Campus & Community

Lee Breuer’s search for catharsis

4 min read

Theater pioneer speaks at Radcliffe

Guru of avant garde theater Lee Breuer and actress Maude Mitchell enjoy introductory remarks before Breuer delivers the Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in Art and the Humanities. The Dec. 5 lecture was titled ‘Why Dramatize?’. (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Lee Breuer remembers visiting an ancient theater in Turkey where Greek tragedies were performed and asking the guide the purpose of a particular stone.

The guide told him it was the altar.

“I thought, my God, tragedy is the church!” Breuer said.

The recognition was a key moment for Breuer. It led to his groundbreaking 1983 production “Gospel at Colonus,” a reinterpretation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” with a cast of black gospel singers.

“The Pentecostal church is the only institution in our society that employs public catharsis, which is exactly what’s supposed to happen in tragedy,” he said.

Breuer, a founding member and artistic co-director of the Mabou Mines Theater Company and a 2005-06 Radcliffe Institute Fellow, gave the Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in Art and the Humanities Dec. 5. His talk was titled “Why Dramatize?”

A guru of avant-garde theater whose work is no less edgy and challenging today than it was when he first attracted critical attention in the 1970s, Breuer has produced a body of work whose signature is the use of bold contrasts and juxtapositions to emphasize a play’s less obvious subtext. His work has won him numerous awards, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”

In addition to highlighting the connection between black gospel and Greek tragedy, Breuer has staged a production of “King Lear” with the genders of the characters reversed, and in his most recent production, Ibsen’s “Dollhouse,” he has cast little people in all the male roles to emphasize the vulnerability of the patriarchy.

Pacing back and forth as he spoke, Breuer begged his audience’s indulgence for his lack of academic background and his tendency to “leapfrog through different worlds because it keeps it all fresh.”

After discussing “Gospel at Colonus” and showing a clip of the original production (which featured Morgan Freeman in the principal role), Breuer skipped to the connection between emotion and communication.

“You can’t communicate unless you find the emotional basis for your thought. Emotion may also be the key to truth. Did you ever try to lie to someone emotionally? A great actor can do it, but they’re one in a million. They’re the ones who became the shamans.”

Breuer went on to discuss the role of emotion in artistic communication, but not before eulogizing one of his heroes, the French avant-garde playwright Alfred Jarry, author of “Ubu Roi.”

“Jarry was 70 to 100 years ahead of his time,” Breuer said. But he was also a drunk who died asking for a toothpick. “If you’re 10 years ahead of your time, you can write a bestseller. If you’re 100 years ahead of your time, you’ll end up dying while asking for a toothpick.”

Returning to his main theme, Breuer asserted that “all artistic interactions involve a dramatic presentation of self.” This presentation consists of far more than words. Facial expression, tone of voice, body language, gesture, and physical position all contribute to the process of communication. Breuer argued for a holistic model of communication in which “all these elements together are what is said.”

To illustrate this point – or maybe not – Breuer introduced a video clip of one of his recent productions, “The Red Beads,” a weirdly beautiful fairy tale about a young girl’s transition to womanhood, in which actors in long billowing garments are suspended in the air like puppets.

“That’s space and imagery talking,” he said, referring to the scenes of slow-motion aerial ballet. “It’s different from dialogue. This is an enormous communicative metaphor. We don’t just simply verbalize.”

Some of Breuer’s most striking comments took place during the Q&A session, where he was able to leapfrog without apology. Contrasting Western theater with African performance traditions, he said, “In African performance, there is no audience. It’s like a workshop where the teacher is talking to the student but the communication moves back and forth. All are performing in the space, and out of that comes a powerful social construct.”

A question about the future of live theater prompted him to expatiate on the Western world’s ever-diminishing attention span.

“It’s been shown that the attention span quadruples as soon as you’re surprised. This is why some movies have as many as four cuts per second to keep the audience focused. But they’re meaningless surprises. To re-establish artistic interaction, we need more focus and a longer attention span, and I think emotion is the key.”