Renowned author, educator and public speaker, Professor Martin Puchner, the founding director of the Mellon School of Theatre and Performance Research at Harvard University, talks about theatre, his life-long passion, as well as literature
The News on Sunday (TNS): Would you like to tell us about your early life, and what eventually led you to select literature, more specifically drama and theatre, as your life-long passion?
Martin Puchner (MP): I was born in Southern Germany to a culturally interesting household that valued literature. I always read literature though I don’t think I was a particularly precocious child, who had read all great literature at a very early age. My father, an architect, once ran a small literary magazine. In that sense, literature and the arts both played a role in my upbringing. I also always performed an amateurish kind of theatre in school.
Despite my interest in theatre and literature, I did a major in philosophy in college. I ultimately wanted to connect my philosophical interest with the arts. I decided to do a PhD and teach literature and drama and this is what I have been doing ever since.
TNS: Have you consciously developed a style marked by clarity of ideas to reach all kinds of readers or is it something that is natural to you?
MP: I have tried it deliberately. I think clear writing may look simple but it is a hard thing to achieve. It has been a continual struggle and I still feel it is a work in progress. It is also true that in my dissertation I thought mostly about scholarly audience but later I became more and more interested in writing for the general reader.
The experience that really helped me was writing introductions for and editing several anthologies such as Anthology of Drama and Anthology of World Literature that are directed at students. Writing these introductions really forced me to be clear and to think more about the general reader or a reader who is not yet immersed in a discipline.
TNS: One name that has remained your inspiration all through these years…
MP: That’s actually hard to say. One inspiration for me is Stephen Greenblatt, a colleague and a friend. I think what I admire about his work is that he innovated scholarly methods with new historicism. In a similar vein, I admire Umberto Eco. In him too, there’s a thinker and a historian who has this fantastic ability to turn his material into popular readable texts and novels. He managed all this almost single-handedly to open an otherwise very hermetic world of medieval theology to a general public and I think that’s an amazing accomplishment.
TNS: If you have to label today’s twenty-first century world, would you call it post post-modern world? Or you would avoid labelling it altogether?
MP: I don’t have a good label. Maybe someone will come up with it. People talk about rapid globalisation while being discontented with it, and then we have the likes of Donald Trump’s nativism. I think there’s much less confidence in the belief in globalisation, less confidence in capitalism, and other isms and people are having a hard time coming up with alternatives.
TNS: To what extent do you think contemporary literature is driven by topical happenings around the world? I mean do we need to have a 9/11 like situation or a ‘post’ and a ‘pre’ of some ghastly act of violence to be provoked to write or produce good literature? Don’t you think that aestheticism has suffered because of this new trend?
MP: I think that’s a fair question. I think it’s usually a question of retrospectively noticing that in certain moments something changed and to talk about epochs. It does not need to be horrible. The Cold War, for example, was surprisingly bloodless. But it is usually violence that provokes, and no we do not need it to write. I think it is good to create categories and think of epochs and I suppose wars and other acts and signature events are handy reference points. But one should be careful and certainly writers do not need it.
With regards to 9/11 in particular, it’s interesting that it took both American and international writers some time to even figure out how to incorporate the event into their fiction. 9/11 started not only to show up on the margins in novels but writers developed a discourse on it. Writing a full blown 9/11 novel, however, wasn’t a recipe for success.
It’s also interesting to think about which wars or acts of violence the writers want to write explicitly about. For example, the post WWI scenario produced a number of good writers, especially poets but this trend was less prominent in the case of WWII. A less depressing way to think about it is that in moments of real crisis people do need the arts to memorialise and to express emotions. Reacting to these events in purely political terms does not do justice to the experience and emotions.
TNS: What drives your definition of theatre -- your philosophy of life or social realities that somehow impacted upon your life?
MP: I think as an art form, the most important definition of theatre perhaps is that it combines so many of the other art forms. It concentrates them, and makes them confront each other. In doing so, it adds its own features such as acting, audience dynamics, set design, and of course the architecture, and the configuration of theatrical space. That’s a more formalistic definition of theatre than a social one.
However, I do recognise that theatre is the most social art form. The gathering in theatrical space is the most political moment because it has to do with the groups of people. This is more like a rehearsal to political assembly, and a reflection.
On a personal level, that recognition came later than the more formal one that theatre is a fascinating space within which you could play with different art forms and relate them to each other.
TNS: Do we need an anti-philosophical approach in order to counter prejudice against theatre. In other words do we need to burn tragedies like Plato to show our affiliation with the philosophy of ideas?
MP: I’ve been grappling a lot with the relationship of philosophy and literature. I formally studied philosophy well before I started to study theatre systematically. I think of it as an interesting though contentious relationship.
To answer your direct question I don’t think we need to burn anything per se (laughs). More seriously, even when philosophers are very nasty about theatre, I have always felt from the side of theatre that we can learn a lot from philosophy. We can take seriously what they say and Plato is the best example of that.
I would say on the other hand that philosophy can learn from theatre as well. Theatre doesn’t have to become the same or best of friends with philosophy, although I have always refused to think of it as either/or kind of condition. This is why thinking about it as an anti-theatrical prejudice isn’t very helpful.
TNS: With growing interest in the depiction of the fixity and unavoidable circularity of human experience or existence in modern drama such as shown in Beckett’s and Pinter’s plays, do you think that the journey motif in which an individual struggles against odds and eventually attains selfhood has been done away with?
MP: It’s interesting that the most iconic contemporary writers certainly have shied away from that. Although if I turn to Beckett’s novels, it’s not that the characters reach selfhood but they’re moving about, dragging themselves across space rather than being buried to their waists as it happens in Happy Days.
But thinking about the stardom in popular culture -- Hollywood culture and the Golden Age of television -- American culture is certainly very much hooked on redemptive features. The late nineteenth century American writer William Dean Howells famously said that Americans love tragedy with a happy ending (laughs). I think there’s something to it. The more austere anti-redemptive parts of modern drama have never been dominant in the United States, although they’ve played a part in countering popular culture that tends to be more redemptive. It’s more to do with the way in which theatre positions itself towards popular culture and to what extent it tries to tap into it or distance itself from it. Pinter and Beckett were the most insistent on keeping popular culture in almost all forms at a distance.
TNS: What about O’Neill’s and Tennessee Williams’ plays?
MP: Well, O’Neill’s main mode was tragedy if not of the kind William Dean Howells describes. He wrote two comedies, one was The Hairy Ape but it was not what one would consider a happy ending situation. He was certainly, among all the American playwrights, most focused perhaps on tragedy, although Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were as well.
These mid-century American tragedians wrote interesting counter narratives to the American dream, negating the redemptive, optimistic, and forward-looking orientation of American life. They were the critical voices within that conversation and I think that general distribution of roles is probably still more or less the case today.
TNS: Do you think institutional religions in the 21st century have a restrictive effect on the development and growth of theatre?
MP: I’m not the best person to say anything about other religions. However, Christianity has had a difficult relationship to theatre. Protestantism was quite anti-theatrical. But it’s also true that centuries of European established Church didn’t prevent great plays from being written. Even in the Soviet Union, regimes of censorship certainly made the personal lives of writers and artists very hard but they never quite succeeded in shutting the theatre down.
On the contrary, censorship and prosecution can make the arts seem more relevant. This isn’t supposed to be an argument in favour of censorship (laughs) but it’s a historical reflection on the fact that sometimes this kind of opposition increases the desire of some people for theatre.
TNS: In a lecture in Beirut, you talked about two established approaches to literature: self-referential and representational followed by your third alternative that says literature first creates and imagines and then refers to reality. Would you like to elaborate more on this alternative that has the potential to ease the ongoing conflict between two predominant opposing approaches?
MP: You’re referring to the idea of world-making or possible-worlds theory. If I remember correctly, I was talking about the experience or certainly taking my points of departure from this experience of editing the Anthology of World Literature. I noticed a pattern that on the one hand literature is always concerned about itself. Writers look to other writers and they revise previous writers. Their literary world at times seems quite detached from the real world and only inward-looking rather than looking out at the world and trying to represent it.
No matter how much you try to guard against that, you pick pieces of literature from all these different traditions and you put them between the two covers of a book; you uproot all these pieces of literature from the context in which they emerged and put them in a kind of museum-like box. When you look at them, you see just literature and not the worlds and cultures from which they emerged.
It’s the same thing in theatre. On the one hand, you describe theatre as being thinking about acting and all these aspects, concerned with its life, conditions, what it means to be theatre, and creating plays in imagination but as we said earlier theatre is also the most social art form. It’s interesting for me to see how these aspects are connected.
TNS: Do you believe in the synthesis or parallelism of these two aspects?
MP: Good question. Synthesis would mean in the end you couldn’t even decide which is which any more, whereas parallelism suggests that one perspective may delineate literature and theatre as engaged with the world, while another may depict them as engaged with themselves. I suppose I would opt for parallelism. If you try to mush them together you lose their identity.
TNS: As a literary critic, your focus is on modernism, especially in the genre of closet drama. How much does literary drama, which is to a great extent text-based, enable a student or researcher of drama to capture the practical nuances of actual drama on the stage?
MP: The answer to this question is going to be another form of parallelism. Drama is a literary genre and you can bring all tools of literary analysis to it. At the same time it has its dual nature. It has a script for performance and when you look at the performance the multi-art nature of theatre comes to the foreground.
Now, the question is how these two are related. The closet drama lies at the extreme pole. Even when you read a closet drama you imagine, so even at this extreme end the theatre is still there, only it is implicit.
On the other hand, you have truly devised theatre or improvised theatre with no literary texts attached to it. For a long time, we treated plays as screenplays due to which plays had to struggle to get literary legitimacy. We all think that screen literature is just a means to an end and to enable actors in a film to learn their lines and to work out the story but we don’t think of it as an independent literary artefact.
TNS: Do you agree with Richard Schechner about the presence of performativity in all forms of social existence? In other words, do you think assigning the specificities of theatre to everyday activities has somehow downplayed the significance of theatre’s professional face?
MP: I think a more anthropological and sociological view of the theatricality of everyday life is implicit in the professional theatre. Professionalism of theatre is what Richard Schechner wouldn’t care about particularly. He was interested in performances and ritual performances and was happy to work with amateurs. I think that’s a very useful distinction between professional theatre and career and this kind of performance study approach.
What bothers me conceptually is that performance study is incapable of answering the question of what is not performance -- everything can be described as performance. From a theoretical perspective, the term has no limits. If it’s really everything then it ceases to have force because it becomes diffused. At the same time it also enables a lot of interesting work of a more particular nature. So, performance study is quite successful in describing particular forms of heightened theatricality in everyday life. My objection to it is more theoretical.
TNS: There is mushrooming of adaptations on today’s stage. Directors and producers have taken undue liberty not only to re-vision and restructure but also to subvert the originals for greater cultural and political acceptability. Has the practice affected the intent and message of actual playwrights negatively?
MP: It is very true. The idea goes back to the collaborative nature of theatre that scared me so much as a young man. The playwright turns to certain structure and imagines a production but then the director claims herself/himself as the centre of artistic creativity. This is called director’s theatre.
But then there are cases like Beckett when you don’t authorise the productions because they departed too much from the original. It’s a power struggle. I would not rule out that sometimes a radical adaptation can really illuminate the text but sometimes it can just be silly.
In today’s post-dramatic world playwrights are really disorientated and do not know what their role is and how they are supposed to interact with the director. In this so-called devised theatre, what is missing is the storytelling. It’s important to deliberately plan, devise, and structure.
TNS: Is your effort to spearhead the new Theatre, Dance, and Media concentration at Harvard directed at introducing more practical aspects to the courses in drama studies? What measures have you taken to bring more cultural diversity into this concentration?
MP: Even though major concentration has happened within the university, the pedagogical goal is to combine practice and theory. Many students who are now in this concentration will make theatre and so they take courses in acting and directing, voice training, audio-design and video-design and so on. It’s important for students to learn these technical aspects. They also feel that learning that enables them to pursue careers outside the theatre.
Cultural diversity is also very important. The students do not just get to know the Western theatre, we also have courses in different non-Western theatres so that would be one way in which certain element of diversity is introduced. Besides, students at Harvard are themselves often very international so they have a global outlook.
Nadia Anwar has a doctorate in Nigerian Drama from The University of Northampton, UK and she teaches at University of Management and Technology Lahore.