seventh part, called “what is theatre? VII,” of a series of ‘letters’ written to you, the reader, towards a book called, theatre | writing

What is theatre?

It would seem that the two lines are opposed. The one on which what is represented, the object of representation, is severed from its representative—onstage. And the one that effects the apportioning of actions and events, personal actions, impersonal events. On this second line, the actor risks making an action.

Why making and not taking? Because the action is taken from her and put in play for other purposes than she intended? Or because in this context it is not true. The latter would imply true to her. Or him. And this lack of truth implies the presence of the first line. But is this really so serious?

It has the seriousness of the not serious. The seriousness of the game when we cannot figure out the rules. A ramifying seriousness, since the issue at stake for us gets tangled up in our efforts to untie it. To free it. An intense seriousness. And we are on our own with this mess, this entanglement, this, Augustine writes, bent and twisted knottiness. An entanglement in which we are entangled. Like the inert depressive. Whose every impulse to dig and relieve the pressure is thwarted by an equally intense aversion: I don’t want to! … yes, to the degree that suicidal thoughts take root.

Then, we’ve also addressed the possibility, the potential for the audience to be absent, for theatre to be without audience, by saying that whenever someone goes on, and makes a move onto the stage, wherever the stage is suggested, there it is—the second line. Onto it the highwire artist sets his foot. Or hers. I used this turn of phrase, however: I said in my encounter. Much as I might have said, of my acquaintance. And the silent question: What is my eligibility so to assert? The qualification in question is not my own. Rather it is in the presence of others that the risk is felt, the vulnerability, so that it takes courage to go on, doesn’t it?

Yes, but what about the absence of others? Of all other observers? What about when I am not there? In the room. At the beach. … And… Is it your sudden sense of being watched that arrests you in your tracks? That leads you to feel … you are going on stage? Performance anxiety, and so on.

Does anyone else need to be there for you to form this impression? And, yes, I would say that the anxiety of performance does come, but not as it is usually understood, as a fear of failure. It comes as a fear of… falling. And we can mention love here.

O god, I’m falling for him! Oh no, I’m falling for her! Every resistance seems further to entangle us in this mess. As we have said. Because falling in love, or falling into a black hole, we are overtaken. Even so far as to be overtaken at first sight. Or, at the first step. Then, the action made takes us. Is a wind blowing us into… And yes, we can refuse, but I’m saying we cannot deny. So that it is not the personal action we have taken overtaking us but the impersonal event the action makes, expressed in sight or step. … How many times have I reached the edge of the stage and said, I can’t go on?

The fear of artifice, isn’t it secondary? the fear we are fooling ourselves. It would be the work of the first line, splitting the work we are doing to represent love from the fact of being in love. And I would say that it is in recognition of the second place taken by the fear of playing false that theatre people tend to be the most not serious. Even about the most serious things, sexuality, for example. Identity! My father on his deathbed said to me: The problem with us is that we can never take anything seriously. And of course he meant it, seriously.

A person risks falling into the thrall of what they do. Of the action they make… just getting onto the stage, that decision, but then in every subsequent action, in every event. The thrall they fall into is that of the impersonal, what Deleuze calls affect. Depersonalised love crashes down on me and I want to weep or run.

Deleuze and Guattari say this in their last book together: to science belong percepts; to philosophy belong concepts; to art belong affects. Belong in the sense of expressing and creating. So art expresses and creates impersonal affects. These are not influences. They are aspects of what we might call inward life, inner experience, cut, sometimes painfully, by this second line we have been talking about. And who’s to say whether in that case they are true or false?

Care. Who cares? Haven’t we said that the things we put on stage are not themselves? That the walls, the curtains, hold meanings which in the everyday they did not when onstage, in a theatre?

It is therefore a strange work we do to insure the validity of the affect, which is the effect created onstage, is not simply representative, of the love we confess to, of the walking… The walking! How an actor walks says so much about that validity. Is she actually in her body? we might ask.

We might say, You’re doing something different with your feet… Just walk. The actor can’t. The significance of making each of the actions which together comprise walking is too clear. He stands out too clearly onstage for this appalling condition of not being able to walk.

So does that mean it’s not artifice we want? This goes to the nature of what we have so far been calling either the actions that are made or the events in which they are overtaken. Is this because as events, as impersonal, they cannot but be true? No, it’s not.

Don’t forget the line of artifice, of theatricality, overturning any truth, even that of the event. We have said, however, that the force of the event is here, and that doesn’t mean only of the event in its impersonal aspect.

What are the gestures we make on the stage? Are they ideas? No, no, no: they are affects freed, set free from personal entanglement, and as such must be true to themselves.

Is this so? Well… I would say that some paring down occurs: yes, some pruning, of the dense tangle of messy emotion. While preserving intensity. How?

We have just had taken from us that which we gave intensity for it being in the context of our interior lives. Isn’t its mess its essence? That is the decision we must make, in where we put the line of artifice. And how we use the line of the stage to underline what is shown. Events? …yes, but in a very subjective sense. In the sense that we say, it was only your impression that that truth led to that other one. Only your opinion. For me it didn’t work at all: I couldn’t believe in what happened because of … to be honest I was distracted by the walking. It was dishonest.

It would seem that the two lines oppose one another: the line of artifice and that of … let’s say, necessity. One undercutting and undoing the work the other is doing. Artifice making it all seem so … pointless. We already know what side theatre people are on, the one of saying, Don’t take it all so seriously! And then with their care about the details, the technical details, that otherwise do seem so pointless: how do I walk? What steps to take so that the affect that was personal is freed from me-ness to have the effect of any body walking, at least subjectively.

Note here is a subject talking to a subject and the strange coincidence of the two, which breaks with the imposition of the second line: the subjects splitting, one from the other. Now there is the one onstage, and the other, who is an actor, who acts the part we are interested in, of the affect or the event. So that we would sooner call it a subject than either of the two.

We can see it to be the case, the two lines seeming to be opposed, most clearly when we look at the things, the objects, in a theatre, on an empty stage. What is it going to take to convince us that that is a real door? Leaving by it?

No. Wait. What is being staged is the subject itself. Himself. Herself. It no longer matters: an impersonal, depersonalised subject.

This is perhaps why I like dance. Because Douglas Wright understood it better than anyone: the stage is overtaken as much by the set elements as by the movements of the dancers. And there is a complex ensemble here. An agency. Not a subject, or subjective state or viewpoint, being expressed, but an expressive subject.

And this is perhaps why, for all his brilliance, I don’t like the work of Michael Parmenter as much. Always a sentimentality, a sentimental attachment to personality, whether it’s the personality of the dancers or that of the choreographer. While Douglas sweeps all that away: yes, sometimes it is dark; but what you win is like Beckett’s affirmation, impossible. Fail again. Fail better.

In Slava’s Snow Show, in the interval, several clowns came down into the auditorium. Some went up, climbing up the boxes in the Civic Theatre, into the gallery. And they abducted audience members who weren’t out getting a drink, or doing what Badiou in his book pins his entire argument for the significance of theatre on, perversely, its social aspect: talking about what they are watching; sharing interim observations, before returning to have them either confirmed, and now confirmed socially, or confounded. A potential for social confoundment.

Anyway, the clowns came down into the stalls, some went up, and abducted individual audience members. Carrying them away by force. From those they were either sitting with or, if on their own, from their places in the audience. Ah, we might have said, Breaking down the fourth wall!

A clown with a woman over his shoulder. Her legs kicking in the air. Possibly terrified.

At the end of the interval, they were returned. And were unharmed. But the abduction added something to the conclusion of the show, something horrifying, as if they had not been returned at all. The stage exploded.

Magnesium flare audience blinders extreme upstage. Wind machines blowing the scenery and curtains and clowns across the stage. The deafening roar. ‘Snow’ streaming forth…

…as if bodies, not paper streamer snow, but white ash back out of the blazing pit of the blown wide open stage.

note: source references available on request–these will be part of the book, if it should come to pass.

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