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Theatre of Chaos: Beyond Absurdism, into Orderly Disorder.

William W. Demastes. Theatre of Chaos: Beyond Absurdism, into Orderly Disorder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xvii + 190. $59.95

In Theatre of Chaos William W. Demastes has joined the small coterie of contemporary critics attempting to forge ties between modern physics and literary theory. The premise of such studies is that deeply-held paradigms influence the entire culture, governing the way in which both scientists and humanists conduct their inquiries. Demastes attempts to demonstrate that modern drama reflects both the uncertainties of the quantum universe and the structured unpredictability of modern chaos theory.

The book contains five chapters, the first of which is ambitiously subtitled, "The New Science Metaphor and Modern Drama--A Brief History of Western Thought." Demastes believes there is an enduring conflict between two broad world views. The earlier of these recognizes a "necessary interplay between order and disorder" (1). In ancient times this acceptance of chaos was found within Eastern philosophy, Hesiod's Theogony, Dionysian religion, and the writings of Lucretius. These ideas were also implicit in the Romantic revolution and have recently resurfaced in quantum mechanics and chaos theory.

The other basic world view seeks rationality and order while condemning chaos as evil and destructive. Demastes cites Aristotle, Descartes, and Galileo as holding this view, but Newton is the dominant figure. Although Demastes recognizes the importance of Newtonian science, he also finds it sharply limited because of its reliance on "linear thinking" and its presumed antagonism to the broader, more inclusive notions of modern chaos theory. In literary studies Newtonian physics leads toward naturalism, but Demastes makes a convincing case that even Zola "eventually realized the subjective nature of the choices he made" (13), thus anticipating the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.

In chapter 1, "Quantum Physics as Metaphor: Elliptical Beginnings of the New Paradigm," Demastes explains quantum theory by using the example of the double slit experiment, which shows that electrons are both particles and waves. In doing so, Demastes occasionally misrepresents the implications of quantum theory by claiming that it undermines or even overturns Newtonian rationalism. Quantum theory actually explains in exact mathematical language how Newtonian physics works at the margins of reality where the things we are studying (electrons) are nearly as small as the things we must use to study them (light waves). The Shroedinger equation simplifies into the more familiar equations of Newtonian dynamics as the mass of the objects to be examined increases. Demastes sees a conflict between scientific paradigms when in fact there is none.

The chapter concludes by applying quantum indeterminism to two plays: Tom Stoppard's Hapgood and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Since Stoppard was explicitly seeking to illustrate double agency in the quantum world and the world of espionage, the play nicely illustrates quantum mechanics, but Demastes's critical insights shine a steady, informative light on characters who seem to pass through two doors at once and believe contradictory things simultaneously. Demastes argues that the complexities of the fragmented and schizophrenic modern world demand of us this ability to reject the false dichotomy of "either/or" choices and instead accept in ourselves and in others a more open-ended, nonrational "both-and" alternative (49). His argument would have been even stronger had he acknowledged more openly that the universe is simultaneously relativistic, Newtonian, and quantum mechanical.

Demastes is less persuasive and successful in analyzing Miller's Death of a Salesman. He argues that Willie Loman's basic failing is an inability to achieve the double agency of being both a good father and a good business man. True, but Willie's failing isn't so much an inability to achieve quantum double agency as it is an inability to achieve much of anything. Bad spouse, bad father, bad business man, Willie would seem at first to be a loser, a nonentity. Paradoxically, though, Miller makes us realize that Willie Loman is somehow greater than the sum of his parts--and that the same thing may be true for the rest of us as well. There is a kind of quantum logic here, a both/and-ness that Demastes inexplicably fails to pursue.

The opening pages of chapter 2: "Chaos and Theatre--Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" allude to one of the famous characteristics of chaos theory, the notion that the fluttering wings of a butterfly in Burma can influence the weather three weeks later in Chicago. In modern drama the initial conditions involve Martin Esslin's concept of absurdist theater. Striving to forge ties between chaos theory, naturalism, and absurdism, Demastes contends that Esslin's ideas (and those of other contemporary critics) are too limited. He asserts that Beckett was not the absurdist that Esslin called him, nor even a "postmodernist integrating classical assumptions" (58), as Vivian Mercier would label him, but rather a proto-chaotician, who glimpses the possibility of order and regeneration all the while trudging the dreary path toward dissolution, death, and ultimate entropy. The new philosophy that Demastes discovers in Beckett's plays "encourages neither the existentialist's claim of total human freedom in an uncontrolled universe, nor, obviously, a naturalist's vision of total human foreordination and resulting human progression in a pre-established world pattern. From a new science and postabsurdist position, one can see that to varying degrees, given different circumstances, each individual is simultaneously free from and bound to predetermined consequences" (63).

The central pages of chapter 2 sketch the broad outlines of chaos theory in modern science. Then Demastes applies the new paradigm to plays at each end of the historical spectrum of modern drama: Ibsen's The Master Builder and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Demastes shows that the terminology of chaos theory is useful in interpreting The Master Builder, but his arguments are curiously incomplete. He claims, for example, that Solness's behavior "bifurcates" and then moves toward "continuingly bifurcating bifurcations" (82). However, he sketches the nature of these bifurcations in only the most general terms. Furthermore, when Demastes argues that Solness is destroyed by his insistence on linear thinking and "linear control" (83), he fails to provide concrete evidence to illustrate these traits. In addition, one eventually becomes a bit unsettled by Demastes's continuing contrasts between linear and nonlinear thinking--and his conviction that chaos theory validates the latter. Demastes repeatedly fails to distinguish between the mathematical meanings of the words linear and nonlinear and their loose, metaphorical application in criticism and philosophy (where "linear thinking" implies reliance on a causal chain and "nonlinear thinking" calls upon inspiration, irrationality, and creativity). The nonlinear equations in chaos theory are not unpredictable, illogical, creative, or inspiring; they just aren't capable of being graphed as continuous lines.

The section on Stoppard's Arcadia is the strongest part of the book, showing the many ways in which Stoppard links Arcadia with chaos theory. Demastes makes the interesting observation that Thomasina (who studies irregular forms) was fascinated by Noakes's effort to reconstruct Sidley Manor with romantic irregularity. He also notes that the contemporary scholars, Hannah and Bernard, try to impose order on events and are forced to accept that there is a disorderly order to reality. Later Demastes effectively explores the way Stoppard dramatizes self-similar fractal patterns in leaf, landscape, weather, and even plotting of the play: "Even the algorithmic graphing of the leaf (the smallest-scaled system in the play) finds self-similar parallels in the very nonlinear, seemingly chaotic structure of the play (the largest-scaled system), wherein each scene is separately graphed with little concern for linearly presented chronology but so as collectively to reveal, scene by scene, a whole picture" (102). Finally, he reaches his most profound conclusions about the play and about the nature of reality: "Heat death is a universal inevitability, but in the face of that inevitability occur countless natural and human actions of significant, if impermanent, self-organization. Life--the paradigm of self-organization--literally defies an otherwise pervasive universal movement toward disorder. What we have of life we should revel in rather than merely strive to control or prolong. Life should inspire living in the face of inevitable physical disintegration" (102-3).

In chapter 3, "Intuitive Intersections: American Drama Confronts Orderly Disorder," Demastes approvingly enlists David Rabe, Sam Shepard, and Marsha Norman as contemporary playwrights who also use elements of the new cultural paradigm of chaotics. His discussion of Rabe's Streamers is too general to carry much weight, but his case makes itself when he cites Rabe's own words in the afterword to Hurlyburly. Rabe rejects the assumptions of the realistic, well-made play which he sees as striving to create "a kind of Newtonian clock of a play, a kind of Darwinian assemblage of detail," for such an approach involves "the substitution of the devices of logic for the powerful sweeps of pattern and energy that is our lives" (108).

Similarly there are hints of chaos in much of Sam Shepard's prolific output, but Demastes does little to counter the claims of skeptics that Shepard's chaos is simply the result of his "own carelessness as a craftsman" (118). The best that Demastes can do is to cite Shepard's endorsement of "controlled anarchy" (119) as an acting style while struggling to find hints of orderly disorder in A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child, True West, and States of Shock.

Demastes would like to believe that chaos theory is allied with feminism, for as Katherine Hayles has written, "Chaos unpredictability and nonlinear thinking ... are just the aspects of life that have tended to be culturally encoded as feminine" (128). He is, therefore, perhaps somewhat chagrined to have devoted so much of his attention to plays written by men. His analysis of Marsha Norman's 'night Mother is an effort to redress the balance. Demastes casts the concerned mother Thelma as a representative of linear, logical (manly?) thinking and the suicidal Jessie as nonlinear and hence finally able to choose her own death even if others see that suicide as futile and illogical. Jessie's epilepsy nicely fits his argument: "when afflicted, she is quite literally in a randomness phase of a physiological chaos paradigm" (136).

Chapter 4, "Theatre of Chaos, Past and Future," develops the thesis that the critical model of chaos theater can successfully illuminate plays written long before the physics of chaos were discovered and will be applicable to many plays in the future. Hamlet's uncertainty, his preoccupation with decay, and his ultimate acceptance of fate all make Shakespeare's classic amenable to chaotics. Lear is also given a chaotic twist as Demastes focuses on the old king's doomed efforts to impose his rigid masculine will on a chaotic nature that will eventually storm about his head.

In discussing the future, Demastes begins to seem more like a postmodern Puritan preaching about the Apocalypse than a dispassionate scientist or critic. He glances briefly at the plague motif in such plays as Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, John Whiting's The Devils, Peter Barnes's Red Noses, and Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Demastes views plagues, not as events in nature, but as signs of the Omnipotent's wrath: "Is it not possible to see `plague' as an extreme natural reaction/defense launched as a signal that humanity and nature have fallen out of balance and that humanity needs to readjust its systems of dominion in order to return to the natural system?" (148). As a result, he falls into just the kind of false either/or dichotomy that he has so frequently condemned in Newtonian determinism: either we accept the chaotics paradigm or we are condemned to suffer continuing plagues. He even suggests that the prevailing Newtonian paradigm threatens to bring about the end of humanism, and he concludes with two pages in which he hints that chaos theory holds out the hope of proving the existence of God and of the soul.

Taken as a whole, Theatre of Chaos is learned, ambitious, quirky, and thought-provoking. Its enthusiastic acceptance of chaos theory as a new cultural paradigm would be more admirable if Demastes were more willing to acknowledge the mutual support and mathematical consistency among Newtonian physics, quantum physics, and nonlinear dynamics.
Arkansas State University
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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