Theater As Instruction Manual For Domestic Strife

In Benjamin Kunkel‘s new play Buzz, a central character, Tom, holds forth on theater–he says “something interesting”:

TOM: The theater has a very ironic relationship to domestic life, don’t you think? Because what’s been the main preoccupation, for more than a hundred years? I’m thinking Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Pinter…About the biggest theme is the horror of conventional domestic arrangements. Even Hamm and Clov, Didi and Gogo, what are those guys if not married?….And all these spousal or couply relationships are revealed, in the theater, to consist of sterile dependency, mutual entrapment…Maybe some ritualized tragicomic bickering. Total horror show. And yet, what is the social role of theater? It’s a date, a romantic evening. For you and your partner or spouse. Couples come to the theater where they kind of peek, through the keyhole, into the butcher shop of their domestic lives, and then stand up and clap! Then they leave none the wiser and go have a late dinner with an overpriced bottle of wine. If there’s one thing the theater has consistently criticized, its conventional domestic arrangements, and if there’s one thing that as a social ritual it’s continually reinforced–conventional domestic arrangements. The whole things’s like a parable not just of the uselessness but the counterproductiveness of culture. [italics in original]

The counterproductiveness here is that theater reinforces precisely those social realities that it, by dint of theatrical artifice, aims to critique. There is another aspect to this irony: theater does not merely ‘capture’ the social reality of the couple engaged in cohabitation, in conventional domesticity, it also provides models for how that domestic conflict may be conducted.

Those that quarrel on stage, sometimes with fiery declamation, sometimes with resentful mutterings, sometimes merely with the passive-aggressive gesture or presence or silence, they instruct us in the art of the domestic dispute. Our living-room, the bedroom, the kitchen, becomes our stage; we perform on it, our performances informed by a self-consciousness about the histrionics we employ. Those mannerisms, our vocal delivery, our body language, we may have received explicit and implicit instruction on them in the theater; we evaluate our effectiveness, our deployment of rhetoric, with an eye trained keenly by the performance of actors we have seen in action, in close-up and from a distance. The theater as carefully arranged and furnished stage for the depiction of domestic strife, as space for critical commentary on the human condition when suffered in close proximity to another human, does not merely reflect social reality; it constructs it as well.

When a domestic partner accuses another one of being ‘theatrical’ they speak a greater truth than they might imagine.

Note: The counterproductiveness that Tom speaks of here is related to, but not identical with, the skepticism about culture’s civilizing effects that George Steiner expressed–in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

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