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The Enigma of Presence

The question is not so much how to make a political theatre, since the theatre is intrinsically a political form; but rather how to bring the theatre into its own time. What do we need from the theatre. Don’t we need a theatre which shatters illusions instead of creating them? (Though I agree with Julian Beck when he calls for the “Imagination As The Survival Kit Of The Brain”). We are in great need of reality in our time. WE WANT WHAT IS REAL — WE WANT WHAT IS REAL — DON’T DECEIVE US — DON’T DECEIVE US (Hopi song).

If there is any meaning in the discovery that theatre has its origins in ritual forms, it is that the theatre serves a function in the community. That function needs to be defined in terms of the needs of the specific community that each theatre develops within. If an ancient culture utilized the theatre to give form and dimension to its religious ideas, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the essential function of the theatre in all cultures should be religious. Mythology serves as a link between the temporal and the eternal in our daily experience and in our perception of ourselves as individuals and as members of a communicational group. And although all religions seem to flow outward from a unified source, religious activity serves each culture and each historic moment also in terms of the specific needs of that community.

Theatre artists can develop a deeper understanding of this historical moment. In defining the tems of that discourse one must take into account diverse aspects and activities of the cummunity: including religion, technology, economics, psychology, popular mythologies, etc. So, again, the question of political theatre does not lie so much in a definition of a kind of play or even a specific style of theatre, but rather in the ability of the theatre artists to recognize the needs of the collective group in their own time and to be responsive to it.

It is my opinion that a very important aspect of the political mandate upon theatre artists is to teach the public about the actors’ art. We are surrounded in our daily lives with the theatre. Actors are everywhere in a thinly veiled bombardment of pretension and overt insincerity (in advertising for example). One of the sad results of this is that we find ourselves with a kind of attitude problem in the marginal or experimental arts scene. Cynicism parades as sophistication and any altruistic expression of, say, desire for revolutionary change is looked upon as naive. Why is this so?

One of the effects of the phenomena of being surrounded by a kind of theatre in our daily lives is that in the theatre we have a new audience. Before we ask ourselves what we should do on the stage to make the theatre more meaningful for our times we should first look to the audience and consider the fact that we have an avant-garde audience so to speak before there exists an avant-garde theatre for our times. The audience is “avante garde” if for no other reason than that they are very well versed in an accelerated type of reading/consciousness. Radical discontinuity is a face of daily life consciousness. It we artists in the theatre can let our experimentation on the stage be guided by our understanding of the consciousness and the activity of public scrutiny on the part of the audeince, then we will be at least facing in the right direction.

Actors can use the theatre in a self reflexive way to clarify to the audience the scope and meaning of the emerging consciousness with regard to the spectacle of the culture and their role as anonymous spectators. It is in fact from this location, that of the anonymous spectator, that we travel toward what I consider to be a fundamental theme of political theatre: Disappearance. From the Disaparachidos of Central America to the haunting sense of spiritual bankruptcy in first world culture, Disappearance is a tragic theme of global and diverse proportions and stands as the antithesis of the centerpiece subject of this manifesto: The Enigma of Presence.

In fact, there is a Faustian trade-off at work with regard to the audience having developed a hyper-theatrical perception. The terms under which they can gain this sense of objectivity and observation is that they themselves must disappear. There is a mass psychology at play in which the individual comes to believe that he/she can overcome his/her sensation of political disempowerment through this very disappearance; that this disappearance is in fact a form of power. I call this phenomena the Sovereignty of Anonymity.

To this point, I believe we would do well to develop a theatre which focuses on the theatre as a ground in which we can appear to one another in a diversity of ways which are no longer available in the daily experience of our culture.

In the conventional mise en scene the actor blinds himself (doesn’t see the audience) in order to lend to the public that part of his vision, empowering them to strip him bare in his surrender to public scrutiny. It is an Oedipal contract which involves in certain measure, guilt of the flesh. In experiments of direct address in the the theatre we are faced with a different contract, an Orphic contract where like Orpheus we can lose the work (the object of Orpheus’ love and desire) forever by looking directly at it. There is more to this problem of appearance in the theatre than meets the eye. See? Do you verify? … Yes. I verify. Do you verify the eye? Yes. I verify the incision. For control…. not for explanation. Doctor. Doctor! come quickly. He is opening his eye!! I see you. What a pleasure and tremendous relief after all these thousands of years. Yes. Thank you.

The Enigma of Presence – Political Theatre Reconsidered – by Carlo Altomare first published by Steve Jones Daughs in Gargoyle Mecanique

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