Thinking about Space
This is the fourth of four essays written in Summer 2008 as a preparation for The Deal
Acting and The Deal is the first of four
On Theatre and Economics is second of four
Acting and Values is third of four
Thinking about space
What varies in different theatre forms is the relationship between the imagined narrative space of the play and the actual aesthetic space of the performance.
The dominance in the West of the Italian proscenium stage, which in England was introduced with the restoration of the monarchy in 1666, seems to have led fluently into the cinematic and realistic conceptions of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Things are never simple when it comes to the development of aesthetic and perceptual forms. In the masques of Inigo Jones and other court theatre of the late renaissance this kind of staging with its increased capability for illusion and trompe l’oeil was already present before the English Civil War. Also as soon as the new realist sensibility, developed through the European novel and the invention of photography in the 19th Century, expressed itself in the theatre of Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg already this optic was being deconstructed, initially by the formalism of Meyerhold and by the refocusing of expressionism.
What is remarkable is the persistence of this sense of a ‘real’ space, of the need to authenticate the truth of what the spectator experiences through the illusory abolition of the difference between the ‘narrative space’ and the ‘aesthetic space’. Maybe this is what makes theatrical space compatible with cinematic space and gives dominance to this mechanical medium to hold sway over its older brother. Also the actor’s primary task, which is to act ‘as if’’ they are someone else in a space other than the actual performance space, is apparently enhanced by the duplication in the stage scenery of elements which resemble the latter space. The insistence on verisimilitude and the contest over the real is significant.
Taken at face value Aristotle’s observation that the theatre is an imitation of an action seems to be complicit with the idea of a theatre which, as an instrument of human observation, would seem to have much in common with the camera, the telescope or the microscope. We see representations of human activity or behaviour structured through narrative and therefore perceptible as evidence of causality and motivation. However it is not as if we are looking though a keyhole at goings on in the space beyond, unless of course the people in that space are aware of the fact that they are being viewed and are therefore continuing to act for a particular purpose.
To ask what this purpose might be is preliminary to understanding that the view we have of human activity or behaviour in a theatre affords us a view of something else. The physical action of a piece of theatre is dynamically and contradictorily related to the psychological action. The outer action is different from the inner action. This latter is the action which is imitated, the movement of the human will encountering that which opposes it in the form of inner or outer obstacles. The narrative space is composed of this dialectic. One of the key encounters in this field is that between inner impulse and outer expression. This articulates a conflict between fate and freedom, between the urgings of the soul and the limitations of the body.
This narrative space is composed of the constant movement of cause and effect, karma. It is possible to see, at another level of perception, that the pulse and movement from which it arises is that between life and death, between Thanatos and Eros, between yang and yin. This basic dialogue, this movement ‘to and fro’ is connected in Indian philosophy to the Marga, the only adequate translation of which is ‘the way’ in the Taoist sense of the word. How we perceive this movement can be through nothing other than our outer senses, through the aesthetic space. The perceptible form in Indian philosophy is called the Desi. The relationship between the Marga and the Desi is similar to that between the Noumen and the Phenomenon.
There is a constantly renewed effort for the artist to relate the specific materiality of their art to the underlying movement. This must variously be expressed as ‘energy’ ‘duende’ ‘archetypes’ ‘collective unconscious’ and so on. For an actor to make contact with all these levels of being is a manifestation of their absolute presence in the actual space of the performance. This may seem like a contradiction. It’s a mystery. It’s the paradox described by Diderot. It’s the ‘double’ referred to by Artaud.
Theatre forms change according to the relationship between the narrative space and the aesthetic space and the actor is the conduit between them. Thus the precise nature of an actor’s work will change accordingly and the dynamic within this work which changes is between the emphasis on the narrative space and emphasis on the aesthetic space. This is a tricky formula for what might be called the organic composition of acting. On the one hand the actor moves towards imitating the action of the narrative space; on the other the actor moves towards physical accomplishment in the actual aesthetic space of the performance. Of course the differences are manifested in the scenic elements as well and the relationship between the stage (scene) and the auditorium (theatron). These relationships (between the narrative space and the aesthetic space and between the scene and the theatron) are functions of each other.
The actor is a conduit between these two spaces by being in the two spaces at the same time. This could be said to be a question of where the actor’s attention is and it may be considered to be impossible to have attention trained on more than one focus at a time. In which case the movement of the focus of attention in the actor is an oscillation between these two spaces. The speed of this oscillation is so rapid that it produces a particular energy. It is unsurprising that trance and the movement of unconscious forces are a part of acting. It involves a heightened consciousness not only because doing and watching are taking place simultaneously.
From this perspective it is not difficult to see how the space of the spectator relates to the aesthetic space and the narrative space. If the actor is a double being in the way described above it is the presence of the audience which informs this state. The actor will be more or less conscious of the audience. This movement of this aspect of the actor’s awareness will be linked to the oscillation described above. At times, maybe for moments, the actor will join the audience and the division between the stage and the auditorium will be momentarily abolished. These times will be followed by apparent absorption in the narrative space. Styles of theatre appear in which the series of gestures which are used to describe the narrative space are formulated and coded or ‘musicalised’ so that there is never any obvious movement of attention. This also has to do with the characterisation of the narrative space as well. If the narrative includes the depiction of human forces by supernatural beings or by animals then this movement is clearly different. This is also true for work with puppets or masks. In these instances the equivalence of the actor with the character, associated with verisimilitude, is displaced and the attention is brought towards the aesthetic space and the nature of the game that the actors and the audience are playing is more apparent.
There is clearly a creative friction between the pleasure of pretence and absorption in the narrative space and the pleasure of display in the present tense of the aesthetic space. It might be that, as the attention is drawn to the aesthetic space through the use of formalised movement, puppets, mask, and other animations of the scene, perceptions of the underlying forces at work in the narrative space may be enhanced. This is another way of describing the limitations of theatre representations that merely seem to be observing human behaviour in settings which give us to believe these representations are authentic from the point of view of verisimilitude. Construction of representations that reveal the purpose to which these representations are being put are likely to come closer to theatre where the attention is constantly being brought back to the structures of the aesthetic space. We can see in this respect the importance of Brecht’s Verfremdungeffekt; also his interest in the highly formalised work of Chinese Theatre.
Drama has probably always competed with the news. On the one hand the compassionate movement which lies at the centre of character-building based on pretence has been dulled. On the other the insistence that the pretence is limited by verisimilitude has curtailed the actor’s dynamic creative movement and presence. One part of the public entertainment industry tends towards offerings of ‘experience’ as if eventually through some wonder of modern alchemy the ultimate commodity in this regard would be the offer of an experience of reality itself. Meanwhile the theatre is caught in buildings which have institutionalised the Italian proscenium stage, or variations of it, as with the original 1666 restoration of the theatres with their monarchical imprimatur and with all the corresponding front of house and marketing procedures, a perfected commodified form produced by a hierarchised professional structure with its key leading ‘royal’ organisations emulated by all acolyte practices. The struggle to define reality, to uncover or discover what is ‘going on’ has been an insistent pressure on a theatre which in its ‘restoration’ form has offered a mirror up to the society of the day. The theatre produced in the period after the return of the royal court was evidently and obsessively about the mores of the society it was playing to. The tone was satirical but as so often with this form the plays flaunted and brayed and cavorted the new license given to privilege and wealth and power. There is an equivalence in the space of a mirror if the gaze is limited to what is reflected there. The movement of nineteenth century reform and realism brought a new subject matter and tone to the theatre and as this apparatus was tied up with the rising power of film and television the compatibility between the mirror of the restoration and the new optic of the modern stage was basically secured. We even now have to suffer the spectacle of plays which replicate the events and personages of the current regime written and produced by flunkeys who have accepted decoration for their loyalty and adherence to the very values that they are privileged to be able to hold up a lightly critical mirror to. The irony that the breeding place of dim dissidence and innovation should be actually called The Royal Court is emblematic. The fact that the apparatus of which it is a part is embedded, through its procedures and assumptions, in the values of this influential human organisational structure usually passes without remark or notice.
It was the aristocratic court of Japan in the early 15th century which patronised the popular sarugaku theatre. This form of theatre eventually became No Theatre. Its origins seem to have been the fertility song and dances of the agrarian communities of the preceding period. The plays were derived from war chronicles and folk tales. The originating genius is Motokiyo Zeami who wrote and co-wrote many of the classic plays. It is our great good fortune to have access to nine treatise that Zeami wrote that were passed down through his family who carried on the theatre making. They were highly guarded secret texts but a copy turned up in a Tokyo bookshop in 1908. We do not know how these plays were performed originally. Now they are presented through a highly formalised traditional set of procedures and gestures. This means a lot of admiring attention is paid to these external forms of expression as if it is in them that the true creative heart of this extraordinary theatre lies. As Zeami himself insists on pointing out: ‘The truth and what looks like it are two different things’. If it is true that theatre forms vary according to different dispositions of the narrative space to the aesthetic space an examination of how this works in the No Theatre may be illuminating. What is fixed in the No Theatre is not simply the relationship of scene to theatron. The audience is positioned on two side of a square stage to which a bridge walkway is extended diagonally in the audience’s top left corner of the square. This leads to a curtained entrance through which all the actors come. This is as fixed as the Italian proscenium stages organisation of these spatial elements. However the organisation of the scenic space is highly formalised and has other invariable features and usages. This is quite unlike the Italian proscenium stage the actors enter from it her side of the stage or are revealed behind moving pieces of scenery which are either flown or trucked out or on a more mechanised stage they may be ‘revolved’ on. There is an accepted tradition that the orchestra is in a lowered space between the stage and the auditorium referred to as the pit (thus giving rise to endless quips about musicians resembling animals). The chorus on the No stage are positioned on the right hand edge of the square and the musicians on the back edge. The stage square is divided into nine positions in which certain presentations can be made. The bridge walkway has three distinct positions which are traditionally called ‘Pines’ recalling that the theatre was open air and is still to this day. There is never any attempt to use scenery to depict a location. When a prop is required, for example like a tree etc, an object bearing a faint resemblance to the object referred to is brought on and put in place by a stage manager. The sense of beauty here has little to do with the awe at verisimilitude or illusion. How in this instance is the actor the conduit between the narrative space and the aesthetic space? The emphasis in Zeami’s treatise is on the precedence of the inner work of the actor. There are definite indications of the necessity of restraining outer expression in favour of inner movement. Zeami even makes precise the ratio between the two; when the inner (what is felt by the heart) is 10, the outer (what appears in movement) should be 7. This means that there is an intense inner concentration on the movement of the narrative and a deliberate focus on the underlying movement of Karma, the law of cause and effect. Zeami and his colleagues were, in their work and lives, thoroughly dedicated to the precepts of Zen Buddhism. However there is deliberate attempt to break the hold of equivalence and verisimilitude between the imagination of the narrative and the actualisation of the events of the play in the aesthetic space of the performance. The roles in No are divided into types and these are defined by their relationship to the narrative. Each role type has a mask or not and certain kinds of movement, these ‘rules’ are never invariably applied. Certain actors are able to play certain roles. The Shite or Tsure actor will play a character who is central to the narrative. It is this character to whom the events of the play happen and whose lives are transformed by the action. There are Waki ( the word means ‘on the side’ or ‘witness’) actors and roles and these characters accompany the main character. Each of these role types will be able to make certain presentations from certain of the nine positions on the stage. What is of particular interest is the position in the right hand downstage corner of the stage area. This is called the witness position.
The Italian proscenium stage has dynamic yet unformalised positions. The space is centred in the way that a picture frame is centred. Centre stage is the place of the monarch in the royal court. This position is sufficiently upstage for the court to surround the monarch but anybody upstage of this will have to be subservient otherwise they will engage the audience’s attention away from the monarch and this will be seen as a usurpation of the space. By moving back in the space the actor will dominate. By moving forward they can engage the audience but the exchange is stressed by the indulgence of the audience. It is a space which explores status. Mobility, variation and display are all supremely possible in this space. Also since it replicates the realistic space of the painting it has the potential to act as a mirror and ‘realistic illusory’ spaces are possible through scenic invention. The movement in British theatre has been to permit at first working class and poor characters to achieve centre stage. More recently the effort has been to permit or encourage ethnic minority characters to be centre stage. In the pathological project to create a national theatre which offers a ‘truthful’ mirror up to the society of which it is a part progress has been measured by a struggle for prominence in a space, the basic terms and structure of which have significantly not been called into question. This whole apparatus is ‘upstaged’ by the theatre of the monarchy itself. Until this absurd image of our society is displaced it may be impossible to find a real change in the art of theatre. The theatre has been made a part of the court and the delivery of ‘honours’ to mildly dissident flunkeys simply serves to demonstrate the power of this larger theatrical institution. Also the position of the monarch as the commander in chief of the armed forces is a reminder that along with other constitutional and symbolic functions this particular organ plays a significant role in the organisation of violence and security. Of course the monarch is no longer centre stage in the battlefield. In fact recent events, concerning the dreadful offspring of equally awful so-called ‘heir to the throne’, in Afghanistan show how potentially important this role is. No amount of ‘anti-war’ plays put on in the bastions of privilege will counterbalance this real display of murderousness.
The No Theatre stage is distinctly pre-modern by comparison. Though the roots of its formalisation lie in the patronage of the aristocratic court the No Theatre does not have the same kind of symbolic role as the theatre here in the UK. The stage represents a spiritual or psychological space rather than a political or social space. Viewing the theatre as an apparatus for observing human action the no theatre seems analytic in comparison to the Italian proscenium theatre. The latter seems more like a scientific instrument telescope or a microscope or a camera except that the individual is the key unit of expression. Of course this classic space of observation in science has been transformed since the early part of the 20th century with the recognition associated with Heisenberg that, at a certain level of exploration, the act of observation itself changes the object of observation. In the no theatre the position of observation or witnessing is built into the formal structure of the stage space. This relates directly to the role of the audience in the theatre event. In one enlightening passage from Zeami’s treatises he describes the actor ‘absorb the concentration of the audience into his own performance’.
“An actor must look at himself using his internalised outer image, come to share the same view as the audience, examine his appearance with his spiritual eyes and so maintain a graceful appearance with his entire body. Such an action truly represents “the eyes of the spirit looking behind”.
Although a specific position on stage is devoted to the act of witnessing, this function permeates the entire act of theatre. It gives a perspective on human action whereby the individual is not the sole and simple determining unit of perception or expression.
At the beginning of The Damask Drum the Consort, a tsure character, takes up her place in witness position. The character sits in stillness, eyes out towards the audience, while behind her and beside her the action of the play is enacted. The significance of this position is suggested by the full phrase part of which Zeami has quoted in the passage above: “the eyes look ahead and the spirit looks behind”. There is a suggestion that what is enacted on stage is happening in the spiritual life of the character in witness position. Indeed the Consort is strongly linked through cause and effect with these events. This is an embodiment of karma. An old gardener has fallen in love with the consort, concubine to the Emperor, and she has learnt of this. She instructs that a drum be hung on a laurel tree in the garden and lets it be known that if the gardener beats the drum then she will come out and he will be able to see her. Having been led into the garden by this promise, we see the old man deliberating as to whether he should beat the drum, eventually giving way to temptation only to discover that the drum will not make a sound because it is only a damask drum. He throws himself into the pond and kills himself. In the second part of the play the consort admits that her wits turned at the silent moment when he beats the drum. In the ‘real’ space of the narrative, of course, the consort would not have heard that silence. It is the play that makes her a witness of the event and it is a palpable psychological truth that this moment is a moment, as it were, in her conscience. Just as the consort is for the old man a figure in his fantasy so also is the old man is a figure in the fantasy of the consort. In the second half of the play, the spirit of the old man reappears from the depths of the pond as a demon and forces the consort out of witness position, to face her own fate in the depths of the pond.
In the play called Hanjo, a young prostitute at a wayside inn has fallen in love with one of her clients and is led to believe that her feelings are reciprocated. An exchange of fans has taken place between her and the young man concerned, the Yoshida Minor Captain. The beginning of the play starts with her being ejected from her place of work because she is unable to carry out her duties. As a consequence she believes that she has been deserted by her young lover but nevertheless goes out on the road in search of him eventually appearing to have gone mad. Meanwhile the young man has visited the Inn and is broken hearted at not finding his beloved there. At this point he moves into witness position. Hanago, the name of the young woman, then acts out the movement of her feelings of falling in love and lives through the emotions of the one night that they have spent together. This is underscored by the feelings of pain that she feels at being effectively abandoned with all the resistance that these feelings give her to the feelings of love that she has. At the climax of this movement she realises both that she does love the man but also that she will never see him. This is a climactic resolution of a psychological process that the Yoshida Minor Captain also goes through but he is acted as going through it in stillness. At this moment the division in the space is dissolved and it turns out that Hanago is in the street right near to where the Yoshida Minor Captain is meditating. The play ends with the two lovers exchanging the fans that were the love tokens from their first and only night together. Once again the borders of subjective individual experience have been dissolved in an expression of the forces that make us not just co-dependent but active in the making of each other.
In a collection of essays published in 2001 John Berger compares the space in a painting depicting hell by Hieronymous Bosch and the space of modern news depicted by CNN. He describes the likeness as consisting of an absence of a horizon and the lack of any continuity between one action and the next. He says that in both instances there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise. Drama and theatre has, indeed always competed with the news. Sometimes we are so fixed in our gaze into the mirror that we fail to see what surrounds us or indeed who might be holding the mirror, or who put it in place. The experience of humanity in our time is typically that of displacement. The critical mass of humanity no longer own the landscape which surrounds them. We are given to believe that we don’t belong here unless we can be effective within the economic system that we have been persuaded is completely natural. There is no elsewhere. We have lost our bearings and don’t know where we are. There is a residing image of the human in theatre, a mean, as it were, through which human action is perceived more clearly. This is the human dimension which is at the heart of the activity, the movement of the actor between the narrative space and the aesthetic space. This image rather than being reductive, searching what is essential in the individual could be inclusive and diverse. The whole of human life is there, both in its extent from birth to death and also in its collective global being. For a world to be imagined in the theatre space, the whole world needs to be capable of being included. This may lead to a total reconstruction of the dynamic space between the stage and the auditorium. Brecht in his wisdom, when being asked to comment on whether he felt a given play was good, retorted : “Good for what? Plays are judged as to whether they are good or bad according to whether they are good for the apparatus but what is the apparatus good for?” How can theatre offer an activity which enables people to see the illusions which are spun by economic thinking, the ideology of neoliberalism.
15th August 2008