World Theatre and American Phantasmagoria
Our contemporary theatrical reality is a world vastly different than any that have preceded it. Before the 21th century words were the basis for theatre. Playwrights wrote plays. The director, the actor, and the designer created their work from the words the playwright supplied.
In the 20th century a change took place with Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht.
“If you can’t explain what you mean, it doesn’t mean you don’t know what it is, or that you don’t mean it. It only means either that it can’t be explained or that you can’t explain it”.
Joseph Chaikin, The Presence of the Actor.
What we saw in the 20th century was a theatre that can be viewed as pre-Artaud and Brecht and now an entire generation of theatre artists has transformed world theatre. Artaud’s main influence, unlike that of Brecht was the way in which a production became a vehicle for dramatic expression. Conversely, Brecht was built primarily on agit-prop and political points of view.
The tensions between these views of theatre and their adherents, both pro and con are the focus of my manifesto. These same tensions (a battle between words as dramatic expression and the production as dramatic expression) can be found in my “American Phantasmagoria” (Lulu Books 2020) trilogy from Fangs to Riches to The Rocking Chair and The Rise and Fall of Gloria Vanderbilt aka Queen V.
Artaud’s theatre of images and Brecht’s theatre of words collide in American Phantasmagoria.
Nightmare: A condition during sleep, or a dream, marked by a feeling of suffocation or distress, with acute fear, anxiety, or other painful emotion. A monster or evil spirit formerly supposed to oppress persons during sleep. Elements of dramatic conflict are provided by ideas, political or economic forces (rather than people).2
American Phantasmagoria is created from actual events, speeches, and images that coalesce into a new universe.
Antecedents: Buchner, Georg (1813–37).
Although Buchner wrote and lived in the earliest part of the 19th century his impact on the drama of the 20th century was profound.
Robert W. Corrigan wrote:
“Buchner was the first dramatist to fuse the realistic social concerns (of the 19th century), with the anguish of isolation and social alienation that did not become a dominant theme in the theatre until the twentieth century.”3
In Woyzeck, Buchner was able to create a character that was the first in our now contemporary tradition of anti-heroes. Compressed into an explosive one act drama containing 29 scenes, we watch the career of Woyzeck crumble into murder and suicide.
Woyzeck is alone in a world (like ours) which he can neither understand nor cope. Within this play are all of the thoughts and ideas permeating our contemporary drama: expressionism, atheism, agnosticism, violence, and documented history.
Buchner’s work was not absorbed into any theatre tradition until the early part of the 20th century when Woyzeck was first produced in Munich in 1913.
Artaud wished to stage the play but these plans never materialized, while Brecht admired its dramatic construction.
“We need a Theatre which does not numb us with ideas for the intellect but stirs us to feeling by stirring up pain”.
Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) strove to achieve for the theatre in his lifetime. Be tailed, but this “failure” generated a theatrical conversion to the theories of Arta when Artaud’s ideas contained in The Theatre and Its Double were published and widely circulated in the 1950’s.
Failure became revolution.
Charlie Marowitz, Peter Brook and Peter Weiss made careers based on Artaud’s theories. Brook directed a 20 minute production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, reducing the script to its action, while using only the words from Shakespeare that were needed to fill in the action of the performance. These exercises were constantly adapted by Brook and Marowitz determining in large part the concept behind the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Genet’s The Screens, Seneca’s Oedipus, and the Weiss Marat/Sade. These productions was not an arbitrary decision on the part of Marowitz or Brook. Artaud had always wanted to stage a play of Seneca’s. Brook directed Oedipus.
Artaud played the role of Murat in the Abel Gance film Napoleon (1926).
Peter Weiss wrote Marat/Sade, and wrote that this play was directly inspired by Artaud.
Jean Genet’s plays are also indebted to Artaud.
Genet has supplied an atmosphere through words, action and scene design that uses his texts with the scents of exotic perfumes, decadent designs, ritual violence and a religious/mystical imagery in The Screens, The Maids and The Balcony as prime examples.
Transvestitism, and role reversals would not exist if Artaud had not broken apart the traditional elements of drama. All of these productions have influenced me in the creation of Fangs to Riches and my other plays. Brook infused the Weiss script with action, violence, and the personification of insanity with his actors.
Brook enable us to see what Artaud envisioned. The actions are removed from the realm of words but they create images which words could never capture. Words describe these actions in a text, but the actions have to be seen to be realized. This is the heritage and the meaning of Artaud for us.
Artaud’s influence extends even further to the Polish Theater of Jerzy Grotowski and The Performance Group of Richard Schechner. Grotowski has had to destroy original dramatic texts and pieces of literature in order to create with their fragments.
The great Italian director Luca Ronconi made his US debut with Orlando Furioso staged outdoors in Bryant Park after a Italian premiere. Ronconi also staged a staggering epic theatre production of Goldoni’s La Serva Amorosa on Broadway at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1987. It was unforgettable as a fusion of Goldoni as epic theatre not commedia.
Andrei Serban worked with Peter Brook in Paris. During this period, Brook broke completely away from the staging of traditionally written dramatic scripts.
Serban first came into notoriety in New York with a 1975 production entitled Fragments of a Trilogy. In this production, Serban threw out the original Euripides texts of Elektra, Medea, and The Trojan Women. Be invented a language of sounds, and syllables culled “From ancient Greek, Amerindian and various African tongues.”5 His aim was to find a way of expressing these plays as ritualistic mythical experiences distilled into sound, movement and action.
The language was not intended to be understood, (as Artaud might have wished,) as much as to speak to the sub-conscious in us, not corrupted by the intellectual onslaught of words.
Serban’s intent, like that of Artaud was to re-awaken those unconscious thoughts and feelings which have been suppressed by the pressures of civilization.
Serban’s exploration in this area is not complete nor, to be fair, has it been fully effective. In the 1977 production of the Aeschylus Agamemnon, Serban seems to have compromised his ideas about a theatrical language.
In Agamemnon he uses portions of Greek words and an English translation on top of the Greek fragments. Unfortunately, it would appear that this hunch-backing of language seems to cancel out both the English words and the Greek. Even though vocal clarity seems to have been lost, Artaud might be overjoyed with this development. Before Artaud there was a theatrical mirror; now, that glass has been shattered. We pick up the pieces to create.
Unlike Artaud, Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) had a dramatist’s gift for writing plays and for expounding theories on what constitutes theater outlining those elements which made his theater unique. Unlike Artaud, Brecht prolifically conceived dramatic problems, character arguments, and a resolution that gave unique identity to his works.
“Brecht has made it plain that the object of epic drama is to abolish not only ‘illusion’ but the subjection of the spectator to an emotional orgy by means of sympathy and identification with the characters of the stage, who can, nevertheless, be considerably individualized; that la, they need not be puppets of society in being representative, nor need they be the author’s mouthpieces when their attitudes and actions are sufficiently revealing. The disjunctive structure of epic drama, the interruption of the action by comment, the continual cooling off of emotion, and the truncation of plot just when it promises suspense and a neat little story — these are means intended to prevent the playgoer from becoming engrossed to such a degree that he cannot think clearly and arrive at a perspective. The public must be reminded that the play is a demonstration upon which it is to base conclusions to be effectuated by action in the outside world.”6
The aforementioned ideas in this paragraph relate rather closely to the construction of nightmare- documentary. Events of the real world are used as elements of the nightmare-documentary to make the play-goer “aware.” Sentiment is avoided. My theatre, demonstrably related to Brecht, is a serious one, eschewing frivolity for substance while proselytizing an economic, political, and individual awareness for solipsism. Joined with these ideas, American Phantasmagoria is combined with elements of cruelty, violence, and the world of fantasy to create a unique blend of the real and the imaginary.
“If ‘epic’ theatre has a future, as well as a past, this in because it leaven boundless opportunities for the play of imagination and provides an outlet for the dramatist who wants to create poetry and theatrically stylized art without escaping from modern life into the void of fancy or the vacuous areas or sentimentality.”’
In spite of the impact of Brechtian drama on our contemporary theatre, I believe the incidence of a Theatre of Fact, has had a far greater impact on my plays.
Several contemporary writers belong to thin even more reasoned
view of drama like Rolf Hochhuth, Donald Freed. and Heiner Kipphardt. Although there is no “Theatre of Fact” (in the real sense of the term,) this form surfaced in the 1960’s and was intellectually touted by Robert Drustein, and pleaded for as a viable form of artiatic expression by Donald Freed.6 The plays included in this category have been Hochhuth’s The Deputy, Freed’s Inquest, and Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
These plays are constructed out of documentary material: trial transcripts, diaries, newspaper accounts, interviews, minutes of meetings, and research. Kipphardt remained an close as possible to the minutes of the Atomic Energy Commission meetings between April 12-May 6, 1954.
Freed used the transcripts of the Rosenberg trial, newspaper accounts, and newspaper interviews with the Rosenberg’s.
Hochhuth’s play in the most complex of this trio and deserves, therefore, the closest inspection. Hochhuth explored the relationship between the Vatican and Mai Germany during the course or World War II. As Hochhuth explains, in his “Sidelights on History,” it became necessary to create or combine different characters from the original proceedings for the purpose of gaining dramatic effect. Hochhuth’s play contains a voluminous amount of material, exceedingly crucial to an understanding of his play and his interpretation of our history. The work became controversial, yet it was mangled in the Manhattan premiere.
“Hochhuth’s crude but powerful 6 to 8 hour documentary in play form — has been reduced to a 2 hour and 15 minute comic strip.”9
As Susan Sontag Discusses the script, she implies that this crude but powerful documentary is perhaps the only authentic example of play as modern tragedy. In spite of its conventional dramatic form, the scope of The Deputy was unprecedented:
“In modern times, the use of the theatre as a public forum for moral judgment has been shunted aside. The theatre has largely become a place in which private quarrels and agonies are staged; the verdict which events render upon characters in most modern plays has no relevance beyond the play itself. The Deputy breaks with the completely private boundaries of most modern theatre. And as it would be obtuse to refuse to evaluate the Eichmann trial as a public work of art, it would, be frivolous to judge The Deputy simply as a work of art.”
The Deputy has entered the arena of art us a public manifestation of record, av a form of catharsis like the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The events of this play superseded national boundaries, and entered into the consciousness of the modern world. The aim of The Deputy was a confrontation with the truth contained in history. The unpleasantness of that truth was responsible for the passionate controversy aroused by the play throughout the Western World in 1963.
“Some art — but not all — elects as its central purpose to tell the truth; and it must be judged by its fidelity to the truth, and by the relevance of the truth which it tells. By these standards The Deputy is an important play.
A comparison or The Deputy to the work of Brecht is important at this moment, to understand that Hochhuth superseded Brecht in his aim of fidelity to factual truth:
“Nothing is indeed more remarkable in Brecht’a career than that he should have been able to satisfy two contemporary needs at the same time — to extend realism and invigorate it, on the one hand, and to promote a theatre of imagination and poetry on the other hand. Imaginative drama and realistic cram are supposed to be the opposite poles of theatrical art. Brecht has resolved the major dichotomy of the modern stage in his own work and has proved that it need not exist.”2′
Cutely this in true of Mother Courage, Galileo The Private Life of the
Master Race, The flood Woman of Setzuan and Happy End, but Hochhuth goes beyond these works in his depiction of realism in The Deputy. Both Brechtian interruptions of the plot sequence and the appending of ironic commentaries have been eliminated. The Deputy vas created not as a work that transformed public figures into dramatic characters but an a play that allowed its characters to remain public figures. No transformation occurs. What we see on that stage is the greatest extension into realism that the 20th century stage has thus far alloyed. Brecht’e plays all seem
imaginary when compared to the work of Hochhuth. Hochhuth enabled Freed, Kipphardt and anyone else to create a drama that was totally new Sr. the construction or facts an a theatre experience.
Bightmare-Dacunentury: Post — Artaud and Post-Brecht.
My view of nightmare-documentary leaven the work and the theories of Artaud and Brecht behind. Nevertheless, the work of Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Patrice Chereau, Charles Ludlam, Tom O’Borgan, and Edward Bond is indebted at least in some portion to the work of Artaud and Brecht.
The work of Wilson and Foreman can be viewed in conjunction with each other. Although their styles of performance are vastly different the emphasis on a visually oriented theatre are very much descended from the works of Artaud:
“What Wilson has done, simply, is realize a radically alternative way of making theater — -one that would be visual instead of verbal, architectural instead of representational, extravagant instead of modest, perceptual instead of emotional, theatrical instead of literary. …His pieces belong to the great tradition of American theater, from minstrel shows and vaudeville to the present — -an indigenous tradition, that, in contrast to the European theater, has always emphasized performance over script, intelligent improvisation over codified forms and precise planning, vernacular processes over codified forms, and theatrical values over literary values.”
In recent years, Wilson has worked primarily in Germany with rigid-sub-human no body contact of Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, or THREEPENNY OPERA. Now he gets a blank check and leaves his emotions at the door. Grim and baffling.
Artaud shares the dissatisfaction for words which has marked the generally visual productions of Wilson and Foreman. What words they do use are torn away from their dictionary definitions and utilized as objects which fill both the aural and, in some cases, the visual space of the performance. Wilson and Foreman “define” their words through their productions, thereby revolutionizing the entire literary basis of drama The words not only lose the transformation power of Brechtian drama and the factual information of Hochhuth’s drama, words for Foreman and Wilson become basically meaningless. The performance in the dramas of Wilson and Foreman become the message. ‘their words ore no longer a basis for their performance but an embellishment on top of the production. The intellectual meaning .
If the words cannot be interpreted outside the context of the performance. In divergent ways, Wilson and Foreman, along with Brook and Marowitz have realized the possibilities of non-verbal theatre that was first promulgated by Artaud almost a half a century ago.
Freedom of movement, spinning, whirling dervishes, and extraordinarily slow fractional movement are trademarks of any Wilson production. Although he has utilized the historical figures of Josef Stalin, and Albert Einstein; unlike Hochhuth or Brecht, he utilizes them as metaphorical images which have been absorbed into the general population-consciousness as names, rather than people.
In A Letter from Queen Victoria, Leighton Kerner suggested that: “Victoria Implies victory, and victory implies conflict, and conflict implies violence. Violence is the running theme of this symphony. In the prologue, a letter is read by Rufus Smith informing Queen Victoria of the dangers to her realm, and the universe at large, of unlit lamp posts.”
Rings: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous.
French director Patrice Chereau was at the center of a controversy, for his staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Centennial Bayreuth Festival in 1976. Cries of outrage and cheers were heard following the successive premieres of the four parts of the Ring.
Chereau’s reputation as an “enfant terrible” had preceded him to Bayreuth. Only through the intercession of French conductor Pierre Boulez, was Chereau selected to direct the production. The revolutionary goals of nightmare-documentary can be found in the manner in which Chereau updated the Ring production to date from 1876, dispensing with its Nordic helmets, breast-plates and other barbarian elements. Gone were the Romantic notion of Wagnerian stagecraft: painted waterfalls, billowing sheets for water, and painted flats for the forest; poetic naturalism, and forgotten were the cylindrical abstract shapes or the neo-Bayreuth of Wieland Wagner.
In their place was a demystification of the Ring. Chereau wanted a Ring that embraced the period of its 1876 premiere and the 100 years of performance which have taken place since then. The history of the industrial age and capitalism were the main component parts of Chereau’s directorial interpretation:
“Chereau had jettisoned the entire postwar Bayreuth style — — lighting, sets, and stage movement. Chereau takes realistic elements — -sets, costumes, animals, and people — -and mixes them up to produce surrealistic stage pictures. The sets are littered with recognizable objects — -a Matterhorn-shaped rock, a Victorian steamer trunk, and what appears to be a medieval walled city (Valhalla), a forest or 30 ft. trees with every leaf in place — which have been wrenched out of their realistic settings and presented as if they were pieces of Pop Art. The trees move about on rubber wheeled platforms, and Valhalla contains the Chrysler, Empire State and World Trade Center buildings. Chereau uses his stage to remind the audience of the layers of political, social, and operatic history that have built up since the first Ring was performed.”
We do have a past: our present was in large part, determined by our history; what we have done, what we have accomplished, or what we have destroyed.
These elements pervade the Chereau staging. These same “recognizable objects,” “a Victoria(n) trunk,” floods on stage pervade the productions of Wilson and Foreman.
This embellishment of production through visual imagery is directly related to the theories that Artuud first developed. The theatre must incorporate elements other than words. Images serve a different function than words; speaking to our eyes and our visual memory, rather than only our intellectual processes.
In the Charles Ludlam distillation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, now entitled Der Ring Gott Farblonjet we see a different directorial perspective that permeates the Chereau production. Charles rewrote the entire 26 hours of the original Ring to a 4 hour retelling that compresses the story to its essentials. The story of the Ludlam Ring remains basically clear, but most of the original Wagner score is thrown out, and most of the words are reduced to gibberish.
Yet, the sets and the costumes, those wonderful visual elements, redeem the production from becoming an outright disaster. Wagnerian purists might have heart seizure after seeing this production but everything that needs to be there, in the story line, remains. While Chereau’s Valhalla contains the World Trade Center, Ludlam’s contains the Metropolitan Opera, which is burned to the ground in the final immolation scene. Seeing the Metropolitan Opera burn to the ground is certainly more Graphic than hearing someone talking about burning it down.
Another American director named Tom O’Horgan has also infused his stage productions with visual extravagances. If O’Horgan’s theatrical vision were separated from his productions they would evaporate. Phantasmagoria pervades all of O’Horgan’s work. For Julian Barry’s Lenny, he utilized life-sized cartoon puppets, gibberish music, invented instruments, political caricatures, stilts, and opening nonsense chorus to show the nightmare world which pervaded the American-consciousness and its assault on Bruce.
American Phantasmagoria: Dramatic writing in the post-Brecht era.
British dramatist: Edward Bond (b 1931) suggested the stage is no longer a “place in which private agonies and quarrels are staged” as The Deputy taught us. “Rebellion,” and “major living playwright”, are strong words. Yet Bond’s rebellion is through words and not against them. His struggle is creating THE FOOL or STONE that rely on words with strong, yet appropriate scenes of violence. The British Lord Chamberlain declared SAVED was “obscene” and it was banned.
Edward Bond: “Compared to the strategic bombing of German towns, it is a negligible atrocity, compared to the emotional and cultural deprivation of most of our children its consequences are insignificant. “
Talk remains unpleasant, as the Holocaust in The Deputy; yet unless we hear these discussions, and see these incidents we will remain in a solipsistic (trumpian) state unable to act in preventing future violence, and future injustice.
Later Edward Bond and I began a correspondence that lasted 20 years on all aspects of his work and my plays. These included insights on my American Premiere production of his play STONE which The Villager called provocative as my directing debut at the Ohio Theatre in SOHO.
Bond is still working in 2021 on new plays, as am I.
Daniel P Quinn (copywright 2021)