Paul Woodruff’s new book — The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched — is a fascinating read because an argument is made that we learn how to become who we are by what we watch and we are tempered and tested by being watched.

Can a human life be that simple?

Here’s the Amazon blurp for the book:

Defining theater broadly, including sporting events and social rituals, he treats traditional theater as only one possibility in an art that–at its most powerful–can change lives and (as some peoples believe) bring a divine presence to earth.

The Necessity of Theater analyzes the unique power of theater by separating it into the twin arts of watching and being watched, practiced together in harmony by watchers and the watched. Whereas performers practice the art of being watched–making their actions worth watching, and paying attention to action, choice, plot, character, mimesis, and the sacredness of performance space–audiences practice the art of watching: paying close attention. A good audience is emotionally engaged as spectators; their engagement takes a form of empathy that can lead to a special kind of human wisdom. As Plato implied, theater cannot teach us transcendent truths, but it can teach us about ourselves.

Do you agree with Woodruff’s base argument that we become what we see and others watching us keep us that way?

Or are we more complex than just imitating the modeled behavior of others?

Do we in fact — find repulsion in and condemnation of — the behavior of others and vow to never become that sort of human being?

If we are active sieves and not just static vessels — what is that process of moral critique and values consideration that defines us? 

Are we required to behave identically in public and in private? 

Or does only the public persona define the real in us?


  1. There’s a notion in Judaism that you are supposed to behave with the same stringency of adherance to the law in private as you do in public – as in don’t go to kosher restaurants but boil a lobster or two at home.
    Sometimes when I’m on a subway I can’t help but feel that I am attending a free public theater – particularly when people come singing for their supper. Even when there is no such pleading, people tend to behave in interesting ways when waiting for the subway and while pushed up against one another due to crowding.

  2. I like that notion, Gordon: Be the same everywhere at all times. Are we “in performance” at home to be watched? I hope not, but if the immediate family needs to watch us and we watch them for correction and understanding, that’s fine.
    Yes, there are those who wear their public masks loud on the street and in the air. They need the attention — perhaps the correction? — in the public square.

  3. “Or are we more complex than just imitating the modeled behavior of others?”
    I think some of us are. There are plenty who are quite prepared to follow the herd but there are a growing group of people who are forging their own paths and who are comfortable expressing themselves inside and outside their home no matter who is watching.
    On a personal note – for me home is middle ground – I can be in my accepted role in our relationship – ie dominant without the dress or tools of the trade. When I go to “scene” events it is expected that I dress the role and act the role to a higher degree (which ties in with the theatrical aspect)- when I do the shopping or interact in the mainstream world – I tend to tone down and relax the protocols between us.
    (Shades of when in Rome – do as the Romans do)

  4. Nicola!
    I appreciate your hyper-real lifestyle and it makes Woodruff’s book even more complex — is there a meme for “normalcy” at play in the modeling and mirroring of what is and what is not acceptable — or are we expected to take in every event and monument for blind re-creation?

  5. I personally feel we should be able to judge for oursleves what is and is not acceptable.
    We need to look beyond what we can see and put it in context – there are certain behaviors that are only acceptable in certain circumstances.
    I would be concerned at any expectation for us to take in everything and blindly recreate it.

  6. I think that’s why we need to find a way to expose ourselves to as many “contexts” as possible, Nicola, because if we only view what is modeled for us in our immediate family or community — that becomes our single, guiding, model for behavior. If, however, we expose our minds to other contexts that are legal and earnest and international, we can only gain a wider imagination and view the world in many contexts instead of just one.

  7. “because if we only view what is modeled for us in our immediate family”
    A personal bug bear atm – prospective son in law comes from a working class background where the males tend to be domineering and have what most consider to be anger management issues – ie when they get angry they take it out on the rest of the family – in this case my daughter who is 13 weeks pregnant. He nearly got a right hook from me this evening – but I walked away because I refuse to stoop to his level – and I have always believed in teaching by example and practicing what I preach.

  8. Wowser, Nicola! That is a ripe and fresh-picked example. Thank you for sharing.
    Did the person in question sense you had a right hook waiting, or was the energy of your intention never really perceived?

  9. He was so full of his own self righteous rage (bloody minded/red mist) that he could not see past it or himself – budgie on the other hand walked in after being out for an hour and straight away said “whats happened?”.

  10. Hmmm… is there a harmonious union in the future, Nicola? Or did yesterday confirm that a forked road is the best way to move forward with the baby?

  11. I have to put my daughters wishes first – our best hope is that they get their own housing close to here – then they have their own space, She would be devastated if he left for good – personally I think he needs anger management classes at least and should vanish at worst.

  12. That’s a tough situation, Nicola. I feel for you. I respect your plan to leave hands off, but to offer a hand up if the situation becomes untenable.

  13. Great article David and even more powerful questions!
    I read it in verious interviews by stage performers that they closely observe others and social situations to enact the same in the screen – I am not sure if we re-enact them again in real life. Because, real life doesn’t follow a screen play…

  14. That is excellent insight, Katha! There are writing “tricks” that one can use to pull out the appropriate response from a “watcher” — so is that process of watching and being watched legitimate or not if one party is more aware of the effect of the imitation than the other?

  15. Hi David,
    I think it’s all about internalizing the concept – the scope of which can’t be limited by branding it as illegitimate.
    Whoever is watching or being watched will be aware of the situation – he might reveal it or might not, it’s not quantifiable.

  16. That’s an interesting point, Katha. There isn’t anything informal about being watched either way, eh? You’re always on point. You’re always taking stock and re-evaluating.

  17. Actually David, if and once you understand the pattern it really becomes insignificant – the only problem of this is – once understood, it absolutely ruins the equation between the observer and observed – it leaves no room for transparency.

  18. I agree, Katha, once the dyad is examined by one of the parties, the mirroring is forever changed — but isn’t that how the theatre works? One side is knowingly creating a “performance” for observation by an audience?

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