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The Role of the Stage

Julio Torres, Intern

Paul Woodruff is a professor of philosophy and classics at the 9780195332001University of Texas at Austin.  In his latest book,  The Necessity of Theater, Woodruff articulates why we created theater, why we practice it, and above all, why we need it. Throughout book, poignant examples of our day to day need for watching and being watched are weaved in with cornerstones of our traditional definition of theater—football is compared to Hamlet, family weddings with Waiting for Godot.  In the following excerpt, Woodruff picks apart the role of spatial definition in both traditional and day to day theater.

Why does theater need a measured space? In order to practice the art of theater successfully, some people must be watching the actions of others. Whether your job tonight is to watch or be watched, you need to know which job is yours; the watcher-watched distinction is essential to theater. We shall see that even this can break down at the end of a theater piece, with marvelous consequences. But one of those consequences is that the event is no longer theatrical. When no one is watching, it’s not theater; it has grown into something else. Marking off space in theater is a device for meeting the need to distinguish the watcher from the watched. In most traditions there is a circle or a stage or sanctuary or a playing field.

Plot measures time better than a clock does, but what could measure space? This is a hard question, because theater space seems to be much more elastic than theater time, and nothing serves the function of plot to give space a structure that is comparable to the beginning, middle and end of the time in theater.

Back to the green lawn in front of the tower, the lying plastic disks, and the leaping, twirling young men. Suppose that, after our meeting concludes, we return past the same green and see the students still playing. Our meeting ended early, and we have time to watch again. The throes are longer now: one student leaps the hedge to catch a long throw; his friend dashes down the steps to retrieve another. In the pause for retrieval, the third player recognizes one of us, and, as a challenge, throws her an extra disk that had been kept in reserve on top of his backpack. Wordlessly, one of us moves into the green and we commence to play, a separate game, fully clothed and far less skillful. But on the same ground. The student players shift slightly to make room for us.

The student game never had boundaries, although perhaps the green looked as if it gave the players a spatial boundary. But no. They violated nothing when they leaped over the hedge and we violated nothing when we stepped through a gap in the hedge and began our own game.

But imagine the outcry if the nest football game between Texas and Oklahoma went the same way. In this stadium, there is a line drawn on the grass, and it marks the space for the game. If a player crosses the line, he must pay a price for that. The game will stop if he does not stay sitting in the front row at this game, grow bored with the poor quality of play, we might decide to start our own game of catch on the same field during the game. But to do so would be to risk being disarmed by the crowd. We would be straying into sacred space. Certainly, this space is sacred to this crowd of football fans. (I almost said “worshipers, but football mania is not worship. It merely resembles worship.) And for an audience member who intrudes on that space the price is much higher than for a player to stray outside it.

“Sacred” is a word we have almost lost in modern times, like “reverence,” to which it is related in meaning. Sacred things and places call us to reverence, as to do sacred timed like the Sabbath; perhaps in out own century we are too alert to the dangers of idolatry to recognize that we are, still, surrounded by what we wordlessly take to be sacred. And Christians have come more and more to neglect the Sabbath. Like reverence, the sacred is best known in religious contexts, but, if we are to recognize it now, we must looked for it also in the secular world, such as the football field. I will say that a place for an object or person is sacred if it is held to be untouchable except by people who are marked off, usually by ritual, so as to be allowed to touch it.

What makes theater sacred? Ritual, or a tradition based on ritual, defines the space and calls for penalties against those who violate it. All theater, football games and Antigone included, is the heir of a long line of spaces made sacred for religious ritual. Sometimes the space is permanently scared, like the adyton, the un-enterable room in an old Greek temple. Sometimes it is sacred for the time of the event, and the boundaries of time and place work together. So it is with the stage, after a performance of Hamlet, if you are invited as a sponsor to a reception with the cast on the set. Nothing wrong now with setting foot on this space (although, if the performance was good, I dare you to step on the stage afterward without a shiver.) So it is also with a trial at law. For the time of the trial the courtroom theater is sacred and may be entered only designated people and used only according to certain rules.

The sacred room in a temple is permanently sacred; there is no time when it is not sacred. But this does not mean that no one ever enters it. One of the most interesting features of sacred space is that it is not altogether forbidden; consecrated people are allowed to enter it. To understand the sacredness of the space is to understand the rules about who may enter it. Only priests mat enter the temple’s adytron; only actors and perhaps subfusc stagehands) may tread upon the stage during a performance…

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