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William W. Demastes. Staging Consciousness: Theater and the Materialization of Mind.

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Pp. 193. $47.50.

William W. Demastes's esoteric book is essentially an argument that theater can be a viable link between the mind and nature. Drawing upon theories of cognitive psychology, quantum mechanics, and philosophy, he explores the notion that, despite apparent cultural differences, humans have much in common. He argues that performance can be a collective experience to free the soul through rhythms and patterns that unite humanity collectively.

In the first two chapters of the book, Demastes discusses the dichotomy between the mind and the universe. He states that existence falls somewhere between the absurdist view that life is based upon random experience and the naturalist belief that reality is ordered, deterministic. Random experience becomes associated with chaos theory, whereas the scientific view of the universe as logically patterned is equated with "bivalence," "serial consciousness" "linearity," "reductive reasoning," and the "discursive"--words that are constantly repeated throughout the book. Demastes states that consciousness, which directs the universe, is fundamentally different from the Cartesian separation of mind and body that precludes the view that we are merely cogs in the universe. Instead, cognitive psychologists disagree with Descartes since they view the mind as flowing from one instant to the next rather than lying in a leveled state of consciousness.

Demastes convincingly demonstrates that many expressionist and impressionist plays such as those written by Arthur Miller, August Strindberg, and Tennessee Williams have roots in the naturalist tradition that focuses on the rationalism of plot, myth, or story and derive from the fact-gathering activities associated with the scientific notion of consciousness. Such is not the case with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which defies serious analysis as a play about nothing, or Gertrude Steins What Happened: A Play, a drama that focuses on the creation of a theater experience that becomes more important than the representation of the event. Demastes implies that the most viable type of theater that can connect mind and nature is a theater of perception rather than linear-based Western drama. He uses Beckett and Pirandello as examples of playwrights who create characters who feel or experience selfhood through linking narratives rather than through rationally based consciousness and who thereby probe the union of nature and mind.

Arguing that bivalent, rigid, and deterministic Western thought has its roots in nineteenth-century logic that was clear-cut with no shades of gray, Demastes notes that Artand turned to Eastern thought, which was multivalent and more sensory oriented. Artaud understood that the flow of performance could disrupt linear and serial expectations associated with Western thought. Artaud's stress on the theater of alchemy, the double, is a much more suitable means of applying the mind to nature since it advocates the metaphoric/nonlinear rather than the discursive/linear approach and turns theater into something more than an event based upon reductive reasoning. Grotowski applies Artaud's theories without the latter's Gnostic despair. Grotowski's acting techniques mandate an awareness of our own physicality in a way that Descartes never understood as a conduit for metaphoric consciousness that defies the serial, bivalent shackles of Western thought and philosophy.

Demastes spends one chapter focusing on how the dramas of Robert Wilson, Spalding Gray, and Tony Kushner transform human consciousness. Wilson uses total theater and works with images to produce a significant shift in the way we look at the world distinct from a preconceived bivalent, serial, or linear drama that dictates meaning for the audience. Gray's work, particularly Gray's Anatomy, integrates the mental and physical through a postmodern consciousness that attaches itself to its own physicality as performance becomes a means to "concretize" the body. In Kushner's Angels in America, AIDS functions as Artaud's plague, assaulting consciousness mired in serial mentality while grounding the validity of our own senses.

Demastes's last major chapter focuses on Peter Shaffer's Equus and The Gift of the Gorgon, Sam Shepard's plays (none discussed in any detail), as well as David Edgar's Pentecost. Rejecting the notion of Equus as a contrast between the Apollonian versus the Dionysian, or between the civilized normalcy of Dysart versus the liberated primitivism of Alan Strang, Demastes instead chooses to view the play as an assault on bivalent thinking. He infers that Alan's blinding of the horses is not merely the consequence of his primitivism but of the phobias of contemporary society (Alan's violence being the result of culturally informed guilt), and thus Shaffer attacks the culturally prescribed notions of the normalcy of rigid bivalent society. Demastes believes that The Gift of the Gorgon unites Artaud's notion of the preconscious with serial mentality. Failure to maintain the balance results in either Edward Damsons sterile pedantry or devastating savagery. Shepard's plays merge the real with the mythical to undermine traditional serial means of interpreting drama; our minds have difficulty unraveling his texts but seem to work better when sifting through the sensory realm of performance of his plays--a process that leads us to multivalent, rather than to reductive, consciousness. To provide a framework for Pentecost, Demastes cites the source behind John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, which posits human interconnectedness in which each person on the planet is separated by only six other people, similar to the collective sensibilities of animals such as ants. Edgar's play urges the growth of collective consciousness by warning against the constraints of individuation or reliance on central operating units such as governments. Pentecost thus offers a model for human consciousness that transcends race, geography, religion, national origin, or gender.

Although Demastes's book is well edited, its density makes for a difficult read. With regard to the book's documentation, Demastes does fine when researching the theoretical material on cognitive psychology; however, he needs to do a more thorough job with the secondary sources on the playwrights, particularly with regard to Beckett, Artaud, Shaffer, Shepard, and Edgar. The endnotes are not particularly enlightening, since most of them are merely citations of sources rather than explanatory notes.

Demastes approaches his subject with subtlety, which can be a virtue but is otherwise bothersome because it often precludes clarity. The highly sought-after state of consciousness between randomness and natural selection becomes a slippery slope to define. This is especially true since he avoids terms such as emotion, imagination, and feeling and couches his argument by what he refers to as a "fuzzy logic" governing the universe. Moreover, Demastes hints at but then also shies away from a discussion of Freudian notions of the unconscious or Jungian archetypes, which Artaud intuitively understood but had trouble articulating; furthermore, he perhaps consciously chooses not to explain how surrealist dramas relate to what he refers to as the ideal state of consciousness between the unpredictable nonlinear order of the universe and serialized rationality imposed on us culturally. Most disturbing is the fact that the audience for this book is fairly limited. Those interested in performance art will find the thesis appealing but will wonder why performance is subordinated when discussing the texts of several of these plays, yet those students and scholars of dramatic literature who seek a closer reading of the texts might find this study inadequate. After all, arguing that a type of drama that presents rhythms and patterns rather than predefined characters is an ideal way to synchronize the mind with the universe is like preaching to the converted. However, if the audience for the book includes those who seek practical applications of cognitive psychology, then this study is quite illuminating.


University of Memphis
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Author:Plunka, Gene A.
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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