22 March 2017
It sounds complicated and, in the ivory tower of academia, it can be. Wikipedia describes metatheatre (or metatheater), as describing “aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theatre (theater), or to the circumstances of its performance.” A more complex description of metatheatre and its effects follows.
“Metatheatre” is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre’s claim to be simply realistic — to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality. Metatheatre begins by sharpening our awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life’s uncanny likeness to art or illusion. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide. It may present action so alien, improbable, stylized, or absurd that we are forced to acknowledge the estranging frame that encloses a whole play. It may, on the other hand, break the frame of the “fourth wall” of conventional theatre, reaching out to assault the audience or to draw it into the realm of the play. It may — by devices like plays within plays, self-consciously “theatrical” characters, and commentary on the theatre itself — dwell on the boundaries between “illusion” or artifice and “reality” within a play, making us speculate on the complex mixture of illusion and reality in our ordinary experience. Any theatrical device can work metatheatrically if we sense in it a certain deliberate reflexiveness, a tendency to refer to itself or to its context in a more general mode: to theatre itself; to art, artifice, and illusion; and perhaps above all to language as such. (Quoted from https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/engl3270/327.meta.html)
While metatheatre is usually connected with the theatre, it occurs in other areas as well. Miguel de Cervantes, for example, uses it as a device early in the Quixote. Don Quixote returns from his first venture to find that his library has been boarded up and no longer exists. When he asks how this has happened he is told that a magician appeared on a fiery dragon and magicked the library away. DQ is left wondering how and why these sage enchanters have picked him for an enemy and delight in tormenting him. At one level, this is comic. At another, it is tragic. Metatheatre often has this tragi-comic edge to it. Comic: that anybody would believe the lie in the first place; comic when the reactions of the deceived are viewed in light of the lie. Tragic when the fabric of the real world is destroyed by deceit.
Later, in Part One of the Quixote, the priest and the barber set up an elaborate play in which they act out their roles as supplicants to the knight. The priest is saved from the necessity of wearing an ox-tail beard by the appearance of a beautiful young lady who plays the role of distressed maiden to perfection. In this play within the novel, the plan is for Don Quixote to be persuaded to return home under oath and not to wander anymore. Of course, it all goes wrong with emphasis throughout on the comic, rather than the tragic, nature of deceit believed.
In Part Two of Don Quixote, published some ten years after Part one (1605 / 1615), metatheatre takes on a more sinister role. In the castle of the Duke and Duchess, an elaborate theatrical plot is laid out in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the principal actors. Crucial to this plot is the episode of Clavileño in which DQ and SP are blindfolded, set on the back of a wooden horse, and flown to the moon and the stars. Lies within lies within lies: the entrapment and enhancement of madness, and who is the real madman when the mad lead the insane on a spectacular and fictitious dance?
Again, when Sancho receives the long-promised governorship of his island, the cruelties, beatings, purges, and indignities that descend upon him in the name of a third party’s so-called humor, make him walk a thin tight-trope between comedy on one side and tragedy on the other. And what can we say about the appearance of the Knight of the Woods and the Knight of the Mirrors? Real knights (apparently), out of time and out of place, as mad as the madman they are baiting, and they bait him by challenging him to fanciful, dressed-up jousting duels on horse-back. Mind you, the ‘they’ is fictitious too, since ‘they’ are yet another character, a single character, who engages falsely in two different but equally fictitious roles.
As with all academic and artistic concepts, much depends on how you define and frame your terms. At its most simple level, metatheatre is crying wolf. When the little boy cries “Wolf!” he creates a situation in which other people believe the lie (there is no wolf) and come running to the rescue. Of course, when the wolf does appear, the boy cries “Wolf!” but nobody believes him. That is when comedy turns to tragedy and the boy and his flock of sheep are devoured. There may be amusement as the elders of the village mill around looking for the wolf, but there can be no comedy when the elders are absent, or refuse to turn out in force, and both sheep and boy disappear down the wolf’s dark throat.
So, in addition to crying “wolf,” one can set out simple or elaborate plans to enmesh other people in a new and mendacious reality. By distorting this reality so that the false appears to be true, we get metatheatre, even though there is no theatre present, save in the minds of those, manipulators and manipulated, who are engaged in the action. All of these things are used in literature, both poetry and prose, to create theatre within theatre, plots within plots, deceits within lies. But what happens when we encounter the same thing, not in literature, but in real life?
In exile from the land of my birth, I come face to face with doubt and fear. I am deceived by my senses; in what can I put my trust? I am subject to delusions. I cannot separate wakefulness from sleep nor dreams from reality nor the truth from these pictures I create in the wood-fire’s flames. And in my philosophy book I read that “… there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.”
René Descartes wrote those last words to express in philosophical terms what Cervantes, and other members of Spain’s literary circles, especially the theatre, had created in literary terms about fifty years earlier. Spain’s Golden Age may be a long way away and it may even have been re- named the Early Modern Period, but the danger of the application of a literary device, metatheatre, to real life is ever-present.
What if our world is indeed commanded, not by a deity, but by a human being, or a set of human beings, who deceive humanity on a regular basis? What if there is systematic deception? What if the most reliable information is dubious and we can no longer trust it? What if we are faced with an evil genius who deceives us with misinformation, disinformation, false knowledge, and outright lies that destroy the foundations of our knowledge? If such is the case, when our knowledge is suddenly without foundation, then we are indeed in deep trouble.