The Magic Circle of the Stage

satirical essay on public performance and criticism

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

The Magic Circle of the Stage

(a satirical essay on the history of public performance and criticism by Rolf-Peter Wille)

The ancient Greek amphitheaters have the best acoustics in the world. So I was told. These are round open-air theaters. You can stand on the center stage and drop a needle. The audience around you—and above you—can still hear the needle drop. So I was told. Two years ago we went to Athens. When we visited the Acropolis we bought tickets for a performance of Othello in the amphitheater. It is true! I could clearly hear everything—in Greek.

The Romans had their theaters too. Five years ago we visited Rome. When we went to the Coliseum we bought tickets. We didn’t have to watch Othello in Latin but we could see the "backstage" area. Actually it was below stage, like our National Concert Hall. This is the area where they kept the lions and prisoners (I am talking about the Coliseum now). The prisoners had their moments of gladiator glory onstage before they were torn up by the hungry lions. Like in a Greek amphitheater, the audience, or should I say the spectators, were sitting around and above the stage. But they didn’t go there to hear any drops of needles. They rather came to hear the mighty roar of the lions and the horrifying screams of their dinner.

This, of course, happened a while ago in history. They still do have their bullfights in Spain today. But usually it is the beast that is butchered by the toreador.

It seems that the performers’ stage has gradually risen in the course of history. Already during the French Revolution people were guillotined on a stage far above their audience. (These performances were greatly indebted to Baroque music because the instruments for beheading were manufactured by Tobias Schmidt, a German harpsichord maker.) In the Olympic Games, the modern ones, the gold medal winner stands on a pedestal somewhat higher than the runner-ups.

It is quite remarkable indeed that the stage has become a place for rulers and criminals alike. In his Scarlet Letter Hawthorne puts the "adulteress" on the stake of Puritan America. The spectators were the accusers. But soon the roles changed dramatically. During a Hamburg recital (a recital at Hamburg that is) of Liszt in 1840, the Danish writer Hans-Christian Andersen observed curiously how Liszt appeared at first like a "demon nailed to his instrument; he was on the rack, his blood flowed and his nerves trembled." Then he metamorphosed into a saint. Finally it was the audience that became the victim and was ruled from stage. Performers, actors and musicians learned to bewitch their worshipers, enchant them, enthrall them, make them loose their senses, scream like the idiot, faint like the sick, or weep like the child.

The stage. The place where you can become a ruler, an absolute monarch. Or the place where you will be torn up by the lions. No wonder people suffer from stage fright. The very moment you enter the stage your personality changes and you will be somebody else. There is a magic power in this magic spot. Just by entering it, its magic is bestowed upon you. Like that magic imperial gown: whoever wears it will be the king for as long as he wears it. Even if you are a child or an alien. You wear the gown and everybody will prostrate himself on the ground. Sometimes, during a concert, a stage-hand will enter to move the piano. And the audience will start to applaud the stage-hand—only because he enters the stage.

Actors became so powerful in controlling the emotions of their audience that they needed police protection after the performance. During a play of Othello in Germany, the audience became so angry with Jago, the bad guy, that they threatened to lynch the actor. Apparently they had completely forgotten that they were watching "just" a performance by actors.

No wonder, writers like Berthold Brecht in the 20th Century wanted to change all that. The so-called "epic theater" was invented. Brecht was looking for an intelligent audience. An audience that would not beat up the actors, or eat them alive, like those Roman lions. The ideal spectator—no longer watching anything spectacular—would be cool and detached. He’d sit there with crossed legs and a cigarette in his cold hand. I do not know why a burning cigarette has become the symbol of cool detachment. The actors would no longer fool the audience. No longer would they draw from their real life experiences like in the Stanislavski theater. The stage—no longer very high—would be sober and the scenery without any ornaments or false illusions.

Needless to say: After the dramatic audiences—those that went to the Coliseum, the French guillotines, Liszt, etc.—and the epic audiences—those smoking through a Brecht play or freezing through all-Hindemith recitals—came the couch potato audiences—those like ourselves that fall asleep in front of our TV or go to concerts in Taiwan. In this last, and unfortunately most modernistic phase the stage has finally lost its rhetorical importance. No longer is it the magic place where you can discover your secret powers. No longer will you be king or criminal.

Wait. I am too hasty. A criminal, I think, you can still be. I have somehow forgotten our Taiwanese critics. These are quite a peculiar species, since they belong neither to the performer nor to the audience. Not as powerful as lions they can nevertheless tear you to pieces—in a somewhat less graceful manner though. But it cannot be denied, that through this criticism at least one final dramatic aspect of the stage can be miraculously preserved.

In order to properly tear the performer to pieces, the good critic, like the good lion, should not have any mercy with the performer. For this reason he shouldn’t be too familiar with the insights of the performance. A professional music critic for example is usually a musical amateur, somebody who has neither studied music nor ever appeared onstage himself. Nevertheless he has to be a truly citric critic and write in a manner that puts even a world famous teacher to shame. It goes without saying that a critic who has never held a stringed instrument in his hand, has to lecture the violinist or cellist on the exactitude and quality of vibrato, tuning, etc.

It is only regrettable, I think, that these fantastic reviews appear so late in the papers. By the time they have appeared in print our typical couch potato will have completely forgotten the performance and the dramatic impact of the criticism is completely lost. I recommend immediate criticism. The democratic concert should be born. The audience which will be entirely made up of critics will throw its lemons right after or even during the performance. The performer will cower sheepishly on a stage below the critics, bowing down like an "enemy of the people" during the struggle meetings of China’s Cultural Revolution. The "people" will ring the bell and start to criticize right away: "How dare you take left pedal in Bach? "Your dynamics are too exaggerated. That’s not Beethoven." Then everybody will democratically vote for an improvement. "Who thinks, that a crescendo will be better here? Okay. The majority. Make a crescendo."

I have to admit that my idea is not too original or too farfetched. A Soviet orchestra, called Persimfans, voted democratically on crescendos and diminuendos. I also heard a rumor about a music department in Taipei which has a special graduate seminar on criticizing the performer in public. If this is true, then finally, after all, we will go back to the good old Roman days.

related essays by Rolf-Peter Wille:

The Dignity of the Performer
Betrayed by the Audience

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