Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Aesthetic Distance

This is a follow-up to the concept of aesthetic distance, a bit dated, but useful.

From "A Primer for Playgoers" by Edward Wright (1969):

Empathy and Aesthetic Distance
From the earliest theatre performance there must have been a relationship between two fundamental principles that are inevitable in the aesthetic experience. The exact names given them by our forefathers are unimportant. In more recent times we have come to think of them as empathy and aesthetic distance. With the coming of the realistic theatre these principles have taken on much greater importance, and in them one may sometimes find the reason for his appreciation or lack of it. Empathy means that the spectator experiences what he observes, both muscularly and emotionally. It happens inside him, although he does not suffer the full physical or emotional strain experienced by the characters on the stage. To him it is a vicarious emotion, though he may even to a small degree participate in the same physical action as the actor.

In contrast to empathy is a detachment that permits the observer's attention to be held and his emotions to be touched, although he is conscious all the while that he is only a spectator. Herbert S. Langfield has called this principle aesthetic distance. Every theatre production has some planned proportion of these two qualities. We must emphasize that emotion is involved in both. Our interest is there, perhaps even in equal degrees, but in one we are physically involved and in the other we are conscious of the fact that we are observing, not experiencing, what we see. We may be subconsciously evaluating it as a work of art.

The motion pictures have long since sensed the value of empathy and aesthetic distance. Every means of playing upon them has been used. Their melodramas have shown as much of the surface realism and personal physical reactions of the actors as was possible through the use of the close-up. Dramatic scenes are brought so close to reality that little is left to the imagination. A glance to right or left during a particularly strong sequence will show the contorted faces of the audience, the twisted handkerchiefs, and sometimes even overt bodily action. If one has been too similarly involved in the situation to make this observation, he need only recall the muscular tension felt when a given scene has dissolved or faded into one that suddenly changed the emotion. The motion picture has likewise found great use for detachment in its musical extravaganzas, huge spectacles, and historical panoramas where it can excel so brilliantly. In a less artistic instance, empathy is evident at an athletic contest. It has been felt at a football game when the spectator's team has the ball within inches of the goal and less than a minute left to play--his neighbors may almost be pushed from the bleachers in his effort to help the home team.

Empathy is not always so muscularly active. Women may empathize in the leading lady and men in the leading man. Likewise, each may subconsciously feel it in his or her attraction for the player of the opposite sex. For this reason, casting in itself becomes a vital issue, for beauty, grace, stature, voice, personality, and contrasts in coloring all take on their own importance in bringing about the proper empathic response to each player.

A danger of empathy is that one's emotion may be suddenly broken as he is snapped out of the situation he has come to accept or believe. This may be caused by a flickering lamp, a forgotten line or missed cue, a false cry or laugh, an extraneous sound, unstable furniture, or a characterization that the audience is unable to believe. Sometimes broken empathy comes from the audience or auditorium through coughing, a contrary reaction to an emotion by some individual, an overheated room, or some exterior element.

Normally, the melodrama will require a greater degree of empathy. Its loosely drawn characters permit the audience a greater leeway in self-identification, and the very nature of the situations carries a greater emotional force. Of the four play types, the least empathy is found in a farce, for here the spectator rarely wishes or needs to identify himself with the situation he observes. To be actually involved in such circumstances might be unpleasant, but observing them in someone else gives the audience a perspective, and this detachment, coupled with a feeling of superiority, brings about the unrestrained laughter that we associate with farce. The same may also be said for very high comedy and satire.

Empathy is found in varying degrees in comedy and tragedy. Both of these types are built on character, and when well written and performed can be so completely individual or removed from our own experience that there is little opportunity for self-identification and the empathy it supplies.

A play, if it is to accomplish its purpose, must happen in the audience. The degree to which it does happen is of vast importance and calls for a careful study by each artist, as well as some analysis by the spectator if he is to maintain a critical attitude.

Aesthetic distance is not the exact opposite of empathy, for it, too, involves emotional participation, but participation of a different nature. There is less of the muscular and more of the mental appreciation, although the personal aesthetic pleasure or enjoyment may be equal in degree. In the theatre it is most evident when we suddenly applaud a splendid piece of acting or a particular line. It involves recognizing the work of an artist and still believing in and being a part of a play, all the while conscious that it is a play and make-believe.

Artists have always been aware of the importance of this detachment. A painter puts his picture in a frame; the sculptor places his statue on a pedestal; the architect chooses to have his work set off with space about it. The conventional theatre of today depends upon an elevated stage, a picture frame created by the proscenium arch, a curtain, a brightly lighted stage, and a darkened auditorium. It has not always been thus. Aesthetic distance in the Greek and Shakespearean theatres was sustained by the language, the nobility of the characters, and the more formal presentation. During both the Elizabethan and the Restoration periods in England aesthetic distance was largely destroyed when spectators sat on the stage and oftentimes participated in the action of the play by answering back and injecting their personal remarks into the production itself. The same has been true in certain periods of other countries. It was David Garrick in England who restored it in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the spectators were driven from the stage.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before the day of the realistic theatre, actors acted as actors and audiences appraised them and their art as individuals. Playwrights often wrote beautiful or dramatic speeches which were, likewise, praised as just that by the audience. The "tirade" in the French drama and the "purple passages" in many plays were applauded by the audience just as was the brilliantly played scene by a particular actor. The works of Corneille and Racine are fine examples of this type of theatre. This was purely aesthetic distance, with the artist's art being judged as art. Some actors planned on the applause and consciously played for it. The great Sarah Bernhardt was one of these. On the other hand Mrs. Fiske was often very angry when applause broke the scene. She was more interested in the audience's thinking of her as the character she was playing than as the artist playing the role. The same could be said for most of the playwrights who in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrote in the realistic style.

Today much of the criticism we hear of the arena stage comes from those who are distracted by the proximity of the actors or by the spectators who can be seen on the opposite side of the playing arena. In one sense this might be considered a loss of empathic response, but it also is destructive of aesthetic distance.

Some productions today in our conventional type of theatre make use of entrances down the aisles, and even seat some of the actors among the audience. There are those who want to "put the play in the lap of the audience," and undoubtedly some theatre experiences could be enhanced by so doing. Hellzapoppin, with Olson and Johnson, still holds some sort of record in this respect. Entertaining as this piece may have been to many people, no one has ever called it artistic. On the other hand, it is possible to use the entire auditorium as an acting area, if the actor can remain a part of the play and keep the proper and predetermined artistic balance of empathy and aesthetic distance. Too close an empathic contact with the production or the participants can prove embarrassing to the audience.

The type, nature, mood, or style of the play determines how much empathy and how much aesthetic distance is to be sought. That answer lies to some extent in the decision of each artist involved, but more especially with the director whose task it is to balance one against the other artistically. This balance is one of the most important aspects of a theatre production. It involves not only selection and arrangement, but the all-important problem of
being just real enough to make the audience share with the players the feelings, emotions, and thoughts of the characters, and yet to possess sufficient detachment to weep without real sorrow; in short, to share the emotions without actually experiencing their unpleasant aspects or becoming over-involved in the production. Therein lies much of the theatre's art.

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