The keynote speaker at the Festival of Original Theatre conference (Feb 5-7) at the University of Toronto was Professor Marvin Carlson (CUNY). Professor Carlson’s book Shattering Hamlet’s Mirror: Theatre and Reality will be published by University of Michigan Press in May. (No surprise then that I’ve got my copy pre-ordered!) His erudite talk ranged widely over Western theatre history of the last 200 years drawing together myriad instances of theatre’s preoccupation with reality. To call Prof. Carlson’s talk “encyclopaedic” would be to damn it with faint praise. Since it would be impossible to summarize, I thought I would pick up just one thread here as it relates to a particular argument in an article I am currently writing.
One of the growing areas of preoccupation with reality that Prof. Carlson highlighted is the real-world frisson triggered by what he called ‘biology of the real’ — onstage manifestations of the unavoidable human body as body. A sneeze. A coughing fit. A yawn. In the irrepressible moment of the sneeze, the real bubbles up. (I always wonder why actors don’t sneeze onstage. Maybe they do.) Carlson gave the example of wounds as also being real, citing Chris Burden’s “Shoot.” In addition to the autonomic functions of the body, the sight of the body itself acts in support of the reality effect. Nudity on stage is also a marker of the real as the primary audience focus is on the actor body qua body. (Yet another object with what Bert O. States calls “a high degree of en soi.” See my previous post about Martha Henry’s ferret). As a postdramatic object, the naked body cannot represent; it only presents. A similar assumption is often made about disabled bodies.
The play I am writing about currently is a collective-creation autobiographical performance called RARE. RARE was developed by playwright Judith Thompson and the ensemble constituted of young people with Down Syndrome. At one point in the play, the group recites a poem by Emily Dickinson:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
The group of actors whisper conspiratorially, seemingly pleased with themselves and expressing their unity as a group of nobodies. Anonymity here is figured as desirable, as long as the anonymity is collective. And yet, the central ethos of the autobiographical project runs counter to the possibility of being nobody. Charged with answering the question “Who am I?”, the autobiographical performer becomes somebody and some body (Stephenson, “Portrait of the Artist”). For a person with Down Syndrome, her disability is inescapably an embodied performance. The extra chromosome of trisomy-21 enacts a distinctive characteristic physiognomy. In the theatre of the public sphere, such a person cannot be nobody. Thus the autobiographical performer who is also a person marked by physical difference is doubly some body, public like a frog, telling your name to the admiring bog. By contrast, the target audience of RARE (cast as “the admiring bog”) prefigured as ‘normate,’ is invisible in their dominant ordinariness, passing as “white” in this intercultural exchange, recipients of all the privileges entailed in that position. Visibility of the body, of being some body, in performance functions as a strong reality marker, drawing attention to the correlative actual world existence of that body. In the same way that nudity on stage tends to short-circuit representation, bodies marked by their strange(r)ness also prioritize presence rather over mimesis.
Thinking about postdramatic peelings apart of reality and fiction, Erika Fischer-Lichte cites as a specific example a production of Guilio Cesare by the Italian company Societas Raffaello Sanzio that placed (in her words) “bodies on the stage that blatantly deviated from ‘normal’ bodies, demonstrating frailty and decay, as well as physical excess” (85). The hyperattention directed to the simple presence of these ‘deviant’ bodies detracts from their mimetic potential and feeds the commonly voiced assumption that actors with Down Syndrome cannot ‘act,’ they can only ‘be.’ A central part of the attraction of an audience to autobiographical performance is a desire for access to authentic being-ness, an access that is held at arms-length by the theatrical frame.
The problematic point as I see it lies in this “short-circuit,” in the doubled real when the autobiographical self competes with the autobiological body. The realness of presence that overwhelms the theatrical frame seems to also discount the subjectivity of the performer. This is not yet a fully formed idea — and undoubtedly this line of thinking is influenced by my current thesis student who is writing about the agency of performing objects — but I do worry about the ethical devaluation when the object-body is the dominant locus of our attention. What is left for a representational subject trapped in this some body? Does she become nobody?
Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Reality and Fiction in Contemporary Theatre.” Theatre Research International 33.1 (March 2008): 84-96. Web. 16 February 2016.
Stephenson, Jenn. “Portrait of the Artist as Artist: A Celebration of Autobiography” Canadian Theatre Review 141 (Winter 2010): 50-54.