“From the start it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people … it needs no other passport than fun.”
–Bertolt Brecht A Short Organum for the Theatre (1949)
“When you come into the theater, you have to be willing to say, “We’re all here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world.” If you’re not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.”
–David Mamet Edmond (1982)
These quotes from Brecht and Mamet present juxtaposing ideas of theatre’s function in our society. Brecht looks at theatre as a pure form of entertainment, and if you see any productions of his works, you’ll certainly see that opinion reflected there. Whereas Mamet looks at theatre as a way to learn about and analyze the world around you, as a learning opportunity. I think this dichotomy still persists in the minds of audiences, however I argue that this shouldn’t be binary at all. The beauty of theatre, in my eyes anyways, is that the two ideas are able to coexist perfectly, and that it’s the reason why theatre has been able to thrive for centuries.
The whole idea that art should “instruct and delight” goes all the way back to the Ancient Greek writer Horace, who talks about this notion in his Ars Poetica. While Horace was a poet, I believe that this idea can apply to all forms of art, and that the theatre is actually the prime example of this concept at work. The theatre is often used to hold a mirror up to reality, but it does so in a way which allows us to look and reflect, while still feeling like we’ve enjoyed ourselves. Even coming out of the most sad tragedy play, you still feel like you’ve been entertained, despite the ending being sad. Yet tragedies are often the plays where we’re the most blatantly asked to reflect on yourself and your place in the world. What’s more impressive is when they can couch that kind of reflection into comedy; when you’ve been laughing all along and yet still feel like you’ve been moved by the piece. The comedies which fall under the umbrella of Theatre of the Absurd are actually quite wonderful at this, a reason why they’re some of my favourites to go and see.
Maybe we need to be thinking more along the lines of Nietzche and just thinking about art for art’s sake; why does it need to either entertain or educate? Is art required to have a function in society? Why can’t theatre just be? These ideas have been debated as long as humans have been making art, and yet it still seems like when you scroll through the internet, the opinions haven’t really progressed. The way I look at things is this: there is a redeeming quality to every show, and as long as I am entertained, I’m happy. I go to the theatre because I love it, it’s my passion. I love to be asked hard questions through intriguing plots and beautiful storytelling, and I also love that sometimes I can just kick back and enjoy something that’s simply meant to make me smile. Neither one is “better” or “worse” or “not art” versus “art” in my mind. They all exist because talented artists are wanting to share a part of the human existence with other humans; that’s why we go, that’s why we’ve always gone, and why we will continue to go to the theatre.