Note: Excerpt from the play Breath is available for download HERE (PDF 117KB)
Psychology, with its relentless effort to reduce the unknown to the known…is the cause of this decline and this terrible loss of energy…both the theater and we ourselves must have done with psychology.
Antonin Artaud (1976: 254)
Howard Barker (1997: 51)
…or the Day I Killed Jacques Derrida
The play excerpt which I presented at the recent Double Dialogues conference is part of a full length play called Breath. I owe thanks to my actors, Steve Cameron and Joanne Scicluna for their fine work on the day, and to Paul Monaghan for his technical support.Breath was framed by Anthony Green’s wonderful and haunting images of prosthetica. I do not wish to risk misrepresenting these images, so I will say only that in the context of my piece they explored the liminality of the living, feeling subject – or rather our recognition of this subject. I read pain into the eyes of the prosthetic, just as we subsequently see pain in the actor’s anguished attempts to escape from the chair to which he is tied.
The above title concerning Jacques Derrida is not meant as a tasteless solipsism (though it probably is just that), but as recognition of the moment of the performance. The performance took place sometime between the death of Derrida and our awareness of his passing. It also took place during a period in which foreign hostages in Iraq were being beheaded before the crude gaze of digital cameras for broadcast over the internet, and this of course is the context in which the performance was inevitably framed.
The full-length play called Breath is a continuation of the work I have been doing with the particularly problematic and apparently dead form called tragedy. The play is not likely to ever be staged, and nor is its predecessor, my thesis play Owl Song. Breath was written (but left unfinished) more than a year ago, and its time has passed. Owl Song attempts to explore the mythic terrain that tragedy suggests, and therefore has little in common with the literal and issues-based tendencies of the Australian stage. The work also carries the burden of being yet another pillage of The Oresteia of Aeschylus. Both works are an attempt to situate the frame of tragedy over an agon which is recognisable but not too immediate, and to situate the human subject within a frame that does not remove its ability to act.
Most importantly, I continue to proceed on the basis that these characters who suffer so that I may be redeemed (St Joseph’s primary, Sacred Heart Secondary College, if you must know) must bear a closer relationship to ideation that to any ontological illusion. When the hostage character in Breath begs not to have his throat cut, I have no wish for this character to form a parasitic relationship to the very real sufferings of those beyond the frame. As the character says, he has no wish to be ‘a carefully edited snuff movie on the Channel Nine news.’
I have no desire to convince myself – or anyone else – that the characters upon which I inflict suffering are ‘real’ or even convincing representations. Therefore, let me state that there are no warm bodies or animated corpses beyond this point. We proceed with a conceit…
It is Antonin Artaud, let’s say on stage in a reprise of his infamous Sorbonne lecture of the early 1930s. Only now he is playing Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘fresh’ from disastrous military service and heading towards breakdown. The audience have come to be informed and entertained on matters Nietzschean and tragic, and Artaud (ditto military service and breakdown) begins with a quote: ‘Knowledge kills action’ (Nietzsche, 2000: 46). But then the paradox of articulating further is too much for him, and besides which the audience appear insufficiently shocked by such a terrible statement of ultimate being. He descends into a maelstrom of convulsions and screams. He is working his body into the split subject called Nietzsche. The heroic articulator of what cannot be articulated is launching an assault on the Socratic aesthetic which Nietzsche summarises as: “In order to be beautiful, everything must be intelligible” (Nietzsche, 2000: 70). He sweats Nietzsche, belches and farts Nietzsche – does everything Nietzsche except the dishonour of quoting him further. The audience jeer and laugh it off, and they leave the theatre quivering and complaining of having learnt nothing.
In Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, edited by Susan Sontag, there are several photographic images of Artaud; from beautiful child to heroic screen idol, and finally toothless shell, destroyed by madness and shock therapy (Artaud, 1976: following 204). Out of respect, one shies away from metaphors of the illusory tragic hero, his perfect face melting under the gravity of torment, but it’s hard not to think of Orestes fried by the electric fingers of unseen furies. Strip away the long-since pacified myth and the agonbecomes internalised within the closed system of a ravaged body. Orestes the Unwashed staggers through the city streets, swatting at the air. The audience jeer at Artaud (as they did at the Sorbonne), and in such a reaction, of course, legends are born and saints are made.
Maurice Maeterlinck, in his early twentieth century essay, The Tragical in Daily Lifeconjures for us ‘The mysterious chant of the Infinite, the ominous silence of the soul’. He has no interest in the clatter and sweat of the physical agon. ‘Is it not the tranquillity that is terrible?’ he asks. His image is of an old man in an armchair, a lamp for company, ‘submitting with bent head to the presence of his soul’ (2000: 383-385).
Maeterlinck’s man in the chair has the poignancy of a tabula rasa on which the twentieth century is waiting to be written, but the tranquillity sounds a touch benign. There is nothing tranquil about Nietzsche’s ‘terrifying inner world of nature’ (Nietzsche, 2000: 53). The tragic hero is an Apollonian illusion of individuation, but in reality an avatar of Dionysus who was torn asunder in infancy (59-60). Artaud claimed to be haunted by memories of his own birth, and towards the end of his life he drew painful pictures of friends and enemies, believing these pictures not to be art, but literal embodiment. Artaud’s vision is Gnostic, the spirit trapped inside the ‘demonic forces of the cosmos [which] exist as physical matter’ (Sontag, 1976: xlvi).
Within this Gnosticism lies the impossibility of Artaud’s theatrical vision, and his frustration with the limits of language and representation. On the stage, his body is a bag full of cats, every muscle convulsing as his spirit tries to break free.
Beyond Artaud, heroic, flinty-eyed characters are fading into images of automata embedded with pieces of action, torments that overpower the self and subjugate it to the pattern of the agon. Arianne Mnouchkine calls the characters of the Oresteia ‘fragments of human beings’ (Simon, 1999: 186-7), and of course she is right. Who is Orestes apart from a double murder and torment? Electra elsewhere would be taken apart and put back together as someone new; another mask of similar features but different purpose. American playwright Jack Richardson wrote a somewhat bizarre version of The Oresteiacalled The Prodigal, which might be subtitled ‘At Home with the Atrides’; a sort of sword and sandal melodrama where the characters have dropped the mask to reveal personalities. Aeschylus’ most exquisite fragment of torment, Cassandra, is suddenly chiding her bloke, Agamemnon, with lines like: ‘I am a slave, but I’ll not stoop to forecasting the weather for you’ (1960: 35).
In his now famous 1949 essay, ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, playwright Arthur Miller argues a point which seems too obvious to bother with, that the ‘tragic hero’ need not be of noble birth or any other station which garners undue deference. Miller believes that ‘tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is prepared to lay down his life…to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity’ (Miller, 1966: 69). He is right in pointing out that this impulse need not be the sole province of the high-born, and he argues for an ‘unwillingness to remain passive’ (69), and yet his tragic exemplar, Willy Loman, is more acted upon than active. The phrase ‘sense of personal dignity’ at second glance appears far more passive than Miller perhaps intends. Loman indeed does lay down his life for just such a reason, but his action does no more than this. He removes himself from the world of the play without changing this world. If this is an action, then it is an action of defeat, and a sense of personal dignity seems a poor and ill-defined – not to mention redundant – reward for such a sacrifice.
Raymond Williams tracks this movement from tragic hero to victim back to the eighteenth century England where, he claims, we find a ‘contrast of pity and pomp, and the extent to which previous tragedy is interpreted as if rank as such were the decisive factor’ (Williams, 1966: 92). At the time in which Miller was writing, the naturalism of the likes of Ibsen and Chekhov had been around fifty years or more, and yet the notion of the commoner as tragic hero was still radical enough for Miller to feel the need to defend himself in print. Indeed, as late as 1957, Joseph Wood Krutch, in a disparagement of Ibsen, was lamenting that ‘We do not write about kings because we do not believe that any man is worthy to be one’ (1965: 279). Williams’ point is that this focus on rank – from Miller as well as the conservative theorists – leads inevitably towards victimhood, from the liberal martyrdoms of Ibsen (Williams, 1966: 95-102), to the wilful destruction of self in Miller, where: ‘Individuals suffer for what they are and naturally desire, rather than for what they try to do’ (Williams, 1966: 104).
The concept of noble birth has long since splintered off into the far-off realms of the fantasy novel and the sleazy tabloid sex scandal. We of the middle classes are more likely now to aspire to a sort of faux working class integrity, minus menial labour and educational deprivation. And we of the artistic class are inclined to aspire even higher/lower, to a fictionalised version of the under class, where the universal, tragicagon is played out at street level. Sometimes this form of art might be called ‘social realism’, but more often than not it is a form of projection, an image of what it must be like to live on the edge; art with a sociological aesthetic.
Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot are not meant to illustrate the real life conditions of the homeless, nor do we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a guide to what it is like to be a prince. Instead, the trappings of rank in both cases, whether palace or wasteland, are abstracted spaces in which broader questions of what it is to be human are explored. Miller strives for, in Death of a Salesman and in plays such as A View from the Bridge, an aesthetic which is more closely tied to the contemporary social condition. The success of this endeavour makes for powerful drama. Curiously though, in his essay he concludes that in tragedy there ‘lies the belief – optimistic, if you will – in the perfectibility of man’ (Miller, 1966: 71). That this should be the true message of tragedy is debatable, and it is clearly not the message we get from the tragic victims Miller presents us with. For Williams, this victimhood spells an end to ‘liberal tragedy…in its own deadlock’ (Williams, 1966: 105). It might be argued that by tying his ‘common man’ to a tragedy which is so directly linked to a social realist aesthetic, Miller has nowhere to go but into the deadlock which Williams describes. Miller’s realism brings the outside world into the theatre in such a way that Willy Loman can only ever be small by comparison. One suspects that for a tragic protagonist not to be a victim, s/he needs to be positioned within an aesthetic which does not allow in more of the outside world than s/he can handle.
The Death of Character
The question that remains relevant from Miller’s thesis is not to do with the social standing of the tragic protagonist, but with the very concept of the protagonist, or character. The naturalist movement in theatre drew attention most of all to the ‘realism’ of its characters. There’s no need to recapitulate the shock of Ibsen’s prose language against the backdrop of the moribund versifying of late-nineteenth century romanticism. It’s enough to point out that the theatrical illusion of naturalism was the illusion of ‘real’ characters on stage. Performance theorists have long since exposed this illusion, but it has become naturalised in mainstream theatre, particularly of the English speaking world. In dealing with literary managers and directors, the playwright will find that all manner of deficiencies are forgiven provided there are strong characters to work with, strong roles for actors- personal engagement for an audience. Where does this leave the playwright seeking to engage with both theory and practice? Susanne K. Langer, on the aesthetics of tragedy, writes:
I have called this section of writing, ‘The Death of Character’ not out of a morbid obsession with an earlier metaphor, but because that is the title of a book by Elinor Fuchs, who writes:
Fuchs is not dealing with tragedy directly, but her thesis can be read as addressing a concern shared by many theorists of tragedy, a concern pursued by John von Szeliski when he examines twentieth century (up to the 1960s) American drama which might lay some claim to tragedy. Von Szeliski identifies an excess of pessimism that manifests in a series of invalidations against the possibility of action (1971: 36-38). ‘Somehow,’ he writes, ‘[the playwright] can’t quite look at what happens to his protagonist with the right sort of sight, at the right distance from the despair’ (58). What is missing, according to von Szeliski, is the ‘aesthetic distancing’ (70) which tragedy requires as a means of expressing the human condition, rather than wallowing in it.
Alfred Schwarz, writing around the same time, shares this pessimism for post-war drama, but his reasons are very different, perhaps even diametrically opposed to von Szeliski’s. He argues that ‘once the center of attention shifts away from the human actor and fastens on the situation which renders him fearful, disoriented, helpless, his destiny as an individual ceases to matter…And in many instances, what is notably absent, as it cannot be in tragedy, is the sense of a loss of value’ (1978: 307). Schwarz’s humanism is challenged by the likes of Beckett and Pinter and their ‘depersonalization’ of character, but one might argue that – in the case of Beckett at least – that this positioning of characters in relationship to a hostile universe is what tragedy does.
Response theorist Daphna Ben Chaim examines the issue of aesthetic distance with reference to Sartre, among others. Ben Chaim writes:
William Storm, who is directly concerned with tragedy, does argue for a centrality of character, but says that ‘what is represented in tragic drama is an experience of pure selfhood’ (1998: 5). Storm argues a lineage for all tragedy back to Dionysian ritual, and when he quotes Jean-Pierre Vernant who writes that Dionysus “confuse[s] the boundaries between illusion and reality [and] make[s] us lose our sense of self-assurance and identity” (17), we are closer to the fracturings of post-modernism than the integrated characterisation of naturalist drama. Storm argues that tragedy ‘is not distinguished by the death of its heroes but rather by their dismemberment’ (21), not in a physical sense but rather as a fracturing of selfhood. Essentially, Storm argues for the centrality of character – a nonpsychological, depersonalised character – as the mediating mechanism in which the chaos of the tragic cosmos is contained within the order of the process of tragedy (85).
Fuchs’ decentring of character and Storm’s necessary centrality of same may sound mutually exclusive, and they may be responding to different streams in Western theatre, but they may not be miles apart. Both are arguing for a selfhood that is far removed from the psychological realism and humanism of character driven dramaturgy.
My argument – my justification for apparent cruelties for purposes of art – is that the ‘fragments of human being’ described by Mnouchkine perform pain rather than feel pain. On one level this may sound too obvious to bother with. That is, we know we are watching an actor performing suffering – otherwise surely we could not look our reflection in the eye (reality television anyone?) – but we also know that the character is performing as well. The quality of empathy that we might call aesthetic distance is, I would argue, an invitation to the spectator to participate in the performance of suffering, rather than to feel sympathy for the suffering of the mimetic, integrated, autonomous subject.
Artaud, Antonin (1976), Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Barker, Howard (1997), Arguments for a Theatre. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Ben Chaim, Daphna (1984), Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press.
Fuchs, Elinor (1996), The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre after Modernism. Bloomington: University of Indiana.
Krutch, Joseph Wood (1965), ‘The Tragic Fallacy’, in Robert W. Corrigan (ed), Tragedy: Vision and Form. San Francisco: Chandler, 271-283
Langer, Susanne K. (1953), Feeling and Form: A theory of Art. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Maeterlinck, Maurice (2000), ‘The Tragical in Daily Life’, in Daniel Gerould (ed),Theatre/Theory/Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. New York: Applause Books, 381-389.
Miller, Arthur (1966), ‘Tragedy and the Common Man,’ in Carl Benson and Taylor Littleton (eds), The Idea of Tragedy. Glenview Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 68-71.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2000), The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Douglas Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richardson, Jack (1960), The Prodigal. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Schwarz, Alfred (1978), From Büchner to Beckett: Dramatic Theory and the Modes of Tragic Drama. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Simon, Alfred (1999), ‘The Space of Tragedy’, in David Williams (ed), Collaborative Theatre – The Théâtre du Soleil Sourcebook, trans. Erich Prenowitz and David Williams. London: Routledge, 186-194.
Sontag, Susan (1976), ‘Artaud’, in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, xvii-lix.
Storm, William (1998), After Dionysus: A Theory of the Tragic. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
von Szeliski, John (1971), Tragedy and Fear: Why Modern Tragic Drama Fails. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Williams, Raymond (1966), Modern Tragedy. London: Chatto and Windus.