The Mirror-Maker

“The I is first and foremost a bodily I; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself a projection of a surface (ie: the I is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those springing from the surface of the body.  It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body . . .).

-Freud, The Ego and Id.

 “ . . . we are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world.  That which makes us consciousness, institutes us by the same token as speculum mundi . . .”

 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

I remember reading a manifesto – in the old traditional sense of what a manifesto should be – by Witkacy years ago. Witkacy, that eccentric genius of the Polish arts between the wars – a painter, a playwright, a photographer, a dabbler in drugs; a man who was an imperial officer in the Tzar’s guard regiment and, come the Revolution, was so popular with his soldiers that he was elected their political commissar – a man who eventually committed suicide in a forest while fleeing the Germans only to learn that the Soviets had also invaded Poland –  his fractured photo is the one I use for my gravatar (what ever the hell that word means) here in WordPress – Witkacy, the madman. In this manifesto – On A New Type Of Play – he rails against conventional psychology and action and argues strongly for a theatre of ‘pure form’. A theatre bound only by the internal logic of the play’s structure. It can be read now as one of a series of struggles that theatre was going through in the early twentieth century to break out of the straightjacket of  middle-class bourgeois dramas set within a living room.

What struck me most in the manifesto or essay though and which has stayed with me through all my writing is a little sentence tucked away near the begining:

‘In the theatre we want to be in an entirely new world in which the fantastic psychology of the characters who are completely implausible in real life, not only in their positive actions but also in their errors, and who are perhaps completely unlike people in real life, produces events . . . not limited by any logic accept the logic of the form itself . . . ‘

It is not a deeply profound quote – and to be honest can sum up much absurdist and surrealist drama in general – however, it struck me for the simple fact that Witkacy had highlighted the errors of these characters (his highlight, not mine in the above text). Now I think he is simply expounding that these characters are not necessarily role-models of behaviour; that, as in Greek tragedy, their failings are as important as their good if nonsensical qualities – but as a writer it sparked something deeper; that in creating characters I had the right and duty to push them into the unknown even if I failed in that push – that indeed they stumbled grotesquely and fell as long as that failing was still outside the pale. The error was both in my own writing and also in these characters’ truncated evolution . . .

Well, it was a spark at least which allowed me to imagine failed characters. What do I mean by that?

Theatre is the last medium in which the imagined written word is rendered flesh. It differs from religion and politics in that dreams are allowed to breathe a little; stories are made manifest; language is given new forms all clothed in a little skin – and this is not a private medium, a soft chair which the reader relaxes back into, no, this is a public domain, a crucible, a demotic space where the limen hovers always uncertainly between affirmation and blasphemy. As such, this medium is privileged – for it allows a single writer’s imagination flight into the public spectacle. Again and again – and even, if you are lucky as a playwright, in different productions and different stages. No other writing medium is close to the uniqueness which theatre has.

As such it gives me the right to imagine outside the pale and struggle with stories which are irregular, bound up in fable, nonsensical, absurd, even. Stories which exist to be told in the public domain. Stories which deserve an audience.

If the above quotes mean anything (they preface The Wracked) they illustrate that eternal dilemma between our sense of discreet self and the public gaze which to some extent determines that self. The body, the flesh, our skin, exists as a battleground, a limen, over which and through which we struggle as a private individual and a public body. We are the actor to our own audience in many ways. It is the skin which marks, is scored by, that internal/external struggle.It is not accidental that the Greek word for the body – soma – derives from their word for the prison . . .

Which leads me back to that question about why should I expect an audience for the plays which I write? These solipsistic dreams I conjure up?  Theatre allows a single nightmare to breathe in front of a crowd, yes, but what does that accomplish? Why not write what I call ‘broom-cupboard’ plays? Plays with one or two characters that might as well be set in a closet for all the scope that allows? Because I passionately believe that watching characters stumble and fail outside that pale – characters who inhabit a fable-like world that bruises them in an act of love – is to invite an audience into a world where their skin is endangered. To watch an actor inhabit an unknowable world is to live beyond the pale failingly among others who also are perhaps stumbling along with you. Of course it is a idle fancy – a whim which that damned Witkacy stoked up in me – but I can’t get it out of my head. That the stage alone deserves the most obscure and opaque stories for no other reason than it exists before that most ancient assembly – the crowd, the public, the spectacle – that mirror we all fear and yearn for.

Tomás   (Alone with Sphincter. He shivers in the dark.) – Still crawling?  Can’t help but admire the desire – huh, rhyming now.  Pathetic, this little scene.  Me here, you here.  Always crawling back.  To what?  (Gabriella’s laughter breezes past.)  Hate that.  Her.  Her endless capacity to provoke an indulgence.  In me.  Us . . . But won’t give in – or yield an inch of this Realm, its endless shift, its gently gliding gardens that enfold you like petals, like blossom . . . Will deny this ‘middle man’ situation, Sphincter.  No choice but . . . The compulsion of denial is more erotic than desire, you see?  Desire is the flight into oblivion, the ecstacy of surrender to another’s divinity . . . Which is rather banal, really.  Results in the prostitution of humanity, the exchange of flesh for spirit . . . But denial is the revenge of flesh, its callow laugh in the face of poetry.  Flesh spits back.  And how joyous it is.  Denying the sublime can only exhalt the salt of my body.  My salt.  My flesh – will not yield it up.  Prefer saliva to wine, see?  Keep the edge of my body, its dirt and hair, intact.  To myself, my self . . . So, no more middle men unravelling into the future.  Or the past . . . Tomás de Torquemada, Dominican Prior of the convent of Segovia, at the Court of Ferdinand of Aragon.  Credo.

(Laughter echoes his words in irony.  Tomás, irritated, scoops Sphincter up and turns to face upstage.  Shapes move drunkenly through the Back Cloth – phantoms which mingle with the folds and rents.  Distant banging can be heard, like a staff pounding upon an iron portal.  It is slow and tedious.  The figures drift downstage, dragging bits of the Back Cloth with them as though caught in a net.  Tomás takes a step backwards and raises the taper over his tonsured head.)

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