2. Performance as Myth

Welcome (back) to my blog! This is episode 2, in which I hope to get my thoughts down about why seeing performance as myth is helpful to me as a dramaturg. In so doing hopefully I can give you some ideas for own work, whatever that may be. Before I start, some ground rules:

1 – I am no arbiter of dramaturgy. I am working it out as much as anyone. What works for me on one project may not on other projects or for other dramaturgs. I am also certainly not claiming originality.

2 – I have tried to write freely, without editing too much because I want this to be a blog, not an essay.

3 – Dramaturgy is quite esoteric. Every time I publish a blog post I will have a million and one clarifications, expansions and contradictions to write. Instead of doing that I will aim to create breadth and scope by continuing my blog in conversation with myself – and anyone who cares to join me. So in short: this is not exhaustive.

4 – Enjoy.

I recently read a stunning and pithy book called A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong and I recommend it to anyone who is involved in performance making at any level. She explains that myth is what humans create to try and make sense of their place in the world around them. For example, the Gaia myths, which emerge around the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, are trying to make sense of what early humans observed as the “seed planted to living creature born out of the place it was planted” cycle. This associated, from then on, the female and Earth (in the early hominid understanding of a binary gender).

What matters in these myths is not whether something happened at a particular time in Fact, but that it always happens, in Truth. Eternally. In cycles. And many myths share this sense – for a more expansive history, please do read the book. We, as tellers of and listeners to myth, are helped to understand something deep and fundamental to us and the way and place we live. Early religions, too, have the same disinterest in Fact, favouring Truth, and their stories favour it in turn. These stories were told because they help us to understand something infinite and unknowable. It doesn’t actually matter if Moses parted the Red Sea or Noah built an arc that could simultaneously hold 2 of every animal on Earth. It doesn’t matter whether Siddhartha actually was born out of his mother’s armpit, walked 7 steps, instantaneously causing 7 lotus flowers to grown. What matters about these stories, and the rituals that go with them, is their metaphor, that they speak to a Truth, the telling of which helps us understand what science can’t. The purpose of our shared life. Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi is a great exploration of this.

As religions’ belief (in the West and Middle East primarily) became dependent on the factual the value of those religions decreased. Our primary myth machines (religions) doubled down on this in reaction to the threat that scientific understanding posed to them. Of course, this is a trend rather than an absolute. There were, and still are, those who see the important division between Fact and Truth when dealing with religious belief. But the trend towards Fact in myths created a gulf in the human soul. If religion and science are both trying to secure the facts of the world, to where do we look for the unknowable? Where do we find symbolic Truth? How do we understand our existence? Into this gulf step artists and storytellers.

So what? What does this do for me as a dramaturg or us performance makers? Truly the answer to this is essentially what will make each dramaturg different from each other. To me, however, I see it as one of my tools to look into the work with a lens of Mythological Truth. Never let the facts get in the way of a good yarn, as my godfather frequently said. This will manifest differently in each project I work on and so perhaps an example – with the writer’s permission, of course.

I recently worked on a lovely script over about a year. A two hander, awkward romance with toxic history, threaded with intellectual banter, deeply personal to the writer, and strongly naturalistic. In this project I found myself wondering: What is the eternal aspect of this? What is this exploring for the audience’s benefit? What is the scale of it? In short, why are we watching? So rather than focusing on the maths of the work (see previous blog post) I wanted to understand what the subconscious element of the play was. What had the writer accidentally done with the primal storyteller’s brain, rather than the playwright’s? Enter Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and  Arthur Miller. Locate the protagonist. Then how does the antagonist function in the different archetypes or “emanations of the hero”? When, how and why can we see the antagonist fulfilling the roles of Higher Self, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, Trickster, Shadow, Herald, Ally or Mentor? Through this process we discovered that the antagonist as written mostly fulfilled the Threshold Guardian, Trickster and Shadow to the protagonist, and so too, the Shapeshifter – even though the character is well rounded and believably, naturally human, what he does in the story seems deeply mythological. Now, where are we set? In the bar our functioning alcoholic and ‘old flame’ antagonist runs. We are already in the Belly of the Whale, the Innermost Cave. What is the ritual our Shapeshifting Threshold Guardian engages the protagonist at her Mid Point? She takes the drink he has been offering for the whole act, the Supernatural Aid. What seemed on the surface as a clumsy courtship, when seen with a mythological lens becomes Red Riding Hood or Jesus in the Desert, a cautionary tale of temptation and fall (or otherwise). 

So why was this process useful? Firstly it drew the attention away from the dialogue. What the characters say to each other and what they do to each other are useful elements to separate. Characters frequently say and do opposing things. This, if intentional, can be very rewarding, as many of Shakespeare’s characters demonstrate. Commedia Dell’arte’s Capitano archetype will talk of himself as the great war hero runs at the first sign of danger. This process allows us to see the dialogue and the story as separate entities. How these elements interact with each other is the play. Secondly, it expands our frame of reference to dig out layers with. Naturalism can easily lose sight of the spiritual aspect of life, the more symbolic elements of us. If we imagine this as a myth we have other tools at hand. Lastly, it raised many questions for us to work through, including: Why do we change setting for Act 2 if we are already in the belly of the whale? How is alcohol linked to her making the ‘mistake’? Is that the story we want to tell? How and why does power change in this play? Can he function in the other archetypes to a rich effect? How far can this script lean in to the symbolism at play without losing its naturalism?

It is worth saying that this is not an exhaustive process of dramaturgy and my hunch is that if this stuff is too present and deliberate, or brought in too early, the piece will lack innovation and will feel formulaic. A Myth By Numbers approach. But it is a tool which, if brought in at the right time on the right project, can yield surprising, fruitful and clarifying results. It can help, as phenomenal director/dramaturg Inne Goris says, “to render visible that which is hidden”. 

Thanks for reading and keep making those myths. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!

As ever, a reading list of references with links to ethical book sellers:

2 thoughts on “2. Performance as Myth

  1. Interesting parallels between the science approach to understanding and the myth approach. While science is about investigation, facts, prediction and management of the world, myth is about truth, meaning, purpose and collective identity.
    Both are needed for progress, and neither is sufficient by itself. Myth without science is open to abuse and cynicism; science without myth loses the trust of society and becomes self-justifying.
    Sadly, the most successful modern myth-makers are anti-science and ultimately destructive, even though they all focus on a grain of truth. Even Trump.

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    1. Absolutely. It is also easy to forget that scientists, philosophers and storytellers were all one for a very long time, only recently diverting in any meaningful sense. I am thinking of Alchemists as a case in point. There is much written on this as regards the climate crisis. Scientists since the ’70s have said versions of “we’ve shown you the facts, but we can’t make you care. That’s for storytellers”. We can see many cases of the abuse of the power myth way back through history. The crusades being a prime example. Many modern versions, too. I the days of economic hardship and populism it seems that the simplest story with the least personal responsibility wins the day. I have aimed this specifically at the use of myth within a creative setting, because that’s what I know. The social/political setting requires a book on its own! To end on a creative note: Simon McBurney opened The Encounter with “Everything is a story. England is a story. We just choose to believe it.”

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