Aug 19, 2008

Cage as Theater

No, you haven't accidentally stumbled onto George Hunka's blog, but as if to fill in the blanks of the musings I concluded with below--about music as a universal language, and how that might apply to theater--my wife and I took in a free outdoor performance by members of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes, basically a training ground for newbie French musicians, in Aix-en-Provence, and the penultimate piece was a rousing performance of John Cage's "Living Room Music." This 1940 "percussion" quartet calls for its players to come up with instruments that are everyday objects, and almost invites a theatricalized staging.

True to form, three young musicians in household clothes--one in nothing but a towel--convened around a table as if on the bleary morning after a party, and a fourth entered from the audience with a suitcase, like a couch-surfing tourist. Soon, quite casually, the piece began, and the instruments employed included empty pop cans, wooden spoons, and balled-up newspapers. The fellow with the suitcase soon opened it up, extracted a pillow, and mimed sleep under the table. Another man in evening dress went to a podium and began to read repetitive English words. At one point, another player went to a vibraphone and played actual notes.

As you might imagine, this meta-musical extravaganza woke the audience up, after a somewhat dreary recital of languid chamber music that was heavy on the harp (I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, but still). What struck me, as I'm sure was Cage's intention, is how live it felt--in the sense that every step on the stage, creak of a chair, shared look among the musicians, giggle from an onlooker, felt like part of the piece. I wrote in my pad "every step is percussion...or 'business,' " meaning that this piece, as much as any I've witnessed, didn't just straddle the line between music and theater--it obliterated it.

What does that mean for theater? It struck me when I saw Quatuor Atrium's brilliant string quartet performance in Mons the previous week that music communicates so immediately not only because it transcends a language barrier but because the content is not intellectual or situational--we don't have to buy into any fictitious reality or relationships onstage for the piece to work on us. But a musical performance does create a reality, and a matrix of relationships between audience, and between performers--as if a piece of music is enacting a drama, a competition, an idyll. Some of this is in the score, much of it in the interpretation and the space.

It seems to me that theater can be most alive when it pierces through verisimilitude, when it brushes past or transcends an inevitably awkward attempt at representing life and relationships and even story, and works on and with the players, the room, the music of its language and its choreography. Of course, having said that, I realize I've seen a lot of bad theater that aspired to do exactly that, and that I'm under-rating the very real craft of dramatic structure and storytelling. (I also realize, and maybe this ought to go without saying, that these thoughts are so not new as to be banal.) But I do think there's something about the live theatrical moment, the frisson we seek as theater-makers and theatergoers, that has nothing to do with story or character or theme per se but is closer to music's universality and immediacy, which is at the root of why there is theater at all.

Not that I was working on the honeymoon, mind you.

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