On the cover of a handsome brochure put out by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee describing the forthcoming “Olympic Arts Festival” is a photograph of an actor looking into a mirror as he makes himself up for what could be a Shakespearean fool or a commedia dell’arte harlequin. The photograph is an emblem for the festival, a diverse 10-week-long offering of music, opera, dance, theatre and graphic arts exhibitions which will precede and then run simultaneously with this summer’s Olympic Games.
Is there anything to surprise us in this juxtaposition of art and sports? There shouldn’t be, although one might be taken aback by the lavishness of the cultural side of the dual agenda, the seriousness with which the LAOOC seems to have taken the injunction of the Olympic Charter that there be artistic events accompanying each Olympiad, as there were in ancient Greece, and that these events “be of an equal standard” to the athletic ones.
Art and sports, in particular theatre and sports—can they live easily in each other’s theoretical and actual company? What are their evident and more subtle affinities? Here is some testimony. In an issue of his magazine The Mast in 1913 Gordon Craig announced plans for a theatre school and declared: “I want Sportsmen in this school, and I can train them to be craftsmen; and out of these may emerge one Artist. But an Artist who is not a Sportsman is an impossibility—so I want Sportsmen first.” In the same article he said that “You must play at Art as you play at cricket,” and, finally, “There are many people who believe that Art is different from Sport, whereas all art is a form of sport.”
At a lecture in Moscow in 1922 Meyerhold said that “only via the sports arena can we approach the theatrical arena,” and in 1929 he wrote the following apotheosis of sports as a socio-aesthetic model for theatre: “Consider the packed crowds at football, volleyball and ice-hockey matches: soon we shall he presenting dramatized sporting events in the same stadia. The modern spectator demands the kind of thrill which only the tension generated by an audience of thousands can give.”
Brecht is undoubtedly the theatrical figure most closely associated with an enthusiasm for sports. His friendship with six-day bike riders and the German boxing champion Samson Korner in the ’20s is well known (and is reminiscent of Hemingway’s cultivation of bullfighters and Norman Mailer’s of various athletes) and he brought a sports motif into several of his plays—the roped-off arenas of the Little Mahagonny and The Measures Taken—as well as using the idea of an athletic contest as a metaphor for watching drama. In a prefatory note to In the Jungle of Cities he wrote: “You are observing the inexplicable boxing match between two men, and you are witnessing the downfall of a family which has come out of the savannah in to the great city. Do not wrack your brain about the motives of this match, but concentrate on the human stakes involved, objectively judge the styles of the antagonists, and fix your whole interest on the finish.”
Now it has to be more than cultural coincidence that three such influential theorists and practitioners of theatre in our century as Craig, Meyerhold and Brecht should hae regarded the world of sports as so useful to their purposes. What makes it all the more significant is that their particular aesthetic and dramaturgical ideas, their specific intentions for the theatre, were so dissimilar. Yet different as they were from one another, they shared a thirst for they all renewal, they all regarded theatre as desparately in need of revitalization—and it’s in this zone of projected reform and revolution that the idea of athletic endeavor came to recommend itself to them.
Their tacit agreement begins in the place where we would most expect it, the role of the body in sports and theatre, not to mention dance (where movements have, of course, the closest resemblance to movements of an athletic kind). In these activities it’s a commonplace to say that the performer’s or player’s instrument is his or her body: the body deployed in space, within fixed boundaries, for a more or less predetermined time and, most often, in formal relation to other bodies. It’s abundantly clear that the dancer and athlete have to possess keen physical ability, but only in our own century has it been truly recognized that the actor has to have it too.
Though he had other things in mind as well, Craig’s solicitation of “sportsmen” for his acting school was an implicit acknowledgement of his belief in the need for actors to have bodily power. So, too was Meyerhold “biomechanics,” a regimen for actors based on rather cloudy notions, but derived at least in part from an idea of the athlete. Brecht as usual was even more direct. The actor, he wrote, “must train his material (his body) so that it is capable of executing instantly those tasks which are dictated externally.” (One startling quality of Grotowski’s actors when we first saw them here was their tremendous athleticism.)
In the theatre the source of external dictation is the text, or for a non-textual or only partly textual work a directorial idea or schema, as in dance it’s the choreography and in athletic events the procedures and demands of the particular game or sport. In all three activities physical prowess is on display (among other things, to be sure), exhibited before an audience, whose presence is motivated (ideally, at any rate) by the desire to see skilled and dedicated performances. (We know that many people come to the theatre, or to the sports arena, for that matter, for plangent names, the glamor of an occasion, etc.) This expectation on the part of the spectator or member of the audience was precisely what Brecht and Meyerhold (and we can assume Craig, too) found so often unfulfilled in the theatre of their time; actors weren’t nearly as physically competent nor as committed as athletes, who on most occasions gave their all the way actors were seldom moved to do. Beyond this, but still within the realm of the performer-audience relationship, they saw that the conventional theatrical event offered little of the relaxed yet intense pleasure of most athletic contests. When Meyerhold spoke of the excitement crowds felt at sporting events, the thing he wished to reproduce in the theatre, he was concerned, to be sure, with socialist goals—theatre for the masses, and so on—but his perception went deeper. Brecht gave eloquent voice to it.
The spectators at sports events, he wrote, have fun; they drink, they smoke (long before the news about tobacco and cancer Brecht advocated what he called an “epic smoking theatre” as one means of reducing the deadening solemnity with which “serious” theatre is usually treated), they cheer and are “opinionated.” More than that—one of the central ways sports and theatre can resemble and inform each other—both types of audience ought to be knowledgeable about what is going on. But only the sports public actually is. “They know exactly what is going to take place when they buy their tickets; and that is exactly what does take place when they are in their seats.” Whereas, Brecht went on, the “middle-class” audience for most theatre seems to have no idea of what is supposed to happen. This doesn’t mean that the audience should know the exact details of what is to take place, just as sports spectators don’t know what the score will be. Brecht had no thought of undermining suspensefulness—the narrative or dramaturgical tensity of unfolding action—which keeps people in the theatre the way the uncertainty of the game, the “drama” of the changing score, keeps them in the stadium. (The suspensefulness of a new play derives directly from its plot being unknown to the spectator, whereas that of a classic comes in part from interest in the “how” of performance and in part from that mysterious process by which we suspend our knowledge so as to experience it again; we know Hamlet will die but we’re still on the edge as the death draws near.)
No, what Brecht meant was that the type of experience should be known, intimately so, that there should be no mystification or obfuscation. As the football enthusiast knows that the teams will try to move down the field against each other in order to score and the boxing fan knows that the opponents will try to knock each other out or simply box more skillfully, so the theatrical spectator should understand what is at stake in a drama and how its procedures work. Naturally there are differences; the theatre, for example, carries a load of “meaning,” of discursive truth, that the athletic event mostly lacks. But at the theatre, Brecht thought, one should also have the pleasure of an immediate kind, one should be opinionated, take sides, be caught up in a “contest.”
If there’s a resemblance between sports and theatre in that they’re both a form of contest (the word “antagonist” originated in theatre and was adopted by sports), there’s still greater affinity suggested by the two activities sharing another concept and word: “play.” And this leads us back to the connection between theatre and athletic striving such as was recognized by the Greeks at the classical Olympic Games and taken up by the framers of the modern Olympic Charter. Indeed, it takes us to the still larger connection between sports and games and art in general. Once again Brecht is a source of knowledge. In a passage that abashed some of his grimmer acolytes when he wrote it in the ’30s and continues to startle some of his admirers even now, he spoke of theatre the way he had spoken of sports, as a “superfluous” activity: “The theatre must in fact remain…entirely superfluous… but it is the superfluous for which we live.” What he meant was that neither sports nor theatre, nor any art for that matter, is necessary for the maintenance of physical life, as so many other things in human existence are. The critic R.P. Blackmur called art an “increment” to life, something added to it, not “necessary” but greatly welcome; this “superfluous” substance or action is what gives us our fullest humanity.
Homo ludens: man the player. Peter Handke, in an essay called Brecht, Play, Theatre and Agitation, eloquently described the relationship between theatre and the world apart from it: “The theatre’s sphere of relevance is determined by the extent to which everything that is serious, important, unequivocal, conclusive outside the theatre becomes play.” Of course theatre often betrays this function, either taking itself too seriously, which means trying to substitute itself for the world, or simply failing in the high spirits, deftness and dedication to the overflow from necessity which constitutes true play. And sports have become infected in our time with ulterior motives, the most obvious being materialistic cupidity. Yet the two realms continue in theory, and sometimes in practice, to breathe the same air. Let the Games, and the Arts Festival, go on, side by side.
Richard Gilman, a contributing editor of American Theatre, is a teacher at Yale and the author of The Making of Modern Drama and other books. Some years ago he was a newspaper sportswriter.
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