10 September 2006

Objects of Strange Shape and Unknown Purpose

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 3:27 pm


“We cannot go on prostituting the idea of the theater, whose only value lies in its excruciating, magical connection with reality and with danger.”

– Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty: First Manifesto,” undated (1930s)

Artaud, that belatedly celebrated and finally pathetic madman, had no use for “realistic” theater as we might understand it, for theater as the accurate representation of “real life.” Artaud wanted theater to be reality, or rather a reality.

The language of theater should not slavishly imitate the language of everyday life. There should be no costumed and rehearsed actors reciting lines from scripted, simulated conversations. Theater is an event arena; it should speak a physical language. “This language,” Artaud clarifies (if such a term may be used with respect to the verbal delirium of Artaud), “can only be defined in terms of the possibilities of dynamic expression in space as opposed to the expressive possibilities of dialogue.” In Artaud’s theater speech too becomes a physical thing, an interplay of intonations and dynamics, vocalizations resonating between bodies. And action: there is to be no narrative thread, no playing out of scenes imitative of life as it exists outside the theater, but rather “the visual language of objects, movements, attitudes, gestures… extended until they become signs and these signs become a kind of alphabet.” The characters and objects, their staging and choreography, become a true hieroglyphic language, the glyphs pointing not to the words and meanings they symbolize but only to themselves, to the interrelationship of physical bodies in space.

You may have seen Artaud in the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. The saints, even the Lord himself, appear to Joan in visions, commanding her to expel the English occupiers. The English capture her and try her for heresy. She confesses under duress, then retracts her confession. Artaud plays the monk sympathetic with the young girl whose body will soon be consumed in flames. Artaud-as-monk holds a crucifix before the actress who plays Joan as, transcending that simulacrum of cruelty, she releases her cinematic spirit. The surrealty of filmic reality was not enough for Artaud.

The violence of the theater is transmitted not through images representing the laceration or incineration of flesh, but through such means as the corpuscular tattoo and the polyphonic symphony of visceral vibrations and the ritualized wearing of masks by enormous puppets – meanings pressed into the flesh itself. But this operation of metaphysical cruelty cannot be expressed in words, nor can it be repeated even in memory. “It will not even offer the presentation of a present, if present signifies that which is maintained in front of me.” The theater of cruelty is a theater of permeation, a viscous and throbbing medium in which we move and which moves upon us and in us and through us.

Artaud’s theater was never built, its hallucinatory performances were ever presented. What remains to us are these tortured meanderings in the labyrinth, these shattered glimpses of a creation unmade.


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