Clarity? Who needs it?

by Matthew T. Messina

Some of the most compelling theatre I have ever witnessed was, initially, incredibly unclear. When I encounter a piece of drama that is confusing or unclear to me, I am fascinated by it. All I want to do is figure out what it means, what it is trying to say, why it exists in the first place. Avant-garde texts are some of the richest and potentially most fulfilling plays we as theatre artists have in our repertoire. The avant-garde is a journey from the unity and structure of linear texts to a place where conventions such as time, space, and language are disregarded. It is a place for experimentation, a place where dense and complex ideas can be presented to an audience in such a way that they must be unpacked and pondered. The avant-garde forces the audience to abandon their role as a passive observer and become engrossed in the piece. Unfortunately, avant-garde plays are rarely produced, or if they are produced it is not in a very mainstream setting.

Samuel Beckett once said, “Art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.” There is an obsession nowadays with clarity. Everyone wants the audience to “get it” or “understand it”. I have never understood why this is so necessary. Just because something does not make sense right away, does not mean it lacks meaning. If we look some of the large theatre companies in Chicago: the majority of the shows they do are relatively linear and they rarely stray from convention. These companies do not challenge audiences, they play it safe and rely all too much on what they believe will market well. My question is: what service does this do an audience? What is the audience learning or taking from shows produced by a company who is afraid to veer off the path of convention and present an experimental work? Is it not better to have to sit and think about a piece to finding it’s meaning, rather than having it spelled out for you? The theatre should be a place of learning, growth, and exploration. We need to push for more theatre that strays from convention and clarity into the mainstream in order to stimulate minds. If I were to put on a production of an avant-garde piece I would much rather ask people, “What did you take from that?” rather than, “Did you get it?” because it is much more interesting to hear what the audience thought rather than having them repeat their understanding of what I thought. When a piece is initially unclear and people have to wrestle with it to find meaning they are learning and growing as human beings. For example, Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine is one of the densest and complicated pieces I have ever read. I highly doubt anyone has seen or read this play and truly “gotten” it at first. It is filled with commentary on government, gender, society, etc, disguised by pieces of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, all in nine pages. Why not produce this? Are we to assume that the patrons of the large theatres in Chicago are not smart enough to unpack these concepts and draw conclusions for themselves? They most definitely are smart enough; we just seem to be too afraid to force our audiences to think in such a way on a regular basis.
I am not saying a play in which everything is conventional and linear is bad. Of course not. Some plays with a traditional, linear structure have fantastic, thought provoking messages. But, we are losing touch with our minds in a world filled with technology; every answer to every question is just a mouse click away. People so rarely have to sit and watch something that they genuinely have to think about and from there draw a conclusion. Art cannot make anything clear, like Beckett said, but it can provoke thought. It can start a conversation. My hope is to one-day see truly experimental seasons at theatres all over town. It is time to stop rejecting plays because of their difficult content and structure. Ideally, one-day people will be streaming out asking each other what they took from the play, rather than putting a play down because they did not “get” it.


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