Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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SCREAM: October 2005

A Fearful Theatre Afraid of its Subject

Artaud spoke of theatre as being an infection:
being able to infect people with the germ of change.
Perhaps for artists theatre is also a poltergeist: haunting and charging the artist's life with strange and unexplained phenomena, feelings hunches and irritant. We can succumb to resultant fear or be liberated by this antagonist to all that is logical and explicable.

 

The joint production Homeless Minds presented by Janine Ayres and Joe Woodward was about unseen fears that interrupt the life of individuals, culture and society. It dealt with the notion of uncertainty and its greater role in a world where, for some people in the Western cultures particularly, religious and cultural certainties play an insignificant or less significant part.

Framing an understanding of life within the context of uncertainty (as opposed to being through some totalizing system) is very much a negotiated process between the actual events framing experience and the language or semantics describing or used to think about the experience. The paradox is that with the majority of the world accepting competing versions of certainty or simply accepting the appearance of certainty as the real thing, the artist along with the scientist is in a group which cannot accept the common certainties whether expounded by religious creeds, cultural traditions and practices, the new gods of marketing and corporate creations or/and secular belief systems like feminism or political ideologies. Perhaps the strangest source of certainty in belief is derived from popular fiction: whether it be from television soap or from movies (eg. Star Wars), science fiction writers, or popular performing and recording artists.

In a post modern world fictionalized images and stories can hold as much weight as centuries old canons of metaphorical or sacred texts. The referral points for one's life can be drawn from popular culture. Films such as The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water deal with the revenge of innocence.

Like the albatross killed by the Ancient Mariner, the ghost figures target more than the perpetrator. One act can alter the whole balance of nature and the cosmos. Like poltergeists, these energies remain with individuals and perhaps a whole culture causing mental and even physical disturbance.

 

 

 

 

 

The individual writer / artist / designer may try to distance him or her self from these invisible hauntings while finding it impossible to be truly released from the clinging energies of past actions. While such energies may well be a fruitful source of creativity, they may also be the clog in the mental engine while a lack of recognition leads to denial; both personal and cultural.

The analogy of poltergeists is appropriate. Like poltergeists, the past actions, consciousness and past relationships stay with the individual regardless of place and time. This makes the artist vulnerable. The struggle is with exposure and separation of self from object. If one is stranded on a rock mid a waterfall, it is tempting to cling to the rock for security rather than to go with the power of the water.

Homeless Minds reflects that nervous high wire over banality, exposure and something more profound. Creators of such work have no rock solid stand point to begin with. We can't be smug when stepping off the precipice of what is known into unknown territory. But like the Ancient Mariner "alone on a wide wide sea" we are compelled to make the attempt at evoking the experience drawn from the human journey; especially as this journey is so uncertain and always becoming more so.

These are the areas explored in Homeless Minds. The haunting figures are like poltergeists or disturbing influences that clog up one's memory and understanding of life. Yet understanding of one's own story is one of the few things one can do to make sense of existence and our connection to it. This becomes difficult if explored from different standpoints from outside the rock solid framework of a very set and fixed belief system.

One's own story is not simply a personal one. The culture, the society, the history are beholders of memory and understanding. We cannot separate ourselves as individuals from the circumstances of relationships within family, society, culture and history. All is connected. The problematic aspects begin when we attempt to explain, prescribe, codify, invent within these connections. To try elucidating these connections is possibly our highest goal in art and literature. However, we must also then hold out the possibility for shifting the point from which we view our subject or object.

We see why each performance of Homeless Minds contained a different viewpoint within the text to the same actual events being the object of the work; and how even these objects of choice were negotiated within the constancies and variables of the work? The tension lay in the fact that to make a dance work happen at an aesthetically pleasing and performance standard, very considerable repetition and practice had to be undertaken. Likewise the general shape of the work had to be fixed so that lighting and sound could be used to heighten the presentation. However within these constraints there were infinite possibilities to vary the communication and illustrate different standpoints of view which undermined, even subverted, the theatricality of the presentation.

But our production provoked more than simply a discussion on its merits and faults. Probably more than any other work that involved me, Homeless Minds has focused my thoughts on the very platform and basis on which theatre is created, its purpose and its core problematics. So rather than discuss a work that most people haven't seen, I wish to explore some of the ideas and mental frameworks through which the work was created.

 

The Negative Capability of John Keats

Before such references as modernism, structuralism, post structuralism, post-modernism etc. were in vogue and well before the writings of Artaud there was John Keats (1795-1821). While his poetry is much studied and regarded as possibly the best work of English poetry, his philosophical thought was not developed beyond descriptions of a few leading threads which also influenced all his writing. However, he coined a phrase which still vibrates like a beacon and liberates energetic thought. That is his negative capability: "to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought."

"I mean "negative capability", that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

What a liberating statement! If you ponder on it for a while, try some kind of stream of consciousness, you'll find yourself entering into that same vibrating universe of the body without organs; of meaning before words; of an ever changing universe both incomprehensible and yet full of heightened revelation beyond the confines of dogmas and semantics. Nothing can be permanent. Even the most enduring things like the beauty of a bird's song and the memory of love can only be experienced by one person in his or her world of feeling, thought and imagination. While this can be approximated in our understanding of the other, we rely on the observable patterns to draw our conclusions as to the meaning such things have for others. There is no certainty.

Such phrases, as with great writings and insights of any kind, can serve as beacons throwing light on truths but cannot ever contain the truth itself.

In the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida outlined how the deconstruction of literature and art gives rise to a greater reality because it tests the underlying assumptions giving rise to the work. Post-structuralist methodology (probably a more accurate and useful term than post-modernism) gives rise to the homeless mindset allowing for the examination of causal relationships and the seeking of alternative and contextual explanations. While different to negative capability, the post-structuralist shares common ground. Both are part of a universe of thought which defies the certainty, both moral and intellectual, of the authority of religious revelation or given secular insights as written and codified in teachings and texts. Both require a heightened phenomenology while making ontological precepts difficult and problematic. Very little of what we know is from direct experience. Most is discovered in abstract through authoritive sources which our mind prioritises in accordance with socialization, current preoccupations, hereditary dispositions, historical circumstances etc.

The criminal who discovers Jesus while incarcerated or the Priest who abandons religion in the wake of political atrocities committed in the name of religion are two examples of historical circumstances determining the choices of knowledge and creation of assumptions. Albeit flavoured by the particular personality and disposition of the individual!

The tendency of human beings to gravitate towards particular world views is the most significant abstract determiner of very specific and concrete behaviours. This is practical knowledge that all advertisers, motivators, propagandists, religious teachers and missionaries, military leaders, those charged with social cohesion of any kind both understand and use to effect. If an individual thinks he truly knows something and that something becomes embedded with accompanying assumptions and an emotional charge that springs from these assumptions then physical action is the result. But what we think we know and what cultures take for granted as given truth are also the subject of our fear to challenge and question such assumptions of knowledge. Eugene Webb's paper on Ernest Becker and the Psychology of World Views is an interesting read with a great bibliography concerning these matters.

The fear involved in questioning one's assumptions about existence is a major source of conflict. If someone or some group challenges or mocks one's set of certainties as outlined in the codes associated with a belief system, there is likely to be very strong reaction. This makes understandable the heated reaction from fundamentalist Christians to the film Monty Python's The Life Of Brian and from militant Islamists to Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

But isn't this all so much "sound and fury"? It's easy for the arty farty crowd of cynics to scoff at religious certainties. Harder to see one's own inconsistencies and fixed beliefs! Harder still to see where such beliefs stem from! Come back to Keats and begin to see the need for clearing the head and the emotions.

Try reading Ode To Autumn followed by Endymion by John Keats. And what about Ode To a Nightingale?

"Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease"
  John Keats: Ode To a Nightingale

Here is negative capability" in its purest form. Yes; there is a truth. It's within us. It can be glimpsed. But it is ephemeral. And one must be open for it to manifest itself.

Most people though will not accept any relationship between the poetic and the codes of law as prescribed by the inheritors of god's dictums. Such laws are for the real politic of social cohesion. Therefore "forget the ethereal poetics of the abstract"!

However, in a strange twist on the human story, we see Adolf Hitler and the Nazis promoting the notion of beauty equated with purity and cleanliness. Such thought being attributed to race and culture! The Nazi era sculptures of Arno Breker depict classical images of hope, aspiration, power and honour. But what is the beauty Hitler speaks of? For Nazi art, it is the battering ram beauty that we must appreciate as 'educated' human carriers of a higher culture and sensibility and not part of the degenerate art of those who see art as challenging the orthodox and comforting notions of beauty and truth.

Art when fixed and valued according to ideological or religious codes of acceptability becomes part of the battering ram that is fixated with the same fears as found in the religious and social codifications. Hitler's fear of art that was "not finished" caused his intervention in the exhibitions that were opened in his name. His decision to mount exhibitions of "Degenerate Art" were to allow the good and "common sense" of the German people to see how inferior were the works of surrealists, cubists and dadaists etc.

The legacy of such thinking still echoes in education and art appreciation. Smug psychology will brand anything that is different in the art world with a pathological stigma. Whether it be Picasso or Brecht, one can be certain that some psychologist or researcher acting on the part of the "greater good" will find a way to label such people as manic depressive or filled with some mental disorder; thus suggesting this is the causal reason and explanation for the work. Applying Nazi critiques of degenerate art to belittle and discredit artistic insight and endeavour has become a major field of expertise in contemporary social activism and publication.

An example of this can be seen in the trial this year against the organisers of the 2003 "Beware Religion!" show in Moscow and the controversy over the Russia 2 exhibition at The Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. The exhibition was described by Russian attorney Michail Voronin as a "provocation initiated by extremely sick people" (Kommersant news paper). He filed a suit against the organizers including the Director of the "Central House of Artists". They are accused of "inciting religious hatred". Voronin goes on to state it is "not art, but pathology". Voronin says:

"the exhibits do 'not belong in a museum, but in the Serbsky Institute', a Moscow psychiatric clinic".

"The Beware Religion" exhibition provoked consideration of the role religion played in a violent world. After its opening a group of Christians ransacked the exhibition. However it wasn't the Christians who faced legal action.

"At the beginning of March, public prosecutor Kira Gudim demanded three years in a penal colony for museum director Yury Samodurov, and two years each for his co-worker Ljudmila Veselovskaya and artist Anna Michaltshuk. All three defendants will be prohibited from practising their profession in future. In addition, Gudim is demanding the "destruction of the evidence", meaning the confiscated artworks." (The article was originally published in German in the Tagesspiegel on 14 March, 2005.)

No wonder there is a general reluctance for artists to run in the face of the dominant forces of the time. Many would condemn Arnold Breker for his association with the Nazis and the Nazi art aesthetic. Yet isn't Breker a most appropriate model for artists in our time more concerned with fitting the aesthetics of marketing managers for galleries and theatres? Actors are no longer encouraged to think as artists. The mantras of economic commodification of all facets of our cultural life are affecting those charged with social and cultural rejuvenation and challenge.

In Australia, the success of playwrights like Stephen Sewell and John Romeril in maintaining an almost dissident presence in opposition to the new orthodoxies of compliance offers positive example to younger generations. But their example is being largely ignored at the work and community level. Some of the most promising young writers, actors, directors are being compromised into to fearful theatre practices that set theatre in some kind of romantic past. Where is the passion that drove Sewell to write a play like Traitors while still in his twenties? Where is the Tupac Shakur of theatre? Is it that our writers, actors and directors are not being sharpened by fire and bullets? Or is it the bleeding from millions of unperceived pin pricks of cultural deception and a world view set not be revelations but by corporate charlatans of consumerism.? Or is it because of an emphasis on correct personal balance making an obsessive devotion to one's art or craft seen as a mental disease?

I suspect the later is a more useful observation. The fear of our own haunting poltergeists and their gnawing at our psyche tends to cause a gravitation to what is more acceptable within the coterie of cool that surrounds artistic practice. The coterie of cool invites a kind of self-obsessiveness creating a barrier between organic engagement of the artist as creator and the universe as subject of the creation. The very nature of a howl in the night is therefore suppressed in favour of some Brekeresque beauty. Denial of humanity in favour of a cocked up fabrication of hope, redemption or aspiration is part of that same mind set that Hitler espoused and found form in mimesis.

But isn't our theatre for our audiences? Shouldn't we follow what they want to see and feed it back to them as cultural sycophants? Isn't that what we are? Cultural sycophants? Afraid of the very role that we play in culture and society? That role being as the riders of the psychic waterfalls and lighting beacons in the desperate night? "Of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts"?

Perhaps theatre is about more than audiences. Perhaps it is about creating places where uncertainties, mysteries and doubts can be celebrated rather than feared. Where the cultural certainties can be viewed as absurdities? Where possibilities for human existence are seeded to spring beyond the known and become aware of its gravitation towards oblivion; that oblivion being its source of strength and power. Through the howl and the scream of theatre, we are not adding to the misery of the world any more than the celebration of the Mass and the death and resurrection of Christ celebrates morbidity. The howl breaks through the denial of humanity that is everywhere in the smiles of marketing and corporate success.

It's about time those unafraid young artists who must push themselves to the limit be given the platform and so inspire their own frightened peers to join them rather than settle for that amateur mediocre evasion that sees theatre simply reproducing its past glories on a totally irrelevant stage. It's about time theatre stopped being afraid of its form and possibility and allowed those ghosts and spirits of its anguished shadows and boards to manifest and reinvent itself in an age of clinical draining of the cultural psyche.

Joe Woodward
Oct. 2005