Monday, 5 June 2017

Naturalism or Symbolism

Another question is left: what kind of play would drive the reader mad in the late nineteenth century? At the time of its writing, there remained a tradition of literary plays - written for reading rather than performing - but both naturalism and symbolism were coming to maturity. The mention of a song in Act I suggests a connection with the bourgeois melodramas popular on the London stage during the nineteenth century, but it seems unlikely that a script so powerful would conform to a conservative - and dramaturgically uneven - genre. Whether the content alone was enough to provoke hysteria is a moot point: with only fragments available, the script's reconstruction is speculative at best.

Animal Materials In some performances, dealings with the dead world have been quite direct: performers manipulate the body, bones, or skin of an animal. The actual skull of a horse has long figured in European and Caribbean ritual performance; attached to a pole, and draped with cloth for skin, the skull becomes a horsehead creature which, Violet Alford says, "inspir[es] both fear and awe." The pelvic bones of mammals were used as masks for Mojiganga processions in Mexico, and for Tlingit ceremonies on the Northwest Coast of North America. The live flesh of the face is pressed against the bone, the eyes of the performer gaze out through the large holes on either side of the coccyx. In France and the British Isles there has long been a Christmastime childrens' tradition of hunting and killing a tiny bird, the Cutty Wren, and then decorating the little corpse with bits of fancy cloth, for procession through the village. In the eighteenth century an English observer wrote of Ireland :
[The Cutty Wren] is still hunted and killed by peasants on Christmas Day, and on the following St. Stephen's Day he is carried about hung by the leg in the centre of two hoops crossing each other at right angles, and a procession made in every village, of men, women, and children, singing an Irish catch, importing him to be the king of all birds. Such a catch (or tune) extolling the extravagance of the diminutive corpse, might go like this: Our king is well dressed In silks of the best In ribbons so rare No king can compare. In all these performances, the play with animal corpses and animal bones makes an implicit or explicit connection with the dead world. Human Remains The remains of dead humans also fulfill functions for the living. This is a vast topic: the freshly flayed skin of a human sacrifice was worn in ritual performance by Aztec priests, the corpse at an Irish wake was proverbially pulled out of its coffin and made to dance one last, loud reel. In medieval Europe traffic and trade with the bones of saints (or the purported bones of saints) amounted to a pre-capitalist economy of dead matter. Patrick Geary writes that the bones of saints, placed within reliquaries in churches throughout Europe, at a time when central authority had all but ceased to exist, provided "protection, identity, and economic sustenance." Apart from these practical functions, Geary says, relics also provided the point of contact between mundane existence and the divine world. They were part of the sacred, the numinous; but incarnate in this world, as had been Christ, without losing their place in the other. (22) This "point of contact" with the other world points to the function of these objects both as a boundary between life and death, and as a gateway for play on either side of that boundary, play with the power and presence of once-live bodies, now dead. I think, in this respect, of the political funeral of AIDS activist Mark Lowe Fischer in New York City on the eve of the presidential election of 1992. Three hundred members of ACT-UP carried his body in an open, plain pine casket from Judson Church in Greenwich Village, up Sixth Avenue, in the rain, to President George Bush's campaign headquarters on Forty-Third Street. There, another object--a thirty-foot banner listing ACT-UP's plan for ending the AIDS crisis--was laid upon Fischer's casket as his friends testified about the politics of his death. "It was his wish," Michael Cunningham said of Fischer, "that we deliver his body to the doorstep of the man who murdered him." At play here was the power of the body without life, the body just recently gone over the border, but still acting up, still "incarnate in this world without losing [its] place in the other." "We have covered his body," another speaker said, "with a list of demands Mark himself helped make ... for simple inexpensive measures that have gone unheeded" (8). The power of Fischer's body joined with and was made manifest by his comrades in ACT-UP who moved it up Sixth Avenue for its performance on Forty-Third Street. It is an exclusive power of the dead to signify to the living from the other side: dead bird, animal skull, saint's relic, or the body of a "hero," as Mark Fischer was called (8). The connection of relics to the dead world (whether that is a world of saints, or simply the world of dead matter) is their source of power, but practically speaking, this power can only be accessed by the simulation of life through the return of motion to the relic, through dance, procession, or in combination with other objects (like the ACT-UP banner on Fischer's coffin). The return of the once-living to social, political, or spiritual functionality is momentary, but it plays across the border of death; we can bring back the body to the live world for some specific purpose. The "point of contact" between live and dead worlds surfaces as a powerful link in performance. Materials of the Dead World "One should start with the materials," Oskar Schlemmer wrote about Bauhaus Theater dances, "learn to feel the differences in texture among such materials as glass, metal, wood, and so on, and one should let these perceptions sink in until they are part of one." The choice of materials is important in object performance because some substances: plants, wood, leather and bone, have a closer relationship to the dead world than others: metal, stone, glass, and plastic, whose connection to the border of life and death is more distant. The near-life condition of harvested grain can account for its anthropomorphic appearances in English folk songs like John Barleycorn, but also for its agency in Christian tradition, as the Host in the Catholic mass, where the baked wafer does not represent, but is the body, the relic of Christ. Wood, another substance close to the live/dead border, is a traditional material of masks, puppets, fetish objects, drums and other musical instruments. Alfred Jarry, the turn-of-the-century French symbolist playwright, was fascinated by the ritual heritage of puppets, and in a sequel to his Ubu Roi had the puppet character Guignol explain the mystic roots of his carved wooden head: In the time of the ancient gods, Before the age of iron, Before the ages of gold, of flesh and of horn, Heads were made of wood. In these wooden boxes wisdom was kept, And the seven sages, the seven sages of Greece were seven wooden-headed men, Seven men, Made from thousand-year-old oaks Who issued oracles in the forest groves of Dodona. The roots of those old trees Groped towards the center of life Like fingers fingering treasures, Through infinite space and the night of time Creeping towards knowledge, embracing the universe. The other-worldly significance of a wooden puppet head attaches itself to other levels of meaning in performance which can all offer reference and access to the dead world. Consider the death symbolism of the hand-puppet figure of Pulcinella in southern Italy. "Pulcinella," Antonio Pasqualino says, "is death because in the guarattelle [hand-puppet] shows he kills everybody he meets and plays with their corpses." Pulcinella's white costume and black mask, Pasqualino says, "are the colors of death," and the "bird-like" aspects of Pulcinella's character, represent the "relationship that exists, in ancient religions and in folklore, between birds and the world of the dead." While wood, plant materials, leather and bone maintain their proximity to the time when the object was actually live, objects made of metal, plastic and glass lack that close organic connection, and must exert themselves more to regain life in performance, through the explosions of the internal combustion engine, the pulses of electricity, or the power of pneumatic pressure. But what they can achieve is in some ways more startling: the life-like movement of computer-controlled robots in the Disneyworld "Hall of Presidents" or in the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, or, perhaps most unsettling, the approximation of a human brain in AT&T's chess-playing computer. Peter Minshall, a Trinidad designer who builds giant carnival figures often employing sophisticated high-tech materials developed for aeronautic design, says of his creations, "It's a whole incredible kinetic form... it is not mechanical, it is alive." But the simulation of life by mechanical means also brings with it a strong identification with death fitting to materials with little proximity to recent life. This is explicitly registered in the destructive and self-destructive performing machines of Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories, but also in the vast area of post-World-War-Two machine aesthetics of Southern California custom culture: the death's-head symbolism of the Hell's Angels, or the life/death imagery in the work of the famed car customizers like Robert Williams and Von Dutch. Playing with the dead world is, ultimately, a spiritual act; spiritual in a different way than performance centered on the body can be. When we see life put into it or returned to the animated object--however briefly--by human hands, we see, in a way, an encapsulation of our own trajectory of existence: from inanimate matter, through life, back to inanimate matter. Our play with puppets, masks, images, machines, relics and other objects is always a serious matter, a play with transcendence, a play with the basic forces of life and death. .

  The elevation of an object from the status of prop to active agent provokes anxiety, because it appears that focus on the object will reduce focus on the human body. This anxiety is in fact justified, because performing object theater de-centers the actor and places her or him in relationship not to another actor or to the audience, but to a representative of the lifeless world. But the lifeless object speaks profoundly when manipulated by its performer. And the profundity of the object, because it is part of the dead world, reaches different, deeper levels of signification than live actors can. In response to Kleist's and Craig's claims for the performing object, the late Polish director Tadeusz Kantor wrote "I do not share the belief that the MANNEQUIN (or WAX FIGURE) could replace the LIVE ACTOR, as Kleist and Craig wanted." But Kantor misunderstands the significance of Kleist and Craig's theories. If we look at the whole body of their works, we see that Craig (whose unfulfilled lifelong ambition was always to produce wonderful versions of Shakespeare plays with actors) and Kleist (whose fascinating dramatic works were all written for actors), did not want to "replace" the actor with an object so much as accept the presence of the object onstage, as Kantor himself did in his theater work. In other words, in performing object theater the actor remains essential; the simultaneous presence of both actor and object is central to the theater of objects. The purpose of object theater is not to replace the actor with an object (which is of course impossible, because a human needs to operate that object), but to juxtapose and join human and object together onstage. Oskar Schlemmer understood this in 1922. Looking forward to his Bauhaus theater work, which would be obsessed with the performance function of objects, Schlemmer still wrote "I would place the human figure at the center of my investigations ... man and his relationship to the world about him." The dynamic relationship of human and object (the world about her) is in fact the central aspect of performing object theater. This relationship is also the relationship between the living world and the dead world. Playing with the Dead World Puppet theater, and other theater focused on material objects, has a different relationship with death than actors' theater does. 
Gareth K Vile
Performance Editor

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