In “Enactments of Power,” N’gugi Wa Thiong’o writes: “The state has its arenas of performance; so has the artist. While the state performs power, the power of the artist is solely in performance. Both the state and the artist may have a may have a different conception of time, place, content, goals, either of their own performance or of the other but they have the audience as their common target. Again the struggle may take the form of the state’s intervention in the artist’s work — what goes by the name of censorship –but the main area of struggle is the performance space: its definition, delimitation and regulation.”
What does Wa Thiong’o mean by this? And can you identify a performance/piece of theater/dance that became more powerful, more gripping, more vital (what Peter Brook might think of as “immediate”) due to its relationship to the site in which it was performed? Why?
Place is important. I would argue, expanding on Wa Thiong’o’s work (with a sprinkling of Goffman in mind) that we always define ourselves by place, and that our immediate behavior is directly influenced by where we are at the present moment. Even in this instant, I am now led to examine my own behavior in relationship to where I am: I am sitting at the window bar in Flour, taking pleasure in how I look and present as one of many students diligently working away, sipping my tea and proud of the space I take up. I could have gone to any number of cafes in the square, or a library or my boyfriend’s office or even my bedroom, to write this blog post, but I specifically wanted to be here, at Flour. I haven’t been here in awhile–coming back to the white tile and chalkboard menu and angular ceramic mugs makes me reminisce of the many mornings I spent here last summer, and causes me to reflect on how much I have changed as a person since then.
Though everyday life is certainly a constant act of performance, though, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is talking about intentional and specific performance, and how they interact as a function of space. Performance does not exist in a vacuum–it is created from pieces of experience gained from each performer and artist, and is presented to an audience with its own background and experience in a space that also contains experience, even if neither the performers nor audience know or realize it. This can lead to a moment of realization, like the projection of Hitler in the National Theater in Krakow during Arturo Uior a change in thought after learning about the Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939. And like every aspect of performance, place can be and is manipulated by both artists and the state to suit their needs: whether it’s Broadway theaters meticulously listing every production that opened on their stage and the dates of performance, governments deciding which companies and venues to support monetarily, or Hasty Pudding productions actively progressing their program’s history while performing on the same stage.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui we saw in Krakow, and how that moment of revelation–that Adolf Hitler sat in the very box I had just left–changed the entire context of the performance for me. Though this production of Arturo Ui would probably not be what Brook would consider to be “immediate,” it certainly became more immediate for me after the realization of the theater’s history, especially as a non-Polish visitor. The reversal of the actors and the audience, coupled with the invocation of Hitler, allowed me to grasp the play’s guiding theme: that fascism, if not explicitly and immediately resisted, will be impossible to stop. By putting me on the stage, I realized that we are the ones that have the power to stop someone like Hitler or Ui. If it weren’t for the theater’s history, that likely would not have come across to me.