• Talk for a ‘Prompt Corner’ Luncheon at the Nomads Theatre, 21st November 2012

When I sat down to write this, I couldn’t remember which part of the theatre I was supposed to be sitting in. Of course like all men, I like to think of myself in my prime, the young man, the world at his feet, striding down Leadenhall Street – but of course those young chaps’ salaries only let you sit in the gods. Hence my title.

But just as there is some cognitive dissonance in the air when I tell my daughters that so-and-so has dark hair, dark hair just like mine – so I have to confess that it’s not the gods, but the stalls that are now better suited to a man of my girth. So perhaps this is really a view from the stalls. Whatever: I am definitely out there, beyond the footlights. This is what I am thinking, as I sit – wherever I sit, watching the play. I am not an actor; I’m in the audience.

By the way – the reference to ‘the gods’ may have hinted at a nod to my being a preacher – six feet above criticism in the pulpit – but don’t worry, I’m not planning to deliver a sermon today.

Why do I go to the theatre? Was Shakespeare right to dismiss the actor’s craft as to ‘strut and fret his hour on the stage …. signifying nothing’? Or is this a very serious business, almost a spiritual work-out, what Aristotle was talking about when he said that in a tragedy the playwright achieves ‘catharsis’ in the audience, a sort of purification of the spirit, through ‘pity’ and ‘fear’?

That might be rather a challenging beginning. I put it almost as a set of logical extremes. Somewhere in between lies the secret, the magical secret, of what we see and hear in a play. Aristotle does specify that he is talking about ‘drama’ rather than storytelling. We need actors, saying their lines and doing their action, on a stage, with scenery and props, in order for the magic to happen.

I think that that is because drama is the most involving form of storytelling. The action doesn’t happen in your head as you listen to the storyteller, but it is there, in flesh and blood, on the stage in front of you. You see people – perhaps people like you in some respects – in dramatic situations, situations which put them to the test. How will they react? What will they do?

The other thing, as well as what the characters do, is what they feel. Sometimes what they encounter in the plot is beyond our experience. We in the audience don’t know what it felt like to be Hamlet, or Othello, or Macbeth. Indeed we wouldn’t identify ourselves with any of those tragic characters. They’re too elevated. But what about Romeo or Juliet? A boy and a girl; they could be any of us, well, at least when we were young.

We often find characters on stage whom we want to identify with. Perhaps we secretly feel, ‘If only … If only I had done this, or had this bit of luck, then it could be me that this play is all about.’

Of course you, as actors, do have to work out what those tragic giants felt, to act out their jealousy, their ambition, their rage. But I’m speaking strictly from the other side of the curtain. And we in the audience don’t know how it feels – we depend on the players to show us, to play out visibly, the characters’ emotions.

Sometimes we know we’re not like the hero or the heroine, but we still admire them, we still love them. Richard Griffiths’ character in the History Boys – actually any schoolteacher in a play, Mr Chips, Miss Jean Brodie – we love them all. They never seem to give out detention or lines! We admire them – they are ideal figures. Here is some of the magic. You come out of seeing The History Boys and you have a warm feeling of having been close to a source of wisdom, a source of goodness. The teacher, gifted himself, nurturing people who are talented, precociously talented as only teenagers can be. Their flame is burning bright – who knows whether it will settle in to generate steady power, or flame out, die away in a couple of years?

That’s another part of the magic – the risk. How can our hero do that, risk that, and not get cut down? How can those young ones risk it all for love – or for a cause? You would like to think that you would take that risk, you would put yourself on the line – but what does it feel like? The play will tell you. I would not dare to challenge a king – even if I was able to speak to him at all – but in any case would I risk it that he might hear me and then say, ‘Off with his head!’? In the play, that’s what happens – and I can see how our hero is shaken, how he is terrified. He is playing out the emotions, the horror, the cruelty. And then, in the nick of time, he is pardoned. How good does that feel?

My daughters, who are now young grown-ups, were very fond of a rather lurid book called ‘How it Feels’. It is all about how it feels to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or be in a plane crash – it’s not about finer feelings. But the fact that teenagers love the inside story of spectacular events does illustrate something about what we get out of seeing a play, and why it is so fascinating. We want to know not only what it looks like when the dirty secret is discovered, but what the jilted lover feels – and what the naughty couple’s thoughts are when they are discovered.

Perhaps it’s like a dolls’ house. Girls say that playing with dolls is like creating your little world. The dolls are actors, and you make a play for them. You lift the lid off the house, and there is life inside. Watching a play, to put it another way, is as though down those streets, in the heart of the city, we could take the lid off and see inside people’s lives.

But what was Aristotle on about? I haven’t identified anything yet in being a playgoer which would have such a fundamental effect as Aristotle thought a good tragedy should have – achieving a catharsis, a cleaning out, of the emotions. Remember, the essential ingredients are pity – our hero doesn’t deserve to suffer, although he does – and fear. Something truly terrifying happens to our innocent victim.

‘Catharsis’ is something much more serious than the mild warmth we might feel after seeing the Mousetrap. It really is something much more spiritual, something which goes to the audience’s hearts, to the depths of their very souls, perhaps. The tragedy – Oedipus Rex, say – is so serious, the disaster for its leading players so complete, but yet so undeserved, so unexpected – that it really shakes us.

Somehow the actors, ‘doing’ the play, acting it out, are able to influence our thoughts and feelings. There is magic here. Somehow working out the scene, performing it, draws us, the audience, right into the heart of the action and makes us part of it. We feel Oedipus’ pain; we are terrified by the realisation of the impossible choices facing him. It moves us. It’s not just what happens that is terrifying, or that is sad. It’s that we are terrified, we are sad. The play has done that to us.

It’s difficult to see precisely what Aristotle expected in the way of catharsis. Was it a question of mental inoculation – being so scared by the play that it freed you emotionally, so you could be much braver in real life? There’s no sign that plays have that effect. Or was it much more mystical, much more mysterious? You cannot completely, exhaustively describe the effect that seeing a drama can have on people.

Here’s another set of words which came to mind when I thought how you can be affected by drama, perhaps by a dramatic spectacle, even, in front of you. The words are, ‘An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. The play, the external manifestation, has an internal effect, or rather, it brings out the innermost secrets in us. This is what is really meant by ‘catharsis’. And some of you will recognise those words, the outward and visible sign, the inward and spiritual grace. They are, of course, from the Book of Common Prayer.

In a religious context, a drama – a serious drama – to act out the life of Christ, (as they do at Wintershall, and Alan, I am sure, will be up for a big part next year): or the miniature ritual of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion, of the Mass: both those are equally serious dramas, and if you attend, if you are not just in the audience but taking part, being involved, then the play becomes a ‘sacrament’. It has religious meaning and worth.

In church, in the C of E that I belong to, there are only two sacraments, ‘… baptism, and the Supper of the Lord – that is, Holy Communion. The magic of the drama is in these too. The words, the actions, make something happen in the people taking part. People say that the sacrament of Holy Communion is not just the business, to use a theatrical expression; not just the sharing of the bread and wine: instead it is the whole drama, the whole performance, that works its magic in the believer.

This is very like what Aristotle was writing about, 300 years before Christ. Catharsis, purification: and indeed the church service usually starts with what we call the Collect for Purity: ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts’, we pray.

Well, I don’t want to break my promise, not to preach to you. But I think I have reached the point where I can say that, as between the poor player in Macbeth, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, but signifying nothing, and the awesome wrenching of the soul in the great tragedies, I do tend to believe that there is more to a play than just trivial titillation, mild amusement. You actors do have a sacred task to perform. You are, in a sense, guardians of holy mysteries.

And of course, from my humble seat in the gods, I do still see myself as the Prince, as Romeo, as James Bond. You just have to help me to keep on believing.