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What is the function of theatre?

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What is the function of theatre?

Language Arts A – Term Three Reading Assignment
===============================================

Question: What is the function of theatre?

Firstly, I feel that the question is quite broad in its wording, and
the answer to it is likely to change case by case. Theatre is able to
transport viewers into a different world and also feed their
unconscious mind subliminally rather than explicitly. Even though
theatre usually contains some political elements, whether it is
revolutionary or serves as propaganda, I feel that the main function
of theatre is to comprehend, examine and honor human nature. However,
as stated earlier, I do not believe there is a cut-and-dried answer to
the question and hence, I believe that there are also many other
possible functions of theatre including entertainment, story-telling
and politics. In this essay I will attempt to focus on what I feel are
the five most important features of theatre and how they relate to my
two selected plays, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov and Waiting
for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Finally, I feel that the topic question
refers to the function of theatre in a community or society. This
community here can refer not only to our community, but rather to any
community in the world.

Theatre can be loosely defined as “the branch of the performing arts
concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience using
combinations of speech, gesture, music, dance, sound and spectacle”1
It can take on a wide range of forms, including narrative dialogue,
opera, ballet, mime, and so on. Theatre is also a “major form of human
expression, taking place in the present, but connecting us to other
times and places”2 Using the elements of characterization, design, and
technology, actors and actresses are able to provide insights into the
human condition. Theatre contains both visual and audio elements, and
is “a shared experience between audience and performers.”2 Overall,
theatre is a dynamic and vibrant art form, which is constantly
changing to include current affairs and new media.

A closer look at the mission statements and main objectives provided
by local theatres reveals several recurring phrases that,
surprisingly, have very little or nothing at all to do with the art of
theatre. Several examples of these claims include the “presentation of
original works”, “benefiting the community”, and “providing fresh
insights into our world.” However, I have never seen a theatre company
which provides their beliefs in what elements make up theatre itself,
or even what makes a good show.


I believe that it is possible to derive the various functions of
theatre by simply examining a number of good plays, and considering
what made them great. For example, I feel that one of the reasons why
I liked Waiting for Godot was due to its apparent simplicity of the
plot, while simultaneously providing many layers of meaning beneath
the surface. The various functions of theatre which I have derived are
listed and explained below.

Firstly, most, if not all, forms of theatre provide entertainment.
This function is also the only function which is widely shared by the
majority of good shows, for without the element of entertainment, most
plays would not be very fun to watch at all. Entertainment is not
entirely limited to comedy, as one might be inclined to believe from
the usual connotations of the word. However, entertainment in this
case could be more accurately defined as being able to capture the
attention of the audience. I feel that most playwriters have failed to
fully entertain their audience, as they mistakenly expect the viewers
to understand everything they want to convey without first properly
expressing it. Conversely, all great plays have more or less fulfilled
this element of theatre to a large extent, as they are able to
captivate and enthrall the audience completely. I found The Cherry
Orchard to be a very intriguing and interesting read, and it never
ceased to entertain and capture my attention.

Next, theatre also functions to portray life outside the community or
society of the audience. In this aspect, theatre is similar to books
and movies, in that good plays transport the audience into another
place. However, many theatres instead focus too much on trying to get
the audience to relate to the characters, by making the experiences of
the characters something the audience can easily identify with. This
in itself is quite futile, as while the audience may never understand
what it is like to be an orphan who later becomes a hero, it does not
mean they cannot be entertained by the show. Just because they cannot
relate to the main character does not mean that they cannot enjoy the
show for what it is. This point is excellently illustrated in
musicals, one of the most popular types of media presentations. Most
musicals tend to take place in faraway environments, which are usually
alien to the audience. The main point here is that good plays tend to
show something new, and to portray life outside the viewers’
community. My point can be illustrated using both The Cherry Orchard
and Waiting for Godot. The Cherry Orchard takes place in Russia, and
Madame Ranevsky has suffered for five years through the deaths of her
husband and young son, as well as falling into debt. Similarly,
Waiting for Godot brings the audience into the lives of two tramps,
and their comical wait for M. Godot. Hence, we can see that these
plays bring the audience into somewhere new, to provide them with the
life experiences of fictional characters outside of their community,
and this is one reason why they are so great.

Thirdly, theatre should also inspire viewers by providing the audience
with thought-provoking ideas and questions. The audience should be
drawn into the play, to the extent of constantly asking theselves, “If
I were in this situation, what would I do?” All great plays have to
some extent fulfilled this condition. Instead of merely presenting a
series of events, they have tried to make the audience imagine
themselves on the stage instead.

Next, another function of theatre is to tell stories. This is an
often-neglected side to theatre, with most directors preferring to
concentrate on other less important issues, such as trying to attract
big names. I am sure that most viewers would prefer to watch a play
with a good plot and developed storyline over a play with famous
actors and amazing special effects. Again, this point can be
illustrated in Waiting for Godot. As mentioned earlier, the plot is
deceptively simple, and while it can be interpreted more deeply, its
apparent simplicity is due to the fine way in which Beckett has
managed to tell the story.

Finally, theatre also serves to ask questions about ourselves and the
society we live in. It does in some cases provide the answers to these
questions, but at other times, it leaves these questions unanswered.
Again, most great plays have the ability to ask questions which will
leave the audience somewhat clueless, while possibly providing
suggestions as to their answers, if there are any. Waiting for Godot
is full of tricky questions with various social implications, and
while these answers are only slightly hinted at, nothing is ever
clear. No answers are spelt out, but at least the audience has been
given a clue as to which direction the answers lie. Similarly, The
Cherry Orchard also sought to ask questions concerning the society
present in Russia at that time, regarding the modern context against
the old Russia. In the same way, it asked many difficult questions
without providing any concrete answers, although more clues to their
answers were given when compared with Waiting for Godot.

In conclusion, I feel that theatre has numerous functions, and can be
used to provide entertainment, tell stories, and ask important
questions about life and society. These functions have been expounded
upon in the two plays, The Cherry Orchard and Waiting for Godot.

1 http://www.dramaturgy.co.uk/happening/newsletter_march04.html

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