The idea of liminality is one of the most prominent themes in Death and the King's Horseman. Even in the opening, before any words are said, the audience is exposed to the closing of the marketplace, at a time when day is not quite over, yet it is not yet evening. This in-between stage starts the play off with a feeling of uncertainty, and the concept that the future is not predictable, that anything could happen. Obviously, the main character, Elesin, is in a liminal stage as he expects to pass from the world of the living into the world of the dead; however, many of the other characters are also in a similar state. For example, in the first scene, we learn that the entire community is deeply affected in much the same way that Elesin is. The young girl who becomes Elesin's bride is especially in a liminal stage, as her life has been completely changed in just a few moments - from being betrothed to Iyaloja's son to being married to the chief of their village. The Praise-Singer is also in a state of uncertainty, because his master is departing for a different world, and he is not sure of what will become of him. He pleads with Elesin to be permitted to accompany him into death - "I have prepared my going - just tell me: Olohun-iyo, I need you on this jouney and I shall be behind you."
On the 'Western' side of things, we are introduced in scene two to Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings, who are in something of a liminal stage, as they are preparing for the grand ball with His Royal Highness the Prince. This anticipation is soon overshadowed, however, by the announcement by Pilkings' sergeant that the chief of the village is about to commit suicide. This realization of Elesin's impending death becomes a catalyst for the rest of the action of the play; because the idea that 'anything can happen' was introduced right from the very beginning, now the play takes a turn from ordinary events into the world of the liminal, where nothing is predetermined and the characters are faced with situations that they have never been in.
Since the news of Elesin's death is what causes all of the action in Death and the King's Horseman, death is one of the most important concepts within the play. The ideas held by the Yoruba people regarding death will come as a shock to most audiences from the United States or Europe. It is these greatly differing views of death that cause the conflict of the action - were the two groups to effectively communicate, to come to an understanding of each other's cultures, the events of the play would not have occurred. Unfortunately, there is no effective communication between the cultures, except for Olunde. Olunde tries to explain to Jane about his people's traditions in scene four, that his father's death is desired and not a bad thing. However, Jane, and her husband Pilkings, do not understand what Olunde is trying to tell them. In this play, death is worth investigation because of theatre's power of suggestion - an audience can be immersed in a play so that it feels real, so that when death is introduced, it will cause people to think seriously on the topic, since they have 'almost' been there themselves, having seen the show.
So, since this idea of liminality is present right from the very beginning of the play, and acts as a catalyst to propel the action of the play forward, it follows that the concept of death behind the liminality is the main topic of the play. For the word 'Death' to be included as the first word of the title says that it is meant to be the point behind the show - the liminality surrounding Elesin's death being the true focus of all the subject matter and analysis.
Unfortunately, the majority of the opening of Trifles was already analyzed in our lecture with Professer K., so I don't know how much I can conjecture without repeating what's already been said. However, in thinking about the play, I keep coming back to my CIS Lit class, where we analyzed pieces of prose very similar to the way we're analyzing plays here. Many of the issues we struggled to grasp then I can see in Trifles - themes such as the importance of storytelling, what is truth, and this recurring idea of community. I think the idea of truth comes up in how each of the genders views the situation. The Sheriff and the County Attorney wish for nothing more than concrete facts, without any thought given to motive or the human emotions behind the crime. This is seen as the two walk in and "go at once to the stove." The men are operating only on the physical level, as they both satisfy their physical desires first (warming themselves by the fire) and search only for physical evidence. Throughout the play it seems as though if the men were confronted with the evidence that the women found, they wouldn't have had enough insight to connect it to the crime. The women, on the other hand, were far less definate in their movements, as they sort of hovered near the door. From reading the stage directions, we can see that these two women are very much affected by what has happened, and this impact has caused them to see the world differently. Their response is somewhat similar to Boal's idea of theatre, and how it should affect people. This makes me think that perhaps Susan Glaspell subscribes to Boal's version of theatre, and encompasses that sort of reaction in the heroines of her play.
The unkempt appearance of the farmhouse adds an unsettling element to the stage before the action begins, and I think that the entrances of the characters also reflect some more about the play. Since the audience doesn't know why the house looks out of order, they will be wanting to solve the mystery when the characters arrive. The men seem not even to notice the room's appearance, but the women observe and react to it, so right from the beginning the audience can identify with the two women as the protagonists. While reading the opening stage directions, I got the impression that the men were intruding, that they were impolitely barging in on someone's incompleted and private work. This feeling consequently sets the men up as antagonists, in a way, and since the half-finished work was most likely Mrs. Wright's doing, they are set up as counters to her character, which becomes much more clear later in the play. The two women show proper respect and anxiety at entering the house, and thus, they later become Mrs. Wright's allies.
After gaining some background on this play by reading the first two scenes and Professer K.'s helpful information, the first thing that struck me about the opening was the sense of ending or closing, and how it parallels and foreshadows Elesin's impending death. This was sharply contrasted by the entrance of Elesin, who is “...a man of enormous vitality, speaks, dances, and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life which accompanies all his actions.” This contrast suggests some of the Yoruba culture and their view of death. In Western cultures, death is the end to everything, something to be feared and avoided. In the Yoruba culture, however, Elesin's death is noble and honorable, wrapped up in ceremony and not a bad thing at all.
Another way that I believe the closing of the marketplace may be symbolic is that it stands for their culture. From what I've gathered so far, the play is about the Yorubian culture being invaded by whites, and them being prevented from practicing sacred ceremonies and traditions; therefore, I saw the closing of the marketplace as a parallel to the figurative 'closing' of the Yorubian culture.
Last year, in my CIS Intro to Lit class, we often discussed Western influence on many different cultures, and how these influences caused traditions to change and transition into something more modern. I also read it in the Author's note: he used the key word of transition. That made me think of the liminal stage, in at least two different scenarios. There is the liminal stage of Elesin's death, with his transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead; there is also the liminal stage of a culture that is changing, that is being affected by the outside influence of these westerners with completely different ideas and a desire to change the 'savages' into something 'human'.
And I apologize profusely for this digression from the actual topic. Without having read the whole play, there isn't a whole lot I can really talk about.
Augusto Boal's She Made Her Brother Smile carried within it the spark that I believe makes theater special. And it made me think about the effects that theater has on people and how it can be used as a tool. I find myself taking a very humanistic standpoint on using theater as a tool, rather than thinking about political implications and social change associated with theater like Boal's. It is true that, in this example of forum theater, a political and/or social change is occurring, but I was more drawn to the emotional connection behind it. What makes theater interesting is the human connection, the communitas, where people are connected in a way that is not constrained by social boundaries. On stage, people are free to express emotions and interact with each other in a way that is normally considered taboo. And it is this human connection that makes theater effective as a way to change people's lives. This freedom is expressed in the girl's performance with the drug-addict brother: "...[she] danced with him, ran, made a clown of herself, twirled around and did somersaults.
Theater is superior to literature in that things can be expressed that have no words. For the girl in this example, "She made her brother smile." Instead of an intellectual stance on revolution, or a lot of political mumbo jumbo that gets lost in jargon, theater instead can connect to people beyond the bounds of language. Language, along with social conventions and oppression, is learned. Emotion is innate. Because theater can speak to people in such a way as to connect them without language, without social conventions, without boundaries, it is truly a universal art that can connect people and make the world a better place. For those people who have no cars or houses or big-screen TVs, something universal is very much needed. "It was so little. And yet, for them, it was so much."
One thing I found particularly intriguing about the selections from Poetics was Aristotle's hierarchy of the six elements of theatre - especially how he placed plot above character. I guess it was interesting because I have heard so much about 'characterization' in theatre that it seemed more important. However, I realize that this was probably partly due to the emphasis on acting that I have been exposed to. In any case, Aristotle's ideas were contrary my own theory that dynamic characters, once created, will essentially write the plot themselves. It is logical that "...without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character," but I can imagine just how dull such a piece of theater might be. Aristotle's ideas make perfect logical sense, but for me, theater is about more about pathos than logos. I have never seen theater as a tool to change the world, but rather a way to connect to people. I focus more on the emotional and human connection in theater, and thus characterization is what makes theater come alive, what lets it speak to the human spirit.
Aristotle's later sections, on structure and unity of the plot, especially spoke to me as being the highly important building blocks of a play. Aristotle's (and my) concept of the 'ideal tragedy' share a lot in common with what makes a book good. I've always thought of plays in the same league with good literature, and I tried to apply the rules in sections VII and VIII of Poetics to both literature and theater. At first, the concepts seemed so basic, so obvious, but I realized that they are very important in creating such a piece of art. If it were not for rules such as these to govern what goes into a play, it would become very hard to discern the 'good' plays from the masses of incomprehensible, inartistic pieces of work that anyone would try to write!