Enlivening Self by Engaging in Theatre
You did not just watch theatre in ancient Greece. You did theatre. In an amphitheater, the entire community created plays to transform public values. In temples, people performed theatrical rituals to heal themselves physically and spiritually.
When I visited Greece in 1976 with my actor friends from New York City, in great amphitheaters between waves of tourists, we found it thrilling to perform speeches from my version of Euripedes’ “Medea.”
Jean-Claude photo credit: Barbara Beaussacq
Today, with film, television, and the Internet superseding theatre as popular entertainment, I hope theatre may return to its original function as a vehicle of transformation for anyone who wishes to use it that way. You do not have to be a theatre professional to engage in rituals of transformation.
The year I was born –1936 – Antonin Artaud, the wild French theatre director, poet, actor, and playwright, traveled to Mexico. With transformation in mind, he ingested plant and fungal hallucinogens as part of an age-old shamanic ritual designed to temporarily suspend your habitual way of seeing so as to view reality from a more profound place.
Artaud’s book, The Theatre and Its Double, inspired many of us in the revolutionary 1960’s Off-Off Broadway theatre. Artaud pleads passionately for a sacred theatre, a theatre that is an “in-between place” as the book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls dream or trance states and the times just before and after death. In an in-between place, we can see what’s usually hidden. We can perceive our inner demons, whereas usually we can only uneasily sense their presence.
Above: On Isle of Ischia, Italy 1976,
bottom left: Jean-Claude, Janes Haynes; center: Dorothy Lyman;
top: Paul Zimet, Shami Chaikin, Karen Ludwig, Joyce Aaron, Joseph Chaikin
Below: Premiere production of America Hurrah at the Pocket Theatre, New York City, 1966,
with dolls hand made by Robert Wilson, Photo by Niblock/Bough
In The Theatre and Its Double, Artaud recounts how in 1720, during the Black Plague, the Viceroy of Sardinia dreamed he and his entire island were ravaged and annihilated. “Beneath such a scourge, all social forms disintegrate,” writes Artaud. “Order collapses. The Viceroy observes every infringement of morality, every psychological disaster; his organs collapse and gradually turn to carbon. But is it too late to avert the scourge? Even destroyed, even consumed to his very marrow, he knows we do not die in our dreams.”
After waking in the morning, the Viceroy learned that a ship named the Grand-Saint-Antoine off Sardinia, was requesting permission to dock. Flying in the face of the time-honored custom of hospitality and ignoring public opinion, the Viceroy categorically forbade the ship to land. Later the Grand-Saint-Antoine docked in France at Marseilles where a new and especially virulent wave of plague broke out, widely believed to have originated on the ship. How did the Viceroy know to forbid the Grand-Saint-Antoine to dock? His dream showed nothing about a ship, and no one at the time knew how plague was transmitted.
Yet, as Artaud writes, “It cannot be denied that between the Viceroy and the plague, a palpable communication however subtle, was established.” Apparently, the violent experience the Viceroy had in his dream heightened his awareness and his confidence in that awareness. So when he woke, he was able to recognize imminent danger and to act decisively on that recognition. I am guessing his dream would not have provided that good effect if he had repressed it as unpleasant or if he had denied the significance of the state it put him in.
The Viceroy was attacked in his dream by what I call inner demons. Perceptive playwrights such as Aeschylus and Shakespeare, present characters in all their complexity, grandeur, and humanity struggling with their inner demons. Good actors know well how to perform characters possessed by inner demons.
Since the ancient past, theatre and theatre ritual have informed the human spirit. There may not ever have existed a culture that does not come together in community to create and witness a play. Twenty-three hundred years ago in Athens where play-creating and play-going were intimately linked, Aristotle famously identified a main outcome of the play as catharsis, a cleansing of emotions, an enlivening of self by engaging in theatre.
In any theatre of sacred intent, any theatre which intends to probe the human soul, we create a play to unveil and confront the frightful, to acknowledge the unknown within ourselves, and to get a handle on it. Playwrights, directors, actors, audiences, and everyone, indeed, willingly suspend our disbelief in order to unearth hidden and suspected truths.
Ray Barry and Ralph Lee as Cain and Abel in
The Serpent, which I wrote with the Open Theater in
1967, directed by Joseph Chaikin with costumes
by Gwen Fabricant. Photo by Berg and Tornberg
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we of the Theatre of the Absurd – a theatre perhaps so-called because it points out absurdities in our customary view of everyday reality – have been questioning with dark humor how unacknowledged inner forces can drive individuals and societies to violence.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” warned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 in New York City at Riverside Church. I think the national malady Dr. King mentions is the result of having what I call inner demons.
In 1968 in New York City in Greenwich Village at the Open Theater, under the leadership of Joseph Chaikin, we created “The Serpent” over nine months. This ensemble piece, a ceremony for actors and audience, explores how myths we live by – from the Garden of Eden to the assassination of President Kennedy – unconsciously shape our lives.
Stanley Kubrick based his somber hilarious sixties film, “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” on the all-too real and dangerous Cuban missile crisis, and the then commonly held false belief in a ‘missile gap’ favoring the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Dr. Strangelove shows that no matter what we may consciously think, our prejudices, paranoia, and demons of unconscious mind can drive us even to the point of annihilating all humanity.
One day during World War II, in the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris, resistance fighter and playwright Samuel Beckett learned that Nazis were waiting at his home to arrest him. So he knocked on the door of his friend, the novelist Nathalie Sarraute, and asked her to hide him in her attic. She agreed but warned him that her father, another resistance fighter, was already hiding there. Tall, thin Beckett spent months in Sarraute’s attic with her short, plump father.
Years later in Berlin, Beckett directed a production of “Waiting for Godot,” his absurdist plotless one-act masterpiece about two men waiting alone on a darkling plain. He cast a tall, thin actor and a short, plump one. Apparently in writing “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett used as his starting point a real situation that he had lived – confined with another man during the war.
But, as he wrote, he dove beneath the surface of that situation. He stripped his characters bare as prisoners in a concentration camp were stripped before annihilation. He exposed his characters’ bones and breath from one startling moment of survival to the next.
Patterns in the snowy pond created by Jean-Claude near Shantigar
Writing a play that reverberates as strongly with audiences as “Waiting for Godot” cannot be an intellectual process only. A good play is a powerful questioning, never a mere answer. It is the result of the playwright finding a way to dip into his or her unconscious and recording the painful demons lurking down there. If, as a playwright, you courageously, accurately, and imaginatively record your demons, others may recognize them as their own. Your audience may marvel, “Though I hadn’t noticed them before, those are my demons too.”
In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s useful book on artists’ working habits, Paul Strathern describes how Beckett spent time at the height of his powers: “It was spent largely in his room, isolated from the world, coming face to face with his own demons, attempting to explore the workings of his mind.” Calling this time his “siege in the room,” Beckett concluded: “I shall always be depressed but what comforts me is the realization that I can now accept this dark side as the commanding side of my personality. In accepting it, I will make it work for me.”
Renovated Barn, Shantigar, before the big fire
At the Open Theater we ransacked our psyches for years in order to recognize and embody our personal demons. To pinpoint demons of national import, we scoured newspapers like detectives. In improvisations and short plays, we exposed hidden feelings of racism, greed, and hatred.
In 1966 in America Hurrah, my Off Broadway trilogy of short plays, I attempted to depict how America’s unacknowledged demons, our own cut-off parts, had grown into monstrous autonomous killers at home and in Vietnam. By denying our aggressive feelings, not letting the one hand innocently eating apple pie know that the other hand behind our backs is killing, we commit anonymous violence.
In London in 2005, the playwright Harold Pinter, too ill to travel to Stockholm, reported in his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance lecture that for his early plays he would often write his first few lines of dialogue before he knew who was speaking them. The danger in that method is that the dialogue may end up being too abstract and impersonal. But clearly for the young Pinter, it opened a door deep into himself where he discovered his demons – his characters, absurdly paranoid and passionately obsessed.
When creating any play, I first, with logic, make a game plan unique to the material – map out the journey more or less. Then, with the creative, playful part of my mind, I dive in and take the journey, play the game I mapped out, and write with as much clarity as I can. If I try to plan and play at the same time, paralysis results. I hope that later, in the theatre, actors and audiences will enjoy playing the game and take an emotional journey similar to mine in creating the play.
Theatre can be a healing temple where, through emotion and empathy, we recognize our own dreams. Watching a good play, we draw the quick breath of fear or laugh out loud. We sometimes see on stage our own taboo impulses, ugly parts of ourselves we have denied and cut off, our demons. Watching “Oedipus Rex,” for instance, I may recognize that I, too, have a hidden desire to kill one parent and sleep with the other. By acknowledging the wild cut-off parts of ourselves, we remove their power to commit violence. Becoming aware of our hidden demons, we take their energy back into ourselves. Somehow in the process we become more integrated, more compassionate. That is the healing power of theatre at its best.
Today, greedy corporations threaten all humanity with annihilation by polluting the planet for profit. Lord Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, warned in his book, Our Final Century, that the odds of humans surviving beyond 2100 are no more than fifty percent. So something’s gotta give or we’re goners. At the least, we will lose our privileged way of living on this planet.
What could possibly change our collective behavior? A new way of thinking might do it. What new way of thinking?
In 1905 Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Later, other physicists added the notion that by merely observing an electron, we affect its speed or velocity. Wow. Just by paying attention to something, according to those physicists, we are in a sense transforming it. Space, it turns out, is a field that includes both the observer and the observed.
Historically it takes a long while for how we think to catch up with the latest scientific observations. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as independent biological organisms, lordly creatures at the top of nature’s hierarchy. So it can be startling and unsettling to see ourselves suddenly now merely as vortices of leaping electromagnetic energy or inspired blips on an immense field of dynamic vibrations. But just as poets know and some age-old belief systems consider, each of us is in flux, exploding, collapsing, re-forming, a source of light, and a galaxy of opportunities.
In San Francisco in the sixties, Zen master Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was asked to put his teachings in a nutshell. “Everything changes,” he replied.
I would prefer things to be fixed and in order, but they never are. All around me, phenomena arise and pass away while my thoughts too, like clouds, constantly form and un-form.
But though events may seem random, all effects have causes. I, this person, am the result of many factors like genetics, upbringing, culture, environment, education, relationships, and choices I have made. Some factors I can control while some I cannot.
Why is it crucial to pierce through illusion and see the world as it is?
Because, the Buddha pointed out, denying reality causes us an ocean of suffering. Living in denial, we suffer the inevitable disparity between things as they are and things as we wish they were. Missing what we feel we ought to have causes us much anguish.
So I need to change my point of view. But I cannot do that by simply deciding to do it. Good ideas by themselves cannot create change. Reading the wisest philosophers and agreeing with them does not alter how I think and live unless I do something about it, even if it is only one small thing a day.
As we live our lives, many of us manage to remain more or less secure in the familiar emotional nest we concocted in childhood to defend ourselves against marauders. Twentieth century spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff claimed we customarily live in “a waking sleep.”
But even if I fervently wish to fly out of my old emotional nest, unconscious inner forces – which I call demons – conspire with habitual thinking habits to hinder me from spreading my wings, from breaking out of a sometimes detrimental mold and changing my ways. Daily practices – which in this book I call games – slowly but surely discourage demons and wear down old thinking habits.
Because daily practices – or games – take time to take effect, it is dangerous to put off playing them. At any moment and possibly without warning, this body will be a corpse. Even if I am lucky enough to live a long time, that is just a few decades. Moments before death is too late to make changes.
If you are fortunate enough to be born with sufficient health, energy, food, and means in a free country not occupied by invaders – then you have a rare opportunity to grow and develop.
Not surprisingly, being a playwright, I find myself improvising small ritual theatricals all the time in my life, like the games in this book. I find them helpful to living and perceiving from an increasingly deep place. Some of these games are straightforward, like tending fresh flowers in vases every day to grace my home. Others are more mysterious, even to me, like symbolically serving tea to my internal demons in order to know them better and to negotiate some space for myself.
Sitting one day on the front porch of Shantigar, my old farmhouse on a mountainside in Western Massachusetts, where I have looked out on the same familiar trees and verdant hills for over half a century, I thought to share a few of these games. I invented some and borrowed others.
I hope you will play some of the games, too. Please start by playing one that attracts you. It will be a bit of personally improvised theatre designed to enhance your life. Later add another game. Do not be put off because the object of a game seems obvious or the activity commonplace. Give the games a chance, and you may be unexpectedly pleased by the outcome. Play them often even though results are not immediately evident.
Jean-Claude dancing in the grape arbor at Shantigar
The games of transformation are playful daily practices that flow like a constant brook over the stubborn stones of our old self-destructive patterns, thus slowly wearing them down and washing them away to reveal the stream bed of our basic good nature.
Enjoy the games like rich chocolate cake – in small portions. Each day don’t bite off more than you can chew but chew thoroughly what you bite off.
If you play the games regularly, they will become the way you live your life. The good to be gleaned from these theatrical games is in the process of performing them. So little by little, as you play, I believe you will discover that you are more and more your best, most effective, and most attractive self.
Games are fun. Children think so, and so may you. Enjoy. •2016
Excerpt from Tea with Demons, Games of Transformation by Jean-Claude van Italie. Reprinted with the permission of the author.