Gamliel, T. 2019. The Theatrical Spectaculum. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
In what follows, Tova Gamliel provides a stirring and profound meditation on the feeling of drama. It is written in a layered, complex, archeological prose that is Jamesian, moving upward and downward, back and forth, from abstraction and intellectualism to banal interviews with actors, observations of audiences, and dictates of directors. As with James, the effect of Gamliel’s intimate, subtle, implicative prose is to create a sense of the ultimate, of transcendence and its secular mystery, of a deep layer of sensation and metaphysical awareness underneath the prose. It as if reading itself provides an experience of the spectaculum, the experience that Gamliel posits as the ultimate ground base of theatre as compared to reading.
What follows is an anthropological essay. It is personal and metaphorical, and often theological. Yet, it is also filled to the brim, indeed generated by, years of intense fieldwork and minute empirical observation and interview.
Gamliel finds that actors view their actions as efforts to enact truthfulness. They strive to create an existential authenticity, the only sacred meaning possible in modern times, a sacrality stripped of metaphysics. As they seek to practice the art of bare honesty, actors purge themselves and their audiences of the performative pollution of modern life. “Authenticity has happened” is how an actor relates to Gamliel his performative success.
Not just actors but theatrical writers, directors, and technical staff aim to allow audiences to experience transcendence as if they were in the traditional world of the ancient Jews who received the Godly revelation on Mount Sanai. The Ten Commandments, the ethical backdrop of western civilization, could never have passed to posterity if God had not scripted and Moses had not directed the sacral presence. Bubers’ I-thou, a work that grows from but also goes beyond modern Jewish theology, translates the dramatic experience of transcendence at Mt. Sanai, performing the sacred that is modern acting.
It is not the theatrical text, theological or secular, but the experience of the darkened theatre and the blaze of arc light that illuminate emotions and meanings of actors on the stage, and create the experience of theatrical sacredness. One can become alienated from a theatrical text, but not from the experience of theatre. This is why the ethical survives at the center of drama, no matter postmodern critique. Theatre is Barthes’ “third,” the oblique experience outside of the text that is phenomenological, inchoate, and primordial, a sensation of the other that warrants the suspension of disbelief.