Speculations On Wellman, Part Three

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In Part Three of my Speculations On Wellman series, I continue my exploration of Mac Wellman’s massive essay on theatre, Speculations.  Parts one and two have both been shifted over to the new blog site.  Today’s post covers pages eight and nine of the essay and concludes, in my opinion, the introductory portion of the work.  Quotes from Speculations are in bold.

All theater is nested; no other than nested

theater is possible,

Theater may be nested in a time, a practice, or a

culture. This is the What About of the theater.

In his earlier discussions of phase-space and the distinction between Strange and Charm, Wellman found recourse to the term apparence.  Beginning on the bottom of page eight and the top of page nine, he circles back to this idea, making it clearer to his reader.

Wellman claims that all theater is nested, which is only to say that all theater exists in something.  A context.  A painting hung in a church is not only in the physical context of the church – the pews, transept, altar – but in the cultural nest of the practiced religion.  It functions as part of a larger story, a system of values, and an action.  Theater may exist  in a similarly narrow and well-defined nest (it seems simple enough to grasp the context of an elementary school play or many Broadway musicals).  But even when the nest is not so obvious, the act must still occur within the limits of a time, a practice, or a culture, for these are the stuff of which theatre is made, the water in which we swim, and to imagine theater without a context is not to picture a scene of mutual incomprehension, but rather it is to propose an absurdity.

Dallas Theater Center has just opened a production of The Odd Couple.  This play, like any other, is complexly nested.  By virtue of its seat within the Wyly Theatre in Dallas’ Arts District, this Odd Couple is a kind of high-culture beacon, while at the same time its script, dating from 1965, has long achieved the status of a middle-brow, stage-worthy standard.  A spectator coming to it will know, whether she recognizes it or not, that she is at once participating in an American comedy classic – with its overlapping contexts of mid-century American culture, the transgressive zest of comedy, and the metaphorical pantheon designated by classic – and coming to experience what the City of Dallas, the political and governmental entity, offers as art for the pleasure of the public.  The script itself is comprehensible in terms of (apparently) universal character types and 60s cultural mores.  A faithful production of that script in 2013 will largely be comprehensible through the audience’s recognition of those nests, and both audience and script will be nested together in the Dallas Theater Center’s Rem Koolhaas-designed home in downtown Dallas.

Space within the theater is, as it were, magnetized

by the nest, so recognized. And this is the work

of both Strangeness and Charm. And the

theater– a place for showing, theatron, is

thereby endowed.

In order for the theater to make sense we must see something.  And, like the radiant spectrum only made visible once divided by a prism, the theater can only be seen by virtue of its nest.  Because the word theater is drawn from the greek theatron (“seeing place”), the building we call a theater does not rightly exist or come into possession of its name until the nest around it makes the acts inside visible.

However, it is important to remember that the nests Wellman posits, unlike prisms, are themselves for the most part invisible and taken for granted.  We, the audience, are generally inside several of the broader nests, too, and by habit we are accustomed to forget there is an outside or an above.

If we understand Edward Albee only through our lives as 20th-21st century Americans, we are at the same time unlikely to realize in the act of watching A Delicate Balance that it could be otherwise.

All theater space is thus filled with an infinity of

lines– or vectors (Valery on Da Vinci)– which

determine the cogency (or lack thereof) of the

theatrical Apperception. (Kant)

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I return to Day One and our image of the theatron.  Now the vertices, in addition to being time and space, are the mesh of the invisible nest; they are culture, practice, and time.  The point moving in this space is the play in action, and its existence and form can be charted where it strikes the fixed beams.  The play proves to be sense or nonsense only in confrontation with its nests.  Since we are in some ways representatives and arbiters of those nests (paradoxically, the nest we are not ourselves aware of can only envelope the play if we are there to make it), this additionally serves as a reminder that an act of theater is validated, or not, by confrontation with the audience.

Apperception is derived from the French word apercevoir, which generally means to become aware of, but is also commonly used in the sense of to catch sight of.  Though Wellman comes by it through Kant and the rather strict philosophical use of the word, I think it is helpful to keep this catching sight of in mind – the theater Wellman describes is not something we necessarily become aware of and then rest with; because it is always in motion, theater is something that appears suddenly disappears and must be found again.

Kant is probably the most significant influence Wellman has named so far on the view of theater espoused in Speculations.  He’s one of the most significant philosophers in history, and (goody for us) famously difficult to read.  I’m going to try to outline some of the connections between Kant’s work and Speculations without plowing our car straight through the guardrail.

For our purposes, the most important thing to know about Kant’s transcendental-idealist epistemology is that knowledge of the world is attained through sensory data that is then filtered through and organized by an apparatus of mind.  This is to say, broadly, that our experience of the external world is in fact a function of our minds.

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Going back to Week One, this line of reasoning is reminiscent of the brief discussion of phenomenology.  And it ought to be: Kant is one of the ancestors of 20th century phenomenology.  He distinguishes between the world of phenomena – these are the objects as we experience them through the structures of our minds (the computer I see, hear, and feel myself typing on, for example) – and the world of noumena – the world of the things-in-themselves, to which we have no access.  If you recall, in Week One I said that Speculations is a phenomenological work, and thus Wellman is interested primarily in objects, such as theater, as experienced by us.

Look at the theatron.  Consider Wellman’s phase-space (the dimension in which theatricality occurs).  Think of the nests of culture.  All these are elements of the mental apparatus, or the structure of mind that orders our experience of the world.  In fact, one of the most important rules of Kant’s idealism is that time and space exist as categories in the brain.  They are not external objects, but rather the concepts by which we measure them.  Not the play, but the dividing vectors, the graph on which the play is plotted.  Without the structuring mechanism of the mind, life would be an incoherent perceptual storm.  Without the nests, there could be no theater.  Or as Kant puts it, “concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”

This Apperception is not an idea, nor a concept; it

is a geometrical solid, of crystalline

architecture, and in these pages it will be

denominated an “Apparence”.

Ordinary apperception, in the Kantian sense, is the way the mind applies concepts to an experience.  As a gross analogy (warning: this is not precisely how Kant pictures this working), imagine seeing a red ball.  Your perception of the red ball is made possible by structures in the mind (categories) that locate the ball in space and time.  Further, the ball has qualities such as roundness and redness.  It resembles similar objects you have seen at other times, also containing either roundness or redness.  To unify these discrete chunks of information is an act of apperception.  Apperception is what allows you to take all of that information and recognize you are looking at a ball.

On the graph of Wellman’s theatron, the play (perceptual experience) hits a series of discrete points along the vertices (nests, categories).  Apperception is what allows you to connect those dots into a unified shape.  And that shape, that geometrical solid is called an apparence.

(Somewhat confusingly, Wellman uses the word apperception here as an object, while Kant uses it as an abstract quality, so you end up saying that Kant’s apperception is what lets you recognize Wellman’s apperception.  Whatever.  For more on Kant, I recommend Dan Robinson’s Oxford lectures on Critique Of Pure Reason.  They’re available for free here, and I’m oh-so-glad I sunk a few weeks into watching them last summer.  There’s also the Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, a terrific, if intimidating, source).

All theater rests on an awareness of Apparence.

Character, plot, division of entities, coming into

and going out ofs, and especially the matter of

What About, all these too are part of this

coming into awareness.

Now Wellman steps back to connect his newly-defined term to theater generally.  “All theater rests on an awareness of Apparence.”  Remember that apparence is equivalent, in Wellman’s formulation, to apperception, and apperception, in addition to how I’ve described it above, means to become aware of.  Therefore, by a quick run of substitution, we find that “all theater rests on an awareness of becoming aware.”

I’m making a leap here, but I read this to mean that theater depends on our ability to unify and recognize.  Character, as it exists on stage, is a sequence of discrete moments performed by actors (typically one actor per character, but not always).  Plot is a sequence of moments composed by those actors playing those characters (typically with linear, causal progress, but not always).  Theme, story, the value of the enterprise – all these great abstractions, too, arrive divided, in a rain of sensory data like that which Kant describes.  Only when we unify the experience can we recognize these elements.  And it seems to me that on top of that, Wellman is arguing that for theater to be possible, we have to know that we can unify and recognize its constituent parts.  By believing we will become aware of – catch sight of – a unified appearance, we endow the array of entities aiming to make the appearance with theatrical life.

So, let’s summarize! (cue music)

Wellman is proposing a radical way of looking at theater.  Where the old, Aristotelian model is a fixed structure, represented as a series of connected actions across time, Wellman describes the play as mutable, as a point changing as it moves through phase-space.  There is something indeterminate, relativistic in Wellman’s theater.  Much as the sciences had, after nearly 2,000 years mostly spent splashing around in Aristotle’s wake (in Europe, anyway), to leap up and leave the old man behind, Wellman’s theater breaks with old verities and embraces modern ideas of philosophy and physics and art from figures such as Da Vinci, Wittgenstein, Einstein, and Kant.

I note here that Wellman’s complaint isn’t with the ancient theater but rather with a modern theater hidebound in its fealty to the old truths.

Theater is a thing that comes to exist in front of us.  In order for it to exist, it must be nested in some admixture of culture, time, and practice.  This context, which allows us to understand theater, operates in a way like Kant’s categories, which sort perceptual data.  Once our mental structures sort the data, or once the play makes contact with its surroundings (us and the environment we carry with us), another faculty acts to make us aware of the unity of the experience.  Once all the points are plotted, we draw the connecting lines and recognize the form.  And that is how it is possible for the tenuous order of art to surface out of a chaos of uncharged materials, for something to appear out of nothing.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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