Reasoning Emotions in Theatre

By Tait, Peta | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Reasoning Emotions in Theatre

Tait, Peta, Australasian Drama Studies

The articles in this edition of ADS set out to explore the significance of emotions in productions staged outside the originating theatre culture. Do theatrical emotions remain comparable within contrasting cultural contexts? If so, what is expressed; if not, how do they change?

Since contemporary theatre is unquestionably intercultural in its scope, the following comments present a rationale for the importance of the study of emotions in theatre, and by implication emotions in intercultural theatre. The questions above are informed by concerns found in interdisciplinary studies of emotion over three decades. These studies can potentially reinvigorate consideration of emotions in theatrical performance. Firstly, there is a longstanding debate over whether emotions are basically universal or, largely, culturally constructed.1 In subsequent research, emotions appear to be culturally shaped, but by an underlying body phenomenology inclusive of physiology and biochemistry.2 secondly, there is a re-evaluation of the sociopolitical question: does belief determine emotion or is emotion a necessary precondition for belief?3 Since Aristotle, emotions have been viewed as conditions that have the power to persuade and influence how an argument or idea is perceived.4 The late twentieth-century interrogation of distinctions between knowledge and belief renewed interest in the implications of emotions. Recent political events confirm, once again, that so-called extremist ideologies are also emotionally extreme.

Emotions and emotional feelings (affect) may be substantially determining the exertion and absorption of ideas and beliefs. I am interested in beliefs about emotions in theatre and my preference is to use the terms 'emotion' and 'emotional feeling' to take advantage of the broad range of innovative work on emotions from anthropology, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. The example of a theatre text transferred between cultures is a useful way to explore assumptions about emotions in relation to specific cultural beliefs. The social expression of emotions in performance can be studied and some of the questions about how emotions drive dramatic and physical actions in theatre are relevant to social understanding. For example, it is useful to ponder expressions of hatred about difference removed from immediate social applications.

Dramatic stories structure and communicate emotional responses. Additionally, theatrical emotions are constructed for a particular performance text, in that they are largely purposefully selected by the writer and enacted by the director and the actors. While it might be argued that theatre practitioners fabricate from their actual emotional experience, theatre very deliberately shapes the delivery of these emotions, often giving an appearance of coherency with cause and effect explanations.5 As an influential form of social engagement with emotional experience, acting might in turn also influence the ways in which emotions are socially expressed. Accordingly, the appropriateness of social expression and the transgression of emotions' potential are made explicit in performance. While some theatrical emotions are objectified and presented to be understood, emotions are embodied and performed with inadvertent meaning and, as I have argued elsewhere, these are received bodily and spatially.6

The history of acting within the Eurocentric tradition of theatre history confirms that the representation of emotions changes with its socio-historical context.7 Theatrical innovation is linked to changes in the acting of emotions. For example, when Chekhov's plays were first produced in turn of the twentieth-century Russia, the emotional interactions seemed opaque to some audience members if not also to the theatre makers.8 In revealing how the characters are self-aware of the experience of emotions, Chekhov's theatre seems contemporary. Yet Western culture's assumption that 'emotions are prime candidates for turning a thinking being into an actor' is overturned in Chekhov's dramatic world by the inherent complexity of emotions as they are lived and his off-stage location of the narrative action. …

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