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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rowan Moore

The Performer: Art, Life, Politics by Richard Sennett review – all the world’s a stage, for better or worse

A rowdy 18th-century theatre audience portrayed in the Penny Gaff, 1872 by Gustave Doré.
Eighteenth-century audiences ‘either egged actors on or tried to put them off’: Gustave Doré’s The Penny Gaff, 1872. Photograph: Print Collector/The Print Collector/Heritage Images/Getty Images

When he started to write The Performer, says Richard Sennett, “a cluster of demagogues had come to dominate the public realm”. Figures such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are skilled at “malign performances” that draw on a wide range of theatrical devices and materials. To which, however, the best response is not to abhor their techniques – to try to fight them only with cold correctness – but for “art-making” to “push back” in equally compelling ways. Performance, he believes, and the emotions it arouses, are fundamental to being human.

Ever since he published The Fall of Public Man in 1977, Sennett has described with unique insight and intelligence the ways that human bodies and actions interact with the cities and buildings that they inhabit. Now aged 81, he plans to complete a trilogy, “if I live long enough”, on the “presence of art in society”, with essays on narrating and picturing to follow. In The Performer he brings particular experience to the subject, as he himself trained as a professional musician – a cellist – at the Juilliard School in New York. A career-ending hand injury and a botched operation to mend it caused him to pursue an academic career in sociology.

He combines, as he has in previous books, erudition with personal experience. He cites the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, Freud, Aristotle, his friend Roland Barthes, and Hannah Arendt, under whom he studied. He also tells stories of Dirty Dick’s Foc’sle Bar in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, which in his account was frequented by artists, “gay men of colour”, and unemployed dock workers. He describes a 1980s production of As You Like It – “a creative defiance of death” – by patients in the Aids ward of the Catholic-run St Vincent’s hospital, also in Greenwich Village. The notion of “the performer” for him includes political protesters and people going about their daily lives, as well as paid actors and players.

He ranges far and wide, tracing the history of theatrical spaces from the open-air auditoriums of ancient Greece, to Shakespeare’s Globe, to Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth. He dwells on the Teatro Olimpico, the “first fully roofed, walled-in theatre in Europe”, designed by Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi in the late 16th century, and explores the progressive enclosure of theatres and their withdrawal from the streets around them. He tells colourful stories of the changing relationship of performers and audiences, once very different from the respectful attentiveness now considered appropriate. In the 18th-century Comédie-Française, which stank of sweat and junk food and pissoirs, there was as much attention on the sexual adventures in the boxes as anything on stage. In London theatres of the same century audiences shouted out familiar lines (“that is the question”, for example, after “to be or not to be”) and either egged actors on or tried to put them off.

It’s hard to find definite conclusions in what is an enjoyably wandering book, but certain themes emerge. Sennett sees performance as complex and ambiguous, a form that dies if it is enlisted to deliver simplistic moral messages, but which yet has a capacity for good and evil. He describes, as an illustration of the latter, how crowds can be whipped up into unthinking rage and hatred, for example by the televised racist speeches of the proto-Trump politician George Wallace, which captivated the resentful jobless dockers in the Foc’sle Bar. A more recent case is a conference of climate crisis deniers – polite people who become inflamed in the auditorium – that Sennett decides to infiltrate.

Forces for good might be found in the reciprocity between performers and audiences and between themselves. Sennett calls the performer a “sociable artist”. He believes in the “nonverbal communication” and “wordless cooperation” that exist between players in an ensemble. The civilising power of performance lies not so much in what is said as the way it is done.

Things go wrong when reciprocity is lost. Then a demagogue can command obedience from a crowd, and the temporary fury of an audience becomes a permanent feature of life. “Visceral theatre,” says Sennett, “fills the absence left by empty words.” The question he poses, without fully answering it, is how the power of performance can serve freedom rather than destruction.

  • The Performer: Art, Life, Politics by Richard Sennett is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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