In the politically, socially, and economically fuggy situation of Greece in the era of the pandemic, something memorable happened. A multitude of fingers stretched and pointed at what for decades remained in the dark: the elephant in the room. The room is called theatre. What about the elephant? It has many names, many that have already been revealed and many that will follow, thus, blurred behind the mountain of names, remains its true identity: the authority.
For it is the cloak of authority that allows and conducts within theatre the reproduction and normalization of domineering, abusive, and criminal behaviours. And this cloak is composed of three distinct but interrelated traditions, all three deeply rooted in European political and artistic history: the sovereign nature of the institution of the artistic director and the view of the director as a teacher and as a god-given visionary artist. Let’s try to examine them one by one.
The institution of the artistic director of a theatre draws its origin from the political and economic system of feudalism a time when ‘serious’ theatre (as opposed to light spectacles such as comedy, pantomime etc.) was the exclusive privilege of the local monarch. The performance would take place in the court and its artistic director would be appointed by the monarch himself. Thus, it was a purely political decision. As it is today.
Along with the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 18th century, which claimed the right of ownership of the production means and the corresponding political power, i.e., along with the transition to capitalism, there was a change in theatre, which gradually passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie, as their right to high entertainment. Small fiefs are unified and the first ‘national’ theatres are created. These theatres are the ones to which both the nobles and the bourgeois have access.
We are confronted with the tradition that the director’s position is one of power.
But while society around the theatre is being democratized, while bourgeois revolutions take place, while the union of the fiefs creates the nation-states, theatre remains a monarchical institution. While the Enlightenment evangelizes about the emancipation of the individual from the oppression of monarchy and religion, its apostles within the theatre perceive themselves as enlightened and their spectators as peasants, whom one must finally enlighten. And of course, they entrust this task to themselves1Friedrich Schiller states in 1784: ‘Theatre is a moral institution and a school of practical wisdom’ and ‘Theatre is a tool of the Enlightenment.’.
This transforms, in the first place, the artistic director of the theatre into a director of the state pedagogical and cultural policy and, in the second place, the relationship between stage and auditorium into a teacher-student relationship. The enlightened writer knows a truth that the audience ignores, which is imperative to learn if they also want to become members of educated society. Both the cultural and pedagogical tone of the theatre and the didactic relationship between stage and auditorium are preserved intact to this day.
Thus, from them emerges, a little later, the second change of relations: the director-actor relationship also turns into a teacher-student relationship. The playwright is the one who possesses the truth and who can convey it into words and stories; the director is the one who understands in depth the words of the playwright and undertakes to transmit them to the actors, undertakes to teach them the work of the playwright.
Being the sole possessor of knowledge, the sole representative of the writer, the sole lord in the realm of theatre, he is therefore entitled to use whatever pedagogical method he deems appropriate in order to pass on the knowledge to the student-actors, while at the same time demanding from them absolute devotion to the ‘common goal,’ that is, to himself.
Even in the 20th century, when alternative, more collective forms of dramaturgy and function of the troupe are attempted, e.g. the so-called ensemble theater, the director remains in the spotlight as the one, the enlightened, as the one who convened the ensemble, who allowed it to form as such under his protective auspices. This creates several strange and oxymoronic forms: a group that bears the name of the director, an ensemble theatre that bears the name of the director, a group of which only the director is famous.
In parallel with the tradition of the director as a teacher, there is another tradition that runs through modern history: the tradition of the artist as a genius and as a person who communicates with the muses.
Here, of course, we must note that we are referring to the director and the artistic director of the theatre in the masculine gender since this is imposed by the patriarchal tradition in the arts: the artist, the genius, the creator (in the biblical-divine sense as well) is a male and the female is limited to the role of the muse, meaning that she is the one who, employing her beauty and seduction, has to inspire the artist, has to take on the role of his mistress and mother at the same time, has to support him in his painstaking work and has to provide him with the necessary eroticism as fuel for his creativity2For a modern reproduction of this pattern q.v. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! .
In parallel with the tradition of the director as a teacher, there is another tradition that runs through modern history: the tradition of the artist as a genius who communicates with the muses.
Let us try to follow this reasoning a little more, to reach its extremes, and see where this perception of the artist leads: since the director-artist is unique and divinely inspired, everything is allowed in the name of fulfilling his vision. He is allowed to demand from everyone else things he doesn’t do himself. He is allowed to push the students-actors to their physical and mental limits if he believes that this is the only way they will learn. He is also allowed to expect them to desire or at least gratefully accept sexual intercourse with him since any contact with him can only be a blessing.
We observe here a clear resemblance to the classical structure of a cult, where the enlightened guru governs the disciples as he sees fit, and where sexual intercourse with him is, even if by force, the ultimate blessing. At the same time He, the one, demands from the flock complete devotion and absolute secrecy: nothing that happens inside the cult should be leaked to the outside.
Of course, what remains of the Chosen after his death is as sacred as was contact with Him: the relics of the dead director, his personal belongings, the chair where he sat, even his leftovers are sacred and must be preserved intact and worshiped by future generations, just as is customary in the Orthodox Church with relics and personal belongings of saints.
All these take place in the name of a vision, an artistic idea superior to the ephemeral and comparatively insignificant health, dignity, and physical integrity of the executors of the vision, i.e. the actors and other collaborators in the case of theatre. It is a view of the artwork as something eternal, higher, almost transcendent, which communicates with a universal truth, which, of course, only the enlightened artist can understand, a fact that gives him absolute power within the territory of his art.
What is striking (and sad) is that even directors of the younger generation, even if they have not apprenticed to a great director-teacher, try to convincingly embody the role of the artist-genius and almost automatically reproduce the above behaviors. This is also true for many female directors, who feel compelled to act like their male predecessors to ensure their power and the respect of their subordinates.
It is time to demand from artists, as Benjamin did 87 years ago, to consider their place in the process of producing artworks.
So, we are confronted with the tradition that the director’s position is one of power. A position that resembles both that of the teacher and of the religious leader and which gives to the person who holds it almost absolute power over the rest of the theatre staff. It is a tradition so deeply rooted that actors noticeably do not respect a director if he/she does not manipulate and abuse them, if he/she does not behave with an air of absolute authority, if he/she does not put them all at the service of a higher vision.
But how many lives is an artwork really worth?
How many lives is it acceptable to sacrifice by carrying stones in the desert in order to build the Pyramid of Cheops?
Our answer to this question manifests our attitude towards the omnipotence of the enlightened director, towards his right to stand above all, towards his legitimacy as a pharaoh, towards the ideology that theatre is a place of religious faith, with priests (artistic directors, directors, leading actors) and disciples (actors, set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, technicians, cashiers, ushers, spectators).
It is time to re-read Walter Benjamin’s speech at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris in 1934, The Author as Producer3While Benjamin did indeed write this text as a speech at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, according to most scholars he probably never actually held that speech, most likely due to political and artistic differences with the Comintern-controlled Institute.:
‘It has perhaps struck you that the train of thought which is about to be concluded presents the writer with only one demand: the demand to think, to reflect on his position in the process of production4Βenjamin, Walter. ‘The Author as a Producer’. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. SELECTED WRITINGS. The Belknar Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. p. 779..’
It is time to demand from artists, as Benjamin did 87 years ago, to consider their place in the process of producing artworks. And if Benjamin is right that there can be no progressive artwork if the way it is produced is not also progressive, then it is high time to look for progressive ways of making theatre.