Recently reading Jonathan Kalb’s Great Lengths, his book about marathon theatre productions, I began to muse about the idea of excess. In recent years it has been not only excessive length which has captured the imagination of artists, but also excessive action, excessive volume. In 2007, the live band of Theater of a Two-Headed Calf’s Drum of the Waves of Horikawa provided an extremely loud musical accompaniment. Drew Baker’s 2008 composition Stress Position, written for Marilyn Nonken, electronically amplifies a piano played at ffff in an effort to test and even exceed the toleration of the audience’s hearing. In 2009, John Zorn’s score for Richard Foreman’s Astronome was played so loudly that the Ontological’s ushers puckishly distributed disposable earplugs to audience members as they entered. And recently, Howard Barker has been exploring the notion of plethora in new plays and essays that similarly test the audience’s abilities to construct theatrical and dramatic experience.
What is perhaps ironic about all of these is that in an effort to overwhelm the sense of hearing, they fail, are doomed at the outset to failure — the performer is in the same room as the audience, and what would overwhelm the latter would overwhelm the former. So long as the performer continues at that volume, it remains humanly tolerable, if challenging (though only somewhat; these 50-year-old ears aren’t perhaps as sensitive as they used to be, and you’ll please forgive me if I ask you to speak to me a little louder). In most cases, this just becomes loud noise, loud enough to be tolerated, its extension over time becomes not illuminating but tedious, if annoying.
This kind of extremity, combined with an extremity of duration, design, and gesture, intends to overwhelm the individual spectator, and at the same time dissolve his individual identity into that of the collective of the audience. It is pertinent to ask at this point, then, whether this excess is a genuine insight into the noise-filled urban culture in which it is presented or it is merely a reflection of that culture — if it is art, once again, reduced to being a mirror of the world rather than a window into what lies behind it. The noise, the excess, makes it extremely hard to think — that is the intent behind it; we are instead to experience, as merely one atom in the pool of the collective audience, this monolithic excess, our own personalities erased, reduced to mere hearers rather than individual agents of perception. The experience of nuance is difficult, if not impossible. It is art — theatre and music — as steamroller.
Compare, at the other extreme, John Cage’s landmark 1952 composition 4’33″. In this brief work, composer, performer, and auditor collaborate to shape the impure silence and stillness of the performance space in time, contemplation, and gesture. (The title of Cage’s most important book, Silence, is not ironic.) The experience of 4’33″ is as disciplined for performer as it is for the auditor; additionally, it is impossible for the performer to shape the experience of the individual hearing it. The chance operations involved in the work are the possession not only of the performer but also the audience; the performer cannot dictate, in the end, what the audience is to hear. She can only attempt to shape it as the center of the visual experience of the work, provide alternatives for attention, rather than dictate the eradication of nuance. In recent years, even the stillness and silence envisioned by the piece have become intolerable to some, who have interrupted these performances with, in one case I know of, political statements — as if 4’33″ represented a kind of aesthetic and political quietism; the collective bursts into the experience of the individual once again, interrupting and undermining individual reception.
In terms of excessive length, the most recent example is the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life & Times. The first four parts of this very long work (which may, in the end, reach 24 hours) can be experienced either as a marathon or sequentially. This requires, obviously, a major investment of time (and in some cases money) for anyone who wishes to experience it as a whole. Because of this, it raises the question whether or not the audience for this experience is composed of a rather peculiar elite: an elite that can afford the time and the money to see it. After all, time spent with Life & Times is time not spent someplace else, at work, with family, or at even another play. Through its excessive vision and practice, is NTOK actually alienating and shutting out that portion of the audience that does not have the temporal or economic resources to attend?
And it is perhaps a question of resources. What I am left with, in the end, is a question about whether the theatre should concentrate on doing more with less once again, instead of more with more (or, in the worst cases, less with more). We are constantly reminded of the extent to which corporations and governments are co-opting swathes of land, of money, of natural resources that might be better left to the conservation of smaller groups. When theatre artists attempt to similarly exploit those resources — of sensual tolerance, of attention, of individual agency, of time, of money — is it not just as arrogant, just as authoritarian? Is it not yet another imposition of the collective or the dictatorial artist upon individual consciousness and the ability to make sense of the world? If we are encouraged to conserve our planet’s resources for the use of others, artists should consider conserving these resources for the use of other artists and their audiences as well.
Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit the anechoic chamber at Cooper Union. It was an extraordinary experience: in filtering out all noise, even the echo, one hears the pulse of the self. It is unique, even disturbing — but for all that, it encourages the person in the chamber to genuinely feel and hear the unique rhythms and pulses of one’s own bodied experience. I’m not suggesting that art necessarily attempt to imitate explicitly this experience. But it is an alternative to some art — which, at times, is like standing in a subway tunnel as two screeching, speeding trains collide in front of you in slow motion.
For an alternative vision, see “Theatre as sanctuary.”