Blesok no. 33, July-August, 2003
Does Nothing Come from Nothing?
Good evening. Now, you must help me, because it is impossible to talk without knowing who one's talking to. I've been very kindly introduced, but I don't know you. So can you tell me who is a psychoanalyst here? Ah, you're in a minority. Who amongst you feels covered by the enormous blanket words psychologists, psychotherapist, and psychiatrist? Oh, hands are moving up! Good! Now, who has nothing to do with any of these? Ah, a majority!
Once, some years ago, we did a performance of a play called Kaspar — which you may know; it's about Kaspar Hauser — in a French psychiatric hospital in Paris. We did two performances. One in a room about this size, full of patients and it was quite an extraordinary experience because of the intensity of the listening. In fact, it compelled the actors to have a quite unusual degree of sensitivity. They felt that the least image that they projected could easily go too far and be dangerous to the patients. After that experience we went upstairs to another hall, where we did a second performance which was entirely for the psychiatrists of the hospital there were four hundred. This was a very interesting experience because we could actually feel and hear the movement of four hundred brains, debating with themselves whether they agreed or disagreed with what they were seeing. And this produced a hum that was quite audible. So just listen for a moment and see, because I think I can detect something similar tonight…
When I received this invitation, which I felt was a very serious one, to take part in this very impressive series I consulted my brother, Alexis, who is an old standing member of the Psycho-Analytical Society, about what I should do.
He said, “What are you going to talk about?” So I said, “Obviously, about the brain and the mind.”
He raised his hands in horror and said, “But my God, that's what they listen to all day long. They want you to talk about theatre.”
I said, “But I hear myself talking about theatre all day long. I can't see why I should go into another context and go on talking about theatre.”
In the end I realized that in fact the interest of the subject and that is why I chose the most non-committal title I could find Does Nothing Come from Nothing? - was that it doesn't matter if one is talking about theatre or if one is talking about the mind. One is, in fact, talking about the same essential and incomprehensible human experience in two completely different types of practical work. This is what Ernest Jones so strongly underlined. Inevitably, there are both areas of confirmation and areas of completely opposite understanding in the same field. So it seemed to me there can not be any difference between speaking on one subject or the other.
For instance, it always struck me over the years that there is something totally incomprehensible in the mystery of an actor's ability to enter, instantaneously, into the depth of another human being with an exact understanding of the complex mechanism of that person's mind. The actor is an Instant Analyst.
Now this immediate entry into the secret mechanisms of behaviour is a common experience in rehearsal and is very curious. An actor, once he has left drama school, has very, very little time in the day and in the week to go around and observe other human beings — he spends most of his time locked in a very small closed circle, which is the theatre world. Yet, you find that the moment you start speaking to him about a character that he is playing or preparing to play, he will speak in a precise and analytical way about the motivation of the character, with deep insight, using very practical and often very simple language: “Well, he's the sort of person who… No, he wouldn't do that, I mean he would be thinking this, but he would be doing this because his feelings would be leading him, but it wouldn't be quite true.” All that is the natural jargon of an actor, which comes through something strangely difficult to define, because the penetration often is instantaneous. Very often an actor can read a script this happens in film acting all the time and can instantly, through what you can only call intuition, instantly penetrate into a specific understanding of the workings of somebody, apparently very far from himself and sometimes not through a long and difficult process, but at once. From here he, or she, develops what one calls a character. And as everyone knows who watches actors, this newly created person is sometimes extraordinarily complex. Where does the actor acquire the understanding that for the doctor takes years of study?
When I first began to work in the theatre, I worked with a very young Alec Guinness. Alec Guinness, who had already done a lot of work, said to me, “I must warn you, if you interrupt me while I am rehearsing something emotional, if in the middle of a scene you just interrupt me because you just want to tell me something, I'll yell at you”. “But”, he said, “don't take this as showing any bad faith, any bad intentions on my part. I can't bear to lose the thread, the unity of my character, so I will shout so as to stay within what I am doing”. This is the only occasion I have ever heard an actor say such a thing and to me it is the exception that underlines an astonishing rule. Normally, an actor can be deeply inside an extraordinary, complex character, inter-relating with great passion with another character and you can say, “Just a moment, could you just step two inches to the right because otherwise you would be out of the light” and he says in his normal voice “Oh yes, certainly”, immediately picking up again not only the thread of the scene, but the entire human being who is, as it were, put on and taken off as easily as a coat. But the mystery is that this coat goes on and off inside and the actor can slip into the entire fibre and structure of a human being in a flash, without using any mental devices or tricks.
The most striking experience of this was when we made a film of King Lear in Denmark in the middle of winter. I remember Paul Scofield sitting in the freezing ice and snow I think about 20° below zero – covered in furs with Danish assistants bringing him little glasses, either of hot coffee or Schnapps or both, and smoking his pipe while the shot was being lined up. He would pass the time chattering with whoever was by him. But when we were ready to shoot he would get up from the chair, dropping all these rugs and fur coats, step in front of the camera and in the same movement stop in to the most complex character there is King Lear. Not like a rehearsal in the theatre where, as Alec Guinness was trying to express, the actor is carried along by the movements of the scene, but here in the cold, out of all continuity. It happened just like that he would get up as Paul Scofield and in the movement from being out of the camera to being in front of the lens, the whole body would absorb the character in all its fullness. Anything that needed to be improvised (because after all in a film he has to make very different gestures from what he would have rehearsed in the theatre) like just a way of reaching out his hand would belong totally to Lear. Then I would say “Cut” and the other person would be dropped. I'd say “We'll do another take”, and the other identity would instantly be resumed.
This is the sort of everyday experience of acting, which remains for me an extraordinary mystery. But there is another mystery that goes beyond this; there are bad actors and there are good actors. The difference between a bad actor and a good actor is something that everyone recognizes; but when our job is to find a precise way to transform the level on which an actor is acting, to make “bad” become “better”, then one is in front of a great enigma. What makes for a change in quality?
Quality in external things, quality in a motor car, quality in any visible object is very easy to define. Quality when it comes to human actions and human relations is exceptionally difficult to define. But it takes on a special interest when it is related to the same blueprint, to a shared written structure, a shared physical structure, whether involving two actors or twenty. When an understudy takes over from another actor, he may do exactly the same gestures and movements as the person he replaces and everybody in any audience will unmistakably tell whether what they are experiencing is now on a lower level of quality or a higher level of quality. However terrified people are today of anything that suggests “value”, empirically every single paying audience recognizes and responds all the time to an absolutely unmistakable, if indefinable, scale of values. So when one works, one is all the time looking for a “value” and this is quite specific. It is not just the generalized thing of playing a scene well, of having a company that “plays well together”; this is not enough; each single word counts, as does each single intonation, or the way that a hand moves forward, moves backwards or can pause for a moment. These all contain exactly the same question: What is this strange human fabric, this ectoplasm that the actor has taken from nowhere, put on and which has penetrated through all his fibres and which can be of cheap quality, of middle quality, or supremely fine quality, just like a carpet? What produces this substance of variable quality? All that one can say for certain is that there is a crystal clear reference, a yardstick and like everything in the theatre, this yardstick only exists “in the moment”.
Nothing in the theatre has any meaning “before” or “after”. Meaning is “now”. An audience comes to the theatre for one reason only, which is to live a certain experience and an experience can only take place at the moment when it is experienced. When this is truly the case, the silence in a theatre changes its density and in every form of theatre, in all different traditions and all the different types of theatre all over the world you can see exactly the same phenomenon. An audience is composed of people whose minds are whirling — as they watch the event, sometimes this audience is touched — again we do not really know what “touched” means, except that it is a phenomenon. At first, the audience isn't touched — why should it be? Then all of a sudden, something touches everyone. At the moment that they are touched an exact phenomenon occurs. What has been up till then individual experiences become shared, unified. At the moment when the mass of people becomes one, there is one silence and that silence you can taste on the tongue. It's a different silence from the ordinary silence that is there at the beginning of the performance and it is a silence that can, according to the quality that is lived by the actor, become an experience that is of another quality for the audience, one which each person recognises. This shared recognition expresses itself through the increasing density of the same silence.
Because of this, one can see that there is a mystery, which has always been present in the nature of a theatre event. And I think this must be linked to something very fascinating — the difference between drama and tragedy. When an audience sees a sordid, miserable reflection of the misery of life, if this is amusingly presented, or excitingly presented the audience can have a good and interesting evening and applaud at the end. But this is not what one means by the word tragedy. Tragedy has a very special effect. If tragedy reaches the intensity we've just described when the deepest of silences is produced in the audience, then the audience confronts the intense core of a living experience, and the audience leaves the theatre totally renewed.
Now, the very obscure word “catharsis” refers to this, but unfortunately a word cannot help one's understanding. What can help us, on the contrary, is to return to the question, recognizing a true enigma when we meet one. When terror is aroused in a particular way, instead of the reaction being negative, something positive is released. This seems to me very important to stress because the theatre has a possible vocation — it can be a healing process. There was a time, the time of Greek tragedy, when a whole city could come together and the fragmentation of all the individuals who make up the city would be transformed into a shared, intense experience in which self is transcended. For a moment, a life of a completely different nature was tasted and then each person would leave the theatre and go back into their ordinary preoccupations. But a temporary healing of the diseased and fragmented community took place, even if the fragmentation and the conflicts took place again as people left the theatrical space. And the transformation and the taste — and the confidence — it gave could take place again and again whenever the audience came together in the special circumstances of a performance. Society cannot be healed permanently, but temporary healings can constantly redress the balance.
There is no point, however, in dwelling romantically in the distant past, saying this was once possible maybe in Greek tragedy. What is important is to see how this possibility is inherent in the theatre process, wherever it takes place. This throws a responsibility onto everyone who is practicing theatre. Which is why, picking some words out of the blue six months ago, when I was asked what I was going to talk about tonight, I chose as a title Does Nothing come from Nothing? So I ask you: Does nothing come from nothing? For instance, if one takes a purely behaviorist view on the living process, if every single action of a human being comes from inner conflicts and pressures whose causes can be traced to recognizable, social, cultural, racial, environmental factors, if this is true, then every single form of behavior out of which life and theatre are made comes from “Something”. Any behaviorist would maintain that everything that even the greatest writer can put into a play and everything that the finest performance can offer is still made out of the material that these people have acquired in their lifetime or through their genes. If that is so, we have the answer, something comes out of something, nothing comes out of nothing. But direct experience disagrees with this easy conclusion.
In the theatre, one starts rehearsals in a bare room or a bare stage and when the show is over, everything is swept away. At the end of a performance, at the end of a play, it is over. So in a way something is born, something dies and in the empty space no trace remains. One is in a privileged position of observing a process that starts in nothing, ends in nothing but which can reach a totally different nothing in the middle if the exceptional, luminous great silence falls. Repeated experiences show in a concrete way that there is not one nothing but at least two nothings. This may sound linguistically impossibility but what it means is quite specific. There is a source, out of which comes these grades of quality. When there is no quality at all the zero is purely negative. When, through a whole complex series of factors, everyone is stimulated to an unusual intensity of perception, then the actor, the actor's body, one actor's interrelation with another, the whole group's interrelation with one another all create a new form of interrelation with the audience. Out of this comes a genuine participation of all who are present because there is a living flow that is uniting the separate entities into one field of life. When this happens, the shared experience turns from being a negative zero into a zero that is climbing up a scale of quality, until it eventually reaches a level of perception in which the zero is positive. This vibrant zero, this “nothing” could never be perceived by the same people! whether performer or audience when their perception level is at its starting point. At this level, Nothing can come from Nothing. The dynamics of performance can bring something out of nothing, until a true nothing that comes from nothing returns to nothing again.
This is linked to something very, very simple. I'm sure that you all know that theatre people are said to be naive. In fact, my brother told me just now that Ernest Jones said that “One of the characteristics of genius is gullibility” and that gullibility is something very natural. Theatre people are emotional, excitable, sentimental and gullible and although they do not like being told that, basically naive. This is our greatest aid.
It is very interesting that Brecht, who has become a symbol of heavy didactic thought, who wrote more theoretically about the theatre than almost any other director, above all treasured naivety. In his work, Brecht, to the astonishment of the people who collaborated with him, constantly used the word “naive”. He said: “We must make naive theatre” and in fact his performances were very far from what any one would imagine after reading his theories. The performances that he directed himself all glowed with the joy of intuition, an intuition heightened by the activity, the vitality of working with other people.
It is very important to weigh this question of naivety. Naivety is innocence. Today in the West, in a capital city surrounded by all our present problems, it is easy to believe that to touch a present-day audience, the theatre must draw its material out of experience. In theory, experienced people write, direct and act out of their experience for an audience that is interested in experiences. So where does innocence come in? It is not a question of choice — either innocence or experience. Experience only becomes meaningful if it is constantly illuminated by an innocence that is potentially there. It is through this that the audience can receive an experience as terrifying as the confrontation of reality that a tragedy can bring and yet be reawakened to the different understanding which comes from this innocence, which may be completely submerged, but never completely lost. If one looks very carefully, one can see that in the rare moments when one has the impression of a transformation of quality, an innocence and an experience are coexisting. And at that moment, a healing process can take place. And the healing process acts on everyone present.
So one question remains permanent and central — what process, what approach can be found so that actions on one level can become illuminated by another? What is healing?
The question remains open and as we are here to exchange questions, I would like now to stop talking and put a question to the psychoanalysts and the psychiatrists who are here tonight. There is something I would like to understand with your help. In the writings on psychiatry that I have come across at different moments I have been very struck by one commonly-used word and that is the work “dark” — “in the darkest regions of the heart”, “the darkest regions of the soul”, “the darkest areas of the human psyche”, or else the word “deep”: “in the hidden depths”. I have never come across “in the lightest portions of the hidden psyche”, “in the highest areas of the human psyche”. So I would like to ask you a question, I would like to understand this better, because to me it is very clearly related to the meaning of behavior and the meaning of healing. Why is the most hidden portion of the psyche considered a “dark” place? Why not “light”? Cannot the unknown beyond our everyday consciousness contain “up” as well as “down”, “high” as well as “low”? For healing.
Maybe Psycho-Analysis isn't very good on happiness.
He says that with a smile, so he is clearly a happy man! But I wonder whether one could take that remark very precisely and investigate what in fact it really means.
I am not a psychoanalyst, but I just would like to venture to say that maybe it is because it's an unknown place. It is dark because it is unclear.
Yes, I think we understand what you say, that we're surrounded on all sides by the unknown. It is vital to us to know by direct experience a little more about the unknown, and so naturally one wants to throw light on what is hidden in darkness and one uses that expression, “throw light”. But one can't talk about throwing light on one's darkness without asking “then what is light?” Just coming out into the open, out of the closet, isn't enough, that isn't throwing light. So, I would still like to know if we could try to penetrate into the question. Where is the source of the light you try to throw?
I am not an analyst either, but isn't it something to do with the fact that it is only in darkness that you can truly see the light, which is a kind of religious metaphor? It is only in the darkness that you can actually see light, see the light in its intensity, beauty etc.
Well, I wonder whether analysts would agree with that.
Could I say that I am not a psychiatrist or a therapist, but I am a theatre person? I think maybe because that is where much of the repression and the human conflict is, as opposed to when you talk about a lighter side. I would imagine the lighter side we are talking of is the much more socialized part of human nature.
I think that what you say only intensifies the awkward question. Is the socializing need of the human animal truly the counterpart to this primeval territory called darkness? When Ernest Jones wrote about Hamlet, he wrote with tremendous knowledge of all the different versions of Hamlet. He was very well versed in Shakespeare and in the whole history of the play. He points out how in the early pre-Shakespearean version of the same story — the drama of the man hearing that his father has been murdered and taking his revenge — is all played in the outside world so that the early pre-Hamlet Hamlets were all social in that sense. The action was outside, the conflict was outside. Ernest Jones underlines how Shakespeare, step by step, took away everything that could make you think that the real conflicts were on the outside. So that for Ernest Jones, there was absolutely no question that what in a cruder play took place in the outside world now is really taking place, in all its complexity, in the inner world of Hamlet. In fact, I think he also uses this expression, “in the darkest areas of his soul”. But I am sure Ernest Jones would forgive me if I now ask “Is this all?” Isn't Hamlet's inner struggle animated by intimations of meaning that take their source in the unknown, light and superconscious levels of the subconscious?
Once one recognizes this notion of a tremendous unknown cataclysmic whirlpool going on inside, invisibly inside the human being, is it too ridiculous to talk about light? Or else, isn't one compelled to wonder whether this isn't “something else” somewhere within his psyche, and, if so, what? Everyone can recognize the word “awe” — the sense of awe is a quality that at different moments every single human being has the capacity to experience. Where is awe? Awe is an inner experience, just as much as fear, hatred and terror, violence, the wish to murder. It is a different experience within the same complex organism. What feeds it? We can talk about what feeds terror, about what feeds fear, and about the counter-forces repressing fear that can lead to explosion, or to indecision, that can lead, in the case of Hamlet, to paralysis of the will. We need to examine what feeds awe, openness, the freeing of the will — what is wonder, wonder that leads us to the light parts of the psyche? Why can't we recognize these sources as well? If the theatre has anything to offer it is a taste of something that can't be explained and can't be defined, but which can be experienced as a concrete reality.
You said just now that we were exchanging questions, can I ask you one of mine, which I think in fact joins up with what you have just been saying about what feeds this experience. I was very interested in how you described the zero quality, ascending up a gradient of awareness until something new can happen. Can you say something about how you set the conditions for that to take place?
Yes, very simply. We've been working it out for a number of years in different parts of the world with actors from different cultures, from many different backgrounds and cultures; from the East as well as from the West, bringing them together. And we have found that there is only one technique and that is something, which sounds terrible, but really is the noblest technique there is, which is “brain washing”. You get actors together, a Japanese actor, an African actor, an American actor, an English actor. You sit together and everyone recognizes that their brain needs washing. They have to recognize this. People say to me how do we get into your company? I don't dare say, “You have to come to me saying I have a brain that needs to be washed”. But that is the secret reason and you smell out people who feel that they need this. When we begin to work, we sit together in a circle. Why? There are all sorts of things in the brain that are swept away if you are just sitting together in a circle. That is the first washing.
I did a workshop 10 days ago in Berlin with a number of people who came with all the intellectual complexity of the German mind, which go far beyond any other complexities one knows anywhere, and today is full of frustration, bitterness and anger. And in this workshop, which was for young directors, we sat together on the floor, not on chairs, which was a surprise to everyone, and just started by doing something very quietly, a little tiny exercise in silence. At the end of the day, one of the German girls said to me, a girl from the East, marked by very strong, tough experiences, she said. “You know, sitting in that circle was like entering paradise”.
Well it was very exaggerated, very touching but what she meant was that a simple situation — sitting quietly — temporarily had washed her brain. When the ordinary brain is washed in that way a very different quality is immediately aroused. After this, a simple exercise, for instance just standing up and sitting down again; walking or just taking a chair and putting your hand on it, looks and feels different. The person who is willingly making him or herself more empty becomes through emptiness a receiving instrument for a finer sensitivity and this challenges a whole number of deeply held beliefs. One of them is that the director and the performers start their work in the mind, where they decide what they want to do and then use their bodies to show their conclusions to others. But are you there to show — or are you there to discover? This is the choice. If you are there to show, you accept the tradition according to which good work starts by everyone sitting around a table for several weeks discussing what they intend to do.
This is a time-honored tradition, which is taken seriously because it is considered worthy of grown-up, intellectual people living intelligent lives. So a play is first discussed from every point of view: psychological, social, political. Only when agreement is reached on intentions, when this sort of seminar is over, then the work, the theatrical work, starts which is finding good ways of making the notions vivid to an audience. So in fact the process is: we agree what we are trying to do, amongst ourselves, with ourselves, and then we try to see how to show it, so eventually you have a “show”. When instead of “showing” the aim is “discovering”, then the brainwashing doesn't end on the first day. You realize that once you start washing, you must wash away not only the obvious, argumentative clutter in the brain and all the background clutter of “artistic” thinking that is in the brain, but also the whole body needs its own special washing — because after all what instrument is there in the theatre except the body?
The whole body with its manifold areas of thought and feeling has to be cleansed. You do an exercise with one foot — for instance, actors do an exercise in which they have to use a foot with the same imagination that a speaker can have with words — now, a Japanese actor, an African actor can do this very easily, they don't have to have it explained. They can immediately think, dream, imagine and create as much with one part of the body as with another. But for many other actors it is inconceivable to find this sensitivity and lightness without practice and exercising. So that the process for practice and exercising is not to acquire skills, nor to acquire methods to reproduce mentally prepared intentions. What began as brainwashing now leads to the total shower by which the whole of you becomes receptive and out of that receptivity come shapes, gestures, rhythms and actions and this in turn makes the actor still more receptive, so showing and discovery become one and the actual moment of performance is a moment in which everyone is clarified. This doesn't happen in 2 steps — preparation and result — it happens at its best in one single instant, when the audience is there and the performance is under way. The theory is simple but it takes a long time to achieve.
Excuse me, I do not know whether this is relevant anymore, it goes back to what you were asking earlier. The images of darkness and light are fundamental to us, most importantly at two levels: firstly the emergence from the womb, simply coming out of darkness into light, which is life; then perhaps even more deeply on a scientific level, we often think of the universe as being born from complete darkness, to use the trendy terms, “Dark Holes” and the “Big Bang”. I mean light was in a sense created there and I think these things have sunk very deeply into the self-consciousness of everyone and I think when we, in the theatre or wherever, experience a feeling of light, it is perhaps really best described as a feeling of revelation, I suppose it is a religious feeling, and therefore one cannot really talk very much more about it apart from saying that it is a feeling of revelation. And these shared artistic experiences are perhaps the best way to experience those feelings of revelation, I don't know how revelation stands in psychoanalysis, I shouldn't think very high up. I think that is probably why we refer to darkness and then into light. Those are the two very simple and very basic things that humans live with.
What you say is very interesting because, as I said, it makes me wonder if we need to go along with all that is current in thought today. One can see that Darwin. Neo-Darwin and Post-Darwin thinking leads us through to the Big Bang and the most sophisticated Big Bang thinking gives us a view of the universe which is very different from the vision which is given by theatrical experience. Because a theatrical experience at its best is a revelation of the totality of the instant, we can say that the whole of creation is not following the Big Bang process, the whole creation is not following the process of evolution, the arrow of time is not going the way it is considered to be going. This is not on an argumentative level; nothing would be more ridiculous than to settle down with a mathematician or physicist to argue these questions. I think that the most brilliant thinkers are beginning to wonder whether anything can be taken as an absolute, and into this apparent, progressive field of more and more complex knowledge comes — quite simply — direct experiences which point in a different direction and they, I think, need to be received, not discussed but received. For when one speaks of experience nobody can define it. When one speaks of experience of a certain quality, no one can define it, but it can be brought about in such a way that anyone actually living it cannot deny the quality of the moment, the moment of quality. In a way that has no logical connection with all the conclusions drawn from what is within the arrow of time; it is a direct experience outside time, in which the time-honored labels “subjective” or “objective” ring hollow.
Can I just make a point? Just to come back to a much more, I think possibly mundane, but certainly clinical level, I was really thinking of an analogy, that in a sense you do not have light without darkness and you always start in a theatre with darkness. So one has the experience of the light always coming out of the darkness and I was just thinking of this question of awe. I think the experiences that I have clinically are that one meets a patient and indeed these experiences, I think, happen in a kind of little theatre of two people and they always start with a feeling of darkness, which is accompanied with fear usually. One does have a kind of fear of what one is going to discover and maybe it is a bit like the sense that nobody knows whether it will work tonight or something like that. It seems to me that it has something to do with an act of courage and has to be shared, it can't be just an analyst's courage, perhaps can't be just a patient's courage, and somehow when both can face something, then very often something which was viewed earlier and seemed very dark suddenly becomes illuminated and there is a really quite electric sort of difference in atmosphere which may then go or whatever, but I think that seems to me to be very similar to the “moment” that you speak about in the theatre.
I think that is very true. It is interesting to see how we can come together on this. I could recognize what you say through your image. Years and years ago, when I worked in London I did plays, which started in darkness, then the lights would slowly come up and often would remain murky and mysterious for a long time. Later, I began to have experiences, which showed me that this sort of theatre is just a relatively minor excrescence in the great, world-wide tradition of theatre making. I saw performances in sunlight; I saw Greek theatre under the sun; we played in temples in Iran in the light of the sun. I suddenly realized that this was a stronger experience.
Today, I spend all my time trying to make the lights brighter. I am sure that the experience of the healing force of tragedy was related to that painful movement out of the underworld being met by a life-giving charge. I say “met” because it was a two-way movement: both poles had equal reality. And I found this quite simply in seeing the power of theatre performed directly under the sun.
I would like to talk about darkness in relationship to sleep, where most of us travel at night. What I would suggest, in the theatrical sense, is that when there is a unified field of energy, where the performers take the audience into a state of trance, into an almost deep-sleep trance, it is like taking people beyond the mind, because in that state there is no thought and it is that direct experience. And that direct experience in that deep, sleep trance state is of emptiness and of stillness. And that's what I feel that we talk about darkness.
About the light, I would talk about the color spectrum, and I remember looking at a Monet painting The Cliffs of Deauville, and he had obviously painted the light up from the rain at the cliffs of Deauville, so what you looked at was rain in an impressionistic way falling over the cliffs, which took you right through the color spectrum. I looked at the painting and I saw a white flash. So the light is to go through the color spectrum to the white flash and the darkness is to penetrate into that mystery of sleep, death and leaving the body, and I think both of those experiences happen in theatrical productions.
Well, let's make what you say quite concrete because there is always a danger when one touches something too high. If one stays too long up there you lose your body! One knows that in the theatre that if the audience no longer believes in the bodies that are there in front of them, they get bored very quickly.
Let us just see what Shakespeare does. Shakespeare uses every conceivable device — his situations, his plots, his characters, the inner life of the characters, the way he writes -so that everyone in the audience can be gripped and interested on a recognizable level. And within this he leads the audience up to more acute moments of perception and then lets them come down again. He doesn't hold them up there. But the quality of light envelops everything — the high and the low from beginning to end.
An actor is by his very nature intuitive, as we talked about earlier, and therefore very sensitive. Through his sensitivity an actor can at once detect that in Shakespeare's writing there is more than meets the eye. I can't say anything more precise than “more than meets the eye”. There is an apparent level and then if you dig more deeply, as Ernest Jones did into Hamlet, there is another level and behind there is still another level.
And then behind all that if you can listen carefully there is a music, and this music can't be codified. The l9th century nearly destroyed Shakespeare by trying to codify the music of the verse according to set rules, in order to make a certain “noble sound”. Of course, later generations couldn't bear to hear actors speaking “that” music. If one recognizes that music is a word that goes far beyond definitions, you can see that behind the word through the image, there is a certain, constant rhythmic life. Once one sees that there is this current underneath it, one sees the plays themselves are enveloped in a fundamental harmony that doesn't change and enables the most horrifying actions, the eyes being put out in King Lear for instance, not to be just brutal, just disgusting, just sordid, but brutal, disgusting and sordid within an all-embracing quality of truth.
Peter, I am very impressed by the two different faces that you have given us tonight. The face of intensity and the face. if I may say so, of comedy. You warmed us up at the beginning like any good, front-cloth act and then you drew us in. The question I would like you to address is, is there a healing process of comedy? If there is a path through comedy that leads to the illumination and the light that you talk about. My own experience is that there is. Some of my most memorable experiences in the theatre have been when one comes out feeling light but also having seen into something. So I would really like to ask you about that. Of course, Freud dug deep or high — into Oedipus — but before he did so he wrote a book about jokes and their relation to the unconscious, which was not exactly high art. So can you talk about that other path and whether it is lesser than the path of tragedy or involved inside it or is it something quite different?
Many, many years ago, just after the war I had a very good friend in London, who wrote light comedies. The King of Greece or Albania, I don't remember which was living in the Ritz Hotel, surrounded by his entire entourage in a sort of glamorous exile. One day, my friend was invited to go to meet the King of Greece, so, very impressed and rather terrified, he was taken to the Ritz Hotel and shown into a great suite where this exiled King was sitting. The friend that brought him said, “Ah, Your Majesty, I want you to meet Mr So-and So, he's the funniest man in London.” The King looked at him expectantly and my poor friend was unable to say a single word. I think of that because in relation to your question I now feel terribly guilty — we all laughed at the beginning of the evening and we haven't continued to laugh. Now I feel this absolute impossibility of finding anything that could make you laugh.
All the same, I agree with the implication, it is quite necessary. Certainly laughter is brainwashing. Laughter is an enormous brainwasher. The great ideal is to find a coexistence, to find how it is possible for one moment to be in laughter and the next moment serious and back again and I have only seen this happen once.
This was in Africa. I went into a little village, near Ifé in Nigeria, because I was invited by an African director to see his new production. He said, “I've done an adaptation of Oedipus”, taking exactly the same structure as in the play, but I've just changed the location, it's taking place here, outside Ifé, at the crossroads. The King is killed at the crossroads on the road to Oshogbo, just a mile up the road there. Otherwise it's exactly as Sophocles wrote it, but it has never ever been seen here until today.
So I went into a courtyard crammed with people. There was a tremendous excitement because there was going to be a play and word had gone around that there was a very interesting, exciting, marvelous play. The whole courtyard was crammed. There were children. In African performances when the children come too far forward there is a man with a sort of whip who comes and bangs on the ground and pretends to be fierce, it is part of the performance, he doesn't mean any harm to anyone, but he does that so that the children all retreat like a tide and then gradually creep forward again. On all the walls there were kids sitting, there were people in the trees and there was a tremendous buzz of excitement.
The performance started, and on came Oedipus. The director had cast for Oedipus the person he had wanted to play it, a small, jovial, fat little man who was the local store keeper. He was known to everybody as being a sort of rather wily, quick-witted and amusing character, and clearly well-loved. When he came on I was a bit surprised, is this Oedipus? Having in mind all the sort of great, noble people we have seen attempt to play this part, it was very unexpected when this jovial man came in and the play started.
The audience at once got the situation. This funny little man is going to ask too many questions and he is going to land himself in a lot of trouble. So they sat back and enjoyed it and it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I suddenly realized that Oedipus is constructed like a brilliant comedy and when Tiresias came on, the audience knew in advance that he shouldn't spill the beans, but nothing could prevent Oedipus asking awkward questions and so the comedy grew and grew.
I went along with the audience seeing a brand-new Oedipus and thinking it marvelously comic, but after a while I began to have doubts. I remember all the performances I'd seen where the director tries to make a play modern just by sending it up and making it funny. But I thought yes, if you do this with Oedipus, you pay an enormous price because in making it funny, which is in a way easy, you pay the price that you miss what has made the play so much more than that — that has given it its immortality. So I began to separate myself a bit from this laughing audience. Suddenly, the old shepherd spoke and Oedipus recognised that it is his father that he has killed. Now the whole of that laughter evaporated. The audience was confronted by the most terrible crime in Africa. A man has killed his father. This is the most horrifying crime that anyone can commit and here is this jovial man, and a jovial man can kill his father as much as a noble man; the small jovial, wily man suddenly stops in his tracks, he has killed his father and the audience… there was one of those silences, the audience couldn't breath. This can't go further, I thought, but it could. He had also slept with his mother. This was the silence of amazement, of horror, of awe. As I speak of this, now, tonight, we can all together feel the silence that was there. When the audience left at the end of the play, thanks to the laughter and to this moment of simple, absolute recognition, they most likely had the most powerful experience of Oedipus that any audience can have today. You too are silent. That reality is here. For a moment. This is how in the theatre we understand the healing process.
Ernest Jones Lecture given by Peter Brook on 13th June 1994 at The Edward Lewis Theatre, UCL, London. Published in The British Psycho-Analytical Society Bulletin, Vol. 34, No 1, London, 1998.