Start With a Murdered Dog

…while we have and occasionally use the capacity to let art veer toward and partake of that awe in the religion from which it was untimely ripped, so we also have the capacity to pervert these impulses toward the dramatic, to oppress and to enslave each other. (Please note that as we exercise these impulses, we do not say we wish to “oppress and enslave”––we say we want to “help, teach, and correct.” But the end is oppression.) –David Mamet

Royal National Theatre production photo

I recently saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I read the play some time ago, and thought it was just ok. But when I learned that the movement directors of this production were the guys from Frantic Assembly, I knew I needed to see it. Their production of Lovesong had a lasting impact on me. They really understand how to take a script and make it into theater.

The show was excellent. I recommend it.

I saw it with a group of my students. I often speak to them about understanding the difference between ritual and propaganda, since so much of the art world they experience is really just pamphleteering for some issue or other. It’s not often I get to simply sit and experience a piece of contemporary ritual with them.

There’s a lot of talk about how art leaves us with things to think about. But that’s actually not what great art does. (That’s what propaganda tries to do, though it usually only succeeds in telling you what to think. While ritual opens the mind, propaganda directs the mind and calls that directing “opening.”). Great art leaves us with what Samuel Beckett calls “profounds of mind.” And as he points out, these profounds of mind are not thoughts. Thought is a familiar, daily experience. Profounds of mind are more rare. They feel different than thoughts, but they are not emotions. They are of the mind without exactly being thought. They tend to occur not only when the heart is in a state of vulnerability, but when the mind is as well. They are not arrived at. They bloom. Curious Incident left me with profounds of mind.

The play afforded this experience without a message. There was no agenda. No moral. No pitch. No supposedly unanswered questions (which conveniently have only one acceptable answer). No trite exposé. No false conflict set up to give the illusion of two sides of the argument. No attempt to teach, or nudge the audience toward a particular worldview. No horrific meddling by some ludicrous centralized beneficence.

Just ritual. Just depth and humanity.

Ritual opens the heart. It leaves the heart raw and vulnerable. And in that state, the heart is ready to listen and love. Ritual is more powerful than any propaganda. Theatrical ritual will make the world a better place more effectively than any play about making the world a better place.

It’s important to understand that theater––real theater––is ritual. Western theater came from Dionysus worship in Ancient Greece. When it all but disappeared during the dark ages, its re-emergence came through the churches of Catholic/early Protestant Europe. But it’s not religion that matters. It’s the act of ritual. It’s the act of telling stories with our voices and bodies, not to arrive at some tidy conclusion, but to arrive at a moment of transcendence, a moment of contact with the intangible part of what it is to be human.

And, yes, ritual is difficult. Sometimes exquisitely difficult. Propaganda is easy. Shamefully easy. That is why most of what we see is propaganda. Ritual requires the artist to let go of prejudice––not just the prejudice we see as bad, but all prejudice. Propaganda is, by definition, prejudice. Ritual requires the artist to understand what Keats meant when he wrote about Negative Capability, the artist’s ability to disappear from the offered piece.

How does one do that? Well, that’s the same question as “how does one create art,” since Negative Capability is at the core of artistic creation. But that’s another, very involved blog post––or book, for that matter. Suffice it to say it’s mostly hard work and letting go. Curious Incident started with a murdered dog. Give that a shot.

When the play was done, I didn’t have to say anything. The students and their red-rimmed eyes knew what had happened.

Some of them will go on to study theater in college, where they will likely be told it is their moral duty to make propaganda, to become political worker bees. And some of them will buy into it.

But some of them will take to heart experiences like seeing Curious Incident, let those experiences carry their understanding of ritual forward, and become artists.


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