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

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

Richard Sennett, author of The Performer, observed that during the writing process, there was a rise in the influence of charismatic leaders in the public sphere. These leaders, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, are adept at using theatrical tactics and resources to manipulate and deceive. While it may be tempting to reject their methods and counter them with logic, Sennett argues that the best response is for artists to create compelling performances that counter this manipulation. He believes that performance and the emotions it evokes are essential aspects of humanity.

Ever since he published The Fall of Public Manin 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.

In his previous works, he combines his extensive knowledge with personal experiences. He references various figures such as Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, Freud, Aristotle, his friend Roland Barthes, and Hannah Arendt, with whom he studied. He also shares anecdotes about Dirty Dick’s Foc’sle Bar in Greenwich Village during the 1960s, claiming that it was a hub for artists, “gay men of colour”, and unemployed dock workers. He also recounts a 1980s production of As You Like It, performed by patients in the Aids ward of St Vincent’s hospital, a Catholic-run establishment in Greenwich Village. For him, the concept of “the performer” encompasses not only professional actors, but also political activists and ordinary individuals going about their everyday lives.

The author covers a broad range of theatrical history, from ancient Greek open-air auditoriums to Shakespeare’s Globe to Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth. They focus on the Teatro Olimpico, an enclosed theatre in Europe designed by Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi in the late 16th century, and the gradual move towards enclosed theatres and separation from the surrounding streets. The author shares colorful anecdotes about the evolving relationship between performers and audiences, which used to be less formal and respectful. For example, in the 18th century Comédie-Française, the audience was more interested in the sexual escapades in the boxes rather than the performance on stage. In London, audiences in the 18th century would shout out well-known lines and either encourage or distract the actors.

Richard Sennett: ‘Visceral theatre fills the absence left by empty words’

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In this book, the author, Sennett, explores the complex and ambiguous nature of performance. He argues that performance should not be used as a tool to convey simplistic moral messages, as it is a form that thrives on complexity and can result in both good and evil. This is exemplified by the way in which crowds can be easily influenced and incited to violence, as seen in the case of George Wallace’s televised racist speeches and a conference of climate change deniers. Sennett himself infiltrated this conference to better understand this phenomenon.

Good forces can be discovered in the give-and-take dynamic between performers and their audiences, as well as between performers themselves. According to Sennett, performers are “sociable artists” and rely heavily on nonverbal communication and wordless cooperation within a group. The transformative impact of performance arises not from spoken words, but rather from the manner in which they are conveyed.

When people stop treating each other equally, problems arise. This allows a charismatic leader to control a group, and the momentary anger of a group becomes a regular part of life. Sennett believes that this type of dramatic performance fills the void left by meaningless language. He raises the question of how performance can promote freedom instead of causing harm, but does not offer a complete solution.

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    “The Performer” by Richard Sennett, discussing the intersection of art, life, and politics, is available for purchase from Allen Lane at a price of £25. You can also support the Guardian and Observer by ordering a copy at guardianbookshop.com, with potential delivery fees.

Source: theguardian.com