Text/Pre-Text/Pretext: The Language Of Avant-Garde Experiment - Christopher Innes

In hindsight the search for a new form of theatre-language can be seen as one of the defining elements for the theatrical avant-garde as a whole. Indeed even the earliest practitioners were preoccupied by the problematic nature of spoken words on the stage; and this can be traced to some of the basic modernist principles. The assertion of art as autonomous, aspiring to pure form, which led TS Eliot to reject "narrative method" in poetry and Kandinsky to declare that "the literary element, 'story-telling' or 'anecdote' must be abandoned" in painting, led to calls for an "Anti-Psychological Abstract Theatre of Pure Forms and Tactilism" (the title of Marinetti's 1924 Futurist Manifesto). [1]

For Marinetti, of course, abstraction (ie. the denial of copying external, materialistic appearances on the stage) and anti-psychology represented the opposite of Naturalistic drama -- and to some degree the whole avant-garde movement from the early Dadaists in Zurich during the First World War, to Spalding Gray or Karen Finley in the contemporary USA is motivated by opposition to mainstream/traditional theatre. But the psychology that Marinetti was attacking, or even the individuality of a dramatic character is expressed primarily through dialogue; and the socially sanctified, hence inherently conservative mainstream is always encoded in literary language. The target may change for each generation of avant-garde artists. For Jarry in the 1890s "traditional" meant Shakespeare; for Marinetti in the 1920s it was represented by Ibsen; for Brook in the 1960s it was the "deadly" commercial theatre of the West End. Yet in each case the dominance of the word -- theatre as text -- is the key common element that focuses avant-garde opposition. In one sense this verbal dominance is simply a by-product of any performance piece becoming part of the standard repertoire: almost by definition, mainstream drama has multiple productions, achieving traditional status by being restaged over decades (if not centuries); and to be reproducible there must be a core text. The play itself is then identified with this script. At the same time, conventional playwrights, even when writing in prose, have called themselves "poets" (as indeed Ibsen also did) thus stressing the literary quality of their work, and giving grounds for the rejection of text as the basis for performance.

This has been expressed in a wide variety of experiments with non-verbal performance throughout the century. Perhaps the most extreme was Gordon Craig's vision of a purely abstract theatre created by the interplay of changing light and moving masses. His starting point was the rejection of the kind of drama represented by Bernard Shaw (the most relentlessly verbal of all twentieth-century playwrights) in preparing designs for a 1905 production of Caesar and Cleopatra; and in many ways his procedure anticipates the ideal of physical theatre that characterized the avant-garde performance groups of the 1960s. First Craig cut

the author's stage directions... And as I read the words I wanted to omit these too... When I had got the words out of my head I looked to see what was left of the First Scene and I found this First Scene to be like a great rat trap in which figures were scurrying to and fro like so many squeaking animals... [2]

The only dialogue remaining would be a chanted sound -- repeated variations on the name "Ftatateeta" -- again anticipating some of the 1960s experiments. But as his ideas developed, Craig went on to cut the actor along with the text, replacing human performers with mobile architecture: transforming the stage floor and flies into series of square columns that would rise and descend in continual progression and variety, accompanied by modulating flows of light. This "Scene", which Craig experimented with in model form, was never realized; and in its abstraction, as well as the total autocracy of the director that it represents, his extreme of non-verbal theatre denies the animating principles of avant-garde performance groups.

However, other early experiments in creating physical theatre were far more productive; and the most influential of these was Antonin Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty". One of his essays from the early 1930s famously declared NO MORE MASTERPIECES in demolishing the whole tradition of Western drama (and indeed attacking canon-formation in a way that still reverberates in today's academic arguments) as "one of the aspects of bourgeois conformism". In addition to dismissing written texts as a basis for theatrical performance, Artaud argues

that an expression does not have the same value twice, does not live two lives; that all words, once spoken, are dead and function only at the moment they are uttered, that a form, once it has served, cannot be used again and... that the theatre is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice. [3]

Though overtly aimed at "the idolatry of fixed masterpieces" (Sophocles, Shakespeare), this emphasis on the uniqueness of each theatre-event also provides the basis for valuing process at the expense of product in any performance. And picking up on the Futurists' rejection of naturalistic illusionism and "storytelling psychology" -- which are diagnosed as "the cause of the theater's abasement and its fearful loss of energy" [4] -- the essay goes on to outline an experimental type of performance that effectively served as an embryonic manifesto for later avant-garde performance groups.

Specifically, the aspects of Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty" that came to resonate most powerfully in the 1960s were concerned with physicality, the concept of theatre as a primal force, and primitivism. The essay proposed the ideal of a performance that would act on the spectator like Chinese acupuncture, directly affecting the central nervous system through the body (as opposed to communicating intellectually/verbally through the mind), returning "theater to... the physical knowledge of images and the means of inducing trances". The means were to be a "dynamism of action... in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theater as by a whirlwind of higher forces". And the effect would be analogous to the psychoanalytic treatment of making a patient "assume the apparent and exterior attitudes of the desired condition", which Artaud declared went back to an "elementary magical idea". This non-verbal "religious idea of the theater" was also literally pre-textual in seeking to return to the "poetry-through-theater which underlies the myths told by the great tragedians" -- and it was grounded in Artaud's belief

that the theater, utilized in the highest and most difficult sense possible, has the power to influence the aspect and formation of things: and the encounter upon the stage of two passionate manifestations, two living centers, two nervous magnetisms is something as entire, true, even decisive, as, in life, the encounter of one epidermis with another in a timeless debauchery. [5]

This essay was published in 1938 as part of The Theater and its Double -- a seminal book of theory that was almost completely ignored by the English-speaking world until a translation appeared in 1958. Twenty years later, and over a decade after Artaud's death, this slim volume became a revolutionary catalyst that motivated the formation of counter-culture performance groups in America and England. Passionate (if frequently obscure -- which added to their attraction) Artaud's incendiary writings were the bible of the 1960s avant-garde, many of whom shared his belief in the mystical efficacy of hallucinatory drugs, as well as his faith in theatre as means of destablizing and purifying an alienating and materialistic society. Among the other ideas that they adopted were Artaud's "Total Theatre", in which all the barriers between audience and actor were broken down, surrounding the spectator with the action (later elaborated into "Environmental Theatre"); and the search for a "concrete language, intended for the sense and independent of speech" through which actors would "signal through the flames" having achieved "the automism of the liberated unconscious". [6] Above all the avant-garde performance groups were influenced by Artaud's use of Balinese dance-drama as a model for his ideal of theatre.

Artaud had been deeply impressed by a Barong performance, involving a grotesque witch, a mythical beast and trance states -- presented, ironically, at a 1927 Colonial Exposition -- and hailed these Balinese "ceremonies of indubitable age and well-tried efficacy". [7] How much of the "magical" effect was real in that touristic context is hard to say, although at a similar performance filmed in Bali by Margaret Mead the dancers, once in their trance, indeed become invulnerable to the swords they turn against their naked chests. At any rate this Balinese "spectacle", with its archaic incantation and hieratic gestures, leading to mass hypnosis through contagious delirium, seemed to offer a practical realization of Artaud's ideas. In particular, he saw in it a form of theatre that not only "eliminates words" (Artaud's italics), but expressed "a state prior to language" in presenting "a secret psychic impulse which is Speech before words". Instead, communicating through "the visual and plastic" mise en scène,

The Balinese theatre has revealed to us a physical and non-verbal idea of the theater... independently of the written text, whereas the theater as we conceive it in the Occident has declared its alliance with the text, and finds itself limited by it. [8]

It was this -- together with the sacred nature of the origins of theatre, still retained in the Balinese drama -- that motivated the recourse by 1960s performance groups to archaic, non-western forms of religious theatre. Indeed it even gave a rationale for the communal nature of those groups, since Artaud had stressed the unifying effect of this kind of performance: both in the holistic assimilation of individual performers, and in the spiritual "oneness" with nature.

In addition, Artaud was hypersensitive to the destabilizing effect of modern conditions, of being faced with a period "when the world... sees its old values crumble. Our calcined life is dissolving at its base." This certainly echoed the perception of 1960s radicals in America. His theatre was both a response, and a reflection in being designed to function metaphorically like "the plague" that ushers in "spiritual freedom" by causing "all social forms to disintegrate" -- and it is hardly surprising that one of the first attempts to incorporate Artaud's work was the Living Theatre"s staging of "the Plague" in their 1964 Mysteries as "the very embodiment of his theatrical philosophy". [9] It was also in the same year that Brook staged one of Artaud's short plays, The Jet of Blood, as part of his experimental "Theatre of Cruelty" workshop in London.


The Living Theatre, which established itself off-off-Broadway in 1959, became the model for many of the American performance groups. Joe Chaikin, together with several of his actors in the Open Theatre, had performed with them; others became part of Richard Schechner's Performance Group, or formed their own groups. Up to that point, Judith Malina and her husband Julian Beck had run a fairly conventional "Little Theatre" company, whose reputation for innovation was founded on European imports -- Cocteau, Strindberg, Picasso, even classics like medieval mystery plays and Racine -- and poetic pieces by William Carlos Williams or Gertrude Stein. These were all text-based, even highly literary, although much of the surrealist drama dispensed with individualized characters and standard plot structures. Exposure to Artaud initially meant integrating their communal ethos and anarchist politics with their productions, selecting political works to radicalize their audiences, as with The Connection (an intensely realistic portrayal of drug addicts by Jack Gelber) or The Brig (Kenneth Brown's brutal depiction of life in marine prison).

These too were scripted plays, defined by written dialogue. However their documentary quality encouraged an extreme degree of actuality in performance -- corresponding on one level to Artaud's principles, but by intensifying the naturalistic illusionism that he had rejected. The police broke up one performance of The Connection, believing that cocaine was in reality being trafficked and injected on the stage, while the actors in The Brig were required to live by the prison rules for extended periods as part of the rehearsal process. More to the point, the realism combined with the squalor of street-life or the deadening simplifications of prison routine, led to extensive verbal improvisation. The words on the page, though defining the situations, characters and relationships between figures for rehearsal, became a general score for performance; and mimicking the yelled army orders in The Brig transformed the words of command into non-verbal sound-language. In addition, the dominant element of the these productions became the gestures and movements of the actors, and (particularly in The Brig) the rhythms of the performance. Although still containing texts, these productions were already in essence physical theatre, with the core meaning carried by the mise en scèène, which expanded to envelop the whole theatrical event. In The Connection, for example, the actors stayed in character as addicts during the intermission, panhandling members of the audience; and this blurring of pretence and reality, together with the self-expression allowed by improvising, meant that "the actors began to play themselves" which Judith Malina described as "a very important advance". [10]

The next phase in the group's development came with the adoption of Artaud's ideal of sacred theatre functioning on a spiritual level. Merging with the 1960s counter-culture search for alternative religious experience, they borrowed from an eclectic range of non-European traditions to turn performances into "an absolute communion" with the audience. The aim was therapeutic -- both for the actors, who would be enabled to transcend physical limits of performance by breaking through their own psychological inhibitions, and by extension for society as a whole through liberating audiences from socially imposed repressions -- thus effecting "the transformation of the demonic forces into the celestial". [11] The fullest expression of this came in Paradise Now, first performed in 1968 and elaborated over the next two years on tour in Europe and across the United States, which included sequences of action first evolved for such earlier Living Theatre performance pieces as Mysteries (1964) and Frankenstein (1965).

This element of repetition in their work is characteristic of most performance groups who have rejected verbal texts for physical language. Specific combinations of movement and gestures, generally arrived at in rehearsal exercises, become fixed images that appear as identifying "trademarks". Encapsulating a particular vision -- of political repression, personal liberation, group solidarity, etc -- they are felt to express the essential nature of those performance groups. In the case of the Living Theatre, perhaps the most representative "physical nexus" of this sort was a sequence of "flying". A culminating moment in Paradise Now, this was a simple acrobatic display: each of the actors in turn launching themselves off a platform some fifteen feet above the stage, as if diving upwards, to fall safely into the interlaced arms of the rest of the group lined up below. As well as both a demonstration of individual trust and the strength of community, it signified a visionary "expansion of human potential. This could lead to flying... freed from the constraint and injury brought down on us by the errors of past civilization, we will be free to expand and alter the nature of our being". [12] Members of the audience were also invited to participate, to experience a foretaste of this liberated transcendence and as a sign of willingness to join the group whom they relied on to catch them. This deliberate bridging of the barrier between actor and spectator -- which worked both ways in Living Theatre productions, with the group moving out into the audience to act as cheerleaders or provocateurs, as well as the audience invading the stage at various points during the action, in particular to join the copulation of "Universal Intercourse" when all distinction between the actors and spectators was obliterated -- is also integral to many performance groups.

The symbolic associations of "flying" were immediately apparent, even to the uninitiated; but however effective, the range of meanings such an action contained were necessarily very general. The political aims of Paradise Now required a more detailed level of communication to portray sequences like:


One solution was to model groupings and postures on pre-existing cultural symbols -- Icarus or the Minotaur from Greek mythology, Amerindian totem-poles, the crucifixion and Michelangelo's Piéta -- another was to copy images from the news media, the most successful of these being Edward Adams 1968 award-winning photo of the Saigon Police Chief shooting a kneeling Vietcong prisoner in the head. Paired off actors took up the same positions in a line across the stage, and "in unison... the executioners fire, the victims fall. This is repeated twenty times". In each case the visual impact was determined by the shared connotations with which it was already loaded. In a sense this corresponded to the physical language of "precise and immediately readable symbols" that Artaud had envisaged. [14] However, almost all these images could only be "read" in the form of tableaus, requiring stasis, and were limited to a sort of cultural Lowest Common Denominator in depending on the widest possible public familiarity for understanding.

There was also a degree of literalness in many of the Living Theatre scenes, where the actors' bodies were not so much Artaudian hieroglyphs communicating in a pre-verbal mode, as substitutes for missing speech. At times this was even explicit, as when the group took up positions for the letters to visually spell out the word "Anarchism", which then was transformed with a shout of "Now!" into the word "Paradise". In short, despite the ideological value placed on pre-textual, physical theatre, the performance of Paradise Now was still linguistically determined -- reduced in fact to the level of visual slogans, which corresponded to the type of dialogue that remained. Much of this was not so much speeches as spoken stage directions, either interpretative glosses on what the actors were portraying

- Be the heart. Act. Find the pain. Feel it. Make the sound of it.

- The heart of Africa

or cues for action by the spectators:

- Free theater. The theater is yours. Act. Speak. Do whatever you want.

- Free theater. Because in the society we envisage, everyone is free.

- Free theater. Free being. Free life. Do anything. Do nothing. Be.

- Breathe.

- Expand consciousness. [15]

The physical basis of performance was thus retained, but codified in a way that led back to text. And ironically, given the Living Theatre's reliance on improvisation and their belief in performance as on-going process that denied any validity to theatre as a fixed product, after the group split up in 1970 Malina and Beck indeed published a printed text of Paradise Now.

This text is hardly a conventional dramatic "script", since it reveals that less than a quarter of the performance time was actually scripted, to allow spontaneous actions (either by members of the group, or by the audience) to be incorporated.   In addition, over twenty percent of the pages are taken up by photographs, which give visual definition to each of the scenes except two: an omission explained by a note that "no photographs are available for The Rite of New Possibilities and The Vision of Landing on Mars (Rung VII) since they are performed in total darkness".   Scene-designations like "Rite and "Rung" point to the complex philosophical, even religious structure that underlay the action of Paradise Now. The description for each of the eight "Rungs" -- the overall image for the piece being a ladder signifying "a vertical ascent toward Permanent Revolution" -- contains a section of political commentary, combined with hexagrams from the I Ching (each with elaborate explication), lengthy quotations from the Hasidim and/or the Kabbalah, as well as a number of Yoga exercises (with rationales for those selected). Specifically intended as "preparation" for the actors, or cues for the emotional states to be created at each point in the structure, there is no discernable link between these "Texts" and anything physically performed on the stage. Yet they take up over a third of the script, and are given a central function of embodying the "individual spiritual change" that is seen as the prerequisite for "exterior political change". [16]

The book is clearly designed as a documentation -- with the photos recording moments from many different performances -- but it is also intended as a script to be reproduced on the stage, and contains an announcement on the copyright page that "Paradise Now...is free: for any community that wants to play it". In addition, the visual material relates to the printed words in much the same way as conventional illustrations; and the description makes clear that the physical presentation was structured by spoken language, with variations on the verbal "Free theater" exhortation being reiterated at the end of all eight sequences of action that made up the complete (but in practice often truncated) performance. As a result the printed piece is open to standard literary analysis. Ultimately the Living Theatre never managed to free themselves from text. Their abandonment of Paradise Now, the vehicle for theatrical renewal as well as political revolution, signals their failure to achieve a purely physical theatre -- although their European exile, where the group was intentionally performing for non-English-speaking audiences, had been designed specifically "to find a way of communicating our feelings and our ideas through signs and being". [17]


That was also precisely Peter Brook's aim, when he took a performance group to Africa. His 1964 "Theatre of Cruelty" season was an exploration of the potential in physical modes of communication. But, being designed as preparation for a production of Genet's The Screens, it had been text-based; and these aims clearly conflicted. Even with Jet of Blood there was an all too obvious contradiction between Artaud's hallucinatory visions -- which depended on cinematic techniques and had analogies to surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou -- and the focus on movement and gesture that was achieved by removing all illusionistic elements: facial expression (the actors' heads being covered with white paper bags) as well as scenery, costuming and stage-props. [18] A transitional period when Brook tried out different combinations of physical theatre and text in a series of brilliant productions, ranging from the violent insanity of The Marat-Sade by Peter Weiss to circus acrobatics in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, culminated in an experiment with a language of pure sound in the 1971 production of Orghast.

This still had a text (written by the poet, Ted Hughes), but the "words" were musical vocalizations, designed to have the same quality as physical action and intended to communicate solely on a subliminal level. Indeed, meanings for different basic sounds were derived from common physiology (thus "GR" for "eat", "ULL" for "swallow") in order to create a universal language: one that communicated "below the levels where differences appear, close to the inner life of what we've chosen as our material, but expressive to all people, powerfully, truly, precisely". The aim was to discover the roots of language -- an "Ur-Sprache" that would transcend cultural diversity -- and this emphasis on universality also determined the content of Orghast, which the program defined as stemming

from certain basic myths -- the gift of fire, the massacre of the innocents, the imprisonment of the son by the father, the search for liberation through revenge... as reflected in the hymns of Zoroaster, the stories of Prometheus and Hercules, Calderóón's Life's A Dream, Persian legends, and other parallel sources. [19]

And it was this inter-cultural dissolving of boundaries that took Brook and his acting group to Africa in 1972.

In order to communicate with audiences who had no concept of "theatre" or even "acting", all culture-specific conventions and symbols had to be discarded; and the group's performances in villages, as they traveled through Dahomey or Mali, were exercises in returning to the basics. Improvisations developed around the simplest of objects -- shoes, bread, a flute -- were used to explore the expressive capacities of the body, as the only "common ground" between the actors and the native spectators. A repertoire of actions, gestures and sounds, gathered in this way, became elaborated into a performance-piece loosely based on a twelfth-century Persian poem: The Conference of the Birds. Presented in Nigeria as a series of improvised actions that could be varied at will, or in response to audience-reaction, this was staged at a week-long performance workshop in New York following their African tour to demonstrate Brook's principles of physical theatre:

Our work is based on the fact that some of the deepest aspects of human experience can reveal themselves through the sounds and movements of the human body in a way that strikes a chord in any observer, whatever his cultural and racial conditioning. And therefore one can work without roots, because the body, as such, becomes a working source. [20]

This was indeed theatre for an "Empty Space" (as Brook had titled his performance ideal), with plain white, non-representative costumes and the acting area defined solely by a carpet. But in practice the physical language displayed in The Conference of the Birds was largely anthropomorphic, with actors miming peacocks, falcons and mythical avian creatures; and speech was gradually reintroduced, with a full play-text being created for the 1979 Avignon Festival -- where the performance was coded through a whole range of exotic theatrical symbols: Oriental masks, Balinese puppets, Indonesian shadow-play.

Another piece that also derived from their African experience exposes the limits of purely physical communication. The material for The Ik was based on an anthropological study of a displaced African tribe, where even the most fundamental human relationships had broken down under extreme pressures of famine and exile. It thus had a written text as its basis, The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull; and this was fore-grounded in performance, with actors stepping out of role to read passages from Turnbull's book, and with Turnbull as a character/commentator. However, the Ik themselves were presented solely through bodily expression. As tribesmen, the actors were restricted to non-verbal vocalization of gutturals, clicks, and cries. Wearing standard European clothes and without make-up, their status, race and cultural background was communicated through posture, the way they moved, and gesture alone. These poses and physical attitudes were imitated from photographs of the original natives; and the external reproduction of actuality was accompanied by a search for inner authenticity. The group built a replica of the Ik stockade, in which they lived during the rehearsals, to experience the same conditions as the tribe and thus share the essential "being" of a people on the verge of extinction.

Such emphasis on authenticity, where the role performed is inseparable from the psychology of the performer, is a defining element in avant-garde performance group work. Indeed it underlies the rejection of "professionalism" and their foregrounding of the "amateur" -- natural expressiveness being seen as connecting to an inner truth that actor-training, with its standardized conventions of communication, implicitly negated. Apparent amateurism in presentation was also a prerequisite for the merging of audiences into the performance, since any display of special skills would inhibit participation by untrained spectators. As such, however, this overt amateurism was itself a conscious technique; and Brook's work brings out (unintentionally) some of the inherent contradictions in the dominant value placed on authenticity by the avant-garde. The rehearsal process for The Ik exactly parallels the use of prison regulations and military power relationships in the Living Theater's preparation for The Brig twelve years earlier. Yet while one might accept the potential for sadism or submission as part of anyone's psychology, Brook's multi-national group were embodying racial characteristics and externally determined circumstances that were -- almost by definition -- outside their personal experience. The element of pretence is underlined by their copying of recorded visual images to communicate a specific ethnicity; and the printed regulations used for The Brig have a comparable documentary status. Although the imaginative projection required for the Living Theater production was less obvious, the artifice is the same.

In the same way, The Ik exposes the overlap between avant-garde performance and conventional theatre in other areas. As typical for most performance group work, Brook's stage was bare, with no scenery and the only stage properties being the most basic objects: earth thinly scattered over the acting area, a few stones and sticks, one or two empty tin cans. Yet this paucity was itself a signifier, with the thinness of the soil representing the tribe's inability to grow crops, the empty tins their starvation, and the lack of any other surroundings standing for the loss of all hope or the cultural void that produced the breakdown of all social structures witnessed in the vignettes of their daily life, which formed the action of the piece. The absence of setting became a scenic statement; and this applies to almost all "empty space" theatre, even if the bare stage seldom has such specific thematic relationship to the dramatic material.

Above all The Ik provides an example of the tension between physical expression and verbal communication. Wherever comprehension of a specific meaning was required, the vocalizations of the natives were accompanied by voice-over from the Turnbull character. In a different context this might have represented the opposition between European intellectualism (false values) and a holistic apprehension of reality. But the point of this production was to present the disintegration of communal standards and personal relations in the tribe as an extremity that awaited modern western society, with its materialism, industrialization, and consequent moral deterioration. While the European clothing of the actors established the parallel, the implications were spelt out in the commentary. Thus the effect of the voice-over demonstrated that body language, precisely because of its universality, incorporated a limited register of experience. It might convey existential states, emotional being, even (as with Grotowski-trained actors) spiritual essence. However, any political, social or moral statement requires words. The twin-track separation of text and performance that marked this production points to the problematic nature of the principles on which performance group work is based; and even if the body remains "a working source", all Brook's subsequent pieces have not only been derived from pre-existing texts (whether Oliver Sack's The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, or The Mahabharata), but also based on conventional scripts.

Working in Paris, as the government-funded Centre for International Theatre Research, Brook's group is in many ways atypical. From Orghast to The Mahabharata Brook has tended toward productions on an epic scale, staged (as these pieces originally were) on mountain-tops or in rock-quarries, in which individual performers become subsumed in a large scale picture, requiring carefully-rehearsed, choreographed movement. In such a context improvisation and the (deliberately) amateur quality that characterizes most of the other performance groups of the 1960s and 1970s is ruled out; and indeed the sheer space of the performing area requires an autocratic director, which is the opposite of the communal values on which such performance groups were founded. However, Brook's stripping down of the stage to an "empty space" was highly influential; and his search for universal modes of communication in the traditions and rituals of non-western or pre-historic societies, as well as his emphasis on the body as a "working source" was paralleled by various groups, most notably Schechner's "Performance Group" and Joe Chaikin's "Open Theater".


At first glance Richard Schechner also appears atypical since his background was academic, which implies an intellectual approach -- the very thing Artaud rejected, and the opposite of all that performance group work represented. However, in America it was largely an academic journal (The Drama Review, under Schechner's editorship) that promoted the exploration of non-verbal theatre-language, and linked this with the religious rituals surviving in non-western and still pre-industrial cultures. In addition, it was the student revolution, fuelled by opposition to the Vietnam War, that provided the broader social context for counter-culture theatre; and the majority of the Living Theater performances after the mid-sixties took place on University campuses. It was also Schechner, in calling his team of actors "The Performance Group", who coined the term for all such avant-garde work.

Both Schechner and Chaikin incorporated ritualized action and mythic material into the pieces that defined the work of their groups: Dionysus in 69, first performed in 1968 (the same year as Paradise Now) and The Serpent, developed between 1967 and 1968. Schechner was explicitly attempting to return theatre to its original status of "shamanism or initiation rituals, or a combination of the two"; and Dionysus in 69 was structured as an initiation rite, with the opening imitating African ceremonial practices described by the anthropologist Van Gennep in Rites of Passage, followed by "the birth ritual -- adapted from the Asmats of New Guinea". [21] Rather than searching out ritual sources, the acting exercises out of which Chaikin's Open Theater pieces grew were direct explorations in non-verbal expression of somatic experience, based on Viola Spolin's physical "theater games" or derived from Chinese theatre. Yet in developing material for these performance pieces they enacted ceremonies from various cultures -- rites of mourning, excommunication rituals (specifically the excommunications of Spinoza and a Buddhist monk) -- or invented ritual activities; and the movements and poses of one sequence in The Serpent, the "Begatting", were almost identical to the birth ritual in the Performance Group's Dionysus in 69.

From the beginning Schechner's performances had always incorporated scripts; and indeed several were based on pre-texts, with adaptations of Euripides (Dionysus in 69) or Shakespeare (Makbeth). In both of these some of the original words were retained, reminding the audience of this pre-text, as in the invocation to Dionysus in 69, which gave Euripides the status of an archetype. However, the dramatic situations of The Bacchae were retained only as a general frame for the action: a source of "scenarios" for improvisation. As in Brook's work, or the Living Theater, authenticity was the basis for the Performance Group's acting -- but in a more overt (and superficial) way, with the performers announcing their own names and life-histories before being "born" as the characters, and continuing to address each other by their real names during the performance. The aim throughout was to bring the audience into the action, indeed one of the premises of the performance was that their involvement could change the outcome (saving Pentheus from sacrifice), although this only happened during a single performance. The speeches at specific points could be varied according to the spectators' reactions, or to take account of current political events; and the words of key speeches also differed, depending on which actor was performing any given role. However, even if the colloquial tone gave a spontaneous effect, all the variants were fixed -- indeed the dependence of the Performance Group on the script was demonstrated by the one occasion when a girl in the audience bonded with the actor playing Pentheus, and they left the performance space. The others remaining in the group were unable to continue, since no alternative had been rehearsed.

Like Paradise Now, a text of Dionysus in 69 was subsequently published (as were texts for all the other Performance Group pieces). This contained both a "standard" version, and selected variations, as well as explanations of the Group's intentions by Schechner and commentary on motivation, or poetic evocations of mood by the lead actors. Significantly more emphasis was placed on physical action, with the photographs far outweighing the verbal text, sometimes recording moments beat-by-beat. For instance in the culminating sequence (where the birth ritual of the opening was reversed, with the tunnel of naked bodies becoming "a vagina dentata and those teeth tear [Pentheus] to pieces") over a hundred photos accompany 28 pages of script; and of this text only about two-thirds are words spoken by the actors. [22] The rest includes verbal description of what happened on stage and recollections of significant incidents or interactions with spectators in various performances -- the equivalent of stage directions -- as well as comparison with Euripides and commentary. However, the overwhelming visual emphasis served to codify the gestures and movement; and like the Living Theater texts, this was not only a documentary record, but intended as a pre-set piece for others to perform -- although in contrast to the script of Paradise Now, (as with all the other Performance Group pieces) "professionals and amateurs" were "warned that Dionysus in 69, being fully protected under the copyright laws...is subject to royalty. All rights...are strictly preserved..."

This standard injunction indicates the degree to which performance pieces such as Dionysus in 69 were conventional plays; and from 1972 until 1980, when The Performance Group disbanded, Schechner's productions were all modern classics. Artaud had argued that any pre-established dramatic "situations are only a pretext" for performance -- indeed that "everything that is a conception of the mind is only a pretext" [23] -- and working from "finished texts" undermines the premises of physical theatre, although Schechner presented this contradiction as an advance:

Several years ago I argued forcibly that play texts were mere pretexts out of which the performance is made; material to be used dismembered, distorted, reassembled ...We have moved beyond the point when actors acted with their faces, hands and voices. The rebirth of the whole performer demands the reintegration of the writer into the theater.

And the piece selected for their first text-based performance, Tooth of Crime, was (for all its experimental nature) irreconcilable with a physical approach. As Sam Shepard pointed out, the play is "very preconceived. I got exact diagrams and pictures in my head about how it should be done". [24] Despite unconventional aspects, such as Shepard's use of music to communicate "the emotional line" in the action, the speeches are highly structured, interwoven and intensely verbal.

By contrast with Schechner, who either developed fixed texts out of improvised group work around classical "pre-texts" or used pre-existing, published texts, Chaikin collaborated closely with playwrights as an integral part of the Open Theater creative process. He also continued a career as an actor in conventional theatre (for instance at the Writer's Stage Company), even specializing in Beckett, an author noted for insisting on exact reproductions of his scripts. [25]

Even though the Open Theater was initially a workshop devoted exclusively to investigating non-verbal physical expression, when they began public performances to showcase their explorations Jean-Claude van Itallie was brought in to create scripts. At first these were "scenarios" built around specific acting exercises, although they also performed America Hurrah, which van Itallie had written for the group. But with their first full-length piece, The Serpent, a full verbal text was evolved, using a team of writers: Megan Terry, Patricia Cooper, as well as van Itallie. There was also a (specifically archetypal) literary pre-text, the Bible and in particular the Book of Genesis, from which they developed physical images through improvisation. These included the striking embodiment of the serpent itself as the Tree of Life -- five intertwined actors, with flickering tongues and sinuous arms, offering apples in their hands -- animals in the Garden of Eden, or the assassination of President Kennedy (based on frames from the Zapruder film of the actual event). While the physical images were the most immediately striking element of the performance, the piece was structured by the words, with a chorus of women providing narration that orchestrated the changing tone and linked the different segments.

As with all Chaikin's Open Theater work, the scripts for the scenes of The Serpent that the various writers contributed were in a continuous process of change and rewriting up until the last moment before the first performance. On shows such as Terminal (which developed out of The Serpent) and Nightwalk (1973), none of the several authors writing for the group had a picture of the overall shape, or even the main thrust of the piece. Susan Yankowitz, for instance, commented on the difficulty of writing Terminal "without having a sense of the whole; and yet the discovery of the whole was the process that occasioned the writing", while Shepard was sending material for Nightwalk from London. [26] Even The Mutation Show -- the only real ensemble piece, for which all the dialogue was created through improvisation by the actors -- credited writers in the programme; and Chaikin's commitment to verbal language can be illustrated by Tongues. A piece for solo voice and percussion, co-written by Chaikin and Shepard, this monologue was performed by Chaikin, seated facing front and motionless, with Shepard hidden behind his chair providing the musical accompaniment. Although a major theme in the speeches is the inadequacy of words, the performance was a demonstration of the communicative power of verbal and facial expression. Indeed, for all its experimental quality, the Open Theater was far more mainstream than most avant-garde performance group work, as the number of Obie and Drama Desk awards indicate. For example, although like Paradise Now, The Serpent was first presented on a European tour (in many of the same venues as the Living Theater), when remounted in New York it won an Obie and a Vernon Rice award for "outstanding contributions" to the theatre.

The comparison between the reenactment of Kennedy's death in The Serpent and the Paradise Now replay of the Saigon Police Chief shooting the Vietcong prisoner, both reproducing hauntingly familiar documentary photographs, underlines the differences between the Living Theater and Chaikin's work. Instead of a single image multiplied to present an emotive slogan (the evil violence of western politics), the Kennedy scene was a complex sequence -- extended to include the assassination of Martin Luther King and focusing on the watching crowd: "I was not involved.../I stay alive" [27] -- which contained a whole range of subliminal meanings. It became a contemporary version of the expulsion from Eden myth, echoing the loss of innocence, as well as paralleling Cain's murder of Abel, representing the mistaken attempts of Adam and Eve's contemporary children to regain Paradise though human sacrifice. As such it was a highly intellectual form of theatre; with the physical images being created out of disciplined acting exercises, and accompanied by a text that conditioned the reception of the images. [28]


The productions mounted by The Performance Group following Tooth of Crime, such as Brecht's Mother Courage, were all "literary"; and Schechner's focus reverted to the type of audience participation that he had first tried out with Victims of Duty in 1967 (before moving to New York and founding The Performance Group). The whole studio in which Ionesco's play was staged had been laid out as the Choubert's living room, with the spectators seated between the sofas and chairs, even at the table where the characters sat eating a meal. In the same way the whole Performance Garage became Mother Courage's wagon, with the audience as her "customers"; and her haggling continued outside on the pavement. This type of performance, where the audience is surrounded by the action, indeed part of the play's environment, and where the action extends into the world outside, Schechner labelled "Environmental Theater". As a new variant of Total Theatre, it is perhaps the one important contribution made by The Performance Group.

Similarly, Chaikin, whose Open Theatre was followed by a more restricted "Winter Project" that lasted until the mid-eighties, devoted more of his time to conventional texts, ranging from van Itallie's A Fable telling About a Journey, through his adaptation of The Sea Gull, to The Dybbuk. And the group also created a radio-piece, Night Voices, which necessarily relied totally on words and the voice. At the same time the workshop continued to explore fundamental elements of theatrical expression, and the nature of the actor-audience relationship. And it is these "preparatory" exercises that have carried through into the work of contemporary performance artists.

In a sense, then, the avant-garde performance groups of the Sixties and Seventies mark the limitations of purely physical theatre. Inspired by Artaud, they experimented in various degrees with a purely physical, participatory mode of communication. But like Artaud himself, whose performances were all based on scripts, even their most unconventional work were codified as texts, and both Schechner and Chaikin reverted to productions of pre-existing plays. Even so, their experiments effected a fundamental change in American theatre. Their non-naturalistic approach is now widely accepted, expanding the acting and staging vocabulary even of Broadway; and their work directly influenced contemporary performance artists.   Spalding Gray, for instance, was one of the key actors in The Performance Group, while Chaikin has exerted a more indirect, but possibly more significant influence on some of the major figures on the contemporary scene, including Joanne Akalaitis, Lee Breuer and Andrei Serban.

[1]. T.S.Eliot, "Ulysses, Order and Myth" in The Dial Nov. 1923, 483; Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) New York 1972, 71.

[2]. Gordon Craig, Towards a New Theatre, London 1913, 51

[3]. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double (trans. Mary Richards), New York 1958, 76, 75. All quotations are taken from this source because of its specific relevance to avant-garde performance groups.

[4]. Ibid, 76, 77.

[5]. Ibid, 80, 82-3, 79.

[6]. Ibid, 87, 13, 54.

[7]. Ibid, 53. For a fuller discussion of the nature of this Balinese performance, and the influence of non-western models, see Chapter 1 of my Avant Garde Theatre: 1892-1992, London 1993.

[8]. Ibid, 53-54, 62, 60, 69, 68.

[9]. Ibid, 115, 23; Julian Beck, in We, the Living Theater (ed. Aldo Rostagno), New York 1970, 81.

[10]. Cit. Jan Kott, TDR 14, 1, 23.

[11]. We, the Living Theater, 24; Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Paradise Now, New York 1971, 77.

[12]. Paradise Now, 127

[13]. Scenes designated in the chart outlining the structure of the performance, Programme for Paradise Now, 1968.

[14]. Paradise Now, 75; The Theater and its Double, 94.

[15]. Paradise Now, 27, 63, 111.

[16]. Ibid, 152, 5, 7.

[17]. Julian Beck, in TDR, 13, 3, 42.

[18]. For fuller descriptions of Brook's Jet of Blood production and his other work in the 1960s, see Albert Hunt & Geoffrey Reeves, Peter Brook, Cambridge 1995, 65f, or my Avant Garde Theatre, London 1993, f.

[19]. Ted Hughes, Times Literary Supplement, 1 October 1971 (my italics); Programme note (1971), cit. A.C.H.Smith, Orghast at Persepolis, London 1972, 50.

[20]. Brook, in The Drama Review, 17,3 (September 1973) 50.

[21]. Richard Schechner, Environmental Theater, New York 1973, 189. Compare The Performance Group, Dionysus in 69, New York 1970 (unpaginated), "Opening Ceremonies", and Arnold Van Gennep, Rites of Passage, Chicago 1960, 185. Dionysus in 69, Scene 1.

[22]. Dionysus in 69, "I'm the Messenger" sequence (n.p)

[23]. The Theater and Its Double, 53, 63.

[24]. Environmental Theater, Schechner, 242; and Sam Shepard, cit. 235.

[25]. For a full analysis of Chaikin's work, see Eileen Blumenthal, Joseph Chaikin, Cambridge 1984.

[26]. Cit. Blumenthal, 145.

[27]. The van Itallie poem is cited by Blumenthal, 131.

[28]. This intellectual quality was recognized by the reviewers, with Walter kerr commenting that "The Serpent starts the mind off on tangents that keep extending themselves" (New York Times, 24 May 1970, sec.2, 3).

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