It’s fun to make every kind of costume, and it’s fun to work in every kind of theater; but at times like these, when feeling fearful and impotent, that I really long for the kind of theater that I truly prefer, which is not perhaps much fun (although backstage is always fun, no matter how gloomy the show) but which is mysterious, terrifying, spiritual, physically moving, a full-sensory gestalt; non-illusionistic, non-naturalistic, non-psychological, non-textual. Somewhere I once read a playwright who said there are really only three things a character can do in a play, enter, speak, and exit; that conception is the exact opposite of the theater I mean.
No one has ever spoken about this difference better than Antonin Artaud, whose Metaphysics and the Mise en Scène struck me like my own thoughts transcribed. Both his prescriptions and his reasons for them are my own. He abominated the idea that the text is the play, that the real artist of the stage is the playwright, that a reading is equivalent to a staging in any way. “A theater which subordinates the mise-en-scène and production, i.e., anything in itself that is specifically theatrical,to the text, is a theater of idiots, madmen,” he writes. In this way he is quite opposed to most theorists and critics of Europe from Aristotle until at least his own time. Furthermore he was even opposed to the idea that character is an important part of theater, much less its most important element: “I am well aware that the language of gestures and postures, dance and music, is less capable of analyzing a character, revealing a man’s thoughts, or elucidating states of consciousness clearly and precisely than is verbal language, but who ever said the theater was created to analyze a character, to resolve the conflicts of love and duty, to wrestle with all the problems of a topical and psychological nature that monopolize our contemporary stage?” Which, as far as I can tell, puts him definitely outside the mainstream of any kind of Western criticism ever, including today.
What did he think theater was for, then? He wanted it to be a kind of exorcism, an ecstatic rite, or as he famously put it, to be like a plague. “The theater like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure. And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. . . the action of the theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of the world; it shakes off the asphixiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the senses; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.”
Now this is obviously not the only possible or even desirable goal for the theater. But it is one which I dream of at night when I’m up doodling costumes and scenes, imagining the possibilities of the stage. Particularly in times of crisis and despair, like now, with my friends in jeopardy so far away. In general I’m attracted to stylized, splendid, and uncanny kinds of theater (and dance, and even movies) and especially like forms which are only incompletely struck off from the religious and ritualistic, like Noh or Balinese wayang kulit. Or the tragedies of Aeschylus.
It’s strange, in some ways, to put Aeschylus together with Artaud, when text is all we have of the former. But I think any reader of Aeschylus will soon see that his was a sensory art, not an intellectual one. Donald Clive Stuart says, “Aristotle believed that every tragedy must have six parts and that these parts determined its quality. Arranged in order of relative importance they were plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle. However correct this order may be for tragedy of Aristotle’s time, it must be exactly reversed to apply to early Aeschylean drama. Aeschylus was least concerned with plot and character.” His reputation for extravagant spectacle has lead to some wild speculations (some have supposed that more than 150 people crowded the orchaestra in The Suppliants) and a thorough dismissal of Aeschylus as a dramatist. His defenders usually retort that his “spectacular” nature has been exaggerated–in other words, he is too a playwright for whom words, plot and character, take precedence. (Oliver Taplin’s The Stagecraft of Aeschylus takes this tack, and is subtitled “The Dramatic Use of Entrances and Exits in Greek Tragedy”–as if calculated to make me groan.) His command of the stage in all its aspects has almost never, in my reading (and I of course am not a scholar, so what do I know), been appreciated.
But it’s there. Even at this remove of almost 2500 years, even in translations of copies of copies of a text which was never more than the libretto of a multimedia extravaganza, the power of Aeschylus pulls itself out through the page and into the viscera. Only the very grandest epic poets can match the scale of his vision, which is the main function of the words–to expand the drama from the people onstage to envelope the entire universe, which, far from being static background, pulses and moves and changes as the tragedy plays out. From Sophocles onward Western drama has tended to focus on individuals, who, in order to bring them into relief, must necessarily be separated from the background of the world; but in Aeschylus humans are a part of the world, from the chorus who are often identical with the “set”, to characters like Orestes who seem to be only the focus point of immense forces working–“I am a charioteer–the reins are flying, look, the mares plunge off the track,” he cries, as he kills his own mother.
He used every theatrical trick in the book, some of which he doubless invented. Characters enter on chariots, ghosts appear, contrasts of color and costume are exploited, the chorus dances composedly or whirls wildly around the orchaestra. The wonderful story goes that at the original production of Eumenides the first appearance of the Furies–carefully prepared for by the old priestess, brought to her knees in terror, and whipped into a frenzy by the ghost of the formidable Clytaemnestra–was so horrifying that men wept and women miscarried. In Agamemnon he uses the famous “Aeschylean silence”, a consummate theatrical effect, where Cassandra remains resolutely silent to all entreaties until suddenly, without warning, bursting into wild shrieking–“a scream that turns the house of Atreus into an echoing torture chamber,” say Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford. For all his epic scale, he could focus down beautifully, as he does when Atossa, in The Persians, pours out libations one by one on the grave of her husband: “Milk, white, sweet to the taste, from an unblemished cow; honey, sucked by flower-working bees; lustral water from a virgin spring; and from an ancient vine in the field, this unmixed draft of radiant wine.”
For awe and terror, the purifying fire that Artaud was after, I know of no better scene in all of theater than the great, central chant at the grave of Agamemnon in Libation Bearers — the midpoint of the Oresteia as a whole. From a plot and character point of view, it’s almost nothing–Orestes and Electra, egged on by Pylades and the chorus of slave women, appeal at the grave of their father for his blessing of their revenge, and psyche themselves up for the coming action. It could be a line or two, or even cut altogether; but Aeschylus makes it an enormous, complex polyphony of grief and rage that builds, and builds, and just keeps building. Artaud writes that “it is not a matter of suppressing speech in the theater but of changing its role . . . to make use of it in a concrete and spatial sense, combining it with everything in the theater that is spatial and significant in the concrete domain; to manipulate it like a concrete object, one which overturns and disturbs things.” That’s what this incredible chant does, it combines with the (of course unfortunately lost) music and choreography, the space and light of the theater, to overwhelm the spectator completely.
The interesting thing about Aeschylus is that he is far more uplifting to me than the more humanistic, character-driven Sophocles, much less the famously cynical Euripides. In Sophocles, despite the high school English teacher’s focus on tragic flaws and hubris, essentially innocent people suffer and die horribly at the hands of a competely impersonal Fate (as Sophocles himself seems to argue in Oedipus at Colonus). But in Aeschylus humans, part of the continuum of nature, and not the weakest part, can affect the world in profound and positive ways: in the Oresteia the horrifying history of the House of Atreus precipitates a rebalancing of the universe in a more just, merciful, and democratic direction. Right now, with the destructive power of both nature and human beings on display in Japan, that’s the kind of theater I want to see and make. I want theater which can, in Artaud’s words, “restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas in which we no longer believe.”