T heater people have always believed their art form was "dying." This fear has been a positive evolutionary force. In our century, an international network of artists struggled to revive theater through radical treatments: performing anywhere but the traditional proscenium theater, using amateur actors, living in communes, dethroning the playwright, and shifting emphasis away from plot and character and onto movement, sound, visuals, and the inscrutable logic of dreams. (Our own Theatre de la Jeune Lune is a direct descendant of this era.) When Antonin Artaud opined in the 1930s that "the theater will never find itself again except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams," he could have been speaking for all these troupes.
But communes are unwieldy beasts, and in 1973 Vermont's Bread and Puppet announced its disbanding while the Open Theatre, one of the most important radical groups, gave its last performance. Appropriately, one of the Open's final performed pieces was Terminal, a collective meditation on the American way of death. Unlike works by the group's forerunner, the Living Theatre, this piece did not torment its audience but instead used a large ensemble to mesmerize viewers with chants and poetry: Actors beat drums and called forth the spirits of the dead, who then "possessed" them. A body was "embalmed" alive; another was force-fed while two actors pretended to defecate; a man was forced to have sex with a corpse. No surprise that Joe Chaikin, the group's founder, was Jewish: The piece is as much a response to Nazism as to Vietnam.
The political didacticism of '60s fringe theater never got a firm foothold in the mainstream (thank God), but that era's love of spectacle and ritual lives on even in The Lion King, which is suffused with an atmosphere of sacred ceremony. (A shaman serves as narrator, for God's sake.) Funny that The Lion King is also an ad for the world's largest entertainment conglomerate. And so the theater dies on.