Gordon Craig in the multi-media postmodern world: from the Art of the Theatre to Ex Machina - Christopher Innes

Rumours of Craig's death are greatly exaggerated. There's a whole line of modern theatre that's the contemporary realization of Craig's most central concepts: those that were dismissed as impracticable or even as anti-theatrical during Craig's lifetime. Specifically these include the performance pieces of Robert Wilson, of Josef Svoboda, of Robert Lepage. As I pointed out at the end of Edward Gordon Craig: A Vision of Theatre, Wilson's strikingly pictorial and slow-motion staging corresponds to Craig's principles of abstract movement, simplification and the physical precision in acting embodied by Craig's Uber-marionette. And the recent work of Svoboda's "Laterna Magika" is even closer in its blending of dance and mime with video images through mirrors. Wilson almost always uses texts, whether the highly developed symbolism of Heiner Müller, or a broken language reflecting autism. "Laterna Magika" follows Craig more directly in abandoning spoken language (their mute performances, which under the Communist regime formed political protection, now having economic advantages for a tourist audience). But the closest of these artists to Craig's original vision is I think Robert Lepage -- who being Canadian doubly deserves my attention.

Lepage, a younger generation than the other two, consciously competes with Wilson; and forms part of the avant-garde movement that runs back from Wilson through Peter Brook to the French Surrealists. Like all of them, Lepage's aim is to evolve a radically non-traditional form of theatre. The choreographed mime in his 1998 work, Geometry of Miracles, was explicitly based on "dance-movements" created by Gurgjieff, whom Brook has acknowledged as his own spiritual guru. And Lepage specifically claims to be the heir of Surrealism -- particularly of Jean Cocteau, whom he personates in one of his early pieces: Needles and Opium. And -- although in fact there is no direct connection -- the similarities between Lepage's productions with Gordon Craig's principles are still more obvious.

What I want to do is briefly draw some specific parallels, and use extracts from videotapes of Lepage's shows to illustrate what I consider to be strikingly Craigean elements.

As I'm sure you remember, Craig believed that his ideal "Art of the Theatre" could only be realized as the work of a single creator: the director (a completely new figure at that point) who would be responsible for every aspect of a production. Then -- finding the actors of his time too tradition-bound and disruptively egotistical to fit in with his plans for productions where every detail had to be calibrated and precise -- Craig notoriously called for an "Ubermarionette": stage personalities like Eleanora Duse were to be transformed into a super-puppet. And in Craig's most extreme concept actors were to be dispensed with altogether; the stage itself being mechanized, so that performances could be a purely abstract interplay of moving shapes and shifting light. In more conventional terms this translated into a completely flexible performance space with non-illusionistic scenery: Craig's screens, which allowed "1000 shapes" to be created out of a single "scene". These impressed a poet like W. B. Yeats. Yet Craig's aim was do away with the literary script altogether, creating "masterpieces" of "the future…out of ACTION, SCENE and VOICE" (all three nouns being, in a typically Craigean way, CAPITALIZED -- in other words physical theatre). And it is these four elements -- the main pillars of Craig's theory: a single autonomous creator; the actor as Ubermarionette; a flexible mechanized stage; physical, non-verbal performance -- that are reflected in much contemporary avant-garde performance, and are particularly clearly echoed in Lepage's work: even if (as you'd expect) the ¾ of a century between him and Craig means that there are also obvious differences in artistic expression.

As part of the Symbolist movement, Craig tended towards iconic ritualization, a quasi-religious solemnity, remoteness from everyday life, and an ideal of Art aspiring (in Walter Pater's phrase) to the condition of music. By contrast, Lepage is one of the media generation living in a post-modern age of rootless movement; and his characteristic works display a radically non-linear structure. So, the first scene of Lepage's "Itinerary" in his earliest one-man piece, Vinci,is titled "Decollage" (in French: point of departure, but also colloquially "coming unstuck"); and the "journeys" his audiences undertake in his shows are multi-media montages where the action is aligned with cinematic principles, specifically mirroring a contemporary mind-set.

LePage's narratives are primarily psychological actions, designed to draw spectators into the creative process. Yet at the same time they are also intended to destabilize and supplant conventional modes of thinking. Exactly the same was true of Craig and the Symbolistis a hundred years ago, when their emphasis on inner meaning, subliminal communication, and abstraction, was a radical alternative to Victorian materialism and the Naturalistic drama associated with it. Both Craig and Lepage then, for their own times and in their own way, are equally revolutionary.

To start with: the assertion of directorial autonomy. In the First Dialogue from his 1905 book The Art of the Theatre, Craig insists that the director become the primary creative artist, dispensing with the playwright (along with the scene designer and electrician) to create a "self-reliant" drama directly from "actions, … line, colour and rhythm" -- "That [Craig's alter-ego in the book grandly insists] is the only way the work can be done, if unity, the one thing vital to a work of art, is to be obtained". And Lepage, who runs his own company and frequently writes his own scripts, which he always directs, usually with himself in the leading role, exemplifies Craig's ideal of artistic autonomy. And although he is noted for six- and nine-hour epic productions (like The Dragon's Trilogy, or The Seven Streams of the River Ota) roughly one quarter of his major productions have been one-man shows, in which he is the sole performer. So in truth, Lepage qualifies as a completely self-sufficient Craigean auteur -- perhaps the one and only -- in combining the functions of producer, director, scenic and lighting designer, engineer, lead actor, and even dramatist for his shows.

Then too, as we're about to see, Screens are just as fundamental to Lepage's multi-media performances as they were to Craig's Art Theatre. Craig's famous screens were neutral, given expressiveness and colour by lighting, and were intended to be mobile, on castors so that the architecture and perspective of any scene could change to follow the dictates of the action. When Craig used the screens for his famous 1912 production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre, Stanislavski insisted on weighting them down (fearing they might be knocked over) which rather diminished their flexibility -- although when Yeats used Craig's ivory screens for a 1911 staging of The Hour Glass at the Abbey Theatre, he was ecstatic about the poetic "effects that depend but little on colour, and greatly upon delicate changes of tone". In exactly the same way -- but with possibilities for movement and shifting functions that Craig could never have dreamed of -- the primary piece of scenery that Lepage uses during several of his shows, is a screen. Craig for example, who designed his screens before the earliest movie, projected his actors' shadows onto their surfaces, where Lepage specializes in highly sophisticated combinations of film projection and live action.

As you will see in a series of excerpts from Needles and Opium, the screen forms the complete environment for the actor -- who, of course, is Lepage himself. It is transformed from wall to floor, becomes a trampoline, and serves (of course) as a movie screen, seamlessly combining various types of film with Lepage's stage presence.

However: before turning to the video, just a little context for what you're about to watch.

First performed in 1991, Needles and Opium, sets up parallels between drug-addiction, psychological obsession and art. The figures of the American jazz musician Miles Davis, and the French poet Jean Cocteau, caught at a moment in 1949 when each visited the other's country, are linked through the experience of a Francophone north-American in the present (forty years later) alone in a Paris hotel room and making frantic transatlantic telephone calls to an estranged lover. On the surface, because they never actually met each other, placing the American trumpeter and the French poet together is an image of disjunction and displacement; and this sense of separation -- of things falling apart -- is intensified by the modern-day figure of the young Quebecker who literally cannot connect at all. Miles Davis was on his way to Paris, where he fell hopelessly in love with Juliette Greco and then spiraled into self-destructive heroin abuse. At exactly the same time Cocteau was flying to New York, high on opium and mourning the death of his lover (the novelist Raymond Radiguet) while writing Lettre aux Americains. Each is moving in the opposite direction -- while Lepage's alter-ego (named Robert, which of course is Lepage's own name) is cut off in his hotel room, and taking cocaine as well as suffering from the disorienting effects of hypnosis therapy.

Yet underlying this geographical and psychological fragmentation is a net of coincidental correspondences. Cocteau made a film with Juliette Greco immediately after her relationship with Miles Davis broke up; both Cocteau and Davis were high on derivatives of the same drug --as is the modern-day Robert; and the art of each changed in response to meeting an alien society for the first time; while their music and poetry are integrated in the cultural context of the present. As Lepage puts it:

"It's important to see all these old European surrealist roots and newer things like jazz and black culture that's actually embedded in everything [now]." [i]

The excerpts you're going to see aren't quite in order. The first segment shows a group of scenes illustrating the multimedia nature of the performance -- not only the combination of the live actor on stage, filmed action, back-projection and recorded sound, but also the integration of action and musical score (theatre aspiring -- quite literally here -- to the condition of music, in Craig's terms). Note the way abstract shapes turn into a familiar physical object -- note too the disorienting effect of shifts in scale -- plus the extreme illusion of movement that Lepage creates through his use of video projection.

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One of the striking things about that last sequence is the way the fire-escapes of a New York apartment building are transformed from background scenery to symbols of Cocteau's effortless transcendence -- an acrobat of the soul indeed -- then into the fall of Icarus.

Finally there's a scene showing Lepage's ability to draw spectators in to the action, and the effect of lighting or film on the neutral screen. All these segments are to some extent hallucinatory -- the aim of the piece being to draw us in to the psychosis of the central figure, whose drug use and therapy have caused to lose touch with reality, and to open us to the liberation of fantasy. Here we pick up on the end of a long monologue where Lepage tells us this quite explicitly.

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Since today's society has a film education, Lepage insists theatre must "use the capacity of an audience to read things in fast-forward, jump cuts. . . People have a new language, and it's not all linear." [ii] And in Needles and Opium there are two moments that together could stand as an emblem for this approach. The first is the last segment you've just seen, where Lepage is suspended on wires and revolving vertiginously against a disorienting spinning disk, which dissolves into a checker board floor through which a hole starts to burn: destabilization. The second is when the separate pieces of the trumpet, looking like purely abstract shapes, become reassembled into the musical instrument: reintegration. And that trumpet image highlights another aspect of Lepage's structure: the use of cross-media intertextuality.

The next selection is in a sense equally inter-textual -- even though all the words come directly from a single script -- the best known play in English -- Hamlet: cut down in Lepage's version to just over half its complete length, and with the scenes and speeches rearranged. One might also note that Hamlet was Craig's favorite Shakespeare play, and that in his Moscow production, Craig had conceived the whole action as a monodrama -- a dream seen through Hamlet's eyes, with all the figures being distorted projections of Hamlet's mind. And Lepage's version is still more obviously a monodrama, being specifically organized for a single actor to play all the parts: the Prince, the ghost and Claudius, Ophelia and his mother, even fighting against himself in the final duel. From Polyograph, one of his earliest works where the stage is conceived as a lie-detector, Lepage has been interested in the interface between machine and mind, technology and thought. And, as he described Elsinore: "the technology … enabled me to "X-Ray' certain passages of Hamlet, and while the action apparently only takes place in the protagonist's head, it occasionally has the look of an electro-encephalogram." [iii]

Indeed some of Lepage's stage effects are remarkably similar to Craig's. The sequence in which the actor transforms into Ophelia -- his head and arms poking through a cloth "dress" that stretches over the whole screen -- could be seen as a deliberate homage, in miniature, to the famous effect in Craig's opening scene, where the stage was completely covered in the golden robe that flowed from the shoulders of Claudius seated on a high throne, with the heads of all the courtiers poking through it. Or, in another example, Stanislavski's dramaturge recorded that in 1912 at the end of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, "Hamlet stands behind [a scrim] with an enormous shadow in back of him. On the side screens shadows are continually moving around him and with him, like black fumes". And you will see an almost exactly comparable set up in one of the video segments of Elsinore.

If you thought Needles and Opium was technological, you'll need to hold onto your hats for this piece. Elsinore (first performed 5 years later in 1996) uses an even more mechanized stage, which in fact becomes the star of the show. In many ways indeed it corresponds to Craig's concept of the theatre itself as a machine, in which columns would rise from the stage floor or descend from the flies, creating a continually moving panorama of interlocking forms in interplay with light. Craig, taking his inspiration from Serlio's perspective elevations of architectural shapes, extended from a grid -- and with only the Aspheleia system of hydraulics, which enabled sections of the stage floor to be raised to form platforms of various heights -- imagined a dance of moving columns rising and falling "like the sea". Lepage has the universal joint to play with, and retains the same basic screen as in Needles and Opium, but now rigid and with the addition of a central opening. Still, on a basic level his and Craig's approach is very much the same. Craig back then never managed to put his idea into practice -- and the technology of almost a century later that now allows Lepage to realize a similar vision of theatre, also offers more complex possibilities for movement than simply up- and-down like elevators. (And pushing the edge of the technological envelope, as this gimbaled mechanism does, Lepage here is at risk of being no less overwhelmed by his machine stage than the Craigean puppet -- indeed at the Edinburgh Festival, when a single bolt sheered, the whole run had to be cancelled).

The story of Hamlet, of course, doesn't need any introduction; but it might still be useful to give a brief description of what you'll be seeing.

In the centre of the acting area stands a circular frame with a square central opening. This can revolve horizontally like a great wheel or vertically as a spinning coin -- presenting Gertrude's bed when flat, a window or door when upright, a web in which all the characters are caught, with a throne suspended in its centre for LePage as Claudius, or with white lace stretched across it, through which LePage puts his arms and head to appear as Ophelia.

In this first segment from the opening, which illustrates the basic movement, Claudius' welcome to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is spoken direct to the audience

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This revolving central screen is flanked by two others, which can fill the whole stage area, or move into different configurations. Film can be projected on to all three. Multiple video images, showing LePage from different angles as he acts, fill the screens -- and there is even a miniature Videocam on his sword-point in the duel scene, reflected in a mirror (so that it appears two people are fighting).

In the original production, it was Lepage himself acting all the characters of Shakespeare's play. Here (as far as I know the very first time Lepage has handed a one-man show over to any other actor) the performer is Peter Darling of BAM, playing in New York -- although otherwise the staging is almost exactly the same.

Next we go to a much later episode: a sequence not actually shown in Shakespeare's play, where Hamlet, having killed Polonious, carries the corpse away from his mother's bedroom, then is questioned by Claudius about the location of the body. This gives a good impression of some of the almost cinematic effects the Screen facilitates.

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Next, let's look at one of Hamlet's soliloquies, which illustrates the way the screen takes on a symbolic function, and shows the use of multiple screens for video projection: the faces at the end are both Peter Darling, projected onto the screens at the sides; and the images are simultaneous with the acted scene.

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Now here's Peter Darling as the mad Ophelia, and her drowning -- which transforms into Hamlet on board ship, discovering the order for his execution in his companion's cabin below decks. And what stands out is how much material Lepage has added in the form of wordless action, even though the total performance is only just over 90 minutes.

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That square hole with the circular screen high above the stage, later becomes Ophelia's grave, with the actor as grave-digger shoveling dirt down onto the blue cloth beneath. Finally, a small part of the climactic duel -- and as you will see, recorded video is here used together with simultaneous video, to allow the actor to play four separate parts all together -- Claudius and Gertrude, as well as Hamlet and Laertes. (though there is in fact also a stage-hand behind the screen).

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If Elsinore perhaps gives the unintended impression of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times -- then the piece Lepage produced to close the millennium in 2000, Zulu Time, is a deliberate attack on the high-tech world it showcases. Indeed much of Lepage's work can be seen as a direct interrogation of technology and its impact on contemporary society; with the audio-visual collage of apparently disconnected images in his performance pieces effectively deconstructing conventional representations of reality.

Craig was always working toward a specifically non-literary -- and so by extension multi-media -- type of performance, in which spoken dialogue would have a minor role. So: famously, in designing a 1905 production of Caesar and Cleopatra he omitted all stage directions, then all the words, reducing Bernard Shaw's highly verbal discussion to repetitions of the name of Cleopatra's servant, as an echoing and multiplying whisper: Ftatateeta…Ftatateeta…As Craig commented in a letter to his musician friend Martin Shaw: "Words are a bad means of communicating ideas -- especially transcendent ideas -- ideas which fly". On the surface this doesn't seem to apply to Lepage. There's not only the extremely text-based Elsinore; but in other pieces Lepage typically combines anything from two to five, or even six different languages -- not only French and English, but (in an epic like Seven Streams of the River Ota) also German, Italian, Catalan and Japanese. However the effect of such multilingualism gives speech a physical, objectified texture, emphasizing musicality by removing verbal meaning. As Lepage defines his linguistic approach:

"I have an idea, I say it in a language people don't understand so they're interested to know what it's all about. So I say it again, but in another language they don't understand. . . It's very active. It's like saying the same thing over and over again, but with different images. People associate words and senses and objects and imagery." [iv]

Lepage has underlined that this is specifically "in reaction against a word-culture". And some of his later work, like Zulu Time, is almost wordless. In fact the full-length performance of Zulu Time contains just two very brief moments of spoken dialogue; and both are recorded: airplane safety instructions (repeated in different languages as three men copulate with a flight attendant to the rhythm of the clanking bottles on her drinks trolley), and the messages of would-be lovers on a dating-service voicemail.

Perhaps the most striking quality of contemporary life is its rapidity: the sheer pace of cultural and scientific change, transcontinental travel and instantaneous communication. And high-speed movement is a central image in several Lepage pieces. Cars and trucks functioned as performance-areas in his bi-lingual Romeo and Juliette where the Trans-Canada highway(specially closed -- somewhat ironically -- for the performance) served as both setting and controlling image. Rocket ships and space walks are the focus of The Far Side of the Moon. Airplane flights are physically evoked in The Dragons' Trilogy and Needles and Opium, while Zulu Time interrogates the whole air-travel culture of our society -- where however far you fly, the hotels are all the same and there is no escape from the self.

It was performed at Expocité in Quebec -- a vast empty barn, which (as this sequence of images will show) was filled with complex machinery very much on the model of Craig's stage of moving columns. The title refers to airline flight schedules; and as you will see, Zulu Time featured mechanical robots (with lights in their claws, used to illuminate the performers). And the actors move -- in a frenetic, sometimes upside-down dance -- on parallel catwalks that rise and descend through a high cage of scaffolding like elevators or moving escalators, to present vignettes of human beings whose actions are channeled and synchronized by their mechanized context. The result of this dehumanization, we are shown, intensifies the deep yearning for emotional connection that global travel denies. Anonymous sexual encounters are encapsulated in a hotel-room scene where a lonely traveler resorts to pornographic dreams, embodied by a female contortionist whom his lips can never reach in the alienating freeze frames of strobe lighting.

This is a sequence that covers the whole of the piece, including a final segment showing the stripping of the hanger-like space after the end of the run. It was edited by Ex Machina, and so represents Lepage's view of the highlights.

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Note the musical quality of those scenes, where the choreography of movements and lights is strongly rhythmic, echoing and conditioned by the sound-track. This is literally performance aspiring to the abstract and universalized condition of music: indeed according to Lepage, it was seeing a Genesis concert in Montreal at the age of fifteen that first interested him in the stage; and some 20 years later, in 1993, he repaid the debt by conceiving and producing a rock-show for Genesis: The Secret World Tour of Peter Gabriel. At the same time Lepage's actors (and in his own one-man shows like Needles & Opium, himself) are often literally puppets, hanging from wires that attach them to machines, while the name of his new Quebec theatre company, Ex Machina, puts technology front and centre, symbolizing a mechanical and mechanized theatre -- but specifically in terms of the cutting-edge "interactive technology" of Softimage computer animation, CD-ROM and 3-D TV.

However, what I hope that selection of short video clips has shown you is that the wires from which Lepage and his actors are suspended are not confining. Being a "puppet" offers in fact a liberation from gravity and time, expanding the conventional two-dimensional movement of performance into new spatial possibilities. Craig imagined vertical movement through endless flights of steps: Lepage achieves it without the constraint of static stage constructs. And (when it doesn't break down) the complex post-industrial machine with which Lepage literally plays is a source flexible imaginative vision.

In Lepage's feature film, Confessional -- an evocation of the interaction between past and present in Quebec society that is also a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock -- there is a compelling scene where a house is being renovated. The old family pictures have been removed from the walls and thrown out, yet however often the rooms are repainted the shape where those pictures hung for so long shows through the new colour-scheme as ghostly shapes that are still completely clear. And exactly the same is true of the way Craig's art-concepts show through Lepage's performance pieces.

[i] Cit. Mat Wolf, New York Times, 6 Dec 1992, p. H5

[ii] Lepage, cit. John Lahr, New Yorker, 28 Dec 1992, p. 190

[iii] Programme Note to Elsinore, 1995.

[iv] Lepage, cit. Denis Salter, Books in Canada XX No. 2, p. 27, & Hunt, p. 28.

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