Reflections and Whispers

It is the old envelopment of skin and word which  haunts the theatre – that moment in which both coalesce into a seemingly irreducible whole but which is also and always a void; a break; a schism. The veil we raise up and reach out to is nothing but a treacherous surface which glimmers even as we  touch it  – and even pull away some of that silver onto our own skin. We know deep in our hearts it is false and yet in such falsity perhaps only the most important truths may stand. It is a veil in which and through which the body stands whole deep in the words which are spun about it. Out there stands a completeness we will always lack and yearn for.

I write long speeches and creates dialogues in which characters debate unrealistically – lost in a world which perhaps only ever reflects back upon itself – and yet it is the skin which stands as a testament to those words. The body emerges like the surface of a subterranean creature from a sea, its flank glistening with words, sloughing off language. We all know – those of us who work in theatre – that the body itself is a treacherous surface however. It is a thing to be broken apart, probed, delved into so that the mind underneath can be exposed; it is a reflection upon which we pour our own desires regardless of what or who owns that body; it is an empty space, finally, also, mapped out, written on, erased – all in the same moment of watching – listening – which is the prime moment of the theatrical act. We watch and listen and out of that duality, that oscillating desire, stands the body as a site which is fought over.

It is this tension and this primeval moment which – truth be told – underpins much of the characters I write. Their echoed thoughts and self-serving actions perhaps are enmeshed in this net – almost as if each character is already aware of her or his falsity in that distant historical world I always place them in. They argue with a fierce modernity while stumbling around cracked columns or decaying frescoes filled with mythic heroes. They murder and mutilate other bodies aware that to do so is not an act of violence but rather an artistic gesture – an aesthetic act – divorced from real pain or consequences. I remember writing a line for a character which went as follows: ‘Horror is an aesthetic and through repetition becomes banal.’ This character is already preparing himself and those about him for an act of violation which involves the unseaming of his own skin to reveal the words written on the underside.

It was the Greeks who first realised the fascination of horror – not in the act itself but rather in its retelling and its consequences, its impact on those bodies around them. Bodies which were both personal and political – and in fact to be honest perhaps blurred that boundary or distinction. Tragedy is the first and the last redoubt of the body. It is broken or mutilated by the solitary act and therefore stands before those other bodies as a testament to our own fragility and provisionality.  It is in our mirrored eyes, our trembling bodies, that tragedy roots. Not in the act itself. We shiver before the blind Oedipus both as individuals and as parts of a corporeal polity – and are rendered fascinated and appalled by a single act which shrives us all apart.

Tragedy shreds the body. It renders each skin broken apart. It elevates a single moment onto a cosmic stage and therefore allows us a greater vision and existence than that mundane world we inhabit this side of the stage. And as always tragedy is rooted in the family – Lear and his daughters, Phaedra and her adopted son, Orestes and his mother, and so on – these are all bodies wired into, sown up in, a broader political world which shatters from the impact of that solitary decision. Tragedy can only ever be the echoing or reflecting impact of an action which breaks the skin – never that breaking itself. It is in that moment when the personal soma (that Greek word which means ‘prison’) cracks asunder into the wider somatic screen of the chorus and the audience. It ripples out there. Or it is nothing more than domestic violence wrapped up in a newspaper headline.

But the body politic no longer exists, some would say. That cohesion which the Greeks understood is now a thing of the past. Taboos, moral strictures, are all broken now and we live in a fractured world. Each audience finds unity no longer in itself as a reflection of a wider polity but instead as a temporary whole in that moment of the event itself – it coheres provisionally around the staging it has come to see. Tragedy therefore no longer exists in the manner in which the Greeks understood it. Violence whether onstage or off echoes around and into the auditorium but no longer as a collective ripple. Each of us reacts differently now and there is no longer the guarantee of a collective response. That does not however invalidate tragedy as an aesthetic. Or at least I hope it does not. Tragedy exists among us as a commonplace now in the tabloid culture but it is not the tragedy of old. It is merely accident or violence dressed up in borrowed clothes. Tragedy today is a beggar who jigs and jibbers but does not truly understand what words trail him.

Tragedy is an act which breaks the skin and liberates bodies – I cannot stress the plural enough here. When we read of a car accident and are told it is tragic I hear the beggar mouthing words, when I see a wave crash into a shore full of people and hear a commentator describe it as tragic, I see the gambols of a fool, when a friend tells me that so and so has lost his partner and how tragic that is, I wonder not on his pain but on how common and everyday that is. These tragedies break no skin because they were and never will be rooted in a deeper metaphysical core. Tragedy is an aesthetic not a real thing. It does not exist out there. It is purely and inevitably a fundamental theatrical act – a body breaking apart as the first act in a ripple of bodies shivering asunder. It is that first split in the mirror onstage which allows us to glimpse another skin in ourselves. It is pain and blood but only ever painted blood and simulated pain – which is perhaps why the Greeks in their wisdom never bothered to show the actual act itself – almost as if to do so would be so very tiresome and distracting.

Recently I saw two interesting pieces of theatre at the Arches – both were thematically linked around the issue of domestic abuse. It struck me that perhaps so much of the modern stage now is dominated with this sort of investigation and that in some way this is our Greek moira; that our family pain and tragedy is now rooted in the broken and dysfunctional home, the domestic space which always harbours dark and forbidden fruit.  Perhaps in my own writing, I have avoided that mirror and moved in quite the opposite direction – to a more abstracted realm where myth and history collide around willed bodies. If so, I wonder that I follow tragedy through the shards of our modern world into a purer realm. For to be honest, it only takes a single moment in watching a domestic ‘tragedy’ onstage to realise that it never happened to me and therefore has no value. Whereas in that space outside the specific, what we see happen to those characters may happen to all of us as a potential. The plays at the Arches were inert plays simply because they acted within themselves. Nothing more.

Tragedy is never so inward looking – unless of course it is another Oedipus achieving a moment of insight . . .

A Tidal Poetics

I examine reasons why I write and play with notions of the skin, the mirror, the grotesque and so on – but underlying all of this is a deeper concern. A concern which is perhaps selfish beyond raising some sort of justification for it all – not the reasons of how I write; those drives and aesthetics which propel the pen – but that other dynamic, the failure to find out there a play or a drama which satisfies my own need for theatre. I write nothing but what I have failed to find on the stage. I write what I have always wanted to see onstage and never have – that play I hope to encounter every time I go to the theatre and always miss. So in a sense I am doing nothing more than writing for myself in the end.

Selfish, isn’t it? To write like that and expect anyone to want to see it let alone actually stage it . . .

And yet . . . and yet . . . what other way is there of writing? I suppose in the back of all of this is the idea that I never actually think of the audience except as some displaced echo of myself sitting chorus-like in the auditorium. So I write these odd plays – I mean, a drama set in medieval Spain with King Ferdinand as a giant marquee-like tent effigy? – and perhaps all I am really doing is creating a phantasm stage in my head. I remember one critic years ago writing that my work will never be staged but that was not an issue. He wrote that many plays had been written in the past with no intention of any of them finding the stage (the Romantics, for one) and that I was writing only a story in which drama was the ideal writing medium for that story. Perhaps he was right – who knows?

There is an irony in all of this, though, isn’t there? That the more I fail to find on the stage that play I seem to quest for, the more I retreat into a private solipsistic world of writing using that most public of all forms – the Drama. Ironic – or perverse, perhaps. Then again to write for an audience or even to write with an audience in your head is perhaps self-defeating. It breaks that mirror-skin which holds the drama ever so slightly apart from this world. We write in the world we create – turning into it like antennae gliding towards some nebulous sound. We write as though falling towards something – a world, a character, a sense of something deserving of being told. But do we hesitate in that act and pause as if to weigh up what an audience would think as we pen that line or develop that theme or stage that travesty?

A woman stands stubbornly over the corpse of her sister ready to defend it from thieves who would defile it for nothing more than the clothes it is wrapped up in – and yet she hesitates, uncertain to draw that knife she owns, allowing that the corpse at her feet might still be smiling one last smile of contempt for her alone. And so this sister deliberates before these thieves on her dilemma even as they close in. The scene moves through an inexorable logic – it hangs on her dilemma to both defend that corpse and also reveal it, to expose its mockery for her – in this scene the thieves become an audience but also provoke the action. This woman suffers an awareness forced on her by others.

That perhaps is the closest I get to allowing an audience to intrude into the writing – that in fact in much of what I write one might say that in some ways an audience is already inculcated into the work. Characters struggle almost always in front of others who watch or judge. A woman is imprisoned by her sisters and spends her time tearing herself out of all the books she can find – no matter how obscure or old the reference, it is torn out – all the while being attended upon by mute slaves – until one steps forward to comment upon her actions. An architect elaborates upon the perfect Wall before a jury of Senators, all of whom disparage him despite the ineluctable beauty of his logic. And so on.

This is my bind perhaps – that the more I write for myself and spin these grotesque scenes, the more I internalise an audience into the work itself so that these characters can never hide from being exposed or judged or forced to demonstrate their actions.

Perhaps that is the real irony here. In not thinking about an audience, I have inadvertently taken them with me into the diegesis. I have twisted the mirror about and reflected it back upon themselves as a fiction.

The Murmuring Shore

I remember a few years ago going to the RSAMD to watch a student production of Howard Barker’s The Bite of the Night – it was staged in the Chandler Studio and ran for over 3 hours. There were at least 2 intervals possibly even a 3rd (but I might just be making that last one up to add to the epicness of it all!). The audience stayed for the whole performance and seemed to settle in for the length with a certain degree of enthusiasm. I mention this now because it flies in the face of conventional theatre wisdom – audiences will become restless if made to sit for more than 2 hours without an interval; they should be released around 10.30 at the latest to get the return buses and underground home; a play which starts at 07.30 and finishes after 11.00 will not draw an audience, and so on – and to an extent this is true. It also a self-defeating prophecy, of course. Audiences become habituated to what theatre provides for them.

This audience – myself included – reveled in something else, however. Not the 2nd or even 3rd interval (what a novelty!), not the very late finishing time (after 11.00!), nor even the sense that as an audience we had somehow grown together in the habitual ease of seeing our faces across the playing area (it was staged in the round) like disembodied masks – it was in that strange joy of being allowed to journey with these characters and their torments for longer than we normally were allowed to. I remember walking out of the RSAMD and having to ground myself back in this reality because not only had I been out of it for longer than I was used to in the theatre, I had also spent time with these characters on an almost novelistic level (if only impressionistically).

This was all a few years before I began again to write plays.

That experience has stayed with me in the way Witkacy’s quote has stayed with me (among many other influences). The play itself is a remarkable piece of writing but in a sense it became more than the writing because of the time we journeyed alongside those characters – and that throws up for me a crucial element in my writing now. I am talking about that structural dynamic which underpins playwrighting and which on an almost subconscious level allows us to craft a world and a story already bound in some degree by the conventions of the theatrical apparatus – you all know what I mean: if I write a play with 2 or 3 characters and set it in a small space (a bedroom, a flat, a cell, and so on) it will stand more of a chance of being picked up and staged. The delimitations of this apparatus is not a criticism in itself – indeed it has a self-discipline I am in awe of  to be honest – but there is in this something of a temporal limit also. That the length of the play, the time allowed to these characters, is also part of that apparatus.

A play with only 2 characters and one with only 8 is still woven into that aesthetic in that it generally will have a playing time of less than 2 hours.

Plays which occupy a stage for longer are perhaps deemed old fashioned – even anachronistic, perhaps, as if that length of time allotted to characters is no longer relevant. And yet that night in the RSAMD not only did dozens of characters exist for over 3 hours, we, the audience, accommodated them. I mean, that 3rd interval was almost like having breakfast in a seaside resort at the end of a week.

I think it was that experience which helped me think deeper about character, about delving past conventional psychology, unraveling the surface mannerisms of emotion and action, unpeeling the skin, as it were. It was that depth of time (I know I am mixing synchronic and diachronic here) which unlocked a need in me to write outwith the pale. That meant that these characters of mine were already past that 2 hour or so playing time and still journeying as if only at the begining of their tale. These characters were already played out as it were and only now begining to act.

Hence these strange and grotesque crowds which populate my plays: the torturer who secrets a map inside his face only for a revenger to unpick his stitches while he still lives; a woman who fades into a wardrobe to drown herself in the past; a librarian who defends a burnt-out ruin for no other reason than to resist the advance of history; an architect who walks up an Impossible Staircase only to erase himself out of reality; an archeologist on an alien planet who murders himself  and is condemned to live out the rest of his life on that planet known as Unearth; a Spanish noblewoman who plucks out her own eyes and swallows them even as simulacras of herself  flood about her and replace her; and so on . . .

My mum says I don’t get out much. My friends say I should stay in more.

If that audience is to accommodate a different skin in itself and out there on the stage then I think it can only do that if these characters have already unseamed themselves and are now in the process of stitching on a new map. That is the journey, I think. It is certainly one I seem drawn to as a writer hovering over these blank spaces, these whites skins which have yet to be mapped . . .

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.)