Antonio Attisani / Figures of wrath
Figures of wrath in a "balagan"

by Antonio Attisani


Thirty five years after Jerzy Grotowski’s last performance, his school makes a comeback with Dies Iræ.
An innovative dramaturgy based on Kafka’s Diaries, a direction of four hands, great individual and group acting performances, make Dies Irae be an important stage in contemporary theatre.
In the manner of a Mejerchold’s fun-fair booth, it is proposed an auto-ironic allegory of theatre as artistic and existential research.

In 1968 Grotowski directs his last performance, Apocalypsis cum figuris, and after that he devotes himself to a research that over the years will receive different names, the last one is suggested by Peter Brook: Art as vehicle, that means theatre not as representation of stories or thoughts, but as work on oneself. From 1986 until his death (1999) Grotowski’s work, supported by Fondazione Pontedera Teatro and its artistic director Roberto Bacci, takes place in a farmhouse in Pontedera, Italy, with two large working spaces and a few other rooms. In a text included in the first edition of a book about this last phase of his research (Thomas Richards, At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions, Routledge 1995, ital ed. Ubulibri 1993) Grotowski raises doubts about the possibility of working at the same time in Art as vehicle and in the creation of theatre performances. But from the middle nineties Thomas Richards, Grotowski’s main disciple, and his colleague Mario Biagini, approached by a small group of actors from Singapore, begin to work on something which tends to become a theatre performance to show to a public, while Grotowski (already in 1995, in the version of his text included in the third Italian edition) corrects his point of view by specifying that incompatibility is to be considered for himself, it goes for his life.
After Grotowski’s death, Richards and Biagini have decided not to live on their reputations as grotowskian gurus but to develop the research, both creating a new Action, and going ahead in the composition of pieces done for a public. Since 1998 in this line of research One breath left was created as a first step, it was called a "performance/non-performance", involving at the beginning the Singaporean actors, later on also the rest of the Workcenter team. Then, slowly Dies Iræ appeared. The premiere of this last opus is of a crucial importance, since it means that after the fateful withdrawal in 1968, the closest collaborators of Grotowski begin producing performances again. It is inevitable, therefore, for all those who don’t want to ignore contemporary theater history, to confront oneself with this result.
Performance and actor might seem to be wild words referring to those who have kept a distance from them, looking as well for a theoretical rigor, proposing other concepts such as opus, witness, Performer (with the capital letter) or Art as vehicle, but today, for a spectator of who is faced to a theater performance, it’s natural to be drawn to such terms. It is noteworthy that Richards and Biagini refused to withdraw into a circle of grotowskian fundamentalists and, due to a practical and ideological rigor without equal, are actually involved on many levels, proposing Actions, performances and an articulate theoretical reflection to a general public as well as to theater scholars from many different fields of research and from all over the world.
This being said, it's needed to admit that a brief report off-the-cuff cannot explain the different activities of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. In a few words, however, the writer believes that if we consider theater as a currency through which there can take place certain particular relations between human beings, the activity done by Richards and Biagini (and a very few other people in the world) consists in restoring to this currency its value, re-establishing the gold reserves which seem to have everywhere run out. In other words, we can say that the Workcenter works on a new social contract related to the meaning of theatre for the doers and for the wider theater community.
It’s just a group of eleven people from eight different countries, a company of passers-by, but its story regards all of theatre; their work interweaves necessarily craft and philosophy, not only a practice or a discourse however seductive and creative, not an ideology of theatre, or even worse, an ideological theatre. It is poiein, poetry which generates poetry, revealing the sorrow of a vision of real world and at the same time a possibility to confront it.

The game of death and infancy
Dies Iræ, the day of wrath, is a hymn from Roman Catholic Church, that evokes the last judgment pleading for the merciful intercession of Jesus. Dies Iræ was probably composed by Tommaso da Celano, the companion of Francesco d’Assisi, and it had been for centuries part of the requiem mass, set to music by several composers, among them Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. But what does Dies Iræ mean in this case? Like in every act of the Workcenter, that which reminds us of religion points towards a work on oneself which is also done in public, a work that is mentioned in different religious literatures, often in their less known and orthodox parts. Two themes which appear in every opus of the Workcenter: death and infancy, in a different meaning from the common sense. Death as end, a sinking and a defeat of life, but also as possible passage, change of state and liberation ("You have died your whole lives, and now, can you really die?"). And infancy as a metaphor of integrity and purity, of opening and "athleticism of the heart". I use Artaud’s words because of similar poetics, even in their essential political implications, or revolt if you prefer, against the state in which the body is reduced in globalized modernity.
In the case of Dies Iræ, the gnostic process (of knowing through experiencing) becomes dramaturgy drawing mostly from Kafka’s Diaries.
The spectators are sitting on small elevated tribunes arranged around the playing space. It’s an anatomical theatre and at the same time a mejercholdian fair, a fair booth whose barker (Biagini at the height of his virtuous polymorphism) invites to come in for an experiment of ambiguous magic from which we might never come out. As in Poe’s short stories (another invoker of these atmospheres), the object and the aim of the experiment are immediately declared, but the metaphysical suspense is destined to break constantly on the rocks of animality, the other pole and subtext of human life on the Workcenter stage.
The adventure of perception offered to the spectators is about the story of a woman (the extraordinary Gey Pin Ang) who is made to cross the threshold between life and death in the two directions. The human bedlam taking part in the experiment, a male and female chorus of very different characters, stage an unlikely ceremony, actually a panopticon of grotesque metamorphosis, in order to drive the protagonist’s delirium to the desired threshold. The states of consciousness of the chosen are however very unstable and among them prevails a constant regression to infancy, a condition which stays as a phreatic surface of a possible integrity or a resistance to manipulation.
Finally the experiment fails, the woman really dies and she can’t tell her companions what happens in the passage. The sorrow which follows is rectified by the hypothesis that really nothing happened, since it is just theatre, even if the nothingness of theatre is like, or maybe it actually is "the darkness of God", as in some dazzling passages from Eliot’s Four Quartets. A theatre playing with death, we could say, is just doing its duty, it’s terribly serious joke (or the opposite). What's important are not the easy observations about the cracks between life and death which make up the story, but rather the feelings and the thoughts aroused by the real meaning of this wild dance: as often happens, theater carries out its task questioning about the meaning of the theatre itself and of art. Actually, it’s not a question of contemplating the lack, but of acting, not surrending to the darkness, but to discovering it with the other senses. (There is still much to understand of how art effects the doer and the spectators, but this implies an investigation and reflection on some aspects which are quite lacking in western aesthetics.)

Wandering and theater pleasure
On the other hand the quality of theatrical composition deserves an immediate underlining. Without this, if then the spectator perceived just a discourse, all what was said before wouldn’t be of any value. As we said, the beginning and arriving point is theatre, theatre with no adjectives, which can be done only by someone who is seriously devoted to the study of tradition (theatre craft in primis) and at the same time is able to translate what he has learnt in the fresh present of his personal life and in encounters with other people. Let’s think of the title. Dies Iræ, as in Poe, works as immediate dénouement of the theme and leitmotiv, but the development of the action creates a continuous surprise-effect, and god’s judgment, which seemed to be the heart of the opus, is then replaced by the game of this gang of actors from the fair, by a playing, or acting, whose demiurgical power is knowingly modest, but genuine and working on a human scale. "God’s judgment" becomes then a ritornello (Deleuze), a gesture that puts it back in play, taking it back to a human dimension through a song and a dance, and little by little one realizes that we are all the time confronting just a "permanent court-martial" and that the judge and the choosing reside in each one of us. Therefore quoting a sentence from gnostic texts (which not by chance reminds of one of the texts appearing in one of the Actions): "Your inside is your outside, and whoever molded your outside has shaped your inside. And what you see outside of you, you see inside of you".
However, beyond its contents, this chapter of a Book of the dead, which is the true opus the Workcenter is devoted to, celebrates and mocks the need and the impossibility of knowing, that is the theatre itself. What finally is gained is nothing but tightrope walking and a right to delirium. But this has nothing to do with a greedy nihilism. This peculiar company of tumblers and researchers is the existential and political statement of a physical accessibility of some fundamental questions. And everything happens in a banquet for the eyes and the ears, and then for the heart, lasting a little longer than one hour, which is a touching answer to Grotowski, because the separations once needed — between actor and doer and between Art as vehicle and Theatre as presentation — ends here and at long last theatre becomes both again, that is not a small thing.

A dramaturgy of lack
What has been just said emphasizes the method, that is to say the re-establishing of theatre’s gold reserve, but it would be ungenerous to disregard the dramaturgic and poetic peculiarities of this performance.
A normal review could even notice a few problems still to solve, like the structure hosting the spectators and the performance which is sometimes in contrast with the characteristics of the scenic action, or the little comprehensibility of some texts which would be important to understand, or a greater importance which should be given to the actors in the chorus. On the other hand, this conception of theatre means that the first presentation is not the end of a creative process but just the beginning of a new step, which will take into consideration also reactions from the public.
It’s more important to note the explicit reference to Kafka and also an implicit one to Artaud, since cruelty and mockery of fake twentieth-century humanism are common to them. The discretion of Kafka lends itself better to a dramaturgical composition (as it appeared with the Théâtre du Radeau), even though it's needed to find every time anew a scenic solution corresponding to the descriptions of the perceptive experiences characteristic of the Prague writer. The coexistence of such unyielding points of view in Biagini and Richard’s visionary conception takes shape in a grotesque style (according to Mejerchol’d, surely not to a rough idea of comedy) through which a sophisticated montage is able to move spectator’s thoughts and emotions: in such a composition there are not single notes, but chords, according to a non western polyphonic conception, maybe lacking of a higher mastery of pause and silence.
All of this happens through the application of Grotowski’s teachings, ranging from ideology, to breathing and singing, involving references not only to the last teaching of Stanislavskij (doing and not playing) and of some of his heirs but also — and here the studies about Grotowski are late — to some parts of Tantrism and, last but not least, of gnosis. Grotowski did an essential step on the side of theatre; today his heirs are patiently taking the interrupted thread up again.
In Carmelo Bene the ethic of cruelty was combined with references to western mystical theology and this is one of the reasons for his working alone; while in Radeau a similar poetics takes a more "deconstructive" meaning and the work on perception prefers an absorbing and unitary space-time (the "tent" hosting performance and spectators). Radeau and Workcenter, unlike Bene, are organisms-companies where all the members experience a maximum of involvement and potential development.
If it is true, as Mejerchol’d said and Arianne Mnouchkine is today repeating, that there is no real progress in theatre because it is bound to begin all over again each time in the given circumstances, it is as much true that from the 20th century we have powerful even though partial memory transmission systems. Present and future generations start from more advanced positions, at least theoretically, in several respects of aesthetics and craft. So the rejoining of the work on oneself with the work on and with the public sends back to a very old innovation, something theatre seemed to have lost whereas it belongs to its genetic inheritance. For this reason the schism, even terminological, committed by Grotowski can be recomposed and the Workcenter is demonstrating it by going back to theatre as creation of opuses open to the public, and therefore to the aesthetic field, while giving a fundamental contribution in restoring the sense of theatre. So, Dies Iræ is also a sort of coming back of the prodigal son, but most of all it’s repeating a fixed point that we can no longer escape: the artist is not a communicator, he is someone who carries out the impossible mission of creating and sharing a time, an event that can happen not through reciting ideas, but rather through the montage of motivated and irreversible actions.
We should add that as the opening of the Actions to witnesses cannot have any effect on them, there is no doubt that some technical and editing functions from the Actions are applied to the performative structure. This synthesis generates a result which transcends the theatre itself, because it is as if the rational motive preceding the dramaturgical process vanishes leaving everything to the singing-dancing of the scene: if art is nothing but composition, montage, its aim is not to create (an ideological monument) but — as it is said at the beginning of Dies Irae with Kafka’s words — to invite the audience to face a "lack" and in order to succeed in it the actor must overcome the "unbearable humanization" to which normal theatre tends, the theatre forgetting itself. As for Kafka’s diaries misery and greatness of art consist in small private accidents, in events of a common time. We cannot say precisely how this process happens, we can only say that it goes through a game, through an aesthetic truth. In times of confusion and yielding of theatrical vocations to predicatory and mass media temptations — precisely communicative —, an opus like Dies Irae contributes to the definition of a higher sense of contemporary directing and acting art, and us, the spectators, once having acknowledged the historical value of this theatre performance, we can become again "those who watch", or rather who contemplate and "theorize" on the myriad of micro-events of a scene where each actor and each element trace its individual path. All the actors of Dies Iræ are extraordinary for their own ability but also thanks to a method that makes them become total actors, creative and at the same time free from egotic exhibitionism, more as animators of disquieting conceptual masks than simply actors of ‘characters’. Each of these figures expresses itself in a highly complex score of actions (not ‘movements’, ‘expressions’, or ‘tones’), so that the performance tells not one but a thousand stories, stories of human faces and voices, of hands and feet. The bystanders witness a multitude of odysseys, of journeys back from where and to where we don’t know; the only certitude is a way full of mortal challenges. Hence the opposite of what has been just said: the true theatre tells always and only of the dangerous wander in (its) lack.

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