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The Play's the Thing

Dr MN Miller PhD

I suspect (assuming one's analysis of what one does can be trusted) that my interest in the theatre arouse out of experiences in my youth. My mother often became impatient with my father. One of the many reasons she became so was my father's propensity to explain anything by telling a story about it. She would remark: Oh, get on with it then, I don't have time for another ##!! story-just get to the point. Incidentally, they never did settle these matters. Maybe this was because my father insisted on imitating all the characters in the story by acting out each person's role complete with all the voice characteristics of each person. I must admit it was a time consuming matter-particularly for people who wanted people to get to the point. I guess partly I inherited a bit of the personalities of both these people. Another influence came from my early love of geometric proofs and logic puzzles. But in each of these loves I always had the feeling that they were fun to do but were not anything which I could apply to my life. I later learned to my chagrin that geometric proofs were in fact bogus and to top it off reading Wittgenstein and Goedel removed all my trust of logic as well. Oh, well such is life. I also soon realized that asking what would Jesus/ Buddha/ Mohammed do or say was not anything which I could apply to my life. These people were to me merely literary characters who happened to have once existed but the ideas they proposed were to me just possible answers which someone else found for their own problems- they were not working on my problems.

At university, I took several courses in philosophy. Plato particularly influenced me. He not only presented linguistic analysis of philosophical problem - but did so using both logic and mythical stories as well. In particular, his Seventh Letter wherein he defines philosophy(line 344)as a spark of insight which comes when one rubs ideas together in a friendly manner has always struck me as a great basis for philosophy but equally well a great basis for religion as well. But I soon began to notice that he did something else which puzzled me. His rubbing of ideas together seemed to be done in an odd manner. When I started to inquire into what he was doing I discovered that the names which he gave characters was often a clue of what one might suspect of them. For example, Polus is a character in the dialogue Gorgias who prances around in the dialogue but seems to never contribute much to any argument. The name Polus means in Greek a colt and this seems to be his role in the dialogue. In my favourite dialogue The Republic Plato introduces in Book I three main characters by the name of Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus. Cephalus is an old man who seems to have little interest in the pleasures of life. He says for example that he is relieved that sex is no longer expected of him. His role is similar to what we might image a talking head would be. Polemarchus is Cephalus' son. He is a man who shows his propensity for honour. He takes pride in his achievements. The third character is Thrasymachus. He shouts at people and seems like a person driven by strong desires- in fact, cravings. Again a quick analysis of their names tells us what to make of the characters. Cephalus means head, Polemarchus means brave warrior whereas Thrasymachus means a raging bull. After one has done that much analysis it is no major jump to realize that Book I is a burlesque sort of play in which one has a head talking to a heart and a gut. Plato, I suspect is using this comic effect to convince us that no one of the messages is complete and although Plato does say that the head should always control the heart and gut that the head should not ignore what they have to say as well. Plato will go on to say later in this dialogue that justice can only be achieved by harmonizing all three of these messages. My point is that Plato is using theatrical techniques to get his point across. He is not simply presenting us with a logical argument. He uses theatrical techniques to present the conclusions he desires.

In Book 7 Plato uses a myth to tell us why we often come to near truths but fail to grasp the quintessential elements of the phenomenon. Plato asks us to picture prisoners in a cave who have been forced to learn about their world by watching shadows of real objects. These prisoners are not aware that what they take for reality are simulacra - crucial elements of their existence are always denied them.

I believe a world in which people are denied theatrical techniques are missing crucial tools of learning as are the people of the cave. This denial may originate in the system itself as we have seen in the myth of the cave but it may also originate in someone denying us access to some information. However, I suspect the most ironic cases are those in which we ourselves deny ourselves access to the missing clues. In the case of the people of the cave never touch the objects-thus they are missing information which could come to them from the senses of touch, smell, hearing, taste, and only a limited vision of the objects. That is, they would become familiar with two dimensions so that they could never grasp the distinction between a circle and a ball. I maintain that without theatrical techniques to help one learn one is in the same conditions as the prisoners of the cave.

From my limited knowledge of Phyics I have learned that travel through time isimpossible. But I do maintain that we can use theatre techniques to do something very similar. We can not learn many of the dimensions of past wars, for example. Being the actor in Billy Bishop Goes to War or watching an actor portray the role of Billy Bishop can give a person more clarity about the war than passively reading about it, for example. I believe that one can argue that one does not have to be passive in one's reading. One can imagine what he must have felt to have such experiences- but I do not think that imagining the experience would be regarded as acting in the play and added to that experience is the added benefit of having other actors treat one as Billy albeit for a short interval. In this case, one is not totally denied the experience of time travel. These experiences need not be of any genre of time period or locale. In fact, nothing is denied -one can experience any possibility that one can imagine. Not only that but the experience is a safe one. Acting in a play which is located in a dangerous setting is not ipso facto a dangerous experience itself. One can use the experience to learn how one might feel about any experience- any thus many experiences which one would not want to experience in reality- perhaps such a war setting. One is also not denied dimensions which are self imposed. We all have images of ourselves which we like to present to the world. But one can behave in a multitude of ways with the very convenient alibi that I was just acting that way because of the role I was given. Experiences of our past can be investigated using theatre techniques in ways which may be quite therapeutic. For example, children who have suffered say sexual abuse may be able to have a puppet explain what they have experienced. In this case, the puppet does all the talking allowing the child to maintain at least some sense of dignity. The dimension of fear will in this case not limit the child to tell authorities what has happened. These theatre techniques need not be lengthy or expensive. They need not be exercises in which a director has the actors present their work in a polished fashion. It can equally work in impromptu theatre classes wherein children can very quickly get up short skits to illustrate a large variety of situations. Shakespeare also reminds us that one can learn a lot about people who are watching a play. In Hamlet, we get the quote said by Hamlet himself: The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. We probably all remember the plot of the play. Hamlet was visited by the ghost of his recently deceased father. The father tells Hamlet that he wants Hamlet to avenge his murder. The suspect named is the new king who just happens to be the brother of the slain king. This new king has also married Hamlet's mother, the queen. Hamlet is certainly suspicious of the new king but wants further evidence. To get this evidence he decides to stage a play - the topic of which is a king who has been murdered. Hamlet on watching the king's reaction learns the truth that what the ghost has told him is true. I suspect most observers of people watching plays are not going to get such startling conclusions. But the belief that people do reveal many hidden aspects of their personality in the theatre is commonplace.

The ultimate experience which has influenced me is working with a variety of people doing plays. I Found as a teacher that I was able to gain insights into students and be able to give them more help in their learnin by seeing them in a theatre setting.

I would also like to make clear that theatre techniques need not take place in any formal setting. The techniques can be used by an individual in isolation. Our imagination can carry us whereever we wish to go and we can gain enormous insight into any area of thought by allowing ourselves to use its strenghts.

I think the real benefit of what I am advocating is not to turn children or anyone else for that matter into actors - or discovering murderers or even people who can tell very long winded stories. I believe the point of using theatre technique is that they allow people to discover many dimensions in narratives or any other form of learning which may well remain dormant in the more passive observer. A trained observer will discover much of their own personality and of their friends and enemies by using such methods. And they may find they have a lot of fun in the process. So, in the few remaining minutes left let's rub some ideas together in a friendly manner.