Monday, March 05, 2012

Is Theater Like Science?

A few weeks back, Gwydion wrote a post on his blog asking if theater is like science?  I replied arguing that theatrical writing is not only exactly like science, but could be seen as a form of applied sociology.

What scientists produce are models, attempts to create a small system that resembles some facet of the natural world as closely as possible.  When this is done well, we can translate the output of the model in terms of the natural system -- we call these predictions -- and a good model is one that produces lots of true predictions for the slice of reality it is meant to represent.  Models are simplifications in that they can only account for a limited number of independent variables, that is, the operative causal factors, but a successful model says something about the ways in which these factors actually do relate to one another in the full complex, messy universe.  When a model succeeds, it gives us understanding about the nature of things we did not have before.

In the same way, what is the playwright's craft?  Create an artificial world populated with characters who are models of real people.  It is a simplified world with a small number of characters and relations, each of the characters having properties, but not full biographies.  Create relations and interactions among them which give rise to situations in which they are forced to act and react.  A good play in one in which we take this miniature model of life and see if there is truth -- if the actions and reactions are those which we find to be faithful to the actual humanity of these limited being, then we can look at them in a way that gives us understanding about the nature of things we did not have before.

Scientists do not think their models are literally true, but reflective of truth.  The same goes for good drama.  The most talented of playwrights have always been a sort of applied sociologists.

Gwydion disagrees.  He responded:

"The crucial difference between the two models is that we KNOW in advance how the theatrical model is going to turn out. There is nothing to be learned. When a scientist creates a model of some objective truth, and sets that model whirling, it may in fact do something very surprising and unpredictable. This never happens in the theater, except in improvisation... and that's not really a model at all."
But don't scientists develop the models with some sense as to how their picture of the world must turn out, too? Aren't there accepted scientific notions that they know they cannot run afoul of?  Aren't they constrained in the same sort of way?

So, who is right here, if either one?  Gwydion has been a dear friend for almost forty years now and in that time we've have had many, many disagreements.  It wouldn't be the first time he was right and I was, it would be the third.  So, is theater like science?  When we speak of experimental theater are we being metaphorical or is all theater experimental in a literal (as opposed to literary) sense?