as an insult – for example for a comedy that is devoid of any meaningful content. Production – no one would dare to utter this word; the cast, directors and the crew are full-time employees who devote their whole passion and energy to the art of theatre, as the marketability of each show does not play a key role in influencing the content. Many of the producer’s tasks are performed by an impresario or an assistant to the director.

Framing theatre performances as productions of entertainment has bothered me ever since I came to the UK, hailing from a country with different dramatical and musical traditions - where the strictness of the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule was measured by how often the nation-building drama Dziady could be performed. I still struggle not to laugh at some of the local posters; many seem a parody to me. Here is my favourite poster advertising a performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana in aesthetics that resemble Hunger Games merchandise graphics. The same thing applies to theatrical posters. Nevertheless, what else could I expect from an advertisement for a show, for something only meant to entertain?

But you may object, what I say sounds like a lament of an old lady watching schoolchildren read Harry Potter instead of Saint-Exupéry. Or a forced extrapolation of dying continental-European manners abroad. After all, British tradition and history are different. It was not only kings and the royals for whom Shakespeare performed. He even had his own playing company (sic!). In the epilogue of ‘The Tempest’, spoken by Prospero, we find:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please […]
Let your indulgence set me free.

However, the point for me is not to rule out entertainment, humour, or laughter. It is to open the stage (after all, All the world’s a stage) to arts unsettled by the label ‘entertainment’. To find more sophisticated, distingué, and thus appropriate vocabulary – one that would allow us to celebrate the art of theatre instead of imposing a pop-culture model upon it.