Reality Theater in Chicago

By Wildman, Eugene | Chicago Review, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Reality Theater in Chicago


Wildman, Eugene, Chicago Review


A true theater is a fix, a mainline shot that infuses itself into reality, turning reality upside down, producing alterations in the structure and in the elements of the real. A grandiose claim. But is this not precisely what we have always been assured was the case in the Theater of Dionysus and in Shakespeare's Elizabethan theater? Is it disturbing that our authorities have inadvertently taught us the truth? Perhaps all real theater, and any real art, can only be revolutionary. Whatever is new ultimately must be a metaphysical argument. The Reality Theater that is evolving today cannot be stopped. It cannot be stopped because Mayor Daley exists on the same plane as all impersonations and fictions. The city of Chicago itself is in its way only a kind of ontological rhetoric, a hyperbole, a form of make-believe. If this statement seems far-fetched, it is only because we have chosen to believe in the metaphors of our rhetoric. Which is not to say that Mayor Daley and Chicago are not real-they are all too real, but it is the nature of that reality which needs examining.

A Real theater can be achieved. It was the vision of this which turned Yeats to the ritualized forms of the Japanese Noh plays; and in the failure to translate successfully from the images in his mind to the concrete space of the stage lies, perhaps, a negative verification that the metaphor behind the vision was at least always true. Artaud was certainly right to this extent: a real theater must be a dangerous place, or else it is a meaningless one. The crucial mistake of Yeats was in his idea of where a theater had to be located; that it was necessary to be outside ordinary reality, in a special place and a special time, and that reality could come to it for enrichment. There can be no separation of the two: they must be coincident with each other, they have always to occur together.

As far as the state of American theater is concerned, it is obvious that we have not had one for a long time. We have had moving plays, but this is a peculiarly formal issue, and plays which simply make us emote are not by that fact alone connected with formal issues at all. They cannot change anything, and a real theater must. We are going to have a theater, and it is going to be real. Broadway can never be taken seriously. It is too expensive. It can afford to cater only to the few, to those who demand to be entertained and who can afford to pay the price of entertainment. Then there are the many houses throughout the country which offer professional productions of classic plays. They are certainly related to theater and ought definitely to be supported, but they have affinities at best with an immediate past; essentially they belong to another age. Insofar as a true theater can be said to exist in this country at all, it is found off-off Broadway, where for the most part it speaks to and for a subculture of East Villagers whose psyches have been fashioned by the myths of a million grade-B movies and then acted out again after the movies in the kitchens of a billion immigrant families in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Harlow and Maria Montez are its divinities, and Gorilla Queen is perhaps its most serious expression.

But there is another movement in the theater, as legitimate at least, and, I think, more likely to have serious historical consequences. Popularly it has become known as Guerrilla Theater, and "companies" have sprung up throughout America. For the most part they address themselves to issues connected with the non-war we are waging in Vietnam. Obviously it is only a matter of time before a broadly based Black Guerrilla Theater forms, interesting itself less in the war than in issues connected with the suppression of domestic freedom. In Chicago, a group of students at the University of Chicago have been attempting a variant of Guerrilla Theater, have put on some "productions" already and have a great many planned for the coming months. (Another "company" has formed at Northwestern University, but as of this writing I have no information about them. …

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