Holy Theatre; or, Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible

Amy Muse, University of St. Thomas

Course Description:

This is a course in the theory and dramatic literature of what can be called “Holy Theatre.” The course might also be titled “Staging Consciousness,” “Ontological Theatre,” “The Evolution of Modern Avant Garde Drama,” or, as some of you will find, “Weird Plays by Cool Theatre Theorists.”

“Holy Theatre” makes up one “master current” in the history of drama and theatre. Director Peter Brook defines it as “the Theatre of the Invisible – Made – Visible.” That is, this kind of drama is generally concerned with making things that are invisible to us (e.g., human consciousness, states of being, dreams, ghosts) visible through the language and technologies of the theatre. It can be contrasted with the “master current” of realism or naturalism, plays that are concerned with staging social issues. (Both tend to provide explorations of the human condition, but holy theatre moves from the “inside out” while social realism goes from the “outside in.” The very best plays, of course, generally have attributes of both currents.)

Although the “hallmark” of this tradition of theatre is an “aspiration to transcendence, to the spiritual in its widest sense” (Christopher Innes, Holy Theatre 3), the word “holy” can be a misnomer, for this course is not studying religious drama. Instead, “holy” should be imagined as a way of seeing theatre: creating and attending theatre as if it were a holy rite, a communal passage into the mysteries of life, rather than a venue for entertainment or for political debate.

Working together, we will strive to define and perhaps even experience holy theatre and to make meaningful connections between the artists, which may include questioning the grouping together of these particular dramatists and theorists under one categorical umbrella. Our learning will involve reading closely a number of plays and works of theatre theory; writing responses to the reading; viewing and reviewing a performance event; creating a manifesto; and thoroughly researching and envisioning one of the plays as if you were the dramaturg or director for a production of it. In addition, we will be learning through performing and producing scenes from the plays, experimenting with acting methods and forms of stagecraft.

Course Texts:

  • Peter Brook, The Empty Space
  • Cox and Gamer, eds. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama
  • Cardullo and Knopf, eds. Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950

Individual Plays:

  • Shakespeare, Hamlet and The Tempest
  • S. T. Coleridge, Remorse (found in The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama)
  • Joanna Baillie, Orra (found in The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama)
  • August Strindberg, The Ghost Sonata (found in Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950) & A Dream Play
  • Maurice Maeterlinck, Interior (found in Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950)
  • Valery Briusov, The Wayfarer (found in Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950)
  • Wassily Kandinsky, The Yellow Sound (found in Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950)
  • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
  • Sam Shepard, Suicide in B Flat
  • Amiri Baraka, Slave Ship
  • Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
  • Sarah Kane, 4:48 Psychosis and Blasted

Course Requirements:

  1. A manifesto for a holy theatre (about 5 pages)
  2. A performance review seen through the lens of holy theatre theories (3-4 pages)
  3. A director’s or dramaturg’s portfolio on one of the plays (12-15 page seminar paper)
  4. Weekly reading responses (2-3 pages each)
  5. Active contribution to seminar discussion

Essay 1: Manifesto for a Holy Theatre

This project will allow you to create a manifesto that sets forth a vision of holy theatre and how it could be manifested today, drawing upon the theory and drama we read this semester. This essay is a work of theory, but it should acknowledge its influences (and perhaps its opposition) and be well-grounded in examples rather than be purely abstract.

Please address the following in your manifesto, considering both the aesthetics and the politics or ethics of the various elements:

  • What is the function and purpose of your theatre?
  • What is the role of text, of drama? And, more generally, what is the role of language in your theatre?
  • Describe your ideal performance space.
  • What is the role of design and spectacle (including all aspects of the use of stage space, setting, lighting, costumes, special effects, music, dance/movement, etc.) in your theatre?
  • How should your actors perform, and what will be important in their training?
  • What is the relationship between actor and spectator? What is the ideal effect your theatre will have on the spectator?
Note: you do not have to imagine this as a professional theatre. You can certainly work in the context of educational theatre, community-based theatre, or any other context.

Essay 2: Performance Review

Attend a live performance event (not necessarily a traditional play) and write a 2-3 page review of it. While you are there, take note of all of the elements that create a theatrical experience: text, acting, directing, design, the use of space in general (the theatre building and/or performance space itself), and the actor-audience dynamic. Depending upon the specific event, some of these elements will be more noteworthy than others. Give all of them consideration in your initial analysis (something may be more important than you first realize), but don’t worry about covering all of them in your paper.

Then, reflect upon how your response to the performance is being shaped by the theoretical work on holy theatre we’re doing in class. View this performance through that lens, making connections to plays and theory we’ve been reading and discussing. What do you notice now that you would not necessarily have noticed before? Give special attention to questions of affect. How does the performance make you feel? What does the audience’s response in general seem to be? Does the performance work to build communality among its spectators?

Although you may also evaluate its merit and advise us whether or not to attend it ourselves, your review should concentrate on analysis (think about 90% analysis to 10% evaluation).

Essay 3: Dramaturg’s or Director’s Portfolio

This final project will allow you to demonstrate your understanding of a play dramatically, theatrically, theoretically, and culturally. The center of this portfolio project is a 12-15 page seminar paper in which you will develop an interpretation of one of the plays we read this semester as if you are either the dramaturg or the director for a production of it.

Dramaturg’s Portfolio: Take the role of the dramaturg, the member of the production team who is responsible for researching the play and its context and helping the director, actors, and designers understand it. For instance, the dramaturg can explain the origins of the play and its dramaturgy—i.e., its dramatic structure, how it works; can put the play into intellectual and aesthetic as well as cultural and political contexts; and trace its influence or significance.

The paper: Closely examine the text of your play in the contexts that most matter to it—whether theoretical, psychological, cultural, political, or biographical. This might include:

  • performance and reception history
  • intellectual and/or cultural influences on the playwright
  • the playwright’s aesthetic, ethical, and/or political motivation or agenda
  • a history and/or analysis of the cultural moment the play addresses
  • dramaturgical elements: style of the play, innovative aspects, staging
Throughout, use specific scenes and lines from the play to support your arguments. In addition, as illustration in the essay, analyze closely at least one key scene we should be familiar with to understand the play. Examine it according to your thesis about the play, and place the scene in the context of the whole play and its milieu.

The portfolio: The rest of the portfolio should resemble a theatre program, filled with your notes, pictures, explanations, and the like. Place carefully considered, digested bits in the portfolio that we could read rather quickly to understand the play (as opposed to lots of printouts from websites, or photocopied entire articles). For instance, you might include:

  • a biographical timeline of the author
  • quotations from the author, those involved in a production, etc.
  • quotations from scholarship on the play
  • excerpts from other works—theory, other plays—that relate to the play and help us understand it
  • photographs or artwork related to the play, its aesthetics, or its cultural context
  • pictures or excerpts from reviews of performances of the play
You can actually design and bind this as a program, if you wish. My basic expectation, though, is that you will turn in a pocket folder or ring binder with the essay and contextual material filed in it.

Director’s Portfolio: Take the role of director, the member of the production team whose vision guides the performance of the play. Provide your overall vision and show how you’d achieve it by giving specific details of dramatic (textual) and theatrical (performance) interpretation.

The paper: Develop the interpretation of your play. Throughout, use specific scenes and lines from the play to support your choices. Answer questions such as:

  • Why would you direct this play today?
  • What is your interpretation or vision of the play? Do you think you are fulfilling the playwright’s own vision of the play, or that you are extending or even challenging it in some way?
  • What is the key scene of the play and how would you stage it to convey your interpretation?
  • Where would you stage the play? How would you use the space, design the look and feel of the theatrical experience?
  • Whom would you cast?
  • Whom would you target as your audience? What kind of relationship with your audience would you strive for?

The portfolio: Submit a portfolio of images and ideas. All portfolios must include the first two items below, and all must include at least one design scheme, as relevant to your interpretation.

  • Casting choices, with sketches or photographs of actors (or non-actors)
  • A sketch of your performance space showing what kind of stage space you will use (you don’t have to use a professional theatre space), and where the audience is located in relation to the actors
  • Set design with sketches of the set and/or photographs of settings, locales, artwork, etc.
  • Lighting design ideas with sketches, photos, artwork, etc.
  • Costume design ideas with sketches, photos, artwork, swatches, etc.
  • Sound design ideas with a cd or digital file of songs, music, sound effects, etc.
  • Smell design ideas with swatches, vials, scratch-and-sniff patches, etc.

Weekly Seminar Work: Reading Responses

Each week, in response to the theory and play(s) scheduled, you are to write a response that raises critical questions and concerns for seminar discussion. If we’re reading more than one text, respond to both or all, and make connections between them. In content the responses should be thoughtful: focus on depth rather than breadth, and work closely and specifically with the texts themselves. In form the responses should be 2-3 pages, typed and double-spaced. You’ll be asked to read from them in class.

Reading Schedule

(Week 1) - Course introductions: defining holy theatre
  • Brook, “Holy Theatre” from The Empty Space
  • Demastes, Chapter One, “Toward a Materialization of Consciousness in Theater and the Sciences” in Staging Consciousness
  • Innes, “Themes and definitions” in Chapter One of Holy Theatre: Ritual and the Avant Garde
  • Nietzsche, on the Apollonian and Dionysian, in The Birth of Tragedy
  • Auslander, “Holy Theatre and Catharsis” in From Acting to Performance
  • Film clips: Waking Life, What the Bleep Do We Know?

(Week 2) - Renaissance “theatre of the imagination” and Shakespeare’s development of techniques to reveal interiority; ”strategic opacity” and innovations in the soliloquy
  • Hamlet
  • Greenblatt, Will in the World, pp. 298-324
  • Film clip: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
(Week 3) - “Rough magic” and the conjuring of remorse
  • The Tempest
  • Burwick, from Illusion and the Drama (pp. 63-71; plus Chapter Five, “Illusion and the Poetic Imagination: Coleridge”)
  • Film clip: Inception
(Week 4) - Theatre of Romanticism: Gothic spectacle and Romantic illusion
  • Coleridge, Remorse and Letter II from “Satyrane’s Letters” in Biographia Literaria
  • Cox and Gamer, Introduction to The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama
  • Reviews of Remorse from the Morning Chronicle and The Examiner (pp. 389-392 of the Broadview Anthology)
  • Thomas, “Seeing Things (‘As They Are’)”
  • Haney, from The Challenge of Coleridge, pp. 146-49 and 196-99
(Week 5) – Staging passions: “hauntology” and ontology
  • P. B. Shelley, “Lift Not the Painted Veil”
  • Baillie, Orra
  • Review of A Series of Plays and “Remarks on the Plays on the Passions” (pp. 378-83 of the Broadview Anthology)
  • Carlson, “Baillie’s Orra: Shrinking in Fear”
(Week 6) – Sympathetic curiosity and the need for an intimate theatre
  • excerpts from “Introductory Discourse” and “To the Reader” of A Series of Plays (pp. 357-378 of the Broadview Anthology)
  • Burroughs, from Closet Stages, pp. 86-109.
  • Forbes, “‘Sympathetic Curiosity’ in Joanna Baillie’s Theater of the Passions”
  • Film clip: A Single Man
(Week 7) – Staging the unconscious, dreams, liminal states
  • Strindberg, “Open Letter to the Intimate Theater”
  • The Ghost Sonata and A Dream Play
  • Film clips: The Science of Sleep, What Dreams May Come
(Week 8) - Symbolist drama and “total theatre”
  • Maeterlinck, Interior and “The Modern Drama”
  • Kleist, “On the Marionette Theater”
  • Briusov, The Wayfarer and “Against Naturalism in the Theater”
  • Kandinsky, The Yellow Sound and “On Stage Composition”
(Week 9) – Theatre stripped of theatricality: staging existence
  • Beckett, Waiting for Godot
  • Esslin, from Theatre of the Absurd
  • Essif, from Empty Figure on an Empty Stage
(Week 10) – Holy performers, theatre as holy rite and sacrifice
  • Overview of 1960s-70s Off-off-Broadway movement, Happenings, the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, the Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69
  • Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” “Theater of Cruelty” from The Theatre and Its Double
  • Chaikin, from The Presence of the Actor
  • Shepard, Suicide in B Flat
  • Grotowski, “The Theatre’s New Testament” from Towards a Poor Theatre
  • Film clip: My Dinner with Andre
(Week 11) – Catharsis and communion: holy theatre and the Black Arts Movement
  • Baraka, Slave Ship
  • Baraka, “The Revolutionary Theatre”
  • Shange, for colored girls…
(Week 12) – Presentation of your own theatre manifestos

(Week 13) – Where can we find contemporary holy theatre?
  • Sarah Kane, 4:48 Psychosis and Blasted
(Week 14) – Dramaturg’s/Director’s portfolio due