Sunday, April 11, 2010

Image/Theatre - rough thoughts on Theatres, Images, Words and Monsters

OK in the name of continuity, I propose that I update this blog ONCE a week, every sunday. Those who read this take heed, if you check Sunday (or probably Monday morning), you will have a new entry waiting for you, hopefully. I reserve all rights to revoke this rule.

Here is an essay I'm working on. It is rough rough rough, because all I write in this blog is roughish and I feel that the blog works best when it is on full-rant mode. I apologize for some of the abstruseness, that usually tends to disappear as I work on something. It's long, that I also apologize for, and has quite a bit of theory and such. The main work I'm using in Jean Luc Nancy's The Ground of the Image who got me thinking about the image in such a way - and I am certainly going along with his definition. Other books to check out: Jean-Luc Marion God without Being and Derrida Truth in Painting

Okay, here it is.


To think through theatre with the image – to think the

theatrical image – to imagine the theatre – to

theatricalize image

Last night, I had the experience of seeing a show without images. No – correction. It had images, but it had no gripping images? No striking images? No powerful images?[1] It contained elements from some Berlin theatre I had seen, whose images still resonate in my head. They haunt perplex and inspire me, and it was those images, not the images from the show, that stuck with me, and even interfered in my enjoyment of said work of theatre. The most my experience that night could do is bring me closer to those other experiences. Just a shadow – a semblance, not emulating but in search of a form. In doing so it was not effective it had no effect on me, but it was purely affect. It lingered, and it certainly affected the time I was sitting, but at the end of 100 minutes the only real change was the destroyed scenery, the two hours moving on my watch, and the color of the sky outside.

A truly potent image is not seen, it shows. It does not ask to be looked at it teaches you how to look at it Nor does it ever correspond – there is no co-respondence. Its response is unique and singular, solitary and effective, and asks the same in turn of the viewer. The image imagines.

“The image disputes the presence of the thing. In the image, the thing is not content simply to be; the image shows that the thing is and how it is,” (Nancy, 21)

An image is severe. It emerges from a series of constitutive elements. It then unifies and annihilates their separations – it cuts off. It severs the elements not just from each other, but from themselves, from what each element before it once was. It creates a singularity that speaks only of itself.

Here we can begin to think of the Image – as Jean-Luc Nancy does – together with the ‘sacred’

“the image is always sacred…indeed the meaning of the sacred never ceases to be confused with that of the “religious”. But religion is the observance of a rite that forms and maintains a bond (with others or with oneself, with nature of with a supernature). Religion in itself is not ordered y the sacred…The sacred, for its part signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off…one attempt to form a bond with the sacred occurs in sacrifice, which as a matter of fact does belong to religion…where sacrifice ceases, so does religion. And that is the point…where the preservation of a distance and a ‘sacred’ distinction begin. It is there perhaps where art has always begun, not in religion…but set apart,” (nancy, 1-2)

The Image in Theatre

Using Nancy as our stepping point, let us think through the image in theatre – think through theatre with the image. But to approach this subject which for Nancy remains always ‘distinct’ perhaps it is better to do as Nancy, and find that which the sacred – which the image, is always separating itself from. And where can we find the “rite that forms a bond” in theatre? Most of all, in narrative – through narrative we communicate to each other a commonality, we bond the audience through the ‘universal’ act of storytelling. The narrative is the rite through which we let the world of the theatre (the meta-physical) and the world of the audience (the real?) bond.

If narrative then is the coercive movement to create a communicable, relatable time-space relationship – to bridge the gap between two worlds – then the image is its interruption.

In that way, the image resembles the sacred in theatre as well. The sacred is at one the reason behind the ritual and the threat that can destroy it. Nancy talks of sacrifice, but one can also think of madness, and violence, take the religious ceremonies that thrive to contain bursts of madness – some strains of Pentecostalism, the idea of ‘possession’ – saints claiming they hear ‘voices’, and the parade of violent and dismembered figures throughout the history of religion. This is a very brief sort of dip into religion, but it suffices to say that the ‘sacred’ elements of religion are often those that are in most need of control. But it is that very threat that drives the very creation of the ritual.


Narrative, when it is placed in a theatre, is a normative coercion that masquerades itself as truth, when all it is an interiorized ritual. If narrative, is the ritual – then concurrently, the theatrical image, which interrupts the story, comes out of the story (but then can function to at once exist without the story and represent the story without being the story) is the sacred. Narrative acts in fear of and in service to the image. From the ritual will of narrative is the desire to contain the image, the potent and dangerous image. In doing so, the image is concealed in the narrative and n a way shielded from its disastrous effect. In essence, the image goes from being an effective part of the experience, to affective.

But if we look at the history of drama (which is a history of narrative theatre, mostly) we see what is at the heart of all great dramatic literature is a strong image. An image that transcends the text, which at times seems to serve to contain this image, hiding it within the hole and unleashing it at its most pivotal points.

But within theatre – what is the image? We have spoken of the theatrical image – what kind of image does the theatre produce? To answer this question we must delve deeper into the imagination of the theatre and theaters in general.

Before Anything

To begin with, theatre proposes a stage. What is a stage? A place where things happen. But things happen regardless of a stage being a stage. All a stage needs to become a stage is for us to acknowledge it as such. As audience members we perform a series of acknowledgements to determine that it is a stage. A theater is constructed with that structure in mind. We enter the theatre, and suddenly things are different. The house “opens” to us, the house “closes” we are locked in. Once we affirm that this is indeed a stage we allow things to happen as if they were on a stage. A theatre creates a happening that acknowledges itself as such and only a happening and in doing so separates itself from all other happenings. What happens onstage – it never really happens – except onstage. Here now we have created a structure where things never happen by making them happen. We can write historical plays and put things in the mouths of persons long deceased and make them do what we will , because we know this was not the case – or was it?

But how can the stage do this? Before anything, before any word is spoken and any person enters the stage creates an ‘image’ of itself. Our first sight then is a re-seeing. It is a seeing again, of which the first “the seeing of a stage as a stage” always precedes it but can never acknowledge itself as such.

When we ‘stage’ something outside of a theatre, we falsely do it. We do something that does not have its proper effect. The truth of the event is existent since it does occur, but it is negated because it never really ‘happens’. What is happening – unspoken is the truth of the theatrical image, what is hidden onstage is the the very thing being presented. The staging of it is what makes it not happen.

The stage preceding the theatre, and it is the stage that always precedes a theatre – the stage opens a space, otherwise there is no gap between theatre and reality, and if there is such it is only to the extent that the other ‘realizes’ the game (many artists have exploited this weight, Boal’s “invisible theatre” is a favorite example) is actually being played on them.

This image that is not seen but is necessary – image because it creates a cut-off space, (stage breaks the proto-narrative of reality) – is part of an unseen image, that Nancy, drawing from Kant, names the schema: “The subject produces unity – that is, its own unity as subject-of-a-representation – a successive. That is its primary schematism, or its pure imagination, the condition of possibility of any image, any (re)presentation: the condition for their being an image, and not chaotic flux,” (Nancy, 81-82). For Kant, and Nancy, this is tied to setting the conditions for experience. The reason this is particularly relevant for the stage – is that if in experience we determine certain ways to establish ourselves in reality (through modalities like number, time-space, distance, etc.) the stage opens up the place for an experience that allows interruptions of this reality. The stage interrupts what we call experience by positing a different kind of experience – the same way ritual-time and ritual-space serve as interruptions of the chronology of life, so does staged-time, staged-fact, staged-being, all of these elements require us to think of the stage as the enabler of all experience, an experience outside experience.

- The stage, like the image, is a monster – its consequences are monstrous. What is monstrous about the stage is all it allows by negating itself from the usual. By preceding what happens, it makes possible any possibility. There is therefore no greater fear for an audience than an empty stage.

(Not) Looking Under the Covers

How do we fill a stage?

With people. With scenery. With light. With sound. But most importantly (and most effectively) with words.

On a stage words are the only thing – words, and signs – that can draw meaning away from space, that can distract us fully from the stage.

The stage is monstrous because by making everything possible, by “unhappening” every thing, every thing re-enters the stage, and is reseen in the context of this alternate experience. So even signs – things we immediately resonates with us as information in reality, become something else onstage.

Here is an example. If I place a yellow upside down triangle in a road, cars will think to yield. But if I place it on a stage something strange happens, we may think that but we may also be confronted with the presence of a yellow upside down triangle in a place where anything is possible. There is something monstrous about a place in which out of anything appears a yellow triangle, it is suddenly imbued with meaning, its own meaning. Everything presented onstage threatens to become full of its own meaning – everything presented onstage threatens to become a (sacred) image.

A word fills the stage precisely because it has nothing of which to refer to itself, it ‘presents’ nothing but information, and a sound that our minds already bypass it. The word is already on a stage, a different stage, the logos, that allows us to bypass an image, a sign and rebirth it in meaning. A word has difference, but that difference – as Derrida notes (citationpending) is lost if the word is not written. This is partly why Artaud, who claimed so virulently for a sacred theatre – wanted a mostly wordless one. He saw that theatre was telling novels – was making plays into novels- mostly because novels are the privileged domains of words. There it is only words which are staged, and there words too can become monstrous.

But onstage the word is image-less color-less sight-less. All it offers are ideas, concepts, maybe sounds, to tease the understanding into a categorical framework that erases and replaces images in the guise of another truth, narrative truth. A word says: “listen to me - if you follow me you can divine your distractions and find a meaning.” A word is imageless, precisely because it tells you what to imagine what it is not –it is a devised deviation of imagination.

For this reason it is ths word, the poeisis that has become the vehicle of narrative onstage. Aristotle’s Poetics though they addressed theatre, bore the mantle of poetry, for it was the vehicle of poetry that allowed theatre to act in such a way, and it is a relationship to the word that allows narrative its power of distraction over the stage. And narrative, which has become the all-powerful vehicle of ‘drama’ – which as Hans Thies-Lehmann notes has been our theatrical tradition for two centuries and only recently has become challenged by the post-dramatic (citationimpending).

Here is a proper parable.

The monster is under the bed, under the covers. The child is scared, he or she is afraid to look under his bed and cries and asks for the parent to come in. What does the parent do? The parent tells the child a story. Soon the child falls asleep and forgets all about the monster and goes on dreaming.

In this parable, the story is caused by the monster, but at the same time the story exists to hide the monster. The imagination is activated in the child to get him out of thinking of the monster, and soon falls asleep.

Note that it is not enough to lift the covers and look under the bed and show that there is nothing there. If there’s nothing there that means that the chance of the monster appearing is always there. For all a monster needs to do is show itself. The story does not try to show the monster, nor does it try to show the monster is not there, it lulls the child into a state of comfort and sleep so that the monster can remain, but never appear, under the bed.

The time has come in theatre for the monsters to come out…

Any image is wordless. It is a word from a language that it creates in its own vocabulary that only it knows, but in the moment it opens up, it teaches you everything you need to know about it, except how to say its name.

(C) Julian J. Mesri 2010

[1] “Violence always makes an image of itself, and the image is what, of itself, presses out ahead of itself and authorizes itself” (Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Ground of the Image. Fordham University Press. New York, 2005, 20). Concurrently it is so interesting how the very words one uses to describe effective images borrow from violence.