Bene-Deleuze’s theatre of subtraction (re: Carmelo Bene’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III) -1

Shakespeare était auteur, acteur et chef de troupe. Dans sa vie lui-même a été un spectacle. A présent il est un texte. Il faut être un beau salaud pour lui refuser l’infidélité qui lui est due

– Carmelo Bene in an interview

Deleuze’s commentary, in “Un manifeste de moins” (“One Manifesto Less”) on Carmelo Bene’s production of Richard III is his only extended writing on theatre. He refers to Kleist in several of his books but as a literary example. Bene (1937-2002), director, writer and actor – like Shakespeare himself, of course – offers Deleuze the prospect of a pre- or sub-representational theatre, a dynamic, subject-less and “subtractive” approach to theatre. Bene’s critical statements confirm his theatre as Deleuzean selon la lettre, or as having been produced by Deleuze’s sidelong influence (the two share, in fact, similar interests in de Sade, Artaud, Kleist, Carroll), like that above, “you’d be an idiot not to render unto Shakespeare the infidelity he’s due,” and “the truly great authors are the minor ones, the untimely ones. It is the minor artist that offers the true masterpieces: the minor artist does not interpret his times: mankind does not have a specific time, time depends on mankind.”

Bene gives rise to a ‘minor theatre’ comparable with Kafka’s ‘minor literature.’ Deleuze follows a dramaturgical movement, that of Bene’s imagination qua Shakespeare’s text, rather than a scenographical movement, that of the actor qua the space, the set or decor. The interest is in how the combination of Deleuze and Bene counter-actualises a multiplicity of givens, Richard III, William Shakespeare, Elizabethan embodied practice and theatre an sich, in order to reach a dynamic process, a minor or virtual theatre.

Here, then, decor is not ambience, not a place; it is not even an idea: decor is merely a throw-away stage-prop. And each step of the actor’s movement is really a regression at the service of depopulation of image and object. …

Here, then, is the meaning of the “subtraction” that Deleuze insists upon. Bene’s visual imagination moves in the inverse direction of image proliferation. How, then, can a character be constituted if the entire machinery of theatre remains at the service of depletion, regression, and flight? …

The actor’s prime objective is to gain a foothold on the stage. …

…the whole point is that Bene’s Richard is neither a person nor a character, even less is he an historical figure. He is, in his interaction with the aural, visual, and linguistic elements of Bene’s theatre, part of the process that demonstrates becoming: becoming minor, becoming warrior, becoming woman, becoming “other.” … a war-machine is constituted, making the emergence of Richard as warrior possible.

– Mohammad Kowsar in “Deleuze on theatre: a case study of Carmelo Bene’s Richard III,” Deleuze and Guattari: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers, ed. Gary Genosko, Routledge, 2000, pp. 30-46

‘You begin by subtracting, by cutting out everything that determines an element of power, in language and in gestures, in representation and in the represented.’ You then further subtract all ‘constants, stable or stabilised elements, because they belong to a major usage’ and consolidate fixed or molar identities. Along with such constants you should eliminated structure (since it maintains ‘relations between invariants’), dialogue (since it codifies rule-bound relations of speech), history (since it lends figures of power their stability over time) and even the text itself, insofar as it confines the virtual creativity of language to actual configurations of speech. In a theatre thus purged of all actuality and representation, only creation as such will act.

– Peter Hallward, including quotes from Gilles Deleuze’s “One Manifesto Less,” Out of this World, pp. 80-81

Peter Hallward invokes Deleuze-Bene to illustrate the distinction between ‘subtraction’ and ‘extinction.’ He is not so interested in theatre, which is why, perhaps, his characterisation of the actual method of subtraction reads like satire. It leads me to ask What’s left? once all these subtractions are made? as if Deleuze were pressing towards extinction.

Mohammad Kowsar presents Bene’s scenography, his decor, his set, his design, to extend Deleuze’s commentary to factors which he leaves out. (He also notes, tantalisingly for a practical consideration of what is going on in Bene-Deleuze’s subtractive theatre, that the Richard character’s monologues can be delivered in anything from an incommunicative mumble, too quiet, to an overemphatic shout, too loud, can be either too fast or too slow.) But these tantalising clues as to what is happening on and with the stage, between actor and setting, put a different spin on this idea of subtraction.

Bene, apparently, subtracts as much as he presents subtraction. The dynamic process underlying the actuality is presented, is part of the show and characters and actors in the show have actively to contend with this creative subtraction. In Hallward’s terms, the creative process acts, it shows the creature to be that through which it acts and by which it is actualised.

How does this square with Deleuze’s insistence that the actual covers the virtual? I suspect it squares quite roundly: Deleuze’s view of art is that it occupies a place between philosophy’s absolute abstraction and science’s relative referentiality. The actual work of art exists only insofar as the virtual is sensible in it, or, insofar as its very vituality is available to sensation – which sensation, furthermore, is the work of art’s alone and not that of a sensing subject or sensible object. The process – here, one of subtraction – constitutive of the artwork is the virtual, or sheer and impersonal, unindividuated and otherwise inaccessible creativity.

The theme in Deleuze’s thought, whether dealing with a work of theatre or a painting, is to account for it by finding out how it works, an account which necessarily implies becoming or creating, a process. What might this mean for the director, writer and actor or the painter? How do we make a piece of theatre while holding on to Deleuze’s account? Because, isn’t there a circularity here, whereby the artwork that stands up on its own as an artwork stands up thanks to that by which it stands up on its own as art? The latter participates in a logic of representation, the error, according to Deleuze and the habit of thought to break. Or subtract.

Deleuze promotes the artwork’s participation in a logic of sensation, about which there is already an asperity – a sense of paring down to the essential, here the same as movement. So: to approach the infinite speed of the essential is art’s job in a creative ontology; to proceed at once at risk in the knowledge that both this knowledge and this job go by way of the inessential; and that to make the approach at all is to become inessential.

How we subtract must be considered along with what we subtract. If I, the other and the Big Other are to come under the minus sign, the art becomes a Fresh Widow (Duchamp, 1920). Deleuze and Guattari recommend subtracting by infinitesimal decrements; proceeding by baby steps of betrayal, or infidelity, as asserted by Bene. They say, Use a nail-file to break out!

Would the theatre-(art)work record somehow those tiny steps of subtraction, which are quantum leaps, recording also the iron-filings collecting on the ground, including the direction of their magnetic orientation, from our efforts to cut through the bars and break out?

Could its success, after all, be all of a piece with that of our carefully planned escape?

And could the fault for its failure rest with our inability to escape, or to avoid recapture by the theatre-work, just as it fails to live without us?

It has come to this: -1, whether 1 = I or you or it, down to the merest atome.