Show and Tell
Show and tell. Two plain, humdrum verbs, so easy to understand and so simple to define that it is difficult to imagine there could be anybody in need of an explanation. Yet, for all that, ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ are useful words for what they reveal of the nature of theatrical performance.
It is no accident that the word ‘show’ is synonymous with theatre and cinema, in fact with any kind of live or recorded performance. Of course, ‘telling’ too is a kind of performance, as so many traditions of oral narrative will testify. But, it is in the nature of performance to show its material, as distinct from telling it to us. To ‘show’ is to present something in itself and as itself, for direct apprehension; whereas, to ‘tell’ is to alter that thing through a filter of language, for imaginative reconstruction.
Thus, an event ‘told’ appears, relatively speaking, to be a step removed from authentic being, while an event ‘shown’ can get away with pretending to be the thing itself. I say “can get away with pretending” because the act of showing in theatre is, after all, also a re-presentation. In that sense, it cannot by definition be the thing itself; it can only be the thing re-produced. In a strictly logical scheme, an act of showing too is an alteration, through rehearsal and repetition, of an antecedent object, and, in that sense, it is neither more nor less ‘authentic’ than an act of telling. But, in terms of sensation, each of us has at some time or the other experienced the ability of the shown object to momentarily become the thing itself — to overwrite, through sheer presence, the absence of which it is a sign. Things shown thus possess the validity of immediacy, in a way that things told do not.
Also, the act of showing uses several modes of communication – through activity, colour, sound, texture, etc – whereas telling prioritises the voice and narration over all else (assuming of course that there is anything else in the first place). That is why acts of ‘showing’ are potentially richer in meaning than acts of ‘telling’. For that reason, they are also more inefficient; for, by not directing our attention as purposively, ‘showing’ allows our attention to wander towards making its own discoveries in ways that ‘telling' does not.
‘Showing’ therefore, whether in the theatre or elsewhere, carries the stamp of authority and authenticity that we accord to things which we ‘see with our own eyes’. (Isn’t “show me”, for instance, what we finally say when we want to decide things for ourselves — as if shown objects are unmediated entities that remain unmarked by traces of others’ subjectivities?) In the same measure, ‘telling’ never quite rises above the stigma of reportage, a mediated approximation that may seduce us with the power of its articulation but which remains reportage nonetheless.
Of course, in actual practice, matters aren’t as simply antithetical as this hit-list of differences between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ may suggest. Theatre’s acts of showing are in fact closely intertwined with acts of telling, sometimes in problematic ways. For instance, speech in the theatre is often the primary means through which playwrights ‘tell’ information to audiences, and characters ‘tell’ information to other characters. Plays can therefore be thought of as nothing but an intersection of stories that are ‘told’ by several people to and against each other. Yet, it is clear that such acts of telling are deeply conditioned and problematised by the performative frame within which they are placed. Moreover, acts of telling in theatre can become objects to be shown rather than activities in process. That is, the act of telling is relegated as just one action amongst the several that are performed by characters and therefore a thing to be interpreted, rather than a medium that makes interpretation possible.
Where in all this does the storyteller and his art fit in? Nowhere, I'm afraid. The storyteller’s performance is of a different order from performances that occur in the theatre for the simple reason that the storyteller’s voice soars above all conditionality, all frictional jostling with other perceptions that qualify and question the pressing sense of right which underlie the tales we ourselves tell. The assurance that singular voices possess, as they lead us through their labyrinthine stories, pausing every now and then to point out the wonders of the way, is inherently undramatic. Don’t get me wrong: when I say “undramatic”, I do not mean that such performances lack affective power in any way. On the contrary: solo enactments are usually undertaken only by performers with extraordinary skills, and that explains why such performances, when done well, linger so long in memory.
My favourite is a particularly haunting performance Piyush Mishra gave several years ago at the Abhimanch of a Vijay Dan Detha text. On a bare stage with nothing but a harmonium slung round his neck, Piyush had been the raconteur par excellence, mesmerising us with his moving tale of a love relation between a ghost and a married woman. Despite that, I would categorise this performance as “undramatic” because the assurance embedded within Piyush’s narratorial voice had constantly deflected out attention towards the telling of the tale, overlaying the vulnerabilities that it was exploring with the stability of a centred, assured tone. This is the quality that acts of ‘telling’ usually possess, and make it worthy for that reason. But, let us not therefore ascribe to it the value we reserve for dramatised explorations of fragility.
Perhaps this is why the Katha Collage project that Dev Raj Ankur has nurtured over several years prior to and at the National School of Drama is so uneven in its range and effect. Given the paucity of new writing for the stage, theatre practitioners have inevitably looked for several years to other literary forms for stageworthy material. Novels and short stories have been adapted for the stage in such large numbers that sometimes we haven’t noticed the near absence of new playscripts. However, Ankur’s turning to the short story in his Katha Collage series hasn’t been motivated by this common desire to overcome a shortage of new scripts, as much as it has been to fashion a marriage of diverse narrative modes. But, ‘telling’ and ‘showing’, the two modes of addressing readers and audiences that typify the short story and the play, cohabit uneasily in this project that imposes upon itself the restriction of using only those words that have been provided by the short story writer. As a result, the Katha Collage pieces sometimes appear to be dramatised renderings of short stories, and sometimes merely as short stories placed on stage. They are sometimes able to look upon their subjects without intervening in the way that theatre does, and sometimes they are caught within the up-close observations characteristic of narrators who luxuriate in their control over their creations. (Unfortunately, these variations in tone and the spectating relation elude the attention of the actors and directors of these pieces, and appear more a consequence of the project rather than a focus of its explorations.)
One playwright who has put the distinctive tone of the storyteller’s voice to good use within the performance imperatives of the theatre is Bertolt Brecht (and, of course, the tribe of emulators who work consciously within a formulated Brechtian practice). For Brecht, the biggest challenge facing a socially responsible cultural practice was the spectre of emotionalism that he diagnosed as infecting the theatre. Analysing the manner in which plays were written and roles were played, and the things upon which spectators focused their praise, Brecht detected an unnecessary and distracting valuation of sentiment and feeling. In his search for a “cool” playing style that could mitigate the effects of such a preoccupation, Brecht advised his actors to adopt the gestural and analytic calm of storytellers when articulating their characters’ desires and intentions.
Throughout his career in the theatre, Brecht placed greater faith in the audience’s need to follow an argument than in its willingness to be swayed by powerful feeling. To this end, he advocated the use of the storyteller’s pose as a potent antidote to the excesses of an emotionalist theatre. The classic instance he outlined as a model was that of a street scene where an accident has taken place and several witnesses come up to offer their reconstruction of what happened. Their individual acts of ‘telling’ the event conflate description with analysis (what happened with how and why it happened in that particular form), speak of painful events with the precision of clinicians, and serve up the event as one that has occurred unmistakably in the past rather than as one that is occurring currently in the present.
This of course is not the inevitably trajectory of all storytelling ventures, but it is useful to see Brecht unerringly identify distance and stability as typical qualities of the storytelling mode that need to be imported into theatrical practice in order to correct the excesses of the contemporary stage. No other theatre practitioner has quite aimed for a systemic integration of these two very different ways of narrating stories.
I’d like to add, by way of a postscript, that the large number of solo performances we now see on the urban stage does not mean that happy storytelling days are here again. These single figures on stage do tell us stories of their lives (and could even have actual short stories as their immediate inspiration) – for instance, the set of three Ismat Chugtai stories presented as an evening’s programme Isamt Aapa ke Naam by Naseeruddin Shah & family – but these are not instances of storytelling performances. The actor here adopts the persona of the central character, and the performance revolves around a layering out of this figure – which is a dramatic preoccupation more than anything else. Of course, if you have seen this production, you’ll recognise that this is not true of the last piece (‘Gharwali’ by Naseeruddin Shah): the actor there played the role of a commentator observing the goings-on in the hearths and hearts of several characters. Yet, I would argue that much else was happening in this problematically entertaining piece that placed it squarely within the realm of a theatrical practice, but that’s another story.
An earlier version of this article was first published in FIRST CITY (August 2002)
Editor: Manohar Khushalani
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