Blesok no. 31, March-April, 2003
Theatre Theory

Interculturalism and Iconophilia in the New Theatre

Andrzej Wirth

     It seems that for the first time in human history we have the chance for global cultural understanding. Air travel and the media-created impression that we all are inhabitants of a global village enforce such a conviction. Is this conviction correct as far as theatre is concerned? Or, to speak in the terminology of Victor Turner, are we witnessing a “new transcultural communicative synthesis through performance?”
     Contemporary presentational aesthetics are changing the proportions be­tween theatre and performance. The development is moving in the direction of less theatre, more performance. This strengthening of the performative element occurs at the cost of diminishing mimetic, dramatic, and narrative elements. Literary theatre (generated from a verbal text) and live performance (on the “scripted” stage as dance, song, sculpture, etc.) do exist presently as a mixed form. To answer the general question about the role of transcultural communication in the new theatre it might be best to proceed analytically, limiting ourselves to a few pertinent paradigms. Those paradigms I have chosen are Robert Wilson, and as points of comparative reference Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba, and the Polish theatre group (now in exile), Teatr Osmego Dnia.
     The interculturalism of Robert Wilson can be discussed on many levels, such as the aesthetics of production and re-production, performance aesthetics and theatre reception. This would apply not only to such obvious examples as the unique multi-national project of CIVIL WarS (from 1982 on), but applies equally on different levels to the majority of his works from the beginning. (Black performer Sheryl Sutton; Freud, Stalin as stage figures; Shiraz as location for (The KA Mountain and GUARDenia Terrace project, etc.—the period of 1969-1972).
     Wilson's interculturalism in terms of its production process has to be seen in the context of the geographical dissemination of his projects. An American, he works with the same ease in New York, Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Minneapolis, Washington, Los Angeles, as in Amsterdam, Shiraz, Paris, Avignon, Lyon, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Milan, Rome, Tokyo.
     Since 1979 West Germany with its opulently subsidised state and city theatres has become an operating base for Wilson. He didn't become a German director, but he is surely one of the most outstanding directors working in German theatre in the last decade. Indeed, he has established a new intercultural model in theatre work. Unlike Peter Brook, an Englishman who works in Paris with an international cast of eclectic actors, Wilson works in Germany with German actors who are members of established repertory ensembles. The most universal German theatre, that is, theatre done in Germany with German actors for German audiences, is made presently by an American.
     Intercultural praxis subverts the conventional view that theatre generated in a given country is an expression of its culture. Is this true in the case of Wilson's Golden Windows in Munich, or HAMLETMACH1NE in New York? In Golden Windows, the laughing aria of the great Munich actress Maria Nicklisch is composed of laugh quotations from her previous dramatic roles at the Kammerspiele. One could argue that this sequence of the play is made from indigenous material of the central European repertory theatre and therefore is an expression of local culture. This central European coding disappeared in the reconstruction of the work at the Brooklyn Academy because American actors don't have a comparable canonic reference system. HAMLETMACHINE with its many idiosyncratically European and particularly German textual references was staged in New York and “reconstructed” in Hamburg. A specifically American coding of some play sequences, e.g., the “Hamlet walk” of the original production, couldn't be preserved in the German reconstruction. These differences reflect some specific problems of interculturalism on the level of the aesthetics of theatrical production, which generates its kinetic matrix from the performative qualities of a “found” player.
      This produces difficulties in finding adequate substitutes in “replicas” (cf. Golden Windows at BAM and CIVIL WarS in Cambridge). In the casting of “voices” in the performance, theatre problems are not different from those of the transcultural staging of conventional opera. In the reconstruction of the Roman part of CIVIL WarS in Rotterdam, Wilson's fans missed the Italianate charisma of Luigi Petroni's (Garibaldi) bel canto, in this case a price Wilson was ready to pay for the cultural transfer.
     It is important to recall, however, that Wilson had initially a radically new and more radical concept of transcultural communication with chosen “target'' cultures. His current theatre praxis of reconstructing single parts of CIVIL WarS: the Roman part in Rotterdam, the Cologne part in Cambridge, Mass., the Tokyo/Minneapolis part in Frankfurt, etc., is a compromise after the failure of a multi-national project for the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984, designed as a congregation of other cultures.
     This project sought five or six production sites—Cologne, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Stuttgart or Marseille, Rome—and all realized parts received some mark of couleur locale: Orientalism of the Knee Plays; Frederick the Great of the Cologne part; Garibaldi of the Italian part; Dutch landscapes of the Rotterdam part, etc. Obviously, the original concept of Wilson's interculturalism didn't include a provision for “reproducing” Oriental, Teutonic, Italian, Dutch expressions, but quoting them from the source. The Dutch references of the Rotterdam part may appear as touristic stereotypes (Mata Hari, Queen Wilhelmina, William the Silent, cabbages and tulips), but the dominance of a language of the audience gives the piece a distinct couleur locale. In the Cologne part of CIVIL WarS the collaboration with Heiner Miller led to something more than a “tourist” view of Germany.
     Biographical references to Frederick the Great's youth, military career, and death, taken from Heiner Miller material, provided an illusion of a play-within-a-play and suggested a kind of central focus on a connotatively rich historical figure. Wilson assures us that he is interested primarily in the formal aspect of the “picture book” image: a parallel between the horse's neck line and the steep shoulder line of the rider. This is correct with respect to his formalist aesthetics. However, the stage figure of Frederick the Great can't be appreciated as an icon in Germany without diverse, heavily coded historical connotations. In a theatre which sees images as a vehicle for messages, such a gap between the aesthetics of production and reception could be considered a contradiction. But this is obviously not Wilson's concern.
     Robert Wilson's intercultural praxis does not fit into an otherwise helpful dualistic model of source and target culture, proposed by Patrice Pavis (International Conference on Interculturalism in Theatre, Bad Hamburg, 1988). Pavis's model could be sufficient to describe the way Brecht used elements of Noh Theatre in his learning play Ja sager-nein sager, but it would already be problematic if applied to his Mahagony opera. The flow of exchanges and transformations in the realm of Euro-American cultures asks for another model in which the very notion of source and target is invalidated.

     The Michelin-tire figurine with a ball-bearing ring in his hand in DD&iD (Part I) is a grand example of Wilson's syncretic use of symbols from (the reservoir of popular culture. Brothers Michelin were manufacturers of the first demountable pneumatic tires in France. Their company became a leading producer of tires in Europe at the end of the century and expanded to the U.S. before WWWI. The Michelin firm became well-known to travelers in Europe because of its maps and guide books. Wilson transforms this trademark symbol, originated in Europe and popularised in America, through the addition of an icon from WWII Nazi propaganda (“Alle Rader rollen fur den Sieg,” “All wheels roll for the victory”)—a ball-bearing ring—and lets the Michelin figurine recite an aria composed from numbers illustrating the production of ball-bearing rings in Hitler's Germany in the final stage of the war (this as quotation from the memoir of Hitler's war minister Albert Speer).
     One directional source/target model of cultural transactions is superseded in Wilson's intercultural praxis through a model of orbit, with rotating motives which enrich themselves by passing through different cultural hemispheres. One could note many examples of Wilson's tendency to minimalize and familiarize any local “foreign” expressions. Wilson's intercultural glance: the perspective on the planet Earth from the U.S. space ship; Heracles as Tarzan; Hopi Indians dancing with Garibaldi's soldiers; Gilgamesh on the analyst's couch, etc.
     To understand Wilson's stance on interculturalism, it is necessary to rccognize that his is a posthistoire look, perhaps easier to achieve for an American than for a European (no irony!). This “look” can be accommodated in a theatre which sees itself as an exhibition, a public park, a landscape, a theatre that uses pictures not for their hermeneutic, but their contemplative, meditative value. Wilson's optics ignore the transparency of the signifier, and view it as opaque, denying its function of pointing towards the signified. Contemplation begins where representation ends. Such an approach admits the possibility of formal syncretism, which discovers a common denominator (or the most diverse cultural manifestations. Asked about a possible link between Rudolf Hess and Franz Kafka as referential biographies for Parts 1 and 2 of Death Destruction and Detroit, Wilson answered that the analogy lies in the fact that Rudolf Hess (who was at that time still alive) does not want to die, and Franz. Kafka didn't want to live. This is exactly a stance which stresses the structural analogy, and in a reversed symmetry sees a unifying syncretic moment.
     My hypothesis: Paradoxically, interculturalism is for Wilson a vehicle not for cultural understanding, but for distancing, and luring the spectator into a meditative trance, as the only one comfortable position of appreciation in view of the displayed diversity. Statements to the contrary in the press releases for the CIVIL WarS should be considered as propaganda for an appeasement of conventionally-thinking sponsors. I am not suggesting duplicity here, but a strategical displacement. Wilson's interculturalism contributes to intercultural understanding on the level of collective, collaborative theatre team work.
     It evokes a spirit of collaboration between artists (Lucinda Childs, Suzushi Hanayagi, Heiner Miller, etc.) of diverse cultures, and provokes a collaborative effort between theatrical styles which understand themselves as exclusive (Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku). The strategies which he invented and developed for intercultural collaboration in his global theatre project CIVIL WarS are unique in theatre history. Wilson's theatre allows one to appreciate aesthetically sounds, pictures, and movements as independent entities in a perceptually optimal display. The act of contemplation is a solitary one, and Wilson's artful displays “address” not an “audience” in general, but an individual spectator. The encouragement of intermissions at the spectator's own discretion in Wilson's great operas is not a theatrical provocation, but a provision to accommodate the solitary act according to its own pace and raptures.
     Interculturally produced, Wilson's works are not intended to induce intercultural understanding, and as the experience with their “ reconstruction” (replicas) shows, are relatively resistant to an intercultural transfer (remember Golden. Windows at BAM).
     Wilson's intercultural syncretism ignores distinctions between history and nature (Lincoln as tree, Frederick the Great as iceberg) and is designed not as a vehicle to promote understanding of cultural differences but an appreciation of their arbitrary aesthetic synthesis. Lincoln's Ubermarionette appears in CIVIL WarS not as a symbolic figure of American democracy, but as a visual emblem de-anthropomorphized through scale, and an analogy with a tree stressed in the motto of the piece: “A tree is best measured when it is down.” The Lincoln tree is a stage object and its stage movement is suggestive of an abstract tension between verticality and horizontality. A Roman critic (a woman) wanted to see in it a representation of a penis, a guess as good as any in the discourse of Wilson's reception.
     The point I am trying to make is that Wilson's rich intercultural repertoire of images which includes Stalin, Freud, Einstein, Edison, Frederick the Great, Kafka, Hess, the Emperor of China, General Lee, Florence Nightingale, Madame Curie, Mata Hari, Hercules, Don Quixote, Captain Nemo, Hopi Indians, and Gilgamesh serves a formal purpose which is to distance and to outfocus the conventional anthropocentric perception of theatre. His project in terms of postulated distance is much more radical than Brecht's (closer to Gertrude Stein's deconstructionist program: “the whole earth is covered with characters”). Brecht's Galileo play, compared with Wilson's Einstein opera, is an old-fashioned empathy piece. Wilson can play with any great figure in his theatre without inviting empathy. His “dignified aloofness,” which Janny Donker describes in her book, The President of Paradise: A Traveler's Account of Robert Wilson's CIVIL WarS, requires a well-measured distance.
     Wilson is a Pythagorean: he seems to believe in the transmigration of the soul, and sees numbers (proportions) as the ultimate elements of the universe. One of his favorite methods of distancing and outfocusing the stage figure is its quantification and multiplication (Einstein on the Beach, DDS&D). He denotes stage figures with numbers, uses counting as a measure of movement, indulges in classical compositional proportions (the golden mean, etc.).
     Wilson's “trademark” players, whom he uses “interculturally” within different national ensembles—Sheryl Sutton, Christopher Knowles, Cindy Lubar, Jessye Norman, Lucinda Childs—are never cast as “characters,” but as idiosyncratic performers because of their unique physical, kinetic, and vocal stage presence. They are displayed as opaque human emblems not to communicate anything interculturally, but as mere presence to be aesthetically contemplated.
     Interestingly enough, if Wilson uses a famous “representational” actor, e.g., the actress Ingrid Andree in CIVIL WarS, he transforms her into an historic, static, opaque emblem through mask, costume, and quoted gestures. The high points of the role are effects achieved through computerized, electronically controlled light design.
     A question arises concerning the function of a conventionally trained representational actor used as a mere physical carrier of theatre signs distributed by the mise-en-scene. In some instances the actor disappears totally under a de-anthropomorphizing disguise: a dinosaur in DDS&D or a pan­ther in DDS&D2. On the other hand, such famous actors of German literary theatre as Peter Luhr and Maria Nieklisch of the Munich Kammerspiele are made productive for Wilson through an application of radical deconstruc­tionist strategies: they are capable of using some of their idiosyncratic vocal and gesturing mannerisms in a kind of collage which derives its power from their conventional dramatic roles in the cultural canon of German literary theatre.
     The culturally determined exprcssiveness of German actors is intentionally defused, outfocused, artfully blurred and universalized by Wilson as material for formal composition. Obviously, cross-cultural understanding is not a factor he considers. To the contrary, very diversified cultural material is saved from appearing eclectic through the synthesizing powers of Wilson's iconophilia, which is capable of transforming any material into an object for aesthetic contemplation.
     In contrast to Peter Brook, Wilson's position on interculturalism appears as a radically purist stance. He does not offer any rhetoric concerning transcultural understanding, as Peter Brook does in his Mahabharata. Under close examination, Brook's Mahabharata appears as a typical work of Orientalist aesthetics, and not as a representation of the unknown Orient, as Brook promises. This is to be seen in the imposition of a Shakspearean aura (War of the Roses) and of tragic perception of fate, principally foreign to the Indian original (cf. Gautam Dasgupta, PA) .30). There is a greater honesty in the stance of Wilson who does not promise anything he can't deliver.
     Less maximalistic than Brook's, but more realistic as an assessment of interculturalism in theatre is the position of Ariane Mnouchkine in her Shakespeare cycle (Richard II, Henry IV, Twelfth Night—1981/1982). Mnouchkine retains the occidental cultural matrix of Shakespeare's chronicles, using stereotypes of commedia dell’ arte, Noh, and Kabuki as a kind of overpainting, ornamentation, and stylization. No cultural transfer is promised, only a variation on a known melody in a new register. In this effort Mnouchkine succeeds, as she also does in Mefisfo (1980). This is because the political opportunism of a prominent artist is an experience which the French share with Germans, and its exemplification is easier on “foreign” material.
     I would put in the same category Eugenio Barba's Brechl's Ashes project, and the Mandelstam project of an exiled Polish alternative group Teatr Osmego Dnia, Höhenflug (1987). Barba, juxtaposing elements of Brecht's work and life, creates a new level of cross-cultural understanding of the German poet. The Polish group uses the biography of Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam to express the dilemma of contemporary political dissidents in Eastern Europe.
     It is noteworthy that in all these instances the contribution to intercultural understanding does not exceed the realm of European experience. Wilson's sources and targets are pluralistic. He overcomes the danger of eclecticism through the fusion of iconophilia with iconoclasm. The iconoclastic moment is apparent in his unwillingness to draw a distinction between culture and nature, between man and animal, between ancient and modern, between holy and secular.
     “A new transcultural communicative synthesis through performance,” which Victor Turner hoped for, indeed took place in (the new theatre, but, without a visible contribution to global cultural understanding. An edifice composed from the stones of an Egyptian pyramid, the wood from an Indian pagoda, and the bricks of an old Manchester factory does not provide any insights into the source cultures from which those elements derived. Nonetheless, we are capable of appreciating them in a new, arbitrary, totalising context. In this respect, the aesthetics of the new theatre follows the way of postmodern architecture.

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