Thought in Theatre

15 Jul

The bias in theatre is that characters do not have ideas.

Characters are presented as beings who have desires, but not thoughts. Or, if they do have thoughts, these thoughts are merely rationalisations of desires.  Discussion involving ideas  are mined for their subtext.

This approach might be useful for actors, but it hides the power of ideas.

This is not some sort of mad call for the presentation of intellectuals on stage. Far from it. My contention, radical though it may seem, is that everyone’s head is full of ideas.

After hunger and thirst, ideas are the primary human experience.

Ideas determine how we see the world and how we act upon it.

So why do characters on stage so rarely discuss ideas?

There’s an obvious answer. (And it’s not that it makes for dull theatre.)

The answer is this: on stage there already is someone presenting a vision of Life, and that person is the writer. They don’t want competition from from their creations. Characters with ideas bear the same relationship to the writer as the monster does to Dr Frankenstein.

To ensure a writer’s vision of Life goes unchallenged she pretends there are no ideas.

Only an amateur makes the mistake of creating a straw man with ideas opposing their own, because even though such straw men are easily knocked down, the possibility there could be alternative ideas has been aired.

I’m fond of misquoting Shelley: “Playwrights are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

Why unacknowledged? Because playwrights present their ideas, their visions of life, surreptitiously.

Philosophers fight fair. That’s what makes them philosophers. In a fight, a philosopher attempts to punch you in the head.

A playwright punches you below the belt.

And so they are banned from the ring.

But the pugilistic tendencies remain, and will be indulged, in scrappy street fights and bar brawls – and in that most unlikely intellectual arena, the theatre.

And, as everyone knows, outside the protection of the ring, there is only one rule:

Never throw the first punch, unless you can be guaranteed it’ll be the last.

And, for a playwright, that punch is the complete play.

Veronica Kaye



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