The Anti-Rule Book: A Lion of Play Analysis Summarizes His Life's Work in a Liberating Tome
Jonas, Susan, American Theatre
CLEANING AUGEAN STABLES: EXAMINING DRAMA'S STRATEGIES
By Leon Katz
CreateSpace independent Publishing, Seattle, 2012.
336 pp., $19.95 paper.
LEON KATZ IS A LIVING LEGEND A TERM I USE not only to irritate him, but because four or five generations of actors, playwrights, screenwriters, dramaturgs, designers and directors still speak of his classes on play analysis in hushed, reverent tones. We acolytes who chose the path of teaching still comb the yellowed pages of our 25-year-old lecture notes, hoping to catch some of his fire in our own lectures. For taking teaching to an evangelical height, Katz was awarded the 2004 Association of Theatre in Higher Education Career Achievement award, joining the ranks of Edward Albee, Augusto Boal and Anne Bogart. He has earned epithets such as "the Michelangelo of all lecturers" from scholar Meiling Cheng, and "Gandalf" from actor Chris Noth.
My favorite description of Katz's lectures is from my colleague Mark Lord, chair of drama at Bryn Mawr: "It was like having your head explode. Again and again and again."
So the publication of Katz's book on play analysis, as he nears age 94, is both long-awaited and surprising; I think we'd given up hope. The aptly, if unpleasantly, titled Cleaning Augean Stables turns out to be not merely an exercise in nostalgia for the initiated; it's indispensable for anyone seriously interested in the art of the play.
In the book. Katz catalogues an encyclopedic knowledge of what Cheng describes as "conceptual paradigms across genres and periods." The objective is to demonstrate the fallacy of what Katz calls "pieties," unquestioned "rules" of dramatic construction. Testing them against the dramatic corpus, and situating them within the history of thought, he traces the development of theory, or "value systems," in response to shifts in economic and political realities. In the chapter "Packaging Meaning," for instance, Ibsen's Rosniersholm is analyzed through the lenses of "brilliant, influential" studies by Freud, Shaw and Brian Johnston, showing that different, even mutually exclusive, analyses may be persuasive, but all supply what critics look to find.
Katz describes Aristotle's fourth-century B.C. consideration of fifth-century B.C. plays, Poetics, with its checklist to evaluate plays for quality and insufficiency. Katz notes that by Aristotle's value system, among extant Greek tragedies only Oedipus would make the cut as a very good play. Even today, after Beckett and Fornes, Antonioni and Young Jean Lee, theatre departments, film schools and an industry of how-to gurus erect pedagogy around what Sarah Ruhl has called "the enshrinement of the male orgasm," but is better known as Freytag's Pyramid.
Dumbed-down education reduces play analysis to that which can be answered on a multiple choice test. Regurgitated, distilled and diluted, Aristotle's Poetics has long been overprescribed, like Ambien, and to similar effect. The homogenization of drama, film and television leaves us with the reassuring but soporific feeling that we are having the same experience over and over again. We are.
Katz even challenges the holiest certitude: "Conflict, like the Immaculate Conception, came late to the list of eternal verities. It occurred to no one until the very early 19th century that conflict was the essence of drama. ... One might shake one's head in wonder at how it was possible that so fundamental a principle of dramatic structure never entered the head of either Aristotle ... or the heads of any of the commentators of the next 22 centuries." Conflict as a precept, Katz writes, resulted from a "major shift in deep-seated feelings concerning the patterns of human experience and ... human expectation" toward the perception of existence as "a competitive enterprise." Hegel's model of conflicting protagonists representing conflicting ideas helped establish the ruling structure and the very idea of drama; it was then visited retroactively on past dramas. …