Why is there no sf theatre?
I’ve talked before about my admiration for Nick Lowe’s criticism, which has appeared in Interzone since 1985. The above question was one he asked in his second column (Interzone 14), and he helpfully proposed a number of possible answers:
a) Theatre is a moribund artform too inflexible to accommodate the mind-expanding concepts of modern science fiction.
b) Same, reading “science fiction” for “theatre” and vice versa.
c) Live performed sf would find itself competing unfavourably with the technical legerdemain available to recorded media.
d) Science fiction is an essentially popular genre and theatre is an essentially elitist medium; consumers of theatre and consumers of sf are minimally overlapping social groups.
e) Historical accident: no science-fictional plays established emulative traditions.
f) Genre sf is too crummy, radical sf too fringey, to be a bankable risk in a subsidised medium.
g) SF habitues are a bit of a bunch of dimmies and wouldn’t touch live theatre with any more appreciation than they’d pick up Daniel Deronda or Travels with my Aunt.
Lowe allowed, perfectly fairly, that there were occasional individual instances of sf theatre such as Illuminatus or Little Shop of Horrors; but his core point was that there’s “no sense of a tradition within the medium that new works can acknowledge, build on, plagiarize.” Nearly 25 years on, I’m sure plenty of individual instances of sf theatre could be listed, but I think the general point remains. (Possibly indicative datapoint: the first four Google results for “science fiction theatre” are a tv series, a rock album, the tv series again, and a record label.) And certainly, there’s a huge contrast between sf in theatre and in film – where sfnal works can be blockbuster or arthouse or anywhere in between, where directors can carve out careers for themselves primarily in the genre, and where CGI imagery has hugely augmented the possibilities of the form in the last two decades.
What I would like to suggest, though, is that there is a sense in which one can talk about the fantastic, more generally, as a tool in theatre. I’m not saying that there’s a tradition of fantasy works in theatre; I am saying that there’s a tradition of using the tools of the theatre to create fantastic moves. Some examples off the top of my head: the statue of Hermione coming back to life in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; J B Priestley’s time-slip plays; the metafictional devices used by Tom Stoppard, such as the critics in The Real Inspector Hound getting trapped in the play they’re watching; Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which flirts with the idea (and enactment) of the vicious fairy-tales written by its writer protagonist. I suppose the point of view I’m arguing is close to that put forward by Tony Kushner in his note on the staging of his play Angels in America (itself one of the great works of recent fantasy):
The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation with minimal scenery and scene-shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!) employing the cast as well as stage-hands – which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic – the appearance and disappearance of Mr Lies and the ghosts, the book hallucination, and the ending – are to be fully realised, as bits of wonderful Theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.
It was this approach that helped make Angels in America one of the most memorable experiences of my theatre-going life – and its absence made the HBO miniseries a lot less interesting. Film is a literal medium in which anything is possible – hence perhaps the difficulty in apprehending works that shade from “realism” into “dream” such as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But theatre is (or, at least, can be, and perhaps is most at home being) figurative. Perhaps that’s another answer to Lowe’s question: many readers expect science fiction to be literal and widescreen when it depicts the future, and that simply isn’t what theatre’s best at.