The Power of Point of View

Unmixing Our Metaphors, Media, and Methods: A Response to Phil Ruge-Jones — LEON SEAMAN

Seaman photoGary Yamasaki’s work on point-of-view dynamics is rooted in literary criticism, but draws on the analogy of camera angle in film to illustrate these dynamics. When I read his first book, Watching a Biblical Narrative, its title suggested the interaction between reading text and watching film or live performance. Yet it might also suggest a potential for mixing our metaphors, media, and methods, so I have been at pains to distinguish these and avoid talking past conversation partners.

In my first post I observed that “‘live performance’ is a different breed of cat from either ‘reading literature’ or ‘watching film’.” In my third post I offered some preliminary distinctions between them, emphasizing that all three offer rich—I will add, transforming—experiences for recipients. As passionate an advocate as I am, I do not wish to make inflated claims for live performance over against the others.

Nevertheless, they are distinct media, as are the criticisms appropriate to each. Literary-critical methods, including Yamasaki’s point-of-view dynamics are helpful in preparing to perform a text. After all, actors do typically read and study a script before performing it. But some methods require some ‘translation’ into other media. For example, Phil Ruge-Jones, as a performer, questions in his post the term ‘inside view’.

Since biblical performance criticism is to some extent an outgrowth of literary criticism, some mixing or blurring of these media and methods is inevitable, but it is confusing. Whereas literary critics often deal with communication between implied author and implied or ideal reader, performance criticism treats live, observable interaction between performer/s and audience.

Much of Robert Tannehill’s still engaging discussion of the communication between implied author and reader transfers to performer and audience, but the implicit becomes explicit—a live performer addresses a live audience through a story. Sometimes, talking to an imaginary character between me and the audience, my gaze and address goes literally right through ‘her/him’ to the audience. Often there is no need for an imaginary intermediary. I even move into audience space in some scenes.

The important question in performance is how a real audience responds. The first time I performed all of Mark to an audience of fifty-five people stays with me. The last two weeks I rehearsed twice a day, and steeled myself for a solemn response. It is after all a sacred and solemn story. True, there are moments of pure pantomime: “Teacher! Don’t you care? We’re gonna die!” (4.38); and “Where can anyone get enough loaves here in the desert to fill all these people?” “How many loaves have you got?” (8.4-5). But I expected the sacred solemnity of the piece to overwhelm such moments.

Far from it! The audience began chuckling at the scribes in the confrontation scenes (2.1—3.6), laughed often at the disciples and authorities all through 4.35—8.21 and 8.22—10.52, and chuckled at the authorities in the later confrontation scenes (11.27—12.44). Afterward, a retired scholar in the audience told me, “I didn’t realize how funny it is!” (Ruge-Jones elsewhere notes a similar reaction by a scholar). The Passion (14.1—15.39) though—as always—brought on deep silence and moist eyes!

Performance scholars think first-century performance style was boisterous, not too subtle, a little over-the-top for our tastes. We might call it melodramatic. I find it appropriate to characterize the main roles in melodramatic terms: Jesus is hero; the authorities are villains; the disciples are tragicomic buffoons, mostly comic in 4.35—10.52, mostly tragic after that.

Audiences are first distanced from the authorities, then from the disciples. Both are critiqued and become the butt of humor. Though disciples are sincere followers, projected to come good after the story’s end, they are too much like the authorities (“Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees, and of Herod!” [8.15]). Establishing this in 4.35—8.21, allows Jesus to spell out the ethical demands of God’s rule in contrast to their continuing buffoonery in 8.26—10.52. There is, of course, an element of empathy in this. After all, laughing at someone—even villains—is oblique self-critique: it expresses distance, yet also suggests we can recognize more than a little of ourselves in that role.

So I differ somewhat with Tannehill and Ruge-Jones on how an audience processes the proximity and distance of the disciples. I find that real audience empathy with their failures is discouraged until the Passion. The culmination is of course the scene of Peter’s denial. Who cannot relate to Peter?

It is quite possible that my choice of a performance model rather than a storytelling model of presentation has influenced my interpretation here. I am under no illusions that there is one way to interpret or present this narrative drama. I think we all agree that proximity and distance are at issue, and I find Yamasaki’s point-of-view dynamics helpful in evaluating that proximity and distance. They are a literary critical device, and require some ‘translation’ into other media, methods, and models, but they do provide evaluative guidance to the preparing performer as a reader of the text.

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1 Response »

  1. I am interested in Leon Seaman’s comments about the audience’s reaction of laughter when he performs Mark. It is hard to know whether first century audiences would react in the same way. Perhaps they were more personally involved in some of the challenges the disciples faced, such as taking up their crosses to follow Jesus (Mark 8:34), Also, “choice of a performance model” will make a difference, as Seaman says. One can play for laughs or for sympathy. And humor itself is not one kind of thing. There is genial humor and derisive humor. Seaman’s comments suggest we must allow for a range of possibilities of response, even if the guidance of the text creates the points for response, if we give it a fair reading.

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