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 . . .