Mac Wellman is Donald I. Fine Distinguished Professor of Play Writing at Brooklyn College.
Theater is a fractal phenomenon.
Theater is a fractal, in the sense that when you take all the drama out of the architectural enclosure of a place you have not removed anything. Certainly not the drama.
You have not removed the drama because drama in the truest sense is everywhere and nowhere. This is the strangest thing a person can know but it is true.
Drama is likewise a species of repression, and therefore likes to hide. Drama exists for herself alone sub specie aeternitatis.
Theatre says, Showbiz showbiz showbiz. Drama says, This will kill that.
In other words, if a person in a play is being dramatic (which is to say melodramatic, at least in the context of Anglo-American theatre); and say you do not like this Being Dramatic as it is heavy-handed, obvious, and over-determined; and say you decide to take this person out and shoot him and happily do so; and say you go and take this dead person and stuff him down the hole the poor GOSLING mistook for HOOLE space and so fell down in folly and was eaten alive by small chattering creatures of the tribe of the Berkeley Silver-Tipped Fennec. And so forth. And anyhow the Dramatic Person has been removed and peace and quiet have apparently returned but only apparently because unlike apparence what is apparently the case is only an appearance and often thus a case of the unwarranted assumption. The audience notices that although the Big Person of Drama has been removed the total amount of drama per se—drama qua drama remains the same. Only one does not know exactedally where it is; only you do know it is there because the space of the theater is full of strangeness and charm: apparence. Because there is now very little going on does not mean there is nothing going on. Because if your mind and senses have not been numbed and dampened down by continual din of the theatricality of appearance, hooting and holleration, and all the other forms of extensive manifold conboberation—you will begin to feel the prickle of the uncanny as one of the remaining actors does a nothing-something with her great toe (the left one) within the house of her shoe, one of a pair of pretty red pumps.
Spirit is action; to dramatize is to think against the self. (Kierkegaard and Hegel)
How are we to read the Mechanism of the world? How are we to portray the world?
The pressure of that which is “outside” language, this is the force that fills what has been incredulously deemed empty.
That pressure is repression. What fills that empty place is apparence.
Because the world is broken we cannot get our representations right.
(Indeed, to say someone else is responsible is to step off of the carousel.)
The pressure of that which is outside language effects language nonetheless.
This can happen because in the theater as in life (theater is not like life; it is life) we cannot will such and such an outcome, except on a trivial level.
Other outcomes determine what moment what event what realization what slight but infinitely significant physical gesture (such as the indignant flaring of the little finger).
The willing will cannot be fully expressed in the act, as measure, except in the realm of what is already known.
Architectural-sculptural necessity determines all acts of the agent expressed as will.
The arc of this process is what causes wonder.
Wonder is the occasion of passing from one state to another.
In the apperception of wonder the distinction between mind and matter is set to one side; unless we are dead to the world we are touched to the heart
and nothing more is seen to be done. Space and moment are filled with what they are filled with.
Repression has done her work rightly.
Repression has, therefore, created the theatrical manifold.
Accordingly, there are two kind of manifolds (Hulme); those which can and those which cannot be taken apart.
There is another way of regarding the matter; for there are several degrees of manifoldyness depending, for instance, on the degree of strangeness and charm.
Depending on the degree of explainability and non-explainability.
Depending on whether a manifold can be unfolded in time (or time as though it were space, i.e. phase-space).
Depending on the scatter effect, which is the flow of intelligence through visible space.
Depending on the nature of the questions raised.
Depending on the nature of the question framed if it is different from the question raised.
Sometimes apparence and the apperception of that apparence are dimorphic, and have to do with the gap or tear that is revealed; the discontinuity that has been inscribed and the question that is framed.
This discontinuity appears on a perpendicular to the square of the narrative of the Aristotelian, and falls under the rubric of the strange.
The strange is the new dimension that is formed.
We are all aware of the strange, but there is no easy way to talk about this in terms of appearance.
This radiant is the perfect; he indicates what is beyond, perpendicular to the square of the Already known.
Charm is what occupies the space so filled.
Charm and DETAIL form an intensive manifold.
In the world of Apparence, DETAIL functions much like Dramatic Action on the plane of the Aristotelian.
Dramatic action on the plane of the Aristotelian drives out detail.
Dramatic action drives out detail because it is like the actor who is in fear of being upstaged.
When we are in fear of being upstaged then we do our best to upstage everyone and everything else.
The foreground is a perpetual crisis.
The foreground is a perpetual crisis and the background disappears.
This crisis is a perpetual Roaring Boy and a darling of the plebeian.
The better sort of plebeian who is the crested idiot.
The crested idiot fancies himself superior because he is interested in the only sort of detail consistent with the predilection of the Roaring Boy: psychological detail.
How is psychological detail different from other detail?
Psychological detail is usually nested safely (and solely) within the precincts of the Already known.
We experience the Aha! of recognition.
Psychological detail reminds us of what we already know we think about ourselves.
Psychological detail allows us to stop thinking.
Repression flees as soon as psychological detail shows up.
We relax and stop thinking and shed a tear (ear) in sentimental regard for our self when we were young and naive and perhaps a little innocent.
A false picture appears (an interior appearance).
A false picture appears and apparence is gone.
Excerpted from “Speculations: An Essay on the Theater” (2004), in The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.