Theatre of mystery, imagination and the fantastique
SCREAM April 2001
Artaud's shock treatment is needed to revitalize and refocus theatre into accepting the erotic nature of performance
Theatre and Eros
and Artaud's legacy
In popular film, we are treated to intriguing ways to slaughter and rape women. On the Internet we see literally millions (if not billions) of 'hits' on pornographic and sexual violence sites. If this is an externalization of individual and personal fantasy and thought processes then what does this say about us? And in our field of Theatre, what are the implications? Most likely, it says no more than what could always have been said about human beings. Psychologists speak of the "individuation process" and the "destructive side" of the collective and individual personality. But the context for expression and vicarious experience has changed. For theatre to function on some relevant level in the context of this change, it is timely to reconsider the legacy of Antonin Artaud: especially in light of our forthcoming production of sex&violets.com.
"Our sensibility has reached the point where we surely need theatre that wakes us up heart and nerves." (Antonin Artaud: Theatre And Cruelty May 1933)
Written nearly seventy years ago, Artaud's sentiments could just as easily apply in today's cyber world. He calls for us to not simply "represent" action and emotions on stage but to imbue a theatrical moment with a force that has its own power to penetrate and move the audience's natural cynicism and detachment. This is more than the current trend to use "physical" theatre as diversion in a kind of arty circus. Though "physical" theatre is generally closer to Artaud's ideal than text based work.
So in starting with a text structure, our problem is one of finding the necessary interaction between text and image: between the mind and the body; between the intellect and feeling.
There are lessons here for our forthcoming production of sex&violets.com
Frank McKone, in his review of the original production (1999), said that it could only be understood in terms of Brechtian alienation effects. He suggested an audience not familiar with such devices would struggle. He also said that Antonin Artaud's theories were at work in the production, but that these were inadequate to tackle the issue of the World Wide Web in contemporary society. These observations were well founded. But his conclusions were wrong.
Of Sex And Violets And The Death Of Culture (as the play was called in its 1999 form) had many faults in its text and in production. It never set out to be "THE" play about he web (as suggested by the reviewer). However, Frank was right in identifying that the play relied too heavily on intellectual and semantic games and techniques. In effect, it did the opposite of what Artaud prescribed. It ignored the senses (apart from the video sections) and "commented" on action rather than finding the language and gestures to penetrate below intellectual observation. It was "representational" theatre and suffered from an inherent blandness.
The material wakened neither actors nor audience members. They were comfortable in their distance. Cultural and personal vicarious themes were not evoked in sufficient force. There was certainly no "infection" of the kind described in Artaud's Theatre And The Plague:
"It is not because it (theatre) is contagious, but because like the plague it is a revelation, urging forward the exteriorization of a latent undercurrent of cruelty through which all the perversity of which the mind is capable, whether in a person or nation, becomes localized."
For this revelation, Artaud observes:
"One cannot separate body and mind, not the sense from the intellect, particularly in a field where the unendingly repeated jading of our organs calls for sudden shocks to revive our understanding." (Theatre and Cruelty 1933)
To penetrate below the cynical intellect and into the realm of sensory experience is probably more possible when dealing with sex than when dealing with almost any other subject. The problem then is one of overcoming the fear of exposing one's private worlds: both as artist and as audience. The sensual and physical barrage that is possible in more physically charged theatre inevitably leads to the erection of defences. Such defences are not necessary in solely text based work where detachment from the subject is essential.
Sydney's Gay Mardi Gras mixes truly physical engagement with intellectual analysis and comment in ways that most theatre will not attempt. Through its physicality, it acknowledges and celebrates sexuality through pageantry, images and parodies that draw attention to wider issues. Our production of Sex & Violets also deals with sex. It takes place within four walls in a set location at a given time and will never even approximate the effect of a Mardi Gras rooted in a whole agenda for social change. But our challenge is to develop theatre that is relevant, engaging and capable of penetrating below the defences of the artists creating it and the audiences exposed to it.
This means treating the subject with considerable reverence. The linking of sex with the eternal in theatre is not easy. Nor is it normally attempted beyond new age experiments in relationship workshops. More often theatre represents sexual issues. Sex is popular in this form. More popular if it doesn't take itself too seriously. Taking anything "too seriously" is probably the worst anyone can do in theatre according to most critics and commentators.
Well written "sex comedies" are always popular. It would be a very rare season of plays that didn't include a sex comedy of some description. In film, a more distant and private medium than theatre, salacious and exploitative sex is more common. The destruction side of the collective personality is reflected in sexual violence: mostly against women. It is then interesting that theatre avoids the darker sexual side while cinema relishes and thrives on it.
This point needs to be considered in our Sex & Violets project. The production is clearly about the heavier and darker side: elements considered difficult in theatre. Yet Artaud as far back as 1933 asserted that theatre needs to "recapture from cinema, music-hall, the circus and life itself, those things that always belong to it." (Theatre and Cruelty 1933)
The voyeuristic and exhibitionist elements in theatre (both in audience and practitioners) need to be clearly established. There are elements of both in any art context. Our theatre seeks actors willing to come on a journey beyond such elements into darker recesses where audiences can be both stimulated and awakened to new challenges.
So YES there will be titillation. But the "occasion of sin" is well confined within the dark walls of the theatre and the context which uses the natural voyeurism to infect audiences with a darker more sinister virus of awareness. Isn't "awareness" the one thing that is most terrifying for any holder of power: Awareness of the vulnerability of that power. In our case, our virus is simple.
sex&violets deals with that point where sex, art, privacy and the Internet meet. Our theatre then needs to be extreme (even "cruel") in its dealings with the subject. We are dealing with material that is seen as the vested interest of very powerful forces: the Church, the Sex Industry and the providers of computer and Internet services. We are dealing with people's own pre-occupations and personal guilt, hurts and experiences shaping their fundamental relationship to the subject. Sex & Violets was once afraid and circumspect of its very medium. But in its new manifestation it is important it provide the shocks to the system that will allow the intellect to follow.
The Context for sex&violets.com
The Eros Foundation is challenging the Church on issues of sexuality and morality! Money is no doubt at stake for The Eros Foundation's constituency: ie. the 'sex' industry. On the other hand, the Church is protecting a world view tempered by values relating to morality consistent with its traditional leadership role. The Eros Foundation promotes a view that sexuality is part of everyday existence and is now being liberated from centuries of repression and Church dominated controls. The Church argues sex is best to be practised within the confines of a stable marriage: a kind of institutionalized containing of a wild beast with both creative and destructive powers. But in reality, the contained beast has grown into something infinitely larger and more pervasive.
The Church's beast has vaporized into a pervasive ether being breathed into every facet of contemporary life. The merging of physical matter with vicarious association reverses the biblical "Word was made flesh". This not only applies to sex. Though the very concept of sex takes on new meaning as a result.
With the communications revolutions over the past hundred and fifty years, culminating in popular use of the Internet, the very mode of thinking and relating has changed dramatically. Where once people spoke only with other people in close proximity (ie. In a room or within hearing distance) this changed with the invention and use of the telephone. Radio, television (especially with live via-satellite broadcasting), film and mechanical recording extended this change and further transformed it. Now the Internet makes instant what was once a huge journey.
The needs and desires that project into the poetry of love, the poetry of adventure and spirit; these very needs that project into the romance novel or the supernatural novel or stories of fulfillment of all kind; these needs and desires that are fulfilled through vicarious experience of literature and art are the very same needs and desires that seek out fulfillment through television and the Internet. The feelings of inadequacy, ennui or even a search for meaning and understanding that make literature and art valued human requirements are the very same roots that seek the vicarious experience through the magic screen in one's own home.
Witness the extraordinary case of Dbravko Rajcevic sentenced to two years in prison for "stalking" Marina Hingis. The Canberra Times reported he claimed: "&ldots; Hingis communicated to him through televised interviews after tournaments, and he told others they planned to marry." (The Canberra Times 14.4.2001) Rajcevic's relationship to Hingis might seem to be exceptional. The vicarious nature of the relationship evoked through the screen became obscured by very real desires. Rational mechanisms that might normally be expected to separate out the vicarious from the real became blunted at some point allowing the individual to act on false information. But while his actions are exceptional, the underlying contributing forces are endemic.
"Image is everything" (the marketer's mantra) takes on new meaning in the light of this exceptional case. Is not Martina's smile and physically charged demeanour intended for just YOU: the viewer behind the anonymous screen? Isn't the marketing of women's tennis, along with many other products on sale throughout the world, based on sex? And isn't she then the goddess; the erotic angel; the lady of the lake in the unreachable tower that inspired the language of the poets? Or perhaps for Mr. Rajcevic, she is more Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci!
With the Internet, the star personalities are packaged in ways that go beyond the personal control of the individuals. The image is much greater. Martina Hingis or an Anna Kornakova or a Brittany Spears can be packaged for the anonymous screen viewer. They can be presented in ways to make them possessions of the viewer: ONE viewer: or millions of viewers! And there are millions of consuming receivers of these packages. Soft and hard porn Internet sites featuring doctored images of high profile icons of sexual energy can be accessed on any search engine and not only in obviously pornographic areas.
An eleven year old child searching the Internet for her favourite pop star (eg. Brittany Spears) is very likely to come across pornographic sites where the pop star is only a draw card or magnet to other packages of vicarious potential. A random survey of any group of such Internet using children is likely to reveal that most, if not all, have contacted pornographic sites and images. It is not so long ago that access to pornography was very limited.
But is this really an argument for greater controls over sex on the Internet? Of greater significance to all of this is the change in the way human beings think. Our very thinking is altered with vicarious relationship overwhelming the senses and altering the way people interact with people. Virtual reality is not science fiction. Nor is it restricted to fun parlours and harmless game venues. It is a part of us. It IS us. Like the computer HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey there becomes a point where our actual physical presence is less a reality than our image: words on a screen, a photograph, a video record, a HTML script.
Contemporary human existence is continuously in a kind of parallel world where purchaser, provider and consumer have become abstracted entities. We live in an age of abstracted existence living to images shaping action and commitment. What is at once representational becomes actualized: internalized as reality. As we divide up into multiple characters, a sanctioned schizophrenia asserts its hegemony over society through the invisible waves that are the communications networks and the particles that become our ultimate reality.
The eleven year old child is not interested in pornography. It's probably a giggle to her. However, her vicarious life is shaped by her idol on the Net. The gap created by the loss of tangible place and of flesh and blood contact is filled by the words and abstracted creations of image managers and manipulators using the satellite communications and digital programming available to them. The desire they fulfill is real. So too is the desire being catered for by the pornographer!
We see in a TV program like "Pop Stars" that to achieve success, we must sacrifice our individuality to become created in the image of a marketable commodity. We learn to do this freely. Our gods are no longer in the hands of the Church. Hell has frozen over. It's hardly even referred to by Catholics (once the champions of hell's fire). To succeed, we learn to fulfill the statistical wants of a vague mass that is identified by statisticians, accountants and clinical psychologists.
Yet we still have personal desires, guilt and biology. As in ancient Manichean Christian philosophy (young Saint Augustine was a beneficiary of this strange mysticism which was later a cause for burning at the stake and a source of heresy), we have learned to regard the personal biology and its needs as a lower order and the abstracted self with its goals, strategies and achievements as of a higher order. This world is captured very well in the popular novel The Beauty Of Truth. It is then quite understandable why a successful architect should follow a proverbial windmill and destroy himself on its blades.
How many men in middle age chase sexual windmills as Don Quixote chased his fanciful enemy in search of honour and fulfillment? How many middle aged and older women close the doors to sexual adventure fearing ridicule and facing their own self imposed absurdity? When the fruit becomes truly forbidden, it takes Kamikaze daring to venture on and pick from the tree. It is only too well documented that those who do are cast out from the Garden: reputations destroyed, families humiliated: and sometimes suicide being the only way out.
Helen Garner in The First Stone tried to focus on some of these issues. She wrote of a middle aged academic who was accused by two eighteen year old female students of making unwanted advances of a sexual nature. Immediately the situation is so cliched that, for some, the consequences are obvious. The "silly old bugger" deserves the worst. The young women need justice. But this won't happen because the system will cover its own, etc. etc. etc. Garner's point seemed to be that it was an issue between real live people: between real live adults with rights and responsibilities; between people with different sources of "power": but real power nevertheless. In her care to be non specific and not referring to "real" people, she went to lengths which arguably were misguided and only clouded the issue.
From whatever fence a person is hiding behind on the issue of sex in society, one thing is clear: its role and place in culture has changed along with the technological changes in communications. Such changes have paralleled changes in thinking and the way we relate in an ever-increasing abstracted universe. A result of this is the increasing dependence on vicarious experience for personal fulfillment Such recognition seems beyond the limited terms of reference of either the Sex Industry (Eros Foundation) or the Church.
Sex has long been a major source of drama, comedy and social commentary (eg. in Kenneth Tynan's Oh Calcutta ). Sex has been a marketing tool to attract audiences either through use of nudity or promoting performers with sex appeal. Salacious use of sex from the French Grande Guignol productions (1870s to 1963) and its imitations in movies and theatre (eg. San Francisco's Thrill Peddlers) displays the darker use of sex. But contemporary use of sex in the theatre is more often regarded with a bit of a giggle: as if to suggest it is a harmless diversion and a bit of mildly naughty fun.
However, the massive proliferation in vicarious sexual experience presents us with a very different problematic universe to explore. Sex and art are standing on different grounds from where they were only a short while past. While sex is essentially private, art is essentially public. Here lies a massive tension. The concept of privacy and personal sexual experience is further altered with new communications. What occurs within a person's mind during the sex act or during exposure to sexual stimuli is usually a private matter. However, as with most things, patterns of private thought can be identified in actions and observable tangible outcomes resulting from private thoughts. Personal thoughts and fantasies take on public form through art, cultural activity and advertising.
And so to the world of Sex & Violets!
Antonin Artaud evokes a platform for mobilizing and attack. He injects our art with a paradigm through which to see the task before us: a task that has been obscured by changes in technology, resultant social practices, and even the very way we think and experience the world vicariously: obscured further by our own confusion and ennui. Our love for Artaud's work and life is not based on sentimental or academic museum gazing and indulgence. It is a love for the experience of creating and communicating in a time of deceptive changes in the very concept of communication. But mostly it is a sharpening of focus and a means for seeing our purpose and strategy. Soon perhaps we will come to embrace the much-used "crises in theatre" as the source of our power and energy as artists. For if Artaud was anything, he was an acute observer of what was happening in the world around him and he sought ways of meeting the world at every moment and not relying on art for past causes and long dead vanities.
Joe Woodward (April 2001)
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