The Role of Theater

Think of the many ways we receive information today: Internet, television, radio, billboards, telephones, junk mail. The President speaks and, if it’s not available to stream live, people around the world can watch it on YouTube in a matter of minutes. Severe weather creates a flurry of text messages, phone calls and emails. Gone are the days of having to wait the unbelievably long while before the morning paper arrives.

Now, jump back a couple hundred years or so. Imagine yourself in a world where literacy is a luxury enjoyed by the elite few, where news travels by foot or horseback over a period of weeks or months, where you’re likely to be born and die in the same small town, and when the external interruptions to your life are few. Imagining this distant reality allows us to appreciate the role theater played in at the height of its influence in Cyrano’s day.

In this era, the practice of theater took on its contemporary identity. The classical principles that governed theater for centuries were still present, but were increasingly “differently appropriated,” that’s to say, ignored. Plots and their development grew in breadth, length and complexity. Scenery, special effects and machinery all came to occupy their place in forming an immersive theatrical experience. Traveling troupes took to more stationary practice, buying and establishing permanent theaters. Audiences amassed in numbers large enough to make those viewing a show an important player in the storytelling. Themes shifted from previously light-hearted stock to deeper, more consequential questions of philosophical importance. For centuries the stage was the one popular entertainment, bringing together the butcher and the baron to share a common experience.

To confine baroque theater to the arena of enjoyment, however, is to miss its full import. The public was engrossed in the action of the stage, swept up into it and, bound by its enchantment, making it dangerous. Indeed, theater of the day was so influential that the world came to be viewed as a playhouse. A generation earlier, Shakespeare declared that “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.” Amid the sways and swirls of the baroque world, theater took center stage, imbued with importance as a battleground in the day’s struggles for power and influence.

The Catholic Church, long hostile to the theater, re-imagined the medium as a means for evangelization in the struggle against Protestantism’s rise. Nobles, increasingly bereft of their former status, saw the theater as a way to employ spectacle in shoring up territorial precedence. Playwrights struggled with a world in flux, with questions of illusion and reality, order and disorder, authority and populism. The day’s powers, however, ensured that the vision presented to the masses aligned with that they willed for themselves. Social hierarchy was rigidly enforced, not only in the drama unfolding on stage, but also in the organization of the audience. Virtue was to be ­­expounded at all times, honor upheld, and the theater-going experience to serve as a lesson in morality. To stray from this formula risked censorship or revocation of the privileges of production.

In this light, the decision to open a play as Rostand does--with the opening of a play-within-a-play--  seems less strange, meaningful  in fact. As an audience we immediately enter into Cyrano’s world, immersing us in it from the outset. The opening scene of Rostand’s drama captures well the playhouse as a social hub, sharing its multi-valenced nature and providing a snapshot of its contemporary importance. It wasn’t until the rise of the novel at the end of the next century that the cultural preeminence of play-going began to wane.

Nevertheless, the theater still served as an arena of social intercourse at the end of the nineteenth century. When Cyrano debuted, Paris was swept by a storm of enthusiasm. Opening night was a commotion of “bravos” and curtain calls and demands for the artist to be known. Some sources hold that it took hours for the audience to finally disperse. Rostand received awards for his work just days after his play’s first performance.

Today we’re faced with a wealth of entertainment possibilities and a proliferation of stages (or screens) upon which our social dramas unfold.  One need only look to their pocket to encounter a limitless source of diversion--or to become a player in the power politics of our time. Still, theater remains. Thousands of years after the first dramatic works, we produce plays for audiences to gather together and experience. Our context is very different from that of ancient Greece, or even that of baroque Europe, but our society still influences, and is influenced by, the theater. Works like Cyrano will abide, offering questions, insight and the opportunity to learn something new about our world, our time and ourselves.

Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.  



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