Experiencing the Humanities

A Web Textbook in






11. The Performing Arts--
Stories That Move


Chapter 11 of Experiencing the Humanities by Richard Jewell



The performing arts are all those art forms that usually must be performed to be appreciated. Most of us make a very simple division of the performing arts into two basic types of art, both of which normally must be performed to be enjoyed by viewers:


other "staged" productions

Music includes live music and recordings, from symphony orchestra music to rock. "Other staged productions" includes both traditional stage plays, operas, and dance, as well as more modern recorded versions of those for movies, videos, and television.

If we broke down these two into further categories and intermixing of those categories, we might get a list something like this:

recorded music
performance art
digitized movies/TV

Most of the performing arts are mixtures of different kinds of arts: they are sometimes called combined arts. Almost all of them combine elements of sound and sight-- combining visual arts with literature as in plays, visual arts with music as in opera and music videos, or sculpture with music or storytelling and visual arts as in dance, mime, and puppetry.

Performance Arts--Following the Edge of the Wave 

Performance arts move through time.  This means that unlike our appreciation of other art forms such as books or paintings, we do not have the luxury of staring at a section of a performance for a long time nor returning to it.  This is because it keeps moving, never staying the same from minute to minute.  A song being sung by a performer, a stage play, and a dance performance, for example, all flow endlessly on.  Of course, modern technology has made it possible for us to view again such performances.  And it always has been possible to have more than one viewing of a play by reading it, a song by reading its music, and a dance by reading dance notes.  However, there is little to compare to an original performance by an artist on a stage.  We do not have to imagine the play, the music, or the dance, for it is right in front of us.  In addition, part of the artistry of a performance piece is not just the original score, written play, or dance notes, but also--and sometimes more importantly--the special artistry that the performers themselves bring to it.  Great works of performance art may be easily performed well by anyone of even modest talent.  However, it also is true that average works of art sometimes become great in the talented interpretations given to them by a Nureyev or Barishnikov, a Dustin Hoffman or Jane Fonda, or a Chuck Berry or Janis Joplin.  Sometimes it even happens that an obscure or even poorly respected performance piece finally becomes recognized as the masterpiece it is, only because it has been performed well by a great performing artist and given a special, unique interpretation by that artist.

In any case, the time-bound nature of performance art requires that we develop a different sensibility as a viewer.  Because we cannot simply stare or reread it, we must have a heightened attention in order to catch the nuances.  Samuel Thompson, a twentieth-century philosopher, suggests that we adopt a listening attitude toward music, one that works well for all performance arts.  Thompson, a professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, had a small house near the campus and perhaps the best and largest music system in the town.  He would close all his doors and windows and then turn up the sound so that it was as loud as a rock band's music, and then he would play pieces from his collection of classical music.  Thompson's method of listening was this: music is like a constant wave of sound--we should listen to it by focusing on the front edge of the wave.  In other words, we must always listen to what is coming out of the sound system--or the performance--at that very instant.  We must always stay in the present, and he suggested we do so by pretending the sound is a wave and that we always focus on its leading edge.  This method works well, in fact, for performance art of all kinds.  The problem in viewing or listening to such art is that our attention may stray, and when our focus on the performance returns, the sound or sight might be so different that we are no longer sure of what is happening--of what the structure is, and what that moment means in relation to other moments.  This method of concentration helps the problem with focus to some extent.  

Of course, we must realize that focusing consistently and well is a problem for all audience members, even those who are expert: live performance art often demands a more intense focus (and often, for this reason, performances tend to be shorter) than does reading a book or watching a favorite movie at home.  Like anything else, becoming good at focusing on a performance requires a mixture of concentration, alertness, and knowledge of the art form and/or story line.  One of the most important elements of viewing live performances is learning to focus on them well.  To do so--for the best experience possible--it is wise to prepare for them ahead of time by being awake and rested, reading any available information (such as program notes) ahead of time, and practicing your focusing technique.



Some cultural anthropologists suggest that the first languages may have been songs.  Human beings, they say, may have chanted songs to each other using repeated rhythms and notes and changing words.  That is, language was born, perhaps, as a regular mixture of both words and musical notes.  Whether true or not, it is clear that singing is an ancient art form.  It is endemic to almost all cultures throughout the world, ancient and highly advanced.  Musical instruments were developed early in the history of humankind, as well.  Several thousand years before the advent of the first high cultures, possibly many tens of thousands of years ago, people first fashioned instruments from gut strings, reeds, horns, and other natural objects and used them as a complement to their singing.  By the time high cultures and written records appeared in Egypt, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, well made instruments of varying kinds were a part of those cultures.

[development of historical music]

Types of Music


Elements of Music




Stage Plays--Three-dimensional Stories

Plot and Dramatic Action

[TO DO: Have a history section before this (see also the additional sub-subtitles below this sub-section)?  Use this plotting section immediately below and adapt it to stage plays: it has been moved from the " lit" chapter to "performing arts," so rewriting is in order; maybe get rid of some stuff and certainly change it so that east-west signifies more the dramatic vs. character-study type of drama.]

[TO DO: discuss differences between comedy, tragedy, drama, etc. In addition, as mentioned in above in "Plot--The Plan of the Story," characters need to experience resistance or tension and go through change. If this change is motivated from their inner abilities and values, we will identify with them even more than if they make an easy surface change, a casual change with no real meaning or conviction to it. It is in this combination of character with plot that the strongest and most wonderful stories usually are developed--when both good character development and strong plot are intermixed.]

Once we understand plot as the central core of most stories, it is simple to take it one step further: plot is composed of


good vs. bad
hero/heroine vs. obstacles

This conflict, this battle or series of battles, often has been traditionally represented in both West and East as a journey or the climbing of a hill or mountain:

This climbing or mountain represents an increasing level of tension in the story--and in the reader. The climb and the tension may represent dramatic outward events, internal emotions and feelings, or an increasing tension of meaning and importance of idea.

Western And Eastern Plots

In Western literature, this journey or climb depicted above often is accompanied by dramatic events. For example, Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey encounters many dangerous natural and mythical obstacles on his way home from the Trojan War. His journey or "climb" is through the history and legends of Greece, showing or proving a human being could encounter even the gods and still get home safely.

In Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers attempt to be together forever, no matter what obstacles of family, war, or weak heart might occur. They win in the end, but only at the greatest cost of all--death--which makes their story tragic.

In Eastern literature, this journey or climb may more often be accompanied by a rising inner emotion on the part of the main character and of the reader. For example, in the Hindu Bhagavid Gita, the hero, Arjuna, is about to go into battle against relatives and former friends. He cannot summon the courage to hurt these people; the god Krishna appears to him and the two have a long discussion of the meaning of love, honor, and obligation. The rising emotion in Arjuna--and the reader--is that of resolution, love, and the power to do good.

Or, for example, a modern classic of the Near East-- The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran--has this same exhorting quality of someone being steeled to face a greater responsibility, of someone building their emotions up to face reality.

Even the stories in the East that are more Western- plotted--stories with heroes, heroines, and villains--offer fewer ups and downs, fewer highly dramatic moments, and instead a regularly increasing mood of drama, of violence, of love--or whatever other emotions the work of art wishes to convey.

Interestingly, a mode of writing has been arising in the West in modern times that, plot wise, is similar to the plotting of the East: in this kind of story, popular among American and European literary circles, in literary journals, and on public TV, there often is less dialogue and external action, but more emphasis on character development. The characters are shown gradually going through their lives and confronting some kind of change, some kind of new way of acting or being, that stirs up their emotions in a new way and changes them.

The end of these stories often seems up in the air if one is looking for normal dramatic plotting or dramatic endings; however, they can be understood in a more Eastern, emotional way if one views the end of such a story as a flower that has suddenly blossomed--as a character suddenly reaching a new discovery or stage of life. It is a "psychological story," this kind of story, and in this respect it is similar to the literature of the East, which always has shown a much greater tendency to explore more directly, more obviously, the inner psychological territories of the human soul.

Poetry often has played this very same role throughout the history of Western literature; but now storytelling is beginning to play it, too, as East meets West and as they learn from each other.

Stage Craft: Settings, Props, and Costumes


History and Schools of Stage Arts


TV, Video, and Performance Art


Dance--Sculpture That Moves

Dance can be thought of as sculpture that moves. It is fluid, three-dimensional, and depends so much on the movement of a traditional figure in sculpture--the human body--that it is as if statues had come alive and began moving as part of their beauty.


Dance has been with us possibly longer than any other form of art.  Some cultural theorists argue that dance--or artful body movements--may have been the first way that humans communicated something symbolic.  Cave drawings of dancers are among the earliest we have, and according to theorists such as Esther Harding, dance was the foundation of early mother-goddess religions--the earliest religions of which we have records.  In these early religions, a high priestess--sometimes an apparently shared responsibility--led others, often women, in dance movements that helped bring the power of the supreme mother goddess into the worshippers.  This goddess power was perceived as being all around--indeed, worshippers believed it existed in everything, and everything existed in it--and dance helped either to focus this power or to help worshippers become more aware of it.

Periods of Dance 

Mime and Puppetry

Puppetry has a long and distinguished history in both West and East. In medieval Europe and in China, puppet shows were considered an important art form fit to be viewed by royalty and commoner alike....

Mime is a cross between a stage play and a dance.  In mime, the artist--often but not always just one--remains completely silent and conveys all of his or her story through movement.  Contemporary mimes often paint their faces white, and many people's first experience of mime performance often happens in a public park, where mimes perform for free--as practice, sometimes as political or cultural statement, or sometimes as a performer paid by the owners of the park, zoo, or other public place where the mime is performing.  Though few mime artists make a living from performing, some do.  The famous twentieth-century mime artist Marcel Marceau performed his art in many famous halls to great acclaim from audiences throughout the world.

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Most Recent Revision:: 22 Sept. 2007
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Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
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