In the course of my intellectual life I sometimes come across works of distinction written by a writer who has had rare insights. Such a work is the book The Theatrical Event: A Mythos, A Vocabulary, A Perspective by David Cole. This morning I am typing up some noteworthy passages from the book for my notes. This is an obscure book which only has a few reviews on Amazon. A Google search reveals that it was written by a playwright who was not very successful. My first instinct would be to waste no time on it since the author never gained any literary fame. But this is the wrong way of looking at things. If you want to demonstrate your discerning taste then you cannot merely point to things that are already well known. You should make your own discoveries. If you come across a book so distinctive that the intellectual community has neglected it then that is an opportunity to demonstrate your superior discernment.
There are some obvious reasons way this book did not take hold. Frankly, the theater community does not appreciate inspiration or the highest expressions of the human spirit. This might seem like a bold statement but I can find little evidence that inspiration is ever an important consideration for people who work in the theater. If I wanted to be nasty I could say that this lack of inspiration is all too evident in what is put on the stage. But my more serious point is that we have few plays which demonstrate any awareness of exceptional states of inspiration such as the ecstasy of the poet who has been taken beyond himself. I can think of only a few plays that seem informed by any knowledge of the ecstatic experience. One such play is Equus by Peter Shaffer. “Equus is a play by Peter Shaffer written in 1973, telling the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses.” The problem with this play is that the shamanic young man is treated as if he were diseased and we are left with some sense of pity for the pathetic psychiatrist yearning for an encounter with the sacred. The fact that this play was so celebrated merely tells me that the theater community knows it is missing something but has no clue as to where to find it. That really is tragic!
The other great play informed by knowledge of the ecstatic experience is the ancient Greek play, The Bacchae by Euripides. Greek religion was fairly complicated. They had many gods and various religious practices making it somewhat difficult to define them when you come from a culture with monotheistic religions. But Dionysus was their god who comes closest to being a shaman, a technician of ecstasy. This play was intended to make Dionysus a presence on the stage and the actor portraying the god would have been in a state of possession by the god. The Greeks would have thought their god was actually appearing right before them and they would have been in awe.
This is something that David Cole clearly understood and he has many ideas on how we could have this kind of experience in the theater. In me he has found a reader receptive to his ideas and perceptive enough to appreciate his insights. I should trust my powers of discernment and judge this book for its true worth and not by the judgement of a theater community which is either unable to understand this book or has never come across it because their artistic development has not led them on a path that would connect with the path the author took, hence paths were not crossed and connections were not made. But I am grateful that I came across this book and make no mistake, this was fate.